Sunday, January 1, 2012
It's ironic given the increasing efficiency of international media transportation via means both cyber and televisual that I found myself so frustrated in 2011 by the dearth of films available to my eyes. As countless tantalizing year-end lists have suggested, it's not an issue of quality but of access. Now, I can't entirely take the blame off myself (as I've still avoided jumping on the Fandor and Netflix trains), but there is still a sense that the major cinephiliac distributors have dropped the ball on what are clearly the most intriguing auteur statements of our time: Film Socialisme, The Turin Horse, This is Not A Film, Mysteries of Lisbon, etc. (Does any film fan not want to see these?) What's more, I live in a major city, not a tiny rural pinprick on a map. Even the stellar efforts of the Harvard Film Archive, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Brattle Theater, and ArtsEmerson couldn't account for the relative "obscurities" of contemporary cinema that litter every festival round-up (for an idea, of what I'm talking about, see my heap of unseen films at the bottom of this post). Thus, while I could have done a slightly better job of keeping up with the here-and-now, I am ultimately left without having seen enough this year to warrant a comprehensive, honest list.
The other issue with 2011 was that of what I did see, the films I was disappointed by or indifferent to massively outweighed the real gems. Highly anticipated fare like Alps, Drive, Melancholia, and Shame fell flat for me, while others possessing admirable thematic ambition and depth like Hugo and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy just nearly failed to attain the special spark emblematic of truly great cinema. Fortunately, there was always both the near and distant past to turn to, and as a result I stumbled upon some of 2010's best works (see my revised list here towards the bottom of said post - and yes, that includes Uncle Boonmee, Le Quattro Volte, Meek's Cutoff, and Certified Copy, which, because they were released to the world in 2010, are 2010 films in my mind), many of the finest works of transnational Asian cinemas of the past decade thanks to superb scholar and professor Shujen Wang, and a random assortment of other goldmines from the history of the medium. There's a ranked list of this hodgepodge (excluding the 2010 stuff) at the bottom of this post as well, and you can be sure it's more rewarding than any makeshift 2011 list I could have scraped up. All of that said, I did find myself loving a small, coveted handful of films - or sometimes just parts of films - from this year, which are paid tribute to below in a selection of my favorite moments (scenes, shots, etc.) from 2011.
Father Goes On Vacation in The Tree of Life
It's tough to pick a single moment from a film that is this overflowing with rich, evocative snippets and that is in fact defined by its fragmentary, episodic qualities. But I don't usually cry, and this particular scene was able to crack my calculated, detached critical stance and break the tears loose from my enraptured eyes. Marked by an absence (Brad Pitt has gone on a business vacation, leaving the kids alone to tease the playful Jessica Chastain), the scene paradoxically feels uplifting and whole, not to mention it rings piercingly true. It's rare that cinema is able to manage such remarkable nostalgic ecstasy as this, somehow feeling - despite its very specific context - like a moment stripped from the home video of any American Family in the past century. It's also the loveliest musical cue (Francis Couperin's lilting piano piece "Les Barricades Mistérieuses," as recorded by Angela Hewett) in what is the definitive cinematic event of the year no matter how you slice it.
Jake Williams Floats Across a Pond in Two Years at Sea
Here's what I wrote about it: "In one instance, Jake assembles a makeshift raft out of wood and jumbo milk cartons (a comparatively bombastic moment in an otherwise quiet film) and rows it out into a pond. Right when the viewer assumes he’s headed to the other side, he stops dead in the middle of the body of water to drift carelessly - his body entirely motionless – the long distance to the other side of the panoramic frame. And once his vessel has nearly bumped against land, he turns back. It’s an achingly poetic image that possesses the sparse, smeared beauty of a Caspar David Friedrich oil painting and most succinctly and elegantly communicates Jake's firm sense of inner peace."
Three Teenage Girls Visit The Home of the Recently Deceased in Putty Hill
An emotionally multifaceted scene from the most poignant and original indie feature of the year. From my review: "A brief episode where some of the wandering teenage girls visit Cory's empty house at night is a dark, foreboding vision that allows (Matthew) Porterfield to flirt with the aesthetic staples of low-budget horror: darkness, shadow, long takes, compositional tension. Unsurprisingly, the film doesn't entertain its subtle sensationalist gestures, keeping the scene to its bare essence. In doing so, Porterfield is able to bookend the film with a chilling re-visitation to Cory's house and vitally preserve the unique social experiment that is the film's backbone: the sense of individuals becoming personally affected by events to the point where fiction vs. non-fiction no longer matters."
An Ominous Invisible Transition in Martha Marcy May Marlene
Martha Marcy May Marlene is all smoke and mirrors, an elaborate maze built to unsettle foundations of reality, rationality, sanity, and especially time. Much of its powerful effect is nestled into its scene transitions, in the way one shot cuts across time and space to another while retaining an eerie sense of spatial and temporal coherence. This technique is at its most hauntingly effective during the middle of the film when Elizabeth Olsen's eponymous character leaps off her brother-in-law's motorboat only to land somewhere in the past in a dark quarry. Director Sean Durkin suddenly elevates the soundtrack's muffled rumbling and his camera tilts up to reveal naked legs dangling in a vulnerable and suggestive composition.
Restaging Méliès in Hugo
I recently saw Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which I was introduced to the theories of brilliant psychoanalyst Martin S. Bergmann. In the film, Bergmann utters a profound kernel: "so, love contains in it a contradiction, the attempt to return to the past and the attempt to undo the past." He was referring specifically to human love, but nonetheless one can imagine it applied with alarming accuracy to Martin Scorsese's bombastic 3D tributes to the early handmade spectacles of his beloved George Méliès. When Scorsese gets his able paws on Méliès' proto-science-fiction content in a few delightful scenes during Hugo's mid-film history lecture, it bursts into new, three-dimensional life, taking it far from its scrappy analog origins.
Bruegel's Toddler Son Rips An Armpit Fart in The Mill and the Cross
Throughout The Mill and the Cross, Lech Majewski repeats a number of painterly wide shots, one of which is this perspective of the cramped wooden bedroom containing Pieter Bruegel's children. At one point, when a few of the kids are roughhousing around their dozing siblings, one of them unleashes a perfunctory armpit fart, proving that the crude joke knows no historical bounds. The sudden intrusion of the lowbrow in an otherwise cerebral, spiritual cinematic experience was truly unexpected and devilishly hilarious, forcing me to yelp in my seat. Fortunately, the theater was nearly empty.
The Ending of Contagion
While not many people dug Contagion, even fewer could stand by its ending, which is claimed to be "on-the-nose" and "formulaic." That I really enjoyed both the film and its ending makes me some kind of impoverished contrarian. But I still don't think any mainstream Hollywood filmmaker put together a more elegant, precise sequence of image (sterile, rapidly cut, succinctly narrativized footage of Gwyneth Paltrow carelessly extracting the first case of a mysterious worldwide plague) and sound (Cliff Martinez's eerie, throbbing whine) than Soderbergh this year (that includes you, Fincher, but not by much). The polemic, too, is necessary and timely.
Rooney Mara Steals Her Bag Back in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Just saw this and haven't written about it yet, but I will say that for me it was a vast improvement over the original film. Fincher's exacting formalism reaches its apex in a scene towards the beginning of the film when Lisbeth Salander's (Rooney Mara) leather bag is stolen in a subway station by a man passing in the opposite direction. Salander's reclaiming of the bag and simultaneous take-down of her opponent is clever and effortless, an approach mirrored by Fincher's mise-en-scene. When mapping out the scene's action, it certainly wouldn't appear to be a simple shoot, but Fincher makes it seem easy, while also refusing to make it feel like punctuation. An exhilarating 30 seconds or so.
Owen Wilson's Wide-Eyed Tour of 1920's Paris in Midnight in Paris
In spite of my lukewarm reaction to it upon first viewing, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris has stayed on my mind for much of the year, its honeyed depiction of the French city and varied historical humor gaining retrospective charm and power. The outburst of its best qualities - dry mockery of its own narrative gimmickry, pitch-perfect casting of revolutionary artistic and literary figures, Owen Wilson's stubborn and childlike Woody surrogate - comes during Gil Pender's inaugural adventure into 1920's Paris. Allen shoots the whole tour so as to literalize his protagonist's glorified vision of the past, and Wilson seems to have his pupils dilated and his mouth agape for the scene's entirety.
Charlotte Gainsbourg's Son Builds a Star-Gazing Tool that Incites Chaos in Melancholia
As much as I want to resist Melancholia and its cosmic cynicism outright, I struggle to deny Von Trier's vice grip on my consciousness, which was wielded aggressively in the following two moments: 1) Charlotte Gainsbourg holds up her son's homemade astronomical device only to observe the titular planet growing perilously in size, and 2) the subsequent apocalypse, after layers and layers of insanity, wherein Gainsbourg, Kirsten Dunst, and Cameron Spurr stare at each other in grotesque expressions of desperation, fear, indifference, hope, and concern. They're such exasperated moments of uncontrollable emotion that they're impossible to forget.
The Opening Shot of The Turin Horse
I heard it was on YouTube, and I couldn't help myself despite the poor viewing conditions. It's truly bravura filmmaking, announcing what surely must be a majestic piece of work.
The Smoke, The Light, The Wallpaper, and The Compartments in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
There's nothing specific to remember about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Alfredson is too democratic in his distribution of significance, and beyond that, the film's more about an accumulation of detail than it is about any one detail. Its evocation of a closed-off world of espionage jargon and bureaucratic indifference is in the particular elements that make up the mise-en-scene, all organized to amass a hazy atmosphere that defies comprehension. Just look at the shot above; how better to visualize Alfredson's idea of intellectual, social, and political compartmentalization?
The Opening Scene of Drive
A controlled getaway driver and his leather gloves, blobs of neon city lights dancing in the background, long stretches of dark road illuminated only by headlights in LA's featureless metropolitan area: these are the very best things about Drive, and they're all on display in its first scene. If the rest of the film conveyed as much stylistic assurance, abstract beauty, and quiet tension as this, Refn's confused pastiche might have had some weight of its own.
Top 25 Previously Released Films I Saw For The First Time in 2011:
1. In Vanda’s Room (Costa, Portugal, 2000)
2. Three Times (Hou, Taiwan, 2005)
3. Edvard Munch (Watkins, UK, 1974)
4. The Last Picture Show (Bogdanovich, USA, 1971)
5. State of Dogs (Brosens & Turmunkh, Belgium/Mongolia, 1998)
6. La Collectionneuse (Rohmer, France, 1967)
7. Happy Together (Wong, Japan, 1997)
8. Mouchette (Bresson, France, 1967)
9. The Thin Red Line (Malick, USA, 1998)
10. In the City of Sylvia (Guerin, Spain/France, 2009)
11. Two Lane Blacktop (Hellman, USA, 1971)
12. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, USA, 1955)
13. The Sacrifice (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1986)
14. The Holy Girl (Martel, Argentina, 2004)
15. Cyclo (Tran, Vietnam/France, 1995)
16. Summer Hours (Assayas, France, 2008)
17. My Winnipeg (Maddin, Canada, 2007)
18. Cat's Cradle (Brakhage, USA, 1959)
19. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959)
20. Hadewijch (Dumont, France, 2009)
21. Café Lumiere (Hou, Taiwan, 2003)
22. Tung (Baillie, USA, 1966)
23. The Big Chill (Kasdan, USA, 1983)
24. Almanac of Fall (Tarr, Hungary, 1984)
25. Santa Sangre (Jodorowsky, Mexico, 1989)
2011 Films Topping My Must-See List:
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Mysteries of Lisbon, Take Shelter, The Kid with a Bike, A Separation, Margaret, This Is Not a Film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Tuesday, After Christmas, A Dangerous Method, War Horse, The Adventures of Tintin, Carnage, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, Extraordinary Stories, The Myth of the American Sleepover, Sleeping Beauty, Le Havre, House of Tolerance, The Descendants, Life Without Principle, Century of Birthing, Poetry
Best Films of 2011 (An Ongoing Project)
1. The Turin Horse
2. The Tree of Life
3. Two Years at Sea
4. Nostalgia for the Light
5. The Loneliest Planet
6. Putty Hill
7. The Color Wheel
8. Film Socialisme
9. Sleeping Beauty
10. Whores’ Glory
11. Martha Marcy May Marlene
13. The Mill and the Cross
15. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
16. Midnight in Paris
17. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
19. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
20. Wuthering Heights