Looking back on the films of 2011, it’s clear that this was the year of nostalgia. Not just that commercially referenced ‘let’s do a remake’ variation that Hollywood has been cashing their soul in for over the last decade or so. This was something much different and more internally driven.
The medium and it’s artists got sort of solemn and misty-eyed, and nostalgia became a form of expression. A great number of reputable directors not only released films this year, they turned out work that was comparable to their heyday. Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick and—in a really heartening change of pace—Steven Spielberg all gave us work that looked backwards while using current technology to remind us why we consider them masters of the art to begin with.
It was the year of art about art; about the process, of the ephemeral nature of holding on to it amidst real-world concerns. The Artist, Hugo, Super 8 and even more obscure arthouse fare like The Mill and the Cross dealt with the world of the artistic expression crashing into harsh reality. In a more optimistic turn, in the films it was art that usually redeemed reality.
And optimism was everywhere, even when it was splashed with morose darkness. For one of the first times I can remember, the number of entertaining and cheerful films outnumbered those that dealt with pain, sorrow and disaffection. This year, those sunnier pictures, wearing their hearts on their sleeves, even turned out to be the better movies in most cases.
It started slow, but quietly built into a year that the industry can be quite proud of, artistically speaking. In order to properly account for the great work done this year, I’ve ordered two lists; one for English language films and one for foreign language films. This isn’t because the films on one list are less worthy than another, or that they aren’t comparable. It’s just the easiest way to account for everything I loved this year. I’ve seen all films on both lists at least twice, and imagine I’ll return to most of them many times in the future.
Top Ten English Language Films of 2011
10. Another Earth
Given the chance to explore, would you be more compelled by the prospect of a new world, or a new version of yourself? This is the question posed by Mike Cahill’s low-key but profoundly resonant Another Earth. I enjoyed the film when I first saw it, but fully expected it to slide quietly from my memory. Several months and additional viewings later I admire it even more for the feelings and ideas it stirs up despite the implausibility of its premise. What Cahill and his co-writer and star Brit Marling do is make us care so much for the characters and the promise of the second Earth that any logical concerns are washed away. Marling is a real discovery here as an actress and her bold performance, confidently sketching out uncertainty and trepidation, has a serene beauty to it. The final shot is a curious one. It suggests that our vision might have been clouded from the get-go, and it creates a doubt that reforms our perspective of all that has gone before. A jewel in the crown of indie filmmaking and a joyfully deep slice of science fiction.
9. Midnight in Paris
There are many reasons to love Woody Allen’s gentle bout of art-house nostalgia, but chief among them is that it made me feel momentarily proud of my long forgotten English degree. Evoking the (mostly literal) ghosts of Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the incomparable Ernest Hemmingway, all roaming Paris during the 1920’s, Allen’s film is more than just bourgeois navel gazing. It’s really about what we do with nostalgia and restlessness in our own lives. When Gil goes time-traveling in Midnight, it’s similar to the way characters move on and off the screen in Allen’s last great comedy, The Purple Rose of Cairo. Here the director is more in control of his gifts than he’s been in decades, while simultaneously reigning in his pretension and cynicism. Wilson and the actors make this a lovely, almost farcical tour of the dreamer’s disease, reminding in the sweetest of tones that no one is ever satisfied with any one dream for too long.
Rango is the Dali-inspired fever dream of westerns, chugging along with a dazzling intensity and warmth and featuring a visual imagination that reminds of the original Star Wars trilogy. When Rango enters the saloon, it is like a stirring repeat of the famous Mos Eisely cantina scene in A New Hope, and a wild stagecoach ride over rocky canyons, trying to outrun an army of moles riding dive-bombing bats, is as insanely pleasing as any speeder-bike chase. Depp is at his kooky best as the thespian chameleon, and the likes of Ned Beatty and Bill Nighy growl out greatness in the fearsome visages of incredibly detailed desert creatures. This is grand entertainment with a protagonist who connects with us as viewers; he’s just looking for an escape and adventure to call his own.
7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
With the help of David Yates and his astoundingly large cast of British talent, Harry Potter gets a send-off worthy of the best fantasy adventures. This isn’t just a satisfactory wrap-up, it’s a victorious epic, bringing terrible magic and poignant beauty to the end of a long journey.Yates has been holding back before, but here he crafts such big, out-sized spectacle that the best of it ends up as iconic and sweeping as classics like The Wizard of Oz and The Fellowship of the Ring. And sometimes he trumps the author herself for satisfying send-offs of beloved characters. Snape and the eventual revelation of his back-story form the centerpiece of Deathly Hallows 2, and as a sequence, it’s probably Yates finest work in the series. Radcliffe brings all of the disparate narrative threads together as Harry finally grows up, and he proves his worthiness as the boy wizard in moments both large and small. A glorious end to the saga.
6. The Muppets
I would have never expected to see a great Muppets movie in this day and age, let alone one done with this much humor, charm and surprising poignancy. So good and persuasive is this new film that it reminded and reinvigorated my dormant love for the Muppets; I walked in wondering if they still had anything to give me, I walked out remembering all they have given me over the years and why I cared in the first place. But this isn’t just a packaged retrospective for the franchise it’s a new adventure that delivers the best variation on this year’s most repetitive theme, art and soul. That Segal and company do this with the beloved characters of Kermit, Piggy, Gonzo, Animal and the rest of the gang, make it even better. And get a load of those songs, which are clever, silly and sneakily devastating in their earnestness. In our current climate, it’s entirely too easy to be snarky, pessimistic or just downright dour and disaffected. No surprise then that a movie that says ‘Life’s a happy song’ with straight-faced yearning, and then uses its whole running time to make that case, deserves some accolades. The best word for it is heartfelt. Plenty of heart. Plenty of felt. Wocka. Wocka.
5. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
Steven Spielberg’s take on the beloved comic character Tintin is a brilliant return to the kind of escapist adventures the director used to faithfully deliver back in the 1980s. It might be the most airy and frivolous of the Berg’s recent output but it’s also the most fun. Visually, this is a moving artwork of pulp fiction; there are urgent chases, hair’s breadth rescues and mysterious family legacies, created in a style that evokes emotion through action. Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig and the wonderful Andy Serkis breathe personality into their characters with the help of the animation team, who push the motion capture to a place where it comfortably mimics both real life and the exaggerated universe of the Tintin comics. A witty and richly imaginative rekindling of Spielberg’s all-ages wonderment, Tintin also earns a place amongst his best works. Consider me anxiously awaiting any future installments.
4. The Artist
The Artist is created in the style of a silent film, telling of that long ago transition when cinema stopped being merely musically accompanied moving pictures and became ‘talkies’. The Weinsteins would have you believe this movie was hatched from a Phoenix egg on the side of Mt. Olympus, flying in just for the Oscars, but it’s very much a piece of director Michel Hazanavicius’ career thus far, and marks an evolution from slapstick to fully rounded human comedy. The Artist is a sweet and wholesome tale of bravely moving forward even when your shining day has passed, and learning to turn to others to make it through. There’s not a pretentious bone in its body and the technology used to transform it into a replica of an old silent picture is both breath-taking and seamless. Djuardin and Bejo may get nominations—even awards!—for their work here, and they deserve it. Familiar faces like John Goodman and James Cromwell help ground the movie in the reality it’s aiming for. At the same time, there’s a dreamy, gossamer strand of the fantastic floating through The Artist that happily marries the historical aspects with the spirit of silent movie escapism. There may be more serious or important movies you could see this year, but there are none that so perfectly capture the pleasures of seeing a good story well told, filled with people you would follow anywhere.
3. Take Shelter
A blue collar family-man in Ohio starts seeing visions of an oncoming apocalytpic storm that only he ’s aware of and it begins to transform his life in ways unnerving to those closest to him. Shot through with a visually alluring paranoia, Take Shelter is the quintessential movie of our moment, an exploration of cultural uncertainty and anxiety weighted against interior madness. All of this is done with great care and artistry. There’s no frame that isn’t engaging or perplexing and it takes its time to be good; building an architecture of dread out of the seemingly mundane family scenario, the surrealistic fear of the dream sequences, and from the tremendous performance of Michael Shannon, who looks as if he heard the final trumpet sound hours ago and the horsemen are already on their way. What Jeff Nichols has made is a sympathetic and realistic look at the anxiety of coping with mental illness (both from the perspective of the afflicted and those who care for them), and to a lesser extent, that gripping anxiety that all of us struggle with, in some form or other, every day. The final shots of the film are either profoundly triumphant or profoundly concerning, and there’s plenty of room for either view.
A young orphan lives in the clockwork of a turn-of-the-century Parisian train station and seeks to solve the mystery of an automaton his father gave him. The first hour of Scorsese’s Hugo is enchanting and engrossing as a children’s fantasy adventure, immersed in the world of literary imagination. The spectre of Dickens and Hergé are all over the early going, and those interludes amongst the Parisian store patrons remind of post WW1 comic strips. In the second half, Scorsese transforms the tale into a beguiling and gentle spectacle, a love letter to the birth of cinema itself and eventually a treatise for film preservation. Somewhere in the midst of this masterful, exciting film—that’s thrilling enough for children and thoughtful enough for their parents—Scorsese reconciles his many artistic facets; that young boy who fell in love with cinema like Michael Powell’s Tales of Hoffman, the scholar who brought fallen artists like Powell back to their audience with lost films, and the old, frustrated filmmaker who carries on with the phantoms of greatness looming over his shoulder. With Hugo, he’s proven something else; the greatness is still there inside and up on the screen.
1. Tree of Life
Tree of Life is Terrence Malick’s magnum opus; a work of significant beauty, that while sometimes maddening and never easy, expands the notion of what movies can be, what they may reveal, and how they can inspire us to feel. The film itself sits outside of one single narrative flow, with the finite cares of fragile human life set against a backdrop of grand and cosmic proportions. Collaborating with the great production designer Jack Fisk, special effects veteran Douglas Trumball (2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running), and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick delivers the films’ visual pièce de résistance—a virtually silent (save for a few voice-overs) half-hour sequence that tracks from the moment the universe was conceived right down to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Unlike Kubrick’s equally ambitious but decidedly impersonal 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tree of Life is brimming with warmth and human emotion. The nostalgic and autobiographical visions of children growing up in a small town vibrate with the same wisdom and generous feeling as Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Dandelion Wine. All of it is intertwined and supported by a revelatory performance from Brad Pitt and excellent supporting ones from Jessica Chastain and Hunter McKracken. Tree of Life isn’t interested in giving a definitive conclusion to anything but wants to make known that questions can be felt as deeply as answers. The power lies in the way Malick’s ideas, images and atmosphere linger long after the credits have rolled.
Best Foreign Language Films of 2011
André Øvredal’s sometimes hilarious, sometimes spooky mockery of ‘found footage’ horror films excells because of the imagination and whimsy at its core. Despite the effective and beguiling special fx and some genuinely amusing set pieces that suggest a popcorn creature feature, Trollhunter functions best as a melancholy fable about the fading of the natural world and the lost luster of innocent fancies. Otto Jespersen’s take on Hans, the trollhunter, is one of the most eccentric and compelling creations of the year. We may marvel at the visual splendor of a mountain-sized troll striding across the blasted heaths of Norway, but it’s Jesperesen’s sad recollections of his work as state-appointed troll exterminator—sitting in an shabby trailer adorned with the absurd trophies of his labor—that give this fantasia its weight and wonder.
9. 13 Assassins
The ridicuously prolific and often irreverent Takashi Miike wouldn’t have been my first choice to remake Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 samurai adventure, but his 13 Assassins is a lavish, grim and energetic romp that trumps the original film. As stately paced and handsomely mounted as those earlier epics, Assassins benefits from the dark humor and visceral emphasis of Miike; the giant battle that ends the film is just as brutal and absorbing as the courtyard sadism that inspires it. We expect craziness from Miike but there’s also a winsome and accomplished tone here that suggests the addled auteur has matured in his stylized insanity.
8. Norwegian Wood
Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran takes on the brave job of adapting Huraki Murakami’s 1987 bestseller Norwegian Wood. Although a different beast, this Wood is still an impressive and beautifully captured tone poem that does honor to the bruised, bittersweet heart of Murakami’s novel. Tran leaves behind some of the more theatrical elements of his other work–Scent of Green Papaya and The Vertical Ray of the Sun — for an understated bleakness that makes the tricky material his own. The acting is superb, with the trio of Kenichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi and Reika Kirishima doing the heavy lifting as three damaged people walking a kind of emotional disaster dance around one another. Mark Lee Ping Bin’s cinematography is delicate and enchanting, capturing each of the film’s seasons in breathtaking compositions worthy of classical painting. Johnny Greenwood’s initially disruptive score creates its own tumultuous landscape that comes crashing up against the phantoms of Murakami’s prose. This is a wonderful, difficult film that pays off the viewer’s investment in dividends.
7. Silent Souls
Unique among cinematic road trips is Russia’s Silent Souls, which casts a hypnotic and mythic spell as it follows two men from the old Merjan tribe driving to the town of Neya to bury the older’s deceased wife. Decorated with exquisite and startling visuals, Silent Souls is arranged like a dream wrapped inside of a eulogy, not just for Miron’s wife–who the two men delicately wrap in a shroud and then later cremate–but for the customs and traditions of the Merjan people themselves. It’s a brief and moody picture that clips miraculously along considering the sedate and patient approach to the subject matter. What’s effective is how the filmmakers peer deeply into the humanity beneath the stories, customs and ceremony of the Merjan to probe and pry at the heart of a people. If you get a chance to see this one, don’t miss it. It’s stronger and stranger than you will expect.
6. The Strange Case of Angelica
I am hard pressed to think of a feature from the modern era of filmmaking that feels anything like The Strange Case of Angelica. To view it is akin to wandering into someone else’s daydream; the world it creates is a landscape of symbols and hidden desires, glimpsed behind a thin veneer of the ordinary. The director, 102 yr old Manoel de Oliviera has been making films since the silent era, and in Angelica he creates one that would have flourished without words. Set to a haunting Chopin sonata, he masterfully tells the tale of a photographer who, at the behest of a wealthy family, takes pictures of a recently deceased young girl and subsequently becomes obsessed with her image. Angelica, the faded angel of the piece, appears to him in nocturnal interludes that have a serene and haunting quality and remind of the crude but evocative contraptions of early filmmaking. A sublimely weird and enticing film and a refreshing example of talent aging with grace.
5. Of Gods and Men
Xavier Beauvois’ powerful and deep drama Of Gods and Men features scenes of Trappist monks participating in the ritiuals, services and meditation that make up their cloistered existence. It also captures another aspect of spirituality that often gets glossed over in cinematic representations of people of faith; forbearance and charity. The story is based off the execution of a group of Algerian monks at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, yet amazingly it dances around and away from political allegory and affiliation, instead focusing in on the men in question. In what amounts to a slow, deliberate and poignant middle-section, each monk makes his choice and peace about whether to stay and trust in God or to move on and help elsewhere. In the final act, the monks– each of them well-defined and pitch-perfectly acted– come together for a final meal and sacrament while Swan Lake plays out in the background. This scene is one of the most singularly powerful moments in film this year, and it puts a cap on a profoundly human piece that suggests that our business on Earth should lie in doing good for others, regardless of our belief regarding what lay above or beyond it.
4. The Illusionist
French animator Sylvan Chomet tackles one of the unproduced screenplays of film legend Jacques Tati. The illusionist of the film’s title is a Scottish stage magician, Tatischeff, who reminds of Tati’s classic Mr. Hulot, roaming about Edinburgh and pitching his brand of old-school magic in the climate of the early 60’s. The Illusionist follows Tatischeff through the moonlight era of his career and life, and focuses finally upon the relationship he has with a young, impressionable maid ( likely a stand-in for Tati’s daughter). Chomet utilizes the animated medium to create a dreamer’s microcosm of emotional energy. Once we are transported, this world doesn’t let us easily go. Every bedroom, crowded bar or night street is a multi-layered feast for the senses, bursting to the seams with awkward messy life. Tatischeff and his little maid live and breathe and love and lose themselves. In The Illusionist, we are invited into a world that sings onscreen. It isn’t a place one often gets to visit, even at the cinema. When the final frames play, our hearts too are aching, knowing that the mirage will soon vanish and the smoke of the fantastic soon to follow.
3. A Separation
This is a piercing and unexpected drama that follows a couple planning to leave Iran for Europe for the good of their daughter. The titular separation becomes a possible solution when the husband finds he cannot leave because his own father is struggling with Alzheimer’s and still needs him. The film starts there, but then goes in a completely different direction. The central focus of the story is a mystery of sorts that involves the husband, the pregnant wife of an unreliable caregiver he’s hired, and an event that threatens to tear apart everything. Director Asghar Farhadi has designed A Separation from the inside out, starting with the interior desires and convictions of its characters and moving out to the way each sees the other in light of what they believe to be truth. Caught in the midst of these struggles are innocents, like the young daughter, forced to choose between two lives and two people she loves. A masterful, intriguing film that is both deeply human and emotionally disarming.
2. Mysteries of Lisbon
I was initially confounded by Mysteries of Lisbon, an adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco’s novel of the same name. I saw the film in its miniseries length which featured even more new faces and narrative threads, sometimes with characters changing appearance and name without much telegraphing from director Raoul Ruiz. But the international story it’s telling, full of 19th century melodrama and pulpy detours like pirates and love triangles in the Napoleonic war, is convincing and engrossing, stuffed with all kinds of dark humor and gorgeous cinematography. There is in fact very rarely a moment where something visually spellbinding isn’t happening on the screen. Ultimately, as this epic juggernaut draws to a close, so do all the percieved holes and confusions. In the end, it’s a sure-to-be-classic mix of quirky cult film and elegant period drama.
1. Le Havre
The trick to Aki Kaurismäki’s droll but heartwarming Le Havre is to view it as a kind of utopian fable; it is quite nearly a children’s film, not in content but in tone and viewpoint. If Frank Capra had ever turned his eyes internationally, with a more pointed, deadpan humor, the result would look much like this. The cheekily named Marcel Marx (André Wilms) is a shoe-shiner with a sick wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen) and precocious dog Laïka. In Marcel’s viewpoint, his occupation is tied to a kind of noble calling; as he sees it, shoe-shining is “closest to the people and the last to respect the Sermon on the Mount”. The film’s primary action begins when a Senagalese illegal immigrant family get separated from their young boy. The child ends up hidden away in the neighborhood by Marcell, while he’s pursued by the surly inspector, Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin). No melodramatic stone is left unturned, and there are miracles, changes of hearts, last minute revelations and everything you would expect from a Kaurismäki picture, including that straight-faced sense of populist humor that anchors everything. One of the most rewarding and genuinely feel-good films you will see this year.