Best of 2011

Hugo

There are two intertwined stories in Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s inaugural foray into family-friendly cinema. The first — and less interesting — story is about an orphaned boy who lives in a Paris railway station in the 1930s, looking after the station’s clocks and eluding the station inspector at every turn. The second — and far more compelling — story revolves around the French cinema pioneer, Georges Méliès, living in broken-hearted obscurity and running a toy concession at that same railway station, and how he finds himself rediscovered and redeemed by a young film scholar (with the aid of the above orphan). Whenever the focus of Hugo is on Méliès, Scorsese finds his footing, the source of his passion for this material, namely the magic, heritage and history of early cinema. The Méliès story gives Scorsese an expansive avenue to wax lyrical on his affection for the magic of movies, to share with his audience his own captivation with the medium. In that sense, Hugo may be the most soulful, most personal fiction film in his career.

What links the young boy, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) to Méliès (played with world-class gusto by Ben Kingsley) is a broken-down mechanical toy — an automaton — that the filmmaker had fashioned decades earlier and gave away to collect dust in a museum. Hugo now tends to the automaton at the station, determined to carry on his late father’s wishes to repair and rebuild it. As Hugo and Méliès strike a bond with each other, the resurrection of the automaton is but one of many of the film’s resurrections: Méliès’ of course along with Hugo’s resurrection from aimless, fatherless oblivion into a future filled with purpose and the film world’s own resurrection of its own heritage.

Where Scorsese stumbles is in telling Hugo’s story, which finds the director flat-footed and at a loss to capture the pace, wit and energy of a children’s fantasy film. Scorsese has always been more at home in studies of behavior, mood and milieu. As a result, performances from child actors Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz — who plays Isabelle, Méliès’ goddaughter and Hugo’s spunky sidekick — have a charmless, obligatory feel about them. These are one-note performances as is a similarly troublesome turn by Sacha Baron Cohen, playing the station inspector as a queasy mishmash of Borat and Inspector Clouseau. While Cohen and Emily Mortimer, as flower vendor Lisette, have a couple of cute and amusing scenes, Cohen’s schtick never coheres into a fully realized character and in sync with this material.

Fortunately for Hugo, Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker keep Cohen’s scenes tolerably trimmed. The filmmakers aren’t quite as shrewd with the children’s scenes, which often feel protracted and not half as interesting as Scorsese believes they are. Scenes between Hugo and Isabelle benefit from Hugo’s unsparing attention to period detail, but the direction belabors each and every dramatic beat with little regard for pacing, freshness and energy. This is one of the shortfalls in Scorsese’s approach to his material: He has never been much of a storyteller so much as an uncanny capturer of moments and details. While his gifts serve biographies and crime sagas admirably, they become hindrances to the needs of this genre, this material.

But when the movie lands in Kingsley’s hands, Hugo becomes a thing of beauty and profoundness. Méliès allows Scorsese to transport himself and his audience to the halcyon days of the film pioneer’s career, when he perfected early special-effects techniques via hundreds of fantasy and adventure short films. Hugo hits its stride (and Scorsese finds his groove) when it ventures into Méliès’ biography — sequences bursting with visual splendor and emotional beauty. When a young film scholar, Rene Tabard (played delightfully by Michael Stuhlberg), chances on Hugo and Isabelle as they thumb through pages of his film-history tome, we feel that Scorsese has found filmic extensions of his cinema-love in both Hugo, the fledgling cinephile, and Tabard, the seasoned film enthusiast, through whom the director can give voice to the issue of film preservation (the lack of which destroyed much of Méliès’ cinematic output). When Scorsese finds opportunities to lavish attention on Méliès and on early film history, Hugo becomes something special, it finds its purpose in the world, right along with its own characters.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: John Logan
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Michael Stuhlbarg, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Jude Law, Richard Griffiths, Helen McCory

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Position Among the Stars

Preceded by the internationally acclaimed “The Eye of the Day” (2001) and “The Shape of the Moon” (2004), filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich’s “Position Among the Stars” continues to expand his portrait of the hardscrabble Shamsuddin family, trying to make ends meet in a poor community in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. Taken on its own merits, Helmrich’s documentary is a cinematic marvel, both for its intricate enmeshing of personal and societal themes and for its one-of-a-kind style.

The central tension in “Stars” is really one of place: While the family’s matriarch, Rumidjah, favors her ancestral home in a remote village, her sons – Dwi and Bakti – and her granddaughter Tari prefer the more exciting opportunities in the city. Whether in the village or in the city, the Shamsuddins are confined by their poverty, and the choices that limited resources and education affords them.

“Position Among the Stars” picks up with Rumidjah following Bakti from her village to Jakarta. Besides serving as an unpaid city functionary, Bakti wiles away his days tending to his fighting fish. His wife earns a meager income running a food counter while his niece, the teenager Tari, just graduated from high school, seems utterly unfocused on her future. While Rumidjah is eager for her to continue her education, Tari’s commitment is half-hearted, motivated more by a desire for change and escape than by genuine ambition.

Still, Rumidjah presses on in her crusade to nurture her family. She puts up her own home as collateral against a college loan for Tari, a gesture that we can’t help but feel grave misgivings about. After she takes her 8-year-old grandson Bagus to her Catholic Church to pray, Rumidjah gets flak from her son Dwi, a Muslim. The moment pains us because we realize that the sole motive for Rumidjah’s church visit was to guide her grandson – a boy growing up with little parenting – towards positive values using the one resource she’s most familiar with, her religion. Another occasion shows Rumidjah lamenting Bakti’s callousness towards his wife, Sri, and his lack of life direction. Somehow, in spite of her heartbreak and disappointments, Rumidjah trudges on in the face of family breakdown and in a world so transformed that she hardly recognizes it.

What makes “Position Among the Stars” such an astonishing experience is the uncanny rhythm that Helmrich’s camerawork and Jasper Naaijkens’ editing achieve as they bring a marginalized culture dazzlingly to life. The filmmaker’s so-called Single Shot Cinema technique allows the viewer to become fully immersed in the family’s moment-by-moment interactions, as the camera travels among members seamlessly and with striking intimacy. Combined with Naaijkens’ spare, nimble editing, the fluidly moving shots of the documentary – each one absorbing gestures, silences, conversations and the textures of everyday life – produce a cinematic feast of sensory information.

“Position Among the Stars” embraces a wealth of universal themes. The crushing effects of poverty, the seduction of materialism, the death of tradition, the lure of religious militancy on the poor and teenage drift and rebellion to name a few, all are woven into the film’s richly crafted fabric. A mesmerizing odyssey across a landscape of conflicting values – rural and urban, old and young, rich and poor, political and religious – Helmrich’s film ranks as one of the documentary form’s most sublime recent achievements.

Grade: A

Directed/Written by: Leonard Retel Helmrich
Starring: Rumidjah Shamsuddin, Bakti, Tari, Sri, Dwi, Bagus, Tumisah

The First Grader

The true-life drama “The First Grader” could have easily veered into being another patronizing, Western-made treatment of Africans in the “bravely suffering” mold but, thanks to Ann Peacock’s focused screenplay and Justin Chadwick’s sensitive direction, the movie’s achieves a poignant, humanist sincerity. The Kenyan government’s ambitious 2003 initiative guaranteeing free primary school education to all its citizens is this story’s catalyst.

The goal of the government initiative, of course, was to give the nation’s poorer children the head-start advantage of reading and writing skills. But when the illiterate 84-year-old Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge shows up for his free education, he throws everyone – from bureaucrats and administrators to one local schoolteacher – completely off guard.

Hailing from the fiercely resilient Mau Mau tribe and a veteran of Kenya’s anti-colonial uprisings against the British in the 1950’s, Maruge wants to claim for himself a piece of the freedom he fought for long ago. Maruge’s enrollment angers parents believing that the old man has usurped classroom space that could’ve gone to another child in their small mountaintop community. But more insidious is the resentment that the news sparks among those still harboring generations-old inter-tribal grudges and the political opportunism that Maruge’s publicity throws open for corrupt officials.

Fending themselves against these waves of controversy and manipulation are the film’s two central figures: Maruge himself (Oliver Litondo) and his devoted young teacher Jane (Naomie Harris), both determinedly pressing on in the former’s personal crusade. The school superintendent Kipruto (Vusi Kunene) does his best to upset Jane’s campaign to educate the old man, even transferring her to a far-away district – a gambit soundly thwarted by the children themselves in a moving, amusing bit of stubborn, grassroots resistance.

Even decades removed from his years fighting the British and serving time in brutal prisoner-of-war camps, Maruge still finds himself haunted by memories of torture and of the raid on his village in which the British killed his family. The brutality of the torture chambers, merciless British reprisal and his still-resonant grief strike a powerful chord in images and sequences that convey the shattering violence and heartbreak of Maruge’s past without becoming gratuitous. (Warning to parents, however: This is not a child-friendly film).

When the politics and publicity of his situation get out of hand, Maruge himself becomes Jane and his school’s fiercest defender. Indeed, for his classmates – all seven or eight decades younger than him – Maruge becomes the sage chronicler of their national history, instilling them with the value of freedom. Balancing the nurturing charm of a small-town teacher and the flinty courage of a principled advocate, Harris embodies her role convincingly. As Maruge, Litondo – in his first lead role – projects the conviction, dignity and the weary-eyed wisdom befitting the veteran freedom fighter. Given the low profile of the film, sadly, it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that “The First Grader” will generate for Litondo the publicity or the awards buzz necessary come Oscar season. But never mind that — just know that his is the performance of a lifetime.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Justin Chadwick
Written by: Ann Peacock
Starring: Oliver Litondo, Naomie Harris, Vusi Kunene, Tony Kgoroge, Israel Makoe

City of Life and Death

“City of Life and Death” is among the greatest war films ever made. Rich in humanist themes and absolutely unflinching in its depiction of the moral chaos and physical violence of war, Lu Chuan’s film about the Japanese occupation of Nanking in 1937 isn’t merely one of the year’s best films, it’s a powerful work of art and a testament to the expressive essence of pure cinema.

Inevitable comparisons will be made between “City of Life and Death” and Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Chuan’s opening battle scenes between the Japanese invaders and a Chinese platoon – led by a stalwart patriot (Liu Ye) – have the complex staging, the realistic, you-are-there sound recording, and the frenetic yet coherent editing and camerawork that distinguished “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Also, one can’t watch Cao Yu’s shimmering black-and-white photography here – especially the grimy, crumbling interiors awash in shafts of daylight – without recalling Janusz Kaminski’s concentration-camp sequences in “Schindler’s List.” Indeed, even at the level of story craft, Chuan shares Spielberg’s instincts in how to overlap and weave adjoining scenes together, thereby tightening the pacing and heightening their emotional impact.

But “City of Life and Death” is arguably a more mature work than either of Spielberg’s aforementioned Oscar winners. Spielberg’s movies – and, frankly, mainstream Hollywood movies, in general – telegraph their emotional cues so heavy-handedly that, as viewers, we too often feel bludgeoned into submission (this tendency has sunk many an otherwise worthy Spielberg effort). The emotional resonance of Chuan’s film, on the other hand, is low-key, more subtle; “City of Life and Death” doesn’t need to strong-arm its audience into deploring war and its inhumanities because that message reveals itself in the film’s naked presentation of events. Its quiet, understated quality allows viewers the freedom to process – morally and emotionally – the story’s unfolding horrors in their own personal ways.

To protect the thousands of survivors fleeing the Japanese siege, a group of Western ex-patriots in Nanking and their Chinese colleagues establish a Safety Zone. Chuan follows several of the Safety Zone’s inhabitants in their attempts to placate their aggressors, from administrators like Mr. Tang (Fan Wei) who, as a Nanking native, endures heartbreaking loss and humiliation, as well as refugees, particularly the women. The Nanking occupation is notorious for the rampant sexual victimization that soldiers inflicted on the women and girls, both Chinese and Japanese (prostitutes shipped in by the army), and a great deal of this film, rightly so, examines the barbarity and dehumanization of rape.

But in its desire to offer a mosaic of the Nanking saga, the film’s grand canvas can’t accommodate for deep evaluations of its characters – as compelling as they are – beyond their individual function in the screenplay. Characters are variously heroic, stoic, noble or tragic, and so we view them more as types rather than distinctive, nuanced creations. For instance, the storyline of Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a callow Japanese recruit horrified by his experience, involves him falling in love with a jaded Japanese prostitute, and, as such, never transcends the timeworn clichés of the naïf falling for the wrong woman. It’s such limitations that under serve Chuan’s otherwise ambitious vision.

What lingers, though, are not the film’s flaws but its masterful achievements. The power of Chuan’s film lies in the textures of its images and sounds – in the long passages of silently suffering faces, in the eerily peaceful images of the city’s streets littered with rubble and the dead, and in the long, almost-hallucinatory sequence in which Japanese dancers and drummers commemorate their victory. It’s in these moments that the story tells itself, and when we feel that here is that rare filmmaker who embraces the classical essence of the medium. Viewers wishing to learn more about the so-called Rape of Nanking should turn to Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s equally poignant, harrowing 2007 documentary “Nanking,” alongside which “City of Life and Death” makes an excellent companion piece.

Grade: A

Written/Directed by: Lu Chuan
Cast: Liu Ye, Gao Yuanyuan, Hideo Nakaizumi, Fan Wei, Jiang Yiyan, Ryu Kohata, Liu Bin, John Paisley, Beverly Peckous, Qin Lan, Sam Voutas, Yao Di, Zhao Yisui

Senna

When setting out to make “Senna,” his documentary about the namesake racecar driver, director Asif Kapadia scored a major coup when he gained access to the entire Formula One archive. The footage that Kapadia unearthed turned out to be a goldmine revealing Ayrton Senna’s entire professional career, including races, meetings, press conferences and interviews (with Senna, his peers and closest associates). Together with home movies and broadcast excerpts from Brazil (Senna’s home country), Kapadia and his team have managed to create an astonishing tribute to the driver considered a national hero in Brazil, comprised entirely of already-existing footage. Indeed, “Senna” stands as a triumph of Kapadia and his collaborators’ knack for story craft and their ability to sort through a staggering volume of material and piece it together into a unified, powerful narrative.

The only contemporary elements recorded for the documentary are the layers of interviews that add context and commentary to the unfolding footage. As Kapadia charts Senna’s Formula One career from his 1984 debut to his tragic 1994 accident, we hear from motorsport journalists, including veteran Brazilian writer Reginaldo Leme, The Guardian’s Richard Williams, and former ESPN writer John Bisignano, along with professionals like Ron Dennis and Frank Williams, both of whom owned racing teams that Senna drove for, along with Alain Prost, Senna’s legendary rival. The remembrances they and several others – including Senna’s mother and sister – share provide richness to the characterization of Senna that emerges from the footage.

The man at the documentary’s center is rife with contradictions. A devout Catholic, Senna frequently cited his belief in God as his driving force and likened the experience of auto racing to spiritual epiphany. Off the track, Senna expressed deep concern for the impoverished plight of many of his countrymen, particularly the underprivileged children growing up in poverty (an end title informs us that a school founded in Senna’s name in 1995 has since educated 12 million Brazilian children). At the same time, Senna was no saint either. He enjoyed his lavish comforts (he even hailed from a prosperous Sao Paolo family) and his celebrity as he shrewdly cultivated his image, whether as a national hero, a wronged underdog or a boyish scamp. And Senna was not above the egotistical trappings of competition either, as his tense relationship with Prost (who won four Formula One titles to Senna’s three) bears out. In one sequence, Senna is accused of deliberately sabotaging Proust’s chances of winning a crucial race, and we note the undercurrent of bitterness that charge even their off-track interactions. As a result, we don’t like or dislike Senna so much as admire him for his confidence and talent.

Thanks to Kapadia’s exhaustive, illuminating use of Formula One archival footage along with Gregers Sall and Chris King’s skillful editing, “Senna” reaps maximum emotional wattage from every beat of its story. Because of the proliferation of video cameras during the ‘80s and ‘90s, the filmmakers luxuriate in a wealth of available coverage and camera angles to document every major event, complete with close-ups, reverse- and reaction-shots that have the visceral continuity of any made-from-scratch racing movie. Most spectacular is the extensive use of racing footage taken from cameras mounted just behind the drivers’ seats – it has the feel of an exhilarating video game, till we remember that this is real and so are the casualties.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Asif Kapadia
Written by: Manish Pandey
Cast: Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Frank Williams, Ron Dennis, Viviane Senna, Milton da Silva, Neide Senna, Jackie Stewart, Jean-Marie Balestre

The Last Mountain

Director Bill Haney’s trenchant, impassioned documentary “The Last Mountain” chronicles a David and Goliath-like confrontation in Appalachia’s Coal River Valley precipitated by the 2000 election of President Bush. Since then, Coal River Valley has been ground zero in the battle between ordinary West Virginia citizens against the rapacious ploys of Massey Energy, the nation’s third-largest coal-mining corporation.

The documentary examines how, after the Bush Administration altered the wording in the Clear Water Act, Massey Energy proceeded with a campaign to dynamite and raze the ecologically fragile Appalachian ranges for the extraction of coal. Over the ensuing decade, the company racked up 60,000 health and environmental violations. It was only in 2008 that the EPA slapped Massey with $20 million in penalties, still less than one percent of the total amount of fines the company had accumulated.

Haney profiles several of Coal River Valley’s hardiest activists. Among them, we hear from Maria Gunnoe, whose ancestral home faced severe flooding after Massey’s operations altered the neighboring mountain’s water channels, fighting for the preservation of her land and heritage; Ed Wiley, a one-time miner who’s become an advocate for the welfare of the area’s schoolchildren; the activists of Climate Ground Zero, whose civil disobedience campaigns are fraught with dangers and risks; and environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who steps into the fray alongside Coal River Valley’s citizenry.

Kennedy becomes the documentary’s ad hoc narrator, a compelling, knowledgeable voice binding its Appalachian story with the larger history of American environmentalism and a convincing argument for how easily we could replace dirty fuels with cleaner alternatives, i.e. wind turbines (already installed in thousands of sites across the country).

On the one hand, we’re dejected by the enormity of the activists’ challenge: Their opponent, after all, is a multi-billion dollar corporation that enjoys the favors of a corrupt state government and preys on the desperations of poor, job-hungry communities. But their passion and tooth-and-claw resilience leave a lasting impression, and we’re encouraged by the steady successes they have won.

Haney shrewdly skewers Massey Energy, which stuffed its pockets while Coal River Valley’s miners and their families suffered. Indeed, you couldn’t dream up a more compelling portrait of villainy than the real-life collusion between Massey Energy, the Bush Administration and the state government. The whole system was and continues to be top-to-bottom rotten: Haney begins with a one valley’s endangered ecosystem, its depopulated towns, its schools threatened with toxic run-off and its communities plagued with cancers from poisoned water wells and elegantly widens his view out to a nation whose energy infrastructure is controlled by politically savvy mining companies, utilities and railroads (which profit from transporting the coal nationwide).

It’s true that watching “The Last Mountain” is partially an exercise in shock and despair. Our systemic dependence on dirty fuels is a deeply entrenched political and practical reality. But Haney’s film, thankfully, is as optimistic as it is intelligent and incisive, envisioning a future in which we can make clean and renewable energy sources readily available to all. Haney’s eloquently documentary transcends the battle being waged in West Virginia. Its realities and truths encompass all of us – not just Americans, but people everywhere whose rights, well-being and dignity are being trampled upon by the arrival of predatory corporations.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Bill Haney
Written by: Bill Haney, Peter Rhodes
Starring: Robert Kennedy Jr., Bo Webb, Maria Gunnoe, Michael Shnayerson, Joe Lovett, Bill Raney, Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, Jennifer Hall-Massey, Ed Wiley, Chuck Nelson, Don Blankenship

The Last Lions

A quote from Dereck Joubert, the writer-director-cinematographer behind “The Last Lions” crystallizes the moral ambivalence at the heart of his wildlife documentary: “Understanding more about the hunt and the kill as well as our own feelings about life and death is what this is about.” For all the hardships and hostility the film’s lioness-protagonist endures, we realize that her – and her pride’s – lives depend entirely on the success of the hunt. That is, the death of another animal. Without death, life is impossible.

Narrated masterfully by Jeremy Irons, the documentary is a saga of survival in a pitiless environment. After rival members of her tribe kill her mate, a resilient lioness named Ma di Tau escapes with her three cubs from hostile territory in Botswana’s Okavango wetlands. Facing death and danger every step of the way, Ma di Tau finds refuge on a marshy island separated from the mainland by river systems. The island is also sanctuary for a herd of massive wild buffalo – a potential food source for Ma di Tau and her cubs, but also notoriously aggressive beasts.

Visually, “The Last Lions” stands above even the most accomplished wildlife documentaries you may have seen on HDTV. Using lightweight digital cameras – and filming over a six-year period – Joubert captures images of singular, breathtaking power. The musculature of a lion’s body; the terrifying bulk of an elephant seen from the point-of-view of a cub; or, most striking, a lion dying, alone on a plain, while thunderclouds roil overhead and lightning forks the horizon – all these images burn into the viewer’s memory.

Much of “The Last Lions” mid-section examines Ma di Tau’s learning how to hunt on her own, attempting one of many unsuccessful tactics. For all its care and attention to the problem, this section begins to feel bogged down by its repetitiveness since the net result of Ma di Tau’s labors is always the same: exhaustion and despair. It’s heartbreaking to watch her lone struggle, but Joubert saves the final irony for what happens in the aftermath of her first kill; the fate suffered by one of her cubs is too grim to even recall.

All the while, the lionesses from her former pride – including one named Silver Eye, so-called because Ma di Tau clawed out one of her eyes in the film’s opening skirmish – are on the prowl, intent on finishing Ma di Tau and her cubs off. Unexpectedly, though, Ma di Tau, toughened after her labors and hardships, finds herself in a position of power vis-à-vis her less resilient rivals.

In a sense, Joubert has crafted a perfectly streamlined, three-act narrative about tragedy and triumph in the wild – the kind you’d find in any Hollywood adventure yarn. Yet the viewer doesn’t feel manipulated, because, for one, a narrative arc is the most convenient and effective way to track Ma di Tau’s journey. For another, the contents of the narrative are entirely true and its message about what we must do to survive and persevere transcends genre and artifice.

“The Last Lions” is not an easy documentary to watch – a great deal of what Ma di Tau endures we can hardly bear – but it’s an important one. Not only because it shines much-needed light on the life struggles of Africa’s endangered wild lions, but it urges us to confront our feelings about the suffering and death, to reconcile Nature’s implacability with our human capacity for compassion. That it accomplishes this with tenderness and an unflinching eye makes “The Last Lions” an extraordinary achievement.

Grade: A

Directed/Written by: Dereck Joubert
Narrator: Jeremy Irons