Posts tagged Best Films of 2011
Posts tagged Best Films of 2011
With all due respect to The Artist (which I quite liked), this was the real silent film masterwork of 2011. Frammartino’s wonderfully profound, absorbing and immersive second feature, set in the mountainous region of Calabria on the southernmost tip of Italy, unfolds in four interconnected sections (the “four times” of the title) without relying on conventional narrative or dialog. Even though the film is based on a succession of beautifully composed images with a strong sense of spatial relationships (befitting Frammartino’s architectural training), and not on human speech (which we only hear in snatches here and there, all untranslated), Le Quattro Volte is in fact full of sound: the bleats of goats, the yapping of a dog, the sound of wind and blowing leaves. The ancient philosopher Pythagoras hailed from Calabria (as does the director’s family), and his theories are loosely illustrated here: the film’s four sections represent the transmigration of a single soul through four forms of matter — human (an old shepherd), animal (a stray kid goat), vegetable (a fir tree central to a spring festival), and mineral (the fir tree is converted to charcoal). Frammartino blends fiction and documentary to represent the cycle of nature’s existence, and how all forms of life are interconnected and self-renewing, in this remote village, which in the film’s rendering (despite a few modern conveniences) seems to still live by the ways of ancient tradition. Elegantly composed long takes and plan sequences are brilliantly used to convey this meditative, philosophical way of viewing the world, in which the human being is not privileged as the center of the universe. This results in memorable and gently humorous scenes in which animals take center stage, for example when the shepherd’s flock of goats take over his house after he dies, and the justly celebrated bravura single take in which a mischievous dog upsets a procession of costumed actors on their way to a passion play, causing an accident and freeing goats from their pen. Le Quattro Volte’s serene contemplation of life, rather than being inertly pretentious, instead teems with earthy energy, generous wit and sensitivity; it is a singularly rewarding cinema experience.
Here is the widely praised scene in which one little dog creates a huge amount of havoc:
Music video director and graphic designer Mike Mills’ second feature mines autobiographical material, combining it with indie-quirk elements (that for once, actually work here) to deliver an incredibly moving and resonant film about love and memory that elevate Mills to being one of the great American directors. Based largely on the true story of Mills’ father, who came out as a gay man late in life five years before his death from cancer, Beginners eschews a linear structure in favor of a more associative one that floats freely between the present and the past. Three different temporal strands are woven together: one representing the changed relationship between graphic designer Oliver (Ewan McGregor) and his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) after the latter comes out and dives headfirst into his newly embraced gay identity; the period after Hal’s death, when a still damaged and shaken Oliver begins a romance with Anna (Melanie Laurent), both of them carrying considerable emotional baggage; and flashbacks to Oliver’s relationship with his deceased mother (Mary Page Keller). Beginners proves to be the perfect title of this piece, as all the major characters must deal with having to reorder their existences and extricate themselves from the weight of their personal and cultural histories. Mills handles the myriad elements and collage-like visual styles he employs here (including frequent photomontages with voiceover) nearly flawlessly, incorporating such cutesy devices as a dog who communicates his thoughts with subtitles in such a way that it enhances the poignancy and deep humanity of his film, rather than being an annoying distraction. A rich and visually beautiful text, Beginners may be an often mournful film about damaged souls, but one that is ultimately uplifting and hopeful.
This low budget comic science-fiction feature, the writing/directing debut of British comedian Joe Cornish, and executive produced by his mentor and writing partner Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) was the most pure fun I had at the movies all year. Ingeniously written and designed, Attack the Block concerns an alien invasion of a London city block of council estates (the equivalent of American project housing) during Guy Fawkes Night. A gang of street toughs, led by Moses (John Boyega), runs into the aliens in the process of mugging a young nurse (Jodie Whittaker) on her way home from work. This gang becomes the unlikely warriors battling the aliens and the ones who must save their turf from the alien attack. Cornish goes well beyond this simple geek-friendly genre set-up by injecting his scenario with a powerful sense of place, wickedly sharp humor, a canny evocation of sociopolitical realities, and multifaceted characterization that extends to even the smallest roles. Boyega delivers a fine central performance, bringing to what in lesser hands (of both actor and director) would be a one-dimensional racially stereotypical role considerable gravity and charisma. (Not for nothing did Spike Lee subsequently tap Boyega for one of his upcoming projects.) Attack the Block gained additional resonance when its release this summer coincided with the London riots, which highlighted Cornish’s astuteness in the depiction of the milieu he presents in his film. Attack the Block, in its slyly subversive politics and its success in eliciting maximum mileage from minimal means, recalls the best early films of John Carpenter.
These two films by Koji Wakamatsu, conceived as companion pieces, and which both saw US release this year, if nothing else, prove that this firebrand and revolutionary 75 year-old pink film auteur has most definitely not mellowed in his old age. Both United Red Army and Caterpillar are merciless blunt instruments of devastating criticism of two especially bloody periods of Japanese history: respectively, the radical student-led movements of the 60’s and 70’s and the Sino-Japanese wars of the 1930’s. Wakamatsu takes a cinematic two-by-four to the most cherished ideological illusions of both left-wing and right-wing politics, coming to the conclusion that militarism of any kind is an irreducible and unjustified evil. United Red Army, over the course of its 190 minute running time, documents with both actual footage and dramatized scenes the devolution of the idealism of the young (who had justifiable grievances with US policies regarding the security treaty with Japan and the Vietnam War) to a murderously grotesque version of Maoist self-criticism which led to the deaths of the most extreme members of the titular splinter group at the hands of their own leaders. The few United Red Army members that survived this self-purging (depicted in a grueling, bloody sequence that is often difficult to watch) retreated to a mountain lodge, where they took a hostage and engaged in a 10-day standoff with police, their revolutionary ideologies tragically divorced from any real utility or purpose.
Caterpillar, as spare and concise (85 minutes) as United Red Army is expansive and overwhelming, is no less searing in its historical critiques. A loose adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s short story of the same name, Caterpillar’s greatest asset is the brilliant central performance by Shinobu Terajima (who won best actress at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival) as Shigeko, the wife of Kyuzo (Shima Onishi), a soldier who returns from killing civilians and raping women in China who is nevertheless celebrated as a “war god” in their rural home village. Before the war, Shigeko’s husband was a brutal abuser, but coming home, he is severely physically reduced: he returns from war as a limbless creature with a nearly limitless appetite for food and sex, which Shigeko must dutifully cater to. Eventually, however, Shigeko is able to turn the tables of the power relationship between her and her husband, while still outwardly adhering to the increasingly militaristic wartime cheerleading imposed by the emperor on the citizenry. Wakamatsu brilliantly conveys how thorny and complicated these issues are, and how militaristic ideology makes everyone victims of a sort, even unsympathetic characters such as Kyuzo, who was only in China because his government compelled him.
There is precious little subtlety and nuance in either United Red Army or Caterpillar, but Wakamatsu makes the powerful case that such virtues, in some cases, serve to obscure the urgency and potency of the messages one wishes to convey, especially those involving politics that have been the source of the losses of many lives. These two films valiantly aim to ensure that reasons behind these deaths are not allowed to remain hidden.
Woody Allen’s European sojourn yields one of its most charming and beautifully filmed entries (courtesy of ace cinematographer Darius Khondji) with this cautionary tale of the pitfalls of nostalgia. Midnight in Paris begins with a visual tip of the hat to Manhattan, one of Allen’s earlier classics, with the City of Lights as an Old World stand-in for the Big Apple. The Allen stand-in this time is a successful Hollywood screenwriter, nicely played by Owen Wilson, a rather counterintuitive choice for an Allen hero, yet his laid-back persona melds seamlessly with the film’s textures and is a major source of the pleasures of this film. Beneath the time travel fantasy of early 20th century Paris lies the rueful notion that there is no real escape from reality, and that life consists mostly of navigating through the mundane and conforming to society’s notions of the respectable and responsible. An unlikely hit of 2011, yielding Allen’s best box-office figures to date (in straight dollars; adjusted for inflation, Annie Hall comes out on top), Midnight in Paris clearly struck a chord with many viewers, and for good reason; it’s a smart, funny and well-acted film with gorgeous settings, which is no small achievement these days.