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

AFI FEST 2010 (Updated, 11/18)

Here are links to my complete coverage of AFI FEST 2010 over at The House Next Door.

#1: Introduction, Certified Copy
#2: Aardvark, Rubber, The Human Resources Manager
#3: Hahaha, Okie’s Movie
#4: Blue Valentine
#5: Outrage, The Housemaid (2010), Littlerock
#6: Amigo
#7: Heartbeats
#8: 13 Assassins

– Thanks to Ed Gonzalez and Slant Magazine for making this coverage possible.

Two Solutions for One Problem (Kiarostami, 1975)

A short that says more about human compassion and patience in 4 minutes and 11 seconds than any film of recent memory. All young filmmakers should look at this as a model for a successful short program – the combination of simple, one location set-ups, and purposeful, entertaining discourse with plenty to say in very little time. You can view it yourself by clicking on a link at the wonderful film website in the screening log section under Kiarostami Shorts viewed March 11. You’ll see a link to the YouTube address and a rare treat awaits.

ABC Africa (Kiarostami, 2001)

Iranian director Abbas Kiarotami and his small crew travel to Uganda in early 2001 to document the AIDS/HIV crisis and the resulting increase of orphaned children over the past twenty years. While any sort of narrative structure takes a back-seat to experience, Kiarostami focuses on the Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans or U.W.E.S.C.O., which sets up a support system between single mothers caring for orphans, sometimes up to 35 children for each household. U.W.E.S.C.O. establishes groups of women in a community who save money each week, putting funds into bank accounts, shared assets, creating trust between all involved toward a better future. The staggering number of orphans gives you a sense of the plight these people are going through, but you’d never know it from their confident, truly inspiring attitude toward solving the problem. Shot with a loose and fluid camera, Kiarostami’s eye rarely drifts from the children and the people who care for them. No government interviews, no foreign political pundits weighing in, just the smiles and tears of the people fighting this epidemic on the front-lines. ABC Africa fits beautifully next to all of Kiarostami’s fiction films, more an awakening than a plea for help. Moments of clarity abound, including a stunning segment in the middle of the film where the lights of their hotel go out, Kiarostami and his crew stuck in the darkness, attempting to find their way through a complex and difficult situation. Their complaints soon turn to realizations concerning the great human will to adapt and improve, a universal theme throughout the film. Later, Kiarostami’s camera finds a group of children playing in the street, panning up ever so slightly to reveal another smaller boy walking down a path with a bushel of sticks on his head. After another child makes him drop the sticks, the boy swiftly and defiantly picks up the huge stack of wood and continues on his way; an everlasting image of strength and courage. The journey of ABC Africa calls attention to the human element behind the facade of world media coverage and government apathy. U.W.E.S.C.O. realized a long time ago helping themselves would produce a better life than simply waiting to be saved. Kiarostami’s respect for this credo can be seen in his long, revealing takes of the Ugandan people, existing, singing, laughing, and surviving.

Close-Up (Kiarostami, 1990)

The protagonists of Abbas Kiarostami’s films are in constant motion, both physically and emotionally. In Life, and Nothing More…, A Taste of Cherry, and Ten, Kiarostami’s subjects spend almost every scene in an automobile, providing a solitary form of transit deeply rooted in their own mental framework.

In Close-Up, once again Kiarostami begins his story with a car ride, a reporter and two soldiers en-route to arrest a man posing as the famous Iranian director Moshen Maklmalbaf. The suspect has been accused of defrauding an upper class family into believing he will shoot his next film centered around them. But that’s where the central motifs of those others films become complicated. While deeply concerned with themes of transition, Close-Up differs greatly in style because it’s based on an actual event, and it uses real life trial footage as well as composed reconstructions, using the actual participants as actors in a constructed reality.

Cinematic motion, or story moving at a certain related speed to style, comes crashing down as we piece together more of this man’s reasoning for claiming to be an artist. His uncertainty mirrors Kiarostami’s critique of his own “autuer” tendencies, attempting to control every facet of a medium that often misrepresents it’s subjects. Reality, or the breaking down of realism into a conflicted process, seeps into the foreground. Where most of his other works tend to drift back and forth between the magical and the humane, Close-Up looks unflinchingly at doubt within a structured form of film documentation.

Kiarostami continues to develop with his obsessions of movement, hidden pains, doubtful reconciliations, all bleeding together into a personal need to search…for humanity, for art, for fear, and for peace. His cinema rages against simplistic notions of class, often having the poor attempt to understand and reach out to the rich, or the rich show humility and forgiveness to the poor. Time cannot be counted on to reveal the truths in life. Only experience outside the limitation of stereotype can open the doorway to understanding. Kiarostami’s films, especially Close-Up, generously consider how truth and reality often differ. The movies, as for the subject of Close-Up, offer an answer to the contradictions of real life, with the high hopes of finding a way to reveal the truths of varying perspectives.

A Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, 1997)

With this deeply challenging and beautiful film, director Abbas Kiarostami explores the unspoken moments of pain that undoubtedly reside in each personal human experience. Kiarostami’s protagonist, a middle-aged Iranian man named Mr. Badhi, travels around a desert of industrial activity looking for someone to help him commit suicide. He comes across a Kurdish soldier, an Afghani security guard, and a Turkish taxidermist, all providing varying perspectives on Mr. Badhi’s life-ending decision. The ending, a revelation in terms of thematics, breaks down the film’s structure in order to create a new, complex connection between life and the movies.

A Taste of Cherry is the most difficult Kiarostami I’ve seen, mainly because of it’s experimental tendancies toward character development and the abstract ending. Mr. Badhi’s journey begins and ends with uncertainty, something film viewers don’t often like to feel, myself included. But Kiarostami wants his viewer to embrace the uncertainty we’ve grown to fear, reveling in the opportunities it brings to both life and art. Moments of change rarely come easily, especially in film. An intrinsic need to complete, finish, end, makes up much of what present day art codifies. It’s daring for a filmmaker to attempt a different approach in representing emotional and physical shifts, showing us the moments of panic and worry as well as clarity, which inevitably come few and far between. I have a feeling this film will grow with each time I see it.

Where is the Friend’s House? (Kiarostami, 1987)

The cinema of Abbas Kiarostami will be my main focus over the course of the next month. Having only seen a few of his films before my recent viewing of Life, and Nothing More…, I now feel it essential to see as much of his work as possible, mainly due to viewing his brilliant companion piece to Life…, Where is the Friend’s House? Made five years earlier, Where is… tells the story of a Ahmed, an eight year old who mistakenly takes his friend’s notebook home with him after school. Understanding that his friend Mohammed will get expelled if he doesn’t do his homework, Ahmed sets out to deliver the notebook personally, traveling to a neighboring town to find his friend’s home. The set-up is deceivingly simple, but Ahmed’s quest to help his friend represents the most basic principles of humanity, helping out those in need even when they don’t realize help is needed. Ignorance is not bliss.Where is the Friend’s House? parallels Ahmed’s search with a number of adult confidants he meets along the way, namely his Grandfather, a blacksmith, and most poignantly an elderly carpenter. Each represents a mode of changing tradition; the grandfather musing about how Ahmed should be disciplined by beatings every ten days, the blacksmith stealing a sheet of paper from the notebook to write up a business agreement, and the carpenter impressing upon Ahmed his beautiful woodwork done some forty years before. Amazingly, Ahmed’s headstrong diligence stays the course, these teachings and social critiques washing over him with little affect. Ahmed’s mission never falters; he must get Mohammed his notebook. Friendship reigns supreme over these seemingly tedious adult matters, and his simplicity of purpose never becomes simpleminded or selfish. This film makes Life, and Nothing More…, (recap: the fictional tale of the film director from Where is the Friend’s House? looking for the boy who played Ahmed after the Guilan earthquake) even more resounding. I’m almost disappointed I didn’t see them in the reverse order. Both films display a sense of timeless devotion and loyalty often ignored in Western cinema, Where is… giving us a window into a child’s vision of these traits, Life… taking it a step further into the adult world. Seen side by side, these two films celebrate the glories of lifelong selflessness, something rare in our “shoot first, ask questions later” world.