Before the Academy Awards I heard a lot of doomsaying from critics about the tedium of Best Picture nominees. “The form is dying!” someone is always bound to say at moments like this, because declaring the premature death of a genre is a way to get a lot of hits on a webpage. This post is all about fresh, innovative films I can’t stop thinking about.
Now, I love a good story — the kind of story told in, say, in such enjoyable but unchallenging films as the Coen Brothers’ True Grit or Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech — but just lately I’ve seen three more experimental films that mess with the genre altogether. They take on different modes of storytelling and camerawork, cross over into stage and formal painting, and sometimes eschew words altogether. The risks they take, and the things they achieve, give me new hope for the genre and make me wonder what film might do next: these films feel exciting, fresh, and wildly successful if not popular. The Arbor, The Mill and the Cross, and Le Quattro Volte are films for pushing out from the form’s limits.

1. The Arbor (dir. Cleo Barnard, 94 mins.): film, theater, biography, legacy

I’ve already raved about The Arbor, pronouncing it to be one of two winners of my own La Jefita awards for the best female-directed film of 2011.  So you’ll excuse me for puffing this one again — it’s just so good. It’s ostensibly a biography of Andrea Dunbar, a precociously gifted young playwright who emerged from a miserable housing estate in Yorkshire rife with the diseases that often accompany poverty — racism, alcoholism, mutual misery. Her plays re-created those voices and conflicts, and was called “a genius straight from the slums.” Meanwhile, Dunbar never escaped that world: she died at age 29 in a pub after a hard life of drinking, bad relationships, with three children born to three different men.

What I love so much about this film is the way it folds many layers of theater — specifically Dunbar’s own theatrical style — into the film. In some scenes actors sit in the middle of Dunbar’s own housing estate and re-create snarling, spitting scenes from her first play The Arbor, as current residents stand around the edges watching awkwardly. In others, we see those scenes re-created more intimately, as if they’ve been done for a film version of the play. Best of all, still other actors lip-synch the recorded interviews done with Dunbar’s family and especially her two daughters, girls left with the legacy of their mother’s gifts and weaknesses.

I’ve always preferred film to theater, mainly because I’ve had only stunningly limited access to good theater, and I’m one of those people who complains when a film feels overly stage-y or when an actor performs too theatrically. I can honestly say that only once before, in watching Vanya on 42nd Street, did it occur to me there might be so much to be gained by an overlap between the two media. Thanks to The Arbor, I’m converted.

2. The Mill and the Cross (dir. Lech Majewski, 96 minutes): film, art, vast historical sweep and everyday life

Isn’t this how it goes? I make a bowl of popcorn (popped in a pot on the stove with olive oil and butter so you can taste a few burned bits); I adjust all the shades in the living room so the light is just right; and I pop my head into the room where my partner is working.

“Wanna watch a film based on the 16th-century Bruegel painting, The Procession to Calvary?”

Blank stare and a flat “no.” And with that, I realize this is going to become joke fodder: Unbelievably Bizarre Films Didion Thinks She Can Make Me Watch.

I watch 15 minutes and cannot take my eyes off the screen. After 30 minutes I press pause and send a frantic email to my Dear Friend, the scholar who knows a very great deal about early modern Europe, insisting that she stop whatever she’s doing and watch this film. (She doesn’t obey, but that’s because she has a job and a life, and because when considering the triage of that job my email falls way down on the list.)

When I took Intro to Art History as an 18 year old undergrad, it was Bruegel above all whose work I found riveting. He loved to lavish attention to the mundane bits of everyday life: the country dances and bread baking and field workers that passed his eye every day — and he rendered those figures with a kind of affection that seemed rare for that era (to an 18-yr-old undergrad, anyway). He loved to see children at play and portrayed the hunch of a workman’s back, bent over his plough, with love.

But Bruegel’s attention to the quotidian could also carry deep political statements. So when I say that The Mill and the Cross simultaneously re-creates Bruegel’s painting and pries it open, you’ll forgive me if I skip all the spoiler details so you’ll experience the same sense of wonder. Just wait till you see the inside of that crazy mill at the top of the painting or the scene of a pile of children tumbling out of bed in the morning — and just wait till it ends.

Just like Bruegel, Majewski occasionally indulges in fantasy — and just like Bruegel, he shocks you with sudden bursts of violence, laced with hints of political significance. This painting was created during a period of Dutch lay opposition to the Inquisition as it had been implemented in part by the state. Spanish soldiers circle around this film, but the film demands that you do the work of figuring out what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it.

But the most amazing thing about this film is that at the same time it teaches you something about art history, it ultimately shows you that we are always blind. At the same time that your eye keeps lapping up detail (JB over at The Fantom Country described it nicely as “the canvas moves”), you start to realize you’ve missed something important. The film has the same deeply humane and reformist vision as The Procession to Calvary, and this is a remarkable thing. There have been a lot of films that purport to show you artists at work. After seeing The Mill and the Cross you’ll be hard pressed to remember any of them.

3. Le Quattro Volte (dir. Michelangelo Frammartino, 88 minutes): mineral, vegetable, animal, human

Where do I even begin?

Let’s begin with Pythagoras, who lived in Calabria in the 6th century BC and spoke of each of us having four lives within us – the mineral, the vegetable, the animal and the human. “Thus we must know ourselves four times,” he explained. What kind of a crazy person decides this is the fodder for a film? Yet that’s what Michelangelo Frammartino does: he returns us to a tiny Calabrian village to tell of those four times (quattro volte) in an film utterly free of dialogue.

Maybe this already sounds pretentious. I can assure you it’s so unpretentious as to almost be a secret. 

Frammartino uses abrupt cuts and surprising vantage points — one minute a bird’s eye view of the village, the next a goat kid being born — and prevents you from feeling comfortable all the while. You’re never quite sure what’s going on, and the lack of dialogue forces you to scrutinize the scenes all the more closely. A long, long shot of a mountaintop or a tree makes you wonder — what am I supposed to see here?

Did I mention the film contains moments of humor that are almost as silly as a Buster Keaton film?

You’ll also be surprised that Frammartino can tell stories of vegetable and mineral just as effectively as those of human and animal. In fact, you’ll be surprised to see how he segues from one to the next, and how you can find yourself so weirdly involved in each of the film’s four movements.

Way back when I started this blog and wanted to create lists of my favorite films, I created a category called “films about existence” — a category that seems eminently problematic, yet still encompasses what these three films are doing. Each of them stopped me in my tracks as much for their innovative narrative styles and intersection with other art forms as for the extraordinary places they took me in considering the metaphysical. I’m going to keep my eyes on the field for similarly innovative, risky films. Let me know what you think I should see.

The coveted La Jefita statuette, based on genuine Bronze-age Cycladic art!

It’s about time, eh? Alert readers know that after posting Part 1 of these awards — awards dedicated to those women bosses of 2011 films — I got mired in a snit about the fact that I couldn’t get access to a couple of major films that were contenders for awards. Problem solved: if I couldn’t see your film, it’s been pushed into 2012 contention.

Too bad for those filmmakers, because look at the gorgeousness of these statuettes!

Just to bring you up to date, the first round of La Jefita statuettes went to a number of terrific films everyone can see:

  • Film of the year (and female-oriented!): Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry
  • Best actress: Joyce McKinney in Tabloid
  • Most feminist period drama that avoids anachronism: Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre
  • Sexiest scene in which a woman eats food: Sara Forestier in The Names of Love (Le nom des gens)
  • Most realistic portrayal of teen girls: Amanda Bauer and Claire Sloma in The Myth of the American Sleepover
  • Best uncelebrated supporting-supporting actress: Nina Arianda in Midnight in Paris
  • Most depressingly anti-feminist theme in female-oriented film: Fairy Tales

Be sure to check out the full post to find out more about honorable mentions, reasons for establishing these categories, and gorgeous images from the films.

Check it out, that is, when you’re DONE reading the following. Because these awards are specially designed for the discerning, frustrated viewer who just wants to see more lady action onscreen — lady action, that is, in all its beautiful and interesting and nubbly diversity.

And now on to the last round of 2011 winners!

Most Feminist Film:

Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground. I was so impressed and touched by this film about a woman’s life as a Christian that I’m still vexed I didn’t take the time to write about it extensively. Farmiga isn’t a showy director, letting instead the story take center stage. She stars as Corinne, a young woman whose faith grows stronger as she and her husband build their family and become part of a hippie-ish community of strong Christians during the 1970s and 80s, including the earthy Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk, below) with whom Corinne has a rich and happy friendship. For many of these years, her faith gives her a deep sense of self and identity.

What makes this the most feminist film of the year is not just its portrayal of how Corinne’s faith infuses everything about her life and enriches her friendships, but how hard it is when she begins to lose that faith and her previous closeness to God. Instead, she begins to notice all the inequities in her life — the minister’s wife who wants to correct her behavior or dress; her husband’s insistence on wifely submission; her lack of other things that might fill the gap left by God and give her life meaning; the emptiness of her community’s anodyne promises of glory in exchange for obedience. At last: a film about Christianity that can be feminist, too.

Honorable mentions: of course David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, despite some misgivings about teensy plot points (see here for my extended conversation about the film with blogger JustMeMike) and Maryam Kashavarz’s Circumstance.

Best Female-Directed Film: A tie! 

Our winners are Clio Barnard’s The Arbor and Claire Denis’ White Material, two films that have haunted my dreams ever since seeing them.

The Arbor by Clio Barnard, is the extraordinary story of British playwright Andrea Dunbar. Dunbar grew up in a miserable housing estate/project in West Yorkshire, and somehow developed an uncanny gift for taking her family’s and neighbors’ conversations and transforming them into a comment on family dysfunction, racism, and poverty. At the age of 15 she won a playwriting contest for her play The Arbor (written by hand, in green ink, as the director remembers), a play so impressive it was performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre and later in New York. After writing two more plays and producing a film, and bearing three children by three different men, she died at age 29 after a young adulthood she dedicated to alcohol in the same way her father had before her.

This film uses Dunbar’s own method: Barnard has actors re-enact parts of The Arbor and, even more effectively and intimately, lip-sync recorded interviews with Dunbar’s family, especially her damaged, mixed-race daughter Lorraine. In the end The Arbor is exactly the right film about Dunbar’s life, using her gifts and her legacy, both the good and the very, very bad. No manual on mothering, this; it’s grim but clear-eyed in its portraits of the long shadow of addiction and bad choices to the poor. It’s remarkable — no matter how little you feel like watching a grueling tale like I’ve described, you’ll be amazed and impressed with Barnard’s terrific film. It’s not often you see theater transferred to film so gorgeously.

I wasn’t sure at first what to make of Claire Denis’ White Material (another film JustMeMike and I discussed at length) but after that long conversation and in the intervening months the memory of it has gotten into my central nervous system in the same way The Arbor did — to the point that I put all the rest of Denis’ films on my to-see list. I won’t go into detail again about the film, since you can read our two-part analysis; but just keep in mind how much it grows on you over time.

Honorable Mention: In a Better World by Suzanne Bier. I also want to give a shout-out to two first-time directors, by Dee Rees (for Pariah) and Maryam Keshavarz (for Circumstance), both of whom we’ll be seeing more from — I hope — in the years to come.

Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep: A tie!

Catherine Deneuve in Potiche and Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs.

Potiche means “trophy wife” and that’s what Deneuve is in this campy comedy set in a provincial factory town during the 1970s. Her husband is a boor of a factory owner whose philandering and health problems combine to get him into the hospital for a stretch, at which point Deneuve takes over the umbrella factory, charms an old one-night stand (Gérard Depardieu), and  fixes everything. It’s not the best film I’ve ever seen, but Deneuve is a delight.

It’s harder to watch Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs, a cross-dressing woman in the late 19th century who has risen to the position of head butler in an Irish hotel. Nobbs’ prevailing motivation is to be emotionally closed off enough to keep his secret and amass enough money to establish a little shop of his own. But when he meets another trans man, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer, whom I’d marry this minute), Nobbs begins to imagine that he needn’t be so lonely.

Albert Nobbs received mixed reviews — unfairly, I think, for I found this film moving and believable and quite radical, despite Nobbs’ limited emotional range. Close is terrific and McTeer should win oodles of prizes for her portrayal of Page. (Tell you what, Janet: you win a La Jefita! Just get in touch, come join me in western Massachusetts, and I’ll present your statuette in person — and in the meantime I’ll figure out what category it is!)

Let me repeat that after reading about Vanessa Redgrave in Coriolanus (thanks again, Tam) I’m quite certain that this particular prize was Redgrave’s to lose. Too bad the film never made it within 120 miles of me. Vanessa, you’ll have to wait till next year.

Honorable mentions: Isabelle Huppert in White Material and Yun Jeong-hie in Poetry. (Let’s also pause to remember last year’s winner: Another Korean actress, Kim Hye-ja from the amazing film Mother [Madeo]. What a terrific acting job that was.)

Best Fight Scene in which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass:

If you’re looking for the sheer gorgeousness of male ass-kicking, go for Gina Carano in Haywire. It was a tricky choice. But the scene I remember as being so memorable was in Hanna, when our weirdly angelic fairy tale princess (Saoirse Ronan) finds herself on a date with a boy, thanks to her new teenage friend Sophie (Jessica Barden, who’s fantastic). Listening to some flamenco guitar music and sitting in front of a flickering fire, Hanna sits next to this boy while Sophie makes out with one of her own until eventually the boy decides the time is right to make a move. We’ve seen this a million times in film — and considering that Hanna has enjoyed all manner of other awakenings with Sophie, we fully expect some kind of never-been-kissed magical scenario here.

Except Hanna has no never-been-kissed set of tropes to work from, like the rest of us did in that situation. So she takes him down. It was one of those movie moments when I was completely surprised and totally delighted by the unexpected shift in a story — thus, even though Hanna was far more impressive in other fights during the film, and even though Gina Carano is an MME goddess, this scene won my heart. Congratulations, Ronan!

Best Breakthrough Performance by an Unknown Actress:

Adepero Oduye in Pariah. You’d never guess that Oduye is actually 33 years old, because in every way she inhabits the awkward, embarrassed, itchy skin of a 17-year-old in this beautiful film. My only complaint about this film was its title, as it’s a weirdly hysterical and misleading concept for this subtle film. Alike, or Lee as she prefers (Oduye) isn’t a pariah at all — she actually has a surprising degree of interior strength as well as outside support. She’s an A student with an unholy gift for poetry and has a growing group of gay friends who, like she, identify as masculine. So even though she has to hide her butch clothes from her mother (Kim Wayans), she has already gone far toward exploring and appearing as mannish and openly lesbian.

That’s not to say it’s easy. Her mother is quietly furious about it (and about other stuff, too), and still insists on buying Lee those awful pink/purple sweaters that mothers buy even when they should know better. (Ah, flashbacks to my teenage years, when my mom bought my tomboy sister shirts with Peter Pan collars to the point that it became a family joke.) But by the time Lee knows she needs to leave this world — and that she needs to choose, not run — we just feel overwhelmed by the self-possession, the determination, of this new human. I can hardly wait to see more of Oduye.

Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Known for Other Stuff:

Kim Wayans in Pariah. I watched every single episode of In Living Color (1990-94) back in the days when the Wayans family ruled comedy, but I had no idea Kim could push herself to such an explosive, angry performance. In Pariah she’s Audrey, the mother of a 17-year-old struggling to come out (and to be herself); but Audrey is also a miserable wife, made even more unhappy by her class pretensions and a scary penchant for isolating herself from others. She’s almost as upset by the class status of her daughter’s “undesirable,” dish-washing friend Laura as she worries that Laura’s obvious dyke identity is leading Alike (Adepero Oduye) to a lesbian life. But there’s a scene at the hospital, where Audrey works, during which her fellow nurses give her dirty looks and avoid speaking to her — and we know that she has dug herself a very deep well of unhappiness she’ll never get out of.

Wayans is more impressive than both Jessica Chastain in The Help and Bérénice Bejo in The Artist, and should have received a Supporting Actress nomination. Oh, I forgot: The Help was Hollywood’s token Black movie this year; how presumptuous of me to think they might have a second! Much less a black and gay film!

Most Realistic Dialogue that Women Might Actually Say and Which Passes the Bechdel Test:

Martha Marcy May Marlene. I feel a teensy bit wicked in pronouncing this my winner, because the film insists on Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, left below) being a cypher, especially to her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, right). Martha has escaped from a cult in upstate New York, and her experience there was so life-altering, so all-encompassing, that she cannot say very much at all that doesn’t sound as if it comes straight from the charismatic mouth of cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes). Lucy is mystified by her strange behavior and her strange utterances. “I wish you’d feel more comfortable talking to me,” Lucy says. “I do!” Martha responds. Except, when you get down to it, for Lucy “there’s nothing to talk about.” Their exchanges are almost as creepy as those with Patrick.

I have a lot of complaints about this year’s Oscar ballot (who doesn’t?) but I truly think it’s a crime that Martha was overlooked for two major categories — film editing and original screenplay — that highlight how tightly the dialogue strings together Martha’s past and present. When she angrily tells Lucy “I am a teacher, and a leader!” and the film cuts back to a past day when Patrick pronounced that very identity for her, and we see how much she absorbed into her soul every word from his mouth, just as she accepted being renamed Marcy May. It’s an amazing piece of writing and editing.

Most Surprisingly Radical Trend in Independent Filmmaking: Trans/Queer Cinema featuring female stars.

This has been an amazing year for films featuring female-oriented stories about trans or queer individuals. There was a point about 30 minutes into Albert Nobbs when I realized the director had created possibly the queerest movie I’d ever seen. It’s not just that Glenn Close and Janet McTeer were women disguised as men; every single relationship appeared queer in some way, from the feminine beauty of Joe (Aaron Johnson) to the 60-something hotel owner’s lascivious flirtations with men to the perverse Viscount Yarrell (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, a feminine man if I ever saw one) and his queer troupe of hangers-on. Given that culture, McTeer’s portrayal of Hubert Page (below) seems pretty straightforwardly masculine. (Oh, also: Janet gives us a gander at her magnificent 50-yr-old breasts with the same straightforwardness. I’m prepared to become a stalker now.)

The best thing about the film is its relative subtlety. When Albert fantasizes about finding a love of his own, he doesn’t want to cease dressing as a man or take a man as a lover. He identifies so absolutely as a man that he indulges in dreams of the little hotel maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska) sitting by his fire and darning his socks — oddly retrograde fantasies, considering that Helen’s not going to be anyone’s little wifey, but queer ones nevertheless. But the film takes its audience so seriously that it doesn’t feel the need to explain. Neither does Pariah need to explain why Lee is both gay and masculine-appearing, or why she wants to wear a strap-on dildo to the lesbian bar. These films let us do that work on our own.

And then there’s Tomboy, Céline Sciamma’s film about a girl passing as a boy during her summer vacation in a place far from home, where she can claim to be Mikael, not Laure. What all these films amount to is a sneaking new attention to — and filmic acceptance of — the experiences of queer and trans individuals, which feels especially radical to me because otherwise our culture is willing to acknowledge the LG but not the BTQ.

So there you have it, friends — my La Jefitas for 2011! Be sure to send along thoughts, criticisms, and of course your ideas about where the La Jefitas should go for 2012. I don’t know about you, but I’m watching the theaters carefully.