A theme of transitioning and great loss seems to arise from most of my favorite films of 2011. Whether it be a mother transitioning to normalcy after the loss of a family or a loner sex addict transitioning to a brother role, the year’s best films have seen characters contend with moments of great duress. Sometimes that character overcomes, sometimes they don’t. Other times, it’s left to the audience to decipher an ambiguous ending.
The world has ended on a multitude of occasions, as this time, it was our great directors that questioned our position in the world. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia visualized the coming apocalypse with the greatest intensity, but filmmakers like Jeff Nichols and Terrence Malick astutely tied images of the beginning and end of the world with a personal story of kinship on a literal and spiritual level.
The end of the world came from a widespread pandemic in Contagion. It also operated through the government, as seen in Werner Herzog’s documentary Into the Abyss. In both cases, the deceased left a permanent mark on the living.
It was a banner year for documentaries, as Herzog’s aforementioned film and Cave of Forgotten Dreams dealt with our own morality in a literal and figurative sense. Steve James’ The Interrupters questioned the conditions of which we live, wherein Chicago’s south side functions as less a home and more of a warzone. Asif Kapadia’s Senna brought to the forefront how a man’s legacy can be defined by the way he confronts death on a daily basis. Meanwhile, Errol Morris’ Tabloid proves just how silly our preoccupations of celebrity can really be. All five films rejected the sort of narrative gimmickry that became a staple of 2010’s documentaries, such as Exit Through the Gift Shop or Catfish.
This embrace of formal narrative storytelling seeped into the world of fiction, as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen and Michel Hazanavicius told fairly traditional stories that embraced films of old. In Hugo, The Artist, and Midnight in Paris there’s a rich appreciation for pioneer filmmakers, the silent age of film, and a bygone era.
There were plenty of fascinating films that touched upon a contemporary note. George Clooney’s The Ides of March was dismissed as having nothing new to say. It’s unfortunate, as the film evoked more a spirit of a time rather than attempted to tread new ground – for that, it was remarkably successful. One can accuse Bennett Miller’s Moneyball for being dated in its observations, but like The Ides of March, the narrative is mined out of a personal story within the larger arch.
Smaller films dwelled in a vast emotional terrain, as seen in Sean Durkin’s haunting debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene, where a wounded young woman confronts her demons while attempting to reconcile lingering issues with her sister. Mike Mills’ Beginners delicately spoke to the echoing affect that our parents relationships can have on our own. Similarly, Azazel Jacobs’ Terri illustrated how the absence of parental guidance can prohibit a boy’s social growth.
Like any year, there are films that I unfortunately was not able to see. Roman Polanski’s Carnage, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, and Oren Moverman’s Rampart were among some of the many films that I had eagerly wanted to see but were not available to me. Regardless, all those films, along with several other late releases, will be coming my way in the coming months.
And despite missing out on several films, narrowing it all down to ten proved to be a difficult feat. Indeed, it was so difficult that I had to improvise with a rather convenient tie to start off my list. I typically avoid doing such a thing, but it was such a great year for film that I really couldn’t avoid it. So let’s begin.
There’s a fine line that divides The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Shame. Fincher’s film, like most of his other work, dwells in the world of obsession, where violence upon women is commonplace. On the other spectrum, McQueen’s picture studies the fabric of sex addiction, where a man uses women (and other men) to feed into his obsession. Fincher and McQueen both utilize a chilly perspective in looking at their characters, wherein a cold detachment from both directors heightens the lingering trauma that resides in their central characters. Both films scantly bring you in for warmth, but when they do, there’s a grand emotional consequence for letting you in.
3D filmmaking remains a work in progress, but what Martin Scorsese achieved in Hugo offers a certain level of validation for the technology. Scorsese’s swift hand and keen eye uses the technology to broaden your perspective, as the world that he creates is rich in detail. The train station that the title character inhabits breathes in its storybook enchantment. The whole feature feels like a spectacle, though is wisely grounded with an enamoring narrative about the importance of film preservation. Despite being an excellent craftsman, I’ve always been a bit resistant to Scorsese’s more recent pictures. But with Hugo, the filmmaker surprises me by showing me how humane he can be in a world of magical cinematic reverence.
Pedro Almodóvar’s films tend to dwell on the nature of gender and the roles one adopts from birth. Despite usually exhibiting flamboyant melodrama, all his previous pictures tended to be grounded in a sort of reality. With The Skin I Live In, Almodóvar dabbles in genre filmmaking, wherein the reality of the narrative is foggy. The minor tonal tweak is enough to make for his best film to date, as The Skin I Live In demonstrates a surreal quality whilst maintaining Almodóvar’s thematic and visual tendencies. There’s a palpable sense of loss that lingers throughout the picture, even if you haven’t figured out why. Wisely constructed as a jigsaw puzzle, The Skin I Live In is the sort of exhilarating piece of cinema that widens your eyes in stunned awe.
Stylish internalization is the best way that I can describe Nicholas Winding Refn’s filmmaking approach. On paper, Drive is a simple picture that has been done before. But under Refn’s precise eye, the film become can be both bombastic and subdued. The Los Angeles backdrop pulsates, even as its main character remains stoic. And as the simmer turns into a boil, Drive escalates its stylistic violence to an incredible degree. Despite not being the sort of film I gravitate toward, Drive excels at merely simply having presence – it’s the sort of picture that gets stuck in your head like a pop song.
Submarine presents an interesting alternative to the sort of British filmmaking that Edgar Wright introduced in his television show Spaced and Shaun of the Dead - that’s to say, Richard Ayoade has modified Wright’s dry wit and jarring (though effective) stylism to emphasize loneliness. Wright’s films have flourished when parodying genre filmmaking (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) or adapting a graphic novel (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), but there’s a distinct absence of emotional gravity to the proceedings. Richard Ayoade’s effort addresses that absence by utilizing Wright’s sensibilities within the context of a coming-of-age story. Despite the familiar material, the whole picture comes together with such style, ushering a fresh and exciting writer-director in the process.
Midnight in Paris was the summer film that evoked the greatest sense of wonder and glee. Following a career low-point in 2010 with You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, Allen leaves the London-scape for Paris, where he mines for his richest material in years. While Midnight in Paris remains true to Allen’s tendencies for repetition, it nevertheless remains a magical experience. Recalling a narrative like The Purple Rose of Cairo, Midnight in Paris views 1920’s Paris with nostalgic reverence, with subtle jabs through in here and there. With Owen Wilson operating as the best Woody Allen-proxy in years, Midnight in Paris marks Woody Allen’s finest achievement since 1984’s Broadway Danny Rose.
“How’re you gonna live your dash?” It’s a line that’s uttered near the end of Into the Abyss and serves to underscore the sense of hopelessness that prevails throughout the picture. Werner Herzog, who is known for his rather surreal and poetic manner of speech, remains startlingly muted throughout most of the documentary, wherein he interviews death row inmates, executioners, and family of the murdered. Their “dash”, the line between their birth and death date, is filled with sorrow. And throughout Into the Abyss, that sense of sorrow is felt with such profundity and shock. It’s not just shock about why people murder – its shock about the society that exercises it as a ritual, without ever analyzing the social conditions that contribute to such wrongdoing. Not even Werner Herzog seems to know what to say when staring at the eyes of a man facing death. I don’t think I would either.
At one point, The Tree of Life didn’t seem like it would ever be realized. Year after year, the picture would be promised, only for its release date to be pushed back. And then it came. The film obviously rubs people the wrong way – it’s incredibly dense and subscribes to a Christian ideology that alienates viewers. But coming from a secular position, The Tree of Life’s density is a strength, its Christian perspective a personal one. The outlook that Malick adopts may be tied to a divinity, but the overall compassionate tone of the picture transcends religion – it really does serve as an analysis of humanism. From its visualization of the origin of the universe to its delicate handling of a family in crisis, The Tree of Life has ambition to spare. But what Malick achieves with the picture remains nothing short of a spectacle.
What Terrence Malick achieves in The Tree of Life on the macro level, Jeff Nichols achieves in Take Shelter on the micro level. Working with Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, Jeff Nichols carefully constructs a portrait of a family in great duress, wherein a man’s visions of the coming apocalypse is costing him his family. The sort of imagery that Shannon envisions – of storm clouds pouring motor oil, of his child being kidnapped following a car crash – is constructed with such relentless tension and fear. But with visions of a great storm growing in intensity, it’s Shannon’s family that remains strong by his side, affirming a sense of unity between husband and wife.
In a year where films have transported us through time and detailed the creation of the Earth, no film has left me so emotionally drained and viscerally engaged as Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin.
There is indeed a lot to talk about. We could talk about how Lionel Shriver’s novel, which is comprised of verbose correspondence from a wife to her husband, is fragmented into a kaleidoscopic picture of greater intensity. As an adapted screenplay, Lynne Ramsay bravely analyzes the context of the novel, wherein its protagonist recalls her life through memory. Ramsay astutely visualizes the concept of memory by fragmenting her narrative, leaving the audience to piece together the pieces.
We could talk about the rich sound design of the picture, which assaults the viewer with a great sense of fear through the mundanity of suburban life – a curtain blowing in the wind and a sprinkler echo with greater meaning than anyone could imagine. With Ramsay’s eclectic taste in music, she infuses We Need to Talk About Kevin with a edgier tone. Her choice in music serves to give the audience some time to breathe, as the main character’s emotional plight assaults you from all angles.
We could talk about Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller. The two actors give incredibly naked performances, delicately exposing each other’s emotional weaknesses throughout the picture. The fragmented nature of the narrative works against the two, especially since the film is very much a directorial essay. But the two manage to register on such a kinetic that hypnotizes audiences.
There’s much to mull over in We Need to Talk About Kevin. In the end, one can look at parenthood under a different lens. Or perhaps, it all remains intact. Blood serves as a great bond. We’re all united to something or someone that we are expected to love – even if we might not want to be.