Spies in the House of Art

The ten best films of 2011.

Want to cause a panic? Try yelling “Art!” in a crowded multiplex. Given the general movie-going public’s antipathy toward foreign films, silent flickers, documentaries, high-flown “serious” dramas, and pretty much anything with subtitles, the warning that an art movie is about to be unleashed should clear the place out in a jiffy.

But we’re not like that, are we? We’re the sort that waits patiently, sitting through the general run of commercial releases — giant robots, fireballs, meathead comedies, formulaic kiddie spectacles — biding our time until Lars von Trier is ready for us. Because the creations of the enigmatic Herr von Trier, along with those of Cary Joji Fukunaga, Göran Olsson, Lech Majewski, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the late Raúl Ruiz, Alexander Payne, Tomas Alfredson, Cristi Puiu, and the estimable Terrence Malick are our idea of a nourishing night at the movies.

That’s one reason why we’ve decided to put The Art Film on a pedestal. In this year’s climate of diminishing rewards, it’s one cinematic category that consistently offers a good return on investment of time. More or less in the order seen, the Ten Best Films of 2011 are:

Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre

Olsson’s The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Puiu’s Aurora

Malick’s The Tree of Life

Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross

The Dardenne Bros.’ The Kid with a Bike

von Trier’s Melancholia

Ruiz’ Mysteries of Lisbon

Payne’s The Descendants

Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Heavily hyped maestro Malick aside, a worthwhile art pic usually isn’t going to come up and put itself in your face. The market for art represents a slender sliver in the sphere of the entertainment business, so there’s almost no budget for advertising and publicity. More often than not, you’re going to have to put on your boots and hunt it down. That means spending time at the Pacific Film Archive, the San Francisco Film Society Cinema in SF’s Japantown, and other places where popcorn is scarce.

For instance, The Kid with a Bike played exactly twice at the SF Film Society’s “French Cinema Now” in October — it’s reportedly scheduled for regular theatrical release sometime in 2012, but don’t hold your breath. If you weren’t paying attention to the Film Society’s calendar, you missed a Cannes Grand Prix winner and another example of the Dardennes’ devotion to telling the stories of marginalized people, in this case a mixed-up, pre-teen boy named Cyril Catoul. As portrayed by first-time actor Thomas Doret, youth shelter runaway Cyril is a distressed Tintin trying to put down roots in the Belgian underclass against the usual odds: a father who has no time for him (Jérémie Renier) and a tough older boy who uses Cyril as a felonious gofer. Luckily for Cyril there’s a woman who cares, played by the lovely Cécile de France. The Dardenne Brothers (Lorna’s Silence, The Child, La Promesse) specialize in heartbreaking scenarios without pathos, a tricky proposition yet one for which they’re recognized as world masters.

Cristi Puiu’s Aurora is a similar project for art-spelunkers. Romanian filmmaker Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) not only wrote and directed this ice-cold diary of a taciturn killer, he also stars as the film’s walking vortex, a man named Viorel who spends his screen time skulking around Bucharest in between sudden, unexpected outbursts of violence. Something deadly is brewing inside his head but it doesn’t take shape in the dialogue — Aurora could function almost as a silent film. If we had to pick one film from the “Romanian new wave” of recent years, this would be it. It showed at the SF International Film Festival and later at the SFFS’ New People Cinema. Difficult, but worth the effort.

Jane Eyre, on the other hand, marched into art houses last March with full fanfare, as the latest adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic gothic novel and also as director Cary Fukunaga’s follow-up to his sensational first feature, Sin Nombre. The project had a couple of secret weapons — busy actors Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, two of 2011’s most-utilized players — as well as a thoughtful screenplay adaptation by Moira Buffini. Australian product Wasikowska continues to enthrall. You could put her, Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins, Simon McBurney, Judi Dench, and Craig Roberts in Bermuda shorts on a golf course and they could makes us believe in the inexorable workings of the English governess’ fate — if Fukunaga were at the helm. One of the year’s most conspicuous inconspicuous releases.

Q. What started out as a collection of half-forgotten videotapes in the basement of Sweden’s state-owned TV network and ended up as a miracle of documentary art? A. The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. Doc-maker Göran Hugo Olsson’s thrilling American history lesson has more going for it than mere “Boomer-bait” nostalgia. These TV news segments, shot mostly in New York and Oakland for broadcast in Sweden and now edited into a cohesive survey, give all of us, not just Sixties movement veterans, a precious gift. Not only is it a vision of ourselves as others saw us then, but a still-timely portrait of the American spirit as articulated unforgettably by Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, filmmaker Emile de Antonio, and Harry Belafonte, among others who helped shape the last — or was it? — great era of anti-establishment dissent in this country. The real-est documentary you’ll ever see, it screened for a couple of weeks in September at Landmark theaters after debuting at the SF International Film Festival.

Terrence Malick’s misfires are better than most people’s masterpieces. As outlined in my June review, The Tree of Life seems plagued by a number of dubious narrative choices — Penn’s climactic “heaven” scene on the beach; the sandwiching of the film’s strongest story element, the Pitt-Chastain family-rearing segment, between the two ponderous “cosmic” montages; the puzzling appearance of the dinosaur, etc. — most of them echoing similar Malick devices in his previous films. He may have gone to the well once too often, but no one can claim that he lacks vision. This ambitious, visually sweeping film is definitely a subject for further research. It deserves multiple viewings, preferably on the big screen. In the meantime it stands as the most provocative movie event of 2011 and a true beacon of the filmmaker’s art.


There is no more dazzling film on this list than The Mill and the Cross. Part art analysis, part political protest against intolerance, part religious meditation, this many-layered narrative takes a deep look at Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Way to Calvary by immersing us in the work and showing us what life was like in the Low Countries in 1654. It was terrible. Also radiant, thanks to Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski’s grandiloquent visuals and playful storytelling style.

Perhaps “playful” is the wrong word to describe the situation we’re introduced to. Dutch life under the heel of Spain is one of terror and matter-of-fact brutality — one wrong move and the unlucky “heretic” could find him- or herself beaten and tied to the wheel for birds to eat, or summarily buried alive, by the red-clad Spanish equestrians. And yet ordinary life goes on, in a near-dialogue-free succession of tableaux that spring from Bruegel’s painting, featuring such archetypal characters as the miller and his wife, a pack of mischievous farm kids, and various gentlepersons, including the painter himself (Rutger Hauer) and his friend and patron Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York). An overwhelming ruralness penetrates Majewski’s settings, a drowsy wakefulness. Then there’s the miraculous serenity of the Virgin Mary, improbably impersonated by Charlotte Rampling. Everything in the painting and the film leads to the place of crucifixion, but somehow we never get a good look at Christ’s face. Mysteries abound in the intricate landscape and we explore a few of them, but there are many. As Bruegel explains, “My painting will tell many stories.”

After our first impression subsides — that this is a Peter Greenaway film without the snobbishness — we’re reminded of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark, the ironic pieties of Luis Buñuel, and Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript. The film’s foreground and background merge into a strange twilight sphere, the essence of Bruegel’s vision. It’s a place we’ve never been to before, full of apprehension and yet also a kind of peace. In addition to directing and co-producing, filmmaker Majewski had a hand in the cinematography (with DP Adam Sikora) and the music score (with composer Józef Skrzek), both of which combine with the erudite mysticism of the trip into Bruegel’s painting to produce a profound experience. This film absolutely, positively has to be seen on the big screen. It played locally at Landmark’s Shattuck in early October.

“What to us, are the things of life, are enormous tragedies for the nobility,” notes a beggar in Raúl Ruiz’ Mysteries of Lisbon. And what to the majority of audiences is a four-and-a-half-hour ordeal in subtitled Portuguese is to the art-film enthusiast a feast of story construction and character. Ruiz, a native of Chile who lived in Paris until his death this year at the age of seventy, went into the last turn of his fabled career (Three Crowns of the Sailor, Palomita Blanca, Marcel Proust’s Time Regained, among many others) with a dense, elliptical, costumed, character-filled web of stories. Or stories within stories, on the nature of identity, adapted from an 1852 novel by Camilo Castelo Branco. Actors do double and triple duty as a lonely boarding-school boy seeks his long-lost mother and discovers he’s related to everyone in Portugal. A movie to relax with and enjoy in long, leisurely sips, which is understandable since the feature-film version is apparently a re-edit of a TV miniseries. There’s good news: Two more Ruiz films, his last, were in the production pipeline at the time of his death.

We’ve written more or less extensively about Melancholia, The Descendants, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in recent weeks. Such are the habits of the film exhibition year that about 90 percent of the “prestige” aka “award fodder” titles are released inside a short window during November and December — and so we typically have to gloss over the occasional detail in our haste to make deadline. Here are some follow-up notes on those three films:

I’ve never been a wholehearted fan of Lars von Trier. His controversial Dogme Manifesto of production and thematic “dos and don’ts” always seemed too constricting — not to mention totalitarian-sounding — to be the real working plan of a modern film artist. But there should always be a place for a genuine ecstatic revelation, even if that vision is founded on the filmmaker’s case of clinical depression, as in Melancholia. He literally takes Kirsten Dunst, the funereal music of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and Manuel Alberto Claro’s fantastic cinematography and builds a mythology on it, the mythology of the cataclysmic end of the world.

Falling birds, panicked horses, the feverish rearranging of the treasured art books, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland reduced to gesturing puppets, the expression on the face of young Leo (Cameron Spurr), the unholy sight of the moon and the glowing killer planet Melancholia casting their separate shadows on the lawn of the family’s estate — von Trier is so drunk on despair we can’t help tagging along for the ride. It’s a morbid thrill and a thing of beauty. So much more satisfying and cohesive than Antichrist. How will the melancholy Dane ever top this?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an example of what can happen when a first-class literary property (John le Carré’s 1974 spy novel), a hot new directorial talent imported from Scandinavia (Tomas Alfredson from Let the Right One In), a superb cast of British thesps (led by Gary Oldman and Colin Firth), and the current distrust of government intelligence operations all coalesce in the same movie. It’s gratifying to see actor Oldman, after a career of playing spring-loaded desperados, collect kudos for his portrayal of a man so buttoned up it would startle him — George Smiley — to let one unplanned minute pass in his life. All this with half of author le Carré’s terrific interior monologues left out.

The Descendants, the latest triumph by the most humane director in America, Alexander Payne, sneaks up on the unwary viewer from multiple angles. Is it a tearjerker? A family sitcom? A lighthearted story about reaching down and holding onto the basics? George Clooney’s finest role? Or is it further proof, if any were needed, that Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election, Citizen Ruth) shows us those things we’ve always known, and makes us think about them, more movingly and more entertainingly than any director since Preston Sturges and Frank Capra? Yes to all of the above.

Several films finished out of the money in the Ten Best competition but turned heads with their style and grace. Hanna was another thinking person’s spy flick (two in one year!) starring Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, and Cate Blanchett as dueling agents in a fairytale Europe, directed by England’s Joe Wright. Somebody discovered a lost Rainer Werner Fassbinder film, a sardonic 1973 murder-mystery takeoff on computers and the people who love them. It’s called World on a Wire, it played the 2011 SF International Film Festival, and is now out on home video. Pedro Almodóvar revived his career with the nutty, film-reference loco The Skin I Live In, a mad scientist story starring Antonio Banderas. And one of the most intriguing films of the year didn’t get a Bay Area theater booking at all — Jeanne Labrune’s Special Treatment, which serves up Isabelle Huppert as a high-end prostitute who falls in love, in a way, with a psychologist played by Bouli Lanners. It informs us that even cold, manipulative people can get lonely, and also that shrinks can have kinks.

Cinematic art comes in a variety of packages, not all of them obvious. Two of 2011’s most satisfying movies were unheralded gut-punch actioners. Jonathan Hensleigh’s Kill the Irishman tells the true-crime tale of Cleveland gangster Danny Greene, played by actor Ray Stevenson as a hulking, ill-tempered, yet honorable man who always does what he says he’s going to do. That same personality trait applies to Riva, a Congolese mobster at the center of a maelstrom of bloodied-up bodies in Djo Tunda Wa Munga’s African mayhem-mobile Viva Riva!

Some of our other favorite movies, in no particular order: The Sleeping Beauty by Catherine Breillat; Le Quattro Volte by Michelangelo Frammartino; Meek’s Cutoff by Kelly Reichardt; The Princess of Montpensier by Bertrand Tavernier; Incendies by Denis Villeneuve; The Double Hour by Giuseppe Capotondi; Mozart’s Sister by René Féret; Love Crime, the swan song of director Alain Corneau, featuring wonderful performances by Ludivine Sagnier and Kristin Scott Thomas; Like Crazy by Drake Doremus; Into the Abyss by Werner Herzog; Coriolanus by Ralph Fiennes, with a burning performance by Vanessa Redgrave; the gooey Norwegian monster pic Troll Hunter by Andre Øvredahl; and, in the spirit of the holidays, Todd Strauss-Schulson’s A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, starring America’s favorite stoners, Kal Penn and John Cho.


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