In anticipation of next week’s Academy Awards, FP film critic Franklin Laviola shares his final thoughts on film in 2011 over the next few days. Today, he gives us his favorite films of 2011. (Read the rest of Laviola’s work for Frontier Psychiatrist here.)
10. Essential Killing, directed by Jerzy Skolimowski & Aurora, directed by Cristi Puiu (tie)
Skolimowski’s previous ﬁlm, Four Nights with Anna (2008), a masterpiece, still has not been picked up for any kind of distribution in the US. His latest was relegated to a poorly-advertised VOD release, beginning last summer. Vincent Gallo plays Mohammed, a suspected Taliban member, who is captured by American special forces in Afghanistan and transported to a secret detention center in Eastern Europe, where he is tortured. Mohammed manages to escape and soon ﬁnds himself pursued by an entire army, through harsh, unfamiliar terrain. Clocking in at only 80 minutes, this is a lean and brutal survivalist action ﬁlm with some of the year’s most hallucinatory imagery. From the barren canyons and caves of Afghanistan to the frozen, snow-covered forests of Eastern Europe, Skolimowski demonstrates his painter’s eye for natural landscapes. As you would expect from the director of the classic Deep End (1970), surreal humor also abounds here — perhaps best represented by a scene, in which a famished Gallo holds a breastfeeding woman at gunpoint to steal a helping of milk! Gallo’s expressive and amazingly physical work, as Mohammed, is the real silent ﬁlm performance of the year.
Filmmaker Puiu made the brilliantly absurdist The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), still the best ﬁlm of the Romanian New Wave, released stateside. His latest is a slow-burning character study about a divorced father, with two young daughters, whose mental deterioration culminates in a shocking murder spree. Puiu’s ﬁlmmaking is tense, formally rigorous, darkly humorous, and insightful in its behaviorist approach. His own self-directed lead performance, as the troubled father, deﬁned by a blunted affect and measured movements and speech, is equally precise. As a portrait of a contemporary family in crisis, this is the anti-The Descendants, in every possible way.
9. Mysteries of Lisbon, directed by Raoul Ruiz
When the Chilean-born Ruiz died last August, he left behind one of the most prolific and variegated bodies of work of any contemporary filmmaker. His penultimate film is this adaptation of the celebrated Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco’s novel of the same title. How does a filmmaker not just dramatize the complex narrative, but duplicate onscreen the subjective experience of reading such a massive 19th century novel? This ambitious metaphysical project (visualizing the theatrical space of the mind’s eye) is essentially what Ruiz’s film is about. The novel (similar to Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo) and the film are structured around shifting fortunes and shifting identities, obsessive revenge schemes, and the idea of narrative itself — stories within stories within stories, repeating (seemingly) ad infinitum. At four and half hours, Ruiz’s adaptation is definitely long, but it’s the rare epic that actually gets better as it goes along — in fact, the second half is downright riveting. This is a dazzling cinematic achievement, distinguished by the great ensemble, sumptuous look and design, and, of course, Ruiz’s seamless handling of multiple narratives and time frames.
8. Drive, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
In interviews, the Danish Refn has called himself a “fetish filmmaker.” This, his first film made in the USA, exhibits what could be read as an entire catalogue of fetish objects — the late-70s to mid-80s action films of Walter Hill, William Friedkin, and Michael Mann (their unique atmospheres, rhythms, dark psychology, and graphic violence); the synthpop scores and soundscapes of Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno; the car and the road as emblems of American freedom and identity; a satin scorpion jacket; and star Ryan Gosling. This is not a shallow exercise in style, but, rather, a near psychotic identification with and feverish personalization of key genre elements and ideas. In other words, Refn uses the language of genre to build on his fetishism, crafting a work that expresses a mythic quest for purity, a preoccupation with light and dark forces, and a sincere emotionalism. His film about the ultimate LA getaway driver also takes on many forms — an atmospheric film noir; a lean, mean action film; a modern fairy tale; a dreamy retelling of Shane; even a musical (just observe how the song “Under Your Spell” is used to multiple ends in an important early scene). The now infamous elevator scene, in which Gosling’s hero first kisses Carey Mulligan’s love interest and then pulverizes the head of a thug, crystallizes all of these cinephiliac energies and obsessions and reminds us why this is one of the best films of the year.
7. Of Gods & Men, directed by Xavier Beauvois
The best film of its kind since Roland Joffe’s The Mission (1986). Both based on true events, Joffe’s film is about 18th century Spanish Jesuits, who were martyred by the Portuguese in colonial South America, while Beauvois’ film is about contemporary French Trappist monks, who were martyred by Islamic fundamentalists in colonial Algeria. Joffe’s film, with a screenplay by frequent David Lean collaborator Robert Bolt, took the form of an epic religious allegory, whereas this film takes a decidedly more subdued and episodic approach. The emphasis, here, is on the daily rituals and mundane details of the monk’s austere way of life. Beauvois and his brilliant ensemble, led by Lambert Wilson and, world treasure, Michael Lonsdale, commit themselves to not portraying the monks as monolithically heroic. Plenty of screen time is devoted to the group’s debate on whether to leave for France or stay and face slaughter, as well as individual struggles with doubt, fear, and pride. What emerges is an ecumenical vision that calls for coexistence and community, without a trace of sanctimony. The final moments, featuring the monks walking through snow toward their certain fate, will leave viewers haunted.
6. House of Pleasures, directed by Bertrand Bonello
From a group of French monks to a group of French whores. Called L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close, back home in France, and then House of Tolerance in the UK, the film was retitled a second time to the more salacious-sounding House of Pleasures for its extremely limited US theatrical release. Based on the fact that the film is anything but exploitative of its subject matter, a better alternative title would have been Elegy for a Brothel. As if arising out of an opium haze, this is a hypnotic dream (and sometimes nightmare) of a specific time and place — the last days of a high-end Parisian brothel at the turn of the last century. Bonello’s film is both an engrossing portrait of the group dynamic between prostitutes, their madam, and their aristocratic clientele, and a detailed study of the female body. His gliding camera observes the daily routine and work habits of these young women, as they confront aging, debt, disease, drug addiction, limited social prospects, and sudden bursts of male violence. The imagery is occasionally surreal (one of the prostitutes cries tears of semen), while the soundtrack features such blatant anachronisms, as the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin.” Such terrific young French actresses, as Alice Barnole, Celine Sallette, Jasmina Trinca, Adele Haenel, Hafsia Herzi, and Iliana Zabeth, play the main girls, while Noemie Lvovsky serves as their madam. The final images of this beautifully-crafted film are bound to arouse debate.
5. Certified Copy, directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Iranian master Kiarostami’s Tuscany-set light romance leaves the viewer with a number of questions to ponder, long after the credits have rolled. What is the precise nature of the couple’s relationship? Does the couple have an actual shared personal history? Is the Juliette Binoche character delusional about a shared personal history, or is she simply playing her own odd game of seduction? Why does the William Shimell character so easily go along with the husband and wife role-playing, if the couple has no actual history? This is certainly a film about many things — authenticity and inauthenticity in individuals and relationships, not just in objects of art; feminine complexity and masculine posing; the specific stations of a relationship or marriage, in the filmic tradition of Rossellini and Bergman; and, perhaps most of all, the ever-widening gulf between the two sexes in the modern world. However, after three viewings, I’m inclined to believe that Kiarostami’s story is best appreciated at face value. That is to say, appreciated not as an intellectual puzzle, but, rather, as an unexpectedly moving romance about two adult strangers, who happen to come together one afternoon and are presented with the opportunity to embrace their connection.
4. The Princess of Montpensier, directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Tavernier’s richly-textured adaptation of Madame de Lafayette’s 17th century short story is the best French costume drama in years. Gorgeous newcomer Melanie Thierry stars as Marie, a young noblewoman, whose own desire and individual freedom is immediately compromised, when her father marries her off to increase his own status and wealth. Trapped in a loveless marriage with a jealous weakling (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), Marie soon finds herself the object of desire of three other men — a decadent, opportunistic duke (Raphael Personnaz); a chivalrous, consummate man of learning (Lambert Wilson); and a dashing warrior (Gaspard Ulliel), for whom she has always longed. Through his heroine’s dramatic predicament (social duty pitted against romantic passion), Tavernier eloquently explores the various forms (and illusions) of love, as well as a woman’s specific role in French courtly society. Set during the Catholic-Protestant wars of the 16th century, this is the rare recent period piece that does not settle for slick pageantry and pomp, while condescending to the different beliefs, customs, and values of its depicted era. Tavernier’s roving camera is as much concerned with the mud and blood of history, as it is with the story’s sweeping romance. If only all films of this kind were as detail-oriented and attuned to the subtleties of human nature …
3. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, directed by Werner Herzog
Herzog’s visionary cinema has gazed upon some of the most wondrous places on earth — Machu Picchu, the Sahara Desert, the deepest jungles of the Amazon, the frozen landscapes of Antarctica, and, now, the Chauvet Cave of Southern France. Discovered in 1994, this vast prehistoric space is home to cave paintings, which could be 32,000 years old. Most documentary filmmakers defer to scientists and so-called experts, allowing their films to be dominated by talking heads. Herzog, in contrast, maintains a healthy skepticism towards scientists, their dry banter, and their need to dissect and explain everything in rationalist terms, granting them only limited screen time. The real subject of Herzog’s film is the phenomenon of the cave and the sheer beauty of its paintings. The effect is overwhelming, as Herzog’s camera traces each contour of the cave’s walls, exalting in the individual figures and tableaux of mankind’s first masterpiece of art. Surely, these are sacred images in a sacred space. In the film’s final section, Herzog compounds his romanticism with a dark absurdism, contemplating whether modern man (compared to a horde of genetically-engineered albino crocodiles!) is even capable of appreciating or connecting with ancient man’s grand spectacle. Herzog’s own communion with his shamanic forebear is most fully experienced in 3D.
2. Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese
Scorsese’s best and most personal film, since Gangs of New York (2002), as well as his most persuasively spiritual, since Kundun (1997). Set in 1931, the master filmmaker’s first foray into the children’s fantasy genre, tells the story of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a twelve-year-old orphan boy, who lives deep within the walls of a Parisian train station, repairing its giant clocks and spying on its many shopkeepers and personnel. Hugo’s quest to reanimate his deceased father’s prized automaton leads him to encounter Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley), once a great filmmaker of the early silent era, now an embittered toy shop owner. What is the special connection between this man and this machine? On every level, Scorsese’s film is a technological marvel — Robert Richardson’s striking cinematography (its color palette similar to the many “color-tinted” works of the silent era); Dante Ferretti’s astoundingly-detailed and large-scale production design; Sandy Powell’s vivid costumes; longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker’s patient and precise cutting; the multi-layered work of the sound design team; the enormous contribution of the VFX crew; and the director’s own expressive and purposeful (and first time) use of 3D. However, this is a celebration of cinema as both a technological AND humanistic art form. The ending, in which Melies finally accepts the opportunity to open up and revisit his past and his films is deeply felt … even transcendent.
1. The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick
Back in August, I wrote that I didn’t expect to see a better film, released before the end of the year, than Malick’s The Tree of Life. Well, I didn’t happen to see a better film. Why is it the very best film of the year? Drawing primarily on his own childhood experience and the Book of Job, Malick creates a work of art that is aesthetically radical and emotionally direct, quite paradoxically. He also risks failure more than any other filmmaker, by daring to tackle such grand subject matter (the very fabric of the universe and man’s humble place herein/therein), with absolute commitment and sincerity. Bathed in natural light, the stunning result has strong reverberations of both the painting of the Italian Renaissance and the poetry of the American Renaissance. An acceptance of the universe’s mysteries and man’s inevitable suffering, along with the recognition of the divine attributes of imagination and memory, are just a few of the core ideas, permeating Malick’s cinematic vision. Just as Scorsese celebrates the medium (and its history) that has become his life, Malick celebrates life itself, in all its infinitesimal manifestations, opposing energies, and moments of immanence.
Franklin P. Laviola is a filmmaker and freelance writer, based in the New York area. He wrote and directed the award-winning short film “Happy Face,” which has screened at over twenty film festivals. He most recently gave us his reactions to the latest Academy Awards and shared his picks for worst movies of 2011. Compare this list of the best movies of 2011 to the best movies of the year as of July 2011.