One of the benefits of having limited resources is that I’m much more careful with that $10-15 when I approach the box office. I know there were bad films this year, like every year, but I didn’t see any of them. To some extent, that makes these lists that much harder to write. Because 2011 seemed to be an uncharacteristically great year for cinema–my numbers two and three could have been at the top in almost any other year, this list is both a labor of love and an actual labor. As I’ve written, or struggled to write, about certain films, I’ve shuffled things around, dropped them off my list, gone back and reviewed when films were easy to access–though having them streaming on Netflix doesn’t always make them accessible (nudge, nudge). So, without further ado, here are the films that resonated most strongly with me in 2011 (though I saw three of them in 2012).10. Bridesmaids
It may come as a bit of a surprise, but if you think about it, a vulgar comedy about the lead-up to a wedding was probably one of the most significant American films released last year. That is to say, in both critical and commercial metrics, Bridesmaids struck a chord. On its surface, Bridesmaids is nothing particularly special: another heart-felt yet raunchy Judd Apatow-produced series of misfortunes and educational moments. And if it weren’t for all the hubbub over the co-writers and the leads–gasp, all women, Bridesmaids wouldn’t have to be much more. But there is a little more there than we’ve been given in other Apatow fair. The requisite down moments, when a character has hit rock bottom, are more nuanced, and more patiently doled-out. One such instance that still stands out is a sequence where the film’s lead (played by Kristin Wiig), after a particularly terrible day, goes through an intricate and grueling process to make an ornate cupcake. We’re treated to a montage of cracked eggs, measurements, mixing and more, we’re made to think of some massive pastry undertaking, the set of shots concludes with a medium-shot of a beautifully decorated cupcake–the sole product of all the labor, which Wiig’s character then eats. We’re all smart enough to see what’s happening, we don’t need any one telling us, point-blank, she’s upset; we just cope with her.
9. Attack The Block
This is my kind of science fiction film. When monsters from the space drop into a south London neighborhood, a group of thugs busy themselves with dodging both these otherworldly wolves and the cops. When I say this is my kind of sci-fi flick, I mean that the previous sentence is almost the entirety of the set up. There aren’t any clunky scientists introduced to try to explain the situation, we don’t have some sort of surrogate for the audience to fill in all the expositional details, these street toughs are as clueless to the origins and intentions of these creatures as we are. We’re on the same learning curve. And by foregoing those hackneyed tirades, Attack the Block maintains a high level of energy. Even the discoveries these boys make about the beasts along the way have a real charge, a charge that would be lost if some nerd in a lab coat pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose while dryly explaining some factoid about the alien adversaries. Beyond that, Attack the Block boasts a half dozen great performances by unknown English youths, a couple of whom show off emotional range beyond their years and resumes. It’s an easy film to love.
8. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Leave it to Werner Herzog to not only make a 3-D documentary, but to make one of the few films which doesn’t just beg to be seen in 3D, but downright demands that you see it that way because of the directors meticulous and intelligent use of the novelty. Cave of Forgotten Dreams would still be a compelling documentary–it’s Werner Herzog touring a cave with the oldest known cave paintings on Earth, but getting the illusion of the depth that these “primitive” artists took advantage of, when these paintings are so rarely seen by the public, is more than just beautiful and inspiring, it’s a public service. And, like I already said, it’s a Werner Herzog documentary. The German auteur has made a career out of being one of the more outrageous filmmakers of his generation, a good portion of that reputation is due to his unconventional documentaries. Cave of Forgotten Dreams would certainly fit that bill. Herzog is obviously interested with the basics that would be covered by the Discovery Channel, however, for the director, any subject rife for documenting is also a viable sounding board for his own philosophical outlook. For Herzog, venturing into the Chauvet Caves in south France, is also to venture into the history of human creativity, the history of the philosophy of human creativity, and his own personal searching and discovery through his filmmaking.
7. Four Lions
Chris Morris’ directorial debut, Four Lions, is one hell of a statement. The film concerns itself with the radicalization of a quartet disenfranchised Muslim youth in Sheffield, England. The catch: it’s a comedy. Unlike many of the portraits we’ve been given of blood-thirsty, democracy-hating radicals who were alienated by their adopted lands, the titular foursome are, at their finest, simply out of their element, but are, more often than not, bumbling and grossly incompetent. Four Lions is, through and through, a satirical farce; even the even-tempered leader, Omar, is responsible for firing a rocket launcher backwards into his own camp. But making a group of wanna-be jihadists funny without lampooning their faith or their motives, isn’t the only masterful feet pulled off by Morris. The tonal shift that occurs during the film’s climax is almost unfathomably successful for a first-time director. After over an hour of bumbling and ineptitude, to have the audience pulling for these guys and feeling for them goes beyond clever trickery. Morris spent the film quietly and subtly making these clowns loveable and suddenly, in the film’s closing minutes, Morris draws from that well he’s been digging and pulls an absolutely heart-wrenching series of events out of a British farce. Four Lions almost reaches Benny Hill levels of silliness before getting painfully real, and it doesn’t feel forced or manipulative.
[Was just informed that Four Lions got a limited US release in November of 2010. I'm not removing it from this list though. For one: I don't want to write another hundred or so words on Moneyball, Tabloid, or Uncle Boonmee and second: I really feel like more people should see it. And with the small voice I have, I'd rather steer people toward Four Lions.]
6. The Arbor
As much as people like to hate on documentaries as artsy or complicated, the genre can be just as staid and warmed-over as a rom-com or a Michael Bay explode-a-thon. Director Clio Barnard’s The Arbor could have been pretty successful with it’s complex subject–playwright and drunken mess Andrea Dunbar–without reinventing the wheel. However, Barnard took those classic interviews, conducted on suburban couches with grimaces and tented hands, and hired a stable of actors for staged lip-synced performances of those interviews. Barnard injects a layer of drama to the depressing tale of Dunbar and, by extension, the trials of her oldest daughter, Lorraine. The tragic figures in Barnard’s documentary are already primed to be as memorable and heart-breaking as characters like Maxon Crumb–R. Crumb’s brother as depicted in Crumb, but Terry Zwigoff’s conventional approach to the unconventional familial dynamics, just gives you that gut-check, Barnard gives you the same moving portraits and provides you stunning images to accompany them (just look at that still above).
Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive and Steve McQueen’s Shame aren’t so much tied in that I see them as equal films, on par with one another, but that they share a similar foundation. Both films focus on a man who has carved out a unique existence, one that is then complicated by a woman; both filmmakers provide a unique vision of a a city (LA for Drive and New York City for Shame) as a provocative backdrop for their characters, and both films also have mono-syllabic titles. Winding Refn created a day-glo version of Los Angeles for Ryan Gosling’s Eastwoodian turn as The Driver. An LA that shines brightly, one that is peopled with colorful characters with interesting and engaging mannerisms. Refn’s City of Angels is packed with people full of desires and big personalities, the nameless driver, with a zen-like detachment can easily hide in a sea of ME’s. McQueen’s version of New York City is meant to seep into the background. New York is always there, but McQueen reduces it as much as possible to accentuate a lot of the small ticks and looks from Michael Fassbender’s Brandon Sullivan as he battles with his sexual addiction. Drive presents an interesting world and is a movie I could probably watch over and over, where Shame gives me the kind of performance, full of intricate looks and huge, sweeping emotional arcs, that I eat up but will likely only sit through once more.
4. Cedar Rapids
Cedar Rapids is everything the trailer promised: wide-eyed, small-town boy experiencing his first taste of the (relatively) big city; along the way he meets some bawdy buddies, and dodges a few bullets. What the trailers didn’t cue you into, and what makes Cedar Rapids so special is the heart that these heavy drinking insurance sales people have. Ed Helmes’ turn at Ted Lippe goes so much deeper than backwoods rube, though a good amount of his humanity is earned as his naïveté erodes. The real heart of the film comes from the surprisingly funny and raunchy performance of Anne Heche as the firecracker Joan Ostrowski-Fox. Like many of the other tied-down sales people, Ostrowski-Fox treats Cedar Rapids like her Vegas vacation–too much booze, make-outs galore, but one scene in particular, after a regrettable entanglement, Ostrowski-Fox is on the phone with her husband, casually masking shame and embarrassment while discussing the logistics of getting one child to soccer practice, picking up something for dinner and getting another child from some other event; her lines are delivered with only the slightest hint of any issue, but her eyes are sadly scanning the Cedar Rapids hotel room and the ravages of the night before. Her performance could have been maudlin and ham-fisted, landing with a harsh thud as the final act of the film began; but Heche’s performance is just one more in a string of great, faceted performances that make Cedar Rapids not just another Apatovian-styled gag-reel featuring a male in arrested development, but a story about people who transcend the caricatures they appear to be in the opening act.
Leave it to Lars von Trier to make a movie featuring a character so zonked and depressed out of her mind that the goddamned apocalypse is just one in a long line of events that she can barely wake up for. Kirstin Dunst has finally outgrown her cheerleader outfit, giving us a surprisingly deep depiction of crippling depression in Justine. Dunst flashes more than just dead-eyed disdain or disinterest. Though some of that depth surely comes from von Trier’s script. Yet, with such a successful, and maybe (hopefully) career-altering performance from Dunst, What keeps rattling around for me is the absolutely rapturous look of the film. To accompany Justine’s death-defying melancholy, von Trier has offered up some of the most striking images of his career–a career full of striking images. However, von Trier spends less time providing spare portraits of human pain and sadness, for Melancholia, he treats the audience to a little over two hours of tableaux which would feel right at home in Romantic or Raphaelite exhibition.
2. Certified Copy
Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is, in many ways, the romantic version of my number one below: much of what you take away from the fractured, refracted, and obscured love story depends on what you bring to the screening. Are Elle (Juliette Binoche) and James (William Shimell) finding love or are they in the final throes of a waning affair? There is no risk of spoilers here, because even if you haven’t seen it, you can answer with the same assurance that I can–I just have interpretations of scenes to back up my opinion. Kiarostami’s tale of a scholar and an antique dealer spending a day in Italy isn’t about whether they will or won’t, so much as it may be about have they or will they. But to reduce Certified Copy to questions about the nature of Elle and James’ relationship is to miss all the beauty of the film. Obviously since the backdrop is a small Italian tourist trap, the scenery is sumptuous; even a novice director of photography could make the statue-laden streets of Lucignano look gorgeous. But beyond that, Binoche and Shimell are putting on a master class. Their performances simultaneously make the questions above, about the nature of their relationship more interesting–giving the flutters which might be that of new love and the percolating exasperation which may hint at the last days of a marriage more weight without seeming too divergent–and pointless. With images and performances so compelling, do we really ee
1. Tree of Life
I can’t think of a year where my favorite film has been so clear for so long, but my thoughts around it have been so muddled. There’s a real fluidity in my interpretations and feelings surrounding Terrance Malick’s latest film, Tree of Life. Few films I’ve truly enjoyed or reveled in have been so affected and impacted by discussions with others or just by hearing critics. I’ve even had several discussion where another person and I merely repeat variations of “I don’t totally know what it was, but I really, really, really liked it;” and those have been as affecting as “going down the rabbit hole” with others who have more crystalline thoughts. Some times I think Tree of Life is like that college freshman who tears down his Grateful Dead poster after his first semester in favor of a Sex Pistols silkscreen–which’ll just get ripped down for a Rothko print in 10 weeks: open to whatever strong interpretation you throw at it. I’ve thought of this and Melancholia as companion pieces–one a film about a heavily personal and spiritual crisis which is almost apocalyptic and another explicitly about an apocalypse which is heavily personalized, however, they seem to veer away from one another so heavily in so many other ways, that it’s really only a lark to pair them so tenuously. I guess the cop out answer is that regardless of how I feel about this film in the years to come, it was still one of the most provocative films of the last few years. To have so many scratching their heads, wandering out of theaters in a daze, leaving the theater early even, to stir people into some feeling or thought is what art sets out to do, and no film on my list seems to have accomplished that more thoroughly in 2011.
Honorable Mentions: Bill Cunningham New York, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, Meek’s Cutoff, Midnight in Paris, Miss Representation, Moneyball, The Muppets, Tabloid, The Trip, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives