|Winnie the Pooh, the only film I really regret not seeing yet, mostly for nostalgia reasons.|
If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you know that I consider February the beginning of the film year since a lot of the prestige December releases make their way to Toronto a couple of weeks late. So, hitting my release schedule’s halfway mark, let’s take a look at what’s been and gone so far.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve only seen one of the top ten films at the box office, that being X-Men: First Class which sits on the 10th spot. I say unsurprising because 1) I knew almost exactly which ten films would be in this top ten and 2) I have no desire to see sequels to films I hated the first time around and there’s no shortage of those sequels on this list (Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, Hangover, Fast Five). Harry Potter is still calling me from the multiplex but I’ve been too busy with other stuff recently.
Putting all this behind, let’s get to the movies that I did watch. Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s long awaited new film was released (my review here) and was definitely the most talked about film of the year. It won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival and from cinephiles to theologians, everyone’s been talking about it. Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s not-long-awaited new feature proved to be a surprising delight and was warmly received by critics and audiences alike. It also broke all of Woody’s box office records (not adjusted for inflation) and is still going pretty strong. I enjoyed it very much; I thought it was really funny and the bit players from Paris’ golden age were fantastic. But I don’t think it lives up to the standard Mr. Allen set for himself in the 70s. Then again, he hasn’t made a film that good since Bullets over Broadway, so I’m pretty content. Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig’s vehicle, was also an unexpected hit at the box office and has also convinced some pundits that it might not leave Oscar nomination morning empty-handed. I thought it was funny enough to justify its ticket sales and Wiig definitely deserves more lead roles, but I’d be surprised if it was recognized anywhere outside the Globes’ comedy categories.
While I did like all three of these films to different degrees – particularly Tree of Life, which is a unique experience and I can’t wait to dive into one more time – for my money, the year has so far produced only two truly great films. There really has to be a miracle for these two films to miss out on my Top Dozen Favourites List at the end of year. The first one is Project NIM, the new documentary from the man behind the Oscar-winning Man on Wire, and the second one is a festival leftover from last year, Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men.
Project NIM is about an experiment performed in the 70s on a chimpanzee called NIM to analyze whether it was possible to actually teach the species to communicate in sentences. James Marsh’s approach to the story is completely impartial. He gets all the people involved in the experiment to sit there and talk for themselves and in there he finds the most poignant and heartbreaking story I’ve seen in a long, long time. Using a combination of archival footage, old photographs and new interviews, we live NIM’s life with him through 26 years, most of which was spent under the cruelty and abuse of humans. As the film goes, we shift our opinion on all the parties involved. It’s sometimes hard to tell who actually cares about NIM and who doesn’t, but the only thing that’s for certain is that intentionally or otherwise, they all hurt him somehow. But painstaking as it may be to watch the extent of their arrogance (and ignorance), Project NIM is superbly cut and its intimate moments are so electrifying that they make for a well-paced and fascinating film.
Equally exquisite is Beauvois’ film about a group of Christian monks who live their lives in peace with Muslim villagers in Algeria in the midst of a civil war. Of Gods and Men isn’t the first film that makes me scratch my head over the excruciating Uncle Boonmee’s win at Cannes 2010, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to enjoy it this much. You may think that a film about old monks is going to be a slow-moving drag and I won’t blame you, but in Beauvois’ hands, this deliberately paced film becomes a compelling study of human relations and an intense close-up of the fragile situation under which these men lived. Of Gods and Men takes its time to grow on the audience with a really patient approach, but it all culminates in a captivating finale. And while there are quite a few people who took issue with the Last Supper reincarnation in the film, I found those Tchaikovsky-laced minutes to be the film’s most mesmerizing sequence. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the entire cast of this film winning Cannes’ best actor prize either, given their harmonic work as an ensemble and their impressive individual characterizations.
Anyway, I don’t want to make category-type lists at this point in the year, but if I were to highlight the greatest achievements so far, here’s what I’d have to point to:
Of Gods and Men
Runner-up: Tree of Life
Runner-up: Xavier Beauvois
Of Gods and Men
Runner-up: Midnight in Paris
Paul Giamatti (Win Win)
Elio Germano (La Nostra Vita)
Javier Bardem (Biutiful)
Runners-up: Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre)
Emmanuel Lubezki (Tree of Life, Cinematography)
Peter Zeitlinger (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Cinematography)
Will Hughes-Jones, Tina Jones (Jane Eyre, Production Design)
Adriano Goldman (Jane Eyre, Cinematography)
Mark McCreery, John Bell(Rango, Production Design)
*I only mention Cinematography, Editing and Art Direction in my “awards” at the end of the year – these are the only technical categories I think I can understand enough to make comments on, as opposed to say, music – so I’m sticking with that here as well. But Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ soundtrack, Tree of Life’s VFX and Jane Eyre’s Costume Design are all noteworthy works.