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.)

My Joy (Schastye moe) is a rare film with concentrated potency in story development as well as social commentary that does not succumb to cheap tricks. I might call this the darkest movie I have ever seen. Flashy shockmiesters like Takashi Miike and Gaspar Noé cannot hold a candle to it. The implications of hopelessness in My Joy go much deeper than the pushing of a moral envelope or raw brutal, horror. It crosses generations and implicates an entire society. No wonder the Russians are so pissed off about this movie.

The film opens with a shot of wet, churning concrete, which some gangsters will soon use to seal away a body. The lumpy gray mix swirls and folds over itself in a continuous cycle that leads only to a dark abyss. It’s a fitting image for the grim story of My Joy, which not only follows the doomed journey of Georgy (Viktor Nemets), a trucker on the back roads of post-communist Russia, but also encapsulates the cross-generational downward spiral of a corrupt nation.

If you are wondering if there is any hope in My Joy, well, despite the title, there is none. But it takes a man who loves his country to paint such a bleak portrait of it. As Fassbinder did with Berlin Alexanderplatz in the early eighties, director Sergei Loznitsa, who had only worked in documentaries up until this feature film, has angered his countrymen with this film, according to an article by Michael Koresky.

Loznitsa offers a story that unfolds in a non-linear narrative. It’s a brilliant creative move as scenes of Russia during World War II and the current time flow into each with associative dream logic. But My Joy is more nightmare than dream, as one scene after another offers a portal to even starker and grimmer situations, which all too often lead to murder.

The movie’s first pivotal scene happens as an elderly man (Vladimir Golovin) tells Georgy a story after the Russians had invaded Germany at the end of World War II (I know this bit of history very well, as my father was drafted into the German army and survived the brutal military campaign to take Moscow. It is also well known that the Russians raped and pillaged as they marched on Berlin). He was a Soviet Lieutenant back then (Aleksey Vertkov) and was heading back to his village with some modest war trophies: a red dress, a camera and a German soldier’s coat, waiting to catch a train. Another Soviet officer (Dmitriy Gotsdiner) is making the rounds asking travelers for their papers and invites the lieutenant to sit with him for a drink. This officer at one point drapes the coat over his shoulders to model it for the lieutenant. “It suits you,” says the Lieutenant. “You look like a real German.”

Of course, the comment stings the commander, and, just as the lieutenant is about to board the train, the commander demands the lieutenant turn over his bags. Soon after, as the train pulls away, the lieutenant shoots the commander. “I lost my name there,” the old man tells Georgy. And on the films goes, in a full throttle journey toward the darkness, a place where you give up a sense of humanity, of self, of morals, in order to survive one moment to the next in a world where no one can care less, not even you to your own person.

Though the film is quietly paced, a tense, ominous air hangs heavy over every scene, as if danger lurks everywhere, even when looking out in the distance across vast lands where nature tears through concrete to take back a land man no longer deserves, leaving dilapidated homes and villages that harbor only dilapidated souls. Even a young prostitute (Olga Shuvalova) wants to have nothing to do with turning her life around. When Georgy tries returning her home with money in her pocket without taking any sexual favors, she throws the money back at him and says, “You think you’re so noble? … Are you an idiot? I’ll earn my own money with this,” she says slapping her crotch.

Georgy then walks her village, as the camera turns to its denizens with their worn out, beat up, scraggly, ugly, sad faces, slowly panning from one person to the next before one brutal man pushes through the mass, and the camera follows him until he paces off into the primordial woods encroaching the village’s boundaries. We never glimpse his face.

Credit is due to cinematographer Oleg Mutu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), who certainly brings an elegant production value to the lush imagery that brims with so much character. From the people who populate the film to vistas that only show tiny figures walking to who knows where from who knows what, a sense of dread and mystery surrounds every scene in My Joy.

Georgy moves on from the village, down a back road said to be cursed, but one that will take him around an accident that has choked the main road to a standstill. Day turns to twilight, which turns to night, and it seems he is the only living soul on the road, as he maneuvers his truck around potholes, through a village of derelict homes, with only his headlights to lead the way.

After an encounter with some men who he welcomes to a fire and roasted potatoes, Georgy ends up laid out from a blow to the head that seems to come out of nowhere. Then it’s on to another scene from World War II where two soldiers are given food and shelter by a man and his young son. One soldier asks the man, who says he is a teacher, if there are police in this seeming one-home village. “We thrive untended like the grass,” says the teacher who admits his hope for a school once the war has ended. “Germans are civilized. They’ll establish a school,” he tells these soldiers. Of course it will not end well for such an idealist.

One scene after another fascinates, and Loznitsa, who also 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 the past and the foreboding of the future. Do not misread this review. This is not about celebrating a film because of its doom and gloom. This is about celebrating a filmmaker who can explore the gloom to maximal effect. This movie has an almost literary sensibility, as the seeming anecdotal encounters entwine and illuminate one another. 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.

After he winds up with a concussion that seems to have robbed him of his ability to speak, Georgy ends up beaten and scavenged upon for the rest of the film, absorbed into the village by a woman who will use him in every way, shape and form. He winds up a human zombie, and when he finds himself in a lethal situation of villains, by-standers and victims, his reaction seems to encapsulate oblivion. Where is justice when one has become a zombie? Georgy shambles off into the night, as cars keep passing down that road that lead him on the path to nihilism. What is left when there is no conscience?

Indeed the only thing joyful is in the film’s title. However, there is clear affection driving this movie, as it takes a deep love of country to create such a  freakish nightmare journey into the madness of backwoods Russia. You thought Winter’s Bone was a bad place to find yourself? This is hell on earth. One shudders to think of the US arriving at such a state, as it falls behind in education, innovation and the gap widens between the poor and the rich. As the old man says when his life comes full circle toward the end of the film, “Anything is possible, lad. You know yourself these are troubled times.”

After screening at a few scattered festival dates, including making it into Palme d’ Or competition at Cannes in 2010, My Joy will make its US theatrical debut at the Miami Beach Cinematheque for one night only: Wednesday, Aug. 10 at 8 p.m. This special preview screening even beats its New York screening run.

Hans Morgenstern

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