Back in May, I saw my first 2011 movie: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I was pleasantly floored. Seven months later, it’s become the consensus Movie Of The Year. But in the meantime, I’ve caught up with a few dozen other new releases, some of which smacked me even harder. It’s been a rich, ripe year for movies. Here’s a highlight reel of my favorite bits and pieces…
- The opening heist in Drive. I love the full movie, but it peaks early with this thrilling set-piece that doesn’t waste a shot or second. The sound design alone is as meticulous as any I’ve heard this year, balancing layers of aural information while keeping the viewer on edge. I can’t imagine a better way to kick off a crime thriller.
- The dueling Michael Caine impressions in The Trip. It’s just two performers (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) showing off, fighting to out-funny and out-ego one another. As such, it’s both an ideal comic showcase and the film’s midlife crisis narrative boiled down its essence.
- The insult competition between Annie (Kristen Wiig) and a bitchy teenager in Bridesmaids. It’s an exercise in pure, improvised cruelty as Wiig and Mia Frampton, daughter of Peter, trade verbal daggers. (“You look like an old mop” might be my favorite.) Wiig isn’t afraid to get dirty or self-deprecating, and in this scene she’s at her funniest/lowest, losing her job with the checkmate line “You’re a little cunt.”
- The performance of “The Show” in Moneyball. Kerris Dorsey and Brad Pitt sit in a music store. Dorsey, talented but a little shy, starts strumming a guitar and singing. It’s an understated scene of father/daughter bonding, one that studiously avoids cliché while setting the film on course to its emotional climax.
- The climax of Attack the Block. Moses (John Boyega) finally gets his “hero” moment as he runs down a hall: sword in hand, firecracker in mouth, with gorilla-wolf motherfuckers snapping at his heels, and all in slow-motion. Add Basement Jaxx’s riveting soundtrack, and you’ve got an adrenaline-infused scene that plays like the best kind of side-scrolling video game.
- Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, for blending vulnerability, eroticism, and despair in her reaction to the end of the world;
- Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for being so silently perceptive he might’ve had X-ray vision, a bastion of maturity in a nest of childish spies;
- Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin for turning her face into a portrait of motherhood-as-PTSD;
- Brendan Gleeson in The Guard for cutting loose and flaunting his appetites as a 21st century Falstaff;
- Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre for her ultra-Victorian restraint and her ability to match Michael Fassbender’s heights of passion;
- Ben Kingsley in Hugo for concealing a father of cinema and inveterate showman beneath a mask of grumpiness;
- Monica del Carmen in Leap Year for treating extreme sexuality as of a piece with the quotidian, lonely stretches of life;
- Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris for bringing energy and comedy to his take on a literary icon;
- and Pollyanna McIntosh in The Woman for being feral, fascinating, and terrifying.
And now, my top five movies of the year…
#5: Martha Marcy May Marlene, directed by Sean Durkin
Every frame of Durkin’s debut feature made my skin crawl. A threat was palpable even in its most innocuous moments, and I’m not merely talking about the threat of physical violence. The danger in MMMM is much scarier than that in a typical horror film: Patrick’s cult threads its evil dogmas through the title character’s brain, leaving her with severe psychic hemorrhaging. She’s cleft into two times and lives, and it’s to Elizabeth Olsen’s credit that she plays both halves—the quivering bundle of fear and the would-be “teacher and leader”—within the same role, sometimes within the same gesture.
Olsen’s unease is supplemented by Jody Lee Lipes’ zoom-happy camera, applying the ambient paranoia of ’70s thrillers to the lakes and forests of the northeast. The whole film is colored by Martha’s anxiety; even a tree, branches shuddering in the wind as she flees the cult, is imbued with sinister intent. A story of atmospheric horror and systematized violence, Martha Marcy May Marlene itself has crawled into my mind and taken up residence. My one major misgiving lies in the treatment of Martha’s sister and brother-in-law. They feel too schematically bourgeois for this otherwise loose, suggestive film. Nonetheless, I’m dying to see what Durkin tries next.
#4: Meek’s Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt
Steeped in the tedium of frontier history, streaked with political subtext, Reichardt’s revisionist western muffles its narrative progress. Its story expands through gestures, accidents, and mistakes. The film’s survival-oriented, focusing on the compromises and sacrifices necessary for human life in the wilderness. For the seven settlers led by guide Stephen Meek, every decision is a life-or-death decision: can a captive Native American lead them to water? Does salvation lie just over a hillside? Either they act together and make the right choice, or they die.
These colossal stakes drench the story in tension. Even as Reichardt dwells on textures and period details—the toil of reloading a rifle; the clash between dusty pink dresses and the parched landscape—the threat of endless wandering hangs over the pioneers’ heads. The actors wear it well, exchanging dazed, exhausted looks. And from this tired band, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) emerges as the only real hero, an understated, proto-feminist badass. With its arid compositions, Meek’s Cutoff turns western myth into tragicomic reality.
#3: Certified Copy, directed by Abbas Kiarostami
This discursive duet poses a riddle: “Are they or aren’t they?” But Certified Copy’s delights go far beyond its core mystery. That question is an intellectual spark, lighting up a dozen other points of inquiry: the film dives into art history, relationships, academia, and more through the ruminations of author James Miller and the nameless French woman leading him around Tuscany. Despite being one long conversation, the film never lacks for visual dynamism; Kiarostami tends toward beautiful static shots, but his camera often orbits the couple in graceful, deliberate movements.
And as if to complement Certified Copy’s technical and natural allure, Juliette Binoche gives the performance of the year. Binoche is always an exceptional actress, silently adding wrinkles to her every role, but this is something new. She’s sweet but tough, giving the impression that every delicate word she speaks is forged from a lifetime of experience. Her sparring partner, opera singer William Shimell, is a decent enough actor, but Binoche draws my eyes even when she’s off-screen. Midway through the film, she has a sudden breakdown in a café, and it’s unlike anything else I saw this year. You can see the shape of the movie totally changing as a single tear runs down her face.
#2: Weekend, directed by Andrew Haigh
Russell (Tom Cullen) is relaxed, receding, sometimes melancholy. Glen (Chris New) is iconoclastic and impulsive. They’re the two poles of this bittersweet, naturalistic gay romance, and two of the year’s most unforgettable characters. Weekend hits all the right notes; it has all the awkwardness and tentative desire of an embryonic relationship, all the embarrassment and incidental comedy of sex. It astonishes me with its range of moods, as it shifts from funny banter to heartbreaking revelations in seconds, without ever seeming forced or jerky.
It’s such a humanistic film, too, so sympathetic to its couple’s pains as gay men in a homophobic world and as lovers whose relationship is squashed by circumstance before it has a chance to blossom. It has no “Notting Hill moment,” as Glen says derisively. Instead, its climax is a quiet little conversation about coming out as they lie in bed. It’s just a handful of lines, but it still tears me apart. Cullen and New have plenty of sexual chemistry, but beyond that, they have a powerful rapport. They work as an onscreen couple. 2012’s romantic comedies will have an incredibly hard time topping them.
#1: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
I’ve written about Uncle Boonmee here and at 366 Weird Movies. My point remains the same: it’s a spellbinding experience, an invitation to another world, and a collection of weird folk tales all rolled into one feature film. As I sat watching it for the first time in the Walker Art Center’s movie theater, I was utterly hooked. All it took was that opening scene, where a bovine pack animal shuffles through a velvety forest. Apichatpong handles his vast themes (death, morality, the afterlife) with the humor and imagination they deserve, and it makes for one hell of an entertaining movie.
Touring through past and future, caves and glades, human and animal worlds, Uncle Boonmee is dense with narrative tangles and metaphysical conceits. But it doesn’t gloat about its ambitions. It wears them lightly in a spirit of friendliness and warmth. I’ve never seen a ghost story or an art film like it. Open-ended, curious, and unusual at every turn, Uncle Boonmee is exactly what I want out of a movie.
[I have yet to see A Dangerous Method, House of Pleasures, Le Quattro Volte, Margaret, Poetry, A Separation, Shame, or Take Shelter.]