01- The Tree of Life
You either love it or hate it. It’s an experience that demands your attention as it demands you to meditate within it. Love it or hate it, you can’t help but respect the sheer ambition, the beautiful imagery, and the grand mystery of it all. The camera pulls us into the character’s lives as if the audience is a ghost while the editing makes the viewer feel as if we’re traveling through someone’s consciousness, looking over every memory, every feeling, and every imagination of the universe’s secrets. The film’s two showcase, controversial scenes – the creation sequence and the end – are scenes I don’t see as natural progression, but of mirrored repetition. The creation sequence recreates the beginning of the universe while detailing the beauty of it as well. It all boils down to a moment – the creation of our protagonist, Jack, that perfectly exemplifies the weight of one’s life. We are important since the world has led to us living, but we are unimportant in the scope of all creation. The ending sequence shows us how humans have successfully created their own universe through the interactions and creation of other human beings. The Tree of Life is not a film, but a transcendental experience that forces any willing viewer to reflect on his or her life while giving affirmation for it.
02- The Interrupters
Thinking about films that came out in 2011, none hit my emotional core as much as Steve James’ new masterpiece did. Shot over a course of a year, The Interrupters follows a group of “Crime Interrupters”, hence the title. Through persuasion and psychological tactics, these people try their best to calm victims of inner city crime from taking revenge on their attackers. As communicated in the film by several of the Interrupter experts, most crime in Chicago comes from a never-ending cycle of revenge. The most fascinating aspect of The Interrupters is that the three people that the film is centered around are all former criminals that have since redeemed themselves through their work in trying to help others. The ability for these violence Interrupters to be able to relate honestly and emotionally with these victims of crime changes the results incredibly. Steve James does not shy away from the tough questions and the difficult scenes. In one scene, a man passionately asks his violence interrupter, “How can you help me?! How can you help me RIGHT NOW?!” It isn’t about physically changing the world around you, but being emotionally and mentally capable with dealing it. The film gives the stats that there are 40% less homicides because of their group known as Cease Fire. Why hasn’t the government put more money into this organization? The Interrupters is a film that truly captures the spirit and beauty of pacifism in a way that has rarely ever been on screen. To me, the film is easily one of the best documentaries ever created and my second favorite film of 2011.
03- Mysteries of Lisbon
Narrative trickery is the name of the game here. And not just for the sake of it, but to show the audience the deterministic way life works. The film is extensively about a series of back stories and how they all fit into the complex web of other characters in the film. Mysteries of Lisbon questions the very nature as to why we tell stories. It doesn’t stop there, though. While the biggest theme rests within the overall story of how scenes play out, the execution is a lovely throwback to old cinema with long takes that follows characters through dancing and slices through the walls like a Ophuls or Visconti film. Characters play out not only the melodrama of the piece, but thriller, comedy, and romance elements of the film as well. It encompasses most genres of film entertainment, attaining that old movie quality of mixing every genre in order to please everyone. It’s an old technique of the old studios, largely forgotten when films started to solely focus on one or two demographics in order to make as much money as possible. Mysteries of Lisbon is a treasure out of the past – at 4.5 hours long, it encapsulates the lost feeling of the old studio melodrama epic masterpiece.
04- A Separation
A simple separation of man and wife leads to a study of how the small details of Iranian laws create a system that actively works against its citizens in the most desperately complex of situations. The attention to character in this intricate drama reminds one of Mike Leigh. The magnifying glass is so close that you can see each character’s fears, flaws, and joy. Through this intense observation, the ensemble becomes more three dimensional than the majority of films released today with pitch perfect performances to complement it. Sareh Bayat gives my favorite female performance of the year as a maid who’s pushed into a situation that she barely has any resources to solve. Equally desperate is Peyman Moaadi, playing her employer who fights against her to solve a predicament that is as ambiguously grey as the characters. It’s difficult to choose sides at times in this web of lies and deceit, but whatever one does, you can’t help but feel sorry for the girl stuck in between. As Teremeh, Sarina Farhadi plays a young woman trying to believe in her father even when everything around her comes crashing down. Her story is the true separation of the film’s title – does she leave the country of her culture and background with her mom or does she stay there with her father? As the film’s woeful final shot tells us, there is no right or wrong answer for this question.
05- Take Shelter
Taken as a thriller, the film succeeds as Curtis slowly loses his mind to the sinking feeling he has that the apocalypse is near. Through the camera’s constant observation of how much money is being spent and their budget, though, the film becomes something far different: an allegory for the months before the financial collapse in 2008. Upon further reflection, it’s as clear as the first few minutes when a raindrop falls on the hand of Curtis. He’d later describe it like motor oil. With Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols joins the ranks of Bahrani and Reichardt as cinematic provocateurs weaving stories that, through the observations of modern day lower to middle class Americans, criticize modern day American political and sociological issues. It’s also a damn good thriller, especially in the way that it allows the characters to establish and define themselves through the film’s slow pace instead of just allowing their character arcs pull them through the rote paces of a standard psychological thriller. It becomes more of a in depth character study as we move past the surrealistic nightmare sequences to the real horror – Curtis’ whacked out obsession with creating a bomb shelter to keep his family safe. Michael Shannon creates a lived in performance – his demeanor is one of little words, but through his eyes you can see a man that, even though he is uncertain of himself if his worries are real or not, can’t help but feel scared for the future.
06- The Muppets
People might say that I love this film because it’s a nostalgia fest. Well, yes, there is a lot of nostalgic moments, but the film is not a clear cut nostalgia wank. The film’s theme is rooted in the song, “Pictures in my Head” where Kermit sings about his yearning to see his friends and entertain once again. Like Hugo and Midnight in Paris, The Muppets is not only nostalgic for the past, but explicitly about nostalgia. It goes farther though – The Muppets addresses the fact that a lot of entertainment these days is mean spirited and sarcastic. Unlike Hugo or Midnight in Paris, the film finds actual value in the things we are nostalgic for rather than just saying that we should value the past because it’s the past (Hugo) or because we’d imagine it to be a lot more of an entertaining time (Midnight in Paris). The film’s characters are fighting for positive, light hearted humor, a quality that the antagonist, Tex Richman says is dead. The Muppets are out to prove him wrong by fighting for their own relevancy and fame once again. At the same time, the film’s content reflects the narrative by being a hugely funny, full of heart, musical comedy. If the film doesn’t melt your heart while simultaneously providing fantastic belly laughs, then I question your humanity. The Muppets is as close to cinematic serantonin as I can think possible. Rarely have I smiled from beginning to end in a movie theatre. While my favorite musical number is the tearful ode “Pictures in my Head”, “Life’s a Happy Song” and “Man or Muppet” are instantly catchy as they are hilarious and fun. See the film if you want to feel happy.
To call this a gay remake of Before Sunrise is ignorant. The film is about homosexuals and the topic of homosexuality in modern day society, yet the majority of the themes and emotions felt from this film are deeply universal things that anyone of any orientation can relate to. A one night stand turns into a two day one as two souls connect over conversation, sex, and drugs. The micro budget of the film shows, but it also makes for a level of intimacy not seen in the majority of romantic films today. With the initial sex out of the way, a love grows as the two fight against each other and themselves to try to attain something more. In the end, though, they are separated by fate (as the best romance films do), and we see that this small interaction, this small “weekend” has made an incredible change in their lives. As Russ, Tom Cullen gives an extraordinary performance as a introverted man trying to come to terms with himself, while Chris New, as Glen, plays the opposite – a man that’s so obsessed with his own orientation that he can’t seem to stop talking about it. Weekend is quiet, but stirring, sad, but hopeful. It’s 2011’s best romantic film of the year.
A difficult film to process as it’s a difficult film to recommend, Melancholia is no holds barred dive into the state of deep clinical and non clinical depression. The prologue tells you the entire story – it even spoils the end. Von Trier does this in order to do away with narrative so that you care about the characters and the emotional states that they are in. What a ride! The first half deals solely on the depressive mental state of Justine as she struggles with the reception following her wedding with the second being about the aftermath she shares with her sister’s family and a planet, Melancholia, heading towards Earth that may or may not signify the end of the world. Von Trier keeps it intimate; we never see the universal reaction to the apocalypse, it’s all kept within Justine’s immediate family. Through the perspective of Justine, we can relate to her feelings. Even though we might deny it, I don’t think there is anyone who hasn’t felt the crushing emptiness that depression makes. The follow up to the narrative asks the question – is it the end of the world? Or is Melancholia the mental manifestation of a coup de grace that we all want when we hit rock bottom? Melancholia is a deep examination of the feelings we want to acitvely deny or sweep under the rug. It’s unrelenting, painful, and nihilistic, but the emotions speak true, digging right to ther core, whether you like it or not.
09- The Skin I Live In
An endlessly entertaining film with the year’s oddest plot. It’s a 1930s monster movie mixed with the classical melodrama genre translated through Pedro Almodovar’s head with unforgettable twists and turns. Underneath the trickery of genre mashing and stylistic complexities, a rather interesting examination of the obsession of revenge surfaces. How far do we go when we want to get revenge on someone? Antonio Banderas plays a doctor who has locked up a woman and has experimented on her, at first out of malice, but soon the experiments become part of him as he subconsciously (?) shaping her to look like his dead wife. The film’s plot twists are flat out bizarre. The murkiness of the plot goes to a truly transcendently mysterious place. Yet Almodovar never engages in self indulgent directorial flourishes, instead he creates an atmosphere so hauntingly sterile that you don’t even realize how disturbing the plot is until after the film has finished. His technique of creating these strikingly unforgettable images edited to a thumping Alberto Igleasias score perfectly blends the style with the substance. At times, it’s difficult to ascertain which is stronger. It’s a strange tale, directed in a strange way. It makes me laugh, but in a nervous way. It takes my breath away, but it also makes me gag at the thought of it. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like The Skin I Live In.
10- Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Uncle Boonmee plays out as the antithesis to Von Trier’s Melancholia. Whereas that film is dark and depressing, Uncle Boonmee, in its own way, is hopeful and happy. The film is about the last few days of Boonmee as he prepares for his death. Weerasethakul uses surrealistic elements, like Boonmee’s ape spirit son and a past life of his involving a woman and a catfish, to meditate and explore a major theme of humanity’s lost connection with nature in a bizarre, yet entrancing way. There are few films as deeply hypnotizing as Apichatpong’s, his use of mood and atmosphere draws the viewer in like any film of Lynch, Ozu, or Tarkovsky. Taking a journey into Weerasethakul’s jungle (mind) is usually impenetrable to interpret as it is breathtaking to watch. Weerasethakul wants you to meditate in his jungle, so results will vary from person to person on if you gain anything from the film. The arresting visuals and haunting sound is worth the seeping into your heart and mind if you can only stand the film’s languid pace and its constant surrealism.