In 2011, every other filmmaker seemed in some way or another informed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (commonly known as the DSM), the standard diagnostic text of mental health professionals. This fascinating development in cinema might reflect changing attitudes toward mental health but could also potentially open up dialogue around these issues within our culture (an ideal role for cinema). Fittingly, one of the year’s best films, Lars von Trier’s latest masterpiece Melancholia, is also the one that follows this trend only to go above and beyond it. What distinguishes Melancholia from, say, Martha Marcy May Marlene, which explored post-traumatic stress disorder, is the way Trier transcends his subject. Rather than fit depression within a broader taxonomy, portraying it only as a deviation from the norm, Trier explores this mental condition obliquely and metaphorically, as an existential, even metaphysical condition. The paradox of psychology is exemplified in the DSM itself: from the inside, each individual comprehends his or her experience only in its uniqueness, the way it differs from everyone else’s, but from the outside, individuals are slotted into categories and expected to believe that they are just like countless others. This approach may be “scientific,” but it is also cynical and alienating, and diagnosing someone for depression is now simply a checklist exercise. Trier’s solution – to imagine depression in the form of a planet headed to destroy Earth – may seem grandiose, but it’s the precise sort of melodramatic twist that, in the end, redeems both art and psychology. Melancholia is the work of a great artist, refashioning personal suffering into timeless, sublime beauty, given form through Kirsten Dunst’s masterful and bewitching lead performance. Trier exaggerates this suffering not to garner pity but to make it real, holding it up as something no one can take away. And given that we live in a world where immeasurable pressure is placed upon individuals to remain happy, stay in line, and refrain from complaining, Trier’s film is also a form of political protest, embodying the courage to be unhappy for a change. - Trevor Link
I’m fairly certain that praise for Bennett Miller’s Moneyball is supposed to be structured around highlighting all the ways in which it is more than a baseball movie. I should focus on the wide applicability of getting more out of less in an economy that’s been bullied into submission by reckless fiscal bandits who’ve still received no comeuppance for their serial malfeasance, or I could note the widespread difficulty of pushing through innovative approaches in organizations that have atrophied in their outdated thinking. Certainly, I could just concentrate on highlighting the exceptional craftsmanship of the various key contributors to the film’s success: the crisp direction by Miller, the smart script credited to Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (but really smacking of Sorkin’s way with cerebral banter and language games built on witty redundancy), the terrific lead performance by Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane. There are plentiful ways to celebrate this film with nary a mention of the professional sport at its core.
The thing is, though, I think the film’s dedication to be firmly, intensely, unapologetically about baseball is what makes it so winning. The intense specificity it brings to the subject (surely helped immensely by the reporting in its source, the Michael Lewis book of the same name from 2003) is delivered with an admirable confidence in the audience. Some of the more arcane material is briskly but carefully explained, but, for the most part, Miller favors a presentation of the information more akin to how it would come up naturally in the offices of a Major League team and trusts that viewers will keep up. It’s that immersion in the details of the baseball world that gives the film its resounding authenticity, and, by extension, its universal qualities. It’s by being about the stats and players and positions and winning streaks and shifting standings that Moneyball manages to be about so much more.- Dan Seeger
Shame is a film that will be quietly talked about for years to come. With countless sexual taboos yet to be dissolved, director Steve McQueen’s beautifully uncompromising second film Shame tastefully uncovers rough terrain in this map of cultural fog. We follow intensely as an attractive Manhattan new world business shark named Brandon (Michael Fassbender) stalks around his office, his expensively dank high-rise apartment, his subway route and his late night haunts. This includes his laptop but also outdoor urban hideaways where if one had loud sex, they could without being interrupted.
This delicate feature is not so much a visual study of addiction to sex or even existential unrest despite privilege, but rather more importantly, it is a creative statement about alternative sexuality. While Brandon struggles physically and mentally in some sexual situations, he is comfortable and successful in others. Though with hardly a humorous moment to spare, like Mary Harron’s take on American Psycho in 2000, McQueen’s story makes sharp cinematic incisions into sexual frustration and upper class, sometimes too, when these things conflate. In terms of themes and style, Shame shares some of the same challenges that characters of American Psycho undergo but without the comic delivery or parodic intention. While American Psycho made a moral judgment on social avarice and professional pointlessness, Shame draws a dotted line of empathy to questionably acceptable forms of eroticism in the age of the internet. With Brandon’s sexual experience we feel the claustrophobic unrealness of one’s relationship to the self. It conures ideas from Kafka’s Metamorphosis about repulsion, sympathy and fear with regard to becoming prisoner of the mind. Shame is not to be missed. - Sky Madden
Imagine the creation of the universe. The inception of the world plied together from fragments of space dust. Oceans form, the ground shifts and erodes. Mountain appears as magma courses from the planet’s center and scars the land. Then life begins. If there is a God, was it him who touched the oceans and gave them the beginnings of life? Did he drive the gilled creatures out of the water and onto the land, willing them to grow lungs and evolve? Does God have the wrathful hand of the father or the tender touch of the mother? Somehow in that throbbing morass of nascent life, these creatures begin to feel compassion. An order of sorts develops.
Imagine a family. Imagine your childhood and the dulcet tones of your mother’s voice, comforting you when get a splinter or the hard line of your father’s hand on the back of your neck when you step out of line. Did you ever wish him dead? Did you ever imagine that someday you would become the father or the mother, watching over children as you see the curtains billow, feel the texture of the cold grass beneath feet or pick up that lost, familiar smell of home that you catch and then forget again as you try to make it back there.
Do we all meet again when we die? Do we return to the sea like our ancestors, not our parents but those brave creatures that took those tentative first steps on the land? If we just open our eyes and see the poetry all around us, the feelings of wonder, terror, love, fear, sadness, excitement and marvel, we can realize that our life is just as exciting as a movie. And in that darkness, a movie can be its own universe and our own universe at the same time. - David Harris
The masterful capper to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Primitive project, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives extrapolates from the narrative content of A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and the playful thematic and meta-cinematic suggestions of Phantoms of Nabua. Joe’s rumination on death and rebirth starts with the personal, the titular uncle slowly fading as he contemplates his lives. Then it pulls back into the political, showing the war-torn region of northeastern Thailand being constantly torn apart and rebuilt. Finally, it settles upon cinema itself, the tour of Boonmee’s past iterations doubling as a smorgasbord of the history of Thai film, from costumed melodrama to a verité, documentary-like foray into caves.
Joe privileges each textual level with the same level of care and grace, and even surreal additions like catfish sex and monkey ghosts deepen not only the metaphorical significance of the film but its emotional richness as well. All of it fits together in the director’s mystical yet tactile visual poetry, a style that freely drifts to follow whatever catches the camera’s eye and generates a pulsating, hypnotic beauty that makes dense, surrounding rainforests as enticing as they are threatening. And when the film at last reveals itself fully as an elegy for traditional film as much for Thailand or Uncle Boonmee, it becomes the Buddhist rite to Inglourious Basterds‘ Viking funeral pyre. Joe even makes room for the rebirth with a characteristically beguiling coda that cautiously but optimistically looks forward to the next cycle with digital. It may not be as pretty as what came before, but every incarnation offers new possibilities that make each life an adventure worth living. - Jake Cole
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