12 January 2012

Best of 2011

2011 was an excellent year in film. Making this list was not easy, but I am really happy with all my picks.

Top Ten of 2011:

10. Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy (dir. Tomas Alfredson)

Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy turns on textured layers of story, expertly shot by Tomas Alfredson. Details are important in this type of film and he captures them all with precision. Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy has everything a moviegoer could want: tension, drama, paranoia and a good mystery. Trying to discover the double agent is both fun and nerve-racking - even if we knew who it was all along, as the characters mention at the end of the film.

9. Black Death (dir. Christopher Smith)

This was the first 2011 film that I saw last year and still remains one of my favorites. Smith's genre-bending tale plays with the audience from start to finish. Black Death forces questions of morality, religious extremism, superstition and righteousness onto the screen and into the minds of the audience. Smith unravels the tale ambiguously without preaching for or against any side. The result is a dark and unpredictable film that leaves the viewer to determine what to take from it.

8. Circumstance (dir. Maryam Keshavarz)

Circumstance is one of the most sensual and beautiful films of the year. Combine that with the heavy topic of love and repression in modern day Iran and the result is something really wonderful and important. Keshavarz films the struggle of freedom from many different angles - freedom to love, freedom to worship, freedom to (dance, sing, etc) - while managing to make a political and personal statement. Circumstance treads near heavy-handedness at moments, but always backs away to focus on the human story at just the right moment. Absolutely one of the best of the year.

7. Another Earth (dir. Mike Cahill)

Another Earth is a film that is difficult to categorize. It is not really a sci-fi movie and it is not really a drama. It is, however, a well-paced philosophical "what if" film that manages to stay interesting despite several reasons why it should fail. As I said before, the viewer is not supposed to totally buy into it all, but they are not supposed to view it entirely as a metaphor either. I think that what it comes down to for me is that the film always remains focused on human emotions. It does not fall into trying to be something that it is not. The "other Earth" does not come off gimmicky because it is not the point of the film. Rather, it is used as a catalyst for human drama.

Also, who would have thought that 2011 would bring us two films featuring the arrival of new planets?

6. Trust (dir. David Schwimmer)

Part of the job of a good director is finding the perfect cast. Whatever other directorial problems Schwimmer may exhibit, casting the perfect actors and coaxing a stunningly good performance out of them is not one. Schwimmer portrays a family shaken by the rape of their young daughter. While she struggles to view it as a rape, the parents cope in their own ways. This is not a feel-good Lifetime movie. It's complicated, intense and emotional.

5. The Skin I Live In (dir. Pedro Almodovar)

The Skin I Live In induced perhaps the most surprising reaction in me of any 2011 film I have watched yet. What I expected to be a mediocre film turned out to be an exquisite and sublime viewing experience. Almodovar unravels the story at a slow but unpredictable pace, and when the audience connects early parts of the film to the "reveal" much later, it's strange and weird and wholly fucked up. But also awesome. The Skin I Live In makes us question first impressions. It unravels our superficiality, our perceptions and, most of all, our desires. And it does all this while still managing to be a decent revenge film, too.

4. Bombay Beach (dir. Alma Har'el)

Bombay Beach takes the traditional documentary and turns it into a lyrical, highly-stylized hybrid of real life and portrayed art. Har'el makes the bad sides beautiful and the beautiful sides ugly in this documentary about the people who live on the edge of society. It is an experiment, dream-like in tone yet ultimately true and believable. It is a poem to three generations of men living in Bombay Beach. But it is also a commentary on the art to be found on the edges and in everyday life.

3. Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick)

Malick continues his bid for greatest living American director with his newest film about a young boy growing up in Texas during the 50's. Perhaps Malick's most personal film, Tree of Life spans eons in its attempt to discover what it means to be human. The sheer magnitude of what Malick attempts to accomplish is overwhelming, but the fact that he does it so well and with such heart is why I think that this film is one of the best of the year. It is a film you feel as much as you see. I could watch Tree of Life a hundred times and still find important and edifying things in it.

2. Melancholia (dir. Lars von Trier)

I wrestled with Melancholia perhaps more than any other film this year. It sparked some great discussion and made me re-evaluate a few of my thoughts about depression and mental illness. The film finds the sublime humor in the absurdity of human life and interactions. Von Trier makes a beautiful but ridiculous film, one that had me alternately cringing and laughing when I recognized myself in different characters. Like Tree of Life, this is a film that benefits from many viewings and I think it is one to which I will return many times.

1. Meek's Cutoff (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

I think that the bravest, most daring film of 2011 is Meek's Cutoff. It is a committed film determined to tell a minimalist story. Reichardt shoots it at a slow pace. She keeps the viewer at a distance, constantly pulling back during conversations to portray the uncertainty of their situation. The film continues the examination of loneliness that Reichardt pursued in her previous films but also adds a note of complexity. It gives us a Native American, an "other," with whom we must decide to defend or fear. His intentions are ambiguous, but the question remains: how do we decide to trust or condemn our fellow humans? How do we know what path to follow? Meek's Cutoff gives us no answers, but it certainly makes us think.

Honorable Mention:
  • Like Crazy (dir. Drake Doremus)
  • The Myth of the American Sleepover (dir. David Robert Mitchell)
  • Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen)
  • Contagion (dir. Steven Soderbergh)
  • Le Havre (dir. Aki Kaurismaki)
Films I haven't seen but that I fear could mess up my list:
  • A Dangerous Method
  • Take Shelter
  • Margaret
  • A Separation 
Best Film Club moments:
  • Brandon and John discussing Dogtooth
  • Lost in Translation and Scarlett Johansson's underwear
  • Funny Games becomes a dead horse
  • Antichrist scares the shit out of me and vaults von Trier to the top of my favorite directors list
  • Jeff's continuous Top Ten lists from years past - especially 2004, which led to lots of discussion and an eventual viewing of Black Death by everyone
  • Lisa inciting a crazy Tree of Life debate (that I, sadly, missed out on)
  • Jason's constant lateness to films we are discussing and his patented "movie dump" 
  • Jason's discovery of The New World
  • the incredible 8 month run of "arthouse juggernaut" Midnight in Paris at Cinemopolis 
  • discussing Melancholia
  • the way Chris sneaks music posts in once in a while just as I'm looking for new tunes
  • Drive vs. Cold Weather
  • Howard bros. tag-team on films like Drive, Melancholia and Midnight in Paris
  • ...and, of course, the addition of Lisa, Jeff and Chris!
Great year all around but I think the best is yet to come!

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