Monday, January 2, 2012

The Month in Review: December 2011

Best Film (Theaters): Shame
First impressions can be lasting, but that doesn't make them permanent. Such is the case with director Steve McQueen, whose second film managed to floor me despite my general distaste for Hunger, his 2008 debut. McQueen's direction, filled with strong music choices (and Harry Escott's excellent score) is elegant and powerful as he traces a sex addict (Michael Fassbender) whose life predictably but compellingly becomes a hollow vacuum. Boasting stellar performances from Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, Shame's point may seem rather an obvious one, but the overall execution is so unblinking and mature that it's hard to count that as a stroke against it. A slow-building, yet ultimately visceral work that stands as one of 2011's best.

Best Film (DVD/Streaming): Brick
Teenage noir is a concept that could have backfired horribly, yet Rian Johnson's film is actually quite the achievement. From the hard-boiled detective (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to the femme fatale (Nora Zehetner), Brick transfers the tropes of noir to a California high school setting with such skill that the style rarely, if ever, feels inappropriate. Populated with memorable characters, understated dialogue, and a quiet sense of menace that cuts through the sunny setting, Johnson's film functions perfectly as a tribute to noir, and as a legitimate (albeit modern) incarnation of the genre.

Best Direction: Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
Making a silent movie in this day an age must have been quite the project to pitch. Let's be grateful then, for two things: that someone had enough faith in it to finance it, and that Mr. Hazanavicius was the man at the helm. Though the film rests on Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo's capable shoulders, Hazanavicius is the reason behind The Artist's success. His ability to - with his collaborators - create the look and feel of silent films without feeling detrimentally old-fashioned is a marvel.

Best Male Performance : Michael Fassbender - Shame
Like Jessica Chastain, Michael Fassbender has had one hell of a year. But where Chastain's breakout was out of nowhere, Fassbender's year has simply been a rise to a new level of recognition. And in Shame, he delivers one of the best performances of the year. Brandon doesn't talk too much, but Fassbender is captivating all the same. The looks he gives exude a sheer magnitude, whether he's silently coming onto a woman on the subway or watching his sister sing, transported to memories of pain that the movie never spells out. To put it simply, the man's a force to be reckoned with, and in a year where either Clooney or Pitt seem poised for Oscar gold, it's Fassbender (along with Michael Shannon) who ought to be dominating the category.

Best Female Performance: Jeong-Hie Yun - Poetry
There really aren't enough good roles for older women, which is why we should be thankful that Chang-dong Lee decided to write and direct Poetry, as it affords us a chance to see further evidence that there's plenty to be done with stories centered on older female protagonists. As Mija, an elderly woman who discovers an ugly secret while attending a poetry class, Jeong-Hie Yun delivers a first rate performance. To watch her shyness, her curiosity, her anger, and her sadness at a world that is quickly leaving her behind is a quite marvel that makes Lee's somewhat overlong film worth sticking with.

Best Screenplay: Brick by Rian Johnson
There's more than dialogue in a screenplay, but in a work like Brick, dialogue is one of the keys to establishing the tone. Though it does - only in brief moments - become a bit too hard boiled for its own good, Johnson's translation of detective and noir-style dialogue to a high school setting is quite the success. Cynical, detached, and very fast, Johnson keeps the pieces of his chessboard in constant motion, creating a dark and sinister world just under the California sun. The characters may be in high school, but the consequences couldn't be more adult.

Best Ensemble Cast: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Characters are not necessarily the strong point of Stieg Larrson's crime novels, but thankfully David Fincher's cast (along with Steven Zaillian's script) has made them compelling and convincing. Daniel Craig makes an intriguing and watchable Blomqvist, and Rooney Mara's fierce yet occasionally vulnerable take on Lisbeth Salander is compelling from her first appearance. Other roles, previously not worth a mention in the Swedish films, are also brought to life with great skill. Despite relatively little time (or depth), the roles filled out by Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgaard, Joely Richardson, Robin Wright, and Geraldine James actually feel distinctive and have a sense of life to them, despite the coldness of the story and the even colder Scandinavian setting.

Best Cinematography: Jeff Cronenweth - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
If we've come to the point where even Terrence Malick is working with digital cameras, then obviously digital's capabilities have advanced far enough to make a convincing replacement for analog film. The problem is to know how to work with the differences, or else everything ends up looking washed out and robbed of the richness that film (at its height) affords. Some films,Mysteries of Lisbon for example, get it wrong, and certain scenes, as mentioned, feel completely drained of color, leaving nothing but an ugly pale yellow/white tint on the screen. Jeff Cronenweth, on the other hand, seems to know what the hell he's doing, as evidenced by last year's The Social Network, and now by his follow-up collaboration with David Fincher. Cronenweth's lighting is rich, offsetting the tendency of digital to desaturate skin tones. Like many a Fincher film, shades of murky green play a prominent role, and Cronenweth captures them beautifully. One shot in particular, lasting no more than a second, demonstrates the height of the DP's work. It happens in the main flashback, as Henrik Vanger tells Blomqvist of the day his niece Harriet vanished. During a search party scene we look out from within a shed in a field. It's likely not a moment that most will remember on its own, but as image, it's beautifully rendered, and it's just one of many.

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