Ah, 2011. You were a strange bird.
Is it me, or were movies more united by theme this year than is usual? Nostalgia was the big one, with several titles capitalizing not just on our nostalgia of a past era, but of movies from a past era — from silent films to Spielberg blockbusters and everything in between. People have been in an awfully romantic mood of late — perhaps because the recession made the present so unappealing. Cinema has always been about escapism, and this year more than ever, it’s taking us backward rather than forward.
A few titles amongst my personal favorites harken back a bit, but on the whole, I prefer the fresher fare — films that actually do feel a little progressive, despite the popular wave of nostalgia. So here are the year’s best movies.
10. ATTACK THE BLOCK
My other 2011 favorites deal with some pretty heavy fare. Attack The Block isn’t exactly a light-hearted romp in every way — as there is a fair amount of carnage — but in terms of flat-out fun, it’s last year’s best offering. The premise itself is ingenious — malicious extra-terrestrials attack Earth, as they often do in movies, but instead of watching government officials, reporters, and scientists deal with the fallout, we experience it all through the eyes of a bunch of rough-around-the-edges teenagers from the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak. They don’t start out as the most sympathetic of protagonists, considering how meet them — mugging a defenseless nurse. Initially, that nurse (Jodie Whittaker) refers to the boys as “fucking monsters,” but soon they’re her only hope of surviving ugly death at the hand (well, claws and fangs) of some real fucking monsters. (And the safest place around, naturally, is a drug dealer’s apartment.) Gradually, we come to see this menacing gang as more complicated (and childish) than their actions might have us believe.
For those who like to look so deep, Joe Cornish’s brilliant feature debut says a bit about poverty and the almost inevitable way kids from “the projects” will turn to a life of crime. (The film pokes fun at a more privileged white kid, played by Luke Treadaway, who would surely be dead if not for the aid of his rough-and-tumble peers.) But Attack The Block also has a go-for-broke 80’s sensibility that ensures we won’t spend too long contemplating the sociological injustice of it all. It’s first and foremost a piece of blockbuster entertainment that unjustly missed out on finding an audience, for it’s more fun than all the other alien movies of 2011 combined — like the British show Skins crossed with Gremlins or Jurassic Park. The creatures are frequently referred to as “gorilla-wolf motherfuckers” and the script is full of South London slang that rewards multiple viewings so you can catch all the humor. As one character says as he gives up furiously punching in the night’s events into his cell phone: “This is too much madness to explain in one text!”
Church bells ringing as if an echo from a wedding day; a statue expressing a woman’s simple-minded devotion to her lover; a wife putting on makeup and earrings as if trying to recreate the younger, prettier girl her husband once knew — they’re all a part of this highbrow puzzle box of a film that defies any one logical interpretation. Certified Copy is not a story that can be taken at face value — without a deeper insight into its themes, the narrative flat-out makes no sense — but rather, makes up its own rules about what a movie can and should be as it goes along. If that sounds like a bit of a challenge, it is — a shameless one. This is not 27 Dresses; there is a reason it stars Juliette Binoche instead of Kate Hudson.
“Is a reproduction of a piece of great art as good as the original?” That’s the question that begins Certified Copy, and as the movie gently unfolds (there’s no real story to speak of), we are treated to a host of visual “copies” to muse over in our own minds (see the picture above for one such example). Gradually, we turn our focus away from art and onto a relationship, the nature of which is never explicitly defined, though at every turn it’s honest and captivating. The passionate, unnamed heroine portrayed by Binoche yearns for her “original” love with such fervor you can feel her aching through the screen. Abbas Kiarostami’s talky, tri-lingual drama is certainly not one for the casual viewer, but it gives those who like thought-provoking cinema plenty to chew on for hours or even days after.
8. TAKE SHELTER
It was a strangely grandiose year at the arthouse — and an apocalyptic one, too. This year saw indies like Melancholia, Bellflower, Another Earth, Kaboom, and The Tree Of Life grappling with epic-scope issues normally reserved for the ouvres of Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay. But none of the above-mentioned capture the palpable dread of a cataclysmic event quite like Take Shelter, which tells not only the tale of our shared global fear of the havoc nature might one day choose to wreak on us, but also an intimate and personal story of one man unraveling despite (and, in part, because of) his love for his family and small-town life. The dream sequences, stuffed with storms and other harbingers of doomsday, are unnerving, but the time bomb we can hear quietly ticking within Michael Shannon’s Curtis is even moreso.
None of these nightmarish visions would work if it weren’t for their contrast with Curtis’ simple domestic life, rendered so carefully and believably. His wife (Jessica Chastain, in the best of her many film roles this year) isn’t of that naggy, shrill stock that so many movie-wives are; his problems, aside from the apocalyptic premonitions, are of the real-world variety, struggling to make ends meet, keeping in good standing with his health insurance to attend to the needs of his deaf daughter. (Even on that level alone, the stakes could hardly be higher.) One of the movie’s genius touches is that we’re not sure if we’re afraid for Curtis, or of him. He’s so tightly-wound, we fear he might snap — and take his family to the dark side with him. Take Shelter‘s much-debated ending has thrown some for a loop, but in my estimation, it’s very open to interpretation. Whether or not you come away thinking Curtis is schizophrenic or a modern-day Cassandra hardly matters — the fear is equal regardless.
Hanna is the kind of genre film that throws the mainstream off, defying easy categorization and audience expectations. This movie a lot of things — first and foremost, an action-thriller with an unlikely protagonist: a fourteen-year-old girl. Minus the music, art direction, and a certain directorial flourish from Joe Wright, you can easily imagine it being flat and predictable (along the lines of Colombiana). Instead, Hanna is packed full of surprises on every level, from narrative to sonic to visual. Thanks in part to the Chemical Brothers’ hypnotic score, many of the breathless action scenes come off like music videos — and it isn’t always fun to see someone who should be helpless kicking ass?
But what really makes Hanna something special is that, at its core, it’s a poignant coming-of-age tale about a teenager contending with the harsh real world all on her own. Wright reconnects with his Atonement star Saoirse Ronan to inspire another commanding performance, and it’s surprisingly easy to buy Hanna’s capabilities as an assassin. Hanna is simultaneously old and new; despite the electronic soundtrack and flashy cinematography, underneath it all, it’s a fairy tale as old as they come — the little girl lost, the grandmother, the woodsman, and the wolf are all here in 21st century reproductions. The two most despicable and terrifying villains of the year (sorry, Drive!) are brought to hellish life by Cate Blanchett and Tom Hollander — Blanchett’s dental hygiene-obsessed, shoe-loving take on the Big Bad Wolf is also one of 2011’s most underrated screen characters. Wright may not connect every dot as most thrillers will, but there’s a surplus of subtext about maternity and paternity, mostly of the surrogate variety. Hanna’s opening line (spoken to a dying animal), “I just missed your heart,” takes on a meta-significance since Wright & co. clearly aren’t aiming for that with this movie — they’re going for our head and our gut instead, and those they hit it dead on.
In a simpler world, Kenneth Lonergan’s film Margaret would have been released way back in 2006 as intended. Then, perhaps, it could have been judged on its own merits, for better or worse. But after a five-year delay and news of so much precious material left on the cutting room floor (it seems unlikely that 2011’s theatrical release version is the last cut we’ll see), it’s impossible to separate the drama in Margaret from the drama surrounding it. Like its heroine, Lisa (Anna Paquin), Margaret feels like a work in progress. Unfinished. Amateurish at times. With the potential to become brilliant and important, and flaws that force us to question whether she ever will be quite complete.
But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend this Margaret is the only version we’ll ever see, even the only version we were ever intended to see. After seeing it, I was both impressed by its scope and bare emotion as well as bothered by several scenes in the film’s latter half that were tonally and narratively jarring, as if popping in from another movie. As such, I didn’t really expect to find it on my “Best Of 2011” list. But days later, Margaret lingered, and any film with that lasting power deserves some recognition. Margaret is the story of a teenage girl who struggles to cope with the grisly demise of the stranger. That scene, which we witness in full, is one of the most horrifying death scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie — simply because it’s one of the most grimly realistic. Margaret weaves in a few seemingly unrelated storylines; there’s no way of knowing if all these scenes would play differently had Lisa not accidentally caused a stranger’s life to end. What I love about Margaret is that it dares to be raw and nervy, careening from one emotion to the next recklessly as humans — especially young girls — do. The main conflict in the movie is intellectual, a question it never quite asks outright: in matters of life and death, is it more acceptable to run the gamut of emotions as Lisa does, or approach it from a wizened, more adult, jaded perspective? You’ll find no concrete answer in Margaret, but as for me, I’m on Lisa’s side. (And if I had to guess, I’d say Lonergan is, too.)
I’m far from the only person to include Weekend in my year-end list of 2011’s best films; Glen would be so proud. One of many discussions at the heart of Andrew Haigh’s chatty romance is the question of whether or not heterosexual audiences can embrace homosexual art, and in Weekend, the debate is answered with a resounding: “Yes!” Critics and audiences, gay and straight, warmed up to this engaging look at how love (or a close approximation of it) blossoms in the 21st century. Beyond those tertiary politics, though, there’s very little here exclusive to male-male relationships. Nearly all that unfolds could just as easily happen in a story about a boy and a girl, or two girls for that matter. Weekend is one of the first gay films to ever feel as universal and accessible as Before Sunset or When Harry Met Sally.
But putting all that aside, Weekend is a wonderful movie in every other way, too — concerning two fully-fleshed out, flawed individuals who are hesitant to fall for one another, but fortunately for us, can’t help it. Both performances feel wholly lived in as delivered by Tom Cullen and Chris New. Neither Russell nor Glen is a “type” — they may see each other that way at first, after meeting casually in a bar, but soon their complexities come to light and we fall for them as gradually as they fall for each other. In a year in which so many independent films had a lot of big ideas on their mind, Weekend is refreshingly small-scale and intimate, full of moments that ring true enough to make almost any other recent romance look artificial by comparison.
Legendary film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “The words ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which I saw on an Italian movie poster, are perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies.” How true — but that was the 60’s. This is 2012. Nowadays, “kiss kiss bang bang” has been replaced with something more graphic, along the lines of “fuck fuck, splat splat,” and Nicholas Winding Refn has roared onto Hollywood with screeching tires in a vehicle that does just that — a splashy, ultra-violent crime thriller about a taciturn Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver. Falling in love with another man’s wife eventually finds him in the midst of someone else’s bloodbath.
Drive is quite a ride. It’s pure cinema, and nothing more — from the mesmerizing cinematography to a haunting pop soundtrack to the hot pink font of the opening credits. It’s all highly stylized. The ensemble consists of Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks, Oscar Isaac, Bryan Cranston, and of course, Ryan Gosling, each adding a little something extra to prototypes we’ve seen before. Though many have reasonably small roles, every character in Drive becomes iconic. Let the mainstream have their Fast Five; in Drive, spellbinding getaway of the opening sequence sets the tone for the rest of the movie — it isn’t about noise and twisted metal, but something leaner, tauter, and ultimately much meaner. Buckle up.
If I told you that a movie featuring an adorable Jack Russell that “talks” via subtitles was one of 2011’s most raw, heartfelt, and honest, would you believe me? Beginners neatly pulls off that trick, and a host of others, in tracking tracks two very different stories of love and self-discovery. In the more conventional of the two, boy Oliver (Ewan McGregor) meets girl Anna (Melanie Laurent) and instantly falls for her despite the laryngitis that renders her temporarily unable to speak. Thus they get to know each other via a series of notes, games, and gestures, revealing more than they ever could with dialogue. (If that sounds impossibly precious, it kind of is — but just go with it.) Both Oliver and Anna have had unsatisfactory relationships in the past and are reluctant to leap into another; though they are in their thirties, they are still beginners when it comes to being adults.
In the second and more moving of the intertwined tales, Oliver learns that his father is gay following the death of his mother, and proceeds to help his dad through the coming out process at the ripe old age of 76. Here, Hal, too, truly “begins” his life — unfortunately, not all that long before it ends. Beginners is essentially a coming-of-age tale featuring men of vastly different ages struggling to make the most of their lives, and its portrait of human lives in full at times rivals The Tree Of Life‘s in scope (if not in grandiosity). Mike Mills’ second feature is wholly impressive for the genuineness of its emotions, rare in films that take place, in part, on a deathbed. It may have been made by a relative beginner to narrative filmmaking, but it sure doesn’t feel that way.
An absent-minded Korean grandmother takes a poetry-writing class. Sounds riveting, doesn’t it? Well, as all (or at least, most) good poets know, less is more, and while Poetry contains quite a lot of movie — approaching two and a half hours — its best moments are marked by what’s left unstated. Chang-dong Lee allows for an awful lot of screen time that is mere observation — we, the audience, observe protagonist Mija as she observes the world around her, and we can only guess at what exactly she’s thinking. The characters in Poetry often don’t say much of import, but their silence speaks volumes.
It’s rare to feel such sympathy and love for a fictional character these days, but that was my reaction to Poetry. I wanted to give Mija a big hug and treat her much better than anyone in this movie treats her, in particular the ungrateful teen grandson who doesn’t know or care what sacrifices she makes for him. (And I’m not talking about the usual kind, either.) Mija is one of those people who brightens the world around her (just look at her outfits!) and receives very little in return for her efforts. As she learns that she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, Mija decides to do a little something for herself for once — she wants to write one poem while she still can. But she finds inspiration hard to come by. Despite a local tragedy that has a profound impact on Mija’s loved ones, this dotty old lady manages to maintain her sunny disposition right up until the bitter (though ambiguous) end. When Mija finally gets around to writing that poem, she leaves behind a masterpiece.
Oh, the Shame! My #1 films are often one of the year’s most divisive, and Steve McQueen’s Shame is no exception. I’m drawn to filmmakers who take risks both narratively and formally. If it’s safe for mainstream moviegoers, it likely isn’t my favorite movie of the year.
So sorry, The Descendants — Michael Fassbender gives the year’s best performance (by an actor or actress, leading or supporting) in the year’s best movie. He’s Brandon, a closet sex addict with a shady past we only learn about little by little. (Yes, I’ll be screaming at my TV set when either Brad Pitt or George Clooney takes home the Oscar instead. At least there’s a high probability Fassbender will be nominated for his efforts here.) Of course I could go on and on about all the things I loved in Shame, considering that I reveled in absolutely every moment — the subtle way information is revealed about the unconventional relationship Brandon has with his sister (Carey Mulligan); McQueen’s use of long takes, including a jaw-dropping “How’d they do that?” run through the dark streets of New York City; Mulligan’s melancholy take on “New York, New York”; the combined ferocity and vulnerability bubbling underneath Brandon’s outwardly calm, affable demeanor in every scene. (No, seriously, I could go on.)
But I’ll stop there with specifics, and instead address Shame‘s detractors on more general terms. Filmgoing is, of course, a subjective experience — what speaks to you may not speak to me, and vice versa. We bring our own experiences and points of view into every movie, and just because one doesn’t work as well for us as well as another doesn’t make it an unsuccessful movie. (Some movies do objectively fail to convey what they intend to, but Shame isn’t one of them.) I have considered many critiques of Shame, some intelligent and valid, others glib and childish. To say that you didn’t understand or connect with Brandon is a perfectly reasonable criticism, for the film never panders or shows its entire hand. To say that the film moralizes and attempts to build its audience up by tearing its protagonist down, though, is blatantly wrong. Usually, this tongue-lashing is offered in the same breath as a smug jab at the film’s NC-17 rating and full-frontal male nudity (never Mulligan’s, always Fassbender’s). Jealous much, Shame haters?
Yes, Shame shows us a penis. Gasp! Are we really so prurient? I doubt many critics’ problems with the movie start and end with Fassbender’s anatomy, but it always seems to come up (tee hee!) in every bad review of the film, and not many good ones. Most (not all) of the negative critiques come across as prudish — which in a way, means Shame has done at least a little of what it set out to. Explicit sex isn’t exactly undiscovered territory at the multiplex, but the way Shame presents it isn’t attempting to go down easy (tee hee!), either. At its most surface level, Shame is about a sex addict; would the same film about a drug addict inspire such vehement hatred (as opposed to mere indifference)? Shame is a film that can’t not push buttons, because we’ve all got a button or two to be pushed when it comes to sex. All of us.
Now, Shame doesn’t come right out and say that much, but the subtext is there, under the surface, the way our sexuality is. Hidden. In this day and age, we air much of what used to be concealed, but almost nobody walks around truly baring it all when it comes to our sexual hangups and insecurities. (We’ve all got them!) Sex makes us uncomfortable; therefore, Shame is likely to, also. Not everyone who didn’t warm up to Shame is reacting against the film’s overt, in-your-face sexuality — but some are.
Personally, I connected to Fassbender’s Brandon more than I did to any other screen character in 2011 — and not because I, too, am a sex addict. In the same way I did not find Crash to be very much about racism, I do not take Shame to be about sex addiction. Call me crazy, but for me it was all too clear that this was a very specific character study about a man with a unique history. Whatever has gone on between Brandon and his sister, I don’t think McQueen expects much of the audience to identify, per se. It’s merely a stand-in for any sexual experience one has that ends up shaping us in ways we don’t expect, rarely think about, and probably never talk about. Brandon’s case may be extreme, and his high level of shame corresponds with how taboo (by society’s standards) his sexual history is. Brandon is a man tortured by his sexuality, which manifests into sexual addiction. But the movie is about the former, not the latter.
That’s what’s so brilliant about it. Shame brings to light things we don’t discuss, or include in reviews, or even make movies about. You may recognize some or a lot of yourself in Brandon, you may not — but even if you do, you likely won’t admit it. We experience Shame the way its protagonist experiences his illicit hookups. For two hours, Brandon and Steve McQueen and Shame share something intimate and personal with you, and you share something intimate and personal with Shame just by watching and thinking about it. One way or another, you react.
There are secrets transferred in a darkened movie theater between you and Shame, and when it’s over, you’ll step into the light. Only you and Shame will know what went on in there, and then you’ll return to your daily life — where it’s not proper to discuss such matters — and probably attempt to forget about it. It was just some fun you were hoping to have in the dark, and like any sexual experience, it’s subjective. One man’s Casanova is another’s sexual catastrophe. Maybe Shame didn’t do what you like quite the way you like it, or maybe it didn’t live up to your expectations, or maybe you were just in a bad mood and had your mind on other things, or maybe it reminded you of someone you’d rather not think about, or maybe it would improve after a second or third go-round, once you were more used to each other, or maybe you liked certain parts of it a little too much and now you feel… ashamed.
After such an encounter, it’s customary to ask: “Was it good for you?” Far be it from me to hold it against you if Shame didn’t quite do it for you, but let me assure you — Shame is fully capable of hitting the cinematic G-spot for some of us.
Yeah. It was really good for me.