This was a great year for movies. I saw so many that excited me! Scott Tobias wrote a year-end wrap up with which I largely agree, particularly about the role of mystery and ambiguity in many of the years best films (I also adored the end of Martha Marcy May Marlene and felt that the closure others were upset at being denied would have been inappropriate to the film.) There’s a thread running through many films I loved this year of comfort with ambiguity, a rejection of the kind of patronizing over-explanation to which movie fans have grown accustomed, a refusal to sew up loose ends that are better left alone, a faith that a portion of the audience will be ready and wanting to do a little work rather than being spoon-fed every point they might get from the film. Thank fucking god.
There are many films that I’m sure are great that I haven’t seen (A Separation, Sleeping Beauty, The Possession, and Margaret all come to mind as potential contenders, not to mention TODD HAYNES’ MILDRED PIERCE OMG which maybe could count as a movie), but these are my favorites of those I have.
Ten Movies I loved (not really in order):
Le Quattre Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)
Four interconnected life cycles empathetically depicted in an excellent example of blurred lines between fiction and documentary. The famous goat segment is one of the greatest sequences I’ve seen ever. (Now streaming on Netflix)
Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
Pioneers get lost in the vast, dusty west where death by disease and dehydration hovers near at all times. Meek’s Cutoff is a slow and rewarding corrective to Hollywood’s mythic construction of westward expansion, featuring a particularly strong performance from Michelle Williams (as usual) as one of the womenfolk whose vision is obscured by a big, floppy sunbonnet as she tries to overhear the crucial and confused conversations amongst men. (Now streaming on Netflix)
Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
In what might be the emblematic plot for this year of ambiguity, opera singer William Shimmel plays a British writer in Tuscany for a talk on his new book, an argument for the irrelevancy of authenticity in art. Juliette Binoche plays a French antiques dealer who attends, is enthralled, and ends up spending a romantic and emotional day traipsing around with him while we puzzle over their unclear relationship: are they two strangers who’ve just met or an old couple playing a game? In what ways does it matter? Binoche gives a transcendant performance in one of the most unexpectedly moving films of the year. (Now streaming on Netflix)
Melancholia (Lars Von Trier)
Two sisters have a difficult relationship and then the world ends. Kirsten Dunst is fantastic as Justine, one of the most painfully realistically depressed film leads ever. Charlotte Gainsbourg matches her perfectly as the more-together, caregiving Claire, who understandably starts to fall apart at the prospect of, you know, the world ending. The contrast between the two is fascinating and revealing and true. The last shot is fucking amazing.
Pariah (Dee Rees)
Adepero Oduye is great as Alike, a Fort Green teenager who’s only half-hiding her lesbianism from her parents, their own denial does the rest. Alike’s camaraderie and conflicts with best friend Laura (Pernell Walker, in a particularly nice performance) and supposed Good Example Bina are nuanced and true. Alike’s journey of self-discovery is handled with admirable subtlety and grace, making the quiet conclusion a much more deeply satisfying than that of most coming of age flicks. The whole thing is shot with ambitious courage and aplomb by Bradford Young, providing striking visual manifestations of interior turmoil, joy, and discovery.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
Elizabeth Olsen impresses the hell out of everyone as a cult escapee staying with her sister and brother in law, in another of 2011’s best-rendered damaged sibling relationships. Olsen’s fractured emotional and psychological state feels frighteningly real, her failed attempts to act like she’s okay while not even understanding what’s wrong are heartbreaking. Nothing gets fixed, everything just breaks more and more, like it tends to do. Good look getting John Hawkes to play the charismatic cult lead, he’s scary and fantastic.
Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune
Solid, long overdue doc about one of my favorite song writers. (Now streaming on Netflix)
Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard)
Honestly, this is on here in part because I got so much delight from how angry this movie made so many people. It looked amazing. It had Patti Smith being absolutely captivating as she wanders around a huge cruise ship. It includes fragments of a world history collage for viewers to examine as they will, preferably with an eye towards myth versus truth and the meaning of concepts like liberty and equality. It made me very happy.
Beginners (Mike Mills)
I think some (straight identified male) critics were worried that is they didn’t mock a movie in which the male protagonist frequently talks to a cute dog without constant accompanying dog-shit jokes, they might be gay or a lady. People talk to their dogs and project responses onto them. The dog doesn’t actually talk back. The fancifulness of the dog subplot has been way overstated. The movie is very real and moving.
Scream 4 (Wes Craven)
It’s been a long time since I saw such a thoroughly enjoyable horror movie. It was much better than Scream 3. This is worth a lot to me. Also, the central characters may have the most enduringly interesting relationships in horror.
Special Prize of Dishonor to:
The Help (some dude you’ve never heard of for good reason)
I expected to be offended by the racist plot, but I didn’t know the film would be so incompetent. The writer director (in far over his head) squanders a cast that is truly an embarrassment of riches in an overly-long, though seemingly hacked to bits revisionist slog through the civil rights-era south. Plot lines are introduced and left undercooked, or jettisoned for time despite the mess they leave behind. Segregation is focused on as the core evil in play at the expense of other forms of institutional racism and white supremacy, a sick trick that allows the humiliations and violence to which the film’s black characters are subject to remain safely In The Past, never to intrude upon white audiences masturbatory smugness. Such contortions are particularly galling in a film that is at least pretending to tell the Real Story of domestic workers, a demographic that remains under protected by labor regulations today. This film should have powerfully, painfully connected with continuing struggles, instead it’s a fakity-fake “feel good” film in which the nice people (who don’t die) triumph, the bad guy is punished, and society moves forward towards progress and Obama and out of our shameful racist past thanks to the bravery of one spunky white lady YAAAAAAAAAYS!!!
Protagonist Emma Stone is given some crappy development as the spunky white lady who thinks racism is bad and wants to write a best selling book about it–she’s a good actress, and she finds a vein of humanity in what at root is just be an appallingly pandering Mary Sue. Others are not so lucky.
Against all direction, Jessica Chastain does some nice stuff with a role in which she was apparently told to exaggerate the two notes given to her sweet/trashy/dotty character into cartoonland, which speaks well of her skills despite the generally bizarre tenor of her performance (it was particularly distracting that, for a time, her character is always introduced by a close up on her feet. Because her last name is Foote. Really.) Bryce Dallas Howard does less well with the one note assigned her villain. Dude seems to have directed her like this: “you know the bitchy way you read that line? Do that again. For every line. Yes! That’s it! You totally still sound like a bitch! For real! Oh wow! Oscar ahoy!”
The black women in the movie have it worse: not only do they all have to play stereotype-infused maids, but these maids aren’t even given the dignity of a backstory (let alone the personal lives and romantic entanglements bestowed–however haphazardly–upon all the white characters.) The writer/director doles out one personal fact per character–this one has a kinda-surprise dead son! This one has a daughter! This one has a daughter that’s going to be a maid! Oh, all the personal details were about having a kid, either living or dead? Oh. Viola Davis heroically builds a compelling character out of the cliched shrapnel she’s been dealt, and Octavia Spencer similarly manages to wrangle a person out of a two-dimensional caricature. Cicely Tyson basically wipes the floor with every other performance this year (no pun intended!) in a thankless, abject role as Emma Stone’s poor old beloved maid who suffers and dies and that’s about it. For the love of god, can these women be in a movie together without having to all play white ladies’ maids?
Otherwise, the film was well shot. Really. Pity the writing, directing, editing, and premise are all such a fucking mess.
Luckily, there were a lot of other movies this year.