Sunday, January 08, 2012

My Favorite Films of 2011

Last year, I struggled to find ten movies for my year-end list. 2010 was a particularly slow year, at least in my adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, and I only saw five or six new theatrical releases I could call great or near-great. (I always have to insert the caveat that one man can't possibly see everything and that so much depends on the whims, insanities, and voodoo of capitalist distribution.) This year was the polar opposite. At least in this guy's estimation, 2011 was bursting with great movies. Instead of padding a top 10 with interesting but lesser titles like I did last year, I would have to brutally discard several great films to make a top 10 this year. I'm going to ignore that arbitrary but culturally mandated round number and present my favorite films of the year numeral-free.

My favorites of the year:
Le Havre (Aki Kaurismaki)
Probably my favorite movie of the year, Kaurismaki's dry comedy about community, illegal immigration, aging, love, cigarettes, wine, groceries, and the rockabilly stylings of Little Bob is a utopian fantasy that draws on 1930s socialist film and literature, Bresson, classic comedy, and early rock and roll. It's a formally beautiful film with great human faces and a happy ending that's earned because of the quiet acknowledgment of its own sad implausibility in the world outside of the movie theater.

Meek's Cutoff
(Kelly Reichardt)
Though I saw Meek's Cutoff with a horrible audience who booed, jeered, and mocked the movie when it didn't provide them with a quick, manufactured resolution, I was enthralled by its formal rigor and sparse, elliptical narrative. Already a good filmmaker, Reichardt takes a leap forward here.

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
Cronenberg continues to prove he's incapable of making a bad film. A Dangerous Method is a film of conversation instead of action, but Cronenberg transforms this adaptation of Christopher Hampton's stage play into something powerfully visual and cinematic. With the help of a talented trio of actors hitting all the right notes (Viggo Mortensen as Freud, Michael Fassbender as Jung, and Keira Knightley as the historically neglected Sabina Spielrein), Cronenberg takes a fascinating look at the triangle of volatile friendships that led to the birth of psychoanalysis. The movie's loaded silences, hints, unspoken glances, and premonitions also tell part of the story of what it meant to be a Jewish European in the days leading up to the Third Reich.

The Dynamiter (Matthew Gordon)
On an afternoon break between shifts as a volunteer for the Austin Film Festival, I took a gamble on an unknown director and movie because it was the only festival film I could fit into my schedule that day. I'm so glad the randomness of chance led me to that screening. Gordon's first feature is a collaborative effort between himself, a screenwriter friend, and the nonprofessional cast made up of locals from the Mississippi Delta that provides the film's setting. This loose, character-driven narrative is wonderfully and naturally performed, lit, and shot. Largely bullshit-free, its sole narrative contrivance (a diary assignment that provides some structure when read as voice-over) is subtly and sparingly used. It's funny, sad, and so attentive to and respectful of its locations and characters. I hope it picks up theatrical distribution and plays in your town in 2012.

Another Year (Mike Leigh)
Like Cronenberg, Leigh cannot make a bad movie. This one didn't get as much attention as his last two films, but it's just as deserving. Another bullshit-free movie about people that loves and respects its characters enough to give them flaws they'll never overcome and moments of real desperation. It's very funny and tough and sweet and sad all at once.

Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
Nichols follows up his impressive Shotgun Stories with an even better film. Moving his Flannery O'Connor and Larry Brown worldview from the South to the Midwest and taking Michael Shannon with him (yes!), Nichols brings us the end of the world or just one man's paranoid time. Either way, it feels like right now. I miss the fatal Southern humor of Shotgun Stories, but Take Shelter makes up for it with a greatly expanded visual palette, Shannon's best performance yet, and an even more finely honed sense of character and place.

Melancholia (Lars Von Trier)
Something's rotten in Denmark, too. Take Shelter finds an end-of-times companion in Melancholia, a film that has somehow won the hearts of nearly all the critics who normally advocate for a public stoning of Von Trier. I don't know why they all love this one. It's of a piece with the rest of his work. Maybe it's that final minute, the most thrilling damn minute of cinema all year. It's just more proof that he's a major talent. His films will outlast the knee-jerk PC thugs who have a strange obsession with bringing him down.

The Last Circus (Alex de la Iglesia)
It's easy to make me love a movie about an unrequited love triangle between some seriously fucked-up circus clowns that involves disfigurement, beautiful acrobats, gunplay, swordplay, comedy, romance, horror, action, and a scene in which one particular circus clown in full makeup slaughters an entire militia with a machete, but it's also very well done. Did I mention Francisco Franco is a character in the film, and he gets his hand bitten by a guy forced to act like a hunting dog? I didn't? Well, he is and he does. Holy shit.

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
Now for something completely different from crazed circus clowns. Kiarostami's first non-documentary film made outside of Iran, Certified Copy is a fascinating, romantic puzzle film that presents all kinds of intriguing questions about the relationships between the original and the reproduction. Juliette Binoche and opera singer William Shimell have great chemistry in the demanding roles. This would make a fantastic double feature with Orson Welles' essay film F for Fake.

Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
Though there are worthwhile moments in every Scorsese movie, Hugo is his least ponderous film since Bringing out the Dead and his most consistently enjoyable since Casino. I had a soft spot as a child for movies and books about characters who live in secret, hidden places, and I have a soft spot now for old movies and their preservation and exhibition, and this movie hits both of those spots. Scorsese seems so energized here, and he does amazing things with the usually gimmicky, ticket-price inflating, headache-inducing 3D. I loved it without reservation. I haven't said that about a Scorsese movie in a while.

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
I could do without any scene featuring Sean Penn giving his bleakest thespian stare out of a skyscraper window or walking on the beach in the New Age postcard afterlife, but the rest of this movie is Malick's strongest work since 1978's Days of Heaven.

We Can't Go Home Again (Nicholas Ray)/Don't Expect Too Much (Susan Ray)
I saw this double feature at the Austin Film Festival. I hope both pieces receive a wider release this year. The first is Ray's final film, made in collaboration with his film students at SUNY Binghamton in the early 1970s and never officially released. It's messy, dated, frustrating, and hard to follow, but it's also an enormously interesting historical artifact for Ray fans and scholars with moments of greatness, a fascinating and contradictory mix of avant-garde non-linearity and narrative storytelling packed with visual references to Ray's 1950s Hollywood classics, particularly Rebel without a Cause. The second film is a documentary by Ray's widow about this period of Ray's life and the making of We Can't Go Home Again. It works on its own as an informative, entertaining film about a driven, troubled man who took a job he didn't want for money he badly needed and the personal and creative rebirth it provided him, but it becomes something even greater when presented with We Can't Go Home Again. Susan Ray illuminates the obscurities of her husband's final work, making me appreciate and understand it more and placing it in the historical and artistic context of his life and overall body of work.

Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)
Herzog drops much of his admittedly enjoyable Herzog persona in this surprisingly straightforward look at Death Row in Texas through the lens of one particular case. Herzog talks to the killers, the victims' family members, the prison workers, the detectives, and the killers' family members. He stays out of their way, letting them tell the heartbreaking, senseless story in their own words. He's still able to capture some oddly beautiful shots of birds and rainy highways that fit in nicely with his visually ecstatic body of work.

A movie that would have made my list if it had played in an Austin theater:
Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman)
I had to wait until the DVD came out to catch this movie, but the 79-year-old Hellman's first feature film since 1989 is one of his very best, maybe second only to Two-Lane Blacktop. I loved every second of it. Taking a tough, ambivalent look at filmmaking and cinephilia, it's a puzzle film within a film within a film that is so beautifully and carefully composed. It's a slow film that requires a great deal from the viewer, but it's never dull and is one of the most visually stunning digital films I've ever seen. The Netflix page for it contains hundreds of negative reviews from illiterate, attention-deficient, cheesecloth brains, but ignore those fools and seek this one out if you love Monte Hellman and movies for adults (no, those other movies for adults).

Two other movies that would have made my list for 2010, but they didn't play in Austin until the Austin Film Society screened them in 2011:
White Material (Claire Denis)
Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (Serge Bromberg & Ruxandra Medrea)
Damn, these two are a couple of strange, visually incredible near-masterpieces about doomed obsession, one a narrative feature, the other a documentary.

I saw this one in 2011, but it came out in late 2010:
The Fighter (David O. Russell)
A nice return to form for Russell after that I Heart Huckabees nonsense.

The David Gordon Green conundrum:
Former critical darling Green released two mainstream lowbrow comedies this year, Your Highness and The Sitter, and the critics HATED them. Audiences mostly stayed away, too. Internet movie geeks of the non-fanboy ilk have taken to calling Green a sellout and a betrayer of his own talent. I went to both movies, and I have to admit, I liked them. They were lowest common denominator comedies, but they were actually funny and skillfully made. I don't get the hatred coming Green's way. I think people are confused by Green's career, but it's not that confusing. There's a lot of connective tissue between his art films and his mainstream comedies. The conventional wisdom has it that Green was the heir to Terrence Malick with his visually beautiful, offbeat Southern dramas George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow, and Snow Angels (this one's set in New England instead of the South). He got the chance to make a Hollywood comedy, Pineapple Express, which received good reviews, too. That movie also got him a large audience for the first time, leading to the two poorly regarded Hollywood comedies this year, several episodes of Eastbound & Down, and the barrage of sellout accusations. It's like Terrence Malick followed up Days of Heaven with Bachelor Party, right? I don't see it that way. For one thing, Green has collaborated with Danny McBride since his college days. McBride appears in Green's early work and the later comedies. The arty dramas are full of goofy humor, even the darkly tragic Snow Angels. The later comedies are full of strangely offbeat moments, particularly Eastbound & Down, which is hilarious and popular but also super fucking weird. The drug dealer's compound in The Sitter is one of the craziest, most idiosyncratic scenes I've seen all year. Green has used cinematographer Tim Orr on every single film and television project he's ever directed, and Orr has a way of photographing sunlight in ways not seen on screen since Malick's Days of Heaven. All of Green's films look impressive, even his goofy comedies, and there is a continuous thread of composition and light running through all of his work that reveals a strong independent streak and a real personal style. The two comedies this year are far from great movies, but they deserve much better than the scorn they've received. Green is still a great director, and I continue to look forward to following his career.

Films I liked that fell short of making the best list:
American: The Bill Hicks Story (Matt Harlock & Paul Thomas)/Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (Alex Stapleton)
A couple of solid documentaries about Bill Hicks and Roger Corman that are worth your time if you care even a little about either man.

Cedar Rapids (Miguel Arteta)
A minor comedy with a lot of great performances, especially Anne Heche's, which took me by surprise because I never really cared about her as an actor before.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)
The 3D cave footage is incredible, the rest of the film is Herzog-by-numbers.

The Ward (John Carpenter)
Carpenter's direction is impeccable and a throwback to classic Hollywood with graceful camera movement, editing, and shot composition. The screenplay is cliched and forgettable.

Tabloid (Errol Morris)
I liked this one a lot. It's a lighter work for Morris than usual and a strange, fascinating story. It just missed making my best list.

Restless (Gus Van Sant)
Van Sant's eye for gorgeous images and a talented, understated cast actually make this absolutely cloying premise (cancer-stricken teen pixie Annabel falls in love with orphaned funeral crasher Enoch, whose best friend is the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot) watchable. Still, it's a very minor film in the Van Sant oeuvre.

The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
This one almost made the cut. I love its languid pace, Hawaiian setting, and use of Beau Bridges and Robert Forster, and Clooney expands his range, but it's a little too soft and there are a few too many speeches made over hospital beds to a comatose patient who can't hear them. It's pretty good anyway.

13 Assassins (Takashi Miike)
A surprisingly straightforward piece of classical composition from prolific maniac Miike, this samurai film is exciting and bloody, but it's just a shade too conventional to include in my best list.

Worst films of the year:
Roadie (Michael Cuesta)/DeadHeads (Pierce Brothers)
I caught these two at the Austin Film Festival. They'll receive theatrical runs this year. The first is a cliched, stagy, faux-indie tale of a sad-sack man-boy loser approaching middle age, winding up back in his hometown, and having revelations about his life when he unexpectedly reconnects with his high school ex who's now married to a guy who bullied him. You've seen it before, and before, and before. The second is an unfunny zombie comedy that is badly shot and full of Hollywood cliches and sentimentality. The characters are poorly developed and annoying. Avoid both at a theater near you.

Favorite film society and revival screenings:
Kung Fu Master (Agnes Varda)
Black Girl, The Wagoner, Mandabi, Emitai, Xala, Camp de Thiaroye, and Guelwaar (Ousmane Sembene)

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes)
F for Fake (Orson Welles)
Burn! (Gillo Pontecorvo)
Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray)
Charade (Stanley Donen)
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick)
Mamma Roma (Pier Paolo Pasolini)
Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-Wai)
Tommy (Ken Russell)
Wittgenstein (Derek Jarman)

Films whose intense strangeness I admired but didn't really like:
Fred & Vinnie (Steve Skrovan)
Quintet (Robert Altman)

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