By Joseph Fahim
Real-life drama overshadowed everything shown at the movies in 2011. The Arab Spring captivated the attention of the whole world, gluing viewers the world over to their TV screens in anticipation of the history in the making.
But while the real-life action provided a hazy picture for an uncertain, trepidatious future, cinema’s greatest auteurs ventured to examine the human condition in thorough, complex fashions no TV screen could come close to capturing.
An abudance of riches were offered to film aficionados in various film festivals across the globe. From Cannes to Venice, Berlin to San Sebastian, the festival circuit was unusually abuzz with activities, showcasing the latest works from established filmmakers such as the Dardenne Brothers, Lars von Trier, David Cronenberg and Roman Polanski as well as new discoveries from fresh talents like Justin Kurzel (“Snowtown”), Pablo Giorgelli (“Las Acacias”) and Alexander Zeldovich (“Target”).
The combination of old masters doing what they do best and first-time filmmakers carving a new cinema of their own have rendered 2011 a true vintage year for film.
Arab cinema took a blow for diverse reasons, the least significant of which is financing. The dearth of talents and clear, individual visions have forced the champions of Arab cinema to tone down their over-enthusiastic assessment of a developing cinema still struggling to find its identity.
From this rubble, Morocco emerged strongly to establish itself as the new force in the region. Egyptian cinema took a backseat this year, hindered by the political and social turbulances brought about by the Jan. 25 Revolution.
The fortunes of Egyptian cinema should be reversed next year with new releases from indie darlings Ibrahim El Batout, Ahmad Abdalla and Maggie Morgan and revered masters Yousry Nasrallah and possibly Mohammed Khan along with debut productions from Karim Hanafy and the long-awaited “In the Last Days of the City” by Tamer El Said.
Unlike previous years, the 2011 best film list is not as comphrehensive as I’d like it to be. All 25 films have equal pedigrees, distinguished in their own right. Several other titles could’ve made the list, including Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” Clio Barnard’s “The Arbor,” Sang-soo Hong’s “The Day He Arrives,” José Luis Guerín’s “Memories of a Morning” and Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.”
The following list celebrates both widely aknowledged accomplishments and little gems that have fallen under the radar. All attest to the greatness of eclectic and unpredictable that continues to stun, astound and inspire.
Best Arab films:
1) On the Edge (Leila Kilani)
2) El Gusto (Safinez Bousbia)
3) Sector Zero (Nadim Mishlawi)
4) Mercedes (Hady Zaccak)
5) Hawi (Ibrahim El Batout)
Best International Films:
25) Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki)
24) The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujica)
23) Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
22) Elena (Andrei Zvyagintsev)
21) Las Acacias (Pablo Giorgelli)
20) Position among the Star (Leonard Retel Helmrich)
19) A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
18) Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)
17) The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
16) Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán).
15) Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari)
Tsangari’s sophomore effort is the companion piece to Giorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” which cements the status of Greek cinema as the edgiest, most original in the world. An idiosyncratic, thought-provoking tale of an emotionally naïve young woman (Ariane Labed) learning about the world through David Attenborough’s nature documentaries while confronting her father’s eventual demise, “Attenberg” is a darkly humerous, unsentimental look at a woman who has sheltered herself in her own isolated world to avoid life; a philosophical study of the young’s relationship to a distant fading Greek past; to a nation stranded between an unknown industrial present and a promising past that never fullfilled its potential.
14) The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
Hazanavicius’ affectionate ode to the pre-sound Hollywood is one of the most delightful surprises of the year. A black and white silent picture, “The Artist”is not a pastiche of old film grammer and trickery but a whimsical, comic homage to silent cinema and its stars. French comedy star Jean Dujardin is fantastic as a down-on-his-luck, has-been silent film star failing to adapt to the change of tides brought about by the rise in popularity of the talkies in the “A Star is Born”-like narrative. The dark detour it takes midway through doesn’t take anything away from the wholesome joyfulness of this exhilarating experience.
13) Archipelago (Joanna Hogg) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)
Many will remember 2011 as the year of the great resurrection of American indie film, yet the real revolution was taking place at the other side of the Atalantic. This was the year of British cinema; Steve McQueen, Andrea Arnold and Ben Rivers dominated the festival circuits while cult directors Ben Wheatley and Matthew Vaughn took the box-office by storm. Two films stood out from the bunch: Ramsay’s disturbing, unsettling adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s best-selling novel and Hogg’s intense, nerve-wracking, Bergman-like domestic drama. Both films are helmed by female directors at the top of their game: Ramsay with her poetic Malickan touches augmenting the horror story and Hogg’s consummate use of space, subversive dialogue, and silence for her study of class division and familial dysfunction.
12) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Turkey’s foremost filmmaker won the Cannes Grand Prix this year for this slow-burning crime thriller. Clocking over two and half hours, Ceylan’s masterful use of long, static shots and meticulously-composed frames is in full display in this detailed investigation of a passion crime. The numbing procedures, atmospheric, folk-like setting and multiple twists results in the “Distant” director’s finest, most ambitious film to date; a haunting deliberation on the absurdity of crime, clash between reason and the mystic and the infinite mysterious alleyways of the human soul.
11) Mysteries of Lisbon (Raoul Ruiz)
The great loss of the prolific Chilean auteur (“Time Regained”) was especially felt with the release of this 266-minute melodrama, his most accessible, most fully realized picture of his prosperous career. Set in 19th-century Portugal, “Ruiz combines the majestic grandeur of Visconti with his signature cinematic flourishes (most notably in the extended long takes) for a classic chamber tale about unrequited love, loss, betrayal, concealed identities and wayward routes of fate. Adapted from Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco’s 1852 novel, the opulent set design, lavish customs and natural, luminous look underline both the personal and epic sides of a film constructed as fragments of lost memories.
10) Beginners (Mike Mills)
Mills’ sophomore crossover hit is the most uplifting 100 minutes I spent at the movies this year; a heart-warming, irresistibly charming, widely offbeat and deeply romantic tale of a hapless bachelor (Ewan McGregor) coping with the death of his gay father (Christopher Plummer), who only came out after his wife’s death at the age of 70, while attempting to overcome his fear of commitment and constant fear of loss and failure with his new girlfriend (French actress Mélanie Laurent). One of the main functions of film is wish-fulfillment and “Beginners” does that so delicately, so subtly. It’s whimsical, twee in parts, but it has a big heart and I found myself succumbing unconditionally to its charms. I left the movie with an overriding thought: it’s never too late to be happy, that we’re all beginners in this life.
9) Putty Hill (Matthew Porterfield)
American diretcor Porterfield continues his explorations of the forgotten and the marginalized in his downhearted, challenging second feature about the reaction of the family and friends of a young man who died from a drug overdose. Containing no narrative, Porterfield blends documentary-like interviews with his subjects with snapshots of the day leading up to the funeral. Porterfield keeps his camera grounded in the details of his characters’ mundane daily lives, refraining from making big statements or making any judgements. What surfaces is a piercing, yet sober, potrait of lost, directionless lives attempting to make sense of an event much bigger than them, an event they cannot comprehend or deal with.
8) I Wish (Hirokazu Koreeda)
Koreeda is our modern-day Ozu; a great chronicler of the myriad family dymanics and the impact of societal changes on the individual. Koreeda returns to the world of children he evoked so memorably in 2004’s “Nobody Knows” in this blithe, tender cheerful tale told from the perspective of two brothers hitchhiking to reach the spot where two new bullet trains first go past each other, believing that their wish of reuniting their divorced parents will come true in the wake of the event. Koreeda surrounds his two protoganists with a host of characters and subplots that expand the impeccably observed world of these children. Movingly empathetic, brilliantly simple, life-affirming and incredibly sweet.
7) Extraordinary Stories (Mariano Llinas)
Argentinian director Llinas debut feature is an arresting cacophony of numerous genres, narratives and sights that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Llinas packs his 240-minutes film with countless stories ranging from crime thrillers to existential dramas and romantic comedies, each of which deflects to other stories with dissimilar visual styles and temperaments that confound expectations with every turn and immerses the viewer from the very first minute. Chockfull of themes, ideas and impressions, this is a film about intertwined destinies, erratic courses of life and, most of all, the many joys and gratifications of storytelling.
6) This is Not a Film (Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Jafar Panahi)
Imprisoned Iranian director Panahi turns the camera to himself with the aid of documentary filmmaker Mirtahmasb in the greatest home-movie ever made. Panahi — who faces six years in prison and a 20-year ban from filmmaking — stages parts of his unfilmed script in a desperate, self-reflexive attempt to execute some kind of control over the uncontrollable forces shaping his life. Smuggled from Iran to Cannes in cake, Panahi’s latest masterpiece is a great feat of defiance; a shrewd analysis of the invisible line between reality and fiction. The final scene is equally liberating and heartbreaking; a statement on the colossal sacrifice the great Iranian artist has made for his art and country.
5) Post Mortem (Pablo Larraín)
The Chilean provocateur teams up with Tony Manero star Alfredo Castro for another saga about the Pinochet-era. Set in the last days of Salvador Allende’s presidency and the beginning of the military coup, Castro plays a 55-year-old loner writing reports in a morgue who develops an obsession with his cabaret dancer neighbour. Larraín impressively maintains a formal control over his milieu, keeping the bloodshed outside the frame and focusing on the nighmarish aftermath. Chilling, uncompromising and utterly horrific, “Post Mortem” is a stark portrait of a collapsing world devoid of heroism or significance.
4) A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
Farhadi’s Golden Bear winner at the Berlin Film Fest is a landmark in Iranian cinema; a domestic drama concieved as a Hitchcockian suspense thriller about a middle-class couple who finds themselves implicted in the abortion of their working-class, devout maid. Farhadi’s follow-up to “Abouy Elly” is an astute, revealing study of the schism between the intellectual and largely secular middle-class and the modestly-educated, religious working class; a separation whose outcome materialized in the last presidential elections. The web of secrets, lies and questionable moral decisions are weaved so seamlessly into a magnificent maze functioning both as a stern commentary on the subjectivity of truth and a condemnation of the Islamic Sharia.
3) The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
The great Belgian brothers — patron saints of the estranged and the forsaken — turn their backs to the austerity and gloom of their last outing “Lorna’s Silence”, marginalized for a moving, compassionate and hopeful fairy tale-like fable of a young boy seeking solace in the arms of a surrogate mother after he’s rejected and abandoned by his father. The Grand Prix winner is the Dardenne’s sunniest, warmest and most emotoinally generous film to date; a graceful, transcending tale about love lost and found, about demanding moral choice, about consolation and redepemtion.
2) The Tree of Life (Terrance Malick)
Malick’s Palm d’Or winning fifth feature was the movie event of the year; an illusive visual poem about the big life questions that divided critics and audiences alike. The elliptical Joyce-like narrative and the beginning of creation sequences were off-putting to many. “The Tree of Life” is one of those films you either reject or fully embrace. I’m among the latter group, responding strongly to Malick’s spirituality and grand concepts. The central life paths Malick’s alter ego Jack must choose from — the indifferent nature and the celestial grace — boils life down into its basic essence. Jack’s childhood shards, captured so beautifully in Malick’s trademark natural light, seeps with an inescapable sense of loss: loss of our innocence, of our sense of wonder, of our humanity. Like Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Oddessy,” “The Tree of Life” is one of those rare films that propels you to regard the world with fresh new eyes.
1) The Turin Horse (Bella Tarr)
At the polar opposite of “The Tree of Life” is Tarr’s godless world where grace is non-existent. The primary prolouge sets the scene up: German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche sees a battered horse beaten up by its frusturated owner. He throws himself at the horse, tries to save him and fails. The event drives him to madness for the last 10 years of his life. Tarr’s film imagines what has happened to its horse and its owner.
Nothing much happens in the Hungarian master’s last film. For six days, the horse rider and his daughter wake up, retrieve water from a well, dress up, eat, try to stir up the horse, fail, perform some domestic tasks and sleep. Quotidian details cover up the large void that is the characters’ lives. Nothing breaks the homogeny of their daily routine, including the ravaging storms outside. Their existance is meaningless, their daily chores are meaningless. Everything outside the walls of the small shack the father and daughter inhabit is meaningless. Life, as seen from Tarr’s exceedingly bleak worldview, is meaningless.
Tarr defies any possibility for making sense of this world ours; philosphy, politics, religion, society even, are mere embelleshments to mask the emptiness, the futility, of it all. This is life stripped bare to its very basic. And yet we choose to go on, for no tangible reason than simply to survive.
“The Turin Horse” has haunted me for months, refusing to loosen its grip over my soul. I found myself drawn again and again to Tarr’s world, searching for a ray of hope in an impossibly hopeless world. I never found that hope, but in confronting this truth, I was overcome with a strange sense of liberation, of a foreboding knowledge most of us are adamant to ignore.