Friday, December 30, 2011

Best of 2011...because this is what we do.

Below is my top ten in accordance with official 2011 US releases submitted to In Review Online. (There is quite a caché of top tens over there, so check it out.) But because the year offered so much more, I've supplemented with other offerings that didn't make the cut. Happy viewing and Happy New Year!

1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives / Apichatpong Weerasethakul

First viewed VIFF 2010, subsequent viewings Walker Art Center and Trylon microcinema. Now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Instant.
Over a year has passed since I first saw Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and its ethereal glow still burns brightly. The spiritual world and the natural world mingle effortlessly in Apichatpong Weerasethakul sixth feature and Palme d’Or winner. In one of the most beautiful openings of the past ten years, a water buffalo breaks from its tether in the dim light of the jungle to conjoin with monkey ghosts. The sequence is timeless and ephemeral, and it captures the film’s mesmerizing preoccupation with the mysteries of a tangible environment. The patience and simplicity of ‘Uncle Boonmee’ slowly decodes the fate of one man through gentle curiosity. Death and the magical possibilities of reincarnation materialize in a drift, a journey, a spell that taps the collective unconscious and eventually leads to a pop song induced fracture in the space-time continuum.

2. House of Pleasures / Bertrand Bonello

First viewed VIFF 2011. Coming soon to the Trylon microcinema Feb 7 and 14.
House of Pleasures is a baroque free-fall of sensuality and violence stoked by anachronistic tumbles and sways. Director Bertrand Bonello depicts the corporeal reality of a late 19th century Parisian brothel without schismatic moralizing and stifled emotional goo, but with a cinematic verve that incites the senses. The graceful narrative patterning, opening and closing with a round, and organic camerawork flow in tandem with the natural performances of the ladies for hire within a closed rococo world. Tenderness and strength, sorrow and joy are amplified with a soundtrack that is seamlessly embellished with English language pop and soul from the 60s. But just as quickly as Bonello embraces the fruition of an illusory dream, he pulls the rug out from underneath the romance for its disjunctive ending. House of Pleasures lends a feminine ring to the emblematic cries of Aeneid: “These are the tears of things, and our mortality cuts to the heart.”

3. The Arbor / Clio Barnard

First viewed at MSPIFF. Now available on DVD and Netflix Instant.
Clio Barnard’s decision to use actors to lip-sync recorded interviews with playwrite Andrea Dunbar’s family is nothing less than a stroke of brilliance. Far from the fallacy that one might expect from this machination, the raw emotion is heightened, and the actors are a constant reminder of a potent reality. Dunbar wrote herself into infamy, but also drank herself to death, leaving a long and winding road of influence and dysfunction on her two daughters. Their shattering accounts come with a tempered blow, crafted with assertive matter-of-fact honesty, and juxtaposed with the unvarnished bluntness of Dunbar’s plays. Barnard spins Dunbar’s tale with the specificity of artistic mathematics and the patterning of a kaleidoscope, allowing shards of fact and fiction to present a semblance of a whole. The experimental presentation of this overwhelming material is both formally and poignantly unique—not necessarily pushing the boundaries of preconceived form more than simply working outside of them.

4. Meek’s Cutoff / Kelly Reichardt

First viewed at the Walker Art Center. Now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Instant.
Kelly Reichardt rattles the cages of the disaster microcosm with a dusty neo-Western sharply drawn with its script and artistically specific with its form. Shot in the square Academy ratio of 1.33, Meek’s Cutoff boxes nine lost settlers within their own psychology of fear and paranoia and doubt. Extending beyond the frame is the indifference of nature on the outsiders, represented in an unforgiving landscape and an enigmatic Native American. Through cycles of sun-bleached days and inky-black nights, the personal politics of a desperate situation create a divide between individuals, a chasm between genders and a permanent wall between races. Emily Tetherow, played with powerhouse subtlety by Michelle Williams, acknowledges their precarious situation in the hands of larky chauvinist Stephen Meek, a pitch perfect Bruce Greenwood, by following her conscience to rebellion. Haunting and austere, Meek’s Cutoff is filled to the brim with aesthetic elegance and civil allegory.  

5. A Separation / Asghar Farhadi

First viewed at VIFF 2011. Coming soon to the Edina Cinema Feb 3.

Few films are able to keep such a character-rich balance while building a tense, plot-driven drama better than A Separation. Although literally tackling the marital difficulties of Nader and Simin, a young middle class couple living in Tehran, director Asghar Farhadi puts all manner of social issues under an incredibly absorbing microscope, with gender and class at the forefront. Sharp as a razor, the film gives equal space to all characters: the religious caretaker, her downtrodden husband, the conflicted Nader, the brazen Simin and even their mature eleven-year-old daughter who is learning about the grey areas of human nature. Farhadi presents and considers the complex moral decisions of each individual within their respective social and religious confines, but he does so without moralizing to the audience. Tightly wound around an impeccable script and camera choreography, A Separation perfectly parables a country hurtling toward and uncertain future.

6. Certified Copy / Abbas Kiarostami

First viewed at VIFF 2010. Now available on Netflix Instant and import (region free) Blu-ray.

Certified Copy is Abbas Kiarostami at his best, and perhaps better than we have ever seen him before. He directs dialogue in three languages and selects an operatic baritone as the individual who can’t speak Italian. He builds an aura of mystery as he simultaneously points out devise. He vacillates on classic Italian art while polishing the tarnished halo of film-as-art. He takes an academic subject and fills it with the pulse of life. He breaks from a mold of working with non-professional actors and hires the biggest star in Europe. And he casts us, the audience—his audience—as the mirror, the ultimate reflection of his film. Under the auspice of exploring artifice, Certified Copy delves into the esoteric notions of love, life and art on the coattails of a wandering Tuscan tête-à-tête and turns it into something far more fallible and beautiful than a mechanical reproduction.

7. My Joy / Sergei Loznitsa

First viewed MSPIFF 2011. Coming to DVD March 20.
My Joy opens with a mysterious corpse being covered in cement and ends with a shell-shocked murderer walking off into the darkness of the night—although the literal connection is abstruse, the cyclical motif is crystal clear. Blissfully unpredictable stream-of-consciousness, My Joy is made of two haves that meander through various stories and leave a lingering vapor trail to a much larger allegory. Corruption unapologetically blankets My Joy, trickling down from a history of authoritarianism and extreme conditions. Any kindness is met with an untrusting hostility that, at least within the gauge of the film, is not unwarranted. Director Sergei Loznitsa and his cinematographer Oleg Mutu tell much of their story through the complex and sardonic ‘joy’ on peoples’ faces. The film’s vignettes, in their structural ambiguity, are anything but detached. Heavy with heartbreak and despair, each sequence is loaded with the components of profound social destruction and deranged malaise.

8. Le Quattro Volte / Michelangelo Frammartino

First viewed MSPIFF 2011. Now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Instant. 

Michelangelo Frammartino evokes the spiritual philosophies of Pythagoras and relies entirely on the ambient language of a village in Southern Italy. But the observational tableau gains as much sustenance from the notions of God’s creations (with a capital ‘G’) and the Buddhist cycle of suffering and rebirth as it does the transmigration of the soul. Life, death and the earth-bound rhythms that connect them flow from a man to a goat to a tree to coal. Unconscious gestures of existence were never so poetic and graceful as exhibited in snails teaming from a pot, goats inexplicable exploring and investigating, and, in an unbelievably orchestrated 9-minute shot, a persistent dog communicating to no avail. The magic, however, seems to lie in the final stage of Frammartino’s visual prose and the smoldering, coal-producing mounds that open and close the film like an archetypal symbol of the past, present and future.

9. Love Exposure / Sion Sono

First viewed on import DVD in 2009. Available on DVD.

Born from the bowels of chaos, the euphoric anarchy of Love Exposure trumps the slicked up brutality of Sion Sono’s other 2011 US release, Cold Fish. Sono’s ambition is fleet-footed if not a little blind, but his vision of Catholic repression with hentai aesthetics through a 4-hour maze of cross-dressing, misogyny, obsession, barbarity, sanctimony, redemption and humor is a frenetic supernova. Like Sono’s Noriko’s Dinner Table, Love Exposure uses the bloated runtime, not to slow things down, but to indulge, specify and unreel the impossible with reckless but surprisingly sincere abandon. Sono has a unique film language that, when given free reign, explodes with the unusual dexterity of focusing the mayhem like a laser which in this case is Yu’s serpentine path to personal absolution. Receiving a belated US release, Love Exposure is a film experience that defies explanation but not exultation.

10. Pina /Wim Wenders

First viewed at VIFF 2011. Coming soon to the Walker Art Center Feb 1. 

Although Wem Wenders’ Pina seems like a straightforward documentary on the surface, because of the inspired use of 3D and the equally innovative nature of the material, it was easily one of the most viscerally exhilarating films of the year. The film is an unselfish and vital homage to the work of modern dance icon Pina Bausch, who passed away quite suddenly during the film’s pre-production. Primarily a vehicle for her choreographed pieces—some performed on stage and some in the open-air ambiance of Wuppertal, Bausch’s creative home—the 3D perfectly captures the tactile buoyancy and physicality of these performances. Bausch’s Rite of Spring, which opens Pina is as thrilling as any action sequence I’ve seen all year. Dispersed throughout are quiet portraits of her dance troupe, as animated and impassioned reflections of the artist. Art and film collide in the most unaffected and visually arresting manner—a palpable masterpiece of digital proportions. 

The best of the rest.

11. Poetry / Lee Chang-dong
12. Putty Hill / Matt Porterfield
13. Cold Weather / Aaron Katz
14. Aurora / Cristi Puiu
15. 13 Assassins / Takashi Miike
16. Mysteries of Lisbon / Raúl Ruiz 
17. Nostalgia for the Light / Patricio Guzmán
18. Shit Year / Cam Archer
19. Le Havre / Aki Kaurismäki 
20. Film Socialisme / Jean-Luc Godard
21. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu /Andrei Ujica
22. Tree of Life / Terrence Malick
23. Tuesday After Christmas / Radu Muntean
24. Petition / Zhao Liang
25. To Die Like a Man / João Pedro Rodrigues
26. Leap Year / Michael Rowe
27. Cave of Forgotten Dreams / Werner Herzog
28. Drive / Nicolas Winding Refn
29. The Time That Remains / Elia Suleiman
30. The Mill and the Cross / Lech Majewski


YTSL said...

Hi Kathie --

Interesting list. I've only seen two of the films among your top ten ("Uncle Boonmee..." and "Pina"). Your comments make me more inclined the other eight out than was the case before I read this entry.

Kathie Smith said...

Happy New Year YTSL!

I would recommend all without hesitation. Love Exposure veers into a more niche territory, but the rest are just some of the most amazing films I've seen. It was a really great year, even for US releases!

villainx said...

Wish I paid more attention when you first mentioned House of Pleasures. Sadly, it's run at the local theater might be over.

Anyway, while I was watching A Separation, it was pretty close to your little review summary. Totally absorbing and exciting. Yet, I didn't feel as at ease thinking back on the movie. A big chunk of the movie was propelled by withholding some key pieces of information.

Maybe I don't like puzzle type movies, but the more I think about A Separation, the more manipulative it feels.

Kathie Smith said...

Hey villianx! I can see where you are coming from on A Separation and it certainly has its detractors. I'll see it again when it hits theaters locally - maybe a second viewing will work differently on me. As for House of Pleasures, I think it is available on Amazon instant. Definitely not the way to see it, but better than nothing!

villainx said...

I think with A Separation, as probably the same way with Sixth Sense or Memento, too much of what made the story seem exciting was the director just purposely not revealing something. Especially when there's no strict point of view or first/second person perspective rationale to do so. It's not the case where the audience is limited because from how the movie is shot the characters are likewise limited.

With that, I also think it's a matter of the directors' confidence in his or her story telling ability. GIve the information, and the drama could or should retain its interest. At the heart of A Separation is, among other things, Termeh's decision, or how events would factor into her decision making. That's still intact to a large degree, but it's somewhat undercut by the fake drama with Razieh's incident. Or there's no reason why the things with Razieh wouldn't be compelling even if we knew were the key scenes were allowed to play out.

Yikes, hope I'm not giving too much away. And that said, aside from those criticism, I enjoyed A Separation.

Kathie Smith said...

I shudder to think of A Separation being anything like the Sixth Sense! But I totally see where you are coming from. I walked out of seeing this with a pretty strong feeling for this film, so I'm just going to have to see if it sticks. Doubt has been instilled!