Left: Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom, 2012, color film in Super 16, 94 minutes. Production still. Right: Poster for the sixty-fifth Cannes Film Festival.

CANNES, WHICH BEGAN ITS SIXTY-FIFTH EDITION TODAY, seems to be forever in the process of commemoration. Marilyn Monroe, who died fifty years ago, is the icon of this year’s proceedings; a photo of her blowing out a candle on a cake captures her, per a festival press release, “by surprise in an intimate moment where myth meets reality—a moving tribute to the anniversary of her passing, which coincides with the Festival anniversary.” Yet even the very recent past is eligible for celebratory remembrance: Among the titles being shown out of competition is Une Journée particulière (A Special Day), directed by festival president Gilles Jacob, who tracked thirty-four directors when they were at Cannes for its sixtieth year in 2007.

This enchantment with the past is reflected in the opening-night selection, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Set in 1965 in an island off the coast of New England, Anderson’s movie—a love story about two twelve-year-old misfits who run away—bears his signature fetishistic production design and retro talismans, such as Françoise Hardy 45s. Beyond manufacturing nostalgia, Cannes is also about the repetition of certain routines, some more pleasurable than others. (“The Cannes schedule is so impressed in the mind,” a colleague told me on the flight over—a comment I misheard as “a nightmare of the mind.”)

Part of this annual rite of spring is the press conference with the jury, led this year by Italian writer, director, and actor Nanni Moretti. Mostly a forum for banal questions from journalists around the world—many directed at Jean-Paul Gaultier, whose quiff nearly matched that of co-juror Ewan McGregor—the press conference did include a few queries about the exclusion of women directors from the Competition lineup, a shutout protested by the French feminist group La Barbe in a piece in Le Monde last Saturday. When juror Andrea Arnold—a British filmmaker whose debut and sophomore efforts, Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009), both won the Jury Prize at Cannes—was asked by a London correspondent whether the festival had a responsibility to include distaff directors, she replied, “I would absolutely hate it if my film were selected because I was a woman.” After adding that “Cannes is a small pocket that represents the wider world”—that is, an industry with very few female directors to begin with—she hesitantly brought up a certain matter of decorum. “It was very interesting that the girls were introduced first,” Arnold said to moderator Henri Behar, in reference to the three other women jurors. His response may prompt a teach-in by La Barbe: “Well, I’m French.”

Melissa Anderson

John Akomfrah, The Nine Muses, 2011, still from a color video, 94 minutes.

THE SECOND FILM FESTIVAL IN TORONTO, the Images Festival, which completed its twenty-fifth edition on April 21, was created as an alternative to the first: the Toronto International Film Festival, that September cine-glut (which is now the largest film festival in the world) whose mandate seems increasingly, relentlessly, to be about generating “Oscar buzz.” (To be fair, TIFF did add Wavelengths, a highly regarded sidebar devoted to avant-garde film and video, eleven years ago.) There are no red carpets at Images—“the largest festival in North America for experimental and independent moving image culture,” per its website—but there’s plenty of ambitious, adventurous programming, introduced by gracious, welcoming hosts. For its silver anniversary, Images presented eighty-eight film and video works of varying lengths from twenty-six countries; most screened at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall—a cozy, calm venue, if one not as memorable as the auditorium of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, where I spent most of my time during my first trip to Images in 2009.

The opening-night film, John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses, like several of the feature-length titles on view, extends, complicates, and enriches the definition of documentary. This ruminant, time-toggling examination of migration from the Ghanaian-born British filmmaker interweaves archival footage of African, Caribbean, and South Asian immigrants arriving and settling in the UK in the 1960s with contemporary footage of mysterious figures in brightly hued parkas, their backs often turned to us, somewhere in Alaska. Though the juxtaposition of newcomers stepping off boats and planes fifty years ago with anonymous beings who appear to be trekking toward the edge of the world is always striking, The Nine Muses also impresses as a densely layered sound (and text) piece. Broken into chapters named after the Greek goddesses of the title, Akomfrah’s work incorporates readings from Homer, Shakespeare, the Bible, Beckett, Dante, and Nietzsche—and intertitles sourced from Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot. Though lofty, The Nine Muses is never grandiose, taking as its subject the primal notion of what constitutes home.

Much smaller in scale, Simone Rapisarda Casanova’s The Strawberry Tree also investigates home—specifically, its vanishing. Just a few weeks after Rapisarda Casanova completed shooting the residents of Juan Antonio, Cuba, in 2008, the fishing village was destroyed by Hurricane Ike. The prologue of The Strawberry Tree, Rapisarda Casanova’s first film, focuses on four of Juan Antonio’s now displaced citizens good-naturedly joking with the director, their jovial mood darkening somewhat when they talk about all they have lost. This jocular ease with Rapisarda Casanova runs throughout the prehurricane footage, which immediately follows the brief introduction. Though he is never seen, the director is constantly addressed—and occasionally critiqued—as he captures the quotidian activities in the beachfront hamlet. “What a boring image of the old woman grinding coffee,” says the vieja preparing the brew. A loose, relaxed ethnography, The Strawberry Tree is as much a record of a (now eradicated) place as it is an open dialogue with its subjects.

Daily rituals in a vastly different climate are explored in Jacqueline Goss’s hypnotic doc/fiction hybrid The Observers. A portrait of the Mount Washington Weather Observatory in New Hampshire, Goss’s film is a study of isolation, monotony, empirical data, and merciless elements. Two women—filmmakers Dani Leventhal and Katya Gorker—“perform” as weather recorders, their days consisting of measuring wind speed and temperature, sit-ups, dental care, knot tying, and the occasional instrument-playing. Goss referred to Mount Washington as a “shrine to measurement” during the postscreening Q&A. The fastidious logging by the observatory’s employees may not tame or control that which will always control us, but it does help make sense of it.

Melissa Anderson

The 25th Images Festival ran April 12–21 in Toronto. The Observers plays May 10–16 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Boot Camp


Left: Foodgasm. Right: Artist Bruce LaBruce. (Photos: Nguyen Tan Hoang)

THE HALL WAS SET UP to cater to the trashy gay appetites of all who would trespass its borders over the three days in late April when “Camp/Anti-Camp,” a film festival–slash–academic conference–slash–performance orgy–slash–[fill in the blank] took over the Hebbel am Ufer 2 Theater, nestled on the banks of the Landwehr Canal in Berlin’s homey Kreuzberg district. Brushing past the obligatory beer bar, one was greeted with a live, functioning kitchen, courtesy of a duo calling itself Foodgasm (free chocolate muffins for all those willing to submit to a spanking). At the auditorium entrance, a book stall vended the sauciest and latest titles in theoretical faggotry, while at the rear of the room, just before the toilets, an alchemical “altar bar” had been installed, providing an array of dizzying intoxicants in exchange for a couple of coins, with a “no change given, change yourself” policy. (My substance of the week was Russian Cocaine: a lemon dipped in coffee grinds and sugar chased with a tall glass of vodka.)

Inside, several rows of phallic mini-cacti separated Jonathan Berger’s prissy white set from the audience. Seats had been removed and replaced with comfy body pillows, further enhancing the girlfrien’ gossip ambience. Douglas Crimp read to us from his new book, “Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol, using Warhol as a kind of foil for the camp canon. “The incoherence of the discourse on camp is extraordinary,” Crimp said in the ensuing conversation with event co-organizer Marc Siegel, before going on to admit that he actually doesn’t know what camp is. If one thing could be agreed upon, it was that Susan Sontag was way off the mark. Neither Crimp nor Siegel could concede to the grand dame’s notion that doing camp is a means of putting authenticity in quotation marks. While no one went so far as to accuse Sontag’s famous 1964 essay of homophobia, Crimp came close when he stated: “She makes camp a knowingness about others in the eye of the beholder. Which is moralizing. That bothers me.” Perhaps camp can only be defined by its elusiveness. “I was interviewed earlier today, and they asked me why Flash Gordon was camp,” Crimp continued. “I remember when I was a child watching him on television, I just thought he was sexy.”

I wish I could tell you more about the opening night—especially the appearance by Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn, which I’m so sad to have missed—but I got my mind blown halfway across the continent by Narcissister’s lithe and livid living sculpture performance. I’m not sure what it had to do with camp, but she did raise the bar for twenty-first-century performance art, dance, and feminism within the course of her forty-minute act of brainfuck ingenuity, which I would need an entire essay to describe.

Left: Narcissister. (Photo: HAU/Dorothea Tuch) Right: The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. (Photo: Nguyen Tan Hoang)

There is a tendency among scholars to become trapped by the very tools employed to investigate a problem—namely, the language that has evolved to accommodate such research, with its conceptual jargon and pronouncements perfumed with opacity. So it’s unsurprising that the one person bold enough to offer up a new definition of camp that weekend was an artist. “The whole goddamn world is now camp,” declared Bruce LaBruce, before launching into an ambitious list of several new categories that certainly exceed anything on Sontag’s radar, such as Classic Gay Camp (Mae West, Joan Crawford, the Catholic Church), Bad Gay Camp (Will & Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), Good Straight Camp (Woody Allen’s dramas), Bad Straight Camp (Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Black Swan, Adam Sandler movies), and Conservative Camp (Fox News, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney).

The strand tying each of the three nights together was an edition of Vaginal Davis’s talk show–cum–performance installation Speaking from the Diaphragm, first performed a few years back at P.S. 122 in New York. The Berlin edition was dedicated to the theme of “failuretics,” a field I happen to be an expert in, as lived experience would thus far suggest. So no big shock that I was invited as a guest on the last night of the show, where I was briefly interrogated by the infectious wonder that is V.D. before being shrimped (look it up online if you don’t know) by my hostess. Shoes and socks in hand, I was then rushed off the stage to make room for the grand finale: the debut of Davis’s new band Tenderloin (featuring Hidden Cameras frontman Joel Gibb on drums) followed by the first ever Berlin show (how?) of the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black.

Whether all this makes a case for camp or anti-camp as the “ideological white noise of the new millennium,” in the words of LaBruce, is for future historians of heresy and decadence to parse. But those of us fortunate enough to ride the wave of this three-day irruption of queer thought, naked flesh, and pretty colors are still stumbling around with dilated eye-deologies and mental boners. Only in Berlin, kids.

Travis Jeppesen

Dagmar Hopfpfisterei (aka Vaginal Davis) in her new band Tenderloin, with drummer Joel Gibb (Hidden Cameras) in the background. (Photo: Nguyen Tan Hoang)

Marcel Lozinski, Tonia and Her Children, 2011, still from a color video, 57 minutes.

“THE XINGU WILL NEVER BE BOUGHT.” In recent months the Amazon’s Xingu River has been encroached upon by government development, but Megaron Txucarramãe, an important spokesperson for the Kayapó Indians, vowed his people wouldn’t leave their land. His speech preceded a São Paulo screening of Daniel Santiago’s Heart of Brazil (2011), a sweetly character-driven film in which two older men embark on a voyage they took fifty years prior into the Amazon. Heart played during the seventeenth It’s All True (IAT) documentary festival, which ran in four Brazilian cities. A scene between one of the men and an aged Kayapó chief, in which they note each other’s gray hairs before hugging in front of Xingu couples and children, proved the speaker’s point—people persist.

The festival’s eighty-odd-film selection abounded with present-day scenes of people discussing their pasts, attempting to heal the wounds inflicted via bygone governmental regimes. Throughout, politics are kept current by each film’s distinctly human narrative. The Polish Tonia and Her Children (2011) takes place entirely in an apartment study as a pair of siblings talk with the director Marcel Lozinski about their mother, a Jewish communist, who was imprisoned after World War II on espionage charges, leaving them in an orphanage. As they go through photographs and home movies, and read her letters out loud, they fight with each other and with themselves. The son confesses to changing or repressing memories because they’re too painful; the film ends when he refuses to recall any more of the past. Tonia traverses half a century of Polish history in fifty-seven minutes by showing adults articulating the ways in which it has shaped them.

The Brazilian documentarian Eduardo Coutinho, recipient of an IAT early career retrospective, has been using film as a way to interrogate people for nearly fifty years. Moving from fiction to documentary at the same time he switched from film to TV, Coutinho began making news specials in the 1970s for Globo, the nation’s largest channel, through the program Globo Reporter. The “Gunman of Serra Talhada” and “Exu, a Tragedy in the Back Country” episodes screened during IAT, show towns overflowing with crimes that police refuse to investigate. “Six Days in Ouricouri” features field workers surviving a drought who return to town for a religious parade during which it rains—the entire episode illustrates faith in a power greater than themselves. The title and structure—six days, no more—indicate Coutinho’s consistently clinical approach to his on-screen subjects, which he would use throughout his filmmaking career: A person appears in front of the camera, addressing the interrogating observer behind it. The story becomes Coutinho’s distant yet developing relationship with his subjects as well as our own evolving relationships both with him and with them.

In 1964, the filmmaker visited a town where police had murdered a political activist; he started shooting a film but was interrupted by a military coup, which predicated Brazil’s ensuing takeover by a military dictatorship. In 1984, shortly before the regime ended, he returned and began the documentary Twenty Years Later, which IAT screened in a digital restoration. The film contrasts the black-and-white fragments with new color scenes and features the former actors, weathered, older, and separated from family members, but still surviving. The irreparable loss of time between the two bodies of film weighs heavily on the documentary and on each of its people, who address Coutinho frankly. Most poignant is Elizabeth Teixeira, the activist’s widow and the former film’s star, now a small, wrinkled woman searching for the children she abandoned when she fled authorities. The film concludes after Elizabeth meets her family again. Coutinho steps out from behind the camera to shake her hand. Forced into invisibility for much of her life, here she is recognized and respected as a human being.

A festival’s greatest joys are often its discoveries, and a retrospective of the work of Argentine Andrés Di Tella proved revelatory for me. Di Tella’s films open up multiple dialectics—group/individual, society/citizen, history/actuality—all of them cross-addressing each other within a live, evolving present. Montoneros, a Story (1995), for example, shows members of a guerrilla group during Argentina’s dictatorship interpreting their own stories—those left out of the newsreels—and describing how they trained themselves to commit violence against a violent state by seeing their victims as less than human, a process that led them to dehumanize their peers. Di Tella himself narrates The Television and I (2002), in which his search to discover all the Argentinean TV he missed while living abroad as a child becomes a consideration of his family’s own business of building televisions and other home appliances. More often than not he finds gaps in his family history, which become metaphors for gaps in communication between his father and his grandfather, himself and his father, as well as himself and his son.

Di Tella, like Coutinho, often creates conflict by putting himself in opposition with forces beyond his control. The struggle continues in his new film, Blows of the Axe (2011). The leading subject, Claudio Caldini, was an experimental filmmaker who left for India during the dictatorship and lived itinerantly after returning to Argentina until settling into a villa as its caretaker and lone resident. Each day he leaves the house with his 8-mm films in a mallet, as a voice-over tells of how “a man carries his work, his entire life, in a bag, on a train from Moreno to General Rodriguez.” He takes out the films to present them to Di Tella—both projecting and reenacting them—while insisting that the other filmmaker is recording his work but not defining him. “With film we want to show in images what images can’t show,” he tells Di Tella in the dark after a screening, adding, “and we try to say with words what words can’t say.” No matter how close the observer gets, Caldini refuses to be another’s character. As in other IAT films, one’s political situation influences one’s personality. While Caldini may seem cryptic, reticent, resistant, and at times even irritating, he is also free; for many who have lived under oppression, simply following your own will is an act of defiance.

Aaron Cutler

The 17th It’s All True documentary festival ran March 22–April 1, 2012.

Heroine Chic


Shirley Clarke, The Connection, 1961, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 110 minutes.

There is no real difference between a traditional fiction film and a documentary. I’ve never made a documentary. There is no such trip.Shirley Clarke

SHIRLEY CLARKE (1919–1997) spent most of her life trying to figure out movies and how to make them her way. A daughter of Park Avenue privilege who abandoned posh comforts, Clarke started out as a modern dancer—an undistinguished career that led her to make short films about dance in the 1950s. After several more experimental shorts on various subjects, she grew restless, becoming increasingly frustrated by the limits of the form. Before branching out to directing longer works, Clarke and her peers, including Jonas Mekas, began advocating for radical changes in American film, forming a loose collective dubbed the New American Cinema, which issued a manifesto indicting Hollywood movies.

But in her first feature, The Connection (1961), Clarke also had another target in mind: those in the burgeoning American cinema verité movement, such as Richard Leacock and D. A. Pennebaker (former colleagues of Clarke’s), who believed that their style of “fly-on-the-wall” filmmaking was an objective attempt to record the natural world. Clarke found this idea of neutrality ludicrous, and wanted to emphasize just how subjective the whole process is.

Based on Jack Gelber’s Obie-winning play-within-a-play of the same name produced by the Living Theatre in 1959 (which Clarke’s sister, the writer Elaine Dundy, then married to the critic Kenneth Tynan, had encouraged her to see), The Connection is a film-within-a-film: A doofus documentarian named Jim Dunn (William Redfield) is chronicling a multiracial group of smack addicts living in a squalid Manhattan loft. The junkies play jazz, nod out, and taunt Dunn and one another as they await their “connection,” a package of heroin to be delivered by Cowboy, played by Carl Lee. (Carl, the son of trailblazing African-American actor Canada Lee, and Clarke fell in love on set; their tumultuous, off-and-on relationship lasted until his death—supposedly of a heroin overdose—in 1986).

The pretense of the virtuous documentarian “capturing” reality is constantly ridiculed in The Connection, underscored by Clarke’s use of multiple swish pans, which give the illusion of an actual vérité project. Early in the film, Jim Dunn loftily claims an understanding of the methods of Eisenstein and Robert Flaherty. He bleats, “I’m just trying to make an honest human document,” pleading with the junkies to “just act naturally.” He cajoles and provokes them: “I gave Cowboy enough money to keep you high for a week. I give you what you want, and you give me what I want.” The addicts—and Dunn’s hip assistant director, J.J. Burden (Roscoe Lee Brown, in his movie debut)—are constantly reminding this ofay how bankrupt his “exchange” is. Toward the end, Cowboy berates Dunn: “Expect to learn anything by flirting with people? Whaddya think this is—a freak show?”

Though it had been a huge hit in Cannes, where it screened out of competition in May 1961, The Connection wouldn’t open in New York until more than a year later: October 3, 1962—which was also the day it closed, shut down by censors who had objected to the film’s use of the word shit as slang for “heroin” and a fleetingly glimpsed nudie magazine. The maddening experience did not deter Clarke, who continued to take on provocative subjects and radically blur the lines between fact and fiction in two other features from the ’60s: The Cool World (1964), about street gangs in Harlem, and the documentary Portrait of Jason (1967), showcasing a drinking, drugging, jiving black gay hustler whom Clarke filmed in her Chelsea Hotel apartment—and a movie that says more about race, class, and sexuality than just about any movie before or since.

Melissa Anderson

A newly restored 35-mm print of The Connection, the first release of Milestone Films’ “Project Shirley,” opens May 4 at the IFC Center in New York.

Michel Gondry, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004, still from a color film in 35 mm, 108 minutes. Joel and Clementine (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet).

TEN YEARS IS AN AWKWARD AGE in cultural memory: too recent to provoke nostalgia, but far enough away to be unfashionable. The preceding decade is what we have just grown tired of; not-yet-classics still sit side by side with their not-yet-forgotten mediocre imitators. If it often seems that every era of the cultural past has been reanimated and now stalks the present, this valley (what is three to ten years old) may be the only respite in the life of the artistic artifact, a period of enforced obsolescence and disuse.

The Museum of Modern Art’s “Focus Features: 10th Anniversary Salute” is a reminder that even those of us who trade in for a new iPhone every six months are walking around with ideas about Brokeback Mountain that are seven years old. Until recently, I had seen all of the movies in this series precisely once. But those experiences, atrophied and half-remembered, were made to stand long past their expiration date. So here, an update.

Some of these films, I suspect, only a college freshman would admit to liking in 2012. Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), however, no longer strikes me as gimmicky and twee, but as hugely depressing. The cliché premise—lovers with amnesia! Double amnesia!—masks the disturbing conclusion that we are not the “better selves” of our hopeful imaginations, that our identities are only the sum of our illnesses and errors. When the free-spirited lovers (Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey) end up together, this is less a cloying affirmation than a destitute admission that we cannot escape ourselves. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) might have been switched out for another Focus Feature, the documentary Babies (2010, not screening here), with no real difference. Both depict a strange time in life when the world is a confusing blur of symbols and illegible rituals, where everyone speaks a strange language, where it is impossible to articulate our desires, there is no need to work, and a lot of time is spent lying around in bed.

Two of these films were self-consciously Important Moments in the mainstreaming of gay culture in America. Although I remember bawling during the trailer for Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biopic Milk, the movie itself is boring. Characters often seem to be reading lines that would have been better left to a documentary voice-over, while the subplots are confused. (What is James Franco doing here?) When Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was first released, it was widely insisted to be a “love story,” i.e., an exploration of true and beautiful emotions usually denied to representations of gays in film. But this is not the film you will see in 2012. None of these characters are so glib or transparent. The looming Western cinematography often stands in for feelings that can’t be accessed or easily named. And the plot consists entirely of Heath Ledger pushing away intimacy: keeping Jake Gyllenhaal at a distance, boxing out his wife and children, and being left finally only with regrets. The story is that he rejects a love story for himself. This is finally a story about emotions, not about their objects. It is a different movie than people have wanted it to be, but possibly a more interesting one.

Left: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain, 2005, still from a color film in 35 mm, 134 minutes. Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar (Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger). Right: Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation, 2003, still from a color film in 35 mm, 104 minutes. Bob Harris (Bill Murray).

In a later moment, Mike Mills’s Beginners (2010) and Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010) chose to forgo the grandiose gestures and just make interesting dramas about gay characters. Beginners does not entirely succeed. The premise—a terminally ill father coming out of the closet juxtaposed with a son’s reluctance to risk vulnerability—remains only a premise. The movie toggles between two time periods to little effect other than to disguise that the story is always at a standstill. Certain gimmicks, like subtitling the inner thoughts of a dog or interrupting a scene to flash a picture of Richard Nixon onscreen, are just so many nonnarrative, nonscenic distractions. Moreover, the straight/gay, young/old dynamics are less descriptive of the movie than is the axis depressed/not-depressed. Ewan McGregor’s problem is that he is depressed, while his problem with his father is that he is not depressed. But in film as in life, depressed people are uninteresting time-traps. So, watching this movie I kept wanting to make excuses about how I would call soon, while edging toward the door. By contrast, The Kids Are All Right looks like Ibsen: all character study, interactions building to tension, and a classic three-act form. There was a time when Hollywood regularly produced movies like this. One can imagine Montgomery Clift or Robert Mitchum playing Mark Ruffalo’s role, as the charming interloper who threatens the family unit. Only, in 2010, it is as the biological father to the children of a lesbian couple.

Auteur filmmaking, if it had its way, would never be compared with contemporaneous works. Instead, like certain cycles of the Mayan calendar, the temporality of auteur films is the long span, maintained in a separate sphere. Any given decade in film can reliably be expected to produce ten Woody Allen movies and something like three-fifths of a Terrence Malick movie, but who would juxtapose Tree of Life (2011) next to Midnight in Paris (2011)? For this reason, The Pianist (2002) is best seen as a quintessential Roman Polanski movie: aloof, devoid of sentimentality, and set mostly in urban apartment interiors—like his enclosed masterpieces Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Tenant (1976). The extermination of Warsaw’s Jews seems to have presented itself to Polanski as a cinematic occasion for numerous Hitchcockian close calls, tense raids, and ambiguous motivations. Nowhere is he interested in identification by the viewer. Survival is portrayed as an unattractive, mute, dead-eyed persistence, and Adrien Brody plays Wladyslaw Szpilman with complete detachment from any “artistic” warmth or depth, totally unromanticized. The story, in its resolute particularity, is a kind of anti–Schindler’s List, which was ultimately a “feel-good” movie by the director of E.T.

One of the tautologies of auteurist self-referentiality is that the best work by a filmmaker is taken automatically to be what most bears the auteur’s “signature.” The best Fellini must also be the most Felliniesque. Among the seven movies that they made over the past decade, the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man (2009) somehow feels like the key to their entire body of work. It’s at once obviously personal, even autobiographical, as though all of their existential absurdism had its home here. For this reason, it was easy to overpraise the movie. A Serious Man sits somewhere in the middle of the pack of their films, with the likes of The Hudsucker Proxy (1994).

Mike Mills, Beginners, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 104 minutes. Hal Fields and Oliver Fields (Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor).

Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener (2005) aspires to be a stirring incitement to moral outrage and political consciousness, concealed in the Trojan Horse of a taut spy thriller. It is easily the worst film in the series. The movie’s polemical notion, that Africa needs to be saved from evil white capitalists by virtuous white humanitarians, must have originated in the Angelina Jolie Center for Social Thought. But even worse is how this insipid moral indignation is addicted to its own obvious symbolism—starting with the awkward and pompous title. In English, we would say, “He’s always gardening.” This combination of inscrutable pretentiousness and heavy-handed, Oscar-motivated yearning for effects quickly grows tiresome. The ending of this movie, a surprise denunciation delivered as a eulogy, is ripped off from the teen drama Cruel Intentions.

David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007) is superficially similar—a thriller about the “dirty secrets” of international capitalism. Here it’s sex trafficking by the Russian mafia instead of pharmaceutical company malfeasance. But this appallingly violent film (Cronenberg’s whole career, really) spits on the idea motivating The Constant Gardener—that just watching is itself a kind of quiet moral victory. Contemptuously dragging the viewer through a sewer of degradation, Cronenberg dares anyone to leave the theater feeling self-satisfied, or anything but gross and sullied. This was one of the best movies of the decade, with at least one scene—a naked knife fight in a Turkish bathhouse—that no one who has seen it will ever forget.

It would have been easy to curate a Focus Features retrospective that would just look like someone’s OkCupid profile. 21 Grams (2003), Atonement (2007), and The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) were, after all, as big as any of the movies here. Nor do we get any of the prestige literary adaptations (Jane Eyre [2011], Pride and Prejudice [2005], Vanity Fair [2004]) that will continue with Focus’s upcoming Anna Karenina. The films culled for this series instead represent the balancing act Focus has always maintained in the cultural field. On one hand, a relentlessly earnest liberal topicality, the kind of gesture at zeitgeist that George Clooney or Tim Robbins finds himself “really believing in.” The Constant Gardener and Milk stand in for a number of similarly intentioned Focus films. On the other hand, an uncoordinated slate of the latest works by the great directors: Cronenberg, the Coen brothers, Polanski—and, coming soon, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. In a sense, this alternation reprises how we experience something like a decade—oscillating between a same-y, wearisome clutching at the present, and the eclectic, intermittent detachment of vision.

Ben Parker

“Focus Features: 10th Anniversary Salute” runs May 3–20 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.