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.

Vera Drake (2004)

Mike Leigh’s most recent effort, Vera Drake, is probably best known as “that movie about an abortionist.” It is that, I suppose, though it strikes me as something much more subtle, complex, and interesting. The film has been criticized on both sides of the debate, either for being another in a long line of liberal propaganda pieces, or as a missed opportunity for a pro-choice director to get the message out in a strong and effective manner. Rather, Vera Drake presents for us a study in human nature, depicting what human beings might do or how human beings might be, in and around a contentious situation like abortion. It brings humanity to the issue, a much-needed respite for those of us tired of the incessant back and forth.Briefly, the film’s first half follows its title character through the ins and outs of her daily life. As is more than once noted by her observers in the film, “Vera has a heart of gold.” In addition to her job cleaning houses for the rich, Vera, whose family is poor, makes a point to check in on an infirm neighbor every day, while his wife is at work. She also takes care of her ailing (and unappreciative) mother, serves her family with joy, and invites a lonely young man from the neighborhood to dinner. Yet alongside all these simple tasks, Vera also, in her words, “helps girls out.” The film’s second half relates the conflict that comes into the lives of Vera and her family as a result of her clandestine activities.

Through all of it, Leigh keeps us focused on the characters, on their simple words and actions. This attention to characterization keeps the film from devolving into an “issue” movie, sermonizing about the evils or benefits of abortion [Contrast that with the recent critical darling Crash, which cannot step away from its issue long enough to get to know its characters]. Because of Leigh’s discipline on this front, it makes formulating a response to the politics of this film a difficult one. That is the biggest reason why it works though. This film cannot be boiled down to a “propaganda piece” or a “missed opportunity.” The issue itself resides in ambiguity within the actions, situations, and hearts of these people. I am reminded of a comment by the ethics professor in Decalogue VIII, as she guides her students to think about an ethical situation in terms of characters and motivations: “What makes it interesting is that we both know prototypes. I think, however, that they are not people we know.” In other words, we need to know people more than issues. This, I think, is where Leigh takes us.

Vera Drake then, is primarily about its characters, and as such, invites us to empathize with their plight, whether they might be responsible for the conflict in their lives (Vera and the girls in need of abortions) or not (Vera’s family). In the case of Vera and the girls she helps, the issue of responsibility is complex. What role does society play, both in the way the justice system works as well as in the double standard that exists for the rich and poor? What about those girls like Susan, raped and forced into such a difficult situation?

These are difficult questions. However, in focusing on the people, Leigh allows us space to consider the questions. He keeps them in tension. How would we answer them in the face of real human beings suffering through such an experience? Everyone here suffers – from the girls getting abortions, to Vera, to her family. Leigh allows the questions to simmer under the surface, refusing to offer easy answers for us. This invites the viewer to engage the film, to engage its characters, and then finally, to engage the issue. But note – the issue cannot be addressed until the people have been sufficiently seen and heard. And it seems to me, because of Leigh’s balanced portrayal, the judgment about the issue is ours to make. Just because the film lacks an explicit pro-choice statement doesn’t mean it favors a particular side of the debate. Likewise, just because the film empathizes with its central character and her plight doesn’t leave the film in the pro-choice camp.

Leigh is too smart for all that. He offers a chilling portrayal of several abortions, with women scared, crying, and distraught. One falls ill. Vera even seems to have brief moments of consideration about what she’s doing. On the flip side, Leigh offers empathy for Vera (and her family), something it seems any of us should be willing to offer any person in need. This refusal to pass judgment on his characters, as well as empathy for everyone, is part of what makes Leigh’s film (and his work in general) so stimulating.

All or Nothing (2002)

Suffering comes to us all. For some it seems to be greater than others. This is especially true, it seems, when speaking about the poor, who have less means to bathe themselves in comfort and hide from the harsh realities of life. Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing is populated entirely with poor and suffering people. Three families in an apartment complex are at the center of the story. Everyone in them is struggling to get by, and each has their own sets of problems. There is a harshness to their realities that is palpable, both in dialogue and setting. Words are not minced with these people. They tear each other down with just about everything that comes out of their mouths. Yet none of them seems to have any idea of the effects they might be having on others.In this oppressive climate are the three families: Maureen and her daughter Donna; Ron, Carol, and their daughter Samantha; and Phil, Penny, and their two kids Rachel and Rory. Many shots throughout most of the film isolate the characters from one another – tons of close-ups with very few two-shots. Even at times when there are two-shots, such as in Phil’s cab, they are non-traditional, with characters that aren’t even looking at one another. The people in this film are isolated from any real human relations, even from those with whom they should be most at ease.

The three families end up providing us with different responses to those periods of suffering we find ourselves in at times. Once Donna turns up pregnant, the already shaky relationship with her mother could go either way. In large part, it depends on her mom’s response to the situation. Will it be delicate or harsh or somewhere in between? In the home of Ron and Carol, their daughter Samantha is screaming for attention, going anywhere for it – whether it is to the oddball Jason or the abusive Craig. Whenever she approaches her parents though, they seem to be caught up in their own world of drinking and self-absorption. However, the film finally settles in on Phil and Penny, and as they go through tragedy, we see old wounds raised to the surface. The emotions are raw, the hurt is strong, and the tears flow.

Each of these situations presents in its own way, a response to the unideal situations in our lives. In some ways, they are cautionary tales, helping us to see so easily the kinds of things these people do to hurt each other, often unintentionally. Ultimately the film honors selflessness and humility, as characters are humbled before one another in light of changed circumstances and new information. Phil’s comments near the film’s conclusion illustrate this beautifully. He could easily take a hard line after all the hurt and sort of make this a farewell to his old life. In the same way, Penny could be so overwhelmed with hurt by his words that she not hear where he’s really come from and throw him out. However, both of these characters humble themselves before one another.

And on that final sequence of scenes: The scene immediately preceding the big blow-up was so heart wrenching, as Phil reaches to put his arm around Penny and she pushes him away. And that scene is filmed so perfectly, because he’s allowed to hold it there for a moment, making the viewer hope beyond hope that resolution will come. And just as that thought really begins to take hold, wham, it’s cut off. But that leads to a conversation that is so rich, so real, and such a great payoff after the harsh and largely ambiguous presentation up to that point. I found myself yearning for these two to connect with each other, and in contrast to the many isolated close-ups throughout the film, this scene culminates in two people as close as possible to one another, face to face, heads touching, looking into each other’s eyes. There is real connection there.

It’s a beautifully acted, beautifully executed film that deserves attention and reflection. The dialogue is just right. The characters are real, flesh and blood, human beings. I have had arguments like some of these, not with the words or the topics necessarily, but with the rhythms of language and emotion. This being my third Mike Leigh film (Secrets and Lies, Topsy-Turvy), I guess its time I give him a bit more attention than I have to this point.