Tuesday, January 31, 2012

As Time Goes By: 2011

When I made my first attempt at writing this post, the new year was only two days old and I had already seen two great movies (Drive and Poulet Aux Prunes) that serve as a good starting point for writing about some of last year’s favorites. I found it harder to compile a top ten list than in previous years – especially since many of the movies that impressed me most in 2011 were older ones. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen a lot of good new releases but there weren’t too many truly exceptional ones. I’ve continued my personal journey through Italian Cinema which led me to (re-)discover Vittorio De Sica and especially the literary adaptations by Luchino Visconti.  

What I love about movies
Emotional reactions might be provoked by a great performance, a strong script or a personally resonant topic. But many of the truly magical moments in film history are achieved by what Hitchcock famously called “pure cinema”, the perfect match of image and sound. It might be true that I want to see believable characters in a movie, but the real reason I’m addicted to cinema is the sensation of moments like the one in Vertigo (1958) where the camera encircles James Stewart and Kim Novak while the trance-like music expresses his conflicted emotions. Music in fact, is the key to many of these moments. Just think of Once Upon a Time In The West (1968), a film of so many purely cinematical moments, it has been called a "horse opera". 

Nicolas Winding Refn’s atmospheric neo-noir Drive now proves that such operatic moments even work with terrible synthesizer music if it captures the mood of a scene. After all, it’s the dreamlike quality of slow tracking shots and slow motion – two devices unknown to real life – that send chills down my spine when used correctly.

On the other hand, Drive with its taciturn protagonist is also built around scenes of subtle and restrained acting best demonstrated in a scene between the Driver and the girl next door that vibrates with emotion even though Ryan Gosling hardly says a word and Carey Mulligan is simply seen breathing. At the same time the Driver reminds us of all the failing anti-hero of so many film noirs which I love more for their style and mood than for their sometimes nebulous stories.

Some of film noir’s chief stylistic elements are voice-over narration and in some cases subjective flashbacks. Both devices lie at the heart of Poulet aux prunes, French-Iranian graphic novel writer Marjane Satrapi’s first live-action film (with animated sequences, of course), which deals with chronology and time in an associative way.

Set in an artificially lit fairy-tale Iran of the past we experience the bittersweet life story of a violinist. The performances by the great Mathieu Amalric and Golshifteh Farahani are as stylised as the setting which reminded me of a time where films didn’t have to adhere to the dictates of realism to evoke true emotions. Many of John Ford’s sentimental family sagas come to mind.

Last but not least, two cameos by Chiara Mastroianni and Isabella Rossellini, and the direct homage to Fellini’s Amarcord (1974) evoked fond memories of many Italian films I’ve seen last year.

If you look at my lists below, you may see that what I liked about Drive and Poulet aux prunes can be found in many of my favorite films of 2011. 

The movies I loved in 2011
The most outstanding film I’ve seen in 2011 was rather unexpected: 
  • Nader and Simin: A separation (Asghar Farhadi): urban realism at its best – it remains a mystery how Farhadi manages to show us so many lifelike characters who find themselves in about every moral dilemma in a story that offers as many unexpected twists and turns in only a little more than two hours.
Ten more favorites in alphabetical order: 
  • Another Year (Mike Leigh): one of this year’s most deeply felt films was also one of the simplest and unspectacular. Like visiting old friends.
  • The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies): Terence Davies’ Ratigan adaptation follows a musical structure with allusions of Lean’s Brief Encounter.
  • Des Hommes Et Des Dieux (Xavier Beauvois): A group of France’s foremost character actors and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake moved me to tears.
  • Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick): Even if he hits a few wrong notes, Terrence Malick is still a master storyteller as far as marrying images with music goes.
  • Submarine (Richard Ayoade): A moody coming of age picture in an eerie time capsule that evokes the 60s and the 80s at the same time accompanied by present-day songs.
  • Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky): Aronofsky finally made a crowd-pleaser without sacrificing his personal film making style.
  • Satte Farben vor Schwarz (Sophie Heldmann): One of the many films that revolved around old age and selfimposed death. As distancing and unsentimental as can be. I only appreciated it after noticing how long it stuck in my mind.
  • Pina (Wim Wenders): Wenders’ art house documentary in 3D sparked my interest in free dance. My eyes had time to wander around the threedimensional space which is something that isn’t possible in most current 3D films.
  • Polisse (Maïwenn): A dense film about a Parisian youth police unit that makes you laugh and cry at the same time.
  • La Piel Que Habito (Pedro Almodovar): not Almodovar’s best but a very rigid piece of cinema. Like a dense art house nightmare which reveals what lies at the core of so many Almodovar films when you take away the warmth and humanity.
Special mentions go to the Coens’ incredibly faithful adaptation of Portis’ True Grit and the only animated feature that really stuck with me last year: Une Vie De Chat by Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol. I did like the fierce colors and design of Kung Fu Panda II and enjoyed Kari-gurashi no Arietti by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a decent if not exceptional descendant of Miyazaki’s works.
Although 2011 was a dreary year for fans of Asian films (at least in Switzerland), I have seen many classic Chinese animated films on DVD. I regret not having had time to write about them properly yet (and thus letting down the person who gave them to me). Interesting however they were, not one of them came close to the best live-action films I’ve seen this year.

My top ten (re-)discoveries of 2011:
  • Do the right thing (Spike Lee, 1989): if Spike Lee had only done one film it should have been this one. As brimming with energy as on the first day. Explosive and timeless.
  • El espiritu de la colmena (Victor Erice, 1973): a poetic Spanish meditation about life, cinema and the visual metaphor of a beehive. Lit like an oil painting.
  • Il Gattopardo (Luchino Visconti, 1963): a monumental classic I’ve shunned away from for a long time. I’ve discovered a masterpiece and a brilliant performance by a dubbed Burt Lancaster.
  • Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954): can a B-Western starring Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden ever be more fun?
  • L'Armée des ombres (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969) / Le Deuxieme souffle (1966): Melville directs Lino Ventura and Paul Meurisse, majestic, taciturn, visual and depressing.
  • My darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946): John Ford and Henry Fonda at the top of their game.
  • Out of the past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947): if ever there was a truly romantic film noir, Robert Mitchum was certainly in it…
  • Some Came Running (Vincente Mintelli, 1958) / The Band Wagon (1953): Two long awaited Minelli classics in Technicolor with sequences for eternity.
  • Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976): Scorsese, Schrader, DeNiro and Herrmann. Irresistible.
  • Una giornata particolare (Ettore Scola, 1977): an instant all-time favorite. As if Kubrick had directed In the mood for love.