2011 - Best Discoveries

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
An incredibly taught and genre defying tale that nails the American small town like no other film I've seen.  The reactions from the town to Tracey's arrival in the opening are the perfect expression of the fear and loathing lurking in the hearts of men isolated in a remote community, protecting a secret that reveals a deeper current of post-war racism.  For 1955, the film wraps these themes of racism up in what appears to be a genre piece...though it may be difficult to identify what genre.  At times Bad Day at Black Rock behaves like a western, which is probably the genre it has the most in common with, but I don't think you can call it a western in any conventional sense.  Ultimately, the film emerges as a significant and potent piece of social commentary.  Sturges' visual storytelling is very sophisticated, keeping in perfect balance the weight of it's themes and the ability to deliver as an action flick, an aspect which shines in a streamlined physical climax between the two leads, perfectly cast in their naturally opposed masculine presences.  The supporting cast, including a menacing Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, are terrific.  The film is about as masculine as it gets outside of Glengarry Glen Ross, save for Liz, played by Anne Francis, who is apparently the only woman for miles.  Spencer Tracey and Robert Ryan sell the central conflict of the film so well that the final clash between them feels epic, mythic.  It reminded me of the way Willian Friedkin's The Hunted managed to elevate that film through some remarkable hand-to-hand combat choreography between Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro;  of course, Bad Day is operating in an age of less elaborate fight choreography, but also has the advantage of being a weightier and better drawn film all around.

Hell in the Pacific (1968), dir. John Boorman

Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune in Hell in the Pacific
So, yes, I was on a bit of a Lee Marvin kick this year.  It led me through some worthwhile fare, as in his 1953 showdown with Brando in The Wild One, and Bud Boetticher's 1956 western Seven Men From Now.  Through the course of this impromptu retrospective I realized Marvin gets short shrift in terms of his contribution to the transition in performance in those years.  Brando and Dean seem to soak up a lot of the recognition, but a good look at The Wild One will reveal that what Marvin is doing is equally freed up and exciting for that time.  Then, if you want to shine an even more intense light on Marvin's skill, check him out opposite Ronald Reagan in Don Siegel's 1964 Hemingway adaptation The Killers (having grown up in Reagan country, I'll admit to taking perverse pleasure in seeing Marvin act circles around our former prez).  But, above all, his mano-a-mano turn opposite the great Toshiro Mifune in John Boorman's Hell in the Pacific is one of the most captivating films I have seen all year.  What is communicated through the sheer physicality of the first half hour is so concise and relentless that it becomes exhausting...and then that established pace just keeps on, tirelessly.  For all my commentary on Marvin, I have to give Mifune his dues;  an actor who (as my friend Keith Nainby once noted) was one of the most accomplished athletic performers within the realm of either film or sports.  The ending of the film was notoriously disliked by the studio, and the DVD includes the two existing endings, so you can decide for yourself.  The two endings are curiously and drastically different (the studio version evidently making an odd appropriation from Peter Seller's The Party!), and somehow the inclusion of these two variations seems to add to the whole mystique of the film rather than detract from the overall experience of it.

Elite Squad (2007), dir. Jose Padilha

Elite Squad
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

Christmas in July
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."

Winchester '73 (1950), dir. Anthony Mann

Winchester '73
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

The Wayward Cloud
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.

COMING SOON:  The Best of 2011


nathaniel drake carlson said...

So glad you saw and liked Elite Squad. It really is a great movie. I can't add too much to your write up but I did want to emphasize a couple of your points, specifically "how closely [Padilha] ties the viewer to the action" and how the film "refuses to compromise the relationship it creates to it's characters". These are crucial points I think.

The controvery that still surrounds this one and its sequel seems self-sustaining and by that I mean that it seeks out any justification for its own existence. It all pivots on the argument over whether Padilha is advancing some kind of secret fascist agenda through his supposedly cut and dry sympathies for BOPE and Captain Nascimento. But this is a terrible misreading, as you suggest, though one that is to a degree understandable.

What Padilha does with these films is pretty radical stuff in an international film environment that prides itself on ultimately obvious, too simple liberal conclusions to complicated scenarios, a move that reduces and diminishes the same as any jingoistic Rambo picture would. Here Padilha is concerned primarily with transcending that whole reductionist binary paradigm of the obvious right-thinking and the obviously heinous (a recent example of which would be Rendition, another "well meaning" Hollywood pic of this sort which, if it had only complicated its scenario a little, might have been worthwhile).

Padilha is indeed going for a vast canvas approach to the issue and the narrative's focus on BOPE is ironically deceptive. He commits fully to depicting Nascimento's perspective, the way it shapes him and those affected by him. At the same time he goes far to situate that in a broad context that allows us to get a larger perspective on the action and Nascimento's blinkered vision (and here I mean not just the far reaching, corrupted social circumstances but the effects upon the Captain and his family). The ending, brutal and blunt force as it is, doesn't condemn BOPE anymore than it celebrates their actions. It is simply an accurately depicted, brute fact result of a certain ideology completely committed to. It is exactly the ending this movie needs to have.

It is interesting to note, however, having said all that, how tremendously popular these films are in Brazil (the sequel is the biggest financial success there in history) and how revered, almost to an iconic degree, Captain Nascimento has become. This is pretty fascinating given the implicit and explicit politics of the films and the admittedly persuasive power of their forceful surfaces. It's also intriguing as a kind of reverse to the pop culture adulation in the States of someone like Tony Montana in De Palma's Scarface. Perhaps the urge to sympathize fully and heroize utterly (missing the irony of the toll it takes to adhere to an uncomplicated vision in complicated circumstances) is simply too strong to resist, especially if the cauldron like environment the films depict is indeed as accurate as I suspect it is.

Jason Hedrick said...

Thanks for recommending this, Nathaniel, and thanks for the added insight. I think this would have stayed off my radar if it weren't for you drawing my attention to it. I anticipate hearing what you have to say about the sequel.