The unusually weak awards season and disappointing Oscar slate overshadow the fact that it was really a pretty good year overall. The big prestige year-end films were almost all disappointing, but there was a period earlier in the fall when it seemed like there were great films being released every week. The top 7 all got 10/10 ratings from me, with the 8th being really really close, and I actually had to leave several 9/10-rated films off the list.
As usual, some of these are technically 2010 films, having premiered in festivals or overseas. But as far as I can tell, they were all commercially released in the US for the first time in 2011.
1. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
Iranian director Kiarostami makes his first European film, set in Tuscany and starring William Shimell and Juliette Binoche as a writer and one of his fans, respectively. The movie seemed to get a reputation as a stuffy art film over the summer, but what struck me the most was how playful it is, with an unsolvable mystery at its core. The relationship between the two leads gets more elusive and unsettling as the film progresses, but I rather enjoyed Kiarostami’s gamesmanship and the thoughtfully oblique way that he approaches the film’s themes. Plus, it’s beautifully shot and wonderfully acted.
2. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi) (review by Jackrabbit Slim)
It’s interesting that my two favorite films this year were both by Iranian directors, although A Separation is actually set in Iran. It’s about an affluent middle-class couple in the process of divorce when the husband finds himself in legal trouble. This is an impeccably written and acted film, and I especially admired how the alliances between the characters in the film are constantly in flux as new facts and dimensions of the case are revealed. This challenges the audience, preventing their sympathies from settling too easily and allowing us to see the case in a much more complex way than we probably would in a more conventional film. It very deservedly won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, probably the highlight of this year’s ceremony as far as I was concerned.
3. The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski)
Probably the most visually unique film I saw this year. Polish director Lech Majewski uses digital effects to bring Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Procession to Calvary to life. Rutger Hauer plays Bruegel, who discusses his design of the painting, while the film imagines the lives of some of the people in the film. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie quite like this, and I found it brilliantly imaginative, both in an artistic and humanistic sense.
4. Bellflower (Evan Glodell)
Evan Glodell’s Bellflower is one of the most fully-realized American debut films in years, set in a modern Los Angeles that’s been given a stifling, post-apocalyptic atmosphere. Glodell and Tyler Dawson star as two twentysomethings mostly preoccupied with building their own flamethrower, so that their gang can dominate after the apocalypse. Glodell is a rare first-time director who has full control of tone, especially impressive because the film ranges from a sweet, slightly dopey romance to full-on doom and violence. What also struck me is how well Glodell knows his characters and sees their narcissistic self-loathing. It’ll be interesting to see where Glodell’s career goes from here, since there’s a definite Richard Kelly vibe being given off here and the risk of getting stuck repeating himself seems very real. But this is a masterpiece, right out of the gate.
5. 3 (Tom Tykwer)
Tykwer is a director that I’ve always admired, but I’ve also often found myself frustrated at his lack of narrative development and cohesion. Here he adopts a different strategy than I’ve seen from him, in this story about a fortyish couple who are both having an affair with the same man. I deeply appreciated how Tykver disregards the usual melodramatic hysterics of the situation, sparing us the jealous arguments and childish recriminations that would be typical of a story like this. I also especially admired the performance by Sophie Ross, although all three lead actors are very good. Most interestingly, Tykwer turns the movie’s narrative into a sort of stream-of-consciousness musing on any number of subjects, including disease, genetics, medical ethics, art, and even current world events and politics. It’s actually a very radical film, not just in its adult approach to relationships and infidelity, but in the way it integrates profound political and cultural debates into everyday life.
6. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols) (review by Jackrabbit Slim)
I’ve been touting Michael Shannon for years, and he’s phenomenal here as Curtis, a man experiencing terrifying apocalyptic dreams. One of the more thoughful aspects of the film is that Curtis is only too aware of his family’s history of mental illness, so he knows that whether the dreams are actual prophecies or not, they’re harbingers of ill fortune for him one way or the other. Writer-director Nichols is able to integrate the dreams into the narrative in a clever and sensitive way; it’s easy to imagine a lesser film where the dreams are played for exploitation purposes, but here they’re a useful window into Curtis’s mental anguish, as he worries about his friends and family abandoning him in the face of his illness. Nichols also made a terrific film several years ago called Shotgun Stories, also starring Shannon, and with this film he solidifies his status as one of America’s best new filmmakers.
7. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin) (review by Jackrabbit Slim)
Like Take Shelter, this film is built around a dominating lead performance, this time by Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, a young woman just escaped from a secretive cult. And like Bellflower, it’s an extremely impressive debut film. Writer-director Durkin structures the film as a series of flashbacks between Martha’s time with the cult and her current stay with her sister and the sister’s fiance. He ingeniously linkes the stimuli at the sister’s house with Martha’s memories with the cult, producing a disorienting effect that emphasizes her confusion as she readjusts to societal norms and her struggle to maintain her identify after years of it being systematically stripped away. This is a terrific psychological thriller and character study.
8. Incendies (Denis Villaneuve)
When their mother dies, two siblings learn to their surprise that not only is their father still alive, they have a brother that they never knew about. That’s the premise of this family drama and political thriller from Canada, which received an Oscar nomination in 2010 for Best Foreign Film. Their journey takes them to the Middle East, where they learn about their mother’s ordeals during a civil war decades ago. This is a genuinely unpredictable film, and structured so that the audience sometimes knows more than the characters do and at other times are in the dark as much as they are. My only complaint is that director Villaneuve occasionally loses sight of his characters in favor of the action, short-changing one minor character especially in a way that I found peculiarly thoughtless. Overall, though, this is a very gripping story and profound statement on the nature of civil war.
9. Beginners (Mike Mills) (review by Jackrabbit Slim)
I admit that this movie looked like potential trouble from its trailer, which showed two emotionally withdrawn characters engaging in a tentative romance and a dog with subtitled thoughts. It ended up being a wonderful surprise, though, and won Christopher Plummer an expected but deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar. The film nicely balances two story threads, the first being the aforementioned emotionally tentative romance between Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent, and the second being Plummer’s revealing himself as gay after living his whole life in the closet. Without calling much attention to itself, the movie is an incisive critique of the way that society’s stigma against gays fractures families and inflicts emotional scars on children that last even into adulthood. At the same time, though, Plummer’s character is able to find happiness and is able to provide an example of a positive relationship for his son late in life. It’s not a didactic film, but it is a quietly and righteously angry one.
10. Another Earth (Mike Cahill)
The third debut feature film on this list, this film also marks the breakout performance by Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the film. It’s about a high-school senior who drinks too much at a graduation party and causes a deadly car wreck; on the same night, a new planet, later discovered to be a parallel version of Earth, appears in the sky. This is primarily a drama about loss, guilt and redemption, given a very poignant and delicate touch by Marling’s sensitive portrayal of Rhoda and William Mapother’s fine performance as the victim of her drunken driving. The shots of the second Earth in the sky appear throughout and are quite striking, and they invite the viewer to wonder along with Rhoda about what’s going on up there and if people are any happier than down here. Despite its sci-fi minimalism, this is a very ambitious film, and one that I felt was unfortunately ill-served by its mid-summer release.