December 31, 2011|2011 was a turning point for me. Two films--Red Cliff and The Tree of Life--did it, the one returning to me a measure of my identity, the other giving me a sense that I'd avoided asking ultimate questions about my relationship with film from the start. My stances that there are right and wrong answers in the liberal arts and that people are only entitled to an educated opinion held steady--but I'd never asked why it was that the things I liked were the things I liked. Around this time, I read Jonathan Lethem's monograph on John Carpenter's They Live and was consequently inspired to write one of my own, on Steve De Jarnatt's Miracle Mile. I chose that movie not because--perhaps I should say, not only because--of its relative obscurity, but because it was a movie I've been evangelical about since first seeing it in 1989. The process of writing that monograph consumed much of the last half of 2011. I skipped screenings because of it, and found myself incapable of reviewing the films I did see very well, if at all.
At the end of the year, a larger-than-usual stack of FYC screeners and a calendar quick-clicking its way to 2012 finally buried me. The good news is that 2011 produced probably my best work as a critic (however low that bar might be); the bad news is that the fruit of that labour won't be public until later this year. As problems go, it's not a bad one to have. So, here's the epitaph on the best films of a transitional year for me. Funny how so many of them speak to new beginnings and resurrections.-Walter Chaw
Honourable Mention:Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life; Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Melancholia; Hanna; The Last Circus; We Need to Talk About Kevin; The Artist
Notably Missed:A Separation; Margaret; A Dangerous Method; Mysteries of Lisbon; Outrage; Take Shelter
Notably Un-Missed:The Iron Lady; J. Edgar; War Horse; The Descendants; Hugo
If Only I'd Seen It Last Year:Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
10. Margaret (d. Kenneth Lonergan) This alternately brilliant and clumsy splicing of Antigone and "Dawson's Creek" made such an impression on the 15 or so people who saw it that it earned its own Twitter hashtag: #TeamMargaret. The hatchet-chopped closing act has as many baffling skyline pans as Tommy Wiseau's The Room, but Anna Paquin and Jeannie Berlin astound, and writer-director Lonergan peppers the film with some amazing one-off sequences, chief among them a hilarious, unbearably protracted sex scene between Paquin and Kieran Culkin.
9. Attack the Block (d. Joe Cornish) Satisfying as variously a monster movie, a rogue teen melodrama, and a racial allegory about the aliens in your apartment complex, English comedian Cornish's first feature is a great success. It also boasts a hugely charismatic debut performance in John Boyega's turn as a burgeoning folk hero part James Dean, part Spartacus.
8. Curling (d. Denis Côté) Montreal auteur Côté's mesmerizing glimpse into the private lives of two loners and a tiger on the outskirts of a village in Quebec is unexpectedly compassionate for a Northern Gothic. I've heard it described as chilly, but the film musters real curiosity for even the silent corpses its protagonists stumble upon throughout; an early moment where actual father-daughter pair Emmanuel and Philomène Bilodeau (both wonderful) wander down a deserted, snow-drifting highway might just be the most thematically concise and visually stunning shot of the year.
7. Meek's Cutoff (d. Kelly Reichardt) Set in 1845 on a ghastly trek through the Oregon desert, Reichardt's fourth and best feature to date talks like Beckett and looks like a side-scrolling video game. Framed in boxy Academy ratio, the better to capture the characters' domed, bonnet-filtered vision of their pitiful surroundings, Meek's Cutoff reinvigorates the western by focusing on the mundane steps needed for survival. Transporting water over bumpy terrain has never seemed so banally, thrillingly vital.
6. Poetry (Shi) (d. Lee Chang-dong) As wrenching as his Secret Sunshine, Lee's latest is a lancing critique of masculinity gone rotten among a group of fathers eager to pay away their sons' sexual violence against a classmate recently found floating down the river. Lee's smartly-crafted scenario pits this cadre of passive aggressive dads against sweet grandmother Mija (Yun Junghee), an aspiring poet in the early stages of dementia. Setting us up for an old-fashioned melodrama, Lee delivers an incisive polemic about remembering atrocities others would sweep under the rug.
5. Nostalgia for the Light (d. Patricio Guzmán) Guzmán's documentary essay on memory and forgetting might make a good companion to Poetry. Nostalgia for the Light moves gracefully between a team of astronomers gazing at the stars from their outpost in Chile's Atacama Desert and a disparate group of women searching just as exhaustedly on the ground for some trace of their lost loved ones, scattered by Pinochet's regime. This high-concept analogy could have gone disastrously wrong, but Guzmán strikes the right balance between wonderment and inconsolable mourning. Its catharsis is sobering.
4. Take Shelter (d. Jeff Nichols) Much ink has been spilled about the closing moments of Jeff Nichols's sophomore effort, yet the real mark of his intelligence is not his ambiguity about the film's apocalyptic elements, but rather his restraint in framing them as personal matters of faith between a married couple who are about to weather any number of crises, not all of them earth-shattering. Michael Shannon is heartbreaking as a steady provider who finds the world melting under his feet--a male stoic without the words or social training to articulate his anxieties.
3. A Separation (d. Asghar Faradi) Another strained marriage story, at least in principle, Faradi's Golden Bear-winner is complex and richly characterized--literary in the best sense. Delivered with conviction by a strong cast led by Peyman Maadi (terrific), Faradi's dialogue-heavy but never stagey script offers a devastating portrait of reasonable people who are systematically undone by a host of legal and moral laws--some imposed, others chosen--that are beyond their capacity to navigate.
2. Mysteries of Lisbon (Mistérios de Lisboa) (d. Raúl Ruiz) The late Raúl Ruiz's adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco's novel of distressed damsels and pirate-turned-priests is a lovingly-wrapped gift to anyone who appreciates a story well-told. Ruiz's intricately nested narratives and ironic winks to the incessant presence of his camera, which creeps up to the doors of private chambers like a nosy maid, make it tempting to read the picture as a postmodern riff on Romantic material, but this is no empty formal exercise: He loves each one of these decadent failures, and through his sympathetic eye, we come to as well.
1. The Tree of Life (d. Terrence Malick) A new Malick movie is always an event, but this one came down to us as though on stone tablets, complete with tweeted spy photos of the notoriously camera-shy director bolting from the Palais before its debut. What a relief that it turned out to be so good. Sean Penn's Fellini-esque desert wanderings through a procession of neighbours-past might be a hokey finale, but the emotional and structural centrepiece, an ephemeral, decade-spanning tour of a boy's suburban Texas home, is a marvel--at once an unashamedly allegorical and a beautifully lived-in depiction of boyhood.
Shamefully Missed:The Arbor; Attenberg; The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu
Honourable Mention:Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy;Moneyball;Midnight in Paris; Melancholia;Terri; Martha Marcy May Marlene;Certified Copy;Tomboy; The Trip;A Dangerous Method
Dishonourable Mention: High-pedigree busts The Beaver, The Descendants, The Ides of March, and Shame.
10. Beginners (d. Mike Mills) 9. 13 Assassins (d. Takashi Miike) 8. Rampart (d. Oren Moverman) 7. Terri (d. Azazel Jacobs) 6. Take Shelter (d. Jeff Nichols) 5. Certified Copy (d. Abbas Kiarostami) 4. Rango (d. Gore Verbinski) 3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (d. Tomas Alfredson) 2. Martha Marcy May Marlene (d. Sean Durkin) 1. Drive (d. Nicolas Winding Refn)
Regrettably Missed:Margaret; A Separation; Mysteries of Lisbon; Poetry
Honourable Mention:Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol; Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life; Moneyball; The Tree of Life;Curling;Fright Night
How I Loathe Thee:The Descendants
10. The Innkeepers (d. Ti West) West's follow-up to his boffo The House of the Devil is this comedy-horror flick that recalls the flipside to the '80s horror he honoured in his previous film: the Houses and Fright Nights and Evil Deads--even the Gremlinses--that provided rimshots to all the jump-scares. Unfailingly good-natured until its last half-hour, it casts Jeffrey "Re-Animator" Combs look-alike Pat Healy as one half of the part-time caretakers of haunted Yankee Pedlar Inn, bringing in '80s icon Kelly McGillis as an old TV mom-turned-psychic in the same way The House of the Devil brought in '80s icon Dee Wallace as a real estate agent. West knows his roots. Providing another compelling heroine in Claire (Sara Paxton, looking every inch the young Reese Witherspoon), asthmatic and adorable, The Innkeepers delivers the goods and lands as the best ghost movie since A Tale of Two Sisters.
9. Fright Night (d. Craig Gillespie)
8. I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boatda) (d. Kim Jee-woon) Kim's one of the best mainstream filmmakers in the world: slick, polished, the Steven Spielberg of South Korea, if you will--that is, if Spielberg had a big clanking pair he regularly brought to bear on stuff like the sumptuous ghost flick A Tale of Two Sisters, the culturally-relevant Leone refashioning The Good, The Bad, The Weird, the gangster action-melodrama A Bittersweet Life, and now the sick serial-killer/rape-revenge flick I Saw the Devil. One of the top-grossing films of the year in its native land (which success I can't begin to deconstruct), I Saw the Devil is, like The Good, The Bad, The Weird, an intricately-wrought, beautifully-staged examination of Kim's Western influences. (Probably a better comparison than Spielberg is Tarantino.) I Saw the Devil is consummate madness from its first hammer murder. It reveals what's in the box at the end of Se7en but turns it into the sort of mordant punchline favoured by another countryman, Bong Joon-ho. It's the darkest kind of joke, the mortal kind… the kind that isn't, ultimately, very funny.
7. Shame (d. Steve McQueen) McQueen's follow-up to his ravishing Hunger is this treatise on addiction in a plutonic Manhattan haunted by sex-junkie Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, growing up real fast). It's fair to argue that Brandon's journey would have been more effective if it looked more like Working Girls and less like American Psycho, but for me, the depth of the character's desperation gathers with his obvious attractiveness (and that of his partners) until the spiralling conclusion, when it all goes ugly. Fassbender's the glue, McQueen's well-chosen muse, going through the film haunted and haggard. Mulligan is great as well--the pocket Michelle Williams, edging into Williams's post-Ledger-death period with savvier roles in films that leave an aftertaste. Shame is the perfect analog to Jane Campion's neglected In the Cut, marking Manhattan as the cinematic loci of spiritual malaise and the existential dislocation of being dead inside. Offering no solutions, it even trumps Hunger and its flock of birds with its theme of the hopelessness of those caught in personal riptides, carried off to sea.
6. Certified Copy (d. Abbas Kiarostami)/Source Code (d. Duncan Jones) Proof of parallel genesis, packaged together in a cheat that I feel good about. Proof also of Kiarostami's continued relevance and of Jones's sneaky rise.
5. Poetry (Shi) (d. Lee Chang-dong) Lee's brilliant, devastating Poetry deals with absolutes in ways both subtle and beautiful. In another interesting corollary to In the Cut, it's interested in words--and, at the end, like Campion's film, it presents cinema as the medium to which poetry is most closely allayed. Lee plays the advancing dementia of his 66-year-old protagonist (played by Yun Jeong-hie) against the usual decay and vicissitudes of living, opening with a stream and seguing midway to rain staining a diary page in a torrent of metaphor and pregnant visual allusions. With Yun's Mika finding herself increasingly incapable of expressing herself through words, Poetry becomes the answer in part to the irony of the Romanticist's call-to-action over inaction: the feeling of the skin of an apple becoming analogous to Prufrock's peach, and ever-closer to an audience engaged in the dark of a theatre rather than reclined in a lime-tree bower.
4. 13 Assassins (d. Takashi Miike)
3.Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (d. Tomas Alfredson)
2. Drive (d. Nicolas Winding Refn)
1. The Tree of Life (d. Terrence Malick)
CONSENSUS: FILM FREAK CENTRAL'S TOP 5 OF 2011
1. The Tree of Life 2. Drive 3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 4. Take Shelter 5. Certified Copy|Poetry (tie)
starring Steve Carell, Catherine Keener, Paul Rudd, Romany Malco
screenplay by Judd Apatow & Steve Carell
directed by Judd Apatow
by Walter Chaw You should go just for the spectacle of Elizabeth Banks masturbating in a bathtub, but the real surprise of the piece is the disarming understanding that the usual Greek Chorus of man-friends giving bad advice seem to spring this time from a piquant desire to recapture something of their own lost youth. With a title like The 40 Year Old Virgin (and with a marketing campaign that borders on genius), you know that, as with other "losin' it" pictures (Losin' It, Revenge of the Nerds, Hardbodies, The Last American Virgin, and on and on), the hero's going to get laid--most often to a fireworks accompaniment (or selections from Hair, as the case may be). The only question is if he will get there via the respectable, wife/long-term girlfriend method or bust his cherry against some kind of Tara Reid-esque trollop. But what elevates The 40 Year Old Virgin beyond the same old musty sex-quest flick is the feeling that at its heart it believes there is actually something precious about chastity--even when its preservation has slipped past pathetic. The film is essentially sweet-natured and occasionally insightful about the ways that men never really grow up; small wonder it was co-written and directed by one of the co-creators of "Freaks and Geeks".
starring Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann
written and directed by Judd Apatow
by Walter Chaw As a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Judd Apatow's work with Paul Feig on "Freaks and Geeks", I mark in his solo efforts (The 40 Year Old Virgin and now Knocked Up) a preoccupation with going to Hell. ("Freaks and Geeks", on the other hand, mainly about not drowning whilst wallowing in hell.) I mean that not only theologically, but also biologically and emotionally--Apatow's are comedies about worrying that you're not where you're meant to be at certain milestones in your life, and moreover, that you might never get there. Being forty the critical point in his last picture, here it's articulated in an exchange between slacker king Ben (Seth Rogen) and his sad-eyed father (Harold Ramis), where the expectations of embracing responsibility are passed as fear and regret from a man to his son.
***/**** starring Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, John Lithgow, Albert Brooks written and directed by Judd Apatow
by Walter Chaw It's scattershot, and sloppy, but any movie about
fortysomethings dealing with familial, financial, sexual, and physical issues that
ends with Ryan Adams performing "Lucky One" in a little club is a movie I will like. And I do: Judd Apatow's This is 40 isn't good,
exactly, but it listens and it has a sense of humour, as well as a certain
optimism about it. I bristle at Apatow's desire in his other films to impose a
traditionally moral conclusion on all the atrocity that's preceded it, but in a
"spin-off" of Knocked Up, about people exactly my age in
roughly my situation discovering they're the grown-ups for some reason and
through no fault of their own, that desire for a hopeful conclusion is
extremely compelling. This is 40 is one of those works that gets you at the right time,
I think. I've often wondered if the reason I've never liked Tolkien is that I
didn't read him when I was 12. I wish I had. For what it's worth, I'm glad I saw This is 40 in these last six months before my own fortieth
birthday. It's my Twilight. I know it's terrible--flabby, obviously tinkered with 'til the last minute (the commercials for the film are about 90% cut footage),
and packed with digressions that distract rather than edify (a bit with
Charlyne Yi is a particular lowlight), but it speaks to me, and when Apatow's
right, I realize, he's spot on.
There are common themes in hate mail--a fact no doubt nettling to those benighted souls putting hardscrabble pen to paper for perhaps the first non-"doomed community college application" purpose of their artless lives. They are as wanting for imagination and grace as the films they choose to defend. Without logic and without information, they respond kneejerk-like, rising in defence of films that, for the most part, they haven't seen with points that are indefensible and harangues impotent, ignorant, and occasionally disturbing.
***½/**** Image B- Sound B-
starring James Mason, Susan George, Perry King, Ken Norton
screenplay by Norman Wexler, based on the novel by Kyle Onstott
directed by Richard Fleischer
by Alex Jackson I was just about to say that I wish Mandingo were better than it is, but then I realized it wouldn't be nearly as good as it is if it weren't also "flawed." Some snarky hipster (Mitch Lovell of the LiveJournal blog (?!) THE VIDEO VACUUM, if you must know) rather brilliantly and concisely summarized the problem of the film in saying, "If you ever wanted to see Mr. Bentley from 'The Jeffersons' check a muscle-bound slave for hemorrhoids, this is the flick for you." Indeed, we get this image in the first ten minutes of the film. The checking of the muscle-bound slave for hemorrhoids, well, that I guess I can...appreciate, for lack of a better word. We all understand that slavery was "evil" on a purely intellectual level, but I don't think we have a terribly substantial visual database of the horrors and humiliations of it--and so I feel there's a real need for a disgusting and sensationalistic exploitation film about the subject. On those terms, let it be said that Mandingo does not disappoint. This has to be the most emotionally ugly film I've seen since Brian Robbins's Norbit.
Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B- "An Aborted Dinner Date," "A Poorly Executed Plan," "Eenie Meenie Miney MURDER!," "S.D.I.-AYE-AYE!," "The First Lady's Persqueeter," "Mom 'E' D.E.A. Arrest," "Trapped in a Small Environment," "Fare Thee Welfare"
"What we're sick of--and it's getting even worse--is: You either like Michael Moore or you wanna fuckin' go overseas and shoot Iraqis. There can't be a middle ground. Basically, if you think Michael Moore's full of shit, then you are a super-Christian right-wing whatever. And we're both just pretty middle-ground guys. We find just as many things to rip on on the left as we do on the right. People on the far left and the far right are the same exact person to us." -- Trey Parker, "Interview of the Meanest"; IN FOCUS, October 2004
by Ian Pugh I think "South Park" boasts the occasional flash of brilliance, but I resent that its more flagrantly political messages, particularly in the past few seasons, essentially boil down to 'both sides are fucking crazy: here's how it really is.' Trey Parker and Matt Stone strike me less as philosophers than as contrarians who force their perceived sensible alternatives down our throats as the infallible Solution. It's a shame, too, because Parker and Stone remain two of the most talented satirists of our generation, if not in terms of hot-button topics: The ending of the recent "South Park" episode "Stanley's Cup," for instance, attacked sports movies by reminding us that every game involves two teams with similar aspirations, and, of course, Team America: World Police's caustic parody of "Rent" is as concise and shocking a criticism of that musical as one will find. I'm not taking the stupidly dismissive "I like you better when you're funny" position that Tucker Carlson had towards Jon Stewart on CNN's "Crossfire", but in the world of "South Park", there are only three options when it comes to world events: left, right, and middle, the latter being invariably correct. Compared to the innumerable increments in the political spectrum of reality, three extremes are no better than two.
a.k.a. The Devil's Envoys ***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras A- starring Alain Cuny, Arletty, Marie Déa, Jules Berry screenplay by Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche directed by Marcel Carné
click any image to enlarge
by Jefferson Robbins Fairytale
is the oldest way we know to exorcise trauma or repurpose it to didactic ends.
The moving image, probably the newest. So Marcel Carné's Les visiteurs du
soir (literally, The Night Visitors, though its international title
is The Devil's Envoys), created in France during a period of repression
equalled only by the Terror, pulls both tricks. It's a film, therefore it's not
reality, but it's also shaped as a magical courtly romance and set in a distant
past where romances were both entertainment and cultural transgression.
Gilles (Alain Cuny) and Dominique (Arletty) are figures out of a medieval
fresco or some monk's illuminated pages, from Gilles's suggestively forked
mullet to Dominique's graceful, benedictory poses. The two are minstrels on
horseback in 1485--when troubadours carried news, gossip, and forbidden
literature from one feudal estate to the next, singing songs of organic,
passionate love for nobles trapped in arranged marriages. A long way from Vichy
France, under the Nazi occupation, yet either world offered death as punishment
for dissent, and both found succour in art that trespassed boundaries.
*½/**** Image A Sound A Extras D starring
Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman screenplay by Randy Brown directed by Robert Lorenz
by Angelo MureddaTrouble with
the Curve is an unfortunate title for a film
beset with problems on every side. Helmed by longtime Clint Eastwood
producer/assistant director/close friend Robert Lorenz, making his equally
unfortunate feature debut, it isn't directed so much as stiffly pushed in the
direction of new events once every ten minutes or so. A father-daughter family
drama, a sports movie, and a portrait of a career woman swimming with the
sharks, first-timer Randy Brown's screenplay is a mess beyond even an experienced