I do confess to enjoying putting together a good list (or, as with this year's Chicago International Film Festival, a list of festival favorites), but I can never escape the feeling that year-end lists are always woefully incomplete due to the fact that they are usually tied to the releases of the year at hand. Of course, I always meet this challenge knowing that I probably have yet to see the great films of the year, and probably won't get around to them until next year...or long after that...or never. At this point, I haven't even caught up with my "Need to See" list from 2010, which includes Lars von Trier's Antichrist, Bong Joon-ho's Mother, Atom Egoyan's Chloe, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Nicholas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising...and the list goes on. Then, there's the issue of what year a movie is really released--as I look over that list again I realize that some are listed on Netflix or IMDb as 2009 films, though most audiences gained access to them in 2010. All in all, I could care less when I see a film in relation to when it's released, and even though I see a lot of movies in a year, I would never even pretend to come close (as I think some critics do) to capturing perfectly that elite list of cinematic output from a particular year as a reflection of my viewing prowess and critical refinement. The truth is, I am never really sure, and when I look back on lists I've made from previous years I usually find glaring omissions and embarrassing inclusions. Added to that, part of me buys the idea that "lists" in fact detract from the overall critical conversation, reducing what should be addressed thoughtfully to a mere ranking. Still, I find myself reading and writing lists. This is all to say that my most frequent impulse in making a year-end list is to truly make it a list of the best films I saw that year, which may ultimately include very little from that actual year (I won't even begin to expand this conversation to the topic of Television...but lets just say "Breaking Bad" kept me nearly as rapt as any cinema experience this year).
My solution to this conundrum on ECSTATIC is to create two lists, neither of them numbered:
1) this list, "2011 - Best Discoveries," which will serve as a way to briefly recommend the movies that excited me most this year, excluding 2011 releases (or movies I have already covered on ECSTATIC this year, as with Elia Kazan's Baby Doll); and 2) a second list, "2011 - Best Films," which will list my favorite films released (roughly) in 2011.
In no particular order, here are ten of the "Best Discoveries" I made in 2011:
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), dir. John Sturges
|Lee Marvin and Spencer Tracey in Bad Day at Black Rock|
Hell in the Pacific (1968), dir. John Boorman
|Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune in Hell in the Pacific|
Elite Squad (2007), dir. Jose Padilha
In the new Brazilian cinema, Fernando Meirelles' City of God is probably the most well known depiction of the urban chaos of modern Rio de Janeiro. Meirellles went on to make the outstanding and underrated 2008 film Blindness, and the screenwriter on City, Braulio Mantovani, went on to make the superior Elite Squad with a director who had been working in Brazil all the while, Jose Padilha. Even though City of God contains some truly unforgettable sequences, and an aesthetic that Elite Squad borrows from heavily, I find Padilha's journey into the streets of Rio via the Special Police Operations Battalion (BOPE) much more revealing in what it shows us about the drug wars in that city, while adeptly shining a light on the paradoxes inherent in fighting the drug war in such a way, all the while rooting it in the universally relateable plight of the people involved. Padilha's great achievement here is in how closely he ties the viewer to the action; what begins as a relentless ride through police operations, frightening in it's momentum, the cinematography and editing maintaining an astonishingly capable level of controlled chaos, becomes a larger obligation for the viewer. Padilha has been called a supporter of the fascist BOPE operation in Brazil, and critics have pointed out that Elite Squad plays like a recruitment ad at times, but I think it's a misreading to interpret the film as bolstering the torture and violence committed by the BOPE. Like David Simon's The Wire in America, Elite Squad refuses to compromise the relationship it creates to it's characters, and takes huge risks in doing so that really pay off. Padilha's Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within is receiving an American release in January.
Christmas in July (1940), dir. Preston Sturges
Perhaps overlooked because of it's short running time (68 minutes), or the fact that it lives in the shadow of what have become two of Sturges's most praised works, 1941's The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels, Christmas in July should get a fair shake in comparison to those two pictures. I actually prefer Christmas in July to The Lady Eve, even though I understand why critics praise the Henry Fonda classic as not only one of Sturges's best, but one of the most significant comedies in movie history, and another small victory over the stifling Production Code of that time. For me, Christmas in July benefits from it's brief narrative arc, and the way it utilizes Sturges regulars like Raymond Walburn and William Demarest. The story, which involves a man duped into thinking he has won $25,000 in a slogan contest put on by the "Maxford House" Coffee Co., zips along hilariously, containing some of the best of Sturges's trademark snappy dialogue. This film followed the equally excellent political satire The Great McGinty, both of which are available on a compilation of Sturges films, "Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection."
|Christmas in July|
Winchester '73 (1950), dir. Anthony Mann
Another filmmaker I began to explore more fully this year was Anthony Mann. Primarily known for his work on Noir and Western films for various studios, Mann was also known to work with the aforementioned Preston Sturges, and ultimately applied his un-billed touch to the process of a number of classic Hollywood productions, including Gone With the Wind and Rebecca. Like the great Nicholas Ray western Johnny Guitar, Mann's genre films were recognized by the French New Wave as significant works of art, a sentiment most recently augmented by the Criterion Collection release of his 1950 film The Furies, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Houston (in his last role). The Furies is a great example of common Mann themes, particularly in it's portrayal of Stanwyck's confrontation with the widowed landowner played by Houston, a confrontation that echoes throughout his films, as with the 1955 Jimmy Stewart western The Man From Laramie. Mann made a number of westerns with Stewart, but perhaps the most seminal and exciting of these is Winchester '73. As I look back at the films that stood out to me this year, I see a trend of streamlined narrative arcs, and Winchester '73 is another film that fits that bill. Though the story is simple, involving Stewart tracking down the rifle of the title, it never seems thin, bolstered by the psychologically dense performances of Stewart, Shelley Winters, and Stephen McNally. We have seen this film copied in numerous ways since--in fact, it's influence may stretch as far as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films!--but Winchester '73 never seems false or predictable or anything but a perfectly paced, dusty tale with a great twist. Although Mann's The Naked Spur and The Man From Laramie are also very good, and, in terms of Stewart westerns, it's hard to beat John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Winchester '73 is an undeniable masterpiece.
The Wayward Cloud (2005), dir. Tsai Ming-liang
Tsai Ming-liang has always succeeded in shaking up my preconceived notions of cinema. In his best moments (I'm thinking the urinal scene in Goodbye, Dragon Inn) his use of duration lands directly on my sweet spot. My first encounter with the director's work, 1997's The River, was one of those exceedingly unique experiences that leaves you cold at first, but lingers in the impression it makes. For his next film, 1998's The Hole, Tsai Ming-liang crossed a character portrait of a man persisting through to the millenium's bleak and plagued end with a rather adeptly made dance-filled musical tribute to the classic Chinese singer and cinema star Grace Chang. The Hole is an overlooked sensation, as is his 2005 film The Wayward Cloud, which is preoccupied with similarly bleak city dwellings, as well as containing the occasional musical number, this time a bit more outlandish than anything in The Hole. The film is an exploration and critique of pornography that seems particularly valuable for American audiences, as this is a far cry from any American film I can think of on the subject. The ending is a shocker that earns it's indulgences in duration, and will most likely take you through a range of emotional responses before the credits roll.
|The Wayward Cloud|
COMING SOON: The Best of 2011