Great art challenges. Bad art flatters. But those of us who don’t dedicate our lives to film don’t always seek to be challenged. Sometimes we want to experience art at our leisure. One doesn’t schedule, or plan the impact of art (making a film review deceptive, as it can never be a critics’ final thoughts). But life awaits, and having a child, having obligations, managing a separate lifestyle away from the flickering screen poses its own challenges. Suddenly, becoming tuned in to the big screen isn’t as important as discovering yourself through the magic of film.
But we do not bring ourselves to the film, it follows us home instead. What we bring to the picture is less important than what we take with us. Which is a way of saying that making a list like this is a way of losing oneself, and it’s something I don’t expect many readers have the flexibility to do so. On the other level, there were many many titles missed in 2011, films I could not commit to because of life’s great ordeals. As such, like all lists, it is incomplete. We can only challenge ourselves so much.
The year was spent wrestling with several titles that made the final cut of this list. In reality, it's first composed in the spring time, and certain titles have remained since then. A couple of them were subject to intense scrutiny by great minds who found deep structural flaws in them. And yet, I couldn’t shake the notion that they could not be excised. Couldn’t deny how they worked as art. Couldn’t deny how they worked as entertainment. Couldn’t deny the challenges they posed.
Honorable Mention: I was not certain as to whether it was a personal flaw that made “Another Happy Day” feel both universal and achingly personal in its extraordinarily cruel honesty. I found Pedro Almodóvar’s “The Skin I Live In” to be his funniest and most diabolical movie in over a decade. I remained haunted by Catherine Brelliat’s second twisted fairy tale in as many years, “The Sleeping Beauty.” Joe Cornish’s “Attack the Block” was one of the most crisp, assured directorial debuts of the year. And it felt like I didn’t blink, so riveted I was to the screen during Steven Soderbergh’s terrifying “Contagion.”
10. "Hobo With a Shotgun"
In a year where the people fought back, when Occupy movements spread across the country, I couldn’t shake the genuine, unfiltered outrage at the heart of Jason Eisener’s debut picture. Grimier and more lawless than any of the “Grindhouse” imitators, 'Hobo' finds its heart in the chest of its protagonist, a bitter old man who just wants to join the workforce, pooling together enough money to mow lawns. But the villain of 'Hobo,' The Drake, is at once exploitation-friendly and not all that outlandish. He rules over this small town as a diminutive free-spender, allowing his criminal sons to steal and kill freely. The Drake has paid off the cops and the public eats out of his hand. Why? Because he bills his brand of violence as entertainment. Whether he’s hording crowds to witness mass executions, or commandeering the news broadcasts with his wads of cash, it’s clear he’s gaming the system, and the public is eager to play along. It’s the Hobo who fights back, emboldened by an angry populace sick of being used. In other words, it does what exploitation films are supposed to do, which is present a real life issue writ large and ridiculously, and soaking it in gore. 'Hobo' feels genuinely diseased, and in a year of completely sterile genre efforts, it’s exhilarating.
9. "The Mill and the Cross"
A rich immersive experience, Lech Majewski’s pastoral drama works almost as a biopic. It’s topic isn’t a person, but rather a painting: “The Way to Calvary,” created in 1564 by Pieter Brugel The Elder, a massive canvas for over 500 characters. Majewski delves into the subject, revealing no art happens within a vacuum, depicting the world of the painting to be a living, breathing re-creation, not of history, but it’s own otherworldly environment. We meet the characters at home, we see them struggle to survive. We see the dead ones become vulture fodder, and we hear the intentions of Brugel himself, given gloriously lived-in voice by Rutger Hauer. “The Mill and the Cross” plays like an art travelogue, giving the viewer a greater-than-thought-possible appreciation of Brugel's craft. Painted-in sets burst with color and sensation, characters making their way through this world in wonderfully ornate costuming, giving life to Brugel’s work and, hopefully, preserving it for future generations.
Formula exists for a reason, and not because it’s “easy.” It exists because it works, time and time again, and it gives a narrative a solid spine allowing actors to branch out. In the case of Gavin O’Connor’s riveting mixed-martial-arts drama, it gives O’Connor’s three stellar lead actors a chance to bounce off themselves, creating three completely lived-in performances. Though we’ve been seeing them on and off for the past couple of years, it’s a thrill watching Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton match up. In an Old Hollywood sense, it’s like seeing the birth of two legitimately great, soon-to-be-ubiquitous actors. The emotions that circulate watching Hardy’s disturbed, animalistic Tommy brush off earnest family man Brendan are similar to the initial pangs of greatness during our first viewing of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Both seem to be suffering very familiar movie issues (survivor’s guilt versus class struggles) but O’Connor keeps the action constant and clearheaded, emphasizing that this is a story about brothers more than it's about fisticuffs. And it’s impossible to shed the real-life regrets of down-and-out Nick Nolte as the seawater-voiced alcoholic father who tore their family apart and knows full well he can never forgive himself. Though the genre doesn’t have as many highlights as you might think, “Warrior” has instantly become one of the all-time great sports movies.
7. "We Need to Talk About Kevin"
Lynn Ramsey’s adaptation of the Lionel Shriver novel begins with billowing window blinds. The image of the silk fabric blowing in the moonlight is accompanied by a low rumbling on the soundtrack, as the sprinkler turns on and off rhythmically, almost musically. It calls back to the dread of the opening images of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” with Goblin’s mischievous rock score, and the building dread of Argento’s focus on windows, doorways and glass. On the page, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is massively different, the tale of a former boho single woman who ends up forming a family and raising an intensely uncooperative, misanthropic son. But this shares more not only with Argento’s work but actress Tilda Swinton’s chilly early installations, structurally challenged art projects that twisted the nature of sexuality. It’s unmistakable how Swinton seems similar to her wiry, hateful charge, an unpleasant teenager who simply mirrors her disdain for suburban life (endless strip malls, soup cans, short-sleeve dress shirts) and reflects it on the outside world. Both have the same haunted physicality, a borderline discomfort in their own skin, and only one of them is reacting by fighting back. What’s horrifying is that we’re aware early on that no one heeds the title of the film, and we’re left waiting for the final piece of the puzzle.
Like a great song, there’s not a lot about “Bellflower” that can be explained as much as felt. Criticisms were varied and colorful regarding Evan Glodell’s debut film – particularly a nasty leak about how the film’s third act was panic-edited into a wildly different form. And all that chatter neglected the fact that this unsettling slice of frustration was finding something very primal, very ugly about the contemporary urban male. Even in the rush of mumblecore films and the Sundance-sponsored annual flood of indies, none have particularly captured the innate impotence at the heart of the male hipster, that affection for a bygone, primitive era with a reliance on today’s technology and relatively care-free lifestyles. And so we see our protagonists of “Bellflower” struggle with what it means to have the freedom to create the Medusa not out of need, but out of pure, somewhat-ironic curiosity. Their reaction to this entitlement, predictably, is to burn it all to the ground. Problematic in spurts and over-reliant on an otherwise superb collection of original songs from Jonathan Keevil, “Bellflower” strikes out as an intense, disquieting sensory experience.
5. "The Last Circus"
Take the manic, morbid goth-darkness of Tim Burton’s “Batman,” replace the title character with a second Joker, and you’ve begun to scratch the surface of mad scientist Alex de la Iglesia’s absolutely insane future midnight movie classic. Carlos Areces is wonderfully tragic as Javier, the afflicted Sad Clown of a traveling Spanish Circus, who crosses paths with maniac Happy Clown Sergio and lives to regret it. Theirs is a unique, undeniable bond – while the mousy Javier is subservient to his more outgoing co-worker, there lies a darkness within both of them, as they both share the notion that, were they not clowns, they would be “murderers.” But when Javier falls for Sergio’s masochistic abused girlfriend Natalia (the stupefying beautiful Carolina Bang), it begins a feverish, far-reaching all-out clown war that’s both cartoonishly massive and deadly serious. Alex de la Iglesia crafts yet another in what’s becoming a long line of gonzo masterpieces, and while lawless in its own way, “The Last Circus” may be his most composed madhouse yet, as he cements himself as the filmmaker guys like Guillermo del Toro are actively scared of becoming.
Without disclosing too much, Lars von Trier’s moody tone poem showcases a unique, undeniable understanding of the symptoms of depression. It’s at once achingly personal and colossally huge, dealing with the fingertips of bride-to-be Justine as they half-heartedly cling to the rest of the world, sinking into a morass of helplessness and indifference. A testament to most filmmaking that tries to scare the devil out of you (which von Trier manages with a sly smile) is to presume the “loonies” are right and the end is near. And through Justine’s eyes, nothing else matters, with von Trier capturing some of the most gorgeous images of the year in creating an onscreen Ragnarok that shows us in our final moments to be vainly trying to maintain what is, instead of accepting, and maybe understanding, the feeling of what seems like a new planet crushing us.
3. "Certified Copy"
The memory is fuzzy, but there was a critic who referred to Abbas Kiarostami’s latest as “ 'Inception' for smart people.” While that’s plenty reductive (and wonderfully, childishly snobbish), it does correctly paint “Certified Copy” not as some dry, dour art house fare, but as a work truly rich and dynamic, a new mountaintop for Kiarostami’s work. The exquisite Juliette Binoche and the dashing William Schimell play two strangers who find their differences bring them closer, their political ideologies (mostly based around the multi-faceted title concept) painting a picture of two people in love with the fact they may not be able to get along. Binoche’s Elle strings him along, beginning to toy with his “progressive” emotions, creating a false reality where the two were lovers. Or may still be lovers. She’s not telling, and as she teases him, and the camera, at every bewitching turn, she begins to bounce her philosophies against his as if they’re seducing each other through dogma. The most romantic film of the year for the couples who read together and argue incessantly, “Certified Copy” earns extra notoriety for memorably being denied Criterion status by company head Peter Becker. Back in April, he openly called the film “minor Kiarostami,” earning the wrath of major cinephile everywhere. By Peter Becker’s reasoning, Abbas Kiarostami may be the world’s greatest living filmmaker.
The wait was maddening for some of us. We were touched by “You Can Count On Me” in 2000, and knowing that playwright Kenneth Lonergan was working on a sprawling post-9/11 story about survivor’s guilt with such a killer cast, we were primed for the picture to be a must-see event. Production started in 2005, cast photos were released of Anna Paquin, of Matt Damon, of Jean Reno and then the legal troubles, and the ballooning run-time, and Fox Searchlight’s refusal to dare release a three-hour movie and years and years and finally…this. “Margaret” undoubtedly feels compromised – second half editing decisions feel choppy and ungainly, and, superficially, the ages of the actors and the tenor of New York City had changed dramatically. As maddening as “Margaret” was in fits and starts, few films were as alive with ideas on a scene-by-scene basis. If that means “Margaret” loses a natural, classical coherence and succumbs to an episodic structure, so be it, if the tradeoff means that someone tells you there’s an eight hour cut floating in the ether and you’re more than willing to volunteer. As Lisa Cohen, Paquin is heart-breaking, a person both intolerably selfish and believably, painfully sensitive, struggling to process the open-ended guilt she feels for the death of another as if there can be a straight line to draw. “Margaret” plays with this causality as a method for Lisa to grow up, though Paquin’s multifaceted performance and Lonergan’s sympathetic, generous storytelling gives the audience multiple possibilities as to who Lisa eventually becomes. Even as a fractured image of Lonergan’s vision, “Margaret” towers over most American cinema in 2011.
1. "The Tree Of Life"
There’s a sensitivity towards the religious that I share, even if I’m not always simpatico with their beliefs. To have religion in your life is to have faith, a tool that can make us strong, enrich our lives, give us structure. And, in our darkest hours, or our finest moments, that faith in something bigger empowers us, fulfills us, allows us to transcend the flesh and to experience something truly beyond Earthly limitations. This is a spirit, one that obviously won’t allow us to levitate, or shoot lightning bolts, or read minds. But to enrich that intangible feeling inside us is why we digest art. We’re looking for that experience, we’re looking for that spiritual uplift. For some of us, this place of worship is the cinema, and for me, there was no greater sermon than the one by Terrence Malick. There’s an overwhelming, inexplicable higher power at work in “The Tree Of Life,” one not beholden to conventions, one that seeks to find the truth of our existence in the truth of all existence. It can be simplified as a circle of life, but Malick isn’t interested in the realization of said cycle as much as the mundane details of how the nuts and bolts of our spirit whirr. Which is why Brad Pitt’s bristling, sophisticated father figure is so broken by his own hostility to his sons – while he’s a stern authoritarian with his children, his lament is that he couldn’t do more, he couldn’t uncover the secret to make them dependent on themselves. And so in the face of the cosmos, he retreats to a good-bad dichotomy, framing his exploits as “failure,” exploring the poetry of how we rationalize the smallness of our lives against the endless cycle of evolving life that surrounds us. I was in tears from the beginning of “The Tree Of Life” until the very end, and at points, I could not even begin to tell you why.
THE YEAR’S WORST MOVIES
An attempt to compose a 1-10 list only resulted in a ten-way tie for first place. But movies in 2011 were bad for all sorts of different reasons, whether they be empty, big star paycheck factories (“Tower Heist”), listless blockbusters (“Battle: Los Angeles”), lowest-common-denominator comedies (Adam Sandler’s offerings), poorly-made, embarrassingly cynical awards-bait (“My Week With Marilyn,” “The Iron Lady”) or just-plain contemptuous exercises in misanthropy (“Transformers: Dark Of The Moon”). And yet, the absolute cruelest moment at the movies in 2011 has to be ripped, handsome, fearless test pilot-turned space cop Ryan Reynolds in “Green Lantern,” telling lonely, balding, crotchety, socially-inept science nerd Peter Sarsgaard that “you have to be chosen” to wear the film’s magical ring, and therefore be the hero who gets the girl. Unforgettably ugly.
PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR
After a bold, varied career, it’s taken this long for Ellen Barkin to find a script that gives her a role she could tear into. And in “Another Happy Day,” she absolutely delivers, creating a woman at times childish, repugnantly selfish, and instantly recognizable. Her daughter in the film may be a cutter, but it’s equally hard to watch Barkin’s endless masochism as she walks face-first into a gauntlet of abuse at the hands of vindictive family members, oblivious ex-lovers, and two casually obnoxious, vile sons. Special mention must also be given to Paquin’s well-aged performance in the long-buried “Margaret” as well as the comic Tyrannosaur Charlize Theron embodies in the often-uproarious “Young Adult,” easily the most dynamic protagonist in Jason Reitman’s body of work thus far.
Toby Jones and Jessica Chastain appeared in a combined total of fourteen movies this year. Congratulations, guys. You did a lot of acting.
It was more than a surprise for the year’s two best, most luxurious orchestrations to come from the same man. And yet, Alberto Iglesias delivered two wonderfully layered scores within months of each other, first with the sinister, grandiose string-based arrangement on “The Skin I Live In,” followed by a melancholic, piano-based theme amongst ornate, subtle instrumentation for the similarly low-key “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy.” Extra credit to the electronic scores of the past year, showing some filmmakers willing to step outside the same familiar box.
BEST UNDISTRIBUTED FILM
It was near-impossible to shake the sadness from the currently-undistributed “Artificial Paradises.” The story of one woman attempting to detox on a tropical island, miles away from her addictions, Yulene Olaizola’s fictional directorial debut carries a genuine kindness towards those that struggle to make it to dusk. A film of unique generosity and the friendships between strangers, it deserves a chance to be heralded by the nation’s critics after its modest Tribeca Film Festival bow.
ACTION – STILL BETTER OVERSEAS
2011 ended with people rightfully praising the pedal-to-the-metal propulsion of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” an actioner that had one of the year’s most thrilling sequences involving Tom Cruise and the Burj Kahilfa. But this was neglecting that a lot of the entertaining “Mission” installment seemed a bit herky jerky, particularly in blurring, unconvincing hand-to-hand combat, a clear result of director Brad Bird not entirely getting the hang of this live-action thing quite yet.
Meanwhile, Takashi Miike was carving up samurai in the year’s finest action picture, the masterful “13 Assassins,” showing that not only could the hyperactive bad-taste auteur settle down, but he knew the right rhythms and beats of a proper, believable action picture. And while Donnie Yen greeted us with the incredible two-fer of “Ip Man 2” and “Legend Of The Fist,” the latter with the most jaw-dropping opening scene of the year, Ryan Gosling was semi-ironically prancing around in a scorpion jacket, bludgeoning fifty year olds to death with a crowbar.
While Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” waxed poetically about his supposedly iconic anti-hero, irony-free thrill rides were coming from France (“Point Blank”), Brazil (“Elite Squad: The Enemy Within”), Argentina (the terrifying final moments of “Carancho”) and even in Bollywood. While an onslaught of superhero movies this year tried to convince us that award-nominated actors could be interesting standing in place and making jazz-hands at each other, the sublimely ridiculous (and honestly, not completely watchable) “R.A. One” used its pimped-out CG-action sequences to fully illustrate the imaginative potential for characters that can fly, have super strength, and yes, shoot lasers out of their fingers.
THE ARTHOUSE MEANS ENDLESS PUNISHMENT FOR WOMEN
A double feature of “Miss Bala” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” drove this home, but it seems like the best way to earn indie credibility in 2011 was to find a strikingly beautiful woman, bully her into submission, and physically, sexually and psychologically torture her for the entire runtime of your film. Mexico‘s 'Bala', which is slated for release in 2012, took a beauty queen and ran her through the ringer for a drug cartel, her mousy, terrified countenance not breaking from the screen as we unflinchingly watch her dodge gunfire, get beaten, robbed, dragged around by the arm and hair and, yes, raped. To what end? Because this is how it is down there, man! By turning her into a timid, abused presence, they’ve rendered her inhuman, just as her hypothetical real life captors would do, and it seems like an awfully big commitment if the reward is simply to make a propulsive, cheap-thrill indie.
At least the title character of “Martha” has a greater ability to express herself, as most of what we see of her comes from the aftermath of a dangerous, cult-based living situation. And while newcomer Elizabeth Olsen doesn’t betray the nature of her character, the filmmaker Sean Durkin forces us to wallow in her emotional and sexual abuse, first in the farmhouse with Rape-Eyed John Hawkes, and later with her stubborn, emotionally demanding bourgeoisie sister (Sarah Paulson) and her insufferable husband (Hugh Dancy, of course). Aside from the narrative gimmick of staging the picture like a horror film and fooling around with the linear chronology, “Martha” is, again, a completely immersive sensory experience. Unlike the polished, action-movie-ready sheen of “Miss Bala” however, “Martha” seems to have been shot through a grimy toilet bowl, creating a viscerally ugly experience that never truly resonates on a visual level.
Along with the coquette-ish Emily Browning being sleep-raped throughout Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty,” Rooney Mara explicitly experiencing extended onscreen anal violation in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” (a movie inexplicably loaded with product placement) and the grisly female murders of “I Saw The Devil,” it simply became too much. There was as much insight to be gleaned from the non-stop torture of these characters as there was in “A Serbian Film” and “The Human Centipede Part II: Full Sequence.” The only difference, of course, being that those two freakshow exhibits had a sense of humor about it all.
MOST TELLING STATISTIC
It’s 2011, and the only non-whites in serious contention for an Academy Award nomination as actors are Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Who play maids in a movie called "The Help." 2011, folks.