Sunday, January 29, 2012

Top Ten 2011.

Surprise, surprise. 2011 turned out just fine.

Typically any year is fine, if you see enough films in the given year.

While I don't feel that this year's list is as strong as my 2010 Top Ten, I admit I saw less global film (and unfortunately recorded even less here at the blog). However, a strong 2011 in general made up for a lack of what I was able to get to. And as usual, I've listed what I still need to see - the films which most likely would have been strong contenders - at the bottom of the list, just to be fair.

Those who know me well, know that I love my little lists. The yearly Top Ten is no exception. I tend to make the list based on my own emotional response (the subjective), my reaction as I read other thoughts about it (the objective, or the critical), and how well the film in question fits into the great tradition before it in terms of its responsibility and deliberateness in carrying the torch.

I always over-think it and analyze the order of the list in depth until I'm able to sit down and figure out what deserves to be in its proper slot, and why. (For instance, this year's #1 beat out #2 because of each of the film's endings. I only thought about this in the past few days, after seeing each film more than six months ago.)

So.... anyway. Here we go.

The following were released either on a big screen somewhere in the US or made their first Grand Rapids appearance in 2011.

10. Midnight in Paris

Picasso, Bunuel and Cocteau (!) all make guest appearances in Woody Allen's latest, which centers around Owen Wilson, a man in love with art and nostalgia from the twenties. While not necessarily a film for the art-historically impaired, it's a story that reminds one that the time you are in - the history you are currently making - is as important as any nostalgia you desire. That we are here, and we are now, and no matter how great yesterday was, tomorrow can be even better.

9. Letters to Father Jacob

It is nice to see a Finnish film on my list for the second year in a row. This is a country I've spent some time in, and the films that come out of Finland seem to represent the repressed nature of its folk really well. This particular gem is about a minister who only wants to do that -- minister. (Yeah, that can be seen as either humble or proud, but Father Jacob is a man who wants to bless.) Blind and old, he's going to need help to continue in his calling, and the tough ex-con that comes to live with him is not excited about helping in his work. She reads letters from parishioners, and watches in doubt while he prays over their requests. This is a quiet story about the miraculous, and the response to a miracle when it's revealed -- a response which may or may not change one's agnostic approach to life. (I wrote this up for last year's EUFF here.)

8. Take Shelter

Is he losing his mind when he has dreams about an approaching storm? Is he seeing things when he sees ghost-like figures trying to snatch him or his daughter out of his house, or out of his car? Does he need more meds? Is he schizophrenic? Can he trust his wife, who has compassion on his altered state of mind? Comparisons to my all-time favorite film Ordet are certain to abound, but Take Shelter, like this year's Melancholia, isn't a film that's bringing Inger back to life. Trying to decipher the prophetic is itself like being in a continuing altered state... This film is about a brooding dread, the continually approaching storm that hangs both mentally and literally over our lives.

7. 50/50

50/50 is simply an engaging, enjoyable, comedy-driven film with two grown buddies and how they deal with each other, their issues on full display. The buddy-buddy relationship at the film's center made me laugh quite a bit, and it isn't the kind of laughter you feel guilty about later on. It's a beautiful relational film, and it captures how guys relate to one another to a "T".

6. Insidious

Cool to see horror making a return to form this year, noted in both this pick and Amer, which I've listed just in front of it. If only the makers of spat-out torture porn and rehashed gore would note these two creepy indie-style films. Insidious was made on a million dollar budget, proving that story and creativity trump money in this genre, and reminds me of Murnau's Nosferatu, the standard by which to compare even ninety years after it was made. An astral projection ghost-story narrative with some jump scares thrown in for fun bring the reality to the forefront of this "fiction." At my screening, at the end of the film the girl next to me was literally in her boyfriend's lap -- and no, they weren't making out. (She was freaked.)

5. Amer

Retro-horror laced with an intense gialli homage, I drooled a bit over this Belgium masterpiece when I wrote it up for EUFF last March. On a Top Ten where I didn't have to think straight first, Amer would probably rank as my #1 film for 2011. Its ghost story suspense launched through Kill Bill style editing builds a mood of dread and salient terror in any viewer. I have always maintained that I like the idea of a horror movie more than 99% of actual horror movies released. Amer easily falls into that 1%.

4. The Mill & the Cross

If you missed The Mill and the Cross in the theater, I don't know what to tell you. I guess you could catch it on DVD, but it'd be like watching Avatar on an iPod instead of on an IMAX screen in 3D. This is the first painting I've ever seen come to life and tell a story -- a beautiful story about the religious politics that went into its very inception. An incredible work on the big screen, the likes of which I've not seen before. My friend Steven D. Greydanus wrote a very eloquent review of why you should see it here.

3. Budrus

I wrote at length about Budrus here. It's a rare doc which I believe, were enough of the right people to see it, would bring positive change into a situation that desperately needs it. I often describe myself as pro-Palestinian with a heritage lining back through Israeli narrative. The conflict in this part of the world is never ending, but Budrus shows one way peace can be attained. This is a powerful, important work, which could bring healing to both sides of the West Bank Barrier.

2. The Tree of Life

Some of my friends have seen this two or three times on the big screen. I wish I could say the same. I just wish I could see it one more time... It blew me away when I saw it last June. If I wasn't won over to the Malick camp before, I'm certainly open to going back to his older works now. Pitt and Penn and Chastain were all perfect in this tour de force. (It seems to me that Chastain has had several of these kinds of films this year...) The Tree of Life is less like a movie, and more like a religious experience. A good one. The best religious experience you've had, and it can be repeated later on DVD. A stunning, mesmerizing, beautiful ode to the heavens.

1. Copie Conforme

The subtitle above reads "An original love story." I joke with friends that there is nothing original left in art, that there are only copies of copies, that there is "nothing new under the sun." (Which is actually what this film is about.)  I think that's mostly true, but I've not seen a story quite like Certified Copy before, a film which leaves you breathless with more questions than it has answers. In fact the mystery of the questions is the greatest strength of the experience. I've been a Binoche fan since Kieslowski's Blue, but I think this is her crowning achievement. I've been a Kiarostami fan since Taste of Cherry, but I'm persuaded there are certain artists who only improve with time. Even thinking through some of the things that take place in Certified Copy leaves me a little befuddled -- befuddled in a very good way. The film is about copies and art and marriage and relationships and love and distance and history and tears, and "he" and "she" and "what really are we". These are all the great themes that can find their way into any good story, but here they are at the peak of their form. For its take on all these themes and its ability to relay them fresh and anew, I'd rather refer to this film as Certified Original. (My full reaction was recorded here.)

With Apologies To: Of Gods and Men (responsible and mature, yes you are, but you're too much of a bore for my list)... Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1  (the role Vincent Cassel was born to play - I wrote about my two UICA screenings here)...   And three stand-out documentaries: Buck, Bill Cunningham New York, and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. The latter of which  had me in stitches.

#1 Guilty Pleasure of 2011: Bridesmaids. But the choice of the ending song, even thought of and stuck in my head right now, just kills the entire experience. Excruciating stuff.

#1 Disappointment of 2011: Melancholia. It amazes me how different people see different things, and I do enjoy spending time in someone else's brain. However, it doesn't seem to matter how much time I spend reading all the critical praise for Lars von Trier's latest. I think it does matter that he's my favorite director, and that I tend to go against the masses when I say I love pretty much any film he's released in the past two decades (aside from Melancholia). Aside from the astounding last twenty seconds, Melancholia is way too long, way too boring, and leaves me unsympathetic for its characters or their apocalypse. In fact, the film is so Last Year in Marienbad artsy-pretentious, I found myself wishing for the world to end much sooner.

The David Lynch 2011 Award: The Temptation of St. Tony. Strangest film since Eraserhead, and I'd love to suffer through it again just for its own miserable display of la weird. I wrote about this Estonian mind-job here. I'm still not convinced that it's a good film at all, but "Lynchian"? Oh, hell yeah. I'd love to see it a second time and be proven wrong about my initial assumption.

2011 Films I haven't seen, which I'll strike out as the year progresses: The Artist, Bullhead, Footnote, In DarknessMonsiur Lazhar, Margaret, The Way, Shame, The HelpTinker Tailor Soldier Spy, HugoTuesday After Christmas, Submarine, Martha Marcy May Marlene, My Joy, House of Pleasures, Poetry, Pruitt-Igoe Myth, Pina, Hell and Back Again, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, Undefeated, Paradise Lot 3: PurgatoryHigher Ground, A Separation, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Meek's Cutoff, The Arbor, La Quattro Volte, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Moneyball, War Horse, A Better Life, My Week with Marilyn, Beginners, WarriorPutty Hill, Attack the Block.... and two personal big, big misses: The Kid with a Bike (I'm a huge fan of the Dardenne brothers, and critical talk suggests this would have made my list), and Mysteries of Lisbon, which has been on quite a few Top Tens -- but at six hours it is more an event than a film, and I highly doubt I'll have that kind of time very soon. 

And finally... The way I love to wrap things up...

Favorite Non-2011 Discoveries
(I fell in love with in 2011): 

Frankenstein, Paths of Glory, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, The Mirror, Close-Up, The Traveler, The Straight StoryTender Mercies, Get Low, (the latter two along with a rediscovery of the ever-touching, evangelical-sin story which stars Robert Duvall as The Apostle), Temple Grandin, Missing (Costa-Gavras), The Station Agent, Marwencol -- and Jim Jarmusch in general, particularly his black and whites (as I wrote about Here, Here, Here and Here). 


  1. FYI, any version of MYSTERIES OF LISBON you're going to get in the USA is going to be 4 hours long, not 6. Still a long haul, but it does make a slight difference.

  2. I know that was your #1 pick from last year. I'd like to see it for only that reason. Four hours, huh? Well... maybe. We'll see..... I do think it is interesting that we both tend to hate Melancholia, which for me is a surprise and you -- well -- you're no LvT fan anyway, so I guess no real surprises there. Still -- fun to be in agreement on an LvT for a change. :)

  3. Ooh. Two I forgot that were also "discoveries from the past" made last year: Gimme Shelter* (1970 doc, Albert and David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin)... and Jane Eyre, the BBC version from 2006 starring Ruth Wilson...

  4. but what about super8 and captan america you said you really liked those to

  5. Actually, Anonymous (three guesses as to who you are), you're right in that I really did enjoy Captain America. Much more than I thought I would. He has always bored me in the comics, and I kinda thought the film would go a little too nationalistic or something. It didn't, and after I see it again I may be calling it one of my favorite super-hero films after The Dark Knight and X2 and Iron Man... But Super 8? Ugh... Sure, the first half hour was a good time and all, but where it went? Gag me with a reel.


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