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.)

With his latest film, the ever prolific 102-year-old director Manoel de Oliveira proves there is always room for talent to grow. Shot for shot, the Strange Case of Angelica offers one luscious image after another. The movie is simple and focused, forgiving a few overly long, slower-paced scenes. However, the dynamism in the film’s miseenscène reveals a director who knows the art of cinema like the back of his hand. With the Strange Case of Angelica, Oliveira seems to make up for so many wasted shots by less experienced directors, bringing some balance back to the universe of cinema.

The Portuguese director’s films have always been under-represented in the US, and only began seeing hype as he has grown older while continuing to work. To those still unfamiliar with Oliveira’s work, one director that comes to mind while watching Angelica is Federico Fellini. Not that the two directors share all that much in common. There is a phantasmagorical quality, not to mention religious overtones, to Angelica. Still, it’s not nearly as frenetic as a Fellini movie. In fact, Angelica feels more like early period, pre-Dolce Vita Fellini.

A quiet tension seems to gradually build throughout the film, as the protagonist, Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa), grows more obsessed with Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala). The tension begins when an aristocratic Catholic family hires the amateur photographer, who happens to be Jewish, to photograph the deceased young bride just before her funeral. It is key to note that, to devout Jews, a body is not to be displayed or even viewed privately, much less photographed, once deceased. While at work, the apprehensive Isaac soon notices something odd behind Angelica’s frozen smile. In his lens and on the pictures, she seems to come to life, her eyes blinking and smile broadening.

The stylized and modern effects Oliveira employs to render the effect of Angelica’s liveliness in death offers a stark contrast to the vintage background where the story unfolds. Though the era is never revealed, the movie seems to take place in the early sixties or late fifties, though there are modern cars and books with UPC bar codes on them. However, Isaac uses a mint condition, older camera, and the exteriors and interiors of buildings seem frozen from an era long past.

Even the landscape Isaac looks out upon recalls some ancient time, enhancing the film’s surreal quality. At one point in the movie, Isaac ventures out to the farmland across his window to photograph men tilling the soil with hoes. Justina (Adelaide Teixeira), the woman renting a room to him, criticizes Isaac’s choice of subject matter, telling him how silly she thinks the men are for bashing at the earth with hoes when technology has advanced so much. When she sees the resulting photos drying on a line in Isaac’s room next to images of the deceased Angelica, she says,  “Oh, my Lord, those horrible laborers, next to the portrait of the little girl who died.”

Isaac is clearly presented as someone out of touch with the current day and age. But, when he first sees Angelica and participates in something taboo to his religion, it marks the beginning of a journey that will shake him to his very core. Oliveira never tries to explain what is happening inside Isaac’s mind with exposition from the protagonist’s mouth. Instead the director seems to open Isaac’s subconscious to the viewer, showing us his dreams featuring Angelica, which may just be slipping into the real world. The film only seems to slow down during a lengthy scene when fellow lodgers at the home where Isaac is staying grow concerned with his growing distance, and seem to wonder aloud too much. The film, like all great classic foreign movies and even the archaic silents it sometimes pays tribute too works its magic best when there is nothing explicitly said, and Oliveira instead presents the viewer with images pregnant with depth. The imagery is always interesting, and during one sequence, Oliveira uses effects out of a Lumière movie to show Isaac and Angelica as they float through the night sky, locked in an embrace.

Oliveira certainly establishes the film as if it were a dream, permitting for the inconsistency of the hi-tech world that sometimes seems to penetrate Isaac’s surroundings, which may even come from his perceptions. Oliveira establishes the film’s oneiric narrative with a subtle touch, first by establishing a slow, distant pace where he focuses on nothing. There are only three cuts before we see Isaac in the first medium shot of the movie, and they take six minutes to unfold. The first is a cityscape of the port town where the story takes place, shot at night as a delicate classical piano melody plays over the opening credits. Then there is a cobblestone street outside a photography studio as rain pours down, where we learn of a man’s need to hire a photographer ahead of the funeral of a young woman. Then we finally cut to Isaac, fiddling with the guts on an old radio, emitting static. It is the middle of the night, but Justina comes up to inform him of the job when the man appears at her house to find the photographer.

Even more surreal is Isaac’s journey into the home where he will encounter Angelica for the first time. As Isaac enters the home with the sister of Angelica, Maria Dolores (Sara Carinhas) as his guide, who happens to be a nun, near motionless groups of mourners stare at Isaac as he is lead into the house. The shots unfold in a dreamlike manner, beginning with the mourners nearly frozen, and then Isaac and his guide take their steps, under one archway, through a hall, in through a door, and into a chamber where Angelica lies in repose. Until then, only dark drab shades of brown, gray and black dominated the film’s color palette. Then we are faced with Angelica, dressed in her white wedding dress, frozen on a settee with a bright blue cushion. She has a tranquil smile, luminescent pink skin, and almost golden blond hair.  Even in death, she represents another world to Isaac, something more alive than life itself. This is made apparent when he looks through his lens at her and when her spirit seems to appear to him over and over again as the movie quietly unfolds as if in a dream.

In the end, the Strange Case of Angelica is a film that celebrates living while meditating on death, be it the end of life or the passage of a lost time. At times humorous in the surreal sense of Fellini and other times philosophical as only a wise, aged man like Oliveira can bring out in a movie, the Strange Case of Angelica offers much in its simple package. The story is subtle and asks the viewer to inform the images with deeper meanings, and I am well tempted to go at this film with an analytical knife, but this is a movie that rewards open-minded viewing and deserves to be experienced with what one brings to the movie.

The Strange Case of Angelica opens 7 p.m. Friday night (June 10) and plays through June 15 exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, who loaned me a preview screener for the purposes of this review.

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