I’ve finally given in and made my list of favorite films from 2011.
Below are a “top ten” that is admittedly a bit arbitrary and another ten, most of which could be in the top ten also if there was more room. As always, there is no ranking, since I find it ridiculous to compare completely unalike movies (If you want me to even try to do that, you’ll have to ask). With the exception of Drive (which I happened to see twice), this is all based on first impressions…
Akmareul boatda/I Saw The Devil (South Korea)
Gruesome, brutal, violent, bloody. This film is all these things, yet it is uses them within the context of asking a classically moral question: Can one truly confront evil without becoming evil oneself? Choi Min-Sik takes on the other side of the Oldboy coin here, in a way, while Lee Byung-Hun delivers his best performance since, well, the last Kim Ji-Woon movie he was in. This is the latest in a number of impressive films since his debut at the height of the so-called Korean Wave in the late ’90s (FYI: He has been recruited to helm the Schwarzenegger resurrection as his introduction to Hollywood).
Le Bruit des Glacons/The Clink of Ice (France)
Here’s the other movie starring Jean Dujardin that came out in 2011 (The Artist, despite being an enjoyable film, just doesn’t quite work the way I wanted it to as the mainstream po-mo “silent film” that was inevitably coming). From aging provocateur Bertrand Blier, this film concerns an alcoholic writer who is visited, and subsequently hounded, by a human looking representation of his own cancer (a kind of cancer buddy, if you will). A zany, kind-of-funny-even-though-some-of-it-shouldn’t-be romp that loses a bit of steam along the way, but is still as entertaining as nearly anything else I saw this year. Perhaps stereotypically “French” in ways that can either be seen as a positive or negative, depending on your own personal taste.
Cold Weather (USA)
Aaron Katz, uber-mumblecore auteur, brings a slow-burning regular-people type-mystery story that will either be annoyingly slow or freshly interesting depending on your interest in its interest in the slacker-type, Portland-set, late 20’s age stuck characters. Like in the films of Andrew Bujalski, another of the ill-monikered mumblecorers, the focus is less on driving a particular plot or character development than evoking an overall tone and situations of the characters (though Katz seems to have a much better eye for the visual). You may not find the characters all that particularly interesting, but that’s how most people are in reality, right?…
Steven Soderbergh happens to make one of the best films of the year without seeming to infuse it with any sense of excitement or flair. There is a style here that comes from his superior craftsmanship, but it is a purposely detached one. The film is a percolating genre exercise that rides a line between horror-thriller-mystery in a way that can almost seem emotionless at times. The massive scale of such a plot and set of characters is handled in such a way as to include only the minimum needed to coalesce into one of the finest ensembles of the apocalypse of recent memory. I really hope the man doesn’t stay away from movie making too long.
Nicolas Winding Refn comes to America. This is what that looks and sounds like. An experience of a picture that is less about driving than it is about changing lanes. I think there is a level of corniness in this picture that exists right along side the “serious” violence it displays in its execution. It’s not quite laughable; it’s not black comedy, but it’s an otherworldliness that prods you into its movie-ness. It is a movie for people who like movies. Another genre exercise turned on its head: Pulp fiction at its best. Neon-noir, as it has been coined elsewhere.
Scorsese makes a(nother) love letter to Cinema inside a children’s picture, shot in the adolescent technology of 3-D, based on a massive picture book by a man with the last name Selznick (yes, he is related to David O.), Scorsese gets a wonderfully clever story from John Logan‘s adaptation, about how Time and Technology effect our future that can also just be a simple adventure tale for all ages. This is a marvelous film that is an easy pick for one of the best of the year. If you don’t agree, you must not care about movies much. Or Méliès. [I admit there is a sentimentality here that may turn some people off, but imagine how horribly different this film would be if, say, Spielberg directed the story of a orphaned boy seeking out his father in the machine…yeah, exactly].
It would be unfair to say that this is like a British Wes Anderson movie. It is the first feature by a very talented Richard Ayoade (probably best known from television show The IT Crowd) of which I hope there are many more. While not as overtly comical as his previous television work, this film is a quirky coming-of-age tale with a way-too-smart-for-reality teenage protagonist who has parents (Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) who are way too much of a literary construction. But none of that keeps me from thinking that this is one of the best films of the year.
If people in documentaries could be eligible for Best Actress honors at the Oscars, I would nominate Joyce McKinney. I didn’t know anything about this story, part of which was apparently quite well known in the (British) tabloids in the late 1970s, so I was glad to be amazingly surprised by what is told of it, fact or fiction, in this Errol Morris film. Morris always chooses interesting subjects for his films and he always delves deeper to find something beneath the surface of what most have seen before. This has to have the most outrageous ‘plot’ of any movie I saw this year; stranger than fiction indeed.
The Tree of Life (USA)
Yes, this movie is divisive (It apparently forced many theatres to revise their ticket refund policies). I recommend it at my own peril. It is not for everyone in a similar way that 2001 is not for everyone. But to say that either of these films is “bad” would be a disservice to Cinema. A grand experiment in narrative and philosophy, Terrence Malick gives us a movie about, well, EVERYTHING. I was in awe in a way I know I will probably not be experiencing from a film for quite some time…The most apt word I can think of to describe it would be ‘glorious’.
A great piece of conceptual sci-fi that touches on the subject of human cloning in a way that I have never seen depicted before. Starring Eva Green and Matt Smith (filmed before he became the Doctor). Despite its slight obtuseness, it is both thoughtful and provoking, as science-fiction should be. I wrote a bit about this below, but I prefer to say as little as possible. Certainly not mainstream fare, though. Just warning you.
Here are some more titles that I liked (I saw 140 or so movies from 2011, so I have to be allowed to like more than ten):
Another Earth (USA)
Conceptual/lo-fi sci-fi as a backdrop for a picture about the curiosity of the Unknown and seeking out a life outside oneself; Meaning that the sci-fi is very minimal. However, it is ultimately a piece the very terrestrial concepts of regret, forgiveness, and redemption. A couple of truly great scenes make this worth seeking out. And it has a man who will probably forever be referred to as Tom Cruise’s cousin as the male lead. (I really wanted to see Sound of My Voice, Brit Marling‘s other more overtly sci-fi from this past year, but it apparently hasn’t been properly released yet).
Le Havre (Finland/France)
Aki Kaurismäki gives us yet another tale of awkward people who emote very little and are unaware of the (sometimes very funny) comedy of their situations. I haven’t seen a lot of his films, but he is known for an immediately distinct visual palette with a style that adds a bit of social commentary and, sometimes, like in this film, a couple rock n’ roll songs in concert. An acquired taste, but a good place to start if you’ve never seen him (He and his brother, at one point, apparently accounted for a third of all film production in Finland).
Jane Eyre (UK)
Mia Wasikowska deserves some sort of award for being most prolifically better than the films she was in this year (also see Restless and Albert Nobbs). Michael Fassbender could possibly be the male equivalent to this (eventually). So, this gets a spot here for them. And it made me cry, even though I knew exactly what was going to happen. The story is great from a great book and has been told/filmed countless numbers of times, yet Cary Fukunaga still manages to make it seem romantically modern (romantic with a capital ‘R’ and modern with a lowercase ‘m’?).
Jodaeiye Nader az Simin /A Separation (Iran)
I am assuming this will win Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year. I sought it out because Scorsese and another filmmaker that I like (but can’t recall who) recommended it as excellent. It is. A couple in Iran, with a child and an elder who needs home care, separate because one wants to get a divorce. To go into any more of the plot might be too much. This is a family drama, a look into the legal system of Iran, and, perhaps, a commentary on the universal self-servingness of the adult individual. Surely soon to be remade into English so certain people don’t have to bother with the oh so horrible burden of subtitles and exposure to different cultures…
Like Crazy (USA)
A surprisingly effective drama about the impact of immigration on young love; A mature look at the emotions involved in a long distance relationship. Your level of appreciation depends on your emotional connection to the portrayals of the two leading young actors (Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin) who are said to have improvised a majority of the dialogue with the director. Probably because of this the film story is told in chunks, with what could be seen as having particular important parts missing, but it still works.
Meek’s Cutoff (USA)
This has the other great Michelle Williams performance from 2011 (the other being Marilyn Monroe). This is basically a stab at ‘Oregon Trail: The Movie’, if you want a blurb-like description. Yet, it is shot by a filmmaker, Kelly Reichart, who is focused on atmosphere and construction over traditional narrative. It is a digitally shot, anti-Cinemascope landscape picture that looks spectacular in the right viewing conditions (as I was privileged enough to see it in). It is a Western that plays with the idea of what a “Western” should be.
I was initially underwhelmed by this film, thinking it was a step back for Lars Von Trier. One could see it, in a way, as a more passive companion to Antichrist, with its introverted depiction of Depression that he has been personally wrestling with. The plot point of a planet named Melancholia potentially, devastatingly colliding with the Earth and all its life is yet another grand metaphor Von Trier uses to depict his take on Humanity. I ended up liking this film much more a few days after I had seen it, but I need to see it again before making any personal conclusions. It’s is perhaps unfair to ‘downgrade’ the film because it doesn’t match up to his previous work for me (this is clearly no Breaking the Waves or Dogville), but I include it here because some people don’t care for him at all and that is a shame.
Midnight in Paris (USA)
Near the start of the year, this was the only picture I had seen that I knew would show up on this list. This is one of Woody Allen‘s best films in the past couple of decades. To some, that’s not saying much, but for a man who has consistently made a film EVERY year or two for over 40 years, it should be celebrated when one turns out as well as this. A magically simple tale of love and art with an flightily acerbic Owen Wilson marvelously standing in for the filmmaker in his first great role outside of a Wes Anderson movie.
Le piel de habito/The Skin I Live In (Spain)
This movie is like a mashup of Hitchcock, Eyes Without a Face, and a bit of Last Year in Marienbad. So, basically, it’s another Pedro Aldomovar picture (complete with references to even his own past films like Atame!). He always makes great looking films with great looking women. He also tends to provide really good roles for those women in a way that the majority of other filmmakers do not. I initially thought the plot was a bit too off somehow, but I like it just fine anyway. I regret not championing his previous film higher last year, so I’m hoping I don’t regret the same with this (or any of the other choices) when I get a chance to see it again…
This movie starts out with a man kicking his own dog to death in a fit of alcoholic rage. And then he moves on to other humans. But he’s not a completely unsympathetic character. At least not in the end. Paddy Considine‘s debut feature as a director shows the possible redemption of a harsh life through the power of kindness from those who have no kindness given to them (Olivia Colman is amazing). A punishing character study made more interesting by Peter Mullan‘s performance (Warhorse this ain’t). And, yes, the title is explained, but it’s obvious early on that if there are dinosaurs in this film, they aren’t from the prehistoric era.
Kill List (UK)
I was completely bored with the entire first hour of this movie, so it doesn’t really belong here. However, it might have the best ending I saw all year. It’s like three different movies in 90 minutes: a troubled marriage drama, a hitman documentary, and a I-wouldn’t-even-dare-spoil-it (in case you actually want to see it). Well, it’s not great, but it was completely unexpected, since I had no idea what this movie was about at all. And now I am inclined to think there might be more to it the second time around, if I ever were to watch it again…
Special Mentions of movies with notable lead performances (aside from Polanski‘s film, all by women perhaps not-so coincidentally) that all stand out better than the films themselves: Albert Nobbs, Carnage, L’Crime D’Amour, Hanna, Svinalängorna, Trust, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Whistleblower.
I also have a whole list of movies I did not get to see. Most notably among these are A Dangerous Method and Take Shelter, which I have wanted to see since I heard about their existence over a year ago….and I am still waiting.
I wrote this quickly, so let me know if you care to have me expand on any of these movies. Or feel free to leave your own comments, etc.