by Tony Dayoub
Here are some art films (at least aspirationally in the case of Anonymous) and indies I saw in 2011. These end of year lists are growing stale pretty quickly, so let's get down to it.
Owing more to Seven Samurai than you might initially expect, 13 Assassins is an exceedingly well-executed action film with enough grisly touches from director Takashi Miike (Audition) to distinguish the movie from Akira Kurosawa's classic. Assassins' first hour is essentially all set-up and exposition, introducing a panoply of noble warriors itching to prove their mettle in an era of peace. They get their excuse in the acts of sadism committed by Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki)—a dishonorable warrior inches from joining the Shogunate through nepotism. One of Naritsugu's discarded playthings, a peasant girl whose limbs were severed and tongue cut out (a disturbing image) after he massacred her village, inspires the experienced leader Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho) to gather a dozen samurai to stop the megalomaniac. Along their journey to stop Naritsugu, the band of soldiers find their thirteenth assassin, Koyata Kiga (Yûsuke Iseya), a fool reminiscent of Toshiro Mifune's Kikuchiyo from Seven Samurai. Though its almost unwieldy cast of characters and the details of their plan can both be quite confusing, the second hour, an extended climax in which the 13 take on Naritsugu and his 200 bodyguards, is informed by all of the exposition Miike skillfully doled out to unaware viewers in the first act. And the mystery surrounding Kiga—whose purpose only solely seems to be comic relief—pays off in a quite unexpected way in the film's epilogue. 13 Assassins is a surprisingly satisfying and clever art house action entry.
Anonymous, is frustratingly clever also, if not exactly factual in its account of the true identity of the English language's most esteemed playwright, Shakespeare. Roland Emmerich's movie claims the wordsmith was really Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the 17th Earl of Oxford, who uses talentless actor Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) as his front. Vocal English Lit majors have a major problem with that theory. But one cannot deny the film's exuberant go at justifying its claim, a convoluted conspiracy theory that involves multiple instances of incest borne out of the necessity of protecting the virginal reputation of Queen Elizabeth I. The queen is played with plenty of gusto by both Vanessa Redgrave and daughter Joely Richardson (in flashback). Ifans exhibits a vitality rarely in evidence anywhere else in the multitude of character parts he's played previously. All of the performances, the cinematography and the production design elements are Oscar-caliber. It's as if nobody had the heart to tell Emmerich (The Patriot) he was making a bad movie. Which is to say, accurate or not, who cares? Anonymous is one of the most diverting historical fiction tales I've seen in a while.
What's so cinematic about a nearly 2-hour conversation about art, life and relationships between a man (William Shimell) and a woman (Juliette Binoche) as they wander through the Italian countryside? Abbas Kiarostami proves in scene after scene of Certified Copy that an interesting conversation and two principal actors need not strictly be a stagebound exercise. Using simple cinematic conventions, Kiarostami prods the viewer to change his perspective on the very identities of the two protagonists not once but fairly often. Sometimes the assumption is that the man is an author and academic with the woman simply an adoring fan. Other times, they seem to be a married couple engaged in some elaborate role-play. At times, they merely seem like they're flirting and pretending to be married. Each of these surmises is prompted by Kiarostami's subtle manipulation of what his camera allows us to see or hear and some deft screenwriting allowing for fluid role modifications. Binoche has never appeared as beautiful, genial or natural as she does when she's facing the camera to ostensibly speak to her male counterpart; she's really speaking to us.
While not necessarily a withering indictment of our financial system the way a documentary like Inside Job is, Margin Call is still a surprisingly assured first feature by director J.C. Chandor. Covering much the same ground as Charles Ferguson's 2010 doc, which explained in great detail what led to the 2008 financial crisis, Margin Call is reminiscent of recent HBO movies like Too Big to Fail. It employs a thin fictional veneer and an able ensemble cast made up of has-beens and up-and-comers to crystallize all of the various elements that contributed to the crisis in a succinct manner that eluded the convoluted Inside Job. Actors like Demi Moore and Kevin Spacey give career-best performances right alongside the rising Zachary Quinto and the underrated Paul Bettany (who has often inexplicably chosen thankless roles in crummy genre films). Thrilling and timely, Margin Call is one of 2011's under-the-radar sleepers.
Also flying low is Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, starring Michelle Williams as one of three wives to settlers who have literally hitched their wagons to Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a trail guide who convinces them off the Oregon Trail on a supposedly quicker path to the West. As circumstances in the hallucinatory Western grow increasingly dire, it becomes clear that Meek is likely a charlatan with no more knowledge of trails than any of his followers. So Williams advocates for an American Indian they capture, encouraging the others to free him so he may guide them back to food and water. Viewers expecting any simple answers to the superficial plotline will be disappointed. But those who watch Meek's Cutoff at an allegorical level, where its "lost in the wilderness" political parallels to our country's recession-era are rather obvious, will find a measure of truth in its ambiguity.
It's easy to forget how great an actor Michael Shannon really is, what with his weekly role on Boardwalk Empire as the repressed Prohie agent Nelson Van Alden, his deranged lead in Bug and other off-kilter parts he's known for. But director Jeff Nichols has done right by him in the past (2008's Shotgun Stories) and does so again with the creepy Take Shelter. Here, Shannon plays a regular blue-collar guy, a construction worker, who suffers from terrifying nightmares. Each dream seems more real than the last and warns of a coming storm of apocalyptic proportions. Jessica Chastain gives her 57th performance of the year as his supportive wife who, we find out, has good reason to be skeptical about his prescience. Nichols, who knows just how long to hold an inevitably wide-angle shot to wring maximum suspense from it, is effective at creating a disquieting atmosphere in which danger always seems a few moments away. But the movie belongs to Shannon who, despite his alarming paranoia, is likable and convincing enough to make audiences root for him to be right, even if it means a major cataclysm is in store for him and his family.
In a different, warmer way, mystifying and elliptical as it is, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is also as haunting as some eerie dreams can be. Dying farmer Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) reminisces about his past lives both in the figurative (as an anti-communist soldier) and in the literal sense (as an aging princess sexually aroused by a sea spirit/catfish). Attending to Boonmee in his final days are his sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), the ghost of his late wife, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), and his son, Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), now a supernatural ape with glowing red eyes after having disappeared in the forest six years earlier. Perplexed? Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul doesn't try too hard to resolve any mysteries in his film—winner of the Palme d'Or at 2010's Cannes Film Festival—nor should you be concerned with finding explanations anyway. Uncle Boonmee is a movie that washes over you, one you'll find difficult to shake in subsequent days. And like Boonmee's past lives, the film is worth contemplating even if bereft of any solid answers.