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!

 

“The Debt”–Did We See the Same Movie?

In this remake of a popular 2007 Israeli movie, the genre label “espionage thriller” is an understatement.   The movie opens in 1997, as shocking news reaches retired Mossad agents Rachel and Stefan (married to each other but now divorced.)  Then “The Debt” moves quickly and chillingly between the 1960’s and 1997, in search for the Surgeon of Birkenau, a doppelganger for Mengele, the infamous Nazi general who masterminded the medical butchery of the Holocaust.

Helen Mirren, playing the courageous Mossad operative Rachel Singer, appears in 1997 for a book-signing celebrating her Mossad exploits retold by  her daughter Sara, who has eulogized her mother in a biography that recounts the heroic capture and slaying of Dieter Vogel,  Surgeon of Birkenau.  This is no typical role for Mirren but she is stunning as the sixty-something action hero in this testosterone-drenched gritty film.  That alone makes this film a groundbreaking example for future roles for actresses of Mirren’s stature and caliber.

The story requires two sets of actors–three actors in their twenties who play the youthful Mossad agents of the 1960’s and the three who play the same agents in their sixties almost thirty years later (1997).  Sam Worthington (as young David) and Marton Csokas (as young Stefan), share an apartment with Rachel as well as romantic inclinations. Jessica Chastain (as young Rachel) is particularly outstanding since the majority of the film holds together centered on Rachel’s heroism.

It is true that the past leads to the present, and each flashback brings new interpretations of events, but regardless of the mixed and negative reviews some of you may read, the mystery behind the Mossad agents and Vogel are clearly laid out. In 1966, three Mossad agents – Stephan (Marton Csokas), David (Sam Worthington), and Rachel (Jessica Chastain) – are brought together in East Berlin for a secret mission: capture Nazi war criminal Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the “Butcher of Birkenau,” and deliver him to Israel for public trial. Nearly 30 years later, these three gather once again to go back into the field after decades of retirement.

The gynecological scenes with the venomous Vogel in which Rachel has her legs in stirrups on the examination table are chilling.  They recall the fear of dentists that “Marathon Man” evoked or the terror of getting into a shower that “Psycho” elicited, but with much more subtlety. In a sneering scene that will be imprinted on the viewer’s brain for a very, very long time, two of the most horrific, unforgivable sentences ever uttered in a movie ring out cruelly from Vogel’s vicious mouth. These excruciating scenes are followed by others. Rachel spoon-feeding the bound Vogel is nausea-inducing in intensity and cunning.   These scenes are not for the faint of heart!

The ending is brilliant, if panned by some critics (not all).  I thought the plot surprised at every turn, keeping me guessing until the very end. What critics could find lame about this movie’s ending  flies in the face of reason to me.  I have not seen a movie about the Holocaust as riveting as this one except for “Sophie’s Choice”,  “Schindler’s List”, and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” but “The Debt” can’t be categorized in the same genre as these movies either.  “The Debt” is also much more than an espionage thriller like “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”.

I can’t believe critics who panned this movie saw the same film I did!  [Warning:  this movie can snap and stretch the nerves of the viewer.]