2011: Ten Best...Bellflower, Take Shelter, Pina...
In a frenzy of catching up on films in preparation for my top ten list of 2011, I watched six movies in 48 hours this past weekend: three on DVD, one on my laptop via the “play instantly” option offered by Netflix, and two at an actual theater. In times like this I am very thankful for the cross platform options available to movie lovers and it’s why I continue to remind friends, readers and listeners that never before have so many challenging, artistic, original and, yes, entertaining films been available to such a wide audience. As always, you simply have to remember a film–maybe even write down the title–that you want to see, and chances are if you miss it at a theater it will show up within the year on DVD and on-demand.
My favorite films this year could not all fit on a tidy top ten list, so I’ll begin with an honorable mention of Jane Eyre, A Separation, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. These were serious artistic films with a definitive style, memorable for their fresh takes on tried-and-true genres. The Brazilian dirty cop picture, Elite Squad 2, is a good example: although brutally violent and stuffed with recognizable tropes from countless mafia movies, the film was also an indictment of Brazil’s corrupt political society, a polemic expressed with blood and poetry. It was a wrenching and exhilarating viewing experience, and it never played in a Seattle theater.
Two considerably less violent films are tied for number ten on my list for the best films of last year: Margin Call and Midnight in Paris. Margin Call was the debut feature of a young writer-director, J.C. Chandor, working with an elite cast of actors (Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany) to assign some semblance of humanity to the hedge fund traders who toppled our country’s financial house of cards. The movie was smart, ambitious and, given the director’s relative inexperience, a major casting coup. Midnight in Paris was probably Woody Allen’s most enjoyable and most consistent film, in terms of tenor and theme, since 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway.
At number nine is Warrior, a tragedy of familial carnage playing behind the very public spotlight of pay-per-view mixed martial arts competition. This mash-up of Shakespeare and Sportscenter was photographed with a pulpy visual grain, well-acted by Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte and designed for an ultimate showdown that is as surprising and moving as it is wildly improbable.
My number eight pick is Drive, a slow-burn meditation on dangerous criminals, hot-tempered gangsters and misbegotten innocents colliding in a desolate and existential Los Angeles. The movie is devoid of emotionalism, instead relying on a trance-like mood of internalized desires punctuated by spasms of bloody nastiness and set to a soundtrack of trippy pop. You may not like it, but you’ll certainly not forget it.
A long-shelved movie from 2005, Margaret, directed by the playwright Kenneth Lonergan, who had an indie hit in 2000 with You Can Count On Me, was finally released this last year, and it immediately sunk from view. But it has shown up on several ten best lists, including mine, coming in at number seven. I will have more to say about this brilliant and chaotic film in a longer, forthcoming review, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more honest portrayal of a privileged, self-absorbed, neurotic teenager grappling with the messiness of growing up than in Anna Paquin’s searing, note-perfect performance in this film. Margaret is not the best movie of 2011, but it might be the only must-see movie of 2011.
At number six is the international art house puzzler from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy, an elusive and illusory experience, a hall of mirrors in which the conversation slides between what is real and what is made up, challenging the viewer to continually readjust his understanding of the relationship between the man and woman on screen.
Alexander Payne’s The Descendants is number 5 on my list, a movie with the structure of a shaggy dog novella, tracing an erratic path through thickets of astonishment, depression, rage, love, forgiveness and eventually, acceptance.
Number four is the little-seen indie debut of a director to watch. Evan Goodell’s Bellflower, a movie that begins in mumblecore “dude” territory evolves into a disquieting and ultimately harrowing vision of the broken heart as apocalypse. It is visually stunning and entirely original, with scenes as bluntly disturbing as they are beautiful.
Take Shelter, coming in at number three, treats its own version of the apocalypse as the byproduct of a mental breakdown threatening the middle class existence of a heartland family. Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain are remarkable as the parents of a deaf daughter who figures in her dad’s nightmares of impending doom, which leads him to construct a financially reckless storm shelter in his backyard. As a metaphor for our uneasy times, Take Shelter is a shattering plea for love and forgiveness.
At number two is Pina, Wim Wenders magnificently filmed memorial to the artistry and legacy of Pina Bausch, a German dance master who staged gripping performances of Sisyphean longing and who demanded, and received, committed devotion from her daring troupe. Wenders breaks away from the contrivances of both the dance stage and the documentary to create a bracing new form of advocacy cinema, leaving out the talking heads, the requisite biographical data and the explanatory on screen text in favor of a simple, purely visceral celebration of artistic bravery.
Terrence Malick has built his entire body of work on the notion of artistic bravery, the beautiful and the visceral jousting with the very nature of existence. Malick’s intent with The Tree of Life, my top pick for the best film of 2011, is to query God, to grapple with fate and the specter of infinity. You may be daunted by the immensity of the film, frustrated by its teasing declarations, perplexed by its intent, unsure of its impact but also unable to shake the thing from your mind. Those are the very reasons that make The Tree of Life my number one film of 2011.