If last year's "Best of..." lists were all over the place, this year's were focused on a small handful of films that seemed to hold near universal appeal. That's not to say there wasn't plenty of quality films to choose from--nearly sixty movies made their way onto our reviewers' lists of last year's favorites (with even more showing up as honorable mentions). But one film showed up on every single list submitted, with another thirteen showing up on multiple lists.
To the left are links to the lists of our regular contributors, as well as write-ups of the one film to show up on every list submitted. Work through them in whatever order you prefer, but be sure to peruse them all...you're sure to find enough to keep your Netflix queue busy for a while.
The Tree of Life
Terence Malick's return to theaters after a six year absence was nothing short of inspiring...in every sense of the word. After a divisive screening at Cannes, the film went on to similarly divide audiences into "love it" or "hate it" camps with little in between (some theaters even posted signs attempting to alert would-be viewers to the film's very different style and tone). Here's a sample of what our reviewers had to say:
It is a beautiful, multi-layered, and deeply spiritual film that asks the hard questions about our place in the universe and who we really are. -- Howard Schumann
The way Terrence Mallick's ambitious, long-planned, long-awaited The Tree of Life sweeps from cosmography to tough father-son relations, it seems like the 2001: A Space Odyssey of family dysfunction. -- Chris Knipp
Offers more of a visual experience than a linear story. It needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. --Elizabeth Manny
He composes a film like music, with the individual shots, often very brief, flowing after one another like notes in a symphony. The effect is lyrical and meditative. The Tree of Life is a symphony in five movements. -- Chris Dashiell
A truly great film about worship, memory, and, above all, love. -- Les Philips
Audacious, thoughtful, brilliant, and utterly moving...this is the one that had my wife and me up talking well past midnight. -- Alex Ellerman
Below are the (unlucky?) thirteen that showed up on multiple lists, including Von Trier's Melancholia (a clear and close second which appeared on nearly every list as well...another change from last year):
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Midnight in Paris
A Film Snob's Favorites of 2011
When critics say it was a bad year, and a lot of them are saying that about 2011, they usually mean it was bad for American movies. Here I must agree. The proliferation of comic book superheroes, mindless sequels, and feckless youth-oriented comedy has never been more dispiriting. As usual, there were plenty of good films, mostly located on the margins. My first two picks I honestly consider masterpieces. The question is, how to bring back a genuine love of film craft to the mainstream, and is that even possible anymore?
1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan).
In the vast Turkish countryside, three cars illuminate the darkness of the lonely roads at night. A police chief and his assistants are driving two murder suspects through the barren-looking landscape to various spots in order to find the body of a man the suspects have confessed to killing. The haggard and haunted-looking main suspect, wedged between two men in the back seat of the police chief’s car, claims to remember where the body is buried, but each time they try a location he is unable to confirm that this is the place, despite badgering by the petulant, frustrated cop. Accompanying the team are the prosecutor from nearby Ankara, and a doctor, the medical examiner. As the long night unfolds, and in the midst of inane and sometimes darkly humorous banter, the hidden lives and histories of these men are reflected in their halting words and expressions.
The title comes from a comment by one of the characters about life as a story told, like a fairy tale. It is an ironic title, because the profound theme of the film is the recognition of the truth without illusions, and how difficult and painful that recognition can be. Ceylan does not fashion the usual dramatic structure, with set-up, climax and so forth; but instead uses a hyper-realistic observational style in which mundane behaviors reveal ever so gradually the thoughts and realizations of the people involved in them. What laughter there is, subdued and edged with pain, arises from the frustratingly indirect nature of human interaction. The stories men tell themselves often circle back to women, largely absent or unseen—mourned, blamed, misunderstood.
I thought the film might end with the coming of daylight, but instead, with the story resuming back in the city, it just deepens more and more, quiet revelations arising amidst the cold realities of an autopsy. Our perceptions of each character change. The prosecutor’s knowing air conceals a painful past, and it is the doctor (Muhammet Uzener) who bears the final burden of meaning in this work of exacting realism. All the while, the great cinematography by Gokhan Tiryaki illuminates the stark and forbidding beauty of the natural world surrounding the beleaguered men.
This masterpiece places Ceylan firmly in the front ranks of world directors.
2. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami).
This is Kiarostami’s first fiction film to be made outside of his native country of Iran. The 65-year-old director demonstrates here that his temperament and vision are just as comfortable in a film set in Italy as they would be in Iran, or anywhere.
James Miller, a middle-aged English author played by William Shimell, is in Tuscany to promote his book, a scholarly tome exploring the issue of originality in art. In a talk that opens the film, he argues that in fact a copy is just as good as the original, because what matters is the perception of the work by the viewer. In the middle of this talk, a woman bustles in with a pre-teen boy and sits in the front row, where they create a minor disruption. She passes a note to the sponsor of the talk to give to Miller, and leaves. He responds to her invitation by showing up at her antique shop, and then she takes him on a little tour of the village.
She is a Frenchwoman named Elle (Juliette Binoche), with an armful of his books for him to autograph, but also with an attitude of challenge to his ideas about originals and copies. As the day goes on, she becomes more and more exasperating, until a question from a woman in a coffee shop who assumes they’re married prompts her to act as if they are. Or are they really? Miller goes along with the game, and this “marriage” continues with a series of increasingly emotional interchanges.
The movie is mostly these two characters talking, either while walking or sitting, yet the conversations are so unpredictable, and the relationship of these two people so mysterious, that the film is never dull for a moment. Binoche, the seasoned professional, dominates the picture with a performance that can be provocative, outrageous, and tender, sometimes within the same scene. Kiarostami has teamed her with Shimell, an opera singer who has never played a non-singing role before. The dynamics of pairing this fierce woman with this rather dry intellectual, intertwined with the subtle themes of falsehood and copies, is strangely moving. Why do they pretend to be married? What is marriage anyway? Are they playing a part in order to experience the reality without the consequences? Or perhaps they have been lovers?
Certified Copy cleverly and quite beautifully explores the gray area between truth and illusion, reality and fantasy. It is impeccably shot, edited, and acted; an almost perfect little jewel of a film. It’s also, true to its title, a kind of copy—a copy of a European art film, but in this case by an outsider who looks on the form with gentle irony.
3. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick).
Only after seeing this film did I realize that Malick’s style is musical. He doesn’t construct a story a drama. He composes a film like music, with the individual shots, often very brief, flowing after one another like notes in a symphony. The effect is lyrical and meditative. The Tree of Life is a symphony in five movements. In the first, a couple in late middle-age (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), the mother a woman of deep religious faith, learn of the death of one of their sons, a crisis that challenges the roots of that very faith. As always in Malick, voice-over gives us the innermost thoughts of people, and here they can be summed up with the agony of “Why would God allow this?”
Abruptly, and astoundingly, we enter the second movement, a stupendous visual tone poem taking us from the birth of the universe itself to the beginning of Earth, and then the emergence of life. This contrasts the inconceivable immensity of creation with the naïve human conception expressed in the first movement’s prayers to God. It is a visual analogue to the quotation from the Book of Job that opens the film. The third movement, returns to the family, now earlier in time and seen through the eyes of the oldest son, Jack, from his birth onward. Rarely has the point of a view of an infant and toddler been portrayed so beautifully, centering on the bond with the idealized mother. Sean Penn has a small part as the grown-up Jack brooding on the past and on his brother’s death, the beauty and vitality of nature interweaving with shots of the frightening industrial landscape of his adulthood in the city.
The fourth and longest movement involves the turning of the son against the father. The father doesn’t perceive the beauty and wonder that Malick shows us in every frame, but instead believes in being tough, in struggle and getting ahead. The father’s dominance evokes the end of Paradise and the beginning of the fall from grace, and his narrow-minded and abusive ways are reminiscent of the moody, vengeful personal God of the Bible. Jack rebels against this way of being in order to preserve his own sense of self. The fifth movement is the adult Jack’s vision of death and reuniting with family in love. There is very little talk in this film—most of the words are in the quiet voice-overs, whispers in the case of the young Jack, played marvelously by the newcomer Hunter McCracken. The Tree of Life is practically a catalogue of visual motifs that are vitally important to Malick’s world view, and I point just as an example to the recurring image of a curtain rippling slightly in the breeze while light pours into a room from the outside.
The debate aroused by the film is fascinating in itself. We can dismiss the ones who can’t grasp anything outside of the usual dramatic structures. But quite a few of the more progressive critics didn’t like it either, and I think it’s because Malick is in a sense a conservative director—not ideologically, but formally. Not for him the long takes and the minimalism we see so often from the avant-garde. He’s a romanticist, and he makes films about spirituality, yet the personal vision he presents is not at all fundamentalist or conventionally religious. In my view, his second movement makes the film lopsided; it should have been shorter. And the Sean Penn framing device isn’t worked out well enough. But I admire Malick’s risk-taking in the service of his vision, and there are very few films that can approach the majesty of even a flawed effort like this.
4. Melancholia (Lars von Trier).
Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, a radiant bride who seems very happy with her fiancée as they arrive at their lavish wedding reception put on by her brother-in-law at a huge mansion in the country. But the signs of trouble are there from the start—the couple is three hours late, and the bride inexplicably disappears from the party from time to time as it drags through the night. Underneath the radiance is an absolutely crushing depression. We don’t know why, although meeting her dissolute, half-mad father and bitterly hateful mother (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling), we can guess that her upbringing wasn’t very happy. Justine’s sister Claire, the apparently normal sibling played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, tries to keep things together, while Claire’s filthy rich husband (Kiefer Sutherland) can barely suppress his rage at his crazy sister-in-law’s behavior. With von Trier’s trademark hand-held camera style evoking an almost unbearable intimacy, the wedding of the film’s first half is a case study in the disastrous results of trying to live up to conventional expectations. Dunst, a popular yet underrated actress, plumbs depths I didn’t know she had.
The film’s second half shifts to Claire, and to a kind of science fiction allegory of depression. A previously unknown planet is now heading towards earth, and despite scientific assurances there is some fear that it may collide with planet. The name of the planet is Melancholia. I don’t know if von Trier could be any more obvious with his metaphor. But what he does with it is remarkable. It would seem that Claire, the more stable sister, is much less prepared to face reality than Justine, while her husband’s optimism is a mask for weakness. The coincidence of depression and apocalypse creates a profound effect. What falls away when we are confronted with the end of ourselves? The film seeks to show us.
Von Trier’s vision of humanity is pessimistic, to put it mildly. It seems to me that this is an artistic stance someone must take, if only to shake the complacency which puts our mortality at arm’s length. The theme of the two sisters returns from Breaking the Waves, and here it seems like different aspects of the same soul. Periodic eruptions of Wagner’s Liebestod on the soundtrack accompany darkly lyrical, wordless visual sequences of longing and dread. As always with von Trier, the film is raw, difficult and messy, bordering at times on the exasperating, but my memory returns to it more frequently than half the well-made movies I’ve seen in the last year. Melancholia, like the state of being it describes, must be experienced to be understood.
5. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin).
Durkin made the beginner’s mistake of giving his first feature, which won the Best Director award at Sundance, a title that is difficult to remember. I hope that doesn’t hurt its chances of being seen too much, because this is a brilliant and frightening work that touches on many delicate themes without losing its balance.
The movie opens at a rural community in the Catskills, with a group of women serving dinner to the men before themselves being allowed to eat. The next morning, the title character Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) sneaks away and makes her escape through the woods. Distraught, she calls her older sister, whom she’s been estranged from and hasn’t been in contact with for a long time. Lucy (Sarah Paulsen) picks her up and takes her to her posh summer house by a lake in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy).
From here on, the picture alternates between present and past. Martha fails to adjust to the middle-class lifestyle of her sister and acts in mysterious and wildly inappropriate ways such as walking into the couple’s room while they’re having sex. Flashbacks reveal that she was part of a weird back-to-the-land cult headed by a seductive and charismatic scarecrow of a man named Patrick, vividly portrayed by John Hawkes. There Martha was renamed Marcy May, initiated into the ways of the group, and eventually introduced to Patrick’s controlling mind games and sexual abuse. What Marlene, the final name in the film’s title, indicates, we only learn later.
The film avoids sensationalism in presenting the cult story, reminiscent in some ways of the Charles Manson family. Instead, the young woman’s past and present merge in a dream-like tapestry that seems all the more disturbing for being so matter of fact. Martha, as we gradually realize, has been traumatized to the point of being split off from her former self. The film subtly contrasts her sister Lucy’s bourgeois lifestyle, with its empty emphasis on achievement and material things, with the defiant anti-establishment communalism of the cult, which nevertheless turns out to be nothing more than a primitive form of patriarchy. Trapped between two insupportable realities, Martha acts like a quiet ghost haunting her own life.
There’s no attempt to make us draw conclusions. The audience experiences the same ambiguity as Martha, the same disturbing sense of something wrong, something that can’t be fixed. The intensely felt threat of being engulfed by the power of a group, and the furtive mistrust of everything, including one’s own mind, makes for a greater sense of horror than any monster or slasher film could hope to achieve.
6. Project Nim (James Marsh).
Folly can make its way into science, just as does in any human endeavor. If you doubt me, consider this film about the life of a chimpanzee who became part of an experiment to see if he could learn how to use language.
In 1973, Nim Chimpsky, named after the linguistic philosopher Noam Chomsky, was taken from his mother at two weeks old by Herbert Terrace, a behavioral psychologist at Columbia University, and put into a human family to be raised as if he were just another baby. The idea was to see if Nim could learn how to construct sentences through sign language, but the woman who was chosen to be his mother, Stephanie LaFarge, knew nothing about chimps or sign language, but was simply a former student of Terrace’s with whom, it turns out, she had once had a sexual relationship. Her large family of affluent free-spirited hippie types took Nim into their home on the upper west side of New York, and he bonded strongly with Stephanie while fighting just as strongly against her poet husband.
Nevertheless there was genuine affection here, and Nim did learn some signs, until after two years, Terrace and his new assistant, Laura-Ann Pettito, decided that there wasn’t enough science going on. They took Nim to live at a rented estate, and to lab classrooms at Columbia, where Nim did learn a great deal more about signing. As he got older, however, his propensity for lashing out through biting became less and less manageable, until Terrace shut down the project, sending Nim back to a cage in Oklahoma, a betrayal and a shock to Nim, who had never learned to relate to other chimps. From there it kept getting worse, including a stay at an animal experimentation lab, and although the last period of his life saw some hope, overall this is a story of human cruelty.
Terrace comes off the worst, with his vague and undisciplined methods and lack of interest in the actual details of the project. One of the story’s few heroes is Bob, one of the trainers at the Oklahoma facility, who was only interested in Nim for himself rather than for ulterior motives. This is turns out to be one of the film’s main points—we are shown how empathy for another’s point of view must extend to the animal world if we are to avoid doing irreparable damage either to them or us.
The film features a lot of original footage and photos from the project, with a few discrete reenactments for continuity, and the absorbing story has the flow of a tragic drama. Marsh interviews all the principals, most of whom show regret at the way things turned out for Nim. The painful awareness of human limitation can be seen in their eyes. Terrace himself revised his conclusions, deciding that Nim was merely a great mimic who only signed to get what he wanted, but without a spontaneous comprehension of language. Others disagree. The deeper meaning eluded him: the necessity of confronting both our animal and human natures if we are to be whole.
Project Nim is about power, and how its misuse can degrade us below the natural honesty of an animal.
7. Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki).
For three decades, the Finnish director Kaurismäki has generously given us his wryly sentimental and morose comedies, his daydream-like satires featuring social outcasts and misfits. His latest takes place in Le Havre in Normandy, on France’s northern coast. A man in his 60s named Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms) barely ekes out a living shining shoes, while his wife Arletty (Kaurismäki veteran Kari Outinen) spoils him at home. Marcel’s tidy little world is threatened when Arletty is hospitalized with an illness, the serious nature of which she hides from him. Meanwhile, the police discover a crate of smuggled refugees from Africa in a cargo ship, but one small boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) escapes and goes into hiding. He is discovered by Marcel, who takes him in and then plots, with the help of his friends and neighbors, to unite Idrissa with his mother in London while evading the cops, headed by the sinister looking Inspector Monet (marvelous character actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin).
The director employs a color scheme using various shades of turquoise to give the film a distinctive look. There’s a loveliness and depth to the images that add to the story’s fairy-tale atmosphere. For in fact this is not realism, but an image of what we wish could be, and what really should be, and the acting has a deadpan quality, with careful movement and slight theatrical pauses punctuating the cryptic dialogue. At one point Marcel says that shining shoes is the profession closest to the people and the last to respect the Sermon on the Mount. The film is filled with such ambiguous asides that can puzzle and amuse you at the same time. Wilms plays his character without a trace of sentimentality, just as the film doesn’t overly praise doing good deeds, but presents them as what simply should be expected of us. The humor reaches its apogee with a so-called “trendy charity concert” to help the African boy, starring the gnome-like elderly French rocker “Little Bob.”
The humanism of Le Havre, along with its poetry and love for eccentric people, is as unassuming as can be, and watching it made me happier than I had any reason to expect.
8. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt).
It seems like the absolute end of the line for the western in this film, an immersion in the backbreaking life of wagon train pioneers who have lost their way in the wilderness. Loosely inspired by a real historical event on the Oregon Trail in 1845, the tale follows seven people, three couples and a boy, following a grizzled trapper and frontier guide named Stephen Meek (an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood) who claims to know a shortcut off the trail by which they can avoid hostile Indians and get more quickly to their goal. Unfortunately, instead of reaching the Cascade Mountains, they find themselves trudging through dry and forbidding badlands. As the days go by, their water gets dangerously low, and it becomes evident that Meek, a gruff, boastful, arrogant man who can never admit he’s wrong, doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Reichardt takes the point of view of the women, reconfiguring the western genre as a feminist parable. When the three men consult with Meek, the women stand back, whispering among themselves in their long gingham dresses and bonnets which shield their eyes from sun and wind. Eventually one woman, Emily, played by Michelle Williams, emerges as an adversary to Meek, first quietly and eventually with more boldness. The film’s defining crisis comes when Meek captures an Indian. The issue of whom to trust then becomes a source of constant tension. There is no resolution—it’s not that kind of movie—but the real meaning lies in the forbidding wilderness as a spiritual state. Meek’s Cutoff depicts the merciless force of physical need and privation, the emptiness of a world in which people strive and wander towards a goal that is ever unsure. And within that frightening world, the reality of ignorant and misguided leadership takes on a tragic significance.
9. The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975 (Göran Olsson).
Olsson, a Swedish journalist, was doing some research in the basement of the Swedish television archive, when he stumbled upon a treasure trove of old footage shot for Swedish TV in the 60s and 70s on the subject of the black power movement in the U.S. Some of it was broadcast in Sweden, a lot of it was never shown, none of it was never seen in America. When Olsson looked at this footage he knew that he had to make a film out of it. Since the clips are from different shows and don’t have a common narrative thread, this is not a comprehensive documentary, but a series of fascinating glimpses into our political and cultural past from the point of view of foreign journalists. Which is why Olsson borrows the idea of the mixtape, tapes of various songs that people used to put together to communicate about themselves at a moment in time. The original voice-overs are in Swedish with subtitles, but most of the time we witness leaders and participants in the movement talking about the political crises of the time. We start with Stokely Carmichael, move on to the creation of The Black Panther Party, including footage of leaders such as Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver; and later focus on the emergence of Angela Davis. Remarkably candid shots are interwoven with footage of that turbulent time, including repression that was brought down on the civil rights and black power movements by the government and police.
Olsson also brought together veterans from the movement, including Kathleen Cleaver and Angela Davis herself, to comment in voice-over about those times. The film’s later sections, documenting the decline of the movement after the assassinations and FBI assaults, and the flooding of the ghettos with drugs which pacified revolutionary fervor, reflect the sadness of what happened compared to what might have been.
The Swedish journalists brought few preconceptions to their jobs, so for instance Angela Davis in a prison interview is allowed to go on at length and at great emotional intensity about her experience with violence from whites, and we also get a rare sense of life on the streets in 1970s Harlem. This is a very rich and evocative film, and a stirring reminder of how far we still need to go to achieve racial justice.
10. Monogamy (Dana Adam Shapiro).
Almost every year I have an “ugly duckling” on my list, a film I loved that few other people got to see. This one’s about a Brooklyn photographer named Theo (Chris Messina), who is starting an unusual business called Gumshoot, in which he is hired to take candid photos of people at a set time, but without their knowing exactly where he is. This quirky venture supplements the income from his day job as a wedding photographer, and he himself is engaged to be married in a few months to Natalie (Rashida Jones), an aspiring musician. Their scenes together are humorous and relaxed—you might be lulled into thinking this is a romantic comedy—and their discussions about the upcoming nuptials, coupled with the amusing scenes of Theo at his wedding shoots, create a kind of wry commentary on the exaggerated importance placed on wedding ceremonies in our culture.
A troubling element enters the mix when Gumshoot does a job for a sexy blonde who ends up practicing a bit of exhibitionism for Theo’s lens. At a subsequent job she is joined by a rather menacing looking man, whereupon they engage in some dangerous looking public sex play. Theo begins to be obsessed by this strange woman. When Natalie ends up in the hospital with a staph infection, Theo’s private obsession gets in the way of his being fully there for her, and it becomes apparent that his relationship is in danger of going off the rails.
The movie has a creepy, unpredictable feeling, and Shapiro also effectively uses a couple of other characters, male friends of Theo’s, to counterbalance the narrative with some casual satire on misogyny and superficial male bonding. There’s a twist at the end. Unlike most plot twists in films, it’s not a cheap gimmick designed to shock you. Instead if deftly sums up all the themes of the film—sexual obsession, fear of commitment, and the mysteries of self-sabotage.
Honorable mentions: The Time That Remains (Elia Suleiman), Hugo (Martin Scorsese), The Interrupters (Steve James), The Tree (Julie Bertuccelli), Circo (Aaron Schock), Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog), The Trip (Michael Winterbottom), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson), Bill Cunningham New York (Richard Press), Margin Call (J.C. Chandor).
Best TV: Mildred Pierce (Todd Haynes). Instead of trying to subvert the James M. Cain source novel, or do some sort of revisionist take, Haynes just nails the 1930s aura, and Kate Winslet brings life to her indomitable character while capturing a kind of solid ordinary aspect of Mildred as well. Scary good work from 12-year old actress Morgan Turner as the daughter from hell, who grows up to be Evan Rachel Wood (also good). And Guy Pearce is the perfect Monty.
One sour comment before I go. There are too many award shows, and not enough stuff on these shows that are worthy of being awarded. This is where I normally list my goodbyes to departed greats, but it’s best to just watch Scott McGee’s tribute clip for TCM. He did it better than I ever could. Have a great 2012—let’s show those Mayans what we’re made of.
©2012 Chris Dashiell
Annual Round Up-2011
I don't get to see many movies in the theater. Consequently, I don't feel that I can write anything approaching a definitive "Best Of" list for 2011. I can, however, share with you the best films among those I saw, big screen or small. Here they are.
#5. Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Fast-paced, funny, exotic, and exciting, Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol is everything a spy action-thriller should be. Its superspies and supervillains are appropriately super, its action sequences are breathtakingly exciting, and the whole thing hangs together with a sense of adventure and fun that had my whole group smiling as we walked out the door.
#4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II. The final episode of the Harry Potter series ties it all together. The story twists often enough to keep us in suspense, the characters get the finales they deserve, and the entire franchise comes out as among the most successful long-form cinematic stories ever told. The Harry Potter films have had their ups and downs, but this one ends the series on a high note.
#3. Hugo. A film of technical audacity, Hugo succeeds from its first image, a swooping flyover of a near-fantastical version of Paris. Its use of 3D technology is assured and masterful, and it tells a touching story while bathing us in aesthetic joy. This is a delightful, wonderful film, and I can't wait 'til my children are old enough to see it for themselves.
#2. 13 Assassins. Everything a movie should be, 13 Assassins is a perfect film. It's a "men on a mission" picture that deserves comparison with The Seven Samurai, with beautifully composed shots, thoughtful editing and sound design, well-realized characters, and gallons and gallons of Kensington Gore.
#1. The Tree of Life. Audacious, thoughtful, brilliant, and utterly moving, The Tree of Life is the most philosophically ambitious film I've seen since The Fountain. Meant for big screens and bigger speakers,The Tree of Life is a quiet and introspective film about meditations on the meaning of life. How does one reconcile "big screens and bigger speakers" with "quiet and introspective?" Terrence Malick finds a way and in so doing draws his audience into his meditative place. Of all the new releases we saw this year, this is the one that had my wife and me up talking well past midnight. Bravo.
#1 and Only: Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I had a "Bottom 5 Worst Films" list ready to go. On further consideration, however, numbers 2-5 were The Magnificent Ambersons compared to Transformers: Dark of the Moon. This is a rock 'em sock 'em robot movie that put my three boys, all hepped up on Twizzlers and soda, to sleep. I say again: this is a film about battlin' bots that puts little boys to sleep. So never mind that the characters are horrid, the story ridiculous, the action sequences incomprehensible, and the entire production put together by people who, apparently, actively hate us. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is painfully, agonizingly, apocalyptically dull. Not only is this the worst film I've seen this year, it's the worst film I've seen since Transformers. I'm glad I missed the second one. I'll be sure to miss the next.
©2012 Alexander Ellerman
My 2011 Best Movie Lists
There were two grand and epic films in English this year, Malick's and Von Trier's, which seemed to present warring world views at Cannes. Von Trier's isn't really American but since there were not quite enough American films for a list of ten best, and it goes so well with Tree of Life and has American actors in it I put it in that list, which replaces my usual "Best in English" lists. It's also kind of fun to list Lars, who won't set foot on American soil, as an American. There don't seem to be as many good foreign US releases. (This is partly because I prefer not to list films I listed in previous years even if they got a US release in 2011.) But there were a few fine new ones. The Dardennes' Kid with the Bike tells an abandoned boy's story with overwhelming moral authority and simple emotional force; not unusual for them but inconceivable for almost anybody else. Submarine is exceptionally witty and articulate. Tyrannosaur is a work of searing grim power. Weekend is a surprisingly vivid and honest little film of a few intense days between two gay men who've just met. Like L'Exercise de L'Etat but for different reasons, the theater was packed when I watched it, to electric effect. Audiences matter, and the shared experience in the dark still means something special. The degernation of the blockbuster cineplex experience with its chattering commentary (like lip readers, unable to watch without mouthing comments) and texting and rattling popcorn bags goes with the degeneration of the blockbuster film; of the larger commercial movie industry product. I listed a few good ones though. But I don't see the point of including them with films that were made for other reasons than to make money.
There were some strong new American indie films this year, including the very pure and kind-hearted Terri, the alive and fresh Pariah, and the triumph of bad boy gadgetry, Bellflower. Of course Take Shelter is an indie film in some sense too, but on a different level, with actors emerging as major, Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon, and a perfectly constructed screenplay by the director, Jeff Nichols, which you don't get very often in any film. It's interesting to see a writer-director emerge into the first rank. That happened also with the Mexican, Gerardo Naranjo, whose use of long takes in Miss Bala is remarkable and underlines its claustrophobic intensity.
Other directors made strong comebacks. Wes Anderson's belated return is a big-heated, grown-up tale about a man child playing father. It's a pleasure to herald a movie by Woody Allen that is both accomplished and kind hearted (despite the dislikeable fiancee and her materialistic parents). Margaret is a real indie film too: so much so that almost nobody got to see it, even after the six-year delay over editing. It's truly independent because it won't fit any mold and it emerges as rough, over-the-top, and exceptionally rich, novelistic, and exciting to watch.
Brad Pitt astonished this year, not only appearing in two of the best movies, but delivering fine and wholly different performances in each of them. His wife also impressed: though her harrowing Bosnia film in the BHS language with subtitles In the Land of Blood and Honey isn't an unqualified success in the writing department, it's serious and accomplished and very well directed. So much for the prejudices against "Brangelina."
In the case of the documentaries one could list many more than ten. As long as a non-fiction film provides useful information it may be worth watching. But those that are real works of art are few and far between, and would include Nostalgia for the Light and The Tiniest Place, both Latin American; and the unreleased English film The Arbor and the limited release The Mill and the Cross. Those two both incorporate acted elements and special visuals. The unique Werner Herzog's documentaries are quite naturally in a class by themselves. His new one about executions in Texas is enriched by his exceptional commitment and moral sincerity; his rapport with his interviewees is also impressive. I was not impressed by his cave paintings film in 3D (which except in the new Harold and Kumar film seemed pointless this year, as before). As usual a lot of stuff impressed the critics that contained at least one terrible flaw: I put major examples of this in my "Overrated" list. The marketplace and the downgrading of the culture mean that there are many heralded new films that seem pointless to me.
There was a terrific range of unreleased foreign films, everything from the simplicity of first love in Un amour de jeunesse (Mia Hansen-Love) to coming of age in time of war (Black Bread) to the woes of being a government minister (L'Exercise de L'Etat) to a corporate thriller (The City Below) to a tense drama about a father and son who're Talmudic scholars! And I'm sure many more from exotic sources that I have missed. All the following lists are alphabetical except the first two, which are best first. P.s.: I had to move The Kid with a Bike from Best Foreign because it won't be released in the US till March 2012. But it's my favorite foreign film of the year.
Tree of Life (Terrence Mallick)
Melancholia (Lars von Traier)
The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)
Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
Martha Marcy May Marlene Sean Durkin
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor)
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
Crazy, Stupid, Love (Glenn Ficarra, John Requa)
Warrior (Gavin O'Connor)
Incendies (Denis Villeneuve)
Submarine (Richard Ayoade)
Miss Bala (Fernando Naranjo
Tomboy (Céline Sciamma)
Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine)
Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)
House of Tolerance /L'Appolonide (Bertrand Bonello)
Weekend (Andrew Haigh)
A Useful Life (Federico Veiroj)
Queen to Play (Caroline Bottero)
BEST AMERICAN INDIE FILMS
Bellflower (Evan Glodell)
Cold Weather (Aaron Katz)
Higher Ground (Vera Farmiga)
Pariah (Dee Rees)
Target Practice ( Richmond Riedel)
Terri (Azrael Jacobs)
Win Win (Thomas McCarthy)
BEST UNREALESED IN THE US
Black Bread (Agustí Villaronga)
The City Below (Christoph Hochhäusler)
Corpo Celeste (Alice Rohrwacher)
L'exercice de l'État (Pierre Schoeller)
Footnote (Joseph Cedar)
Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve)
The Kid with the Bike (Jean-Pierre, Luc Darnenne)
Outbound (Bogdan George Apetri)
Outside Satan (Bruno Dumont)
This Is Not a Film (Jaafir Panahi)
The Arbor (Clio Bernard)(Not released in US)
Bobby Fischer Against the World (Liz Garbus)
Buck (Cindy Meehl)
Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life (Werner Herzog)
The Interrupters (Steve James)
The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski)
Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman)
Page One: Inside the New York Times (Andrew Rossi)
Project Nim (James Marsh)
Public Speaking (Martin Scorsese)
Something Ventured (Daniel Geller, Dayna Goldfine)
Tiniest Place, The (Tatiana Huezo) (unreleased)
We Were Here (David Weissman, Bill Weber)
Colombiana (Olivier Megaton)
Fast Five (Justin Lim)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (David Yates)
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird)
Rise of Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt)
Beginners (Mike Mills)
Bridesmaids (Paul Feig)
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa)
Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
Shame (Steve McQueen)
Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichart)
Pina (Wim Wenders)
WORST OF THE YEAR (just that I saw)
The Darkest Hour (Chris Gorak)
I Melt with You (Mark Pellington)
The Ledge (Matthew Chapman)
New Year's Eve (Gary Marshall)
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 (Bill Condon)
WISH I'D SEEN
Faust (Alexai Sokurov)
In a Better World (Susanne Bier)
The Time That Remains (Elia Suleiman)
(And others I'm forgetting or don't even know about.)
©2012 Chris Knipp
The beautifully shot Mysteries of Lisbon is the late director Raoul Ruiz's last film. It's based on the 1854 Portuguese novel by Camilo Castelo Branco and interweaves the complicated threads of this 18th and 19th century story.
Also set in the 18th century is Rene Feret's Mozart's Sister packed with sequences lit only by candlelight, a technical tour de force.
Norwegian Wood is a slow-moving, contemplative film about two young people affected by the suicide of a friend. Each shot is a small masterpiece of texture and composition. The director, Anh Hung Tran, also directedThe Scent of Green Papaya (1993).
In Melancholia, Lars von Trier brings us into his troubled universe which mixes black humor and a confrontation with the apocalypse.
Mohammad Rasoulof's The White Meadows (not yet widely released) is an allegory about a fictional country where punishments are harsh and where the downtrodden seek to save captured tears. This film is full of striking images of Iran's white desert. The other fine release from Iran isA Separation (director: Asghar Farhadi), a comprehensive examination at the implications of a couple's separation.
Terrence Malick'sTree of Life offers more of a visual experience than a linear story. It needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
In The Mill and the Cross, directed by Lech Majewski, we enter the mind of renaissance artist Peter Bruegel the Elder and find ourselves immersed in his painting "The Way to Calvalry." We feel we become a part of the artist's creative process. The film is shot in the style of the painting.
Le Quattro Volte by Michelangelo Frammartino follows the last year of an elderly goat herder in a remote Calabrian village. This film is quiet and thoughtful, a lovely visual poem.
In The Artist, Director Michel Hazanavicius makes a silent film for contemporary audiences and introduces most Americans to French actor Jean Dujardin. The Artist is a familiar showbiz saga, but it's easy to enjoy this real crowd-pleaser.
Martin Scorsese's Hugo is a 3D film about an orphan boy who lives in a 1930's Paris train station. Through a remarkable invention, Hugo discovers Georges Melies' magical world of the early silents.
Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris alternates between the Paris of today and the 1920's where we hang out with Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso and their circle of friends.
Rango (director Gore Verbinski) is an animated film full of humor for adults as well as children. This twisted spaghetti western features a cast of colorful reptiles.
The animated My Dog Tulip (directors: Paul Fierlinger, Sandra Fierlinger) is not your usual sentimental dog story. Sensitively painted watercolors capture J.R. Ackerley's memoir about an elderly curmudgeon and his first dog.
Two documentaries stand out. El Bulli (director: Gereon Wetzel) explores molecular gastronomy and chronicles Ferran Adria's short-lived restaurant in Catalan where food is transformed into high art.
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (director: Craig McCall) is an in-depth look at famed cinematographer Jack Cardiff, whose career spanned almost 90 years dating from 1918 when he began his career as a child actor.
Finally among the worst of 2011 is Clint Eastwood's bloated biopic J. Edgar, whose life couldn't have been this boring.
©2012 Elizabeth Manny
I saw so many good films this year. My second ten include:
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Many of those movies compare very favorably to my top ten from last year. Other films should be noted because they contain phenomenal performnces: Coriolanus for Vanessa Redgrave, and 50/50 for Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
I regret that I haven't yet seen
The Skin I Live In
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Paul Goodman Saved My Life
The Adventures of Tintin
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Martha Marcy May Marlene
I name those because I suspect they might have made the top 20 if not the top 10. And many other films gave delight and pleasure.
The top 10, alphabetically:
Bill Cunningham New York is pure joy, distilled into cinema. Even better, it's about pure devotion to the image. And it shows and tells a great lesson, that fashion is everywhere. And another great lesson, that the. humblest of us can be great. No one lives forever, but Bill Cunningham should.
Film Socialisme is utterly unto itself. Jean-Luc Godard has revised and reinvented his art yet again. Nothing else this year was as challenging or illuminating.. If you don't understand it (I don't either), think harder. Or think less hard perhaps. Also, this is one of the most beautiful Godard films.
Hugo. Scorsese does it again, entirely off type.
Margin Call. The best film about the recent unpleasantness in our economic system; the only good film on the subject really apart from Inside Job. Splendid acting, and the director reimagines New York City as Babylon, trembling as it anticipates destruction.
Midnight in Paris. A radiant, friendly banquet of a film. A grand Woody Allen comeback. How can you resist Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein? Owen Wilson achieves redemption. We're back to Woody's "early funny ones."
Melancholia. Lars von Trier is a pain in the ass, but this is a film to be reckoned with. The acting is very fine; the concept is overwrought, but the overwreaking is estimable, and very beautiful.
Poetry. Just sublime.
Shame. A high concept welded to a great performance; hard to tell ultimately which is the performance and which is the film.
Take Shelter. Another great lead performance that embodies the film's doctrine perfectly. This is a simple film, plainsong that becomes transcendent.
The Tree of Life. A truly great film about worship, memory, and, above all, love. Detractors should stop worrying about what it is and accept what it is; which is to say relax, let it wash over you, feel . . .
©2012 Les Phillips
My Favorites of 2011
1. The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, 2011)
In The Tree of Life, Director Terence Malick has opened our vision to the untranslatable miracle of life in all its aspects. It is a beautiful, multi-layered, and deeply spiritual film that asks the hard questions about our place in the universe and who we really are.
2. Hadikduk HaPnimi (Intimate Grammar, Nir Bergman, 2010) (Unreleased)
Intimate Grammar is the heartbreaking story of a boy stuck in an endless childhood, so devoid of the things that nurture our soul, that, to survive, he must escape into a world of dreams, surviving only by being a spectator to his own life. It is a film of rare beauty.
3. Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011)
Drive is not a fast-paced action thriller but mostly a film of style and mood that has a European feel to it, in the tradition of Melville’s Le Samourai. Ryan Gosling, in one of his best performances, is a reticent garage mechanic and movie stunt driver during the day, but at night, a getaway driver for small-time crooks. The film is quiet but a work of palpable tension thatdoesn’t hold back on the blood, but makes us feel its repellent horror and agony.
4. Café de flore (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2011)
The best Canadian film of the year (as yet unreleased in the U.S.), Café de flore is a haunting experience that is daringly original, passionately performed, and spiritually resonant, Built along two parallel lines, the enigmatic connection between the two stories will keep you awake long into the night.
5. Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)
Using authentic recreations as well as archival footage, Moneyball, is an entertaining and often moving film that stars the charismatic Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, a former player who became the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics in 1998, and who may have changed the game forever by introducing computer analysis as a method of building a team.
6. Anonymous (Roland Emmerich, 2011)
Supporting the premise that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the true author of the works of William Shakespeare, Anonymous delivers with style, spectacle, and authenticity. As film critic Kirby McCord put it, “Anonymous” is an intricate tale full of multi-dimensional characterizations, wonderful sets and costumes, unconventional perspectives, and a number of elaborately executed surprises. As such, it is a fascinating recreation of history that is entertaining, eyebrow raising, and enlightening.”
7. Las Acacias (Pablo Giorgelli), 2011) (Unreleased)
A middle-aged truck driver’s long years of hauling lumber from Asuncion, Paraguay to Buenos Aires are etched on his grizzled face but when a Portuguese woman accompanies him to Buenos Aires on a delivery, his repressed sense of his own humanity begins to awaken. Winner of the Camera d’Or for the best first feature in Cannes, Argentine director Pablo Giorgelli’s Las Acacias is a work of deceptive simplicity, a film of emotional richness that has no extraneous conversation, enigmatic symbolism, or background music, but is a work of deep and abiding humanity.
8. The Help (Tate Taylor), 2011
The Help depicts the patience, loyalty, and courage of black maids who cooked, cleaned, and raised the children of white employers and who were often subject to abuse and humiliation. The film is carried by the brilliant work of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, whose performances are at the core of the film’s ability to access deep human emotion.
9. Copy Conforme (Certified Copy, Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)*
Questions about the nature of reality, the purpose of existence, and whether a copy is as good as the original are raised in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, a beautiful and mesmerizing film that can take its place among the director’s finest work.
10. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)
The Artist is a charming recreation of the silent film era of the late 1920s that focuses on how the advent of talking pictures spelled the end of careers for those silent film stars who could not or would not make the transition. Shot in color, then transferred to black and white, the film’s combination of form and style captures a time of simplicity in which movies reflected creativity and imagination.
11. Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, 2011)
Margin Call examines the motives and morality of people in positions of power in a shaky financial institution and how they react in a career-threatening crisis. The film’s message is directed not only at the ninety-nine percent of the population but also at the one percent, urging them to begin connecting with their humanity and conscience.
12. Terri (Azazel Jacobs, 2011)
Terri is a film of unusual freshness, a sweet, tender, and very observant work about a heavily oversized parentless teenager coming to terms with the reality of being different. It is not a cruel film in the slightest but one that conveys a sincere affection for its troubled characters, and its natural performances make it a film to remember.
13. The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011)
The Descendants is marked by a superb performance by George Clooney, exceptional cinematography, and a feeling of authenticity. On the surface, it is a film about the grieving process, but, underneath, it is about connection and responsibility to the planet we inhabit and to those who are on this journey with us.
14. Monsieur Lazhar (Philippe Falardeau, 2011)
Monsieur Lazhar is a thoughtful and powerful Canadian film that explores the reaction of students and teachers to a sudden tragedy in a Montreal primary school. Marked by outstanding performances that are natural and unaffected, the characters are allowed to slowly come to terms with their own feelings without contrivance, manipulation, or swelling strings. When the emotional moments come, they are all the more powerful because they arise naturally, not out of predesigned plot points designed to provoke tears.
15. Another Earth (Mike Cahill, 2011)
A quietly beautiful meditation on guilt, redemption, and second chances, Another Earth is a quietly powerful work of art that suggests that truth lies more in inner than in outer space, and that the biggest world to conquer is the one that is right before our eyes.
16. Play(Ruben Ostlund, 2011) (Unreleased)
Taken from actual incidents in which a group of black teens carried out a series of thefts of other children’s personal belongings for two years, Swedish director Ruben Ostlund’s Play is a compelling study of how our lives are often run by stereotypes, racial or otherwise, and how the line between victims and victimizers can be a thin one.
17. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)*
A fascinating journey 32,000 years in the past to discover a unique collection of cave art situated in the Chauvet-Pont-d Arc Cave in Southern France, the film not only captures the immense power of art that dates to the dawn of man’s history, but infuses it with a profound spiritual presence.
18. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)*
A haunting tale of the struggle for survival of three pioneer families in Oregon Territory in 1845 and their issues of trust with an unnamed Indian that they have captured, Meek’s Cutoff is not a story of “progress” or “manifest destiny,” but a depiction of the difficult options that the real settlers were faced with that were never clear cut.
19. Submarine (Richard Ayoade, 2010)*
Submarine is a sweet and funny film that, unlike many Hollywood teen comedies, is not afraid to mix genuine emotions with its humor. 15-year-old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is a precocious, alienated, but ultimately sympathetic character whom we can identify with, not because he is without flaws, but because we can recognize in him our own halting steps towards maturity.
20. Jane Eyre(Cary Fukanaga, 2011)
Featuring a breakthrough performance by Mia Wasikowska, the latest film version of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel, Jane Eyre, resonates with a powerful depiction of free will and class distinctions, delivering an important message about transcending limitations and being willing to find one’s own way in life.
* Released in Canada in 2011
In a Better World
Le Quattro Volte
Life, Above All
Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune
This is Not a Film
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Midnight in Paris
©2012 Howard Schumann
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Stock Photography and Stock Footage
Zero for Conduct