The last year of any decade usually a watershed year, we come to the end of 2009 with a bounty of riches. A year that just a couple of months ago I feared wouldn't yield ten films from which to choose has, through a flurry of screeners and late-season additions, convinced me of its cinematic legitimacy. Find in the top ten three war films, five films about the state and politics of the modern family, one about a poet, and one about a cop. Discover that each of the first ten has a direct corollary in the next ten (suggesting that there's a good bit of synchronicity in 2009), and that although women directors remain a novelty, three penetrate the top ten for the first time in my decade of lists. Other threads include a continuation of the last two years' feelings of disconnection and entropy indulged, the notion that institutions of right are the ones perpetrating the bulk of atrocity, and investigations into the self that mainly fulfill Nietzsche's maxim of abysses looking into the lookers. It's a summary list, in a way, of the '00s.
January 1, 2010|The last year of the first ten or the first year of the next ten, 2010 finds the state of our motion pictures as an awkward, yearling thing, finding purchase in the aftermath of the fear and nihilism of the post-9/11 state in something as dark but perhaps now more purposeful than despairing. If the best films of the immediately-after are represented by stuff like No Country for Old Men and Synecdoche, NY, the best films of this liminal year are pilgrims in search of a (doomed) idea of perfection and the dreadful cost of its pursuit. Is that explanation in part for the rise of geek culture (The Social Network, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, It's Kind of a Funny Story, Kick-Ass), this gradual empowerment of the weaker position? While examinations of vengeance and solipsism continue to be tough themes to shake, they've begun taking the form of marginal uplift as opposed to mostly-undiluted nihilism.
December 31, 2011|2011 was a turning point for me. Two films--Red Cliff and The Tree of Life--did it, the one returning to me a measure of my identity, the other giving me a sense that I'd avoided asking ultimate questions about my relationship with film from the start. My stances that there are right and wrong answers in the liberal arts and that people are only entitled to an educated opinion held steady--but I'd never asked why it was that the things I liked were the things I liked. Around this time, I read Jonathan Lethem's monograph on John Carpenter's They Live and was consequently inspired to write one of my own, on Steve De Jarnatt's Miracle Mile. I chose that movie not because--perhaps I should say, not only because--of its relative obscurity, but because it was a movie I've been evangelical about since first seeing it in 1989. The process of writing that monograph consumed much of the last half of 2011. I skipped screenings because of it, and found myself incapable of reviewing the films I did see very well, if at all.
At the end of the year, a larger-than-usual stack of FYC screeners and a calendar quick-clicking its way to 2012 finally buried me. The good news is that 2011 produced probably my best work as a critic (however low that bar might be); the bad news is that the fruit of that labour won't be public until later this year. As problems go, it's not a bad one to have. So, here's the epitaph on the best films of a transitional year for me. Funny how so many of them speak to new beginnings and resurrections.-Walter Chaw
Honourable Mention:Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life; Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Melancholia; Hanna; The Last Circus; We Need to Talk About Kevin; The Artist
Notably Missed:A Separation; Margaret; A Dangerous Method; Mysteries of Lisbon; Outrage; Take Shelter
Notably Un-Missed:The Iron Lady; J. Edgar; War Horse; The Descendants; Hugo
If Only I'd Seen It Last Year:Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
10. Margaret (d. Kenneth Lonergan) This alternately brilliant and clumsy splicing of Antigone and "Dawson's Creek" made such an impression on the 15 or so people who saw it that it earned its own Twitter hashtag: #TeamMargaret. The hatchet-chopped closing act has as many baffling skyline pans as Tommy Wiseau's The Room, but Anna Paquin and Jeannie Berlin astound, and writer-director Lonergan peppers the film with some amazing one-off sequences, chief among them a hilarious, unbearably protracted sex scene between Paquin and Kieran Culkin.
9. Attack the Block (d. Joe Cornish) Satisfying as variously a monster movie, a rogue teen melodrama, and a racial allegory about the aliens in your apartment complex, English comedian Cornish's first feature is a great success. It also boasts a hugely charismatic debut performance in John Boyega's turn as a burgeoning folk hero part James Dean, part Spartacus.
8. Curling (d. Denis Côté) Montreal auteur Côté's mesmerizing glimpse into the private lives of two loners and a tiger on the outskirts of a village in Quebec is unexpectedly compassionate for a Northern Gothic. I've heard it described as chilly, but the film musters real curiosity for even the silent corpses its protagonists stumble upon throughout; an early moment where actual father-daughter pair Emmanuel and Philomène Bilodeau (both wonderful) wander down a deserted, snow-drifting highway might just be the most thematically concise and visually stunning shot of the year.
7. Meek's Cutoff (d. Kelly Reichardt) Set in 1845 on a ghastly trek through the Oregon desert, Reichardt's fourth and best feature to date talks like Beckett and looks like a side-scrolling video game. Framed in boxy Academy ratio, the better to capture the characters' domed, bonnet-filtered vision of their pitiful surroundings, Meek's Cutoff reinvigorates the western by focusing on the mundane steps needed for survival. Transporting water over bumpy terrain has never seemed so banally, thrillingly vital.
6. Poetry (Shi) (d. Lee Chang-dong) As wrenching as his Secret Sunshine, Lee's latest is a lancing critique of masculinity gone rotten among a group of fathers eager to pay away their sons' sexual violence against a classmate recently found floating down the river. Lee's smartly-crafted scenario pits this cadre of passive aggressive dads against sweet grandmother Mija (Yun Junghee), an aspiring poet in the early stages of dementia. Setting us up for an old-fashioned melodrama, Lee delivers an incisive polemic about remembering atrocities others would sweep under the rug.
5. Nostalgia for the Light (d. Patricio Guzmán) Guzmán's documentary essay on memory and forgetting might make a good companion to Poetry. Nostalgia for the Light moves gracefully between a team of astronomers gazing at the stars from their outpost in Chile's Atacama Desert and a disparate group of women searching just as exhaustedly on the ground for some trace of their lost loved ones, scattered by Pinochet's regime. This high-concept analogy could have gone disastrously wrong, but Guzmán strikes the right balance between wonderment and inconsolable mourning. Its catharsis is sobering.
4. Take Shelter (d. Jeff Nichols) Much ink has been spilled about the closing moments of Jeff Nichols's sophomore effort, yet the real mark of his intelligence is not his ambiguity about the film's apocalyptic elements, but rather his restraint in framing them as personal matters of faith between a married couple who are about to weather any number of crises, not all of them earth-shattering. Michael Shannon is heartbreaking as a steady provider who finds the world melting under his feet--a male stoic without the words or social training to articulate his anxieties.
3. A Separation (d. Asghar Faradi) Another strained marriage story, at least in principle, Faradi's Golden Bear-winner is complex and richly characterized--literary in the best sense. Delivered with conviction by a strong cast led by Peyman Maadi (terrific), Faradi's dialogue-heavy but never stagey script offers a devastating portrait of reasonable people who are systematically undone by a host of legal and moral laws--some imposed, others chosen--that are beyond their capacity to navigate.
2. Mysteries of Lisbon (Mistérios de Lisboa) (d. Raúl Ruiz) The late Raúl Ruiz's adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco's novel of distressed damsels and pirate-turned-priests is a lovingly-wrapped gift to anyone who appreciates a story well-told. Ruiz's intricately nested narratives and ironic winks to the incessant presence of his camera, which creeps up to the doors of private chambers like a nosy maid, make it tempting to read the picture as a postmodern riff on Romantic material, but this is no empty formal exercise: He loves each one of these decadent failures, and through his sympathetic eye, we come to as well.
1. The Tree of Life (d. Terrence Malick) A new Malick movie is always an event, but this one came down to us as though on stone tablets, complete with tweeted spy photos of the notoriously camera-shy director bolting from the Palais before its debut. What a relief that it turned out to be so good. Sean Penn's Fellini-esque desert wanderings through a procession of neighbours-past might be a hokey finale, but the emotional and structural centrepiece, an ephemeral, decade-spanning tour of a boy's suburban Texas home, is a marvel--at once an unashamedly allegorical and a beautifully lived-in depiction of boyhood.
Shamefully Missed:The Arbor; Attenberg; The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu
Honourable Mention:Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy;Moneyball;Midnight in Paris; Melancholia;Terri; Martha Marcy May Marlene;Certified Copy;Tomboy; The Trip;A Dangerous Method
Dishonourable Mention: High-pedigree busts The Beaver, The Descendants, The Ides of March, and Shame.
10. Beginners (d. Mike Mills) 9. 13 Assassins (d. Takashi Miike) 8. Rampart (d. Oren Moverman) 7. Terri (d. Azazel Jacobs) 6. Take Shelter (d. Jeff Nichols) 5. Certified Copy (d. Abbas Kiarostami) 4. Rango (d. Gore Verbinski) 3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (d. Tomas Alfredson) 2. Martha Marcy May Marlene (d. Sean Durkin) 1. Drive (d. Nicolas Winding Refn)
Regrettably Missed:Margaret; A Separation; Mysteries of Lisbon; Poetry
Honourable Mention:Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol; Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life; Moneyball; The Tree of Life;Curling;Fright Night
How I Loathe Thee:The Descendants
10. The Innkeepers (d. Ti West) West's follow-up to his boffo The House of the Devil is this comedy-horror flick that recalls the flipside to the '80s horror he honoured in his previous film: the Houses and Fright Nights and Evil Deads--even the Gremlinses--that provided rimshots to all the jump-scares. Unfailingly good-natured until its last half-hour, it casts Jeffrey "Re-Animator" Combs look-alike Pat Healy as one half of the part-time caretakers of haunted Yankee Pedlar Inn, bringing in '80s icon Kelly McGillis as an old TV mom-turned-psychic in the same way The House of the Devil brought in '80s icon Dee Wallace as a real estate agent. West knows his roots. Providing another compelling heroine in Claire (Sara Paxton, looking every inch the young Reese Witherspoon), asthmatic and adorable, The Innkeepers delivers the goods and lands as the best ghost movie since A Tale of Two Sisters.
9. Fright Night (d. Craig Gillespie)
8. I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boatda) (d. Kim Jee-woon) Kim's one of the best mainstream filmmakers in the world: slick, polished, the Steven Spielberg of South Korea, if you will--that is, if Spielberg had a big clanking pair he regularly brought to bear on stuff like the sumptuous ghost flick A Tale of Two Sisters, the culturally-relevant Leone refashioning The Good, The Bad, The Weird, the gangster action-melodrama A Bittersweet Life, and now the sick serial-killer/rape-revenge flick I Saw the Devil. One of the top-grossing films of the year in its native land (which success I can't begin to deconstruct), I Saw the Devil is, like The Good, The Bad, The Weird, an intricately-wrought, beautifully-staged examination of Kim's Western influences. (Probably a better comparison than Spielberg is Tarantino.) I Saw the Devil is consummate madness from its first hammer murder. It reveals what's in the box at the end of Se7en but turns it into the sort of mordant punchline favoured by another countryman, Bong Joon-ho. It's the darkest kind of joke, the mortal kind… the kind that isn't, ultimately, very funny.
7. Shame (d. Steve McQueen) McQueen's follow-up to his ravishing Hunger is this treatise on addiction in a plutonic Manhattan haunted by sex-junkie Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, growing up real fast). It's fair to argue that Brandon's journey would have been more effective if it looked more like Working Girls and less like American Psycho, but for me, the depth of the character's desperation gathers with his obvious attractiveness (and that of his partners) until the spiralling conclusion, when it all goes ugly. Fassbender's the glue, McQueen's well-chosen muse, going through the film haunted and haggard. Mulligan is great as well--the pocket Michelle Williams, edging into Williams's post-Ledger-death period with savvier roles in films that leave an aftertaste. Shame is the perfect analog to Jane Campion's neglected In the Cut, marking Manhattan as the cinematic loci of spiritual malaise and the existential dislocation of being dead inside. Offering no solutions, it even trumps Hunger and its flock of birds with its theme of the hopelessness of those caught in personal riptides, carried off to sea.
6. Certified Copy (d. Abbas Kiarostami)/Source Code (d. Duncan Jones) Proof of parallel genesis, packaged together in a cheat that I feel good about. Proof also of Kiarostami's continued relevance and of Jones's sneaky rise.
5. Poetry (Shi) (d. Lee Chang-dong) Lee's brilliant, devastating Poetry deals with absolutes in ways both subtle and beautiful. In another interesting corollary to In the Cut, it's interested in words--and, at the end, like Campion's film, it presents cinema as the medium to which poetry is most closely allayed. Lee plays the advancing dementia of his 66-year-old protagonist (played by Yun Jeong-hie) against the usual decay and vicissitudes of living, opening with a stream and seguing midway to rain staining a diary page in a torrent of metaphor and pregnant visual allusions. With Yun's Mika finding herself increasingly incapable of expressing herself through words, Poetry becomes the answer in part to the irony of the Romanticist's call-to-action over inaction: the feeling of the skin of an apple becoming analogous to Prufrock's peach, and ever-closer to an audience engaged in the dark of a theatre rather than reclined in a lime-tree bower.
4. 13 Assassins (d. Takashi Miike)
3.Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (d. Tomas Alfredson)
2. Drive (d. Nicolas Winding Refn)
1. The Tree of Life (d. Terrence Malick)
CONSENSUS: FILM FREAK CENTRAL'S TOP 5 OF 2011
1. The Tree of Life 2. Drive 3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 4. Take Shelter 5. Certified Copy|Poetry (tie)