Take Shelter Directed by: Jeff Nichols Written by: Jeff Nichols (screenplay) Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart and Shea Whigham
Madness and the movies have an unprecedented history in front of and behind the camera, from the institutional insanity of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Francis Ford Coppola’s infamous filming nightmare during Apocalypse Now. Madness inhabited the whole of both of those productions, but the writer/director Jeff Nichols takes an individual approach with his new film Take Shelter.
Take Shelter has much more in common with Melancholia (another apocalyptic vision from 2011) than it does with either of those 70s hysteria classics, though. Its focus is individual madness by way of the apocalypse. Pairing the two together, however, makes the madness justified. Curtis (Michael Shannon) is plagued with frightening nightmares in his sleep and in reality; his dog attacks him, zombie-like strangers abduct his deaf daughter and a menacing swarm of birds zip around the cloudy sky.
Nichols restrains those visions though, holding back on gore in favor of mood and tension. Take Shelter is a fairly basic “Why doesn’t anybody believe me?!” story on the surface, but Nichols throws a wrench in those proceedings by alienating the audience from Curtis as well. Not only do his wife (Jessica Chastain) and co-workers slowly drift away from him, but the audience privy to his disturbing hallucinations do as well. Depending on how you read the ending, though, Curtis may have the last wicked laugh.
The Tree of Life Directed by: Terrence Malick Written by: Terrence Malick Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, and Sean Penn
You always look at nature a little differently after you see a Terrence Malick film. This is a man that you suspect has spent a great deal of time wandering through its various forms, envisioning ways to capture its essence. Of course, all of us outside his friends, family and colleagues can ever do is suspect. Malick creates his films, and then stays out of the spotlight.
The Tree of Life, his latest meditation on nature by way of the Big Bang, won the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival this year, and the one who was there promoting it was Brad Pitt. In a way this is fitting since he and Sean Penn are all the marketing team behind this movie will have to promote it with. It’s likely that countless Americans will attend this film to see Pitt and then be outraged.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Directed by: Tomas Alfredson Written by: Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan (screenplay), John le Carré (novel) Starring: Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth and John Hurt
If you’re not prepared to donate every ounce of your attention to this film, then do not bother watching it. Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of the twistiest films to come along in years.
Like he did in adapting the vampire thriller Let the Right One In, though, he takes those narrative thrills and restrains them within his deliberately arranged frames until the tension boils over. There is only one “action” sequence in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and it’s the rather clumsily constructed assassination of a spy (Mark Strong) sent to Hungary to find out the identity of a mole within MI6 (the British equivalent of the CIA).
1. The Tree of Life– Terrence Malick’s epic tone poem weaves in and out of the life of a typical American family in 1950s Texas, zig-zagging between the creation of the universe and the afterlife in the process. By placing the location of his own childhood at the center of these celestial events, he puts a very personal spin on his warring perceptions of creation; the way of nature and the way of grace. As his camera weaves in and out of the O’Brien family’s lives (a three son household run by Brad Pitt’s nature and Jessica Chastain’s grace), the element of visual improvisation makes their everyday life and afterlife beautiful. Even if you hated it, you’ll never forget it. Read our review.
2. Certified Copy- Unexpected in every way, the romance film by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami follows two strangers as they meet up in Tuscany one afternoon and divulge into their passionate opinions on art, originality, philosophy and love. Over the course of a single afternoon, their relationship takes twists and turns, leaving the audience in awe of the puzzle laid out before them and clinging to the aesthetic beauty of its settings and characters to reveal clues. Sophisticated filmmaking technique brilliantly interlaces heavy academic, multilingual conversation with a flowing narrative to sculpt this as one of the most unique and thought-provoking films of the year. Read our review.
1. Kirsten Dunst– Melancholia– In Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic new film, Dunst creates one of cinema’s most fully realized portraits of numbing depression. In all of her performances, Dunst has shown a skill sometimes greater than the films she is in. Here, she takes the role of Justine, a woman who self-destructs on her wedding night and takes shelter with her sister as the planet Melancholia goes on a collision course with Earth. Key Scene: In the deepest part of her depression, Justine even needs help getting down to the dinner table. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) made meatloaf, her favorite dish. When Justine tastes it, her face crumbles, and she says it tastes like ash. That’s all that will be left of the planet in a couple days, and she can’t wait.
Certified Copy Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami Written by: Abbas Kiarostami (screenplay) Starring: Juliette Binoche and William Shimell
Romance in the movies typically unfolds or unravels before us; there are Meet Cutes and ugly break-ups. Certified Copy, a masterful film from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, is both of those things, and then inevitably neither of them.
The film chronicles the relationship between Elle (Juliette Binoche) and James (William Shimell), two people who seem to meet in Tuscany for some kind of gathering while James is on a book tour, and then as the movie progresses, you realize the true depth of their relationship. At first it shares much in common with Richard Linkletter’s Before Sunset, but the true challenge of this film is filling in the back story, whereas Linkletter’s film was a sequel of sorts.
Young Adult Directed by: Jason Reitman Written by: Diablo Cody (screenplay) Starring: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson and Collette Wolf
Mavis Gary is one of the most fully realized movie characters in recent memory, and certainly of 2011. In the span of Young Adult’s 90 minutes, Diablo Cody’s writing, Jason Reitman’s directing and Charlize Theron’s acting fuse together seamlessly to show us her demented, delusional inner workings.
In an early scene, Mavis is going to meet up with an old flame from high school named Buddy (Patrick Wilson). She enters this small town bar with a tight, skimpy black outfit. As she looks around the bar, judging every other patron there, the camera shifts to a POV shot as if asking us to judge them too. When the waiter comes to her table, she rudely tells him to take back the silverware and bring her a drink. Buddy enters, and she lights up with a grotesque fakeness that she dons almost as often as her snide glare.
The Future Directed by: Miranda July Written by: Miranda July (screenplay) Starring: Miranda July, Hamish Linklater, David Warshofsky and Isabella Acres
What happens to hipsters when they get old? The writer/director/actress Miranda July would argue that there is not a true answer to that question, but it’s just a rather interesting one to ask. In The Future, she ponders the existence of Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater), two similar looking thirty-somethings on the brink of the end. They have decided to adopt a cat, which they can take home from the shelter in one month. This is a big decision for them.
In the meantime, the couple realize (after a couple of logical jumps) that this is their last true month of living. Though the cat is likely to live only six months because of its illness, it could live as long as five years. By then, they will be forty, and of course it’s all downhill from there.
Hugo Directed by: Martin Scorsese Written by: John Logan (screenplay), Brian Selznick (book) Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley and Sacha Baron Cohen
Hugo would be a good place to start in a film history class. Not only does it glide through the early history of silent movies, but it also utilizes the latest digital filmmaking technology in doing so. Martin Scorsese has created a film worthy of the 3D technology that is infecting every big Hollywood blockbuster, and he has done it by using not as a showy gimmick, but as a storytelling tool.
Here, that third dimension immerses us in the movie’s world, drawing us into an opening sequence that transforms from turning clock gears to an overview of Paris, into a train station and finally back into the walls full of clock gears as the young boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) zooms through these tunnels with make-shift abandon. In one of the most finely filmed sequences of the year, Scorsese keeps track of him with a clever tracking shot that simply pans as he turns corners. If this had been converted to 3D instead of filmed that way, you’d already have whiplash.
Margin Call Directed by: J.C. Chandor Written by: J.C. Chandor (screenplay) Starring: Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and Paul Bettany
Margin Call, along with Melancholia, are two movies that are helping reshape the distribution model of otherwise-limited release films. With the help of outlets like Amazon, iTunes and other VOD (Video On Demand, get used to it) services, they are reaching audiences that arguably would never have seen them otherwise.
Of course, it helps that both of these films are exceptionally well done. Margin Call is about the beginning of the financial crisis, examining the movers and shakers responsible for kick-starting it. Its keen examination of this world driven purely by gambling is shot in smooth, sophisticated darkness. Every board room is glossed over, though every frame conveys a sense of dread and impending doom (The same can be said of Melancholia).