Tuesday, December 27, 2011

LISTS: Dominic Mercurio's Top 10 Films of 2011

Dominic Mercurio has been an insightful intern for The Evening Class this past year, writing on the Disposable Film Festival's Bay Area premiere of Kevin MacDonald's Life In A Day and dispatching from the Palm Springs International ShortFest and the Mill Valley International Film Festival. It's with great pleasure that I offer up his year-end list, in reverse order.

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10. Lotus Eaters (written & directed by Alexandra McGuinness). When I first saw the trailer for this film I thought to myself "looks sorta like that TV show Skins" (of which I mean the original British version ... don't even get me started on the American MTV bullshit remake) and I wasn't entirely off base. This film is sex, drugs, and rock and roll—plain and simple; but it does so with heart and searing visual flair. It all made sense in the Q&A after the screening when writer / director Alexandra McGuinness explained that she had a background as a stylist and a large interest in fashion, because the way this film is photographed is a bit reminiscent of classic fashion photography. Lotus Eaters follows a group of young upper class Brits living their life in that aimless cycle that we all at some point or another fell into in our teenage years. At the center is a blooming yet turbulent relationship between two of the main characters Alice and Charlie, the latter of which has a bit of a drug problem.

The movie spirals around their lives as if a fly on the wall is taking you from one situation to the next, whether it be a wild party with vodka-baths, or buying ridiculous clothing accessories. The movie is lean at 78 minutes, and is light on plot but heavy on character. It was the last act of the film that had me hooked. Once the wave finally crashes down on the never-ending party these lads live, it begins to take a more pensive route; one that ultimately ends up making this film a wild ride. Top that off with Alexandra's seriously kick-ass taste in music (I'm talking best soundtrack of the year) and seemingly instinctual mastery of blending visuals with music and you end up with a fascinating gem of a feature debut.

9. The Tree of Life (written & directed by Terrence Malick). I would just as quickly warn people to never watch this film almost as much as I would plead others to do so. Its glacial pacing, stream-of-consciousness structure, over two-hour runtime, and minimalistic story will probably have unsuspecting filmgoers instinctually reaching into their pockets for a quick few rounds of Angry Birds as they pan it for being too artsy. I often wonder if films of this nature will slowly become extinct as our collective attention spans dwindle into the length of adorable-kitten videos on YouTube.

At any rate, this film propelled me into a rather pensive funk for the proceeding few days after seeing it. What ended up being so note-worthy was its unbelievably accurate depiction of how we remember our lives, and more specifically our childhood. Textures, smells, inconsequential moments, or snapshots of seeing the world when you were two feet tall. These moments bubble to the surface, often without too much context of what came before or after it, or even what age you were.
The Tree of Life plays out much in the same way. After the introduction of a 1950's family grieving a loss, we are transported back in time ... you know, to the Big Bang. Upon witnessing the very formation of life itself, we eventually catch back up to what most would consider the main "plot line" of this freeform existential journey. The film is visually astounding. I mean serious eye candy. Captured images of profound greatness. Do you get what I'm saying? Pop this one in after a nice bubble bath, or perhaps a few hours of meditation because this isn't a film that's gonna quiet a restless mind.

8. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (directed by David Fincher). It's not often phenomenal filmmakers have turn around time between films as quickly as Fincher. After releasing The Social Network in October 2010, he's already back with his next project which slides snuggly in next to other Fincher classics like Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, and Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Yeah, this guy has certainly been busy making some of the greatest films of the last 10 years. It's well known that Dragon Tattoo is a remake of a 2009 Swedish film [Män som hatar kvinnor], leaving many to wonder just why the film is so necessary. While I more often than not join the rally of "leave great foreign films alone!" (as I did when they remade the brilliant Swedish film Let The Right One In), I can't help but make an exception if the film is helmed by a visionary director such as Fincher.

But enough about all that, this movie is badass. Rooney Mara as Lisbeth, the damaged and strong anti-heroine, glues your eyes to the screen and demands your attention in one of the year's best performances. As far as tone goes, this mystery thriller focuses much of its drama on the slow unraveling of the murder mystery at its core and refrains from loud set-piece-destroying action sequences. It's very much akin to Fincher's more recent work in
Zodiac and The Social Network where he's been seriously flexing his "make long dialogue scenes way more gripping then any standard action scene would be." To top it off, his frequent cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth paints stunning visuals into each frame with his uncanny eye for visual perfection. Trent Reznor's score is yet again a perfect pairing to the visuals, and keeps the sense of menace and dread up even when really all we're watching is our main characters flipping through old news articles and investigating every corner of a photograph. That is what filmmaking is all about.

7. Submarine (written & directed by Richard Ayoade). OK, I can't argue it. We've all seen a quirky coming-of-age love story before, however Submarine manages to rise above its own framework to offer a comedy with outstanding characters, emotional depth, and a so-British-it-hurts style humor for the 2011 generation. The film sinks its teeth deep into the visual medium it's presented in with a fresh and lively style. Consistent across the writing, cinematography, directing, and editing the film hits its tone so perfectly on all ends it becomes hard not to be swept away by its heightened reality. Fifteen-year-old Oliver Tate is wise beyond his years, and his hilarious introspective internal rants give us a great sense of the depth of his character. Character is something this film packs in by the tons. Each player in this tale has a perfect array of flaws, quirks, and oddities that make each scene a joy to watch as more layers are peeled back. A classic love story told in an unconventional way. Its odds and ends make this an addictive watch.

6. Hesher (directed by Spencer Susser). It's hard to pinpoint exactly what about this depraved dark comedy I found so outrageously hilarious. In many ways, it's the sum of its parts, but truly the comedy orbits the hysterically straight-faced performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the aimless stoner metal-head deadbeat Hesher. His unapologetically don't-give-a-flying-fuck attitude accidentally finds its way into a grieving family of three mourning the loss of mama-bear. Its dark tone is played for laughs on just about every turn of the story, and does so without shame. Despite its mostly bleak tone, Hesher keeps things energetic and entertaining with seriously fantastic performances, killer writing, and well-rounded characters. Hesher is filmmaking turned up to 11. In fear of over-complicating things, it's easiest to say: this film fucking rocks.

5. Martha Marcy May Marlene (written & directed by Sean Durkin). Don't call it a cult film. OK, you can if you want, but—interestingly— director Sean Durkin prefers that the misguided and reclusive group that begins molding Martha's mind to do the "right" thing unconditionally not be so attached to the classical definition of a "cult." I think what he's really getting at is that Martha Marcy May Marlene is a "cult" film without the over-the-top cheesy elements involved. Don't expect any sacrificial lambs, speaking in tongues, and velvet robes in this one. This is a group that could very well exist in our modern world, and it's unnervingly easy to see how someone in a vulnerable state of mind (i.e., Martha) could find solace and a sense of community among her new-found brothers and sisters. This is crucial in understanding just what makes MMMM so powerful and truly chilling. Powerhouse performances from Elizabeth Olsen as Martha as well as John Hawkes as Patrick, the "cult" leader, make this a serious knockout of a feature-length directorial debut. The film is firmly grounded in reality, while Martha struggles to understand her own. Smoothly transitioning between her life since escaping the cult and the deep-rooted memories from when she was still a part of it makes you as the audience sometimes question what is a dream, a memory, or current reality. The audience is constantly trying to make sense of the events and what it will mean for Martha's transition to life in our normal society. You never really know more than Martha, down to this brilliant film's final frame.

4. The Future (written & directed by Miranda July). Miranda July is odd. If you haven't seen her video blog, watched her interviews, listened to her audio-stories/spoken word albums, or seen her debut feature Me and You and Everyone We Know (in which, as with The Future, she wrote, directed, and starred) then it may be a bit hard to judge whether The Future is going to be your thing or not, but suffice it to say that it's another addition perfectly in line with her off-kilter humor mixed with child-like wonder. In other words it's brilliant. Describing the plot of the film actually doesn't do much good in enhancing your understanding of what this film is truly about. Sure, it involves love, modern-day dilemmas of technology, existential mid-life thoughts, and a talking cat—but really this film is more than about that. Absorbing the film into your mind offers you a rather insightful tale of ... well ... life. Despite its abstracted fun-house mirror presentation, this film at core is a grounded and relatable human story. Miranda July has often been discredited as being "weird for weird's sake" but what makes The Future so inciting is wondering how Miranda July is going to present the next scene. Her unique penchant for storytelling makes her work less about trying to figure out WHAT will happen next, but more so HOW it will happen. Call it weird, but I call it transcendent.

3. Melancholia (written & directed by Lars Von Trier). "A beautiful film about the end of the world" is this film's tagline, and there truly isn't a better way to sum it up. When was the last time you saw a film about the end of the world that doesn't show people rushing into stores to stock up on supplies, frantic newscasters warning people to stay inside, the Golden Gate Bridge being destroyed, impossible scientific experiments like lasers that can destroy asteroids without any debris entering Earth's atmosphere, or Bruce Willis? In Lars Von Trier's (Antichrist, Dogville) latest film, he explores the real emotions of a handful of characters as they begin to come to terms with the fact that their lives, and the lives of all human beings on Earth might soon be coming to an end. The uncertainty of the situation and the wide personalities of the four main characters cast a relatable shadow in the audience's direction. Would you be the one to doubt it until the last minute? Accept it and enjoy your final moments? Panic and convince yourself there must be a way to stop it? Fantastic performances from Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg blended with the unmistakable cinema-verite style of Lars Von Trier's eye as well as his latest obsession with super-slo-mo imagery make this film remarkably powerful and existential.

2. Life in a Day (directed by Kevin MacDonald). It's always refreshing when films are able to take you beyond the simple presentation of a story, and Life in a Day does just that while still remaining captivating and interesting. Life in a Day essentially boils down to being a 95-minute video time capsule of what life was like for humans around the world on June 24, 2010. The result is both fascinating and deeply thought-provoking. Pieced together from thousands of clips that were submitted by people from around the world filming their day, this is a project unlike any other before it. By eliminating the arguably invasive film crew from this documentary, and handing the camera over to the subjects themselves (i.e., everyone on Earth) we get undeniably candid and personal moments that would otherwise be stifled by a bunch of film dudes making sure the shot looks good on the other side of the room. When I say this film is beautiful, I'm not talking about the camerawork, lighting, or visual effects—I'm talking about the deep undercurrent of human feeling sewn throughout the film's running time. In watching this film, you're sure to find connections to your own life and raise some questions about how you're living it. It's an experience that will happen for those willing to open themselves up to it. This film rewards audience members who allow this film to absorb into their minds. It turns out it's one of the most rewarding experiences that film has provided this year.

1. We Need to Talk About Kevin (directed by Lynne Ramsay). This film is impossibly twisted, unmistakably unsettling, and far beyond just "dark." Often picking my "favorite" films just comes down to the visceral feeling a film gives me. After all, a truly effective film is the kind of film that literally gives you chills, or overwhelming emotion that lingers hours, days, sometimes weeks upon seeing it. So it was a no-brainer for me to place We Need to Talk About Kevin firmly at the top after experiencing what can only be described as a "my skin is crawling" moment during the closing credits. This film is NOT for everyone. For example: children, people interested in seeing movies to escape / feel good, or people who would not like to be aware of the irreversibly fucked-up scenario of raising a child with serious psychological problems. So its audience is a little limited.

The deranged insanity of the demon-child in question "Kevin" is actually played by three actors at different stages of his life: toddler, adolescent, and teen. While the adolescent Kevin has the most screen time, it will undoubtedly be the teen Kevin (played by Ezra Miller) who will give you death-stares in your nightmares. In fact, it's not just his performance that stands out as exceptional, but Tilda Swinton's performance as his mother Eva. The complex emotions of Eva that drive the fractured narrative through its depraved story of the constant search for a normal life catapult this film into a territory of universal fear and the doubt of one's abilities as a human. It's a rough ride psychologically, but this film is dementedly visceral and not to be missed by anyone willing to stomach it.

Cross-published on Dominic Mercurio's personal blog.

1 comment:

Katie Dalton said...

oh man so many of these sound great! I can't wait to see some or most of them. Awesome work! :)