Saturday, December 31, 2011

Top 10 Theatrical Releases of 2011

It was another tough year at the box office, with the film industry feeling the pain of a not quite dead but extremely sleepy economy and the karmic payback for their over-reliance on 3-D premium tickets. However, discerning viewers could have found some comparative values at theaters this year, considering half of 2011’s ten best films clocked in at well over three and a half hours. The this year’s list of the ten best films to have arguable theatrical distribution (as opposed to festival screenings) follows in alpha order, rather than descending running times.

It has become almost a cliché to heap honors on Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, but it truly is a charming film, refreshingly free of cynicism and quite inventive in the ways it both maintains and breaks its novelty format.

About twenty years after the fact, Edward Yang’s nearly four hour masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day finally got a legit New York theatrical run courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. In his hands, the juvenile delinquents of 1960’s Taiwan became the stuff of epic tragedy.

Though it landed on PBS less than a month after it opened in New York, Amanda Pope & Tchavdar Georgiev’s Desert of Forbidden Art had more revelations per frame than any other nonfiction film in 2011. Not only is it a fascinating hitherto unknown chapter of Cold War history, the work of the Soviet era modern artists saved by Igor Savitsky is absolutely stunning, clearly ranking alongside their western contemporaries.

Wickedly slick and brutally honest, Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double took serious guts to make. However, his visceral dramatization of Uday Hussein reign of perverse terror will be recognized in the future as the definitive cinematic depiction of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Postmodern by postmodern standards, Mariano Llinás’ Extraordinary Stories turned film noir conventions on their head over the course of four and a half twisty-turny hours. Audacious in its narrative gamesmanship, its subplots have subplots, yet it is completely engaging every step of the way.

Second only to the Czech Rebelove among musicals that forthrightly address the era of Communist oppression, Valery Todorovsky’s Hipsters was sexy and stylish like its title characters. It is also a deeply humane film that even pays homage to Charlie Parker. New Yorkers are still waiting for this distinctive crowd pleaser, which has already opened in Los Angeles.

It is impossible to hang any pat label on Sion Sono’s four-hour Love Exposure, but once you have seen it, you know you saw a film. Chocked full of sexualized religious imagery, this tale of a panty-peeking amateur pornographer’s battle against a doomsday cult is a major work from a master auteur.

Only too brief at 272 minutes, the late Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon is an exquisitely rich period production and utterly absorbing storytelling. While its swashbuckling romance is wonderfully old fashioned, it is also mischievously sly in its telling.

Striking to look at, Sherwood Hu’s The Prince of the Himalayas presents Shakespeare’s Hamlet on its greatest stage ever: the Tibetan mountain range. Hu also fearlessly rewrites the Danish play in ways that are shockingly effective. Now screening in New York at the Rubin Museum of Art, it is the Shakespearean film of the year, featuring one of the most beautiful and haunting Ophelias ever.

190 minutes of madness, Kôji Wakamatsu’s United Red Army gave audiences an inside look into Japan’s notorious Marxist terrorist group as they turned on each other in an orgy of violent “self-criticism” and torture. Probably more damning and outright terrifying than their former comrade Wakamatsu realizes, it should be requiring viewing to understand the nature and tactics of the extreme left.

The platoon of self-proclaimed Oscar contenders slipping in and out of theaters in December to meet eligibility requirements always complicates best-of lists. Michelle Yeoh gives an Academy worthy performance in Luc Besson’s The Lady, which is currently embargoed for reviews, except year-end consideration. Also worthy for year-end shout-outs, Liam Cunningham and Mark Strong are two of the year’s best villains, wonderfully erudite and sarcastic in John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard. Finally, Jonathan English’s Ironclad deserves credit for the best use of a severed arm as a bludgeon. Happy New Year.