Best of 2011: DVD

Poetry (Kino Lorber)

It takes serious chutzpah to call your film Poetry, but South Korea's Lee Chang-dong earns it. Mija (Yoon Jeong-hee) is exactly the kind of older lady who escapes notice in almost any society: quiet, polite, favors dowdy flower prints. But Lee's story of her reach for inspiration, a line or two of transcendence, as everything else in her life falls to ruin around her is both one of the most heartbreaking and one of the most fiercely unsentimental films in recent memory. Suggested double feature: Fishtank (Criterion Collection), a ferocious story of a young woman's coming of age in a British housing project.

Blow Out (Criterion Collection)

Brian DePalma's best film, Blow Out manages to be both a meta-treatise on how movies manipulate reality and a gripping thriller. Nancy Allen does it no favors with her turn as a good-time girl caught up in a political scandal, but John Travolta turns in one of his finest performances, DePalma delivers bravura set piece after bravura set piece, and John Lithgow all but walks off with the whole thing as a political operative run amok. SDF: The lurid giallo horror homage of Amer (Olive).

Attack the Block (Sony)

It's like every classic '80s teen adventure flick ever made, except made all the more fun by resetting it among the foul-mouthed teenagerss and petty gangsters of a British council block. Serious fun, with bonus great aliens. SDF: The spot-on, sweet-hearted horror/comedy Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (Magnolia).

The Housemaid (MPI)

A very different film from South Korea, at first blush The Housemaid resembles a Pacific Rim take on a typical Skinemax erotic thriller as a strapped young woman (Yeon Do-youn) goes to work for a smirking young mogul (Lee Jung-jae) and his pampered wife (Seo Woo) and finds herself seduced and abandoned and worse. But director Im Sang-soo's characters are too finely observed (especially Yun Yeo-jeong's older housemaid), the plotting is too tight, the subtext too knotty, and the melodramatic climax too flamingly brutal. This is a film about class, and a classic in the making. SDF: Equally deceptive Korean thriller I Saw the Devil (Magnolia).

Bill Cunningham New York (Zeitgeist)

Bill Cunningham's street-fashion photography captures the history of 20th-century life one frame at a time, just as this engrossing look at his own most surprising life captures an unexpected beauty in his modesty and devotion to his calling. SDF: Errol Morris' rollicking stranger-than-fiction doc Tabloid (MPI).

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Strand)

The latest languorous puzzle box from Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul all but demands a big-screen viewing, but see it you should, even if in letterbox format. As the titular relative (Thanapat Saisaymar) retires to his rural retreat to wait out the final days of a terminal illness, his peace is invaded by lost relatives in the form of glowing-eyed monkey ghosts, late ex-wives, and visions of past lives that manifest themselves in amorous catfish and mysterious family spelunking. SDF: Matthew Porterfield's artful, elliptical working-class sketch Putty Hill (Cinema Guild).

Santa Sangre (Severin)

It wasn't long ago that Alejandro Jodorowsky's '70s mind-blow cult epics El Topo and The Holy Mountain returned to legit circulation. Now Jodorowsky's 1989 follow-up to those films reappears. A young Mexican circus performer is institutionalized after a horrific domestic-violence incident (like, really, yikes). Released years later, Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky, the director's son) returns to performing—as his armless mother's hands (complete with nail polish) in their joint circus act. Things only get stranger from there, but the director's unerring sense of spectacle (e.g., a circus elephant's funeral) still dazzles. SDF: Not sure what could follow this.

The Future (Roadside Attractions)

For her second feature, Miranda July makes the hipster-world version of Synecdoche, New York that no one was waiting for but that anyone with an interest in innovative storytelling and intuitive cinema art will want to see. SDF: Bellflower (Oscilloscope Laboratories), which is more or less Breathless with flamethrowers.

Meek's Cutoff (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy) flummoxed some viewers with her seemingly aimless tale of a covered-wagon train hopelessly lost in the desert. Still, as her career to date illustrates, it's the journey, not the destination. SDF: Adroit twilight Western Blackthorn (Magnolia), featuring the Bolivian landscape and sixtysomething Sam Shepard in an intense crag-off.

Rolling Thunder (MGM Limited Edition Collection)

The ultimate grindhouse masterpiece? Decide for yourself now that MGM has finally made journeyman director John Flynn's 1977 film available as a burned-on-demand DVD, exclusively via Amazon. Nothing much rattles former Vietnam POW Maj. Charles Rane (William Devane)—not when his son doesn't know him, not when his wife leaves him for a local deputy, not when a band of thugs jams his hand in a running garbage disposal. Rane just sharpens his new prosthetic hook, loads his shotgun, grabs a fellow ex-prisoner (a baby Tommy Lee Jones) and goes back to war, where he belongs. Unshowy, but just about perfect. SDF: There's more to life than movies, you know. Go outside.


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