Year-end review (1/3): best 2011 films of 2012

27 Dec
December 27, 2012

Because end-of-year film lists stacked with movies that haven’t even opened in your town are elitist in an annoying kind of way, and because, hey one year-end list just isn’t enough, I present the first of three “best film” lists for 2012.

Today’s post is really just a reminder of two fantastic films that seemed to slip unjustly into obscurity this year, and another one that didn’t. Without further ado, here are my three favourite films of 2011 that I saw in theatres in 2012.

Coriolanus

In a way it’s not surprising that this intense, vastly entertaining film was so widely slept on. Dumped into theatres in the dead season, it suffered a double whammy as a film of a Shakespeare play—a truly obscure one, and in the original English. It is, simply put, the best Bardic adaptation in at least 15 years. Reframing a Shakespeare narrative in a contemporary setting has been tried several times but this represents something like the perfection of that particular artistic challenge. The modern-day alternate version of Rome, shot in Belgrade, rings strangely true; John Logan shaves down the original dialogue and reframes it brilliantly; director-star Ralph Fiennes surrounds himself with a perfect cast, with notable performances by Gerard Butler and Brian Cox.

A Dangerous Method

Pairing Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud with Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung seemed on paper like it ought to have been a home run, but if it wasn’t quite that it is no reflection on these two strong performances, to say nothing of Keira Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein. Somehow this talky movie does not quite have the bite that you might expect, but that is pretty much the only criticism I can make. This is a movie about ideas, and I wish there were more like it. Note to self: get around to reading John Kerr’s non-fiction source text.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The best production and set design in any movie since Children of Men. I found the visuals and setting of each scene so distracting that I missed a couple of significant plot points and went back to the theatre to watch the film a second time. If I wasn’t such a sucker for great design I probably would have followed the film just fine, but it really does offer much in a second viewing, and such films seem fewer and further between these days. And, um, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones. Come on.

Next post will be my best releases of 2012, a roundup of films that had wide(-ish) release this year.

first thoughts: Django Unchained

21 Dec
December 21, 2012

Three years ago in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg called Inglorious Basterds “a story of emotionally uncomplicated, physically threatening, non-morally-anguished Jews dealing out spaghetti-Western justice to Nazis.” From the trailers for Django Unchained I was tempted to think that Quentin Tarantino had simply swapped in a black man for Jews and white slavers for Nazis and more or less made the same film again.

But it’s not so. Maybe it’s just that the spaghetti-Western justice flows much more convincingly in a spaghetti-Western setting, but this film seems less strained, more organic despite the usual Taratino tonal swerves. In fact I was genuinely surprised, at the end, to discover that two hours and forty-five minutes had rolled by. It seemed like two hours to me.

The director may not be doing much for the preservation of good taste, but when it comes to the preservation of classical storytelling in an age of jump cuts and CGI, he seems like the last old master standing.

You should know going in that there are a whole lot of n-words dropped, there is much racist awfulness to set off the vengeance that ensues, and, yes, there is a black man man being torn apart by dogs, among other atrocities. If sublime excess is Tarantino’s brand, Django delivers on the brand promise in spades.

And indeed, the movie seems to be coming to a conclusion only to launch into a fully-fledged Act Four, including another risible cameo performance by the director himself. It says something for the film that even Tarantino’s lousy Australian accent is not enough to derail it.

That misstep seems inconsquential beside two amazing performances from Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz. Leo DiCaprio is pretty much note-perfect as well. I would watch this again, something I haven’t done with any of Taratino’s films since Jackie Brown.

Watching Sátántangó (on DVD)

29 Sep
September 29, 2012

I’m playing catchup with Bela Tarr, now, because just over a year ago I saw The Turin Horse and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind.  That’s a film that is pardigmatic difficult viewing, gruelling by any measure, minimal, oblique, demanding—so by comparison Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour magnum opus Sátántangó is a pleasant surprise.  Yes it is demanding, but simply because it asks something like a full day of your time, and patience with its pace to boot.

However I still feel that watching The Turin Horse before Sátántangó had a kind of spoiler effect on my first viewing of the latter film, which I undertook this week on a single day (into the early evening).  Both films are concerned with presenting a kind of secular and modernist apocalypse.  There is so much thematic and aesthetic overlap that Sátántangó felt very familiar even on first viewing, and if a plot stretched over seven hours won’t make you impatient for a film to get to the point, watching almost the same point being made a second time by the same filmmaker definitely will.

The apocalypse of Sátántangó is minimal but not subtle—just in case we miss the point, some two and a half hours in, one character advises another to read the Bible’s book of Revelation. She specifically uses the alternate title of the book, “Apokalipszis” (“Apocalypse”) and not “Jelenések” (Revelation).

I completely understand how Sátántangó would come as a cinematic, um, revelation to someone watching a Tarr film for the first time, but for me it couldn’t quite deliver the same jolt.  However one thing that Sátántangó has on offer that The Turin Horse lacks is the compelling figure of Irimiás, played by Mihály Vig. He is a combined anti-Christ and false Muhammad who provides the film with a focal point and an admittedly slender thread of political theory.

The way that people follow leaders who promise a better life in the face of all common-sense evidence to the contrary forms the tragic framework for the story, and it is safe to say that Tarr sees the reasons for this as springing from within human nature, rather than imposed from without. Over the six years that (so I have read) this film was being made, Hungary began its first round of economic privatization, which would culminate with unpopular austerity measures a year or so after the release of the film.  In this context it is more than possible to see the film as meet-the-new-boss, same-as-the-old-boss prophetic howl.

Apart from the occasional, inevitable moments of boredom (even a cinematic masterpiece can’t stay utterly gripping for all of seven hours), two moments knocked me outside of the film.

One was the memorable shot of the men walking down the road as a powerful wind swept piles of debris along behind them. Jonathan Rosenbaum says that Bela Tarr is better than Hollywood at creating illusion with things like a wind machine and a rain machine, but in each of the sequences with the men walking in the wind, it is clear that the trees ahead of them and beyond them are not swaying at all. This actually occurs in a later sequence as well.  I found the obviously faked aspect jarring.  I don’t remember having this reaction to the storm scenes in The Turin Horse.  I can only conclude that Tarr has improved, with age, at simulating storms on screen.

The other was an exchange of funds that happens near the beginning of the film.  Futaki has found out that Schmidt and Kraner plan to keep the money that was (pooled? earned? stolen? received from the government?) by six others in addition to them, including Futaki. Schmidt buys off Futaki by offering to cut him in for a third, along with Schmidt and Kraner.  Schmidt has half of this money on him. Futaki asks for immediate payment. Fine so far. So why does Schmidt divide this half into further halves? Futaki now has 25% of the money.  Does Schmidt expect Kraner to do the same thing? Futaki would then have half the money.  Or does he expect Kraner to make up the additional 8%? In that case how are Kraner and Schmidt going to even things out? I possibly missed some key lines in the minutes that followed as I wrestled with the mental math.

With Sátántangó now such a touchstone of arthouse cinema that it has apparently become a dating/mating criterion, you would think that it would have seen the light of day on Blu-ray by now, but sadly this is not the case.  There isn’t even, in fact, an anamorphic DVD release.  Gary Tooze of DVD Beaver has done a good job of detailing the disaster that is the North American DVD release.

For those who can view European-region DVDs the Artificial Eye release, is definitely preferred, even with (or perhaps because of) the 4% PAL speedup, which shaves at least 15 minutes from the film running time.  Reel-change cue marks are visible as well as frequent visible artifacts. The image is completely uncropped such that rounded corners are often visible along with edge fading especially at the left and bottom.  The downside of this “purist” approach to presentation becomes awkwardly clear in a long tracking shot in chapter 8, following the migrants from behind, up the road to their new commune. The camera lens appears to be obscured by something at the right hand edge, and the fact that this is left in makes it pretty clear that Tarr expected this defective edge of the image to be matted out when projected. On the positive side the image is completely position-stable, indicating a digital frame by frame transfer. However the world still awaits a true-running-time, polished, high-def home presentation for this essential film.

 

 

review: Barbara (Christian Petzold)

17 Sep
September 17, 2012

Calling this film “quiet” or “restrained” would be factual enough, but somehow it doesn’t do justice to how truly engaging the story is. Nina Hoss is perfectly cast as the eponymous character, managing the tricky task of seeming both put-upon and above it all. Punished for requesting an exit visa from early-1980s East Germany, Barbara is removed from her advanced medical post in East Berlin and sent to a run-down rural hospital. Here she finds herself attracted to a colleague (Ronald Zehrfeld, relentlessly appealing) whom she suspects may be reporting on her to the police, while deciding whether she should try to escape with her West German lover (Mark Waschke).

This was one of the two screenings I took in at TIFF that was projected in 35mm film format, but it felt like a happy throwback for more reasons than that.  If you need convincing that there is still some life in the classical, jump-cut-free style of filmmaking, moving from medium shot to medium shot, out and in again, keeping the medium itself in the background of the story experience, this is the film for you.  Watching this film I felt a real nostalgia for my early art house experiences with international cinema—films that told me stories that had both the verisimilitude to lived experience that Hollywood films lack, and the exotic power of an open window into another country’s culture and history. What a treat to watch a layered, subtly directed story play out, and not to be sure precisely where it will go. Barbara reminds me why I love the movies.

review: The Attack (Ziad Doueiri)

14 Sep
September 14, 2012

A successful Palestinian surgeon (Ali Suliman, in a compellingly restrained performance), respected and honoured by the Jewish Israeli medical establishment, and working in a Tel Aviv hospital, sees his life’s foundation drop out from under him when his wife perpetrates a suicide bombing that kills 17 people, 11 children among them.  Ziad Doueiri’s absolutely remarkable film The Attack surprised me with its nuanced handling of this loaded storyline, adapted from the novel by the pseudonymous author Yasmina Khadra.

Doueiri first came to attention working first assistant camera on several Quentin Tarantino films including Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. He made a minor splash of his own with his engaging, semi-autobiographical West Beirut, about growing up in Lebanon in the 1970s. He has made only one film since, and West Beirut remains today as his best-known work.  That is about to change.

The filmic style here feels contemporary without overtly calling attention to itself, in a way reminiscent of the best work of Steven Soderbergh and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Jump-cut edits are very few but skillfully placed; the palette tends to blue without too-dramatic tint.  From the sharply crafted layout of the main titles to the alternately moody and propulsive score by Eric Neveux, the film feels intricately crafted. It further benefits from a script with equally thorough attention to detail.

The central question to which the the film and the protagonist are seeking answers is how a vivacious, attractive woman with such a comfortable life could turn into a suicidal/homicidal fanatic.  The way in which the possible answers are considered in turn opens up a space of unknowability that is remarkable for such an apparently straightforward plot.  To put it another way, the film is so polished in a conventional way that I was unprepared for the degree of doubt and paradox that it embraces.  This is a film that deals with the thorniest issues in a way that is faithful to their inherent complexity and contradictions.

Word is that The Attack has obtained American distribution; it will be interesting to see what degree of controversy and indeed protest that it might attract.

Side note: watch for a quick appearance by Abdallah El Akal, Stephen Dorff’s photogenic young co-star in Zaytoun.

review: Far From Afghanistan (John Gianvito with Travis Wilkerson, Jon Jost, Minda Martin, Soon-Mi Yoo)

13 Sep
September 13, 2012

This is a very quick-hit review of a complex film project that is explicated far more thoroughly by Cinema Scope, so I will just focus on a few key points.

I think I have a very clear bias when it comes to films about war, and that is that I like them better the more that they tell me about people’s direct experiences of it.  And there is plenty of footage from Afghanistan here—some moments of it intense and/or gory enough to merit a warning I’d say—but the strange fact here is that this seems to have been gathered by Afghan videographers separately from the five Western films of the omnibus, and then inserted as context.  For me it is far more powerful than anything contributed by the filmmakers themselves.

Gianvito’s own segment is somehow simultaneously too offbase and too heavyhanded, with its images of indulgent, lazy Westerners contrasted pedantically with audio accounts of civilian deaths and injuries in the war.  Jon Jost’s “Empire’s Cross” impressed me with its nerve, putting the faces and names of the 9/11 terrorist attackers on screen, but then devolving into an audio/video mashup of Eisenhower’s “Cross of Iron” speech with war imagery.  Soon-Mi Yoo’s “Afghanistan: The Next Generation” mixing archival documentary footage from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan with fresh scenes of contemporary Afghan life, focusing on youth.  Somehow this juxtaposition did little for me, although both sets of footage are interesting on their own terms.  Minda Martin’s “The Long Distance Operator” is a rather weak fiction about the implications of remotely-conducted warfare.  It tries to achieve authenticity by casting actual vets, but this can’t hide weak writing and acting.  Travis Wilkerson’s “Fragments of Dissolution” risks taking the entire film off the rails by telling 4 stories of poverty and suicide among American war vets; a tragic subject that no doubt merits a film of its own, but risks undercutting the main thrust of this project with its super-dramatic black-and-white aesthetic and grief-wracked interview subjects.

I say all this and yet, with the except of the last segment I was constantly engaged by this film.  But it is one thing to protest the fact that in 2011 only 2% of news media coverage focused on the war, even as the American and Afghan casualty counts were at an all-time high.  It is another thing to try successfully to tell the stories that aren’t being told. In that respect this attempt, well-intended as it is, falls a bit short.

Malick-trashing (To The Wonder and the baffled critics at TIFF)

13 Sep
September 13, 2012

On Tuesday I was at the Princess of Wales Theatre for the repeat screening of Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder. I had purposefully tried to keep my expectations low, suspecting that Malick could not have come up anything as substantial as The Tree of Life in what for him was an extremely short period of time between films. I was delighted, then, to experience what seems to me his most focused, narratively clear film ever; still uniquely Malick yet more intimate, purely distilled, and—without precedent in my experience of his films—ultimately heartbreaking.

But the bigger surprise came afterward—the reaction.  Browsing the reviews online, I scrolled through a bizarre litany of complaints.  The film is “almost sickeningly self-indulgent and pretentious,” “ultimately vacant,” with characters robbed of “specificity,” “empty in meaning” with “no wonder”—a “disjointed, empty tale” that “doesn’t add up.”

I’m assuming that the folks who write these things spend a significant portion of their lives watching films and writing about them.  So I find the “vacant” criticism deeply weird.  That’s not to say that all of the people who didn’t like it also didn’t get it. But there is certainly a trend in that direction.

What I want to say is this—To The Wonder is a very straightforward story told mostly visually with minimal dialogue.  It pushes further in that direction, perhaps, than any previous Malick film.  But in almost every scene it is absolutely clear what’s going on, not just narratively but emotionally.  You would think from reading these reviews that the film is nothing but a series of arbitrary images chosen for their visual beauty rather than their narrative logic.  If all you had were these reviews to go on, you could be excused for being so wrong.

I guess it’s only human to try to cut things down to size that aren’t understood, but I find it unexpectedly painful to watch it happening to a film that clearly doesn’t deserve such treatment.

I gather that The Tree of Life itself had a bit of a bumpy landing at Cannes before its reputation was rescued as more people saw it, so hopefully To The Wonder will survive the early shredding and find an appreciative audience.  As a Malick fan I care less whether it can nab middle-brow-approval certification a.k.a. the Oscars—I just want it to find good distribution so that lots of people, including everyone who wants to, can see this brilliant, heartfelt film.

 

review: Zaytoun (Eran Riklis)

12 Sep
September 12, 2012

Some quick thoughts about Zaytoun. Criticizing this film feels like kicking a puppy. How can you not enjoy what is possibly the unlikeliest buddy-road-movie pairing ever, when an orphaned Palestinian boy (Abdallah El Akal, who could not be more loved by the camera) and a shackled, captured Israeli pilot (Stephen Dorff, basically smirk-free for the entire movie) make their way across Lebanon’s DMZ south to Israel, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon circa 1982? And yes, hilarity, pratfalls, the Bee Gees, the World Cup of soccer, and some death & injury are involved. On one level you have to admire the sheer bravura of trying to make a feel-good movie featuring Israeli-aligned Phalangists shooting down a child in cold blood. But if you remember the Seinfeld “no hugging, no learning” rule, after it becomes clear that there is going to be some learning, you know that the hugging is well and truly inevitable.

It’s pretty clear that the film, written by Nader Rizq, a Palestinian living in the U.S., and directed by the Israeli Eran Riklis, has no intention other than to put a human face on both sides of “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” as it is so awkwardly if commonly called. If that sounds like a good use of two hours of your time, you could most certainly do worse than this rather entertaining film. But if it’s understanding or insight you seek, best to look elsewhere.

review: Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland)

11 Sep
September 11, 2012

Berberian Sound Studio is a strange little paradox of a film. Aesthetically outstanding in its referencing of giallo cinema of the seventies, and its fetishistic deployment—and editing—of analogue sound, the second feature from UK director Peter Strickland features a note-perfect performance by Toby Jones as a put-upon English sound engineer who has been recruited to record the audio for a fictional giallo movie called The Equestrian Vortex. We see none of this film other than a brilliantly-imagined main title animation—rather we witness fruits and vegetables being smashed and ripped to create the sounds of horrifying acts of violence, actresses screaming with varying degrees of convincingness, and Jones watching the screen in disbelief. The film is grounded in how sound engineers actually work yet creates a closed-off little universe that is increasingly surreal.

But it does feel in the end as if Berberian Sound Studio has not quite arrived at its best possible destination. It is kind of a distant but clearly recognizable cousin of Mulholland Drive, with a relationship to giallo much like the Lynch film’s relationship to Hollywood, but in a more constrained way. The repeated scene of the red, blinking “Silenzio” light in the studio, for example, seems a call-back to Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio, suggesting that the studio, like the club, is a portal to an alternate reality. When the plot inevitably begins to fold back and double on itself, Lynch style, it’s hard to feel that this film has managed those moves nearly as well as its predecessor.

That said, I still want the soundtrack, and yes, I want to know exactly what soundtracks are on Strickland’s own playlist.

review: As If We Were Catching a Cobra (Hala Alabdalla)

10 Sep
September 10, 2012

As If We Were Catching a Cobra feels less like a finished film and more like a series of video-recorded musings. Having started off life as a project about political cartoonists and freedom of expression in the Arab world—specifically in Syria and Egypt—it was “invaded” by the revolutions in those countries, in a way that is politically, rather than cinematically, interesting.

The trauma of the massive tragedy that is happening now in Syria has seized control here. When the brain goes into emergency mode, I suppose, every single thing seems important, everything is recorded. The casual viewer, though, may not feel patient with a film that takes two full hours to tell a story that in a more conventional framing might well be half that length (Facebook, I’m pretty sure, gets more screen time here than in The Social Network).

As part of the shifting of the film into covering the effects of the revolution, increased time is given to novelist and essayist Samar Yazbek. She has some interesting things to say but also makes the film seem ever more removed from the art of the cartoonists as well as the revolution itself. How to present a story of art and expression, brutality and violence, without getting more of it on screen? The effort is worthy but the result doesn’t quite add up. Once gets the feeling that there is a more focused yet rounded film waiting to be constructed from this material once enough time has elapsed.