Sunday, January 08, 2012

2011: The Year in Cinema

Slated for international release in December 2009 and slotted again for its Cannes premiere in May 2010, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (pictured) was destined to be the film event of the year from the moment it belatedly screened on the Croissette in 2011. Though it would prove comparably divisive among international critics upon its debut, Malick's fifth feature received enough support to deliver on its advance billing, easily qualifying as the critical hit of 2011, as it topped virtually every critics' poll - including affiliate site Ten Best Films' 2011 Mini-Poll. A work of origins and grace, and an extraordinary piece of subjective film practice, the critical popularity of Malick's Palme d'Or was rivaled at Cannes only by Lars von Trier's Melancholia, which offered something of a negative image in its apocalyptic subject and wish to bring about humanity's destruction (for this writer, far less noble sentiments in a surprisingly pedestrian package; 2009's Antichrist remains the true shocker, compared to Melancholia's warmed-over provocation). Of course, von Trier's act of self-annihilation at Melancholia's press conference was enough to insure that it would not seriously rival The Tree of Life for the top prize, leading its more adamant defenders to wonder what if Lars wasn't Lars.

However, with Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Mini-Poll #5), co-recipient of the runner-up Grand Prix, Malick and von Trier were not only challenged but indeed bested for the best work at the 2011 Cannes film festival. Working in the poetic tradition of European and Middle Eastern masters Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni and Abbas Kiarostami, Ceylan succeeded mightily in producing a synthetic portrait of his nation's split identity that likewise featured the year's most memorable set-piece - a magical gas-lit interlude, worthy of late Tarkovsky, following an evening exploring the pitch black Turkish night. Ceylan's only serious rival for 2011's best film debuted at Berlin a few short months earlier: Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky's The Turin Horse (Mini-Poll #4pictured). Tarr's purported final work represented an endpoint for the director's extreme long-take work, and perhaps the final word for a European art-film tradition that has long been chronicling the continent's collapse. Both films, 1a and 1b among 2011 releases for this writer, will be distributed by Cinema Guild in early 2011, along with Hong Sang-soo's career-advancing Un Certain regard offering, The Day He Arrives, a runner-up to 2011's "ten best films".

Like Ceylan's film, The Turin Horse also finished second to another exceptional fest entry, Asghar Farhadi's A Separation (Mini-Poll #3pictured). A masterpiece of life in theocratic society, Farhadi's contemporary Iranian powerhouse represented one half of the year's finest national double bill. Back at the French festival, Jafar Panahi (under the conditions of house arrest and a twenty-year ban from filmmaking at the time of production) and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb's This Is Not a Film (Mini-Poll #9) completed this pairing, screening out-of-competition following its reported smuggling out of Iran on a flash-drive hidden inside a birthday cake. Few films have ever shown as much courage on the part of its makers - This Is Not a Film led Iranian officials to uphold the director's sentence - or a comparable need on the part of the artist to make art. Together, A Separation and This Is Not a Film suggest that Iran might again be a serious, if endangered player on the world cinema scene, particularly when also considering Abbas Kiarostami's recent return form with Certified Copy (2010), which ranked very near the top of 2010's finest works.

Elsewhere at Cannes, Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre (pictured) and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Cannes co-Grand Prix The Kid with a Bike (Mini-Poll #7) emerged not only as first rate filmmaking in both instances, but like the Iranian works, an apt double bill treating at-risk youth subjects and their adult guardians (depicted in each instance by bold primary hues). The relatively unimpressive performance of the Kaurismäki in year-end wrap-ups, including Ten Best Films' own poll, following its awards ceremony shutout at Cannes, is baffling to say the least. Also in competition, Bertrand Bonello's House of Pleasures impressed more for its atmospherics and its lush cinematography (and it did) than for its treatment of its very familiar fin de siècle subject. Premiering at the Cannes Quinzaine des Réalisateurs and screened again within the New York Film Festival, Swdish filmmaker Ruben Östlund's genuinely provocative Play offered a disquieting if also highly astute look at liberal cultural acquiescence.

In Berlin and on German television, Christian Petzold's Dreileben: Beats Being Dead (pictured) and Dominik Graf's Dreileben: Don't Follow Me Around made for the year's most theoretically compelling consideration of the cinematic diegesis, even if they were let down by the trilogy's less successful third part. Debuting in Locarno and playing again at the New York Film Festival, Mia Hansen-Løve's Goodbye First Love further bolstered the thirty-something director's claim to be numbered among the world's more exciting young auteurs. With respect to the more established, Aleksandr Sokurov's Faust completed the director's 'tetralogy of power' by looking to the venerable twentieth century tradition of the heretical; shockingly, this bizarre work, even by Sokurov's standards, managed to earn the top prize at Venice. Premiering across the world in Hong Kong the previous March, and even further afield with regard to its relative mass appeal, Johnnie To's Don't Go Breaking My Heart represented both the year's most pleasurably frothy romantic comedy and also the closest that anyone came in 2011 to making a Wong film. (To also had a major Venice hit in Life Without Principle, which unfortunately this writer has not yet had the opportunity to see.)

Apart from The Tree of Life, the American film of the year was another Cannes prize winner: Danish-born art-action director Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive (Mini-Poll #2). Refn's film was a faithful extension of aesthetically adventurous mid-level action filmmaking in the image of Walter Hill and Michael Mann - with a surplus of compelling big and especially small screen notables, and more than a dash of early 1980s aesthetics. Beyond Drive, 2011 witnessed a series of successful auteurist offerings from major American directors: Martin Scorsese's Hugo, to date a new peak in 3-D aesthetics, and one of the director's better films; Clint Eastwood's quintessentially self-revisionist J. Edgar, which given its authorial origins, subject matter and scathing early notices might just insure that it was the year's most pleasant surprise; and David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (pictured), a summarizing work from the signature American director of the digital age. Among non-American English-language directors, Canadian auteur David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method continued an unbroken series of successes with his most explicit exploration (and take-down) of Freudianism to date.

Among those films that reached wider global and especially American audiences, Paul Feig's Bridesmaids (pictured) stood out not only for the strength of its comedy, but also for both its gendered revision of the gross-out buddy comedy and for its class sensitivity. Bridesmaids was perhaps 2011's finest blockbuster - not that this writer saw or cared to see any more than a fraction of the pictures in this category. Steven Spielberg's 3-D The Adventures of Tintin did not match Scorsese's stereoscopic work, but it did offer one of the year's most viscerally exciting chase sequences, as well as a retinue of vivid characters drawn from its comic source. (This writer has not yet seen War Horse and is not entirely certain when or if that will happen.) In a world very far removed - fiscally speaking - from Spielberg's, J. C. Chandor's debut feature Margin Call managed to socio-economic relevance - with cast to match Drive's.

Among Oscar hopefuls, Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, to take Mrs. Tativille's reading, offered a welcome contrast to the informational overload of the contemporary mainstream idiom. Bennett Miller's Moneyball (pictured), like Alfredson's, worked admirably as well-scripted, actor-driven entertainment, while Alexander Payne's The Descendants brought a lived-in sense of place to a picturesque, rarely screened corner of the U.S. The Descendants may not have entirely lived up to the hype - it certainly does not rank among the year's best, not to mention those of Payne's - but it also was not the major let-down others have been charging amid its current moderate backlash. Then there is Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, one of the atrocities of the year - though it did finish as #8 on the Mini-Poll. In the perceptive if cutting words of Mrs. Tativille, Allen's critically successful latest provided a form of "light entertainment for geniuses."

Of course, as always, 2011 saw a spate of belated commercial and festival releases that qualified among the year's more interesting efforts. In New Haven, the beginning of the calendar year saw the premiere of Mike Leigh's fine Another Year (2010), which for this writer would have challenged for a place among 2010's 'ten best.' Premiering at approximately the same time in Connecticut was Frederick Wiseman's excellent Boxing Gym (2010), another very close call retrospectively for 2010's top work. Just a step below both of these, Aaron Katz's Cold Weather (2010; pictured) represented much better than average American independent storytelling. However the true and most truly independent films of the past few years were Liu Jiayin's extraordinary Oxhide (2005) and Oxhide II (2009).  The Oxhide films, which received screenings at New York's "Migrating Forms" event, offered a formally and theoretically rigorous minimalist strategy that showed the way forward for self-financed directors everywhere.

The lip-synced confessional structure of Clio Barnard's The Arbor (2010; pictured) represented another significant belated U.S. debut from Great Britain, as well as one of the more interesting experimental documentaries of the year - in the year that featured a number. Other efforts in this welcome non-fictional trend included fellow U.K. release, Michael Winterbottom's The Trip (2010), which featured the ever engaging Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon; Werner Herzog's 3-D return to form, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) Andrei Ujică's major work of the historical archive, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010; Mini-Poll #9); Chilean political filmmaker Patricio Guzmán's dialogic exploration of the past, Nostalgia for the Light (2010); and Chinese master Jia Zhang-ke's creditable latest, I Wish I Knew (2010). 

Among belatedly released French titles (in New Haven and New York respectively), Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist (2010) provided an elegant epitaph to Jacques Tati's magical body of work; Xavier Beauvois's Of Gods and Men (2010) was solid work all around, while François Ozon's Potiche (2010) was more lightly likable fare (though no less successful). In Sub-Saharan Africa, Mahamat Saleh-Haroun's A Screaming Man (2010) extended the director's streak of recommendable work. While in Asian popular cinema, Korea led the way with Kim Jee-woon's revenge-cycle apogee, I Saw the Devil (2010; pictured); and Na Hong-jin's The Chaser (2008) and The Yellow Sea (2010), which both screened at the New York Asian Film Festival. Then again, this year's true NYAFF highlight might just have been Yoshihiro Nakamura's A Boy and His Samurai (2010), which further confirmed the Fish Story's director as one to watch among the more narratively inclined.

For many critics, 2011 was a very strong year - certainly far better than this writer experienced - on the basis of a number commercial premieres from 2010's very best: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Certified CopyRaoul Ruiz's Mysteries of Libson (2010; pictured), Cristi Puiu's Aurora (2010), Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas (2010), Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quatro Volte (2010). Had this writer seen any of the above this year, rather than last when they made the author's 'best of 2010' list, 2011 might have provided much richer viewing that it ultimately did (particularly through the first eight months).

Of course, there are also those films that have not yet made an appearance locally, but which could easily raise 2011's qualitative mean, with Pablo Giorgelli's new-New Argentine Las AcaciasBruno Dumont's Hors Satan and Gerardo Naranjo's soon-to-debut Miss Bala (pictured) highest on this writer's must see-list. There are also festival premieres, such as Santiago Mitre's The Student and Wim Wenders's Pina (Mini-Poll #5), which site co-author wrote about with elegance in 2011, but which again this writer has not yet had the opportunity to see. For many more titles that this piece missed, some intentionally, more not, please do consult the following lists and wrap-ups. Here's to a cinematically robust 2012, and consequently to a better sense of the year that was!

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Ten Best Films of 2011

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky)
Oxhide II (Liu Jiayin, 2009)
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki)
This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)
Pina (Wim Wenders)
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
House of Pleasures (Bertrand Bonello)

Honorable Mentions: A Boy and His Samurai (Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2010), The Student (Santiago Mitre), Faust (Aleksandr Sokurov)

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ten Best Films of 2011

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)
Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki)
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood)

This list is also available in an annotated and illustrated format on sister site Ten Best Films. Original Tativille reviews for each of the ten selections can be viewed by clicking on the films' titles. As always, enjoy, and I look forward to your own recommendations for a cinematically rich 2012.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

New Film: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) & A Dangerous Method

David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), from Steven Zaillian's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's international best-seller, richly repays the sort of old-fashioned auteurist criticism that this site performs as a matter of art-centered principle, offering as it does a compendium and synthesis of the filmmaker's guiding aesthetic and thematic concerns, from the director's breakthrough blockbuster Se7en (1995) through to last year's critical mega-hit The Social Network (2010). Indeed, the presence of a number of Fincher's established authorial signatures within The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo suggests Fincher's adherence to the Hollywood studio model upon which auteurism was originally built in 1950s Paris, with the director laboriously transforming his material in the image of his highly individuated world view. It also helps for the auteurist true-believer that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is poised to become neither a break-out hit nor a mass critical darling. Instead, Fincher's latest looks as if it will occupy, judging by the popular consensus, a relatively minor position in the filmmaker's corpus moving forward - which of course will provide the perfect position for future rediscovery and upward reconsideration.

Structurally, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo corresponds most closely with the director's 2007 masterpiece Zodiac, as it centers on a journalist's (Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist) private-sector investigation of an unsolved set of serial homicides decades earlier. As in ZodiacThe Social Network, and Se7en, the obsessive pursuit of the truth is channeled through a thorough exploration of the facts and material record of the objects of investigation, with the director's latest relying on both digitized period photos and transcriptions of corporate activities to disclose the answer to the decades-old mystery. Whereas the latter archival objects of study again call to mind The Social Network's Citizen Kane (1941) inter-text, the former presents another inscription of Fincher's formal interest in replacing the indexical artifact with a malleable digital counterpart - a strategy that finds like expression in his exterior recreations of Stockholm (cf. San Francisco in Zodiac) and in his digital addition of falling snow (comparable in type to the breath special-effect in The Social Network). Fincher once again reveals his deep, defining interest in the digital technology of his moment.

Throughout the first half of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's substantial (and perhaps somewhat over-long, given especially the false endings) 158-minute running time, Fincher pursues a parallel structure, alternating between Craig's journalist male lead and Rooney Mara's Tattoo namesake Lisbeth Salander, again in a fashion that corresponds to Zodiac and The Social Network's shifting subject-hoods - albeit in a manner that moves noticeably closer to the Don Siegel feature that provided the de facto critical object of the 2007 opus. Fincher's brilliant anti-social heroine - perhaps something of surrogate for the director in both senses - is sexually abused and assaulted. This compels a violent act of retribution, which could have been committed by Kevin Spacey's Se7en serial murderer. With Lisabeth consequently agreeing to join Mikael's investigation, after the latter notes that he is seeking a woman-killer, the pair pursue a murder who, again like Spacey's earlier villain, is operating according to an Old Testament-based code. On the negative side of the ledger, the identity of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's serial killer is more or less evident from his first appearance on screen. The strength of Fincher's latest certainly does not rest in its widely known source material.

As The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo unfolds, Lisabeth increasingly becomes Fincher's object of interest, not only narratively, but also visually, with Mara's inked and pierced yet fragile body becoming the focal point of his mise-en-scène. While Fincher clearly finds substantial, fetishistic interest in his young actress's physique, he does allow her increased agency as she initiates an immensely erotic on-screen sexual encounter with Craig's hero. Their relationship, however, will not survive through to the film's concluding elegiac set-piece, which accordingly insures the film's thematic debt to the director's more peripheral study of romantic longing, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo successfully combines the romanticism of the latter with the serial-killer narratives that activate Se7en and Zodiac. This again is work of authorial summary.

Not surprisingly therefore is the reemergence of Fincher's comparably modest, though distinctive revision of classical decoupage, with shallow-depth shot/reverse-shot takes alternating slightly off-rhythm in the pattern utilized in The Social Network. The garish overhead neon's of his prior work, however, are muted somewhat as Sweden's deep cobalt skies and warm interior lighting come to serve as the alternative graphic dominants. (Visually and thematically Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer [2010] offers a close antecedent for Fincher's film.) On the level of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's soundtrack - both also collaborated on The Social Network - the effect once again is fundamentally classical, with the scoring rarely stopping over the course of Fincher's protracted narrative. As such, the director's music video training is also in evidence, as it is likewise, and far more conspicuously, in the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's opening credits, which feature Karen O. and Reznor's exceedingly cool cover of Led Zepplin's "Immigrant Song." Fincher's anticipatory music video indeed sets the tone no less successfully than The Social Network's opening breakneck exchange between Jesse Eisenberg and Tattoo's Mara. The director's latest female lead silently holds the screen as fully as her Social Network co-star.

***
David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method (2011), from Christopher Hampton's adaptation of his own 2002 play The Talking Cure, opens with Keira Knightley's Sabina Spielrein screaming and convulsing violently in the rear of a horse drawn carriage as Howard Shore's instrumental score crescendos on the soundtrack. While the combination of the film's historical and material settings and Shore's elegant, classical work offers a patina of respectability - that of the period art-house feature - both in the opening passage and throughout, Knightley's grotesqueries provide the first in a line of dissonant, destabilizing elements that will serve to complete A Dangerous Method's operative dialectic of tastes. The latter aspects also present a vehicle for the uncanny within a film that persists in being off, whether again it is the gap between generic form and Knightley's early convulsions or even more, the overtly artificial use of rear-projection (cf. Eastern Promises, 2007) that places the film equally in the contexts of Old Hollywood - in terms of his pacing Cronenberg is even more classical than Fincher - and the arch theatrical modernism of Manoel de Oliveira. The Portuguese master likewise offers a model for Cronenberg's consistently static set-ups, while the like-minded Jacques Rivette's Duchess of Langeais (2007) suggests a source not only for A Dangerous Method's letter-writing set-piece, but also for the aforementioned subtle violence that Cronenberg performs on the middle-brow period picture. In this latter sense, A Dangerous Method returns to M. Butterfly (1993) territory - another Cronenberg film adapted from a legit source, by the playwright.

As Sabina takes on the role of Carl Jung's (Michael Fassbender) research assistant, following her successful treatment at Jung's hands using the talking cure that provided Hampton's play with its title, the married Protestant Sigmund Freud acolyte begins to explore his feelings for the Russian-Jewish psychology student after she expresses her desire for her mentor. Jung is emboldened by the entreaties of his libertine patient and fellow Freudian Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) to follow his reciprocated passions. (Cassel's mental instability, it should be noted, registers psyognomically in his off-set eyes, whereas Knightley's emerges in her crooked teeth and protruding lower jaw; both are visual obsessions of Cronenberg as he explores the scientific rhetoric that surrounds his early twentieth-century subjects.) Sabina and Jung thus commence with a torrid and sexy on-screen affair that taps into her sado-masochistic fantasies, while allowing for what Sabina describes as the disappearance of her identity. In both of these regards, Cronenberg entertains a more fundamentally feminine attitude towards sex, which the film sets up in opposition to Freud's (Viggo Mortensen) comparatively masculine, and deeply self-centered perspective. As in the director's avowedly anti-Freudian Spider (2002), the ideas and even the personality of the rigid Austrian thinker become targets for the Canadian director in the suprisingly comedic A Dangerous Method.

Cronenberg's latest, which in its directness reinforces the director's attitude toward psychoanalysis, operates dialogically, both as a series of intellectual debates on the schisms between Freudian and Jungian thought, and also in their respective conceptualizations and applications, with Jung ultimately positioned against not only his mentor, but also his lover. Cronenberg moreover draws up his factions not only along intellectual and emotional lines, but also according to ethnic and even religious divisions, with Jung's supressive Swiss Protestant mysticism opposed to Freud's anti-faith, anti-superstition Judaism - a position that Cronenberg likewise holds, albeit with with Sabina as his closest, more open surrogate. Indeed, A Dangerous Method serves no less as an exploration of the director's Jewish identity on the Eve of the First World War, with the film's ethnic context lending A Dangerous Method added significance vis-à-vis the filmmaker's broader corpus. At the same time, A Dangerous Method's historical setting equally confirms its currency for a year where warnings of apocalypse drove a number of its higher-profile offerings, from Lars von Trier's Melancholia (2011) to Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter (2011). Cronenberg's latest is better than both.

This review was co-written by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Previewing 2012: The Day He Arrives

The Day He Arrives (Book chon bang hyang, 2011), leading Korean art-film auteur Hong Sang-soo's twelfth feature in sixteen years, re-imagines the writer-director's conspicuously closed corpus across a series of chance street meetings, barroom visits and one-night stands, all of which feature the film's filmmaker lead Yoo (Jun-Sang Yu). Though all of the above ostensibly inscribe new, sequentially ordered events, Hong treats each as essentially interchangeable with snatches of dialogue rephrased, gestures transferred from character to character and a limited number of players at the director's disposal; that is, with each repetition, Hong subtly gives the impression of replaying the same scene, following a small number of motival modifications, even as the narrative moves classically across Yoo's three day visit to Seoul. It also emphasizes the synthetic nature of the scenario, despite its naturalistic valance. In thus retaining a more traditional storytelling structure, despite the film's Groundhog Day (1993) intimations, the medium's most direct heir to Piet Mondrian has produced a work that seeks to disclose the truth that every day and especially every night brings more of the same for his surrogate protagonist. Of course, thanks to both this latter emphasis on mundane repetition and also The Day He Arrive's approach to narrative form, Hong's latest emerges as one of the most thoroughly modernist works of the director's career.

As an expression of the director's aesthetic, The Day He Arrives confirms Hong's increasing comfort with the zoom-lensing that he first inaugurated in his transitional Tale of Cinema (2005), replacing the prevailing, static deadpan style of his masterpiece, The Power of Kangwon Province (1998). With the filmmaker's latest, Hong has shown his ever greater aptitude for slight reframings amid his long-take stagings, for shifting the spectators' attention within his multi-figural mise-en-scène: during the second of the bar passages, to take an especially superlative example, the discomfort of his centered, silent observer Young-ho (Sang Jung Kim) comes to take unexpected precedent over the sequence's arguing pair, thanks to Hong's incrementally short zoom forward into the scene's three-person cluster. In this passage, as in much of The Day He Arrives, Hong no longer treats the strategy as self-conscious ornamentation or punctuation (as has often been true from his 2005 feature onward), but instead as a replacement for analytic editing procedures. In so doing, Hong continues to develop a personal idiom that distinguishes the director's modernism from those variants of his East Asian counterparts.

Visually, Hong has produced once of his richest works in the same post-2005 period, registering the film's wintery, Christmas-season landscapes in an elegant 16:9 black-and-white (with the lighter frosty tones proving especially prominent). In one of the more memorable of the director's recent set-ups, Hong stages his group at daybreak, huddled on the edge of a busy Seoul street as they wait for a car in the wet South Korean snow. In moments like this, where the specificity of the film's Christmas season and its character geometry are especially in evidence, Hong directly recalls Eric Rohmer's no less verbose signature masterpiece My Night at Maud's (1969). Though The Day He Arrives might not exactly occupy the same position in Hong's corpus as it does for the no less and Mondrianesque corpus of the French master, it does represent significant work by any measure.

Cinema Guild will release The Day He Arrives in North America, with the film scheduled to open in New York in April 2012.