It can be easy to forget that there are good movies out there, especially when so many of the bad movies are ritualistically devoted to the supposed pleasures of forgetting (see, The Hangover II. Better yet, don’t). At this point, some of the good stuff flies so under-the-radar that it’s probably marketed with stealth technology scavenged from that helicopter Seal Team Six left in Pakistan. Our very own Peter Martin wrote the other day about how a whopping 111 people paid to see Koji Wakamatsu’s masterful United Red Army, and most of the folks who actually caught the premiere of How to Die in Oregon on HBO last week did so by accident, having spent the film’s first twenty minutes thinking that the network’s lead-in programming of Juwanna Mann had just taken a particularly morbid third act turn.
And yet it’s only going to be a matter of time before people recognize that 2011 is shaping up to be a rather exceptional year at the movies. Over the next few months, stores and Netflix queues nationwide are going to be stuffed full of sneaky titles that are desperate to reward adventurous viewers. There’s such a great variety of stuff out there that the quality of our cinematic landscape is entirely up to you. So here are five tremendous films that may have slipped by you this year -- five films you’re going to want to catch and hang onto for when you’re ready to remember why you love movies so much in the first place.
I wouldn’t have thought this possible, but Koji Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar somehow unseats Soul Surfer as the least subtle amputation drama of the year. A Japanese soldier goes to the WWII frontlines, behaves rather dishonorably, and returns in a wheelbarrow to the nationalistic frenzy of his remote inland village where he’s welcomed home as a war god. The soldier’s wife, knowing full well that her husband is a despicable case, must cater to his every demand. Lots of graphic, logistically difficult, and emotionally conflicted sex ensues. As the rather illustrative title suggests, Wakamatsu leaves little to the imagination in this wickedly blunt anti-war chronicle -- raw, cheap, and furious, Caterpillar is as difficult to watch as it is to forget.
4.) Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Leave it to Werner Herzog, a filmmaker who’s made a career (and legend) of subverting documentary reality to his own ecstatic purposes, to reveal the unvarnished and primitive power of modern cinema’s most controversial gimmick. Not only is Cave of Forgotten Dreams unquestionably the greatest use of 3D in movie history, it’s also a moving history of 3D itself, as Herzog probes inside the recesses of France’s publicly inaccessible Chauvet Cave to give palpable shape to the world’s oldest surviving illustrations. The 3D -- augmented by slow moves and an abundance of artificial light -- allows the audience to feel as if they can reach out and touch the rich charcoal drawings that line the cave walls, while also emphasizing how early artists used the contours of the earth itself to give shape to their images. Cave of Forgotten Dreams blissfully unites form and function, caveman and artist, and human and albino crocodile in a way that few other films have done this year.
3.) Tuesday, After Christmas
Certainly the best film about cheating since The Perfect Score, Radu Muntean’s confrontational adultery drama Tuesday, After Christmas is a daringly frank attempt to revitalize the genre with the power of its own quotidian velocity. A decent (if not particularly sympathetic) Romanian man loves two women. One of them is his wife, the other is his kid’s dentist, and not everyone is going to be psyched with how things shake out. That’s really all there is to it. And yet because this spare portrait of a relationship in decline is so earnest and unbothered by contrivance, the anti-dramatic little moments that most films gloss right over accrue a heft and immediacy that makes it feel as if we’re bypassing divorce and proceeding directly to doomsday.
Infidelity tends to be a touch less sensational in real life than it is in the movies, and it’s clear from Muntean’s first shot -- an extended scene of the man and his mistress nakedly flopped over one another -- that Tuesday, After Christmas is less interested in over-baked histrionics of adultery than it is the steady drumbeat of interpersonal decay. There’s no talk of fate or things happening for a reason, no private eyes or sudden fits of murder -- this is just a story about a guy who makes some questionable human decisions, and the unblinking mundanity of it all magnifies the emotions a thousand times over, doing for domestic heartbreak what IMAX did for Decepticons. Layered but never especially lurid and grounded by a trio of unerringly excellent performances, Tuesday, After Christmas is a horror story that could happen to you. Especially if you cheat on your wife with your kid’s dentist. Don’t do that.
2.) How to Die in Oregon
Peter Richardson’s soul-shaking documentary opens with a sweet, lucid, and terminally ill gentleman drinking a lethal dose of Seconal as his loved ones look on -- and you thought the new Pirates of the Caribbean was a tough sit. How to Die In Oregon (which premiered to rave reviews at Sundance before bowing on HBO in late May), is the rare issue film that prioritizes portraiture over polemic, a direct and tender look at the practice of physician-assisted death, and the people for whom that option provides the ultimate solace. Richardson has little interest in rhetoric or talking heads, instead honing in on a handful of ordinary (if exquisitely rendered) subjects whose circumstances underscore the extent to which our society’s scuttled discourse with death can savage the quality of our lives. Steadfast, respectful, and moving without ever feeling manipulative, How to Die in Oregon is mandatory viewing for every living human.
1.) The Arbor
Andrea Dunbar was the unlikely poet laureate of the run-down Bradford estate from which she hailed, having authored a widely lauded play about her rough-and-tumble upbringing by the time she was 15. Despite such early success, Dunbar was never able to transcend the limiting circumstances of her environment, and she died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 29, leaving behind three daughters and a short life marred by misfortune and meager opportunity. Clio Barnard’s brilliant film eschews the details of Dunbar’s life for its essence, employing “verbatim theater” to have actors lip-synch the documentary testimony of Dunbar’s friends and family as they stage elaborate dramatizations of her life’s most pivotal moments, as well as those for which her death paved the way. In addition, Barnard’s crew stages a reading of “The Arbor” in the center of a Bradford lawn as current residents look on, transfixed by the inertia of their own tempestuous habitat.
Folding the expressions of several different generations upon themselves, Barnard sifts through a glorious mess of decay to reveal the invisible orbits to which even the most seemingly limitless of lives can be affixed. It’s bleak stuff, but The Arbor pulses with a rare resilience, a stirring testament to art’s enduring power as a way in long after it’s no longer able to offer a way out.