My Top Ten Movies for 2011–Reviewed, Not Necessarily New

Happy New Year–the Year of the Dragon in 2012!  Most of all, I want to thank all of you for your comments and email!

With 2011 coming to an end, I wanted to take a look back at the movie reviews I wrote this year.  I am an unabashed cinephile– 500 films (maximum allowed) in my Netflix queue with another 88 in my Instant Queue.  So, when I counted the reviews I have written this year (=26), I wanted to see what would be my top ten favorites.  It wasn’t easy!

This list is not ranked –only my top ten for 2011, grouped by genre.

INDIES:

1) Restrepo (January 24 review)— This was an unforgettable film of Middle East-US conflicts.   No other film–with perhaps the exception of “Hurt Locker”– has portrayed such a visceral view of modern battle.  The cinematographer, unfortunately, died earlier this year while filming in the Middle East for another movie.

2) Departures (February 15 review) (Japanese title: “Okuribito”, lit. “a person sent out or dispatched”)–  This little beauty of a film takes a look into the in-between of life and death.  What Tibetan Buddhists call “bardo”. The humor and pathos are never saccharine or juvenile, an extraordinary accomplishment!

3) Bliss (April 25 review) –This Turkish movie is a beautifully acted cinematic gem that pits village customs against modern urbanization, religion against secularism. Without cultural stridence or judgmental condescension, “Bliss” moved me in ways that other films about injustice towards the helpless have not.

4) The Conspirator (May 23 review)— “In times of war, the law falls silent,” one of the military tribunal commissioners states matter-of-factly in this film  about the unconstitutional acts Americans do when feeling collectively frightened.

5) Rabbit Hole (July 4 review)— Never mordant, though painful, this taxonomy of grief is like no other I have seen in recent memory.  It taps a reservoir of feelings common to anyone who has experienced the reality-shifting vacuum left by a death in the family.

6) The Fall (August 16 review)— Portraits of art in motion in a parallel universe “The Fall” is, above all, visual storytelling but defies easy categorization!  I keep playing with the imagery–in my writing and my art.

BIG STUDIO MOVIES:

Comedies:

7) Bridesmaids (June 20 review)— Comedy is, I think, the most difficult form of scriptwriting and this script proved to be brilliant in the most unexpected moments.   It is vulgar physical comedy that doesn’t appeal to anyone who cannot channel his or her “inner teenage self”. However, if you want to see a comedy that heals wounds while making you laugh, this is it!

Political and Sociological:

8) Ides of March (October 18)— A gripping drama, the “Ides of March” is not a narrative of hope but of the blood sport of politics, especially campaigning.  Every time I see a political commercial, I think of this movie and the lost souls involved behind the scenes.

9) Margin Call  (December 8 review)– Among the excellent films and documentaries about the 2008 financial meltdown, this one humanizes the headlines–through the eyes of a trading floor manager, whose curdling resentment of who he is, results in a deeply tragic, heartbreakingly lonely figure.  Superb acting with Kevin Spacey never disappointing!

Action:

10) The Debt  (September 20)— Pure adrenaline rush, this is no typical espionage thriller.  Helen Mirren is stunning as the sixty-something action hero in this testosterone-drenched gritty film.  I have not seen an action movie as riveting as this one, punctuated even further by the Holocaust back-story.

While celebrating the New Year’s Weekend, why not watch one of my Top Ten? Can’t wait to see what’s in store for 2012!  Cheers!

 

“Departures”–“Between Life and Death”

For a guest lecture I am preparing for a  course, “Philosophy through the Movies”, I decided to select the Academy Award® Winner for Best Foreign Language Film of 2009,  “Departures”,  (Japanese title: “Okuribito”, lit. “a person sent out or dispatched”), a  look into the in-between of life and death.  What the Tibetan Buddhists would call “bardo”.

Loosely based on Aoki Shinmon’s autobiographical book Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician (納棺夫日記 Nōkanfu Nikki), the movie opens with the main character,  Daigo Kobayashi, preparing a young woman’s body for “sending off” or being dispatched to the next world. After the unexpected happens while tenderly and respectfully cleansing and dressing  the corpse, there is a flashback to Daigo as a cellist in a symphony orchestra in Tokyo.  The orchestra has to disband, for lack of funding, and Daigo finds himself suddenly unemployed.  With his good-natured wife Mika, he moves back to his deceased mother’s house in his hometown in the hinterlands of Yamagata.  (Daigo’s mother had been abandoned by her husband when her son was only four years old and had operated a teahouse or coffee shop in her home to support the two of them.)

Spotting a job listing featuring the word “tabi” (or “trip”) from NK Trading, Daigo applies for the position, thinking he is going to start a new career in the travel industry.  Instead, he is stunned to learn that he will be the Buddhist equivalent of a mortician as well as an embalmer who washes, dresses, and applies makeup to the corpse in front of the bereaved.

Buddhism is  the religion most closely associated with death in Japan. But death is also a taboo or “unclean” subject as it is in the majority of cultures.  This universal fear of death and coming to terms with the death of a loved one are made even more fascinating by the ritualistic preparation of the body in front of the grieving family and friends. Understandably, given the nature of the job, Daigo keeps his new profession secret.  His wife and friends think he is a travel agent.

The theme of karma, the sacred nature of all sentient life, and ritual purification are subtly interwoven.   Death, in all its ambiguity, both a sacred and a profane “departure”, is viewed through Daigo’s eyes as he slowly awakens to the necessity and normalcy of his profession.  “Death is normal”, the movie states, and “Everyone dies”, while the scenes of eating in the office reiterate that “The living eat the dead.”

The themes embedded in every scene of “Departures”–forgiveness, compassion, letting go, and sending off–are about the healing of unhealed wounds.  In the case of Daigo, it is a reconciliation through the stone-letter with his absent father; for his wife, it is the misunderstanding of what death means for the living; and for the NK Trading employer it is the full circle of succession and passing on his experience to the next generation.

“Departures” is a beautifully crafted film, which opened this viewer’s eyes to the essential services that funeral directors, morticians, autopsy doctors and all who handle the dead provide for all of us.  This movie not only demystifies the process of closure, which ritual provides, but also the skillful grace, compassion, and respect for “sending off” the deceased, in order for the living to move on. This cinematic gem is, above all, a profoundly empathetic portrayal of people trying to make peace with the finality of death.