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The Year in Film 2008: Signs of life (and a death) in American cinema
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Wild Combination

johnny@sfbg.com

1. Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky, USA, 2008)

A masterful film was made in San Francisco by someone who doesn't just live for the city, but does the city know it? Dorsky's latest (along with the superb companion piece Winter) screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and was part of a retrospective at New York's Anthology Film Archive, but as far as I know it has yet to have a public screening in his hometown, where he resides on the avenues that separate the filmmakers and film lovers of SF's streets, and the Film Society in the Presidio. This summer, along with kino21's Konrad Steiner, I put together a program devoted to Dorsky's one-time peer and brother filmmaker of sorts, the late Warren Sonbert, whose revelatory explorations of editing and direct vision lead up — in far more frenetic and sprawling sense — to what Dorsky is doing today. Sarabande is the time and place where Dorsky's devotional cinema reaches the sublime. This country priest of a film critic may be misreading the signs, once again, in making such a claim — but so be it.

2. The Exiles restoration (Kent MacKenzie, USA, 1961)

This night in the life of urban American Indians occupies a one-of-a-kind place and time. The title renders any description superfluous — what form of exile is stronger than the one discovered while drifting through a stolen home? MacKenzie's movie, with the life-and-death tunnel vision of its gorgeous Weegee-inflected vérité cinematography, revealed a lost United States. Today it's a haunting marker of a moment before this country's commercial independent cinema went in countless stupid and phony directions, and of an area of Los Angeles that has vanished. People are rendered disposable. Lonely spirits continue to gather.

3. Wimbledon Men's Final 2008: Rafael Nadal def. Roger Federer, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (8-10), 9-7

If you believe what you read and what you see, Raise the Red Lantern and Hero director Zhang Yimou's production of the Beijing Olympics' opening ceremony was the spectacle of the year — so dazzling it erased the torch's troubled travels from what's left of a collective memory. Television networks have it on rerun, art publications like Artforum can't stop parsing and usually praising it. (It also garnered an excellent lengthy "movie review" in the magazine Cinema Scope.) Yet Zhang's endlessly-rehearsed and prefabricated festivities paled in comparison to the marathon drama and dazzling finale of this year's last match at Wimbledon. The spine-tingling aspect came from fate, not machination, as night crept into a stadium that doesn't use lights, and the victor's triumph gave way to an outrageous spontaneous ovation of flashbulbs. It didn't hurt that Rafael Nadal is the sport's version of his idol, Zinedine Zidane. Lil Wayne said it best: "I love his motivation and his heart is so big. He leaves it on the court."

4. The Juche Idea (Jim Finn, USA, 2008) and Light is Waiting (Michael Robinson, USA 2007)

Convulsive cinema is radical cinema, one of the reasons the gut-busting aspects of these two movies are vital. Finn's look at Kim Jong-Il's film theories (yes, "Dear Leader" is a film theorist with publications to his name) is uncannily timely, from its clips of North Korean stadium parades — shades of Zhang Yimou's Beijing bombast — to its satirical insight that little separates dreaded (and oft-ridiculous) socialism from the broken-down ghost of late capitalism. Also, best use of ski jumps, rodents, and fly-face sculptures this year. Robinson finds a Satanic kaleidoscope within the fractured pixels of an episode of Full House, making the discovery roughly around the time one of the Olsen twins re-manifested as an angel of death.

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