Friday, December 23, 2011

2011 in Film: Epic Failures and Modest Successes

Culture is graded on the curve. Attention is a resource parceled out minute for minute and year for year. And, it's not always a hot minute. Each year will have it's winner, sure, but when you line up each year's winners you tend to see a pattern of the undeserved and the missing. That's not to say there weren't a few great movies this year, but a few, i think, is all we got.  That being said,  I didn't get around to seeing everything I wanted to, namely: Turin Horse, The Skin I Live In, We need to talk about Kevin, Young Adult, Troll Hunter, The Artist, Certified Copy, A Dangerous Method, and a few others.  So, my data set is far from complete.

For me 2011 is the year of "Epic" Failures. I'm talking about Terrence Malick's Tree of Life and Lars Von Trier's Melancholia. While both films show just the kind of ambition that I love to see, neither of them meet that ambition at it's lofty height. Failures only by their own standards.

Tree of Life is the finest character work I've seen yet from Malick, perhaps due to it's autobiographical nature. His little post-war family is well drawn and acted to near perfection. With them, Malick says everything he needs to say about the dual nature of man. And, had the movie stopped there, it would have been flawless, however less ambitious. The human side of the story contains all the Malickesque touches we've come to expect and appreciate from the swooning sun bent cinematography to the heart felt existential voice-overs. But, despite lofty intentions, Malick's eye(and ear)-popping nature montage doesn't convey the raw wonder and epic feeling it reaches for.

In small doses in his other films a brief walk through nature seemed more an attempt to create atmosphere, suggest the pettiness of humanity, or was simply a nice poetic caesura.  Here he attempts to work a full blown abridged history of the universe directly in the psyche of his nuclear family in a single cut, or perhaps through osmosis.  It's stunning and beautiful at times, but falls short of the "sea contained within the fish" wisdom it portends as well as the Kubrickesque art/specticle it mimics. Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void is another film that attempts to unite the worlds of the avant garde and the traditional narrative to about as much success.

Melancholia takes some beautiful ideas about family, depression, apocalypse, and the process of art and sinks them into characters I couldn't make myself care about.. The depressed learn to deal with loss, art is a doomed process, beauty cannot function without pain and sadness. His themes are solid and provocative. We know Von Trier is a filmmaker capable of telling a captivating story with iconic characters. Yet, here he lets his ideas get the best of his story and the characters and dialogue are at times clumsy and forced.

Von Trier's assumption that the apocalypse is much more interesting when shown in the micro as opposed to the macro is dead on.  That's why it worked so well in John Hillcoat's The Road and Micheal Haneke's Time of the Wolf and a litany of other films before them.  What those movie's have that this one doesn't are characters worthy of empathy.  I really wanted a grasp on Justine and to lesser extant Clair, that I couldn't find.  I'm willing to take on sociopaths and depressives.  I think Anne Hathaway's Kym in Rachel Getting Married is one of the best characters in movies in the past ten years.  Is Justine a self-destructive infant, or a heroic savant?  Von Trier's wisdom seems to be that the two aren't mutually exclusive, and that when the shit hits the fan, it's the more cynical that can  keep it together.  I'm more than ready to believe this thesis, but Melancholia never really took the time to convince me. On the other hand, every bit of film containing his titular rogue planet Melancholia is haunting, beautiful, and conveys the emotional depth his characters don't. I loved the film for it's ideas before I had to sit through it's characters for 2 and 1/2 hours.

I was really expecting at least one of these films to rock my world.  Perhaps if one film had Malick's family and Von Trier's planet, 2011 would have had the masterpiece I'd hoped for.

In spite of their flaws, ambitious failures are still more interesting than a hedged bet. A few slightly less ambitious films, however, hit the nail right on the head and, more importantly, drove it all the way down.

First and foremost: Le Quattro Volte is a story told from the perspective of an old man, a goat, a tree, and a pile of ashes. Just how these four elements come together to tell the story of a sleepy mountain town is a wonder to behold. Much like the Hungarian masterpiece Hukkle the town goes about performing its well worn rituals while the vantage widens to a point where all is trivial, comic, and endearingly human.

The Future is the second feature from Miranda July. It's a film that will charm you in spite of whatever cynicism you may or may not have for it's twee director and her whimsical nature. Miranda July proves that she is not a fluke, that she is not going to bring the touchy-feely artsy shit down a notch, and that she is quite capable of expressing her real if peculiar genius through lovable fops and talking cats.  

Shame is the follow up to Steve McQueen's powerful debut Hunger.  And, like Hunger it earns it's stark moniker.  It's a deeply felt story of troubled characters in a flawed world on a path to redemption. McQueen seems to be on track to rival Kieslowski for dark, gritty parables.

A few great adaptations: Jane Eyre, Norwegian Wood, and The Descendants all get a proper cinematic treatment.  Some striking originals:  Drive, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives , and Meeks Cutoff  bring style and mood in spades.  The Interrupters and The Bully Project are a couple of powerful docs that attempt to take on violence in middle America.

Perhaps I saw all the right movies last year, 2010 seemed to me like another watershed year like 1999.  This year big audiences rightfully tried to embrace two films that were unabashedly artsy on the merits of previous directorial work, and in my opinion both films, while still definitely fine films worth seeing, missed their own mark.  I hope audiences are willing to take those big risks in the year to come.