Al's Top Ten Movies of 2011 (in response to the Georgia Straight's)
Note: in no way is this meant as a challenge to the Straight, I'm just using their post, to which freelancers like m'self don't contribute, as a pretext for puttin' my own views out there. Also note: I've had very little sleep (I was on a massive Dexter binge last night), so there may be typos or awkward constructions below, which I'm losing the strength to seek and destroy at present; I'll return to it tomorrow, perhaps.
It's a bad year to ask me to give a "top ten films of 2011." What with my proximity from Vancouver, video rental stores around me dying like hornets trapped inside a double-paned window, no VIFF pass, a need to consider whether my Mom will like a film when I do rent or buy something, and my classes at UBC taking up a goodly portion of my cinema-time, I feel like I've barely seen ten new movies I genuinely enjoyed this year. Perusing the Georgia Straight's Top Ten lists, I find myself shaking my head and going, "Nope, missed that one... missed that one... missed that one too" far more often than I'd like.
Some reactions, though, for what they're worth. I managed to see exactly one film on Ken Eisner's list, Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy. Almost every cinephile I know personally (four that I spoke to about it) was disappointed by this film; I didn't mind it, though I certainly wasn't as moved by it as I was, say, A Taste of Cherry. Vastly less so, actually. It's beautifully shot, the locations are gorgeous, and Juliette Binoche is always interesting to watch. However, the whole purpose of the film - a somewhat gamelike philosophical musing on the nature of authenticity - just didn't really do much for me; not really sure, from reading his capsule description, what Mr. Eisner got out of it that I didn't, but Certified Copy wouldn't be on my top 100, even.
I'm otherwise outgunned - Ken Eisner sees a LOT of films! Of the ones he recommends that interest me, I'm mostly likely to keep an eye out for Submarine. In fact, I want to see everything I can with Paddy Considine, these days, having enjoyed his work in In America, loved his performance in the recent (completely and unfairly neglected) Patricia Highsmith adaptation The Cry of the Owl, and been very moved by his feature directorial debut Tyrannosaur (which is on my top ten).
I managed to catch three of Janet Smith's recommendations. I also admired Lars von Trier's Melancholia, and will include it on my own list; certainly the opening montage was stunning cinema, though I found von Trier's sense of perverse humour (mostly as manifested by Udo Kier) a little wearisome and at odds with the film as a whole (I'm not at all bothered by it when it issues forth at press conferences, however). Still, the images of the earth being destroyed in a planetary collision (set to "Tristan and Isolde" if I recall correctly) were perhaps the single most indelible of those I took in this year (or at least tied with the horse being led against the wind in the opening moments of Bela Tarr's final film, The Turin Horse, more on which below).
Malick's The Tree of Life was more problematic for me. I respect his ambitions, as well, but it stands to Malick's canon somewhat as 2001: A Space Odyssey stands to Kubrick's, as the most pretentious, most overly ambitious, and most uneven (I'm being polite) film he's made. It still (like 2001) has mangificent and memorable moments, but I really didn't need the whole metaphysical framing device - including the frigging dinosaurs at the beginning and Sean Penn wandering around purposelessly in some ill-defined netherworld at the end. While I understand that such moments are doubtlessly inextricably linked to Malick's purposes in making the film, I was so moved by some of what the film had to say about growing up in America in the 1950s, and about the the father-son relationship at its core, that I resented the degree to which such things were ultimately diluted and diminished by the rest of this spiritually-bloated quasi-religious fartsiness. Much as it seems an insult to call any Malick film anything less than a masterpiece, I can't in conscience include The Tree of Life on my Top 10 List, if the criterion is whether I actually enjoyed the film or not.
Then again, The New World took a long time to grow on me too, and I have full intentions of wrestling with The Tree of Life again (...somehow that turn of phrase reminds me of Bergman's The Virgin Spring).
Finally, re: Janet Smith's list, much as I like Ms. Blanchett, Hanna seemed a minor thriller at best - I would even rank Fincher's English reworking of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo above it - and it wouldn't come close to my top ten.
Re: Mark Harris, I managed to catch two of his recommendations, besides Melancholia and Certified Copy (already discussed), Armadillo and Shame. I liked both! (I thought Ken Eisner was weirdly cruel to Shame and my views are closer to Mark Harris', though I would also add that it's beautifully composed and scopophilically very satisfying). I had no great passion for either, though - Shame was very compelling, but not a film I'd want to see again. The film on his list that I haven't seen that I'm most interested in is In a Better World.
Re: Patti Jones and John Lekich, I haven't seen any of the films on their lists that I haven't already mentioned. Both praise Midnight in Paris, but I have a fairly marked dislike for Woody Allen, with a few (very few) exceptions (I have great fondness for his most successfully Bergmanlike of his pseudo-Bergmans, Interiors, for instance. Also, I should note that I really want to see Deconstructing Harry, which Straight editor Charlie Smith will host at the Vancity Theatre January 3rd). The premise of Midnight in Paris strikes me as silly beyond consideration, and the amount of praise it has received in no way outweighs my own intuitions.
Also re: these lists, I want to see both Drive and Take Shelter, but haven't yet.
Finally, Straightwise, I took in a few films mentioned in Steve Newton's Year in Horror post. I thought Insidious, to which he gives some muted praise, was "total shite,"while managing to enjoy The Thing prequel a lot more than he did, though not enough to say that it's a film I actually care about (it was at least as good as Alien Versus Predator*). Finally, I do not understand why people liked Drive Angry; a few people I saw enjoyed it, I found it inelegant, noisy, splashy big-budget crap. Otherwise I missed most of the films he mentions, and I'm not really sure what my favourite horror movie of 2011 was. I don't consider any of the films on my list below true horror films - perhaps The Human Centipede would count, but I actually think of Tom Six as an arthouse filmmaker, not an exploitation or horror filmmaker. I quite liked a film called Black Death, which tells a somewhat unique tale of Christians-vs-Pagans - but it's nowhere near my actual top 10...
While again asking you to bear in mind that this wasn't a great year for me, current-cinema-consumption-wise, here's "Al's Alternative Top Ten" - a rather eclectic list, but I'm under no pressure to "type" myself as a viewer on my blog.
1. Tyrannosaur. A rather vicious drunk, on emerging from a pub, kicks his own dog to death in the street in the opening minutes of the film. He's the main character, and is so brutal and distasteful in this scene that it counts as quite a triumph of cinema that you'll be moved to tears by his plight as the narrative unfolds, despite his continued raging, self-pity, and constant drinking. I don't understand how someone with Aspergers (Considine, the director), supposedly at a remove from human emotional expression because of his condition, can no less make the most emotionally powerful film I saw all year. I liked Tyrannosaur in the same way I feel like I'm "supposed" to like Mike Leigh's films (but seldom do). Peter Mullan's performance as said drunk is very powerful - you might recall him as the leader of the Hazmat team with the, um, "family problems" in Session 9. I liked the end of the film a bit less than I did the beginning and middle - would have tolerated more loose ends and ambiguity than the more formulaic, less convincing emotional resolutions of the film's last fifteen minutes - but it's still a great achievement. On the odd chance that I'm mis-including it (if it gets picked up in January for a run in Vancouver, say), do check it out.
2. Melancholia. 'nuff said, I hope.
3. The Turin Horse. Bela Tarr's final film, like Melancholia, has images the beauty of which will make you ache. These two films both speak to a cinematic sensibility for which I have terrific respect - one that aspires to make contemporary cinema as profound, moving, "spiritually significant" and transcendentally painful as the masterpieces of Tarkovsky and Bergman. Not much cinema being made these days has any such ambition, even less comes close to succeeding, but The Turin Horse does on both counts. Tree of Life also gets a nod here, of course, but I'll stick with Melancholia and The Turin Horse as my favourite "big" films of the year, artistic-ambition-wise. I would add Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void to this list, too, but Wikipedia lists it as a 2009 movie, and I have no idea when the rest of the world saw it. It's a 2011 film as far as Vancouver is concerned, but if I'm going to cheat, it will be to include a very different film, a bit more recent...
4. ... that being Rubber. This is technically a 2010 film, but as far as I know, it didn't get a theatrical screening after it played the 2010 VIFF, so we only caught up with it here in 2011 on video. I think that makes it fair game to include (because otherwise there's no other top ten I could put it on!). This is a deliriously surreal, very black comedy about a telekinetic killer tire. If that description alone isn't enough to make you curious, nothing further I can say will matter (what if I tell you that heads explode?). This may well be the best film Wings Hauser has been in**, though of course his performance has nothing on his scenery-chewin', "Neon Slime" singin' role as Ramrod in Vice Squad.
5. The Guard. No one else seems to care much about this film, but this is a very likable, somewhat dark, and rather subtly written Irish police comedy with a great performance by Brendan Gleeson, and is directed by John Michael McDonagh, brother to In Bruges director Martin McDonagh. It stops a little short of In Bruges, but based on those two films, I'll be following these McDonagh boys. I see very few comedies that I like, and almost none that make me laugh aloud. The Guard did, more than once.
6. Rango: it may just be that my Mom loved it, I don't know. I feel a bit weird about including it, and have been too self-conscious about my fondness for it to actually buy a copy for myself, but if I had children, I would buy Rango for them in a flash and make them watch it with me, repeatedly, whether they liked it or not. It's very inventive, suffused with a sincere love of cinema, a delightful visual sense, and some very sophisticated humour; Johnny Depp, as the chameleon for which the film is named, undergoes a spaghetti-western-like ordeal in a desert town populated by other talkin' reptiles. Better still, Depp squeezes a brief but very noticeable, fond tribute to (spoiler - rollover to see) Hunter S. Thompson into the film for any adults savvy enough to get the joke. (Anything in a film that will make five percent of the audience stand and cheer while the other 95% look around wondering what the fuck just happened is okay with me. If anyone happened on a whim to go see this theatrically whilst under the influence of psychedelics, not realizing this, err, "character" would be making an appearance, I imagine they'd have happily shit themselves, laughing in the aisles, at that moment).
7. Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It takes some guts for critics who hope to be taken seriously to praise such a commercially successful film, but I'm still a bit surprised that no one at the Straight acknowledged it; can it be that no one else loved this film? Because I did - it made me feel like I was 14 again, so wholly did it involve me in its story. It's perhaps a bit sad that, at this juncture in human history, to believe in the potential for revolutionary change, we have to project it onto apes - that 21st century human beings can't make a movie about human beings bringing about massive social change, anymore - but the entire destroy-humanity-and-start-afresh-in-the-forests final message has definite appeal for sentimental, impotently liberal slobs like me. Andy Serkis actually outdoes his roles as Kong and Gollum in the character of Caesar; never have I felt so emotionally invested in an animated character, not even Rango.
8. Limitless: This was one of the smartest, best-crafted, most engaging mainstream thrillers I saw this year, and deserves to be rewarded for having the bravery to offer a rather pro-drug message.
9. Can I list Human Centipede 2 as a 2011 film without cheating? (It hasn't actually gotten theatrical release here, but nor will it ever). The first Human Centipede was very chilly and restrained, almost playing like a very dark, very cruel comedy, minus the laughs. It had surprisingly few vomit-inducing moments, given the subject matter (a mad scientist, meant to evoke Nazi medical experiments, sewing a chain of people together ass-to-mouth). In extreme contrast, The Human Centipede 2 abandons all restraint and has shit and blood flying, even spattering the lens (we can be grateful its black and white). I really don't know how I feel about this film; rather than a straightforward sequel, it adopts a metacinematic approach, seeming ultimately to function as a frontal assault on a certain stripe of movie viewer. It focuses on an extremely damaged, distasteful, and improbable-looking main character, a sexually abused, mentally deficient near mute (we understand that he CAN speak, but we never hear him do it) who is obsessed with the first Human Centipede, and decides to re-enact the operation of the first film, with no medical skill or equipment (unless you count duct tape and staple guns). My reaction at this stage is more visceral than thought-out, at this point, but without knowing what to make of it, the extremity of this film impressed the hell out of me, and there's an odd beauty to the images, something very compellingly watchable. It's enough to merit inclusion - eagerly awaiting part three.
10. Meek's Cutoff. I have yet to see River of Grass, but I think it strange that I like each Kelly Reichardt film I see significantly less than the previous. As she grows in confidence and critical acclaim, shouldn't it be the other way around? I've seen Old Joy at least half a dozen times; speaking of cinema-as-art, it is one of the two Americans films of this new century that I most admire (the other being Robinson Devor's Police Beat - I'm proud that the Pacific Northwest is inspiring such films). There is so much emotion, so much meaning packed into so minimal a plot (two old friends, grown somewhat apart, taking a road trip to an outdoor hot spring in Oregon) that the film beggars my ability to write about it concisely; I think I've cried more profoundly watching this film than any other, not not out of the chickenshit sentimentality promoted by Hollywood (because I also cried at Rambo III - making me cry at a movie is no great accomplishment), but because of the parts of the human heart it touches through its characters, apparently quite effortlessly and always with great honesty, tenderness and care. I liked it much more than Wendy and Lucy, which was just too uniformly depressing and despairing for me to really enjoy the experience of watching it. Meek's Cutoff - following a group of settlers lost in the deserts of 19th century Oregon, fighting amongst themselves and striving to find a proper attitude to a Native they abduct, to lead them to water or rescue - is bleaker still. I'm sure there are many profound things to be SAID about Meek's Cutoff - it would be a fine film to write about or think about or talk about, a fine "conversation starter," and its probably "objectively" an important film - but it failed to move me deeply, partially because Reichardt deliberately foils the expectations of the audience that a film will tell a complete story; she very deliberately leaves things open ended, robbing us of any sense of closure, providing instead a one-hand-clapping moment for the final shot, meant, presumably, to stimulate dialogue as to what it all means. I don't OBJECT to such provocations, per se, and I don't always need a pat ending (see Tyrannosaur review, above), but neither do I go to films JUST to be intellectually provoked; I want to be transformed, moved, engaged emotionally, to emerge the theatre in a new state, my life enriched or altered. Old Joy did that so powerfully, for me, that I can't quite understand Reichardt's current trajectory; I get that, with Meek's Cutoff, she wants us to feel equally lost as her settlers, wandering a desert with little hope of salvation and no sense of who to trust (...I wonder if the Native is somehow subtly meant to figure Barack Obama?). But maybe I'm missing something, because the part of the film where I'm supposed to FEEL it just never really arrives... Kelly Reichardt is still one of the most interesting filmmakers presently working in North America, but if her next film follows this trend, I might have to reconsider my rejection of anti-depressants (or stop watching her movies).
There, that's my own top 10 list - again, please bear in mind that I had very limited exposure to new cinema this year.
*While this IS a joke of sorts, I must say that I sincerely liked Alien Versus Predator, but only insofar as, on entering the film theatre, as I usually do with exploitation fare (at whatever budget-range), I had my expectations set well below zero; expecting nothing, I was passably entertained. The critical uproar that greeted that film actually shocked me a bit, since it suggested that people actually thought it might be somehow a good film, actually had hopes for it - something as absurd as my own hopes for Hostel 3 (see below).
**This is also a joke of sorts.