In addition to voting for the best accomplishments of 2011 in film, more than 160 critics from Indiewire's Criticwire network were invited to submit comments for this year's poll, which closed last Friday with a majority of votes for "The Tree of Life" as Best Film. While a consensus seemed to form around Terrence Malick's Palme d'Or-winning film, the participating critics chose to spotlight a number of different trends, highlights and shortcomings from the last 12 months.
"It was a soft year in which looking back at film history dominated the conversation but failed to point the way ahead," wrote Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, citing "The Artist," "Hugo" and "My Week With Marilyn" as examples before extolling the virtues of Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive," his top choice. "Refn steers us into his own personal fever dream of L.A. on wheels," Travers wrote. "Too bloody, too creative, too ambitious and too polarizing to comfort audiences, 'Drive' is nonetheless pure cinema."
Another movie that had an even tougher time finding audiences this year was Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret," which received a perfunctory release earlier this year but gained some minor awards season momentum due to a recent online petition. (Fox Searchlight has already made plans to rerelease the film in some theaters.) "Nothing in years has given me as much hope for the future of cinema as a collective experience—in some form or another—as did the #teammargaret phenomenon," wrote freelance critic Mike D'Angelo, referring to the Twitter hashtag that helped resurrect the film's appeal. "People just flat-out refused to let that movie die, even after the initial wave of deeply misguided reviews all but buried it. We dragged its bloody, comatose form into the year-end conversation by sheer force of will, fueled by nothing more than passion."
However, not all voters had such unequivocal support for the movie. "I would seriously consider the first two acts of 'Margaret' as top ten material," wrote Movie City News' David Poland, "but the last hour and change stopped me in my tracks. Please release the director's cut so history can be the judge of Lonergan's best intent."
Elsewhere in the poll, UC Santa Cruz professor and critic B. Ruby Rich singled out Kelly Reichardt's "Meek's Cutoff" as "one of the finest, most thrilling films I saw in 2011." She also complained about its divisive reception. "I'm bemused, therefore, at how it's become a whipping-boy and/or poster child for something called 'slow cinema,'" she wrote, recalling a notorious debate about "cultural vegetables" that first surfaced in a New York Times magazine article months ago. "I admit to being flabbergasted. The last time I witnessed this sort of football-fan-rancor in film circles was back in the 1970s over Chantal Ackerman. Am I the only person who finds these so-called 'slow cinema' works to be gripping, engrossing, highly crafted, meticulously calibrated films?"
Apparently not, as Variety and Cinemascope critic Robert Koehler's endorsement of Thai director Uruphong Raksasad's "Agrarian Utopia" as the best documentary of the year proves. "One notion of reality gives way to another," Koehler wrote, "resulting in an in-between film, the kind of film that I would argue is the most interesting cinema now being made."
Other critics chose to single out specific countries that released a number of quality films this year. In Contention's Guy Lodge singled out the United Kingdom, where he lives, with a disclaimer: The major story of 2011 for me (and it has nothing to do with the passport I hold) has been the astonishing creative surge in British cinema," he wrote. "As if in furious response to the dreary, personality-free phenomenon of "The King's Speech," UK auteurs brought their A-game." Among his examples: Lynne Ramsay's "We Need to Talk About Kevin," Steve McQueen's "Shame," Asif Kapadia's "Senna" and Andrea Arnold's "Wuthering Heights." These films, Lodge wrote, "took exciting formal risks, while the less esteemed Andrew Haigh shushed them all with a whisper in 'Weekend,' a quiet landmark in gay cinema."
Reverse Shot co-founder Michael Koresky highlighted a number of other country's cinematic accomplishments this year. "I was thrilled to count borderline masterworks from Thailand, Romania, South Korea, Portugal, Chile, Russia, the United Kingdom, Argentina, and (and what a relief) the U.S. in just my top ten alone," he wrote. "And that's not even mentioning a handful of greats that didn't make the cut from Italy (!), Iran, Germany, and, yes, Palestine (thank you, Elia Suleiman)." That last title is a reference to Suleiman's "The Time That Remains," which opened in January for a brief run.
Of course, many films weren't lucky enough to get any release at all. "Distribution isn't keeping up with the best in international cinema," wrote the New Yorker's Richard Brody. "Much great work is getting seen a day here and a day there in special series but not finding a regular release. Video-on-demand or streaming video could potentially take up some of the slack; but it would become increasingly necessary to question the very definition of release in terms of theatrical release."
The issue of distributed was echoed by Film Threat's Don R. Lewis. "I feel shorted because the 'Studio System Awards Season Game' makes it difficult for film critics in smaller towns and regional areas to see many films that are probably some of the best of the year," the Petaluma-based critic wrote.
Beyond the distribution arena, many critics focused on the problems tackled by the films themselves. "The past several years in world cinema displayed a sense that the economic crisis was on everyone's mind," wrote The Academic Hack critic Michael Sicinski, "but 2011 showed a far greater anxiety that modernity itself - the gains of the early 20th century - were being rolled back or lost altogether." He cited "Hugo," "House of Tolerance," (now titled "House of Pleasures" in the U.S.) "A Dangerous Method" as examples. And two others tacked on with a caveat: "Even 'The Artist,' in its lunkheaded way show a 21st century concerned with the erasure of true cinema, the sexual revolution, Freudian insight…Even that very totem of the rollback itself, 'Atlas Shrugged Part Only,' is preoccupied with steel, trains, emblems of an era when The Future existed."
Critic Daryl Chin focused on some of the major losses of the year. "2011 was a year of great sadness, because many noteworthy filmmakers, especially among the independent/experimental masters, died," he wrote, noting the passings of Adolfas Mekas, Robert Breer, Jordan Belson, George Kuchar, Owen Land, Raul Ruiz, and Ken Russell. "It was also a year of great social unrest," he added, "culminating in the U.S. with the Occupy Wall Street movement."
MUBI and At the Movies critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky took that observation to a global level, voting for the YouTube video 'Falsification of Ballots at Station 2501, Moscow' as the year's best documentary. He explained: "The year of the Arab Spring, of the Libyan civil war, of the Japanese tsunami, of the Occupy protests, of the nascence of a cohesive anti-Putin movement in Russia—all recorded, legitimized, and placated by online videos and the ordinary folks who make them. The most important documentaries of 2011, then, are not the ones made by 3D camera crews traipsing around caverns or by men interviewing prisoners through plate glass, but by people wandering down streets and through crowds with video-equipped cellphones and digital cameras. Cinema responds to this army of very real images with a barrage of the imaginary."
Noticeably, none of these comments position 2011 as one easily dismissible in the history of the cinematic medium. In fact, some critics felt compelled to react to possible backlash. "It might seem like a weak year but that's only when you look at it through the perspective of the Oscar race," wrote Awards Daily blogger Sacha Stone. "Otherwise, it's an embarrassment of riches."
Or, as NPR critic Ella Taylor put it: "What's up with all the kvetching about a mediocre film year?"
Stay tuned for more coverage of Indiewire's year-end poll this week. In the meantime, you can browse through the results here.