2011 - Best Films

(In a Terrance Malick-esque voice-over whisper):

What is this struggle?  This annual attempt to contain all that is good in the cinema in a mere list?  Always it wrestles inside me...always it will.

As I tried to get at in my last post on my favorite discoveries of 2011, there is a big part of me that resists the list.  Reading David Lynch's book "Catching the Big Fish" over the holidays brought me one good explanation why the ritual of making concrete the year's favorites might make me uneasy :
"I like the saying 'The world is as you are.'  And I think films are as you are.  That's why, although the frames of a film are always the same--the same number, in the same sequence, with the same sounds--every screening is different.  The difference is sometimes subtle, but it's there. It depends on the audience.  There is a circle that goes from the audience to the film and back.  Each person is looking and feeling and thinking and feeling and coming up with his or her own sense of things.  And it's probably different from what I fell in love with."
Are we even the same people who saw that movie back in February?  And, aside from the way in which time changes our perceptions, isn't watching movies often an empathetic act?  Most of us, I would hope, know the feeling of loving a film because of what it does for somebody else, and how exciting it is to see that reflected in them.  So, does War Horse make my year end list because I saw it with my Dad and his wife (for whom the film is tailor made), an experience which facilitated me abandoning all of my critical hang ups about Spielberg and allowed me to just go along for the schlocky ride?  Well, no.  It's not my cup of tea.  But, the experience was a joy, and the memory is grand, and what might have been a tedious experience in another context was transformed into a pretty good time at the movies.

War Horse
 And, to be fair, Spielberg's War Horse is interesting as an homage to the epics of the past, especially the films of John Ford that Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiski evoke in more than a few glorious shots (they even capture Emily Watson in a full on Gone With the Wind moment).  Also, in conjunction with Scorsese's recent Hugo (as well as Michael Hazanivicius' The Artist), there is something to be said for the way these film makers place value on the act of remembering, as they are continually in a gleeful conversation with the films of the past.  Unfortunately, both War Horse and Hugo suffer in dealing with aspects of the material that simply aren't suited to the directors (dare I say, because of their age?), and the connective tissue of these young adult adaptations feels fairly disengaged, at times.  Still, in reflecting on my top tier recommendations for 2011, I don't want to give the impression that they are always "perfect" films.  Sometimes, a film makes the cut for what it attempts as opposed to what it accomplishes.  And, sometimes, a film makes the cut for hitting an easier mark with great accuracy.  Since ECSTATIC is mostly occupied with the search for the new and transcendent, the later tends to be more the case, and it was a pretty great year for films taking risks that paid off.  As for Hugo, it made the list of the softy who wept openly at the redemption of Melies a few weeks ago, but didn't quite make the cut for the guy typing this now.

So, in no particular order, here is a simple list of the films that connected with me the most this year, as well as a collection of some of my favorite film stills from the year that hopefully begin to explain why.  There are two films by the same director, two that were released specifically in 3D, five from American directors, three from German directors, one from Hungary, and one from Turkey.  And, as a testament that you should always be open to the possibilities, there are two films from directors that I thought had very little chance of ever making my "end of the year" list:  Woody Allen and Zack Snyder.  Most of these films I have written about already this year on ECSTATIC, so for more on these films, click on the title links:

Pina  directed by Wim Wenders

Meek's Cutoff  directed by Kelly Reichardt

The Turin Horse  directed by Bela Tarr

Sucker Punch directed by Zach Snyder

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

The Tree of Life  directed by Terrance Malick

Midnight in Paris directed by Woody Allen

Cave of Forgotten Dreams directed by Werner Herzog

Into the Abyss directed by Werner Herzog

Road to Nowhere directed by Monte Hellman

Honorable Mentions:  Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, Frederick Wiseman's Crazy HorseMichael Hazanivicius' The Artist, Martin Scorsese's Hugo, Steve James' The Interrupters, Thomas Imbach's Day is Done, Ben Rivers' Slow ActionCarter Smith's Yearbook, Steven Soderbergh's And Everything is Going Fine, Duncan Jones' Source Code, and Gore Verbinski's Rango (by the way, my favorite bit of dialogue from this year:  Rango:  "Is this heaven?"  The Spirit of the West:  "If it were, we'd be eatin' pop tarts with Kim Novak")

Great Scenes of 2011:  Carey Mulligan singing "New York, New York" in Steve McQueen's Shame;  Andrew Bird and his band jamming out "Opposite Day" in Xan Aranda's Andrew Bird:  Fever Year;  Vertebrae's "blood vomit ballet" in Katsuhito Ishii's Smuggler;  the gorgeous pacing in the final scenes of Alexander Payne's The Descendents;  Hutu karaoke to "Islands in the Stream" and the "Commando/Cockroach" scene in Alrick Brown's Kinyarwanda; Charlize Theron and Collette Wolfe's scene at the end of Jason Reitman's Young Adult;  the opening sequence of Lars von Trier's Melancholia;  Stanley Tucci and Paul Bettany on the steps toward the end of Margin Call;  the Apes take the Golden Gate Bridge in Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes;  the final scene of Eduardo Nunes' Southwest;  the pans across the grand design of Asgard in Thor, IMAX-3D;  the cactus plants on the windowsill in Aharon Kashelas and Navot Papushado's Iranian horror flick Rabies.

Carey Mulligan in Steve McQueen's Shame
Biggest Disappointments of 2011:  Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty; Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes:  Game of Shadows;  Robert Redford's The Conspirator;  Matthew Vaughn's X Men:  First Class;  Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar;  Joe Johnston's Captain America:  The First Avenger; Paul Feig's Bridesmaids (who knew WOMEN could make poop and puke jokes?!); Brad Bird's MI4: Ghostbusters on Parade (soooo close to being "Terrible," but ultimately "Just Terrible"...though Tom Cruise does get the coveted "Running With Intent" Acting Award for 2011).

Mission Impossible:  Ghost Protocol
Most Anticipated:  Sofia Coppola's Somewhere;  Errol Morris's Tabloid; Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene;  Clio Barnard's The Arbor; Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy;  Dee Rees's Pariah;  Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur;  Richard Press's Bill Cunningham New York;  Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In;  Min-suk Kim's Haunters;  Miranda July's The Future;  Jean-luc Godard's Film Socialisme; Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin;  Todd Haynes' Mildred Pierce;  Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quattro Volte;  Andrew Haigh's Weekend.

Miranda July's The Future
Of course, the fun of these lists for me is to ignite some conversation about the films you loved this year, particularly those you thought were overlooked, so please post on the comment boards with your favorites, turkeys, or thoughts about how I'm just plain wrong.  Have a Happy New Year, and here's to 2012 being the most ECSTATIC year for film yet!  Cheers!


Husni Ashiku said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Husni Ashiku said...

Missed Mission Impossible 3 this year but will take your advice on watching the second one for the motorcycle ballet. This post being your "Best Films - 2011" wanted to say, looking back on your blog, the quality of what you've written here is just as great as its quantity. The link's for example on your posts are helpful in making your site not be too esoteric and sometimes opening up interest for further research. Commenting on this particular post, I was surprised not to see "Le have" on any of your lists. Maybe you can dismiss this comment and chalk it up to it being my first Aki Kaurismaki experience but I found our screening of it at the CIFF to be one of the most pleasant times I had at the cinema this year. The seat thumping included.

Husni Ashiku said...

"Le Have" being "Le Havre"

Jason Hedrick said...

Well, you missed "MI-3" from a few years ago, which I saw at a drive-in...but only flashes of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and rubber masks linger. And, rest assured, I'm not making light of your mistake, but rather the fairly indistinct nature of a pretty weak franchise, film to film. I'm sure there's still time to catch "MI-4" in the theatre, which would be the preferable way to see it, if you're going to see it all. "MI-4" follows the most laughably recycled James Bond cold war era Russian missile launch plot in recent memory. It's the first live action film directed by Brad Bird, most known for animation work, a lot of which I really like--"The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille," as well as some work on the Simpsons. Having seen the film, I wonder what Bird's intentions really were, as it seems that with a few significant edits "MI-4" would nearly be a commentary on, bordering on parody of, the spy-action genre, in the same way that "The Incredibles" is a clever take on the superhero genre.
As for "MI-2," I remember it as the most enjoyable of all the films because of the John Woo factor--his style seemed to fit the absurdity of the pacing and plotting. Now that I think about it, I'm not sure I've ever seen the first "MI".
Anyway, on "Le Havre," I have to say that the film has really not sat all that well with me since we saw it together in Chicago. I think you're right to point out that it being your first Aki movie might have something to do with it. Having seen Aki's bag of tricks in the past, the film delivered for me a lot of what I expected. I'm not saying this in a film-snobby/"I've seen more movies than you" kind of way, but rather exactly the opposite--I envy your experience of the film, because I think the style would have left a deeper impression had I never seen an Aki movie before. It is a gorgeous film, almost as much an homage to the great silent era of films as "The Artist." The particular light Aki captures is so stark and clear, and his framing is so assured, not unlike Cronenberg in "A Dangerous Method" (another film that, like "Le Havre," I admire for some it's finer aspects, but just don't love). But, ultimately, I wasn't taken with the story of "Le Havre," which seemed to not be able to deal with the real issues it sets up, and the depiction of race comes off as simplistic, to say the least. I suspect that "Le Havre" is the sort of film whose continued accolades are dependent upon ageing art house patrons who come out loving it because it does nothing to offend them and is very pretty. I'll return once again to "Melancholia," a film that I liked less than "Le Havre," but, given the choice, would watch again simply for the risks it takes.