Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ten Best Films of 2011

1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey/
Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Ceylan synthetically constructs his portrait of bi-continental Turkish national identity from the tissues of high-modernist European and Middle Eastern masters, from the metaphysical phantasmagoria of Tarkovsky to the cosmological landscapes of Kiarostami. With the sun setting on the autumnal latter, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia descends into an endless digital expanse of sensual blacks, cut by glowing high-beams, which in turn will give way to an unforgettable gas-lit interlude. Ceylan's latest, easily his best, is 2011's most inexhaustible work of cinema.

2. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary/
France/Germany/Switzerland/United States)
Purportedly Hungarian master Tarr's final film, The Turin Horse provides the most distilled expression of the director's style to date: Tarr's heavily choreographed, phenomenological long-takes bleakly inscribe a series of quotidian gestures on a perpetually windswept Central European plane. No less signature is Tarr's Nietzschean take on a European civilization that has already collapsed. This is Tarr bringing both his corpus and Europe's fin de siècle late modernism - in form and in content - to a highly masterful conclusion.

3. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
A sign of life in an increasingly endangered corner of world cinema, Farhadi builds one of the art's more comprehensive portraits of human relations under theocratic rule, constructing a private social sphere in which virtually nothing exists outside the sight of fundamentalist Islam's invisible monitors. A Separation's consistently transparent architectural spaces fulfill an especially crucial role in enabling the the surveillance that provides the film with its inherently critical subject. A masterpiece of Iran's latest filmic wave.

4. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, United States)
A rare example of a genuinely American art cinema - and easily the year's most ambitious work - The Tree of Life reproduces God's Book of Job answer to his human interrogators, combining the beauty of divine creation that provides this response with a form of confessional autobiography that looks to the director's adolescent origins. The latter sequences showcase the exceptional impressionistic power of Malick's subjective film craft, which ultimately outweighs Malick's reliance on New Age cliché.

5. This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran)
A home movie of unparalleled personal courage, festival auteur Panahi (under house-arrest and a twenty year ban from filmmaking at the time of production) and documentarian Mirtahmasb combine a series of tangential forms - surveillance, the reading and blocking of a screenplay, the scouting of a location - that stand outside Panahi's prevailing narrative practice. Constructed out of the medium's remainders, few works have ever made what is forbidden to Panahi any more meaningful.

6. The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, United Kingdom/United States)
Ever the most Mizoguchian of contemporary directors, Davies's latest tragic masterstroke reprises the disjunctive Proustian temporality of the director's very great Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes in cinematically adapting Terrence Rattigan's eponymous 1952 play. Davies remains gloriously stuck in the postwar moment of his legit source material, nostalgically remembering a bygone working class public that the filmmaker elegantly casts in a warm amber glow.

7. Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland/France/Germany)
Espousing the virtue of humanistic resistance in the face of punitive immigration-law enforcement, leading Finnish auteur Kaurismäki's first French-set film in almost two decades finds the director in his default deadpan comedic style and preferred proletarian milieu. The level of Kaurismäki's filmmaking however exceeds his standard high quality, with the the director employing a thematically significant, metronomic economy of primary colors that offers a parallel source of formal interest.

8. Old Dog (Pema Tseden, China)
A modern-day classic of humanist cinema that reinforces the art’s perpetual role in dramatizing the contested arrival of modernity, one of the medium’s primary subjects for the past 120 years, Old Dog situates Tibet and Tibetan culture as sites of exploitation for a newly wealthy urban China. Directed with great intelligence by Pema Tseden, Old Dog is a breakthrough for a newly emergent Tibetan cinema, and the nation's art cinema more generally.

9. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, United States)
Drive pays conspicuous homage to some of the most elegant mid-level auteurist action filmmaking of the forty year-old Danish director's lifetime (Walter Hill's The Driver, Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese), that is, to the American formalist tradition that Refn very ably extends. Refn's film is a work of consummate collaboration, whether it is the film's inspired casting or the evocative electronic soundtrack that further locates the film in its spiritual eighties homeland,

10. Hugo (Martin Scorsese, United States)
Though Hugo presents unfamiliar generic terra firma for Scorsese, Hugo is nothing if not a work of personal expression, with Scorsese dividing between two surrogates (in addition to his own on-camera cameo as a turn-of-the-century photographer): the forgotten Méliès and the latch-key Cabret. The director is at once the aging legend, deeply concerned with his legacy and the preservation of the past, and also the young technician and aspiring magician looking toward the medium's (3-D) future.

2011: Grant Wiedenfeld

1. Forms Are Not Self-Subsistent Substances (Samantha Rebello, 2010)
2. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
3. Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)
4. Case Départ (Lionel Steketee, Thomas Ngijol & Fabrice Eboué)
5. Our Idiot Brother (Jesse Peretz)
6. Mysterium Cosmographicum (Brent Coughenour)
7. Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)
8. Empty Quarter (Alain LeTourneau & Pam Minty, 2010)
9. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
10. TRON: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010)

Grant is a PhD Candidate in Film Studies & Comparative Literature at Yale University.

2011: Jeremi Szaniawski

2011: Annus (Quasi) Horribilis*

Perhaps 2011 is analogous to 1928's awkward conversion from silent to sound cinema, which would account for the generally weak output at a moment of uncertainty and transition. One can only hope that a new generation of filmmakers will be able to exploit the new aesthetic resources offered not only by digital filming, but also by digital projection, and reinvent the medium. In the meantime, the end of 35mm is, at least in my eyes, a tremendous catastrophe. Digital projection, be it 2 or 4K, is only appropriate for 3D animation films such as Steven Spielberg's and Peter Jackson's grotesque desecration of Tintin.

In general, with the economic crisis causing a dearth of quantity but also quality in cinematic production (ultra conservative studio executives placing all their money on 'safe' lowbrow hyper-marketed blockbusters, even more so than in the past), a spirit of scavenging has characterized commercial cinema of late, with strings of redundant remakes or nauseating celebrations of cinema's former glories (Hugo, The Artist). But the ghoul's spawns are hardly more than cinematic zombies, or vaguely charming bric-a-brac, and the glorious wind that once swept the hills of Southern California cannot shake the ideological cesspool that the wavering capital of world cinema has become.

In this dark context, no traditional feature film produced this year has managed to truly capture my imagination. The latest films by established American auteurs (Scorsese, Eastwood, Cronenberg) are disappointing, if earnest, at best; and formerly cutting-edge Hollywood filmmakers (Fincher and Soderbergh) have produced arguably their worst films in 2011. As in the 30s, it is a European import who has delivered Hollywood's best film (the slick Drive), while European (Moretti or Polanski hitting all time lows, for instance) and Asian art cinemas have been found lacking as well, by and large.

For all these reasons, my favorite films seen in 2011 don't actually qualify as 'feature films' or were released theatrically in 2010.

1. The most stimulating place for audiovisual experiences in 2011, far more even than the scores of celebrated shows that inundate public and private TV networks, has been the internet. Sites such as Youtube and its ilk have offered wonderfully creative 'mash-ups', in a reflection of our nostalgic, exhausted times and accelerated, disjointed global capitalist culture gone 'tidbits, soundbites and little else.' Acknowledging the cultural relevance of the 'genre', the talentless but shrewd journeyman Ridley Scott has produced the theatrically released mash-up, Life in a Day, which is alas way inferior to the sum of its parts. Conversely (and while only on view in selected galleries or museums, currently at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) Christian Marclay's The Clock (2010), the crowning audiovisual achievement of 2011, is an endlessly stimulating, playful and gigantic 'film of films', an ode to cinema and time, which need not be viewed in its 24 hours entirety to be experienced, understood and enjoyed fully.

2. With her painterly celebration of femininity, the old West and the Oregon trail's perils, Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff (2010) proves once again that the director's understated, humanist cinema is by far the best alternative to Hollywood's current desperate and pathetic race for remakes and 'in your face' sensationalism. Michelle Williams shines once again in front of Reichardt's camera, miles away from her horrifying (if impressive) incarnation of Marilyn Monroe.

3. Essential Killing (2010) may be the purest film I saw this year, an almost dialogue-free, incredibly intense and compelling cinematic experience. Vincent Gallo seems to be a perfect interpreter for Jerzy Skolimowski's instinctual, physical and slightly psychotic approach of life and cinema.

4. If the theatrical version of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is at times superb, there's hope that, much like with The New World, a director's cut, more controlled formally and structurally, will emerge on the home video market and offer us Malick's truly complete vision. At present, and even if it is unquestionably one of the year's best films, The Tree of Life remains somewhat unsatisfactory.

5. Conversely, Lars von Trier's Melancholia is almost perfect structurally, but loses what it gains in such symmetrical construction to the darker, more powerful and genuine impulses of 'Antichrist', for which it serves, in many ways, as the acceptable, bourgeois remake.

6. Hors Satan, Bruno Dumont's latest film, is inferior to Hadejwich but still compels one by its rendition of a completely bleak existence. If not a masterpiece, the film is another building block to the director's unflinching quest to become France's most important cinematic auteur since Robert Bresson.

7. In a context of global cinematic mediocrity, the minor Dardenne Brothers' The Kid with a Bike comes across as a nice surprise, and their most overtly Christian film - their own alternative to the Life of Jesus they never made, in Luc Dardenne's own words.

8. For its sheer cinematic energy and the opposition of two wonderful actors (Oldboy's Min-Sink Choi and the angel-faced Byung-hun Lee), Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devil (2010) is the good, if harrowing and protracted, surprise of South Korean cinema - definitely the current capital of dark romantic narratives of sadism and revenge.

9. Faust, Alexander Sokurov's Mephisto Waltz is the Russian director's weirdest, most kinetic film. Perhaps this dynamic nature contributes to a sense of disorder and makes the film an unnecessarily difficult audiovisual experience at times. Still Faust contains more artistic power and dedication per frame (if the word still applies in the digital age) than most other films, and cannot fail to inspire the viewer, albeit in meandering, unexpected ways.

10. Pater, Alain Cavalier's daring, powerful and minimal piece of meta-cinema blurs the boundaries between fiction and documentary, and proves at once to be one of the most intellectually robust and energetic efforts of the year, a true young man's film about the wariness of power and the contradictions of contemporary French politics, from a filmmaker who turned 80 in 2011.

Honorable Mentions: Drive, A Separation, Warrior

* I have not had a chance to see the critically acclaimed The Turin Horse or Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Jeremi is the author of "Sokurov Waltz: Faust (2011)" on affiliate site Tativille.

2011: Alberto Zambenedetti

As far as movie watching is concerned, 2011 was an unusual year for me. For various reasons I had to forgo all international travel, I was not able to attend any major film festivals, and getting myself to a movie theater was a luxury I could afford only sporadically. My film viewership dropped from my usual three hundred titles per year to a square one hundred, which is a very low average for a film scholar, let alone one that dabbles in online and print criticism. The titles in this list reflect the uncommon set of circumstances that kept me away from my favorite activity. I limited my choices to the films I watched in a theater during the solar year (which were not repertoire). Some of them were released in 2010 but played in New York throughout the first few weeks of 2011.

1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
2. Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
3. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
4. The Trip (Michael Winterbottom, 2010)
5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
6. Another Earth (Mike Cahill)
7. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)
8. Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)
9. TRON: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010)
10. Bill Cunningham New York (Richard Press, 2010)

Alberto is a PhD candidate at New York University.

2011: Soren Bailey

Insidious (James Wan, 2010)
Super 8 (J. J. Abrams)
Bridesmaids (Paul Feig)
Cedar Rapids (Miguel Arteta)
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
Win Win (Thomas McCarthy)
Margin Call (J. C. Chandor)
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
Bill Cunningham: New York (Richard Press, 2010)
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)

Listed in no particular order.

Soren holds an M. A. in Cinema Studies from New York University.