04 December 2012

Chickpea and spinach 'quesa'dilla, or Mexican night--part the second!

Tried this one out tonight. It was pretty decent, although again, as with the last Mexican recipe to appear on this blog, it could have been spicier. Fair warning. Feel free to add some more peppers or chili powder or something to kick it up a notch! It was also overly filled and hard to flip, given the wonky tortilla-to-filling ratio. Also fair warning. As always, I recommend keeping a fork handy to collect any spillage from these. There will be spillage. You may also want to try cooking for longer or at a higher heat, or in a frying pan, brushing the tortillas with some oil beforehand, since they did turn out a bit dry and not as hot or crispy as they could have been. Ah well, life is an experiment. Anyhow, if you care and dare, here is how to make...

Chickpea and spinach 'quesa'dillas

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Lay out one medium (8-inch) tortilla on a cutting board. Spread with garlic white bean purée. Top with...

1/4 can (1/2 cup) or a bit less   chickpeas
1/3 cup   chopped fresh spinach
2 tbsp   red kidney beans (as usual, I say that dried, soaked, then cooked beans taste better, but I realize that's super-time-consuming for most, so if you're pressed for time, go with canned)
8   sliced pickled jalapeños
liberal dash   red pepper flakes - OR - 1/4   chopped fresh red pepper
3 tbsp   chopped green onions
dash   garlic salt
dash   black pepper

Lay out another tortilla of the same size and spread with more garlic white bean purée. Press the two tortillas firmly together and slide the whole quesadilla onto a baking sheet. Bake for 14 minutes, or until crispy and hot, flipping halfway through. Transfer to cutting board and slice into six pieces. Slide onto plate and serve with some avocado corn salsa and/or some regular salsa. (This time making the avocado-corn salsa, I added some chopped green onion in addition to the white and added a bit more olive oil, and I must say it was a lot better.) Chow down! Unh!

Grilled tuna-style salad sandwich w/ chickpeas

I do apologize for the lack of pictures in the next few posts. My SD card for my camera is not getting along with my laptop and I don't have the cord that links the actual camera to the laptop so I'm not sure what to do. I'll figure it out soon, hopefully. This looks good, though, seriously! And tastes good, too!

If you're feeling the need for something salty and oily (dare I say, fishy?) for lunch, this is just the ticket! This is basically the exact same as my famous (in my own mind) tuna salad recipe back from when I still ate those little fishies from a can, only the tuna has become chickpeas and the regular mayonnaise has become Vegenaise. I wasn't sure how much the chickpeas would be a good substitute for tuna, and it's not really an exact replica to be honest, but this is still a nice and filling little salad mix. I'm thinking now some chopped celery might be worth a try too. If anyone does that, let me know how it goes. This is quick and easy, and leaves you with some leftovers for future lunches when you're pressed for time. Here's how you do it:

The salad:

1/2 can (or 1-1/4 cup)   chickpeas
2-1/2 tbsp   Vegenaise or other vegan mayonnaise (I recently tried out that brand for the first time and highly recommend it... very rich and fluffy, like the real deal but without eggs!)
2   pre-sliced dill pickle slabs, diced into tiny squares
1/2   avocado, diced
3-ish tbsp   green onion, chopped
1/6   lemon
garlic salt, black pepper to taste

Empty all contents into bowl except lemon. Squeeze lemon wedge over top. Mix together with fork until chickpeas start sticking at least a little bit to the other ingredients. Bam! Done! (This will leave you enough salad for at least three sandwiches unless you like them super-heaping... can't blame you if you do. Refrigerate the rest in a bowl covered with plastic wrap or some other airtight container for later.)

The sandwich:

Put frying pan on burner set to medium-high heat. On a cutting board, lay out two slices of your favourite bread. (I used some organic stuff that had kamut and some other neat little grains in it, and it was delicious.) Spread one side of each slice with vegan margarine. On the non-buttered side of one slice, scoop some salad mix and spread it out until reasonably but amply filled. Top with a slice of your favourite kind of tomato (I usually use grape or cherry tomatoes, but I think I might diversify to another kind next time) and a leaf or two of your favourite salad green: y'all know my favourite is kale, but spinach or romaine lettuce might be another good option. Add a dash of pepper. Put the other slice of bread on top, with the buttered side facing out at you. Place in pan and grill until bread is crispy, flipping halfway through, of course. Put it on a plate and eat it! Rock on!

Crispy kale chips make a good side. A good basic recipe for those can be found here, although I found you don't need to cook them for as long as it said there.

19 November 2012

Black/ kidney bean tacos with avocado corn salsa

There's no picture for these. They disappeared from my plate too quickly for me to photograph them. Sorry about that. Just use your imagination!

Fancy some vegan-friendly Mexican chow? Well, then, you've come to the right place! Given that I'm one of the whitest guys around, and given that I'm certainly not a traditionalist when it comes to food (I style myself as an eclectic experimenter), I certainly can't guarantee the authenticity of the recipe to follow. But I do have to say that I love cooking (and obviously eating) Mexican food above most other kinds, and do so often. I'm pretty much a nacho pro at this point, if I may so brazenly self-promote. Here's a pretty sweet recipe for a meal I just finished. The garlic white bean purée recipe is once again stolen almost completely from Chloe Coscarelli and the avocado corn salsa is quite similar to something on the menu at Earls that I rather enjoyed (or at least, it was on the menu when I worked there).

Black & kidney bean tacos with garlic white bean purée and avocado corn salsa

Garlic white bean purée

1/3 can (19 oz.)   white (cannelini or other) beans (as indicated later, dry beans are always tastier if you can find them but require a lot more prep)
2-1/2 tbsp.   olive oil
1 tsp.   lemon juice
1 clove   garlic, minced
dash each   sea salt and black pepper

Mash it all together in a bowl with a fork or else use a food processor until bean chunks are mostly gone and the mixture is relatively smooth. There might be some left over, which is obviously awesome, since you can use this for other things.


2/3 cup   black beans
1/3 cup   kidney beans (I recommend starting with dry for the beans, in which case you'll want to prepare them as seen here. Canned is less tasty but will save you all this prep time. You be the judge!)
1/4 cup (or a bit less)   green onion, diced
1/4 cup (or a bit less)   red pepper, diced
1 tsp.   chili powder
dash   ground cumin
dash   dried oregano
dash   garlic salt
dash   black pepper
2 (6 inch)  whole wheat (or whatever suits; experiment!) tortillas

Avocado corn salsa

1   avocado, diced
1/4 cup   corn (If it's in season, use fresh, grilled corn on the cob; otherwise, go with canned whole kernel corn)
1/4 cup   white onion, diced
2-1/2 tbsp.   olive oil
2 tsp.   cilantro (again, fresh is best if you can swing it)
1 tsp.   lime juice
1 tsp.   black pepper
1/2 tsp.   salt

Mash & mix it all together until well blended.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Lay out 2 tortillas on long baking sheet. Brush with 2 tbsp. olive oil. Spread garlic white bean purée over top, then black and kidney beans atop that, then avocado corn salsa, then the rest of the filling. Bake for 8-9 minutes or until edges of tortillas appear brown. Wait till not piping hot, then fold over, roll up as best as possible (I'm terrible at this, and if you are too, grab a fork to catch errant filling that falls to the plate. This is a judgment-free zone here.), and chow down! These aren't particularly spicy, so feel free to toss some jalapenos or hot sauce or spicy salsa on there if you need more of a kick. If there's leftover garlic white bean purée, or if you made extra (cuz why not?), it's really good on some nachos in place of the cheese plus your other favourite nacho toppings. Might as well just make it a complete Mexican feast! Olé!

14 November 2012

Vegan Nutella (and adventures in nut-based cheese)

My food processor was one of my favourite purchases of recent memory and I'm making all sorts of saucy concoctions with it. I've tried out a couple of non-dairy cheeses, the first made with walnuts (similar to the recipe that appears here under "Fully Loaded Nachos/Walnut Cheese"--some glorious looking items on that site FYI), and then a couple batches made with cashews (this basic recipe, but I added nutritional yeast and dill and red pepper flakes and possibly some other spices I'm forgetting since that one seemed kind of unadventurous). They were both good but had some downsides. I have yet to get the consistency just right and they're so far much too moist and not firm enough. The walnut cheese was quite good on the nachos, as suggested, and I think had a more intriguing flavour overall, although the cashew cheese was perhaps more like the real stuff overall.

Now, I've moved on to nut butters. I have some almonds raring to go to be made into almond butter but first up was:

Vegan Nutella

1-1/4 cup   raw hazelnuts
1/2 cup   dark brown sugar
1/2 cup   dairy-free dark chocolate chips (I found some of these oddly enough in the fondue area of my closest grocery store, rather than the baking area... your search will hopefully be easier. Godspeed! I've also made my own twist on these vegan cookie dough truffles which included these same chocolate chips, a 'flax egg'--1 tbsp ground flax + 2.5 tbsp warm water & let it chill for five minutes and stir it together--and some coconut milk in place of some of the water. Seriously, everyone needs to go check out Chloe Coscarelli's site: it is a magical land of joy and joyness and you will/already are thank[ing] me for this pro tip. The gal's actually an inspiration to me.)
1/4 cup   canola (or vegetable) oil
1/4 cup   almond milk (or other non-dairy milk... I almost went with coconut)
2 tbsp   cacao powder
1 tsp   salt

Whip it all together in a food processor on a low(er) setting until it looks like Nutella. If it's too dry or thick (fair warning: I like mine on the thick side), feel free to add some more oil a tiny bit at a time. Bam! Done! Have it on some toast! Or toss it in yer baking! I am thinking of baking some dessert with this stuff soon. I'll post the recipe here if I do.

02 September 2012

The joy of blueberries/ Vegan blueberry pancakes

Blueberries, as most people who know me know, are a fruit for which I have a somewhat unhealthy adoration. Can anything relating to blueberries be called unhealthy, though? The volume-to-flavour ratio of these bad boys is simply off the charts. What else packs so much deliciousness into so small a space as these delicate, brightly coloured orbs of pure joy? During the summer, I try to eat as many berries as possible while they are fresh and in season--strawberries are another favourite, and I've been known to partake of raspberries and blackberries on occasion as well. Strawberries and raspberries hold a particularly nostalgic appeal for me, as my childhood home was lucky enough to play host to a sprawling and brambly raspberry bush and a littler but still ample strawberry bush. But blueberries are simply on a whole other level for me. Once you pop the top on a newly obtained carton of blueberries, it can be hard to stop. Mix them in with some granola and yogourt, add them to a pancake batter, or simply devour them by themselves as a snack--you simply can't go wrong with these little goobers. One bite, and it's like a shot of pure energy and delight as the almost ridiculous amount of antioxidants they contain jostle their way into the digestive system; blueberries are an instant cure for whatever might be ailing you. (Well, within reason.)

I was therefore most pleased to discover that Québec is something of a haven for blueberries. I've been lucky to have purchased some tasty assortments of locally-grown blueberries from Jean-Talon Market--which, by the way, is a complete food-lover's paradise and a highly recommended visit--and, amazingly, I found some wild blueberries from a small Québec company called Godbout at Maxi & Cie, of all places (one of the bigger-sized supermarkets of the Loblaw's chain). Wild blueberries are kind of a different beast from what you might be used to--smaller, with a more delicate skin, and coloured the most deep and bright and majestic blue-ish purple you've ever seen. I immediately cracked open the carton as soon as I got home from the supermarket and it was instant bliss as I went to town on them. Luckily, I was able to restrain myself long enough to whip up a batch of killer pancakes with them tonight. Scrumptious and vegan--yes, the two are not mutually exclusive concepts, contrary to popular opinion. I dare say these can go toe to toe with any flapjack you're likely to encounter.


Vegan blueberry pancakes

Dry ingredients

1 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
2 tbsp. white sugar*
1 tbsp. brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp. baking powder
dash salt
1 cup at least wild blueberries**

*Note: White sugar is kind of a grey area when it comes to vegan rules. The way it is processed sets off alarm bells among some vegans. I imagine one could substitute raw sugar for refined white sugar with ease.
**You are heartily encouraged to go as hog-wild as you wish with the blueberries or, for some variety, use a different fruit--perhaps bananas (which would go nicely with the cocoa) or apples (which would go nicely with the cinnamon).

Wet ingredients

3/4 cup water*
1/2 cup coconut milk*
1 tbsp. canola/ vegetable oil
1 tsp. vanilla extract

*Note: I like my batter quite thick, so please feel free to adjust the ratio of water to coconut milk. Hell, now that I think about it, maybe add some toasted coconut flakes up on the dry ingredients there.


Set lightly oiled frying pan on element cranked to medium high. Or, if you have a griddle, use that in a similar fashion.
Mix together dry ingredients until well blended in a large bowl.
Whisk together wet ingredients in separate, smaller bowl until smooth.
Form a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet. Blend it all together until smooth with no lumps or dry powder hanging about on the outskirts.
Use 1/3 cup measuring cup to scoop out batter and drop into the frying pan, flattening (carefully, since the batter will be quite sticky) with a turner.
Cook until golden-brown on each side.

Yield: 4-5 medium-sized pancakes or 3 giant ones.

Extra pro-tips: I recommend spreading some margarine (vegan-type) and Nutella on top of them and then bracing yourself for a flavour explosion. Of course, if you want to make it extra-Québec-ish, some pure maple syrup would undoubtedly not go amiss. I swear if you use any of that Aunt Jemima crap on these bad boys, however, I will cut you. Fair warning. Bon appetit!

10 August 2012

Food-related ramblings & Summery Couscous-Kidney Bean Salad

I realize I haven't updated this blog in a while and I have no good excuse. I've decided to come back to talk about something I haven't been so vocal about as of yet: food. I love food. It's something so essential and yet something we find such pleasure in when done properly. Among our basic needs, satisfying our craving for food is generally more wondrous than, say, breathing or drinking water (although those are fun impulses to indulge once in a while, I suppose, like maybe after a good, long run). Lately I've been watching those TED Talks, particularly those about food, and while some of them were garbage, a few were inspiring and perceptive. One featured a man by the name of Heribert Watzke who claimed, I believe quite accurately, that humans distinguish themselves from other animals primarily because we can cook. Our bodies, our mouths, are biologically adapted to be able to process a softer, less tough sort of food--that is, cooked food. We are not necessarily carnivores or herbivores or even omnivores but, as he put it, coctivors--eaters of cooked food. He finally concluded with a claim that even philosophers should change their ideas about the basis of humanity-it's not cogito ergo sum but coquo ergo sum (not "I think, therefore I am," but "I cook, therefore I am"). Of course, I'm also a long-time fan of the Food Network, although some of those are, again, better than others--Good Eats yay, Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, nay (although I can see the fun, gluttonous appeal of that one, now that I'm actually trying to get healthy, it's not all that helpful)!

All that is to say that I feel that cooking is a primary human operation, and one that I'm trying, now that I have copious amounts of free time, to get better at. As some of you know, I worked as a line cook for just over three years at Earls in Lethbridge, AB, and before that I spent several months in the same position at Cheesecake Cafe. My time there was pretty influential and fun. Obviously, I wouldn't have stayed as long as I did there if I didn't feel a strong attachment to cooking and have fun while doing it, although of course paycheques were also a big incentive. I also learned a lot of cooking skills there that I feel like a lot more people should have the opportunity to learn. Too many people approach cooking as a daunting task that is an inconvenience, something to get out of the way, when really it is quite rewarding. It's also an art that requires imagination, and that's what I'm really trying to work on right now.

As some of you might also know, I made a decision back in April to stop eating or buying meat and other products of animal slaughter like gelatin. The reasons for this choice are kind of extraneous to the main point of this post, but they were multifarious--I wanted to lose weight and lower my blood pressure (which was starting to climb at that point and which, as a type-1, insulin-dependent diabetic, I have to keep a closer eye on than most as it compounds pre-existing symptoms), I knew too much about the way the meat industry works to support it any longer even if its products tasted delicious (not just the brutality and inhumanity of the killing but the inefficiency and unsustainability of the whole operation--it just burns through resources like grain and water and gas to transport the meat around like nobody's business), and mainly I just feel like if more people swore off meat or at least reduced their intake of it, we would absolutely have enough food to feed everyone on the planet (just think of how much arable land is used up by the meat industry, and how much grain, corn, etc. is fed to animals raised solely to be killed that could instead be used to feed people).

But I digress. Becoming vegetarian (ovo-lacto-vegetarian to be precise... although I'm starting to replace milk with almond milk and coconut milk in the case of baking, and I always have tried to buy free-range eggs... although apparently claims of 'free-range' and 'organic' are hard to trust anymore) means that you basically need to learn how to cook properly and creatively. Which challenge I've taken up during this lazy summer. And it's stoked my passion to cook once more and made me want to develop my skills and creativity to be better than I'd been before. I've come up with a roster of new recipes--with a little help (OK--a lot, sometimes) from my friends of course.

Here's a delicious one I tried out today! (And I'll try and post more of them in the coming days, weeks, whenever...)

Summery Couscous-Kidney Bean Salad


  • 1/2 cup   cooked kidney beans (I went with the dried kidney beans this time and it made a world of difference compared to canned... soak these overnight in the refrigerator in 1-1/2 cups of water, then cook them in a saucepan by bringing them and about the same amount of water to a boil along with 1 tbsp canola oil, then simmering on just-under-medium heat [3.5-4 level on most stoves] for 75 minutes or until tender)
  • 1/3 cup   couscous (cook this by boiling 1/3 cup salted water and 2 tsp canola oil and then pouring the boiling water over the couscous, then waiting 3-4 minutes for the couscous to puff up and absorb the water, then stirring in about 2 tsp margarine until the grains are fluffy and not sticking together)
  • 1/2 cup   chickpeas (I used canned but if you have dried and the time to prepare/cook them beforehand, go for it)
  • 1/3 bunch   green onions, chopped
  • 1/4   red onion, diced
  • 3   grape/cherry tomatoes (I like the sweetness of this kind of tomato and it went nicely with the sweet-and-sour nature of the red onion but a more hearty tomato could be subbed)
  • 1 tsp   thyme (basil might be worth a try instead of thyme, too, as it pairs better with sweeter tomatoes--but then again, this worked like a charm)
  • 1 tsp   parsley (if you have cilantro, use that instead, and maybe even drop the thyme too... I didn't have any but I imagine it would be better/ more Mexican-style)
  • 1/2 tsp   pepper
  • 1/2 tsp   salt
  • 1/2   lime, squeezed over top
  • dash   lemon juice (or 1/2 real lemon, squeezed over top, if you have it)
  • 1-1/2 tbsp   canola oil

After cooking the kidney beans and couscous (and chickpeas if they aren't yet), put them in a large bowl and then add in all other ingredients, mixing together well. Let it chill in the refrigerator for a few hours before serving for optimum deliciousness. Serves 2 normal people, or 1 hungry bastard. Makes a great lunch!

According to the recipe I based this off of (credit where credit is due), black beans, corn, and a chopped red pepper would also make nice additions, and couscous could be substituted for orzo. I really just used what I had on hand, which meant omitting those things. I think mine is more sweet and light and suited to the summer but that would be nice to try too, and maybe more filling. Bon appetit! More recipes to come, hopefully.

06 May 2012

“Gerrying the Rendezvous:” Spatialized Time and the Elusive Search for the Point in the Cinema of the Desert

It's about to get all academic up in here. Given the topic, I figured I might as well post this full essay for my film theory class here, on this generally film-related blog, for all to see and enjoy and probably be highly confused by... I was even confused by some of this. I talk mainly about Nostalgia for the Light, a stunning documentary from last year that, as loyal readers will know, snuck its way onto my list of the best films of 2011, and Gerry, a hyper-minimalist effort from Gus van Sant from 2003 that features Matt Damon and Casey Affleck wandering around in a desert that I only recently got around to seeing. I hope I made some larger points about how cinema works that might prove of interest. (I also ramble on a lot about Bergson, but then, when do I not do that?) Enjoy!


“Gerrying the Rendezvous:” Spatialized Time and the Elusive Search for the Point in the Cinema of the Desert 

The desert-as-cinematic-landscape is a site wherein time is frequently spatialized. The vastness and harshness of the physical terrain takes on a temporal dimension when it comes into contact with cinematic processes. A key example: the protracted sequence where Lawrence turns back to save a colleague left behind in Lawrence of Arabia, until his figure is finally discernible, starting as the most infinitesimal point on the horizon and then growing ever-so-gradually larger until its human form can be identified. Films set in the desert tend to extract temporal duration from the more immediately evident physical vastness of the landscape. Lawrence of Arabia suggests that the desert affords the viewer uncommonly clear and piercing vision—the desert’s very expansiveness and its monochromatic topographical homogeneity (golden sand as far as the eye can see, with maybe a cactus here and there for the sake of natural variety) allows figures miles apart to see each other, if only indistinctly. Yet the increased visibility activated by the desert is often complicated by the phenomenon of the mirage, whose indistinctness masks not something real, as was the case with the hazy point in Lawrence of Arabia, but an imaginary object. The mirage also takes on temporal qualities in the cinema of the desert, aside from expressing a certain “indiscernibility [. . .] of an actual image and its own virtual image. [. . .] of the real with the imaginary” that marks it as particularly cinematic in its capability to produce illusion and uncertainty (Deleuze 273).

There is such an ambiguity at play in the early moments of the previously mentioned shot from Lawrence of Arabia, which Roger Ebert’s description of the moment emphasizes and which is worth quoting at length for the metacinematic implications it uncovers:

  • There is a moment in the film when the hero [. . .] has survived a suicidal trek across the desert and is within reach of shelter and water—and he turns around and goes back, to find a friend who has fallen behind. This sequence builds up to the shot in which the shimmering heat of the desert reluctantly yields the speck that becomes a man—a shot that is held for a long time before we can even begin to see the tiny figure. 

This simple description leads directly into a somewhat more profound discussion of the origins of cinema. Ebert’s mention of “the speck that becomes a man” in Lawrence of Arabia recalls Mary-Anne Doane’s discussion of the point as the essence of the photograph, which is itself the essence of cinema. Doane’s theory responds to Henri Poincaré, who argued for the non-actualizable-existence of the point but who saw its usefulness as a geometrical abstraction, and Etienne-Jules Marey, who, in “contracting the image to a point,” while not his intention, provided “the condition of possibility [. . .] for cinema” (Doane 217). Doane argues, however, that “in the cinema, the image as point is precisely what the spectator does not see, what is not accessible. Just as the line conceals its ontological dependence upon the point, the projected illusion of continuity in cinema hides the independent existence of the photogram” (217). Cinema is particularly crafty, in other words, about concealing its own origins; the point in Lawrence of Arabia, therefore, cannot remain a point for long. It must move from the abstract to the concrete form of the man (or else be lost or scattered, which, as we will see, is precisely what occurs in Nostalgia for the Light and Gerry), just as cinema as a whole arises from the photograph by transforming its stillness to motion and its point to linearity. Ebert’s talk of “becoming” also brings to mind Henri Bergson, who asserts that reality is experienced as a “continuity of becoming” rather than “a discontinuous multiplicity of elements, inert and juxtaposed” (171). The same continuity is also essential to cinema, as we can see from Lawrence of Arabia as well as the following examples. Cinema cannot persist in stasis, but must, along with the point, become.

One scientist in Patricio Guzman’s documentary Nostalgia for the Light brings up the fact that light does not travel from its source to our eyes instantaneously. Light from the sun, for example, takes eight minutes to arrive to earth. One thus always sees an image at least slightly mediated by time; everything has past by the time we see and process it. This scientific fact should serve to destabilize even the securest notions of present. We are always involved in a process of becoming and never just are. The point, as posited by Marey and questioned by Doane, cannot, therefore, really exist in a Bergsonian view of the world that entails continuity. Marey aimed paradoxically to study movement by ceasing it from moving, isolating it via chronophotography into discrete slices of recorded time. While this allowed Marey to determine extremes of movements that might not have been readily apparent before the advent of photography, as well as a way to chart the trajectory of a moving object and calculate speed, his phrase “characters of a movement” seems disconnected from reality (54). These “characters of a movement” are precisely what Thierry de Duve had in mind when he explored “the paradox of the unperformed movement and the impossible posture” (115). De Duve notes that there can be no stasis in movement, reality, or events:

  • Either the photograph registers a singular event, or it makes the event form itself in the image. The problem with the first alternative is that reality is not made out of singular events; it is made out of the continuous happening of things. In reality, the event is carried on by time [. . .] the discus thrower releases the disc. In the second case, where the photograph freezes the event in the form of an image, the problem is that that is not where the event occurs. (115-16) 

Bergson, de Duve, and Doane all seem to be in agreement that there is a fundamental disconnect between the lived experience of time and what the photographic image makes of it; the photograph puts a disturbing halt to temporal continuity and cannot depict events because events proceed and are not locked within static images. Perhaps this is why cinema—even cinema that takes as its subject the clear, uniform space of the desert, where time seems most free to exert its presence without man-made or even much natural distortion—struggles to find its way back to the point (in its many manifestations); there never really was one (in more than an abstract sense). The desert, it seems, can become as temporally and physically obscure as any more topographically complex landscape when it enters the cinematic realm, which creates a mirage effect that often serves to obscure the point in its numerous instantiations.

In Nostalgia for the Light, the desert is established at the outset as an ideal vantage point from which to look in at what lies beneath the surface of the earth, and to look far out at the vastness of the cosmos. The Atacama Desert in Chile, with its clarity and spaciousness, presents the possibility to the real people in Guzman’s documentary of unearthing the past on a personal and astronomical level in order to find a stable present and possibly push toward a future by understanding where we came from. How much can we really uncover though? In Nostalgia for the Light, we experience multiple time-scales, from the deepest recesses of the astronomical past, which are clearly observable and interpretable with the aid of the telescope, to the more recent past, which should be more accessible but which is, in reality, obfuscated by political manipulations. Can that link to the personal past be recovered? The women in Nostalgia for the Light, who search out in the sand for their loved ones killed in Pinochet’s concentration camps during the brutal period of his regime, their body parts strewn haphazardly across the Chilean sands, struggle in vain to piece together the bodies of the deceased and thus their own personal past, which leads to the impossibility of emotional closure. The archive represented by the skeletons cannot be completely reformed (some bones and fragments remain out of reach), pointing to a broader failure of the cinema to adequately capture history and political reality despite its inherently factual basis. Sociopolitical truth, in the form of the bone fragments, gets lost, along with the point, in the illusory, incessantly unspooling mechanics of the cinema.

The point in Nostalgia for the Light is not singular, then, but indeed almost unimaginably multiple and diffuse, represented on screen by the infinite number of stars at which the astronomers gaze and ponder; the bone fragments of the victims strewn about the desert that may be impossible to reconfigure into a whole skeleton, a suitable and total entry in the archive; and even the fine grains of dust and sand that whip about the Atacama Desert and, in a handful of poignantly beautiful shots, twinkle and flit about the frame with glittering intensity as the astronomers and interviewers go about their work. The pointillist multitude embodied by various figures in Nostalgia for the Light points to the irretrievability of the past, at least in its entirety, and yet it is not actually reflected in Guzman’s technique; his shots, rather than suffering from any visual indistinctness associated with this lack of focus, have an almost piercing clarity, and the movements of the camera are always slow, controlled, and steady, never uneasy. Genevieve Yue skillfully sums up Guzman and cinematographer Katell Dijan’s approach as “elegant and exacting,” marked by a “patient gaze” and “steady pans.” Guzman’s precise, slow and steady technique is uniquely well-suited to his topographical subject—the desert, with its dry, cracked earth extending out to the horizon beneath shimmering blue sky and blazing, ferociously bright sun, has its own clarity and its own precision, and exerts its own exacting influence on the life that comes into contact with it.

How do we reconcile the extreme destruction and diffusion of the point in Nostalgia for the Light with the vividness of its technique, wherein nothing seems logically able to hide? If we follow de Duve’s reasoning, Guzman’s technique presents no hurdle at all, and indeed enhances the tragedy of the film’s (and its characters’) likely futile searches for the origin. De Duve asserts that, “the aesthetic ideal of instantaneous photographs is sharpness,” and that, in contrast with blurrier photographs of longer exposure, the snapshot is inherently traumatic: “the photograph is not traumatic because of its content, but because of immanent features of its particular time and space” (119). Its sharpness makes Nostalgia for the Light analogous to the snapshot (“time-lapsed stars” notwithstanding), and, if we follow de Duve’s reasoning, thus serves to amplify the traumatic impact of its futile searches (Yue). Like de Duve’s example of a quintessentially traumatic photograph, a shot of a South Vietnamese general about to execute a Vietcong officer, Guzman’s film deals with acts of politically-oriented killing. Both are deeply unsettling events to consider, but there is another, deeper layer to the traumatic nature of both photograph and film. “Although the traumatism seems to be generated by the depiction of the atrocities of war and assassination,” argues de Duve,

  • it depends instead on the paradoxical ‘conjunction of the here and the formerly.’ [. . .] Rather than the tragic content of the photograph, even enhanced by the knowledge that it has really happened [. . .], it is the sudden vanishing of the present tense, splitting into the contradiction of being simultaneously too late and too early, that is properly unbearable. (119-21) 

The traumatic nature of Nostalgia for the Light extends far deeper than its explicit content of political atrocities: we watch the film knowing that we are too late to rescue these disappeared souls from their dismal fates but too early to see their loved ones at peace, just like we are too late to save the Vietcong soldier but too early since his assassination has not yet occurred at the moment when the photograph was taken. De Duve’s suggestion that the snapshot represents a “vanishing of the present tense” squares with that aforementioned notion that light always arrives from the past, and thus by the time we see and experience an event, it has already dissipated, obscured behind the veil of time. This is why Nostalgia for the Light is such a magnificently ironic title; light, with its seemingly instantaneous rate of transmission, should be the one thing for which we should not need to have nostalgia, the one thing that cannot be temporally obscured—yet time dims even the brightest, nearest light. The formal sharpness of Nostalgia for the Light, rather than making the retrieval of a stable past—and thus a steadying of the present—easier, only pushes it further out of reach.

The ‘too-late’ need not be considered wholly negative, though; while de Duve gleans traumatic implications from it, Deleuze sees something hopeful and maybe even redemptive about the ‘too-late’-ness of photography and the cinematic image. It can lead to an entirely new way of understanding and appreciating the world. For Deleuze, the too-late becomes “the sign of the time-image in the place where time makes visible the stratigraphy of space and audible the story-telling of the speech-act” (270). If we can navigate these layers and learn from these stories that the too-late reveals for us, we need not feel hopeless but indeed can advance and thus be right on time for life’s next event. In the most basic terms, the ‘too-late’ can slide into the ‘too-early’ and finally to the ‘right-on-time’ as time marches on and loops back on itself. The climactic sequence in Gus van Sant’s Gerry demonstrates just such a process in action, as we are initially unsure whether the dim light through which our protagonists stagger towards the horizon will become a sunset (suggesting they are too late) or into a sunrise (suggesting they are too early). Gradually, it is revealed to be the latter option as the light gets gradually brighter, and, finally, as noon rolls along (the right-on-time, in van Sant’s formulation), redemption arrives, although it is clearly not without trauma. Gerry thus synthesizes Deleuze’s and de Duve’s conceptions of the ‘too-late.’

“Memory has a gravitational force,” Guzman tells us in Nostalgia for the Light, with echoes of Bergson, and indeed, memory, along with time, is given a sense of weight and spaciousness here. The act of recalling the past implies not just the formation of mental pictures here; it involves a more total bodily engagement, sensory processes, and a spatial as well as a temporal dimension. An aging architect—certainly no stranger to the blueprint in his line of work—and one-time political prisoner of Pinochet, memorizes through measurement, sketching out the dimensions of his prison cell and retracing the length and width with his feet in order to better hold onto the memories the terrible experiences that occurred therein. The sensory process of memory in Nostalgia for the Light recalls Bergson’s dictum, “To picture is not to remember;” there needs to be a more intensive bodily process involved in “pure memory,” if such a state can ever be truly approached (173; 170). “[A] recollection [. . .] tends to live in an image; but the converse is not true,” Bergson asserts, and indeed memory and time move beyond and envelop mere images here (173-74). Memory surrounds the characters in Nostalgia for the Light, becoming external to them rather than residing in their psyches; they embody Deleuze’s suggestion that “[m]emory is not in us; it is we who move in a Being-memory, a world-memory” (98). The architect’s retracing of his steps, as well as the searches in the desert show just such movement in a “world-memory.” It is not enough for the women scouring the desert for the remains of their loved ones to simply recall an image of them; they need something more—a physical remnant achieved through their own physical exertion, a purer memory—before closure can be achieved. The astronomers can look far into distance and the past, yet they will never quite find, with any definitiveness, the point they seek—the spatial and temporal origin of the universe. “Science is never resolved,” notes one of the astronomers in Guzman’s film, and science is indeed revealed here to be yet another facet of life caught up in the endless cycle of becoming. Nostalgia for the Light maps time onto its terrain: the deeper into the sand one digs, the farther out into space one looks, the further back in time one reaches. You may not ever quite be able to find precisely what you are looking for, though: these physical retracings may come closer than mental images to achieving “pure memory,” but it is an asymptotic approach that never quite meets its final target.

As in Nostalgia for the Light, a spatialization of time—and a sense of hopelessness at the unnavigability of the archive—occurs in Gerry. Our lost wanderers, both named ‘Gerry’ (identity is evidently blurred here as much as time), are not merely trying to return to a specific location but to a specific time. In doing so, they traverse quite literalized Deleuzean “peaks of present and sheets of past,” yet they are pulled irrevocably, via van Sant’s excruciatingly long takes, into the future, with violent consequences (Deleuze 98). The desert is again set up as an ideal site for spatial as well as temporal discoveries at the beginning of the film (our heroes are quite eager to get to “the thing”—i.e., the end point of their hike—and indeed “everything leads to” that “same place”), but eventually the terrain begins posing devastating problems for the characters who discover that they can no longer find their way back to the starting point. The point remains singular in Gerry, not multiplied and spread out as in Nostalgia for the Light (although it takes on both obvious spatial as well as less obvious temporal dimensions). Instead, the problem for the Gerrys is that the point is obscured by geological formations like hills, mountains, and boulders, as well as the sheer vastness of the topography. In temporal terms, the point remains irretrievably on a sheet of past which they cannot access, to which they cannot return; they must either remain stagnant (in the present) or march forward (to the future), however slowly they might proceed. Indeed, the relentless focus on the point seems eventually to be the very thing that dooms the Gerrys; it keeps them from moving forward towards the future and salvation.

As much as Gerry emphasizes its characters’ hopeless circular movements, it is in this sense an immensely forward-oriented film. Its climactic scene features just such forward motion, described vividly by Devin McKinney: “Little Gerry [Casey Affleck], skinny and spectral, is in the foreground, while Big Gerry [Matt Damon] leads the way to the vanishing point, which is forever vanishing as the shot grinds on and the death march continues” (44-45). McKinney’s mention of “the vanishing point” opens up some compelling possibilities: perhaps in their search for the point, the Gerrys have simply picked the wrong point, and it is merely a matter of reorienting themselves towards this new “vanishing point” that arises towards the end of the film. Yet the fact that it is a vanishing point carries with it sinister undertones. The Gerrys, as they march ever closer towards this new point, are in danger of vanishing along with this point, their bodies not only expiring but merging with their surroundings, enveloped by the vastness of the desert and by the cinematic machinery that contains them. 

The threat of death and—worse—complete disappearance is omnipresent in Gerry, permeating various elements of its production. Often, the framing emphasizes the sheer scale of the desert, and the smallness of the Gerrys embedded within it, to the point that they become nearly invisible. The direction of the climactic “death march” has disorienting connotations: the Gerrys, after shambling along for so long from left to right, suddenly reverse course and move from right to left. This is an “inexplicably tense and uncomfortable” reversal that destroys the convention of left-to-right movement earlier established, along with the sense of psychological and temporal*  stability this more intuitive staging choice generates in the viewer (Giannetti 104). (Admittedly, the jury is still out on whether or not this left-to-right screen direction only seems more intuitive for Western viewers, given that we read left to right, while many Asian and Arabic cultures read in the opposite direction.) The directional reversal marks a “jam or break” in the “sensory-motor schemata,” and thus this sequence, with its minimal formal embellishments, counts as a “pure optical-sound image” that carries with it an excess of both “horror” and “beauty” (Deleuze 20). The music undergoes a dramatic shift in this sequence; the natural diegetic soundtrack is gradually invaded by gentle, subtle, yet unnerving electronic music, almost reminiscent of a video game-style ‘game over’ theme. (The subtlety of this minimalist electronic score also differs from the earlier, more omnipresent piano melody that was more obviously sombre and despairing; the death march theme seems all but drained of emotion, which makes it, paradoxically, eerier.) The mechanical quality of this music reflects the linear movement through space, which seems, under the stresses of time (the length of the shot combined with the pace of the walking), to turn the Gerrys into machines. In continuing with its spatialization of time, Gerry’s linear death march realizes a linear conception of time that goes hand in hand with industrialized society but is revealed to be tragically out of place in these natural (rather than mechanically constructed) surroundings and under this more fluid, undulating, and circular regime of time.

Under the relentless heat of the desert sun and the relentless duration of van Sant’s takes, time and space infect each other over the course of Gerry to the detriment of its protagonists. This spatiotemporal comingling affects not only the music and staging of scenes, however; it throws identity and language into disarray as well. The language utilized sparingly by the Gerrys matches their circular spatiotemporal motions; consisting of vagaries (the references to “the thing”) and in-joke-like jargon (they often use “Gerry” as a verb to mean “fail” or “mess up”—i.e., when one Gerry fails to meet the other at the agreed-upon place and time, the other complains, “you ‘Gerry’d’ the rendezvous”) that keeps going in circles and does nothing to clarify and keeps the audience from attaining a full comprehension of what they say. (One cannot help but think of Deleuze and his love of the hyphenate, though, when Damon proposes using a “shirt-basket” to make a “dirt-mattress” to help Affleck safely dismount from an impossibly high boulder.) Identity becomes a sort of mirage in Gerry, a site where “the imaginary and the real become indiscernible” (Deleuze 7). Why are both men called “Gerry?” Could there simply be one Gerry, while the other is a mere figment of his imagination? Do the two Gerrys represent two sides of the same identity? Late in the film, there is a peculiar sequence that suggests one of the Gerrys is experiencing an actual mirage: Affleck is seated beside Damon, talking to him, then the camera angle shifts and Affleck is peering ahead at another Damon walking towards him from a few yards off. But who is experiencing the mirage? Is Affleck falsely seeing a double Damon? Or is Damon, the one approaching the two seated figures, seeing a mirage of himself and Affleck? (McKinney seems to conclude that Damon is the ‘real’ Gerry and that Affleck is a figment of his childish imagination that must be suppressed before he can move on, and so would probably support the latter conclusion.) This is a split from the usual form of mirage, wherein a stable subject views an object that blends illusion with reality, since the mirage here erodes even this subjectivity and we are no longer certain who is observing and what is being observed. Mirages become a sort of doubling, wherein the real landscape is observed to be simultaneously itself and an imagined landscape. This doubling extends to Gerry himself, who splits into two when he enters the desert, his real self now coexisting with an imagined self. This is perhaps why Affleck’s Gerry must be killed before Damon’s can find his way out of the desert—the mirage that he represents must cease to exist when the landscape of the desert is at long last transcended. It ultimately does not matter whether Damon or Affleck is the ‘real’ Gerry, and it may even be deliberately impossible for us to ascertain the fact of the matter, since Gerry, in its Deleuzean way, conflates the actual and the virtual by way of the mirage. That the virtual self dies is no less tragic than if the actual self had died, as they are one and the same to cinema.

The actual and the virtual weave together elsewhere in the film. The film opens with a tracking shot wherein the position and focus of the camera suggests the simultaneity of past and present that Bergson suggests is at the heart of our real experience of time, that Deleuze suggests lies at the heart of his “crystal-image,” and that recalls that ever-so-slight delay associated with the viewing of light emphasized by the scientist in Nostalgia for the Light (Deleuze 78-79). ‘Tracking shot’ is a misnomer, actually, since it eventually ceases to track anything, as it moves from showing the moving car in which our two Gerrys travel to the hiking site from behind, then looks at the Gerrys in the car, and then looks ahead at what lies in front of them on the road. This gradual overtaking of the car by the camera shows as much temporal as spatial bravura; it shows the past creeping up on the presence of the Gerrys before looking forward to the future, which they will soon reach and surpass. “The present is the actual image, and its contemporaneous past is the virtual image,” Deleuze tells us, and this is precisely what van Sant’s crystal-image captures, although he goes even further in suggesting a future as the camera zooms on (79). A sped-up ‘instant replay’ of that same opening shot late in the film is revealed to be a dream when the car suddenly halts and Damon is seen standing directly in front of the vehicle, then Damon wakes up. The crystal-image thus expands into a dream-image, and this time, instead of looking forward to an empty future, Damon is front and centre before the camera. In that it presages the outcome of the film’s plot (that Damon is the last one standing, and that he will find the highway again), the dream-image is also a prophetic image, as well as a catalyst for Damon to take action, the ‘actual’ original image virtually doubling and redoubling itself in new directions.

Modern cinema under the regime of the time-image is, for Deleuze, essentially characterized by this sort of ambiguity and doubling, and such uncertainty and duality permeates nearly every aspect of Gerry. Gerry is split into two distinctly observable entities; space attains double meaning in its correspondence with time; time wavers between natural, undulating forms and mechanical, linear, straightforward forms; and the mirage creates a Deleuzean indiscernibility of the virtual and the real. Yet in the real world, this ‘doubleness’ cannot stand, which perhaps explains why, before the film ends and the viewer returns to reality, a single, unified Gerry must emerge, even if it means Affleck’s Gerry must perish and be left behind. “We hate this ‘both’ shit,” according to David Foster Wallace, speaking specifically about David Lynch but also about the doubling potential of the cinema in general, because “it require[s] of us an empathetic confrontation with the exact same muddy bothness in ourselves and our intimates that makes the real world of moral selves so tense and uncomfortable, a bothness we go to the movies to get a couple hours’ fucking relief from” (Wallace 211). Yet far from being antithetical to the function of the cinema, as we have seen, movies are indeed uniquely aligned with “muddy bothness” in their conflation of such binaries as the actual and the virtual, space and time, and the point and the line. It also tends to explode and double seemingly stable concepts like identity, subjectivity, language, and history. Rather than presenting a brief reprieve from ‘bothness,’ Gerry demonstrates that movies can instead serve as a crucible where this ‘bothness’ is ignited and burnt away into singularity. By the end of Gerry, there are no more missed connections, no more ‘Gerry’d’ rendezvous, and the ‘too-late’ has become the ‘right-on-time’ as the two Gerrys finally connect with violence, with only one emerging from the desert and from the endless search through time and space for the point. Yet in the final scene, a rear-view mirror in a car continues the process of doubling. The mirror looks back not only in space but in time and a forward glance becomes simultaneously a backward glance, since Damon’s Gerry is looking forward at the mirror, which looks back at him, and then the camera itself looks back at him. At last, the camera returns to regard the landscape that has proved so perilously double, and the credits roll. In a sense, the landscape finally dominates Gerry even though he escaped it, since it is the last thing we see—his “sacrifice of bothness” leading to “a surrender to nothingness” (McKinney 46). Cinema is either double or nothing. The final crystal-image of Gerry suggests that the doubling impulse of the cinema can never be wholly overcome, and the lingering traumatic sense of an unstable temporality will always remain.

Cinema is eager to hide its origins. The desert-as-spatiotemporal cinematic landscape would seem to allow the viewer a clear path back to the recovery of the point that is the root of the motion picture, yet this possibility is revealed as a mere mirage in Nostalgia for the Light and Gerry. Even in Lawrence of Arabia, which seems to maintain its endorsement of the actualizable presence of the point, not splitting and diffusing it as in Guzman’s film or obscuring it as in van Sant’s, the point is involved in an unstoppable process of becoming; it must be revealed as either mirage or man. As cinema evolves from the early sixties of Lawrence of Arabia to the early twenty-first century of Gerry and Nostalgia for the Light, it gets even further away from its origin. (I have not even had time to mention medium specificity or consider the implications of the digital revolution that occurred between those two dates. Ebert touches on this in his essay on Lawrence of Arabia—he notes that the speck becomes the man far more slowly on TV than it does on the big screen, retaining its ‘pointness’ longer—and Laura Mulvey suggests that the DVD freeze frame might allow us to recapture the photographic root of cinema, the line retreating back to the point. Is this a true return, though, a “look back to the ‘before’ [. . .] of the indexical image, in the changing light of the ‘after,’” or simply another mirage layered atop the previous cinematic devices that gets us further than ever from the point [Mulvey 21]? These are important subjects for another discussion.) The point becomes scattered and diffuse in Nostalgia for the Light, with its stars, infinite in number, and its plethora of unreconfigurable bone fragments. The point is obscured between literal hills and valleys and Deleuzean “peaks of present and sheets of past” in Gerry. Characters in the cinema of the desert look far out, deep in, and all around but cannot recover their spatiotemporal origins. The doubling at the heart of cinema—space simultaneously becomes time; the actual functions at the same time as virtual in the form of the mirage; too late becomes too early; even identity and language comes to operate on two levels—cleverly, cruelly masks these origins. Nostalgia for the Light and Gerry are visited by the spectre of death not only because of their deadly subject matter because of their investment in the cinematic process that covers up its beginnings in favour of a more teleological focus.


Works Cited 

Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. Trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1911. Web.

De Duve, Thierry. “Time Exposure and Snapshot: The Photograph as Paradox.” October 5 (1978). 113-25. Web. 18 Apr. 2012.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989. Print.

Doane, Mary-Anne. The Emergence of Cinematic Time. Cambrige, MA: Harvard UP, 2002. Print.

Ebert, Roger. “Lawrence of Arabia.” The Great Movies. Rogerebert.com, 2 Sep. 2001. Web. 8 Apr. 2012.

“Filmmaking Basics #1: Screen Direction.” Lights Online Film School Blog. Lights Film School Online, 8 Jul. 2009. Web. 21 Apr. 2012.

Gerry. Dir. Gus van Sant. Perf. Casey Affleck and Matt Damon. Miramax, 2002. DVD.

Giannetti, Louis. Understanding Movies. 10th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/ Prentice Hall, 2005. Print.

Lawrence of Arabia. Dir. David Lean. Perf. Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guiness, and Anthony Quinn. Columbia, 1962. DVD.

Marey, Etienne-Jules. Movement. Trans. Eric Pritchard. The International Scientific Series. New York: D. Appleton & co., 1895. Print.

McKinney, Devin. Rev. of Gerry, dir. Gus van Sant. Film Quarterly 57.2 (2003-04): 43-47. Web. 5 Apr. 2012.

Mulvey, Laura. Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. London: Reaktion, 2006. Print.

Nostalgia for the Light. Dir. Patricio Guzman. Icarus, 2010. DVD.

Wallace, David Foster. “David Lynch Keeps his Head.” A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. New York: Back Bay/ Little, Brown, & co., 1997. 146-212. Print.

Yue, Genevieve. “Reverse Shot’s Best of 2011.” Reverse Shot 31 (2011): “Year End 2011.” Web. 19 Apr. 2012.


*"[R]eversing the direction of movement can work to your advantage if you're trying [. . .] to exaggerate the passing of time" ("Filmmaking Basics").

01 April 2012

2012-2014 movie grades log

2012 Films

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter -- C+
The Act of Killing -- ?
The Amazing Spider-Man -- B-
Amour -- A
Arbitrage -- A-
Argo -- A
The Avengers -- B+
Battleship -- C
Beasts of the Southern Wild -- A
Bernie -- C+
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel -- B
Brave -- B
The Cabin in the Woods -- B
Chronicle -- B 
Cloud Atlas -- B+
The Dark Knight Rises -- B-
Dark Shadows -- B+
The Deep Blue Sea -- A
Django Unchained -- B
Flight -- A
The Gatekeepers -- A
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey -- B+
Holy Motors -- A
How to Survive a Plague -- A
The Hunger Games -- A-
*Les Misérables -- C-
Life of Pi -- B+
Lincoln -- A-
The Loneliest Planet -- A
Looper -- B+
The Master -- A-
Men in Black 3 -- A-
Moonrise Kingdom -- A-
The Perks of Being a Wallflower -- A
Prometheus -- B+
Promised Land -- B+
The Secret World of Arrietty -- A-
Silver Linings Playbook -- A-
Skyfall -- A-
This is 40 -- A-
Zero Dark Thirty -- A

Total # movies seen from 2012: 41

2013 Films

All is Lost -- A
American Hustle -- A-
Before Midnight -- A
Blue Jasmine -- A
Captain Phillips -- A-
Elysium -- B
Ender's Game -- C
Frozen -- B-
Fruitvale Station -- A
Gravity -- A
The Great Gatsby -- B
Her -- A
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug -- B+
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire -- B+
Monsters University -- B+
Nebraska -- B+
Pacific Rim -- B+
Prisoners -- A-
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty -- B
Spring Breakers -- A-
Star Trek: Into Darkness -- B+
This is the End -- A-
12 Years a Slave -- A
The Wolf of Wall Street -- C+
The World's End -- B
World War Z -- A-

Total # movies seen from 2013: 26

2014 Films

The Grand Budapest Hotel -- A-
The Lego Movie -- A
Veronica Mars -- B+

Total # movies seen from 2014: 3

11 March 2012

The best films of 2011

The ides of March draw near, and it's high time I finally posted my thoughts on some movies from last year other than The Tree of Life, despite the fact that I saw pitifully few movies from 2011 compared to usual, and despite the fact that I didn't get to see nearly everything one would generally be expected to see before composing such a list in order for it to have any worth whatsoever. By way of comparison, I saw 53 films from 2011; that's way fewer than the 80 or so I ultimately saw from the two years prior to that, and substantially fewer than the 100 I saw from 2004. I didn't get to see Beginners, because the movie gods hate me, apparently; ditto A Separation, Pina and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Those were probably my biggest failures/gaps in knowledge/experience as a cinephile of last year. And sweet lord, did I ever wish I was able to see them, so get off my back, man! I also didn't get to see those end-of-the-year girl/woman-power biopics The Iron Lady or My Week With Marilyn, which I'm not really that sad about, since I've heard they're not all that anyways. I saw pitifully few documentaries, although I was lucky enough to finally get to see Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and even luckier enough to see Nostalgia for the Light, which a quick glance at Metacritic informs me hardly anyone saw. Like Crazy, War Horse, and Attack the Block were a few more things I sort of wanted to see but that eluded my grasp for one reason or another. If there's anything else you think I'm crazy for not including, maybe I didn't see that either. A quick glance at my 2009-11 movie viewing log over yonder to the right there (- - > ) will allow you to verify if this is the case. Or maybe I did see it and wasn't as impressed as you were with it. Tough break.

The best list also goes to 15 this year because too many things I was wild about didn't quite crack the top-10, so consider it an added bonus.

With that housekeeping out of the way, let's start the ball rolling!

Honourable mentions:

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog), a mesmerizing rumination on what it means to be human that takes off in profound, if sometimes obscure, philosophical directions from the starting point of the Chauvet Cave paintings, the earliest known works of art ever discovered. It's a beautiful, haunting, and leisurely film, with Werner Herzog masterfully exploring the meaning, mythology, and method behind these unfathomably early forms of human expression, finding something oddly new and relevant in the unearthing. (Unfortunately, I have no comment as to the success of failure of Herzog's use of 3-D, since this was a DVD rental. I know, I suck.)

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Glenn Ficarra, John Requa), a polished, bittersweet romantic dramedy that ends up just where you expect it to, yet it's surprisingly spiky fun to watch it get there. The performers gel perfectly together, whether it's Steve Carell as a straight-laced recently single middle-aged yuppie, Ryan Gosling as the smooth-talking and dressing lothario who helps the sadsack back onto his feet, Emma Stone as the girl who's so delightful she may just get Gosling's character to settle down, or Julianne Moore, as Carell's sweet but unsatisfied now-ex-wife. The energy and wit and emotional sincerity and vibrancy that the whole team brings to the enterprise is winning enough to suggest classic Hollywood screwball comedy, and though the plot is largely programmed from the beginning, the storytelling itself is deft.

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg), a stately, searingly acted, maybe a bit fanciful, but nevertheless illuminating examination of the real friendship between pioneers of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen, biting into yet another role for director David Cronenberg with gusto) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender, astonishing), as well as Sabrina Spielrein (an appropriately agitated Keira Knightley), the woman that provided one of Jung's earliest case studies and got in between the two men before staking out a psychoanalytic career of her own. It's a movie that excites both cerebrally (as expected) and bodily, with the sexual themes that animated Freud and much of Jung's work bubbling to the surface in compelling ways.

The Ides of March (George Clooney), an almost ridiculously star-studded affair that provides a bracingly cynical, if not wholly original, look at the elaborate backstage of American politics. Director George Clooney marshalls a stunning array of talent, including, well, himself as a hopeful and charismatic presidential candidate, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as his chief advisor, Ryan Gosling (again!) as an eager upstart on the campaign, Paul Giamatti as a slick and weaselly advisor for the other team, Marisa Tomei as an ambitious reporter... need I go on? The film is a suspenseful and intelligent immersion in the deeply intertwined worlds of politics and the media--the spin zone, in other words--that strives for, and almost achieves, the heft of a modern-day tragedy. It's frequently exhilarating even if it might be almost too focused on its sprawling (but talented!) cast and shoehorning all these disparate characters into the fray.

The Muppets (James Bobin), a blast of pure unironic joy. The plot may be wispy and fall apart under close inspection, yet the film is such a bouncy delight, full of clever and goofy songs, it's hard not to leave the cinema grinning from ear to ear. And Jason Segel and Amy Adams really are the perfect old-school-charming stars to lead this endeavour.

Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois), a sobering and quietly enthralling look at human (and spiritual) determination in the midst of an ever-changing world fraught with political upheaval. Great performances, especially from Lambert Wilson, beautifully portray the resolve (and perhaps the folly) of these stoic men who are doing the best to follow their hearts.

Rango (Gore Verbinski), the year's best animated film (and it pains me to say that in a year with a Pixar offering), a rambunctious cavalcade of irreverent metacinematic references, witty one-liners, rowdy slapstick, rollicking adventure, and delightfully odd and distinct sights and sounds, served up in a daringly ugly (yet starkly beautiful, for all that) brand of CGI animation well-suited to the withered and parched desert critters it depicts.


The real list!

15. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
Under the controlled direction of David Fincher, this American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo effortlessly rises above the sleek and competent if a bit unspired Swedish adaptations of Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy to give its mysteries and depths of seediness and psychological affliction an often mythic, always exhilarating (even at two-and-a-half hours) appeal. The movie seems overly faithful at times to Larsson's verbosity and somewhat messy plot structure (based on an assessment of the length of the book and comments of people who've actually read it), and yet there's such a tonic mixture of the grittily realistic and the awesomely operatic going on in the texture of Fincher's filmmaking that it's smooth going even over these occasional lumps. And he has found a remarkable muse in Rooney Mara, an absolute revelation as the titular figure, Lisbeth Salander, a shockingly intelligent and disturbed computer hacker with a violent past, abused by the systems that bind her. Daniel Craig is compelling as Mikael Blomkvist, an intrepid but recently disgraced reporter hoping to uncover a new story that will restore his tarnished reputation, mixing grim determination with a surprisingly easygoing affability that makes his character all the more watchably human. Christopher Plummer is shadily plummy as the patriarch of the Vangers, a wealthy industrialist family, who sits atop the untold secrets of the clan, while Stellan Skarsgard is creepily intense as Martin Vanger, who may have been involved in the mysterious disapparence, years ago, of one of the other Vanger children. These performances are enthralling but the movie really belongs to Mara, riveting from first frame to last, who makes Lisbeth's quest for truth and freedom (and revenge) downright iconic. Fincher's aesthetic instincts are top-notch across the board, his expert use of music and visuals emphasizing the swirling undercurrents of repressed trauma and violence and scandal and tension that lie beneath the surface. Under his steady hand, the film becomes a darkly exhilarating thriller that brings Larsson's novel to full and clear cinematic life.

14. The Future (Miranda July)
Fair warning: my lists tend to be an eclectic mixture. There is a fairly decent heap of whimsy going on in Miranda July's latest cinematic endeavour (she previously directed the enchantingly odd 2005 trinket Me and You and Everyone We Know) that many viewers may find off-putting and overly precious--or possibly just inexplicable. I didn't quite foresee myself falling so completely under the spell of this unassuming story of two flighty, naïve, self-absorbed, hipster-ish early-thirty-something lovers (played by July herself and Hamish Linklater) and their impulsive, half-heartedly life-altering decision of adopting a stray cat, a choice that winds up having far more profound an impact on both of them than they first envisioned. We shouldn't logically care about these people, and yet July draws us in. Both characters seem to drift apart and make new connections with other people and eventually time and space start to break down as secrets and regrets bubble to the surface and Linklater's character literally stops time (with the help of a kindly, personified moon) in order to prevent the inevitable catastrophe from occurring. Oh yeah, and the cat, Paw-Paw, actually speaks, delivering touchingly pseudo-philosophical monologues as he waits around for his owners to come retrieve him from the animal shelter. The film presents the sweet innocence of these characters' lives only to pull the rug out from under us when reality finally does intrude on these isolated, almost infantile characters, making the emotional impact all the more poignant. The mood is serene; July's direction, writing, and acting here are constantly inventive, surprising, calm, and assured; light and dark, hope and despair, love and fear, airy goofiness and deep contemplation are finely balanced. This ridiculous premise has no business working as well as it does, and it's a tribute to July's singular talent that it resonates so thoroughly in spite of itself.

13. Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)
Undoubtedly the best pure 'popcorn movie' in many a moon, Super 8 feels fresh in its very cozy nostalgia. This riveting tale of amateur movie-making children who stumble inadvertently onto something big and possibly otherworldly that even causes adults to panic and call in the cavalry, Super 8 zooms full-speed ahead into the cinematic stratosphere buoyed by skillful, inventive, knowing, loving writing and direction from J.J. Abrams that harkens back to cinematic blockbuster tradition of yore and deeply committed performances from the best child ensemble (with Elle Fanning being a particularly recognizable and effective standout) since... I don't even remember; possibly Stand by Me, even. And that's not to detract from the charms of Kyle Chandler as a determined small-town sherriff who has a way of tough but nevertheless sincere love for his family and his community. While the suspense drains away a bit the more we see of the "monster," there's a wonderfully sustained sense of child-like wonder and awe going on in the movie, a palpable fear of the unknown mitigated, finally, by a stirring reassertion of the strength of love and friendship. Classic Hollywood-style filmmaking at its most potently effective.

12. Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
Those who know me well know I don't generally give two figs about baseball, so a baseball movie is often a tough sell, but I was sure rooting for team Moneyball from beginning to end. (Although, come to think of it, I was quite fond of Bull Durham, and Field of Dreams and The Rookie were both enjoyable romps in the field of corniness.) This is a sharply written, crisply and excitingly directed (there's a bit of a lag in the seventh-inning stretch but the pacing is generally as smooth as a freshly dusted home plate... are my baseball metaphors working here at all?), and winningly acted story about the daring it takes to think critically, adopt a different yet sound strategy despite protests from traditionalists, and the guts and leadership to put it all into place. Brad Pitt chomps into the meaty roll of charismatic, fast-talking, but desperate Billy Beane, manager of the Oakland A's, forced to adopt a more mathematical, anti-intuitive scouting strategy to get his failing team back on track. Jonah Hill is remarkable (miles away from his stereotypical fat-funny-dude roles he often takes on in various Apatow and Apatow-like comedies and bromances) as the behind-the-scenes numbers-cruncher who takes on a central importance in the A's management; the new role looks good on the character as well as the actor. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is also in peak form as an increasingly weary coach who questions Beane's strategy. Everything is on the money here, and the film is a brisk and exciting examination of politics, strategy, resolve, open-mindedness, empathy (many of the players Beane winds up recruiting thought they were done for good but find they do still have a place in the world--and on Beane's eclectically spruced-up team), decision-making, and masculinity. I'd call it a cinematic home run, but I figure you'd throw things at me if I continue with the baseball puns.

11. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Ryan Gosling was all over the place last year, and apparently all over this list, too. Here, he's a stoic, perma-composed stunt driver who moonlights as a ruthlessly efficient get-away driver for all manner of criminal and low-life thug. The opening chase scene is breathlessly intense and ingeniously staged, and lest we worry that director Nicolas Winding Refn has spent all his wiles and energy one this one virtuoso setpiece, the pace hardly lets up from there. After that, Gosling gets tangled up with a Dame (a radiant Carey Mulligan), as is often the case with this sort of thing, and things get complicated when it turns out she's married to a recently released convict who has lingering trouble surrounding him... trouble that threatens the family the Driver (that's the only name we get for Gosling's character) has grown so close to... trouble that must be dealt with, with extreme severity. Bryan Cranston (nicely jovial) also shows up as a mechanic and trusty friend to the Driver, as does Albert Brooks (calmly menacing) as a calculating thug and Ron Perlman (the gruff, noble bruiser of a title character in Hellboy; gruff but somewhat more lunkish and less noble here) pops in as a muscly goon; Christina Hendricks makes a nifty femme fatale. While the focus has rightly been on Gosling and Brooks here, the movie really boasts a fine ensemble all around, well-integrated and always playing off each other in fascinating and surprising ways. The movie's plot is all surface, or should I say the style is so thick and invigorating here as to become the content? There's little depth here, nor did I really expect there to be, but that's not to negate the movie's achievements; in Drive's best moments, and there are a lot of them, the characters almost slide into archetype, myth. It helps that the direction from Nicolas Winding Refn is beautifully modulated, at one moment calm and controlled, then bursting into an operatic grandeur with its stylish, slow-paced brutality, sleek imagery, and gorgeous music. The movie wallows in terse hegemonic masculinity--the Driver seems to hardly say a word; he lets his body do the talking--and equally stereotypical femininity--Mulligan doesn't have much to do about look radiant and fret about the awful things the men in her life are getting up to. I don't know quite how to feel about the film's portrayal of gender roles; I halfway think Refn is offering up these portrayals with tongue in cheek, as part and parcel of the '80s action movies to which he lovingly, slightly edgily alludes here. By harkening back with such verve to cinema of yore, Drive ironically becomes a breath of fresh air.

10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows--Part 2 (David Yates)
The final instalment of the indomitable Harry Potter film franchise also happens, luckily, to be the strongest. As much as I enjoyed to different extents the prior episodes--particularly The Prisoner of Azkaban, The Order of the Phoenix (which focused and distilled the best parts of an otherwise excessive, dry, and verbose novel) and part 1 of The Deathly Hallows--this last is the one that most clearly and passionately stands on its own as cinema, rather than simply as a filmed adaptation of a book. It starts off on a note of breathtaking melancholy and anxiety with Voldemort's discovery of the Elder Wand and the death of Dobby (an event which I'm not ashamed to say drew very real tears from me) that never lets up during the film's brisk two-and-a-bit hour running time. The film shrewdly draws on its audience's collective memories of the Harry Potter saga, not plunging into excess exposition where none is required. Instead, it surges ahead with thrilling adventure and admirable emotional/psychological depth, zooming in on the original story's vibrant undertones of bravery, determination, hesitation, jealousy, fear, love, family, friendship, loyalty, betrayal, and grief. Its cast is as excellent as it's ever been, the younger actors biting into their roles with more vigour than we've seen so far (particularly, and more evidently than ever, Rupert Grint's Ron Weasley is a performance to go down in cinematic history; Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson find new depths to Harry and Hermione; Matthew Lewis also has some good, unexpected moments as the secretly heroic Neville Longbottom), and the adult actors all but searing the screen with intensity and life (Ralph Fiennes makes the perfect icy Voldemort; Helena Bonham Carter makes utter psychopathy alluringly intense; Alan Rickman summons Greek tragedy-levels of empathy for his secretly loyal and tormented Snape; Jim Broadbent and Maggie Smith are delicious hoots as always; I could go on...). The scenery gives a beautiful backdrop to the richness of the action. The writing from Steve Kloves is crisp and true to the vision of J.K. Rowling's novel but without being overly beholden to it. The focused direction of David Yates gives the whole thing a solid shape and pace. With a final instalment this moving and intelligently designed, it will be harder than ever to bid a final adieu to the Harry Potter universe, but what a magnificent, (dare I say it?) magical conclusion it is!

9. Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman)
This exquisite documentary, meanwhile, is calmly magical in its own right, zooming in on astronomers and victims (direct and indirect) of Pinochet's brutality as they go about their various searches for truth in the Atacama Desert of Chile. The subjects seem a bit at odds with each other at first, the scientists using the emptiness of the desert and the clarity of its skies as an ideal site from which to look out and observe the heavens, while the survivors look down into the sands for bone fragments of their disappeared loved ones, scattered across the desert during Pinochet's regime. The languid pacing doesn't help pull us in at first or connect these seemingly disparate threads, but once you pick up what Guzman is laying down, the film begins to work its wonders on you. "Memory has a gravitational force," the director tells us, and indeed Nostalgia for the Light is an engrossing, intimate meditation on the weighty power of memory and the arduous, possibly futile task to reconstruct the past. The cruel irony of the film is that the astronomers seem to have a much easier time of observing deep into the past (after all, the light from those stars takes years to reach us; observing the heavens is literally gazing into the past) and far into space than the old women do of reconstructing the memories and bodies of their more recently lost loved ones, some of them tragically never achieving closure. Connections are deftly made here between the historical and the geographical, the personal and the political, the fragmentary and the astronomical, the absence at the heart of life and the need to complete the record, the clarity and beauty versus the harshness of the desert, and the science that ties it altogether on an elemental level. Memory doesn't just exist in tangible records like bones or photographs; it's an ongoing process of discovery and connection, and Guzman mirrors this process, approaching his filmmaking task like an archaeologist digging through the sands of the desert to uncover newer and richer layers of the past. The tone here is quiet and contemplative, the camerawork never showy; Guzman's camera seems to have infinite patience as it observes its eclectic interviewees at their work, lingering over the beauty of dust specks in the dry air of its chosen landscape or the twinkling stars in the expansive, luxurious night sky. Nostalgia for the Light is an aesthetically gorgeous film, and Guzman gradually draws us in, gravitationally, mesmerically, to his deep and layered, specific and universal story of memory, time, life, death, and the cosmic origins of it all.

8. Bridesmaids (Paul Feig)
Yeah, I told you this list would be eclectic. Now for something completely different: While some circles have ever-so-slightly overexaggerated the unity and classic comic perfection of this crude, witty, exuberant examination of female friendship and the stresses that can invade it (I'm looking at you, Entertainment Weekly! I'm not sure the movie is completely without pacing issues), some equally silly things have been said about it along the lines that it is simply a female version of The Hangover (I'd say, if anything, I Love You, Man would be the stronger comparison; but really, it's its own beast in a lot of ways) or that its gross-out gags don't mesh with its occasional tilts toward sentimentality--as if such mixture, pulled off just as deftly here, wasn't Judd Apatow's whole claim to fame. Bridesmaids is a sharp, energetic, uproariously funny, solidly structured, and--most importantly--humane comedy. It boasts an eminently realistic and identifiable lead character in Annie, an anxious woman beset by feelings of jealousy, inadequacy, and insecurity at the impending nuptials of her best friend who struggles nonetheless to fit in with the rest of her bridesmaids in wishing her well--seemingly a cringe-inducing figure in a lot of ways who's made surprisingly appealing and believable thanks to the magnificent, revelatory lead performance of Kristen Wiig (one of the absolute best female performances of the year). It's superbly written by Wiig and co-writer Annie Mumolo, mixing elaborate physical comedy setpieces and verbal acrobatics, biting cynicism and warm-hearted romantic optimism with aplomb. The direction of sitcom veteran Paul Feig keeps it all flowing smoothly, with only a few hiccups towards the middle. Best of all, the excellent ensemble cast--including, in addition to Wiig, Maya Rudolph (as the bride-to-be), Melissa McCarthy (commandingly brusque), Rose Byrne, and Ellie Kemper--come together with extreme professionalism, with each performer supporting and improving the work of her colleagues. With Wiig's Annie, a heartfelt, dazzlingly funny, three-dimensional study in very real (and thus all the more keenly felt) awkwardness and yearning, effortlessly leading the way, this rowdy team comes together to form a female "wolf pack" far more entertaining and inspired, because more fully developed, (although just as hilariously raunchy) as their supposed Hangover counterparts, making Bridesmaids a surprisingly deep, constantly entertaining delight.

1 April 2012: OK everyone, sorry to keep you in suspense. I'm sure you were all pulling out your hair in frustration with me. I've been super-busy and will be until the end of this month, roughly, so I'm just going to give you the rest of the list sans (much) commentary and then maybe I'll go back some day and fill in the blanks with why I'm thought these were so particularly great (or, in the case of the worst movies, why I was so disappointed in them)... I should also mention here that I've also seem a couple movies since starting the list that would have been included had I seen them earlier, particularly Poetry from Lee Chang-dong, so unfortunately that one won't be making an appearance despite its brilliance. Anyways, here's the rest of the list in a fairly boring, less elaborate fashion than what came before:

7. Le Havre (Aki Kaurismaki)
Pure delight. A calm, charming, minimalist, deadpan-hilarious Finnish gem from the inimitable Aki Kaurismaki (if you haven't seen The Man Without a Past yet, that is heartily recommended) about a shoe-shiner and his stalwart wife in the titular French port town deciding to help a young illegal immigrant, discovered hiding from an inspector on the docks, evade capture and get back to his family in England. If the pitch-perfect acting and pared-down but lovely screenplay and direction (this could almost be a silent film) in Le Havre doesn't bring a smile to your face, you may have a heart of stone.

6. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
Speaking of (near-)silent films, this is a wonderful throwback to the silent era that is, again, exquisitely charming. While its revolutionary approach might have been slightly exaggerated, The Artist stands tall as a wonderful curio and imitation of the cinematic past while also functioning as its own deeply entertaining story of a man struggling to find his voice... and a woman who helps him along. Jean Dujardin is towering, and Berenice Bejo is a lively treat to watch.

5. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
There's not a moment to breathe in this vivid and psychologically complex thriller about a man, with a history of mental illness, who, after experiencing terrifying visions (or are they real?) of impending meteorological doom, begins obsessively building a storm shelter in his backyard, to the dismay of his friends, neighbours, family. This pursuit begins to take its toll on his health, his career, and his finances, which is all the more devastating since his family needs the money for surgery on their young, nearly deaf child. Multifarious anxieties (none more pervasive than the economic woes, which make Take Shelter a perfectly timely endeavour) bubble to the surface, with dialogue, performance (Michael Shannon is absolutely mesmerizing as the troubled family man, with every facial expression suggesting new depths of fear, and nearly matched by Jessica Chastain--is there anything she wasn't in last year?), and elaborate setpieces summoned forth to full effect by director Jeff Nichols to convey the interior and exterior worlds of this fascinating character. Perhaps no other movie this year worked its magic quite so vigorously on the nerves and the emotions.

4. The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
Director Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways) is back in full force after a seven-year break, and luckily, The Descendants doesn't disappoint, in many ways delivering a story just as powerful as his previous masterpieces while taking his unique style to new and invigorating places. Really, you all probably know my feelings on George Clooney and Payne, and this utilizes both talents to full effect. It's a funny, sad, wise, wistful, high-brow, low-brow, soulful, real symphony of storytelling as only Payne could deliver. Stuff you might not know/expect: Shailene Woodley gives one of the most believable adolescent performances in quite some time as Clooney's wayward but clever and good-hearted daughter, Alex, and Amara Miller is always surprising and delightful as younger daughter, Scottie.

3. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
A snakily complex movie that I can't really summarize adequately in the time I have. It messes with and muses ever so elegantly and breathtakingly on themes of reality and performance, genuineness and forgery, past and present and future (blurred temporalities in general, really), and ritual and emotion (and in what way is all emotion and connection sort of ritualized?). The rich dialogue unfolds at a masterfully Linklater-ian pace and the Tuscan scenery is exquisite, with Kiarostami's camera casually observing as this twisty tale takes its natural, ambiguous, and totally unexpected course. Juliette Binoche and William Shimell are simply extraordinary as a... couple? maybe? Just watch it.

2. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
What an odd quirk that two of the finest movies of last year harken back to the early days of cinematic history--the French one (The Artist) throwing end-of-the-silent-era American cinema under its spotlight while this American one deftly weaves turn-of-the-20th-century French cinema, particularly that of George Melies, into its vibrant storytelling structure. I'm certainly not one to complain when the results are as glorious as they are, though. Hugo is a marvellous wind-up toy of a film, moving, funny, rich, intelligent, almost absurdly gorgeous (3-D technology has rarely been so well used as it is here by Martin Scorsese, et al.), constantly surprising as it reveals more and more layers to its densely packed but never overburdened story, based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brain Selznick. It's also a love letter to early-20th-century Paris far more effective than, say, Woody Allen's forced Midnight in Paris. It's also got a pair of wonderful child actors in Asa Butterfield (as the titular eager young orpahn) and Chloe Grace-Moretz, and rescues Ben Kingsley from seeming oblivion--the actor is tremendous as the aforementioned French filmmaking genius. It's also... well, let's leave it at that. I liked everything about Hugo. I ate all of it up with a spoon.

1. Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
Of all the wondrous cinematic sights and sounds that were offered up with such generosity by filmmakers last year, nothing stirred me as much, brought me to such exquisite highs of pleasure and deep lows of fear and despair, or took the cinema in such creative and profound new directions as Lars von Trier's Melancholia. This was the year of the cosmic, life-the-universe-and-everything film, apparently, with this one and The Tree of Life ambitiously going to the beginnings and ends of time and the universe to reveal something essential about humanity (and Another Earth sort of just floundering about). While I appreciate Terrence Malick's singular effort more the more I think about it, it still seems a slightly incoherent effort despite its discrete moments of awe-inspiring brilliance. Melancholia, though, despite its two distinct chapters, fits together brilliantly, as the interior depression of Kirsten Dunst's (possibly the performance of the year) beautiful, tormented bride bumps up against the public extravagance of a lavish wedding ceremony, then morphs into an outward manifestation of terror, as a new, threatening planet named Melancholia is discovered, possibly on a collision course with earth, that is more private--the guests have by this point all vanished from the mansion in an almost ghostly fashion, leaving Dunst alone with her sister, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg (extraordinary as a perfect psychological counterpoint to Dunst's character), as well as her husband (a suitably intense Kiefer Sutherland) and son. The film gorgeously and exquisitely blends the inner and outer, public and private, the micro and the macro-manifestations of a very real apocalypse and a crushing psychological affliction that can make one feel that the earth is about to end; as with Take Shelter, even in its early moments of levity (John Hurt, one of my favourite actors ever, makes a wonderfully crusty drunken uncle) and luxury, there is always a palpable undercurrent of tension here.

Von Trier has struggled with his own bouts of devastating depression, which resulted in the queasy, dismal, and muddled awfulness of the director's last film, Antichrist. This only makes his triumph here all the more surprising and heroic. The true, sublime accomplishment of Melancholia--which can also be read as a personal feat for von Trier--is how exhilarating and joyous the film becomes, borne aloft on swelling strains of Wagner and the electrifying, composed, Baroque beauty of its images, even as it hurtles towards an impossibly dark ending. That feeling is a rare and precious one to come across in a film; it's pure awe.


And now for something completely different! The list of the worst films of 2011! Please keep in mind, as in years past, that I tend to avoid the worst cinematic efforts of any given year. I have a pretty keen lemon detector, and why would I want to spend money to see something awful, anyways? This means that I am fully aware there were probably dozens of movies from last year that were worse than those listed here... think of these as the ones that slipped past my defenses against terribleness, or that I thought would be good and just wound up disappointing the hell out of me. With that disclaimer out of the way, let's get started...

The worst films of 2011

This list won't be as long since I tend to have a pretty good nose for stinkers and avoid seeing many of the really dreadful films that come out in a particular year. In addition, why dwell on the negative any longer than we have to?

4. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
While insanely prolific and often brilliant, Woody Allen has also become, of late, horribly inconsistent. I am nearly alone in thinking that Midnight in Paris was one of his recent misfires. Yet this was a tiresome romp populated with one-dimensional cartoons of famous artists and writers of yesteryear that never gives us a strong main character to anchor the action (a miscast Owen Wilson is a little too affable and charming to play a Woody Allen stand-in). The premise wears thin quickly. The dialogue is often way too on-the-nose (political discussions between characters of different generations early on ring particularly hollow) and beneath the normally sparkling wit of Allen. This is a movie that wallows too much in its nostalgia for early 20th-century Paris without giving us a convincing modern reality against which to balance this portrait, which SPOILER ALERTS!! . . . (but probably not really) leaves its sentimental ending feeling wholly unearned.

3. Carnage (Roman Polanski)
A shrill, overacted sitcom of a domestic drama about two sets of parents who come together to decide how to proceed when their children have a fight that results in one being injured. With such a fine cast as Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, and Jodie Foster, one might be excused for expecting a fine ensemble piece that ratchets up the tension and comedy. Instead, Roman Polanski (adapting a stage play by Yasmina Reza) keeps the action static and implausible, with characters saying they want to leave but never leaving and loudly talking on cell phones amidst everyone else. This is a film that never quite figures out how to stop being a play. Even at only 80 minutes, this loud and abrasive affair starts grating on the nerves early on and never lets up.

2. The Devil's Double (Lee Tamahori)
What could have been a revealing account of life behind the fortress walls of Saddam Hussein's (and family's) Iraqi palace--the story of a man hired to act as Uday Hussein's double in public in case of assassination attempts (both Uday and his double are played by Dominic Cooper)--instead becomes a sleazy, by-the-numbers action pic that puts the emphasis on gloss, luxury, and tittilation over elaborating the complex and no doubt more intriguing psychological dynamics of this arrangement. It wallows thoroughly in low-rent mediocrity. What a waste!

1. Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder)
A junky, exploitative, exhaustingly monochromatic, and video game-like (in the worst, most alienating sense of that word) affair that relishes in dull, relentless violence, lifeless CGI, and a faux-female empowerment story. The movie serves up its one-dimensional characters as sweet but decidedly un-nutritious treats for the male gaze, thus further reinforcing the ugly sexual exploitation it pretends to struggle against. It's the audience who becomes the suckers in this vacuous affair. I've been told that the director's cut may offer me something more to chew on, but is it really worth going back into this dismal cinematic world on the off-chance there's only slightly more to it?