Thursday, January 26, 2012

Out of the Past: Best Non-2011 Films

The hip thing that all the kids are doing, as evidenced by the numerous posts at the wonderful Rupert Pupkin Speaks blog, is to look back at a year of vintage-movie watching and decide on a few favorites. As mentioned in the past on this very blog, 2011 was a watershed year for me.... opening myself up to the cinematic possibilities of the internet (no virus so far anyways) and finding a treasure trove of never-before-seen films that have eluded home video distribution. In addition, I've made some invaluable friends on this world wide web contraption that have added some serious attention to the blind spot in my movie-watching. So, here are ten films, made way before 2011, that rank as my favorites of the year, in descending order.

10. The Master Touch

Euro crime with Kirk Douglas spinning a caper to crack a safe and steal lots of money. Of course, nothing works out as planned. These types of films are usually hit and miss, but "The Master Touch" is just brilliant.

9. The Misfits

Working my way through all of John Huston's films earlier this year (with the exception of his 1962 "Freud", which I just found!), "The Misfits" slowly emerged as his true masterpiece, featuring a final third that is magnificent, sweeping and inherently sad.

8. The Terrorizers

The real revelation this year, for me, was finally getting my hands on a number of previously unreleased Edward Yang films and realizing the greatness promised by "Yi Yi". I'm looking forward to digging into "Taipei Story", "That Day On the Beach" and "A Confucian Confusion" soon, but "The Terrorizers" is a terrific place to start for any Yang novice. Featuring a prismatic narrative that blends several story lines together, it's a film that deserves numerous viewings.

7. Man On A Swing

The under appreciated Frank Perry directed this mid 70's whodunit about the enigmatic character of a psychic helping a police sheriff (Cliff Robertson) in a murder case. It never exactly goes where one thinks, and its craftsmanship is impeccable. Seek this one out, along with any other Perry film you can find!

6.Downhill Racer

Michael Ritchie never made a bad film, and this Robert Redford project about an American skier qualifying for the Olympics is mesmerizing. It's editing, which always seems to cut at the perfect moment and Redford's oblique performance create a unique film about a slight subject. Highly recommended and just released onto DVD last year.

5. The Mattei Affair

As I described when I wrote about this film a few months back, Francesco Rosi's dizzying procedural about the life and strange death of Italian oilman Enrico Mattei feels like a direct inspiration to P.T. Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" and a host of other modern films. Rosi deserves every one of his films readily available for R1 consumption!

4. The Heartbreak Kid

Oh what an entrance for the stunning Cybil Shepherd in this film, and Elaine May's poisonous comedy just keeps getting better as it goes along. The break-up scene in a seafood restaurant and the constant nervousness of Charles Grodin's performance push "The Heartbreak Kid" into the realm of extreme black comedy. I love Elaine May.

3. The Big Fix

Largely forgotten now, but "The Big Fix" deserves its place alongside Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye" and other 70's sun-noirs as one of the best. Richard Dreyfuss is great as the P.I. caught up in political skulduggery and missing persons, but its the film's smart script and lackadaisical manner of explaining itself that really sparkle. 70's filmmaking at its best.

2. A Brighter Summer Day

Edward Yang's 4 hour epic about the intimate... a group of schoolboys growing up with neighborhood gangs, criminal mischief and budding love. I suppose there's hope of this film finally seeing the light of day on home video with its big screen re-issue late last year (and even topping some critics' best of lists... again), but we'll have to see. A completely enveloping experience.

1. Cold Water

Olivier Assayas' mid 90's tale of doomed teenage love stopped me in my tracks when I first saw it last year- from its 45 minute party scene to its eclectic soundtrack that merges with the jittery, handheld images perfectly. "Cold Water" is a raw, alive and tender masterpiece.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Jean Pierre Melville Files: Magnet of Doom

In between a string of moody crime films, French filmmaker Jean Pierre Melville released a gentler movie that afforded him the opportunity to view America from a European sensibility. Released in 1963 and starring Jean Paul Belmondo, "Magnet of Doom" is one of the hard to find Melville efforts probably because it broke the mold of his previous noir-ridden tales of loner criminals and trenchcoated cops. Also based on his own screenplay, "Magnet of Doom" concerns itself with the bankrupt empire of a French financier (Charles Vanel) escaping Paris in the aftermath of his company's shady business dealings. He posts an ad in the local classified section for a secretary and washed up boxer (Michel (Belmondo) answers it. It's not long before the two are hopping a plane for New York and then driving across America where they settle in New Orleans... one of them running from an extradition warrant and the other just running from his boring Parisian lifestyle. The central conceit of the film, besides the father-son relationship that slowly forms between Vanel and Belmondo is a topographical one. Melville is clearly fascinated by this alien landscape, allowing his camera to peruse over the tall buildings of Manhattan just as lovingly as he observes Blemondo and a hitch hiker (Stefanie Sandrelli) lounge by a rural stream. And we have to make pit stops along the way, once to observe the small Hoboken apartment where one Frank Sinatra was born and then later to document the obvious cultural differences between the white residential area of New Orleans and its African-American inhabitants. Above all else, "Magnet of Doom" swirls through a variety of genres, eventually settling on a moral tale that continually has one wondering just exactly where its headed.

Surrounding Melville's wide-eyed images of America lies Georges Delerue's melodic soundtrack that, at times, reminds one of a western. At one critical moment, when Vanel decides to dump his life savings over the cliff, "Magnet of Doom" recalls the psychological emptiness of John Huston's "Treasure of the Sierra Madre"... high praise that I'm sure Melville never intended, yet the film faintly echoes throughout its entire running time. But perhaps the most incredible aspect of the film is that, a dozen or so years before it became quite fashionable to pose a European art film against the backdrop of the Americanr road movie (Wenders, Akerman etc.), Melville was setting the blueprint- just as he did for his hardboiled French re-inventions of the noir genre. With "Magnet Of Doom", he simply went right to the source itself.

Friday, January 13, 2012

What's In the Netflix Queue #34

First, a new year's "intention" since "resolution" is such a definitive term... and can you already hear me trying to slide out of these "intentions" if I don't follow through this year?

1. Post more, plain and simple
2. See more new releases.. a "cinema passport" card- which allows me free access to a majority of theaters around the area throughout 2012- should definitely help these intentions
3. Hit a film festival this year, whether it be SXSW, Dallas AFI or Fantastic Fest in Austin. It's been much too long since my last one, and a helluva lot of fun.

Now, the next ten titles in my Netflix queue:

1. Winter Light- Ingmar Bergman that I've somehow managed to miss seeing over the years.
2. Ironweed- Last year, I went through a Jack Nicholson phase, and this 1987 film about an out of work baseball player during the Depression, finally rose to the top of the queue.
3. Higher Ground- The lovely Vera Farmiga's directorial debut that came and went quickly in 2011 saw a Blu-Ray release last week and I quickly moved it close to the top. Not only do I find her breathtakingly beautiful, but I hear the film is a well-meaning debut.
4. Shock- I've seen pretty much all Mario Bava available on DVD, and this late 70's film about "a family that moves into a home with a shocking secret, their lives become a nightmare of homicidal hallucinations as their young son begins to communicate with the spirits of the dead. Remodeled in madness and painted in blood, they soon discover that domestic bliss can be murder...when home is where the horror is."..... popped up within Netflix recently.
5. Triage- Danis Tanovic (of Bosnian "No Man's Land" fame) directs this thriller which stars too good looking people (Colin Farrell and Paz Vega) dealing with post traumatic stress syndrome. Should be interesting, maybe....
6. Banana Peel- From the description: "Con artist Michel Thibault (a supercool Jean-Paul Belmondo) and a beautiful woman (Jeanne Moreau) lead a gang of crafty criminals in a scheme to relieve greedy millionaire Raymond Lachard (Gert Fröbe) of some of his riches. Set largely across the gorgeous backdrop of the French Riviera, Banana Peel is a breezy early work from director Marcel Ophüls, who later directed the Holocaust documentary The Sorrow and the Pity." Belmondo, breezy French con movie, Ophuls.... I'm there!
7. Police Story- Never seen this trend setting Jackie Chan actioner. Now is the time.
8. Pale Flower- "Director Masahiro Shinoda's high-octane romp finds former jailbird Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) meeting the sultry Saeko (Mariko Kaga) soon after being released from the Big House. But the hard-bitten Muraki hasn't turned over a new leaf, and before you can say "prison reform," he and Saeko are tearing Tokyo apart." Read about this one on a Sonic Youth forum that I sometimes post on... a board full of obscure titles, Japanese hardcore stuff and slasher flicks. The jury is out, but the limited number of Shinoda films on DVD usually means a cult find.
9. Septien- Filmmaker and writer Michael Tully's independent film about a man returning home to his oddball family. I admire his writing, so here's hoping his filmmaking skills are elegant as well.
10. New World- Just listen to this synopsis: "A boy growing up in a French village befriends an American soldier who's stationed at a nearby Army base. The G.I. (James Gandolfini) makes a big impression on the young boy and introduces him to fun, freedom, music and the opposite sex. When the boy follows his dream of becoming a drummer and falls in love with a young American girl (Alicia Silverstone), he's faced with a tough decision." I found my way into this through a search for French filmmaker Alain Corneau's works and it just sounds intriguing.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Moments of 2011

In conjunction with my favorite films of the year list, I offer up some moments out of 2010 films that made an indelible impression on me. Older online buddies will recognize this as a recurring event. This list is a collection of film dialogue, gestures, camera movements, moods or looks and ideas within a given scene. This list is inspired by Roger Ebert's list of movie moments as well as the once great (now dead) yearly wrap up in Film Comment. Possible spoilers so beware!

1. Elle Fanning trying to apologize for her father in a long take, as black and white movie images flash across her face. A star is born…. “Super 8”
2. Shadows fighting on the pavement. “Drive”
3. The look of James Mcavoy as he overlooks the chaos being caused by a president’s body being carried through the street in “The Conspirator”
4. In Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip", Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan exchanging Michael Caine impersonations over breakfast
5. The abrupt way in which Paul (Mimi Branescu) tells his wife that he’s having an affair, and her quiet reaction, soon becoming an explosive confrontation in an astounding 12 minute long take. The Romanian New Wave does it again, creating unbearable tension out of the mundane in Radu Muntean’s “Tuesday, After Christmas”
6. “I feel all gushy down there….” Ellen Page in “Super”
7. The downright disturbing voice captured on a baby monitor walkie talkie in James Wan’s hugely under appreciated “Insidious”
8. The lateral pan following Javier Bardem along a street, over a bridge and then up into the sky as he watches a flock of birds dance in the sky. “Biutiful”
9. In “Take Shelter”, the extremely violent eruption of emotion as Michael Shannon overturns a table at a community pot luck dinner, and the ensuing silence as everyone watches
10. The entrance of Jeremy Irons and his boardroom discussion of what exactly is going on with his company in “Margin Call”. Surely the scenes that a best supporting actor award are made for
11. Through a breath of tears, the way Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) mumbles… “she wasn’t even my type” when telling the story of his overseas affair. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
12. A plane gently crashing into the water. “Road To Nowhere”
13. The night time meeting on a beach between two brothers and a shimmering city poised directly above them…. Something the film has been building towards for over 90 minutes in Gavin O Conner’s lovingly crafted “Warrior”
14. A lost calf quietly dying under a tree and the slow fade to winter time in “The Four Times”
15. The way Michael Fassbender’s body collapses under his own disappointment as he climbs off a woman, unable to make love with her in a hotel room and the way director Steve McQueen frames him just off-center in the next shot in “Shame”. Technique as psychology
16. In “Young Adult”, the little snarl laugh Mavis (Charlize Theron) gives off when asked “what’s wrong” by Patrick Wilson as she stands with coffee spilled on her dress in front of a party
17. The beautifully constructed pawn shop robbery in “Drive”… editing and point of view rendered with utmost clarity. And the camera never even goes inside the pawn shop
18. The final scene in “Carancho”…. a long take of spiraling vehicle crashes and distorted gunfire.. And then a woman (Martina Gusman) trying to resuscitate her lover on the street
19. A terrified glance straight into the camera and then… “what was that guy doing”. Abrupt cut to black in “Martha Marcy May Marlene”
20. “No, he’s not my husband.” “Good because I’m gonna climb that like a tree”. Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids”
21. The point of view shot of a daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) blocked by three bodies as they descend towards her mother in “The Conspirator”
22. A punishing experience from start to finish, but the indelible black and white images of a bombed out city in Chuan Lu‘s “City of Life and Death”
23. A girl crying uncontrollably on the porch. “Putty Hill”
24. A group of women in a 1900 era brothel cavorting and laying around, timed to Lee Moses’ funky tune “Bad Girl” in "House of Tolerance"
25. “Now what”… cut to Pearl Jam. “50/50”
26. The eyes and smile of Emily Blunt in “The Adjustment Bureau”
27. In the midst of Armageddon, a small community dances and enjoys each others company. “Stake Land”
28. A confrontation in the hallway of a burglarized house between John Hawkes and the owner… And the quiet suspense that builds between them. “Martha Marcy May Marlene"
29. Aryton Senna’s mother kissing his racing helmet at a funeral… the image that probably got to me more than any other this year in “Senna”
30. “Margin Call” and Paul Bettany explaining exactly how one spends 1.5 million dollars a year
31. A slow motion fireball engulfing two people as they stare into each other’s eye in Duncan Jones terrific “Source Code”… a sci-fi companion to “Groundhog Day”
32. In the film’s most pivotal moment, a slow tracking shot into a vehicle from across the street, leaving the conversation to our imagination in George Clooney’s “The Ides of March”
33. The complete look of disillusion on the face of a young boy when he sees a variety of phone numbers scrawled on a girl’s hand in “Myth of the American Sleepover”
34. With downtown Los Angeles glimmering in the background of a living room apartment, the Driver (Ryan Gosling) and Irene (Carey Mulligan) exchange a long, pregnant pause… “Drive”
35. Rhoda (Brit Marling) telling a story about a Russian cosmonaut and that persistent thumping coming from his ship… “Another Earth”
36. Smiley (Gary Oldman) talking to an empty chair and the straight stare into the camera…. Talking is the most precious commodity in Tomas Alfredson’s intelligent spy re-working of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”
37. In “Hanna”, the long tracking shot as Cate Blanchett walks up to a car, gun in hand, as it sits at the end of a road in flames
38. The almost paternal relationship over the phone between Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburn in “Contagion”- “when’s the last time you ate something that didn’t come out of a vending machine?” “Taco Bell?”
39. “Courtney, quit f***ing around with those children!” and the absurdity of the opening scene in David Gordon Green's “Your Highness”, a film that I laughed at more than any other this year
40. The nervous jump as a meat clever hits food behind him and a desperate phone call that never reaches Irena (Svetlana Chodchenkova). “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
41. The ten minute storm cellar scene in “Take Shelter” and the crescendo of music as Curtis (Michael Shannon) finally opens the door
42. The lateral pan as Fassbender jogs across owntown New York, and the way the camera patiently waits with him at the crosswalk in "Shame"
43. In "The Descendants", the abrupt kiss on the porch and the stunned look on the face of Judy Greer
44. The t-shirt of Rooney Mara, expressing a very nihilistic worldview. "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"
45. The smash cut onto the face of a prostitute (Alice Barnole) as her face is cut apart... her screams breaking the tranquility of an 1899 Paris bordello. "House of Tolerance"

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Favorites of 2011

Another year, another list. My twenty favorites of the year:

20. Black Death- A big fan of direct to video auteur Christopher Smith ("Creep", "Severance", "Triangle") and "Black Death" may be his best film yet as traveling knights led by Sean Bean confront a town possibly controlled by a witch during the black plague. It looks amazing, stars this one guy that's a dead ringer for a young Klaus Kinski, and controls its atmosphere well.

19. The Robber- A chase film for the cool intellect. A man (Andreas Lust) is released from prison and immediately begins robbing banks again. In his spare time, he runs marathons, becomes involved with an old flame (Franziska Weisz) and stashes his money. The second half of the film is austere and quiet... a characteristic even more remarkable because it deals with a breath taking run/escape from the police. Watch this with "Drive" for a neat double feature. Heisenberg is a major talent to watch.

18. Carancho- Pablo Trapero has the potential to be huge. Like the next Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu huge... if that makes any sense. "Carancho" is an angry, violent film about insurance fraud, budding love and the general state of malaise present in Argentina. Darin and Grusman (who has starred in several Trapero films, notably in his terrific "Lion's Den" as an imprisoned woman) crash into each other figuratively and fall in and out love as Darin plans insurance scams while she works all night first as a paramedic and then in a hospital where fistfights routinely break out because patients housed in the same ER room were fighting before they were admitted. "Carancho" is a bold movie.... and the more I reflect on it the better it becomes. Trapero has serious chops as a filmmaker- just watch the way he deftly handles complicated long takes such as the final shootout or the steamy sexual tension that builds between Grusman and Darin as they dance together.

17. Buck- Cindy Meehl's documentary on the real life horse whisperer, Buck Brannaman, is a gentle thing of beauty. Picking up with Buck as he currently criss-crossses the country, teaching horse classes 9 months out of the year, we slowly learn of his tragic childhood past and the things that keep him living today (namely his wife and daughter). Brannaman himself would have been a singular idea for a documentary with his childhood fame and descent into familial terror, but "Buck" concentrates on the good that emerged from those dark times, namely a serene ability to understand and calm troubled horses. We know its coming the whole movie and when the twenty minute scene where Buck 'talks' to an aggressive colt, it's a shattering moment that only the best documentaries enable.

16. Insidious- Dissonant piano chords, a bleached out, flat visual style and a title card that literally jumps off the screen with aggression… James Wan’s “Insidious” starts out as a slow burn horror movie and evolves into something pretty disturbing. The moments early on- involving the ominous use of a baby monitor and the horrific sounding voice it picks up- more than make “Insidious” an enjoyable haunted house story for people wanting to jump a bit. And then, when Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell begin to explore ideas of astral projection, demon channeling and dream walks into hell in the second half, “Insidious” becomes something altogether terrifying. I give the filmmakers credit for not playing it safe. This is not the usual horror movie and (thankfully) a huge departure for Wan and Wannell with their “Saw” franchise, completely devoid of blood and gore. In the final 30 minutes, “Insidious” travels to some insane places and I found it genuinely unsettling. The most overlooked horror film in years??

15. Senna- The best type of documentary- one that introduces me to a subject or person and exhilarates through image, sound, knowledge and unbiased exploration. Asif Kapadia’s film of Formula One racing legend Ayrton Senna did just that in straightforward, moving fashion.

14. Hugo- Martin Scorsese’s family film is a wonder to behold, both visually and emotionally. Feeling like his most personal work since the documentaries about his mother and father, “Hugo” tells the tale of an orphaned boy (Asa Butterowrth) introduced to the hardships of life by his father’s death and a solitary lifestyle in a Paris train station. From there, Scorsese adapts the story and turns it into fantastical adventure that comments on his own love for the movies, the nature of film preservation and the enduring romance of cinema itself. Ben Kingsley, Chloe Grace Moritz, Sacha Baron Cohen and Christopher Lee (!) lend supporting performances that never tug at the heart, but produce hugely affecting characters. The auteur theory is alive and well.

13. Myth of the American Sleepover- In David Robert Mitchell’s micro-indie “The Myth of the American Sleepover”, the aimlessness of youth and awkwardness of teenage love are given seamless examination. Taking as its starting off point one long summer night on the precipice of beginning high school, it wouldn’t be unfair to mention it in the same breath alongside “Dazed and Confused” or “The Last Picture Show”… films that manage to encapsulate a certain time and mood of expiring childhood. The film follows a handful of teenagers, both male and female, as their various parties and sleepovers migrate and fold across each other. Featuring a host of amateur faces, not only does writer-director Mitchell elicit sweet, honest performances from everyone involved, but the film avoids hard plot contrivances and simply exists. The scene of a boy and girl breaking up through a bedroom window or the visual of a dream girl fading away when a boy sees several phone numbers scribbled on her arm are only the hallmarks of a film that takes its title seriously. “The Myth of the American Sleepover” also provides us with great memories of our moments at this age, checkered by inexperience and a naïve outlook, but ones that we constantly try to re-live as we grow older.

12. House of Tolerance- Bertrand Bonello’s woozy portrait of a brothel in Paris circa 1900 weaves a dreamy spell right from the start and never lets go. Following a dozen or so women throughout their daily routines and their seductive nights with clients could seem like a challenge, but the film’s anachronistic use of soul and rock tunes and the brave performances create a compelling and brooding effect that’s never salacious. Like the best films of Hou Hisao Hsien or Edward Yang, Bonello’s film simply observes in hazy long takes and subtle editing, presenting the changing of an era with grace. And just when one thinks Bonello can’t top himself from the scene of the women dancing to “Nights In White Satin”, the final images are blistering and open up a complex new perception about the entire thing.

11. The Ides of March- The actor Clooney is quickly becoming a cerebral director with this taut political tale that pushes into the foreground the three-card-monty act that enshrines the gamesmanship behind every political campaign. While assuming the role of Governor Mike Morris, a seemingly wholesome figure in a tight Ohio Democratic primary, Clooney is good, but "The Ides of March" has the gusto to create a film not about him, but the various campaign directors and interns that tirelessly work behind the scene. Bottom line, if one goes to see Clooney, than they may be sorely disappointed. In another terrific performance, Ryan Gosling is the real star, bouncing off legendary character actors like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Jeffrey Wright as the election becomes embroiled in sexual innuendo, territorial back-stabbing and the leering press. Through it all, Clooney maintains a steadfast classicism that has become his (early) directorial earmark. It came and went with a whimper, but it deserves to be ranked with stellar, low-key political films such as “The Candidate”.

10. Rapt- Lucas Belvaux’s icy-blooded, austere tale of a kidnapping (which is “rapt” in French) of a French capitalist exhaustively examines the ordeal from every possible angle. Dialogue takes precedence over action, and “Rapt” becomes an enormous chess game between family, corporate employers and the kidnappers themselves as money is haggled over back and forth. Then, the film becomes a procedural as the police carefully try to catch the kidnappers, featuring a stunning sequence as a money drop is tailed from the ground and the sky. Finally, “Rapt” settles into a moral tale of ambiguity as Graf (Yvan Attal) is released and he desperately tries to put the pieces of his now tabloid-fodder life back into place. “Rapt” is a hugely overlooked French gem that staggers through the gamut of great storytelling with poise and conviction.

9. 50/50- Joseph Levine's "50/50" is a fair representation of the Apatow brand- films that confront adult themes with a very childish sense of humor- and then about 30 minutes in it, "50/50" changes into something completely unexpected and overwhelming and smashes that brand to pieces. It's that good of a movie, led by a stunning, genuine performance by Joseph Gordon Levitt who deserves a nomination for his work here. Writer Will Reiser and director Levin know exactly how to frame a story around real emotions, allowing the Seth Rogen style of humor to compliment the touchy prospect of a cancer-ridden comedy while maintaining its austerity to life and survival. Strong supporting performances, especially from Anna Kendrick and Angelica Huston, only heighten the comedy-drama and ground the more romantic elements of the film. With a film so encumbered by the air of death, its a completely life-affirming revelation of a young man's wide open future with a final scene that leaves one gasping for breath.

8. Stake Land- Jim Mickle’s “Stake Land” features some surprisingly tender moments for a film that deals with a post-apocalyptic landscape teeming with feral vampire cannibals. Part horror film and part white-trash western, “Stake Land” exceeds all expectations by creating full bodied characters that we care about, wonderfully timed cinematography that never forgets about the human element in its carnage, and a soundtrack that evokes the coming-of-age duplicity in “Badlands”.Starring Nick Damici (who also co-wrote the film) as Mister, the hard as nails vampire hunter traveling to supposed safe haven up north in a land called New Eden, he encounters teenager Martin (Connor Paolo) and the two form a family of sorts as they trek across the land fighting off the infected and Bible thumping fanatics at the same time. As a genre effort, the film is good, but it’s the attention to humanity and glimmers of hope that propel “Stake Land” above its genre intentions. Just watch the little exchange between Mister and Belle as he carries her when she’s unable to walk…. Or the moments of sweetness that emerge as the group finds a temporary respite in a town circled off from the plague. “Stake Land” will throttle the nerves and supply the obligatory scares, but it also firmly implants a sense of emotional connectivity that far outlasts the horror.

7. Road To Nowhere- Monte Hellman’s complex return to directing after over a decade is insular from the start, with its film-within-a-film concept swerving in and out of reality as a film director stages a recreation of an actual murder case involving a woman (Shannyn Sossamon) who may be the real woman involved in the murder. Honestly, “Road To Nowhere” is less about plot and more about mood, genre and filmmaking as life. Like a David Lynch movie, its reflexive, at times confusing, and wholly mesmerizing from start to finish as if Hellman was breathing this story all his life.

6. Contagion- Soderbergh has always eschewed flagrant emotion in his films, and even one dealing with the very close annihilation of the world as we know it through a deadly virus gets the clinical treatment. Starring a host of big names, “Contagion” expertly tracks the desperate journey of doctors, scientists and military personnel to identify and contain a viral outbreak. Ultimately, the story centers on Matt Damon and his daughter as they experience the daily tribulations, but it’s the cumulative effect of the film that leaves a stunning effect. From its percussive, beating score by Cliff Martinez to Soderbergh’s cheeky visual palette (now a customary and welcome aesthetic tendency), “Contagion” didn’t nearly get the recognition it deserves as a visionary work. And that final scene is a gut-punch.

5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy- Compressing John le Carre’s mammoth spy novel (and subsequent 5 hour BBC mini series) into a tidy 130 minutes is no easy task, but director Tomas Alfredson and crew did just that, maintaining the novel’s intricate narrative while heightening the emotional collapse for several key characters which, after all, was really the point of the novel in the first place. Cinematically and intellectually riveting, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is just my kind of spy movie-starring a lead character (Gary Oldman) whose performance is interior, giving clues only in his cheek reflexes and eyes and refusing to deliver the easy answer and working itself out with only 2 or 3 gunshots. Just brilliant filmmaking…. And one that continues to grow in my mind day after day with its direct opposition to modern slam-bam cinema.

4. Take Shelter- Jeff Nichols delivers another slow-burn thriller about a family coming to shreds in the outskirts of no-where America. As a man plagued by deeply unsettling visions, Michael Shannon gives what is probably his best performance in a long line of them…. And Jessica Chastian (surely the hardest working woman in show biz this year!) as his wife trying to deal with the mental onslaught is terrific. It’s hard to shake the energy of this psychological thriller, especially towards the final 30 minutes which builds to a tension that was palpable during my showing. In 20 years, I get the feeling this will be the film anyone remembers most from this year.

3. Martha Marcy May Marlene- The first of two staggering films this year to brilliantly deconstruct the splintered state of mind of its protagonist (see “Take Shelter”, next), “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is also the year’s best debut. Director Sean Durkin and lead actress Elizabeth Olson (in a tremendous performance) create a haunting portrait about a young woman trying to deal with regular life after she’s been controlled by a family cult of sorts. Slithering back and forth in time with no warning or precedent, the viewer is just as confused at times as it characters, which makes for compelling and intellectually attuned viewing. At times, it’s echoes of Ingmar Bergman-like psychological inspection are stirring, especially since the dynamic between sisters remains elusive. The first four films on this list could be interchanged on any given day… and all justly deserve the masterpiece logo.

2. Shame- Steve McQueen’s oblique character study is a haunting, provocative thing. Michael Fassbender- who for my money along with Jessica Chastain gets the award for hardest working person in showbiz this year- is magnificent as the simmering sex addict whose life of ugly, unfulfilling sex is interrupted by his equally unhappy sister (Carey Mulligan). Directed within an inch of its life with breath-taking opening and closing montages, McQueen’s film doesn’t say much outright, instead expressing its psychology through spellbinding long takes and subtle lens focus. I sat stunned through the entire film, partly ready to justify the acclaim of McQueen since his debut “Hunger” but mostly because “Shame” is a brave, harrowing experience.

1. Drive- From the European sensibility of a provocative filmmaker comes the year’s most sublime American film noir in years. With a soundtrack full of 80’s chill wave retros, Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan enact out a quiet friendship among the fluorescent violence of downtown Los Angeles. Strong supporting performances by Albert Brooks, Ron Pearlman and Bryan Cranston round out a film that’s unique, moving and ultimately thrilling via its abstract beauty and less-is-more narrative. An absolute masterpiece.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

70's Bonanza: Man In the Wilderness

Richard Harris was a badass. With his wisp of white stringy hair, piercing blue eyes and staccato Irish accent, he was a unique talent for decades. In early 1970, Harris reached American acclaim through his performance in the cult classic "A Man Called Horse", followed up a year later in 1971 with "Man In the Wilderness". Mismanaged as a revenge western, both in the poster's tagline and its current home as the second side of a double feature disc with the far inferior film "The Deadly Trackers", "Man In the Wilderness" is a survival film of the highest order. Directed by Richard Sarafian ("Vanishing Point" fame), "Man In the Wilderness" is an almost wordless tale about a hunter (Harris) left for dead and his slow, deliberate recovery in the American frontier West. Like Joseph Losey's "Figures In a Landscape" or Jerzy Skolimowski's recent "Essential Killing", it's brutal nature versus man as he struggles against the elements, hungry beasts and other carnivorous humans... all played out in patient and observational cinematic flourishes.

Taking place in the early 1800's as a fur hunting expedition crosses new territory, Harris is one of the many marksmen promptly mauled by a bear and left for dead by his crew, led by a wonderfully atmospheric John Huston as Captain Henry. In direct opposition to nature's serenity, Huston has his men drag him across the terrain on a boat equipped with wheels. Much like Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, Wrath of God" produced a year later, it's a demanding visual image that plays like a bullheaded ode to manifest destiny superiority of the 'white man' and his encroaching presence in the wilderness. When the two men assigned to watch over Harris flee from the cowardice of approaching natives, "Man In the Wilderness" turns its attention to Harris and his meticulous recovery from death's door. It's fascinating to watch him bury himself in his own grave for warmth or his impromptu animal traps that sustain his eating habits. But through all this, "Man In the Wilderness" is so good because it avoids the obvious conventions of the revenge drama. Cursory scenes are given to Huston and the trappers who fled from Harris' body and the almost superstitious air of menace that Huston feels is lurking in the forest after them, but director Sarafian and writer Jack Dewitt progress Harris as something nobler and better than the lot. "Man In the Wilderness" is a perfect example of understated and overlooked 1970's filmmaking.