Saturday, December 17, 2011

The 18 Best Films of 2011

Films in blue will not receive a US release in 2011. Nonetheless, I saw them in 2011 and, as you can see, they are very much a part of the film landscape for this year. It's 18 because that's the number of As, A-s, and B+s I gave. I have not gotten around to seeing a number of films that may have made an impact on here, among them "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "Hugo," "The Adventures of Tintin," "Carnage," "The Arbor," and "Le Quattro Volte." From my reviews of them (if and when I do end up seeing them), you should be able to tell if and where they would have fit on this list.

A special mention goes to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "World on a Wire," which blew me away during a Janus Films rerelease this year. And a huge omission based on release is Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy," which I included at #8 on my Top Ten list last year and would place at #5 on the first list and #3 on the second. I didn't want to include it in multiple years as that wouldn't exactly be fair.

Dishonorable mentions to "We Need to Talk About Kevin," "Shut Up Little Man!" and "The Man Who Fell to Earth," my three least favorite films that I saw this year (the last in a re-release). "Tyrannosaur" (minus Olivia Colman) is down there too.

18. Pariah (Dee Rees)

Rees showcases her remarkable way around a scene, allowing able actors to give their best in a movie that only really falters when you pull back to survey the entire (uneven) picture. The cinematography is extremely evocative, perhaps even too much.

17. City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan)

Some sudsy subplots dilute the greatness here, but what works emotionally is magnificent and truly devastating. If Lu Chuan can harness the transcendent power given off in fits and starts by this movie and make a fuller film, the results will be breathtaking.

16. Pina (Wim Wenders)

If only Wenders had elected to make the film completely dance-based. The 3D is wonderful, and it helps create a beguiling, enjoyable experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen (even though there are apparently other movies about Bausch’s troupe).

15. Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan)

An exuberant, opulent film that moves adeptly between relaxed and quietly upsetting modes (knowing when to step on the narrative gas pedal and when to kick back and just let the images roll by). Dolan makes it quite entertaining, both by being in it and filling it with wowing design.

14. Cold Weather (Aaron Katz)

Katz takes humorous and incisive jabs at slackers with this well-made, slow-paced, strongly-acted piece. I hope to see Cris Lankenau and especially Raul Castillo again in later films; they rank high among my acting discoveries this year.

13. The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell)

Enjoyable and with strong cinematic qualities, “Sleepover” disarms with its engaging characters and the smart screenwriting decisions of developing director Mitchell. I wouldn’t call it exactly indelible, but surely meaningful and diverting.

12. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)

The most beloved foreign film this year, “A Separation” doesn’t quite live up to the colossal hype in my view. But it’s still very good, with four extremely affecting performances that should shake anyone and certain scenes (especially the ones with the judge) that heave with relentless, powerful emotion.

11. Weekend (Andrew Haigh)

Naturalism is tricky, but Tom Cullen ends up hitting all the right notes as the real lead in “Weekend” (as the film is essentially viewed from his POV). Chris New provides the ideal support, as do Haigh directing and Urszula Pontikos shooting, and the result is a terrific character study that looks at being gay in today’s world.

10. The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

The last scene is what lingers most to me, but “The Kid With a Bike” is absorbing from beginning to end, built on an exceptional performance from child actor Thomas Doret. The casting is exquisite and the storytelling is conventional but wonderfully spiraling a la “Bicycle Thieves.”

9. Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari)

More watchable and less uncomfortable than fellow Greek New Waver “Dogtooth,” but just as observant and unsentimental. Ariane Labed puts on a disturbingly dedicated act in the lead. Friendships and father-daughter relationships have rarely been as weird, but both speak profoundly.

8. Footnote (Joseph Cedar)

I had extremely low expectations going into this film, which was a second choice at the time of the viewing, due to some bad buzz from critics I respect. Yet I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. Cedar’s gripping, transcendent, deeply moral movie about the nature of winning features an excellent performance from Lior Ashkenazi and a screenplay that should win more than just a prize at Cannes. I found the stakes to be very high (the relationship of a father and a son is hardly inconsequential), and the ending shot as haunting as anything I’ve seen this year.

7. Beginners (Mike Mills)

Attacked for being too cutesy, I found it to be sweet and loved it in all of its radiant, blissful, and tragic turns. Mills strikes a superb balance between these different modes. Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent, Mary Page Keller, and especially Christopher Plummer are an ensemble to be reckoned with, but they’re not the only ones: the supporting cast is startlingly good as well. I’m sad that I haven’t had time yet to see it again.

6. Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)

What do you want from a Herzog documentary? You might not be totally satisfied with “Into the Abyss” if you’re looking for the usual Herzog personality, though there are some of his hallmarks. He’s reined in many of his quirks here to deliver some of the most potent moments of his career. Taking apart a Texas town, he closely examines a continuing history of felony that doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon. Not only is “Into the Abyss” wrenching with its intense personal scenes, it’s also an exceptional example of pristine nonfiction craft, beautifully assembled. It’s easily his best film in some time and a strong work of emotional, empathetic, precise journalism.

5. Shame (Steve McQueen)

One of my most anticipated films of the year when I saw it at Telluride, and for me and many other critics at that festival and Venice, it did not disappoint. However, once it hit Toronto (after buzz had started to build), things changed; many of the Twitter tastemakers who are now championing “Margaret” as a cinematic messiah bared their teeth. The film was turned very fast from a superb follow-up to an overhyped piece of Oscar-bait. Now the film isn’t really taken seriously anymore (see the Film Comment and New Yorker reviews, which, due to a quirk of release, both tackily compared it to Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty”), and I doubt McQueen’s future films will be seen in the same light.

Admittedly, I’m developing apologist tendencies for McQueen, but it must be said that the man is making unique, powerful, atmospheric, artistically sound works about intensely interesting subjects. Though “Shame” appears to be more domesticated due to its urban setting, it’s as alive as “Hunger” was, even as it follows a man falling deeper and deeper into himself. And even though certain parts are vague (which, as I see it, is intended), I doubt many filmmakers working today could make a film with the candor of “Shame,” with regards to both relationships (familial and otherwise) and sex. Oh yeah, and Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan and Nicole Beharie are all astonishing. I have some quibbles about a certain scene (cited by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and Blake Williams as well) that has some weird connotations, but otherwise, this really isn’t a movie to just toss out. Just like McQueen isn’t a director to just forget about.

4. The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr)

Black and white movies to me provide many of the most memorable and often times excruciating film experiences. “The Turin Horse,” perhaps Tarr’s final film, may eventually come to be seen as the king of the relentlessly colorless. Due to brilliant means of evocation (wonderful sound design, dulling cinematography), the uncompromising director gets his point across and does so while leaving many behind. Definitely not recommended as entertainment (as it serves a similar purpose to “Jeanne Dielman,” a title wisely invoked by Mike D’Angelo that used many of the devices “Turin” does), but as a valuable film that invades viewers and throws them into the windblown environment of its characters.

3. Outbound (Bogdan George Apetri)

It’s hard to understand the lack of distributors chomping at the bit for this formal masterwork. Attention must be allotted to it. Working from an albeit formulaic idea (there were at least a couple of other movies using the same race-against-time device at New Directors/New Films, where I saw it), Apetri employs his incredible craft and tension-building skills to create the year’s strongest, most despairing thriller. I hope this isn’t the last from this amazingly talented director, though his future efforts have much to surpass.

2. Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman)

Guzman’s extraordinary, revelatory exploration of the human and solar galaxies deserves inclusion in the short list of significant documentaries (like “Waltz With Bashir”) to sit alongside “Shoah” in the canon of remembrance cinema. Among patrons of the independent, this got some attention, but, due to a number of factors (including time of release), it received nowhere near the reverence that it truly commands.

1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

I don’t think it’s perfect. I can understand some of the arguments against it. But I couldn’t possibly ignore “The Tree of Life”’s unprecedented achievement and the overwhelming feelings of wonder it inspired in me. The bar was set so, so high, and, even if he didn’t satisfy everyone, Malick surely delivered, in that he created a work of historic technical virtuosity and ambition. A film that could have died out as a little project called “Q” but instead came bursting to the best sort of life possible.

A more proper (w/r/t US release dates) Top ten list might look like:

1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

2. Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman)

[Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)]

3. Shame (Steve McQueen)

4. Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)

5. Beginners (Mike Mills)

6. Weekend (Andrew Haigh)

7. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)

8. The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell)

9. Cold Weather (Aaron Katz)

10. Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan)

Best performances of the year coming at later date.

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