(Films not released or shown in Chicago until 2011)


This is another year with the same director pulling down two Top Ten slots, something previously unheard of until last year’s release of Xavier Dolan’s first two films.  This year it’s Lee Chang-dong’s 4th and 5th films, by now showing the ease of a mature filmmaker, one with a novelesque flair not seen since the days of Edward Yang, the other veering towards Dostoevskian grief.  This year includes the best documentary seen in at least 5 years, also the two funniest films of the year come from Britain and Ireland, where we have another entry from the British world of movies made for TV, surprisingly among their best film entries each year.  But it is the year of Malick, a joyous and magnificent journey into the heart of man’s existence, as seen from the birth of the universe before there was a sign of any conscious thought, suggesting human beings have the rare capacity for love and forgiveness, which is what separates us from the other species.  This is a requiem for his lost brother, an excruciatingly personal film, as good as anything seen in the past 10 years, in my view, having to go back to the year 2000 with Béla Tarr’s WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES and Edward Yang’s YI YI.   But this is also the year of Kenneth Lonergan and his stunning work MARGARET, hated and chastised by the critics, seen by few, but this is one the best written films of the last decade, superbly constructed and always dramatically powerful, a simply astonishing work.    


In only its first year, this website (cranes are flying) provided 225 film reviews, a personal vacation wrap up (Rocky Mountain Vacation), a 9/11 commentary (9/11 Ground Zero Memorial Service), and a Chicago Film Festival summary (2011 Chicago Film Festival Recap).  All reviews will be added to this still developing larger site: cranes are flying online film project which is only updated about twice a year. 


Best wishes to everyone for a fabulous new year.   






1.)  The Tree of Life         A               

USA  (138 mi)  2011  d:  Terrence Malick


That's where God lives!                       —Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), pointing upwards towards the sky


Larry, the youngest, went to Spain to study with the guitar virtuoso Segovia. Terry discovered in the summer of 1968 that Larry had broken his own hands, seemingly despondent over his lack of progress. Emil [Malick’s father], concerned, went to Spain and returned with Larry’s body; it appeared the young man had committed suicide. Like most relatives of those who take their own lives, Terry must have borne a heavy burden of irrational guilt. According to Michèle, the subject of Larry was never mentioned.


—from Page 2 of Peter Biskind’s August, 1999 article for Vanity Fair, “The Runaway Genius,” seen here:  The Runaway Genius | Classic | Vanity Fair 


Unlike Malick’s other films, this one is much more autobiographical in nature, showing a portrait of the artist himself and a deeply personal understanding of the world around him and even his own place in the universe.  Grasping at the eternal, this feels like a dialogue the director may be having with God, where answers are few, but the probing intensity to unfathom the meaning and puzzling nature of our existence seems to be at the heart of this film.  Why are we here?  Where did we come from?  What does it all mean, and what, in the end, really matters?  Much like the imagined inner thoughts of the soldiers in THE THIN RED LINE (1998), who collectively form the consciousness of mankind through an endless stream of voices paying tribute to both the living and the dead, the director strives to find some meaning in witnessing wave after wave of human slaughter at Guadalcanal in 1942, and also asking how God can allow it?  Much like Jewish Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel asking where was the presence of God at Auschwitz, Malick is in the same turmoil when he inexplicably loses his younger brother at the age of 19.  In the larger scheme of things, what purpose can this possibly serve?  His immediate inclination is to join him, to offer his brotherly love, to be wherever he is so that he’s not alone.  These are the internal struggles that constitute man’s existence, reflected in an unending stream of philosophical voiceovers, offset by astonishing images not only of a pristine natural world, an Edenlike perfection that is portrayed in all his films, but of life evolving from the universe, where Malick, in a mammoth extended sequence, literally shows us the birth of the world, accompanied by soaring, majestic music that is nothing short of sublime.   


Due to the Biblical references throughout the film, many will confuse this as a devout religious work, where something of an afterlife or a vision of collected memories seem to materialize where the living and the dead, at different stages in their lives, may actually co-exist, at least temporarily, where they commune and share feelings.  But rather than a declaration of devotion to God, there is no evidence from the point of view of a religious believer, instead the view is continually that of one questioning man’s fate on earth.  And from this perspective, after the world is created, knowing we are all fated to die, the question is how does one live in this world?  Despite his best efforts, extreme forms of discipline, never missing a day of work, and attending church every week, Malick’s father, portrayed by Brad Pitt, has no answers.  Life is still hard and at times unendurable, where faith does not seem to be a determining factor in one’s wealth or happiness.  People are still weak, human and vulnerable, subject to making mistakes, where they may suffer painful consequences from their own actions, and more importantly, inadvertently transfer them onto their own children, which has a punishing effect upon the innocent.  Pitt has high standards that the world, and his family, rarely meet, admonishing them, blaming them for resisting his will, undermining his authority, eventually turning on them with a detestable abuse that poisons his relationship with each and every one.  At one point, the oldest of three boys, young Jack (Hugh McCracken in the likely role of the director), actually expresses his wishes that God would kill his father, to literally get rid of him.  In contrast to the sublime, humans have thoughts of vengeance. 


Without ever resorting to a narrative, per se, the film instead is a fragment of reflections, beautifully shown in a montage of Jack from birth to a young moody teenager, where his mother, Jessica Chastain, couldn’t be a more devoted mother, always taking the children’s side from the ferocious mood swings of her husband, a man who had high hopes for himself but believes he ultimately let his family down by failing to live up to any of his dreams, becoming more and more disgusted with himself, which is mirrored in Jack’s view of the world around him, detesting his father, growing more troubled, even becoming something of a loose cannon with his own brothers, where he abuses their brotherly trust, eventually shooting one of them with a BB gun.  In one of the more miraculous scenes in the film, quite a contrast from the ominous creation of the world, Jack apologizes to his younger brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler), who immediately forgives him.  This simple act of brotherly love is an ecstatic moment in the film, perhaps the turning point, and perhaps the reason for making the film because it has such emotional resonance, especially knowing, as the audience does from the beginning, that he’ll later lose a brother.  His father, on the other hand, feels tortured by all the terrible things he never got to amend, having to live with his own human fallibility.  Learning how to be a part rather than apart seems to be the secret.  Much like the exquisite feel of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), one of the best films ever made in portraying the mindset of gracious but mischievous children, the time spent outdoors seems endless, where at that age, every day seems to last forever. 


What’s truly remarkable about this film is that the immensity of the big bang, the ponderous inquiry into how it all began, is replaced by tiny moments in people’s lives, by their collective memories which bond them together as families, as this is something they uniquely share with one another.  What Malick does is fill the screen with ordinary moments, each one a gesture of love, such as a mother lovingly teaching her children how to speak or read, or share playful moments together, perhaps playing outside, getting wet in the sprinkler, shooting off fireworks, or playing catch.  Even the mistakes they make, which they may regret later in life, are something they can somehow atone for and become a better person.  This entire film seems to be directed towards the human being’s capacity for love, which is shown so effortlessly and generously by their mother, luminously portrayed by Chastain, but also in the way the children, even in their innocence, have a “feel” for one another, where at times the audience zeroes in on exactly what they’re feeling, such as moments of unadulterated exaltation and joy, complemented by exquisite choices of music that suggest how they can transcend the moment, literally getting outside their troubled existence.  One of the best sequences in the film is observing Pitt playing Bach at home on the piano, where R.L. outside on the porch is following along on his guitar, where at least for one mesmerizing moment, they play a flawless duet that is simply magical, one of those rare moments shared together.  So despite all the ambition and all the attention paid to the big moments in the film, it’s really about the smaller almost forgotten moments in our lives, suggesting pure love can literally transcend the seeming futility of man’s existence, elevating the stakes, placing the needs of others ahead of your own, where perhaps the highest realization is that man is not the center of the universe—not sure anyone has ever seen it expressed quite like this before, but by all artistic measurements, simply breathtaking.   


Post Addendum:

Despite the fact I saw this with a group of about 8 people & I was the only one who found it truly amazing, and I had to listen to gripes and groans from disappointed viewers afterwards, this remains my #1 film of the year.  Malick simply brings something to the table that no one else does, and what people forget is what a gripping film this really is, despite the meandering philosophical questioning, which, by the way, is something we ALL do in our lifetimes, continually question what the fuck we're doing - - though for many, they soon grew tired of listening of the near whispered, pondering questions that have frequented Malick's films of late, especially prevalent in Thin Red Line.  Since this film opens with the death of a child, who we haven't even gotten to know yet, the rest of the film frames his life and puts his life in perspective, offering meaning in its own unique way, and is a kind of personal recollection from Malick, which is unique to all his films.  For me, the entire film was focused and centered upon that death, where this portrait of his life becomes so excruciatingly personal, especially the way it never singles out which kid died, so we see them as a family growing up when you could barely differentiate between them, as they're all just kids, though with telling differences that would seem to matter more to the storyteller than the audience, as the older kid (who obviously did NOT die, as he went on to later make this film) plays the lead.  What few mention is just how tearful this film is, as so much of this experience is filled with the most extreme forms of personal anguish, truly accentuated by the choices of music, where Malick outdoes himself here.  

Filmmaking as personal heartache is something new, as his (Malick's) heart aches not just for his brother, but for all mankind, as this is just one of millions and millions of deaths that take place over time, each of which has a similar framing story, where this is where we came from, this is what we're a part of, these are the fragmented pieces in our minds that hold us together, these isolated memories that have little meaning to anyone else which can bring me to my knees when I think of them, tormented forever, like an affliction, which is the pain of death and loss.  Nothing is so powerfully overwhelming than having to accept the finality of death.  

It's still early for me to think this rises above Days of Heaven or Badlands, which are like miniature works in comparison, but little tiny pieces of perfection, like a perfect moment.  Tree of Life contains not only perfect moments, but private indiscretions (stealing the negligee), horribly flawed humans on display (the father's temper), one of the most gracious and tender depictions of unconditional love ever seen (the mother), to a perfect depiction of original sin (shooting the brother), such an understated and subtle act that amounts to human transcendence (a brother's forgiveness), for this is the brother that eventually dies in the end.  His forgiveness carries all the internal personal anguish of Christ on the cross, as this is the dramatic power that gives our life meaning, being loved, accepted, and ultimately forgiven by those that love us, the ones that put up with all our shit during our lifetimes, all the power trips of being the older or the younger, witnesses to the experiments gone wrong, being on the receiving end of physical punishment and verbal harassments, the ones that put up with how horribly ugly and flawed we can get  in our own lifetimes.  Yet they still forgive us for all that crap?  And in the film, it's so subtle, it happens in the flicker of an eye, like it took this kid less than a nanosecond to make this decision, the ramifications of which resound throughout the universe of memory and recollections afterwards when he's dead and gone and can no longer speak for himself.  This is all we have.  This is what's left in our own lives, which replays and replays in so many different variations, but having been forgiven makes the world of difference.  Imagine replaying this same scenario and being filled with hate or rage or personal disgust, like being the victim of pedophilia or something.  Imagine what a difference that makes, living in a world with no forgiveness.  That would be von Trier's Melancholia, an empty shell by comparison, a world without love where humans ramble like blithering idiots, having no relevance, one to the other, as nothing matters.  

What a difference philosophical perspective makes - - all the difference in the world.  


Another Post Addendum:

Just a point in general, but for a Malick movie, or von Trier's Melancholia, what you're watching on TV is simply not the same experience as sitting in a theater and getting the big picture, so to speak.  I know people have heard this discussion ad nauseum, but it's worth repeating for very specific films, ones that tend to be mentally and visually expansive.  They were created for a theater experience.  


I don't know if anyone ever went to a Pink Floyd concert, but it would not translate well if shown on TV.  I'm not saying it wouldn't be enjoyable, but it's not the same experience.  Opera doesn't translate well into TV or even the movie theaters.  It's designed to be heard live onstage.  


My point is if you are limiting the potential breadth of the experience by watching a movie on Netflix, then you can't expect to get the same out of it as those who had a completely different experience in a theater.   


Yeah, yeah, I know.  Theaters are obsolete, everyone watches at home nowadays.  But understand that all of those rave reviews coming out of Cannes or Venice or Berlin are written by viewers who witnessed the film in a theater.  How can you expect to have the same experience translated to a television set?   


The people who don't get Malick's films, or understand why there is such lavish praise, are the ones who expect the film to deliver in ways where they don't have to do all the work, expecting the director to do that for them, as this is what they're more accustomed to at the movies, where their reaction is like:  OK, show me the magic, where they're expecting the film to *do* something to them, where the audience basically sits there passively and waits for the movie to blow their mind.  And if their minds are not significantly blown away, the movie is a dud, like going on a ride at Disneyland, where movie watching is a form of thrill seeking to make up for the emptiness in people's lives.   


Putting it another way, I'd say Malick makes the kind of films that offer something for the viewer to figure out for themselves, where everyone walks out with a different impression, which is the beauty of it, literally hundreds of different reactions.  It's a different kind of movie experience than, say, Harry Potter, where everything is explained to you, and often over explained.  Malick makes puzzle films without ever revealing whodunit.  All you get is a series of clues which you have to put together yourself.  I'd say Kubrick did much the same thing, and that single quality is what makes their films brilliant, not to mention timeless.            


While Malick's films are visually extravagant, that's only a small part of how they can affect an audience, where different people bring different experiences into the movie theater with them.  War films, for instance, affect people who have experienced war differently than those who haven't.  Not saying the experience couldn't be profound in each case, but the perspective is different, as it becomes more personal.  Malick films are the same way.  Those that feel a personal connection are not looking for each and every shot or sequence to have meaning, they're looking at the overall experience, where part of the pleasure is viewing a subject through the eyes and experiences of someone else, putting yourself in someone else's shoes, where yes the author/director or the screenplay matter.  Yes, we have similarities, common memories, but how each of us perceives the significance of those memories is ultimately what matters and turns an otherwise common or ordinary experience into a great work of art.  Crime and Punishment is not remembered for the actual crime committed, the kind of thing we see on the TV news reports each and every day, but is significant due to the singularly personal and unique way that he experienced the haunting aftereffects of his act.  


Malick's film reverberates with the death of a child, where he attempts to give meaning to that life by having the memory echo endlessly through the vast universe, where in memory he never dies, but I imagine the film works best by those who are actually haunted by the personal effects of death, where those reverberations in their own lives have been given a different form and meaning by the very nature of the stream of conscious film expression.               


Why does a final image have to mean so much more than all the preceding images?  I don't think that's how Malick sees it, and I doubt our last breath in life will be any more profound or meaningful than all the preceding moments we had in our lives.  Malick is looking at it all - - not a single moment.  Reducing one's life to a final single moment and placing so much meaning to that moment is missing everything that came before.  It's all inclusive.  I think Malick's very ordinariness in his finale adds a touch of final realism to the film, as people don't go eloquently and gracefully with big finishes.  Most leave this earth with a whimper, dying from untreated medical maladies, long protracted illnesses or from senseless acts. Why should the final moment carry all the meaning?  It's everything that comes before that matters.  




2.)  Margaret             A                    

USA  (149 mi)  2011  d:  Kenneth Lonergan


Márgarét, are you gríeving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leáves, líke the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah!  ás the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you wíll weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sórrow's spríngs áre the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.


Spring and Fall:  To a Young Child (September 7, 1880) by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889)


A hugely ambitious work, something along the lines of Charlie Kaufman’s SYNECDOCHE NEW YORK (2008), not in subject matter but as it similarly covers such a broad canvas, released a decade after his last work YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (2000), originally shot in 2005, where despite the 6-year history of lawsuits it was considered by the studio Fox Searchlight as unreleasable, requiring that it be under 150 minutes and refusing to pay for a film they thought would never be released, but with the help of additional money from actor Matthew Broderick and a final editing by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Lonergan approved their edit for this theatrical release.  Considering the circumstances, the pace of the film is brisk and fluid, the subject dense and complex, and is surprisingly well constructed, where there may be a few odd dangling moments that could have been left out, or more likely expanded, but this film offers more sensational sequences that stand alone on their own artistic merit than any other film in recent memory, as there are at least a dozen or so such scenes, each wonderfully realized and well incorporated into the film.  Most all include the brilliantly sensational dialogue, perhaps the best written film in the past decade, along with so many impressive performances both large and small, where so much spins off the interpretation of a single word, where this is a film replete with misunderstanding, with a near obsessive drive to be understood, yet a single word may be picked out of one’s comments which in the eyes of others refutes everything else said.  This misunderstanding, then, is not accidental, but willfully misunderstood, where there is an equally obsessive drive to hurt and belittle others with chaotic and embarrassing insults. The language here is so combative that it often resembles the theatrical fireworks of a play, hurled with the ferocious invectives of Edward Albee’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966), and, reinforcing a theme, there are several stage performances witnessed before a live audience, where the reaction to them changes and evolves over time, revealing the significance of personal transformation.


The film is a bold and brutally honest exposé of a post 9/11 New York, which most importantly unveils the complexity of one’s own evolving personal reaction to a horrific accident, a film experience that thrives on combustible force, such as the friction and combative language between two people, the unpredictability of the theatrical experience, the boredom of an overly structured classroom setting, the hotly contested courtroom litigation, the chaotic dynamics of multiple parties on a speaker phone, several unannounced visits to perfect strangers, or even the improbable dynamics in initiating sexual interest.  Anna Paquin, now 29, was only 23 when she played this 17-year old student (Lisa Cohen) at a privileged New York City high school, living with her single mom Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), a Broadway actress.  The two beat each other up emotionally, never really understanding each other and rarely giving the other a chance, feeling overly suspicious of each other’s motives to the point where both feel smothered by the other’s contempt or utter indifference.  Lisa’s Dad (played by the director) lives in a plush beach house in Santa Monica, seemingly the idyllic world, except his relationship with his new girlfriend reveals its own deficiencies, so it’s no paradise to run off to, though initially Lisa is making preparations for a visit.  Everything unravels following a single event that happens right off the bat, a tragic bus accident that leaves Lisa devastated, as an innocent pedestrian (Allison Janney) ends up dying in her arms, while waves of guilt and confusion rush through Lisa’s comprehension of the events, as she was attempting to get the bus driver’s attention just before the accident.  However, she fails to mention this when she tells the officers on the scene that this was all just an accident. 


Often using a slowed down change of camera speed, especially in the streets of New York, this reflects the change of pace going on inside people’s heads as they’re walking down the street, often daydreaming or easily distracted by window displays, food vendors, or their own cellphone conversations, where a part of their brain is operating at a different speed than the rapidly passing traffic.  This also expresses a kind of compartmentalization, where people’s focus is broken down into separate and different parts, which may operate in school classrooms where your thoughts may lie elsewhere, or a teenager’s conversation with their parents, or a disrupted phone call, or even a conversation with one friend when you’re actually thinking of someone else.  Lonergan figures all of these fractured and imbalanced moments into his film, where they come into play in ways people least suspect, as they have no idea the significant impact that seemingly throwaway lines have on other people who are intensely interested in what they have to say, where the indifference of one hurts and overrides the acute curiosity of the other, where emotions are existing simultaneously on so many different levels, like an architecturally designed playing field of human drama.  Paquin is near brilliant in conveying all these mixed and conflicting emotions, not as a particularly appealing character, but a rich and pampered prima donna who’s used to being the center of attention whenever she feels like it, who selfishly indulges in whatever she likes, showing little to no regard for others, but who also craves the attention and adoration of adults she admires or needs.  She willingly bullies and manipulates others to get what she needs, pretending she cares, but never for a minute does she take responsibility on any level.  Frankly, she’s a thoroughly despicable character throughout most of the film, but also completely captivating, a whirlwind of mixed emotions, where there’s an authentic adult person hidden underneath fighting to get through the adolescent cloud of confusion.   


Lisa has a change of heart about the accident, plagued by the idea that there’s no justice if the driver is not held accountable, reconnecting on her own, with varying degrees of success, with the bus driver, police, and even the family of the deceased, where she meets Jeannie Berlin (Elaine May’s daughter) as Emily, the person closest to the woman who died in Lisa’s arms, whose achingly real remarks at the memorial service are among the highpoints of the film, where Berlin delivers the performance of her career, whose grace under pressure offers Lisa a new friend and role model.  Emily is also an entryway to taking relevant action, finding an attorney who will sue the bus company for negligence.  Lisa’s mother finds this attention discomfiting, proud that her daughter is following up in a socially relevant manner, but also a bit disconcerted that her daughter’s personal obsession has relegated her own mother to the sidelines, as it’s been an issue Lisa refuses to even discuss with her mother, instead placing her at arms length.  Again, the imbalance of emotions between the doers and the watchers are swinging on significantly different levels, where the interplay between Lisa and Emily only grows more intense, reaching a climax with a proposed settlement offer, a compromise offering monetary rewards that refuses to hold the driver accountable, as this would admit liability, the sole objective of Lisa coming forward, which evolves into a blitzkrieg of conflicting emotions, one of the superb moments of the film.  Afterwards Emily starts questioning Lisa’s need for drama, to always be the center of attention, and refuses to allow her lifelong friendship with the deceased to be jeopardized or defined by a teenager who won’t even speak to her own mother.  Incredulously, this is another one of those sequences of the film, all set in motion with the use of the word “strident,” as Lisa goes absolutely berserk with this rejection, as if her entire world is crumbling and she has nowhere else to turn.  Where she does turn is to sexually inappropriate behavior, perhaps one of those regrettable sequences that if it can’t be expanded deserves to be cut.


The canvas of the film is an emotional battleground, where blood gouging and unhealed scars are evident everywhere, where characters are defined by their emotional limitations, but also their willingness to keep at it, to persevere through what can only be considered the unknown.  There’s a novelistic complexity to the overall sweep of the film, which takes the viewer through a breathtaking panoply of emotional conflict on an unprecedented scale.  This is accompanied by luminous photography of the streets of New York, capturing the glisten of the streets at night along with the beautifully lit street lights.  The sidewalks are a constant reminder of the teeming life in the city, using a 360 degree pan at one point, or a street level shot that eventually elevates pointing upwards and skyward towards the tops of the skyscrapers.  Like the complicated emotional landscape, there’s also an accompanying architectural potency to the city’s design, both seemingly in harmony in this film, where the film is replete with unforgettable sequences, like Lisa’s spontaneous visit to bus driver Mark Ruffalo, where his wife Rosemarie DeWitt’s suspicious reaction is especially intriguing, a high school kid who insists his version of Shakespeare is as equally relevant as Matthew Broderick, his high school teacher, and then doesn’t back down, something most kids don’t do, also the reading of the “Margaret” poem, seeing Lisa’s devastating reaction at the time, Jean Reno’s firmly held convictions of the “Jewish” response, the ongoing arguments between Lisa and the Syrian student in her class, the scene of Jean Reno’s son describing the thoroughly intense nature of his father’s feelings towards Lisa’s mother, the phone call where the lawyer announces the settlement offer leading to Paquin’s heartfelt reaction of defeat instead of victory, and an acknowledgement finally that she caused the accident, followed by Lisa’s cigarette moment at the opera which evolves with a grandiose sweep until the haunting quiet of the finale - - simply exquisite and sublime. 




3.)  The Interrupters                 A                    

USA  (125 mi)  2011  d:  Steve James              Trailer              Official site


We got over 500 years of prison time at this table. That’s a lot of fuckin’ wisdom.    — Zale Hoddenbach, former gang member, now a CeaseFire interrupter


First of all, gang violence is not something most people understand or have any insight into, considered a cultural phenomenon unique to neighborhoods infested with gangs, and largely ignored, out of sight, out of mind, by people living in safer neighborhoods.  It’s like prison reform, as you never stop to consider the ramifications of undermanned and overcrowded prisons until the day you find yourself incarcerated.  But in large urban areas across the country, this is the story that usually leads off the evening news, another senseless death, a child accidentally shot down in a gang shooting crossfire, where it’s rarely the intended victim that’s harmed.  The stories are relentless, with few, if any solutions offered, because the perpetrators are outside the reach of the police, family, or church influence, and therefore usually end up dead or in prison at an early age, supposedly immune to the powers of persuasion, or so we thought. 


In the aftermath of this 2008 New York Times piece, a thoroughly engaging essay by Alex Kotlowitz that scientifically examines the root causes of Chicago gang violence, offering treatment along the lines of neutralizing a medical epidemic, actually offering a bit of insight into the seemingly impenetrable gang culture for a change, documentary filmmaker Steve James, the heralded director of HOOP DREAMS (1994), enlisted the assistance of Kotlowitz in following on camera some of the individuals mentioned in his article who were providing gang intervention, known as “violence interrupters,” as they hope to stop the neverending cycle of revenge and prevent future shootings before they happen.  With the experience of having been in gangs and prison and survived, some for committing murder when they were teenagers, these interrupters already understand the mindset of the upcoming gang youth who shoot before they think, never for a second thinking about their own lives they are throwing away, instead it’s all about getting immediate retribution in a moment of anger, thinking that in some way killing makes things right, at least in their eyes.  This kind of thinking is what fills the prisons. 


This is one of the most heartbreaking and excruciatingly painful subjects of any film ever seen, as the camera searches out families of recently shot teenagers, including their younger brothers and sisters or their grieving parents, focusing on their immediate reaction, oftentimes on their front steps, in their living rooms, or at the funeral and burial services.  Unlike the news media that exploit these situations, the violence interrupters routinely put their own lives on the line, trying to diffuse anger by placing themselves in harm’s way, where they have unique insight into just what these kids are feeling and how they intend to resolve the conflict.  But violence isn’t inherited at birth, it’s a learned behavior that reflects the world around them, where kids are just following the examples of people they know.  The interrupters have an obligation to re-educate them on the spot, using as examples those around them who are dead or imprisoned, where they could become just another statistic or they could have a second chance at life.  The interrupters are placed in the precarious position where they are not cops and do not inform on illegal activity, and while they don’t condone gang activity, they’re not in a position to change or even alter that culture, only the hair-trigger response of certain individuals to shoot whoever shot one of them.  


The film documents a year in the life of an inner city organization called CeaseFire, founded by an infectious disease physician Gary Slutkin who spent a decade in Africa with the World Health Organization attempting to halt the spread of infectious diseases, returning home to Chicago where he viewed the spread of youth violence as similar to an infectious outbreak.  Tio Hardiman, a neighborhood social activist with a prior history of drug and alcohol abuse, invented the interrupters program, attempting to stop the violent outbreaks using individuals who had street credibility not just with gangs, but in the eyes of youth who have few positive role models.  Especially because they are so familiar with the effects of violence in their own lives, having somehow survived, now returning back to the streets offering an alternative, this is an extremely volatile and highly personalized approach to mediation, getting in the faces of gangbangers and angry kids who just lost a brother or an innocent nephew, attempting to redirect their hostility, which usually means staying with them, continuing a lengthy dialogue much like negotiating with a hostage taker or a downbeat individual considering suicide, until the inflammatory anger passes, and then following up afterwards, continuing to offer crisis intervention services.   


While the city’s interrupters meet weekly with Hardiman to discuss their works in progress, James chooses three to follow, all extremely charismatic individuals with tortured pasts whose impressive turnabout makes them uniquely qualified.  Ameena Matthews gives what is perhaps the most wrenching performance of the year, whose no nonsense authenticity, directness under pressure, and personal charm gives her an overwhelming onscreen presence.  The daughter of Jeff Fort, iconic founder of the Black P. Stone Nation and imprisoned-for-life leader of the notorious El Rukn street gang, she was a drug using party girl (seen in vintage El Rukn home video) and former gang lieutenant now converted to the Muslim faith.  When Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old honor student at Fenger High School was beaten to death walking home from school, all caught on YouTube by a camera phone (Beating Death Of Derrion Albert, 16, Caught On Video), her family asked for Ameena to speak at the funeral service, which is an awe inspiring and unforgettable moment, attempting to publicly hold those responsible accountable for their actions.  But her easy, down-to-earth manner and accessibility in the lives of wayward teens is exemplary, if not heroic.   


Ricardo “Cobe” Williams is a big man with a similar purpose, a kid who went haywire when his father was beaten to death by a baseball bat, spending his youth in and out of prison until he also found religion, where he seems determined to offer a path of redemption for others that he never experienced himself.  Another easy going guy, whose wife says is really “nerdy,” where according to Hardiman, among his many talents is knowing when to walk away in dicey situations.  This is a guy so dedicated that he continued going to work even after the funds dried up and he was laid off for a period, because like a CIA undercover operative in the field, once you make a promise to be there in saving people’s lives, people in high risk situations where their lives may be in danger, you have a commitment to be there.  One of the most riveting scenes in the film is Cobe bringing a young 19-year old armed offender known as Little Mikey, a youth who spent nearly 3 years in prison, back to the scene of the crime where he held up a barber shop.  This kind of theater you can’t invent, as it’s among the most dramatically powerful and intensely personal moments of the film.  Mikey is so committed to finding that redemptive path that Hardiman actually considers him as their first teen interrupter.         


Eddie Bocanegra shot a killed another kid when he was 17.  Now, like the other two, he’s on a spiritual mission to make up for it, talking to disaffected youth, offering an art class for those kids who have been affected by violence, where one 11-year old girl describes the experience of her brother getting shot in the head and dying in her arms.  Because of the tender age of many of these kids, he’s more like a big brother offering them positive alternatives or a shoulder to cry on, where their heartfelt comments are remarkably unfiltered.  One of the more poignant moments is joining the family at the cemetery site, where they gather every single day, offering a silent communion for their loss.  While Eddie is able to console the young girl, the figure of her father sitting there in silence every day is a haunting and tragic sight.      


For 25 years murder has been the leading cause of death among black men between the ages of 15 and 34, while more than 11% of black males age 25 to 34 are incarcerated, while black women are incarcerated at nearly 4 times the rate of white women and more than twice the rate of Hispanic women.  Nothing seems to put a dent in these numbers despite neighborhood marches, media speeches, church activism, a Mayor’s attempt to ban handguns (which was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court), and the police continually asking for crime witnesses to step forward.  While it’s impossible to measure the results, CeaseFire claims they show a 40 – 60% reduction in shootings in six targeted neighborhoods, which would include West Garfield Park, Englewood, Maywood, Logan Square, Roseland, and Rogers Park, with as much as a 67% reduction in others.  Despite these claims, the interventionist program has continued to face budget cuts, where 50 or 60 interrupters were reduced to less than 20, where the elected politicians seem as far removed from this problem as those living in the isolation of the rural plain states.  As profoundly relevant as any documentary seen in the past 5 years, there’s a soulful, organ drenched rendition of “Don’t Give Up on Me” by Solomon Burke that plays over the end credits, an ominous reminder of just how hard it is to remain committed to a lifelong project fraught with this degree of intense tragedy and pain. 




4.)  The Arbor             A                    

Great Britain  (94 mi)  2010  d:  Clio Bernard


She had a bit of a gob on her and she was hot-headed at times.   —Natalie Gavin (describing Andrea Dunbar)


This is one film where it didn’t help knowing absolutely nothing going into the screening, because in format alone, this is a dizzying conception that defies convention and has the audience on their heels from the outset.  Much like Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK (2009), my initial reaction was thinking this is another unvarnished exploration of British miserablism, utterly downbeat, centering on life in the slums, where I was not fond of any of the characters presented onscreen, and in fact found much of the initial material somewhat loathsome, as they were introducing characters fast and furious like a Tolstoy novel, none of whom seemed to matter at all.  By the opening twenty minutes or so, I was ready to throw my hands up in the air wondering what in hell was going on, as I wasn’t sure if I recalled correctly from the opening or even believed that the actors were actually lip-synching the original material.  Most of the time characters are speaking directly into the camera, as if in an interview format, though each, as it turns out, is a recreation.  Other times the cast is gathered on the front lawn and enact scenes from the play as neighbors watch from the street.  I’m not sure when it clicks in, but at some point you stop fighting what you initially can’t comprehend and start appreciating what’s happening onscreen, as the film only grows more intimately compelling until the audience is completely riveted and even overwhelmed by the material. 


Like a musicologist such as Béla Bartók, who went around his country recording various musical folk melodies, compiling 9200 in all by the way, playwright and local resident Andrea Dunbar grew up in the Buttershaw Estate housing project in Bradford, West Yorkshire in Northern England, living on the toughest street known as The Arbor, where for two years in her life in the 1970’s she collected audio interviews from friends, family, and local residents, shocking everyone when at 15 she wrote a heralded play known as The Arbor, an autobiographical account of her life growing up there, the supposed drug capital of Yorkshire, whose corrupt police force in the 1980’s was notoriously depicted in THE RED RIDING TRILOGY (2009).  Dunbar wrote three plays, all shockingly detailed accounts of lost childhoods, depraved youth, underage sex, prostitution, drug abuse, wrenching violence, and racism, one of which was adapted into a movie, RITA, SUE AND BOB TOO in 1986.  Buttershaw residents were outraged at how negatively their lives were portrayed, many denying their family members could ever stoop to such behavior, sending death threats to Dunbar who continued to live on the premises, but nothing materialized.  Dunbar died in 1990 at a local pub of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 29. 


What’s initially so mysterious is the unique power of the language itself, wrapped in gutter talk, slang, and profanity, but also a profoundly uneducated street way of speaking, where even the subtitles make it hard to describe or comprehend.  It’s not just an example of illiterate youth speaking, as it might first seem, but adult characters at times are equally incomprehensible.  Over time, we start to identify with some of the central characters, including Andrea, the outspoken Natalie Gavin, and her two daughters, mixed blood Lorraine (Manjinder Virk), who is part Pakistani, and Pamela (Kathryn Pogson).  Oftentimes the voices heard are the real voices from the interviews, while actors also fill in from time to time, especially during heated exchanges.  Mixed in with characters speaking to the camera and artificially recreated scenes are actors sitting in chairs and reading their lines, as if reading a letter, as well as the use of fictionalized documentary style footage, also other archival materials, creating a stream-of-conscious blend of expression, reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’s radio drama Under Milkwood, a play initially read by actors sitting on stools.  In my view it’s blurring or crossing the line to call this a documentary, even if the initial source material used is all true.  I don’t really have an argument for why this wouldn’t qualify as a documentary except that it uses the power of the theatrical performances, some of which are sensationally powerful, especially Manjinder Virk as Lorraine, to heighten the blistering intensity of the film, which by the end is just phenomenal.  This is unconventional filmmaking combining the dramatic power of language with a fierce new sense of theatricality, a major work brilliantly directed, using a dazzlingly inventive conceptual design to accentuate some of the most intimately personal and humane material to ever grace the screen. 




5.)  Martha Marcy May Marlene            A                   

USA  (101 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Sean Durkin


Well she, she's just a picture
Who lives on my wall
Well she, she's just a picture
And the reason, reason, reason it is so small
With a smile so inviting and a body so tall
She, she's just a picture
Just a picture
That's all

Well you stand there, stand there with the nightshade
Her dripping ripping down your hands
And you ask me, ask me about the lightning
And the lady, lady, lady she understands
It's a dream for the future and the water for the sands
And the strangeness is wandering
Through many callin' lands

I'd give you, give you quite freely
All the clothes on your gipsy bait
And I'd suffer, suffer so long in prison
If I knew you'd have to wait
With the wind scouring sandstone
And the ashes in your grate
Somewhere no devil emperor
The great whale's gone
The holy plate

And this caravan it becomes an alter
And the priests, the priests are big as none
And I'll share, share our time together
Until our time together is done
But your skin it was pretty
And I loved, I loved another one
Now she, she's just like some picture
That has faded in the sun

Well she, she's just a picture
Who lives on my wall
Well she, she's just a picture
And the reason, reason, reason is so small
With a smile so inviting and a body so tall
Well she, she's just a picture
Just a picture
That's all
Just a picture
That's all


—“Marcy’s Song,” by Jackson C. Frank from Martha Marcy May Marlene

Marcy's Song by John Hawkes - YouTube  (3:49)

Marcy's Song - Jackson C. Frank.  YouTube (4:31)


Winner of the Best Director Award at Sundance, Durkin has crafted a mesmerizing piece of cinema that insists upon naturalism and simplicity, revealing just how effortless it feels to be under the spell of good direction that doesn’t rely upon computer graphics for special effects, creating a murky interior atmosphere that slides back and forth in time, never knowing just where you are at the beginning of each shot.  The idea behind the film is imagining what would happen in the first few weeks after fleeing from an emotionally abusive cult, where your real family has no idea whatsoever what you've been through, creating a culture clash or a psychic rupture.  This is a film that also uses darkness and light, also the edges of the screen throughout, shot by Jody Lee Lipes, where characters move freely in and out of the frame, where often the focus is only in a corner or in a small piece of the larger picture shown onscreen, where occasionally a human face remains split along the edge.  There’s a beautiful visual scheme that is heightened by a brilliant sound and editing design, where it’s the intelligence of the filmmaking itself that distinguishes this edgy feature as the creepiest film experience of the year, reminiscent of Polanski’s REPULSION (1965), where the initial innocence of getting back to nature and living on a farm commune in the Catskill Mountains of New York becomes a psychotic break from reality for Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) when the women become the exclusive property of the cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes), a Charles Manson like persona whose motivation seems to be to redefine the entire world around him in his own image, where everyone and everything belongs to him.  He even takes her name, calling her Marcy May, where she quickly loses all sense of who she is.  Martha is initially confused by an initiation rape sequence from Patrick, where it is the women afterwards who reveal this as the spreading of communal love, that all must remain open to it, as it is a special moment to cherish.  In this way they break her spirit and her conception of free will, and in doing so accept her into their community, offering her a place where she belongs. 


Early in the film, however, we see Martha methodically step over her sleeping roommates one morning in an attempted escape, where a near indecipherable phone call for help reveals her jangled state of mind, overwhelmed by the circumstances and unable to make any sense out of it.  She is soon safely in the comfortable upscale surroundings of a heavily windowed vacation home on a lake owned by her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her British architectural wizard for a husband, Hugh Dancy as Ted.  Neither have heard a word from Martha in the past two years and she’s not eager to share her personal experiences, remaining glum and depressed, uncommunicative, sleeping most of the time, not fitting in here at all, as she finds all the monetary wealth and exhibitionism on display personally revolting, knowing a dozen people could live in this vast amount of space that is currently used by only two.  Her thoughts continually drift back and forth, filling in some of the intimate details of just what happened during her two years, followed by equally inhumane treatment by her more conservative and socially uptight family who find her abnormal behavior morally intolerable, as she just sits around doing nothing, or makes odd behavioral choices that send them into a rage of disapproval, where they continue to be harshly judgmental instead of supportive, not having a clue what she’s endured.  At the farm, Patrick singles her out, making her the girl that matters most of all, but only so long as she latches herself onto him, even writing a song in her honor, Marcy's Song by John Hawkes - YouTube  (3:49), making her feel wanted and special, the exact opposite of how she feels with her sister where she feels utterly helpless, growing more paranoid, completely alienated and alone.


The theme of the film seems to rest with Martha’s haunting confession to her sister:  “Do you ever have that feeling where you can't tell if something is a memory or a dream?”  Unable to reassemble the broken pieces of her life, her spirit remains crushed and shattered, where Olsen is excellent portraying that glum expressionless stupor, much like the other women at the farm, none of whom ever smile or have anything to be thankful about, yet they carry out Patrick’s wishes with few missteps, as he brings the wrath upon anyone who disobeys or even questions his authority.  The deeper she sinks into this world of repressed anger and self-loathing, the harder it is to recognize herself, where what she thought was freedom has turned into involuntary servitude.  Long after she escapes the farm, she continues to imagine that she sees the cult leaders everywhere she goes, believing they are after her, that they will never let her be.  Durkin beautifully interweaves the two threads, where what’s real and what’s imagined become indecipherable, creating an all but unbearable mounting tension and suspense.  This is a powerful film that defies predictability and the norm by using thoroughly self-absorbed and unlikable characters, where the world becomes even more despicable with an unloving family who finds fault with everything she does, becoming holier than thou, super moralistic, symptomatic of their own shallow interests that can’t tolerate differences.  You never really know where this is going, a world with no escape, as Patrick starts spouting Manson gibberish about love is death after awhile, advocating violence and murder, perhaps rationalizing in his own mind some of the evil that is done in his name, where Martha in her mind never stops seeing them, as if they’re about to burst through the next room.  The audience senses they are there, the barbarians gathering at the gate, an ominous threat that pervades both the past and the present, elusive, yet all powerful, expressed through an abstract palette consumed in disturbing imagery.  The spare indie score by Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi haunts the already tense and creepy atmosphere with melancholic counterpoint for a poetic memory play of a woman under relentless psychological assault that couldn’t be a more exquisite offering.  




6.)  Poetry                   A                    

South Korea  (139 mi)  2010  d:  Lee Chang-dong


When was the last time an American film was written specifically for a sixty-something grandmother in mind for the lead?  Everything seems driven towards the youth market, yet this film makes a mockery of any culture that idealizes youth and in the same breath excuses the violent consequences of reckless immaturity, where parents are constantly seen covering up and protecting the criminal behavior of their children, who are not nearly so innocent anymore.  Written by the director with this specific actress in mind, Mija (Yun Jung-hee, who has acted in over 300 films in her career, coming out of retirement after sixteen years of living in Paris) is in nearly every scene, and while there are secondary players, the entire film revolves around her character.  Not since Edward Yang’s YI YI (2000) have we seen a film like this, and much of this resembles Yang’s novelesque filmmaking style, shooting small, personalized moments of astonishing intimacy, where his attention to detail is immensely significant, capturing the wordless rhythm of ordinary life so perfectly, offering few close ups, similarly shooting here in long, medium range shots with Mija repeatedly seen cutting vegetables or preparing food for her grandson in the kitchen, staring out a bus window looking across a city river at the mountains off in the distance, sitting, waiting alone at a rural bus stop, arriving home to the quiet emptiness of her kitchen, or stopping to observe a flower or record what nature sounds like in her diary.  Like his last film, the river offers a foreboding message, while as children are playing, one of them notices a young girl’s dead body floating downstream, a classmate of Mija’s aloof teenage grandson Wook (David Lee).  Within moments, her grandson and five other boys are implicated in an egregious crime at school that ended in the girl’s suicide.  The fathers of the boys meet with Mija to decide how best to handle the situation, deciding that their son’s futures and the reputation of the school would be better served if they kept the news quiet about what happened, and to make amends, offer a generous monetary package to the bereaved mother.  Mija, obviously shaken, walks out and tries to focus on something else, anything else. 


What makes this movie so special is not the story itself, which is announced in the opening minutes, but watching the way the consequences unfold, where the suspense isn’t necessarily what happens, but the way it happens, as much of it plays out like a silent film.  Mija barely utters a word to Wook, who hasn’t an ounce of remorse, instead he’s an aimless, self-centered kid who’s used to being waited on hand and foot and acts like he hasn’t a care in the world, yet as his mother lives and works out of town, Mija looks after him while also working as an in-home care giver to an elderly man left partially paralyzed from a stroke, where it appears her life is spent cleaning up after the messes left behind by others.  Almost on a whim, she decides to register in a poetry class, where her instructor suggests everyone has poetry in them, but that they need to find a way to liberate their awareness.  Mija finds it especially difficult, constantly working, never feeling inspired, yet she jots down various notes in her diary when she finds an idle moment.  She also attends poetry readings, where locals read their works in a coffee house atmosphere.  While the poetry itself is not all that exceptional, the use of highly distinctive language in an otherwise near wordless movie is quite a contrast, as the director himself is accentuating a different level of thought throughout his own picture.  There are several remarkable scenes that stand out, like Mija attending the Christian church service for the deceased girl, where the use of refracted images give the appearance of entering an alternate universe, yet the mirror images also offer a psychological impression that she’s seeing herself in the death of the young girl, as if her own future was destroyed in the process.  This blending of the souls is a unique component of death, where the living identify with their own mortality.  Mija is also diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, though she doesn’t exhibit any signs of forgetfulness yet.  All the more reason why she is so shaken by this experience, as it feels like something she doesn’t ever want to forget.  


Exhibiting cowardice to the corps, the other fathers suggest Mija have a woman-to-woman talk with the bereaved mother in hopes she will accept their offer.  What’s even more disturbing is the way they casually sit around and consume alcohol while they assign responsibility to someone else.  It’s easy to see their son’s contemptible behavior in their own adult lives, as not once in this entire film do any of them ever speak to their sons or hold them accountable, a scathing indictment of male behavior in Korean society, not to mention the brazen cover up, and this from a writer/director who once served as the nation’s Minister of Culture.  Mija’s visit takes on its own spiritual transcendence, but not as one would imagine, as this is another remarkable sequence, one filled with a quiet and mesmerizing poetry all its own, all the more captivating by revealing only the sparest essence of the moment, where the unseen, untapped power is the quiet dignity of the two women.  How this matter evolves is almost entirely offscreen, alluded to, never for a moment seen, which is the director’s aesthetic.  The film is unique in that words are never used to address the actual criminal acts, which are the story of the film, instead it silently makes references, offers signs, clues, glances, gestures, poetic reveries, and insightful silences, where a consummate actress like Yun Jung-hee gracefully carries this film on her shoulders.  By the end the audience is immersed in a moving and powerful drama, where the poetry professor candidly reveals that poetry is a dying art, that few people read it or find it much use anymore, that the culture certainly doesn’t embrace it, making it nearly archaic in a morally bankrupt society that prefers to cover up and forget its heinous acts, sweeping them under the rug.  But the director finds a way to poetically rhapsodize the unspoken truths in a YI YI-like remembrance, where this heartbreaking story finally finds release.     

7.)  Incendies              A-

aka:  Scorched

Canada  France  (130 mi)  2010  d:  Denis Villeneuve


One of the more harrowing stories seen in quite awhile, embellished with superb storytelling, unraveling an odyssey so fascinating and intensely personal that even the display of chapter headings is riveting, as it knowingly leads the viewer into such fertile, unchartered territory.  Adapted by the director from a play written by Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad who fled from Lebanon to France at the age of 8, which is a reworking of Greek tragedy superimposed with hyper-realistic scenes taken from the Lebanese Civil War of the 1970’s and 80’s that left 250,000 civilians dead, 350,000 displaced, and more than a million to flee the country, where a majority of its original inhabitants continue to live elsewhere, retelling history through the personalized lens of children discovering their own mother’s legacy after her death.  Told out of sequence through a series of haunting flashbacks, each delves deeper into the mysterious unknown of their mother’s life.  Powerfully written, brilliantly edited, where the simultaneous present mixed with the past time schemes are blended together perfectly using unforgettable onsite locations that are gorgeously photographed by André Turpin, where the ensemble acting, especially by the women involved, is superb, and where Grégoire Hetzel’s original musical score recalls Beethoven and Mahler, especially in the solemn expression of anguish and lament.  The intensity of the film is unwavering, where much of the play’s dialogue has been replaced by sequences of staggering devastation.  Opening with a stunning scene set in slo-mo to the angry whisper of Radiohead’s You And Who's Army? - Radiohead (YouTube 3:14), young boys with grim faces are getting their heads shaved as they are being prepared for war, a foreshadowing of the dire events that lie ahead.  


The mood is quickly shifted to the present, where an Arab-born Canadian brother and sister, Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin), sit in a notary’s office (Rémy Girard) in Montreal and hear the strangely unique terms of their mother’s will, handing each letters to deliver to family members they never knew existed, Simon to an unknown brother and Jeanne to the father she understood was dead, as only in this way will the mother unearth the buried family secrets and fulfill a lifelong promise to break the continuing cycle of violence and regret.  Simon, something of a self-centered grouch throughout, is disgusted by the whole ordeal and finds it a waste of time, the ravings of an embarrassing and unstable mother who never “acted” normal, while the more inquisitive Jeanne immediately sets out for the Middle East in search of her mother’s home town.  During her inquiry, her mother’s life of Nawal (Lubna Azabal) as a young girl materializes before our eyes, where her pregnancy with a Muslim is a source of shame to the family, one that requires drastic measures and her exile from the region, but only after she leaves her orphaned baby behind after birth.  But years later, she vows to reunite with that lost child, searching for him in a Southern region that has succumbed to annihilation and war, where empty burnt out buildings are still smoldering.  As a Christian, she is easily allowed passage back into the troubled region, as there is a logjam of families waiting at a checkpoint frantically trying to get out.  What she discovers, however, are Christians massacring Muslims, where the cross around her neck is the only thing that saves her on a bus filled with Muslim women who are all killed on the spot by a roving gang of Christian nationalists before being set on fire, a horribly brutal atrocity she is forced to feebly witness that rocks her to the very core.  Interestingly, after all this time, when Jeanne finds her mother’s village, she is bluntly told by the women elders that she is not welcome there, as they are still teeming with resentment, indicating she may be searching for her father, but she knows nothing about her mother. 


In fact, no truer words are spoken anywhere in the film, as Nawal developed an intense hatred for the Christian nationalists, where murder and massacres are routinely attributed to the name of Christianity, including infamous refugee camp massacres, eventually being sent to prison for aiding the Muslim subversives, becoming part of a radical resistance movement.  As a French-speaking Canadian, Jeanne is way over her head when she begins to uncover even the tiniest pieces of reality, calling her recalcitrant brother to join her, as this was beyond her capacity to comprehend.  And like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the further they inquire into this unspeakable realm, the less they understand about their mother, as she was an active participant in the civil war, the consequences of which have only grown immeasurably over time, leaving her family involved, with the siblings no closer to finding what happened to the missing family members, who may have perished somewhere along the way.  Like good investigative journalism, the director unleashes only bits and pieces at a time, providing the full ramifications at each stage, where the audience, through flashbacks, have a clearer picture of the kind of desperate life Nawal lived, constantly besieged by forces that were greater than her, but refusing to weaken her resolve, still desperately searching for her missing son, showing no signs of the eccentric portrait held by her family in Montreal, who themselves are getting a taste of the mosaic of ethnic conflicts in the region.  The Radiohead song is chillingly utilized several times in the film, each time adding surprising depth and coherency, where there’s a boiling rage still simmering just under the surface, where the director has the audience by the throat and never for a second loosens his grip on the build up of tension and suspense.  There is never any indication that this originated from a play, as the powerful tone of authenticity feels like it’s based on a real life experience.  Both Lubna Azabal and Désormeaux-Poulin match the elevated intensity with their outstanding performances, but it’s the director who amazingly pulls together all the mysterious elements, sad and heartbreaking, plunging headfirst into this complex and dense material yet achieving balance, with nothing less than spectacular results.


8.)  Secret Sunshine                A-                   

South Korea  (142 mi)  2007  ‘Scope  d:  Lee Chang-dong


Premiering at Cannes in 2007, nominated for a Foreign Language Academy Award in 2008, it took nearly 4 years before the film opened in a major U.S. city, distributed by IFC, and when it did, it was shown on HD Video on a small screen, similar to watching it at home, as the size is reduced even further for the ‘Scope aspect ratio, so the top and bottom of the screen were empty.  As to why it took so long for the film to arrive, one remains clueless, as it’s clear this is a formidable talent with unique filmmaking credentials.  According to his bio at IMDb See full bio, Lee Chang-dong was born in Daegu, considered the most right wing city in South Korea, and was a high school teacher and acclaimed novelist before turning to cinema, directing his first film at the age of 43, but also writing all of his own films.  He also worked as his nation’s Minister of Culture for several years between OASIS (2002) and the release of this film, bringing a certain maturity level to his films, similar to French director Claire Denis who also got her start at the age of 40, but also contributing a dense, novelistic style that is uniquely his own.  OASIS is unlike any other film I’ve ever seen, as it examines crass societal prejudice through one of the most improbable and disturbing love affairs ever captured on film, where the two lead characters are so mentally and physically challenged that it’s difficult to even watch them onscreen.  The audience has no choice except to adjust their perceptions to the subject matter.  This film is on more familiar turf, a mother’s grief from a sudden and unexpected loss of her child who is killed in a kidnapping for ransom scheme gone wrong, but it’s just as maddening and heartbreaking, as it takes her on a strange and baffling odyssey to explore possible religious and spiritual avenues for her insurmountable pain.  The ease with which this director mixes near slapstick comedy side by side with searing tragedy, while also making astute social comment, is what separates him from the rest, as his range is simply unsurpassed.


Lee never makes it easy for us, nor does he spell things out for us, as he instead takes us on Jeon Do-yeon’s novelesque journey (winner of Best Actress at Cannes), a widow who is moving with her young son to the small town of her recently deceased husband, the subject of poisonous family rumors which has caused her to leave her family behind, which begins with her car breaking down just outside of Milyang, which in Chinese means “Secret Sunshine,” where a hotshot mechanic Song Kang-ho cheerfully welcomes her to the city.  Slowly she acclimates herself to life in a small town, where school busses have flowers and optimistic slogans painted on them and where everyone has soon heard about her arrival.  She immediately joins a women’s social circle, even as she has little in common with these other women who oftentimes make unflattering comments about her behind her back, but this is what’s done as she assumes a social standing as a piano instructor.  It’s interesting to see women drink too much in public as they have a vicious sense of humor and seem to enjoy leaving their husbands behind.  Their frivolity recalls the surreal final scene of dancing housewives in Bong Joon-ho’s audacious psychological thriller MOTHER (2009).  Somewhat shockingly, this film turns into a heartbreaking missing child saga, where the terrifying jolt of losing her child becomes a stark everyday reality, where her inconsolable anguish leads her to seek comfort in the refuge of Christianity, where her physical expression of grief in the church is unforgettable, expertly shot by the way where in a distant shot that lasts for nearly a minute we only hear the sounds of wailing in the congregation before a close up reveals the source, where smiles just a few minutes ago have led to a flood of tears.  Song Kang-ho accompanies her in her religious quest, always a bit late and usually appearing just outside the frame, but he always seems to be there, standing up for her when no one else will, especially when her dysfunctional family comes to her son’s funeral and tries to label her damaged goods.  When Jeon was initially blackmailed and had no one else to turn to, there’s a hauntingly empty scene where she pays him a visit at his garage at night where she stands outside gazing in at him where he’s alone, drinking heavily, and singing karaoke at the top of his lungs. 


Jeon’s Christian transformation is one for the ages, as she soon becomes the poster child for a born again Christian, assimilating the message and the speech, becoming one of God’s ambassadors on earth spreading the message.  She goes to meetings, speaks with the Reverend, joins new social circles, and sings joyous religious songs outside the commuter train stations as bystanders walk by.  The film paints an excellent portrait of Korean Christianity, which is always led by that everpresent cheerful smile, and where they have a ready answer for all of the nation’s social ills.  This leads to that transcending moment when she’s ready to go to prison to forgive the man who murdered her child.  There have been other similar determinant prison sequences, Bresson’s PICKPOCKET (1959) and Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW (1963) come to mind, which feature moments of transcendence.  But this is something different altogether and is eerie and creepy at the same time, as the prisoner has also found comfort in the salvation of Jesus Christ, so her forgiveness is not really necessary, as he’s already squared it with a higher power.  Where does this leave her? - - devastated and crushed, where this turns into a psychologically tormenting grief and anguish of Dostoevskian proportion.  Her ultimate clash with religion reaches NASHVILLE (1975) proportions in one of the most perfectly written sequences in the film when she inserts a pop song into an amplified Christian outdoor rally during the middle of a sermon (Kim Chu Ja singing “Gu Jit Mal”).  She is rattled with guilt for the inner rage she feels, and for which she can find no comfort or relief, feeling scarred and betrayed for life, as she’s really done nothing wrong, yet she’s condemned to eternal punishment without ever committing a crime.  What God, who oversees all things, could allow this to happen?  And where is her salvation?  What is her road to redemption?  She travels into that BREAKING THE WAVES (1996) territory, which is really a descent into human depravity, and it is from this haunting and punishing emptiness that she needs to find herself, from some horrible dark abyss, void of human virtue, a laceratingly lonely and empty place, the cavernous depression of her soul, where she needs to somehow crawl out alive and discover what it means to live again.   




9.)  Miss Bala                      A-

Mexico  (113 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Gerardo Naranjo


While this is a case of the truth is stranger than fiction, the director along with fellow writer Mauricio Katz have fashioned a fictionalized account of real events that leap out of the headlines, Miss Sinaloa and the Seven Narcos, ran the headline in The Mexican-Daily El Universal, where beauty queen Laura Zuñiga, Miss Sinaloa 2008, was arrested along with seven suspected narco drug traffickers in a truck filled with guns and ammunition, including $53,000 in cash, two AR-15 rifles, three handguns, 633 cartridges of different calibers, and 16 cellphones, on December 23, 2008 in Zapopan, Mexico.  According to the film, 50,000 people have lost their lives in the Mexican Drug Wars just in the last 6 years where the profiteers are protecting a $30 billion dollar industry within Mexico alone, which of course, also exports to the consumer hungry United States.  What makes this even more interesting is the connection to American (DEA) Drug Enforcement Agents, where recently the U.S. Attorney General has come under fire for his lack of knowledge about guns from the DEA gone missing in Mexico in an operation gone bad, where it turns out the U.S. is basically arming the narco traffickers.  But this film foregoes the politics and turns this into an atmospheric mood piece on abject fear and hopelessness, creating a harrowing and visceral experience, a seat-of-your-pants thriller reminiscent of the opening episode from AMORES PERROS (2000), easily the best thing Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu has ever done, with both uniquely expressing a raw, in-your-face, hyperkinetic energy that literally jumps off the screen.  This film creates a similar pulse rate, but only in certain stages, as otherwise the gangsters lay low for awhile and rest easy for a little R & R with the co-opted beauty queen until they decide to move again.  Much of this has the feel of a para-military operation, complete with reconnaissance teams that always report the whereabouts of the cops, information from men who have infiltrated inside the records of the army and police, using one-time only cell phones to communicate orders to the commanders in the field, which are then cleaned to prevent tracing, while armies of trucks and black SUV’s with tinted windows swerve in and out of traffic in precise increments based on their knowledge of the various positions of the police.  Make no mistake, these are military maneuvers. 


While this may sound surprising to most Americans who still haven’t a clue what’s happening in the gang wars taking place in ghettos across America, this activity in Mexico is not confined to specific neighborhoods, but can play out on the city streets anywhere, where the presence of these gigantic SUV’s is an everyday reality for most citizens, where all they can hope is that they’re not targeting civilians.  Like any other war, this one goes after the Who’s Who in both the police and drug trafficker operations, each searching for the other, and when they meet a fierce firefight develops instantaneously, where chaos reigns and bullets fly in all directions.  The collateral damage extends to innocent civilians who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  This film doesn’t suppose what happens when the innocent civilian is a Mexican beauty queen, but uses her actual experience of what really happened when she got sucked into narco operations purely by chance, where she proved useful to them as she was scared shitless, afraid for the lives of her family, so would do as instructed over a brief period of time which included several operations.  In real life, she was released following her arrest after the subsequent investigation proved she had no involvement with the narco drug industry, but was only a pawn in their game, suggesting it could just as easily be anybody, and often is.  This one just happened to be especially pretty, Stephanie Sigman as Laura Guerrero, a beauty queen contestant that attracted the eye of the drug kingpin, Lino (Noe Hernandez), a shadowy head of the Estrella drug cartel who sees her huddling in the corner during the middle of a raid on a nightclub targeting DEA agents, allowing her to live in order to make use of her in the future.  The film wastes no time getting right into the thick of the action.

This plays out like a Mexican version of a Michael Mann action thriller, shot in ‘Scope using long takes from the constantly probing camera by Hungarian cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, often altering the focus in the same shot, making excellent use of locations and off-screen sound, featuring riveting performances from characters forced to act on impulse when events continually spiral out of control, where the gangsters thrive on this kind of heart racing action, driving trophy Porsches through the streets of Tijuana, but not a teenage girl who is being used for target practice for the first time in her life, where she spends most of the movie close to peeing in her pants from the intense fear, where Lino is continually toying with her, always getting what he wants and then throwing her away until she’s summoned again from out of the blue, a repeating cycle that seemingly can’t be broken.  The overriding theme here is fear and how it plays havoc with ordinary people who are caught up in this phenomenon of gunfights taking place on the city streets in broad daylight, where one of the best edited transitions seen all year finds Laura pinned down in one of the fiercest gunfights you could imagine, using a slow tracking shot where bodies are dropping and bullets are flying, where the sound is deafening, like what it must have been for the Marines trapped in Mogadishu, where she is then whisked away from that reality into a continuing pan through the back wings of a beauty pageant where she is quickly dressed for a runway appearance, and with tears streaming down her face she’s continually reminded to smile.  This kind of mood shift is insane, as you have no time to process the fear, as her life has turned into a human pin cushion of getting stuck repeatedly with having to perform some of the most dangerous drug operations, where she is the center of the storm not knowing which way to turn for safety, as the bullets are flying from every direction, where Laura has to rely on the whims of a cold blooded killer for protection.  While the film is seen exclusively through the terrified eyes of one woman, the larger issues of Mexico’s inability to protect ordinary citizens from being caught in the crossfire of the Drug Wars remain. 




10.)  Oslo, August 31             A-                    

Norway  (96 mi)  2011  d:  Joachim Trier


Joachim Trier is something of a revelation, known for only two feature films, but both have quietly surpassed anyone’s expectations, where REPRISE (2006), released in the U.S. in 2008, made several end of the year Top Ten lists, including my own, seen here at #8:  2008.  Born in Denmark and twice Norway’s skateboard champion during his teens while also making several skateboard videos at the time, Joachim is a cousin of the more internationally known brash Danish director Lars von Trier, whose clownish publicity stunts seem to overshadow the work of this young director who is still in his 30’s.  But make no mistake, on the evidence of these two films, Joachim is the more talented director.  They may not have the ambitious scope and apocalyptic overkill of Lars, but his films are effused with so much intelligence and vitality that they are among the most appealing films anywhere on the planet, which raises the question, who is this guy and why is he flying under the radar?  While REPRISE was an extraordinary depiction of youth rarely seen in films, this may be one of the best films ever made about drug addiction, as it offers a raw and searingly confessional approach to the kind of character transformation needed to make a clean break from addiction, where one rigorously questions one’s own progress through a relentless form of psychological self-examination, where one is constantly questioning whether they are deluding themselves.  This pursuit for some kind of unknown truth is unprecedented, as drugs have always clouded one’s judgments before, and without drugs nothing seems to fit anyone’s idea of clarity, as life is a jumbled mess passing by at an all too accelerated pace, where opportunities are lost and vanished before they ever really have a chance of success.   

Mind you, this isn’t a film that shows crack houses or junkies shooting up, as it refrains from that kind of exhibitionism and bleak miserablism and instead focuses on one man’s internal quest to get clean, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), one of the stars from Trier’s previous film, where it plays out like a journey, almost like a road movie, as we follow the various places he visits in one day of his life.  Opening with stream-of-conscious reflections on the city of Oslo uttered by a series of unnamed persons, all mixed together to form a verbal mosaic of someone’s idea of Oslo.  Not any one of them stand out, but collectively the series of thoughts seem to represent the idea of human brain activity at work, which leads us to Andres sitting in a group therapy session listening to the personal difficulties of other recovering addicts, some of which is heart wrenching testimony, also challenging, openly honest and surprisingly truthful.  Anders has been sober for just under a year and is near the end of his confinement in a drug rehab center, where he is given a pass for a job interview in Oslo.  As he freely walks the city streets, it’s as if he’s revisiting the previous steps of his life, viewing them with a sober eye, dropping in on several friends while also trying futilely to make cell phone contact with his former girlfriend.  Hans Olav Brenner as Thomas is likely Anders best friend, now married, but a man with an intellectual background that Anders apparently shares, so their extended conversations together comprise the film’s best efforts to confront sobriety, as Anders has little faith that he will succeed and feels he is sliding into a regressive state where suicide seems like an acceptable option.  This isn’t lily coated stuff, examining Thomas’s less than ideal marriage as well, but these two men are confronting their personal demons with a kind of intelligence rarely seen in cinema.  Frankly put, this is superb writing and even more fascinating direction that emphasizes the mobile, hand held cinematography of Jakob Ihre.


Trier and his collaborator Eskil Vogt loosely rewrite a semi-autobiographical novel by French Nazi collaborator Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, which has already been adapted by Louis Malle in his equally candid work THE FIRE WITHIN (1963).  Having seen both films, and both are blisteringly honest, Trier’s approach couldn’t be more different, where Malle’s is a downbeat and despairing mood of a former drunk with a quick wit who has “squandered away his youth carousing,” while Trier adds a special emphasis on Anders exploration of the special exhilarations in life, where through a hyperactive visual and sound design Trier allows the audience to share the hypersensualized state of alertness where Anders can overhear several different conversations, or see cars, bikes, trains, or pedestrians moving all around him at once, where his sense of time has shifted and inexplicably the world is spinning at a faster pace without drugs, right alongside the recollections or past memories that are also simultaneously streaming through his head.  It’s a mind shattering experience, yet this is an illustration of the world *without* drugs. Anders job interview is a spectacular example of how sobriety is a double edged sword, where the mood shifts from some brilliantly comedic observations that display his wit and powers of social criticism, yet no one is quicker to render harsh and condemning judgment on an addict’s mistakes than the addict himself.  Sobriety is a slippery slope, where his descent back into his own personal hell couldn’t be more brilliantly realized than as he revisits several bars and underground hangouts, where no one can shoot party sequences with this kind of authority except perhaps the exemplary night club sequences of James Gray, as both are literally bursting with life, where Trier uses music as well as anyone in the business.  This film is an exposé of everything that supposedly matters in life, but seen through the eyes of a man with faltering vision, whose doubts outnumber his beliefs, who’s not in command of his own brilliant mind anymore, as everything is beyond his capacity to accept and understand, where he’s literally drowning throughout the entire picture, shown through a somber and mature lens, feeling at times earth shattering.    




Special Mention 



Buddha Mountain (Guan yin shan)                     A-                   

China  (101 mi)  2011  d:  Li Yu


Without any fanfare, this is a special treat, one of the most sublime and drop dead gorgeous films of the year, a rare mix of the hopelessness of the current generation, as portrayed by lounge singer Nan Feng, Chinese actress Fan Bingbin, a fearless in-your-face girl who steadfastly stands up for her friends, and her two admirers, bike courier Ding Bo, handsome Taiwanese actor Chen Bo-lin, and his comically rotund sidekick known as Fatso, Fei Zao (Fei Long), reflecting the down and out, rebellious youth style of Jia Zhang-ke’s UNKNOWN PLEASURES (2002), and the classical elegance of an earlier generation, reflected by a towering performance by Taiwanese actress Sylvia Chang.  Little do we know what’s in store for us in this movie, as it starts out like many other coming of age films, establishing a near documentary rhythm and lifestyle of this threesome, much of which is captured through vibrant street scenes, where their infectious energy represents the pulse of the nation, but they feel no connection to their country or their future and are largely disconnected from their families, living day by day, spending what they earn in food keeping Fatso happy.  Their easy going style with one another is quite reminiscent of the French New Wave, shot in vérité style by Zheng Jian, who also edits the film, where their casual and mostly reckless behavior often finds them clashing with others, where their offbeat, non-conformist manner sets them apart.  When performer Nan Feng accidentally hits a front row patron in the groin with her swinging microphone onstage, she loses her job at the same time their home is about to be demolished, finding a new apartment in the home of a retired Beijing Opera star Chang Yueqin (Chang), a quieter, much more reserved personality.  No one thinks this living arrangement will succeed, least of all Chang who is constantly criticizing their rude manners and behavior, usually mocked and mimicked behind her back afterwards. 


We soon learn Chang has a deceased son she never talks about, as his photo is in the living room, and Chang secretly keeps a car in a garage which still has a bashed in windshield.  When the kids find the car, they get it started and go on a joyride, experiencing momentary bliss on the road but eternal condemnation from Chang upon their return, where she is heartbroken at their sign of disrespect.  What follows is a train ride sequence where the three hop a freight, one of the most breathtaking wordless sequences seen all year both in length and poignancy, passing through endless mountain tunnels and some of the most impressive natural scenery in China, beautifully accompanied by original music from Peyman Yazdanian.  Interjected into this harmonious beauty is real life news footage of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake killing nearly 70,000 people, leaving nearly 5 million people homeless, where on Buddha Mountain this trio eventually finds a shattered Buddhist temple in a lush mountainous landscape in ruins, where the Master on the premises indicates he plans to rebuild, which becomes a prominent theme of the film, where these rootless stragglers need to find something worth holding onto.  When Ding Bo, who never expresses his feelings, is caught with another girl, Nan Feng ditches him and leaves town, perhaps forever, making him feel foolish and regretful afterwards, something Fatty doesn’t let him forget.  Nan Feng goes back home and stands up for her mother, as her abusive and alcoholic father is in the hospital with cancer.  This is one of the more singularly ferocious scenes of the film, perfectly expressing the in-your-face attitude of this young woman. 


But it is the haunting beauty and quiet personal devastation of this film that most impresses, freely moving the characters in and out of the frame, continually changing the focus on who remains onscreen, perfectly expressing the restless anxiety of youth, never amounting to much, never seemingly satisfied, but along with the tragic implications of the earthquake, the director also adds the breathtaking beauty and extreme tranquility of the world that is also within their reach, using a complicated editing scheme, often changing the pace, reflecting the changing rhythms of the characters.  The style evolves as the interior world of the characters changes as well, each broken and damaged in differing ways, the wounds becoming more exposed, where each has an unspoken sense of the tragic depth of each other’s anguish and pain, which holds them together, like an extended family, where quietly Chang becomes a silent force onscreen, nurturing them in ways they’ve never dreamed possible, becoming a dominant presence in their lives.  The director blends together poetic notions of fragility and loss, loneliness and friendship, but also a haunting regret and a renewed sense of place in the world, filling a spiritual void.  But the aftermath of this film is one mixing grief with the haunting beauty of the mountainous landscape filled with lakes, natural springs and spectacular waterfalls.  Renewal or rebirth is the quality of transcending life’s endless series of tragedy and pain, where this film is beautifully affixed on the journey of that transcension.  



Beginners              A-                   

USA  (105 mi)  2010  d:  Mike Mills                Beginners  (official site)


Our good fortune allowed us to feel the sadness our parents never had time for.                

—Oliver Fields (Ewen McGregor)

Apart from everything else this is, it’s definitely a Los Angeles movie, and one of the better ones at that, using uniquely chosen natural settings offering such a positive view of the city, making excellent use of the distant skyline that of course includes the unsightliness of hovering smog while also using many interior shots of the Los Angeles County Art Museum.  But most importantly, from the opening shot, there’s a gorgeous home with a beautiful garden and big glass windows furnishing that perfect view of the city off in the distance.  It’s the kind of place one would like to call home, but immediately the narrator, Ewen McGregor as Oliver, indicates this is the room where his father died, which sets the backstory in motion, told almost entirely through flashbacks.  Apparently based on the director’s own personal experience, Mills has crafted a loving portrait of his father, Christopher Plummer, who announces he is gay at the age of 75 just after Oliver’s mother dies.  It has a kind of Buddhist spirituality about it, as it apparently took his mother’s death to allow the inner life of her husband to blossom, as he finally discovers a joy in life like never before with parties, dancing, and newfound friends, and even a much younger lover Andy (Goran Visnjic).  This picture of uninhibited happiness is a complete turnaround from the era of living in a closet, which Oliver knew nothing about until this recent revelation.  Through the use of family photos, still shots, and campy magazine photos, Mills beautifully expresses each era through the embellishment of advertising, including car and smoking ads, showing people enjoying their leisure activity.  Oliver himself has a kind of stunted emotional growth, stuck somewhere between the eras, never quite understanding the complexity of his parent’s relationship, which is even more baffling to him in the present. 


Despite the kumbaya feel good story that seems destined for the typical upbeat, movie-of-the-week format, this film has quite a few surprises in store, one of which is frequently jumping back and forth through different time periods, while another is an Asta-like dog (from THE THIN MAN series of the 30’s) that has a limited human vocabulary, where Oliver can actually comprehend his subtitled thoughts.  Otherwise, Oliver leads an emotionally detached life where he observes his father’s outpourings of happiness almost as a tourist, as he’s there through it all, but doesn’t exactly know how to join in.  Prodded by his coworkers where Oliver works as a sketch artist, he reluctantly attends a party where he meets Mélanie Laurent as Anna, an actress with one of the most impressive opening appearances, surprising everyone with her openly flirtatious style that is easily one of the best performances of the year, as she literally steals every scene she’s in, and may even steal the movie that’s not even about her, as she’s initially a tangential character, but her chemistry with Oliver provides the fireworks that’s missing in his life.  Still, he’s lost in a fog about the memory of his father, wondering how his parents could keep pretending for all those years, doubting his own capacity for a long term relationship.  It’s this bristling honesty that may be the most pleasant surprise and the true revelation of the film, making the viewer feel like they’re actually experiencing something remarkable happening, as there are snippets of gay rights history thrown in that allow people to reflect upon how love was expressed generations ago when it had to remain a closely guarded secret. 

One of the other delicious surprises is Oliver’s mother, Mary Page Keller, who due to the passionless circumstances with her husband decides to make Oliver her pet project by introducing him to age inappropriate material with unbridled relish, where she seems to be having a blast onscreen.  Oliver, on the other hand, is flabbergasted by this overtly scandalous treatment, embarrassed by his mother’s ultra liberated, free spirited style, eventually driving him to the obscure safety of that button down conservative that he is today.  But Anna shows those same sparks, another fiercely individualistic force of nature that literally defies belief, yet Oliver hesitates, as he’s done his entire life.  In fact, McGregor may hold the entire picture back, as perhaps he doesn’t wish to overstep what amounts to the director’s own personal life story, so remains something of a blank canvas waiting for life to color him in.  As is, he remains the odd man out in his own movie, something of a wet blanket, as his father, mother, girlfriend, and even his dog outshine him in every respect, where they couldn’t be more artfully crafted and intensely appealing characters onscreen. 


It’s a little like his role in I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS (2009), where he is rather tame and conventional in comparison to the ever cheerful but boldly outlandish Jim Carrey.  In each instance, you wonder if he’s worth the adoration the other characters pour on him.  He was so much better in the outrageously garish musical production that is MOULIN ROUGE (2001) and the downbeat existential ménage a trois in YOUNG ADAM (2003), as in each we felt we were literally inhabiting his skin.  Here he is stuck in the center of the universe, but it’s the stars and planets aligned around him that shine so much brighter. The mistake is always thinking we’re the center instead of just one of the movable parts.  Perhaps what prevents us from recognizing love is a psychologically imposed barrier of self-doubt, a kind of delusion that always leads to failure, where true love necessitates that you push aside that trap of self preservation and wholly trust that something better awaits you.  This is a film that never quite grasps the secret to lasting relationships other than insisting that fears and misunderstandings and other forks in the road are real, where from Oliver’s point of view, there is an open but still undiscovered path, but from Anna’s, there’s some question as to what she sees in Oliver in the first place, perhaps wondering why Oliver’s mother stayed in such an emotionally unfulfilled marriage for so long, questions that remain unanswered.  What we discover then is that we’re not ready for answers yet, that we’re not at that all important commitment threshold, but, as the title suggests, still in a feeling out and the getting to know you stage, in the throes of something they as yet barely comprehend.    



The Trip – made for TV          A-                   

Great Britain  (107 mi)  2010  d:  Michael Winterbottom


Quite simply the funniest film seen all year, a masterwork of spontaneous impressions, all of which call into question the legitimacy of one’s identity, beautifully unraveling in a free form exhibition of improvised conversations that seamlessly moves from one fictitious movie character to another, from Michael Caine to Al Pacino, Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Anthony Hopkins, Ian McKellen, Alec Guinness, Woody Allen and more, supplanting the real lives of two friends, Steve Coogan (as himself) and Rob Bryden, who is his fifth or sixth, but most likely his last desperate choice as a traveling companion, as they go on a weeklong road trip together across Northern England, all expenses paid by a British newspaper The Observer, to review some of the nation’s most prestigious, upscale restaurants in gorgeously posh historic inn accommodations set throughout the painterly English landscapes.  Can anyone think SIDEWAYS (2004)?  Coogan initially wanted to go with his girl friend (Margo Stilley) as an attempt to rekindle their lost romance, but she’s too busy trying to establish her own career, so he’s left frantically searching at the last moment for an acceptable fill-in.  Bryden, like Thomas Hayden Church, is utterly brilliant as the mad side kick, giving an incomparable performance that is among the best of the year, where every improvised utterance is a masterwork of comic art that seemingly rolls off his tongue with the ease of talking.  But it’s not just comic timing and flair, as he also reads poems or breaks into song at a moment’s notice, even memorizing bits of literary phrase that are appropriate for the historic realm they are exploring.  Coogan, ever the miserablist, tries not to laugh or show appreciation, as if he’s paid to keep a straight face, refusing to allow anyone to upstage him, but instead heaps as much scorn and abuse his friend’s way as he can, acting as though he is terrible company, but at times they each try to outdo the other’s impressions in a comic laugh off, where the audience is simply delighted at how good these guys really are.  Some of the best moments are when the guys do laugh, where they can’t help themselves, but this doesn’t happen very often, where Coogan is bound and determined to see his friend as a source of endless aggravation and misery.   


Initially shot as a 3-hour British TV series, where each of six visits is a half-hour episode, this is a streamlined version which undoubtedly leaves out choice material, and without it, one can only wonder what’s missing?  So one would guess the original source material would be the way to go, but that’s not how it’s being released in America where only the truncated version is offered.  Even as is, this is unforgettable stuff, endlessly hilarious and filled with intelligent wisecracking wit.  This is also the most gorgeously filmed Winterbottom film since his first real movie success, JUDE (1996), which accentuated with dizzying camera movement the sweeping enormity of the land, and these remain, while at opposite ends of the spectrum, one a wrenching uncompromising tragedy and the other funny as hell, displaying an underlying dry wit, his two best films, largely due to the intensely personal nature of the material.  Here as well, shot by Ben Smithard, the unending beauty of the landscape is a remarkable attraction, seen as their Range Rover SUV whizzes through the curvature of the narrow roadways, often with stone walls on each side of the road, with rolling hills heading off into the horizon, occasionally seen through the mist of an everpresent fog.  Part of the story is watching these guys try to connect back home after dinner each night through the use of a phone, where Bryden induces various sex fantasies with his wife while lying in bed, not at all bashful about embellishing the voices of various celebrity characters, while Coogan is continually seen wandering aimlessly out in the high grass somewhere trying to obtain phone reception, where his conversations are wrought with great difficulty, usually ending badly, where he appears to be the most friendless guy in the universe.  The irony, of course, is that right in front of where he’s standing are some of the most unbelievably gorgeous landscape images, usually in front of a placid lake with the mist rolling by that continually changes the face of the horizon, with amazingly perfect painterly compositions that reflect the still life quality of the moment.   


Some of the food offerings are an amazingly pretentious display of overkill, where it appears grass is included with every serving of a 10-course meal, always accompanied by bottles of wine, where in every instance they are given the best window seat.  Not once do we ever see Coogan do any writing on this assignment, where he instead continually moans and bitches about the apparently stalled state of his career or how his girl friend is not there, while the ever upbeat Bryden appears to be having the time of his life.  Both these guys are evenly matched, intelligent, witty, spontaneous, imperfect, openly flawed, yet they seem to use humor to rise above the moment, finding their humanity in their various impressions.  Rarely does Coogan ever have dinner with Rob Bryden, as instead he’s met with a host of interchangeable characters that eventually drive him batty.  Initially he tries to keep up, matching impression for impression, insisting his are superior, but when we see him alone in his room at night attempting to master various Bryden voice inflections, the audience knows he’s been outdone.  Coogan can be vicious when given the chance, never having a kind word to say about anyone else, while continually seeing himself with delusions of grandeur, actually seeing himself as the Don Quixote of Britain.  Not a chance, as that role would have to go to Terry Gilliam whose lifetime projects have continually been sabotaged and destroyed, seemingly by acts of God.  Coogan shows a great deal of disenchantment with himself when he’s alone, where these solitary moments reflect an off camera persona that is quite revealing, the picture of middle aged frustration, quite a contrast to having to live up to his wish fulfillment dream sequence with Ben Stiller telling him all the American directors are lined up and can’t wait to work with him, which sadly, he has to wake up to feeling more isolated and never more alone.  Once back home in the empty, stainless steel surroundings of his overpriced luxury apartment with sliding glass doors and a balcony overlooking the highway construction project, it appears his life will have to remain a similar project in the making. 



Hugo in 3D                                         B+

USA  (127 mi)  2011  d:  Martin Scorsese      Official Facebook       Official Site  book website


No one questions Martin Scorsese’s sincerity when it comes to movies, as he’s a director obsessed with the history of movies, supporting the video releases of lesser known directors that may have received little exposure initially, and is one of the most outspoken advocates supporting film preservation.  He is perhaps the most knowledgeable American professor on the subject of cinema, as it’s a world he knows inside and out, being the elder statesman of American directors, having made movies since the late 1960’s, including two of the most critically acclaimed films ever made, RAGING BULL (1980) and GOODFELLAS (1990).  Everyone may have a different favorite, but no one disputes his mastery of the art form.  As a child, his mother thought it odd that he insisted on watching Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s THE RED SHOES (1948) over and over again, as he was mesmerized by the construction of such an enchantingly beautiful film. Throughout his career, most all of his films have catered to adult subject matter, where language alone, let alone excessive violence, may not be suitable for smaller children.  With this film, a screen adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a book which won the Caldecott Medal in 2008 for the most distinguished children’s picture book, Scorsese has finally found the right source material to make his first children’s film.  While the book is 533 pages, more than half are pencil drawings by the author where the illustrations are used to balance the way the story is told and ultimately understood, so a supremely gifted visual artist could only enhance the experience, which Scorsese chose to render in 3D, another first in his career.  The 3D glasses do darken the already darkened atmosphere, but also offer a bit of playfulness to some of the scenes, perhaps stretching the imagination somewhat, especially seeing 100-year old historic archival footage in 3D, which has never been done before, but they are by no means necessary to appreciate this film, which has a wonderful story.  However, with Scorsese at the helm, why not opt for the best?


From the opening shot, we’re quickly reminded of the overly cute, Frenchified version of Paris in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s AMELIE (2001), which features swooping camera shots and picture postcard panoramas, as the camera pulls the viewers into an extended sequence that sweeps across the city landscape, guiding us past historical monuments through the Parisian streets and into a busy train station, finally resting upon the eyes of a young child perched high atop a rooftop looking out over the station below, peering through an inside opening of a clock tower.  But this is not your typical children’s adventure story, despite the French accordions playing as people in the crowded streets of Paris run right past one another, bypassing the friendly shops and outdoor café’s, creating a stampede effect in order to get to their trains on time.  Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is the child in the opening shot, a bright young boy cloistered away living high above the fray through the ventilation ducts and cavernous back passageways in a darkened 1930’s world filled with blowing steam and giant churning gears constantly turning, where the clicking sound is everpresent as he’s literally living behind the elevated clocks of the train station, like Quasimoto or The Phantom of the Opera.  In flashback sequences, his father (Jude Law) taught him to fix clocks and develop a fascination for fixing things, tinkering with various spare parts that he finds or steals, along with handfuls of food, but his father and his uncle die, so he now lives a Dickensian existence on his own, an orphan secretly inheriting the family job of winding all the clocks at the station so that they run on time.  His real life’s obsession, however, is trying to repair an automaton, an item discarded and rescued by his father from a museum, a small steel creature in the form of a human that runs on gears and springs and wires.  But so far Hugo has been stumped at making it work. 


Instead Hugo’s regularly harassed by the bumbling train inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen) and his vicious Doberman tracking hound, threatening to send any loitering orphans to the orphanage, which he does with a sadistic relish, an orphan of the war himself taking pride in carrying out his civic responsibilities by bullying and manhandling the little buggers, throwing them in a tiny locked cage like one might do with an escaped pet.  Hugo is also mistreated by a grumpy old man with a continuous scowl on his face that runs a toy shop (Ben Kingsley), who’s constantly berating Hugo as a thief as he’s forever stealing tiny parts needed for clock repairs.  The old man absconds with Hugo’s secret notebook, the one given to him by his father with all the drawings on how to construct the automaton, where he’s hoping it will help him figure out how to make it work.  When the old man threatens to burn it, Hugo follows him to his home where in the window he sees his goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a girl about his same age, so he pleads for her help in the matter.  Something of a bookworm, she’s more interested in an adventure, so the two set out together on a mission of discovery, where she wears around her neck a secret key that may mysteriously help with the automaton, but also includes her first trip to the cinema watching Harold Lloyd’s dangling rooftop clock sequence in SAFETY LAST (1923) harold Lloyd Safety Last (on YouTube 5:55) and regular visits to the library where the elderly librarian (Christopher Lee) directs them to books on the history of cinema, which opens up a whole new world.  Apparently this is a movie for kids with intelligence who aren’t afraid of difficult or complicated emotions and love to find things in the dusty bins at the library, much like the director's own childhood.  Even as this film initially meanders to find its footing, Scorsese fills the screen with a rich and meticulous tapestry of vivid detail, always dazzling the eye with visual originality and flair.

Saving the best for last, through a series of spectacular flashback sequences, the grumpy old man, Isabelle’s godfather, is none other than George Méliès, one of the founding fathers of cinema, who around the turn of the century made a collection of moving pictures that specialized in magic acts and special effects, like disappearing heads or dancing skeletons, flying objects, missiles to the moon, mermaids and underwater sea creatures, all of which Scorsese lovingly recreates here and were thought destroyed during WWI when movie interest waned and Méliès was forced to sell his celluloid prints, as requisitioned by the Army, which melted them down for the liquid contents in making boot heels.  With Hugo’s rabid interest in rediscovering these films, Scorsese has a field day bombarding the viewers with a mesmerizing collage of turn of the century films, updated in 3D, offering special visualizations never before seen or even imagined.  This is a bonanza of unique discoveries, nothing less than spectacular, including hand print colorizing, something Guy Maddin used to love to do, offering a one-of-a-kind glimpse into the birth of cinema as conceived by none other than America’s reigning film historian.  This is a child’s adventure story where the world of adults is threatening and occasionally hurtful, but one that’s constantly changing and inventively different, that offers a chance at real discovery, where if you pursue your curiosity in life, you just might find your interests could change the shape and vision of the world.  This is a film near and dear to Scorsese’s heart, as who would have thought some kid from the Little Italy neighborhood in New York City, where he witnessed firsthand how gamblers and mobsters ran their underworld rackets, would end up becoming one of the foremost film historians and preservationists, not to mention one of the premiere artists of the past century.  This is a spellbinding trip to the movies that becomes an excursion into the history of movies itself—delightful.


Kaboom                      B+

USA  France  (86 mi)  2010  ‘Scope  d:  Gregg Araki


Queer film fantasia at its finest, actually shot in ‘Scope, a first for Araki who returns to his filmmaking roots where he is constantly having a blast with this candy-colored material where he imagines being 18 again, set from the perspective of the New Order (not “the seminal band of the 80’s”) in the universe, where strange is the new normal.  The entire story revolves around a single character, Smith (Thomas Dekker), a bisexually curious college student whose dreams, everyday gay fantasies and thoughts are embellished onscreen with little left to the imagination, where constant blasts of lurid sexual imagery bombard the voyeuristic impulses from the audience and pretty much typifies how college life is portrayed.  It’s all about getting laid.  While most students may imagine this kind of lurid sensuality, most remain alienated and alone, isolated from the rest of the world in the worst way, even as they hang around in groups as a cover so that they at least entertain the possibility that they are social creatures.  Araki does wonders by turning that common perception upside down.  Smith has a best friend, the constantly-at-his-side lesbian companion Stella (Haley Bennett), the acid-tongued, highly sarcastic art student that invites him to a party where he immediately sees two women he’s never met before, but seen in a constantly recurring dream.  One, the voluptuously beautiful Lorelei (Roxanne Mesquida, from Catherine Breillat films), immediately goes home with Stella while Smith, who sees the other dreamgirl only instantly, the mysterious Red-haired girl (newcomer Nicole LaLiberte), is grabbed by London (yes she’s British, Juno Temple, daughter of documentary filmmaker Julien Temple), where both have near surreal sexual adventures, where Lorelei amusingly has supernatural powers where she casts a spell on her sexual partner to prolong the bliss in bed while London is simply every guy’s dream, as she won’t stop until her partner is completely satisfied.  This little montage of sexual satisfaction is hilarious, as at 18, that’s never the way it actually turns out, as kids are still way too self-conscious and end up blitzed on drugs or alcohol and can barely even remember what happened other than having to lie about it afterwards.   


Adding to the intrigue is Smith’s roommate Thor (Chris Zylka), seen in an opening dream montage, a blond surfer dude with marbles in his head for brains, exactly as Smith likes them, he fantasizes, but Thor insists he’s straight, while an amusing theme recurs throughout the film where this declaration is constantly in doubt.  Out of nowhere, Smith imagines he was attacked late one night along with the Red-haired girl by strange men in masks, where she might have been bludgeoned—cut to bright red jam in a scene at breakfast where Stella finds no evidence of any crime, but according to London, the Red-haired girl was in one of her classes and she has disappeared.  This musical chairs of missing persons, men in masks, hallucinations of perceived violence, all add to a creeping sense of paranoia that begins to spread like wildfires.  When cryptic messages are received, not to mention stealth computer sites that disappear in the night, Smith examines the source of these clues much like Aaron Katz uses a similar Sherlock Holmes subtext in search of a missing girl in his recent indie film COLD WEATHER (2010), both examining a different social strata.  Araki embellishes the gay world with bright colors and perfect physiques, with kids that are willing to hop into bed with one another, and a movie storyline that literally takes off on its own exaggerated sense of playfulness, where bad things continue to plague the world of these otherwise adorable teenagers who mysteriously continue to take an interest in one another.  Again, unlike the stagnant social lives of most teens who appear glum, moody, and continually down in the dumps, in this portrayal, someone’s always knocking on Smith’s door followed by an incessant barrage of cell phone calls of people constantly interested in seeing him.     


Smith’s investigations reveal cult-like symptoms in what is perceived as normal society, where an interesting family secret escalates to grotesque behavior, where the world is run by an L. Ron Hubbard style guru who seeks world domination, yet makes dire, apocalyptic proclamations that the end is near.  Poking fun at the acceptance of Scientology among the well-to-do in Hollywood circles, a movement known for its condemnation and abhorrence of homosexuality, yet accepted by a society where cult status becomes accepted as the norm, Araki uses this prevalent theme of a world falling off its axis.  While the story grows ever more ridiculous, reaching comic book proportions of conspiracy theory absurdity, this insanity is seen as a looming threat that is constantly menacing Smith and the world he knows, where men in masks run a secret campaign to round up innocent victims and make them disappear, much like the Ku Klux Klan once did, reigning terror against their intended victims, a lawless sect using fear tactics and violence that spread beyond the reach of the law, seen as a totalitarian threat intent upon annihilating gays, perhaps even willing to use the New Testament as a sign to fanatically bring about ultimate doom to the entire world, literally carrying out the wishes of a new Revelations.  Perhaps only in this manner can gays be eradicated from the earth.  But much like DOCTOR STRANGELOVE (1964), the director relishes each and every misstep, where there are more twists and turns in this film, all shown in humorous good fun, where the finale plays like the staging of a burlesque review, where the mad romp into the ever wackier world of the absurd is an irreverent dash to the finish line.  This is an insanely appealing film filled with clever twists and beautifully written dialogue that is so outrageously over the top that one can’t help but stand back and admire afterwards what a rollicking good time this was, and like a Sirk film, that through the veneer of a film soaked in sarcasm and bright artificiality there is a glimpse of something serious lurking underneath.    





Ryan Gosling – Blue Valentine (3) + Drive (1) + The Ides of March (2)  

Brandon Gleeson – The Guard

*Peter Mullan – Tyrannosaur 

Michael Fassbender – Shame

Gary Oldham – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy   

Jean Dujardin – The Artist




*Yun Jung-hee – Poetry

Jessica Chastain – The Tree of Life (1) + The Debt (2)  

Anna Paquin – Margaret 

Olivia Colman – Tyrannosaur 

Mélanie Laurent – Beginners   

Emily Watson – Appropriate Adult   




John C. Reilly – Cedar Rapids

William Jøhnk Nielsen – In a Better World

Rob Bryden – The Trip

Nick Nolte – Warrior 

*Albert Brooks – Drive

John Hawkes – Martha Marcy May Marlene




Lesley Manville – Another Year

Octavia Spencer – The Help

Jessica Chastain – The Help (2) + Take Shelter (1)   

*Jeannie Berlin – Margaret 

Sylvia Chang – Buddha Mountain 

Bérénice Bejo – The Artist 




Lee Chang-dong                     S. Korea                      Secret Sunshine (2) + Poetry (1)

Clio Bernard                           Great Britain               The Arbor 

*Terrence Malick                    USA                            The Tree of Life

Nicolas Winding Refn            USA                            Drive 

Kenneth Lonergan                  USA                            Margaret 

Sean Durkin                            USA                            Martha Marcy May Marlene




Clio Bernard, adapted from Andrea Dunbar – The Arbor   

John Michael McDonagh – The Guard

Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, adapted from Olaug Nilssen – Turn Me On, Dammit!

*Kenneth Lonergan – Margaret 

Sean Durkin – Martha Marcy May Marlene

Mike Mills – Beginners 




Andrea Locatelli – Le Quattro Volte (Four Times)

*Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki – The Tree of Life 

Ryszard Lenczewski – Margaret (2) + The Woman in the Fifth (1)

Mátyás Erdély – Miss Bala

Manuel Alberto Claro – Melancholia

Robert Richardson – Hugo in 3D




Secret Sunshine

Another Year  

The Arbor







Le Quattro Volte (Four Times)

*The Tree of Life 


The Woman in the Fifth 






*The Arbor



Miss Bala

Martha Marcy May Marlene






Putty Hill

Midnight in Paris

Bunny Drop


*The Artist 




*Cliff Martinez – Contagion (1) + Drive (2)  

Peyman Yazdanian – Buddha Mountain 

Ginge Anvik – Turn Me On, Dammit!

Pablo Malaurie – Loverboy

Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi – Martha Marcy May Marlene

Harry Escott – Shame 




*The Interrupters


Rabbit à la Berlin

Waste Land

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow

Vlast (Power)