2010 Cinema Eye Honors: Tully’s POV
Friday night at The Times Center in midtown Manhattan, the documentary community gathered for the third annual Cinema Eye Honors to toast the best nonfiction filmmaking of 2009. The room was packed with familiar names and faces, featuring several living legends (Albert Maysles, Ross McElwee, Barbara Kopple, Peter Davis). Thinking back on the comparatively isolated documentary landscape in these masters’ early years, this all must have seemed extravagant and strange. And while the insular energy of the event bothered some people that I spoke to at the after party, the fact remains that the Cinema Eye Honors has the noblest of intentions. For me, the biggest problem isn’t the Cinema Eyes in particular; it’s awards shows in general. Even in this more independently minded environment, the broken record repeats itself: My picks never win.
It’s silly and pointless to get upset at awards. I realize that. It’s why I stopped watching them. It’s wiser to avoid food that you know is going to make you sick. But with the Cinema Eye Honors, an institution that is courageous enough to nominate films like Darius Marder’s Loot, Bill and Turner Ross’s 45365, Jessica Oreck’s Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, Deborah Stratman’s O’er The Land, John Maringouin’s Big River Man, Chung-ryoul Lee’s Old Partner, Kim Longinotto’s Rough Aunties, and many more, one can’t help but think that finally they’ve found a place where their taste will be celebrated. And then films like Louie Psihoyos’s The Cove and Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s October Country take home multiple trophies and I am reminded with a thud that I just wasn’t made for these times.
In his preamble to presenting the Outstanding Achievement in Direction award to a wholly deserving and unfortunately absent Agnes Varda (The Beaches of Agnes), Peter Davis concluded by warning documentarians that while it’s well and good for Hollywood to steal tactics from documentaries, it’s a very dangerous proposition when turned the other way around. Which is the main problem I had with The Cove (and, full disclosure, 2009 winner Man On Wire too). I’m not saying I’m right, but it’s hard for me to put The Cove in the same stratosphere as an achievement like Anders Ostergaard’s Burma VJ. Many would argue that these films are both dramatic thrillers that use technology to expose corruption in the world. But when it came to The Cove, I felt like I was sitting in a multiplex watching a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. In Burma VJ, the sweat in my armpits and tears in my eyes made me realize that I was witnessing history.
In the case of October Country, my issue was a different one. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a work most directly influenced by commercial advertising. Mind you, I felt that way before learning that Palmieri’s background is rooted in that world. I’m not here to knock a little guy, but from the massive attention this film has gotten, somebody’s going above and beyond the PR call of duty and my lack of appreciation for it isn’t going to hurt anybody (read Pamela Cohn’s review of the film to prove that when it comes to this site, I’m an equal opportunity editor). Whereas Loot had a crushing depth that revealed itself gradually and unexpectedly, and 45365 used an inventive, nearly experimental, style to produce an atmosphere of nostalgic omniscience, October Country remained a surface experience that rang more loudly of poorsploitation than tender understanding. I’m not sure if it was even eligible, but the imbalance of attention between October Country and last year’s bracingly uncomfortable 21 Below really disturbs me. While that film didn’t have such a polished superficial sheen, it raised questions that are guaranteed to spark a heated conversation. Which is probably the point. 21 Below goes for the jugular. Awards shows don’t like jugulars. They like pretty dresses.
My one saving grace from this year’s awards—another lesson I’ve learned in my life of disappointment is that you should be grateful if one of your desires is victorious—was the jury’s pick of Jessica Oreck’s Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo in the Spotlight Award category. As this was a juried category I didn’t get to vote, which I wouldn’t have done anyway as I hadn’t seen all of the nominees (though I’d seen most). But it was so very nice to see a film as wildly precocious and inquisitive as Oreck’s receive more than just a nomination. (Here, her boyfriend/cinematographer/collaborator Sean Price Williams flaunts the hardware.)
The point of this site is similar to the point of the Cinema Eye Honors themselves: To be a positive presence and champion films we love. Which is why I feel like a bitter, crabby sore loser in writing this post. Movies are subjective. To scan the catalog from this year’s event is to encounter some truly exceptional work. It just pains me to realize that it’s the nature of the beast and my own personal curse that the work I find to be the most invigorating, exciting, and ambitious is just too damn invigorating, exciting, and ambitious for its own good.
For what it’s worth, here are the winners. And though I sound cranky, I will continue to keep giving my full support to AJ Schnack, Thom Powers, Esther Robinson, Rachel Rosen, Andrea Meditch, and the rest of the Cinema Eye Honors team. I will just try not to get so bothered when my picks don’t win again next year:
2010 Cinema Eye Honorees
Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking
Directed by Louie Psihoyos
Produced by Paula DuPré Pesman and Fisher Stevens
Outstanding Achievement in Direction
THE BEACHES OF AGNES
Outstanding Achievement in International Feature Filmmaking
Directed by Anders Østergaard
Produced by Lise-Lense Møller
Outstanding Achievement in Debut Feature Filmmaking
Directed by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher
Outstanding Achievement in Production
Paula DuPré Pesman and Fisher Stevens
Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography
Outstanding Achievement in Editing
Janus Billeskov-Jansen and Thomas Papapetros
Outstanding Achievement in Original Music Score
Danny Grody, Donal Mosher, Michael Palmieri, Ted Savarese and Kenric Taylor
Original Music Score Jury: Natalia Almada, Laurie Anderson, Brendan Canty, T. Griffin and Craig Wedren
Outstanding Achievement in Graphic Design and Animation (tie)
Francis Hanneman, Darren Pasemko, Kent Hugo, Omar Majeed, Brett Gaylor + The Open Source Cinema Community
RIP: A REMIX MANIFESTO
BEETLE QUEEN CONQUERS TOKYO
Directed by Jessica Oreck
Spotlight Jury: Pernille Rose Gronkjær, Jason Kohn, David Polonsky and Jennifer Venditti
Audience Choice Prize
THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE
Directed by RJ Cutler
Directed by Ross McElwee
— Michael Tully