Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Best of 2011, number 1: Aurora

Posted By on 12.27.11 at 10:08 AM

Aurora.jpg
Throughout December, J.R. Jones and I will take turns writing about our favorite films that had their Chicago premieres this year.

Cristi Puiu’s masterpiece does something unprecedented: without ever deceiving the audience, Aurora shows everything in exacting detail but explains nothing. At the end of the sold-out screening I attended in March (as part of the Siskel Center’s EU Film Festival), dozens of people complained about how boring they thought the film was, yet none of them had walked out on it. They had been transfixed.

Puiu is one of the most impeccable realists in movies. Every bit of professional activity in his films seems the product of extensive research, and his steel-eyed long takes are hypnotic. Everything in Aurora seems to be a clue—but for what? When the blank-faced Viorel (Puiu himself, in an eerily controlled, near-autistic performance) “explains” himself to the police in the movie's final minutes, he mostly recounts the facts of what we’ve already seen. Only one sentence betrays any emotional investment: “When you divorce somebody, you don’t just split up with one person...” With these few words, Puiu suggests another, deeply sorrowful film that had been hidden in plain sight for almost three hours: it’s one of the many movies that may take shape in your mind in the weeks, or years, after you see it.

This is a formalist breakthrough and a pertinent film as well. In the Internet age we run a great risk of confusing information with knowledge, of accumulating facts without synthesizing them into a workable system of ethics. Puiu makes this crisis the foundation of Aurora, saturating the audience with information but denying them any emotional connection to what they see. In doing so, he articulates like few other artists—bitterly, ironically, passionately—what our present culture stands to lose.

***

So many extraordinary movies premiered in Chicago this year that I had trouble limiting my favorites to just ten. Beneath the recap of titles I’ve written about in the past month, you’ll find the list continues—in a lesser year, any of them would have made it into my top ten.

1. Aurora (Cristi Puiu, 2010)
2. Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, 2007)
3. Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard, 2010)
4. Goodbye, First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2011)
5. Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, 2010)
6. The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira, 2010)
7. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark, 2010)
8. Target (Alexander Zeldovich, 2011)
9. 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, 2010)
10. And Everything Is Going Fine (Steven Soderbergh, 2010)

11. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, 2011), my vote for the year's best old-school Hollywood film
12. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011), a contentious but undeniably spiritual work; I considered it here
13. The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, 2011)
14. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, 2010)
15. The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar, 2011), Almodovar's angriest film since the early 90s, an allegory about the mutability of identity and the artist's unhealthy relationship to his own work; it also had Antonio Banderas's best performance since Femme Fatale
16. Restoration (Joseph Madmony, 2011), a reminder that Israeli cinema is often the most grown-up in the world
17. Another Year (Mike Leigh, 2010), a reminder that Mike Leigh is often the most grown-up filmmaker in the world
18. Ne Change Rien (Pedro Costa, 2009)
19. Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, 2011); I suspect we'll be hearing a lot more next year about Naranjo's breakthrough, some of the most immersive North American filmmaking since There Will Be Blood, when Fox gives the film a proper release; I noted some first impressions here
20. The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr & Agnes Hranitzky, 2011)

It seems worth mentioning that I saw six of these titles (First Love, Target, Breaking My Heart, Anatolia, Miss Bala, and Turin Horse) at the Chicago International Film Festival, making this year’s lineup the strongest I’ve encountered since I started attending in 2005. Looking at just these six, I’m astonished by what a range of filmmaking styles and personal perspectives they cover. Each one provided me with confidence about the cinema’s continuing evolution as an art, and I hope to revisit all of them on the big screen in 2012.

I should also make special mention of another four movies that I caught up with in the past month. If I’d had more time to digest them, I suspect they would have been in my top 20, if not (in the cases of The Color Wheel and Margaret) my top five:

The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry, 2011), an emotionally unsettling comedy whose razor-sharp dialogue would likely make Elaine May proud
The Last Circus (Alex de la Iglesia, 2010)
Letters from the Big Man (Christopher Munch, 2011)
Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2005-11)

...and because the Internet allows for unlimited text space, here’s another twelve Chicago premieres from 2011 that I’d gladly watch again if you asked me to (in alphabetical order):

The Double Hour (Giuseppe Capotondi, 2009)
Disorder (Huang Weikai, 2009), the rare political documentary that's also a great piece of avant-garde video art
Hesher (Spencer Susser, 2010), a successful transplant of a very Australian sense of humor (down to the deliberately bare widescreen frames) to a distinctly American setting, namely Californian suburban hell; Andrea Gronvall categorized this as a "corrosive domestic drama," which does a good job at conveying what deep-set emotional pain Susser was daring to make light of; it's worth noting the deeply committed performances of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rainn Wilson, Natalie Portman, and Piper Laurie—as impressive an ensemble as that of Another Year or Margaret
Lowlands (Peter Thompson, 2009), the year's best premiere by a Chicago filmmaker; as a bonus, it was preceded by Thompson's masterful short Universal Hotel (1986), which is always a welcome big-screen revival
Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010), an awful attempt at Western storytelling but an extraordinary film-poem
Monte Carlo (Thomas Bezucha, 2011)
Norberto’s Deadline (Daniel Hendler, 2010), another entry in the quirky and bittersweet comedy genre that the Uruguayan cinema seems to have mastered in the past decade; it's a shame these movies aren't feted in the US on the same level as the Romanian and South Korean new waves
Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman, 2010)
Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story (Yousry Nasrallah, 2009)
Spy Kids: All the Time in the World (Robert Rodriguez, 2011)
The Sleeping Beauty (Catherine Breillat, 2010)
A Useful Life (Federico Veiroj, 2010), the other great Uruguayan comedy to play Chicago this year

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