Saturday, April 24, 2010

he Best Films of 2009 List - A Work in Progress

End of the year lists and awards always present so many little aggravations. I like watching or reading them, and I like discussing them, but I never feel like I can properly make my own because I haven't watched most of the films. The lists are especially hard to consider because I feel like I have to put in so many caveats. I used to end up with lists of "Best Films of the Year That I Actually Saw This Year" or "Best Films of the Year That I've Seen So Far." It grates because I'm a completist. I like getting a comprehensive look at the array of films that are actually out there before I commit to anything. And I like having lists of the "Best Films of the Year" actually be lists of the "Best Films of the Year."

I'm a film nut with no ties to the industry, no access to critics' screenings, and my budget for movie tickets is pretty modest. Fortunately I live in a major metropolitan area with a lot of independent and art-house theaters so I have access to a wider variety of films than most. But as the scheduling for smaller films is always unpredictable, and the cost of movie tickets quickly adds up, I end up seeing a lot of stuff on DVD. I always end up finding out about some foreign gem or other six months after the theatrical run has passed. I don't think home viewing can ever match the theater experience, but I'm not a stickler either.

The problem with waiting for DVDs, though, is that the period between a film's creation and domestic release and a DVD release can be very, very long. Exhibition windows may be shrinking for the mainstream studio films like "Alice in Wonderland," but smaller films often have labyrinthine distribution deals and can take much longer to work through the system. The Danish war film "Flame and Citron," for instance, played film festivals in 2008 and had a Stateside release in July of 2009, but didn't come out on DVD until only a few weeks ago. Then again, some smaller films all but skip the theatrical exhibition window and go straight to DVD, like the troubled "The Maiden Heist," a Christopher Walken heist picture than never secured theatrical distribution.

But then there are the categorization problems. The Jet Li martial arts epic "Hero" had a very small-scale theatrical run at the tail-end of 2002 to qualify for awards, and snagged a Best Foreign Film Academy Award nomination for the trouble, but was practically inaccessible by the general public until it saw a wider release in 2004. So is "Hero" a 2002 or 2004 film? Does it make sense to wait on completed films that have been delayed or shelved by their distributors? I've seen lists where critics will include older films that have undergone restorations or that received no official release when they were originally completed. Is it fair to compare the 2006 reissue of "Army of Shadows," a Jean Pierre Melville film that was made in the 60s, with contemporary features?

So far I've seen about sixty films from 2009, mostly studio pictures and a handful of the bigger foreign films. I could make a top ten list based on those titles, but there's the final, nagging question – how many films do I need to see from a given year before I've seen enough to make a good assessment? There's always that possibility that the one film I didn't see will be my favorite of the year. It's happened before, with "The Devil's Backbone" in 2001.

What I do now is create preliminary lists of films to see for any given year, and don't make my "Best of the Year" list until I've checked them all off. On the current list are "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?" and "The Secret in Their Eyes," which are still in the middle of their theatrical runs, and "Agora," which won't be in theaters until next month. So, I expect that my "Best of 2009" list should be ready around spring of 2011.

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