by Maurizio Roca
As of May 22nd 2012 my favorite films of 2011 have changed somewhat. Below this newer attachment is my original list that reflects how I felt at the time with full capsule reviews. To show how opinions can change and are always in flux I present a more updated list in this section of my piece. One addition in particular contradicts some of my own comments in the thread below. It’s amazing what a second or even third view can do to one’s perception of a particular work of cinema.
1. The Tree Of Life (Terrance Malick, USA)
2. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
3. Mysteries Of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, Portugal)
4. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, Germany)
5. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
6. Resurrect Dead: The Mystery Of The Toynbee Tiles (Jon Foy, USA)
7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Thomas Alfredson, United Kingdom)
8. Shame (Steven McQueen, United Kingdom)
9. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, USA)
10. If A Tree Falls: A Story Of The Earth Liberation Front (Marshall Curry USA)
11. A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, Canada)
12. The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, Hungary)
13. Project Nim (James Marsh, United Kingdom)
14. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsey, United Kingdom)
15. Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, Canada)
16. Bobby Fischer Against The World (Liz Garbus, USA)
17. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, USA)
18. Nostalgia For The Light (Patricio Guzman, Chile)
19. The Descendants (Alexander Payne, USA)
20. The Ides Of March (George Clooney, USA)
For me, this past year was probably the most rewarding year in cinema since 2007. On my list is a collection of movies that range from a six-hour dreamy period piece to a haunting NC-17 urban nightmare about sexual addiction. It’s always great to leave a theater with the feeling you’ve witnessed a lasting work of art that has spoken to you in some secret direct way. And with the ten examples included here, I can say with definite certainty, each one accomplished just that.
My list includes:
• Six films made and released theatrically in the Unites States in 2011.
• One film made in 2011, but not released until early 2012 in the US.
• Three films made and released in 2010, but not shown theatrically in the US until 2011.
And finally, my top 10:
10. Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, CANADA)
Premiering during the Toronto Film Festival in September 2010, Incendies was released later that month in the French Canadian region to a wider audience. It wasn’t until April 22 of that year that the movie appeared in the U.S., albeit in limited theaters. The film, based on Wajdi Mouawad’s stage play, is about two children who must travel to their mother’s homeland (which remains unnamed but is most likely Lebanon) and follow the detailed instructions stated in her will. This unexpected journey slowly uncovers a past littered with tragedy, death, and secrets devastating enough to haunt everyone involved. Incendies is very adept at sustaining an ample amount of tension throughout its running time. And while an attentive viewer may see the final shattering twist coming a mile away, the movie still offers a gripping look at a society and a culture that restricts the freedom of women and also perpetuates a vicious cycle of hostility towards them. A scene involving the torching of a bus is particularly potent, pulling no punches in showing the destructiveness of extremism in religion and the rigid ideology that leads to unending altercations between warring factions. Most unsettling and haunting of all, though, is that the final denouement does nothing to halt the suffering that both children will continue to bear long after the credits roll. Incendies was nominated for Best Foreign Picture in 2011 by the Academy Awards, but lost to the Danish film, In A Better World.
9. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsey, UNITED KINGDOM)
Lynne Ramsey returns nine years after her sophomore effort, Morvern Callar, to direct a film based on the 2003 novel written by Lionel Shriever of the same name. We Need To Talk About Kevin deals with a mother, astonishingly portrayed by Tilda Swinton, hopelessly trying to pick up the paltry remains of her life after her son commits a Columbine-like shooting at his school. Focusing on the confusion and the unfathomable despair that comes with such a life-altering tragedy, Ramsey crafts a narrative in a satisfyingly disjointed and erratic style. We are shuttled continuously back in forth between the past and present as we watch Eva in the various stages of her parental life slowly realize that a monster resides in her midst. Her son seems to be an emotionless beast filled with a cold sociopathic rage waiting to spill out at the most opportune moment. The movie can’t help but suggest the kind of paralysis that would overcome any parent with such a dilemma. And what if the offspring is also adept at concealing his true nature from almost everyone, including his ignorant father? Adding to the complexity of the drama is that Eva’s seemingly isolated detachment after the massacre can also be partially attributed to her own guilty conscience. Early transgressions and postpartum moments of doubts—such as accidently breaking her son’s arm in a fit of frustration during a potty training episode—help frame the sort of crippling remorse swimming within her. Swinton’s expressions during the opening stages of pregnancy and childbirth convey much ambivalence towards child rearing that further complicates her own feelings over the deadly actions that her son, Kevin (played by Ezra Miller), ultimately perpetrates with massive consequences. A domestic nightmare of a story that Ramsey furnishes with all sorts of superb directorial trimmings.
8. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, USA, GERMANY, FRANCE)
Documentarian extraordinaire Werner Herzog travels to the Chauvet Cave in the south of France to film footage of the oldest manmade drawings and paintings known to scientists. Since its discovery in 1994, the site has become one of the most important prehistoric finds ever. Dating back more than 30,000 years, the cave paintings are preserved impeccably thanks to being virtually inaccessible for so many years. Herzog himself was only allowed six days to shoot footage there and was restricted to just three crew members. Everyone who entered the cave was required to wear special suits and boots, use battery-powered equipment, and never be allowed to physically touch any of the artifacts. Since this site is strictly prohibited for the public (admission is only allowed with special permission by the French government), Cave Of Forgotten Dreams is most likely the only way most of us will ever see the art that has been residing there for tens of thousands of years. Herzog quickly establishes the link between these old relics and every creative form of artistic expression conjured up since. The magic and human spirit that brought forth those paintings is an essential ingredient inhabiting us all. There in a dim, torch-lit cave, some person poured his or her artistic soul onto those rocky canvases much the same way Picasso created Guernica or Mozart composed Don Giovanni. The long evolution of creativity is explicitly understood. From the beginning of known time, human beings have sought the desire to create art and have found a way to do so. That Cave Of Forgotten Dreams also incorporates the gimmick of 3D marvelously is mere icing on the cake. Herzog’s use of the technique allows every drawing to leap out of its shadowy station and fill the viewer with unforgettable imagery.
7. Mysteries Of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, PORTUGAL)
Raul Ruiz’s last film is an extended saunter through the interconnected lives of Mysteries Of Lisbon’s various inhabitants. Adapted from the 19th Century book written by Camilo Castelo Branco, the movie is an elegiac look at the enigmas and secrets that are harbored by the assorted characters in this period piece. Heavy with a mist of uncertainty and haziness that hangs over every plotline and narrative turn, the movie is filled with flashbacks and episodic twists that are both melodramatic and almost surreal. Like the tiny theater diorama that young Joao is given early in the picture, everything has an air of staged artificiality and theatricality. Yet Ruiz also injects a great deal of subversive commentary about this time and place. There are many pointed criticisms of the desperate attempts at upward mobility and frivolous efforts to maintain whatever social status has been achieved. The characters commit selfish actions resulting in horrible consequences that must be payed for by withdrawing from society (in addition to seeking out personal penance). Intertwined within all these happenings is Father Denis (played by Adriano Luz) who acts as a sort of host or steward throughout the proceedings. He keeps popping up at every turn like an omnipresent apparition guiding the story along. An atmosphere of impending calamity casts a fascinating pall over the film with the feeling that permanence is a fleeting concept never to be realized or fulfilled. Everyone is fixed in a seemingly transient state waiting to be moved off stage when it’s time for the tungsten-halogen lights to go out. The version that has made this countdown is the 5-hour, 30-minute TV adaptation. It is broken down into six 53 to 57 minute episodes that all contain specific titles starting with The Boy With No Name and concluding with The Vengeance Of The Duchess Of Clifton.
6. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, IRAN)
A Separation starts to show its considerable strengths the moment it begins: A simple camera setup gazes its eye on a married couple who are on the verge of dissolving their union. Both Naader (played by Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) argue convincingly about their respective issues with one another. The acting is brilliant and resonates instantly with the viewer. Simultaneously, the twosome air out their grievances to a judge, which leads to Naader being forced to hire a lower class pregnant caretaker to watch after his father (who is suffering from Alzheimer’s) with significant consequences. Held together by solid performances and an assured script, A Separation examines the social and gender differences in contemporary Iranian society with an effortless realism. A tense and multi-faceted plot is employed for the benefit of exploring topics like justice, class, religion, truthfulness, and the subjective unreliability of a perspective view on the facts. When the story gets set in motion by a connected set of circumstances that occur, the film boldly delves into every nuance as deftly as possible. Who is at fault? Who is telling the truth? A Separation never takes sides when chronicling the problems that arise. Although at times, the film plays out like a very effective mystery complete with a set of motives for each side. Certain plot elements are never fully explained and as viewers we must piece together what might have happened from highly biased and possibly inaccurate testimonies. Adding to the incredible depth of the movie is seeing the effects that the adults’ behavior have on the innocent children caught in the middle. A Separation is one of the most acclaimed pictures of the year and has received the Golden Bear for best film by the Berlin International Film Festival.
5. A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, UNITED KINGDOM, GERMANY, CANADA)
David Cronenberg returns after a long layoff following Eastern Promises in 2007. A Dangerous Method is a historical film following the turbulent relationship between Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Jung’s patient Sabina Spielrein (who would herself become a famed psychoanalyst). Viggo Mortensen (as Freud) returns for his third straight collaboration with the director, but it’s Michael Fassbender (as Jung) who steals the show with his passionate turn as the younger Swiss psychiatrist. Immersed in an affair with the beautiful yet troubled Spielrein, Jung has to deal with the professional and domestic fallout such an event could cause within his collective circle. Not only must he shield his indiscretions from his highly critical mentor, but also from his unsuspecting rich wife. While Jung’s innovative style of therapy is proven successful in helping Spielrein overcome her troubling neurosis, he can’t overcome society’s strict boundaries over what constitutes proper moral behavior. This is the main theme of the film: how repressed and unfulfilled desires become shackles of conformity and unhappiness due to external pressures. His speech at the conclusion of Method is especially heartbreaking, when he conveys a man literally stuck in these conventions by refusing to let his inhibitions and desires go free. Cronenberg also takes a close look at how distinctive societal differences, like class and religion, can affect the way individuals interact with one another. The film is at its best when it peers into these relevant matters and highlights the chemistry between the three primary leads. A Dangerous Method has mostly been overlooked this year, but it is undoubtedly a towering success that has much on its mind. The winning streak for Cronenberg and Mortensen continues….
4. Shame (Steve McQueen, UNITED KINGDOM)
Starring in four films, including the previous selection on this countdown, Michael Fassbender had a very busy and productive year in 2011. Yet he gives his most impressive overall turn in Steve McQueen’s Shame. Reuniting with the British filmmaker of the powerful prison drama Hunger, Fassbender is utterly brilliant in his portrayal of sex-addicted yuppie Brandon. The movie is an unflinching account of the all-encompassing world that an addict faces each day struggling with the demons residing within. What makes Shame doubly intriguing and unforgettable is the fact that Brandon is all to cognizant of the problems that haunt him and is powerless to stop his behavior. He goes through a sexual Heart Of Darkness-type journey that brings to light the self-destruction eating away at his soul. And even though he is desperately trying to hide any trace of his affliction, once his emotionally needy sister (played by Carey Mulligan) shows up at his luxurious Manhattan apartment, his cool demeanor slowly begins to unravel. The film may have received an NC-17 rating for copious amounts of nudity and explicit subject matter, but there is little eroticism to be found in Shame. The sex illustrated throughout the film realistically corresponds to the protagonist’s merciless, unrelenting appetite that can never be quenched and is no longer exciting. The movie is very honest in showing the intensity of despair inherent in such a situation– sex has since moved beyond healthy titillation into an obsessive necessity. Fassbender has been showered with all sorts of prizes and nominations throughout the year from various cinematic award organizations and the accolades for his two turns in Shame and A Dangerous Method are rightly deserved.
3. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, USA)
Drive may have been the most polarizing film to be released in 2011. While the majority of critics praised the movie, it was not without its fair share of detractors all over the net. Here at Wonders In The Dark, a slew of enormous sub-threads appeared throughout the week after Refn’s picture went into wide release. Discussions arose everywhere, and siding camps argued voraciously over the merits (or demerits) that were contained within its reels. I went into the theater expecting something along the lines of The Fast And The Furious, but was pleasantly surprised by what I found instead. More of a mood film than an action-style white knuckler, it satisfies partially due to a European sensibility that is filled with stylistic departures from most other Hollywood films of its ilk (though a debt to Michael Mann is surely present). Drive, like certain classic film noirs (Criss Cross and Night And The City come immediately to mind), is a perfect example of a story featuring a doomed “unlucky” protagonist (Ryan Gosling) who traverses through an existential wasteland causing his own ruin. The first half plays out like a dreamy ambient ride through a calm purgatory before descending into apocalyptic hell by the midway point. The key elevator scene is symbolically poignant as it closes the door on any chance for normalcy for Gosling and Mulligan, and instead acts as a coffin of irreversible fate for the former. The Human Being song that plays sporadically is so spot-on since Driver’s first taste of being human only comes after losing a fleeting love and having to feel the pain of its consequences. Gosling carries himself like a knight in bloody armor trying to protect the damsel in distress, while the violence and cerebral nuances of the plot act like a fairy tale covered in blood and brain matter—all of which make Drive the one positively bright spot to appear out of Hollywood all year.
2. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, TURKEY)
Based on the actual experiences of one of the film’s writers, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia recounts the story of a group of police officers, civil servants, a district attorney, and a doctor on a long night’s search for a dead body in a rural part of Turkey. Tagging along with them are the two suspects who have admitted to the crime and are now helping the assembly of men locate the corpse for identification. What initially looks like a modern neo-noir and police procedural (it was advertised as such in trailers and posters) actually turns out to be something quite dissimilar. The movie is more of a character study that probes various philosophical matters from multiple angles than anything partaking in the tropes we would normally associate with the noir genre. The doctor (played by Muhammet Uzuner) is the audience identifier as the film unveils layers of questions about the disappointments of life and the apparent pointlessness of human existence. Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan engages in fierce deliberations about the manner in which we preserve the routines and procedures of our daily lives despite the possibility that society is unfixable and a riddle with no definitive solution. It is during this overnight investigation that the various characters interact with each other and touch upon a host of topics from feelings of nihilism to very trivial banter. With plenty of gallows humor—which seems to be a way for Ceylan to say that despite overwhelming misery and suffering, we all need to have a good laugh every once in a while—the men converse while trying to wrap up the case before them. Alternating between deep compassion and a sense of resigned defeatism, Anatolia is bursting with complex ruminations on the human condition.
1. The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick, USA)
How can I possibly condense everything Terrence Malick is trying to say in The Tree Of Life into one lowly capsule paragraph? The truth is that I can’t and I won’t even bother trying. All that really needs to be said is that the greatest film of 2011 feels like a culmination of everything the filmmaker has been trying to get at since he burst onto the scene with Badlands in 1973. I picture the graying and older Malick finally being able to sleep at night comfortable in the knowledge that he had finally been able to produce Q—a story which fascinated him during the making of Days Of Heaven and partially contributed to his 20-year exile—and he absolutely succeeded in the eyes of this viewer. The best parallel I can think of is Brian Wilson finally putting many demons to rest after releasing The Smile Sessions a couple of months back. The analogy is not perfect but there is something to be said about unleashing a long gestating unfinished project which has forever been the speculation of many observers and admirers. Like Drive, The Tree Of Life has certainly garnered a lot of polarizing and opposing viewpoints from audiences. I remember seeing it the first night it was released in Landmark Sunshine Theaters and noticing two thirds of the audience completely enthralled by the experience, while the rest seemed rather indifferent. One lady even screamed out, “Where was the plot?” and appeared personally offended that the movie had the audacity to have such an unusual structure.
Below, I decided to reprint a few comments I made during Jim Clark’s superb essay posted on July 6th 2011 titled War And Piece: Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life. During the thread for that essay I engaged fellow Wonders writer Jamie Uhler in a discussion on the film and made specific points about The Tree Of Life I still feel are relevant to my appreciation and understanding of the film.
Pitt seems to represent a human type of fallibility that is soaked in biblical ideas of earthly transgressions like envy, jealousy, and anger. I would think that if anything, Malick is arguing that the father’s selfish desires of materialistic gains are preventing him from getting closer to some spiritual grace that the filmmaker seems to equate with inner enlightment. Pitt’s stern personality came across as more of a flaw in the film that Penn’s character realizes is also plaguing him. His future dissatisfaction stems possibly from the notion that he is becoming exactly like his father and not more like his mother.
The prehistoric scene is a key component in the film for me. The bigger T.Rex should choose nature and crush the wounded smaller dinosaur’s head. That is how nature technically works… the strong survive and the weak perish. Yet in some rare epiphany the T.Rex is overtaken by grace and simply moves along. Pitt grabs Chastain during one of their fights and could crush her in a similar fashion. If he was the total embodiment of true nature he could kill her and be done with the conflict. Yet he has a moment of grace and does not hurt her. The movie seems to suggest he could of used more of this kind of empathy.
I think the two parents are just broad philosophical examples for how people can approach life. For Malick grace seems to be the truer godlier way to salvation/happiness, while nature is a more superficial empty path.