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.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

New Film: Hugo (2011)

Martin Scorsese's Hugo, from a John Logan adaptation of Brian Selznick's 2007 novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, represents both a categorical improvement in contemporary stereoscopic aesthetics, and also the director's most conspicuously personal, and indeed successful (fictional) filmmaking in well over a decade. Hugo opens with a fluid forward travelling shot that proceeds, at break-neck pace, from the interwar Parisian streets to the interior of a steel-and-glass, art nouveau train station that will provide the film's primary setting - and a clandestine place-of-residence for the preteen Cabret (Asa Butterfield). Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson's bravura camera figure ultimately comes to rest on the young Hugo as he glances out from behind an overhead clock-face, onto the teaming masses and arriving and departing locomotives below. Spatially speaking, Scorsese builds his film around the angled paths of the latter, which is to the say the same diagonal planes that provided the cinema's first projected work, Auguste and Louis Lumière's L'arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat (1895), with its exceptional depth. In his own first exploration of nascent stereoscopic technologies, Scorsese finds visual and motival inspiration in cinema's historic point-of-origin, in trains arriving in a station.

Yet, Scorsese treats three-dimensional photography as a wholly new art, as a medium with its own aesthetic laws, rather than as an overlay for traditional two-dimensional film practice (as it is frequently conceived in the blockbuster mode, and as it is literally applied to a number of older features). Scorsese works in all three dimensions, utilizing a modified classical style to discover representational strategies appropriate to his new medium; he advances the technology by making 3-D feel far more like classical narrative storytelling, with shallow (and distinctively frontal) shot/reverse-shot chains alternating with the film's more kinetic chase sequences in which the viewer is propelled through the damp, under-lit back corridors of the liminal structure. The filmmaker manages his competing planes with aplomb, racking focus regularly to subtly lead his spectator from one plane to another and back through his cavernous interiors. Indeed, it is a testament to the filmmaker's facility with the new technology that he does not constantly overwhelm his viewers with aggressive depth cues, but instead allows for subtle modulations that make the experience of Hugo much less taxing than other experiments within the same form.

Scorsese does however re-imagine existing footage in three-dimensions, with the narratively central work of Georges Méliès not only projected within the diegesis of the film, but also produced in the cinematic pioneer's glass studio. Among the more magical images in Scorsese's fictionalized semi-biography of Méliès occurs when Scorsese's stereoscopic camera shoots through a transparent, foregrounded fish-tank, which  demystifies Méliès's special-effect work; in so doing, Scorsese completes his narrative conjugation of the real and the fantastic, Lumière and Méliès, digital's photographic and animated modes. Hugo indeed represents a consummate, if at times overtly didactic overview of proto, early and silent film history, with the director's avocational interest in preservation providing the film with its take-home lesson. Following a decade-and-a-half of increasing work within the mode of film-historical, non-fiction pedagogy, Scorsese has married this interest with the loosely biographic idiom that had seen a qualitative decline in the director's since his major, hyper-Fordian Kundun (1997). Again, Hugo represents a much richer Scorsese, which it remains to be said often emerges in those less expected narrative corners and generic detours in his corpus, from The King of Comedy (1983) to The Age of Innocence (1993) and Kundun.

Though Hugo likewise presents unfamiliar generic terra firma, the filmmaker's latest is nothing if not a work of personal expression, with Scorsese dividing between two surrogates (in addition to his own on-camera cameo as a turn-of-the-century photographer): the forgotten Méliès and the latch-key Cabret. The director is at once the aging legend, deeply concerned with his legacy and the preservation of the past, and also the young technician and aspiring magician looking toward the medium's future.

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