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December 16, 2011

2011 - 2010 FILMS IN 2011

It is a testament to Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis that it can hold up to Giorgio Moroder's 1984 version, which is Metropolis itself, but with color tinting, 1970s pop soundtrack, and jarringly inserted special effects sequences that evoke the unsettling experience of strobe lights on a disco floor. Wikipedia tells me that the "film's release came at the same time that Queen released their video 'Radio Ga Ga,' which featured footage of the film. Though the Moroder version was nominated at the 1985 Razzie Awards for Worst Original Score and Worst Original Song (with Freddie Mercury), it brought the film back to the public eye." Well, yeah, I guess, though I didn't think it had faded from the public eye. Why my theater showed this, and why I did not better research what I was getting into, are, to me, equally baffling questions. Here is a link to the NYT story about the REAL restored version of Fritz Lang's classic:

Before I get to 2010, I have to mention a 2009 film that didn't make it into theaters here until this year. Applause is a harrowing close up of an alcoholic actress who is, appropriately, playing Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Paprika Steen powerfully portrays a thoroughly unlikable, often down-right mean individual, and manages to invest her with humanity, but Martin Pieter Zandvliet's overall direction, which betrays his inexperience in this feature debut, does not allow the film to to live up to its actress.

January began, as usual, with a few of the previous year's films finally getting picked up in San Antonio because they had received recognition at festivals or had made it into Oscar buzz. Derek Cianfrance's 2010 Blue Valentine set the stage for 2011 in which Ryan Gosling was to be the star du jour. Moving around in time, the film dissects a couple whose youthful romance cannot stand up to marriage and the responsibilities of real life.

Set in a seedy neighborhood of Barcelona, Biutiful, unlike González Iñárritu's previous trilogy (2000's Amores Perros, 2003's 21 Grams, 2006's Babel), where several individual stories are interwoven, is a single narrative. Javier Bardem is a good father and stoical ex-husband to a woman who can fairly be described as a shrew. He is being ravaged by a cancer he cannot afford to treat. The story is simply a raw slice of life, interwoven with others, as it nears its lonely end.

Both Blue Valentine and Biutiful are acted with raw emotion in a cinéma vérité style.

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl is a fast paced biopic, not so much about Allen Ginsberg as about the poem. As A. O. Scott points out in the NYT, "Every word spoken in the film is part of the historical record." James Franco IS Ginsberg. In every fiber of his being. For some reason, however, the directors chose to punctuate the film with stylized, somewhat psychodelic, animations that distract from the inexhorable power of the poet and his poem. Franco was nominated for Best Actor for 127 Hours. He should have been nominated for Howl instead.

Mike Leigh's Another Year is a penetrating examination of the human comedy, where long happily married London suburbanites Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen in deeply felt performances) try to provide support to their friend Mary (Lesley Manville in a painfully, emotionally naked performance), an erratic character aging in desperation.

Sylvain Chomet (whose 2003 The Triplets of Belleville lost to Finding Nemo for that year's Best Animated Feature) blessed us again with The Illusionist, a magical evocation of Jacques Tati incarnated from a sketch of a script by Tati himself. A bittersweet story told visually almost free of dialog, it is love letter to a bygone era (as was Triplets) when people would delight to the illusionist's tricks. Now the aging artist finds himself taking a young girl under his wing, but as they each revel in the company of the other, the story begins to take on an almost Blue Angel darkness as the girl comes to realize that she can manipulate this kind old man's natural generosity.

Lena Dunham wrote, directed and stars in Tiny Furniture and her real mother and sister play her screen mother and sister. Aura has moved back home and sinks deeper into a post-graduate depression. The film is a self-referential examination of the portrayal of women that engages in a compelling narrative of family dynamics.

Sofia Coppola's Somewhere asks that we suspend expectations. It asks us to watch and listen closely to a quiet story about a father’s loneliness and a daughter’s devotion. Where a lumbering narrative like Melancholia produces nothing approaching empathy in us, Coppola draws it out of us, scene by scene.

Claire Denis's White Material (2009 and it's not in a San Antonio theater until February 2011!) chronicles the horror of the upheaval besetting an African country as it throws out the last vestiges of colonialism, with all the confusion and brutality that upheaval involves. It is a subject Denis knows intimately, having grown up the daughter of a French official in Francophone African countries. Isabelle Huppert brings a fierce dignity and strength of will to the central role of a woman losing the only land she has ever known to terrorizing, marauding rebels. Though on its surface the film is about privileged white Europeans and their patrimony, towards the land and its people, it is moreso about the tragic, moral consequences the rebellion wreaks upon the children of war.

Justin Chadwick's The First Grader is the true story of Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge of the Kenyan Kikuyu tribe. Kenya offered universal free education in 2003, so Maruge enrolled. The government had not imagined that an adult, certainly not an 84 year old man, would take them up on their offer, but he has profound reasons for wanting to learn to read, and his struggle becomes one of deeper political resonance. The film is not always successful, and sometimes downright clumsy, but it is ultimately a worthy story that deserves to be told.

To say Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, is about family secrets is an understatement. The secrets are so intertwined and at times almost entirely implausible, but the skill with which the story unravels is such that we willingly suspend disbelief. Twin brother and sister in Quebec are tying up the estate of their mother. When the lawyer hands each of them an envelope with separate instructions from their mother, their journey of self-knowledge is set in motion. They go off on what seems could be something of a snipe hunt were it not so serious. What they find in their mother's native Lebanon will unearth the tragic secrets of her life and ultimately reveal their own identities. It is a profoundly moving story of the triumph of love over unspeakable brutality. 

The Guard is an Irish buddy movie brimming with energy from John Michael McDonagh, his first feature film. Sgt. Gerry Boyle (played to the max by Brendan Gleeson) is a law defying, expletive spouting garda in a little County Galway village where, when not carousing, he cares for his dying mother. American Wendell Everett (a dapper Don Cheadle) is a straight arrow FBI agent who has been sent to intercept a large drug shipment. Boyle antagonizes Everett with racial stereotypes that are not so much racist as clueless. They develop an I Spy friendship as they team up to make the bust. The film soars above its formulaic foundation. It's a rollicking romp and well worth the price of admission. One of my favorites of the movies I saw this year.

Mike Cahill's Another Earth introduces us to a young woman who, on the eve of embarking on a scholarship to MIT, had too much to drink at a graduation party and caused a fatal automobile accident. Released from prison, she has moved back into her childhood room. In parallel, a story emerges about the discovery of a planet identical to earth. A love story ensues between the young woman and the surviving husband and father of the victims of the accident that concludes in echoes of O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi." With a superb soundtrack.

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