Thursday, December 08, 2011
Outposted here in the boondocks, I never complete my round-up of the best films of one year till the middle of the next, when they’ve all reached DVD, but lately I have been watching some films that are sure to figure in the conversation. Please note that I am now including a direct link for each film not only to Metacritic, for more description and a wider range of opinion, but also to Netflix, for immediate availability by DVD, or by streaming (as with the top three below).
Buck (2011, MC-76, NFX) will certainly count among the best documentaries of the year. Cindy Meehl’s profile of “Horse Whisperer” Buck Brannaman is unusually nuanced and surprisingly moving. Turns out that to know equines is to know humans, and Buck makes for an unlikely adept, a soft-voiced sage. Part of a brother duo of child performers with the lariat, he was abused by his father and eventually taken away into foster care after his mother died. Somehow that experience gave him empathy with other abused creatures and how to reach them. Now he is on the road for 300 days a year, giving clinics to horse owners, occasionally joined by his loving wife and teenage daughter. The one gaping omission in the film is what happened to his brother, but a revealing comparison of fates is supplanted by a dramatic confrontation with an unruly horse that even Buck finds hard to understand into docility. Interesting interviews and gorgeous Western scenery surround the inspiring encounters between man and horse.
The Trip (2011, MC-82, NFX), a collaboration between the prolific, protean, and provocative director Michael Winterbottom and comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden, will follow its predecessor, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, onto my best of the year list. Coogan and Bryden, friendly rivals or rivalrous friends, are thrown together on a commissioned tour of the lovely stone-fenced lanes of the Yorkshire Dales to review upscale restaurants, which serve art on a plate rather than anything recognizable as food. Their competitive impersonations of Michael Caine (and many others) or ABBA duets, over meals or in the car, are the peaks of a continuous back and forth improvised from their own established characters. As boiled down from a six-part BBC series, this Trip is one to take, both hilarious and touching in its ongoing clash of personae. Beside the comedy of antithetical personalities thrown into intimate contact, and the risible food, there are suggestive parallels developed in their visits to Coleridge and Wordsworth heritage sites. The film has as much to say, in its own Brit way, about “men of a certain age” as the American tv series of that name, or the movie Sideways. It’s enough to make you think while you laugh.
Bertrand Tavernier has had a long and generally interesting career, so good notices drew me to his latest, Princess of Montpensier (2011, MC-78, NFX). I warmed up immediately when I realized it was set in the era of Montaigne, subject of my favorite book of last year or many more, Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live. In fact, Lambert Wilson (who was head monk in Of Gods and Men) plays an intellectual nobleman much like Montaigne, in the age of the endless French wars of religion and succession in the late 16th century. He is one of four men attracted to the princess of the title, played by Melanie Thierry, including her husband (by arranged marriage), her persistent former lover (one of the Guise), and Duc d’Anjou (destined to be king). Bodices are ripped, to be sure, in this adaptation of a novel by Madame de Lafayette, and knaves are run through by galloping horsemen or deft swordsman, but much more is going on. It helps to have the excellent background offered by Bakewell on the power players of the age, to pick up for example on the brief cameo by Catherine de Médici. This period piece is intelligent and beautifully made in every detail.
You’d be well within your rights to wonder whether the world needs another movie adaptation of Jane Eyre (2011, MC-76, NFX), but the surprising answer is yes, because young actresses will rise to the challenge of one of the great literary heroines. Up to now Charlotte Gainsbourg had been my favorite (in Zefferelli’s otherwise unmemorable 1995 version), but Mia Wasikowska manages to come across as “small and plain, poor and obscure” as the best of them (what acting for such a beauty!). Michael Fassbender is not as threatening but every bit as imposing as Rochesters like Orson Welles of George C. Scott. Judi Dench fills in as Mrs. Fairfax, so you know you’re in a quality adaptation. Cary Fukunaga, a young American with only Sin Nombre to his credit, was a surprising choice to direct but does so more than credibly. All the sets and costumes, and the cinematography in endless shades of gray and blue, evoke the atmosphere of the Bronte classic. And for once the deleted scenes tell of a film that might have been and was wisely avoided, with most of the supernatural gothic elements left on the cutting room floor.
Two films that were released in the U.S. only after they were nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at last winter’s Academy Awards are now available on DVD. The Oscar went to the Danish film In a Better World (2011, MC-65, NFX). I’ve consistently liked director Susanne Bier’s films, and there was plenty to admire here, especially in the performances of the two ten-year-old boys at the center of the film. One is grieving the cancer death of his mother, and blaming his father for not saving her, and acting out his anger and despair in increasingly alarming ways. At a new school he makes friends with a sweet, dorkish boy, whose father really is working for a better world, though separating from his mother. We see the father working as a doctor in a clinic in the African desert, where he faces the moral conflict of treating the violent local warlord. Back in Denmark, he literally turns the other cheek to a bully, which the boys cannot abide, till their own scheme of revenge goes awry. It all turns out a little too predictably, but there is a lot of suspense, much of it genuinely ethical, along the way.
In a better world, the French Canadian entry Incendies (2011, MC-82, NFX) would have taken home the Oscar. Denis Villeneuve’s film follows thirtyish twins from Quebec, when their mother’s will sends them on dual quests back to her native country of Lebanon (or something like), and into the civil wars of its past, and her hitherto undisclosed role in them. The girl takes on her quest determinedly, while the boy dismisses his mother and her desires in every way. Most of the film flashes back and forth between two outstanding actresses who play the daughter and mother, with Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin traveling deeper into Lebanon and the past, while Lubna Azabal enacts the events being revealed. The film is almost unbearably tense and sad, as it unfolds the horrors of religious conflict, as much in the 20th century as the 16th, but is marred in the end by a theatrical development that reveals the story’s source in a play, in spite of the harsh reality so vividly depicted.