Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘A Separation

The Best Movies of 2011, Part 1

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10. Contagion. Steven Soderbergh’s intimate epic of paranoia, which was inexplicably overlooked throughout the recent awards season, benefits from one of the year’s richest original screenplays, by Scott Z. Burns, and fine contributions from editor Stephen Mirrione and a remarkably restrained cast. As we recently saw in Haywire, Soderbergh can be an erratic storyteller, but here, he delivers a big commercial entertainment that is also, surprisingly, the most effective example to date of the film of global intersection, a genre that includes Babel and Soderbergh’s own Traffic, but finds its most organic expression here, in a movie that demonstrates that we really are all connected, in the least reassuring way possible.

9. The Artist. For a movie that is routinely described as a crowd-pleaser, Michel Hazanavicius’s inspired homage to silent cinema has turned out to be surprisingly divisive, mostly among those who resist its blatant sentimentality and cheerful layers of artifice. It’s shallow, yes, but then, so is Citizen Kane, and Hazanavicius displays some of the same Wellesian willingness to try everything once—an instinct that one finds in all great con artists, parodists, and showmen. I’m still not sure whether its ruthlessly schematic story is intentional or not, but I can’t deny its ingenuity and relentless charm, and I’ll be perfectly happy if it takes home top honors on Sunday night.

8. Kung Fu Panda 2. The year’s best family film is a masterpiece of story and production design, from a franchise that could have gone utterly wrong, in the usual DreamWorks mode of easy gags and pop culture references, but instead gets almost everything right. First-time director Jennifer Yuh Nelson—with able contributions from story consultant Guillermo Del Toro and uncredited script doctor Charlie Kaufman—gracefully walks a fine narrative line, arriving at a tone that gently mocks its own pretensions while still delivering genuine thrills and emotion. The result is a movie that stands on its own as pure storytelling, with nothing that will grow stale over time.

7. Drive. The coolest main titles of the year, and perhaps of the decade, are only the opening salvo from this suspenseful, violent, and strangely tender ode to the great action films of the ’80s. Nicholas Winding Refn delivers the year’s most fanatically designed movie, from Hossein Amini’s spare, almost abstract screenplay to the gorgeous cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel, which sets out to make a pop icon of Ryan Gosling and brilliantly succeeds. The ending doesn’t quite live up to what comes before—as I’ve noted earlier, what it really needs is a closing rhapsody of violence on the level of Michael Mann’s Thief—but for most of its length, it’s a work of almost uncanny assurance, and the best argument imaginable for the complete elimination of backstory.

6. A Separation. The more I think about Asghar Farhadi’s powerful, understated melodrama, the more impressive it becomes: its control, its mastery of tone, its ability to evoke entire lives and relationships with a few perfect details, and its combination of intimacy and social expansiveness would be notable in any country, but are especially extraordinary given the constraints of film production in Iran. Details first seen in passing gradually gain in significance, and situations that initially seem remote feel more and more like our own, until, like all great works of art, it succeeds both as a document of a particular time and place and as a universal story.

Tomorrow: My top five movies of the year.

Written by nevalalee

February 23, 2012 at 9:30 am

Radical ambiguity: A Separation and Certified Copy

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As the movie awards season winds to a close, I’ve been working to catch up on recent releases, in preparation for writing up my annual top ten list. Making such a list is always a pleasure, and I’ve done this every year for as long as I can remember, whether I’ve had anyone interested in reading it or not. One of the small pleasures of making this list is seeing patterns that might not have been otherwise obvious. This year, for instance, I’m a little surprised to discover that my two favorite American movies both starred Brad Pitt—which may not seem so surprising at first, but he’s so different in Moneyball and The Tree of Life that it’s hard to regard them as the work of the same actor, much less one of the world’s biggest movie stars. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve discovered that my two favorite foreign films this year were both made by directors from Iran, which is so striking a fact that it seems worthwhile to drill deeper.

On the surface, the two movies couldn’t feel more different. The first, the extraordinary Certified Copy, which I’ve written about here before, looks like a glossy international production, with director Abbas Kiarostami working in Tuscany with a cast that includes William Shimell and Juliette Binoche. While it’s certainly engaging, it’s also intensely cerebral, a puzzle box designed to frustrate the viewer’s expectations. The second film, A Separation, which I finally saw this weekend, is rooted in the culture of contemporary Iran, and draws more on the tradition of melodrama, presented with a scrupulous realism that sucks the audience in immediately. Yet both films have, at their core, a similar ambiguity, a refusal to provide easy answers, and a fascination with the complexities of our most intimate human relationships.

Of the two, A Separation is by far the more accessible, a layered, expertly paced story that spins alarming complications out of the seemingly simple decision of a married couple, played by Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi, to separate. The screenplay, by director Asghar Farhadi, is beautifully constructed, integrating a large cast in a web of misunderstanding that never seems contrived, even in its pointedly open ending. It’s one of the hardest kinds of stories to tell in any language: one in which there are no villains, and in which everyone’s motives are basically sound, but which nonetheless leads to tragedy. And while the story is universal, much of its interest for foreign audiences—who have made it the most critically acclaimed movie of the year—certainly lies in the view it affords of the particulars of its characters’ lives. (The glimpses we get of the Iranian legal system, as embodied by a harried but essentially fair judge played by Babak Karimi, are especially fascinating.)

It’s no secret that for a director in the Iranian film industry to make movies for an international audience requires uncanny degrees of skill, ingenuity, and good fortune, as well as a temperament that finds the silver lining in unwanted constraints. Farhadi is manifestly a writer and director of considerable talent, and in A Separation, he takes a story that is intensely focused, perhaps by necessity, on the sphere of domestic life and makes it feel remarkably expansive, taking in countless small stories on the margins without ever losing track of the main thread. Like many artists who have worked under similar circumstances, both he and Kiarostami finally plant their standards in the realm of ambiguity, in the insistence on seeing past normal ethical or narrative distinctions, which in itself can seem like a radical act. If Kiarostami does this mostly from the head, Farhadi does it from the heart—but clearly these two directors have a lot of both.

Written by nevalalee

February 20, 2012 at 10:16 am

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