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by Maurizio Roca

I initially had this piece slated for early March of this year before abandoning it for reasons that now escape me. I decided to post it after catching up with one or two new inclusions that motivated me.

 

 The criteria for this list are movies made and released in 2012 or films made in 2011 but released theatrically in the USA during 2012.  Two major exceptions are Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and The Turin Horse which arrived in NYC during the first quarter of 2012 but which I happened to see in 2011 due to certain favorable circumstances (and thus are ineligible). The former was named my second favorite picture of 2011 (behind only The Tree Of Life) while the latter just missed my top ten. Both would be in the same exact position this year if I decided to include them (Anatolia possibly even supplanting my #1 pick).

My list includes:

  • Ten films made and released theatrically in the United States in 2012
  • Zero film made in 2011, but not shown theatrically in the US until 2012.

Thirteen Almosts: Elena, The Invisible War, 5 Broken Cameras, Oslo August 31st, The Kid With A Bike, Monsieur Lazhar, Prometheus, This Is Not A Film, The Gatekeepers, Gerhard Richter Painting, The Hunter, Beyond The Hills, The Grey.  (more…)

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a playtime jacques tati criterion new PLAYTIME-9

by M. Roca

It’s hard not to feel bittersweet emotions while watching Jacques Tati’s Playtime. Here is a film touched with breathtaking moments of brilliance, but also with the recognition that an astonishing career would never fully recover again. Knowing that the filmmaker did not come out unscathed lends an aura of melancholy to the movie that is palpable to those who know the backstory. Daring and expensive, Playtime was a commercial failure that couldn’t recoup a large portion of its working budget. Tati went all out in the creation of his comedic masterpiece, sparing no expense. In fact, it was the most costly French picture ever made at that time in 1967. The enormous sets took hundreds of people to make and maintain. Such a colossal endeavor also lent itself to production woes that ate away the money and valuable time. Dubbed “Tativille,” Playtime’s set was basically a living, breathing city of glass, cubicles, and a fully functioning power plant filmed on 70mm. The high-resolution film stock caused even more problems for the director: Tati refused to show his work in theaters that were unable to accommodate that level of wide projection and considerable aspect ratio. These factors coupled with the challenging nature of the movie itself, irreversibly affected the rest of Tati’s career financially and artistically (though Trafic is also a masterpiece in my eyes). Debt and bankruptcy hounded him. He had had only the chance to complete six feature-length works. Regardless of what happened in the past, Playtime exists…and for this, we should be forever grateful. (more…)

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by M. Roca

The stories of both Frankenstein and Dracula, becoming huge hits during the early talkie era, have long been certified as Hollywood box office legend for taking a secondary genre and minting it as a dependable moneymaker. Soon, the rush was on at all the studio systems to try and replicate the fortunes Universal had unwittingly ushered in during 1931. Many rivals tried their hand at horror with varying degrees of success, but only Carl Laemmle’s company, who followed up these two titans of fright with many other worthy productions, kept at it with vigor and consistency throughout the decade. Things started slowing down after The Wolfman struttedhis yak fur in 1941, but the studio still kept cranking out a slew of B programmers well into the 50s when science fiction gradually took over. While the popularity of these pictures has never wavered with movie buffs (Universal just recently repackaged their Monster collection on Blu-Ray for the first time and umpteenth on DVD/VHS), those first two features are the ones both modern viewers and those from the 70s remember best.

Dracula, for all intents and purposes, has dated rather badly. It’s still recognized as a pivotal film that kicked off the horror craze (while also simultaneously launching the career of Bela Lugosi), but cinematically it’s basically a museum piece. It also never developed a succession of true sequels over a period of time that added to the legend. Dracula’s Daughter, for one, was only loosely tied to the original, while Son Of Dracula came much later and was also only arbitrarily connected to Tod Browning’s initial effort. Frankenstein, on the other hand, has basically collected the award for most substantial Universal property and series. Its enduring popularity is not only tied to the Boris Karloff/James Whale debut, but the two subsequent additions to the franchise that came after (Bride and Son). It’s no wonder that when Mel Brooks came up with the idea to spoof a Universal horror film, that Frankenstein would be his logical choice. With so many sequels having been made by the original studio, he could not claim a shortage of material to parody when the time came. A wealth of parts were spread over the cinematic table for Brooks to corral and attach to his own project… a little bit of Ghost Of Frankenstein, a small piece of House Of Frankenstein, and the total embodiment of the first three superior films into a wicked assembly of humor and farce. (more…)

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by M. Roca

“This guy has no flying experience at all. He’s a menace to himself and everything else in the air… yes, birds, too.”

Released during the first year of the 1980s, Airplane couldn’t help but look back at all the disaster movies made in the previous decade for some madcap inspiration. Sending up films like The Poseidon Adventure, Airport, and The Towering Inferno was a stroke of brilliance because it catered to an audience finally ready to laugh at the overt melodrama those corny features provided. It also gave the comedic team of Jerry Zucker, David Zucker, and Jim Abrahams a huge hit at the box office (for a reported 80 million gross on a skimpy 4 million dollar budget). For many excited filmgoers, the witnessing of possible death at 30,000 feet never seemed so hilarious and worthwhile. Sure, the end result might be painful and horrifyingly tragic, but you may possibly die laughing before either the spoiled fish or impending impact actually gets to anyone on board.

Airplane took slapstick comedy to the farthest reaches of absurdity. The subtle (and not so subtle) verbal puns and sight gags are unleashed at such a rapid pace that getting them all the first time around is not always a given. Its nonsensical charm never wears off or feels strained, instead it increases with every ticking minute to reveal more and more hilarity. Every scene has an unhinged quality that walks a tightrope between achingly funny and total surreal anarchy. Leslie Nielsen’s career about-face into these spoof roles starts right here. His classic deadpan delivery and clueless facade was never bettered than this opening salvo. Along with the first Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad, Airplane was his best work in this type of picture (something he would mine from here on out with frequent regularity). Yeah, one could argue that Airplane is not very deep and indulges in some lowbrow humor, but when it comes to generating real laughs (the true barometer of comedy), very few films can best it pound for pound. (more…)

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by M. Roca

The Big Lebowski is a great example of the power of cinema to transcend its original medium into the wider realm of pop culture and cult fandom. If you ever happen to walk down Thompson Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, you could bump into a store wholly dedicated to the Coen brothers late 90s film. Stocked with paraphernalia and merchandise devoted to the comedy, The Little Lebowski Shop offers a glimpse of the movie’s continuously enduring popularity over time. Once inside, a visitor is thrust into the Dude’s world, and you can get the T-shirt to prove it!! Keeping one’s johnson from deliberately peeing on the store’s rug would seem insurmountable. Along with the (now) 10 years of beautiful tradition that the Lebowski fests (held all over the country and beyond since 2002) offer enthusiasts and bowlers alike, you can plainly see how Lebowski’s legacy has quickly become a far-reaching cultural phenomenon.

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by Maurizio Roca

The title and look of Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film can be misleading. I initially assumed it was some broad 80s comedy that the director was making as a peculiar genre exercise similar to New York New York with Liza Minelli in 1977. What with De Niro’s flashy outfits and hairstyle, plus the inclusion of Sandra Bernhard, a false perception of what to expect is not an impossible stretch. While I had personally heard good things from various people about the film, I waited a long time before finally getting the motivation to watch it. When the day inevitably came, I was surprised by the content and the tone presented in The King Of Comedy. It has certainly been overlooked to some degree and for superficially obvious reasons in my case.

“I’m going to work 50 times harder, and I’m going to be 50 times more famous than you.”

 

Rupert Pupkin as played by Robert De Niro is an autograph hound who aspires to be a stand-up comic. He procures a “chance” meeting with Langford, a Johnny Carson-like talk show host (played by Jerry Lewis), who is struggling with a mob of crazed fans after a broadcast taping. Pupkin takes advantage of the situation and pitches himself incessantly to him. Langford halfheartedly promises to listen to his act, but once Langford and his colleagues hear his tape of comedy bits, Pupkin gets continuously rejected and outright dismissed. The initial adrenaline rush of a possible break into the big time followed by the realistic disappointment of being rebuffed results in increasingly elaborate imaginations—first filled with elation and then slowly become dire and desperate. Pupkin eventually resorts to kidnapping Langford, forcing hostage-like demands on the comedian, his network, and police to book an opening spot on that evening’s show. The elusive fantasy of fame and immortality are finally achieved through severe means…or so it seems. With The King Of Comedy, like the conclusion of Taxi Driver, we are never quite sure what is real and what is fabrication. For all we know, Pupkin may actually be reduced to banging his head against a brick wall in a jail cell after his various transgressions. The ending is undoubtedly ambiguous and open to interpretation. (more…)

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by Maurizio Roca

UPDATE!!!!!!

As of May 22nd 2012 my favorite films of 2011 have changed somewhat. Below this newer attachment is my original list that reflects how I felt at the time with full capsule reviews. To show how opinions can change and are always in flux I present a more updated list in this section of my piece. One addition in particular contradicts some of my own comments in the thread below. It’s amazing what a second or even third view can do to one’s perception of a particular work of cinema. 

1. The Tree Of Life (Terrance Malick, USA)

2. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)

3. Mysteries Of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, Portugal)

4. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, Germany)

5. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)

6. Resurrect Dead: The Mystery Of The Toynbee Tiles (Jon Foy, USA)

7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Thomas Alfredson, United Kingdom)

8. Shame (Steven McQueen, United Kingdom)

9. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, USA)

10. If A Tree Falls: A Story Of The Earth Liberation Front (Marshall Curry USA)

11. A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, Canada)

12. The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, Hungary)

13. Project Nim (James Marsh, United Kingdom)

14. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsey, United Kingdom)

15. Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, Canada)

16. Bobby Fischer Against The World (Liz Garbus, USA)

17. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, USA)

18. Nostalgia For The Light (Patricio Guzman, Chile)

19. The Descendants (Alexander Payne, USA)

20. The Ides Of March (George Clooney, USA)

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For me, this past year was probably the most rewarding year in cinema since 2007. On my list is a collection of movies that range from a six-hour dreamy period piece to a haunting NC-17 urban nightmare about sexual addiction. It’s always great to leave a theater with the feeling you’ve witnessed a lasting work of art that has spoken to you in some secret direct way. And with the ten examples included here, I can say with definite certainty, each one accomplished just that.

My list includes:

• Six films made and released theatrically in the Unites States in 2011.

• One film made in 2011, but not released until early 2012 in the US.

• Three films made and released in 2010, but not shown theatrically in the US until 2011.

And finally, my top 10:

10. Incendies  (Denis Villeneuve, CANADA)

Premiering during the Toronto Film Festival in September 2010, Incendies was released later that month in the French Canadian region to a wider audience. It wasn’t until April 22 of that year that the movie appeared in the U.S., albeit in limited theaters. The film, based on Wajdi Mouawad’s stage play, is about two children who must travel to their mother’s homeland (which remains unnamed but is most likely Lebanon) and follow the detailed instructions stated in her will. This unexpected journey slowly uncovers a past littered with tragedy, death, and secrets devastating enough to haunt everyone involved. Incendies is very adept at sustaining an ample amount of tension throughout its running time. And while an attentive viewer may see the final shattering twist coming a mile away, the movie still offers a gripping look at a society and a culture that restricts the freedom of women and also perpetuates a vicious cycle of hostility towards them. A scene involving the torching of a bus is particularly potent, pulling no punches in showing the destructiveness of extremism in religion and the rigid ideology that leads to unending altercations between warring factions. Most unsettling and haunting of all, though, is that the final denouement does nothing to halt the suffering that both children will continue to bear long after the credits roll. Incendies was nominated for Best Foreign Picture in 2011 by the Academy Awards, but lost to the Danish film, In A Better World.

9. We Need To Talk About Kevin  (Lynne Ramsey, UNITED KINGDOM)

Lynne Ramsey returns nine years after her sophomore effort, Morvern Callar, to direct a film based on the 2003 novel written by Lionel Shriever of the same name. We Need To Talk About Kevin deals with a mother, astonishingly portrayed by Tilda Swinton, hopelessly trying to pick up the paltry remains of her life after her son commits a Columbine-like shooting at his school. Focusing on the confusion and the unfathomable despair that comes with such a life-altering tragedy, Ramsey crafts a  narrative in a satisfyingly disjointed and erratic style. We are shuttled continuously back in forth between the past and present as we watch Eva in the various stages of her parental life slowly realize that a monster resides in her midst. Her son seems to be an emotionless beast filled with a cold sociopathic rage waiting to spill out at the most opportune moment. The movie can’t help but suggest the kind of paralysis that would overcome any parent with such a dilemma. And what if the offspring is also adept at concealing his true nature from almost everyone, including his ignorant father? Adding to the complexity of the drama is that Eva’s seemingly isolated detachment after the massacre can also be partially attributed to her own guilty conscience. Early transgressions and postpartum moments of doubts—such as accidently breaking her son’s arm in a fit of frustration during a potty training episode—help frame the sort of crippling remorse swimming within her. Swinton’s expressions during the opening stages of pregnancy and childbirth convey much ambivalence towards child rearing that further complicates her own feelings over the deadly actions that her son, Kevin (played by Ezra Miller), ultimately perpetrates with massive consequences. A domestic nightmare of a story that Ramsey furnishes with all sorts of superb directorial trimmings.

8. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams  (Werner Herzog, USA, GERMANY, FRANCE)

Documentarian extraordinaire Werner Herzog travels to the Chauvet Cave in the south of France to film footage of the oldest manmade drawings and paintings known to scientists. Since its discovery in 1994, the site has become one of the most important prehistoric finds ever. Dating back more than 30,000 years, the cave paintings are preserved impeccably thanks to being virtually inaccessible for so many years. Herzog himself was only allowed six days to shoot footage there and was restricted to just three crew members. Everyone who entered the cave was required to wear special suits and boots, use battery-powered equipment, and never be allowed to physically touch any of the artifacts. Since this site is strictly prohibited for the public (admission is only allowed with special permission by the French government), Cave Of Forgotten Dreams is most likely the only way most of us will ever see the art that has been residing there for tens of thousands of years. Herzog quickly establishes the link between these old relics and every creative form of artistic expression conjured up since. The magic and human spirit that brought forth those paintings is an essential ingredient inhabiting us all. There in a dim, torch-lit cave, some person poured his or her artistic soul onto those rocky canvases much the same way Picasso created Guernica or Mozart composed Don Giovanni. The long evolution of creativity is explicitly understood. From the beginning of known time, human beings have sought the desire to create art and have found a way to do so. That Cave Of Forgotten Dreams also incorporates the gimmick of 3D marvelously is mere icing on the cake. Herzog’s use of the technique allows every drawing to leap out of its shadowy station and fill the viewer with unforgettable imagery.

7. Mysteries Of Lisbon  (Raul Ruiz, PORTUGAL)

Raul Ruiz’s last film is an extended saunter through the interconnected lives of Mysteries Of Lisbon’s various inhabitants. Adapted from the 19th Century book written by Camilo Castelo Branco, the movie is an elegiac look at the enigmas and secrets that are harbored by the assorted characters in this period piece. Heavy with a mist of uncertainty and haziness that hangs over every plotline and narrative turn, the movie is filled with flashbacks and episodic twists that are both melodramatic and almost surreal. Like the tiny theater diorama that young Joao is given early in the picture, everything has an air of staged artificiality and theatricality. Yet Ruiz also injects a great deal of subversive commentary about this time and place. There are many pointed criticisms of the desperate attempts at upward mobility and frivolous efforts to maintain whatever social status has been achieved. The characters commit selfish actions resulting in horrible consequences that must be payed for by withdrawing from society (in addition to seeking out personal penance). Intertwined within all these happenings is Father Denis (played by Adriano Luz) who acts as a sort of host or steward throughout the proceedings. He keeps popping up at every turn like an omnipresent apparition guiding the story along. An atmosphere of impending calamity casts a fascinating pall over the film with the feeling that permanence is a fleeting concept never to be realized or fulfilled. Everyone is fixed in a seemingly transient state waiting to be moved off stage when it’s time for the tungsten-halogen lights to go out. The version that has made this countdown is the 5-hour, 30-minute TV adaptation. It is broken down into six 53 to 57 minute episodes that all contain specific titles starting with The Boy With No Name and concluding with The Vengeance Of The Duchess Of Clifton.

6. A Separation  (Asghar Farhadi, IRAN)

A Separation starts to show its considerable strengths the moment it begins: A simple camera setup gazes its eye on a married couple who are on the verge of dissolving their union. Both Naader (played by Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) argue convincingly about their respective issues with one another. The acting is brilliant and resonates instantly with the viewer. Simultaneously, the twosome air out their grievances to a judge, which leads to Naader being forced to hire a lower class pregnant caretaker to watch after his father (who is suffering from Alzheimer’s) with significant consequences. Held together by solid performances and an assured script, A Separation examines the social and gender differences in contemporary Iranian society with an effortless realism. A tense and multi-faceted plot is employed for the benefit of exploring topics like justice, class, religion, truthfulness, and the subjective unreliability of a perspective view on the facts. When the story gets set in motion by a connected set of circumstances that occur, the film boldly delves into every nuance as deftly as possible. Who is at fault? Who is telling the truth? A Separation never takes sides when chronicling the problems that arise. Although at times, the film plays out like a very effective mystery complete with a set of motives for each side. Certain plot elements are never fully explained and as viewers we must piece together what might have happened from highly biased and possibly inaccurate testimonies. Adding to the incredible depth of the movie is seeing the effects that the adults’ behavior have on the innocent children caught in the middle. A Separation is one of the most acclaimed pictures of the year and has received the Golden Bear for best film by the Berlin International Film Festival.

5. A Dangerous Method  (David Cronenberg, UNITED KINGDOM, GERMANY, CANADA)

David Cronenberg returns after a long layoff following Eastern Promises in 2007. A Dangerous Method is a historical film following the turbulent relationship between Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Jung’s patient Sabina Spielrein (who would herself become a famed psychoanalyst). Viggo Mortensen (as Freud) returns for his third straight collaboration with the director, but it’s Michael Fassbender (as Jung) who steals the show with his passionate turn as the younger Swiss psychiatrist. Immersed in an affair with the beautiful yet troubled Spielrein, Jung has to deal with the professional and domestic fallout such an event could cause within his collective circle. Not only must he shield his indiscretions from his highly critical mentor, but also from his unsuspecting rich wife. While Jung’s innovative style of therapy is proven successful in helping Spielrein overcome her troubling neurosis, he can’t overcome society’s strict boundaries over what constitutes proper moral behavior. This is the main theme of the film: how repressed and unfulfilled desires become shackles of conformity and unhappiness due to external pressures. His speech at the conclusion of Method is especially heartbreaking, when he conveys a man literally stuck in these conventions by refusing to let his inhibitions and desires go free. Cronenberg also takes a close look at how distinctive societal differences, like class and religion, can affect the way individuals interact with one another. The film is at its best when it peers into these relevant matters and highlights the chemistry between the three primary leads. A Dangerous Method has mostly been overlooked this year, but it is undoubtedly a towering success that has much on its mind. The winning streak for Cronenberg and Mortensen continues….

4. Shame  (Steve McQueen, UNITED KINGDOM)

Starring in four films, including the previous selection on this countdown, Michael Fassbender had a very busy and productive year in 2011. Yet he gives his most impressive overall turn in Steve McQueen’s Shame. Reuniting with the British filmmaker of the powerful prison drama Hunger, Fassbender is utterly brilliant in his portrayal of sex-addicted yuppie Brandon. The movie is an unflinching account of the all-encompassing world that an addict faces each day struggling with the demons residing within. What makes Shame doubly intriguing and unforgettable is the fact that Brandon is all to cognizant of the problems that haunt him and is powerless to stop his behavior. He goes through a sexual Heart Of Darkness-type journey that brings to light the self-destruction eating away at his soul. And even though he is desperately trying to hide any trace of his affliction, once his emotionally needy sister (played by Carey Mulligan) shows up at his luxurious Manhattan apartment, his cool demeanor slowly begins to unravel. The film may have received an NC-17 rating for copious amounts of nudity and explicit subject matter, but there is little eroticism to be found in Shame. The sex illustrated throughout the film realistically corresponds to the protagonist’s merciless, unrelenting appetite that can never be quenched and is no longer exciting. The movie is very honest in showing the intensity of despair inherent in such a situation– sex has since moved beyond healthy titillation into an obsessive necessity. Fassbender has been showered with all sorts of prizes and nominations throughout the year from various cinematic award organizations and the accolades for his two turns in Shame and A Dangerous Method are rightly deserved.

3. Drive  (Nicolas Winding Refn, USA)

Drive may have been the most polarizing film to be released in 2011. While the majority of critics praised the movie, it was not without its fair share of detractors all over the net. Here at Wonders In The Dark, a slew of enormous sub-threads appeared throughout the week after Refn’s picture went into wide release. Discussions arose everywhere, and siding camps argued voraciously over the merits (or demerits) that were contained within its reels. I went into the theater expecting something along the lines of The Fast And The Furious, but was pleasantly surprised by what I found instead. More of a mood film than an action-style white knuckler, it satisfies partially due to a European sensibility that is filled with stylistic departures from most other Hollywood films of its ilk (though a debt to Michael Mann is surely present). Drive, like certain classic film noirs (Criss Cross and Night And The City come immediately to mind), is a perfect example of a story featuring a doomed “unlucky” protagonist (Ryan Gosling) who traverses through an existential wasteland causing his own ruin. The first half plays out like a dreamy ambient ride through a calm purgatory before descending into apocalyptic hell by the midway point. The key elevator scene is symbolically poignant as it closes the door on any chance for normalcy for Gosling and Mulligan, and instead acts as a coffin of irreversible fate for the former. The Human Being song that plays sporadically is so spot-on since Driver’s first taste of being human only comes after losing a fleeting love and having to feel the pain of its consequences. Gosling carries himself like a knight in bloody armor trying to protect the damsel in distress, while the violence and cerebral nuances of the plot act like a fairy tale covered in blood and brain matter—all of which make Drive the one positively bright spot to appear out of Hollywood all year.

2. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia  (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, TURKEY)

Based on the actual experiences of one of the film’s writers, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia recounts the story of a group of police officers, civil servants, a district attorney, and a doctor on a long night’s search for a dead body in a rural part of Turkey. Tagging along with them are the two suspects who have admitted to the crime and are now helping the assembly of men locate the corpse for identification. What initially looks like a modern neo-noir and police procedural (it was advertised as such in trailers and posters) actually turns out to be something quite dissimilar. The movie is more of a character study that probes various philosophical matters from multiple angles than anything partaking in the tropes we would normally associate with the noir genre. The doctor (played by Muhammet Uzuner) is the audience identifier as the film unveils layers of questions about the disappointments of life and the apparent pointlessness of human existence. Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan engages in fierce deliberations about the manner in which we preserve the routines and procedures of our daily lives despite the possibility that society is unfixable and a riddle with no definitive solution. It is during this overnight investigation that the various characters interact with each other and touch upon a host of topics from feelings of nihilism to very trivial banter. With plenty of gallows humor—which seems to be a way for Ceylan to say that despite overwhelming misery and suffering, we all need to have a good laugh every once in a while—the men converse while trying to wrap up the case before them. Alternating between deep compassion and a sense of resigned defeatism, Anatolia is bursting with complex ruminations on the human condition.

1. The Tree Of Life  (Terrence Malick, USA)

How can I possibly condense everything Terrence Malick is trying to say in The Tree Of Life into one lowly capsule paragraph? The truth is that I can’t and I won’t even bother trying. All that really needs to be said is that the greatest film of 2011 feels like a culmination of everything the filmmaker has been trying to get at since he burst onto the scene with Badlands in 1973. I picture the graying and older Malick finally being able to sleep at night comfortable in the knowledge that he had finally been able to produce Q—a story which fascinated him during the making of Days Of Heaven and partially contributed to his 20-year exile—and he absolutely succeeded in the eyes of this viewer. The best parallel I can think of is Brian Wilson finally putting many demons to rest after releasing The Smile Sessions a couple of months back. The analogy is not perfect but there is something to be said about unleashing a long gestating unfinished project which has forever been the speculation of many observers and admirers. Like Drive, The Tree Of Life has certainly garnered a lot of polarizing and opposing viewpoints from audiences. I remember seeing it the first night it was released in Landmark Sunshine Theaters and noticing two thirds of the audience completely enthralled by the experience, while the rest seemed rather indifferent. One lady even screamed out, “Where was the plot?” and appeared personally offended that the movie had the audacity to have such an unusual structure.

Below, I decided to reprint a few comments I made during Jim Clark’s superb essay posted on July 6th 2011 titled War And Piece: Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life. During the thread for that essay I engaged fellow Wonders writer Jamie Uhler in a discussion on the film and made specific points about The Tree Of Life I still feel are relevant to my appreciation and understanding of the film.

Pitt seems to represent a human type of fallibility that is soaked in biblical ideas of earthly transgressions like envy, jealousy, and anger. I would think that if anything, Malick is arguing that the father’s selfish desires of materialistic gains are preventing him from getting closer to some spiritual grace that the filmmaker seems to equate with inner enlightment. Pitt’s stern personality came across as more of a flaw in the film that Penn’s character realizes is also plaguing him. His future dissatisfaction stems possibly from the notion that he is becoming exactly like his father and not more like his mother.

The prehistoric scene is a key component in the film for me. The bigger T.Rex should choose nature and crush the wounded smaller dinosaur’s head. That is how nature technically works… the strong survive and the weak perish. Yet in some rare epiphany the T.Rex is overtaken by grace and simply moves along. Pitt grabs Chastain during one of their fights and could crush her in a similar fashion. If he was the total embodiment of true nature he could kill her and be done with the conflict. Yet he has a moment of grace and does not hurt her. The movie seems to suggest he could of used more of this kind of empathy.

I think the two parents are just broad philosophical examples for how people can approach life. For Malick grace seems to be the truer godlier way to salvation/happiness, while nature is a more superficial empty path.

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by Maurizio Roca

“Fixing a Hole” is a series whose purpose is to review films that have not yet been covered on Wonders in the Dark. December will be “Avant-Garde Month.” Each week, three related films will be covered in one entry, with videos of the work included.

While Joel has selected the weekly theme, the films were chosen by this week’s guest writer. Today Maurizio Roca, last seen conducting the noir countdown on Wonders, investigates three of his favorite experimental films from the riches of the silent era.

In the 1920s, avant-garde filmmaking slowly emerged as more intellectuals started to take cinema seriously as an art form. The scorn and ridicule that greeted movies in earlier times gradually subsided and was replaced by a general enthusiasm for the medium’s possibilities. A few members of certain cultural movements, notably the Surrealists and Dadaists, started to realize that their philosophical and personal concerns could be administered quite effectively on celluloid. This was another area of visual art where the creator could manipulate the tools he placed in front of him to construct a result he deemed aesthetically satisfying. It’s no coincidence that many early directors in this new enterprise had already established themselves in other forms of art. Just scan some of the names that graced early avant-garde pictures—Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Leger—and you can see that a healthy dose of cross-pollination was occurring quite frequently. Yet this new cinematic form was also attracting young budding filmmakers that understood that the relatively cheap, independent spirit that lay at the heart of this new medium was a way to break into cinema without relying on a studio for finances. Many future narrative filmmakers that worked almost exclusively in motion pictures had gotten their start in the avant-garde films of the ’20s. In this essay, I will be focusing on three such films of that decade.

For some readers that are unfamiliar with what constitutes an avant-garde film (as it can be considered in the confines of the 1920s), one needs to look at prevailing elements that were generally found in such works. For one, the absence of a linear, chronological narrative is usually present (or at least fractured to an exorbitant level). Second, a strategic use of cinematic techniques is abundantly added to abstract and consciously alter the images for the viewer by rapid editing, out of focus imagery, animation, filtered lenses, expressive and exaggerated camera movements, optical effects and non-diegetic sound. Third, it provides a highly ambiguous or symbolic message (sometimes even being completely nonsensical) that is meant to be reflexive and/or opposite of what can be found in more mainstream fare. These pictures are basically designed to offer the audience a sort of contradictory experience to what they would generally find in most theaters back then. (more…)

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Director: Jules Dassin

Producer: Samuel G. Engel

Screenwriter: Jo Esinger

Cinematographer: Max Greene

Music: Franz Waxman

Studio: 20th Century Fox 1950

Main Acting: Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney

Night and the City was filmed in London by an American director and three principle American actors. It was produced by 20th Century Fox and moved out of the country to better protect Jules Dassin from the impending blacklist he would face in the very near future. Darryl Zanuck was key in getting the film made and allowing the foreign setting to materialize. The U.S. version was also truer to Dassin’s overall intention, as it kept the bleak ending and was scored by the filmmaker’s choice of Franz Waxman instead of Benjamin Frankel. Still, in many ways, this 1950 film noir is as much an English production as it is a Hollywood one. A menacing London is the heart of all of the action and the rest of the cast and crew was composed of local talent. Chock full of more shadowy, sinister backdrops than any New York or Los Angeles location, the world inhabited by Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) is one infused with peril and continuously broken ambitions. As the most clear-cut “fusion noir” ever created, Night And The City can rightly contend as not only the greatest American noir, but the most effective British one as well. Here is the picture that I personally would recommend a film-noir newbie watch to understand the classic movement. It can’t possibly get any better  than this… (more…)

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Director: Robert Siodmak

Producer: Mark Hellinger

Screenwriters: Anthony Veiller, Richard Brooks, and John Huston

Cinematographer: Elwood Bredell

Music: Miklos Rozsa

Studio: Universal Pictures 1946

Main Acting: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’ Brien

Since I already focused extensively on the opening scene of another noir on this countdown, I will keep my adoration for the beginning of The Killers brief and limited to a single paragraph. I will say that it challenges and even surpasses Kiss Me Deadly in effectiveness. Robert Siodmak (no stranger to this countdown) really comes out punching with that opening right cross to whichever “bright boy” you care to inflict bodily harm on. That first image is basically lifted by both Aldrich and Lynch in their own filmographies and put to extensive use. Focusing on a car barreling down a dark road with a behind-the-shoulder shot, we are quickly placed in the prototypical noir universe of a stylized and menacing Brentwood, New Jersey. Rozsa’s intense and rousing score sets up the mood perfectly, as Sodmak’s name on the screen can’t cover up the two figures stalking about in the background. Their initial destination is a service station that looks closed and empty. They instead walk across the street to Henry’s Diner which is open and accepting customers. Unfortunately, these guys are not really looking for “roast pork tenderloin with apple sauce and mashed potatoes.” What they really want is the whereabouts of The Swede (Burt Lancaster) and to plug him with enough holes that he looks like one of those old cartoon characters that takes a drink and begins to spout water all over his body. The tension elevates to almost unbearable proportions as the duo takes the whole eatery hostage and we wonder what these assassins will do next. Fortunately they go away without any bloodshed. They have only one intended target, and he sits hopelessly in bed, waiting for the end to come. (more…)

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