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Culture

Five highlights from the year in film

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2011-12-19

Terrence Malick’s latest opus, Lars Von Trier’s latest gaffe, a bawdy female-driven comedy, a Turkish police procedural and impressive ingénues. FRANCE 24 film critic Jon Frosch offers five highlights from 2011 at the movies.

Cannes jury gets it right

It doesn’t often happen, but this year, the Robert De Niro-chaired jury at the Cannes Film Festival picked the right Palme d’Or. Terrence Malick’s wildly ambitious meditation on childhood, loss, memory, and figuring out one’s place in a baffling universe drew as much scorn as it did praise. Doesn’t great cinema almost always push buttons and ruffle feathers, throwing off our expectations, expanding our comfort zones and eluding any easy understanding?

In “The Tree of Life”, the famously reclusive director mixes up his characteristically lyrical portrait of a 1950s Texas family with a long interlude featuring meteors, planets, bubbling lava, jellyfish, and, yes, dinosaurs. It may not be his most cohesive movie, but it’s arguably his most sensually immersive, and it has the overpowering scope and sweep of a great symphony. Malick’s latest is also deeply personal (imbued with echoes of the director’s own Southern upbringing, as well as his philosophical and existential obsessions) -- and perhaps the only 2011 release bound to be pondered and debated for generations to come.

Lars Von Trier gets it wrong

The focus on film at Cannes had already been clouded by the DSK fiasco when the notoriously naughty Danish director dropped a bomb at the press conference for his apocalyptic depression drama “Melancholia”. Questioned about his German origins, Von Trier offered: “I understand Hitler… I sympathise with him a bit … I’m not against Jews … In fact I’m very much in favour of them. All Jews. Well, Israel is a pain in the ass …”. Then, the kicker: “Ok. I’m a Nazi.”

Cannes organisers deemed Von Trier “persona non grata”, sending him packing and setting off a firestorm of conflicting reactions from the press and festival goers. Did the punishment fit the crime, or was Von Trier a victim of political correctness? Either way, the remarks made for the year’s most excruciating verbal train wreck and provided a glimpse into the mind of an artist struggling to reconcile his desire to connect  - “Melancholia” is the most humanly relatable film of his career - with a compulsive need to repel.

‘Bridesmaids’: a new day for female-driven comedies?

Forget “The Hangover” franchise, Judd Apotow bromances and the “Sex and the City” films. The year 2011 gave us one of the most hilarious, fearlessly bawdy and satisfying mainstream comedies in ages: Paul Feig’s “Bridesmaids”, written by and starring Kristen Wiig (who elevates the cadences of passive-aggressive dialogue to near poetic heights), about a down-on-her-luck 30-something sent reeling by the news of her best friend’s engagement -- as well as by a spectacularly choreographed bout of food poisoning, nightmarish roommates, a plane ride under the influence of a Xanax-whiskey cocktail and other varied ordeals.

Actresses in Hollywood comedies tend to be mostly decorative, but “Bridesmaids” flaunted a gallery of richly drawn female characters played by an ensemble of first-rate comediennes, including Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, and the incomparable Melissa McCarthy. The positive reaction both among critics and at the box office pointed to a hunger for movies featuring women being funny in the same no-holds-barred way that male comedians take for granted.

The great Turkish film that nobody saw

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s glacially paced, 2-hour-37-minute “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” sent throngs of critics sprinting for the exit when it screened at Cannes. It’s doubtful that audiences who are not paid to see movies will give it much of a chance (it was released in France this fall with little buzz, and has been picked up for limited US distribution next year).

That's their loss. Ceylan’s mournful, masterfully shot swoon of a film is framed as a police procedural – a doctor, a lawyer, a few cops, and two handcuffed killers spend 24 hours looking for a dead body in the Turkish countryside – but gradually blossoms into something deeper and more distinctive: a portrait of masculine discontent, and a rumination on regret, boredom and the passing of time. Sometimes good movies demand a little time and effort from viewers before bearing their rewards. This one is probably the best thing you did not see in 2011.

Ingénues show some grit

Meryl Streep and Glenn Close are racking up accolades for the Margaret Thatcher biopic “The Iron Lady” and the cross-dressing costume drama “Albert Nobbs”, but some of the most exciting work of the year was by fresh-faced, mostly untested younger actresses. Jessica Chastain burst on to the scene with a trio of luminous performances: as the idealised mother in Malick’s “Tree of Life”, a sultry social outcast in “The Help”, and the wife of Michael Shannon’s unraveling husband in “Take Shelter”. Another auspicious début came from Elizabeth Olsen (the younger sister of the tabloids’ favourite twins Mary-Kate and Ashley), who disappeared into her role as a young woman recently escaped from a cult in “Martha Marcy May Marlene”.

Equally impressive were two more familiar faces. Kirsten Dunst has been around for a while, but none of her mostly airy past roles could prepare us for the depth and sadness of her haunted bride in Von Trier’s “Melancholia”. And Keira Knightley playing a disturbed Russian patient torn between Jung and Freud in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” made for perhaps the most surprising turn of the year: intelligent, deeply felt and full of the kind of risk-taking we’d never seen from her – and that we hope to see more of.

Date created : 2011-12-09

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