Tuesday, November 13, 2012

2011 in Review: My top 10 of the year

originally posted on Jan. 1, 2012

This year’s cinema has left me with so many striking images I can almost combine them into a movie in my head. It’s probably going to be an incoherent hodgepodge, but who knows. Those images might somehow find a way to coalesce into an uneven, but understandable, narrative, with some kind of overriding theme that could resonate with viewers, such as: the hollowing out of the American middle class; loyalty and betrayal; depression; an individual’s victory against all odds; a girl in trouble; or the apocalyptic dread and ripple effects of a pandemic.   

Let’s start with a man huffing and puffing his way toward a wee better life: WIN WIN opens with Paul Giamatti’s Mike Flaherty on a morning jog in a yellow hoodie, soon outrun by a couple of fellow runners. With triumphant performances by Giamatti and Amy Ryan, Tom McCarthy’s third feature is an exemplary execution of the three-act structure most dramatic screenwriters abide by.

Another man hunkier and in better shape than Flaherty and who’s also on the run for a win is Billy Beane, convincingly portrayed by Brad Pitt in MONEYBALL. On one hand, it appears to be about establishment versus revolutionary idea, old generation subsisting on experience and instincts versus game-changing, ambitious new generation; on the other, it digs deep in flashbacks into the underdog baseball team’s general manager, whose last-ditch effort to turn the team’s fortune around on the back of sabermetrics, or “gimmicks,” mirrors an unattainable lifetime goal of his.

And we have a running orphaned hero hailing from 1930s Paris called Hugo Cabret. The world he lives in lies inside the walls of a train station. And it’s also a secret world where he learns to run clocks, sneaks peeks of a bigger, warmer world outside, dreams of finding home out there, and teaches himself an invaluable lesson: every single component of a mechanism exists for a reason. Martin Scorsese, in HUGO, his first venture into 3-D and also family film, creates this mechanical universe with his usual imaginative virtuosity and tender glimpses of all the characters, from cold-hearted station inspector to flower girl to newspaper seller, and connects the orphan’s rags-to-riches story with a loving ode to the early days of cinema, especially to George Méliès who’s rendered sympathetic and unforgettable by Ben Kingsley. It’s about finding home and purpose, and about memories once lost and eventually found, hearts once broken and, after decades of pain, fixed.

Not all men in 2011 cinema are on the run and out of breath, however. Ryan Gosling’s almost mythological protagonist, Driver, is mostly seen behind the wheel in DRIVE, eerily calm and collected, save for the rare unleash of a latent monstrousness. In it, Nicolas Winding Refn offers an existential, exorbitantly romantic and violent road trip redolent of neo-noir urban thrillers decades ago. It tiptoes on the boundaries of pastiche, but intentionally so. As inundated as this year’s cinema has been with love letters to the cinema, this may well be also considered homage to filmmaking, if limited to the aforementioned genre. When the opening credits appear scribbled in hot pink, buckle up, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.

But then again, everyone seems on the run in every direction in Steven Soderbergh’s alarming and efficient pandemic thriller, CONTAGION. Its multi-strand narrative and the constant, effortless intercutting between the multiple arcs evoke the havoc that a pandemic of yet unknown origin is wreaking around the globe. Cliff Martinez’s chillingly menacing score amplifies the immediate urge that the movie causes you to wash your hands upon coming out of the theater.

Among those delicious delights, however, unflinching, ass-kicking, multidimensional, and unforgettably idiosyncratic heroines have been such a rare sight in theaters this year. Some would tout as an example a feel-good sleeper juggernaut The Help or Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s much-hyped reunion Young Adult, but I think they’re rather acting vehicles for their ensemble casts—I’d personally single out Viola Davis and Charlize Theron, respectively—than all-around cinematic monuments.

Yes, in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, an adaptation of Steig Larsson’s international bestseller masterfully crafted by David Fincher and his usual collaborators, Rooney Mara certainly kicks some ass, both literally and figuratively, but I wish writer Steven Zaillian had delved further into Lisbeth Salander and penned a more focused character study, instead of staying faithful to the book, though Mara left an almost semi-permanent imprint on me as a vulnerable victim armed with an outwardly tough shell. Another solidly written heroine in a good, but not mindblowingly great, film is Saoirse Ronan’s Hanna in Hanna. Speaking of girls in trouble, Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene, a psychological thriller debut by Sean Durkin with a daringly ambient approach, excels in subtle displays of innocence, paranoia and deeply ingrained trauma. (Martha Marcy, by the way, ranks #11 on my 2011 list). Mia Wasikowska also gets my honorable mention for her delicate interpretation of the most famous self-assured Victorian heroine in Jane Eyre.

Ultimately, however, it’s Michelle Williams’ second collaboration with Kelly Reichardt MEEK’S CUTOFF that tops my best films with the most awesome heroines list. Its aspect ratio, color scheme, compositional and framing choices all bolster its thematic resonance. Shot after shot observes a group of settlers trudge across an endless parched desert. Despite the minimal dialog, those shots are, in fact, loaded with information: the horseback riding guide Meek’s red shirt, his followers’ inconspicuously colored clothes that almost blend into their arid surroundings, the clear distance between the husbands and wives while the former interrogate an Indian, the wives’ mounting skepticism over Meek’s credibility and dominance, and contrasting scenes where one of the wives, Emily, tries to talk the Indian into helping them find water, whereas Meek resorts to physical violence. And of course, this revisionist western’s most striking image is the Mexican standoff between Meek, Indian and Emily. It’s not just a blatant feminist argument wherein the female protagonist questions male authority; it also reaches beyond the confines of the biological sex differences. See: a shot in which Paul Dano’s character, just like what Emily does later on, attempts to communicate with the Indian while the other men’s faces are out of frame.

Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic downer with a happy ending, MELANCHOLIA, features two sisters Justine, a depressed bride, and Claire, fidgety and fearful of a collision between the planet Melancholia and Earth. Justine’s Part One takes a nauseatingly wobbly stride into Claire’s house; Claire’s Part Two watches the menace of the impending world’s end creeping up on the sisters, Claire’s scientist husband John and their son. Von Trier mocks the desperate flailing of human reason embodied in John played by Kiefer Sutherland, but at the same time relies on human sensibility for the proper appreciation of the stunning scene where Justine bathes in the light of Melancholia, secretly welcoming the annihilation of life.

The universe and humans find another special way to communicate with each other in NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT, Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán’s crusade to remember the past. Shots of a towering telescope tilting up to stargaze are followed by shots of dust particles. The star dust, then, leads to the Atacama Desert, whose climate allows mummification of human remains and where political prisoners of the Nixon-endorsed 1973 Chilean coup d'état were killed and buried. Guzmán parallels astronomers and archaeologists’ exploration of the past and the bereaved families’ relentless search for traces of their loved ones. As much as it’s easy to be awestruck by the splendor of those beautifully captured celestial bodies, it’s hard to suppress a surge of tears watching the victims sitting helplessly on cruel stretches of sand while latching onto a glimmer of hope.   

A cinematic quest for the relationship between man and nature continues in TAKE SHELTER, Jeff Nichols’s second feature about a working-class family man, Curtis, who suffers from paranoia. For him, nothing is more frightening than the very thought of losing his family because of his mental distress. Up until his climatic breakdown, he takes every rational step to get to the bottom of his symptoms, but the camera gradually presses in on him as his condition gets worse, putting an enormous strain on his relationships with his best friend and then his family. The movie reaches into viewers’ consciousness especially because a bottomless pit of anxiety, its unknowable causes, and the fact that it drains the life out of a nondescript middle-class guy are reminiscent of our own tough times. Nichols’s slow-burn suspense peaks when a deranged Curtis refuses to open the shelter despite his wife’s pleas. With Jessica Chastain’s strong support as the wife, Michael Shannon as Curtis turns in a truly inspirational performance.

So here are my top 10 of 2011:
10. Contagion
9. Win Win
8. Moneyball
7. Melancholia
6. Drive
5. Meek’s Cutoff
4. Hugo
3. Nostalgia for the Light
2. Take Shelter

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