Scott’s Top Ten of 2011
For further thoughts on these, some other films (including two that I’d happily include on this list), and the year in general, click here.
10. The Arbor
This is a documentary about Andrea Dunbar, who became a renowned playwright at age 18 and died at age 29. It is also about her daughters. It is composed of recorded interviews, over which director Clio Barnard hired actors to lip-synch. This is not as weird as it might sound. In fact, in doing so, Barnard has not only given us welcome distance from the horror of the content, but also created a natural extension of Andrea’s original play – using the words from primary accounts and building an aesthetic through which they become a piece of performance. I watched this thinking I’d be in for a fascinating intellectual exercise, and came out emotionally ravaged.
9. Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen gets a lot of due credit as a writer of clever lines that convey surprising insight into our relationships with each other and the world around us, but when he sets out to direct these light comedic gems, he really hits his stride. He creates a natural ease and flow that only seems effortless. Allen’s camera, frequently capturing whole scenes in one take, glides peacefully from moment to moment, as enraptured as we are by the newer and wilder characters he puts in front of it. Leading the whole affair is Owen Wilson in the kind of role he seems naturally suited to, only why has it taken so long for someone to draw him out like this? With one glance, he has our undivided attention, just as he cannot draw himself away from the unfolding pleasure suddenly granted to him.
8. Nostalgia for the Light
Terrence Malick made the sort of connections between the far reaches of the universe and the individual human experience that works on a visceral, spiritual level; Patricio Guzmán found those same connections in science. I’m not much of a science freak, but I’m continually overwhelmed by the way each new discovery reveals how little of our surroundings we really understand at all. Guzmán grabs hold of that unknowability, transforming it into something miraculous, while exploring the real, tangible nature of the oft-used saying “everything is connected.” It’s the rare documentary as fascinated with the prospect of discovery as it is with imparting information.
Simply put, I didn’t laugh as hard during any other film this year. Throw in Roman Polanski’s razor-sharp direction and a very game cast, most doing their best work in years, and this makes for a hell of a night at the movies. Shallow? Absolutely, but look at the story they’re dealing with here, let alone the people trapped in it (as trapped as they are in the apartment). Polanski slowly increases his depth of field until characters seem to be lunging off the screen in a way that even few 3D films manage, and by the end, the character have nearly destroyed his cinema altogether. If this isn’t cinematic enough for you, maybe the cinema ain’t your bag.
6. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
One of several films on this list I’m at a loss to explain completely, but which nevertheless is such an overwhelming visual, intellectual, andemotional experience, I don’t particularly care. Even the nature of its title is up for grabs, as writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul never really divulges whether or not Boonmee, who’s in the final days of his life, can in fact recall anything before this life. But what he can recall from that would be enough to fill any man’s conscience. Unafraid of diving into spiritual realms, Weerasethakul’s has more diversions than an episode of Family Guy, but they all add up to a total view of life that is breathtaking in its expanse and depth of consideration. There are enough single images here to last a lifetime, enough questions to keep you up all night.
5. Winnie the Pooh
This may just test how much charm you can take in one sitting. But it does so genuinely, with so much joy in every turn-of-phrase (it’s also one of the best-written films of the year; lyrical and clever and so funny) and every quiet moment of trust. I was won over by the film’s casual faith in the human (or animal) condition, that none of these characters “get along” perfectly, but never question the fact of their friendship. It’s also a subtle bit of advocacy of the written word, established in the way the text of the story interacts in the frame, culminating in the characters being literally saved by letters. There are few better messages to put into a film than these, and it’s hard to imagine them being conveyed with the more grace and humility. Simple and sweet, but more films could benefit from same.
4. The Turin Horse
When you’re talking about a two-and-a-half-hour black-and-white movie with only thirty shots that chronicles the slow descent of a father and daughter living on a broken farm, it’s hard to convey how visceral an experience it can be. This will apparently serve as writer/director Bela Tarr’s final film, and one could do worse than to go out on such an unassailable masterpiece, one that echoes Tarkovsky and Murnau and Dryer as much as it stands alongside them. Chronicling, in many ways, the slow decay of the earth as a physical presence, Tarr inverses Beckett’s famous line, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” putting the emphasis on the struggle to survive against insurmountable elements. The Turin Horse gets you to reconsider that void that you sometimes feel is out there; the vast expanse of nothingness. I left the theater shaken to my core.
3. Certified Copy
A woman meets a man in Tuscany. Or does she? Nothing can really prepare you for Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece, which takes Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Before Sunset and sends it beyond the infinite, because I’ve yet to meet anyone who can get a handle on it. But we can all talk about how remarkably pleasurable an experience it is to see two informed people (Juliette Binoche and William Shimmel) discuss and evoke everything that really matters in life, and if a careful replication of those things is good enough, or indeed if anyone would ever know the difference.
Although Kenneth Lonergan’s magnum opus has met resistance in getting in front of audiences, my purpose for putting it on this list is not different than any other – to champion an important piece of cinema that I love dearly. And I love Margaret. I don’t love it with faint praise, imagining what might be if we ever get Lonergan’s preferred cut (though should we, I’ll be the first one in line). I love it as it is – a fractured nerve, exposed and fraying at the edges, threatening to unleash hell at any moment. I love that in the week after I saw it, I couldn’t think of anything else, and I love that, months later, I still get swept away reflecting on its insane ambition and the perfection with which Lonergan attained it. This is real cinema, dense and uncompromising, a piece that functions beautifully as metaphor and viscerally as drama. It’s full of a million moments that could break your heart and a million more that beat you senseless with the unrestrained fury of oncoming adulthood. It’s big and terrifying and so smart and so very, very good.
1. The Tree of Life
Admittedly, putting the new Terrence Malick film at number one was a lot more daring and interesting when it was called The New World, but I’m no less honest now than I was then. Weaving his childhood against the history of all life on this planet, he’s crafted at once the most distilled and wildest version of the thematic concern that’s carried his career – that although our lives are not so impressive against the backdrop of the universe, we create meaning with every moment. Nobody has better expressed that duality of existence, nor expressed it so richly.