The Best Films of 2011 Part 3: 10-1

January 5, 2012

10.  Poetry

Mija is an elderly woman looking after her grandson.  She’s a part-time in-home caretaker to make ends meet.  She goes to the doctor to see about a pain in her arm and learns that she’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  Soon after, a local girl’s suicide is tied to her selfish, carless teenage grandson and everything begins to fall apart.  In the midst of all this, she decides to take a poetry class at a local college.  Jeong-hie Yun plays Mija with thoughtfulness, confusion, and a reservoir of able understanding.  It’s one of the best performances of the year, and it’s the centre of Chang-dong Lee’s extraordinary character study Poetry.  As she comes to grips with the fact that her normal life is all but ending, she attempts to come to terms and fix the predicaments she finds herself in while also awakening to the possibilities of her creative self.  Her struggle to understand poetry and what it takes to write a poem gives her an aura of wonderment that those she comes in contact with assume is a goofy thoughtlessness.  Her slow understanding of the transcendent power of creativity and art, and her final attempts to truly know herself, make for a stunning, thoughtful film.


9.  Nostalgia for the Light

Patricio Guzmán begins his documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, looking at the astronomer’s stationed in Chile’s vast and barren Atacama Desert (apparently the part of the Earth most like the surface of Mars) and their search for the origins of the universe.  There are interviews about the notion of looking into the stars as looking into the past – for everything they see actually happened a long time ago.  Dotted with looks to the cosmos and close-ups of the gears moving the giant telescopes, it’s an intriguing philosophical exploration about what it means to explore and discover.  Guzmán eventually begins to incorporate the story of a group of women who spend countless days combing the vast Atacama Desert for the remains of their loved ones.  This place was also where Pinochet had internment camps and massacred dozens of people before having them dumped in mass graves.  In order to cover it up, they had the bodies exhumed and moved elsewhere, and the women spend their time looking for fragments of skull and bones in the hopes of finding the final resting place of their brothers, husbands, sons, and fathers.  The parallels between the two groups of searchers are obvious but handled wonderfully by Guzmán as he slowly insists on the importance of confronting not only the Universe’s past, but Chile’s past as well.


8.  Weekend

It’s not uncommon to find films about two people falling in love in the cinema.  They require some good writing, great chemistry, and perhaps some good direction.  Still, romance in films tends to be of the more fantastical, wish-fulfillment variety.  They’re enjoyable, sure, but enjoyable in as much as we might appreciate or desire to have those experiences, as unreal as that expectation might be.  It is far more difficult and, thus, far more uncommon to see a film about two people falling in love that feels real and truthful in a way that we can relate to those experiences, or at least understand them to the extent that we can recognize they might take place in our reality.  Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, about two English men in Nottingham finding each other drunk in a club and spending three days together, is one such film.  The key, naturally, is in the leads, who have to handle pretty much the entire film together.  Tom Cullen’s Russell is quieter and reserved in contrast to Chris New’s Glen, an artist who records sexual discussions about his encounters for a project and can be incredibly vocal about his views.  They spend much of the film talking about themselves and their beliefs about culture and homosexuality and their place in modern Britain, but the particulars about what they believe are less important than what they say about themselves as people, and consequently the way they react to each other.  It’s a pretty film, and Haigh prefers a low-key, observational style.  There are a couple of repetitions that are small but incredibly effective, one involving the three times Russell watches Glen leave his building and the other involving their increasingly intimate sexual encounters.  The film develops the relationship so naturally that these moments underline what the characters understand but don’t want to admit.  It’s a sweet, moving film about reluctant love portrayed in the most honest, believable fashion possible.



7.  Senna

I am a fan of Formula 1, but I’m assured my love for the film Senna isn’t based solely on my interest in the sport.  Asif Kapadia has directed a superb, involving, thrilling, moving, and reflective documentary about the much-loved Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna, and its style is so assured and perfect that I imagine even those who hate the sport will find something to enjoy.  Composed entirely of contemporary footage of races, interviews, television appearnces, and home videos, Kapadia leaves all recent interviews in the audio mix, preferring to create a portrait out of original footage and letting Senna’s beautiful, expressive face convey the emotions necessary.  This isn’t about people reflecting a much-loved celebrity, it’s an exploration of the mythology and the legend and the man.  It’s hagiographic to be sure – the film knows who its hero is – but it works because the presentation only desires to focus in on this one crucial perspective.  Senna himself turns out to be a thoughtful, passionate man more than capable of carrying a documentary on his own.  It’s also a great story: an outsider with a genuine talent fights the established power of the sport to do what he loves to do the most.  It’s not, however, the narrative that matters so much as it is the exhilarating and exhausting thrill of the Brazilian Grand Prix and the look on Senna’s weary, battered body as he attempts to lift the trophy or the dreaded build-up to that race in San Marino, which is thick with portent and almost inevitable tragedy.  Kapadia’s method gives the film its power, pushing what’s most important and intriguing to the forefront of the viewing experience.  It’s quite an achievement for a documentary about a racecar driver.



6.  Melancholia

Is there really a Lars von Trier film in my top ten?  I’m as surprised as anybody, for the notoriously controversial iconoclast rarely makes anything that doesn’t elicit groans of boredom and irritation from me.  Too often his films have felt like a mere exercise in shameless, cynical manipulation to ring as anything but dull to me.  Anti-Christ, however, was an improvement in that he was at least using his not-insignificant gifts as a filmmaker to tell a story and even have a bit of fun.  Melancholia is on another level entirely.  For the first time, it feels as though he was really laying it all out there in a gush of honest creativity.  Kirsten Dunst’s superb performance as the extremely depressed Justine and Charlotte Gainsbourg as her compassionate, motherly sister Claire create a vivid portrait of mental illness and the people who care for those suffering from it.  As the rogue planet Melancholia moves around and the inevitable draws closer (using some fantastically simple devices like a homemade stick with a wire ring), the onset of fear from Claire is counterbalanced with the expectant calm of Justine.  It’s no surprise that Lars von Trier has since said it was ‘too easy’ a film and has expressed dissatisfaction; he seems like the kind of guy who might just feel a bit embarrassed about such personal honesty.  It’s through that honesty that he manages to find a different gear both emotionally and visually – the film is almost excruciatingly gorgeous, from its opening tableaux to the night shots of the Marienbad-esque geometric garden to the looming planet itself.  That final, destructive end can be beautiful, and he gives Justine and Celine an uncharacteristic grace note ending that comes off as that most alien of emotions in the director’s work:  optimistic.



5.  Drive

You can say Drive is all style and no substance, and you’d be half-right.  You can complain that Carey Mulligan’s Irene is incredibly underdeveloped at best, and I wouldn’t argue with you.  You can lambast the film as pure a violent, male fantasy, and I could see where you’re coming from.  The fact is, Drive is about as cool and, that most hated of things, awesome a film as has been made all year.  It’s tight and controlled but also gives itself over to more languid, romantic moments.  It’s combination of music and visuals are exquisite, and in the elevator scene, I believe it rivals Wong Kar-Wai for unadulterated passion.  Nicolas Winding Refn is a very talented director, and we can argue for days about the merit of the source material and the story he is telling, but his style is fantastic.  Yes, it owes a lot to Walter Hill’s The Driver and Michael Mann’s Thief, and the story of the lonely, quiet man becoming a hero has been regurgitated thousands of time.  Gosling’s cool handsomeness and reserved (bordering on dysfunctional, and he plays that up) manner goes a long way, while Albert Brooks breathes joyous life into a gangster who always feels put-upon.  It boasts several stunning sequences, including some of the most pleasurable scenes of driving seen in a very long time.  Its structure is simple but engrossing.  Its characters are intriguing and enjoyable.  And the scene where Desire’s “Under Your Spell” engulfs the soundtrack is about as wondrous a moment as anything John Hughes – the man they hoped to emulate – ever accomplished.  I love Drive and I am not ashamed to say it.



4.  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tomas Alfredson’s version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would be impressive enough for telling the complex plot of John Le Carre’s much beloved thriller effectively and in a reasonable running time.  Doubly impressive is his ability to create an undercurrent of malaise, regret, and disappointment that elevates the material beyond a pulpy, albeit sophisticated, whodunit.  From a basic storytelling level, the film is masterful.  It’s editing rhythms slowly evolve as the story come more into focus, from its early scenes that are seemingly just snatches of exposition (but really insightful character moments) to the later reveals, he understands how to build a mystery and convey the slow understanding of his protagonist.  It’s also incredibly economical, for instance the final scene of violence that is given genuine emotional heft based almost solely on the use of a Polaroid earlier in the film.  From a technical standpoint, it’s the absolute height of what a thriller should be.  On top of that – or more precisely underneath it – is the atmosphere of despondent sadness that comes with realizing just how far things have slipped away.  The characters look back fondly on their work in World War II, back when things were simple and the Right Thing was obvious.  At the height of the Cold War, they are simply pawns in a larger game they barely understand.  Gary Oldman’s George Smiley has a scene where recounts a conversation with the KGB antagonist that conveys all of the distrust and grief he feels over what he’s had to become to stay in the game, even after being forced out of it.  It’s that aura of melancholy that stays with you long after you leave the theatre, but it shouldn’t overshadow the sheer technical genius that makes it so effective on a story level.  It’s damn near a miracle.



3.  A Separation

Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is about as tense a viewing experience as you’re likely to see all year.  The simple premise – a man and a woman have a disagreement about the future of their family and decide to separate – turns into an incredibly complex series of events that could easily be a comedic farce if it weren’t for the seriousness of the consequences.  The final hour is about as gut-wrenching as any I’ve seen in the way that motivations and perspectives bump against each other to dig each of the main characters into a deeper hole.  The visual motif of glass doors and walls underlines the person, religious, and class barriers between every character.  It works fantastically well as an indictment of the Iranian’s legal system and the complications religious and personal beliefs cause everyone involved, but at its most basic level it’s an extraordinary work about stubbornness, honour, and misunderstanding.  We understand everyone’s motivation at all times, and there are no good or bad guys.  They are people caught in circumstances they can’t reconcile.  It’s an incredible viewing experience and all I can really say is that you should seek it out immediately.



2.  Certified Copy

It begins with an academic premise:  for the person experiencing the art, a copy can be just as good as an original.  Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy then spends the rest of its running time picking apart and exploring this idea through its two leads, Juliette Binoche as an unnamed woman and William Shimell as the author and academic, James Miller.  She tells him she is a fan and they being walking and then driving around the small Italian town to discuss his theories and their lives.  Someone in a café assumes they are married, and they decide to act as if they are.  Before long, they are operating under the premise that they are married, and they very well might be.  That central question is never explained, and whether you think they’re a married couple playing a game to reinvigorate their relationship or they’re genuinely strangers who fall into this discussion is certainly valid.  Of course, it’s the journey that matters, and Kiarostami is intent on exploring the reality and unreality of love in every conversation, action and glance.  It’s beautiful setting gives it a heightened sense of romanticism, sure, but it could also be seen as a taunting image of what things could be if they weren’t breaking down.  It burrows deep into the intimacy of two people, and as a result it is at times stunningly gorgeous and at others bitterly sad.  I could write for ages about the numerous situations they’re put in, and the way their conversations develop and their characters come to the fore, but I could never do it justice.  Shimell, in his first cinematic role, is brilliant and this might be Binoche’s best performance of her absurdly impressive career.  It turns the academic into the real as it explores notions of identity, authenticity, and the relationship between the two and how they intersect and interact with others.




 1.  The Tree of Life

As a massive Malick fan, the choice for number one was so obvious I was hoping that something else would come along that would justify a lower position, if only for credibility’s sake.  It has been an absolutely extraordinary year for films, as evidenced by the punishing length of this list and the fact that I could easily have extended it to 40 entries and felt no shame.  Still, as I was rewatching Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life a month ago, and the creation sequence began, I knew there wouldn’t be any other.  It is, in many ways, the most cinematic of films this year, relying on sound and light in a way films rarely do to express something deeply personal and profound.  Brad Pitt gives the best performance of his career as the conflicted, occasionally aggressive but well-meaning father during the central sequence of the boys growing up in Texas in the 1950s, and Jessica Chastain is luminous as the ethereal mother figure that eventually becomes subsumed by her son’s Oedipal development.  Still, Malick is the star here, juxtaposing the story of his childhood with nothing less than the creation and, presumably, end of the universe.  You can argue endlessly about its meaning, of course.  Anytime Malick releases anything people start reaching for their Heidegger.  Then there is the particularly theological bent of this film, and you can look into the Book of Job and interpret its relation to the story and try to ascertain just what Malick is trying to say about humanity and the universe’s relation to God (it is, in the end, a very Christian film by my reading).  What is truly impressive is the way that it suggests these deep, philosophical, theological, and (some might condescendingly say) academic themes without ever overwhelming the experience of the viewer.  It is an incredibly visceral film, and its melding of music and sound and performance and visuals is unmatched by anything else this year.  It’s incredibly audacious, especially for an American film, and it actually succeeds – even for me and my cold, cynical heart – at expressing a wondrously humanist and spiritual essence of the world and our place in it.  It is a rare kind of cinematic experience and I am incredibly grateful that I was lucky enough to witness.


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