Monday, January 02, 2012

This Is The End: The Best Films of 2011

            In probably the pitch-perfect cinematic moment of the 2011, Curtis, the tall and constantly in-check protagonist of Take Shelter, watches lighting dance across the sky while his wife and daughter sleep in the back of the car. “Is anyone else seeing this?” he exclaims. If this is the end, we need to know we’re not the only ones out there realizing the world is about the change.

            Which is perhaps what all these apocalyptic films—Margin Call (fiscal), Contagion (viral), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (special), and Melancholia (literal)—are all about. Even if we’re prepared to face the end, we can’t do it alone. We need to be sure of who we are and understand ourselves, which is why so many films not specifically about the end are about the minor apocalypses within our lives. The strange protagonist of Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In must come to terms with a completely new identity. Werner Herzog explored both the birth of spiritual life (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) and the end of an actual life (Into the Abyss). Attack the Block gave us teenagers who must redeem themselves and their way of life by defeating forces greater than our world. And so many films explored the state of the family and the trials and often failure resulting in those who cannot manage it: A Separation, The Descendants, Take Shelter, Margaret. Apocalypse isn’t about the end of the world, as the idiotic villain (Michael Nyqvist) from Mission Impossible — Ghost Protocol lectures. It’s about what comes after, which is why so many films have focused on our uncertainty to face something new.

            It was also a ridiculously excellent year for film, easily the best since I started writing in 2004. Perhaps not in the Hollywood sphere, where mainstream cinema continues to lead down a series of franchise reboots and post-3D conversions, as much as in the independent and world cinema. This year was simply impossible to narrow down to the best films of the year, and deciding where to stop (20? 25? 40?) made the usual business of top 10s even harder. I decided on 15 films, and any of the top six or seven would have probably been my #1 film last year, showing the quality of excellent cinema today, as long as you know where to find it.

15. The Descendants (Alexander Payne, USA) 

            The story in The Descendants is about some truly ugly people: a financially well father who has never bothered to take care of his children, a cheating wife trapped in a coma, cousins selling off inherited land to make a fortune, and an asshole adulterer who refuses to face what he’s done. But as a director who has matured from a satirical and biting comedian to something more understanding and human, director and co-writer Alexander Payne has made a film that asks us questions about both what we can forgive and how. Mr. Payne, adapting the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, uses the location of Hawaii, plus the natural beauty of his actors (most notably George Clooney), to give The Descendants a soothing sense to calm the troubled mental state of this family in crisis. This natural beauty (always cautioned though by the overhanging clouds of melancholy that hang over the islands) allow protagonist Matt King and his daughter Alex (newcomer Shailene Woodley, who can seem extremely mature and naively innocent within a single line of dialogue) to make sacrifices and find some sense of companionship in each other that they’ve never felt before.

Read the original review. The Descendants is now currently playing in theaters.

14. Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland/France)

            In a year where waves of films dealt with nostalgia for classic cinema (Hugo, The Artist, The Muppets, and even Drive), none put a larger smile on my face than the classic and humorous beauty Le Havre. Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki has created a narrative surrounding the old, titular town that often feels like a place time has forgotten, but in the best way possible. The dry colors of simplistic homes and bars, and the charm of its French citizens create a magical world that has no business in reality, but feels so honest with goodness that it tore my heart apart. The narrative may deal with a huge issue surrounding illegal immigration in the European state, but Mr. Kaurismäki has no interest in politics as much as he has in humanity. He looks at these characters and asks, “Why can’t they all get along, and do nice things for each other?” It seems like a bizarre question, but with a cartoonish feel (especially the film’s villainous detective played by the marvelous Jean-Pierre Darroussin), Mr. Kaurismäki imagines a world where people simply do the right thing and try and create an environment where anyone can be family.

Read the original review. Le Havre is currently in select theaters, and will be on DVD later this year.

13. Rampart (Oren Moverman, USA)

            “Date Rape” Dave is a brutal and destructive human being, unleashed on the world with what seems like only hate in his heart and anger as his fuel. Worst of all, he’s supposed to serve and protect. Rampart, Oren Moverman’s second feature and co-written by noir writer James Ellory, is an intense odyssey into the darkness of one man’s soul. It’s an intense character study following an officer of the law who has never let any authoritative voice ever stop his sound and fury, mainly because he is the voice of authority. Intensely shot by Bobby Bukowski in stunning digital crispness, Rampart is as visually intense as Dave himself, which allows us to  hate him while constantly find ourselves in awe of him. Most of that comes from the commanding performance of Woody Harrelson, who has no problem playing a monster of society to its very fullest. What makes Rampart so unique is there’s no redemption for Dave; he and whatever informed his past are the sources of evil in society. But what makes him so scary is there’s no way he and his kind will ever disappear.

Read the original review. Rampart played for a short run in New York, and will re-open in theaters sometime this winter.

12. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsey, United Kingdom)

            The shattered mind can be a beautiful thing, especially when portrayed by filmmaker Lynne Ramsey in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Kevin is a monster of a person, and its unclear whether it is because of his inherent nature or the way he was raised. But the answer is simply impossible, as Ms. Ramsey has taken the novel by Lionel Shriver and turned it into a pop art explosion. Set in a highly subjective universe of the mind of Eva (Tilda Swinton, terrific as always and with a face out of a Rembrandt painting), Ms. Ramsey gives us a series of memories and images, many abstract and without any particular context. There’s no way to comprehend the structure of the film—it’s more reminiscent of Jackson Pollock than any other films. But within its moments, Ms. Ramsey finds wry and sadistic humor, beautiful imagery (that of course is hiding malicious evil), and the voice of a mother lost to her own demons, unable to comprehend past, present, and future. Kevin tells Eva late in the film, “I used to know why, but now I’m not so sure.” Similarly, Ms. Ramsey invites us to become lost as well, washed over by the monsters of our own world.

Read the original review. We Need To Talk About Kevin played for a short run in New York, and will re-open in theaters this January.

11. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives 
(Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)

            It’s the end of the line for dear Uncle Boonmee, but in his exploration of faith, death is truly just the beginning. Thai director Apitchatpong Weerasethakul retains his identity as one of the most unique artists working today, mixing his understanding of Thai culture with a unique art house aesthetic and a self-aware humor. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives may be bizarre (any film that includes monkey ghosts and a coital sequence between a princess and a catfish certainly qualifies), but Mr. Weeasethakul has such a strong conviction in his characters and the story he wants to tell, that you always feel less sad about the death of one man, than invited into the world that awaits him after this one. It may not make complete sense, but Mr. Weeasethakul brings a wondrous beauty to the wonders of nature and animals, and constantly plays with his style of filmmaking as well, constantly reinventing his images and his narratives to create new meaning. “Heaven is overrated,” Boonmee’s dead wife tells him, and the use of deadpan humor in Uncle Boomee is part of what makes the fear of death so inconsequential, and the invitation to the after life so exciting.

Read the original review. Read an interview with writer-director Apitchatpong Weerasethakul. Uncle Boonmee is now currently on DVD and Netflix Instant.

10. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, USA)

            Terrence Malick’s grand-scale and operatic The Tree of Life sets itself out on the biggest question it possibly can: the search for God and meaning in any and all exsistence. But the way the eclectic Mr. Malick has gone in answering that question is what makes him a continually fascinating filmmaker. God may be in the origins of the universe, the formation of planets and first life. Or perhaps it’s in the origins of kindness shown by a mother to her children. Perhaps it is in a ray of light, just hitting the waters of a river in a particular way. Or in the stern attitude of the father, teaching both strength but often fear to his son. There is no answer and every answer in Mr. Malick’s filmmaking, making The Tree of Life a work of huge detail and also incompleteness. Even despite its flaws, the filmmaking by Mr. Malick and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki feels so monumental and simply on a different level than what anyone else is doing in contemporary cinema today. There’s no story, simply images and feelings and symphonies and poetic dialogue, all to bring you through one man’s search for answers of what is all means, whether cosmological or personal.

Read the original review. Read a piece on the critical response to the film. The Tree of Life is now on DVD and Blu-Ray.

9. Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean, Romania)

            Paul Hanganu thinks he can control every aspect of his life, but he is sorely wrong. He loves two women, and thinks he can easily balance having a wife and a mistress without complication. And then he believes a divorce can be a simple and painless process. But Adriana and Raluca are not simply pieces to be controlled, and they will give him hell for it. Radu Muntean, the latest director to emerge as part of a generation of geniuses in the Romanian art film scene, has made a brilliant work in Tuesday, After Christmas that is firstly a human drama, but often a very, very sly comedy. The humor Mr. Muntean shows is more hidden than overt, but there is something inherently funny about Paul’s actions in this story. His belief in being able to keep everyone in his life in order of course leads to chaos, even as the camera stays with slow long takes that allow us to feel each beat, as the tension rises (and what could be more tense than a foot massage?). Whether or not Tuesday, After Christmas was made as an allegory for Romania’s state of repression is hard to say, but it’s a delightful small film about the collapse of a marriage, seen through the eyes of a very silly man.

Read the original review. Tuesday, After Christmas is now on DVD and Netflix Instant,

8. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, USA)

            The worries in Take Shelter are not just the biblical images of the end that haunt poor Curtis. They are the ones that Americans face every day: will our health insurance cover this operation? Do we have enough money to make it to next month? Can I really afford to see a doctor right now? In crafting this masterwork of the American zeitgeist, writer-director Jeff Nichols has made a film that resonates through every inch of middle America, a film about a man who questions himself in every way, fearing for both the end of the world, the end of his family, and the end of his masculinity. Through the film’s bold language (a visual style reminiscent of Days of Heaven), Mr. Nichols keeps us on the edge of our seats as we watch Curtis slowly fall into madness, even when he tries to take every precaution to stop it. And lead by a towering and subdued performance by Michael Shannon, we come to believe and hope for Curtis to get better, just as much as his wife (Jessica Chastain in the best of her six roles this year). While the final moments may not work completely, Take Shelter is such a unique look at not the end of the world, but how afraid we are that the end could come and take what is dear to us, whether that’s looming storms of dread or simply a pink slip.

Read the original review. Take Shelter will be on DVD in the spring.

7. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, France/Portugal)

            There are 100 stories in Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon, and it often feels like there could be 100 more. Everyone must tell a story, and everyone has a revelation about how the actions of their past have created their present, and how small gestures in one story can become the essential turn in another. A Chilean born director, Mr. Ruiz made over 100 films in less than half that many years, and he sadly passed away this year, making this his truly final film (another was shot, though how much work was left on it has not been stated). But Mysteries of Lisbon, adapted from the 19th century epic by Camilo Castelo Branco, is such a delightful journey (and a long one, running over four and a half hours) into the world of the Portuguese and French aristocracy and the secrets they hide. His camera work makes things even more magical than the revelations of his narrative, shooting every scene in a single long take, gliding his camera along like a ghost wanderer. This magical realism of Mr. Ruiz makes everything so enthralling and full of surprises, whether cinematic or what the next story could possibly reveal.

Read the original review. Mysteries of Lisbon will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray this month.

6. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, USA)

            If Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life resolved that we are just specs within the grand scheme of the machinations of the universe, the world of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret asks well why shouldn’t we consider ourselves the center of the universe. That certainly makes sense for Lisa, the young protagonist played by an impeccably perfect Anna Paquin, a teenager from the Upper West Side of Manhattan who becomes a witness to the death of a woman in a bus crash. Written and shot during the years after September 11th and the early stages of the Iraq war, Margaret is a wildly diverse film about how guilt can haunt us long after an event, exasperated by the need for closure and resolution, or simply some sort of answer that will never come. Lisa goes on a quest to try and make sense of the senseless, something that Emily (the enormously terrific Jeannie Berlin) knows cannot happen. Because of its legal issues, Margaret feels imperfect, and its last half hour feels like only the iceberg of a much bigger film. But the ambition and perfection of so many sequences—a bus accident that is not only horrifying to watch but also darkly funny, a conversation with a lawyer who simply cannot understand the story, and Lisa’s numerous debates with friends, students, and family—makes Margaret, a film that was almost lost and buried, a hidden gem.

Read the original review. Read my piece addressing the phenomenon of #teammargaret. Margaret is currently playing in New York, but not for much longer. There are no current plans for a DVD release, but hopefully, it shall come.

5. The Interrupters (Steve James, USA)

            Ameena Mathews is a short woman, round but not overweight, with longing eyes, a black hijab covering her hair, and a heart bigger than any fictional character on screen this year. Ameena does one thing and one thing only: stop the kids of Chicago from murdering each other. In a world where we speak about Occupy Wall Street or Republican Debates, it’s often so easy to forget about the plague of gang violence, especially if it’s not outside our own streets. And thus in crafting a documentary about such a large subject, master documentarian Steve James has instead focused on three former criminals who now work as “violence interrupters” in the South Side of Chicago. The Interrupters gives us the portrait of a culture unwilling to change, an endless cycle for which things may never get better, but it also displays three people who can give us hope, and truly make us believe there can be a difference. Mr. James makes the personal fight for justice by these individuals our entry point to a year of crimes and atrocity, balancing both stories of utter tragedy and individuals who can be taught how to use a book instead of a gun. Mr. James, who brought us Hoop Dreams in the 1990s, has shown that the documentary form is often about characters—draw us into the people who fight for justice, and we’ll follow their cause, no matter how hopeless, to the very end.

Read the original review. The Interrupters will play on PBS in Feburary, and will be out on DVD and Blu-Ray shortly after.

4. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, USA)

            Information is power in Meek’s Cutoff, and simply by the choice of the aspect ratio, we are constantly limited from it. Instead of shooting the film’s brutal and dynamic landscapes in wide ratio, giving us the epic scope of the terrain, director Kelly Reichardt chose to shoot this allegorical tale in the standard 4:3 “Academy” ratio. The result is that we as spectators are limited in what we can see, just like the young women on the pioneer trail with their bonnets. This almost claustrophobic choice makes Meek’s Cutoff a work of intense naturalism, as settlers follow an impossible journey, led by a mysterious and often mischievous man, played effortlessly by Bruce Greenwood. But whom to trust? The man who led us astray (though we have no idea) and the indigenous man who may lead us into danger? While crafted from the same bones as her previous feature, Wendy & Lucy, Ms. Reichardt’s work here reaches for something greater as it plays with every genre trope of the Western, and keeps us wholly invested in the life or death stakes of its narrative. The movements in character and narrative are so subtlety crafted within the framework, demonstrating the work of Ms. Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond to help us understand that the smallest of gestures, perhaps simply fixing a broken shoe, could be the keys to freedom and escape from death.

Read the original review. Meek’s Cutoff is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Netflix Instant.

3. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)

            There are two keys to unlocking the guilt at the center of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, but we never see either. Did some character over hear a conversation in another room, and what happened behind the door? But what we soon realize in Mr. Farhadi’s simply overwhelming work of drama is that everyone is at fault, trying to prove how everyone else has failed. A Separation is a film about Iran, but it’s not about the Iran we see in the video footage from Twitter and CNN, but the ones that its citizens face every day. It’s about the different stratums that keep us apart: religious, gender, economic, and generational. Supported by one of the most revelatory casts I’ve ever seen in a foreign film (especially the brutally cold but totally humane Peyman Mooadi as the father, Nadar), Mr. Farhadi pulls us into the intense legal debates of A Separation by both using a naturalistic handheld camera that gives the film an authenticity, but also carefully crafting each shot to give depth and meaning to its brutal story. By the time each of the layers of the narrative are revealed, we can’t see ourselves identifying with any of the characters—they are all simply men and women trying to do what’s best for themselves. “Wrong is wrong, no matter what anyone ever says,” exclaims Nadar to his daughter, and that’s all we can know in A Separation; not who is right, but that everyone is wrong.

Read the original review. Read an interview with writer-director Asghar Farhadi. A Separation is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles, and will expand to more theaters throughout the next few months.

2. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, USA)

            There’s a reason that Elizabeth Olson, who plays the three titular characters of Martha Marcy May Marlene, has multiple identities. Martha can’t deal with the pains of entering the real world after having a transcendent experience. Marcy May can’t deal with the guilt of what she’s done in her past. And Marlene fears that her actions may continue to haunt those like her. With a formal precision rarely seen by any filmmaker working today, newcomer Sean Durkin has crafted a haunting and terrifying debut thriller built on what we can and can’t see. Along with director of photography Jody Lee Lips, Mr. Durkin carefully uses his visual style to spatially and temporally dislocate his young and naïve protagonist, as she lives in fear of the dangers that haunt her, and the crimes she herself committed. The cult aspects of Martha Marcy May Marlene are less relevant than they are the catalyst for the splitting personalities of Ms. Olson (simply unsettling to watch this young actress), especially the brutal tranquility of its leader, played with a terrifying strength through a soft and almost silent voice by John Hawkes. Mr. Durkin brings us closer and closer into how his protagonist views the world with her shattered mind, and is able to make every shot count, each speaking to the horrible guilt and fear this young woman feels. We soon enough realize that there is no redemption for Martha, Marcy May, or Marlene, not only because her mind has been broken so far that she cannot understand reality from fiction, but the work she has done for the cult is simply irreconcilable. In an age of DIY filmmaker shooting tiny films with the “mumblecore aesthetic” without much thought for the visual look for their films, Martha Marcy May Marlene proves there is still worth in meticulous formalism, as every shot in this bold work shoots tingles down your spine.

Read the original review. Martha Marcy May Marlene is still playing in select theaters, and will be on DVD and Blu-Ray in the spring.

1.     Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy/Iran)

A man and a woman sit down for a café. For all we know, they are strangers, having what seems like a quite enjoyable first date, filled with interesting conversation. The man begins to tell the story of a woman and a boy he once saw five years ago, and the strange habit they played. The camera though focuses on the woman, the color draining from her face as he tells it. “Seems quite familiar,” she murmurs, letting a single tear fall from her face. With that moment, I became entranced by Certified Copy, the first film by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami not made in his home country, and not just the best film of the year, but the best in at least half a decade. Dealing with similar themes of performance, perception, and the nature of art, Mr. Kiarostami plays a delightful game as he gives us a romantic mystery about a couple, perhaps strangers, perhaps married for over a decade, as they debate a past life they may have never shared. James, the philosopher played by newcomer William Shimmel, tells us in his opening lecture that perhaps there can be value in a copy as much as there is in the original. And thus, we are treated to a copy of a real life drama, and our choice to invest in it confirms what our own philosophical beliefs are. Certified Copy has been compared to films like Journey to Italy and Before Sunrise, but Mr. Kiarostami’s formal precision is too great and too wondrous to call this simply a walk-and-talk romance. Every shot, every edit, every line of dialogue (including what language the dialogue has been spoken in!) is a clue to unpacking a mystery with no solution but what we desire to subscribe to it. And Mr. Kiarostami has found a wondrous muse in European superstar Juliette Binoche, giving a performance of witty humor, deep sorrow, and tender romance. Ms. Binoche is only known as “she” in the movie, and it fits perfectly; she can make us believe in a romance that never existed, proving that artifice can truly stimulate real emotion. I’ve seen Certified Copy five times now, and each has pointed me in a different direction toward what I think the answers of the cryptic narrative might be, but more importantly, I’ve been stunned by the new details—visual, textual, and diegetic—I’ve kept unlocking in this truly masterwork of cinema.

Read the original review. Certified Copy is currently available on Netflix Instant. A DVD release will hopefully happen sometime this year.

Agree? Disagree? Have favorites of your own? Sound off in the comments!

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