The Walking Dead: Season 2 (AMC, 2011-12)

The Walking Dead‘s six-episode premiere season felt like a snapshot of a greater program to come. From a narrative standpoint, the show successfully examined both the collective scope and individual cost of civilization’s rapid disintegration in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. While segments of season one felt incomplete and rushed, The Walking Dead always managed to pay homage to horror/western tropes while making them feel new again, even dangerous. Showrunner Frank Darabont, fired from his post in July of last year, instilled a sense of lived-in dread and solace by advocating a profoundly cinematic style of filmmaking (tracking shots, wide angles, etc.) and effects (such as lens flares) for precise dramatic pacing.

Full review at Slant Magazine 

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A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, 2011)

Soul Meets Body

The films of Canadian director David Cronenberg are a nasty brood, wildly divergent in terms of narrative yet thematically connected by the same obsession with the un(natural) evolution of body and mind. Initially known for constructing some of the 1970’s and 1980’s most harrowing and challenging genre films (ShiversScannersThe Fly), Cronenberg has since evolved toward a more classical, calculated form of storytelling in films like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Despite this shift, Cronenberg’s brilliantly subversive obsessions remain the same.

With A Dangerous Method, a sly and smart examination of the tumultuous Carl Jung/Sigmund Freud relationship during the early 1900’s, Cronenberg reaches the apex of this auteurist progression. His thematic concerns (deformity, disease, repression), once so brazenly represented by external violence or sex, are almost completely internalized in A Dangerous Method, revealed meticulously through longing facial expressions, razor-sharp glares, and extended dialogue sequences. Fittingly, there’s much time spent on the process of relationships, the way people’s perceptions of each other change over time …

Read my full review at SanDiego.com.

War Horse (Spielberg, 2011)

Home Is Where the Horse Is

War Horse is a film of grand scope and of even grander emotions, an old-fashioned ode to a type of “aw shucks” sentimentality that could make you nostalgic for classic Hollywood or just downright nauseous. The titular steed at the center of Steven Spielberg’s laborious epic acts as the pure and unfiltered center to the various human experiences crossing its path, a familiar representation of home and comfort even during the darkest times. Examples range from acts of familial tenderness and sacrifice to the horrific violent specifics of trench warfare in WWI. These vignettes ebb and flow depending on the horse’s changing location, a problematic structure that favors broad narrative strokes yet lacks character development. Unfortunately, War Horse never stays in one spot very long, often rendering it’s drama inert and fleeting…

Read my full review at SanDiego.com.

Kill List (Wheatley, 2011)

Rigorous and uncompromising, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List is the kind of extreme genre filmmaking that will either make you squirm or swoon. I did a little of both. There’s plenty of undeniable precision and talent on display (especially Wheatley’s incredible ear for dialogue), and the film’s thematic underbelly always fascinates. The motif of rotting flesh and scraps is especially telling and grim, some kind of warped allegory to the economic malaise that is referenced a few times in passing.

Brutal violence is the only release in Kill List, yet the act itself only begets more ambiguity, an approach that ultimately culminates in the film’s ridiculously over the top ending. Still, the volatile camaraderie between the two leads (Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley) lends a certain human tragedy to their descent down hell’s rabbit hole. The performances alone are worth sitting through Kill List‘s sometimes inane narrative clues and foreshadowings. Wheatley’s previous film, the truly disturbing gangster/family saga Down Terrace, is a far more compact Molotov cocktail, yet Kill List shows Wheatley growing in ambition, even if that audacity is often grating to a fault.

The Best Films of 2011

In this, my first full calendar year of being professional film critic, I’ve been spoiled by cinematic excellence every step of the way. 2011 has indeed been an embarrassment of riches for any film lover, from the vast collection of foreign and independent titles that struck a lasting cord to even the few Hollywood offerings that resonated. I’ve tried to capture the rush of emotions in the prose below. Some of these capsules are comprised of previous thoughts reprinted simply because I can’t imagine expressing myself better at this point, and others contain fresh analysis. Enjoy and thanks for reading!

1. Mysteries of Lisbon / Raul Ruiz
Rarely does a cinematic experience swallow you whole, but Mysteries of Lisbon, maybe the closest any film has come to being an epic poem, does just that. Chilean director Raúl Ruiz, who passed away this year at the tender age of 70, injects his simmering passion play about hidden identities and repressed memories with a graceful kinetic rhythm, a sense of cyclical movement that allows an ornate 19th-century Portugal to become an ocean of unrequited love and tragedy. It’s a densely layered filmic landscape where textured interiors and sublime natural light surround an array of diverse characters—orphans, priests, soldiers, pirates, aristocrats—torn between emotional duress and philosophical enlightenment. The film’s demanding temporal and spatial aesthetic, captured by haunting long takes and overlapping audio, creates a narrative Rubik’s cube that keeps turning and twisting until each character has been aligned with their necessary fate. Yet despite its four-hour running time and laundry list of shape-shifting players, Mysteries of Lisbon is a breezy cinematic dream, a film that effortlessly mixes grand ideas (national trauma, historiography) with small emotional truths, ultimately revealing how one can perfectly mirror the other. Continue reading