Here you are, at long last, the final 15. I realize that the pictures for the 30-16 entry were a bit wonky. Hopefully it will look better for this entry. Again, this is a ‘favorite’ list, not a ‘best’. What were your favorites of the year?
15. A Separation (Farhadi)
Disputes become complicated very quickly, especially when the self-deception of individuals comes into play. Asghar Farhadi, who wrote and directed this masterful work, looks at the complex inner workings of individual desperation and pride. These motivations are presented through characters that are not malicious but are just trying to get by. Furthermore, Farhadi casts no judgment onto the various imperfect players involved, seeming to understand that situations get complicated fast. The truth becomes muddled beyond the comprehension of the law officers, immediate family members and even the two characters directly involved with the incident.
Farhadi presents this as a fact-of-life, combining universality and the specificity of Iranian culture. Every character is complex as the central incident and its aftermath unfolds at the same time as the breakdown of a marriage. There are no easy answers, no saints and no malevolence for malevolence sake. A Separation is heated from start-to-finish and it is impossible not to get caught up in all its sprawling glory as our sympathies shift and hover, grow and lessen. Reveals are slowly doled out with the skill of a deft thriller without getting caught up in any genre trappings. A Separation captures life in all its messiness.
14. Certified Copy (Kiarostami)
A film of halves; entirely based in conversation, simultaneously light and heavy. Certified Copy is about the burgeoning passion of a new love and companion, but also about the disintegration of a romance weighted down by history. It is a mysterious and ambiguous experience and the definition of transfixing. It is less about spending your time trying to decipher the exact nature of the central relationship and more about soaking in its essence, the conversation and the performances. It is about appreciating the ever-shifting but always simultaneous presence of the multiple phases of a dense relationship.
However one chooses to interpret or not interpret Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, it ensures that it can be experienced in a multitude of contexts, forming its own unique relationship with the viewer that is all their own. While this is something that always occurs with film and is something we often take for granted, Certified Copy seems to exist for this purpose, and what a gift it is.
13. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (Yates)
It is at this point where the numbers become even more arbitrary than they already are. Honestly, I love this film as much as my number 1. So think of these next 13 films as essentially being equal with each other in my mind.
Deathly Hallows: Part 2 represented the end of an era for me and the countless others that grew up a Harry Potter fan. I grew with this series; the first film came out when I was fourteen. I may not have been a child as the franchise started (it was through the films that I became a fan of the books, not the other way around) but I threw myself whole-heartedly into the books and films, and my adolescence was positively littered with Potter-dom. I still believe it is somewhat taken for granted that we were able to experience a franchise that ran this long and that stayed this arguably consistent in quality. The Potter series means more than words to me, so to find that the final film met my expectations to the utmost was in certain regards more rewarding than anything else I saw this year.
Nothing impressed me more than Snape’s swan song; an appropriate tribute to the character, heartbreakingly played by Alan Rickman. The battles and buildup are as successfully epic as the seven films of buildup have sustained. The entire picture is wall-to-wall dazzling, enhancing Part 1 and striving boldly and confidently forth to its capstone conclusion. While nothing can quite match my first experience of it, it ranks in the top three of the franchise for me. This series will be a part of me the rest of my life and I cherish my ability to revisit it at any time I please.
12. Hugo (Scorsese)
I thought it wise to pair my two favorite ‘children’s’ films together. Even more than Harry Potter (where adults represent a large portion of its legions of fans), Hugo feels made more for adult appreciation than for kids. This is not to say that children will not enjoy it as it does contain more than enough of the magic and intrigue that comes with children’s fantasy. Indeed, it has the unmatchable splendor of its own contained world; a train station in 1920’s Paris. It has a central mystery, a mysterious key, automatons, a colorful cast of inhabitants and the rediscovery of a forgotten legend.
Martin Scorsese makes Hugo a singular film experience for several reasons, entirely making up for any uneven pacing or eventual anti-mystery. The first is the 3D; it will be interesting to see how the film fares without it. It functions almost as a physical argument for the form. It does not have to be a gimmick; when someone with legitimate drive to make use of the form, to mold it to support and enhance the world within, it can be unforgettable.
The second is the sense of wonder it contains which is infectious and addictive. Scorsese makes you want to stay in that station. Amidst the darker plot appendages, there is an exuberance, the uniqueness of fantastical discovery that brings one back to childhood. The third is the heart of Hugo, as it reveals itself to be a tribute to the magic of film through its love for central character George Melies.
There is an understanding of what we all see in film that makes us love it so, that brings about an instantly deep connection with Hugo. This aspect of it is what comes straight from the director’s heart, whose passionate work for film preservation is constant and incredibly important. Hugo left me in a drunken haze of film appreciation and an unparalleled respect for the origins of an art form.
11. The Tree of Life (Malick)
I suppose many think this should be much higher on this list. Love it though I do, there is a connection with certain films that I make that results in thinking of said film as ‘one of mine’. It is a relatable feeling to see something and to form a connection with it that allows it to be hoarded amongst a collection of personal favorites. I have this connection with The Thin Red Line and with Badlands and with large chunks of The Tree of Life. Most of the film, starting with the formation of the universe and leading almost through to the end is a transcendent voyage unlike any other. For some reason though, the Sean Penn bookends and the somewhat problematic portrayal of Jessica Chastain (the character, not the performance; she is wonderful) as an all-too angelic saintly mother struck a wrong chord for me. I also question the film’s depth, mainly because The Tree of Life seems more like a record of the memory and singular experience of childhood and a pondering drift through life’s big questions and origins as opposed to something that is particularly complicated in essence. It’s technical achievement, construction and execution is more complicated and ingenious than words can describe, but the finished product, to me at least, does not feel like it is meant to anything but a gloriously complex (in form) but ultimately abstract expression.
More than anything, I do not want this interpretation of abstraction to be taken as a knock; this is what I love about it. I feel lucky to have experienced something this beautiful, poetic, enchanting and moving. I felt brought back to childhood despite watching an individual depiction of it, and the strange and elemental feelings I experienced while watching is something I will never forget. And its drifting ponderous nature; this is also what I love about The Tree of Life. It considers the big and the small and asks us to glide along with it as it moves in and out of its many facets. Terrence Malick has so much skill that he is able to take us through his thoughts and Jack’s memories with the kind of ambition that results in something new and special. Parts of it feel like a continuation on what Walt Disney was getting at with his ‘Rite of Spring’ segment of Fantasia. Other parts feel like a journey of growing up, of the realization that parents expect things of you and that innocence can no longer be maintained. No film this year or in the past several years has been discussed and delved into more than The Tree of Life. While I feel that the film is more of an experience, something that to a degree defies analyzing, it is justifiably worshipped by many in the kind of passionate way that only Malick can incite.
10. I Saw the Devil (Kim)
Full Review Link: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/review-i-saw-the-devil-2011-kim/
I Saw the Devil is an example of a film I hoard as ‘one of mine’. I perk up when I hear its name, I want to shove it into people’s eyes and praise it to the high heavens. Because I Saw the Devil does something extremely clever with the revenge genre; it sets out to be the end-all be-all, to distill its cliches into an essence of basic emotions, using repetition and pure brutality to really get at what this genre is all about.
What others may see as one-note is actually a very purposeful execution complete with uncomplicated character types and uncomplicated motivations. It uses what may be considered weaknesses in other films and turns them around, using it to an advantage. I Saw the Devil takes revenge as far as it can go, thereby making it automatically relevant. The film excels, because noted South Korean director Kim Ji-woon knows how to tell a story with effectiveness and panache, unlike many others who venture down extremist territory.
The idea that one must become a monster to destroy a monster is familiar. The really wonderful study that takes place in the film are Soo-hyun’s craving to prolong the satisfying feeling revenge gives him, and the idea of revenge as a functioning stopgap between the actual mourning process.
Kim Ji-Woon is a filmmaker who knows how and when to use style. He chooses his moments carefully and infuses them with a trendy sensibility without allowing style to overwhelm his film. His always impeccably choreographed fight scenes are on display, riveting as ever. A confrontation in a greenhouse as well as a rather incredible scene that takes place in a taxi cab are two examples where Kim’s penchant for building up tension and delivering action heavy scenes are on display.
The pacing here is among the most accomplished of 2011. Clocking in at almost two and a half hours, the film flies by, yet it never feels rushed. Kim takes his time letting the story unfold and allowing atmosphere and mood to sink in, without the running time ever imposing itself. It is fully engrossing throughout which is not an easy feat.
I have seen this film twice and it strengthened for me the second time; it is and exhausting roller-coaster that is well worth the ride.
9. Hanna (Wright)
Full Review Link: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/review-hanna-2011-wright/
I will be the first to admit that Hanna is not entirely strong. The father-daughter relationship falters, and Wright’s attempts to create a layered fairy tale do not pan out with quite the success he clearly wants it to. But for a multitude of reasons, Hanna is a stylized dream come true for me.
Joe Wright takes himself completely out of his comfort zone with an entirely new type of project. The resulting visual experimentation from Wright’s involvement is invigorating to the extreme; a feast on the eyes and ears that overcomes the script’s shortcomings. His use of tracking shots, extreme close-ups, extreme long shots, handheld camera work and much more all contribute to Hanna’s singularly high-powered style. He also keeps a lot of the action in camera, making the choreography stand out. Whether creating an engaging hyper-stylistic action set piece or subjectively aligning the audience with Hanna’s experiences, Wright always has motivations for his choices and it is a delight to work through them while watching the film.
Along with Wright and Ronan, the third irreplaceable element of Hanna is the score provided by The Chemical Brothers. As opposed to using music to manipulate the audience into certain emotions, Wright creates several different effects with the sound of hypnotic bass-heavy electronica. The score is first introduced at a very precisely chosen moment. Throughout, the music forms a cohesive relationship with the diegetic sound, with both influencing and informing each other. It is also used to crucially represent and accompany each of the action set-pieces. The music The Chemical Brothers have created here is addictive and is as important anything in Hanna.
When all is said and done, Hanna had me entirely at “I just missed your heart”.
8. Melancholia (von Trier)
Full Review Link: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/11/11/review-melancholia-2011-von-trier/
It may seem contradictory to say that Lars von Trier’s end-of-the world opus is the director as his most peaceful and life-affirming; but it is. This isn’t to say that Melancholia is sunshine and rainbows; just look at the title and basic plot synopsis. But this is the Danish auteur reaching out and making a human connection with his audience as much as he likely ever will. It is a meditative exploration of the unexpectedly dichotomous nature (and the ways the two converge) between depression that renders one immobile in life, and having to face that which we will all eventually come to meet; death.
Dunst and von Trier, both having first-hand experience with depression, make painstaking connections with Justine that culminate in an uncompromising understanding and loyalty to her. They are unwilling to cater to standard cause-and-effect rules of characterization or to apologize for the frustration and lack of sympathy she can elicit. For those of us who know what bouts of depression are like, this reveals it in all of its extreme truths and ugliness. Von Trier’s previous film Antichrist was made as he went through a severe depression, and no matter what one thinks of that work, looking at Melancholia in the context of a follow-up to his previous film will make for worthwhile discourse someday. In fact, it seems like an entirely essential context to have going into the film.
Melancholia is one of those films that successfully fulfill their ambitions in dealing with profound and fundamental subject matter on a grand level of intellectually-based intuition. You come away with, yes lots to talk about, but just as importantly, a feeling that a filmmaker has come upon something almost indescribable that gets at how we experience life, death and what it all means (or ultimately doesn’t mean). Synecdoche, New York is one of these films (an example that goes about it in an infinitely complex fashion, whereas Melancholia and The Tree of Life is based in abstraction and how the writers’directors have experienced life.) The Tree of Life is another. Some might call these films pretentious but this is reductive and dismissive. Lars von Trier’s latest film is his most accessible, but is no less thought-provoking. In fact, if there is one film that will temporarily win over his detractors, it would be this one. It takes us through the cathartic process of grieving mankind with a scrutinizing look at depression, death, acceptance and world annihilation with an uncharacteristically humanistic eye.
7. The Arbor (Bernard)
Speaking of Synecdoche, New York, here is a film that gets at truth through conceptual reenactment and fiction. What could have been a disastrous execution (the film consists of interviews lip-synched by actors who address the camera) is just the opposite. The past comes to life, going beyond narrative and documentary films, achieving something that exists in between.
The actors become a vessel for the voices and the people behind them. The actors are literal messengers, and having them address the camera, and in turn the audience, creates an intimate connection between the documentaries subject and those who knew her, and us. We also get to know subject Andrea Dunbar through watching segments of her plays performed by actors in the actual slums of Bradford, West Yorkshire where she grew up and lived.
The Arbor is about as deeply depressing as it gets, and director Clio Bernard keeps the frames uncluttered, letting the format and interview material speak for itself by presenting it in a progressive but simple way.
6. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Ramsay)
Here we go with the word abstract again; I tend to love films presented in such a way. The visual representation of an emotional state and a literal materialization of the fearful apathy of motherhood are what We Need to Talk About Kevin is getting at. I may love this film partly because Lionel Shriver’s novel is one of my absolute favorites, and I was able to see Eva and immediately heap upon her 450 pages of the author’s anything but abstract contextualization. The symbolism may be is in-your-face with splattered reds everywhere (for a start), but it represents a state of being and a constant reminder of the guilt and loss Eva feels that cannot be expunged. Kevin exists as the embodiment of a worst-case scenario, a being whose chief understanding of the world is borne out of his instinctual knowledge of Eva’s motherly indifference.
5. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Alfredson)
When Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ended, I immediately wanted to revisit it, getting the sense that my love and appreciation for it would only grow over time. Above all other films from this past year, I became the most attached to Tinker’s feel and atmosphere above any other. Tomas Alfredson’s second feature (his first being Let the Right One In), is another adaptation. Everything from the cinematography to Alberto Iglesias’ fabulously wistful jazz score is in a lurking state of mourning.
The film mourns for an era fading before the characters eyes with its air of grey repression amidst the period world of Britain’s M-16 intelligence. It boils down the plot density of the novel into its essentials, without ever having narrative clarity as its priority. Reading the novel before seeing the film did allow me a basic understanding of what happens (which was a task in itself as I find myself easily lost within these types of stories), but the film is not about that. With the ensemble cast of the year, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a treasure trove of intrigue.
4. Drive (Refn)
Full Review Link: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/09/21/review-drive-2011-refn/
It is an all too uncommon feeling when a film ends and you realize you are not yet ready to leave its world. This is the feeling I had when Drive ended. It is a slick retro ride, filled with homage and influence, operating as a nostalgic demonstration of American genre filmmaking and oozing European sensibilities, complete with existentialist sleaze and minimalist touches. It is a hybrid creature that dabbles in a number of genres that are all in harmony through Nicolas Winding Refn’s infectious appreciation for using cinema to create mood and atmosphere.
It is clear that Refn has been influenced at every turn. But it is not a hollow experience; far from it. Perhaps what impressed me the most about Drive is the smoothness with which Refn blends what is a clear unabashed love for both high and low art. He lets them bleed together in what can be succinctly described as effortless cool. There is a stable assuredness in every shot, every movement and every creative choice made here. One cannot help but want to revisit Drive and explore those choices, the motivations behind them and why they work as well as they do. This is confident filmmaking on display. The mere construction of it is something to behold.
The thankless female characters may be a slight misstep, but it is a minor quibble. With Drive, Refn represents cinema at its most assured, plowing directly into the heart of genre filmmaking.
3. Take Shelter (Nichols)
Full Review Link: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/review-take-shelter-2011-nichols/
Jeff Nichols does not play the ‘is he or isn’t he’ game with his audience; Curtis (Michael Shannon) is succumbing to paranoid schizophrenia. We are invited to simultaneously experience events as the protagonist does, and to see the reality of the situation at the same time. Take Shelter is an astonishing second feature by director Nichols whose first feature Shotgun Stories, plays out as pre-destined Greek tragedy. The interplay between conscious choice and being pulled further and further into something that was, on some level, always going to happen is present in both films. In Take Shelter, poor conscious decisions are made by Curtis, but he is also being helplessly dragged down by family legacies and a general feeling of doom.
Take Shelter affected me quite heavily, mainly because it preyed on my fears and depicted them in ways that service the sad reality of the situation as opposed to the heightened subjective journey. After death, going insane might be my biggest fear. It is the suddenness of certain disorders existence that strikes me. Some of the heavier psychological disorders don’t creep their way into you; they make sudden and grandiose entrances.
Curtis’ psychological descent clearly represents the current state of America, and the film never tries to hide this. Nichols wants you to know what he is really getting at. There are a couple of reasons it works. One is that the film does not feel preachy even in its openness; in fact, its message feels necessary. No matter what your political inclinations are, it is difficult not to feel the growing sense of dread all around us. Nichols takes that familiarized feeling and translates it into a different filmic context. In that sense, Take Shelter is frightening in its resonance. It may manifest itself openly, but Take Shelter works hauntingly well because of Nichols’ precision and ability to have his film make its mark in more ways than one.
2. Project Nim (Marsh)
Full Review Link: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/05/08/review-project-nim-2011-marsh-iffboston-2011/
When discussing Project Nim, it becomes tempting to immediately spring into all-out praise mode. James Marsh approaches stories from different angles. 2008’s Man on Wire functions as a heist narrative. Project Nim is a chimpanzee biopic. Herb Terrace’s experiment was amateurish and botched from the start. By default, this allows Marsh to focus all his energies on telling Nim’s heartbreaking story, using archival footage and some very honest and candid interviews by the many people who came in and out of Nim’s life.
Project Nim is structured as a biopic that allows us to be acquainted with Nim as well as understand our incapacity to truly know a wild animal. All of the action is focused around the chimp, but the film says so much more through the story it tells. It is about humanity and our need to control and manipulate everything to be more like us. It is about the incompetence of man. It is about the well-meaning individuals like Joyce Butler, who care so deeply but are powerless in the bigger picture, and those like Bob Ingersol and Dr. James Mahoney, who never give up on making a difference.
Those who see Project Nim will be heartbroken. It works on many different levels, but people will remember first and foremost the story of Nim’s unstable life. James Marsh has told an unforgettable story and Project Nim is a true accomplishment.
1. Young Adult (Reitman)
Young Adult sadly did not connect with audiences based on box-office numbers and divided the people who did take the time to go see it. My number one was not clear this year; over the last few weeks, I have had about five different films in the top slot. So many character types have had countless films of their own, but to tread new ground and focus with someone like Mavis Gary offers something fresh and new; it took me in entirely. The film would not have succeeded if some did not walk away annoyed and frustrated; this only enhances how uncompromising and ugly its honesty can be.
Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody have created something that feels completely organic; effortless and seemingly simple when it is actually incredibly layered and intricate. Cody knows Mavis Gary in-and-out and pulls no punches when presenting her to us. She is delusional and ruthless; a total basket case who lives either in one extreme lazy sweats and reality TV consumption or another extreme of all-day primping as she presents herself to her old town with unrelenting purpose.
Theron fully inhabits Mavis as someone who cannot see past her own perspective or selfishness. She seems genuinely confused by the existence of certain emotions, and seeing her try to fake her way through them when she needs to is truly something else. This is also the first film I have seen to depict Trichotillomania and I have a special appreciation of the film for this reason. It is a compulsive disorder I have lived with since a young age, only with me the eyelashes are victimized and not the hair as with Mavis.
Young Adult turns expectations on its head with its kitchen scene that denies the audience the expected character turnaround, except that Cody dangles the possibility in front of our face first, making it all the more fascinating. Mavis’ relationship with Patton Oswalt’s Matt is one of the more distinctive interactions between two characters I have seen as he brings a self-aware sadness and longing to the proceedings. He is filled with the same emotions as Mavis but one is delusional while the other is not.
Young Adult is a film I felt an instant connection with; I laughed a lot, I cringed a lot, but mostly I admired the delicate craftsmanship at work from the spot-on writing and directing to the perfect acting. It is a blistering piece that is on the one hand an awkward comedy about emotionally stunted growth. On the other, it is a frighteningly candid character study about how sad it is to be so constricted by a superiority complex and perception of the world including where one places oneself within it.
Complete List of Films Seen in 2011: 13 Assassins, 50/50, A Better Life, A Dangerous Method, Albert Nobbs, American Grindhouse, Another Earth, Attack the Block, Beastly, Beginners, Being Elmo, Bellflower, Bill Cunningham, New York, Biutiful, Black Death, Bobby Fischer Against the World, Bridesmaids, Buck, Cameraman: the Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, Captain America: The First Avenger, Carnage, Cars 2, Caterpillar, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Cedar Rapids, Certified Copy, Cold Fish, Cold Weather, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, Contagion,, Cracks, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Dream Home, Drive, Edge of Dreaming, Hanna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Hesher, Hobo with a Shotgun, Horrible Bosses, Hugo, I Saw the Devil, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, In a Better World, In Time, Incendies, Insidious, J. Edgar, Jane Eyre, Kung Fu Panda 2, Last Night, Le Quattro Volte, Love Crime, Margin Call, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Meek’s Cutoff, Melancholia, Midnight in Paris, Mildred Pierce, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Moneyball, My Week with Marilyn, Of Gods and Men, Outrage, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Passion Play, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Poetry, Project Nim, Rampart, Rango, Red Riding Hood, Red State, Redline, Retreat, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rubber, Scream 4, Senna, Shame, Sleeping Beauty, Source Code, Submarine, Sucker Punch, Super, Super 8, Tabloid, Take Shelter, Terri, The Adventures of Tintin, The Arbor, The Artist, The Debt,The Descendants, The Devil’s Double, The Double Hour, The Future, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Green Hornet, The Help, The Housemaid, The Ides of March, The Last Circus, The Lincoln Lawyer, The Mill and the Cross, The Muppets, The Rite, The Roommate, A Separation, The Skin I Live In, The Sleeping Beauty, The Thing, The Tree of Life, The Trip, The Ward, The Woman, Thor, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, TrollHunter, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Tyrannosaur, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Unknown, War Horse, Warrior, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Weekend, Win Win, Winnie the Pooh, X-Men: First Class, Young Adult, Your Highness, Yves Saint-Laurent: L’Amour Fou