Apparently I subconsciously decided to make June "Difficult Movie Month," because in my choices, whether on DVD/online or in the theater, the best results came from films that weren't exactly easy going down. Whether it was my second venture into the filmography of Andrei Tarkovsky, or checking out another confounding piece from the Michael Haneke factory of uncomfortable scenarios, June proved equal parts tough and rewarding in terms of movie-going. The best of the best?
Best Film (Theaters): The Tree of LifeNot only the best film of June, but also the best theatrical release I've seen in 2011 thus far. As I've said before, I'm no die-hard fan of Terrence Malick, but this time he really got to me, even if I didn't realize immediately. Gorgeous images aside (and they are gorgeous), Tree manages to tackle the grandness of the universe through the mind of one man's mind and memories. It works as a vision of creation, as an intimate look of family life, and most importantly as a coming-of-age story shaded with loss. Yes, it can be ponderous at times, but I think that comes from Malick's refusal to give out easy answers, despite the occasional piece of overly blunt voice over. I think Mick LaSalle summed up Malick's cosmic intimate epic best (I'm paraphrasing) by calling it a bag of diamonds with a few rocks mixed in.
Best Film (Rental/DVD): StalkerLaSalle's description also fits perfectly with Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, a film that is by turns mesmerizing and tedious (and sometimes both simultaneously). For a story that centers primarily on shots of men walking through grass, Tarkovsky and crew are able to create a surprisingly intense, hypnotic journey without relying on flashy visuals or sets. This is the sort of challenging, layered cinema that deserves to be re-visited multiple times.
Best Director: Terrence Malick - The Tree of LifeWhatever quibbles I've had with Malick in the past, his latest film was one instance when everything fit together. From the beautiful work from the cast, to the brilliant music choices, and the better-handled subjective nature shots, Tree is an example of Malick's tendencies at their best.
Best Male Performance: Ryan Gosling - Half NelsonThough he gets oddly bug-eyed for a brief moment, Gosling's breakthrough performance (which earned him an Oscar nomination) is a quiet tour-de-force. Every angle of Dan Dunn comes together fluidly in Gosling's portrayal. The result is a character who can be good, bad, smart, self-destructive, careless, and caring, all without feeling scatter shot. Quite the opposite; it's a thoroughly compelling piece of acting, and easily ranks among the best of 2006.
Best Female Performance: Isabelle Huppert - The Piano TeacherAnd speaking of compelling performances, I'd be daft to not use that term to describe Isabelle Huppert's work in Michael Haneke's 2002 film. As Erika, the sexually repressed piano teacher who tries to start a relationship with a student, Huppert turns in a knockout performance, one that capitalizes on her ability to mix deeply buried passions with a steely exterior. Simply incredible work.
Best Ensemble Cast: Midnight in ParisIt may border on overstuffed, but Woody Allen's latest charmer certainly shines in the casting department. Owen Wilson makes for a nice change of pace in the Allen-stand-in role, and his interactions with the supporting cast are a complete delight. Whether he's falling in love with Marion Cotillard's Adriana, conversing with Corey Stoll's Hemingway, or having a bizarre (and hilarious) encounter with Adrien Brody's Salvador Dali, Owen and the cast are one of the best things about one of Allen's best efforts in recent memory.
Best Screenplay: Tyrannosaur by Paddy ConsidineThough it has all of the ingredients necessary to devolve into misery porn, Paddy Considine's debut as a writer/director benefits from his generally strong script. While not a hugely eventful story, Considine keeps the plot moving with a tight focus on his central trio of characters. The end result, while not without its flaws, is a grounded and powerful look at the lives of two strangers crossing at a time of personal distress for both parties.
Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki - The Tree of LifeIf there was ever a time when I really had no choice, it was in this category. Even the harshest detractors of Malick's latest will have trouble denying the staggering beauty in Lubezki's images. Whether he's turning shots of volcanoes and empty landscapes into pre-historic vistas, or capturing the family life of the O'Briens, Lubezki's work here is a towering achievement, one that has a strong chance of remaining unmatched come year's end.