Sunday, February 26, 2012

Film, 2011

Yeah, I know that the year actually ended two months ago, but I have been playing catch-up (more so than usual this time around, but that's another story for another time and place). So, as the Oscars are tonight, let me offer up what lingered with me once I left the theaters these past several months . . .

Best of the Year
[The films listed are not ranked. Also, to simplify matters in this world of global financing, country designations refer to the director's origins].

1. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, Germany): The subject of these cave-paintings proved a natural fit for Herzog's characteristic musings about humans and their place in this world. And, yes, the 3D suited the subject as well. A truly haunting film. On a personal note, as a long time Herzog fan, I think that I have reached the point where I would be soothed by the sound of his voice reading a phone book.

2. Tuesday, after Christmas (Radu Muntean, Romania): Possibly the best film I saw at the 2010 New York Film Festival, this stellar movie is one of the best theatrical films of 2011. A portrait of adultery and the final dissolution of a marriage filled with fully drawn characters and all the messy ambiguity of everyday life.

3. Uncle Boonmee Who Can See His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand): There seemed to be a preponderance of films last year examining the cycle of life and our place within it. This example is filled with ghosts, fantastic whimsy, beautiful imagery, and a scene in a cave that, I believe, is an allegory of reincarnation. Either way, I left the theater wanting to hold onto the sensations of this film for as long as possible.

4. The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, Poland): An examination of Pieter Bruegel's creation of his painting The Road to Calvary, this may be the greatest film I have seen on the life of an artist. Not a bio-pic of Bruegel, but instead a study of the times in which he lived. Like the work of the painter himself, Majewski dares to capture all of human experience, only to admit by the end, that it is too vast for a single canvas of any type. Simply stunning.

5. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark): Opinion, as always with von Trier, was all over the place with this film. I have often had a mixed experience with the director, but was swept up in this one from pretty much the beginning. Another vision of our place in the cosmos, and speculation on the End of Things (note the use of Bruegel images throughout), it avoids massive physical destruction, for more psychological suffering. His best since Breaking the Waves, if not simply his masterpiece.

6. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France): The silent film junky in me was pretty much in love with every moment of this film. A superb combination of both fun and pathos.

7. The Descendants (Alexander Payne, USA): Yes, it started slow; for the first third or so, I was thinking "not bad, but nothing special." However, the more I watched, the more the characters deepened, until I was completely absorbed by the end. Another first rate film for Payne.

8. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran): Similar to Tuesday, this film also is a close character study, whose story spins out of a crumbling marriage. However, this film employs a larger cast, weaving a wider social portrait. In the end, it seems to be illustrating how small omissions of consideration for those around us can create unintended and quite poisonous circumstances. Again, a film with no easy villain -- only finely drawn characters. Oh yeah, and in a year where I saw the world end, literally, at least three times in the cinema, this may have been the most emotionally intense film of the year.

9. Hugo (Martin Scorese, USA): If The Artist was about the thrill of making movies, Hugo is about the joy of watching them. Scorsese has taken his love for the history of cinema, stripped it of academic baggage and delivered it with a sense of pure excitement. Mix in two charming young leads and a wonderfully restrained comic performance by Sacha Baron Cohen and you have a bit of fun. And the 3D works well to boot. Of course, I'm also the guy you heard sighing at the brief glimpse of Buster Keaton in The General . . .

10. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden): At a third of the length of the Alec Guinness miniseries adaptation, this film may not keep the same amount of plot detail from the book, yet it makes up for it in atmosphere, and thus in rendering the moods and emotions of le Carre's novel perfectly. I have a couple quibbles about Connie's character, but beyond that, first rate all around. As for the final scene? Is it too early to hope for bringing the gang back together for The Honorable Schoolboy?

11. Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, USA): Much ink has been spilled on the Oscars and nostalgia for the past. Well, here is film set in the past without any trace of rose-tinted glasses. Tracing the increasingly desperate wanderings of a lost wagon train, this movie serves well as a companion piece to her brilliant Wendy & Lucy. Both concern the lengths to which individuals will travel in search of dreams of a better life, as well as the sacrifices required along the way. (The ending of Wendy & Lucy still lingers in my mind).Once the pioneers take captive a stray Native American, circumstances get even more complicated. Reichardt (and writer Jonathan Raymond), smartly avoid thematic resolution, since, as a society, we're still debating what all this means anyway.

Honorable Mention: The Tree of Life; La Havre

Repertory Discoveries: These range from silent Wiemar melodrama to Pre-Code Hollywood comedy to delinquent Japanese youth to a non-romantic documentary on life along the Ganges River. The last one even inspired a couple poems, one of which I debuted recently at Cornelia Street Cafe . . .

The Wonderful Lies of Nina PetrovaMe and My Pal; Live Today, Die Tomorrow!; Forest of Bliss

Best Ensemble Acting: The Artist, A Separation, The Descendants, Melancholia; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Notable Performances: Viggio Mortensen (A Dangerous Method); Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Ganisbourg (Melancholia), Jean Dujarden, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman (The Artist); Shailene Woodley (The Descendants); Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy); Chole Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen (Hugo).

Best Dog: The Artist

Original Score: The Artist (Ludovic Bource); Cold Weather (Keegan DeWitt); Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Alberto Iglesias)

Best Use of Non-Original Music(aka The McCabe & Mrs Miller Award): "Love Song" by Bernard Hermann in The Artist; Tristan and Isolde by Ricard Wagner in Melancholia; "La Mer" by Charles Trenet in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Most Intriguing Missed Chance at Type-Casting: Tom Hiddleston in Thor & Midnight in Paris . . . "Excuse me, is that?" "Yes, it is: Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald, great American novelist, noted drunk and Norse God of Lies & Mischief." Definitely would have spiced up Allen's film a little . . .

Least Interesting Bit of Type Casting: Jon Hamm in Bridesmaids. What can I say? I'm sick of the sight of his naked chest and the new season of Mad Men hasn't even started yet . . . Oh well, as long as he doesn't mind spending the next decade of his career playing cads. I suppose someone needs to tackle the roles that Michael Caine is too old for these days. How's your Cockney, Jon?

Biggest Waste of a Single Talent: Tadanobu Asano as Hogun in Thor. Maybe he's just biding his time for a Warriors Three spin off, but, come on, at least Stevenson's Volstagg got to interact with the other characters. Funny thing, though: just a few days before seeing the film, I was wondering why I hadn't seen more of the actor lately . . .

And, finally, something to look forward to in 2012? Well, I'm sure as the festival season begins, there'll be plenty of enticing offerings, but, for the moment, all I can say, is: The Dark Knight Rises. Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle? Can't. Wait. Don't care if doesn't even put on the catsuit during the film. Still. Can't. Wait.

Meanwhile, back in the present moment, I hope that everyone's weekend has been running smoothly.