May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
January 19, 2011
If it wasn’t for the pesky week-long NY theatrical release rule I follow while making this list every year, the HBO produced film Temple Grandin would have appeared at around number 3 on this list, Claire Danes would be up for all sorts of spectacular acting awards, and the world would know a lot more about autism. But such metrics are helpful.
1. Secret Sunshine (Lee, 2007)
It is odd to see this here, considering that this film actually made the rounds in 2007. But because of some vagary of international distribution, it finally snuck into US theaters this year. Secret Sunshine is part fable, part character study, part theological suspense thriller, and along the way becomes one of the greatest modern cinema statements about crises of faith in a particularly Christian sense. It is hard to actually say much about the plot without unraveling a few of the film’s many completely unexpected turns. But the opening shot of the film, a blue sky through the windshield of a stalled car, sets the tone for the film as an open, plaintive question about God, life, and grief.
The harrowing experience of Shin-ae in the city of her deceased husband translates itself into the constant shifting of the film between different modes and genres. Even though the film takes place in a decidedly Christian thought-world, I think Secret Sunshine is more about the terrible, and perhaps universal, process of encounter that happens when one catches a glimpse of both God and disaster in one uncensored frame. Or, as Lee said in an interview: “I think we keep living with faith because we need it. Even atheists believe in something – in something else. Yet, I didn’t want to make a movie about faith, really, but a reflection on what goes on inside us. Cinema is a great tool, a way to talk about the invisible through the visible.”
Alamar is the simple realist record of a young Italian boy visiting his Mexican Caribbean father for a while. His mother really wants him to get to know his father as she knew him, so he makes the voyage to the stilt home his father and grandfather occupy off the coast of a remote island. They dive, they fish, they clean their catch and indulge every now and then in aphorism or natural history. Father and son wrestle and giggle, feed bugs to a neighborly bird, and sleep at night in their hammocks. I am still not sure what this film is in any formal sense. Questions about its realism are a pleasant mystery to experience. Regardless, Alamar generates a vibrant, storied longing in me for the little boy my son will be soon enough.
3. Somewhere (Coppola, 2010)
I am not sure where Coppola’s fascination with isolated people comes from, but I am well content to have watched it play out over the sporadic installments marked by Virgin Suicides, Lost In Translation, and now the magnificent Somewhere. In Coppola, there is a sense of place created by soundtracking and camera placement that always makes this loneliness and isolation more palpable. This holds true, at least, until we get to Somewhere. In this spare record of a dissolute movie star crashing at the Chateau Marmont, Coppola’s typical manicured world-building focus is stripped down to the bare essentials of hotel room, Ferrari interior, and the occasional elevator ride that anchor Johnny’s few side-trips to reality.
It is the divergences from Coppola’s own trademark sense of place that make this film so compelling. Somewhere is actually made up of two different worlds. The first is a distilled, quiet form of Coppola’s typical filmmaking in which the laconic rituals of Johnny’s daily routine play out. But there is also a world that exists parallel to this hotel room. In this world Johnny bumps into the people and situations he is obviously trying to avoid. But he also encounters things like his daughter, spinning with an unexpected grace through ice skating routines that must have taken years to learn. Out here there are cute little tea parties, the dawning experience of a tender chemistry – Johnny coming to grips with the fact that “we are also what we have lost.”
The end of Somewhere is almost infuriatingly ambiguous, but that is ultimately irrelevant. Somewhere is that imaginary place where one can live isolated from fear of personal cause and effect. Key word: Imaginary. It seems that this may be that place Coppola has sensed all along, and the heartbreaking images of Johnny’s daughter at the edges of his emotional vision may contain her finest stretch of cinema so far.
4. Toy Story 3 (Unkrich, 2010)
What I like best about the end of this magnificent trilogy capstone is the possibility that it may be Pixar’s most self-reflective moment to date. Here we are at the end of this long journey and Woody has come to handle his dread of obsolescence and the absence of Andy by embracing the joy of having been part of Andy’s childhood. I can easily imagine the Pixar creators inscribing this scene with a similar joy. No, that isn’t what I like best about the end. I like that this trilogy has hurtled with abandon through a jungle of sight gags, CGI splendors, and sighs of relief toward this one final, true, hard-won glimpse of that time when one realizes they are no longer a child, and are grateful for all the things that made that eternity of Saturdays possible. Our material cultures aren’t as disposable as we think, and the complex wonder of this final scene reproduces iteslf every time I run across one of those curiously inert artifacts of my own childhood.
5. Carlos (Assayas, 2010)
It is a fantasy to think that we could reduce terrorism to a narrative construct, as terrorism is an expression of ideological conflict that, whether we like it or not, connects us to actual living, breathing people. So in Carlos we catch a glimpse not just of the conditions that make terrorism possible, but its biographical rationale. Terrorism can only be understood within the context of much larger pictures, and any shorter film would not have relayed this message to us.
Over the course of the film we begin to see Carlos’ self-aggrandizing revolutionary ethic disintegrate in the flux of the cold war. But I think the film can help inoculate us against relying on Jack Bauer-like proxies to cope with the fact of terrorism itself.
6. Sweetgrass (Barbash and Castaing-Taylor, 2009)
I grew up in a veterinarian family. Not only that, but in the family of a veterinarian who handed off his Louis L’Amour paperbacks to us when he was done with them. For me, this documentary about the travails of the annual herding of sheep across Montana’s rugged Absaroka-Beartooth mountains lives right in this rich nostalgic seam. But there is also something universal and pastoral about this film and its spare reflection on these sheep and their caretakers. The final rumble of the herd down the back of the pass becomes a moment of Herzog-like clarity about nature and “the fullness thereof.”
7. Winter’s Bone (Granik, 2010)
Critics have called it gritty, authentic, thrilling, etc… But I haven’t really seen anyone explain how this film, which on the surface is a garden variety genre film about meth culture in downstate Missouri, manages to feel so much more valuable and confrontational than its suggested descriptors. It is like a horror film, even down to the terrorized female protagonist, eerily lit nocturnes, and savage, bloodthirsty figures isolated from local law enforcement. The scene in which we meet the chieftain of this Ozark underworld meth tribe is one of the scariest things I have seen in a movie. But this is because Winter’s Bone lacks the artificiality of horror genre cinema, and ends up simply narrating the worst of all things: true, authentic horror. Fortunately it also narrates true courage, hope, and love.
8. Social Network (Fincher, 2010)
9. The Oath (Poitras, 2010)
The Oath began as a documentary about the release and homecoming of a Guantánamo Bay prisoner Salim Hamdan, but ended up discovering the multiple versions of his brother-in-law Nasser al-Bahri, or better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Jandal. Though the film chronicles Hamdan’s long legal battle and eventual Supreme Court victory helmed by an adamant JAG lawyer (in a twist of patriotism that deserves its own documentary), it spends more time posing questions to this enigmatic figure that once walked beside bin Laden as a bodyguard. Jindal now drives a cab in Yemen. He tells us the story of how he came to renounce bin Laden’s version of jihad, even though it has reduced him to hustling rides in his cab to support his family. He laments his responsibility for his brother-in-law’s imprisonment. He schools young students in his reformed views. But beneath the strains of Dawn Upshaw and Osvaldo Golijov in the soundtrack, the question looms: What does Jindal really think? We never quite find out. I suppose what we do find out is that people are complex. Our politics are complex. Sometimes we are not even quite sure what we think. The Oath, and its central character, end up becoming emblematic of the inter-cultural confusion that daily journalism neglects because it cannot comprehend. Similar to what we see in Carlos, the multitudes of biographies that criss-cross events we attempt to reduce to the singular expressions of a given ideology persist even if we are content to collapse them beneath a heap of pre-fabricated responses.
10. Wild Grass (Resnais, 2009)
I wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone that isn’t a fan of those 80’s era Alain Resnais films about marriage, time, and the ease with which we can disassociate from either. It is an obscure, but rich seam of cinema that is taken up here again by the aging director. Its rich technicolor, stylized set pieces, and witty visual flourishes were very familiar. So was its unreliable narrative, inherent confusion, and bluntly honest positioning of man and woman. Wild Grass opens on a strip of green grass bursting from a split in gray asphalt, this metaphorical presence of nature cropping up every now and then in leafy interludes. I have always thought of Resnais as a director ultimately interested in dismay – dismay about who we are, have become, and have learned to love. If this is true, then Wild Grass poses this dismay as the discovery of something utterly natural, like grass in sidewalk cracks. It leads to stories that, like Wild Grass, have multiple endings.
Others worth tracking down:
Lourdes (Hausner, 2009)
Hadewijch (Dumont 2009)
The Exploding Girl (Gray, 2009)
Mother (Bong, 2009)
A few that made the rounds but should receive heatrical release next year:
Uncle Boonmee (Weerasethakul, 2010)
My Joy (Loznitsa, 2010)
Film Socialisme (Godard, 2010)
Babnik (Adams, 2010)