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.)

One of the most gorgeous and gripping films released last year finally arrives in Miami theaters this week precariously close to its release date on home video. But The Mill and the Cross proves a must to see on the big screen, and holds its own against Melancholia and the Tree of Life, two faves among critics this year. I might dare say it is a better film than either one of those more heavily seen and praised works. Though both Melancholia and the Tree of Life are indeed great films of the year that reach for spiritual significance, the Mill and the Cross offers a commentary on man’s spirituality via a work that stays more true to the medium of cinema than either of those films.

The Mill and the Cross is stagey and quite self-aware. It knows that it is art working to convey spirituality, and for it to feel awe-inspiring with such transparency is a measure of its excellence as a movie-going experience. Director Lech Majewski is one of the more underrated and obscure masters of cinema working today, and it is 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 film is based on Michael Francis Gibson’s book The Mill and the Cross – Peter Bruegel’s “Way to Calvary,” which examines the 1564 oil painting by the Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Here is that painting (click for a large, hi-res image):

A simple glance at the painting reveals an undeniable narrative quality, and it’s why I have personally loved the art of the Flemish masters for many years.

When I first read about this movie, early last year, in a glowing review by Roger Ebert, I had eagerly awaited its release in theaters. Despite my high expectations, it never let down. I was often slack-jawed as I watched the film quietly unfold on a big screen during a preview screening.

The film opens in complete darkness as the sound of footsteps echo as if in a great hall. The first image revealed is a hyper-realized shot of people in costumes typical of those that populate Bruegel’s exquisitely detailed painting. From their arrangement to the tone of their props, the evocation of Bruegel is undeniable. They stand very still as Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) walks among them while scribbling in his giant sketch book during a breathtaking tracking shot that almost makes Bruegel’s speech hard to hear. At his side is Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York), a patron of Bruegel’s. The painter explains the idea behind the work to Jonghelinck, which sets up the story that is about to unfold by the actors.

The high-definition images do amazing justice to the painting that inspired them via a combination of live action and digital effects. The Mill and the Cross takes what Eric Rohmer did with the Lady and the Duke, a movie about the French Revolution and the paintings that became known as representative of that history, to a whole other level. Majewski presents intricate sets, as various characters in the painting wake for the day doing mundane tasks. The miller and his wife struggle to get out of bed while a mother gets her large pack of children up for breakfast. Spanish militia men in red coats with spears slowly emerge from the fog. Some men chop at a tree that crashes with a splintering sound and a baby breathes softly. Majewski uses sound, almost Technicolor quality of images with brilliant contrasts of light and shadow, a range of camera shots and not a single spoken word to bring this world into focus as various parts of the painting merge and become clear.

It all seems like an ordinary morning in a distant time until a horrific scene unfolds. The Spanish soldiers attack a villager without provocation. After they beat him and tie him to a the wheel of a cart attached to the edge of a freshly chopped tree trunk, they hoist the beaten man to the sky as a feast for the birds, his wife left to grieve in distraught helplessness at the base of the trunk. Then, 30 minutes into the movie, Jonghelinck breaks the silence of speech, bemoaning the invasion of the Spaniards to the land of what was then Flanders (now Belgium), and pointing out the hypocrisy of these crusading Christian thugs who carry out live passion plays, with the “heretic” citizens of Antwerp as the random stand-ins for Christ.

The experience of this film becomes something akin to the visualization of the experience of coming to understand the painting’s rich symbolism, history and the imagination and zeitgeist that spawned it. It becomes clear Jonghelinck is the conscience that can interpret the intricate design work and storytelling of Bruegel, as Majewski presents a world caught between the Dark Ages and the Age of Enlightenment. The later part of the film introduces us to Mary (Charlotte Rampling), the mother of Christ, who makes a significant appearance in the painting. With her morose, worried face she represents the collateral damage of all of those sacrificed in these passion plays, and, as Bruegel modeled her on his wife, she too offers words conscience that echo out to the righteousness of crusaders that exist to this day, as the painting continues to pass through the eons hanging in a museum.

The story is powerful and potently portrayed with mesmerizing images that never stop amazing. Majewski knows Bruegel the Elder well and utterly captures the experience of gazing at his images. With his 2004 film the Garden of Earthly Delights, the director did similar justice to another Flemish master: Hieronymus Bosch. Take a look at a large image of that:

The title refers to one of the painter’s most famous works, which comes to life in the movie via home video films of an art historian studying the piece as she approaches death by throat cancer. She and her lover stage images from the painting in an apartment they rent in Venice. The videos also jump back to a lecture with the painting projected over her face as well as videotaped samples of Bosch’s other work. The high contrast and grainy quality of the video does a miraculous job at complementing the images of Bosch’s coloring. Creatures at a fish market become almost indistinguishable from those painted by Bosch. Throughout that film, Majewski does a marvelous and subtle job of telling the story of the painting while reflecting on the value of life on earth and the idea of permanence as death looms, in effect bringing a value to art lasting beyond mortal life.

In a different, and an even more beautiful way, Majewski does the same with the Mill and the Cross. The high-definition image seems the polar opposite of the handheld, lo-fi camera work that defined the Garden of Earthly Delights. Coupled with amazing images, its patient, almost minimalist unraveling of “story” brings the mundane together with the profound in an effortless manner that makes films like the Tree of Life and Melancholia seem forced by comparison.

Hans Morgenstern

The Mill and the Cross is Unrated, runs 92 minutes and opens on Thursday, Jan. 12, in South Florida at O Cinema in North Miami, at 8 p.m.  It will then open on Friday, Jan. 13, at 6:40 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review. The same day, at 7 p.m., it opens in Coral Gables, at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema, as part of a series of films featuring Rampling.

(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.)

I recently spread out my blogging to Beached Miami. I had been in awe of their brave, expansive coverage of the city I have been calling home since I was but 5 years of age. I wanted in on this. So I took some of my talents to Beached, giving them my ramblings on the visionary director Terrence Malick (they trimmed it back respectfully), as the Miami Beach Cinematheque starts a retrospective of sorts tomorrow on the philosopher turned filmmaker. Here’s a direct link to the piece:

‘Early Malick’ offers low light, high vision

Those who usually expect to see my film writing here can click the link above for this latest piece previewing MBC’s ongoing Great Directors Series, which continues with “Early Malick.” You see, before the Tree of Life’s Brad Pitt, there were other hunky actors in the gorgeous frames of Malick, like Martin Sheen in Badlands (1973) and Richard Gere in Days of Heaven (1978). Of course that’s sarcasm, as Malick is less about offering up star vehicles and more about wringing out the most art possible film has to offer. While doing so, he trusts the audience to open its mind to the possibilities of a message beyond language, embedded in an aesthetic that is pure cinema and deserves to be celebrated. MBC offers its own tribute to Malick’s work in the wake of the arrival of his newest film, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

MBC will host special one-night only screenings for each of Makick’s first two films this week and next, beginning tomorrow night. Badlands screens first, Thursday, July 14, at 8 p.m. Next Thursday, July 21, also at 8 p.m, the series continues with Days of Heaven. UPDATE: Due to popular interest, Days of Heaven‘s screening (on high-def Blu-Ray, incidentally) has been extended: Friday, July 22 at 8:50 p.m., Saturday, July 23 at 5 p.m. and 8:50 p.m.

In the meantime, I plan to keep offering more exclusive Miami-oriented film and music events via Beached Miami, so check their blog out.

Hans Morgenstern

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