The best films of 2011

December is a month defined by its traditions. You stuff yourself on Christmas, get smashed on New Year’s Eve, and if you’re a film critic, or play one on the internet, you make a list of your best films of the year. It’s always “best,” never “favorite,” as if we truly did believe that our list was the definitive one. Claiming objectivity just as we’re engaging in the most subjective act of all. Since I’m nothing if not a slave to tradition, here’s my own list of the 10 best films of 2011. If you disagree with it, you’re probably wrong.

2011 was a great year for cinema. After all, a year in which we get two genuinely great action blockbusters (Fast Five and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) cannot be a bad one. (I kid, I kid. Except for the part about Fast Five and Mission Impossible being great. They are.) This is perhaps why I found December to be such a disappointment, relatively speaking. The last few weeks have seen the release of a number of critical darlings, including Shame, Carnage, Hugo, A Dangerous Method, and Le Havre, which all failed to elicit in me the same kind of passionate reaction they did in others. (Well, I hated Le Havre, but that’s not what I meant.) Most of them were good, but none of them struck me as great, perhaps because of heightened expectations. Carnage was a particularly frustrating offender, the promises of its brilliant first half remaining unfulfilled until the end as its characters turn into little more than drunken caricatures (the moment when John C. Reilly starts spouting tired clichés about marriage being the film’s low point for me). Unsurprisingly, A Dangerous Method is the one that I find most fascinating, and while I was originally underwhelmed for a number of reasons, I’ve found myself unable to stop thinking about it since then and will probably give it a second shot soon. This month’s few bright spots came with less exposition, either commercial or critical. They were the aforementioned Mission: Impossible and Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, as well as what I expected to be a minor film from one of my favorite filmmakers and which ended up making my best of the year list as number 6. (Another example of the absurdity and artificiality of those lists: did I really like that movie slightly better than the one in 7th place and slightly worse than the one in 5th place?)

December was also a frustrating month because, try as I might, I simply can’t see every single film I’d want to see before the end of the year (he says, having seen over 300 new releases this year). This includes films I missed during their (sometimes much too short) theatrical run as well as films that won’t be coming out in France until next year. Some heavy hitters and/or critical favorites that won’t be hitting French theaters until 2012 include The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Margaret (not slated for release until late August, brilliant), Take Shelter, and Martha Marcy May Marlene. Conversely, many international movies that may never see a theatrical release in the US have already come out here. In compiling the following list, I therefore used the same eligibility rules I did last year: any film with a 2011 French release date is fair game, with the exception of movies that were released in the US in 2010 or earlier (because as much as I love Black Swan, Somewhere, and Animal Kingdom, I don’t think it would make much sense to have them on my best of 2011 list). Films that will be released in the very last week of December are also exempt (for the obvious reason that I haven’t been able to see them yet), which, sadly, include The Mill and the Cross and Snowtown, two films I am very much looking forward to.

One last thing before we start: although I didn’t get to see Raul Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon until early this year, it actually came out in 2010 here. Had it been released in 2011, it would probably be sitting at number 2 or 3 on my list.

10. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Gorgeous cinematography is a minor recurring theme in this top 10, but Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Cannes Grand Prix-winning (sorta) crime film has them all beat. Shot almost entirely at night, it is, if nothing else, a marvel to look at, and features what’s probably my favorite opening shot of the year (amusingly, the number one film on this list features my favorite closing shot of the year). The film unfolds as a group of cops, led by a prosecutor, a doctor, and a police captain, escort a couple of suspects in search of the burial place of the man they killed. The night is long, the body seemingly impossible to find, and the men start talking. They all have their stories, their ghosts and their demons. They’re all looking, if not for help, then for reassurance and comfort, which they can’t and won’t find in one another.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is as sad and cruel and funny as a Chekhov story, with its men who are ostensibly looking for truth but want nothing less than to find it. Blessed indeed is the gendarmerie sergeant who accompanies the men, and for whom truth is but a geographical location.

9. Sleeping Beauty

Whether you read it as a twisted fairy tale about a bored young girl or as a feminist allegory (notice how, in spite of the numerous shots of naked female bodies, the careful framing and composition deny the very possibility of a male gaze), or as both, Julia Leigh’s debut is an astonishing piece of art, just as unsettling as it is fascinating. Sleeping Beauty follows Lucy (Emily Browning), a young Australian student who works several odd jobs to pay for school and finds herself hired by a strange company first to serve, half-naked, at exclusive upper-class dinner parties, then to lie asleep and naked as men do whatever it is they want with her body save actually having sex with her.

The film plays like a vivid nightmare spiraling ever more out of control as we watch Lucy lose herself in her new job, body and, perhaps, soul. It’s the former that interests Leigh the most, though. Bodies and how we represent and see them, and what ideology lies behind. It’s hard to think of a fiercer skewering of Hollywood’s still much too common objectification of women.

(You can read my original review here.)

8. Tomboy

Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to her masterful debut Water Lilies would actually make for quite a fascinating double feature with Sleeping Beauty. While Leigh looks at external representations of the body and at the ideology behind them, Sciamma is more interested in processes of self-identification. Water Lilies was all about the sexual awakening of three fifteen-year-old girls; Tomboy is about ten-year-old Laure (a brilliant Zoé Héran) who, upon moving to a new neighborhood, introduces herself as Michaël to her new friends and does everything in her power to pass as a boy. The endeavor is doomed from the start, as summer is coming to a close and Laure will undoubtedly be found out on the first day of school, but she clings to it with all her might, especially as she starts to build a relationship she doesn’t quite understand with her neighbor Lisa (Jeanne Disson).

Sciamma refuses to provide us with simple answers and explanations; what she does give us is a bittersweet tale of friendship and early sexual identification, as well as quite a harsh look at how, and how early, society imposes gender roles on us. (Don’t worry, this isn’t about to turn into an essay on gender politics. That’ll be for another day.)

7. Road to Nowhere

Road to Nowhere, Monte Hellman’s first film in over two decades, has the look and feel of a David Lynch movie set in North Carolina. Indeed the opening credits can be seen as an homage to Lynch’s masterpiece, Mulholland Drive. The film itself is a rather complex affair: it follows young director Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) as he’s making a movie about a real-life (within the film) accident/murder involving one Velma Duran., played in the film-within-the-film by a non-professional actress by the name of Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon), who may or may not actually be Velma Duran.

Road to Nowhere is a film about relationships of power, with characters who constantly shift and change, even sometimes adopting entirely new identities. Nothing is ever quite as it seems in Road to Nowhere, because there’s no such thing as a fixed reality there, and in that sense it’s also a film about how we tell others and ourselves stories in which we end up believing even though we know they’re not true. Don’t expect a clean resolution here; the title tells you precisely where Road to Nowhere will end up, but what matters is how it gets there.

6. Oki’s Movie

Oki’s Movie, the second Hong Sang-soo movie to have been released here this year after Hahaha (which won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes in 2010), sees the South Korean director return to some familiar characters and themes: there’s a semi-failed filmmaker with an alcohol problem, a sort of love triangle, and some fascinating meta commentary. The form is new, though, as Oki’s Movie is composed of four distinct short films revolving around the titular Oki (Jeong Yu-mi), a young film student, and the two men who pursue her, fellow student Jingu (Lee Sun-kyun) and married professor Mr. Song (Moon Sung-keun).

Human relationships are always at once extremely complex and extremely simple in Hong’s films (“How can you win against your own sexual desire?” Mr. Song asks. “Show me anyone who’s done it. You can’t.”), and men are rarely positive figures, though they’re usually more pathetic than bad. Oki’s Movie provides us with a hilariously thorough deconstruction of the dogged nice guy archetype (the first segment actually revolves around an older Jingu who seems to have forgotten all about Oki, is now a full-blown alcoholic, and may or may not make it a habit to sleep with his students), Mr. Song proves to be a much more enigmatic and nuanced figure. And then there’s this delicious moment in the last segment, also titled “Oki’s Movie”, in which Oki narrates what is presented (within the film) as her student film and remarks that she chose actors who look like Jingu and Mr. Song for it to be as close to reality as possible. But of course those actors are played by the same who did play Jingu and Mr. Song in the first three segments, and suddenly you’re not quite sure what you’re watching after all.

5. The Kid with a Bike

Much like Tomboy, the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid with a Bike (which shared the Grand Prix in Cannes this year with Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia) is a seemingly simple story with much hidden depth. Cyril (Thomas Doret) is the eponymous kid, an impetuous and sometimes violent boy who’s been left in an orphanage by his deadbeat father (Jérémie Renier). By complete chance he meets young hairdresser Samantha (Cécile de France), and on a whim she decides to take him into her home on weekends.

The Kid with a Bikeis perhaps slightly less grim than some of the Dardennes’ other works, but it is no less relentless in its portrayal of social and emotional distress. Cyril, portrayed by a pitch-perfect Thomas Doret (2011 could very well be the year of the child actor), is wounded and hurting, and lashing out at everything and everyone in response. The Dardennes wisely refuse to make him an entirely sympathetic figure; the kid is almost feral and, at times, frightening in his violence. And if The Kid with a Bike packs quite the emotional punch, it’s never of the cheap, easy variety. As usual, the Dardenne brothers want not only to make you feel, but to make you think.

4. Attack the Block

What do you do when your neighborhood is attacked by a bunch of aliens that look like “big gorilla-wolf motherfuckers?” If you’re a kid from the South End of London, well, you grab a baseball bat (or a katana) and take the fight to them, of course. At least that’s what Moses (intense John Boyega) and his friends do in Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block, which would play like a tribute to both John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg (don’t talk to me about Super 8) if it weren’t so much its own movie. On top of the aliens, the kids have to contend with the police and with a local drug lord who’s not at all amused by this turn of events.

Attack the Block is choke-full of thrills, laughs, and blood, and provides a much subtler commentary on race and class relations than it may seem at first glance. That some critics felt it impossible to empathize with the kids because the film opens with them mugging a nurse speaks volume when we are routinely made to root for cold-blooded killers and other unhinged individuals in movies. But forget about that; for pure entertainment value, nothing this year beat Attack the Block, with its tight story, brilliant acting, clever zingers, and great action scenes.

(You can read my original review here.)

3. Meek’s Cutoff

Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to her devastating Wendy and Lucy is a marvel of a revisionist western that follows three families on the Oregon Trail, led by real-life pioneer and guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). The group is lost and Meek’s authority is challenged, especially by Emily (Michelle Williams, marvelous), who thinks she has found a replacement guide in the Indian (Rod Rondeaux) the group has captured, and with whom they can’t communicate. (His lines are never translated, leaving us as much in the dark as Emily and the other pioneers as to what he’s thinking.)

With its ponderous pace and oppressive atmosphere (quite an accomplishment, given that it takes place entirely on the wide open Oregon Trail), Meek’s Cutoff manages to convey both the dullness and the sheer terror of a westward voyage in the middle of the 19th century. It also gives a voice, so to speak, to the nameless Indian as well as to the bonnet-wearing women, generally voiceless characters (again, metaphorically speaking) in westerns. (Yeah, I may have been lying about this not turning into a gender politics essay.) Incidentally, it also closes with my second-favorite final shot of the year, an image that should keep you thinking for days after the film’s end.

2. I Saw the Devil

Kim Jee-woon’s demented revenge movie pits serial killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik, in a performance that’s even better than the one that made him famous to western audiences in Oldboy) against secret service agent Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun), whose girlfriend he murdered. I Saw the Devil ostensibly takes the form of a classic duel between good and evil, intense, grim, and bloody, but it soon turns into something else entirely when it turns out that Soo-hyeon may be just as much of a monster as the man he’s hunting.

With its extremely graphic displays of violence, I Saw the Devil clearly is not for everyone. There’s a lot of blood and close-ups of people getting beat up and maimed, but that violence is never gratuitous. It is used instead to turn I Saw the Devil into a brutal deconstruction of the revenge movie genre and into a reflection on movie violence and its moral implications in general. It is also a viciously effective thriller, beautifully shot, with two brilliant performances by Choi Min-sik and Kim Jee-woon regular Lee Byung-hun.

(You can read my original review here.)

1. A Separation

We started with a fake police procedural, and we end with another one. Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation chronicles first the divorce of middle-class couple Nader (Peyman Maadi, magnificent) and Simin (Leila Hatami), then the lawsuit that opposes Nader to Razieh (the incredible Sareh Bayat), the woman he hired to take care of his Alzheimer’s-stricken father, and her short-tempered husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). It’s a film of incredible complexity, both in terms of narrative (which doesn’t mean that it’s hard to follow), and in terms of characters and relationships. No one comes out of it unscathed; not Iran’s westernized middle-class, nor its ultra-religious masses, nor Iranian society as a whole.

Farhadi would rather leave his audience with questions rather than answers, and A Separation literally ends with an unanswered question and with a final, sustained shot that gets my vote (as I have already mentioned) for best final shot of the year. A Separation is, ultimately, a film about how we live with ourselves, with our principles and our compromises, and that heartbreaking final shot shows just how costly it all can get.

Twelve movies that didn’t make the cut but came pretty close (in alphabetical order):

Beginners, Drive, Fast Five, Footnote, Hahaha, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Melancholia, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, Source Code, The Tree of Life, Warrior.

  1. #1 by Jib' on December 27, 2011 - 11:45 am

    Et Terrence Malick dans tout ça ? Il vole tellement au-dessus des autres que tu ne l’as pas mis, c’est ça ?

  2. #2 by Jib' on December 27, 2011 - 11:52 am

    Ah tiens, au temps pour moi tu as bien mis Tree of Life en fin. Mais comment le meilleur film de ces dernières années peut ne pas être dans la liste des meilleurs films de l’année ? Ca n’a pas de sens !

    • #3 by gschmidtcleach on December 27, 2011 - 12:06 pm

      J’aime beaucoup The Tree of Life, mais je trouve qu’il y a deux problèmes majeurs qui l’ont empêché de finir dans le top 10.

      Le premier, ce sont les scènes de Sean Penn, qui n’ont pour seule utilité que de renforcer le didactisme du film jusqu’à le rendre presque étouffant.

      Le deuxième, c’est la fin, avec la réunion sur la plage. Jusque là, on avait des trucs visuellement magnifiques et originaux, et soudain, on se retrouve avec la vision de l’au-delà la plus bateau qui soit, fleurant bon les clichés.

      Cela dit, je le répète, c’est un film que j’aime beaucoup. C’est juste qu’à un moment il faut faire un choix, et ça a été le dernier à se faire éjecter du top 10.

      • #4 by Jib' on December 28, 2011 - 10:06 am

        Oui, cette scène sur la plage m’a un peu interloqué. Rien compris, ni intellectuellement, ni esthétiquement. Ca tombe comme un cheveu sur la soupe.

  3. #5 by Greg on January 8, 2012 - 9:16 am

    Wait, you didn’t like Shame? Shame?!!! Of course you are wrong in this, as it’s my pick for the best movie of the year (though I haven’t seen A Separation). 😉

    I would say the movie that most didn’t live up to my expectations was Take Shelter, mainly due to the last scene. Tomboy is already out in the movie theater where I work, so I’ll be sure to grab it (since I can see it for free). And yes, Mysteries of Lisbon is wonderful.

    • #6 by gschmidtcleach on January 8, 2012 - 9:54 am

      I thought Shame was alright, but given the high expectations I had for it, it was kind of a letdown. Fassbender was amazing, of course, but I found the film in general to remain largely skin-deep (partly due to McQueen’s refusal to go into his characters’ psychology). The last third of the film is also full of clichés, starting with (SPOILERS) the “can’t get it up with someone I might actually care about” scene and ending with Mulligan’s attempted suicide (Fassbender’s sleepless night is also highly problematic for me).

      The other thing that bothered me a little was how McQueen can’t resist the temptation to show off his skills at times. Take the incredible tracking shot of Fassbender running through the streets of New York, or the very nice work on framing and lighting in many scenes. Those are beautiful, but they clash badly with just how raw the film purports to be; they’re pretty to look at, but do we really need stuff that’s pretty to look at in Shame? (The one exception is the date scene, with its long take that insists on just how awkward it is for everyone involved; here it has meaning, whereas most of the other instances of cinematic flourish feel somewhat gratuitous.)

      Of course I’m focusing on the negatives here, so it may sound like I hated the film. I didn’t, but I didn’t love it, either. I just wish McQueen had gone deeper into his characters, and reined in his artistic impulses a little.

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