tongue-tied lightning

The Best Films of 2011: #2 The Skin I Live In

I don’t think any of the other films I saw in 2011 ingrained themselves as deeply in my consciousness as The Skin I Live In. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it as I walked out of the theater, wandering aimlessly down the street and into the nearest Thai restaurant. A man behind me idly mused to his spouse “I’m not even sure why the Tiger guy was in the film…” and I thought “Yeah, what was with that guy?” as I tried to see how many shrimp I could fit onto the tines of my fork. But like so many great works of art Almodovar’s film refuses to let you go, coming to mind at the most random of times, begging you to revisit it, making you realize it has appreciated in your mind even without your revisiting it, by simple means of contemplation.

The film is a classic example of termite art, seeming at first to be nothing more than lurid, if entertaining, melodrama, it is at heart a pretty incisive look into gender, identity and female victimization in cinema. I’m not sure I’m capable of exploring that aspect of the film any better than Macrology did here, so I’ll just point you to that post and move on. Never one to hide his influences Almodovar is clearly drawing on Vertigo and Eyes Without a Face but the central “twist” (if you can call it that) lends the film a heightened level of perversity. This is mitigated somewhat by the surgical detachment with which Almodovar observes the proceedings (which isn’t to suggest the film is emotionless, far from it), an approach that also serves to align our sympathies with the Antonio Banderas character, at least initially.

There is so much to discuss regarding this film I really don’t think I can do it justice here. In fact its complexity is what kept me coming back to it again and again, seeing it three times in less than two months. So I’ll just comment on a few things. One of my favorite scenes has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the film, in which a woman’s spurned husband brings his errant wife’s clothing into a consignment store. Grace notes such as this can carry a lot of weight and I think it serves as a pretty direct rebuttal to the critics who claimed the film was humorless. The cinematography is as gorgeous as you’d expect from an Almodovar film and the score is easily one of my favorites of the year. As are the lead performances from Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya, the former returning to the director who made him famous after over two decades. The final scene might also be my favorite of the year, especially viewed in light of earlier interactions between the two characters it features, lending an appropriate underlying perversity to its perfection.


The Best Films of 2011: #3 Drive

Style as substance in the extreme, Drive made for one of the most hypnotic movie going experiences of my life. In theaters I tend to find myself checking the time at least once or twice even during films I’m enjoying, blame it on a low attention span. When the end credits rolled for Drive I awoke as if out of a daze, newly aware of my surroundings, having been engrossed in a world I would’ve gladly spent twice as long in. A world that resembles our own but also that of a fairy tale, underscored by the story of the scorpion and the frog, albiet one filtered through the mind of Travis Bickle.

Drive’s strange magnetism is apparent from the very first scene, a superbly shot and edited getaway. The entire film is composed with a remarkable attention to detail, not just the stunning cinematography and pitch-perfect sound design but little things that engage the audience. Like The Driver’s apparent LA Clippers fandom being revealed as just another aspect of his escape plan. Just when this sequence is easing it’s grip on the audience the opening credits welcome you into its 80’s-inspired swoon, courtesy of Kavinsky & Lovefoxx’s “Nightcall.” At this point I had surrendered to the film and was willing to follow it pretty much wherever it wanted to take me.

Which isn’t to say there weren’t moments that drew me out of my stupor. Touting a strong supporting cast featuring Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, and AMC stalwarts Christina Hendricks and Brian Cranston, acting is seldom an Achilles heel in Drive. That said, Ron Perlman has some cringe-inducing line readings, none worse than when he refers to a call as ‘one motherfucking fine ass pussymobile motherfucker!’ And any review of Drive would be incomplete without mention of the violence. I actually admired how extreme they were willing to go. Long desensitized by action films piling up bloodless bodies as if it’s some kind of contest, it was refreshing to see the extermination of life induce the sickening feelings it should (or at least should have, a guy behind me laughing and saying “he’s going to wake up with a headache in the morning!” was the sole blemish on an otherwise pristine trip to the theater), and if they had to stretch the bounds of reality along the way? So be it.

The Best Films of 2011: #4 Le Quattro Volte
March 18, 2012, 11:47 PM
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For a solid hour while watching Le Quattro Volte I thought I was watching the best film of the year. I was completely engaged watching the trials and tribulations of an aging goatheard and the subsequent struggles of a baby goat becoming acclimated to life in this world. The film follows the voyage of a soul through Pythagoras’s four stages of life (Human, Animal, Vegetable and Mineral) and it’s inevitable that as we observe a tree and it’s eventual conversion to charcoal the subject matters is inherently less gripping. Fortunately, the final two stages comprise only the last quarter of the film’s runtime and they aren’t completely devoid of interest.

All caveats aside, this is a fantastic film. Much like last year’s Sweetgrass, Le Quattro Volte recognizes there is something profound to be discovered in the movements of large quantities of animals over various landscapes. Frammartino’s sense as a visual storyteller is rather adept. Particularly in the first section of the film as he patiently relates his protagonists habits, preparing us for when they are inevitably disrupted. During the second stage the film blurs the lines between fiction and documentary. Certainly the goat’s birth is legitimate and beyond that you wonder how much direction the baby goat was given, or could have been given.

If the dog in the film is any indication, perhaps more than you think. The film’s centerpiece is a lengthy unbroken take in which the dog wreaks havoc on a passion parade passing through the town. It’s a remarkably timed and choreographed piece of silent comedy, for which my appreciation only deepens when I consider the logistics. Le Quattro Volte is a film that quietly contemplates the living things that share the earth as a habitat, the circle of life in a literal way that is made clear at the end of the film. It finds deep meaning in the way we live our lives, the way we relate to our environment and the way both keep finding ways to go on.

The Best Films of 2011: #5 The Tree of Life
March 18, 2012, 11:46 PM
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It’s hard to imagine there’s a film that’s been dissected and torn apart by critics more this year than the Tree of Life, which makes finding something new to say about it rather difficult. I have my qualms with it; the Sean Penn scenes feel disconnected from the rest of the film, the dinosaurs are… dinosaurs and the new-agey climax is perhaps a bit much. The rest of the film, however, is so overpowering that it isn’t hard to cast those concerns aside, to lose yourself in the grandeur of the creation sequence, to become immersed in memories of a childhood that seem all too familiar.

As I sat watching the film in the theater for the first time I remember thinking “this is what memory feels like.” The snippets and reflections, the flights of fancy that couldn’t possibly be legitimate, the imagined experiences of others. If there’s one thing that has stuck with me it’s that Malick seems to have found a cinematic analogue for the way we reflect on life, one that feels completely organic. It’s messiness and density are perhaps endemic to that conceit, as are the tenuous connections and layers of meaning that connect one scene to the next.

There have been hints of something like The Tree of Life in each of Malick’s previous films but this feels like the first time we’ve seen Malick completely unfiltered. The poetry, the melding of voiceover and image that seems so distinctly him was hardly present in Badlands. With each successive film it’s become more imposing, until it exists at the expense of all but the barest semblance of a narrative as it does here. This is one man’s life and ideas poured into what feels like a consummate work of art, and for that it is kind of breathtaking, whatever minor problems I may have with it.

The Best Films of 2011: #6 A Dangerous Method

Jim Emerson did a piece towards the end of last year where he charted the precise moments he fell in love with certain 2011 films. For me and A Dangerous Method that moment was the very second shot. Keira Knightley writhing and screaming, thrusting herself into the corner of the carriage we had just seen racing down the road, in a misguided attempt to break loose of her confinement. Howard Shore’s score feels a little too arch, slightly perverse. As befits a film involving Sigmund Freud, that strain of perversity runs throughout the film. A sense of irreverence for the film’s period trappings. Shots framed slightly askew, attention drawn to Viggo Mortensen’s prosthetic nose, the knowing way in which he’s constantly chomping on his cigar, a precisely timed nip-slip denoting a character’s state of mental imbalance.

It all mirrors the event portrayed in the film, the entrance of Sabina Spielrein into the lives of Jung and Freud and the subsequent introduction of female sexuality into academic discourse. Spielrein is embodied by Keira Knightley in a stunning performance. Her earliest scenes are overwhelmed by bodily contortions, as she physically confines what she perceives as her own perversity. Drawing on great reserves of will to keep it from being dealt with in healthy and natural ways. The performance is over-the-top to the point of discomfort and at the risk of generalization I think in many cases it’s that very feeling of discomfort that has led people to paint this as a bad performance. Cronenberg clearly knows how to handle actors and it’s an insult to assume this isn’t exactly what he wanted on the screen. It’s a clear attempt to create the same feelings in the audience that Spielrein was creating in her peers.

Spielrein is so much the focus of the proceedings that when it steps away and turns to the relationship between Freud and Jung it occasionally loses a bit of it’s momentum. I’ve heard the opposite argued but I find that very difficult to fathom. Also, running at a spare 99 minutes there is a feeling that maybe Cronenberg is attempting to do too much with too little. One wonders what an HBO Miniseries take on A Dangerous Method would’ve been like. But the pleasures here are primarily formal, the way Cronenberg forgoes typical framing, lenses and editing patterns and what he’s trying to communicate by that, it’s a masterclass in mise-en-scene. At the risk of making another generalization and alienating more of you I will say I can only assume those who deride A Dangerous Method as boring are ignoring what’s on the screen and casting their narrow focus towards the page.

The Best Films of 2011: #7 Essential Killing
March 7, 2012, 1:28 AM
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I went into Essential Killing knowing only that it starred Vincent Gallo and was directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, who I had never seen a film by. I was initially put off by the topical aspect of the film, as I find films that so blatantly deal with current events often serve to diminish them which tends to leave them feeling rather trivial. This is perhaps a misguided view (I’m struggling to come up with examples of what I’m talking about) but misguided or not, it’s still a prejudice I hold. So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enthralled by Skolimowski’s tale of a suspected terrorist on the run, fighting for his survival.

Almost entirely wordless and composed of long measured takes Essential Killing seems to progress logically. Examining its character and the events that have taken place and deciding what the next appropriate action would be on behalf of Mohammed. My favorite sequence of the film, and the one that best demonstrates this tendency, has been much discussed but I think it’s best experienced cold so I’ll do my best to tiptoe around the details while assuming anyone who has seen the film knows what I’m talking about. When it looks like Mohammed is about to do something that would completely sever any empathy an audience might bear towards his plight he commits an act that feels both comically bizarre and entirely necessary. While the act isn’t completely innocent, it feels incredibly human and deepens the audiences feeling for him.

Turnarounds like these are what make Essential Killing so engaging from moment to moment. None would be possible without Vincent Gallo’s performance. I’ve never been a huge fan of Gallo’s but it would seem all he’s needed to do all this years was keep his mouth shut. He doesn’t utter a single word during the course of the film, but his command of the film is never in question. For me it was a good introduction to Skolimowski, whose painterly compositions and nuanced view of morality provide plenty of food for thought.

The Best Films of 2011: #8 We Need to Talk About Kevin
February 27, 2012, 7:16 PM
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If we were allowed to break movies up into segments, the first 30 minutes of We Need To Talk About Kevin would have been my favorite film of the year. It’s absolutely effortless filmmaking, bouncing from one memory to another, with an internal logic that connects directly with the viewer’s subconscious. The cinematography is stunning, vast swaths of color (most often red) are thrown across the screen, leaving it resembling a Jackson Pollock. Jonny Greenwood’s score is both unsettling and instrumental to the intoxicating effect this sequence possesses. Another sense subtly overwhelmed to the point of surrender.

It’s inevitable that a narrative begins to emerge, but it’s intriguing to think of the film Kevin could’ve been if it were to remain an immersive barrage of images. The film we do get is nothing to lament. With the sole caveat that as we surface from the dream state it offers viewers a way out. Kevin as he appears in the film is a construct of Eva’s mind and taken at face value his behavior can border on the cartoonish. Likewise, John C. Reilly’s Franklin seems almost impossibly aloof at times. It’s important to remind oneself that these caricatures are colored and distorted by Eva’s experience and even then it can be difficult to reconcile them with our own experiences.

But Lynne Ramsay has never made films that were easily digestible or openly inviting, and We Need to Talk About Kevin only reaffirms her rare cinematic gifts. Despite what some may term narrative missteps there is no denying her masterful mise-en-scene. Of course this review would be incomplete without mentioning another in a series of singular performances by Tilda Swinton, but in the end it comes back to Ramsay and the ease with which she relates her vision. Hers is a talent that shouldn’t have been allowed to sit on the shelf for so long, and we can only hope we won’t have to wait 9 years for her next film.