I don't know what to feel about 2011. It was the best year of my life. It was also the worst year of my life. It was probably the most important year of my life so far, and it was absolutely by far the strangest. Most of my life before this year was on a fairly even keel, but 2011 was a year of violent extremes for me personally, often experienced simultaneously, which I hadn't even thought possible. So it's fair to say I have a lot of ambivalence about my year.
What I'm not ambivalent about when it comes to 2011, however, is the movies. I saw so many new movies I loved last year I can scarcely believe it, and there are still so many potentially awesome movies I haven't even gotten around to seeing yet (like The Artist, The Adventures of Tin Tin, Hugo, and Le Havre, just to name a few). Below are 19 movies from 2011 that I cherished deeply, listed alphabetically so as to avoid needless ranking. Which isn't to say I loved all films equally, just that there's no reason to compare them to each other.
Probably the film on this list I'm most conflicted about (very appropriate, considering my year), Bellflower is this year's scrappy little indie film that could. An offbeat tale of a young man who spends his free time preparing for a Road Warrior-esque apocalypse, only to find himself facing more of personal/emotional apocalypse instead, it's a strange and not always satisfying ride through the macho fantasies and emotional immaturity of young men. It's a film with home made flamethrowers and souped-up cars designed for battle, with the threat of violence constantly coiled under the surface, yet it never turns into the exploitation movie you might be expecting. It does eventually climax with some serious violence, but not in an action movie sense. Overall, it's more of a talky character study; granted, the only talky character study I've ever sense that can cite Mad Max as a serious stylistic influence. (I'm sensitive to criticisms that the final act of the film seems like something of a misogynistic fantasy, but after long deliberation I've come to believe that the movie is more commenting on these sorts of attitudes rather than embracing them).
Yet the film is so boldly stylish (not just in its washed out color palette and dirty lenses and blurry shots, but in its dreamy atmosphere and highly subjective story), so perceptive in places, and so unique that I couldn't help but kind of love it. Writer/Director Evan Glodell has crafted a weird, DIY mini-masterpiece that's as ingeniously cobbled together as his characters' handcrafted inventions. And although I might be giving the film a few extra points for its homemade charm, I think it still succeeds as a striking personal and aesthetic statement.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Werner Herzog's film about the world's oldest known cave paintings works pretty well as an entertaining, informative, often even quite funny Discovery Channel-esque documentary. But of course this is Herzog we're talking about, so it's also a deeply philosophical look into the nature of time, art, evolution and the age old question of what makes us human. Armed with beautiful visuals and a haunting soundtrack, Herzog takes what could have been fodder for something much more straightforward, and instead uses it as yet another opportunity to stare into the abyss.
A lot of folks praised Cave's lovely use of 3D for helping show the curvature and dimension of the cave drawings better than 2D could. I'm not really convinced that's true (2D creates the illusion of depth just fine). Personally, I loved it because (to my eyes) 3D looks less real, and something about that added unreality adds to the film's ambitious, philosophical themes and recondite tone.
I've slowly but surely been watching whatever of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's films I've been able to get my hands on over the last two years or so. Certified Copy, I believe his first film not set in Iran (it's set in Tuscany, and the dialogue is mostly in French and English) and one of his only films to feature professional actors, is also one of his best. It's a charming yet beguiling movie about a man and a woman who, over the course of a day spent together, seem to morph from strangers into a couple that have been together many years. What's going on? Are they strangers pretending to be a couple, an old couple pretending to be strangers, or what?
The answer, of course, is that there is no answer; part of the pleasure of Certified Copy is the way it asks you to hold two contradictory thoughts in your mind at the same time. It's not a mystery meant to be solved, but rather a film that embraces ambiguity as a way of exploring ideas about art, about relationships, and about authenticity and originality.
This looks to be the most international attention a Kiarostami film has ever received, because it stars an honest to goodness movie star (Juliette Binoche), and also because western audiences are, sadly, probably much less likely to watch films about Iranians. If you ever check this one out, enjoy it, and want to see more, then I heartily recommend starting with Kiarostami's Close Up, The Wind Will Carry Us, or Where is the Friend's Home? Shirin is also great but probably not for beginners.
A movie I knew nothing about, in fact had never even heard of until right before I watched it on Netflix a few weeks ago, Cold Weather turned out to be a wonderfully unexpected surprise. Although it eventually meanders its way, reluctantly, into a satisfying and even suspenseful mystery, it's mostly a laid back, human comedy about a likable slacker and his circle of friends. It's a crime/detective film in some senses, but mostly it's just about the textures of these people's lives as they (often aimlessly) amble about, drinking too much, bullshitting and finding ways to kill time. The kind of film where two characters sit in a parked car on a stakeout, but the scene is really more about their funny, digressive and true-to-life conversations they have while waiting, moreso than it is about what they are staking out. The high point of the film might be a hilarious detour where the main character goes looking for a Sherlock Holmes pipe to see if it will help his detective skills; a bizarre, delightful digression that kind of reminded me of that amazing sequence at the beginning of Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye where Elliott Gould's Phillip Marlowe goes shopping for cat food.
Contagion, which aims to tell a "realistic" account of how the world might react to a deadly, fast spreading virus, has some interesting commentary about the nature of communication and the media in today's digital world, but I mostly admired the film for its exciting, incredibly streamlined and efficient storytelling. It juggles an intimidating number of major characters and subplots with utter confidence and clarity in a relatively brief hour and forty-five minutes. Yes, it helps that Soderbergh casts recognizable actors in nearly every notable role, but there's also a ruthless economy to the storytelling that pares everything down to the essentials. I'm willing to bet none of the major characters gets more than 15 minutes of screen time (how could they, with so much going on?), yet each story makes an impact, the characters come across as well defined, the stakes feel real, genuine suspense builds throughout, and I even found myself a little touched at the resolution of one of the stories. No mean feat, this.
I'm not going to bother trying to pick a favorite film this year, but Drive might have been the film that most appealed to me stylistically. (Although Le Quattro Volte gives it a run for its money). The arty crime-thriller happens to be one of my most beloved subgenres in all cinema, and with Drive, director Nicholas Winding Refn firmly establishes himself a master of the form, putting himself in the good company of folks like Jean Pierre Melville, Jules Dassin and William Friedkin. Although his film is filled with memorable characters and quirky twists on the crime movie formula, Winding Refn knows that a real cinephile loves crime films not so much because of the specifics of the story, but because of the style. Here, he pares down the dialogue, lets the audience's familiarity with the tropes of the genre do much of the heavy lifting in the storytelling department, and instead amps up and luxuriates in the attitude and the atmosphere: the Tangerine Dream-esque synthy-heavy soundtrack, Ryan Gosling's ridiculous scorpion jacket, the gestures and posture and poise of its underworld characters, and of tantalizing build ups to bright red explosions of graphic violence.
I don't mean to imply that the film is simplistic or lacking in any nuance, but there's a sense in which the characters are more icons than people, meant to represent striped down yet idealized versions of stock characters: the silent, stoic hero; the mentor figure; the damsel in distress; the heartless gangster. It's not as self-consciously iconic as Walter Hill's The Driver (note: I am not knocking that awesome film), although it was likely an influence, and it gives these characters and its shop worn plot something of a fresh, quirky spin. It succeeds, as the best of these films do, both as an entertaining crime film, and as an artsy, stylized commentary on the genre.
It had been a good six years since Miranda July's previous feature, the wonderful Me and You and Everyone We Know. Let's hope it doesn't take her that long to get around to making another film. Somewhat toning down the indie quirkfest trappings of her debut (although, this is plenty quirky, so people who can't take a little tweeness should stay away), The Future is a much darker and ambitious film. Narrated by a cat (!), it tells the story of a couple who decide to shake things up, quit their jobs and try to follow the dreams they've been neglecting for years... only to discover things about their lives and their relationship that maybe they would have been happier not knowing. Starting from a place more grounded in reality, July allows the film to become more strange and experimental as it goes along, involving some bold narrative devices, striking visuals, surrealism and some magic realism. It's an oddball, often funny (funny strange and funny ha-ha) and strangely haunting film about the difficulty of maintaining a mature relationships when you're an overgrown adolescent that struck a wider range of notes than I expected.
I saw Higher Ground, the directorial debut of actress Vera Farmiga, just in the nick of time to make this list. It's a lovely, mostly pitch perfect story about the religious journey of a woman, how her desire to believe first leads her to a close-knit religious community, and then eventually to her doubts and disillusionment. It's a thoughtful, open-minded film about the nature of faith that never really chooses sides or tries to make a statement. Instead, it views everyone with empathy and tries to chart the heroine's journey honestly and straightforwardly. If the film maybe overstates it themes a little too obviously in the final scenes, it should still be credited for avoiding a tidy resolution, instead literally leaving the heroine standing halfway in and halfway out the door of her congregation.
Kung Fu Panda 2
Not as funny as the original, but even more beautifully animated, and with some of the most eye-popping action scenes I've seen in years, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a real treat for those of us who realize that, with the piss poor state of modern action cinema in America, that animation has become to home to most of our best action flicks. Goofy and lightweight though it may be, I'd hold this up to the best of Pixar's work. It may be less thematically ambitious or emotionally resonant, but it packs a aesthetic punch, with it's almost overwhelmingly ornate visuals and its breathless sense of kinetic energy. Not the best film I saw this year, but maybe the most exciting to watch.
Le Quattro Volte
Read my semi-coherent thoughts on this incredible film here.
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
My faith in Hollywood blockbusters has been restored. If I recall correctly, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was the last mega-budget, live-action, action/adventure movie to really use its scope and scale to create some bonafide, edge-of-your-seat, awe-inspiring movie magic. As noted above, animation has become the best medium for American action scenes in the past decade, and Brad Bird has given us some of the best in his films The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. Now, with his first live action feature, he may have topped himself. Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol is a real treat: an almost nonstop cavalcade of inventive action sequences & clever visual gags. Far and away the best of the series (the second best, Brian De Palma's original, doesn't even come close)
The strangest "kids" movie in a long damn wild, I don't even know how to classify Rango. It's a trippy animated western/action "kids" film slash fish out of water comedy with a truly oddball lead character. I put "kids" in quotes because this is one of those family films that seems aimed more at the parents than their little tots. Not because of any inappropriate humor or anything; just because its entire sensibility seems like it would go right over the kiddies' heads. Either way, the film is hilarious, visually beautiful and has some great action scenes. And I can't do it justice, but the scene where a character with an arrow shot through one eye complains about the conjunctivitis in his other eye might have been my favorite joke in any movie I saw last year.
You can read my even less coherent thoughts on this little oddity here.
The Skin I Live In
Pedro Almodovar specializes in visually elegant, sexually adventurous, genre-bending soap operas with fractured timelines, based around unfathomably complex plots and crazy plot twists. The Skin I Live In, perhaps my favorite film of his I've seen, is sort of life Almodovar's take on Eyes Without a Face, and it does something I never really expected from one of his films: it presents sexuality that is profoundly transgressive and disturbing. Usually, the anything-goes sexual mores of his characters is celebrated, but here he gives us a film about a mad scientist who experiments on and sleeps with a beautiful woman that he keeps in captivity, and it only gets stranger from there. Dismissed by some critics for being shallow, I'd agree that The Skin I Live In is certainly a film about surfaces, but it slowly reveals deep, dark secrets that are more thoughtful than it was given credit for. Not a horror film, per se, it tells a story that gets under your skin (to make a lousy pun) in the same manner than the best horror films do.
Jeff Nichols' debut film Shotgun Stories is a fantastic film, but it felt almost a little too much like one of producer David Gordon Green's films. It came off like a talented filmmaker was playing in someone else's sandbox. With Take Shelter, Nichols moves away from Green's quirky Southern Gothic style and begins to more firmly assert his individuality as a filmmaker. An almost unbearably intense drama about one man's mental unraveling as he becomes convinced that an apocalyptic storm is coming and that he must protect his family, it features yet another in a long line of great Michael Shannon performances. I have serious misgivings about Take Shelter's final scene, which seems to spit in the face of the rest of the film, but that's ultimately a minor quibble to make about such a powerful, strongly crafted and emotionally harrowing film.
The Tree of Life
Out-ambition-ing even the insanely ambitious Le Quattro Volte, Terrence Mallick's The Tree of Life tells the story of a man reflecting on his childhood in the 1950's, shown in the context of no less than the entire creation of the earth. I've admired Mallick's other films, but I think this time he finally found the perfect match in terms of story. He's never really been much of a storyteller, in my estimation, because he seems a lot more interested in dazzling visuals and the internal struggles of his characters than he ever did with what was happening in the "plot" of his films. By framing this story through one man looking back on his life, the fractured and de-empahisized storyline seems more like a representation of memory than it does any sort of storytelling flaws.
The ultimate message of the film seems to be a religious one, which as an atheist doesn't much interest me (surprisingly, the film's finale, which seems to depict something like heaven or transcendence, is actually the most dull, least visually stunning part of the film), but I certainly don't begrudge an artist for wanting to ask big questions or explore the nature of their god. And the religious angle actually makes Mallick's extensive use of voice-over narration, which could come off as overbearing and too on-the-nose in some of his other films, fit in perfectly: it sounds more like the characters are praying than it does the director spelling out his themes too pointedly. Still, I think the reason the film achieves greatness has little to do with its religious aspects and more to do with its trippy, mindblowing visuals, its evocative depiction of childhood, and just the stunning hugeness of the whole endeavor. It's a film unafraid to aim for greatness, one that really wants to take the audience's breath away, and I for one was frequently awed.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
If you asked me to make a list of my 10 favorite films of the 00's, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century would likely make the cut. All of his films are special and remarkable in some way, but Syndromes is in a class of its own, and it seems to me unrealistic to expect Joe (as he says we can call him) would ever be able to top it. It's no surprise that Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives doesn't clear that bar, but that doesn't mean it's not a great film in its own right.
I didn't know what to make of Uncle Boonmee the first time I saw it, but that is kind of true of all of Joe's films. I think the key to his films is to let go and stop searching for literal meaning; you may or may not find some (and each viewing seems to reveal more and more layers), but it's best to just try to absorb the unique atmosphere of serene bizarreness (and maybe a little deadpan humor). If I told you this film involved ghosts, doppelgangers, hairy gorilla men with glowing red eyes, and women having sex with talking fish, you'd probably imagine a film that outdoes Jodorowsky for off-the-wall weirdness. And yet there's such a peacefulness and stillness and ponderousness to Joe's film that it never comes off as a provocation, but more like a funny dream you could have while you're half asleep in bed. Joe says his film is about movies, that it's a journey through different genres and styles, but I doubt most audiences would ever independently come to that conclusion; it doesn't feel like any other film you've ever seen, unless you've seen his others.
It may be a little reductive, but the best way to describe Weekend is probably to call it a gay version of Before Sunrise: two young men meet at a night club, sleep together, and then spend the weekend getting to know each other before one of them leaves the country for school. And like Linklater's film, Weekend is simple yet profound, laid back yet moving, romantic but with a little darkness. It hits on some broader themes about modern life for gays (being in vs. out, gay rights, coming out to your family, etc.), but mostly it's just about the bond that forms and the feelings that develop between these two interesting guys, even if one of them doesn't want to admit it. It also features some very frank, realistic and (relatively, given what is normally shown of gays in film) graphic sex scenes, which I think is a refreshing change of pace. Director Andrew Haigh strikes just the right tone and sustains it through the film, and with the help of a great cast, pulls the audience in this story despite the low stakes. Most of the other films on my list have been big, crazy, ambitious epics, but Weekend is the perfect example of a great little film; just because it's modest doesn't mean it's not fantastic.
Also seen just in time to make the list, The Woman is Lucky McKee's long-awaited return, and a triumphant return it indeed is. The seemingly wholesome patriarch of an All-American family discovers a woman, raised as an animal, living in the woods. So naturally, he abducts her, locks her up in the cellar, and tells his family it's their job to "civilize" the woman. The whole idea of civilization and wholesomeness just being a thin veneer over brutality and monsterousness is hardly a new idea, but McKee and co-writer Jack Ketchum give it a bizarre and disturbing tweak. Although they named the film The Woman, a better name might have been The Family, as the film more details the increasingly unsettling dynamics between this, um, unique family unit. McKee peels back more and more layers of strangeness, beginning with small little cracks in the foundation, introducing increasingly unnerving and alarming moments, and finally building to a shit-hits-the-fan ending of admirably sustained intensity. You may see the ending coming, but that doesn't make it any less of a gobstopper. The best horror movie I saw from 2011.
So those were the "great" movies I saw, but I'll also give a shout out to a few films that, if they didn't quite go all the way for me, were remarkable in their own special way:
Carnage - Roman Polanski's highly entertaining dark comedy of manners.
Film Socialisme - It's as if Godard threw all of his movies from the last 30 years in a blender, and came up with this confusing but fascinating collage of styles and ideas.
Julia's Eyes - Toning down the surrealism of Morlaes's The Uninvited Guest, this horror flick is more like a Spanish giallo; strange, scary and stylish.
Melancholia - Antichrist's moody teenage sister, which explores depression by presenting it as the apocalypse.
Shame - Gorgeous but chilly tale of sex addiction, with a typically great Michael Fassbender performance.
Terri - Best coming-of-age movie in a long time, sad and funny, and doesn't pull its punches.
13 Assassins - The most normal thing I've seen Miike do, sort of his take on Seven Samurai. The big action packed finale was a cinematic high-point for the year.
Win Win - Maybe not quite as sublime at McCarthy's last two films, but still shares their low key charms and superb character work.
And just to continue to prove my point of how kick ass 2011 was for movies, here are a bunch more I saw that I'd have no trouble strongly recommending:
Crazy Stupid Love
A Dangerous Method
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
Final Destination 5
Friends With Benefits
A Horrible Way to Die
Hostel: Part 3
I Saw the Devil
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Road to Nowhere
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
X-Men: First Class