In a considerable turnaround from my top 10 last year, in which I placed only 3 American films (none placed in the top 5, plus one of them was directed by a Brit), my 2011 list is dominated by American films. Many of the giants of American cinema contributed great works, namely Scorsese, Malick, Reichardt, Fincher, Eastwood, and Mann (Spielberg’s good-but-not-great films make his presence the least impressive but he at least bears mentioning)—If James Gray had a film this year, 2011 would have virtually provided a cross-section of the contemporary American cinema. Also present on my list is the wholly original voice of Alex Ross Perry—his style is a difficult one to articulate, which is exactly what makes it so exciting.
This isn’t to point out that the rest of the world had an off year—far from it—but, perhaps, in what was such a pivotal year for the medium and its growing pains (and pleasures), America provided the most interesting forum for observing cinema’s changes, as some auteurs embrace digital technology and 3D, while others resist it—in one symbolic example, Spielberg went on a tech-binge with Tintin while maintaining his celluloid conservatism with War Horse. There are such polarizations evident even just within my top 10: Hugo represents the most enthusiastic embrace of 3D, Soderbergh continues to explore the digital medium with Contagion, while Reichardt shot Meek’s Cutoff on film in the abandoned ratio of 1.33 : 1 and Perry shot The Color Wheel in 16mm black and white. The wonderful thing is that both directions are providing beautiful works of art, as emerging technologies inspire filmmaking with either its presence or its deliberate absence.
The best films of the year–
1. Hugo (USA), Martin Scorsese
In what, by my count, is Martin Scorsese’s 12th masterpiece, he manages to take cinema to new heights while keeping the work as grounded and as personal as anything he has done before. As always with Scorsese, the beauty of the film is found in its form, and Hugo in particular is notable for its exploration of cinema’s present capabilities, while making a case for its transcendent properties. It’s as impressive a film about the artistic and historical lineage of movies as Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma. Click for further reading…
2. The Tree of Life (USA), Terrence Malick
One of the most exhausted subjects in movies this year is Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winning masterpiece, and, I suppose, for good reason—It brings in a gargantuan spiritual context through which we view what is one of the smaller stories on this top ten, that of a single death and a man who must come to grips with it. Misguided critics rushed to simplify and label what is ultimately impossible to do either to. The Tree of Life is an exploration of consciousness, certainly not an exploration of God and/or religion, that like all of Malick’s films is far more invested in the emotional possibilities of cinema rather than the intellectual. The result is less of a concrete work of philosophy than a profound experience guided by feelings and memories. Click for further reading…
3. This is Not a Film (Iran), Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahasebi
As significant as any other film this year insofar as defining the properties of digital cinema, Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film proves that the 21st century offers unparalleled creative freedom to all potential artists (namely: everybody). Being under house arrest and prohibited from directing doesn’t keep Panahi from making a small, touching masterpiece with surprisingly emotional moments, including a stunning closing sequence shot on an iPhone, where Panahi’s imprisonment is at once tragically articulated and miraculously transcended.
4. Meek’s Cutoff (USA), Kelly Reichardt
Kelly Reichardt is an amazing filmmaker, and each of her films is better than the last. Meek’s Cutoff is certainly more ambiguous than Wendy & Lucy was, but don’t mistake its sparseness for vagueness—this is disciplined austerity that overwhelms the viewer with the film’s inescapable desolation. There is just enough here to qualify the film as a revisionist western (one cowboy, one Indian, one gun, the desert), and is probably the best and only necessary one since Unforgiven. The film’s closing images are among the most memorable this year, as a distinctly female moral agency guides the characters into an uncertain future. Click for further reading…
5. L’Apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close) (France), Bertrand Bonello
I’m using the French title as the English one was recently changed from House of Tolerance to House of Pleasures, so perhaps it’s best to go with the original. This is arguably the most beautifully composed film on this list, as Bonello gives the viewer a vivid impression of a Parisian brothel and its inhabitants in every frame, only to depart it for the modern world in a shocking epilogue. The film affords one a sense of the strength, love, grief, pain and solidarity of these women, whose beauty is at odds with the ugly world that surrounds them.
6. Contagion (USA), Steven Soderbergh
Soderbergh’s response to The Social Network is as avant-garde as Hollywood cinema gets, outside of Michael Mann that is. Contagion is a complexly woven tapestry of locations and characters masterfully crafted as an anti-narrative (no filmmaker is as interested in how to tell a story while as simultaneously disinterested in the story itself) work more extreme than Fincher may be willing to get. Click for further reading…
7. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (USA, Germany, France), Werner Herzog
Herzog’s recent documentaries have just about all ranged from great to perfect, often times with immensely moving insights into individuals and therefore the human condition, but Cave of Forgotten Dreams is his film most explicitly about art, its inherent existence in the human spirit, and its ability to overcome our alienation from distant times and people. Although, as typical in Herzog’s work, he also casts some doubt on our ability to truly know anything, but it is in the glimpse of some truth we may find something to quell our universal loneliness. Click for further reading…
8. Life Without Principle (Hong Kong), Johnnie To
Johnnie To is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today, consistently making original, fun, thoughtfully crafted work. Usually his films fall under the umbrella of the action genre, but with two of his best, 2008′s Sparrow, and Life Without Principle, he manages to fulfill very little of action criteria while still maintaining all of the associated feeling. Fast-paced but with minimal violence, the film finds its action beats in the falling numbers during the recent stock market crash and may even be the best film about the economic crisis, using the inherent tragic irony (but for comic effect) of capitalism as the guiding force of the film.
9. The Color Wheel (USA), Alex Ross Perry
Laugh out loud funny, and thoroughly strange—in a good way—Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel is exactly the type of movie American comedy needs. Apatow has the mainstream covered with his moral, serio-comedies, but Perry shows that it’s up to the young to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. The 16mm grainy look makes for an off-putting juxtaposition with the very “new” feel of Perry’s wicked dialogue. The interaction between form and content is very different, but comparable to Jerry Lewis, who always provides multiple layers of discomfort through performance, “narrative?”, and form to achieve his effect. Perry’s quick yet distant delivery figures him as a postmodern Woody Allen, and even just with this film has me confident he has more potential than Allen ever did.
10. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkey), Nuri Bilge Ceylan
My favourite of Ceylan’s films, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a hypnotically slow-paced and altogether compelling dissection of the institutions of Turkish society, as examined in the course of a night and day in a murder investigation. There’s something clinical in Ceylan’s approach, but it’s this sort of methodical style that crystallizes its points as the cracks in each character reveal the shortcomings of the systems they represent.
The most obvious special mention is to highlight the progression of the 3D film, which found itself legitimized over the course of the year, as disparate auteurs took their turn at working with the format. The best examples grace the top 10 (Hugo, Cave of Forgotten Dreams), but other films deserve distinction, like Takashi Miike’s Harakiri, and even if they’re not among the years best films, the following at least utilized the capabilities of 3D in an interesting way: Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin and to a much lesser extent Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet and Wim Wenders’ Pina.
Another group of work, rather than a single film, that defines 2011 are the myriad videos online offering first person POVs of protests and struggles with oppression, and specifically the Occupy movement, in which the subversive qualities of the medium undermine the perpetuated hegemony of the media. Complacency and indifference are the common enemies of cinema and humanity, and in footage from real people in real situations, hope fights on behalf of both.
Next up, the experimental films of Ben Rivers, of which I saw three this year—although the best of these was technically released last year (Slow Action)—they represent the emergence of a major auteur. Inspired by Herzog’s Fata Morgana, Slow Action adopts the concept of applying seemingly unrelated narration to images in order to create a narrative somewhere in between the two. Sack Barrow is a stunning short that takes place in an aging factory in London, in its last month of operation. Rivers’ first feature, Two Years at Sea, is not quite as successful, but does not hinder my excitement for the greatness we can expect to see from him.
Between Zodiac, The Social Network, and now The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher has reinvented himself and become a major Hollywood auteur. His latest isn’t his best, but it remains an entirely fascinating subversion of traditional narrative form. Click here for further reading…
To be a tad more inclusive, a quick list of more great films from 2011: Terri (Azazel Jacobs), J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood), Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols), The Day He Arrives (Hong Sangsoo), The Kid with a Bike (The Dardenne Bros.), Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman), Almayer’s Folly (Chantal Akerman), Bridesmaids (Paul Feig), The pilot episode of Luck (Michael Mann)
The best performances of the year–
John C. Reilly, Terri
Michael Shannon & Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter
Joslyn Jensen, Without
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Alex Ross Perry, The Color Wheel
Seth Rogen, The Green Hornet
Cécile de France, The Kid with a Bike
Elle Fanning, Super 8
The ensemble cast of Hugo
The ensemble cast of Bridesmaids
The best musical scores–
Cliff Martinez, Contagion
Howard Shore, Hugo
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Best needle-drops: Drive, The Tree of Life, L’Apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close)
Michael Stuhlbarg’s infectious, bearded grin in Hugo
Chastain floating like a leaf in The Tree of Life
When Panahi catches himself laughing—and abruptly, sorrowfully, stops—at the irony of him accidentally directing his friend in This is Not a Film
Sex in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Jensen singing “Lollipop” in Without
THE chase sequence in The Adventures of Tintin
The B&W train station footage in episode 12 (“Niece”) of Louie season 2
Treme, Louie and Luck