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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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“The core fear is what can happen to you, personally. Your body. That’s what horror films deal with, precisely. We are a very thin skin wrapped around a pumping heart and guts. At any given moment it can come down to that, be it diseases, or somebody’s assault, or war, or a car wreck. You could be reduced to the simple laws of physics and your body’s vulnerability. The edged weapon is the penultimate weapon to disclose that reality to you.”
~ Wes Craven, 1996, promoting Scream

MAMET
Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

INTERVIEWER
Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?

MAMET
Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective… The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play… It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do. Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man. That’s my character. I’m honest, I like to do things, I’m forthright, I like to be clear about everything, I like to be concise. Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character. Or the person is onstage, and the playwright has him or her make those same claims in several subtle or not-so-subtle ways, the audience will say, Oh yes, I understand their character now; now I understand that they are a character. But in fact you don’t understand anything. You just understand that they’re jabbering to try to convince you of something.
~ David Mamet

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