Some Movies I May Have Missed

If I were making a list of the best newish films that I saw in 2011, I’d have to include a bunch of movies that I’ve already written about on this blog—notably, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Arrietty the Borrower (2010), Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009), Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), Pablo Larraín’s Post Mortem (2010), and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010). However, since I have nothing more to say about these films, instead of repeating myself, what I’d rather do is turn my attention to a number of films that I greatly admire but haven’t been able to write about (either because I’ve been too busy with other things, or was too intimidated by them, or both). I don’t claim that all of my picks are masterpieces, but I like them all enough to look forward to seeing them again.

Copie conforme (Abbas Kiarostami) A rather puzzling two-part narrative about a pair of strangers pretending to be a couple, or a couple pretending to be strangers. (Or both, or maybe neither.) The verisimilitude of the film’s style is itself a fabrication, yet Kiarostami is such a master illusionist that it seems effortless.

Hahaha (Hong Sang-soo) Another two-part narrative experiment belied by the realism of the director’s mise en scène. The delightfully improbable plot is full of amusing surprises, making this the best, and funniest, South Korean movie I’ve seen since Lee Yoon-ki’s My Dear Enemy (2008).

Des Hommes et des dieux (Xavier Beauvois) Further evidence, along with Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (also 2010), that classical Hollywood cinema is alive and kicking—in Europe. Largely eschewing close-ups in favor of group stagings in medium and long shot, this moving film demonstrates how much can be achieved with simplicity and restraint.

Mildred Pierce (Todd Haynes) In terms of form and style, this five-part miniseries is the straightest movie Haynes has ever made, but it’s also the most political. The middle-class heroine’s sense of shame at having to work for a living is so powerfully felt that the first three episodes are almost unbearably agonizing to watch.

Police, Adjective (Corneliu Poromboiu) A cop movie where the victim is the criminal (a teenage drug dealer) and the villain is Romania’s puritanical legal code, which is enforced as thoughtlessly and as severely as the rules of grammar. The lengthy shots of our sullen hero standing around in front of grey, concrete buildings are so sensationally drab they’d make Jim Jarmusch feel jealous.

Rubber (Quentin Dupieux) A muscular European art film thinly disguised as a trashy American genre piece (making it the inverse of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive [2011]), this surrealist road movie explodes narrative conventions faster than its exterminating axle explodes heads.

Snowtown (Justin Kurzel) I’m generally averse to serial killer movies, but this gripping Australian drama is distinguished in part by its uncommon seriousness. Although it doesn’t linger on the gory details, the unrelieved grimness of the film’s subject matter and mise en scène is often hard to bear.

The Time That Remains: Chronicle of a Present Absentee (Elia Suleiman) Beginning with the creation of the state of Israel and continuing up to the present, this deadpan tragicomedy about three generations of Palestinian Christians is as stylistically rigorous as it is historically resonant. Incidentally, it’s also funny.

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick) A fairy tale for grownups (for better or worse), Malick’s fifth is dramatically shapeless, but the rhythmic, graphically discontinuous editing, and its combinations of music and images, go straight to the heart.

White Material (Claire Denis) Centering on a protagonist with a clear goal, this powerful film about a colonial plantation owner attempting to go about business as usual in the midst of a civil war is the closest Denis has come to making a normal movie—as if she were deliberately attempting to court a wider audience. In any case, it’s easily the most suspenseful film she’s ever made.

Needless to say, this list isn’t exhaustive. I’d also recommend Theo Angelopoulos’ The Dust of Time (2009) for its magisterial camera movements; Jia Zhang-ke’s fascinating but unfocussed I Wish I Knew (2010); Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte (2010) for the director’s god-like control over mise en scène; Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (2011) for its narrative ambiguities and the clinical precision of Leigh’s mise en scène and framing, which both suggest the influence of Michael Haneke; and Duncan Jones’ Source Code (2011) for the way that it doles out exposition in small doses while the action moves relentlessly forward, so that (like the hero) we only gradually begin to grasp the situation.

Finally, if I were choosing he best films that I saw for the first time in 2011 regardless of when they were made—along with Angelopoulos’ The Traveling Players (1975), which I’ve already written about—my picks would be a quartet of French masterpieces: Jean Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936), Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la putain (1973), Alain Resnais’ Mélo (1986), and Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98). While Renoir’s proletarian comedy is plainly the most beguiling and optimistic movie on my list, Eustache’s bohemian psychodrama is the most emotionally devastating, and the director’s stripped down mise en scène puts particular emphasis on the performances. On the other hand, the style of Resnais’ film is flamboyantly theatrical, yet the story is no less moving for it. Indeed, along with La Maman et la putain, this was the most powerfully acted movie that I saw all year. Lastly, Godard’s eight-part series on video (the only avant-garde item on my list) has a reputation for being esoteric, but it strikes me as more accessible than any of his recent features precisely because it doesn’t tell a story. Thus, one can groove on the sounds and images without having to worry about processing the experience in terms of narrative. Like The Tree of Life, it’s a movie that sings rather than speaking.


The Uncertainty Principle (The Apple)

Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple (1997) is an ambiguous blend of fiction and non-fiction—or at least, that’s what it appears to be. The film begins with what looks like straight documentary footage followed by a fictional narrative featuring the same people, and since the three leads all have the same names as their characters, it would seem that they’re playing themselves in a story loosely based on their lives. But then, for all I know, the whole story might’ve been made up by the filmmakers, and the “documentary” material easily could’ve been staged. In contrast with Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), where the documentary scenes enhance the credibility of the staged recreations, here the juxtaposition of fiction and apparent non-fiction has the reverse effect of undermining the viewer’s belief in the veracity of the “documentary” footage.

The story is about a pair of twelve year old girls whose parents kept them locked up in their house from the time they were infants because their father was afraid they’d be raped if they went outside unsupervised. (Since their mother is blind, she can’t keep an eye on them when the father has to leave the house.) The movie begins with video of the girls being taken away from their parents after the neighbors write a letter to the child welfare department. But unlike Kiarostami’s film—which cuts back and forth between the trial of a man who was arrested for impersonating the director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Samira’s father, who wrote and edited The Apple) and reenactments of the events leading up to his arrest—here, the fictional scenes (which were shot on 35mm) take place after the girls are returned to their parents. In other words, rather than the staged scenes supplementing the documentary footage, the “non-fiction” material serves as a starting point for a story partially (if not wholly) invented by the filmmakers.

On its most basic level, the movie is a comedy about a very peculiar family and their interactions with the local community. Early on, a female social worker pays a visit to the house and finds that the girls are still under lock and key. So to teach the parents a lesson, she locks them inside the house and gives the father a hacksaw to cut through the metal bars on the doors. Meanwhile, the social worker tells the girls to play outside where they encounter several children their own age: A little boy selling ice cream on the street who takes his job very seriously; another boy who taunts the girls by dangling an apple just out of reach; and a pair of identically dressed girls who try (unsuccessfully) to teach them to play hopscotch. On its own, this story would be amusing enough, but by opening the movie with documentary (or pseudo-documentary) footage of the same people, Makhmalbaf discourages us from taking the film simply as a slice of life, since what we’re seeing, while obviously staged for the camera, doesn’t appear to be wholly fictitious either. It’s impossible to say how much of the story is based on actual events and how much is made up, and it’s this uncertainty that makes the film so fascinating to watch.

Also of interest is what the film reveals about Iranian society. The father is a sixty-five year old man with no formal education who makes his living by praying for other people, and his rationale for keeping his daughters locked up is that, just as flowers wilt in the sun, young girls wither when exposed to the male gaze. (Like many religious fundamentalists, both in Iran and elsewhere, the father is obsessed with sex.) Accordingly, the film has been interpreted allegorically as a critique of the Iranian regime’s treatment of women, but what’s surprising about the story is that here you have both the community and the state (as represented by the social worker) insisting that the girls be allowed to play a role in society, which is the opposite of what a westerner would expect to see in Iran. That’s not to say that women in Iran aren’t oppressed (obviously they are); only that in the west, we have a tendency to think that we know more about life in Iran that we actually do. The major achievement of The Apple is that we’re never allowed to forget how much we don’t know.