Thursday, December 29, 2011

My 2011 Top 10

1. The Tree of Life

The winner of this year’s main prize at Cannes and the subject of millions of pixels’ worth of online debate, Terrence Malick’s fifth feature as writer/director over the last 38 years is to cinephiles what Halley’s Comet is to astronomers: an eagerly anticipated and rarely seen phenomenon. Read more

2. Certified Copy

A French expat living in Tuscany with her teenage son drops in on a lecture by an Englishman on a book tour. (He’s James Miller; she never gets a name, but since she’s played by the great Juliette Binoche, she hardly needs one.) She leaves him her card through his Italian translator, and he shows up the following Sunday for a visit that turns into a day-long date.
That sums up the action in Certified Copy, the latest offering from the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami and the first he has ever shot outside his own country. But it doesn’t come close to conveying the playful charm, crafty intelligence, and emotional depth of this wholly original film. Read more

3. El Velador

“A film about violence without violence,” as the production notes put it, El Velador is deliberate, repetitive, and deceptively peaceful. Watching it feels at first as if you are eavesdropping on someone else’s daydream, as director/producer/DP/editor Natalia Almada captures the rhythms of daily and nightly life in a Sinaloa cemetery. But her quiet flow of images gains power with surprising speed, breaching the seawall of our preconceived notions to impress upon us the horror of the war being waged on civil society in Mexico by a handful of drug cartels. Read more

4. The Interrupters

It’s hard to imagine a better pairing of talent and material than director/producer Steve James, producer Alex Kotlowitz, and the street-savvy, impassioned antiviolence crusaders of The Interrupters. The documentary addresses a problem that couldn’t be more serious—the violence that literally plagues the streets of Chicago and other American cities—but talking to its open, unpretentious creators was a lot of fun. Read more

5. A Separation

A Separation seems to invent itself as it goes along. It doesn’t mirror or mock or play minor variations on some timeworn genre or theme. It just pulls you in, instantly and inexorably, to its perfectly life-sized world. If it feels familiar, it’s because it feels as poignant, precarious, and endlessly complicated as life itself. Read more

6. Poetry

Mija (Yun Jung-hee) is the antithesis of the title character in Mother, another gripping character study by a South Korean writer-director. Where the mother in Mother insisted that her son was being framed for the murder of a young woman, doggedly tracking down leads until she unearthed the truth, Mija knows as soon as she hears it that Wook (Lee David), the impassive grandson she's raising, was partly responsible for the suicide of a girl in his high school class. For Mija, the question is not how to prove Wook's innocence, but how to do something much harder: She must figure out what justice looks like in a case like this and make sure it is done, without betraying her beloved grandson. Read more

7. Melancholia

Melancholia, the latest and best from director Lars von Trier, is a slow, somber trek to the end of life as we know it. The first hour or so takes place at the opulent wedding thrown for Justine (Kirsten Dunst) by her rich stiff of a brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland) at his enormous country mansion. Justine struggles to play the happy bride, but her new union is crushed by the weight of her own chronic depression. Without histrionics or blame, Dunst and costar Alexander Skarsgård give that slow-motion collapse a dignified anguish that makes it feel both tragic and inevitable. Read more

8. Nostalgia for the Light

In this stately, beautifully shot, deeply moving meditation, writer/director Patricio Guzmán uses an observatory in the Chilean desert as the starting point for an unflinching investigation of the past, both the deep past the astronomers study ("We are really exploring religious questions: where we came from, where life began," says one) and the tortuous recent history his country has tried to bury in that same desert. In poetic voiceover musings and often wrenching interviews with the families of the disappeared, Guzmán weaves history and science together to investigate what makes us human. Once or twice the parallels may feel forced, but most of the time, as when he traces the calcium in the awful bone shards found by the wives and mothers of the missing all the way back to the Big Bang, he finds new ways to illuminate the anti-life horrors of totalitarianism.

9. Meek’s Cutoff

Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) looks like the kind of character you’d expect to see starring in a classic Western. The colorful guide of a small wagon train, his face nearly obscured by a mop of ropy hair and a bushy beard, he wears theatrically fringed buckskin and loves to tell stories about his past adventures. But this self-styled hero is a legend only in his own mind. Read more

10. Pina

Director Wim Wenders had been talking for decades to his friend Pina Bausch about capturing her kinetic choreography on film, but he couldn't figure out how to do it justice until the reemergence of 3D. Even then, it took a few years for him and his technical collaborators to develop a technique that could capture movement fluidly and without that nausea-inducing shakiness that can make 3D movies literally make you sick. The day he was scheduled to meet her and her troupe and try out the new camera setup he proposed to use, Bausch died, prematurely and unexpectedly. Wenders thought his project was dead as well, but after talking to her dancers, most of whom had been with Bausch for years, he decided the best way to memorialize her was to capture the work she had developed for the film they'd been planning so long. Luxuriously lengthy excerpts of her exuberantly expressive dances, often set in the city she loved or staged with huge hunks of the natural world--a massive boulder, a floorful of dirt, an ankle-deep pool of water--cover the gamut of raw human emotion. Meanwhile, judiciously edited snippets of archival footage about Bausch at work and talking-heads interviews with her dancers about her process capture the scent of one unique spirit.

Not to mention... I had to come up with 10 more for The L, whose Top 20 list should be out early next week, so here they are:
Mildred Pierce
The Skin I Live In
The Descendants
Mysteries of Lisbon
The Yellow Sea
Bill Cunningham New York

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Old Cats
The Time that Remains

The Adventures of Tintin

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