Thursday, December 29, 2011

Year in Film: 2011

Each film on this list had at least one public theatrical screening in Milwaukee for the first time in 2011.  Some of these films were released in other areas of the world in 2010, while some won’t be released until 2012, and some won’t be released in certain places at all.

Here is a list of movies that I really wanted to see that I missed:
Aurora (Cristi Puiu, Romania, 181 min.)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, USA, 158 min.)
Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, Germany, 107 min.)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raoul Ruiz, Portugal, 272 min.)
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 117 min.)

Here is a list of movies I really want to see that didn’t make it to Milwaukee this year:
Carnage (Roman Polanski, France, 79 min.)
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, UK, 99 min.)
The Future (Miranda July, USA, 91 min.)
House of Pleasures (Bertrand Bonello, France, 122 min.)
The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium, 87 min.)
Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico, 113 min.)
Project Nim (James Marsh, UK, 93 min.)
Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman, USA, 121 min.)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran, 123 min.)
Shame (Steve McQueen, UK, 101 min.)
Tabloid (Errol Morris, USA, 87 min.)
This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran, 75 min.)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, UK, 127 min.)
The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, Hungary, 146 min.)
The Woman (Lucky McKee, USA, 101 min.)

I also haven’t seen a number of the holiday season’s prestige films, although most of these strike me as conventional biopics (My Week with Marilyn), light entertainment for Clinton democrats (The Descendants), gimmicky schlock (The Artist), or pandering awards bait (War Horse).  I’ll probably get around to seeing these films in time to do a “Catching Up with 2011” post in early spring, and it’s possible that I’ll even like some of them, but I’m less excited to see these Oscar front runners than any of the twenty films listed above.  Below is a ranked list of the feature films that I saw this year, with brief comments on a number of them.

A   Masterpiece
1)  Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 104 min.)
The best new film that I’ve seen since starting this blog is Kelly Reichardt’s quietly intense tale of settlers stranded on the Oregon Trail.  Reichardt’s previous films have each been at least partially about people on the road struggling to survive with limited resources, but the stakes have increased here dramatically, with every move the settlers make bringing them one step closer to death from dehydration and heat exhaustion.  Adopting a you-are-there approach, the director engulfs the actors in enormous shots of dry desert land, restricts our access to important decisions by filming the men from a distance and making their voices barely audible, and doesn’t translate the dialogue of a Native American who becomes the group’s slave after possibly trying to attack them.  The overwhelmingly naturalistic feel of the film is complimented brilliantly by Jeff Grace’s somber, creepy score, the stunningly claustrophobic cinematography of Chris Blauvelt, the lived-in performances of the ensemble cast, and the brave decision to film the movie in some of the harsh locations where the real-life settlers met their demises.  This is an arduous journey film to set next to Aguirre, the Wrath of God, The Wages of Fear, and The Naked Spur.

B+   Special
2)  Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy, 106 min.)
At first glance, this would appear to be Abbas Kiarostami’s most conventional film to date – his first narrative feature in a decade, the first with a fully written script, one of the first to feature a professional actor (Juliette Binoche),  and the first to be filmed entirely outside of the director’s native Iran and in the more arthouse-friendly Italy.  But in reality this is the most intellectually demanding (and rewarding) film of the year.  Kiarostami takes a seemingly straightforward plot – a French antiques dealer (Binoche) and a touring British author (opera singer William Shimell, making a surprisingly strong debut as an actor) meet up for a date – and runs it through a blender, altering the protagonists’ relationship to each other without warning.  Are they on a first date or are they a married couple celebrating their fifteenth anniversary?  It seems that their reality changes every time they are placed in a new frame (in a car, in a restaurant, in a bedroom), but Kiarostami pointedly avoids giving any concrete answers.  Given that we never know the precise nature of the couple’s relationship, their meltdown toward the film’s end is surprisingly emotionally affecting, a credit to the quietly virtuosic performances of Binoche and Shimell.  While Certified Copy isn’t quite as strong overall as Kiarostami’s ‘90s masterpieces Close-Up, Taste of Cherry, and The Wind Will Carry Us, that is more a comment on the greatness of those films than any failings of this one.
3)  Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark, 136 min.)
Antichrist found provocateur Lars von Trier diving head first into self-parody, and the result was embarrassing enough to make me question my positive reaction to some of his previous films.  Melancholia is as operatic and bold as Antichrist, but it is also a powerful course correction that finally addresses and deals with the most problematic elements of the director’s aesthetic.  Heroines Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg are clearly figures whom the director identifies with, rather than the fearsome martyrs of previous von Trier films.  While von Trier, who famously suffers from bouts of depression, has a keen understanding of his heroines’ psychology, he is also painfully aware of the toll that their self-centeredness takes on the people around them, and seems to view many of the supporting characters with more affection than his ostensible stand-ins.   That mature attitude, combined with a lack of the ironic distancing that muddled many of his earlier films, makes this von Trier’s best and most spellbinding film to date.
4)  Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, USA, 102 min.)
This creepy mood piece about a woman attempting to readjust to “normal” society after spending nearly two years in a cult derives its considerable power equally from Elizabeth Olsen’s commanding lead performance and writer-director Sean Durkin’s cleverly deployed disorientation techniques.  While a film this technically assured and psychologically harrowing would be impressive coming from any well-known auteurs, the fact that this is Olsen’s first lead performance and Durkin’s debut feature makes the effort all the more monumental.
5)  The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, USA, 139 min.)
Terrence Malick releases films so rarely (he’s made four after his 1973 debut, Badlands) that every one feels like an event, the promise of something huge and unapologetically cinematic in the age of instant streaming and cellphone apps.  The Tree of Life doesn’t disappoint on that front, as Malick tackles nothing less ambitious than a variation on the story of Job, and he even has the nerve to include the parts where God is talking about creating the universe itself (represented here by a series of gorgeous mini experimental films within the film, and also a CGI sequence featuring a merciful dinosaur).  That grandeur is played against an evocatively remembered, deeply personal story about a child’s conservative upbringing in small-town Texas, with a stern father (Brad Pitt, in his best performance to date) and a saintly mother (Jessica Chastain) providing conflicting influence.  The contrast between the family scenes and the epic, literally world-building scenes is sometimes as awkward as it is fascinating, and the final, surprisingly banal depiction of Heaven is a disappointing climax to a film that is otherwise so steadfast about putting the mystery back into God.  But if Malick occasionally stumbles, it is mostly because no one is aiming as high as he is.
6)  13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, Japan, 125 min.)
Never one for understatement, cult director Takashi Miike fills his punk samurai epic with as much blood and guts as you’d expect to see in one of his gonzo horror movies.  But he hasn’t been this smart about building to the payoff since Audition.  In keeping with samurai film tradition, the first half of the film is about establishing the threat (a sadistic warlord who threatens to take the throne) and putting together the team that will take him down.  The second half is a ruthlessly nonstop action sequence that adds moving walls, primitive explosives, a comic relief character who fights with a tree trunk instead of a sword, and flaming boars to the expected swordplay. 
7)  Hugo (Martin Scorsese, USA, 126 min.)
Martin Scorsese is perhaps not the most obvious choice of director for a 3D, French-set adaptation of a children’s story, but he is the only person who could have helmed Hugo.  Applying the technical innovations of James Cameron’s Avatar to a story that’s actually worth telling, Scorsese uses the extreme depth of focus offered by digital 3D to create impossibly sweeping tracking shots, to add extra punch to already visceral action sequences, and, most movingly, to restage some of the most memorable moments from Georges Melies’ oeuvre.  With this celebration of cinema’s inception, Scorsese may have made some history of his own.
8)  Marathon Boy (Gemma Atwal, India/UK, 98 min.)
This look at a four-year old Indian marathon runner is hardly the year’s flashiest or most high-profile documentary, but it may very well be the most gripping.  Far from the faux-inspirational “real-life Slumdog Millionaire” story that it is advertised as, this is a complicated and layered story about the limited opportunities for Indian slum kids, the thin line between exploiting said kids and giving them a chance at a better life, and the political structure that often prevents the poor from improving their situation.  First-time director Gemma Atwal pursues all of these questions to their logical end, never allowing the film to become a conventional sports documentary. 
9)  Into Eternity (Michael Madsen, Denmark/Finland/Sweden, 75 min.)
Few of this year’s fiction films were as haunting or as purely cinematic as Michael Madsen’s conceptual documentary about the ongoing construction of Onkalo, an underground Finnish facility that is intended to store nuclear waste for one-hundred thousand years – which would mean that it would have to last ten times longer than any man-made structure ever built.  Madsen uncovers a fascinating and disturbing debate about how to properly warn a theoretical future society to avoid entering Onkalo, and asks scientists and scholars the tough questions about potential problems with the experiment.  Meanwhile, he and cinematographer Heikki Farm capture some of the most beautifully creepy shots of the year from inside the caves where Onkalo is being built.  The filmmakers are working almost entirely inside the Werner Herzog school of documentary-making, but there is no reason to complain when it’s clearly the right approach to the material. 
10)  Viva Riva! (Djo Tunda Wa Munga, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 96 min.)
This energetic modern Blaxploitation film about small-time Congolese hoods battling for oil drums suggests what Mad Max would be like if it took place in the real world – and also hauntingly suggests that we may already be living in such a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  First-time writer-director Djo Tunda Wa Munga keeps the plot unpredictable and the pace lively, and also shows a good instinct for dismantling potentially sensationalistic moments with shocking moments of brutally realistic violence.
11)  The Redemption of General Butt Naked (Eric Strauss & Daniele Anastasion, USA/Liberia, 85 min.)
The most fascinating character in any film this year was General Butt Naked, formerly a ruthless warlord in Liberia’s civil war and now a Christian preacher hoping to atone for the atrocities he’s committed in the past.  Documentarians Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion follow the newly-christened Joshua Milton Blahyi as he attempts to reunite with, and receive forgiveness from, the people whose lives he’s ruined.  It’s never clear how sincere Blahyi’s quest for redemption is, and the filmmakers avoid any editorializing about whether a man who has committed so many atrocities even deserves to be forgiven.  The film’s neutrality is almost frustrating at times, but with a subject as complicated as Blahyi it may be more important to ask questions than to give answers. 
12)  The Interrupters (Steve James, USA, 125 min.)
The latest documentary from socially-minded director Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame) is a moving look at a Chicago organization that hires former gang members to diffuse violent situations and help current gang members find better opportunities.  Riveting whether it’s showing the interrupters getting in the middle of a hostile scene or simply documenting the progress of people trying to get through the day, the film nevertheless feels less in-depth than expected from a filmmaker of James’ status.  It would be nice to know more about issues like the interrupters’ relationship with the police, and the ending seems a bit too abrupt.  Still, this is trenchant, essential stuff, and one of the best documentaries of the year.

B   Very Good
13)  City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan, China, 132 min.)
Lu Chuan’s epic recreation of the Rape of Nanking falls into the same trap as many films about holocausts, with the perpetrators being portrayed as evil, mustache-twirling villains, as if the film is saying “they treated us like animals – those monsters.”  But perhaps we should be glad that the film at least has enough nuance to include one token conflicted Japanese soldier, considering that that small acknowledgement of the “enemy’s” humanity was enough to get the film banned from many Chinese theatres.  What the film lacks in nuance it makes up for in sheer cumulative tragedy.  Few works of art have given such a convincingly brutal depiction of the devastation that an occupying force can have on a nation, and the stunning widescreen black and white cinematography of Cao Yu really puts across the full scale and crushing weight of the tragedy.
14)  Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, USA, 100 min.)
I’m not sure that there’s any point to this throwback to ‘70s and ‘80s action movies beyond being cool.  Fortunately, it is genuinely cool.  Every element of the film – from the simple “small time crook gets in over his head” narrative to Ryan Gosling’s commandingly subtle lead performance to the refreshingly visceral, non-CGI action scenes – is stripped down to its absolute bare essentials, giving the film a straightforward power that is sadly lacking in most of Hollywood’s bloated action epics.  Of course, director Nicolas Winding Refn’s streamlining also prevents the film from being anything deeper than a forceful punch to the gut, but sometimes that’s enough.
15)  Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea, 139 min.)
In his character study about an elderly woman’s attempts to fight back Alzheimer’s by enrolling in a poetry class, director Lee Chang-dong not only avoids all of the saccharine clichés that such a story seems to suggest, but winds up going into some of the darkest and most compelling social commentary of any film in recent memory.  It would be a shame to spoil too much of this film’s content, as one of the director’s master strokes is allowing the audience and the lead character to simultaneously experience the shock of her tragic situation, but suffice to say that this film has plenty to say about the marginalization of women in contemporary South Korea, and a keen psychological understanding of both the victims of that situation and the men who abuse it.  The film also contains a memorably fragile lead performance by Yun Jeong-hie, an effectively leisurely pace that puts the audience inside her character’s head, and a powerful moral conclusion that is hard to shake off.
16)  Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, USA, 120 min.)
Jeff Nichols’ second collaboration with lead actor Michael Shannon is a compellingly tragic story of a construction worker slowly but surely succumbing to the paranoid schizophrenia that runs in his family.  The occasional attempts to visualize Shannon’s apocalyptically violent nightmares are a bit hokey at times, but his uncharacteristically restrained, life-sized performance powerfully conveys his character’s increasingly brutal struggle to hold onto his sanity for the sake of his family.  Even a clumsy final scene that contradicts the previous two hours of film can’t take away the potency of Shannon’s utterly convincing portrayal of a man losing his grip on life.
17)  Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean, Romania, 95 min.)
The realistic, low-key performances and long takes typical of the Romanian New Wave are put to great use in this heartbreakingly uncomfortable look at a marriage destroyed by an affair.  While the film never loses its grounding in believable, everyday reality, it nonetheless manages to be as unbearably tense as a high-stakes suspense film.
18)  The Last Circus (Alex de la Iglesia, Spain, 108 min.)
This phantasmagoric, genre-defying sensory explosion recalls the epic patchworks of Terry Gilliam and Emir Kusturica.  The latter director’s Underground is perhaps the closest analogue to The Last Circus’ mix of political allegory and outrageously baroque imagery.  Unfortunately, the new film has a lot less to say about the Franco era than Underground does about the political divides in the Balkans; anything particularly thoughtful or nuanced in writer-director Alex de la Iglesia’s vision is drowned out by his wildly excessive style.  But that style is enough to keep the movie consistently compelling, with every corner of every frame being crammed with things that you haven’t seen before. 
19)  The Sleeping Beauty (Catherine Breillat, France, 82 min.)
Provocateur Catherine Breillat has been in an enjoyable classical period for a few years now, and her second straight adaptation of a Charles Perrault fairytale would seem to promise more of the same.   While the opening scenes of The Sleeping Beauty seem like a perfectly logical (if slightly safe) follow-up to 2009’s Bluebeard, Breillat begins departing from the original story and wildly defying expectations as soon as the princess’ finger is pricked.  The film turns into a ramblingly episodic, and frequently baffling, essay on puberty, the battle of the sexes, and aging.  Perhaps Breillat could’ve made a more coherent film about all of those themes by sticking closer to her source material, but it is exciting to watch her follow her muse down the least predictable paths, and it is truly impressive to see her capture so many magnificent images without ever breaking the film’s casually surreal tone. 
20)  On Tour (Mathieu Amalric, France, 111 min.)
The great French actor Mathieu Amalric has been directing films on the side since the ‘90s, and the feel of his latest behind-the-camera effort perfectly matches the nervy tone of his best performances.  On Tour follows a group of eccentric American burlesque performers (portrayed by actual practitioners of the craft) as they travel around the homeland of their unreliable French manager (Amalric).  There isn’t much more to it than that – the film is basically divided between bizarre stage performances and scenes of the manager having awkward reunions with people from his past – but there is almost always something interesting happening between the actors, and the boozy, semi-improvised aesthetic compares favorably to late-‘70s Cassavetes. 
21)  The White Meadows (Mohammed Rasoulof, Iran, 93 min.)
Mohammed Rasoulof’s ravishingly beautiful mix of folklore and poetic surrealism has less in common with the films of fellow Iranian New Wave masters Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi (who is credited as an editor on this film) than it does with the ecstatically personal ethnography of Sergei Paradjanov.  The quasi-documentary, self-reflexive style of many modern Iranian films is replaced here with a series of lovely tableaus that have the primal force and potency of fairytales.  Though the film is a bit too episodic for its good, its most beautiful moments more than make up for its brief periods of downtime.
22)  Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino, Italy, 88 min.)
Architect-turned-filmmaker Michelangelo Frammartino’s dialogue-free visualization of Pythagoras’ theory of the four stages of the soul (human to animal to plant to mineral) seems to have been made solely for the purpose of putting a bunch of beautiful images on the screen.  While the resulting film may be a bit shallow – not particularly moving or thought-provoking – the strength of cinematographer Andrea Locatelli’s richly composed long takes and Frammartino’s deceptively complex choreography is impossible to deny, with the animal stage being particularly well realized.
23)  A Good Man (Bob Hercules & Gordon Quinn, USA, 86 min.)
24)  Beats, Rhymes & Life:  The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (Michael Rapaport, USA, 97 min.)
25)  The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (Goran Olsson, Sweden, 100 min.)
There is nothing particularly unique about this documentary as cinema, but any overt stylistic flourishes would only detract from the riveting and extraordinary footage culled from nine years of foreign news reports documenting the black power movement.  The Swedish footage has the benefit of a clear-eyed, relatively unbiased view on still-controversial figures such as Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, and Louis Farrakhan, covering not just their impassioned speeches but often providing glimpses of their daily living conditions, while also putting their complicated positions on violence into a proper context.  Occasional present-day narration from the likes of the Last Poets, Harry Belafonte, and Talib Kweli is handled with more elegance, grace, and restraint than is usually offered in this type of film, never taking the focus away from the issues at hand.  Still, director Goran Olsson’s approach could use a bit more passion and a bit less intellectual distance.
26)  Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, USA, 124 min.)
Bridesmaids has many of the expected flaws of a Judd Apatow production, from its overlong running time to the reliance on improvisation rather than structured scripting.  But it’s still the most winning film to come out of the Apatow factory since Funny People, because of the natural chemistry between stars Kristin Wiig and Maya Rudolph, the incredibly game supporting cast (largely filled with unknowns and character actors playing against type, as opposed to the usual parade of big star cameos), and a wonderfully executed vomit and diarrhea gag that might be the funniest thing I saw all year.
27)  Give Up Tomorrow (Michael Collins, USA/UK, 95 min.)
28)  Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, USA, 95 min.)
There are plenty of flaws in this reboot of the beloved Planet of the Apes franchise, from the inherent goofiness of the premise to James Franco’s sleepy lead performance as a scientist who is inexplicably unaware that apes become less friendly as they reach puberty, to the few cringe-worthy references to the original films’ most famous lines of dialogue.  But the combined power of the exquisitely realized CGI ape effects and Andy Serkis’ moving motion-captured performance as head ape Caesar turns a lot of potentially silly moments into genuinely moving ones.  And the final apes vs. men action sequence on the Golden Gate Bridge is the kind of exciting spectacle that big budget action movies always promise but so rarely deliver.
29)  Enter the Void (Gaspar Noe, France/Italy/Germany/Canada, 143 min.)
It is thrilling to watch Gaspar Noe push at the limits of what the filmic medium is capable of, as he sends his camera flying hurtling past neon skyscrapers, floating across the ceilings of decrepit nightclubs, into and out of a moving plane, and finally through human orifices.  Too bad that Noe’s impressive formal innovations seem so far out of proportion with his simplistically nihilistic viewpoint.  Surely the ghost of the drug dealer who provides the film’s POV could’ve found something more interesting to watch than various clubbers indulging in random debaucheries.  Still, even if this is one of the dumbest (and most overlong) arthouse movies of the year, its level of technical achievement and sheer audacity make it impossible to dismiss, and it is arguably the most genuinely original film of the year.
30)  We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK, 112 min.)
We Need to Talk About Kevin demonstrates that director Lynne Ramsay hasn’t lost a step in the near-decade gap since her last film, 2002’s Morvern Callar.  She handles the new film’s nonlinear structure with grace, and maintains a consistently creepy aural and visual atmosphere that really puts the viewer inside the head of Tilda Swinton’s main character, the mother of the perpetrator of a Columbine-style massacre.  Unfortunately, Ramsay’s portrayal of the violent offender as a born sociopath is a shade too purple for this otherwise impeccably crafted film.  She mostly gets away with it because the film is a psychodrama told entirely from the point of view of Swinton’s character, and the son more or less functions as a manifestation of her fears of motherhood (in the scenes set before the tragedy) and her failings as a parent (in the scenes set after).  But the film’s depiction of Kevin as pure evil prevents it from having anything substantive to say about school killings, even as it powerfully captures the fears and neuroses of his mother. 
31)  Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark, Hong Kong, 119 min.)
This massive action blockbuster features talking deer, makeshift transfigurations, underwater catacombs, spontaneous combustions, and fight choreography by Sammo Hung, yet my mind was too busy trying to keep up with the absurdly labyrinthine plot to be consistently blown by the lavish visuals. Still, this is undeniably the most eccentric big-budget action movie of the year, and its sheer lunacy is enough to keep it compelling, even if the film as a whole is too frenetic to allow many of the individual moments to have the impact they deserve.
32)  Source Code (Duncan Jones, USA, 93 min.)
33)  Red State (Kevin Smith, USA, 88 min.)
Kevin Smith is far from a great filmmaker, but he does have a distinctive voice.  So credit him for stepping way outside of his comfort zone and abandoning any signs of his usual aesthetic for this offbeat horror/action/satire hybrid about violent events surrounding a Westboro Baptist Church-style cult.  The cast (which includes John Goodman, Melissa Leo, and Michael Parks) is strong, the plotting is unpredictable, and the pacing is lively, all of which goes a long way toward making up for the skin-deep political commentary and the sloppy camerawork. 
34)  Weekend (Andrew Haigh, UK, 97 min.)
35)  A Cat in Paris (Alain Gagnol & Jean-Loup Felicioli, France/Belgium/Netherlands/Switzerland, 65 min.)
This charming, lighthearted action movie for children eschews the frantic pacing, cynical pop culture referencing, pointless celebrity voiceovers and lazy computer animation of most contemporary animated films.  The tale of a polite cat burglar, his feline companion, and the mute young girl who inadvertently gets wrapped up in their adventures boasts a handsome hand-drawn style that looks like a series of oil crayon pictures come to life, a style that taps directly into childlike imagination. 
36)  The Muppets (James Bobin, USA, 108 min.)
37)  I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, USA, 102 min.)
38)  Buck (Cindy Meehl, USA, 88 min.)
39)  Louder Than a Bomb (Greg Jacobs & Jon Siskel, USA, 99 min.)
B-  Good but flawed or insubstantial
40)  Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, Canada/USA/France/Germany, 90 min.)
Take away Werner Herzog’s typically hypnotic narration and a fanciful epilogue involving albino alligators, and this History Channel-sponsored documentary about the world’s oldest known prehistoric art is surprisingly dry and straightforward.  (In fairness, Herzog’s use of 3D probably also enhances the experience greatly, but only the 2D version made it to Milwaukee).  Still, some of the old cave paintings are truly beautiful, and the French cave that houses them is undeniably a fascinating space.
41)  Beginners (Mike Mills, USA, 104 min.)
42)  El Velador (Natalia Almada, Mexico, 72 min.)
Natalia Almada’s film about the night watchman of a Mexican cemetery plays more like an experimental short film than a conventional feature documentary.  Long, static shots observe the watchman’s banal workplace rituals, as he tends to the elegant mausoleums that house some of his nation’s most brutal drug lords.  The largely silent scenes are punctuated by aural reminders of the violence that keeps the titular figure in business, with muffled gun shots interrupting distant musical performances and news reports occasionally filling us in on the latest murder.  Almada certainly knows how to build a creepy atmosphere, and her shot compositions are truly impressive.  But El Velador suffers from comparison to the similarly moody Into Eternity, which not only creates a creepy atmosphere but also leaves you with something to think about long after the credits role. 
43)  X-Men:  First Class (Matthew Vaughn, USA, 132 min.)
44)  Horrible Bosses (Seth Gordon, USA, 98 min.)
45)  Page One:  Inside the New York Times (Andrew Rossi, USA, 91 min.)

C+  Decent
46)  The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, France, 80 min.)
Jacques Tati was one of cinema’s greatest and most unique comedy directors, and Sylvain Chomet is one of the leading lights in the endangered world of hand-drawn animation, so one would think that a Chomet adaptation of a never-realized Tati script would be a guaranteed winner.  But Chomet’s frenzied surrealism is a poor match for Tati’s bemused naturalism, and it quickly becomes clear that the two artists have little in common besides a predilection for long dialogue-free sequences and a passion for depicting busy cityscapes.  Glimpses of each man’s distinctive charm pop up intermittently, but their aesthetics ultimately cancel each other out and make the film feel surprisingly bland and low-energy, despite the loveliness of Chomet’s animation and the bittersweet elegance of Tati’s storytelling.
47)  Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, Australia, 100 min.)
48)  The Beaver (Jodie Foster, USA, 91 min.)
Even before its release, The Beaver seemed destined to become one of those notorious passion project flops.  Yet perhaps the strangest thing about the film is that no one involved with its production seems to have been aware of how insane its premise is.  Jodie Foster and her crew give the film a feeling of bland competence, as if they thought they were making a middle of the road indie drama a la The Kids Are All Right and not a psychodrama about a man whose self-invented depression therapy involves communicating entirely through an Australian-accented beaver hand puppet.  Oblivious to the film’s essential absurdity and fiercely committed to his role, Mel Gibson delivers his most magnetic performance in recent memory, his nervy screen presence serving as a reminder of why he was once one of the world’s biggest movie stars and not merely a pathetic tabloid fixture.  To Gibson’s credit, he treats his character’s condition as an unhealthy mental disorder rather than a cutesy quirk, and the filmmakers follow suit by dealing with the subject matter as seriously as possible given the ridiculous and unintentionally hilarious storyline.
49)  Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, USA, 112 min.)
50)  I Saw the Devil (Kim Jee-woon, South Korea, 142 min.)
This mega-revenge thriller about a secret agent (Lee Byung-hyun) sadistically hunting down his wife’s murderer (Oldboy star Choi Min-sik) was vaunted by some critics and genre fans for its “the man hunting the monster becomes a monster himself” moral.  But isn’t the lesson about vengeance being a pointless, soul-corroding pursuit pretty obvious, especially after so many other films have covered this same territory?  Granted, few revenge films have taken their depictions of ultra-violence to the extremes that I Saw the Devil does, and director Kim Jee-woon’s talent for preserving the grisliness of his murder and torture scenes (rather than pumping them up to operatic levels) does set the film apart from some of its contemporaries.  Still, the fact that most of those (admittedly impressive) setpieces have clearly been framed for maximum Fangoria fan impact completely undercuts the tiresome and clichéd lesson that the film attempts to impart.
51)  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part Two (David Yates, UK, 130 min.)
The Harry Potter films have their share of flaws – chief among them the odd feeling that the dramatic moments are being rushed even as the plot is being dragged out interminably, which is perhaps the inevitable result of making (apparently) faithful adaptations of dense, mythology-heavy novels.  While the series as a whole has been too tightly controlled to allow for much variation between installments, the eighth and final film (adapted from the second half of the seventh novel) is perhaps the least satisfying for casual fans.  The emotional climaxes of many of the character arcs feel unearned, half-realized, confusing, or absent.  And while the CGI-heavy action scenes are handled with the series’ customary skill, only hardcore fans (or people who have specific memories of part one) will understand the stakes involved.
52)  An Earthly Paradise for the Eyes (Irena Pavlaskova, Czech Republic, 114 min.)
53)  How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? (Carlos Carcas & Norberto Lopez Amad, UK, 78 min.)
54)  Pianomania (Lilian Franck & Robert Cibis, Germany/Austria, 93 min.)
55)  Kinshasa Symphony (Claus Wischmann & Martin Baer, Germany, 95 min.)
56)  The Green Wave (Ali Samadi Ahadi, Iran/Germany, 80 min.)

C   Mediocre
57)  Outrage (Takeshi Kitano, Japan, 109 min.)
Takeshi Kitano’s films have always been baffling – even his relatively watered-down take on Zatoichi ended with an inexplicable musical number – but this is the first time that it seems like there’s nothing to “get.”  The prolific writer/director/actor/editor’s latest consists almost entirely of scenes of yakuza members discussing who they are going to kill, followed by scenes of the hits taking place, that pattern repeated until virtually every character is dead.  Some of the variations are interestingly staged, but seeing them piled on top of each other with almost literally no time devoted to anything else is ultimately numbing and tedious.  Kitano does manage to wring some pitch-black laughs by contrasting the utter pettiness of the convoluted gang rivalry with the brutal violence of the executions, but he doesn’t even seem to be aiming for any larger point.
58)  Insidious (James Wan, USA, 103 min.)
59)  The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry, USA, 119 min.)
The eccentric crew assembled for this would-be blockbuster seemed to promise, at the very least, an interesting mess.  But the shaggy, semi-improvised comedy of Seth Rogen fails to gel with the charmingly imposing villainy of Christophe Waltz, and Michel Gondry’s distinctive handmade aesthetic is swallowed whole by standard-issue CGI.  Rarely have studio notes and endless rewrites been so evident in the final cut of a film; each scene displays the germ of a different, potentially interesting approach to the material, but none of those ideas are followed through with anything approaching consistency or coherence.  The Green Hornet should’ve at least been an offbeat collision of styles, but it is ultimately just another in an endless assembly line of superhero movies.
60)  The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliviera, Portugal, 97 min.)
61)  The Bengali Detective (Philip Cox, India/UK, 101 min.)
62)  King of Devil’s Island (Marius Holst, Norway, 115 min.)
63)  Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga, UK, 120 min.)
64)  Natural Selection (Robbie Pickering, USA, 90 min.)
65)  Black Death (Christopher Smith, UK, 104 min.)
66)  The Trip (Michael Winterbottom, UK, 107 min.)
67)  Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (Rodman Flender, USA, 89 min.)
68)  The Woman with the Five Elephants (Vadim Jendreyko, Switzerland/Germany, 93 min.)

C-   Below Average
69)  Bibliotheque Pascal (Szabolcs Hajdu, Hungary, 111 min.)
70)  Dragonslayer (Tristan Patterson, USA, 74 min.)
This grungy look at the life of a skateboarding burnout has style to spare, with joltingly abrupt edits, intimate moments being suddenly interrupted by speaker-destroying blasts of punk, and even some casually beautiful shots of urban wastelands.  It’s too bad that first-time director Tristan Patterson wasted his evident skills on a documentary about Josh “Skreech” Sandoval, a giggly stoner type who neither seems like a particularly strong skateboarder (most of the skate footage involves him falling down) or a remotely interesting human being.
71)  The Athlete (Davey Frankel & Rasselas Lakew, Ethiopia/Germany, 93 min.)
72)  Anita (Marcos Carnevale, Argentina, 104 min.)

D+   Bad
73)  Vincent Wants to Sea (Ralf Huettner, Germany, 96 min.)
74)  Young Goethe in Love (Philipp Stolzl, Germany, 102 min.)

D   Awful
75)  The Twilight Saga:  Breaking Dawn – Part One (Bill Condon, USA, 117 min.)
The first three Twilight films were bafflingly (and somewhat amusingly) incoherent.  But the explicit moral of the most recent entry in the series – “deliver your baby at all costs, even if it’s a supernatural being whose birth is going to kill you, thereby necessitating your revival as a vampire” – is as blunt as it is repellent and stupid.

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