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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Top Ten 2011: Narrative Features

I’m doing a couple things differently with my top ten lists for 2011. This year, I’ve put together separate top ten lists for narrative features and notable indie films, which includes a couple films from the fest circuit that haven’t yet been picked up or released, and a third list highlighting documentaries. I also decided to list my picks alphabetically this year, rather than assigning a particular position on the list to each. Here’s round one: the top ten narrative features I saw this year:

I Saw the Devil, Jee-Woon Kim
I fell head over heels for this film when I first saw it at Toronto way back in 2010, and my love for it has been unwavering ever since. A tensely drawn story about a serial killer (Old Boy’s Min-Sik Choi) who has the tables turned on him when he chooses as one of his victims the pregnant fiance of a secret agent (Byung-hun Lee), I Saw the Devil is not only one of the best written and directed films of 2011, it’s also one of the best edited and shot, and has a terrific score to boot. It’s violent and bloody, yes, but it’s more an exploration of morality and what separates men from monsters than your typical serial killer movie about the mind of a psychopath.

Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin
One of the most buzzed about films at Sundance this year, with its title that forced you to memorize it or forever stumble over it, and a stunning breakout performance by Elizabeth Olsen in the lead role, Martha Marcy May Marlene uses non-linear storytelling to explore both how this young girl got drawn into a cult led by the scary and charismatic John Hawkes, and her unraveling as she tries to go back to a normal life when she runs away from it. Jody Lee Lipes brought some of the most note-worthy cinematography of the year to this film; the dreamy scenes on the farm the cult lives on are just stunning. Olsen, who had two films at Sundance in 2011, looks to be moving fast in making her mark on the indie film world. If she keeps taking smart roles like this one and stays away from Hollywood tripe, she’ll be a formidable force in the future.

Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt
I haven’t seen Kelly Reichardt’s earlier feature, River of Grass, but with her more recent films — Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and now Meek’s Cutoff — she’s established herself as a writer/director who, like Claire Denis, pays close attention to the visual composition of every shot and uses words with great restraint and economy. Meek’s Cutoff, an exquisite, patient, quietly tense tale of a group of pioneers whose questionable guide gets them lost in the wilderness at a time when there was no help around the corner, no gas station or town just around the bed, no cell phones with which to get help, uses some stunning cinematography to establish the vastness of the wilderness into which our travelers have wandered, carrying their precious few vestiges of civilization with them in their wagon.

Melancholia, Lars Von Trier
Melancholia, in which Lars Von Trier distills an end-of-the-world tale down to its impact on a wealthy, emotionally unstable family, moved me greatly with its visual imagery and poetry. We first meet sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) on the eve of Justine’s wedding, held on the sweeping, majestic estate Claire shares with husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) and their young son. All of Claire’s meticulously proper wedding planning goes awry, though, when clinically depressed Justine tries and fails to hold it together for the sake of her sister and new spouse. In the second half of the film, as the end of the world comes nigh, though, things flip and it’s mentally unbalanced Justine who faces the end with eerie calm, while Claire and John fall apart. Every frame of this film is gorgeous, and every moment bears the mark of Von Trier’s unique vision. There’s a scene with Dunst lying naked in the moonlight that’s has such painterly beauty, it makes your soul ache. He may be one of the most controversial directors around, and he could sure use a handler to guide him through press conferences, but you can’t say that Von Trier makes films that look and feel like they could have been made by anyone.

Pariah, Dee Rees
Dee Rees’ smart, sensitive feature debut Pariah explores the acceptance (or not) of masculine lesbians within the African American community through an excellently acted and directed exploration of that theme. This is the kind of film that’s made or broken by performances, and Adepero Oduye gives a stellar turn in the lead role of Alike, a young girl coming to terms with her butch-dyke sexuality within her insular, controlling, religious Brooklyn family. Kim Wayans is terrific and heartbreaking as Alike’s controlling mother, and Oduye, who seems to look frankly right through the camera lens into your heart, is spot-on in every frame.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
There’s nothing linear or traditional about Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s weird, engaging tale of Boonme, who we meet as he’s dying of kidney disease and saying goodbye. Seamlessly interweaving the spectacular natural beauty of Thailand with Buddhist ideas around reincarnation, the characters in Uncle Boonme accept without question the presence of spirits, the idea of reincarnation, and the need to meditate on the choices made as you’ve wended your way down your life path. This isn’t the most accessible film for audiences used to having their stories spoon-fed them with laugh tracks, big explosions and heavy-handed exposition, but if you can sit back, open yourself up to its gentle, abstract beauty, and allow its imagery to flow over and through you, Uncle Boonme is a most fulfilling cinematic experience.

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, Tomas Alfredson
I loved practically every second of Tomas Alfredson’s striking adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This intelligent, perfectly paced thriller about moles and mysteries-within-mysteries, is excellently cast; Gary Oldman as Smiley is getting critical raves, but the rest of the cast, including John Hurt, Colin Firth, David Dencik, Toby Jones, Mark Strong and Ciaran Hinds, is equally top-notch; the excellence of the performances allows Alfredson an economy of form that keeps the dramatic tension pulsing from start to finish as the mysteries unravel. The tight script, by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, very effectively whittles down a rather mammoth and complex story to its bare essentials. The mysteries are there, but the characters are front and center. And the brilliant, spare, visually evocative montage that closes the film is a practically perfect use of cinematic form in storytelling.


The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick
Have you ever meditated for a long period time, until you reach that dream-like, floating stage of consciousness where images from your subconscious mind float like soap bubbles before you, only to pop and disappear? This is what watching Terrence Malick’s long-anticipated film The Tree of Life felt like. I’m still not convinced that the dinosaurs, and even the whole part with Sean Penn, couldn’t have been excised from the final cut without losing much, but every moment exploring the 1950s life of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as the parents of three young boys more than made up for any transgressions. Way more than just a “circle of life” ode, The Tree of Life is a gorgeous, thoughtful, moving gift from a writer and director who seems to be deeply mining his own philosophical underpinnings in figuring out what life, the universe and everything means to him.

We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay
Lynne Ramsay’s chilly, wrenching examination of the mother-child bond ponders the question of “nature or nurture?” through the impact of a teenage spree killer on his mother, as she muddles her way through the aftermath of shattered lives. Tilda Swinton gives a terrific performance as Eva, a world-traveling feminist who chafes against the shackles of motherhood once her odd, endlessly crying son holds her captive to home and parental duty. Is Eva unable to bond with Kevin because there’s something amiss with him from the beginning? Or does he grow to become a calculating killer because off some internal button that never got pressed by maternal love and compassion? Either way, Eva cannot wash the guilt off her soul, even as she endlessly scrubs a bath of red paint off her house as she struggles to rebuild her life.

Without, Mark Jackson
If Mark Jackson’s feature debut, Without, had gotten into Sundance last year, I have no doubt we would have been hearing about his lead actress, Joslyn Jensen, in the same breath with Felicity Jones, Brit Marling and Elizabeth Olsen. As it was, the film’s solid reception and awards at Slamdance helped the film make its mark on the fest circuit, though I’m continually surprised by industry folks who haven’t seen it. Jensen turns in a solid performance as Joslyn, a young girl who accepts a short-term job taking care of Frank (Ron Carrier, also excellent) an elderly, wheelchair-bound man, in an isolated island house, while she struggles to come to terms with overwhelming grief and guilt. Jackson does a superb job of building tension from scene to scene, keeping the audience guessing as to whether Frank is really as disabled as he seems, and just how much Joslyn will unravel before it’s over. This is one of the most striking debut films I’ve seen; Jackson who wrote, directed and edited, is one of the most exciting young directors to come along in recent years. Keep an eye out for more out of him.

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Tsangari: With my next film, White Knuckles, it comes with a budget — it’s going to be a huge new world for me. As always when I enter into a new thing, don’t you wonder how it’s going to be and how much of yourself you are going to have to sacrifice? The ballet of all of this. I’m already imaging the choreography — not of the camera, but the choreography of actually bringing it to life. It is as fascinating as the shooting itself. I find the producing as exciting as the directing. The one informs the other. There is this producer-director hat that I constantly wear. I’ve been thinking about these early auteurs, like Howard Hawks and John Ford and Preston Sturges—all of these guys basically were hired by the studio, and I doubt they had final cut, and somehow they had films that now we can say they had their signatures.  There are different ways of being creative within the parameters and limitations of production. The only thing you cannot negotiate is stupidity.
Filmmaker: And unfortunately, there is an abundance of that in the world.
Tsangari: This is the only big risk: stupidity. Everything else is completely worked out in the end.
~ Chevalier‘s Rachel Athina Tsangari

“The middle-range movies that I was doing have largely either stopped being made, or they’ve moved to television, now that television is a go-to medium for directors who can’t get work in theatricals, because there are so few theatricals being made. But also with the new miniseries concept, you can tell a long story in detail without having to cram it all into 90 minutes. You don’t have to cut the characters and take out the secondary people. You can actually put them all on a big canvas. And it is a big canvas, because people have bigger screens now, so there’s no aesthetic difference between the way you shoot a movie and the way you shoot a TV show.

“Which is all for the good. But what’s happened in the interim is that theatrical movies being a spectacle business are now either giant blockbuster movies that run three hours—even superhero movies run three hours, they used to run like 58 minutes!—and the others, which are dysfunctional family independent movies or the slob comedy or the kiddie movie, and those are all low-budget. So the middle ground of movies that were about things, they’re just gone. Or else they’re on HBO. Like the Bryan Cranston LBJ movie, which years ago would’ve been made for theaters.

“You’ve got people like Paul Schrader and Walter Hill who can’t get their movies theatrically distributed because there’s no market for it. So they end up going to VOD, and VOD is a model from which no one makes any money, because most of the time, as soon as they get on the site, they’re pirated. So the whole model of the system right now is completely broken. And whether or not anybody’s going to try to fix, or if it even can be fixed, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not the same business that I got into in the ’70s.”
~ Joe Dante

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