Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Best Films/Actors of 2011


The Best Films of 2011 (alphabetical order):

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy/Belgium)
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, U.S.)
The Mysteries of Lisbon (Raoul Ruiz, Portugal/France)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
Poetry (Chang-dong Lee, South Korea)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
Shame (Steve McQueen, U.K.)
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, U.S.)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, U.K.)
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, U.S.) 

***

Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy



As an adolescent cinephile, I think I probably first learned about the relationship between an actor’s performance and the overall stylistic context of a movie from Luc Besson’s ridiculous action film The Professional. Gary Oldman, as insane, pill-popping DEA Agent Norman Stansfield, was not so much playing a character as a powder keg, firmly planted in the center of Besson’s stylish frame. By film's end, he shatters that frame, engulfing everything around him with mad fury. Sometimes an actor does not simply interact with a director’s style; he destroys it.

Ungenerous critics refer to this as overacting, chewing the scenery. (Oldman devours it). Oldman's intensity often emerges less from a character's psychology and more from the actor's own strokes of style, as if he were approaching the character from the outside, treating acting like a color filter or a camera movement. In playing the pimp in True Romance, Oldman is so deliriously and deliciously intense, so grooving on that film's rhythms and beats, that every gesture or facial inflection feels like a flourish, a commentary on the proceedings in addition to being a part of them. 

Despite his penchant for such theatrics, Oldman, miraculously, never finally succumbs to self parody (unlike De Niro in everything he has made after Heat): there is always a deadly seriousness to his scenery-chewing, an aura of something really being at stake. However, over the years, after his own directorial debut (Nil By Mouth, in which he did not play a role), Oldman became less interesting as an actor, was given less interesting contexts in which to shape his madmen, and less interesting parts. He becomes a special effect in the Harry Potter series, and nearly disappears into the wallpaper of Gotham City in Christopher Nolan’s Batman series. In these films, he becomes, depressingly, a character actor. He should be a lead.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a fascinating cognitive workout of a film, has finally given Oldman another role worthy of his talents. As agent George Smiley, Oldman mostly just sits around, gazing through his thick lenses and bulky frames at interlocutors who wittingly (and unwittingly) reveal crucial facts, not only about the mystery unraveling around them but also the emotional reality left behind in the Circus (the codename for the British equivalent of the Secret Service). This is one of the most severely elliptical mainstream movies every made, but Oldman is the emotional glue binding these fragments together. The movie would not work without him. There’s a line in the John le Carre  novel (a great read, and with the same elegant and economical ellipses that shape the film) that serves as a worthy descriptive of what Oldman does in this movie:

Sitting is an eloquent business; any actor will tell you that.

Smiley listens. He pieces together the information that will tell him, eventually, who the mole is, how the Circus has been infiltrated. He will also come to realize how close to Karla he really is, how little difference there is between these spies of different nationalities. But he will do this not through action (what a change from Oldman's usual theatrics), but simply through sitting, and taking in. To be realized on film, Smiley needs an actor who is interesting when doing nothing but listening, and also ready to impress the emotion upon us when necessary. These emotions shape the shards of this story into an affective whole: Smiley, carefully scaffolding the truth, is less a character than an architect of feeling. As we watch Oldman listening, we wonder when he will respond, and when he does, it comes in the form of a tiny gesture or a minute vocal inflection that reveals the human weight of all this espionage. The great film actors, and perhaps all actors in all mediums, require grand theatricality for the moments that demand it. But they also need to be interesting when they merely sit and listen. One wouldn’t expect a scenery-chewer like Oldman to be right for Smiley. But he is. It’s a masterful return.

***

Jessica Chastain 
 



A figure begins to emerge. First, her profile: does anyone look more exquisite, especially when shot from the side, in contemporary American movies? The emotion that emerges in her profile shots carries over into every angle, every movement, with which the camera might approach her. This is the secret about filming Jessica Chastain that Terrence Malick unveiled in The Tree of Life. Malick and his brilliant cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, film her face from every conceivable angle; it is as if they were the characters played by Oskar Werner and Henri Serre in Fran├žois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, feverishly attempting to fix Chastain, their Jeanne Moreau, into a timeless image that will yield itself to their possession. The opening shots of the film meet her in movement, the camera lilting in the air as her character, Mrs. O'Brien, runs in the yard with her children. The film greets her with the same sense of wonder she brings to the world; later, in the same opening sequence, the camera will look up at her at the dinner table, deferring to her beauty as she herself defers to the harsh discipline of her husband. But no single angle, no single image, can quite encompass her. She is the perfect figure for Malick’s spiritual impressionism, for just as Mrs. O'Brien's spirit cannot quite be crushed by her husband, so too does the actress playing her resist being possessed by any single frame. This is why photoshoots of Chastain miss how and why she is great on film. She will not simply give her character over to your gaze. Her character is much more interesting than that, and she will let you know it.

Partially, this is talent. Partially, it is bone structure. It is totally acting. And even critics who are not smitten with The Tree of Life, as I am, have found themselves smitten with her. David Edelstein, on her part in Take Shelter: 

Chastain turns an entirely reactive part into a major presence. Is she the most vivid actress to hit the screen in years—maybe decades? On the basis of this film and Jolene and The Debt and even The Tree of Life, I’ll say she just might be ... it’s ... how she moves, how her dancer’s body physicalizes emotion, in this case her love for her daughter (through her fervent signing) and the fear of her husband’s escalating mania. She can tense a muscle and charge the space.

Take Shelter is a supporting role, but she's the spiritual center of The Tree of Life – she’s the actor (who is playing the character) most in tune with the film’s own sense of grace. She is also, like Oldman, something of a chameleon. Look at a publicity photo of Oldman circa 1993; you will not see the pimp from True Romance, or Dracula, or Beethoven, or Sid Vicious, or any of his other characters of that period. Those figures emerge, from his complexity as an actor, only in the films. Likewise, no photo of Chastain will reveal to you what she has shown you on film, in movement. Look at the variety of figures that have already emerged from her, in only a year: in Ami Canaan Mann's Texas Killing Fields (in playing her under-written cop in this film, she was perhaps channeling her early experience playing an attorney on Law and Order); in The Help, her character finding joy and humanity everywhere, in an otherwise sick, racist society; as an Israeli spy, full of moral fervor, in The Debt; as the wife of a shamed Roman hero in Coriolanus. These lesser films, perhaps even moreso than The Tree of Life and Take Shelter, indicate the full range of her talent. In The Help, she is endearing and often hilarious, alongside Octavia Spencer, in a wholly unbelievable role; and she is fierce and sexy in The Debt (alongside established veterans of such pulpy material, like Helen Mirren and Ciaran Hinds).

Take Shelter and The Tree of Life, however, are the masterpieces. Chastain is the moral center of both films, the weather vane by which the turmoil of the men may be measured; yet her characters retain autonomy and strength. (The best example of this comes near the end of Take Shelter, when she and Michael Shannon exchange the most powerful and nakedly emotional close-up shots I know of in movies). The Tree of Life decides on the concept of grace as that which might explain every emotion (wonder, spirit, sorrow, joy, love, pain) through which Chastain expresses, and creates, her extraordinary character. Yet how secret this word is in the world of the film. No one says anything about grace in the dialogue. It is only heard in Chastain's angelic voice-over. Has Mrs. O’Brien ever said a word about grace and nature to her husband? These are secrets she seems to share only with us, and her children. If there is any reason to have a favorite actor, a figure separate from the rest, it is perhaps this: she reveals secrets to you about her characters other actors stop short of revealing, shades of emotion that, like the cinema itself, can never quite be fully grasped. What beautiful secrets she gave us in 2011. 

 ***
Michael Fassbender in Shame



I first saw Michael Fassbender in Inglourious Basterds (the moment when his character realizes he is about to die is, for me, the most wrenching in Tarantino’s cinema, one of the few QT scenes in which death is given a human, rather than purely cinematic, dimension). Upon seeing his new film, Shame, mostly everyone had good things to say about Fassbender, who plays sex addict Brandon Sullivan; but some critics complained about the lack of contextualization: who is this guy, and why should we care about his problem? But I think it’s clear enough – almost too clear, too on-the-nose - that Shame is about consumption. For some, conspicuous consumption is a matter of hoarding and Black Friday sales. For Michael Fassbender’s character, it’s fucking: the consumption of others through the physical release of the self. This is the most fragmentary sex ever filmed (more fragmentary than pornography, which never insists on the humanity of its figures in the first place). Bodies are sliced and diced as horrifically in Shame as in any horror film, but the slicing is done by Steve McQueen’s rigorously composed frames, which rarely give us the full sight of a human body. Even when Brandon finally does establish something resembling an emotional connection (in the film’s longest take, shot inside a restaurant, he develops something of an awkward bond with his date, Marianne, played by Nicole Beharie), the bodies of the two actors are cut off from view, and we see them, barely salient, in a sea of anonymous faces.

There is a Kubrickian logic to every image, every movement, every gesture in Shame, a weird kind of contemporary, secular predetermination. Part of this is an auteurist logic, for we are seeing precisely what we are supposed to see, exactly as McQueen wants us to see it. But it’s also because the cold logic of Brandon’s life only allows for repetition, and not difference. If the film lacks something of the power of Steve McQueen’s earlier effort, Hunger, this is because in Shame the social and political stakes are far less, and McQueen hardly seems interested in sketching a context (we know Fassbender’s character is from “a bad place,” but as Manohla Dargis pointed out, the context of this bad place does not go beyond “New Jersey”). But this is probably the point: this character has no social context, has indeed reduced his existential and social life to one of repeated consumption with little variation: sleep, eat, work, masturbate, fuck. That is his context, as sparse and inhuman as the glass and concrete of his office and the cold illumination of his laptop screen.

The film offers glimpses of light and hope. There is one scene, in particular, I will never forget, and it is moving because it is not quite so physical, not quite so fragmented, and partially improvised – it contrasts with the emotionless, disconnected corporeality so much on display elsewhere. Rarely anecdotes about how something was filmed mean much to my emotional experience of a scene. But this is different. Michael Fassbender had never heard Carey Mulligan sing before (did he know she could sing?) In this scene, her character, Sissy (Brandon’s sister), sings, and when she does, hearing her for the first time, he weeps. One scene, one take. And we recall, fleetingly, that the man we see on the screen is not only the thrusting physicality he has reduced himself to - there is a human being inside. Such grace notes are made for the movies.

***
Albert Brooks in Drive



This movie is so much fun. It can, of course, be critiqued on any number of levels. It establishes no social context for its violence. It is a work of pure style (but remember that its nearest antecedents, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai and Michael Mann’s Thief, teach us that style can be substance). It is too reliant on music that is perhaps a little too obvious: do we need a pop song to tell us that its main character is a real hero, a real human being, when it’s in fact the job of the performance to get this across? (Ryan Gosling is almost too much of a blank slate in this film). And it is perhaps less interesting than its source novel (Carey Mulligan is fine, but one wonders how much richer the film would be if the girlfriend had been kept as a Latina, as in the book; there, perhaps, a real slice of Los Angeles life would have seeped into the film’s rather-too-autonomous visual and sonic rhythms).

But again, the fun: these images slide across the screen effortlessly, and the film is full of stirring, wrenching surprises. And even if it’s a little socially isolated (it’s like a Martian’s view of LA - and the film's director, Nicolas Winding Refn, doesn't even know how to drive), it does have a philosophical core: each character works with a code of conduct, or existentially discovers one, as the film proceeds. And much of the excitement comes from watching Refn, a ridiculously talented director (Valhalla Rising, an underrated favorite of mine from the last few years, is like a movie about Vikings directed by Bresson filtered through Don Siegel), shape a way of seeing still in the process of being formed.

But Albert Brooks is the one to remember. Albert Brooks – new hero of the hipsters. Who would have thought? What a startling performance this is. I knew I wasn’t in store for laughs when I saw his name on the opening credits (although I had no idea he was in the movie before entering the theater). But the violence his character unleashes is unsettling and shocking, not only because it comes from very nearly out of nowhere, but because it’s Brooks it comes from. This is like watching Woody Allen suddenly kill Tony Roberts with a meat cleaver as they’re walking down the street in Annie Hall. These things are not supposed to happen in movies; the star system and the rule of actor’s personas prevent it. Even when an actor does transcend or deviate from a persona (as does Tom Cruise in Magnolia), the deviation is an event, something that is billed in advance, something you go to see. The evil in Brooks’ performance (which caught me unawares on the film’s opening weekend) just sneaks up on you. This is not easily consumable violence, nor should it be. I was shaking for days after the scene with the knife in the garage.

The finale is a great Western stand-off, in the middle of a Chinese restaurant in LA, between two figures who have met at an irrevocable existential crossroads: Brooks on the one side, the nameless Driver (Gosling) on the other. And then, in a few flash-forward intercuts, these two purely cinematic figures become archetypal shadows of light and death as they consume one another in violence. I do hope someday Refn makes a film that is more than just purely cinematic; but this movie seriously grooves, and Albert Brooks, one of the funniest and now also scariest men alive, grooves along with it, and that’s more than enough.

***

There were plenty of other great performances and performers I want to write about, but I don’t have the time: Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Juliette Binoche, Jeong-hie Yun, George Clooney, Michelle Williams. 2011 was a very fine year for film.