The 20 Best Films of 2011 (Part One)
— By Jose-Luis Moctezuma | December 27, 2011
2011 was a fertile year for festival films, especially for well-established and world-renowned auteurs, a few of whom happened to produce some of their most vital work. Some interesting parallels arose: ruminations on the origin(s) of life contrasted with visions of an apocalyptic nature. The end of the world turned out to be an occasion to reflect back on its beginning. Other films were almost wholly involved in the different valences of the surface, either as an apparition of speed and tactility, or as an asylum from the immanent and consternating depths of the past. As usual, there are a number of films that won’t appear on our list simply because they were unavailable or were not released in time. But we are confident that we have selected among the very best; in fact, there were so many films that we loved, we had to expand the list to 20 entries (from last year’s 10). So, without further ado, here is the first part of Hydra Magazine’s Top 20 Best Films of 2011 (for Part Two, click here):
In a summer made dreadful by a horde of subpar actioners and fatuous spectacles, Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins was something of a godsend. Miike has pulled off nothing less than an old school classic, one that proudly dares to insert itself in the worn-out samurai genre. Though 13 Assassins is a remake of a 1963 film of the same name (which was itself yet another exercise in jidaigeki themes that were in heavy circulation during the period), the inevitable comparisons to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai are unavoidable. But Miike’s film stands separately, in homage to its obvious paternity, and its deference is shown, ironically, in the unfettered outbursts of ultra-violence that so distinctly mark a Miike film. A born iconoclast, Miike sticks to what he knows: brutality, ultra-violence, human cruelty. Cartoonish cruelty, indeed, the kind of cruelty that would characterize a comic book villain at his most parodic. The plot line is cold, simplistic, reducible to black-and-white binaries: something akin to the logic of a 12-year-old boy playing with his action figurines and constructing a highly ornate battle sequence in which the highest possible body count piles up.
Reduced to its fundamental parts (a preternaturally sadistic prince abuses and terrorizes his subjects at his every whim, so a group of 13 samurai are secretly gathered in a conspiracy to kill/stop him at any cost), the plot goes no farther than “good guys go after the bad guy” — but this is precisely the reason why 13 Assassins works so well: it wastes no time to get to the meat of the action, of which the centerpiece is the 40+ minute final battle scene in which the 13 samurai take on an army of 130 soldiers. Part of the pleasure of the film is in discovering how the 13 manage to level their odds: where Seven Samurai quite famously developed engaging storylines by involving the villagers in the operation of the makeshift battle fortress they construct alongside their samurai protectors, Miike and his screenwriters, perhaps sensing their inability to recreate such a highly inimitable plot structure, choose to forgo too much exposition and dive right into the visual surprise of trick-shot battle tactics (but this is probably more due to the inherent design of Kaneo Ikegami’s original screenplay). A young boy’s fever dream undoubtedly, but one whose execution puts to shame the current stock of action and superhero films that are being made with three times the budget in Hollywood now (that said, there was probably no better pure summer action film than this one in 2011).
Manoel de Oliveira, as has been abundantly remarked upon, is still making films at the tender age of 103. Not only has he managed to continue working steadily since directing his first film in 1927, he has been producing films at a rapid pace. The Strange Case of Angelica, following quickly on the heels of its companion piece, Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (2009), only confirms the suspicion that Oliveira won’t be quitting anytime soon. Angelica is filled with a literary allusiveness that saturates its many frames and interiors. Beginning with a quotation from Antero de Quental and propelled by the verse of José Régio, the film covers a wide expanse of literary-historical landscape: it feels both antique and contemporary at the same time, like a 19th century short story furnished with the techno-aesthetic novelties of the early 20th. Angelica centers itself around the reanimating wonders of photographic art, but its fable concerns itself with the encroachment of the cinematic on a chimerical world divided into a series of rooms, frames, and landscapes. Interiors in Oliveira’s film seem to denote an artificiality made resplendent only through controlled light and photography, balanced on the other hand by the naturalistic landscapes of plein air scenery (most notably in several passages when the photographer, a young man named Issac [played by Ricardo Trepa], shoots pictures of day laborers singing and working on a hillside farm). If some feel that the film’s peculiar pacing carries an artificial dryness bordering on the unreal and the corny, I would answer that its strangeness relies precisely on this dryness and artificiality which Oliveira meticulously builds up frame by frame — Angelica‘s atmosphere of muted washed-out colors, anachronistic knick-knacks, and old portraiture only makes necessary the odd Méliès-style special effects that suddenly, but tastefully, lift the two dream lovers into the ether of early cinema.
Yet, in a brilliant stroke of Herzogian ambiguities, all these speculations are problematized by the cyclic movement of a deeper and richer penetration into the cave paintings themselves–of ash-drawn deer, tigers, bulls, red human hand prints, and even human-bulls, hybrids–all represented in movement, flux, the ceaseless flow of composition and decomposition within the chaotic pulse of the natural world. Perhaps the difference which marks human beings off from other species consists in our oscillation between our ability to represent fixed, simple identities, and our opposing ability to dissolve ourselves into the tumultuous flow–into the oneness of the natural world in which we live. Herzog expertly demonstrates that the medium of film is precisely the kind of art that can work through these tensions underwriting the vital dance of appearance and disappearance. And he pulls off an extraordinary piece of work in turning his reflections from the origins of human art to the medium in which it finds a horizon, and destination, today, all situated against the shadow of a nuclear facility just down the river from the cave of forgotten dreams.
In contrast, the Claire section is impressively subtle and affective. Gainsbourg does an excellent job bringing real pathos to her performance. Though we are meant to be critical of Claire, who wants only to sit on the terrace with a nice glass of wine and what’s left of her family—(and they will have a little Beethoven playing in the background as they go!)—her sincerity, as empty as it is, is itself moving. As is the care she takes in selecting the perfect piece of chocolate for Justine, the person least likely to care, and the arrangement of the flowers by her bedside, and her futile attempts to take her young son somewhere, anywhere, as the world ends. She loads him into the golf cart and drives—fast—towards what? It doesn’t matter, but she needs to feel as if there’s a point to the driving. As she scurries around like an insect about to drown in a deluge, Justine looks on with digust. Now it is Justine who is the villain, not the planet careening through space to destroy our own. And through this, the ending offers a splinter of comfort. Justine, the ultimate nihilist, nevertheless offers something that is the closest thing to a revaluation of ritual that we will get out of von Trier. We will go on building our magic caves.
– Anelise Chen
Miss Bala sends up a scathing critique not merely of the political corruption that has infiltrated both sides of the US/Mexico border zone, but most importantly of the patriarchal control mechanisms that force the heroine (an aspiring beauty queen who quite unfortunately gets caught up within the vicious power flow of the meta-structures that support and protect Mexico’s insatiable drug cartels) to move against her will from one space of enclosure to another. Her tormentor, the cartel man-of-all-trades Lino Valdez (played with icy relish by Noe Hernandez), is Deleuze’s monetary serpent, an indefatigable, “undulatory” anti-hero kept in power by a nominal yet complicit system of law. The irony of course is that the heroine, Laura Guerrero (played by Stephanie Sigman), gets to have what she most desires: she is crowned a beauty queen exactly because she has willingly bought into the social control mechanisms that restrict and reduce women down to trophies to be won. It is by permeating every level of social enclosure, especially within the realm of aesthetic valuation, that “corruption…gains a new power.”
Before the violent turning point, the anonymous “driver” or “kid” played brilliantly by Ryan Gosling suffers through at least half an hour of emotional awakening, stirred from the solipsistic confines of his shiny, enclosed vehicle, to the outwards overflowing of love for his too cute neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and his growing affection for her young son. I’ve already followed this propulsive narrative in terms of the stunningly beautiful synth-pop soundtrack, which sonically provokes the cosmic expansion of the driver’s emotional sphere from an enclosed world of solipsism, but something is left to be said of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s play with themes of the human and machine, mechanical labor and violence, love and war. After all, the driver is a mechanic by day, a stunt devil during the fringes of his workday, and an amazingly expert get-away driver mercenary in the dark hours of the neon-lit night. His dawning love interest doesn’t so much pull him away from mechanical labor as transform his nuanced precision into even more incredible feats, expressed in what could count as heroic or even superhuman acts of violence, on the level of wars waged in epic romance, against those who threaten what’s gathered into his emotional sphere or resonance. But back to the soundtrack, you can now listen to two hours worth of Johnny Jewel’s unused tunes for an “imaginary film.”
Kiarostami’s skill in writing a role for Binoche so purely in her own voice demonstrates something of the pan-universality of his vision. The final image of the art professor gazing in disbelief at himself in the mirror, as he contemplates the strange and fortuitous authenticity which his situation has undertaken (is this really happening? why am I here?), while church bells play in a Tuscan background colored by the warm light of sunset, punctuates the essential Kiarostami technique of building up a film from the retrospective angle of its ending: one feels that the ending had been written first, before the scenario shaped itself into a discourse on the nature of the “copy”, authentic and inauthentic. One reviewer has astutely observed that Kiarostami’s thesis that European culture is itself a simulation, a copy, of the Antique, as opposed to being anything “original” or unique, testifies to the director’s outsider privilege of being an Iranian: Kiarostami’s insight into European society enjoys a perspective equal to that of a dispassionate man viewing a mysterious young woman suddenly vanish out of sight as she walks into a grove of olive trees spread out in a valley below.
Much like Kubrick’s masterful Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Shame has been grossly misunderstood: surface is everything because depth is lacking (or has become intolerable, fearsome), and urban space remains a constricted and evasive subjectivity for a man who has grown used to a self-imposed prison (a striking parallel to Hunger is notable here). Both films, Kubrick’s and McQueen’s, take place largely at night, in a New York City that seems to be lit from within like a permanent red light district, and both share the same thematic qualities: sexual longing often ties into a conflicted (and Freudian) past, one which may never be revealed except through a descent into the infernal machine of memory. Part of Shame’s highly skilled orchestration (particularly in handling such a difficult, unglamorous subject) lies in how McQueen circumvents the paucity of his scenario through a rapturous attention to discrete angles and hypertextured details. Things and faces are always going out of focus because faces have become things, and things have attained faces, orifices, vocal cords.