Time to catch up on what I've been watching at home this week. Since at this point I'm trying to fill in all the best movies from 2011 that I have not yet seen, expect some strong reviews this month. One of these three may very well make my top ten list, but let's start with:
SENNA - Senna is the biographical documentary about Formula 1 race car driver Ayrton Senna, perhaps the most famous competitor the sport has ever known. The film is composed almost entirely of actual footage from the era. It sounds like a fairly pedestrian documentary. What sets it apart, however, is that the shots are so skillfully woven together that at times it seems more like a scripted biopic. Director Asif Kapadia was best known for making narrative dramas previously, so it is not that surprising. There is a real sense of storyline here. When you are with Senna during a race (seeing what he saw via an in-car camera, and hearing what he heard over his headset) there is a real sense of suspense. Most documentaries are informative in some way but, to me at least, the better ones are able to get an emotional reaction out of the audience. This film succeeds there admirably. Senna's face is so expressive (and the footage chosen so well) that by the film's end you feel like you don't just know the man's story, you know the man. The feelings of the people of his native Brazil are also almost palpable on the screen. I am not a fan of auto racing, yet found this feature completely engaging. 4 1/2 of 5*
Does the world really need yet another samurai action flick/ historical drama? I was skeptical...then I saw 13 Assassins. Don't get me wrong. It is not the best written film of the year. Many of the characters are stock archetypes. The acting is stronger than average and cheesy humor is kept to a bare minimum. But two things really elevated this film for me. The first was the stunning cinematography throughout the film (Nobuyasu Kita: DoP) from outdoor landscapes to indoor bloodbaths. The best part, however, was that the entire second half of the film is one hour long, outlandish, brilliantly choreographed and executed, lightning fast "Massacre" of an action sequence. I mean, one continuous scene. I won't say it transcends a typical martial arts movie the way that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did, but it was a hell of a lot of fun to watch. 4 out of 5*
If you would rather just rent the thing and see for yourself than listen to me shamelessly gush, this is your opportunity. Okay, anyone left? I have not seen writer/ director Jeff Nichols one previous film, Shotgun Stories, but I think maybe I will now, especially since it also stars Michael Shannon. This is the fourth of actress Jessica Chastain's six films released in 2011 that I have seen and again she shines in a role totally different from her Oscar nominated turn in The Help (see my August review), her equally impressive work in Tree of Life, or her best in show performance in The Debt, but this was really the Michael Shannon show. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Revolutionary Road but many of you know him best as Agent Nelson Van Alden on HBO's Boardwalk Empire. He is magnificent in this film. The plot basically centers around his character, "Curtis"'s internal struggles with his own sanity, and he is not a particularly verbose man. Every nuance of fear, doubt, and pain plays out clearly on Shannon's face and in his eyes. Now add in a subtly winding script that keeps you guessing and some truly gorgeous camera work, and...well...I warned you I was gonna be this way. All in all, Take Shelter was a unique experience that was written with great insight and care, performed brilliantly, and executed with consistently impressive quality.
5 of 5*
P.S. Assassins and Senna are also currently available on Netflix Instant streaming.