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

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Shutter Island (Scorsese, 2010)

In the cavernous psychological minefield of Film Noir, one man’s heightened dream is another man’s crushing nightmare. This battle depends on conflicting perceptions of heightened imagery, where diverging states of consciousness shadow-box across the frame until chance or fate permanently mutes the players involved. And throughout the highly stylized cinema of Martin Scrosese, dreamer and demon are often indistinguishable from each other. But Shutter Island, a staggering green flash of style, iconography, and paranoia, might be Scorsese’s most confined exercise in mental entrapment, complicating roles of hero, villain, and ultimately victim. Set in 1954 on a jagged weather torn isle in the Boston Harbor, Shutter Island completely immerses the viewer in the haunting complexities and gaps of Noir aesthetics, yet like all great films of its ilk, strangely connects them to the moral and social ramifications of the War Film. Scorsese’s duality doesn’t just boil down to psychology of character, but genre as well.

Unfolding immediately in mid-moment, Shutter Island disintegrates cinematic formalities with a close-up of U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) splashing water on his face. “Get it together Teddy”, Daniels trembles, visibly shaken by the nautical mode of transportation eroding his comfort zone with every passing second. As Daniels makes his way topside from the cramped underbelly of the ship, the imposing vessel plows through fields of fog like a hot knife through butter, Scorsese dwarfing his lead character in an endless sea of menace. This begins a tonal chess match, one defined by jarring environments and assumptions surrounding Teddy and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). As if to punctuate the sense of uncertainty, Scorsese holds on the pair from afar as they slowly drift toward the titular mental hospital to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a dangerous female inmate.

Narratively, Shutter Island litters scenes with unsubtle symbols and metaphors. Teddy and Chuck storm island just ahead of a massive hurricane, pitting mood against location with all of Scorsese’s patented visual bravado. And the shifty locale springs both natural and human warning signs from all angles, as prisoners convincingly intimidate, orderlies and nurses restlessly rustle, and head physician Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) slyly subverts the investigation at every turn. But Scorsese’s direction favors potent individual moments over general revelations, and the investigation takes a backseat to Teddy’s increasingly vivid, hallucinatory flashbacks regarding his time as a soldier liberating Dachau and most strenuously, images of his dead wife (Michelle Williams) and daughter. Dark shadows creep, rocky cliffs surround, and flashes of bright color shove the narrative into surreal tangents, organically transmitting a current of doubt and deception into Teddy’s crumbling professional facade. Thankfully, Shutter Island inevitably turns inward, moving away from the machinations of the procedural and into the subjective flowering/wilting of memory, guilt, and ultimately redemption.

Despite some gloriously inane twists and an avalanche of exposition, Shutter Island succeeds masterfully in exploring the connection between broken mind and traumatic experience. Noir films, always burning with Expressionist imagery and tragedy, originate from traumatic gallows invariably tied to the terrible experiences of military combat. Scorsese’s moody mind-fuck is no different, except Shutter Island completely devotes itself to the desperate patient, to the conflicted lost cause, to the tainted delusional bouncing off the walls in an effort to break through the pain. In this sense, it’s a rare exercise in extreme genre that turns incredibly personal, devastatingly so. Scorsese has long since mastered the art of exterior rampage with characters like Jake LaMatta or Travis Bickle bulldozing tradition and convention in favor of reactionary formal outbursts. But even during it’s most cinematically virtuoso moments, Shutter Island remains connected to the interior fighter, the many tormented souls hellbent on convincing the world their nightmare is merely a dream in disguise.

Cinema Repeated: Films I Return To, Over and Over Again

In the three years since Match Cuts came online, I’ve found myself returning to certain recent films time and time again, trying to endlessly wrap my mind around them. It’s as if these select few works continue to challenge my understanding about filmmaking, writing, and the world around me, even after becoming incredibly familiar.  They’re often incomplete, mysterious, and confounding pieces, seemingly evolving over the course of time, and my repeat viewings are a direct confrontation with their shifting parts. Yet others resonate so perfectly despite their many flaws that the entertainment value actually increases with each viewing. These might not be masterpieces, or even the best films of their respective years, but they might just be some of my favorites since they continue to fascinate me no matter how many viewings. A small list follows, with thoughts for discussion in anticipation of further evolutions.

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Miami Vice (Mann, 2006) –  Michael Mann’s enigmatic cop film functions as a brilliant and cynical sign of the times, where subversive law enforcement factions fail to nab the big fish in the face of grave social danger, settling for a victorious return to the status quo. The strange digital artifice feels absolutely connected to the cold, blue hues of Mann’s stylized vision of moral ambiguity.

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Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (Tarantino, 2003) – The best modern action film, not simply because the fight scenes are exquisite, but because the entire narrative boils with cinematic intensity. Music, visuals, and dialogue fuse together forming a calculated, masochistic, and breathtaking postmodern mish-mash. The film is a striking first half of a twin genre juggernaut constantly at odds with itself.

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Just Friends (Kimble, 2005) – Makes me laugh like no other recent film. Maybe it’s Ryan Reynolds’ inspired performance, or Anna Faris’ nut-job pop princess, or the vintage slap stick wackiness, but it all adds up to something unique – a modern comedy devoted to character and smarts over gross out set pieces.

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Gangs of New York (Scorsese, 2002) – Brash, brutal, and abrasive, but undeniably compelling. A disturbing vision of our nation beginning from spoils of blood, sweat, and revenge. Scorsese’s strange slice of historiography changes with each viewing, equal parts epic, war film, and melodrama. It’s these shifty tones that force the viewer to re-address the work with different eyes.

Gangs of New York (Scorsese, 2002)

For all its faults (and it has a few), Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York resonates a grandiose vision rarely seen in film. Everything from the layered and colorful period-piece mise-en-scene to Thelma Schoonmaker’s breathtaking editing reveals a certain dynamic attention to cinematic movement within Scorsese’s allegory for the birth of modern day America. Yeah, the film is a mess, but it’s a glorious and mysterious one that builds on the combat of visceral jockeying between actor and camera (the great incarnation here must be Daniel Day-Lewis’ incendiary turn as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, although DiCaprio holds his own). Scorsese’s opus really is a battle between two halves; the first, a prolific origin story of a young man returning home to revenge his dead father, and the second a muddled mesh of historical revisionism and plot elements spinning out of control. Always fascinating, always maddening.

Bringing Out the Dead (Scorsese, 1999)

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A rambling visual feast from director Martin Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson, rapidly paced to maximize the extreme nature of Nicholas Cage’s mental breakdown. There’s so much to admire in Bringing Out the Dead one tends to forgive some of the ambivalent story elements, like the repetitive supporting players and the monotonous character performed by Patricia Arquette. Schrader’s script is deceptively simple, depending on three contrasting partners to counter Cage and his decline. And Scorsese uses John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore masterfully, each serving as a potent double to the film’s conflicted hero. The film contrasts colors in beautiful ways, especially forging vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges against the dark New York City skyline which always holds a menace of mortality on the horizon. Sometimes Scorsese, like Spielberg, can get away with minor glitches more than others because he’s so damn good at directing, and Bringing Out the Dead, while mostly an excellent slice of guilt and retribution, is a prime example of a master craftsman showing his stripes over and over again simply because he can.

Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)

In researching a possible lecture on The New Hollywood of the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, I came to the realization Taxi Driver might be the ultimate incarnation of that period’s angst, contradiction, and beauty. Scorsese uses a distinctly rhythmic and dreamy approach to Travis Bickle’s journey, moving back and forth between cramped close-ups and wide angle vista’s of the NYC cityscape. Both include Bickle in almost every shot, exemplifying his ambiguous psychology and alienation in a world he sees as a sewer. Scorsese also injects some classical Hollywood iconography from the gangster picture to make Bickle’s experience ever more complicated and dire – the prostitute, the pimp, the cabbie, the politician all play a role in defining Bickle’s fate. In the end, Bickle defines these archetypes through the fear, love, and insanity tearing at his soul. Leftist reform movements nor Right wing politicians can serve Bickle’s needs because he is a product of the insecurities and horrors of both, a military man and a humanist, a racist and a savior. Taxi Driver is above all a haunting requiem to the security of a nation’s psyche, which will end up repeating the travesties of the past without realizing the ironies of such horrors. A walking contradiction of rage and honor, Bickle might be the only ostrige sticking his head out of the sand, seeing the world for what it really is, and that’s a scary thought.