The Cinema of 2011
I have a love/hate relationship with proverbial “top ten” lists: I love that I get a chance to review several films that deserve an audience in one article, and I hate that I have to limit my recommendations to merely ten. So as usual, I'm going to find away around such an unfair burden by including my top ten selections and then going a few steps further, with an additional list of ten more films that equally demand my accolade, plus another section devoted to honorable mentions, and a few more surprises here and there. As such, I consider this article to be more of an overview of the entire year in film rather than just a traditional list of my preferred selections.
Of course, finally living in Juneau again didn't make compiling any part of this overview easy. Though the four theaters in town (two chains, two smaller venues) did everything in their power to make this list as complete as it could be, it was only with the help of DVD screeners and some last-minute traveling, which enabled me to work around my schedule and watch some premiers in a few larger cities (which explains my absence from Film as Art through the month of November), that I was able to make this year's cinema experience as thorough as I have. And I'm happy to have pulled this feat off, since from it I was able to detect a curious theme emerge from a considerable number of the selections you fill find below. That theme is nostalgia, for both earlier stages in cinematic history (as at least four movies in my top ten address) and, reaching back further, artistic achievements that certainly inspired movies and all art today. Maybe this is just a coincidence, but perhaps in a time of economic and political turmoil, we find comfort in the methods by which great artists before us interpreted their own troubled times, and with that comfort comes inevitable reflection. Whatever the case, there's something to be said for Julio Cortazar's assertion that “everything can be killed except nostalgia,” as many of the great cinema of 2011 go to great lengths to articulate.
Per the request of my friend Jerry (the Siskel to my Ebert, as anyone sitting next to us in a theater house will attest), I've decided to turn my traditional top ten list into a countdown from 10 to 1. He is right in this suggestion, of course: Cinema, after all, is all about build-up.
The Top Ten:
10: La Harvre (Aki Kaurismäki)
What's this—an immigration story that cuts through all the political rhetoric and both values and confirms the endurance of human goodness? It's a noble idea, and this is an equally noble film—so true to its subject matter, so matter-of-fact in its depiction of generosity and self-sacrifice, that it damn near puts everyone in the audience to shame. Not to say that Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki doesn't provide engaging conflict beyond flowers and rainbows, but these narrative threads are a means to an end for the profoundness contained in the simple kindness of strangers. The story concerns a young African stowaway (Blondin Miguel) who lands in La Havre, France without a penny or a clue; he finds refuge in the home of a benevolent but assertive shoe-shiner (André Wilms, who has one of the kindest faces I've ever beheld) and a larger community that refuse to let the boy be poisoned by the world's advancing corruption when they see his potential for bigger and greater things. Because of the film's themes, the evil that it presents (in the form of gangsters and city officials bent on the boy's deportation) seem almost overwhelming, and this is a great thing—it is possible, Kaurismäki argues, that the power of goodness can be just as powerful as bad, so that placing the two together can create a nearly-blinding contrast. Yet this isn't an idealistic film; I would compare it more to the culture-laden works of the Japanese master director Yasujirô Ozu, dedicated to observing without glamorizing, than to a clear parable like Gavin Hood's Tsotsi, a film with similar subject matter in which a character goes through a profound change because of a life-altering turning point. For Kaurismäki, goodwill seems embedded in our moral fiber, and he celebrates its presence with a tale that is bold enough to simply assume that kindness still exists. How sad that this is such a radical notion.
9: The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
This delightful comedy took the Cannes Film Festival by storm, with its lovely characterizations and fluffy but sincere story of an endangered species fighting for the last of his kind. Of course, the last of his kind turns out to be the silent film star, who is being put out of work in the early-talkie era faster than HD-DVD can say, “Blu-Ray.” Did I mention, by the way, that The Artist is a silent film, complete with crisp black-and-white and subtitles? To say that director Hazanavicius has crafted an homage is an understatement—this is a complete recreation of an era that, sadly, is mostly left to film scholars and only the truest of cinematic purists these days. But to skip over the expressionistic masterpieces of pre-sound movies is to miss some of the most beloved entries in motion pictures, and Hazanavicius at once tells an irresistibly sweet love story that utilizes all the tricks of silent cinema while making the case that not only do these films need to be seen, but that there is still life in the old dog yet. As the waning silent actor George Valentin, Jean Dujardin capably demonstrates the sort of broad-gestured antics that immortalized silent masters Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin; he is surrounded by a cast of familiar faces whose presence in a silent movie would be jarring if they weren't so utterly engulfed in Hazanavicius's careful attention to the details that produced unforgettable classics from this important era. The result plays like a blend of Singin' in the Rain, which had the same subject matter and boundless energy, and Martin Scorsese's Hugo, another film from this year to make the case for the irreplaceable brilliance of the earliest pioneers of moving pictures. The Actor stands proudly next to both masterpieces as a moving and loving tribute.
8: Frankenstein: Day of the Beast (Ricardo Islas)
Here I was about to write off the modern Grindhouse genre after this year's godawful Hobo with a Shotgun, and then veteran genre director Ricardo Islas knocks it out of the park. He does so by reaching farther back than the exploitation films of the 1970s-80s that have inspired the new craze, to the 1950s-60s prototypes that informed those later movements—namely, the trashy old Hammer Studios and Roger Corman quickies that issued in a new dawn of campy, bloody horror in full color. Frankenstein: Day of the Beast is also pure trash, to be sure, but it is brilliantly so, utilizing a low-budget, string-of-the-teeth filmmaking style, discount-priced stock footage, gee-whiz acting from its stodgy soundstage-inspired cast, and genuinely creepy cinematography that loads the film with a kinetic, throwback type of energy that entertains nostalgically while simultaneously seeming fresh and inventive as it manages to both take the themes of Mary Shelley's cinematically exhausted novel seriously and creatively find interesting new ways to spin its narrative. The result is a sort of Kill Bill-inspired homage to the Universal, Amicus, and Hammer horror flicks, a pulpy tribute to what we loved about those old films that replicates their charms while creating its own. It also manages to be generally scary—the scene in which the Monster's detached limbs begin to attack the remaining cast is...well, I won't give it away. But it's something you've never seen in a Frankenstein film before, and that's kind of a miracle.
7: Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
I watched this movie cold, with no idea what it was about, and was delightfully blindsided; I maintained in my review that this is the best way to view this film, and I still refuse to give anything else away as to its plot or themes. What I will say definitively is that I have loved and cherished many entries in the great Woody Allen's remarkable and decade-spanning film career, but I suspect that none of them will ultimately be as dear to my heart as Midnight in Paris, an at-once hilarious and bittersweet mediation on the melancholy soul of an artist as he wanders about the streets of Paris and takes in its natural and sometimes more-than-natural charms (that's as much as you're getting from me). In Owen Wilson, I believe that Allen has finally found the younger variation of his neurotic, autobiographical character that he has been looking for in a number of other pictures (past candidates have included Jason Biggs, Kenneth Branagh, and Will Ferrell); Wilson inhabits the role as if it is his second nature, easily stepping into Allen's shoes with his nervous ticks and self-deprecating monologues, to generate an instant likability that makes me hope that this will not be their only collaboration as an actor/director team. True to Allen's typical form, Midnight in Paris features a talented ensemble cast, including but not limited to Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen, and a particularly lovely Marion Cotillard in one of her finest roles. Allen utilizes this group of brilliant thespians beyond the mere gimmick of their presence with some of the best supporting performances that the great director has showcased since his masterpiece Hannah and Her Sisters. What a refreshing joy, that 45 after making his first film, Allen remains at the top of his game.
6: Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)
Werner Herzog apparently intended to make a much more broadly-themed documentary about the death penalty in America, and upon discovering the story of death row inmate Michael Perry, he realized that the power of this simple story erupted with every conceivable observation that he could make on the topic. Into the Abyss is really a series of interviews with Perry, his accomplice, and those forever scarred by their crimes; Herzog shot hastily, conducting interviews that were granted only for hour-long sessions. But from these interviews, Herzog creates one of his most absorbing films—which is at once about the cruelty that people are capable of committing toward each other, and the complex way that we might be worth more than the brief actions that an institution like lethal injection would seek to define some of us. There's an early scene that resonates with more power than just about any other interview I have ever seen from Herzog, in which a death row chaplain reflects on why he left this job, and, seemingly unrelated, how he once found great joy in a squirrel that he took in as his pet. Herzog's reply reflects his brilliant insight into the human mystery: “Tell me about the squirrel.” The emotion that the chaplain's response elicits is profound beyond any political statements that Herzog could ever make. As Roger Ebert noted in his review of this powerful entry in the great director's canon: “In some of Herzog's films he freely shares his philosophy and insights. In this film, he simply looks. He always seems to know where to look.”
5: The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
George Clooney has arisen in the past decade or so as the last, true star of the golden age of Hollywood, with the kind of charisma and easygoing aura that compares more favorably to Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum than the naturalistic style of his method-invested peers. That said, Alexander Payne has taken Clooney's magnetism and shaped it in a way that might be the most striking reinvention of a genuine celebrity personality since Hitchcock cast everyman James Stewart as a sexually obsessed, tortured deviant in Vertigo. Payne's first film since 2004's Sideways, the picture is a similar blend of sincere drama and slightly-uncomfortable comedy that worked so well in that entry and in his 2002 feature About Schmidt (which placed Jack Nicholson in a comparable reworking of his classic mannerisms). The key here, which makes The Descendants Payne's best film to date, is the deconstruction of Clooney the actor—he has never looked this utterly stranded. He plays a troubled land baron in Hawaii who spends most of the time making failed attempts to earn back the affections of his young daughters after the death of their mother, while at the same time fighting pressure from competitors to make key decisions about the future of the land he inherited. Various plot strands are eventually tied together with nearly Dickensian improbability, but they are not the point; the point is the lush scenery that the characters inhabit, the superior dramatic dilemmas that everyone living on this beautiful paradise are forced to unravel, and the subtle and nuanced performances that Payne draws out of his supporting cast, which includes Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, a superb Robert Forster, and Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as Clooney's children, who are caught in between their own mourning and the potential of losing the land that connects them to their mother. But the pure revelation here is obviously Clooney, who holds the film together with his natural grace and intelligence as Payne fiercely pushes him beyond the confines of his regular requirements to deliver one of the most complicated and layered performances of the year.
4: Shame (Steve McQueen)
Director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender's second film together is just about the saddest portrait of a man falling apart that I've seen since, well...since the last film they made as a team, 2008's stunning Hunger, which concerned itself with nothing less than a lengthy and excruciating hunger strike. As a breakout actor, 2011 was certainly Fassbender's year—he also had leading roles in Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, and A Dangerous Method. He reminds me of a young Sam Shepard, an actor also uncanny in his ability to create enigmatically thoughtful protagonists who always seem to be bearing the weight of their past experiences like corpses that they can't (or refuse to) shake off their backs. Here, Fassbender plays a sex-addict living in New York City who attempts to counter his lonely addiction with a structured and ordered daily routine that always ends with loveless intercourse; the opening scenes suggest that his legalistic lifestyle at least successfully masks his woes to others. But this fragile reality quickly comes crashing down around him when his desperate sister (Carey Mulligan, another talented thespian on the rise) needs a place to stay, at which point the movie transitions into a catastrophic visual essay about need and regret. McQueen directs with a perpetual claustrophobic pressure, as if Fassbender and his sister are constantly being smothered by the air around them. Scenes between them betray old and unspoken wounds, and the deep history that we sense between them ultimately works its way toward a sort of reconciliation that is so authentic that we often feel as if we are eavesdropping. Much has been made of this film's graphic sex scenes and nudity, which led to the dreaded NC-17 rating, but the many orgasms here—as lacking in eroticism as they are in passion—reveal a far deeper, more profound violence than any film forced by the M.P.A.A. to go under an editor's knife. Props must be given to the distributors, who understood McQueen's vision and refused to cave to censorship for the sake of a profit. Here is a film demanding to be seen with an unflinching eye—an eye that could very well have benefited its protagonist's steps toward enlightenment.
3: Tomboy (Céline Sciamma)
This powerful sophomore effort from French director Sciamma is the finest, and most rewarding, character study of the year, and it features one of the very best performances from a child that I have ever seen. That child is Zoé Héran, whose plight is documented as she moves into a new town and is almost instantly mistaken for a boy. The film creates a moving portrait of a lonely youngster longing for acceptance, authentically creating an adolescent's point of view with quiet, mostly unspoken observations as she adapts to the new, unfamiliar world around her. She decides to carry on the ruse in order to make friends, only to find herself drawn to a natural companion who brings out her true self. It is so difficult for adult filmmakers to accurately capture the simple, honest, and often cruel world of children that most attempts eventually rework them with little-adult personalities, but Sciamma demonstrates a natural ability to write dialogue and direct his child actors so that they at all times ring true. As our protagonist adjusts to her/his new life, there is never a moment when this premise doesn't play out exactly as it should. The simplicity of this film ultimately works to convey the pure profundity of a child's experiences; it moves us in the same way that neorealist films of old did—by presenting a character unblinking in her sincerity living in a world that too often requires deception. Like the best of Rossellini and de Sica, Tomboy is at once life-affirming and heartbreaking in its understanding of loneliness's poverty; it is also comparable in its subject matter and power to Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, though it replaces that film's clear-cut tragedy with ultimate gestures of revelatory frankness that are no less enduring, captivating, or anguishing in their candidness.
2: The Tree of Life (Terence Malick)
Terence Malick is a director obsessed with human beings who find a kind of transcendence from the often limited worlds in which they are surrounded; in films like Badlands, The Thin Red Line, and The New World, his characters appear the most free and profound when they are fighting for their lives against hostile terrain. The Tree of Life contains the same visual poetry that distinguished those earlier films as masterpieces for the ages, but here Malick sets his goal even higher, beyond the trappings of our world. He finally speculates, with the quiet thoughtfulness of a Zen-like sage, the way that every human action and thought are small fragments of the entire mystery of the universe—a universe made, after all, of small and seemingly insignificant fragments. Comparisons have been made between this picture and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that's fair: Both films are epics that contain their greatest power when they focus on the mysteries contained in the serene silence of Creation. But unlike Kubrick's film, which saw human beings as mere spectators to the galaxy's secrets, Malick is more concerned with the fallibility of man and his road to accepting his failures as part of the divine mystery. As a series of vignettes capturing suburban life, Malick first draws us in with his almost Bergman-like ability to express the full spectrum of the human experience on his actors' faces; as we settle into his narrative, he blindsides us by reaching deeper, going farther, into the very fabric of the universe and, as Albert Camus wrote, its “benign indifference.” But with that gentle apathy comes the intuition for humans to find their way in an ever-expansive plain that never judges, only watches, and Malick accomplishes this theme with what I believe are the greatest visuals of the natural world that he has yet put to film.
1: Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
At his worst, Martin Scorsese still makes superior pictures of such a high standard that most filmmakers can only dream of matching his genius. So what if I told you that Hugo, a big-budget family epic shot in 3-D, is as good of a movie that Scorsese has ever made? Here is one of the most joyful, technically brilliant and emotionally sincere films that I have ever seen—a movie that will be compared to The Hunger Games because of its children's-book-origins, when its carefully-crafted study of an old man finding dignity in the twilight of his life should be compared, and favorably so, to Kurosawa's Ikiru. That it is shot in 3-D only adds to its triumph, a process I was just about to dismiss as a muddled gimmick before Scorsese reveals its true ability to add additional layers in the cinematic canvas by creating multiple background details and shades in which characters—REAL characters, not maintenance men for the special effects—can interact with one another. Leave it to Scorsese, who understands the language of film better than any other living director, to completely reinvent an otherwise forgettable fad.
The story involves a young pickpocket who lives in a Paris railway station and secretly operates its clocks; he strikes a relationship with an aging toymaker who turns out to have a history with cinema, and the film transitions into a triumphant guide through the earliest days of filmmaking pioneers. At once an autobiographical piece (to watch the title character discuss his love for the movies is to hear the voice of a young Martin Scorsese) and a captivating family adventure, Hugo stands in hushed awe of its subject matter, crafting a near-apotheosis for the earliest film magicians who paved the way for the technical advances that makes a cinematic experience like this possible. Scorsese finally paints the picture of an authentic time in our history that seems so magical that it can be re-told within the framework of a children's fantasy. Of all of the topics to which Scorsese has brought his gifted touch, he has finally made a movie about his most beloved subject of all: Movies. And it is the greatest love letter that I could have ever imagined.
The Next Ten (in alphabetical order)
The Adventures of Tin Tin (Steven Spielberg)
An adaptation of the famous pulp comic series Tin Tin has been festering inside Spielberg for decades, so it is appropriate that this magical adventure channels his older popcorn pictures like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws, before Spielberg knew just how good he really was and simply wanted to make an entertaining-as-hell experience. Not to say that the so-called “new” Spielberg has not made invaluable and timeless films (his other entry this year, the decidedly “serious” epic War Horse, almost made this list), but there is something utterly refreshing about seeing him in full whimsical mode again, inspired by his inner-child. Another superior example of 3-D as utilized by a master filmmaker, Tin Tin is literally a thrill-a-minute ride, made all the more enjoyable by Spielberg's expert utilization of a talented cast of voice actors who appropriately embody their exaggerated characters while their director perfectly replicates the feel and look of the classic comic personalities. Spielberg uses the real-world-inspired animation style of Robert Zemeckis, and I'll be damned if he doesn't top his friend utterly. The best animated film of the year, hands down.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)
Herzog also tries his hand in 3-D, making him the third great director this year to experiment with its visual potential. But whereas Scorsese and Spielberg employ it to create entirely new worlds of imagination, Herzog sees 3-D as the only logical way to view the spellbinding, ancient paintings in the Chauvet caves of Southern France—incorporating the technique to accurately capture its extraordinary dimensions and depths. He makes great use of the device, particularly in the way that it represents the cave's natural shadows and texture, in what is a deeply moving meditation on the earliest signs of human art. “Here we find the birth of the human soul,” Herzog says philosophically, and he flawlessly proves his thesis. (To briefly chase a rabbit: Here is the second of two great 2011 documentaries by Herzog, whose output ranks him among the greatest of all filmmakers both past and present, and this year's entries are, without question, the best documentaries of the year. Yet neither film will apparently be nominated in that category by the Academy, which remains puzzlingly silent about their refusal to include either film for consideration. This oversight is criminal and scandalous; if any filmmaker deserves his due at the Oscars, it is Herzog.)
Faust (Aleksandr Sokurov)
The films of Sokurov are some of Russian cinema's greatest treasures, and his interpretation of Goethe's Faust might very well be his best film. What's compelling about Sokurov's variation of the popular tale is the fascinating relationship that he slowly develops between Faust and the Devil, drawing out their terrible contract so that the selling of Faust's soul turns into a process of corruption rather than a hastily-signed deal. This final chapter in Sokurvo's tetralogy, about the poisoning of the human soul that is uniquely brought about by absolute power (the other entries were 1999's Molokh, about Hitler, 2001's Taurus, about Stalin, and 2005's The Sun, about Emperor Hirohito), works as a prequel to those World War II-era films, detailing the mythological foundations of a great man tempted by evil that sets the stage for all similar temptations that would ever follow. As always, the director's visuals remain his greatest asset, as he conjures the feeling of dread and true evil in every fabric of the despairing world surrounding his haunted characters. Honored with the Golden Lion at the 68th Venice Film Festival, quite deservedly.
I Saw the Devil (Jee-woon Kim)
Korean genre director Jee-woon Kim concocts a brilliantly surreal mixture of Seven and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a film of feverish and ultra-violent style that instantly places him on a level of horrific skill that is comparable to the best films of David Fincher and Tobe Hooper. And like Hitchcock, Kim uses his dark style to summon an absorbing parable about the dichotomy of the human soul, with a noirish mood that takes no clear-cut moral side yet deeply grounds itself with an ethical fabric that sheds traumatic light on the thin line between justice and revenge. As the serial killer protagonist, Gook-hwan Jeon channels the sympathy of Hopkin's Lecter, but ups the ante in animal rage and self-torture. As the police officer obsessed with stalking the serial killer and making his life a living hell, Byung-hun Lee is a subtle revelation; he plays a man who cannot recognize how he finally embodies the same evil that destroyed his own personal life. Which I believe is Kim's ultimate, sad point in all this carnage.
The Sunset Limited (Tommy Lee Jones)
Cormac McCarthy's self-described “novel-in-play form” is translated so faithfully by Tommy Lee Jones that you can feel the aesthetic quality of the great author’s words dancing on the screen with more energy than an action film could even hope to replicate—which is an astounding feat, considering that this film takes place in exactly one room, and it features only two actors. Jones portrays a suicidal, philosophical atheist whose life is saved by a Bible-believing working man, played by Samuel L. Jackson in full rant mode. They talk and talk, finding common ground until they eventually erupt with furious insight from their common experiences. Between this film and 2005's The Three Burials of Melquiedas Estrada, Jones has established himself as a skilled director of subdued power, portraying great angst and tragedy simply by having characters make plainspoken observations about the nature of the cards that the universe has dealt them. A sort of anti-My Dinner with Andre, this is a riveting demonstration of superior acting and tension generated merely out of two sincere people who speak, think, and listen to each other in a spirit of devastating honesty. Among the very best adaptations of McCarthy.
Tabloid (Errol Morris)
Beloved documentarian Errol Morris is never better than when he zeroes in on bizarre personalities living in enchanted worlds of their own construction. His premier film, Gates of Heaven, centered on an oddball but sincere family that ran a pet cemetery, and his best film, Mr. Death, chronicled the life of prolific Holocaust denier Fred Leuchter in a way that shook its head but never exactly judged. And that's what makes Morris's films so memorable—they observe, intuitively know when to give their subject matters the chair, and allow the viewer to come to their own conclusions. The weirdo protagonist of Tabloid is Joyce McKinney, the deranged former model who infamously kidnapped, imprisoned, and repeatedly molested a Mormon missionary to “save” him from what she perceived to be a brainwashing cult. The most fascinating aspect of this film is McKinney's clearly delusional insistence, even after all these years, is that hers is a love story, but even with this conviction, Morris refuses to draw conclusions; he uses his camera as a mirror into McKinney's soul and gives her the space to speak for herself, in a fascinating combination of oddball comedy and Greek tragedy. One of his best.
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
Here's an appropriate response to the fundamentalist prophet Harold Camping's apocalyptic (and notably wrong) declarations that added incalculable amounts of humor to this year's headlines. Writer/director Jeff Nichols fashions a truly inimitable thriller about a tortured man plagued by terrifying and increasingly elaborate hallucinations about the end of the world. Michael Shannon, a great actor who is finally getting noticed, plays the part as a decent man who is keenly aware that he might be going mad, but driven to reactionary overdrive when no other attempts to explain these visions prove sufficient. The most successful aspect of Nichol's film, besides its superb study of madness and paranoia, is its use of cutting edge special effects from the FX company known mostly for sad trash like 2012 and Skyline. It's a pleasure to see apocalypse-themed CGI used so intelligently, in what is surely the best thriller about dangerously misguided religious convictions overtaking good people since Bill Paxton's Frailty.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
It is always a pleasure to see a capable character actor being rewarded with a leading role that reminds us of why they are as invaluable as they are in so many films. In this case, we have Gary Oldman, who is absolutely on-target as espionage specialist George Smiley, a role he completely embodies with notes we've not ever before seen from him. The film itself is a sheer delight—a Cold War-era spy thriller with twists and turns that keep probing deeper into spy warfare and backstabbing conspiracy twists, but never does it insult our intelligence with its increasingly complicated plot developments. That's a tribute to director Alfredson's impeccable ability to stage a thriller, and when you realize that this film is actually an abbreviation of a classic seven-hour miniseries (itself based on a convoluted novel of the same name by John le Carré) and that it still manages to make a lick of sense, we understand this film's storytelling achievement. But it is ultimately Oldman's performance alone that positions Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as a superior example of the spy thriller; his awkward characterizations and social ineptitude in this part reveal a brilliant, deeper tactical strategy, and we see once and for all the complex layers that this great actor can bring to a film when he's set off his leash.
We Were Here (David Weissman)
One of the saddest and most instructive films of the year, this documentary chronicles the AIDS crisis that erupted in 1970s San Francisco by recounting this troubled time through the memories of five residents who survived it. The film reveals that nearly 16,000 locals lost their lives since its start in the 70s until the year 1997, when the disease was finally contained; it utilizes still pictures and an exhaustive wealth of archive footage to provide an authentic understanding of the panic and despair that swept through the city's population. Director Weissman eventually settles on the panic's position in the homosexual community's ongoing battle for civil rights (the rise and assassination of Harvey Milk is included, which will still be familiar to viewers after the superb 2008 biopic), and how the pandemic resulted in a campaign waged by a city's brave subculture that refused to be defined by the hate rhetoric surrounding the “gay cancer.” In all of this seeming hopelessness, the triumph of the human spirit to withstand devastation is finally found, which Weissman expertly translates into an inspiring call to arms for social equality.
The Woman (Lucky McKee)
McKee has fashioned here a stunning horror parable, perhaps the first post-Tea-Party exploration of fascist, patriotic traditionalism and how it oppresses a Mid-Western micro-family that at once fulfills the American dream while simultaneously savaging it. The tale of a feral woman trapped and caged by an All-American-Dad who recruits his family to help “tame” her, McKee uses this disturbing premise to fashion an often excruciating cry of rage against misogyny within the framework of a portrait of the everyday banalities of domesticity. Rarely has the horror genre, especially in an age of remakes and torture porn, displayed such power—precisely because McKee understands the trappings and mentalities of these sub-genres and succeeds in angrily calling their bluff with depictions of true human suffering, its origins, and certainly its repercussions. Destined to be a genre classic.
My Favorite Film of the Year (but not the best):
Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston)
I've been staring furiously at my keyboard, wondering if I could get away with labeling a pretty routinely-plotted superhero adaptation as the best film of the year. I realized that I couldn't in all honesty reward it with this honor, but placing anywhere else would cheapen the warm feelings it stirred in me, so I am awarding it with its own special category basically designed uniquely for it—understanding the difference between the film that was my favorite and the ones I instinctively know are the best. Because here's the bottom line: Not counting Hugo, I honestly didn't have a better time at the movies in 2011. To be sure, there were smarter films this year, deeper pictures that more capably explored the mystery of the human experience, but this is purely an emotional choice: I'll be damned if this film didn't evoke something deeper within me than any of the rest, with the exception of Hugo—pure, unremitting joy and feelings of good-will...two emotions that you're guaranteed not to feel when you watch Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises next year. That's because of the way that Captain America is presented as a wholly moral man who battles evil because he driven completely by an urgency to always do the right thing, and because of the way that director Joe Johnston presents this epic origin tale not with the darker, grittier style of recent superhero entries, but rather with the pulpy, swashbuckling doggedness of an Indiana Jones picture. The action is breathless and first-rate, the characters are well-drawn, capable, and likable without being routine, and the ultimate portrait presented, of a good man's journey to be the perfect soldier in both body and soul, emerges with an enduring suggestion that there are some men who are simply...well, good. What a reassuring thought, in days such as these. An absolutely splendid action film, a superior homage to the classic World War II picture, and certainly the best traditional superhero film since Richard Donner's Superman.
Best Re-released Older Film:
I once tried to put Apocalypse Now: Redux on my list for the best films of the year, and it just didn’t look right. I later resolved to create a special category for re-leased, re-cut, and/or restored old pictures, as the best ones—such as Coppola’s film, Blade Runner, or The Wild Bunch—are certainly worthy of a year-end honor. So, it’s a tradition that officially begins at Film as Art now!
Captain America (1990) - 2011 Director's Cut (Albert Pyun)
Albert Pyun's never linear but always fascinating new cut of his universally maligned 1990 Captain America also had a theatrical release in July of this year; after viewing its restored scenes, I'm now convinced that it has earned a second look as a fascinating example of the way that a familiar story can be told in a completely contrasting way. It is essentially the same low-budget, high-camp version that most people loathed when it was first released, but who a minority (including me) appreciated for its B-grade charms and finely-drawn hero and villain. The director's cut adds additional footage with more character development that successfully fleshes out many of Pyun's philosophical ideas about the lost American Dream; the result is an oddball mix of tragedy and Z-grade thrills that works more than it has any reason to. But work it certainly does, miraculously guaranteeing audiences no less than two excellent cinematic adaptations of Marvel's most enduring character to open in theaters in 2011. They were also the only two superhero adaptations of several this year that I actually thought were any good, so I guess Cap ultimately wins more than just World War II.
Worst Film of the Year:
Auschwitz (Uwe Boll)
Uwe Boll's part-documentary, part-recreation of a day in a Nazi prison camp begins with a promising enough setup: He interviews German teenagers and discovers that their knowledge of the Holocaust is mostly vague and misinformed. Sandwiched between these interviews is forty-five minutes or so of a grisly death camp reenactment, which Boll apparently believes will set the record straight. Unfortunately and unforgivably, his solution is to utilize the visual language of torture porn to interpret the Holocaust—not exactly an acceptable alternative to Schindler's List or The Pianist, which Boll laments only sugarcoat genocide. Featuring close-ups of babies being shot in the head, Jewish corpses getting their teeth pulled out, and victims dying in panicked frenzy in a gas chamber (at one point, the music swells and the gas chamber scenes slow down dramatically to reinforce Boll's insistence that this is an Important Movie), the issue here is not that Boll wants to make an authentic film about the horrors of the Holocaust, but that he clearly has no such intention: This is blatant exploitation cinema disguised as a humanitarian gesture that does what all torture porn does—desensitize us to its violence and push us closer to the edge of indifference toward human suffering. Boll, infamous for his horrible video game adaptations, only seems to be making the point that, yes, the Holocaust was evil; gee, thanks, Uwe—that would have surely been lost on any viewer who has been living under a rock for the last seventy years. Indefensible bile.
Further Essential Viewing:
There were a plethora of 2011 films ranging from very-good to great that demand your viewing; the selections above reveal more of my own personal preference than their infallible quality when compared to other terrific releases. I'm listing these honorable mentions below in alphabetical order to show the shortcomings of a top ten list, or even a top twenty. Look for these titles on other critics' year-end lists, an honor that they are all deserve.
Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes)
Bellflower (Evan Glodell)
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
The Elephant in the Living Room (Michael Webber)
George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
The Help (Tate Taylor)
Horrible Bosses (Seth Gordon)
The Ides of March (George Clooney)
The Inheritors (Eugenio Polgovsky)
J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood)
Kinyarwanda (Alrick Brown)
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor)
The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski)
Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
The Muppets (James Bobin)
My Week With Marilyn (Simon Curtis)
Project Nim (James Marsh)
Rango (Gore Verbinksi)
Red State (Kevin Smith)
The Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar)
Source Code (Duncan Jones)
Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine)
War Horse (Steven Spielberg)
This article is dedicated to my Silent Muse, who I know reads these lists faithfully, with a glass of wine in hand and her Netflix queue close by.