To ring in 2012, here is my number one movie of the year:
Melancholia (Lars Von Trier)
Universal and personal, blatant and mysterious, sorrowful and funny, nihilistic and yet, sublimely, romantically, celebratory, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia takes the black bile of its namesake -- the depression of its heroine -- and transforms the “humor” into exaltation. A planet -- a terrifying, dazzling planet that, true to Dane Von Trier’s inspired swan dive (black swan dive) into German romanticism, is set to destroy life on earth: Götterdämmerung via "Tristan and Isolde" (which he uses in the picture’s rapturously beautiful overture), via Ophelia via Cassandra via Von Trier’s own personal mythology.
Clinically depressed Justine (a stunningly raw Kirsten Dunst -- Von Trier’s surrogate) does what’s often expected of those afflicted -- wear a brave face and don that damn wedding dress (a creamy dream of a dress that Justine seems strangled by, until she lifts it up and fornicates with another man on a golf green…). Further, she must embrace love, work, family (no matter how dysfunctional) and rules.
Well, Von Trier cannot accept that fate, and in the picture’s first half, in which Justine destroys her nuptials, her actions serve as depressive, rebellious self awareness: “What did you expect?” She asks. Indeed. And then comes planet Melancholia, inching closer and closer, leaving stable sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) panic stricken while Justine, calmly, grimly and at times, cheekily, accepts annihilation, not as easy suicide but as a kind of cosmic extension of despair. Yes. Finally. Justine isn’t wallowing in depression, she’s embracing, seducing it, and in one of the picture’s most exquisite moments, lying beneath it naked -- basking in the glow of doom.
Von Trier, a notorious and real sufferer himself, sincerely understands depression (just as he understood the horrors of anxiety in his brilliant and deeply misunderstood Antichrist), which may be why he maddens so many. How can he do this to these women? Well, because women do suffer, women get depressed, and not merely in simplistic, eye-rolling, I-cry-at-weddings ways (and Justine is not your usual runaway bride, god bless her), but in complicated, sometimes terrifying ways.
Von Trier gets women. I've been stating this for years and have found myself in heated arguments over my stance. But here's something else -- he’s also in awe, baffled and scared of them, which makes him one of the most honest male (and female) filmmakers working. I, often, don’t understand women. I don’t understand myself, frequently, and many women engage in curious, sometimes destructive acts. Not solely because they’re weak (which is actually a forgivable trait in a person) or simply irrational or evil, but because they’re multi-faceted human beings. He certainly understands much about human nature -- male and female -- but to me, he is the consummate woman's director. Like George Cukor, Douglas Sirk, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder before him (but clearly, his own beast), the experimental, profound, bizarre, sickening, poignant and often genius Dane creates female characters of, sometimes, Joan of Arc proportions -- Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville are the most prominent examples -- and lets them both fight and fold under the weight of their existence.
His women, or martyrs, as many would, often rightfully assert, live in a hard, oppressive world, peopled with individuals who harbor little concern for their goodness or, at least attempt to understand their ugliness. They are human, and so, how they respond to such pressures or the conflicts within themselves often create knee-jerk reactions toward Von Trier. Chiefly, he must hate women. No. He does not. He appears to love women. And then, perhaps like most men, at times, he does not love them. They are maddening and victimized and glorious and, in the end, good (or not?). And master von Trier adds to it all a sardonic touch, spicing up his experimental melodrama with heavy doses of dark humor and personal reflection -- he surely both loves and hates himself as well.
Weaving himself into his characters, he’s sadistic, masochist, empathetic, self obsessed, morbid and morbidly funny and then honest and honestly confused. With Melancholia he grants depressives a gift. Taking Justine’s depleted darkness and imbuing her with celestial life through doomsday, he, to recall another German Romantic, creates an Ode to Joy through heartbreaking and gloriously inspirational…woe.
And ten more (with a tie) to be discussed further soon:
The Turin Horse (Belá Tarr)
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar)
Shame (Steve McQueen)
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Hugo (Martin Scorsese) tied with
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt)
I will explain this tie further but, briefly, these were two of the most interestingly ballsy/subversive big studio pictures the year. A 3-D children's movie (yes, it was for adults too but...) about Georges Méliès (whom many adults non cineastes have never heard of) and the importance of film preservation? A ballsy move. And a popcorn prequel in which we root for apes to destroy mankind? Perhaps that's all I need to say.
Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder)
And I will get to this choice also but, again, briefly, one of the most misunderstood, feminist, wildly experimental, anti-patriarchy pictures this year. Whatever Synder did, or didn't do, he tapped into something powerfully creepy and poignant regarding victimization. There's much more to discuss but for now...
Happy New Year.