‘This Is Not A Film,’ and other great films of 2011

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This Is Not a Film. ()
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2011 has been a very strong year for movies.  Although my mind does not naturally form "best-of" lists, these were certainly the stand-outs for me this year.

Certified Copy, directed by Abbas Kiarostami: Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy is a mirror, a dream of doubles, a mystery, and a love story.  It is also the first film shot outside of Kiarostami's native Iran, and his second collaboration with Juliette Binoche (the first being Shirin).  A writer (William Shimell) and an unnamed art dealer specializing in forgeries (Binoche) drive through the beautiful Tuscany countryside, and as they drive, we view them through the front windshield, reflections sweeping across their faces in a dizzying river.  At first it seems that the two are strangers.  Then it seems that they are a married couple, in the process of growing estranged.  But then it doubles back and they seem to be strangers again, playing a game, only pretending they are married.

The issue of authenticity (in art, in relationships) is the main theme of their conversations, and as the day progresses the arguments get intense.  Kiarostami has always been obsessed with authenticity and his films have often used Brechtian distancing techniques to force the audience to remember that they are watching a film (i.e.: a "copy" of reality, as opposed to the real thing).

In Certified Copy, both actors periodically talk directly to the camera, as though talking to one another across a table, and we see emotions and thoughts float across their faces, similar to the reflections on the windshield.  Deep underground shifts take place.  

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Filmed in Kiarostami's typical naturalistic style, which serves only to underline the question of what is authentic and what is not, Certified Copy, ends up being one of the most moving love stories of the year. The couple has disappointed one another, although how is not made clear.  They hover over an abyss of shared sadness and loss.  Maybe they are just playing a game.  Maybe they are strangers trying to imagine their way into an alternate universe where they love one another.

 Both Shimell and Binoche are superb, and the image of Binoche staring directly into the camera (which is supposed to be a bathroom mirror) and meticulously applying bright red lipstick in order to get his attention when she goes back to the table, is one of the most touching cinematic moments of the year.

Jane Eyre, directed by Cary Fukunaga: Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre has been brought to the screen, large and small, more times than can be counted, and Cary Fukunaga's version comes the closest to capturing the eerie Gothic quality of Bronte's very strange book.  

Every image is a carefully constructed work of art.  The picture oozes with mood and color, the interiors of Thornfield Hall chilly and vast, with the face of Jane Eyre emerging clearly in a circle of candlelight.  Fukunaga doesn't do too much, and he also doesn't do too little.  He is in service to the story.  

The romance of Mr. Rochester and his employee Jane Eyre is singular in literature, and oftentimes film adaptations don't get it right.  It is a difficult dynamic to capture.  These two would never fit into Jane Austen's more polite world.  Their conversations are prickly, honest, and loaded with unspoken psychological backstory.  Both are misfits,  although Jane's position makes her status more unstable.  Both are lonely, wounded, and misunderstood.  

Watching Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre and Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester banter in a quiet, dark room with a crackling fire is a great and powerful joy. Fukunaga actually lets the conversation play out.  He allows for silence, for tension to build, for there to be long moments where the two just look at one another, as though thinking: Can it be that I have found my match? Is this person before me ... the one?

 Michael Fassbender has had quite a year, what with X-Men: First Class this summer, and the one-two punch of A Dangerous Method and Shame this fall.  But his performance as the gloomy, tormented Mr. Rochester in Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre shows his potential as straight-up leading man.  Jane Eyre was a feast for the mind and spirit.

Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick: Terrence Malick's Tree of Life is the story of three brothers growing up in 1950s Texas and it is  also the story of the beginning of the cosmos. The universe explodes, and from out of darkness comes light, and from out of the light comes life.  Dinosaurs roamed the earth.  And little boys grow up in Texas.  

Brad Pitt turns in an extraordinary performance as the stern father of the young boys, and Jessica Chastain (an actress who has had a groundbreaking year) plays the mostly wordless wife and mother, in a performance that shows her palpable cinematic presence.  

Through the dizzying, undulating collage of the film, we are allowed great space out in the audience to rise to meet the film, to engage with it, to argue with it, to resist, to submit.  And yes, there are dinosaurs in Tree of Life.  By putting dinosaurs in juxtaposition with scenes of a 1950s childhood, Malick seems to be mourning all that will be lost when the human race will also extinguish itself.  

Throughout the film, we hear supplicating questions in whispering voice-over, thrown out to the unseen force that watches over all of us.  Is God listening?

 Tree of Life is courageous enough to ask, insistently: What is the meaning of it all?  Why are we here?  What is our purpose?  Tree of Life packs a huge punch and has great and lasting reverb.

Midnight in Paris, directed by Woody Allen: One of the surprise hits of the year, and Woody Allen's most profitable movie to date, Midnight in Paris is awash in self-conscious nostalgia for a lost Golden Age.

 Owen Wilson, Woody Allen's best alter ego to date, plays Gil, engaged to be married to the awful and humorless Inez (Rachel McAdams), and during a trip to Paris, Gil finds himself on a magic staircase that catapults him back in time to cavort with his idols, the expat authors and artists who gathered in Paris during the 1920s: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and a host of others.  

Gil is a successful screenwriter but he has also written a novel that he can't seem to finish. He wants to have a more meaningful life, so he figures maybe he should move to Paris and live in a garret.  Inez is not only unsympathetic but downright hostile to these ideas.  

Woody Allen's nostalgia has been a trap for him from time to time, tipping his movies over into self-pity.  Not here.  Midnight in Paris has affection for the impractical dreamers among us, and is a loving tribute to the giants of the past who continue to light our way.

A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi: Asghar Farhadi's A Separation won the Golden Bear at this year's Berlinale Film Festival and was also named the year's best foreign film by the New York Film Critics Circle.  It is a harrowing film, a domestic tragedy unfolding with the inevitability of a multi-car pile-up on the freeway.

 A Separation is not only a domestic tragedy but also a tale revealing the class divide in Iran and the sometimes-deadly clash between modernism and tradition.

 Starring Leila Hatami and Peyman Moadi as a Simin and Nader, a separated Iranian couple with an 11-year-old daughter caught in the middle, A Separation takes an unblinking view of the events that unfold.  Simin and Nader are not divorcing because they do not love each other.  Simin wants to leave Iran and wants to take their daughter with her.  Nader will not allow that.  The couple has reached an impasse.  

Needing help caring for his father who is stricken with Alzheimer's, Nadir hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) as a day-nurse.  She is from the lower class and wears the full chador.  One day, she makes a decision while caring for Nader's father that will have vast and terrible consequences.  Once the ball is set in motion, it cannot be stopped.  

Watching A Separation brings on a helpless feeling, like watching Nora in Ibsen's Doll's House wildly dance a tarantella to keep her husband from going to the mailbox, where a letter awaits that will ruin their lives if he reads it. A Separation has the same desperate and awful impact.  There are no villains here: just people caught up in circumstances beyond their control, doing the best they can in dealing with exploding events, but at a certain point, all will be lost.  There is no hope for reconciliation.

 The acting is universally magnificent, realistic and intense.  There are times when it feels like a documentary.  A Separation is emotionally exhausting, and worth it.

This Is Not a Film, co-directed by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb: Imprisoned Iranian director Jafar Panahi filmed This Is Not a Film in part on his iPhone, and in part on the borrowed camera of a colleague, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb.  It takes place on a day in Panahi's life, as he waits around in his Tehran apartment, talking to his lawyer about his upcoming sentence, and, finally, inviting Mirtahmasb over to film Panahi telling us the story of the upcoming movie he now will not be allowed to make.  

Hence, "this is not a film".  But it is.  It is one of the most important films ever made, seen in the context of the oppression Iranian filmmakers currently face.  Panahi's sentence was brutal:   six years in prison, as well as a 20-year ban on filmmaking, travel and interviews. 

He talks to the camera in This Is Not a Film, describing the plot and the set and the cast of the film he had been working on.  This may be all we ever get from Panahi again.

This Is Not a Film was smuggled into France inside a cake, in order to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.  Mojtaba Mirtahmasb was arrested in September of this year, and was released after three months, but Panahi remains in prison.  

Panahi's career has been dogged by run-ins with Iranian cultural authorities and mullahs, due to his explicit dealing with social issues in Iran, primarily the position of women.  What is happening to Iranian filmmakers right now is the most important thing happening in the film world.  This Is Not a Film is an obituary for a man who is still alive.

Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier: Not being a fan of the "provocateur" Lars von Trier, I went into Melancholia skeptical, and within five minutes found myself swept away.  A haunting, emotional, and sometimes silly ride, Melancholia tells the story of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

 Justine's chaotic and strange wedding takes up the first half of the film.  She puts on a happy face, but from time to time we see the shadows creep into her eyes, suggesting that all is not well with this young woman.  She keeps glancing up at the night sky.  It seems that there is a new star up there.  Does anyone know what star that is?

 Justine keeps disappearing from her own wedding, to take a nap, to take a bath, to race off and screw some random guy on the golf course.  

In the second half of the film, Melancholy, in its most aggressive guise, has taken over Justine's psyche.  She can barely get out of bed anymore and is now being taken care of by Claire, who has to help her bathe and force her to eat.  Meanwhile, that pesky star in the sky turns out to be an approaching planet named Melancholia, which is one nobody had ever heard of before.  It might "interfere" with the earth.  It may very well be the end of the world.

 The roles reverse.  Claire begins to disintegrate the closer the planet comes, filling the sky above them, and Justine begins to show her quiet strength and acceptance.  Her own melancholy has prepared her for her own end, and she is not afraid.  

Featuring terrific performances from the two leads (Dunst has never been better), as well as the supporting cast of Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, and Stellan Skarsgård, Melancholia has a bitter heart, a knowing attitude, and a gloriously theatrical sensibility.  It is a very weird movie, and I loved it.

The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne

There's a moment in Alexander Payne's The Descendants when Matt King (George Clooney, in one of his first pater familias roles), informs his teenage daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) that her mother will never come out of her coma.  The young girl, sitting on the edge of the pool in the backyard, is still for a moment, trying to process her own tragedy, and then she spontaneously leaps into the pool, submerging herself completely. Payne's camera catches her underwater, swimming toward the camera, with a silent scream of agony contorting her face.  A visceral marriage of directing, cinematography and acting, it is one of my favorite shots of the year.

 The Descendants could have been a disaster.  The traps of melodrama and maudlin sentimentality are everywhere in this material.  But it never steps wrong.

 Set in Hawaii, The Descendants tells the story of Matt King, heir to a pineapple fortune, and holder of one of the last undeveloped tracts of land in Hawaii.  His wife is in a coma following a boating accident, and it is revealed that she had been having an affair.  King begins a quest to "find the guy", involving his two young daughters in what amounts to crazy stalking throughout the various Hawaiian islands.

 The Descendants is funny and touching, and reveals beautifully the relationship between a distant father and his two young daughters who are exploding into puberty before his startled eyes.  Clooney, who often is isolated in films by his movie-star status, here fits in great with a noisy, raucous ensemble.  Except for the terrible voiceover by Clooney which starts the film, telling us everything we apparently need to know (but that we could easily figure out without the bossy intrusion), The Descendants is perfect.

Flowers of Evil, directed by David Dusa: Flowers of Evil played at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, and while it has not received distribution (which may make its inclusion my list unfair), I couldn't leave it off because it is one of the most enjoyable and emotional experiences I had in the movie theatre this year.  

Taking place in Paris, it is a romance between two young people in exile from their homelands.  Anahita (Alice Belaïdi) is an Iranian college student sent to Paris by her parents to get her out of the way of the violence that erupted in Iran during the highly contested elections in 2009.  Frantic to keep in touch with events, Anahita spends all of her free time looking at YouTube videos of the violence, and begging her friends via Twitter to keep her informed.

 A young French-Algerian man named Gecko (Rachid Youcef) is a bellhop in the Paris hotel and he is drawn to the beautiful yet distracted girl he sees in the lobby.  They befriend one another.  They check each other out on Facebook.  They send emails and texts, the contents of which unfurl across the screen against the dark Parisian nightscape.

 Gecko has no ties to Algeria or to France.  He is isolated, yet free and open.  It is an extraordinary debut for this young actor with the mop-top of black curls.  Two Muslim kids on their own in a foreign land, they romance one another, circling around each other, talking, dancing, eating, sightseeing, reading out loud.  

But Iran keeps calling to Anahita.  It seems wrong to her that she is not back there, fighting alongside her friends.  

David Dusa's camera is frenetic, energetic, quick-cutting between Anahita's solitary Web-surfing and Gecko's Parkour routines throughout the Paris streets.  When the two finally kiss, you can feel the ground move beneath their feet; you can feel the belly drop out.

 Flowers of Evil is about nationalism and violence, it is about love and connection, it is about how we live today.  Those who fret that social media increases our isolation from one another speak from a privileged position where the stakes are low.  Revolutions in the Middle East have erupted over the past year, and Twitter and YouTube and Facebook have been the tools for disseminating crucial information.  

David Dusa's story is, at its heart, a sweet and poignant love story.  With two beautiful performances by the two leads (there aren't any other characters in the movie), Flowers of Evil is a film to look out for.

Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese: It is probably the first time in Martin Scorsese's career that "a film the whole family can enjoy" would be an appropriate descriptor for one of his movies.  It's also in 3D.  What country, friends, is this?  

Hugo tells the story of a little boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who lives behind the walls of the train station in Paris in the mid-1930s, winding the clocks throughout the building, living in a hidden world of giant moving mechanics and shifting gears.  It is a steampunk fantasy to the nth degree.  Hugo was orphaned, and his father (Jude Law) had found a broken automaton (a mechanical man) in a museum and had devoted his free time to trying to fix it.  The automaton is all that Hugo has left of his father, and he works on it, stealing tiny parts from mechanical toys at a toy store in the station, run by the cranky and terrifying Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley).

 Perhaps only a movie buff will recognize the name George Méliès, but now the world can rediscover him, thanks to Scorsese.  Méliès was a pioneer of French film (you may recognize his most famous shot, of a rocket plummeting into the cheesy wincing face of the moon), long forgotten at the time Hugo takes place, except by a few fanatical film historians.

 Hugo is not just the story of a young boy trying to fix an automaton in order to feel closer to his dead father, and it is not just the story of George Méliès, a bitter forgotten man realizing the impact he has had on the world; it is also a celebration of the history of film and film preservation, a topic obviously dear to Scorsese's heart.  In this sense, Hugo can be seen as Scorsese's most personal film to date.  Funny, breathtaking, fantastical, with incredible image after incredible image unfurling across the screen, Hugo features fantastic performances by not only Asa Butterfield, who essentially carries the film on his slender shoulders, but Kingsley, Helen McCrory, Emily Mortimer, and Sacha Baron Cohen as a cranky limping station inspector (and Hugo's nemesis).  

3D, which annoys me when used as a gimmick, here is utilized to plunge us into the terrifying maze of the world behind the walls, the hidden ladders and swinging pendulums, all creating a dizzying landscape reminiscent of an Escher drawing.  It is fitting that Scorsese would use 3D as a tool to tell his story.  One of the scenes in Hugo portrays the effect on an early audience of the image of a train rushing into a station toward the camera.  The audience all shrieked and ducked, thinking they would be crushed by the train on the screen.  

Hugo meets a little girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) in the train station and they become friends.  She has never been to the movies.  Hugo can't believe it, this is the worst thing he has ever heard of, so he sneaks her into a showing of Harold Lloyd's Safety Last, which includes the famous scene of Lloyd hanging on to a clock high above the streets below.  The little girl's face watching the movie is not only agog at her new experience of seeing a movie, but with trembling fear about the fate of the man up on the screen.  She gasps, she winces, she cries out loud, she watches in silent horror, she clings to Hugo's arm.  Hugo grins up at her, loving her response.  

Her response represents what movies can do, what the best of them do, and even what the not-so-great ones can do.  They can bring us out of ourselves for a time, they can help us invest in someone else's story, they can provide escape, wish-fulfillment, catharsis.  Scorsese understands that better than most.

 Hugo, then, is a celebration of the art form that acts as a projector screen for our own journeys, and for our own wishes, hopes and dreams.