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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I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

During the Enlightenment, philosophers sought to find out the truth about our world through the aid of reason. No longer was revelation the primary source of knowledge about the world. God may have spoken to the world, but if he did, his words would have to pass the muster of our reason. As such, the age of revelation passed on in favor of our own sense and perceptions of the world, leading to the modern conflict between faith and reason.

This conflict of ideas gets played out cleverly in the Val Lewton-produced psychological horror film, I Walked with a Zombie. Released in 1943 by RKO on a B-movie budget, the film nevertheless makes good use of its more limited cast and sets through the application of atmospheric lighting, thoughtful writing, and an inventive use of the camera.

The setup is simple: a young Canadian nurse is recruited to the Caribbean by a rich sugar cane farmer to care for his mysteriously ill wife. When she arrives, she finds a woman we might describe as blank—she will obey simple commands, but never speaks or shows any emotion whatsoever. Of course, as a medical professional, she consults with the doctor on possible treatments, and even gets him to administer an experimental treatment in the hopes of shocking her back to waking life.

However, not even the most advanced medical procedures make any difference in the patient’s health. The sick woman continues in her zombie-like state, while the nurse, feeling great compassion for the lonely husband, wracks her brain for any possible solution. Out of a sense of love and obligation to her employer, the nurse eventually decides it would be worth taking her to the local voodoo meeting, where the natives gather for mysterious nightly rituals. It’s her love and care for another human being that leads her to break out of her strictly rationalist mindset in treating the illness and look for another solution.

The key scene of the film is the walk these two ladies take on a winding path through the sugar cane fields on their way to the voodoo meeting. The women move through the tall cane on a narrow path in what becomes a journey from the natural to the supernatural. Initially, they are merely surrounded by the natural world, the sugar cane reaching high above their heads and severely limiting their view. Yet as they walk along, they encounter decidedly unnatural sights: a cow’s skull on a stick, a dog hanging from a tree, bones arranged in the dirt, and eventually, a disturbingly bug-eyed guardian to the voodoo meeting.

As the women take this journey, a journey where they eventually discover the true nature of the sick woman, they step into what looks like another world at the voodoo meeting. A man dances with a sword. A woman seems under a trance. A mysterious wise person offers advice through a strangely decorated wall. To find the answer to her problem, the nurse had to step into a world of perceptions beyond the senses, one which allowed for supernatural explanations. Reason alone was simply not enough.

I Walked with a Zombie illustrates beautifully through a horror-story narrative the fallacy of approaching life from a purely rationalist point of view. G. K. Chesterton once wrote on this topic that, “It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.” Chesterton’s self-deprecating recognition of humanity’s limited viewpoint coalesces nicely with the overall narrative arc of Zombie.

An Enlightenment viewpoint has certainly resulted in exponential technological, medical, and scientific advances. These gains cannot be ignored. But neither can we ignore the reality of our limited viewpoint, and the need to receive trustworthy knowledge from outside ourselves. I Walked with a Zombie helpfully creates a space from which we might be able to consider such knowledge.