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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Exterminating Angels and Hamsters: Roman Polanski's "Carnage"

Roman Polanski’s Carnage is like a tidy and compact (79 minutes) chamber piece accompaniment to his previous film, the masterfully modulated political thriller The Ghost Writer, a work which threatened to be the very last offering from the cosmopolitan and controversial filmmaker after his 2009 arrest. The older film’s relevance to his fugitive existence is mostly coincidental. The Ghost Writer was in the late stages of editing when Polanski awaited his fate while confined to his luxurious Swiss cottage, just as The Ghost Writer’s former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is stuck in Martha’s Vineyard as his fate as a war criminal hangs in the balance. But Carnage emerged under a different set of circumstances. Though playwright Yasmina Reza was talking to Polanski about directing her stage comedy God of Carnage before the 2009 arrest, the subsequent film is an agitated and angry holler the filmmaker developed while trapped in his otherwise agreeably affluent surroundings. Two couples are trapped together during a “civil” and adult discussion that degenerates into drunken chaos. The neatly ornamental environment denoting success is a thin veil, an artifice, much like the studio set in which Carnage was filmed, green-screens making Paris a simulated Brooklyn, just as sound-stages worked for The Ghost Writer’s beach house, a hauntingly surreal fake world of formalities with an eerie digital backdrop. And though The Ghost Writer’s story of geopolitics, assassinations, and torture may seem distant from Carnage’s squabbling couples and broader and overt topics of intense argument (progress vs. chaos), the two are conveniently related in how the nightmare of history is softened or conveniently erased by how individuals use language. We can never know history, Polanski and Reza are saying, and in a world that is increasingly post-modern and relative, where bits of information cancel each other out, history ceases to exist altogether. The narrative that reads and sells the fastest wins. There is either robotic simplicity where good and evil are neatly drawn out, or “No Comment,” where a statement on a study has the word study is put in quotes.

Even before the infamous 1977 incident where Polanski made himself a pariah, his work was stunningly claustrophobic with guilty characters flung into absurdly bureaucratic worlds of official documentation. The burden of absurdity makes them long for death, and sometimes they get their wish (as Nastassia Kinski’s Tess says to her ancestral tomb, “Why am I on the wrong side of this door?”). More than Scorsese at his most Catholic, Polanski is the greatest explorer of the theme of guilt, and often in ways with which an audience cannot possibly identify. The casual defenders of Polanski insist on separating the Art from the Artist, but in his case I find this extraordinarily difficult to do. The films almost insist that they are Polanski. Whether we see Macduff weeping over his murdered wife and children in Macbeth (Polanski's first film after Sharon Tate's death) or Dr. Roberto Miranda at last confess his dark thoughts to the woman he tortured years before, or Wladislaw Spilman surviving the Nazis, I see Roman Polanski.

Instead of making his work distasteful, as would be the case for most viewers, this dynamic of life and art blurring together fascinates me. He's confronting his history and himself, apologizing profusely while obstinately making excuses, hurling himself into Hades while dragging his accusers down with him. Indeed, if Roman Polanski made decadent movies like those of his admirer, Brett Ratner (which Polanski has admitted to liking, even having a supporting role in Ratner’s trashy Rush Hour 3), I would probably dislike him and leave him to the devil. But it's hard to find any artist so forthright and naked, while also refusing to play the malignant dwarf as culture has cast him. Admiration for Polanski's work is not admiration for the man. But few filmmakers have been so consistently compelling in the personal confrontation with human experience and the absurd.

Instead of doing prestigious foreign films for money, in his exile Polanski seeks out and finds stories of victims and victimizers, guilt with punishment either deserved or undeserved, due process or absurd bureaucracy: Tess with its raped and wronged heroine, at first victimized by the vile and wealthy Alec (with whom Polanski admits to having affinities), and then by the dogmatic and automatic thinking of the Marxist progressive Angel, who loves Tess but his ideological obstinacy makes him think that her family’s ruin is a result of natural decadence; Frantic, where the American hero Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) searches for his kidnapped wife, and the latent insinuation throughout the whole standard thriller narrative is the fear of guilty infidelity; Bitter Moon, where a libertine writer (Peter Coyote) abuses and humiliates his beautiful mistress (Emmanuelle Seigner), who then has revenge on him after he is paralyzed in an accident; Death and the Maiden, about a politician’s wife (Sigourney Weaver) who thinks she’s found the doctor (Ben Kingsley) who raped and tortured her years before; and Oliver Twist, the best scene of which is the shattering conclusion when the thief Fagin (Ben Kingsley) breaks down at Oliver’s feet, the morning gallows waiting. "Have mercy on this wretched man!" Oliver cries, and is Polanski pleading his own case for mercy, or madly playing along like the delirious Fagin?

Adam Lang’s war-crimes of approving torture in The Ghost Writer are human rights-violations that were so disembodied and abstract when he signed off on them that he has trouble seeing how wrong he was in the “rather sweeping” accusations issued by the World Court. The Pianist has Polanski’s most tragic dimension of guilt, so pertinent to Macbeth, Chinatown, and The Tenant (three of the four films he made after pregnant wife Sharon Tate’s gruesome murder), the masochistic guilt of a survivor whose salvation is ridiculous when everyone else – including those who were more intelligent, virtuous, and healthier – so randomly and violently died. It would have been interesting to see what Polanski would have done with some of the bigger projects offered to him during the 1990s, like an adaptation of Les Miserables (eventually directed by Bille August and starring Liam Neeson), about a fugitive thief who has remade himself as an honorable man, or Frankenstein (eventually directed by Kenneth Branagh), where a brilliant scientist's monstrous creation catches up to him like a hidden guilty secret. Carnage is about people who, when trapped together, are exposed.

“I believe in the god of carnage,” says Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) in Carnage, “the god who’s ruled from time immemorial.” Though it would be incorrect to say that Alan completely represents Roman Polanski’s point of view, he is closest to matching the director’s pessimistic philosophy. History for Polanski – much like the history of Poland – has been little more than chaos and countless usurpations, where one form of tyranny is replaced by another. Being alive is a form of Kafkaesque nightmare where the individual is thrown into a rat maze of Nazis, Communists, anti-Semites, religious zealots, obtuse socialists, greedy capitalists, murderously insane hippies, one-dimensional trashy newsmen, and celebrity-seeking judges. Besides that, there are one’s own base impulses: depression, the drive for power, the descent into insanity. And maybe it's this festering minotaur of base impulse that is the fiercest opponent because, as Alan says, “There are times you don’t want to overcome them,” and then setting up Reza’s hypothetical, “Imagine saying a Hail Mary while making love” (though I prefer Christopher Hampton’s translation for the theatrical production I saw at the Guthrie last summer, “Imagine singing Ava Maria while fucking!”) The downside of such nihilism, in spite of its truthfulness, is a shallowness or complete disembodiment. Alan’s life is his cell-phone, through which the machinations of his lawyering work out, creating history and truth out of nothing and legitimizing the unethical practices of a gigantic pharmaceutical corporation. When the phone is destroyed, thrown into a vase of flowers by his wife Nancy (Kate Winslet), he cowers on the floor, at last impotent.

On the other side of the debate is Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster), a progressive and liberal woman with “a desire to educate.” She has arranged a meeting with the Cowans because the Cowans’ son, Zachary (played by Polanski’s son, Elvis), hit the Longstreets’ boy Ethan in the face, resulting in some shattered teeth. Penelope has decorated the apartment with art and books, denoting a cultured sensibility. After all, she believes “culture can be such a powerful force for peace.” But though she is intelligent, well-read, and well-meaning, with a particular devotion to writing about genocide in Darfur, her view of the world is very black and white. After listening to what Penelope thinks Zachary should do in apology to Ethan, Alan says, “That’s a lot of ‘shoulds.’” “We have to believe in some possible correction!” Penelope insists. Punishment and the admission of guilt have to be concrete, without ambiguity.

“The victim and the criminal are not the same,” Penelope says. But she also thinks that they're mutually exclusive, as if the roles could never be reversed. This is what separates Schindler's List from The Pianist, where in Spielberg's world we are in a tidy historical document where lines between the virtuous and guilty are neatly drawn. While with The Pianist, there are good Jews and bad Jews, good Poles and bad Poles, good Germans and bad Germans. It's not a tidy document consigned to the past, but representative of a chaos that may happen at any time and to the most civilized of nations. Polanski would say that both sides are capable of evil (Polanski was horrified by what his fellow Poles did to dead German soldiers after the Nazis surrendered). Penelope’s commitment to humanism is itself a kind of religious zealotry with gospel truths. There’s a faith in systematic progress as we see her type out her “statement” on the event, United States and United Nations flags in the background. Is this actually a dialogue? Or is it word processing, as the word “armed” (as in “armed with a stick”) is replaced with “carrying” in a quick maneuver of cutting and pasting. The compromise might seem insignificant, but words have meaning and we interpret them often with automatic reflexivity without contextualizing them. The sentence completely changes when "armed" becomes "carrying."

The format of language and passive aggressive systematic authoring of history, out of which Carnage’s narrative grows with the word processing, is the kind of “correct” mindset that annoyed Polanski so much during his years in Communist Poland, where it was imperative that filmmakers adhere to a state-sanctioned ideology (unfortunate, because Soviet bloc film schools, such as Lodz in Poland, were among the best in the world because of their rigorous attention to every facet of the filmmaking process; when Polanski came to Hollywood with Rosemary’s Baby, his collaborators were awed by his technical prowess). Late in the film, a frustrated Penelope admits that no one is “free.” The idyllic “sense of community” she likes in overcoming an “adversarial mindset” means that everyone must adhere to her sense of community. We can disagree, and I'll change "armed" to "carrying," but let's just leave it at "your son is a maniac." To which to devilish and almost Ayn Randian Alan smiles, "Yes, he is a maniac." The counter insinuation being that might makes right and your son is weak.

The meaning of culture doesn’t seem to register for Penelope. She has art magazines and books on Francis Bacon, but the uncomfortable images are neatly compartmentalized under that safe heading of accepted “Art” without actually approaching the cesspool of carnage in the works’ content (as found in Bacon's paintings). When Nancy hilariously shoots projectile vomit onto the coffee table, soiling out-of-print art books and expensive magazines, we see that art means less to Penelope than the binding and names. Is “culture a powerful force for peace”? What about Wagner, and the cultured enthusiasm so many Germans had in the 1930s? When Penelope’s passive husband Michael (John C. Reilly) emits surprised enthusiasm that Ethan has a gang, he is similar to Alan in likening school gangs to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. It’s safe to call Ivanhoe “culture” because it’s old (something echoing Noah Cross in Chinatown: “Of course I’m respectable, I’m old”), but it’s of the same chauvinistic mettle as comic books like Super-Man. It’s like listening to prudish and ill-humored people holding onto their dignity with resolve, adoring Shakespeare and Chaucer while disdaining fart and sex jokes on South Park (when Shakespeare and Chaucer have their share of earthy humor).

All of these characters are using the masks of their hobbies and occupations to reformat filth, shit, vomit – the solidified and stinky carnage of the title. Michael Longstreet sells design kitchen appliances but also is in the toilet flushing business; Penelope uses her writing talent to document gruesome genocide; Alan uses his lawyerspeak, the command of language, to aid his corporate clients, whose medications have very negative physical side effects (“basically it makes you act like you’re drunk”); Nancy is a smartly-dressed investment broker, whose relationship with the carnal is less metaphorical when the puke spews out of her mouth, staining books, clothes, and an expensive table. Indeed, something that remains deliberately unspoken in the film – and which agitates contemporary viewers blind to Polanski’s silent irony – is how wealth has granted these characters access to the saving grace of “culture.” Notice how Penelope tidies up the bed and takes away the Pamprin when leading the vomit-soaked Cowans to the bathroom. Is Carnage a film about rich white people and their "rich white people" problems? You bet. It’s about rich people distant enough from armed combat that they have no quarrel with re-naming a grenade launcher – a device designed to mutilate human beings – a “thumper,” like the rabbit from Bambi.

Being both “authors” of sorts, Alan and Penelope are also guilty of trying to “create” their respective spouses. Michael at first seems a perfect husband in an “equal” marriage between a progressive pair who listen to NPR together on the weekends. But it’s clear that he’s just too lazy to fight back with Penelope. He says that she “dressed me up like a liberal,” and has “no time for this touchy feely bullshit,” an emotion that can only be expressed with the help of alcohol (or the spewing of vomit, the ultimate ice-breaker). Michael feels somewhat trapped in this marriage, and basically just doesn’t want to be annoyed, whether it’s his wife’s activism or a hamster in its cage.

Alan would never tolerate a wife like Penelope. Though Nancy is successful as a broker, she's essentially the good looking wife to a big earner. She’s more classically “female,” beautiful and passive as her husband does most of the talking. Alan’s gives an uncomfortable utterance towards the end, telling Penelope that men don’t really like women like her, the Jane Fondas, “the ones who are too perceptive.” Is this a sweeping generalization, or is there some terrible truth to it? The same could be said for a woman's attraction for the "John Wayne" idea of manliness. Are gender relations as progressive as the Penelopes or Mary Elizabeth Williamses of the world would like? I think we'd like to think so. But I'm not sure.

As to whether Carnage is entertaining or not may depend on the viewer’s relationship to Reza’s ideas. I find myself often in agreement with Polanski’s worldview, even if I wish I wasn’t (I think it would add 20 years to my life). He is one of the last century’s great illuminators, though he brings grey clouds with him; the truth, as in Chinatown, comes with Faye Dunaway’s eye being shot out. As Jake Gittes says at the beginning, if you love your husband "let sleeping dogs lie."

But whether it's Kubrick, Twain, Swift, South Park, or Roman Polanski, the ugly truth can be great fun through a humorously absurd prism. Consequently, I was heartily amused with Carnage’s interrogations, even as it comes to disagree with itself (and Reza) at the conclusion. I don’t think I ever stopped smiling while watching it. But I can imagine a good self-proclaimed progressive liberal feminist humanist absolutely hating it (even though I resemble all those categories), like a born-again Christian being forced to watch Bill Maher’s Religulous or read Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great. There is also a good argument that the film is bound by its stage source material and too brief (if not too long for those that find the Longstreets and Cowans unbearable). But to me, the material is so busy with the cycling of ideas being verbally spewed with passive aggressive spiritedness, and Polanski’s command of his camera in very un-theatrical close-ups is so powerful, that Carnage manages to be fittingly cinematic while claustrophobic, and also satiating in its brevity.

The film ends unexpectedly, expanding from Reza’s sudden conclusion with an epilogue that contrasts with the hopelessness of “open despicability,” where the dead cell-phone buzzes again, moving itself across the table so that moneyed interests can go on destroying the world and making the wealthy wealthier. Earlier, we learned that Michael got rid of a pet, the unfortunate hamster Nibbles. He just dumped the hamster on the sidewalk and walked away. The hamster is a perfect metaphor for Polanski himself, the agitating enfant terrible and survivor whose characters are similarly hurled into absurd circumstances where a nasty ruin in near. But instead of becoming one of Polanski's victims to death or madness like in Repulsion, Cul de Sac, Macbeth, The Tenant, Tess, Bitter Moon, and The Ghost Writer, Nibbles emerges as an absurd survivor, alongside the director's trademark characters like Rosemary, Jake Gittes, Richard Walker, Dr. Roberto Miranda, Dean Corso, Wladyslaw Spilman, and Oliver Twist. Polanski cuts away from the families to what may be the near future. We see the hamster in close-up, having survived after all, independently and freely continuing to cause private havoc. The two boys, Zachary and Ethan, emerge as friends, one showing the other something on his phone, the technology of disembodiment bringing people together instead of isolating them.

But even then, Polanski has room for one more cackle when the end-credits run out. A dog pisses on a tree in the foreground, then is led away on a leash. Point taken. Our rational selves hold nature on its leash, but nature still has to piss out a little carnage now and then.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Apocalypse Soon? Film in 2011

"I had an apocalyptic dream." - Carl Gustave Jung, A Dangerous Method

Finding the "narrative" of a given year is tempting, and possibly delusional. The critic is trying to make sense out of the year's clutter, projecting meaning where there's probably only the mass-manufacturing of products put together by committee financing. But the urge to design a resonance is overwhelming, just as the artist has the urge to create. The critic prides himself on being privy to a secret knowledge, a gnosis, a deeper layer hidden beneath the TMZ gloss of entertainment and stars.

So what's this year of 2011 about? As I noted in May, days before Harold Camping's Rapture prediction, something is in the air, in the weather, in our dreams keeping a lot of people restless. Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams had just been released, a documentary connected to his Encounters at the End of the World, tying the beginning of our species to the prospects - so inevitable - of the end. Earthquakes, tsunamis, unwieldy radiation, Donald Trump and Michele Bachmann running for president...Weren't these signs? The fear was not really conscious as it was a dim agitation, a throbbing in the mind whining to be remembered. Peter Weir's masterpiece The Last Wave, where our tidy daily comforts are upset by primal invasion, seems more relevant than ever.

Hopefully, in, oh, March 2013, we'll be laughing at this ridiculousness, just as so many of us will no doubt be lamenting the credit card bills we racked up on Black Friday, 2012, figuring that after December 22, things would be all wrapped up, Mayan Style. Eschatological frenzies have always been a part of a distinctly American character with our omens of millennium and apocalypse, we all being Jonathan Edwards' sinners in the hands of an angry God. Clint Eastwood took us to another fearful time, that of the Palmer Raids, in J. Edgar. During the first Red Scare, there was a conviction among a lot of folks (I remember my grandmother telling me the story) that May 1st, 1920, was going to be the end of America as we knew it. But, like Y2K, history hustled forth unimpeded. Our rational selves catch up and life goes on - until it doesn't, to quote Eyes Wide Shut. All this is paranoia and hysteria (unless you were fighting in Stalingrad or were in Hiroshima in 1945, I suppose) and we continue in spite of collapse. Slajov Zizek, commenting on Alfonso Cuaron's dystopian future masterpiece Children of Men, said that we know that climate change is real but, paradoxically, we don't believe it because we can't actually see it affecting us right now. It's snowing outside (actually, in Minnesota we've had a string a record high temps, so...), winter is still cold, leave us alone.

It was weird that 2011 showed us the end of the world so many times. Terrence Malick gave us brief images of the White Dwarf sun in The Tree of Life, the echoes of eternity accepting and embracing the beginnings and endings in transcendental wholeness. Lars von Trier's Melancholia, born out of the filmmaker's depression and scored to the erotic death-wish of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, yearned for the earth's destruction, the last moment being an affirmation and a beautiful release. Jeff Nichols' extraordinary Take Shelter, where Michael Shannon gives probably the year's best acting performance, addresses the question of apocalyptic madness, where the protagonist might be a madman conscious of his descent into schizophrenia, or a Noah. Steven Soderbergh's Contagion followed characters who used civilization's techno-buffers of screens to keep awful prospects of worldwide pandemic repressed.

The End of the World forces us to wonder about meaning. Can we live with absurdity? Do we need a loving and benevolent creator to swoop away our souls when the bricks fall down and crush our bodies, nastily eradicating our flesh with distinct schlupping sounds and twitches? The worst case scenario in any life event, whether it's going to war or going to the store, is that somehow you die a slow, painful, ugly and meaningless death, never having accomplished what you set out to do.

The repeated theme this year is that sweeping "search for meaning" thing. But couldn't that be applicable to any year, any time, any thing? Jeez, isn't that what all art is in some way about, as Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) reminds us in Midnight in Paris? But in looking at my choices for the year's best films, it's stunning to see how filmmakers are channeling some collective anxieties. Witness the arguments of stability and chaos in Roman Polanski's Carnage and David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method. The empty words simulating life through the buzz of electronic noise in David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Steve McQueen's Shame. The questing heroes searching for purpose in Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff and Martin Scorsese's Hugo. The discarded flesh, of a splattered mother in J.J. Abrams' Super 8 and a mass grave in Contagion, countered by deep sentiments stored in recorded images. The escape from malaise into a longview cosmology, in The Tree of Life, Alexander Payne's The Descendants, and Mike Mills' Beginners. There are religious longings and fears everywhere while Yeats' rough beast slouches.

The movies provide sanctuary, what Hugo Cabret calls "our special place," Cabret being a character struggling with the meaningless death of a beloved parent. We escape, like Gil does in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, going to the 1920s; or the Driver who lunges into violent fantasy in Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive; or Steve Coogan getting away from his comfortably numb celebrity existence in the English countryside (or in various impressions) in Michael Winterbottom's The Trip. In all of the adventures, we still end up only with the burden of ourselves, our death muted by how everything and everybody has undergone the mortal transformation before us and after us, a sensibility that visits characters ranging from Uncle Boonmee to Harry Potter.

One of the journeymen this year was Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) in A Dangerous Method, a man responsible for so much New Age spirituality that currently rattles our boiling apocalypse pots. Shortly before he died, Jung had a vision that in 50 years there would be a great cataclysmic occurrence, involving all the smoke, ashes, gnashing of teeth, and general discomfort that pertains to my aforementioned "worst case scenario." Jung died in 1961. As you may murmur "oh shit" to yourself, because you want to continue on with the illusions of daily and undisturbed existence where the cannibalism of Cormac McCarthy's The Road remains a fantasy, you may hope that Jung's mentor and adversary Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) was right, even though he is the shatterer of our illusions and prepares the way for chaotic randomness. But as my two favorite films of 2011 show, our creativity is wrought with destruction. Here's the list, with some honorable mentions, though it's obligatory of me to admit that some films (A Separation, Rampart, La Havre, Poetry), which have populated many best-of lists elsewhere, I still have not seen.

1. A DANGEROUS METHOD (David Cronenberg)

THE TREE OF LIFE (Terrence Malick)

Some people are a little bit county and a little bit rock and roll. That kind of moodiness describes how I’m feeling about this year. Life means everything and nothing, there is oceanic oneness and perilous isolation, Grace and Nature, Jung and Freud, illusion and purpose, all clashing in the mind’s subjective soil. Regardless if there are any fundamental answers to the Big Questions, the journey is created and projected through the theater of mind, within people. I'm a little bit Terrence Malick, and a little bit David Cronenberg, or a little bit Tree of Life and a little bit Dangerous Method.

A Dangerous Method and The Tree of Life are dually similar and dissimilar. Both are the years-in-development products of idiosyncratic filmmakers born the same year (1943), one who works slowly and the other quickly, both considerably intellectual with an interest in the natural world. The budding Canadian biochemist David Cronenberg is plainly a non-believer, resisting even the title “atheist” because it denotes a theism or belief, while former philosophy MIT lecturer Terrence Malick apparently works closely with his Episcopalian congregation outside of Austin, Texas. One exposes “the New Flesh” while the other pursues “the Glory.” One disturbs viewers while the other takes us into eternity’s arms, where even a dying bird can evoke transcendence. Formally, these two magnificent films are born out of different sensibilities. Cronenberg uses crisp economy and an almost too-perfect linear storytelling, while his murk threatens to burst through between the cracks of people trying to explain their dreams. Malick is unwieldy, fractured, incomplete, almost deliberately imperfect, his Tree of Life shooting branches in myriad directions, the narrative examining and channeling the power of memory and human thought processes.

But neither filmmaker, the atheist ot the transcendentalist, is sanctimonious. Some atheists have struggled to articulate how you need to accept Christianity in order to appreciate The Tree of Life, but that's certainly not my relationship to it; when we see a chair move by itself as a child grows up in the 1950s, the eeriness is familiar. Malick has used cinema to capture sense memory. Some Jungians, the mystic sect of contemporary humanism, believe that A Dangerous Method has no sympathy for their hero, but Cronenberg is as fair to the mystic Jung as he is to the materialist Freud. The “catalytic exteriorization phenomenon” of the Swiss psychologist could be telepathy, just as it could be coincidence, even though Cronenberg, through Michael Fassbender’s studied and aware performance, may ultimately think that Jung’s stress is born of his need to have that unseen engine to the universe. At bottom, a theme of both pictures is how sublime our species’ evolutionary encounter with reality is. In Cronenberg’s Dangerous Method we have two men who invented modernity, and so invented us. In Malick, we traverse across billions of years of our evolution. In both, we are illuminated.

The precision of A Dangerous Method is what stunned me, a simplicity which may confuse some for a filmed play with its talkiness and scenarios drawn out in epistolary form as letters traverse between Vienna and Zurich. This is the buttoned dressing to the great naked cthonian darkness behind it, wanting to get out at a time when mental hospitals are, according to libertine psychologist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell), “bulging at the seams.” In the first moments of seeing a young Russian-Jewish woman, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), hysterically screaming through coach windows while being dragged to one of those hospitals, we deduce that the real war here is the battle between the physical world, of manners, dress, ritual, and social status, and a secret world, hidden in the answer to the mythological Sphinx’s riddle: Man. Filmed in Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suchitzky’s trademark wide-angle close-ups, Sabina’s face contorts and juts out of the screen more effectively than 3D. Something is in there, inside of Sabina, and wants to get out. Viggo Mortensen’s Freud, meanwhile, is a marvel of relaxation, the one character whose disciplined repression keeps him from being swallowed by the unknown sphinx of which he knows to be weary.

The Tree of Life, meanwhile, is a prayer, a naked personal reflection and confession, and a requiem for a dead brother, just as it is, while burrowing into its roots, universal. Malick's images are very specific pictures of his own childhood outside of Waco, Texas in the 1950s. As time goes on throughout his autobiographical portrait and we experience the dissonance of his own neuroses rooted in the Mother (Jessica Chastain) and the Father (Brad Pitt), we fall into our own groundlessness, removed from the Creation of the World, an 18-minute marvel of how the universal canvas was painted, accelerating fast and faster through 14 billion years of cosmic expansion, volcanic light and lava screaming, geysers smoking, unicellular organisms coming together in the first acts of compassion, fish freely swimming, and then more complicated creatures – dinosaurs – feeding and suffering in the befuddling chain of existence. We are then born and called forth from the ocean of time, which slows down and wraps us up with resentments, jealousies, and desires. The Tree of Life is too sincere to be pretentious, and though many of us may scoff at one man's presumption to link his own biography to the origins of life, Malick is in fact calling out for us to do the same, and so to wonder about our Being. The Tree of Life is oddly meta, the cinema screen being a window or a bridge through which we travel and make our own disparate connections.

I quote Thomas Mann from Joseph and His Brothers, in answering how Malick can presume to make his life a microcosm, while meanwhile inviting us to do the same: "But we must go on from here: for subjectivation does not mean subjection, nor esteem of self disesteem of others. It does not mean isolation or a callous disregard of the general, the exterior and suprapersonal; in short, of all that reaches beyond the self. On the contrary it therein solemnly recognizes itself. In other words, if piety is the being penetrated with the importance of the self, then worship is piety's extension and assimilation into the eternalness of being, which returns in it and wherein it recognizes itself. That is to depart from all singleness and limitation, yet with no violence to its own dignity, which it even enhances to the point of consecration."

I feel very blessed and grateful that so many people have stopped by to read my thoughts on The Tree of Life, which are admittedly as incomplete as Malick’s film. One reader, Nick van der Leek, nails the film perfectly when he commented, “It was while reading your review (or treatise?) that I finally made sense of what seemed extremely fragmented... I realised that Malick intentionally created a fractured, semi-coherent story in order to render 'disconnection'. You mentioned it somewhere, how the elevators have Jack untethered to the world... Thus Malick introduces the bridge at the end, to evoke a final sense of conciliation with the world and all that we do not know, do not understand and have un-connected ourselves from.”

Maybe an elevator is just an elevator, and a cigar is just a cigar, as a leaf of grass is just a leaf. But watching and re-watching The Tree of Life (it surprisingly plays excellently on DVD, where the viewer can skip around Malick’s cosmic loop the same way a reader can page back and forth through James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake), I find it hard to express how much it moves me. Not through typical narrative pathos, but in its bare sensitivity. This year, it’s unfortunate that both Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt will be honored for performances that, while impressive (The Help and Moneyball), do not come close to touching the chilling and transformative dimensions of Mrs. And Mr. O’Brien. A close-up on a face, searching within itself, gives birth to a thousand souls. Meanwhile, Malick’s anthropomorphic envisioning of the universe’s creation, where we may see faces in nebulae and lava-drenched rocks, made me tremble. I was shaking, my eyes filling with tears of awe as creation is scored to the mourning of a requiem mass. Did The Tree of Life accomplish everything it set out to do? It couldn’t. But it still did more to me than any other film this year.

Both A Dangerous Method and The Tree of Life end with its principle characters staring out at the sea, the archetypal symbol of consciousness, the Deep Self. Cronenberg’s Jung maybe gets lost in the great deep, swallowed by Leviathan as he comes to understand himself. On the other hand, Malick's Song of Himself is also a Song to our Selves, and the Great Self. We are imprisoned, shackled, encaged in modernity in its forms and banal tropes, in our lives and in our arts and entertainments. But Malick – much like the Carl Jung of A Dangerous Method – wants to take us home, where our masks come off and wash away in the collective ocean. At the end of Malick's journey, we encounter ourselves, and in ourselves we see everyone else. That bridge that ends the picture is a modern Jacob's ladder designed to take us back to Being, beyond the accidents of being-in-the-world that make us what we appear to be in Time, and into an identification with the One - or Many - who dwells inside of us.

A justification for having these two films share the top spot is that The Tree of Life almost exists in a separate paradigm. Calling for their money back, its detractors shout that it isn’t even a movie, and in a sense I have to agree with them. There’s very few mainstream motion pictures with which it can be compared – maybe some narrative features like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the works of Tarkovsky, or recent David Lynch, and also non-narrative films to which it maybe deliberately allude, like Koyaanisqatsi and Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera. And if Malick failed in his ambition to write the song of the universe in 140 minutes, it’s a failure that towers over other successes; no film has this reach. The photography by the great Emmanuel Lubezski (Michael Mann’s Ali, Alfonso Cuaron’s Y tu mama tambien and Children of Men, and Malick’s The New World) competes in terms of “most goddamned beautiful movie ever made” with John Toll’s work on Malick’s The Thin Red Line and John Alcott’s cinematography for Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. The images brought the universe to life, on a quiet street from the past or a frantic city in the present. It made the world outside the theater dance for me. The Tree of Life is bridge to sight.

2. DRIVE (Nicolas Winding Refn)

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is about the rush of movies. For me, it’s about the love a moviegoer has for film and the tragic maze the moviegoer constructs in that love and addiction, placing him on a tense border with reality. Some critics and audiences have accused this violent loner-at-the-wheel drama of being shallow, existential noir posturing. This is a reading displaying a viewer’s own shallow interpretation of material that is, I believe, ample in breadth as it is intimately controlled by the director's reigns. We may follow the story about a Los Angeles mechanic (Ryan Gosling) leading a double life as stuntman and getaway driver, as a straight genre yarn with the usual suspects lined up: a beautiful and imperiled neighbor girl Irene (Carey Mulligan), a crusty but unlucky mentor (Bryan Cranston), and some vile gangsters looking to clean up a bad heist, including former B-movie producer Bernie Rose, played by Albert Brooks, ironically placed in a crime thriller the same way he eats Chinese food in a pizzeria (owned by a Jew!). The Driver, as he is listed in the credits, has no backstory, little dialogue, unaffected gazes, and bouts of explosive, super human rage. Refn has succeeded in making at least two great movies: a straight narrative B-movie, and a darkly ironic masterpiece. And from that irony, Drive emerges a peerlessly complete movie experience, hard to define in its mastery of so many angles: as neo-noir crime story, riveting action thriller, bittersweet romantic fairy tale, stellar drama, and absurd comedy. Because of how its machinery is so expertly dictated (I think this is the best-directed film of the year; it’s a Swiss watch), Refn himself doubles for his hero, driving on a delicate balance of authenticity and pastiche, romance and parody, low-brow and high, sane and psychopathic.

Refn has absorbed a host of great influences: Kenneth Anger, Peckinpah, Welles, Malick, Scorsese, the Walter Hill of The Driver, Lynch, and most vibrantly, Michael Mann, whose atmosphere and attractive professional angst-ridden men (from Thief, Heat, and Collateral) share traits with the Driver, but also Mann’s psychotic and delusional serial killer, Francis Dollarhyde from Manhunter, a picture similarly about the formal saturating experience of moving images twisting reality. Gosling's Driver just may be the sexiest creep in recent movie memory.

There’s a moment before a tense apartment hallway confrontation. We see the Driver in his blank-walled apartment toiling away on his machinery. The dreamy song “Under Your Spell” by Desire is muffled through the walls. The music takes us somewhere else, just as it takes him. Cut to Irene’s apartment, where the song is a gorgeously thick wall of sound, adjusting itself when her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) addresses the attendees of his party. Cut to Irene in close-up as the camera slowly moves in on her. She looks on but her spirit is elsewhere, the music amping up again and linking her – and the film – to the Driver. In his apartment again, the music is no longer muffled. The music has ascended beyond its diagetic roots to become the sonic voice of the film. The lyrics, repeating “You’ve got me under your spell,” detail the rapture of what a film score can do to us, which is the same thing that happens to the characters in the story. We are under the spell of a filmmaker using his mechanical tools (with which the Driver fidgets during this sequence) to take us in the backseat of his car, exerting power over us while he creates. The function of art takes us away from Nature (“I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, I do nothing but think of you”) in this broad electronic canvas of mannerism. It is a beautiful, electronic madness.

Drive is wound together on its own fascination with films and filmmaking. It is about subjective expression on the part of the creative personality or idiosyncrasy governing the world of the film, which could just as well be set in outer space as in a geographical city such as Los Angeles. It is caught up in its own power to assume how we too will respond to it. It visualizes the inner process of myth-making and our day-to-day interior yearnings to be more than what we are, and go someplace more than just right now. And we can get lost in those tangled cross streets of visions, and twists and turns of noir imaginings – or maybe project them outside the theater, onto a wider canvas of an omni-optical window, transgressing the boundaries of the real. Drive exemplifies the sense of John Milton's verses from Paradise Lost, interesting when we consider how the poet was blind, and assuming the voice of Christendom's most notorious villain, Satan, whom the text perversely makes a hero, much as the Driver is a probably a psychopath elevated to Real Hero and Real Human Being: "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n."

3. TERRI (Azazel Jacobs)

Speaking of yearning to be a real human being - in addition to the mysteries of existence and the mind posed by A Dangerous Method and The Tree of Life - there's Terri, an exquisitely melancholy comic drama that takes the "Fat Kid" high school scenario to an elevated plateau of feeling. Who knew that the filmmakers could take something resembling Angus, the misfit fat-kid saga of my own high school days where the title character gets to dance with the class hot girl to Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You," and dig with unparalleled truth into the subject of the outcasts resigned to the last page of the yearbook, because their parents can't afford Senior Photos (or they just don't care or aren't there)?

A question repeated throughout Terri is “Why did you do that?” Indeed, why do we do the things we do when we’re not telling ourselves the reason for doing them? Why does the fleshy Terri (excellently played by Jacob Wysocki) set mousetraps out in the woods after successfully getting rid of the “front line” of mice in his Uncle James’ (Creed Bratton) attic? Why does he love beans on toast? Why does he wear pajamas to school? Why does he harbor such disdain for physical education? Why does the other troubled kid, Chad (Bridger Zadina), pull his hair out and urinate on his pants? Why does the beautiful blond Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) allow “Dirty Jack” to molest her in class? Why does the assistant principle Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) show the troubled kids his biographical picture book, lying to them while making them feel special? And why do the students graffiti that “Fitzgerald is a Zombie” on the school walls?

There are answers in the film – the ambiguity is not meant to run too deeply, though they’re not as declarative or simplistic as we may like. Is Terri a variation on Melville’s Bartleby, who’d “prefer not to” do anything? An angry teacher scolds him for being late to gym class, demanding to know Terri’s feelings on physical education. “The feeling is no feeling,” Terri explains, as if trying to excavate the reason himself.

What would be the point of his interest? When Terri sees Heather being fingered by the crass and handsome Dirty Jack, in the middle of Home Economics, he whispers while voyeuristically gazing, “Oh my God.” It’s not an expression of shock so much as one of defeat – not that he knows Heather (yet), but how is it that the Dirty Jacks of the world can have so much, so easily, when Terri is stuck doing weekly meetings like the school “monsters,” the maladjusted screw-ups unable to control themselves and with no hope to imagine that success can ever be realized?

The mystery of life and death plays out for Terri when he sets out the mouse-traps, being awed by the cycle – that’s rejected his own flesh – when a hawk lands in front of him to scoop up the dead mice. Uncle James may not “get it,” but Fitzgerald explains the “bloodlust.” “He gets it, and I get it too,” and I think a lot of people get it, though we can’t describe it. Terri is interested in the enigma of mind and body, as we see, during one raucous night, chemicals go in the three principal kids (Terri, Chad, Heather), their impulses driven by a subtle want of power that threatens to envelop them.

Early in the film we notice that Terri is reading Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, the great satirist who showed the Yahoo follies of our nature to which we are hopelessly blind and dare not admit to ourselves. Terri is replete with suffering and hopelessness, as “Identity” withers away under the weight of the body’s mysteries, such as poor Uncle James whose few moments of mental clarity he cherishes, using them “as windows” for reading. During a funeral, we hear the Roman Liturgy being read, the Latin word for “soul” being noticeably repeated, that wind of self-awareness animating flesh. Like with The Tree of Life, where the young protagonist alludes to St. Paul (I don’t do what I want to do, I do what I hate), Terri is searching for that soul, that “awareness” while Nature runs rampant. Fitzpatrick, who has his own problems at home (apparently a spend-thrifty wife), says, “We do what we can,” something to which I think Swift would nod in agreement.

4. TAKE SHELTER (Jeff Nichols)

Take Shelter is abundant in signs, and as a bizarre hybrid of Field of Dreams, Shutter Island, and Peter Weir's classic The Last Wave, it perfectly grabs ahold of the discontented sleeplessness that irritates the current post-2008 collapse pre-2012 escatalogical sensation. We see earthquakes, nations collapsing, economies changing, and all the signs of Jared Diamond's Collapse expressing itself like Nature in communication with us. It is likely the madness of our uncaged imaginations getting the better of us, making us wonder if this is it. Like with global warming, per Zizek, we know it's happening but don't believe it with our gift of compartmentalization.

Michael Shannon gives the year's best performance as Curtis La Forche, a solidly middle class Ohio construction worker with a lovely wife (Jessica Chastain, again terrific) and deaf daughter (Tova Stewart), with whom he communicates in sign language. Director Jeff Nichols uses the motif of sign-language elsewhere, as we observe people expressing themselves with their bodies as if the true articulation was rumbling beneath the veil of spoken language. So it is with Curtis' recent string of bad dreams. The dreams begin to invade and confuse his grasp on reality (much like another extraordinary film this year, Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene). There are horrible premonitions of his beloved dog attacking him, storms, and shadowy figures trying to invade his house, like classic movie zombies.

Curtis is a unique movie schizophrenic - assuming he is a schizophrenic - because he's so cognizant of something happening to him. After the dreams get bad enough that he wets his bed and locks the dog outside, Curtis goes to the library. I think movie-norms would lead us to expect him to research things like the Mayan calendar or Nostradamus, but instead he's studying mental illness. You see, his mother (Kathy Baker) was diagnosed with schizophrenia at roughly the same age. Curtis is reading signs not only in the world and in his dreams, but he's also trying to decipher what's happening to him.

But he's helpless to the gravitational pull of what's in his mind. He takes out a loan to build a storm shelter, loses his job - and so his insurance and the prospect of getting his daughter a hearing device - and the respect of his community and friends. He breaks down in front of everyone at a Sunday breakfast, warning of an epochal storm, sounding like an Old Testament prophet. This film feels like yet another Malickian progeny, as Tree of Lifers Chastain and producer Sarah Green are involved and there is Malick's trademark sensitivity to Nature and man's conflict in the soul. Nichols is addressing a modern religious problem of Kierkegaardian depth, in addition to the psychological quandaries with which a secular indie audience is more comfortable. Curtis is chided by his father-in-law for missing church, and his erratic behavior rejects middle-class life's material comforts. But he has a more pressing weight. The troubling double-bind of our Judeo-Christianity, as its assimilated into contemporary economics and culture, is at the heart of Take Shelter, where Curtis is, from Kierkegaard's ethical or social perspective, insane, but from a religious vantage, he's drawing from the same well as Abraham or Noah, his shelter an ark.

It's an unconsoling interrogation of believing and non-believing audiences alike, this Knight of Faith scenario. The shivers of Take Shelter haunt long afterward, as a portrait of madness and our necessary dressed-up repressions. The Doomsday Clock just inched forward a minute, and though we put a lid on our panic, the nightmare threatens to boil over in a hysterical conflagration.

(Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

Seen any Ghost Monkeys lately?

The 2010 Cannes winner, only screened in Minneapolis on a pair of nights at the invaluable Trylon, is another contemplation of eternity when a being faces eradication, or for that matter, the very medium of cinema facing eradication as film stocks are no longer manufactured while digital becomes ubiquitous. As with The Tree of Life and Hugo, the Thai Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives has a theme of synaptically linking unlike objects, places, or images. There are many souls - and species - sewn together in One fabric. The "hereafter" happens daily as bodies feed and wither, like the solitary yack in nature at the picture's beginning, or the insects that are swatted at, stepped on, and electrocuted by traps.

Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisayman) is dying, his kidneys giving out on him. At dinner, he plainly speaks to some surprise guests, making the banal night-time meal conversation an eerie experience for us. He greets the ghost of his dead wife and has some words with his missing son, who is in the form of the Sasquatch-like Ghost Monkey. There are memories that link to his past, like a 1965 massacre in which he was complicit, and an eternal past going through centuries, as we are privy to a wading princess having a sexual experience with a talking catfish. Yes. Sex with fish.

Is Uncle Boonmee a lamentation of soulless modernity estranging people from a deep past, and so to whatever relations to other beings from all times? I think it's an Eastern kin to The Tree of Life, where the film has the unmatched ambition (in a more muted, Buddhist fashion) of assuming to mimic the mystery of our thinking, and how we experience dream and reality so unassumingly as our souls drift through the years and through alternate beastly forms. And like a dream, the transformative character of this film casts a spell, absorbing us in Time's wheel. Whereas The Tree of Life shattered the walls of awe's cinematic santuary with the force and thunder of Job's Yahweh, Uncle Boonmee enters the same hallowed ground by sneaking in through the back door.

6. SHAME (Steve McQueen)

I saw Shame in the same 16-hours that I attended the spare-no-expense big-budget carnivals of Steven Spielberg's Tin Tin and Brad Bird's Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol. And though I joke that in spite of the Hollywood grandness of Spielberg and Bird that the biggest thing I saw that weekend was still Michael Fassbender's penis, the side-by-side-by-side showings gave me insight into director McQueen's ideas behind his sex-addict study. Not an exploitation film or mere conceptual drama with a classic performance at its center, Shame is a commentary on our YouTube era addiction to new sensation, the optical nerve craving the incessant stimulation like a line of cocaine.

Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful NYC 30-something, who has only the most superficial of personal relationships. Escorts come to his home, he fixates on internet porn, and takes masturbatory rest-room breaks at work. His sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) unexpectedly upsets the hypnotizing rhythms of his day-to-day simulated existence of repeated orgasms and ego-disintegration. He can't think about other people with other problems, and he is imprisoned not only by the impulsive needs of his body, but also the luxury in his abundance of freedom. Sissy, on the other hand, represents an opposite extreme of neediness, loudness, and clingy desperation in her affairs. Both brother and sister were created by something in their past (a sentiment it shares with the much more friendly Beginners), but we cannot know what it is, much like they cannot speak it.

Brandon fits in with Gosling's Driver, Wysocki's Terri, and Rooney Mara's Lisbeth Salandar as a band of movie outcasts unable to get into the duplicitous simulacrum of "real human beings." On a date, Brandon jokes that a bump on his head is a vestige of Neanderthal anatomy, he being one of the last of his kind before "the homo sapiens took over." Brandon's been sucked into the environment and culture of affluent New York City, stuck in the shiny and fit sexualized visage of skin-deep interactions where sexuality - per A Dangerous Method - is not the ego's affirmation, but its wished-for destruction.

Some people have criticized Shame for being unnecessarily ambiguous. They want to know what exactly happened to Brandon and Sissy, binding them so close together that he cries when she sings "New York, New York" at a jazz club. But McQueen's wants to cast a reflection to a whole culture. In Shame, the computer is a perfect outlet for intimacy. This is where Brandon meets escorts and has online "chats" (or "gazes") with stripping women, or where his douchey "broh" boss talks to his kids on Skype and gives disembodied instructions for his wife, on whom he has no problem cheating (with Sissy). Repairs for virally infected computers lead to Brandon's company "blowing our wad on cash," the spending of corporate money being equated with ejaculation.

Brandon tries to have a "real" romance with the office secretary. During their awkward date, we learn that his longest relationship was merely four months. He doesn't see the practicality in marriage or a lifelong monogamous relationship. The impact of external stimuli is too overwhelming. When he tries to act on this possible current romance, where his date doesn't want to escape but just enjoy the here and now with her present company, his potency fails. She's already too familiar and not anonymous enough. Brandon's libido is as sociopathic as the cut-throat business etiquette of corporate culture. String-alongs like Sissy are "parasites," mirroring contemporary rhetoric used in describing Occupy protesters. Whether it's money, other people, or sex, McQueen's film is saying that at root of our compulsive behavior is a pressure to flee away from ourselves, adjusting to a very different kind of "Ghost Protocol."

7. MEEK'S CUTOFF (Kelly Reichardt)

Kelly Reichardt is a poet of the American wasteland, now past as well as present. Old Joy took seriously ideas of uncomfortable human closeness while good liberals listen to Air America and wallow in the abstraction of compassion. Wendy and Lucy, possibly 2008's best film, is the Occupy movement's Cassandra, where an increasingly mechanical and "fixed" system of stagnation stifles the human breath of hope.

Meek's Cutoff is a true Western, floating slowly into the unknowable past where the Oregon Trail feels as ancient as the world of Gilgamesh. The film flees into the past as if trying to escape America and find the solace in that most taunting of abstractions, Freedom. The journeying party on this wagon ride are wondering if the America of the East will follow them, claiming this mysterious frontier for itself. (Yes, in a year - 1846 - it will). Reichardt also has a Tree of Life thrown in (or Tree of Death?) at the end, further infusing this quiet film with the stuff of legend. The travelers are looking for an Eden or a Promised Land, but all they have - and we have - are unanswered questions, and hope running low like their water supply. Are they lost, with their guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) just spewing hot air? Or are they impatient, leading themselves to ruin after they reject his lead? Will a captive Indian take them to water or to death? And is this Native even sane to begin with?

Reichardt refuses to answer any of the questions, which keep on piling up with every slow lurch towards the terrain's mystery, the land being an empty deathtrap and ethereal dream birthed from a romantic gaze at the clouds, evoking the rhythms of Malick's Days of Heaven. The antique world of Meek's Cutoff - including the cutoff edges of the frame - strangely made me wonder about the present, and where we are going.

8. HUGO (Martin Scorsese)

“Where is the father?” is asked by a schoolteacher during an English language class in Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows. Antoine Doinel doesn’t know who his real father is, but he has a spiritual one in Balzac. In Hugo, Martin Scorsese frames his own personal Telemachiad in an activist film about cinema preservation and appreciation. The man acknowledged as America's greatest filmmaker, scholar, and preservationist makes a mature prayer disguised as a child's adventure, alluding to Truffaut, Georges Melies, Jean Vigo, Chaplin, and Les Enfants du Paradis along the way (among countless others).

3D builds the symbolic railway between the world of the film and the audience watching it, making the illusion real. We identify and find ourselves in the art, instead of compartmentalizing it into some distant vacuum separate from life. Films are another dimension set alongside our empirical existence, like dreams, which also play a role in Hugo’s story of an orphan (Asa Butterfield) who forms a relationship with the pioneer of cinema fantasy, Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley). Historical incident and dream exist side by side, like the famous 1895 train crash at Montparnasse, which replays in Hugo’s nightmare and is fantastically adapted by Melies into a color tinted film. Hugo seeks to return to a lost Eden, climbing through branches of endless relation in pursuit of a Root. Everything connects and breathes life through the perfume of art.

Cinema is consciousness, as indicated when Hugo’s memory runs like projected film while he looks at his father's mysterious automaton. The shutter is in our head, and so is the projector. Memory – and so cinema – is resurrection. We are all “waiting to work again” when we hit our funks and limitations, plagued with un-meaning, disorder, and sorrow. Unactivated and passive beings are themselves lifeless automatons. Life has no meaning other than the meaning for which we are programmed, giving rise to intuitions that grasp and reach outward to other beings. A film historian, Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) says of Melies’ movie studio, “It was like something out of a dream. To my eyes, it was nothing short of an enchanted castle, a palace made of glass.” The human author’s heart, for better or worse, fashions a world to fly us out of a meaningless maze of darkness and confusion. While so many efforts during the recent 3D have flown much too close to the sun, plummeting to a dreary, footworn floor of pure machine dominance, Hugo escapes and soars to show us ourselves and our dreams.

(David Fincher)

Fincher's Nordic noir spoiled my top-ten list, because I was so sure that I wouldn't have to put it on. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo taints the flow of a stubborn outline where Hugo would be the only major studio release - and despite the universal acclaim for Scorsese's film, it is far from profitable. The snob in me would get to sneer. After seeing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo once, I thought it was accomplished but not great, but I revised that attitude on a second viewing. Like recent other "contrived" genre films by great directors - Michael Mann's Collateral, Scorsese's The Departed, Spike Lee's Inside Man, or why not Fincher's own Seven? - there's a richness imbued in this millennial cyber fairy tale. Never mind that a horde of folks dismiss it in favor of its Swedish-language predecessor, a debate that's almost not worth having. It's much like comparing Amadeus's Salieri, who has written a small musical piece in honor of Mozart's arrival in Vienna, to what Mozart did in his revision of the same music.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a fitting successor to Fincher's The Social Network, the 2010 Information Age masterpiece where Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is less human than post-human, a machine man, the HAL-9000 in a hoodie and flip-flops. Rooney Mara, who played Zuckerberg’s vindictive ex-girlfriend, becomes Zuckerberg’s Swedish Gemini twin, a cyborg neuromancer lacking empathy and agency, laser-focused in her directives and only silently mourning an inability to find a relationship in the fleshy “normal” world. Both films are about communication, and as dialogue in the “straight” world rings hollow, empty, and duplicitous, the alternative becomes an isolation channeling the technology charging civilization’s empty symbolism, and using that symbolism against itself. This is a society where honored frat houses are in fact debauching pads with women bused in like meat, and the corporations constructing modern civilization have suspicious and inhumane ties. Both Mark Zuckerberg and Lisbeth Salander are rational answers to a world where the inanity of “being sociable” is transparently hypocritical. Mara, with her bleached eyebrows, hard features, and determined if affectless glare, is alien, and so more closely doubling the fearsome tattoo on her body than Noomi Rapace’s more accessible characterization from the Swedish production.

Fincher’s vision of Lisbeth Salander is dually tragic and empowering, unable to fit into our definition of “human” but acknowledging that whatever is accepted as “human” has a foul history deserving of its subversion. On her motorcycle while chasing a killer of women, Lisbeth recalls James Cameron’s Terminator, menacing and invincible in the task of obtaining its quarry. Too honest by virtue of the patterns in her highly advanced thought structures, she cannot be a part of our world and flies away from us. Her ability to assume different identities is because she lacks essence, her riddance of a stable identity a defense mechanism. Her post-human alienation punches us in the face and she flatly defines us for what we are, as actions and characteristics are too often wiped under our Ikea furniture. Mara gives a performance that has been sorely underrated, an unsettling creation with her unblinking stare that addresses our hypocrisies and repressions. She is a portent of what lies down the tracks of the new millennium, waiting for us in a numb new world of packaged emotions and empty dialogue.

10. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (Woody Allen)

Woody Allen's most popular effort may not compare to the depth and emotion of his similar foray into magical realism, The Purple Rose of Cairo (my favorite Woody Allen film), or be of the same meaty stuff as Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, or even the recent Match Point. But it's the most evenly balanced and mirthful comedy of 2011, and certainly the best one Allen has executed in decades, eclipsing Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite from 1994/95. After the first viewing, I was infected with the escapist giddiness that Spielbergian fantasy had on me as a child. It gave me the same euphoric high of consuming a good bottle of wine in the warmest and most attractive human company. Being that I admire Midnight in Paris more with each viewing, I wonder if I'm wrong in saying that it doesn't compare to those other Woody classics; I admit, assuming that The Artist (a picture I really liked but feel has been overrated) doesn't become this year's Oscar favorite, and the Academy doesn't do a major step-back with The Help or Spielberg's fine-but-autopilot War Horse, I would be all smiles to see Midnight in Paris become Woody Allen's second Best Picture winner.

The idea of Midnight in Paris could be mistakenly reduced to a critique of "Golden Age Thinking," the notion that life is always better in the past, as writer Gil (Owen Wilson) experiences the personal wish-fulfillment of being in the heavenly space of 1920's Paris, rubbing shoulders with Hemmingway, the Fitzgeralds, Cole Porter, Dali, and Bunuel. But the usually apolitical Allen is, in his old age (he's 75), cleverly wagging the finger at the culture-sapped present, where the artists exist on the social fringes, hidden by TMZ and Reality TV.

Allen is mindful of the schism between high art and fluffy escapism, and he winks at us while making a fluffy escapist film about high art. But as Gertrude Stein (a wonderfully droll Kathy Bates) notes, the job of the artist is to find an antidote for the despair in life's meaninglessness. Gil's novel is about a nostalgia shop called Out of the Past, which sells antiques from long ago that retain a sense of magic with time while also being "camp" artifacts. Yes, Paris is photographed as a cliche (camp), but it's a city where History and its richness are present on every corner. It stands opposed to the year 2011, of corporatism (the reason why Gil's right-wing future father-in-law is working in Paris, a city and culture he hates), shallow materialism, and a time where "people measure out their lives with coke spoons." Shallow materialism is "pretty sexy" and fetching, like Gil's fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams), but the mindset of Inez and her parents enjoys going to a "forgettable" comedic movie, which "lacked any wit or believability, but we laughed in spite of ourselves." Art is a temporary diversion, nothing more.

And Allen in his "whatever works" philosophy would say, "Fine." But I think he laments that something so forgettable should be so easily processed, while Paris with its rich history is rejected by the same people. This gets to the heart of Woody's nostalgia for a time when the best artists were social icons (compare Ernest Hemingway to Kim Kardashian). Tiresome pedantic fellows (like Michael Sheen's academic) are able to spew out a lot of facts about art, but they're not in dialogue with it. They lack a sympathetic relationship to it, and so exist just as selfishly in the present moment. Gil's a dope (a very lovable one), but he's like the Last Man, always talking with the Past and asking for its advice. For him, the figures back then are not relics to be treated as museum objects, but are living, and in spite of their personal flaws, they can teach us. To Inez, they're just "dead people," but Gil answers, "The past isn't dead. The past isn't even the past," adding, "You can fool me but you can't fool Hemingway." There's something to that, transcending nostalgia camp, and it's essential for whenever we go inside an old book or film, or wonder about a masterpiece painting. Art means nothing unless we are creative viewers and readers in engagement and bridging the discussion with incidents or feelings from our own lives.

BEGINNERS (Mike Mills)

Beginners starts with random pictures from two years, 2003 and 1955: in the respective years we see images ranging from what the cosmos and stars looked like to the visage of the president (George W. Bush and Eisenhower). Bush II's face almost provokes a chuckle, like an embarrassed remembrance of a nation's collective moment of drunken silliness. But that director Mike Mills is going so far as to show our pictures of the galaxy during this opening implies that Beginners', and its hero Oliver's (Ewan McGregor), interest in Time is no contrived whimsy. As the film gradually unfolds, like one of the large music CD covers that Oliver designs, it's apparent that Beginners is about a historical consciousness. Mills wants his audience to understand this perspective, which can open gateways to change and openness, just as it follows Oliver on a path to healing and realization.

Beginners is about how Oliver reacts to his widower father (Christopher Plummer) coming out to him, and how his father's repression in a socially convenient marriage of mutual understanding contributed to the creation of Oliver's present-day personality, in which Oliver cannot sustain a meaningful relationship. The title of Beginners refers to how things change, bloom, die, and then finally turn towards a new beginning. It's a subjective understanding of history (and also an autobiographical gesture on the part of the director), evidenced by how the gay father's coming out is remembered with a purple sweater, when in fact he was wearing a familiar robe. In dialogue with the past and realizing how everything has a context in history, there are possibilities for progress.

Beginners is a very important film politically, relating to our collective attitudes of homosexuality. These days, seven years after Beginners is mainly set, we're arguing a lot about gay marriage...or rather, a lot of us are still wondering why people are arguing. In time, we'll likely be embarrassed about the obstinate fight against gay marriage, just as we are about Bush's goof smile, or for that matter the things society found attractive and "normal" in the 1950s. The question Beginners might be asking – and it applies pertinently to the attitudes regarding homosexuality – is attached to why we hold onto Time in the present as if things never change, while erosion and evolution are happening all the time. Is it a coincidence that many of the same people (not all, mind you) against gay marriage don't even believe in evolution, or are "Strict Constructionists" when it comes to the United States Constitution? In Time, everything seems to breathe and communicate in its changing. We know that this is how Nature and Darwin work. But a strict adherence to Things As They Are only maximizes the birth pangs for new life, prolonging any grasp of sympathy or understanding.

THE DESCENDANTS (Alexander Payne)

Alexander Payne’s The Descendants is a comedy about evolution, its local story informed by the great Darwinian narrative of organisms and environments being shaped by time. Under time’s ponderous and yawning weight that slouches restlessly forward, the Earth and its tenants undergo change so gradual that extinction isn't sighted until the dwindling and final whimpers. In The Descendants, this applies to a man, a marriage, a nuclear family, a tribe, a state, a geographical locale, and a world. But the depression of things falling apart has a jester on its back. The world is equal turns comic and tragic as we try to make sense out of this huge, careless, chaotic, changing thing, making it tolerable by lying to ourselves and each other. A map shows Hawaii, a cluster of islands separate but grouped together. Matt King (George Clooney), whose family roots extend to King Kamehameha, narrates that his home state’s geography resembles his more pressing familial affairs: these islands are all “part of the same whole, but drifting slowly apart.” The analogy underlies the whole of Payne’s exquisitely tempered new film, which is a meditative answer of forgiveness to the guilt that tightly laced through his previous work, Sideways. Whereas the drunken, despicable, yet loveable men of Sideways were addicted to duplicity as a means of keeping the brutal present realities at bay (there’s a motif of rest being interrupted by a knock at the door or ringing phone, always with inconvenient news), The Descendents' Darwinian longview perspective reconciles present-day pressures of jealousy, hatred, and sadness to an acceptance of the flow of time.

The malaise of Matt’s life materializes after an accident involving his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), whose living will mandates that she be taken off life support. They had been growing distant, as he devoted himself to economic frugality and his work as a lawyer, while Elizabeth maintained the home base raising their two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). Elizabeth’s death imminent, Matt is faced with the strenuous work of setting things right at home. But he also must satisfy the desires of his cousins. For 150 years, the Kings have maintained control of lush Hawaiian wilderness, and Matt is pressured to sell the land to real estate developers, a move ensuring exorbitant riches for the already well-off (though spoiled and irresponsible) King clan. Matt’s in the tricky position of needing to please everybody: his bloodline, his grieving in-laws, the people of Hawaii, etc, and only he can make the decision to sell or maintain the ancestral land. “Paradise can go fuck itself,” he says of the outside world’s ideas about Hawaii, the vacation getaway where people are still capable of injury, misery, conquest, and being forgotten in time. During Matt’s opening words of crestfallen paradise, we see impoverished and indigenous faces of Hawaii, a Polynesian locale restructured as a getaway, a bastion of forgetfulness for tourists and residents alike. Matt's situation takes a devastating turn from sadness to insatiable anger, when Alexandra tells him Elizabeth was cheating on him - with the man who will be buying his family's ancestral property. He is a conquered man, the Kings a conquered tribe.

The Descendants contemplates, and beautifully accepts, the present’s link with an ancestry of forgotten voices and faces, whose imprint is there hidden in the grass and waves. The land doesn’t belong to Matt King; rather, he, like everyone else, belongs to it. Payne has a remarkable image of the jealous Matt sticking his head up over a mound of earth, spying on his adversary in the game of natural selection, his wife's lover Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). The funny composition pointedly shows Matt’s insignificance, which is the insignificance of all passionate people. But he endures. He still has tears for Elizabeth, the short-fuse of anger quelled by the great scheme of evolution. Appropriately for this film decorated by Hawaiian music, a form of the hula – ‘auana – apparently refers to “wandering” or “drifting.” And the final moments of The Descendants show the King family, a father with two daughters, watching the heart-tugging, anthropomorphic documentary March of the Penguins. Morgan Freeman’s narrator mentions “continental drift,” the great masses of land moving together and apart over millions of years. The conclusion resonates marvelously, as we may remember that the way Matt's children follow him on his journey is itself a march of Follow the Leader, hatchlings behind the Papa Bird. In Payne’s impeccable hands, The Descendants is a perfect microcosm for a universe that tries to make the best of an unreliable world of ceaseless movement, the centers unable to hold but always still drifting.


Why Bridesmaids? Isn't it overrated, a freak stand-out, a crass comedy that replaces The Hangover with a collection of vaginas? How novel, indeed!

But Bridesmaids, though produced by broh-comedy conglomerate Judd Apatow, is much more clever than The Hangover, or any of Apatow's own R-rated tributes to Animal House and Caddyshack; an annoying sincere utterance, "I did not know it was your diary, I thought it was a very sad hand-written book," is one such example of a movie that keeps on striking gold throughout its duration. Co-written by star Kristen Wiig of SNL fame, I was a little skeptical during the movie's raucous opening, where Wiig's 30-something underemployed single woman has intense sex with Mad Men's Jon Hamm in a variety of positions: this might be another girls night out affair where men aren't only tools, but they're the objects around which women construct an identity, much as we see in a Nancy Myers comedy (the wretched It's Complicated with Meryl Streep) or Sex and the City.

But Bridesmaids works wonderfully and has a identifying center onto which both men and women can find relation nowadays. As the anti-Sex and the City, Bridesmaids' high strung protagonist is more self-conscious of her class status than of her relationship status. She pulls in a $350 paycheck when her engaged best friend (Maya Rudolph) and the other bridesmaids discuss purchasing ornate gowns and taking a group trip to Las Vegas. There's a fear of being left behind while everyone else is on a carefree shuttle of prosperity. Rejected, exhausted, and panicked by the self-consciousness of aging, it's cathartic for me just to see Wiig speeding in her geriatric automobile while Hole's Live Through This blasts on the speakers. Chris O'Dowd plays a well-meaning cop who tries to kindle a romance with her, but when her attachment to Hamm's douchebag bachelor pulls up in front of him ("Hey fuck buddy!") in an expensive car, his reaction is my reaction (or Terri's reaction after seeing Heather and Dirty Jack in Terri): "Oh come on!" Again, the Occupy movement coincidentally has a resonance while watching this, as the gap between rich and poor is grossly off-putting.

And speaking of gross, while some may still prefer The Hangover, or dismal "broh" comedies like Horrible Bosses which are a little too hung up on our civilized repressions, in the hands of these women, crass comedy feels less smug and rib-nudgy. In literature, isn't Chaucer's earthy Wife of Bath funnier than most any other male character? I'm not saying Bridesmaids is Chaucer, but when R-rated comedies seems to be puttering out on their own excesses, this reinvigorates the guilty conscience in tip-top fashion.


CONTAGION (Steven Soderbergh)

Soderbergh's virus thriller is about our relationship to images and technology more than it is about apocalyptic pandemic. As shot, edited, and scored, it's an example of how mass-market genre films should be made, but won't be.

CARNAGE (Roman Polanski)

A chamber-piece that fits in nicely as a follow-up to his masterful The Ghost Writer, Carnage may feel at times like a filmed play, though like A Dangerous Method, Polanski's use of close-ups is impeccable. Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, and Christoph Waltz (absolutely terrific) engage in uncivilized debate. Maybe you have to agree with Polanski's pessimistic sensibilities to enjoy this comedy, and I kind of do; I never stopped grinning while watching it.

MELANCHOLIA (Lars von Trier)

I probably didn't love Melancholia the same way a lot of other critics did (it duels with Tree of Life atop most top-ten lists I've seen). There's something to doing an apocalypse scenario that's also a perverse wedding comedy. The controversial von Trier, whose Antichrist I loved more than this, comes out of his depression by destroying the planet, which was thrilling and beautiful to watch. The use of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde as the score indicates the death-drive pulsing through every frame.


Cedar Rapids (Miguel Arteta)

Moneyball (Bennett Miller)

Sourcecode (Duncan Jones)

The Ides of March (George Clooney)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)

The Trip (Michael Winterbottom)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)

Hanna (Joe Wright)

Win Win (Tom McCarthy)

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)

Great Performances:

Michael Shannon in Take Shelter
Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Christopher Plummer in Beginners
Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life and Take Shelter
Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life
Hunter McCracken in The Tree of Life
Christoph Walz in Carnage
Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn
Ryan Gosling in Drive
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip
Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris
Brendan Gleeson in The Guard
Shailene Woodley in The Descendants
Michael Fassbender in Shame and A Dangerous Method
Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method
Viggo Mortensen in A Dangerous Method
Mel Gibson in The Beaver
Viola Davis in The Help
John C. Reilly in everything
Jacob Wysocki in Terri
Nick Nolte in Warrior
Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids