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.)

If you got the Tree of Life (unlike Sean Penn), time now to upgrade to Le quattro volte. The film may be from Italy, but you need only know the language of images to understand the film, which is nothing less than profound in expressing man’s connection with nature and the earth without relying on spoken or written language. Italian director Michelangelo Frammartino deliberately omits subtitles for the length of the hour-and-a-half film. When the inhabitants of the small Italian village where the film takes place speak, they speak from a distance, far enough away from the camera to make it impossible to see facial features. The only person given full face time is an old goat herder (Giuseppe Fuda) who only coughs, apparently struggling with what will soon be revealed as his dying breaths.

The film is so delightful as a subjective experience (you will have to bring something to it to get something out of it), it feels like giving away spoilers to describe anything that happens within it.  Suffice it to say, in Le quattro volte life begins with death, perpetuating in a cycle that goes so far as to express disintegration into the air. It is a sublime statement that only words will cheapen (maybe that’s why this review will be brief).

Those who find no plot in the film are missing the forest for the trees. In my experience appreciating abstract and experimental films, I have never seen a film without literal narrative that still manages to tell a story so concrete yet profound by purely associative images. The film’s statements are indeed clear despite the lack of literal cue signs and feels far from an abstract work. If anything, I would call this film down to earth in a purer sense than most Hollywood films.

If you can think, you can make out the film’s statement and find entertainment value, lest you fear you are paying for a cinematic experience to watch paint dry. Despite not having dialogue or even a musical score, the film still has moments of suspense and even slapstick. The only active and controlling aspect of narrative is the camera and the splices between the sequences. Frammartino uses placement and rare pans and, on one occasion, focus effects, to generate genuine moments of intrigue.

The film does nothing sexy or flashy. Not that there is anything wrong with films that do it (go see Drive or, heck, even the James Bond film Quantum of Solace for well-done sexy/flashy work). But this is life on earth that people do not pause to respect often enough. This is romanticized dirt. There’s nothing over-the-top that takes your breath away. The film holds your attention to the movie itself.

The magic in Le quattro volte lies in the gaps or edit splices. It’s all about the associations and the bigger picture that results. There are some key moments in the film where Frammartino uses slow fades to dark to mark the cyclical changes referred to in the title (literally translated in English, the film’s title means “the Four Turns”). The first of these is probably the most startling, and even includes a heartbeat.

Sound also plays an important role in the film, so do not expect a silent movie, which leans on the association of images for its story-telling, with music only adding decoration or supplemental embellishment. The sounds of the village, the country and even voices—though they never say anything—still carry meaning. There are many details to take in with this film, but its brilliance is not in forcing it down the viewer’s throat. Le quattro volte is as close to a meditative experience, without dragging out the pace, as I have ever seen.

The paces of the frames are so deliberate that a viewer ready to exercise his or her associative skills and analytical mind will clearly understand the film’s agenda by simply knowing this is a movie concerned with the connections between life and death. Even better than that, just as the film does not feel forced, the more relaxed and prepared you are to just watch the film without over-thinking, the more you will get from it. It is indeed a grand statement that offers a profound insight on the fleeting presence of a man on earth. Like any spiritual experience worth having, words will only cheapen the film’s ultimate message, so I’ll pause here.

Le quattro volte is Unrated, runs 88 minutes and opens Sat., Jan. 21, at 4 p.m., in South Florida at Miami Beach Cinematheque, which loaned a blu-ray screener for the purposes of this review. It’s already available for purchase (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon), but, as always, those who have an opportunity to see it in the theater should do so.

Hans Morgenstern

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