Continuing on from part 1 of yesterday’s post, here are the upper 10 of my 20 favorite films of last year that will most likely not receive any major Oscar® recognition tomorrow. Ironically enough, I’ll start by recognizing the lesser praised of the losers of the 2010 Foreign Language Film category, which I would not catch until the following year on DVD, as it never even had a South Florida theatrical run:

10. Dogtooth

Most everyone I spoke with, or every article I read, thought the contrived Incendies should have won instead of the contrived A Better World. Instead, give me Dogtooth, a fascinating and disturbing study of brainwashing within a family. Thanks to the naïveté of the teenage children at the heart of the story, this film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos feels like one harrowing display of existential abuse after another.  Is it entertaining? In a sick way, yes, in the black comedic sense, but it’s also a cautionary tale of a social group following its patriarch without questioning. ;)

9. The Strange Case of Angelica*

With the Strange Case of Angelica, the ever prolific Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira proves— at 102— that there is always room for talent to grow. Shot for shot, the film offers one luscious image after another. The dynamism in the mise-en-scène reveals a director who knows the art of cinema like the back of his hand. Oliveira seems to make up for so many wasted shots by less experienced directors, bringing some balance back to the universe of cinema. A film that celebrates living while meditating on death, be it the end of life or the passage of a lost time, the Strange Case of Angelica is at times humorous in the surreal sense of Fellini and other times philosophical as only a wise, aged man like Oliveira can bring out of a movie.

8. Meek’s Cutoff

Just as the closing credits began to roll for Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff several in the sparse crowd during my screening, the majority of which I would consider of the Baby Boom age, burst into laughter. For a film as stark and unfunny as Meek’s Cutoff, it was the first time during the movie I ever noticed anyone laugh, much less crack up into guffaws. I would interpret this reaction to the film’s seemingly open-ended finale to the fact that the film builds on a suspenseful sense of dread, as the characters head out to reach a destination that remains unrevealed. Behind that is the fact that the true hero of the film is a woman played with seething restraint by Michelle Williams. The fact that the drama unfolds during the beginning of the settlement of the western United States in the early 1800s, one must pick out subtle clues in the film to understand the director’s decision to end it as she did. The is a woman’s film that captures a time where women did nothing but follow men. It feels as though Reichardt has cracked open a portal to another era, and she never compromises that vision.

7. Ten Thousand Waves

More a film installation than an actual movie and impossible to re-experience at home (Ten Thousand Waves was displayed on nine different screens that could be seen from different angles and no image was ever the same), Isaac Julien created one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had with the moving image. For all those that skipped it at the Bass Art Museum on Miami Beach, too bad, but a handsome book was made capturing many of the marvelous imagery of the piece (see link above).

6. The Tree of Life

Only cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has a chance to win the Oscar® tomorrow with this film. And only a philosopher turned filmmaker could leave a viewer with the feeling that humanity, or even a single human being, is as insignificant as a bubble bursting on the surface of mud, yet still instill the feeling that each one of us is as grand as the planet on which we dwell. In an unfurling of imagery comparable in abstraction to the stargate sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Malick melds images of mundane life in 1950s suburbia with glimpses of a prehistoric earth, as a mother tries to express her loss of a young son during a hushed voiceover. As grand images of the evolution of the world unfolds, Malick gives equal measure to a hulking dinosaur peering into a mortal wound, as it lays beached on the shore to the brewing of soap on the kitchen sink dishes. It’s a cinematic symphony of sound and vision rarely experienced in today’s multiplexes.

5. Super 8

“She’s nice to me,” one of the most heart-rending lines in a love story delivered by a young teen to his father who does not want to see him fraternizing with the daughter of a man the father holds a grudge against. Super 8 was so much more than a monster movie. JJ Abrams captured the passion of budding young filmmakers, young love and the marvels of creativity and imagination unleashed with passion for escapist fun. I came into the theater bitterly cynical about Hollywood’s interest to manipulate and make a buck and came out soulfully moved by this movie. A true rarity in the age of tent poles and sequels.

4. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives*

This film exists in that rare world of pure cinema: a place where images and their associative relationship, through editing and even pacing invites deeper meanings. Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an expert at this, and he has shown more maturity with every film. With Uncle Boonmee, the camera lingers much less, and Weerasethakul’s lens has grown more focused. All the while, the director leaves those entrancing spaces that invite the audience to inform the images. The movie feels like a transcendental experience. He does this simply. In what seems like arbitrary images, he captures everyday life mixed with surreal situations with more power than mainstream movies, which prefer to shove narrative, conflicts and character types down the viewer’s throat. Like a great painting or a great song, his film defies written description. His movies exist in and of themselves. They are meant to be experienced. They activate the mind on a near subconscious level.

3. My Joy*

It takes a deep love of country to create such a nightmare journey into the madness of backwoods Russia that is My Joy. One scene after another fascinates, and first-time feature director Sergei Loznitsa, who wrote the screenplay based on stories he heard during his years as a documentary filmmaker, wastes no words of dialogue, as it all seems to reverberate with the ghosts of Russia’s past and the foreboding of its future. The film has an almost literary sensibility, as the seeming anecdotal encounters entwine and illuminate one another while also traveling through time, back to Stalinist Russia. It’s as if Loznitsa is illustrating the collective unconscious of a country that has repercussions on future generations. This director shows immense promise as a feature filmmaker, and he could very well be another Krzysztof Kieślowski.

2. Le quattro volte*

The film may be from Italy, but you need only understand the language of images to get its message. The magic in Le quattro volte lies in that unique aspect of cinema: the gaps or edit splices of the film. Forget the fact that the film has no subtitles. It’s all about the associations between the scenes and the bigger picture that results.I have never seen a film without literal narrative that still manages to tell a story so concrete and profound through associative images. Le quattro volte illuminates the fleeting presence of a man on earth without relying on words. After all, like any spiritual experience worth having, words could only cheapen the film’s message.

1. The Mill and the Cross*

For me, one of the most gorgeous and gripping films released last year was the Mill and the Cross, and yes, I do hold it up against Melancholia* (didn’t make my list) and the Tree of Life (number 6 on this list). Director Lech Majewski is one of the more underrated and obscure masters of cinema working today. It’s tough for a Polish filmmaker, also an admired video artist, music composer, poet, novelist and stage director, to outshine the hype of Von Trier and the mystery of Malick, yet the Mill and the Cross stands tall as a testament to Majewski’s talents. The story is powerful and potently portrayed with mesmerizing images that never stop amazing.

Hans Morgenstern

*a full review of this film ran in this blog during its theatrical run (search for the title in the box at the top of the right-hand column).

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

OK, I hate giving up this list so early, but ’tis the season of lists and best of’s, so below you will find 10 of my favorite films that I caught in 2011 (so far). I’ve linked the titles to their Amazon pages. If you click through the links and purchase the movie (on blu-ray, which is the best way to see movies at home, for now), you will provide financial support to this blog. Here you go:

1. My Joy
2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
3. Super 8 (I saw it three times!)
4. The Tree of Life
5. Meek’s Cutoff
6. Ten Thousand Waves (More a film installation than an actual movie, but here’s a link to the fancy art book)
7. Mysteries of Lisbon
8. Dogtooth
9. Project Nim
10. The Hedgehog

There. I will provide a much more comprehensive list that will also include a bottom 10 and summaries of sentiments in February to counter the Oscar craze around that time (the Oscars are so over-rated. It’s easier to pick winners based on studio campaigning than actual artistic merit! I like to provide my list of 20 as an antidote to all the hype of awards season and also allow for time to catch up on all those foreign films that take a little longer to hit US theaters).

All the films are diverse and one at least impossible to re-experience (Ten Thousand Waves was displayed on nine different screens that could be seen from different angles and no image was ever the same): But the decision of placing these films on this list came from something quite simple: Did I have a reaction in the gut while watching the film that was elusive and stirring? At least half these films saw review in this blog, so I can go a bit deeper than that, but that exciting feeling in the gut is clear, potent, undeniable and definitive enough.

Even with the invitations to preview screenings and screeners studios loaned me (the most for me ever in a year) there are still many films from 2011 I have yet to see and already have much buzz as greats of the year (The Mill and the Cross; A Dangerous Method; Moneyball; A Separation; Weekend; Leap Year; The Artist; Pina; The Kid With a Bike; Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy; Beginners; Rampart; Crazy, Stupid Love). Who knows, maybe the top 10 might even shift some, that’s how subjective these lists are.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives exists in that all too rare world of pure cinema: A place where images and their associative relationship, through editing and even pacing, or how long the camera lingers on a vision, invites deeper meanings. Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an expert at this. The Thai director has shown more maturity with every film, and Uncle Boonmee continues this growth.

Weerasethakul’s films have always been meditative. He allows scenes and images to breath with much patience, opening the audience to informed personal breakthroughs. His films are a guide to the experience the viewer brings to the cinema screen, as the projected image, I have always believed, is best appreciated as a mirror of sorts. It seems Weerasethakul feels the same way. In his 2004 movie Tropical Malady (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the movie on Amazon.com) he has the main actor stare and flirt with the audience during the opening credits. In the commentary of that DVD, he says this is in order to invite the audience into the movie.

As great and typical a Weerasethakulian experience that is Tropical Malady, the director had several movies to grow from there. Compared to Uncle Boonmee, Tropical Malady is ham-fisted. Boonmee shows a much greater trust in the audience. The camera lingers much less, and Weerasethakul’s lens has grown more focused. All the while the director leaves those entrancing spaces that invite the audience to inform the images.

Thanapat Saisaymar plays Boonmee, a farmer in his last days due to kidney failure. Though his days are numbered, this sets him up with a unique opportunity to reflect on not only his current life, but the cycle of lives that informs this old soul. You know he is near death when the ghost of his deceased wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) appears at the dining room table as Boonmee eats with his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) and his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas). Huay has been dead 19 years, and Boonmee has not seen her since. As the film goes by, and he gets closer to death, she becomes more solid and explains to him “Ghosts aren’t attached to places but to people.”

The wonderful monkey wrench in all this is the fact that Tong and Jen also respond to her presence and interact with her as plainly as another flesh and blood person in their presence, though they do refer to her as a ghost.  Weerasethakul is not offering a fever dream of a character approaching the abyss. This is a film about transcendence.

Complicating matters even more at the dinner place is a second, even stranger apparition. Boonmee’s long-lost son, Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), has returned from the jungle that surrounds the farm in the form of a creature not too different from the mythic Sasquatch but with glowing red eyes.

He emerges out of the shadows from the stairs leading up to the dining table. A scene that Weerasethakul could have played for cheap fright is instead offered with incongruous mystery, giving a sensation of surrealism instead of terror. It feels like a scene from a David Lynch movie if Lynch had a lighter heart.

The creature soon introduces himself, and tells a tale of how he slipped away from civilization to become one with nature. As Boonsong tells his story, Weerasethakul plays with something he has also grown more crafty with over the years: sound design. He augments Boonsong’s story with an odd throbbing noise, not too different from the sound one might hear when covering the ears to only hearing the echoing of their own heartbeat. It’s a sonic theme that recurs a few more times in the movie signaling moments of transcendence in the story, and it again recalls Lynch who also uses sound in unsettling and oblique ways in his films.

Boonmee certainly feels like a transcendental experience, and it is thanks to the deliberate and daring pace of the film, not to mention Weerasethakul’s inclination to defy real world rules. He does this simply. In what seems like arbitrary images, he captures the everyday with more power than mainstream movies, which prefer to shove narrative and conflicts and character types down the viewer’s throat.

Like a great painting or a great song, his film defies written description. His movies exist in and of themselves. They are meant to be experienced. They activate the mind on a near subconscious level.

Watching his films allows for an entrancing experience, should one invite the film in through the eyes and not over-think what one might perceive to be Weerasethakul’s intentions. Recalling one of his movie’s is like remembering a vivid dream, and the best cinema is indeed dreamlike. Dreams are said to be the symbolic interpretations of the life you lead, and like a dream, this movie invites the viewer to fill the amorphous spaces with their own experiences. This is a gift beyond measure. Walking out of the movie house after a film like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is like waking from a deep trance and experiencing the world with supreme awareness.

It’s great to see this Palme d’Or winner from the 2010 Cannes Film Festival finally made it to Miami thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Catch it tonight or tomorrow or Tuesday night. Those are the only chances you will have to see this masterpiece.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives opens tonight and plays through Apr. 5 exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque.

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

My top movies of 2010

February 27, 2011

I decided the best time to reveal the best movies I saw last year is ahead of the Oscars®, as I am skipping the guessing game this year. It’s just so predictable. Though I admit the tight race between two certain best picture nominees. Also, I did see all those nominees, and a lot of them are on this list. Still, the greatest movie I saw released in 2010 was not even nominated in the foreign film category…

1. The White Material

This film handily surpassed everything I saw this year—pure poetry in cinema. When a ragtag group of child soldiers emerges from the jungle brush to a melancholy jazz-like tune by Tindersticks, I could not help but think, These are the true Lost Boys. Shot for shot, Claire Denis’ film blew me away with its composition. A consistent sense of dread permeates every scene until Denis ratchets it up to pure horror. The White Material is an amazing portrait of awful effects of colonialism to its extreme. Rarely have I heard so much spoken in imagery alone. The only time the movie may have dragged for me was when there was dialogue (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

2. The Social Network
With one dash of creative license at the end of this movie based on an admittedly inconsistent array of facts, director David Fincher has once again created a film that shines a penetrating light into our current society. Somehow many in this world have fallen off the tracks of solid ground. The bumps and dust of earthen soil below our feet no longer provide the satisfying footing to live on. Today’s “true” social life exists somewhere in a much more elusive place: in the layers of a false reality. Fincher presents us with the profile of a man who seems to have it all, except true human connection (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

3. The Fighter
OK, pardon the Oscar® reference, but Christian Bale has earned the award. Few actors disappear into their roles as well as Bale, and he stole the movie with this amazing performance. (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

4. Greenberg
A dark glimpse into a man who only seems misanthropic but is actually more in love with his sad, negative self over  anyone else around him. The titular character is a walking pile of hang-ups he constantly projects on others. What Greenberg (Ben Stiller) hates about people is what he hates about himself. Director Noah Baumbach has turned one of the darker corners of his film career, but shines an amazing spotlight on human behavior (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here; I also wrote a review for the film ahead of its release).

5. The Kids Are All Right
The movie speaks beyond sexual orientation and looks at the strength of union between two halves of a couple. It’s a delicate look at how the thin cracks of a lengthy marriage can so easily, yet harshly come apart only to reveal a hidden strength within– a rare topic in Hollywood movies, which often hype the falling in love part of a relationship and end it there. Buoyed by fine performances all around, especially by the two actresses at the heart of the story, director Lisa Cholodenko knows where to find the drama in a long-term relationship (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here; It was the first movie I saw last year that I had thought deserved Oscar® notice, and it got it).

6. Carlos - 5 1/2 hour Roadshow Edition
An amazing study of the disillusionment of an idealist (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

7. Wasteland
A powerful documentary about the freeing power of art (support the Independent Ethos, buy the DVD here).

8. 127 Hours
The crowd at my preview screening broke into cheers when Aaron Ralston (James Franco) cut that last bit of pesky flesh to find his freedom. Director Danny Boyle does incredible work to set up self-mutilation as a grand victory. I doubt another filmmaker will tell a story about such a subject this well for a while to come (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

9. Black Swan
Give Natalie Portman’s performance credit for making this predictable movie interesting. Director Darren Aronofosky is getting a bit repetitive in his themes. But this is probably his tightest tale of obsession turning to madness he has told (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

10. Inception
Over-hyped as too difficult a movie for the Hollywood-fare-craving masses, Inception was lazily relegated by many as an attempt to tell a confusing story most will not understand. In fact, rarely has there been a script so well-suited for the principles of the medium of cinema. Movies are, after all, simply dreams rendered in physical form. With it’s reliance on edits to make sense of an experience broken up by cuts in time, there is no better way to tell a dream than in the form of a movie (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

11. The American
Despite the A-list Hollywood actor fronting the American (George Clooney) this film comes from a world of the more atmospheric cinema of European cinema (director Anton Corbijn is Dutch after all), not to mention the early seventies. It fills the viewer up like a fine and tenderly cooked meal, instead of the usual greasy junk from Hollywood that only tastes good in the mouth but soon enough makes you want to throw up. There is a mesmerizing pace to the American. Corbijn allows the camera to linger longer on the takes, impregnating the scenes with emotional and psychological depth (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here; I also wrote a review for the film ahead of its release).

12. Kick-ass
The most harrowing film I saw this year. Never has becoming a “super hero” felt so wrong and idiotic. This film captured the lunacy of those exploring that venture to an even scarier degree than Watchmen (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

13. True Grit
The Cohen brothers do it again: witty dialogue, dynamic storytelling, great characters and genius casting with a bonus of much due respect to the Western genre (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

14. Please Give
Nicole Holofcener’s tightest film to date. It’s any amazing criticism of all those better-of and their hollow sympathy for those they perceive as in need of help (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

15. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World
Utterly underrated. It celebrated youth culture while wittily subverting it (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

16. Toy Story 3
I still don’t get why grown men are reportedly and sometimes admittedly weeping at this movie. I’m sure the Pixar team behind this melodrama with toys are laughing all the way to the bank, seeing as they knew how to hold on to their imagination and carry it into their professional careers (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

17. A Solitary Man
Michael Douglas made a man who should be reviled sympathetic. I hated everything about this rich douche, but I still found myself rooting for him. It stands as a real shame the award-givers never acknowledged Douglas for this role. I guess he was too busy fighting cancer to maintain the high profile needed to be recognized (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

18. Let Me In and 19. The Last Exorcism
Few “horror” directors know how to grab the pit of your soul and shake it up. These two films certainly did that (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray of the former here and here for the latter).

20. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (trailer)
Yes, I never saw the film, but the trailer was its own little cinematic poem unto itself. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films seem to activate multiple levels of consciousness in the viewer. They unfold in a place somewhere beyond straight narrative. By not trying to mimic the “real world” as most mainstream films do, his cinema works on a more vibrant level of existence. In effect, I have never felt more alive and aware while watching one of his movies, which draws repeat viewings like a well-crafted album invites repeated listens. I hope to finally see this movie in some form in the US where it will surely appear on my list of favorite films of 2011 (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

I was composing my list of top 20 films of 2010 for the annual “Film Comment” reader’s poll and Criterion DVD contest, a tradition I have participated in since 2005, when I decided to look into why Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives has yet to see release in the US. I had read great things about the movie since its screening for Western audiences at Cannes last year (the director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is Thai). Plus, I loved the poetry of his 2008 film Syndromes and a Century, which I first read about in a lengthy article on the director in “Film Comment.” I seem to be the first person to “like” the fact that Amazon has created a page for the blu-ray version of this film, so it seems to be far from finding distribution in the US.

During my search for this film on-line, I happened upon the official trailer with English subs. In only two-and-half minutes, this little teaser for the film seems to capture the poetry of Weerasethakul’s craft. View it here:

I am tempted to include the trailer alone in my top 20. What is this film about? Well, on the surface, it seems to explore that burning existential theme of mortality. The subject heads to the Thai countryside to die after learning he has acute kidney failure. While there, he explores his primordial surroundings only to encounter his past lives. But as with the films of Weerasethakul, there are so many more layers. His films seem to activate multiple levels of consciousness in the viewer. They unfold in a place somewhere beyond straight narrative. By not trying to mimic the “real world” as most mainstream films do, Weerasethakul’s cinema works on a more vibrant level of existence. In effect, I have never felt more alive and aware while watching one of his movies, which draws repeated viewings like a well-crafted music album invites repeated listens. I hope to finally see this movie in some form in the US. I will keep you up-dated.

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
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