Top Films of 2011

With the Oscars signifying the end of the awards season, I’m taking the opportunity to write up my favorite films from 2011. The year has seen the release of a number of remarkable films, noted by the fact that I have had no troubles whatsoever filling out a top ten. Still, with many yet left to see, the following represent my favorites at the moment:

10. Pearl Jam Twenty: A highly personal pick to be sure, but one for which I feel great enthusiasm. Experienced director and unabashed fan Cameron Crowe offers up a history of the band laced with live performances, found footage, and interviews. The film’s opening sequence detailing the tragic end of Andy Wood brings heartfelt context to the band’s sometimes criticized earnestness. This is, admittedly, a documentary with little illumination of the darkest corners of Pearl Jam’s history. But the heart, the peace, and the connectedness of the band offer an intriguing counterpoint to their music.

9. Bill Cunningham New York: Bill Cunningham, a fashion photographer for the New York Times, is an inspiring individual. His simple joy for life, his consistent kindness to those he meets, his unending interest in others, and his absolute embrace of beauty wherever he finds it make him one of the rarest of people: a genuine human being. And when the interviewer asks Bill about his regular church attendance? A beautiful moment that simply has to be seen. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

8. Meek’s Cutoff: Reichardt’s humanist vision for America—or really, the world—set amid a 19th century Oregon wagon train makes excellent use of its well-rounded characters and compelling, real-world story. While Reichardt focuses on the simple, everyday lives of the settlers, the film slowly evolves into something much more complex and layered, a horrific vision of a people without direction and their mechanisms for trust badly in need of repair. And as Reichardt obviously allows her camera to favor the female characters in this male dominated world, the film stands apart as a unique testament to the ills and sufferings of a world badly in need of vision. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

7. A Separation: A complex, psychological portrait of not just a couple, but a family, a community, and dare I say, an entire society. What begins as a simple disjunction between a married couple continues to grow and manifest itself in ever larger networks of people, involving children, neighbors, employees, community officials, and even the justice system. The acting is exceptional, none more so than the young lady playing the daughter, while the opening and closing shots express at once the beauty and the tragedy of life in Iran.

6. Nostalgia for the Light: An extraordinary essay film less interested in facts and more interested in ideas, atmosphere, and the experience of life. The film deals in a central paradox: How can a place be at once so well-suited for examining the past (in the heavens and on earth), and yet be located in a country unwilling to deal with its own more recent, and tragic, past. Guzman’s photography is exquisite. As one shot blends into the next through creative editing, the film’s underlying humanism stands out all the more. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

5. Of Gods and Men: Love endures. This is a film about a group of men on a mission to love people as best they can, to be neighborly, to give of themselves however they can for the betterment of others. This is a physical and social task, but these men reveal that it is also a spiritual task, one deeply connected with who human beings are and ought to be. The quiet rhythms of the film mimic those same rhythms of monastery life, including sequences of profound goodness & beauty and a Christian ethic made tangible.

4. Tuesday, After Christmas: Muntean’s achingly restrained film illustrates the beauty of marriage by helping the audience to feel real loss when a marriage fails. Using lengthy shots filled with subtext, the film builds tension as the philandering husband nears, and eventually makes, his fateful decision. The key scene is an 11+ minute shot chronicling the aftermath of his choice, along with a wonderfully complex, expertly-acted, and heartbreaking final sequence. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

3. The Tree of Life: More ambitious than Malick’s other features, The Tree of Life brings a cosmic perspective to profound tragedy through the lens of a struggling man’s memories. The first hour of the film, up through and including the creation imagery, succeeds beautifully. As the film refocuses on the family for the final hour plus, it becomes more diffuse as the boy’s relationship with his family fractures. The search for peace, meaning, and beauty comes only in a proper rendering of the past–our own and that of the world.

2. Poetry: A beautifully shot and rendered film, Poetry encapsulates empathy for the other, the joy and the pain involved in truly seeing, and the continued–and maybe even increased–necessity for poetry in the modern world. Yun Jeong-hee’s performance is touching, nuanced, inspiring, and devastating. The film slowly builds to a narrative and emotional crescendo that prompts reflection long after the film ends.

1. Certified Copy: A magnificent achievement from Kiarostami both in writing and direction, as well as a stand out performance from Binoche, who is more compelling than ever. The camera’s gaze slowly humanizes these people, as they grow at once both more concrete and more cryptic. Each successive moment reveals and conceals. As the film drives toward its enigmatic conclusion, the film’s themes become ever clearer: the relationship between truth and fiction, the vulnerability associated with an openness to the other, and the mystery of matrimony.

The Best of the Rest

  • All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (dir. Adam Curtis): A dizzying document of the way our understanding of machines and technology is changing our conception of humanity.
  • Buck (dir. Cindy Meehl): The film documents the life of a serene horse whisperer, a man who knows tragedy and has come out better on the other side of it.
  • In a Better World (dir. Susanne Bier): Bier has a gift for drawing out and dialing up tension in quiet and unobtrusive ways, which she does beautifully here in a film which divides the setting between Europe and Africa to compare and contrast approaches to vengeance.
  • Le Quattro Volte (dir. Michelangelo Frammartino): A series of four movements following the life of a shepherd, a goat, a tree, and charcoal, the film immerses the viewer in creation. Even without the aid of words, Frammartino provides a strong sense of connection to his subject matter.
  • Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen): The scenes set in the 1920s were full of energy, life, and well-rounded characters. If Woody had done the same with the contemporary scenes, this would have easily made the first ten.
  • Mysteries of Lisbon (dir. Raoul Ruiz): Ruiz captures light in ways rarely seen in the cinema, adding a layer of beauty to this exquisitely costumed, sublimely written, visual feast for the senses. The priest stands as one of the most quietly compelling creations in recent years. The story, though it spreads out over wide swaths of time and geography, never lets up, while the constantly shifting perspectives invite us to explore the potential and the limits of narrative.

Harmless Entertainments: A Better Life; Cars 2; Page One: Inside the New York Times; Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; The Way Back

Frustrating: Contagion; Take Shelter

Still to See: The Arbor; Aurora; Being Elmo; Boxing Gym; Brighton Rock; Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop; House of Tolerance; Hugo; The Ides of March; Into the Abyss; Margaret; Martha Marcy May Marlene; Moneyball; Mother; My Joy; Norwegian Wood; Our Beloved Month of August; The Swell Season; Tabloid; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Trip; Tyranosaur; Uncle Boonmee; United Red Army; The Way; Win Win

Six Outstanding Discoveries from Years Past:

  • Lucky Life (dir. Lee Isaac Chung): Taking its inspiration from the poetry of Gerald Stern, the film offers a sensitivity to the way pain and memory ripple through life. Chung edits the film intuitively, making connections that inspire reflection rather than determine meaning. And what a final shot.
  • Secret Sunshine (dir. Lee Chang-dong): A remarkable film about a woman’s journey from isolation and abstraction to a more connected and human existence. Its nuanced portrait of Evangelical Christians brings something unique to cinema. I wrote more extensively about the film here.
  • Night of the Demon (dir. Jacques Tourneur): Terrific horror that focuses on the subtle psychological transformation taking place in the lead character.
  • Los Angeles Plays Itself (dir. Thom Anderson): An engaging and engrossing essay film on the presentation and identity of Los Angeles.
  • Happy Here and Now (dir. Michael Almereyda): An atmospheric film from New Orleans that explores the loss of identity we experience as technology encroaches, even to the point of mediating our relationships for us.
  • Another Year (dir. Mike Leigh): Magnificent film from Leigh, attempting and succeeding at one of the most difficult tasks for a filmmaker and storyteller: presenting a believable and compelling vision of goodness—in this case, through marriage.
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Pale Rider (1985)

A long break from posting, but with good reason…the birth of my son, Nicholas on July 4th. All are well here, and hopefully I’ll get back to posting a bit more regularly.

As I started thinking about my recent viewing of Pale Rider, I was immediately reminded of Shane (1953), as well as another recent viewing: The Magnificent Seven (1960). Of course, thinking about that film got me thinking about an all-time favorite: Seven Samurai (1954).

Pale Rider seems to me a pretty clear homage/remake/knock-off of the George Stevens classic, Shane. Most striking is the lone gunman riding into town to save the poor people from the rich cattleman/miner, who buys power and influence and thuggery with his growing empire of ill-gotten gains. On top of that, the dialogue at the end of the later film is identical in places to that of Shane, with Megan crying out for the Preacher, asking where he is and that she loves him.

On the other end of the spectrum, The Magnificent Seven is an acknowledged remake of Seven Samurai, and translates the bulk of the story and characters into a film that emphasizes the “cool” of its stars and minimizes the rich characterization and intensity of Kurosawa’s Japanese original. And of course, these two films share a similar thematic structure with the previous two – they involve a group of villagers who are in need of help of getting out from under the thumb of terrorizing thugs.

What strikes me most about these four films is that while the central problem in all of them is the same, the way that problem is dealt with is quite different – at least in comparing the first two films with the second two. Pale Rider and Shane both hinge on the lone gunman who comes to town, and while preaching togetherness, ultimately needs to take down the forces of evil on their own. Most obvious here is Eastwood’s Preacher in Pale Rider, who tells the villagers of Carbon Canyon that they have no hope unless they stick together, no matter what. Yet in only a few hours, he ditches Hull (Moriarty) so that he can ride into town alone and finish the job, which he essentially does. Shane does a similar thing, as he rides into town alone to face the gunman. Eastwood’s film simply ups the ante by making him face seven gunmen.

Now, in the two Seven films there is a direct contrast, with the heroes not being lone gunmen, but a group of fighters who must not only band together, but also rely on the untrained villagers for help. I think this is one of the superior aspects of Seven Samurai, btw. We see how the samurai depend on the villagers, in spite of their pride and desire not to show it.

I think these latter films have a definite one-up on films like Shane and Pale Rider. While those films have their strong points, it seems they are fraught with an inherent contradiction that doesn’t exist in the Seven films. The Seven films have heroes who both teach togetherness and unity AND show it. Pale Rider and Shane have heroes who talk about sticking together, and then deny it by their actions.

What I find most interesting about all of this though is that the Seven films come from a story told originally in Japan. It is a story about how there is strength in numbers, and that through sticking together, people can fight back the invaders. Not without loss, mind you, but it is how the fight goes on. Films like Shane and Pale Rider are quintisentially American. They feature the lone hero that goes in on his own and takes out all the bad guys, saving the poor innocent saps who are too cowardly or inept to defend themselves. There seems to me in that an inherent pride, an arrogance that talks of trusting in others, but practically has no intention of doing so. This hero is an insulated person, self-sufficient, who can take care of himself. He doesn’t really need anyone else. This taps into a sort of mythic persona that is so closely identified with America and an American way of doing things that I’m pretty sure I miss most of its outpourings.

The obvious contemporary connection here is the critique of the US policy in Iraq, for the relative lack of involvement of anyone else with anywhere near the kind of commitment the US has made. But there are others and I think this issue runs much deeper than something as obvious as the Iraq critique. I am thinking more broadly, about an insular mindset that shrugs off responsibility to others who lie outside our inner circle. There is talk about sticking together, but is there really action? For some, no doubt there is. But is that the way of the world? I think not.

I am too consumed with my own problems, responsibilities, and friends to even notice all the people floating by. I have created my own little insular world, and while I talk all the time about the virtues of community, unity, and sticking together, I have much to learn as I strive to live it out in this life. So while I am repelled by the inherent contradictions in films like Shane and Pale Rider, when I think about it long enough, I find that I deal in those contradictions far too often myself. And then I guess that maybe, just maybe, Pale Rider hits the nail on the head in its identification of the Preacher with Revelation 6:8.