British director Steve McQueen's sophomore film "Shame" is a film that would have been surrounded by controversy and perhaps never screened in theaters in the states had it been released more than a decade ago. Out of all the films that have been released this year, so far, this is the most powerful and distinguishing work in a societal context, in a standard film viewing context, and a cinema history context.
Bearing an NC-17 rating, this film has essentially covered advertising based off of the reputation... it's not a bad reputation though (as it was in the case of a hand-full of films released in the 90s marked with the same ratings "curse"), instead the director of "Shame" and Fox Searchlight Pictures have embraced the rating as a testament to how authentic and real the film is. Their perception of the rating in relation to "Shame" is spot on. Yes, the film is gratuitous in a sexual manner, but no, the film does not use sex as a gimmick or as something to be flaunted.
"Shame" follows Brandon (Michael Fassbender) who is a man who would like to have control of his life and be able to balance his priorities, but his very serious addiction to sex interferes with basic emotional connections and family interaction (as well as his career). The premise of a film circulating around a man addicted to sex seems almost laughable, but until seeing the movie does the true downward-spiral nature of this man's sexual appetite truly resonate. Glamorizing nothing, "Shame" shows sex merely as a function (a hurtle that many movie goers who don't plan to see "Shame" may have difficulty overcoming).
Full of emotion and subtle details, this film is about more than sex: "Shame" is about human interaction and addiction. Comparing this film to Darren Aronofsky's film "Requiem For A Dream" would almost be an insult as "Requiem For A Dream" (which is all about various forms of addiction) is over-dramatised and pushes audiences to feel emotions that are difficult to sympathize with (as is characteristic of many of Aronofsky's films). In contrast, "Shame" is a film that finds its emotions in the realms of the real world (and a world, perhaps, rarely seen by those who aren't sex addicts).
Artistically, "Shame" is a masterpiece with some of the most beautiful cinematography used to capture some of the most mundane actions and behavioristics. At times, entire scenes will be captured in a single take lasting five or more minutes (an incredible spectacle to experience on an aesthetic level, and on a performance level). Fassbender's acting is not only exceptional, but it comes from a highly natural and guttural place which makes the film tense and holds the film together in general. The music serves as a beautiful accent piece that never distracts from the content of the film (only a few compositions were original as majority of the soundtrack is classical). Tone is greatly enhanced in this film by the audio as often the sound is isolated to make the audience feel as alone and helpless as Fassbender.
The loss of innocence is at the heart of this film, and with that loss comes the lack of discernment and control which is exhibited throughout the film. "Shame" strikes a nerve that few films can tap, and that may be in part because of the "package" the film comes in (the NC-17 package, that is), but the film also stands on its own legs without gimmicks (and without the NC-17 rating being a gimmick in its own right). NC-17 will hopefully become more acceptable in response to this artistic work which should not be lost in the sea of banality as exhibited in cheap "unrated" comedies and out-of-control "horror" films which give NC-17 a bad name. "Shame" is at the pinnacle of artistry and realism, and hopefully the boldness of directors like McQueen will continue to be embraced.
My ranking: 5/5 stars (#1 film of 2011)