Sunday, January 15, 2012

My Favorite Films of 2011

2012 was, to my mind, an excellent year for film, and an especially great year for film lovers: there were films that demonstrated the power of art to the alter lives (Marwencol, Poetry, The Woodmans), affect social change (Waste Land), and even shape history (Cinema Komunisto); films that celebrated the art of cinema and its ability to tell stories like no other media (The Tree of Life, Melancholia, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives); and, just as celluloid is dying and people have stopped going out to the movies, love letters to the cinema (Hugo, The Artist) that seem to have resonated with audiences. Hugo and Pina and Cave of Forgotten Dreams proved that 3D doesn't have to be a cheap gimmick. Rise of the Planet of the Apes proved that CGI can actually come to life. Looking back at the past year, I'm feeling pretty optimistic. Movies aren't quite dead yet. As any movie buff knows, there's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.

The criteria for my Favorite Films list is simple: movies that opened in Chicago in 2011. Some of the films below could be considered 2010 releases because they played in New York and Los Angeles in 2010, but the films on my list did not open in Chicago until 2011. My movie year began with Night Catches Us, which opened at Facets on January 7, and ended with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on December 28. Here are my favorites of the 2011:

1. Bill Cunningham New York (dir. Richard Press)

In a year full of lofty cinematic visions, my favorite film was this modest documentary about New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham. Now, I have little interest in fashion and have never paid attention to the "Fashion & Style" section of the Times. There's nothing grand about this film -- it's a rather straightforward doc, full of talking heads -- but Cunningham himself is so vibrant and luminous that his movie needs no adornment. Here is a man who, in his 80's, has an exuberant passion for his work that I can only dream of. I love movies about people who are skilled at what they do and enjoy it (a similar theme of my 2010 favorite, Exit Through the Gift Shop). Talent and devotion and joy: Cunningham embodies all of those traits, as well as humility and patience and kindness and unbelievable professionalism. And watching him dart around Manhattan on his bicycle from one event to another inspired and invigorated me, made me want to devote more time to my passions, start a blog, create a place to share my excitement with others.

Bill Cunningham New York is available on DVD and Netflix Instant. I don't recommend watching any film on a computer screen, though perhaps it's a somewhat fitting platform for a movie about a guy who's always on the move.

2. Poetry (dir. Chang-dong Lee)

I almost skipped Poetry because the plot description sounded like the worst kind of Sundance pablum: "A sixty-something woman, faced with the discovery of a heinous crime and in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, finds strength and purpose when she enrolls in a poetry class." I finally saw it one evening in March after it had moved to the small screen at the Music Box, and Jessica was working and I had nothing better to do. It's haunted me ever since. All I can say is, I guess you can't judge a film by its plot description: discover this beautiful and moving film for yourself. Available on DVD and Netflix Instant, though this is one for the big screen.

3. Certified Copy (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)

A certified copy is a facsimile of a primary document that has been officially endorsed as a true copy of the primary document. It does not certify that the primary itself is genuine, only that the certified copy is a true duplicate of the original. Kiarostami's clever and mesmerizing film begins by exploring whether a well-crafted copy of a work of art can be as valuable as the work itself, then applies that question to human relationships. The film deals ingeniously,with my favorite topics: truth, memory, subjectivity, and the idea that in the end reality itself is merely a construct of the moment. I saw this extraordinary film twice in the theatre and am eager to revisit it as soon as it's available on DVD.

4. Margaret (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

At the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival I ran into my friend Ivan, who seems to know every movie ever made and sees at least five times the number of films I do in a given year. We discussed recent films we'd seen and I mentioned how I'd recently been disappointed by a few dull screenings, Higher Ground and Ways of the Sea. I said something like, "I'll take a captivating mess over competently directed Oscar bait," and he replied, "You really need to see Margaret. Like, now. It's only playing at this theatre, and only for one week." So I headed back to AMC River East the following day and was blown away by Kenneth Lonergan's shaggy, chaotic, exasperating, remarkable film about an upper-middle-class Manhattan teen who witnesses a tragic bus accident and gets caught up in the aftermath. It's one of the richest and most authentic portrayals of adolescence I've seen, and the erratic, unpolished style of the film perfectly suits its subject.

P.S. Margaret has a stormy, storied production history and distribution drama, and it's tempting to root for this underdog just because it was so mistreated by Fox Searchlight, which did its best to kill any chances of success the film may have had. Luckily the film has had several vocal supporters -- Ben Kenigsberg at Time Out Chicago, Richard Brody at The Front Row -- and seems, finally, to be getting a second chance with some actual distribution. It will play for a week at the Gene Siskel Film Center beginning February 17.

5. The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick)

A friend at work told me the other day, "I tried to watch Tree of Life. I just ... couldn't get past the dinosaurs." Yes, the dinosaurs, the gas clouds, the drifting sands, the whispered voiceovers. I suppose you either embrace it or you don't. I can see why people rolled their eyes at the more bombastic elements of the film, but I loved them, as I loved the discursive structure and swooping camerawork and surreal flourishes, converging in a stunning exploration of memory and identity. There are moments so epic and others so painfully personal, and I think they work together perfectly. The more personal moments are the ones that resonated most with me, and at times powerfully evoked my own childhood, but I wonder whether they'd hit me as acutely without the alternating metaphysical moments. What I love about film is how beautifully it lends itself to digressive explorations of memory, images bursting forth, fading away, blurring together, the real and the made up, the revised and re-imagined. I loved The Tree of Life, from the dinner table to the dinosaurs.

6. Marwencol (dir. Jeff Malmberg)

A tender, moving, transcendent documentary about the healing power of art. After a vicious attack outside a bar left him brain-damaged and broke, Mark Hogancamp, unable to afford therapy, began constructing a 1/6-scale World War II-era Belgian town in his backyard and populating it with dolls. If all that sounds weird or precious, just trust me on this one. Available on DVD and Netflix Instant.

7. Take Shelter (dir. Jeff Nichols)

The second film by director Jeff Nichols is impressively assured: masterful camerawork, terrific effects, taut script. Everything in this psychological thriller works, including the final scene, which a surprising number of people seemed to dislike. Scott Tobias, film editor of The AV Club and generally one of my favorite critics, tweeted that the ending "whiffed it." I disagree completely, but I would hate to reveal too much of this tense and transcendent film so I will say only, watch it and decide for yourself, but remember that you don't need to take everything at face value.

Take Shelter will play at the Gene Siskel Film Center for one week beginning January 20.

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

Kelly Reichardt presents The Oregon Trail -- The Movie. Settlers traveling through the Oregon desert in 1845 find themselves running low on supplies and patience. Stark, bleak, and riveting. Available on DVD and Netflix Instant (though this one belongs in a theatre).

9. The Future (dir. Miranda July)

The Future seems to be one of the most divisive films of 2011. What can I say? I adored it. But here I'll defer to one of my favorite film writers, The New Yorker's Richard Brody, who, in a wonderful post entitled Future Shock compared the zanier elements of The Future -- say, the talking cat who narrates the film -- with the controversial metaphysical scenes in The Tree of Life: "For July as for Malick, perception is only the start. Neither film seeks to transcend the ordinary or to escape life at a human scale; rather, both are about trying to make daily life as extraordinary as the best and deepest moments of experience—of outer and inner vision."

10. The Turin Horse (dir. Béla Tarr)

A two-and-a-half hour, slow moving, black and white, subtitled Hungarian film, with the following plot description from IMDb: "A rural farmer is forced to confront the mortality of his faithful horse." It sounds almost like a sitcom joke, a parody of an art movie from The Critic. The story is even based on an incident from the life of Friedrich Nietzsche! Yes, a father and daughter take care of their horse, eat boiled potatoes, and generally survive in relentlessly grim conditions. That's about it. Stark, depressing, and difficult. But Tarr's camerawork is so masterful and captivating that I was utterly entranced.

11. Le Quattro Volte (dir. Michelangelo Frammartino)

Some curious goats, an old shepherd, a tree cutting ceremony, dust on a church floor, a charcoal kiln, some frustrating snails, an Easter procession, a yapping dog, Italian villagers, a birth, a death, a rebirth: Frammartino presents all the stages of life in gorgeous, long takes and images both sad and comical. A wonderful and absorbing meditation. Available on DVD and Netflix Instant.

12. Another Earth (dir. Mike Cahill)

Here was another film I almost missed because the trailer looked cheesy and inane and the poster didn't help either with its laughable quote from The Hollywood Reporter: "Opens up the vast, still largely unexplored terrain of the human heart." Thankfully something compelled me to catch a cheap matinee at River East one morning, because I loved this quietly affecting movie. Director Mike Cahill achieves a beautiful, stark mood that deftly balances the line between human drama and science fiction. I enjoyed it so much that just a few days later I went back with Jess, who was even more skeptical than I had been. She loved it, too.

13. Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin)

A finely crafted, pitch perfect psychological thriller with outstanding performances from Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes. I'm not really sure what else there is to say. I love the tautness of the script -- no clunky exposition weighing down the action -- and the way Durkin weaves between reality and memory, the real and the imagined. Tense and gripping.

14. Nostalgia for the Light (dir. Patricio Guzmán)

In Chile's Atacama Desert, astronomers gather in the mountains to peer into the cosmos for answers about the origins of life. Meanwhile, in the valley below, a group of widows sifts through the sand searching for body parts of loved ones "disappeared" by Pinochet's army decades ago. Gorgeous, moving, and profound.

15. Margin Call (dir. J. C. Chandor)

To be honest, though it may sound callous, I haven't cared much about the financial meltdown of the last few years. Watching Inside Job in 2010 I struggled to summon the rage everyone kept telling me to feel, but all I could think was, "Why did she try to buy the house when she didn't have enough money?" and, "So the rich found another way to work the system to get richer. Why is this news?" So I was surprised by how much  I enjoyed Margin Call, how well newcomer Chandor (aided by an exceptional cast) laid out the facts of the crisis so succinctly, evenly, and compellingly -- exploring the complex issue rather than just huffing angrily and pointing fingers.

16. Attack the Block (dir. Joe Cornish)

I don't think I had more fun at any movie this summer than I did with this group of South London teenagers protecting their block from an alien invasion. Funny, dynamic, thrilling, and charming, Attack the Block was everything Captain America and Cowboys and Aliens and Pirates of the Caribbean should have been.

17. El Bulli: Cooking in Progress (dir. Gereon Wetzel)

As I mentioned up top, I love watching movies about people who are not only skilled at what they do but approach their work with passion, commitment, and exuberance. Wetzel's documentary simply sits back and observes as the chefs of El Bulli experiment with ingredients and tastes to create, year after year, one of the most acclaimed menus in the world. Experimentation, innovation, exploration, dedication. I may never be able to eat the food, but it's fascinating and inspiring to see it created. Note: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress will be returning to the Gene Siskel Film Center for a two-week run beginning February 3.

19. The Descendants (dir. Alexander Payne)

After his excellent contribution to the anthology film Paris, je t'aime, a surprisingly sympathetic piece compared to his prior films, I wondered what direction Alexander Payne would take next. He hasn't softened, per se, but the characters of The Descendants are more complex and humane than anyone in About Schmidt or Sideways, Payne's most recent feature films. A mature work about maturation. Whatever changed in Payne's seven year break between feature films, I'm eager to see where he heads next.

18. The Artist (dir. Michel Hazanavicius)

I was prepared, rather pretentiously, to dislike The Artist. A black and white, silent film in 2011? I thought, this has to be some kind of dumbed down "silent" movie for audiences who don't ever watch silent movies. But I was surprised and impressed. An entertaining and clever nod to the silent era, with a few extraordinary scenes that would make Chaplin proud. Of course, I'm happy that The Artist got made at all, and has found an audience and received nominations: its existence alone makes me optimistic about the future of movies. But I'm also happier still to report that it's also a great film.

20. Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen)

After more than 40 feature films, Woody Allen had his biggest success with this alluring, amusing love letter to the City of Light. Audiences embraced the film, but a lot of critics dismissed it as a trifle. Okay, so it's not Hannah and Her Sisters, but that's why we have Hannah and Her Sisters. Midnight in Paris is still a delightful movie -- masterfully effortless -- one which I enjoyed twice in the theatre and would watch again in a heartbeat. And as someone who spends a great deal of time wishing he'd been born in another era, I was actually quite struck by the film's "minor revelation."

Numbers 21 - 50:

KABOOM (dir. Gregg Araki); Drive (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn); Hugo (dir. Martin Scorsese); The Trip (dir. Michael Winterbottom); Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul); Source Code (dir. Duncan Jones); The Black Power Mixtape 1967 - 1975 (dir. Göran Olsson); Tabloid (dir. Errol Morris); Moneyball (dir. Bennett Miller); Garbo the Spy (dir. Edmon Roch); Beautiful Boy (dir. Shawn Ku); 3 (dir. Tom Tykwer); The Sleeping Beauty (dir. Catherine Breillat); Rango (dir. Gore Verbinski); Cold Weather (dir. Aaron Katz); Waste Land (dir. Lucy Walker); Limitless (dir. Neil Burger); The Woodmans (dir. Scott Willis); My Dog Tulip (dirs. Paul & Sandra Fierlinger); American: The Bill Hicks Story (dirs. Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas); Nénette (dir. Nicolas Philibert); Rapt (dir. Lucas Belvaux); Pianomania (dirs. Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck); Project NIM (dir. James Marsh); Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (dir. Michael Rapaport); Best Intentions (dir. Adrian Sitaru); Undertow (dir. Javier Fuentes-León); The Mysteries of Lisbon (dir. Raoul Ruiz); Sleep Furiously (dir. Gideon Koppel); The Guard (dir. John Michael McDonagh).

Special 2011 Award: Consuming Spirits (dir. Chris Sullivan). I wasn't sure I should count this strange, digressive, poetic film as a 2011 release because I believe it was still a bit of a work in progress when it played at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of the Conversations at the Edge series. The director noted afterwards that he had been working on the film until the very last minute, right before heading to the theatre. Apparently Consuming Spirits is now finished finished and will be playing the festival circuit in 2012 and I cannot wait to revisit the film, which has a unique, uneasy, oneiric mood like nothing else I can think of, if it gets a proper release in Chicago this year. If I hear of any upcoming area screenings I'll be sure to list them here. Check out the official trailer:

Second Chance Award: Melancholia (dir. Lars von Trier). Generally I prefer to avoid trailers and reviews as much as I can before seeing a film because I want to have few preconceptions going in. If it's von Trier, I know I'm going to see it anyway, so why bother researching it ahead of time? The problem is that with this approach some films demand at least two screenings, one to simply ground yourself in the film's world and another to truly absorb it. I'm pretty sure I'd like Melancholia more with a second viewing. I was frustrated by it at first, by the obnoxious, self-absorbed characters, mostly. But the ending moved me nonetheless and for afterwards I was affected by some of the film's images and scenes, and I read a few critiques that helped me appreciate the film in a new light. So I'm still uncertain about this one, but it deserves a second viewing.

Overrated: Bridesmaids. Critics hailed this film for having been written and produced by women. That's swell, but it's hardly groundbreaking to simply remake The Hangover with ladies standing in for the men. I went in expecting a subversion of the "bachelor movie" formula, but all I got was Wedding Crashers with more diarrhea jokes. Is it somehow sexist of me to expect more of women writers than stale, mean gags about overweight people eating hoagies in bed? Perhaps. Was the movie funny? Sure. One of the best films of the year? Far from it.

Runner Up: Super 8. A paint-by-numbers portrait of adolescence full of lazy stock characters -- the fat kid, the nerdy tomboy, the negligent dad -- that might pass on television, where the setup needs to happen quickly, but failed to come to life on the big screen.

Some Favorite Performances: Brendan Gleeson, The Guard; Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy; Jeannie Berlin, Margaret; Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life; Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene; Michael Fassbender, Shame; Jeong-hie Yun, Poetry; Lesley Manville, Another Year; Christopher Plummer, Beginners; Elena Anaya, The Skin I Live In.

My Least Favorite Movie:

I don't like to spend too much time dwelling on negative reviews -- what's the point? -- but there were certainly plenty of films I disliked this year, from the unfunny Hangover II to Morgan Spurlock's grating The Greatest Movie Ever Sold to the self-important Bellflower. However, the one film that riled me more than any other was Steve McQueen's Shame. There was actually a lot that I liked about the film, especially early on: Michael Fassbender is excellent as the sleazy Brandon; there's some striking composition; and I loved a few of the scenes, like Brandon's date with his coworker, Marianne. But the film flies off the rails in the last half hour or so and it ended up leaving a bitter taste in my mouth as I considered its themes and message. The first problem, and a pretty fundamental one, is that McQueen cannot decide whether to portray an actual sex addict (all the press around the film has mentioned sex addiction) or simply a scumbag along the lines of Harvey Keitel's character in Bad Lieutenant. The self-consciously arty, will-he-or-won't-he "ambiguous" ending doesn't make any sense if the film is about actual sex addiction, because if it is, then the ending cannot be ambiguous: Fassbender's character is still a sex addict, because he hasn't sought any treatment whatsoever, and one doesn't overcome addiction simply by having a breakdown on a rain-soaked street.

But what bothers me more than Shame's contrived artiness and muddled screenplay and miscasting of Carey Mulligan is its sly, probably subconscious, suggestion that heterosexual monogamy is righteous and any deviation from that norm is wrong. We know that Fassbender's character has reached the apex of his sexual depravity when -- SPOILER ALERT -- we see him entering a dingy gay nightclub bathed in ominous red light and (gasp!) receiving a blowjob from another man. Afterwards he passes a reflective building and we see his visage distorted and grotesque in the wavy surface (metaphor alert!). He knocks on an unmarked door in some empty hallway. An Asian woman dressed in black opens the door and he enters and engages in a threesome with two women, filmed in such a way that we know that this is the nadir, hollow and depressing and repulsive. But why choose a threesome to convey rock bottom? Why a gay nightclub? This character has had empty sexual encounters throughout the film but none filmed with the same menacing cinematography. McQueen is lazily exploiting the audience's subconscious fears, from homophobia and xenophobia to classic stereotypes about iniquitous opium dens. I'll bet Rick Santorum would adore this film.

Should Have Been, Could Have Been, So Much Better: Cowboys and Aliens; Contagion; Tower Heist; A Dangerous Method.

Films Of Which I Have Almost No Memory: Hanna; Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; The Whistleblower; Killer Elite; The Double.

I'm Sorry I Missed: Into the Abyss (dir. Werner Herzog); Like Crazy (dir. Drake Doremus); Winnie the Pooh (dirs. Stephen J. Anderson & Don Hall); Of Gods and Men (dir. Xavier Beauvois); Tyrannosaur (dir. Paddy Considine); Weekend (dir. Andrew Haigh); Submarine (dir. Richard Ayoade); The Arbor (dir. Clio Barnard); Kinyarwanda (dir. Alrick Brown); Restless (dir. Gus Van Sant); Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (dirs. Constance Marks & Philip Shane); Amigo (dir. John Sayles); Our Idiot Brother (dir. Jesse Peretz); Fast Five (dir. Justin Lin); Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (dir. Damien Chazelle).

Films That Have Not Yet Opened in Chicago (and may therefore appear on next year's list): A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi), which will open at Music Box Theatre on January 27; We Need to Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsay); Carnage (dir. Roman Polanski), which opens January 13 at Landmark Century Centre; House of Pleasures (dir. Bertrand Bonello), which will open at Gene Siskel Film Center on February 10; Pina (dir. Wim Wenders).

Most Overlooked: 

Beautiful Boy (dir. Shawn Ku), a moving drama about a couple (Michael Sheen and Maria Bello) whose lives are shattered when their 18-year-old son committs a mass shooting. It is currently available on DVD.

3 (dir. Tom Tykwer), a German film about a married couple. I didn't know any more than that going into the film, and I wish everyone could see it that way, though I guess the poster reveals the twist. 

Movie I Kept Having to Apologize for Liking: Anonymous. Cheesy? Yes. Melodramatic? Yes. Epic and rollicking? Oh yes. Sacrilege? Please. I'm convinced that William Shakespeare was a real person. I don't buy Anonymous factually any more than I do Shakespeare in Love. But that's hardly the point. Some of my favorite movies present either distorted or entirely fictitious views of historical material: JFK, The Social Network, Citizen Kane. Hell, Shakespeare's own Macbeth, one of my favorite plays, was an entirely fictitious and fairly slanderous portrait of an actual king. I had a great time watching Anonymous, and I think it's less an argument about who Shakespeare was than a love letter to the plays themselves, which are treated beautifully and reverentially in the film. Judging a dramatic film on its historical accuracy is  like judging a bowl of spaghetti on how much it tastes like semolina.

Best Remake: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (dir. David Fincher), which did away with some of the more laughable and indulgent aspects of the novel and original film, such as Mikael Blomkvist's tendency to have sex with every woman he encounters.

Worst Remake: Brighton Rock (dir. Rowan Joffe). Do yourself a favor and seek out John Boulting's original 1947 version of this Graham Greene story, one of my favorites, starring a very young Richard Attenborough as psychotic hoodlum Pinkie Brown.

Best Scores: Margaret, music by Nico Muhly; Night Catches Us, music by The Roots; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, music by Alberto Iglesias

Most Pleasant Surprise: The Scenesters (dir. Todd Berger)
Best Title: I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You 
Best Openings: The Turin Horse; Melancholia 
Best Trailer: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, far more enjoyable than the actual film.
Best Endings: The Housemaid; Meek's Cutoff; Another Earth; Melancholia 
Best Opening Credits: Night Catches Us (dir. Tanya Hamilton)
Best Closing Credits: The Green Hornet 
Favorite Quote: "Gentlemen, to bed! For we leave at nine-thirty!" -- The Trip
Best Song: "A Real Hero" by College (feat. Electric Youth) (from Drive)
Best Date Movie: Romantics Anonymous (dir. Jean-Pierre Améris) 
Worst Date Movie: Snowtown (dir. Justin Kurzel)
Perhaps I Was High at the Time But I Rather Enjoyed: The Green Hornet (dir. Michel Gondry)
WTF: The Last Circus (dir. Álex de la Iglesia)


  1. No interest in Red State whatsoever?

    Cannot add much really, you already know my take on Snowtown)) I liked Submarine and am really excited about Carnage. Thanks for the post, there are a few titles I added to "gotta see" list (starting with Margin Call - still love Paul Bettany, even after Legion and other crap. He'll always be my Gangster No.1)).

  2. I'd like to see Red State, and have heard great things from friends, including several who, like me, had stopped paying attention to Kevin Smith years ago. But I haven't had the chance, given that I wasn't about to pay a hundred bucks to see a film by any director, let alone Kevin Smith, and I don't have On-Demand, and I rarely get around to films on DVD (the last DVD I rented was You and Me and Everyone We Know, which Jess has never seen, which has been sitting on my shelf, unwatched, for two months).

    I hope you like Margin Call better than I liked Snowtown!