Tag Archives: Lars von Trier

Best Films of 2011

Perhaps I’m biased (see my #1 pick and they entire month of May in my blog archive), but 2011 was a banner year for cinema. The Tree of Life is one thing, but there was a lot more going on this year to make a cinephile like me excited. There was a lot of artful doomsday (Melancholia, Take Shelter, Tree of Life, Another Earth), some great homages to early, classic and Spielbergian cinema (Hugo, The Artist, War Horse, Super 8), and some truly exceptional films about faith (Of Gods and Men, Higher Ground, The Way, The Mill & the Cross, Tree of Life). There was so much good cinema that my “best of” list actually includes three different top tens: the best 10, the second best 10, and then 10 honorable mentions. Many of them are available now on Netflix Instant, while a few of them have yet to release in most parts of the country. However you can, I hope you get a chance to see them!

10) Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene (T. Sean Durkin): An astonishing, accomplished debut from director T. Sean Durkin, Martha gives the audience more respect than any other film this year. There are a lot of gaps we, the audience, must fill in. But far from a head-scratching frustration, this subtle insinuation and refusal to spoon-feed is one the film’s most thrilling qualities.

9) We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay): By far the scariest film of the year. Not jump-in-your-seat type scary, but horribly unsettling dread and tension scary. Tilda Swinton plays a mother in a worst-nightmare-for-any-parent scenario, as she deals with an evil teenage son, Kevin, who commits a massacre at his high school. But the scariest parts of the film are the things we don’t see and the questions that go unanswered: where does the evil of a kid like Kevin come from? What do parents do wrong to lead to this?

8) Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt): One of the most original and haunting westerns I’ve ever seen. Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist, observational style (see Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy) is perfectly suited to this period costume drama set in the 1840s on the Oregon Trail. And Michelle Williams is mesmerizing as the centerpiece heroine. Like Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, this film is intentionally ambiguous and invites the interpretations of an active audience, which is something I always applaud.

7) Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols): A jittery, tense, unsettled film for the unsettled world in which we live, Take Shelter is about the fears and anxieties of a modern-day working class man who simply wants to protect his wife and daughter from all manner of peril. Featuring stunning performances by Michael Shannon as a good-at-heart man (possibly) losing his mind and Jessica Chastain as his longsuffering wife, Shelter builds and builds to a finale that will leave you speechless.

6) The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius): One would have reason to approach this film skeptically. A silent film? Really? But what at first glance appears to just be a stunt or gimmick is quickly found to be something remarkably beautiful, charming, nostalgic and yet new. It’s an homage to Hollywood, to storytelling within the bounds of technological limitations; but it’s also about pride, love, adaptation, and the fickleness of fame. Go see it. You won’t find a more pleasant surprise at the movies this year.

5) Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami): Certified Copy is essentially Before Sunset in Italy, which is good because Sunset is one of my all time favorite films. Filmed in glorious Tuscany, featuring the sublime Juliette Binoche, and riffing on notions of originality, inspiration, and cinema itself, Copy is a wonderfully complex modernist experiment in the style of Alain Resnais, and yet it flows breezily and romantically, never too pushy with its philosophical or theoretical notions. Academics should watch this film and take note: academic inquiry doesn’t have to be convoluted, dry and inert. It can be as simple and beautiful as walking and talking in lovely Italian sunlight.

4) Poetry (Lee Chang-dong): It’s a tragedy that only about 30 people saw this masterpiece when it opened in theaters early in 2011. From the masterful Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine), Poetry is a film befitting its title if ever a film was. It’s about poetry literally, in that the protagonist–an elderly woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease (Jeong-hie Yun)–is taking poetry classes; but the film itself is poetry: a delicate, quietly observant film that is unsentimental and yet profoundly moving, especially after it’s sat with you for a bit.

3) Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois): A true story about monks in North Africa who risk it all in pursuit of their mission, Gods is one of the most inspiring films about faith, sacrifice, and community that I’ve ever seen. A quiet, austere, but utterly transcendent film, Gods paints a picture of what it means to be faithfully present as Christ’s ambassadors in a world that is beautiful, dynamic, and frequently hostile. At once entirely timely (it deals with terrorism and Christian-Muslim relations) and timeless, Gods is a film I’ll come back to in years to come–for inspiration, encouragement, and instruction for my own journey of faith.

2) Melancholia (Lars von Trier): Though often, and rightly, contrasted with Tree of Life (both films juxtapose the cosmic and intimate, and depict earth’s demise), Melancholia stands on its own two feet as one of the year’s most masterful films. More than just the antithesis of Tree of Life, Lars von Trier’s gorgeous apocalyptic vision contains some of the most striking imagery and sequences you’ll see this year. It may be bleak, nihilistic, and (insert depressing synonym here), but Melancholia is above all authentic. It’s Lars von Trier speaking his auteurist mind and bombarding us with sound (Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde), image (a planet colliding with earth, Kirsten Dunst unhappy in a wedding dress), and mood (sadness, dread) to astonishingly powerful effect.

1) The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick): What can I say about this film that I haven’t already said? It met and exceeded all my expectations and instantly took a place on my list of all time favorites. Critics are right to be universally heralding this as the best film of 2011. It’s one of the best films of all time. It’s a film with the kind of scope, ambition and excellence that we just don’t see anymore. It’s a film that goes after big questions (the biggest) and attempts to be all-encompassing (God, life, death, sin, redemption, creation, apocalypse, everything else in between), but does so as much or more through the inherent strengths of the cinematic form as through traditional narrative exposition. It’s a film that shows us the world in a grain of sand, so to speak. It blows open the possibilities of the medium, or rather–at times–perfects the medium to such an extent that it looks foreign to us, like something altogether new. Malick achieves something with Life that can rarely be claimed by a filmmaker or artist of any kind: He’s given us something that we’ve truly never seen before, and yet something that will undoubtedly endure.

The Next Ten: 11) Hugo 12) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives 13) Midnight in Paris 14) The Way 15) The Descendants 16) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy 17) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo 18) Bellflower 19) Another Earth 20) Warrior

Honorable Mention: Coriolanus, The Mill and the Cross, Contagion, Moneyball, The Trip, Hanna, Drive, War Horse, Higher Ground, Margin Call

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Melancholia

Some time soon I would like to host a double feature screening of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Both of these 2011 films are experimental, ambitious, sprawling epics by respected auteurs; both juxtapose the cosmic and the intimate; both depict the destruction of Earth, to the lush cacophonies of Germanic classic music; both debuted at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, mere days before Harold Camping predicted a real-life end of the world.

But as similar as the two films are in some ways, they also offer strikingly contrasting visions of what it means to exist in the world. Melancholia, like Tree of Life, vividly depicts man’s flawed, sinful nature and his temporal smallness in the grand scheme of things. But whereas Life offers a hopeful portrait of human potential for redemption and hints at the existence of a meaningful, grace-filled telos in the world, Melancholia offers a bleak, bereft-of-hope portrait of humanity as irredeemably self-destructive and helpless, at best deluded by idealized notions of love and purpose.

The latest film from Danish provocateur Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dogville), Melancholia opens with a stunning overture, to the music of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, depicting the cataclysmic collision of Earth and a fictitious planet named Melancholia. This sequence, which includes gorgeous slow-mo shots and painterly tableauxs, “gives away” the ending from the outset: the Earth will die, and everything in it. Our foreknowledge of this impending apocalypse colors our perceptions of the family drama that follows—which concerns sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst), Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and their extended dysfunctional family. The juxtaposition of the ridiculous, petty shenanigans of the family and the reality that everything is about to end serves as the film’s central conceit, and it works brilliantly.

(Read the rest of this review at Relevant‘s website)

Debussy, Debauchery and Dieu (A Weekend in Paris)

The weather was very temperamental in Paris today. It was beautiful, sunny and about 70 one minute, then dark clouds, cold winds and rain the next. I guess that’s June in Paris. It’s a study in contrasts.

My whole weekend in Paris has been that way. It’s been really beautiful and great one minute and really dark and ugly the next. Actually, this is an overstatement. It’s been mostly very good. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful museums, ate tons of good food (Macarons! Chocolates! Crepes!), and happened to be where the Obama family was on three separate occasions (Notre Dame Cathedral, a shop in the Latin Quarter where Michelle and the girls were, and on a bridge over the Seine when the Obama motorcade drove past).

Other highlights thus far have included wandering the streets aimlessly (Paris is great for finding undiscovered little non-touristy used bookshops and such), drinking buckets of café (espresso), and attending Mass Saturday night in the beautiful Notre Dame cathedral and church this morning at Hillsong Paris—an evangelical church in Southeast Paris. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing quite like sharing communion with Christians in churches throughout the world and singing worship songs in other languages. If the only thing all my travels have left me with is a broader, fuller picture of the worldwide body of Christ, then it has all certainly been worth it.

But there have been low points on my trip—mainly here at the end, in Paris. Here’s the scene from last night: I’m staying at a hostel in Paris, and it’s a very lively, party-type hostel for twentysomething backpackers from all over the world. This is always a risky situation for people who tend to be the quieter, not-partier sort. But until last night, things were going well. I had made friends with some of my roommates: some Aussie university students from Melbourne, a Texan soldier on leave from Iraq, a guy from Berlin, a girl from Rome (originally Ethiopia). We played cards late into the night, etc. Good times. Well, last night things in our room got thoroughly debauched. I was asleep (or trying to sleep, in that “please just let me sleep through this” sort of way) when the partiers (i.e. pretty much everyone in the hostel but me) starting filtering in, around 4am, drunk and with random hook-ups in tow. There was a lot of scurrying around and bed swapping among these kids, and before long the bunk apparatus on which I was sleeping began to shake in a decidedly risqué, thrusting, rhythmic cadence. You guessed it: the bunk below me was doubling as an hourly-rate cheap motel. And then minutes later, more shaking and muffled moans from the bunk to my immediate right! It was happening all around me. I was surrounded by sex just feet from where I was huddled under my sheets, trying to sleep. I felt so very violated.

This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced this at a hostel (there was another instance of bunk-shaking shenanigans with some drunk Serbians in London 3 years ago), but it was especially disturbing last night because these guys were people I’d gotten to know a little bit and I thought were a bit more principled than to pick up random people at bars on a Saturday night in Paris and have their way in a hostel room with them at 4am! While I was trying to mind my own sleeping business!

So that was one dark spot. The other one came this afternoon. I thought I would take a break from walking around the city (I’ve probably walked 10 miles a day at least) and take in a movie. After all, this is Paris. It’s probably the third most important city in movie history. So I bought a ticket in the Latin Quarter to see Lars von Trier’s new film, Antichrist, which will not be released in the U.S. until, well I don’t even know if it will be released. I guess I should have known from the title, but the film was utterly depraved and, in a word, evil. I walked out before it was over. For me, that’s saying something. I have been a fan of von Trier for a while (Breaking the Waves, Dogville, Dancer in the Dark… beautiful films), and I know that what he’s doing is simply being provocative and envelope-pushing, but there’s only so much of that that I can take. I couldn’t take this film. It depressed me, disturbed me, and left me wanting to go back in time to fifth grade, eating nachos at a high school football game with my Dad… back when things were simple and a lot more innocent.

But things got brighter quickly as I exited the theater, put on my iPod and found a place to get a dinner crepe. As I was walking around the Left Banke, taking more pictures and enjoying the fickle late-afternoon weather, I was thinking about darkness and light and how most everything has a little of both. A city as beautiful as Paris has both beauty and depravity at nearly every turn. In one corner of the city there are people worshipping God on a Sunday morning. In other corners there are students waking up hungover in some random guy’s hostel bed. On a bridge over the river Seine, a motorcade of dozens of cars and SUVs carries the President, First Lady, and their entourage. Under that same bridge there are homeless people sleeping on ragged, urine-scented blankets as wine tasting boat tours float by on the river.

The world is messy, complicated, beautiful, fallen. Paris is just a microcosm.

Being in this city, you can’t help but think. It’s a thinking city. This is the place where John Calvin went to school (le Sorbonne), where Descartes is buried, where so many philosophies and art movements and religious ideas were first thought up. And as this is the end of my trip, I’ve done a lot of thinking. I have had so many thoughts over the past few weeks, it’s almost unmanageable to process through them now. But I’ve been thinking—and today’s events got me thinking even more.

I’ve been thinking about the appearance of being Christian (and writing about this, for my book). What does this look like? How should we appear to be different? In a city like Paris where everything you do is seen (on the crowded Metro, in the jam-packed Louvre, in the all-too-public hostel room) this becomes a constant question.

I’ve also been thinking about death. I know: DOWNER! But in Paris I’ve seen a lot of graves. I’ve been reading about the Air France crash. Yesterday I made a little pilgrimage to the grave of composer Claude Debussy, buried in the Cimetiere de Passy. As I stood by his grave (listening to “Clair de Lune” on my iPod, of course!) I thought about all the life he lived and the passion that must have gone into his music and art. The joys and heartbreak; the toil, the stress, the reward of hearing the music performed by an orchestra. Did it matter at all now? To him, I mean? What would he think of me—some maudlin American tourist with backpack and map in tow—standing above his lifeless remains, listening to his music on some newfangled audio device?

I don’t know. All I know is that I left that cemetery, and I will leave Paris tomorrow and Europe Tuesday, with a newfound motivation to live a good, right, respectable life. I want to honor God with what I do and who I am, and I want to avoid being corrupted and stained and sidetracked by the things of the world. But I do want to continue drinking coffee and eating French desserts.