Here now are Hydra Magazine’s top ten films of 2011:
10. The Tree of Life — dir. Terrence Malick (USA)
Despite my reservations
about the film’s overly ambitious (and, consequently, hugely flawed) reach, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life
is undoubtedly one of the major cinematic touchstones of 2011. Its core mechanics are indeed of a virtuosic kind, and no one can argue that there were not moments of permanent splendor in its richest passages. Odd as it may seem, The Tree of Life
plays as the other side of the coin to the other talking point of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia
(a film which, if it isn’t obvious enough, shares far more genetic traits with Malick’s opus than would be believed). Melancholia
concerns itself with the end of the world, while The Tree of Life
posits its beginning (and also something hinting at its transcendental continuation, an afterlife of screen-savory images not unlike von Trier’s slow-motion fantasias of death). Both films are bookended by hyperbolic set-pieces that dabble in cosmic effluvia, and both gratify their respective directors’ aesthetic indulgences: Malick’s Emersonian idealism offers a positive counterpart to von Trier’s Wagner-overdosing nihilism. But what sets apart Malick’s film from von Trier’s latest (and most other films this year) is the brazen cine-grammar Malick (along with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) employs to come into close proximity with the inner workings of human memory and actual experiential cognition. A broken, voluminous, highly prolix grammar, but a Malikian grammar nonetheless, one which promises future triumphs (or which has given us sublime endings
) once the venerable American director manages to condense his technique of mass particle acceleration into a manageable (and far less unwieldy) sphere of attractions. As one reviewer has said it before, somewhere submerged under the hours and hours of footage Malick and his dedicated crew graphed on film, there very possibly might be an authentic masterpiece, the “true” Tree of Life
removed from its cosmic posturings, and brought closer to the lifeblood of its actual mission: the (therapeutic) anatomization of the American family unit during the 1950s.
9. Nostalgia for the Light – dir. Patricio Guzmán (Chile/Germany/France)
The thirst for cosmic presence, cosmic relevance, is one that does not leave us even when we are at our most ordinary and vulnerable. The Tree of Life’s analeptic urgency demanded something of an escape into cosmic refraction, but where it seemed to stumble upon the insurmountable obstacles of New Age aesthetics, Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light (its title borrowed from a book by astronomer-poet Michel Cassé) succeeds in restricting its intellectual and emotional interests to symmetries of a less ornamental nature. The Atacama Desert in Chile is the driest desert on earth; for reason of its dryness and clarity of air, it is the site of two different (and seemingly unrelated) activities: its high altitude provides the ideal atmosphere for the research of two major astronomical observatories, from which distant galaxies are glimpsed and studied; but the desert’s vastness was also, tragically, the preferred dumping site for the assassinated political victims of the murderous Pinochet regime. The search for distant stars and planets instantly absorbs into itself the (self-same) search for the murdered victims of a grievous (and terribly recent) political past. If the stars and planets are the effects of a million years gazing back at us, then our own contemporary present is nothing less than a fleeting illusion, the momentary trace of astral states depleted long ago. An archaeology of memory, of the past that cannot, must not, be abandoned, hence, assumes a magnitude equal to that of the pain and voracious desire to know, which drives mothers, scientists, sisters, and astronomers to locate their celestial origins in the mineral sleep “of what is past, or passing, or to come.” The mournful search for the bones of the dead, beneath a moisture-less sedimentation occasionally sprinkled by the salt of fallen, minuscule teardrops, finds resonance in the daily, patient work of lonesome astronomers. Thus, “the calcium which we carry in our bones, the bones which the dead offer up to the living as consolation, is the same calcium that the farthest stars are made of, the same dust that has fallen over eons on the crust of the Atacama, and which has shaped constellations out of the remains of prehistoric man.”
8. Meek’s Cutoff — dir. Kelly Reichardt (USA)
Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff
unravels with very little exposition; dialogue is muttered almost inaudibly, as if we were accidentally stumbling upon the middle of someone else’s conversation. Natural sounds blend in with human voices, sounds that describe the economy and daily chores of living permanently on the road: wind passing through blankets on a makeshift clothesline, spoons tapping and scraping on metal plates, the crackle of someone lighting a pipe or stoking a campside fire, the murmur of a devout woman reciting Bible verse, her husband splashing water in his face in the light of early morning. Events occur strictly on the plane of the immediate present, irregardless of the overtly historical character of the costume and proceedings — we are somewhere near to, but also very far from, the Oregon Trail, and we, along with a small group of emigrants traveling on a harsh wagon road known to posterity as the Meek Cutoff
, are lost in the blank unfolding of the present, bewildered by the vast openness of the road and humbled by our incapacity to perceive anything more significant than the sight of the mute sun rising, and setting early, on a monotonous and water-starved landscape. Reichardt makes no effort at romanticizing or mythologizing the pastness of the past, and for this reason Meek’s Cutoff
circumvents the fictitious retro-feel nostalgia that too many latter-day westerns fall into. Meek’s Cutoff
is as urgently contemporary (and as urgently local) as Reichardt’s previous film, Wendy and Lucy
(2008), was: the Oregon depicted in both films constitutes a being-lost-in-the-present which is timeless and indelible. Meek’s Cutoff
is undoubtedly Reichardt’s greatest achievement yet, and as an exercise in the western genre, it offers the wide-screen spaciousness and cinematographic richness that all orthodox westerns are known for. But what makes Meek’s Cutoff
truly original is its rigorous use of atmosphere: its sonic absorption of environmental pressures and aleatory forces produces passages which hint at but never fully reach a kind of hermetic enlightenment.
7. The Kid with a Bike — dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Belgium/France)
The Dardennes’ The Kid with a Bike
joins the ranks of the cinema of troubled childhood. One catches the structural reference to Maurice Pialat’s L’enfance nue
(1968); but also, more subtly, to Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows
(1959) specifically in an engrossing, lengthy tracking shot of the titular boy riding at hellspeed through a feverish night on his beloved black-and-chrome bicycle. There are also touches of the Bressonian (the Dardennes have reached a level of editing which, I am willing to argue, finds close equivalency to the middle period of the French pastmaster) — notably in the elegant swells of the beginning phrase of the adagio in Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 5
” — a phrase always expertly inserted at moments of pristine clarity, in the form of elegant punctuation. Yet for all these touches of refinement, the film is rightfully and painfully brutal, and the lead actor, Thomas Doret, undergoes a grueling apprenticeship in the cinema of physical turmoil.
The film begins with the titular boy, named Cyril, in frightful motion and anxiety; he is always, in the picture, moving, sometimes against his own volition and, as it were, in search of an anchor or a wall that would arrest or wreck him — to Cyril it is all the same, he hazards his life repeatedly, because he cannot be stopped, or he cannot prevent himself, from accelerating incessantly forward. In one of the film’s final images, we receive the rewarding sight of young Cyril speeding onward, yet again on his bike, though in this case, reborn, or perhaps, unshaken by the sudden (karmic) turn of events that have rebooted him into a life that was once weighted by neglect and loneliness. Cyril’s redemption comes quite austerely (and which Dardennes film does not deal with redemption, with forgiveness?), through a firm and solid “No” muttered from stoical lips, without complaint at having been stopped so violently in his disastrous progress into (and out of) childhood. He endures manifestations of violence (themselves embedded in a lower-class social sphere that typifies the true Belgium in the eyes of the Dardennes, a sphere in which characters are forcefully brought into communion with other desperate souls, and often, with the better angels of their nature) — because there is something in Cyril’s constant velocity that declares itself aware of the mental fact that only he can stop himself, only he can choose where to stay and where to run. In the capable hands of the Dardennes, Cyril’s life becomes a powerful, intimate study in accelerated manhood.
6. The Mill and the Cross — dir. Lech Majewski (Poland/Sweden)
The relation of painting to cinema continues to provide numerous formulations on the various ontologies of the frame and the picture. The epistemic struggle between the frame (historicity, meta-narrative, textuality) and the picture (ideality, representation, transparency) may never be resolved, since the two loci of perception interweave into each other as the eye with its field of vision; the entities are inseparable. In this respect, the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder has provided cinema with numerous examples of the synchronous relationship that cinema and painting have long shared — if painting has leaned on the side of absolute representation, then cinema has neatly performed the role of the frame in extremis
. Bruegel’s tableaux, with or without their borders, already contain frames layered upon frames in the grain of the picture: Brueghel’s representational art seems to achieve qualities of iconicity through a glut of iconography, yet nothing in his artworks is ever fully iconic. Consider his 1564 masterpiece, “The Way to Calvary
”: the painting is supposed to represent Christ on his way to Calvary, but Christ is hardly the main attraction in the picture; though Christ centers the work, acts as the focal point from which a spider is able to weave its web, he is also consumed by the lacework that he animates around him, the vibrant life which he attracts to himself and which radiates outward from him. Above the multiple scenes that people the area around Christ looms a solitary mill on a bizarrely shaped, fantastical crag: the mill, analogue for the order (cosmos) that looks down upon the diffuse, haphazard groups of people and events, gazes upon all; but it too forms only one side of the picture’s double fold, a binary (the mill/the cross) which anchors the picture and prevents it from spilling over into total chaos or total immobility. Instead, the main attraction is the field of vision itself, the painting process coming to life even within its finished state of repose.
Brueghel’s famous sense of motility — multitudinous, boundless and scattered — is brought to rapturous life by Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross, one of the finest films on art to have been produced in recent memory. One is reminded of Peter Greenaway’s oeuvre, particularly Nightwatching (2007), a dramatic recreation of the historical forces that worked for and against the completion of Rembrandt’s “The Nightwatch” (1642); but Majewski’s work avoids Greenaway’s theatricality and licentious asides by immersing itself within the pictorial fabric of Brueghel’s dizzyingly meticulous canvas. Much like in Auden’s poem on Brueghel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” the historical/mythical subject has been replenished by its delimitation: its off-screen, minor placement allows for the plurality of life to flower around its small puncture-point. Icarus, much like Christ — titular subjects of their respective paintings — are no longer the overbearing, overdetermined despots of subject-object relations; rather, they serve as Archimedean vanishing points from which, and through which, the sentient world is allowed to breathe, to move, to come to vivid life. Majewski’s wisdom in following Bruegel’s example, situating his film in the pictorial depths that Bruegel walked through and discoursed upon, provides us with the felicitous occasion of watching the (cinematic) frame vanish and blend into the pictorial surface.
5. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia — dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey)
There is a hilarious scene in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant (2002) when Mahmut, a middle-aged, successful photographer, treats his cousin Yusuf, a laborer from the countryside temporarily staying with him, to a screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Yusuf, ostensibly bored by the pensive film, excuses himself and retires to his room for the night; the more worldly Mahmut, now left alone, decides to eject Tarkovsky’s masterwork and slyly pops in a porn film (clearly part of the nightly routine for a bachelor used to living alone in an Istanbul apartment), all the while anxiously glancing over to Yusuf’s bedroom door in the fear that it should open and interrupt his secret pleasure. The comedy, of course, arrives when Yusuf does open the door and Mahmut quickly changes the channel — Yusuf, now interested in the television program, hovers over Mahmut, who pretends to channel surf randomly. The scene holds a lot of meaning within the thematic context of Distant, but I find it also curiously resonant in the leaps which Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s artistic career has taken. The disjunction, or should we say the distance, that divides the greatness of a film like Tarkovsky’s Stalker (or any of the immortal Russian’s films for that matter) from the lowness of the common porn film is about as immeasurable as Dante’s Paradiso was from the Inferno (Lars von Trier, another Tarkovsky acolyte, has frequently tried to bridge the two levels, the spiritual and the base, in several of his films). Ceylan’s humorous appropriation of Tarkovsky performed two functions: it brilliantly conveyed the vast gulf which separates the impenetrable formalism of great and timeless art from the contingencies and trivial demands of modern life (particularly, in Ceylan’s estimation, the kind of life lived in Istanbul or any other cosmopolitan city sunk into the disaffections of postmodernity); but the scene also projected, perhaps subconsciously, Ceylan’s evident aspirations to commit himself to an art worthy of Tarkovksy, a cinema, moreover, made profoundly difficult by the insuperable ordinaryness of situations.
(2006) were Ceylan’s first steps toward such an art, then the real break came with Three Monkeys
(2008). In a manner of speaking, Three Monkeys
was Ceylan’s first genuine foray into the level of cinema which was glimpsed, as if it were a faraway and exotic location, on the television in Mahmut’s apartment six years earlier. But the large-scale cinematography and narrative scope undertaken in Three Monkeys
, though impressive they indeed were, would not be improved upon until the release of Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
, by far his grandest achievement yet. Anatolia
, much like the broad voluminous terrain and epic-sized plateaus, hills and meadows that stretch out eastward from the Bosphorus, is mighty and expansive, a poetical return to the countryside which is so often hearkened to in Ceylan’s films, and a love letter to the monumental loneliness and secret tragedies that unwind on the roads and in the regional villages scattered like fireflies on dark, windy plains. Moments of Tarkovskyan splendor are sometimes glimpsed (though, to be fair, Ceylan has still a long, arduous railroad to travel on if he is ever to arrive at such a place
), and gestures of a burgeoning technical mastery creep up as imperceptibly as the discovery that the main story (a group of policemen, led by a doctor, a commissar, and a prosecutor, escort a suspected murderer to identify the scene of a crime out in the wilderness) is in fact only a road that leads into other subterranean narratives, other villages and secret victims. Anatolia
metes out its winding passages in lush hues and sweeping vistas that should only ever be experienced on a large screen: much like in Leone’s masterworks, the return to a scene of a crime offers the pretext for grandiose flourishes.
4. Mysteries of Lisbon — dir. Raúl Ruiz (Portugal/France)
Raúl Ruiz made more than a hundred films
in his lifetime. Shortly before passing away this year
, the Chilean master fortunately graced the world with what might prove to be his testament, Mysteries of Lisbon
. On the mere basis of its being one of Ruiz’s final films (there is still another work
the prolific director managed to complete, currently in post-production), Mysteries of Lisbon
would merit inclusion on any self-respecting year-end list; but that Mysteries
quite felicitously turned out to be something of a Ruizian epic, epitomizing everything which is characteristic of the director’s style, securely places it in the top five best films of the year. As one speaks of novelists and short-story writers, it can be said that Ruiz embodies a certain type of prose-writing whose mutability effects an anti-style of sorts; his range is so wide, and his films so many, that he seems to write with the vigor of a Balzac, except with the experimentality of a Virginia Woolf or Gertrude Stein — his style (or what can be mapped out from its permutations
) will often drastically change from film to film. As a result of his copiousness, some of Ruiz’s works are undisputed masterpieces, while others border on the trifling or unwatchable. Few directors are as bravely, chronically literary as Ruiz, who can compound Borgesian depths within a single tracking shot.
Mysteries of Lisbon is no exception: the film works like a mobile puzzle box (or more specifically a theatrical diorama) in which figurines and characters change costume, exchange identities, assume new shapes, vanish only to reappear later freshly re-formulated, all in the space of a few turns of the box (or in the shifting of hidden gears or levers). Ruiz layers his version (of Camilo Castelo Branco’s novel) of 19th century Lisbon one film technique upon another, so that a certain kind of “permeability” (as one critic has succinctly put it) is achieved and several walls of potential narrative closure are breached, and rebuilt, and breached again and again. The lure, or rather, the genre-engine of the film, is that it configures and reshapes its winding storyline indefinitely, quite in the spirit of a Branco novel. Ruiz gamely follows through with each successive revelation in the bildungsroman narrative of young orphan Pedro da Silva by employing an arsenal of correspondent film techniques; perhaps nowhere else is literary art so obsessively pursued with its counterpart in cinematic invention. At four hours and a half, Mysteries of Lisbon places itself alongside Manoel de Oliveira’s four-hour-plus Doomed Love (1979), also a made-for-television miniseries, as the definitive adaptations of Branco’s labyrinthine novels. It is no irony, in this respect, that the prolific Branco would be so capably adapted to the screen by the equally profuse, similarly chimeric Ruiz.
3. A Separation — dir. Asghar Farhadi (Iran)
The simplicity of a title can easily hide the complexity of the inner structure it labels. Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation begins and ends with two striking images of separation: its discursive opening (a couple is arguing to a magistrate about their respective reasons for a divorce) situates a rift in the process of its solidification, but by the end of the film, the same image has gained a new valency, a distinct expressive power. The discursive image, over a substantial (and painful) length of time, eventually subsides into a face streaming with tears, into a timorous silencing of the dissonant languages of familial pride, class antagonism, and emotional turmoil; the discursive image of separation materializes as spatio-physical manifestation. A mere window and a doorway (let us call them ideological constructs, since they are capable of being transparent and blocking at the same time) are enough to divide a family, or two families (and with them all of Iran), in half.
What struck me the most in Farhadi’s film was how its austere title belied the numerous separations which occur in the story, on multiple levels: the ideological separation between the liberal, bourgeois class and the fundamentalist, working class; the gender-specific separation that occurs sometimes between husbands and wives; the legal separation of archaic and modern cultural codes, which announces itself in a residual system of law that depends on the personal integrity of its constituents, in which a person’s sense of honor always precedes the relative nature of culpability; and finally the generational separation between children and adults, for we learn that it is always the children who suffer the most at the expense of their parents’ ideological stubbornness. But the cumulative mastery of A Separation lies mainly in how unexpectedly real its network of people starts to feel: the acting and direction are of a solidly unpretentious order, and each character emerges from the complex social fabric of Iran as a fully embodied and authentic person. We thus receive a contemporary portrait of a diverse culture as it stands now, but without hyperbole or political exaggeration; the families that come together through accident and tragedy are as unique to themselves as they are to each other. They pose social issues (local but also universal, political but also familial) which cannot be resolved at once, but which nonetheless devastate us with unsettling poignancy.
2. Poetry — dir. Lee Chang-dong (South Korea)
By one account, poetry equates to a species of justice which demands of us the protection of our private languages and the rectification of spiritual abuses. Lee Chang-dong, to my mind, conceives of poetry in such a way. His decision to ground poetic impulse within the tale of a small town tragedy is nothing new of course; but his courage (I have no other word for it) in questioning the safer aspects of poetry (an elderly, jubilant woman named Mija decides one day to freshen up her life by taking poetry classes) with its harsher demands (Mija is suddenly confronted with the onset of Alzheimer’s, and her grip on words starts to loosen) rubbishes the antiseptic definition of poetry as a solitary or overly-precious art. For Lee Chang-dong, poetry is a social act, a civic force which at its most primal represents the opportunity to set things right again, to rebuild and renew; to rectify wrongs. A disturbing scandal arises in Mija’s small town (the body of a middle school girl is found drowned in the river), and Lee Chang-dong, a director who does not shy away from uncomfortable and vexatious juxtapositions, contrasts the image of the misfortunate girl, dressed in her school clothes and floating face-first in the water, with the opening title screen: poetry
, or in its original and elegant hangeul script, 시
(shi). The juxtaposition is momentous, eerie, and indelible: what does Lee Chang-dong mean by placing the korean characters for “poetry” next to the tragic sight of yet another Ophelia? The corpse and the poem: a contrapuntal mystery (one which Rimbaud perfectly summarized in “The Sleeper in the Valley
”) which the film enjoins Mija to decipher, guides her through a grueling investigation of her past (her personal past, but also the lyrical, universal past of all young girls who underwent difficult childhoods on their passage to adulthood). It is a confrontation with the ugly and impious tasks that poetry is often left alone to solve. Mija’s endangered memory is ultimately resurrected through poetry, not literally, but figuratively: the elderly woman dissolves in time–in place and in body–into the cadence of rivers, the boisterous play of children, the brown, distance-spanning eyes of an innocent girl; she is brought back to life through the empathy that poetry channels into the world, an empathy that sounds depths and uncovers lost traces.
While implicitly we are given a critique of the male homosocial order that commands much of contemporary Korean society and attempts to brush away any peace-disrupting scandals that threaten its hegemony — if only to maintain, as it were, the status quo of “letting boys be boys” and getting on with it — explicitly Lee Chang-dong brings our attention to the constant stress and pressure that men subject Mija to, not just in the case of her feckless grandson, but also from the fathers of her grandson’s middle school friends, who all seem to fulfill a vicious circle of “old boy” sexual politics, where fathers protect the boys who will grow up to be their fathers, symbolizing something of an endless socializing process. Mija’s decision at the end of the film (to commit herself to “poetic justice”) allows her to finally compose the poem that her memory-crippling condition stifles throughout the film. Instead of repeating the cycle of wrath that guides the bereaved unto the instruments of vengeance, Mija restores a faulty order through versification. In this respect, Poetry works as the antithesis (or let us say, the poetic inversion) of the vengeance-obsessed works of Lee Chang-dong’s compatriots, Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho (to name two of the more famous directors); rather than follow through on the rage which vengeance breeds in the human heart (an emotion peculiar, it appears, to contemporary Korean cinema), Lee Chang-dong reverses judicious rage into empathy, a violence-nullifying collectivity that strikes us as the proper chord in a visual poem as much about forgetting the mournful past as it is about remembering the neglected and unremembered victims of time.
1. The Turin Horse — dir. Bela Tarr (Hungary)
No film this year was anything remotely like Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse
. I have already written a longer essay on this difficult masterwork
(to my mind, already one of the essential works of art of the 21st century), and there isn’t much to repeat here. (I am compelled to merely stir in silence at recollecting its haunting pendulum of motion and stillness, brutality and compassion.) Its closed world forms a reservoir in which many of the films on our list happen to terminate: it is about the end of the world, but also about its primitive eruptions; it offers a startling conclusion to the essential functions of cinema at its most imperiled, but it also suggests possibilities at its continuance, at its self-preservation. Tarr has repeated many times that The Turin Horse
will be his last film, and in spite of his understandable reasons
, one wonders (and hopes) whether the Hungarian master will ever rescind his decision and commit himself to the seventh art again. Whether we are graced with another production from him or not, the fact that The Turin Horse
poses itself as Tarr’s final testament to cinema is enough to register it as a monument to his inimitable brand of cinema, and enough certainly to place it at the summit of our list. Thus, The Turin Horse
stands as Hydra Magazine’s most important film of 2011 (“by a country mile