Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Closing the books on '11

2011 was a kind of spectacular movie year. From middlebrow, awards-bait movies to foreign dramas, obscure indies to highly ambitious visual epics, small-scale documentaries to big-budget blockbusters, the past year had a treasure of riches that ran the gamut of styles and tastes. And we are now getting to a point where the availability of these vast array of titles is rapidly growing. Yes, you can see the latest $200 million action flick or buddy comedy at your local megaplex. But you can also discover any number of smaller, more obscure movies or even rediscover those Hollywood blockbusters at your own leisure in the comfort of your own home with the growing access to streaming titles online and on demand. As I endeavored to narrow down my favorite movies of the past year, I began to notice how this access affected what I chose. And because of it, my top 10 has maybe the widest variety it has had since I started making these year-end lists.

But, first, a few others that just missed the list:

It was an incredibly strong year for documentaries. The great Werner Herzog himself had two very different ones. First he had the awe-inducing Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Chauvet caves in southern France, home of what is the oldest-known cave paintings. The caves transport you to a different time and if you were lucky enough to see the film in theaters and in 3-D, the art and technology of cinema took you to a different place. On the completely different end of the spectrum, Herzog's next doc was the harrowing Into the Abyss, about the experience of the Texas death row system, specifically about two young men who committed a triple homicide in 2001. The joy and wonder of the earlier film is matched by the sadness and horror of the later one.

In the same way those two Herzog docs had widely a disparate emotional effect, two other biographical documentaries took widely different cinematic approaches to their subjects. Cindy Meehl's Buck, about the real-life horse whisperer Dan "Buck" Brannaman, is as standard as these types of movies usually are. But it's also a moving story about compassion and forgiveness, family, and man's relationship to nature. Everything about Buck's upbringing should have led him down a much darker path. That it didn't isn't the result of a miracle, but patience and perseverance, which is exactly what he exhibits every time he touches a horse. Clio Barnard's The Arbor is anything but standard. The film about the late British playwright, Andrea Dunbar, ingeniously brings to life audio interviews of her family by having actors lip-synch their words in front of the camera as well as act out parts of her plays. It is a fascinating and completely new way to weave a picture of a life wrought with pain and complicated relationships with those who loved the very autobiographical author most.

Fractured identity is not new to storytelling, but they were the center to two of the most thrilling movies, one made by a first-time director, the other by an old master. Sean Durkin's debut Martha Marcy May Marlene is not only carried by two of the best performances of the year--Elizabeth Olsen as the titles character(s) and a scary-as-hell John Hawkes, who seduces her into his commune--but also by the consistently eerie tone he is able to balance with an ever-percolating sense of insanity that only occasionally comes to a boil. The Hitchcockian The Skin I Live In, from Pedro Almodóvar, has everything you'd expect from that crazy Spaniard: bold images, extremely heightened melodrama, beautiful music and beautiful faces. One of those beautiful faces is Elena Anaya, who like Olsen in above film, has to emote in several different directions, to not only keep the other characters off balance, but us as well.

Much was made of how nostalgia seemed to be a prevalent theme among the films of 2011, especially nostalgia about cinema itself. Movies like Super 8 and The Artist paid direct homage to films of an earlier era. But perhaps the two most successful examples were made by two legends to whom nostalgia has always been a driving force in their work. Part of the movie brat generation that emerged in the 1970s, Martin Scorsese knows more about cinema than most people will ever forget. So while a brightly-colored, 3D movie based on a children's book may seem like an unlikely property for the normally gritty Scorsese, a film about the discovery of a seminal figure in its history seems more than appropriate. But Hugo is more than an homage. It's part mystery, redemption story, and coming-of-age drama. If Scorsese's picture is indicative of a some kind of growing sense of nostalgia among filmmakers, in many ways Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is a rejection of that sensibility. Yes, Owen Wilson's Gil is happy to be magically transported to his favorite era in history--1920s Paris. It's minor Allen really, but part of the reason it's here is because it feels like the anti-nostalgia film of last year, arguing for engagement with the current world around you over the idolatry of a bygone era.

If Iranian cinema was dealt horrific blow with the bogus arrest of and six-year sentence given to director Jafar Panahi, there may be some measure of solace found in the ongoing presence of the country as a center of important cinema. Three terrific examples make the list of my favorite films of 2011. You'll see the other two lower on the page. My favorite narrative feature from last April's Florida Film Festival was Hossein Keshavarz's Dog Sweat. I imagine there are some that would assume that a drama from Iran to be dryly political, a harrowing look at a repressed or fundamentalist life (I was one of them). Surely the movie is political--and overtly so--but it is weaved together so beautifully with the personal stories of a handful of young Iranians trying in small ways to liberate themselves (mainly in the avenue of love and sex).

Another fantastic cast of young actors make up the group of young thugs in Attack the Block, Joe Cornish's loud and muscular, but also funny and charming movie about an alien invasion on one small South London block. Like Dog Sweat, I mostly had no idea what I was sitting down to, but was taken for one of the most enjoyable rides all year, carried by a bandit of quick-witted, unknown teenage actors.


10. (tie) The Adjustment Bureau (review)/Warrior

I'm as surprised as anyone that these two movies make my list. But the reason I'm cheating here with a tie is that these two movies feel like examples of the ones Hollywood used to make. They aren't nostalgic in the way a lot of the films I referred to above are (they exist firmly in the present), but they're imbued with an old-fashioned sensibility. They feel stripped of the irony and postmodern cynicism that make much of American mainstream cinema such a slog to sit through. And they elicit such genuine feeling out of the moviegoer through their earnest performers and assured directing.

9. Take Shelter

Is Curtis going mad or is he really having visions of an impending apocalypse? He's likely going mad; even Curtis himself thinks so as he checks out books on mental illness and insanity and visits psychiatrists. Regardless, Michael Shannon's performance and Jeff Nichols's direction keep you on edge until a glorious last shot that will keep you pondering well after you see it.

8. Certified Copy

In Tuscany, "She" (Juliette Binoche) attends a speaking apperance by British author James Miller (William Shimell) who is discussing his new book about the authenticity of art. The two take a day trip through this most picturesque of Italian cities as barely acquaintances, strangers really, and then by brunch transform into a married couple of 15 years. Abbas Kiarostami's first picture outside of his native Iran is a puzzle; and somewhere along the way, a joke was pulled (on who? probably us). What appears to be an impenetrable love story and a narrative gimmick ends up packing an emotional wallop, primarily through Binoche's tender performance. James says early in the film that there are "no immutable truths" and whether in love or in art, that seems to be the most telling pieces of advice.

7. Hanna

Joe Wright's Euro-action flick starring Saoirse Ronan as the title character is really a fairytale, coming-of-age story punctuated by moments of violence. Cate Blanchett and Tom Hollander deliciously chew up the screen as the villains in search of the adolescent assassin. The Chemical Brothers' propulsive soundtrack add to the thrills as does Sarah Greenwood's superb production design (how 'bout that decrepit Grimm theme park?).

6. Meek's Cutoff

The third of Kelly Reichardt's so-called Oregon trilogy is like the other two in that it is austere, deliberately paced, meditative. Unlike the others, it takes place in the pre-Civil War, Old West. Reichardt's camera captures the parched, barren landscape as a small group of settlers unsuccessfully follow their guide outside of the comforts of civilization. When they run into a lone "enemy", they are forced to make decisions that will have everything to do with whether they make it out alive.

5. Beginners (review)

Probably my for-personal-reasons favorite movie of the year, Mike Mills's autobiographical movie is both a wistful romance, an examination of one's final years, and most strikingly a treatise on sadness. Everybody's got baggage and each has his or her own way of dealing with it. Christopher Plummer's Hal spent a lifetime dealing with it before coming out at the age of 73. Oliver and Anna (Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent) are still trying to overcome theirs. Cosmo, as Arthur, is the cutest dog ever.

4. A Separation (review)

In terms of scale, A Separation (the best of the three Iranian movies mentioned here) is fairly modest in scope. But Asghar Farhadi's emotional roller coaster distills and focuses a world of thematic elements into one family drama. The actors, especially Peyman Maadi and Sarina Farhadi as the main father and daughter, respectively, superbly render the director's screenplay, which has the deftness to make each characters' points of view feel legitimate despite being completely conflicting.

3. The Tree of Life

There was perhaps no more polarizing film than Terence Malick's magnum opus, The Tree of Life. But there was almost certainly no more ambitious one. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are terrific as parents at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Young Hunter McCracken is even better as their oldest son. But the real star of the film is Malick himself (with a great assist from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki), whose overarching vision of, well, all of life itself permeates every frame of this epic masterwork.

2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (review)

Cinema has the unique ability to combine the various arts and, in doing so, can bring us to places we'd ordinarily be unable to visit. Sometimes those places are halfway around the world. Other times they're simply one man's vivid imagination. Even better, sometimes it's our own. The magical Uncle Boonmee... from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (or just "Joe" to you and me) takes us to all those places. That the film has oblique references and seemingly inexplicable narrative flights of fancy doesn't make it inaccessible. It's merely a beautiful dream from which you don't ever want to wake up.

1. Weekend

Shy Russell meets outspoken Glen at a bar. They spend the night together. The next morning Glen tells Russell he's leaving for America for two years to study. It's as unceremonious a beginning to a movie romance as you'll find. It's also as standard a beginning to one you'll find in everyday life. And that's one of the many joys to be had with Andrew Haigh's lovely film. To call it a gay, UK version of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset movies is a bit reductive. But it begins to point in the direction of the tone the movie sets. Much of the film is a series of conversations between the two (played wonderfully by Tom Cullen and Chris New) and there's a fly-on-the-wall feeling to it. Haigh's camera seems to be merely eavesdropping on the most intimate of moments between the two. Like all the great love stories, you feel as if a whole world is explored within the simple connection between two people. A character in the above Certified Copy says that "there's nothing simple about being simple". It's political without beating you over the head, explicit without being graphic, romantic without being sappy. It's a combination of its two leads, quiet and outspoken. It's brilliant and moving. It's the best movie of 2011.

As of this writing, Weekend, Uncle Boonmee..., Meek's Cutoff, Certified Copy, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Buck, and The Arbor are available to watch on Netflix Instant and most of the rest are available on DVD. Happy watching and here's to hoping 2012 gives us as many wide-ranging gems as 2011.


VT said...

What about Drive? Just watched last night.
Also, thank you for introducing me to Weekend. So good.

Jason said...

I loved DRIVE. That's how good a year it was. I left a lot of movies off this list that easily could have been here. It's best to think of this list as the beginning of the conversation, rather than the final word. Some others that probably deserved mention: TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, MELANCHOLIA, BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, POETRY, YOUNG ADULT, MY IDIOT BROTHER, MONEYBALL, CEDAR RAPIDS...

VT said...

But, Drive!?! Maybe I like it so much more because of the Oscar snub.
Next on my Netflix: Hanna, then The Muppets, then The Adjustment Bureau. This last one intrigued me, just because I thought the trailer seemed laughable. But I'll give it a shot. Will see how distracting Emily Blunt's veneers are...
PS I keep thinking about the King of Kong (which was on your list in whatever year it came out) but haven't gotten around to watching it just yet.