By Don Simpson | December 26, 2011
This year I am doing a couple of things differently. For one, I finally gave up on attempting to combine documentary and narrative films together on the same list. (Here are my Favorite Documentary Films of 2011.) I also typically do not combine theatrically-released films with independent and foreign films that have yet to sign distribution contracts in the United States, but that is such a fine line nowadays and I am confident that it is only a matter of time that all of the films on this list will be available to you in one way or another.
I would like to point out that I am not deeming these films to be the best of 2011, but they are without a doubt my favorite films of the year. In fact, compiling the top 15 was quite easy for me, because it represents the films that have impressed me more than any others in quite a long time — I would even go as far as stating that most of them are better than any films that appeared on my previous year-end lists. I should also note that before I saw Melancholia, The Tree of Life, The Descendants and The Artist I had assumed that all four films would appear somewhere within the top 15 of my list. Instead, The Tree of Life and The Artist appear as honorable mentions while Melancholia and The Descendants failed to even break into my favorite 75 films of the year. That reminds me… I came eerily close to my goal of watching 365 new films in 2011 — and I typed over 300 reviews. So, I guess you can say that I feel pretty darn good about this being a complete list. But I have not seen everything that I wanted to consider… I am especially curious about A Separation, Margaret, Tuesday, After Christmas, Certified Copy, Mysteries of Lisbon, Circumstance, The Turin Horse, and A Dangerous Method.
Kelly Reichardt’s film — penned by Jonathan Raymond (Reichardt’s co-writer on Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy) — is, at least in theory, a western but with most of the genre’s conventions flipped completely inside out. Cinematographer Chris Blauvelt’s grand panoramas of the striking Oregonian vista is photographed in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, which adds a unique sense of claustrophobia to the image. Reichardt and Blauvelt rely quite heavily on long and medium compositions, but the camera does occasionally cut to various characters’ facial expressions to convey meaning, intent or emotion.
Athina Rachel Tsangari provokes the audience to study Marina as if she is one of Sir David Attenborough’s subjects (we are prompted to “[escape] imaginatively to live in another creature’s world”) as Marina discovers that she is a sexual being and explores the related implications. We clinically observe Marina’s advanced communication techniques (she speaks in Greek, sings in French, plays strange rhyming word games with her father, and makes animal noises for no particular reason), her wildly expressive movements (she and Bella walk/dance in carefully choreographed movements), and her obscure musical tastes (her favorite song is Suicide’s “Be Bop Kid”) in order to develop a novel ethnographic hypothesis explaining what the behaviors of this virgin sub-species of Homo sapiens might possibly mean to humankind.
Sophia Takal has cited my favorite Robert Altman film — 3 Women — as an influence on Green, which could explain why I like Green so much. Both films approach female relationships — specifically female jealousy — with a certain level of obliqueness. Atmosphere and environment play an important factor in both films too. Specifically for Green, the densely forested environs are not only suffocating and ostracizing but they also lend Green a spooky and menacing horror film aesthetic. Something always appears to be lurking in the woods. Maybe it is jealousy? Maybe it is something more? Green is a purely psychological horror film — the violence is all in the mind — and one of the best I have seen in ages.
With Tomboy, writer-director Céline Sciamma delves much deeper into the taboo (at least on this side of the Atlantic) theme of childhood sexuality that she discussed all-so-eloquently in her 2007 feature-length debut, Water Lilies. Laure is five years younger than Water Lilies’ Marie, Anne and Floriane; thus Laure is also significantly more innocent. The root of Laure’s deception is not about sexual attraction to girls — though she does kiss a girl — it is about wanting to play like a boy.
A heart-wrenching saga of a woman who attempts to dodge extreme cultural prejudices and judgments in order to escape domestic abuse, Austrian director Feo Aladag’s When We Leave brutally — yet quite effectively — examines Umay’s struggle for personal freedom; it is through the brutality that we discover When We Leave is also a story about the struggle for compassion and the inescapable pull of family love.
Only in Hollywood will characters like Hal and Oliver both find perfect partners exactly when they need them the most. That is Beginners‘ only flaw and it is one that I can easily forgive. Otherwise, writer-director Mike Mills’ (Thumbsucker) film is as perfect as a tearjerker, romantic drama can get in my book. Very few films handle family skeletons, the loss of loved ones, and the rediscovery of love (in both straight and queer relationships, no less) with such agility. Oh, and just be sure to keep lots of tissues close at hand, Beginners is guaranteed to conjure up some tears.
7) She Monkeys
She Monkeys is an emotionally complex and empowering film directed by a woman (Lisa Aschan), written by two women (Lisa Aschan and Josefine Adolfsson) and featuring two strong female leading characters (Mathilda Paradeiser and Linda Molin). She Monkeys is exactly what I wanted Hanna to be: a coming of age story about a pubescent girl who tirelessly trains not just to succeed but to survive. Emma learns when she needs to make compromises and when she needs to take what she believes she rightfully deserves. An increasingly complicated character, Emma often finds herself doing things that are not worthy of the audience’s sympathy; but it is impossible not to respect her tenacity in developing greater strength, control, composure, and even some presence. By no means flawless in her moral fiber, Emma is nonetheless a much more realistic cinematic role model for young women than Hanna (Hanna).
For me, the real payoff of Martha Marcy May Marlene can be found in the ending, which is rivaled only by Meek’s Cutoff and Green in terms of sublime ambiguity. The comparisons between Martha Marcy May Marlene, Meek’s Cutoff and Green do not end there. All three films toy with the audience’s preconceived notions of cinematic genres and traditional narrative tropes, while they also rely solely upon their infinite layers of subtext to communicate their significance. Most importantly, all three films proselytize the unique power of the cinematic art form. These are stories that could never be properly conveyed via any other medium — that right there is precisely why Martha Marcy May Marlene, Meek’s Cutoff and Green are some of my favorite films of 2011.
We observe Russell and Glen as they flounder about, attempting to negotiate the course of the first couple days of their relationship — just as a lot of heterosexual couples do. That is one of the other brilliant aspects of Weekend, the way the story becomes a universal one, transcending all notions of sexual preference and gender. Other than when Russell and Glen kiss each other and have sex, there is nothing gay about these characters, they transcend categorization. Even the film’s ending co-opts a classic trope from heterosexual cinema, cleverly pointing out that the gender of the characters bidding farewell to each other on the train station platform really does not matter; what matters is that the audience is adequately convinced that the two characters love each other and the impending division will tear their hearts apart.
Shame is one of those rare modern films that I would love to construct a hearty critical analysis of, mainly because the perspectives and framing of every scene convey as much purpose as the characters themselves. But a discussion of this film at that level will require several more viewings and a significantly higher word count. (Heck, it might take me a few thousand words just to discuss the scene in which Sissy performs “Theme from New York, New York“.) As much as I admire the writing, direction and performances of Shame, I do not know how many repeat viewings I could endure. Shame is an emotionally exhausting film; it is certainly not a film that is intended to be enjoyed.
11) The Future
Following up on her near brilliant directorial debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know, writer-director Miranda July takes The Future to some new and fascinating places. The Future, unlike Me and You and Everyone We Know, dives deep into a world that mixes magical realism (the talking cat, Jason’s ability to stop time, etc.) with surrealism. She may have felt somewhat confined to cinematic conventions in Me and You and Everyone We Know; but with The Future, July expresses a uniquely personal freedom of expression. As psychologically cerebral as The Future seems, it is the work of unadulterated eye candy as well, with its luscious color palate, keen fashion eye, and wondrously theatrical scenes of performance art.
12) Film Socialisme
For English-speaking audiences, Godard obliterates any resemblance of coherent/cohesive dialog (or narrative) by releasing Film Socialisme with what he refers to as “Navajo” English subtitles. By doing so, Godard deconstructs the primarily French dialog into an oblique code that isolates or concatenates specific nouns and verbs [presumably] from the spoken dialog. It is not without bitter irony that the “Navajo” English subtitles recount most of the words that I, as a novice French-speaker, am able to recognize from the dialog; so Godard has essentially translated the dialog just as I would piece together my own interpretation of French — by stringing together random words that I can recognize forthright with no consideration of grammar or structure. But without grammar or structure, the words remain just that, words; thus Film Socialisme plays to me as a silent film. The spoken dialog becomes part of the film’s soundtrack and the subtitles present mere clues of what might be going on. This tactic works surprisingly well for me, as it allows me to focus on the hypnotic array of images that Godard presents onscreen. I did, however, walk away from the screening with absolutely no clue about the meaning or purpose of Film Socialisme — and it is difficult to ignore the inherently Godardian “fuck you” to the Anglophone imperialists in the audience. It is as if Godard does not want us non-Francophones to know the true meaning or purpose of Film Socialisme.
Painfully discussing the highs and lows of love, as well as revealing the horrors of acting on impulse alone, writer-director Evan Glodell utilizes some not-so-traditional cinematography techniques (thanks to cinematographer Joel Hodge), magnificently penetrating sound design, and a seemingly haphazard non-linear plot structure to convey Woodrow’s psychologically decaying perception of the uncompromising world around him. Glodell does not rely on his cinematically artful bells and whistles alone to sell Woodrow’s breakdown; he also depends on his own mad thespian skills while portraying (with ugly and brutal realism, I might add) Woodrow’s amazing transformation from nice guy to raging monster.
14) Take Shelter
Take Shelter is brilliantly cast from bottom to top. With a supporting cast that truly look and sound like the working class people they’re representing, Nichols gets the details of this story of middle-America right. Michael Shannon’s expressive face, with its deep lines and character (imagine a younger Ray Liotta with better acting chops), perfectly conveys Curtis’ ever-increasing anxiety, fear and despair. Jessica Chastain, the only person in the movie with Hollywood-good looks, so inhabits her role as the faithful and loving mother and wife, courageously fighting an unseen enemy destroying her family’s well-being, that you never doubt her.
An example of in medias res, Steve Collins’ film begins and ends almost mid-thought and the scenes in between appear to be aimless and random; but Collins aptly binds the narrative together as a cohesive whole by emotion and imagery alone. Impressionistically lensed by Putty Hill cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier, You Hurt My Feelings takes its audience through the emotional kaleidoscope of the four seasons; though visually stunning, the images are just as economically restrained as the wallets of the characters. Collins has developed a narrative that circumvents all dramatic plot points — an injury that results in a neck brace, a wedding engagement, an illness and death, countless arguments and break-ups — assuming that the audience will fill in the blanks. Only the emotional aftermath remains. You Hurt My Feelings internally portrays its characters’ senses of despair and isolation; like a silent film, feelings are never expressed verbally, only via the actors’ rich expressions.
And… Why stop there?
Below is an alphabetical list of 20 honorable mentions that could have easily made my top 15 in any year that was not as impressively strong as 2011…
Beyond the Black Rainbow
The Color Wheel
The Dish & the Spoon
Gabi on the Roof in July
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Tree of Life
Turn Me On, Goddammit