10 movies of 2011 – and more: Part 1

Here are my first 5 movies in my list. 

1. The Tree of Life

How can you possibly show together the awe-inspiring vastness of the time and space, and the minuscule intimacy of one small family life on the Earth during the 1950s? Terrence Malick’s new film “The Tree of Life” is so ambitious that some of its parts do not work well, but, as a whole, the film is an unforgettable visual meditation on our lives in the universe.

At the center of its huge canvas, there are the adolescent memories remembered by Jack(Sean Penn) in a non-chronological stream-of-consciousness narrative. The main synopsis is easily summed up as how young Jack(Hunter McCracken) and his younger brothers spent their idle time together when they were young on those bright summer days. They run around the field with their dogs. They swim in the pool with other kids. They climb on a tree in their neighborhood. They hang around with other kids. They have joyful times with their mom at home when their father is not at home. Even when you get lost in the maze of Jack’s memory(maybe you will ask yourself which of Jack’s brothers would suicide while watching the movie), there are lots of small, emotional scenes filled with beauty and intimacy.

As the narration implies, Jack’s parents are contrasting figures in his life as ‘nature’ and ‘grace’. His father(Brad Pitt) is a stern guy who can be a nice father but also can be a harsh man to his three sons. His mother(Jessica Chastain) is a kind and generous woman who express the love to her boys more openly. In the religious viewpoint of the movie, their contrast is naturally connected with the contradicting image of the contradicting image of the Christian God, who gives life with grace and then takes them away according to the merciless law of the nature he creates..

The film still remains as my favorite film of this year. With Douglas Trumble’s wonderful comeback special effect, Emmanuel Lubetzky’s stunning cinematography, and the marvelous eclectic soundtrack consisting of various classic works, the film have been immediately compared to another great “Big Idea” film “2001: A Space Odyssey”(1968). I do not believe “The Tree of Life” is as successful as that, but I feel its potential to be remembered and talked about for a long time. Sometimes it seems ponderous, and sometimes it feels bloated, but this is a dazzling kaleidoscopic panorama rare to watch nowadays. I do not think I understand all of what the film showed to me, but I had an interesting discussion with the other audiences after watching it, and we all agreed that this is one of the best films in this year.

2. A Separation

If I have to tell you only one reason why I love Iranian film “A Separation”, I will tell you that my empathy was pulled to every side while watching it. At first, the movie starts like a simple tale of separation a la “Kramer Vs. Kramer”. A couple decide to divorce, and they explain their reasons to the judge(he is not seen on the screen) at the opening scene. Though they have some disagreements, it looks like their matter will be easily settled because they respect each other despite frustration and anger.

The story turns out to be a far more complex than what we expected because of what happens next. While the custody of their young daughter is not determined, Simin moves out of their house, and Nader hires a woman named Razieh to take care of his ailing father who has been nursed by Simin. And then, a couple of incidents happen on one day, and they cause a serious conflict between its main characters. They go to the court to settle their problem, but the truth becomes more elusive, and the questions about the surrounding circumstances as well as the incidents themselves on that day are hard to answer for everyone.

Through the realistic presentation of their compelling story, the director Asghar Farhadi allows the audiences to observe several specific sides of the Iranian society including class, religion, and custom. His four principle performers, Peyman Moaadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, and Shahab Hosseini, never miss a beat even in their most emotionally intensive moments, and Sarina Farhadi, Farhadi’s daughter, is excellent as a young girl who struggles through adolescent pain amplified by her parents’ separation and following complications. There is a crucial scene near the ending where she must answer a certain question. From her face, we know how hard it is for her to answer to that.

3. Drive

The hero of “Drive”, played by Ryan Gosling, is your average existential hero defined by “I do, so I exist”. He has no name: he is just named “Driver” in the end credit, and that can say everything we need to know about him. His lonely life is occupied by his cool, dispassionate professionalism. Legally, he works as a stunt car driver at the movie set while also working at the garage owned by Shannon(Bryan Cranston). Illegally, he moonlights as a wheelman working for criminals.

He has been content with his lonely life, but now he is interested in someone. Her name is Irene(Carey Mulligan), and the relationship between them begins to grow after their coincidental encounter due to her broken car. However, her husband Standard(Oscar Issac) is released from the prison, and, for protecting Irene and her young son, the Driver gets involved in Standard’s “final job” – that is how he comes to deal with two dangerous men in the crime world, played by Ron Perlman and chillingly ruthless Albert Brooks.

The director Nicholas Winding Refn imbues his film with the dry, bleak atmosphere reminiscent of those lean, taut Hollywood action movies made during the 1980s. The cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel makes impressive use of lights and shadows to give noirish feel to the film, and Cliff Martinez’s atmospheric electronic score enhances the retro style of the movie along with the several songs from the 1980s. Above all, the characters are interesting to observe, and the film does a very nice job of presenting them to us as someone more than the stereotypes we usually expect from its genre. I believed their world, and I was absorbed in their story while thrilled by the well-executed actions. “Drive” is a product as slick, precise, and intelligent as it can be or you desire to be – and it does drive well.

 4. Incendies

“Incendies” has a familiar plot device used in many mystery fictions. The odd instructions are delivered to the characters with no explanation. The journey begins, and the mystery is peeled away step by step.

The recipients are twin brother and sister Jeanne(Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon(Maxim Gaudettte), and it is from their mother Nawal(Lubna Azabal), who recently died after suddenly being comatose. They are flabbergasted by not only their mother’s instructions but also her hidden past. Nawal wants them to find two people they have never heard about, their father and their other brother, and she wants two sealed letters to be delivered to them, respectively.

Along with the twin’s journey to find their family members they never have heard from their mother, the movie reveals the sad, painful personal past scorched by the civil conflict in some unidentified country in the Middle East. Wherever that country is, you see that the senseless cycle of violence between conflicting people has always resulted in the same consequences; pain, sorrow, and hatred entangled together in the human hearts. The film presents such emotional scars in a quiet but devastating way along with several powerful scenes, and it is especially gut-wrenching to see how the movie silently reveals that a certain truth to the characters with the emotionally shattering effect. I have to admit that I have some serious doubts about the plausibility of the story(do the math and you’ll see why), but “Incendies” is quite a moving and harrowing film I and other audiences cannot easily forget.

5. Le Quattaro Volte

“Le Quattro Volte” does not explain anything to us. It does not even try to tell us the idea that inspired this beautiful, reticent film. It watches the world and the circle of life with intriguing serenity, and that induces us to muse or focus on what is shown on the screen for around 85 minutes.

The circle starts with charcoal, and then we see an old shepherd herding goat. He wants to cure his illness with the dirt from the church, but he soon dies surrounded by the animals he has taken care of. His funeral is soon followed, and a baby goat is born. After the kid finds itself lost in the forest, it finds its shelter under a big tree, which is later cut down by the town people for their festival. After the festival, it was sent to the place where they make charcoal; the circle is completed – and it will begin again.

“Le Quattro Volte” means ‘four times’. After watching it, I learned that it reflects Pythagoras’ belief in “four-fold transmigration” of souls. Even if you do not know well about it(don’t worry, neither do I), the movie is an absorbing experience on the cycle of life in nature. I do not believe in reincarnation, but aren’t we all made of the atoms, which will, after we are disintegrated, go to the other life forms or the minerals in the world?

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1 Response to 10 movies of 2011 – and more: Part 1

  1. S M Rana says:

    I have to get down to seeing “four times”

    SC: I’d love to hear your opinion on the film.

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