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!


Pacze Moj said...

Excellent year-in-review piece, manages to highlight all the worthy films and situate them in their critical and anticipated spots and with info about premiere dates and places. Pleasure to read and note titles with.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Thank you, it is very much appreciated!