Sunday, January 01, 2012

Memorable Cinematic Moments of 2011

It was a dark, misanthropic year at the movies, colored by the on-going economic crisis 2011 was full of movies about the end of the world, the ever-widening gap between the haves and have nots, and corruption. However, there was also a large number of funny, hopeful films that demonstrate a more progressive ideology than typically seen at the movies. While I still haven't seen too many of the most talked about films of last year (i.e. Tree of Life and Melancholia), my final tally was 95 movies watched this year in the theater. Not too shabby. And these are among my favorites:

1. Poetry (2010) Dir. Chang-dong Lee

I saw Poetry at the beginning of the year and it has taken months to fully digest its importance. Early in the film, Mija (Jeong-hie Yun) is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and she is acutely aware of forgetting the names of things, well of forgetting in general. She has enrolled in a poetry class and throughout is attempting to write a poem and to look at the world in a different way. But this is not a sweet or even sad tale of old age, but instead a powerful story about class. Her grandson, who lives with her, is in someway involved in a classmate's suicide, but her status and relationship with him prevents her from confronting him about it and the culture at large is expecting her to protect the boy. There are so many powerful scenes that it is a challenge to select one, but here, she attempt to provoke some sort of reaction from her grandson, by placing a photo of the dead girl on the breakfast table. Throughout, she appears to be searching for evidence of humanity in a world that appears selfish and corrupt.



2. Drive (2011) Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

I'd been anticipating Drive all year, after being mesmerized with last year's Valhalla Rising. I've now seen most of Refn's filmography and am taken with his antiheroes and perfectly composed genre films that elevate the genre material to art films. Drive is a highly stylized film with a few perfectly choreographed, and smart car chases, but it is a noir tragedy at its core. In the much talked about elevator scene, the entire film plays out, showing the Driver's motivations, his skill and his nature. The driver spies a gun at the hip of the man in the elevator and as he moves to protect his neighbor, Irene, they share a brief, passionate kiss, then the driver turns to the other occupant of the elevator and kicks his head in. And this is the heart of the film, the Driver acknowledges a pure, passionate love that drives him to an act of extreme violence in order to protect this love that in turn, reveals his nature and brings an end to the romance before it began. Technically, looking at this scene is breathtaking and emotionally powerful, and delivers a shockingly brutal violent act that it almost a signature of Refn's work.



3. Warrior (2011) Dir. Gavin O'Connor

Not all genre pictures defy expectations or attempt to re-imagine the genre. The power of Gavin O'Conner's Warrior is in the way it uses genre to deliver a triumphant and emotionally powerful sports picture, in the tradition of Rocky. Warrior is among the 2011 films that directly addresses the current economic issues in America with Brendon fighting, literally, to prevent the bank from foreclosing on his home against his own brother. This film is easy to dismiss as being a bit manipulative and heavy handed, but it is solidly made and provides some great performances and a few awesome fight sequences. I fell in love with Warrior after the first fight, when Tommy (Tom Hardy) offers to spar a contender and instead quickly knocks him out. There are plenty of other memorable scenes that better show the care put into shot composition, character development, and acting chops, but as essentially a boxing movie, it is the fights that drive this picture.



4. The Artist (2011) Dir. Michel Hazanavicius

On the heels of announcements that 35mm projectors and motion picture cameras are no longer being made and thus 2011 may be the last year that 35mm film prints are widely enjoyed by audiences, the Artist emerges as a critical and audience favorite. A silent films, set in the late 20s / early 30s during the transition to talking pictures, the timing for this film couldn't be more perfect. I fell in love with the Artist as soon as the aspect ratio switched from the current standard wide-screen format to 4x3, which appeared to be digitally projected. What was most stunning about the Artist was that is really IS a silent film. When audiences applaud with in this silent world, that are silent and all that is audible is the musical score... Sure, since this modern silent film is playing with the genre, it does stop being a silent film during key scenes, but what really shines is just how powerful the human face can be for telling a story, especially a face as expressive that of French actor, Jean Dujardin.

And while the Artist may seem like a slight film in comparison to films like Poetry or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it is a complete delight to watch. It captures the spectacle of early cinema and the melodramatic style of storytelling perfectly and is a crowd pleasing delight to behold. The audience I saw it with applauded the film as the credits rolled.




5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) Dir. Tomas Aldredson

Another new film that seems like a throw back to an earlier time. When is the last time that you saw a spy thriller without the requisite chase scenes and action set pieces. Tinker Tailor is completely plot and character driven and totally captivating in the subtle way that it reveals plot points and character. Actually, I lost a few of the twists and turns, because I kept being distracted by tiny moments in the film that were anything but. Early in the film, we watch Smiley (Gary Oldman) in the back seat of a car with two other cohorts from the circus and an additional passenger, a bee. As the others occasionally swat at the insect, Smiley sits quietly and opens the window. I was completely taken with this small moment of character development and slyly humorous. It isn't frequent that my first instinct upon exiting the theater is to want to watch the movie again, but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is composed of numerous perfect, but slight scenes.


6. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul

I'm tempted to describe this film as without plot, but it is structured. Uncle Boonmee is dying and during his last hours he remembers past lives. The film as a whole is best enjoyed by simply experiencing it without trying to make sense of it. The imagery alone is enough to endlessly intrigue and seduce. The most lasting scene involves a captive water buffalo, running free through a field of tall grass. What probably delights me most about this Palme d'Or winner is the attention that it brings to Thai cinema. In recent years, I've fallen hard for the strange beauty of the cinema of Thailand and while I do not claim to understand the mythology behind Uncle Boomee and his past lives, it is beautiful to observe.

7. The Skin I Live In (2011) Dir. Pedro Almodovar

Pedro Almodovar has made a film unlike anything I've seen before. The Skin I Live In has certain parallels with les yeux san visage (Eyes Without a Face), but is far from a remake. The Skin I Live In is often funny, audacious, beautiful, surprising and horrifying and I completely loved every minute of it. The Skin I Live In begins toward the end of the film and uses flashback to reveal the identity of the women imprisoned by a surgeon and the events that led to her confinement. This is a fascinating film that never depends upon shallow stereotypes to drive the plot or character and ultimately works to explore the creation and alteration of identity.


8. Weekend (2011) Dir. Andrew Haigh

Weekend was probably the best romance of 2011. Easy to compare with Before Sunrise as it depicts a weekend of talking, connecting a love-making between two men who fall in love, but only have the weekend. This is a lovely film and among the movies that made me bust into tears. Actually, that could be another cinema of 2011 list, movies that kept me glued to my seat during the credits, hoping to regain some composure before leaving.

9. Tabloid (2011) Dir. Errol Morris

Errol Morris is my favorite documentary filmmaker although, usually his subject matter is a bit less outrageous than that of Joyce McKinney, the Miss Wyoming who was at the center of a sex scandal involving the abduction of a Mormon missionary. This is among the most entertaining films of the year and memorable for McKinney's defense; "it's like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter." Probably the funniest line of the year...

10. 3 (2011) Dir. Tom Tykwer

3 was my first favorite of 2011. I just love the audacity of 3 as one never sees a film about couples in the 40s and it doesn't play to the myth that adultery immediately means the end of the relationship. It also doesn't allow "deterministic ideas of biology" impose boundaries on sexual orientation.

And now for the list of movies that were bumped from the final list. Friends with Benefits, Heartbeats, Potiche, Perfect Sense, Our Idiot Brother, The Woman, I Saw the Devil, Super, The Stool Pigeon, Dogtooth, and The Double Hour.