Wednesday, January 18, 2012

'Mysteries of Lisbon' 
Tops My 10 Best Films of 2011 List

My list of the top-ten films for last year is a bit later than other such lists, but I operate on my own schedule and decided since the National Society of Film Critics only recently announced their picks for 2011, it's not too late to share my choices. The criteria I used in selecting these films was which ones gave me absolute pleasure when watching them in the theater, and were films I saw twice or would see again.

Let's start with my favorite at the top and the remaining nine films are listed alphabetically and not ranked.

1. An unquestionable masterpiece from world director Raul Ruiz, who passed away in August, "Mysteries of Lisbon" is a four-hour sumptuous delight from the opening credits to an incredibly satisfying ending. The story takes place in the 19th century and follows the complicated life of an orphan boy, jealous and scheming aristocrats and clerics, and is told with astounding cinematography. This is one glorious film where the camera is a character. I was enthralled and delighted watching every minute.

2. The Romanian documentary "The Autobiography of Nicolai Ceausescu" opens and closes with the final hours of the lives of the communist dictator and his wife Elena, and in between we witness Ceausescu's rise and fall. Using only historical film clips, including home movies of the Ceausescus frolicking at their private villa, there are no talking heads or commentary. An intelligent documentary that demands much from the viewer, showing that absolute power corrupted absolutely in Romania before the democratic revolution.

3. My tolerance for 3-D movies is low and the gimmick generally puts too much headache-inducing strain on my eyes, but Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" was a sheer pleasure to watch. The beauty of the cave paintings dazzled, and Herzog's patented eccentric narration kept me not only entertained but wishing the film was longer. How about a sequel? Nothing would please me more.

4. Iran's top director Abbas Kiarostami's first film made outside his native land, "Certified Copy", was set in Italy and starred Juliette Binoche and William Shimell. They may or may not be former lovers reconnecting, as they spend a day together driving and walking through scenic small towns. A delicate tale that takes it's swell, sweet time getting to a satisfying vague ending that asks viewers to decide if the characters were lovers or just very persuasive liars.

5. Who can keep up with all of the excellent movies Steven Soderbergh is turning out? His latest, "Contagion", follows a talented ensemble cast as mysterious, quick-killing virus spreads from a promiscuous woman into a global pandemic. Echoes of AIDS, anyone? But it wasn't just the plot and acting that kept me hooked. The top-notch production values, taut framing and crisp editing made the film one of Hollywood's best last year.

6. Woody Allen's been making some of his best movies in recent years, set outside his beloved Manhattan. His streak of winning film set in Europe continued this year with "Midnight in Paris", his most commercially successful film in his long career. What's not to love? A great screenplay, full of wit and humor, an international cast having a ball, charm to spare, and a shout-out to Luis Bunuel's classic "Exterminating Angel", are just a few morsels of pleasure this film gave me.

7. "The Mill and The Cross" captivated my senses with an abundance of fantastic visuals, both real and computer generated, as we watch a few of the characters in Pieter Bruegel's classic painting "The Way to Calvary" come to life. This is a work of art in its own right, and it whet my appetite to see more of director Lech Majewski's other films. Please catch this film in a theater with a decent size screen and give your eyes and ears a cinematic treat that will stick with you.

8. A marvelous anthropological look at a rural Italian village, a dying shepherd and his flock of goats, and the religious and social customs of the residents. Not quite a documentary, another slowly paced film breaking conventional story-telling rules, and a truly hilarious scene involving a dog, a parked truck and villagers staging an Easter rite. For such an off-beat art film, it enjoyed short runs in New York, San Francisco and other cities.

9. The "Tree of Life" is Terrence Malick's fifth feature in 40-years, and it pushes the envelope of contemporary mainstream moviemaking. Full of stunning images, we follow a 1950s Texas family and their interconnected relationships, as Malick contemplates spiritual themes, the beginning of life on earth and a sunny apocalypse. Told in a non-linear narrative, starring Brad Pitt in a commanding performance as an ideal father, with many scenes taking place at dusk suggesting a paradise about to be lost. This is one film to see only in theaters, to fully appreciate its palette of emotions and ideas.

10. "Silent Souls" is a wonderfully dark and somber film by first-time director Aleksei Fedorchenko, that runs only 75-minutes but packs much truth and honesty. A wealthy businessman's younger wife has died and he enlists the assistance of an employee to accompany him as he takes his wife's body back to her ancestral home. The dialogue is kept to a minimum, the takes are long and convey much of the story, with a New Age-y soundtrack. Should be out on DVD soon, so add it to your Netflix queue.


DavidEhrenstein said...

A great choice for Number One. I knew Raul, and wrote about him extensively.

I'm suprised, however, that Weekend didn't make your list.

Michael said...

glad that you liked my top choice. i'd like to one day see the entire production made for portuguese TV.

i missed 'weekend' and generally don't go out of my way for new queer cinema, but enough folks whose film opinions i value, like you, have recommended it and i will catch it.