I was certain after I saw The Tree of Life over the summer nothing was going to top that cinematically in 2011. Who’s going to beat Terrence Malick? Cronenberg? Jason Reitman? Please. Respect.
And then Lars von Trier stood up and, without even knowing it, took a huge Scandinavian dump on it in the form of Melancholia.
Could there be a better film about depression? About its weaknesses and – admittedly somewhat depressing – advantages? I can’t think of one. First, it takes Kirsten Dunst’s character, and in an almost abstractly compressed wedding reception, shows how a depressed person can, within hours, find themselves completely disconnected from the happiest moments of their lives – even while they’re living them. In the film’s second section – there are no acts here, really – the movie simply observes how Dunst’s character and her family react as the Earth’s inevitable end approaches. Is she more at peace than the typically happier people around her because tragedy and its emotional shock are no stranger to her? Or is she emotionally dead? I suspect it’s the former.
Melancholia and The Tree of Life would make for an insanely heavy double bill. But I could dig it. And if I was having a good day, I’d end it with The Tree of Life, a Christian cinematic masterpiece. Even my mom loved this movie, which is something because audiences across the country who walked into theatres thinking they were going to see a Brad Pitt movie about a hard-working family in the ‘50s got their brains handed back to them in a jar. The Tree of Life is a dreamlike stream of anti-narrative through history, nature, family, civilization and all the ideas that link them together and course through them – looming largest, the idea that life on this planet is an immutable conflict between the fangs of nature and the bosom of grace. It’s also the purest representation of filmmaker Terrence Malick’s thematic preoccupations which run through his best films, including The New World, The Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven.
Most movies about mental instability can be difficult to love in my experience. Because when people are unstable, they act crazy. And when people act crazy, they’re hard to relate to and even harder to connect with. That poses a pretty big challenge for a filmmaker like Jeff Nichols who crafted the right kind of “crazy” character in Take Shelter. By presenting the audience with a mostly sane man who fears he’s going insane, we find ourselves gradually keyed into the emotional horrors of mental instability. And instead of going garden-variety crazy, Michael Shannon’s character, Curtis, decides to focus on his family’s safety. Filled with the fear that something indefinably destructive is headed for his town, maybe for everyone, and instead of ranting on Main Street, Curtis quietly decides to build an underground tornado shelter for that fateful day. The movie is a slow burn as Curtis struggles to conceal his paranoia. But, at some point, we know it’s going to boil over, and when it does, Curtis is going to go ape-shit, and the jig will be up. His handicap will be bare for everyone he loves to see.
It’s almost easy to take for granted how predictably good The Descendants is. If anyone thought Sideways was some fluke, some lucky merging of source material and competent direction, The Descendants proves otherwise. Alexander Payne is one of the best dramatists in the country. Armed with an almost Olympic ability to craft scenes that oscillate between heartbreak and aggressively awkward humor, Payne offers a simple setup and follows through on a story while avoiding an easy ending. And while that’s a very simple thing to appreciate in a film, it’s in rare supply in Hollywood these days – even among good, comparably similar films like Little Miss Sunshine or Juno. Payne chooses stories that place the characters in the driver’s seat, and the films aren’t simple arcs from one thematic charge to the other. His protagonists are often deeply conflicted people who are ultimately going to be OK. But you’re never sure of that at the beginning of the movie. Not even in the middle or close to the end. They constantly seem to be in some kind of real peril be it internal or external. That’s hard enough to do in a button down drama. Most people find it impossible to do in comedies.
If you wanted, you could read into Drive. You could say it’s a modern samurai film. You could say it’s a fairy tale (which director Nicholas Winding Refn does). Invoke Jean-Pierre Melville and Le Cercle Rouge. Have at it. At the end of the day, what makes Drive awesome is plainly there for everyone to see. It’s just entertaining as hell. Gosling plays it like Steve McQueen, and Refn manages to merge a bone-crushing, blood-spattering genre film with Pretty in Pink. Everything from the aesthetics to the camerawork to the pseudo-‘80s electropop soundtrack. All of it works.
Drive was initially conceived to be a potential franchise, a $60 million studio action flick starring Hugh Jackman. Hugh Jackman’s pretty awesome, but who would have preferred that?
I was certain I had figured out Certified Copy in the theater, just before it was over. The film, about a couple who might be strangers or might be married, touring a small, Italian village, has spawned plenty of interpretations. Here’s what I thought: The couple are strangers who meet each other for the first time in the opening scene, and, paradoxically, they’re also married! The narrative starts off with the two of them at a supposed meet-cute moment, exposing only what could be nuggets of their concurrent marriage, and the film proceeds to gradually blend the two realities together, until they’ve transformed into a couple married for years by film’s end. The Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, I figured, decided to compress their entire relationship into the small window of an afternoon, a novel way to cinematically examine a years-long relationship.
“Abbas Kiarostami is a goddamn genius,” I thought.
He is. But if I’m honest with myself, that explanation doesn’t stick for a number of reasons that aren’t that important. There’s also the title to consider. Some critics have said the couple, played wonderfully by Juliette Binoche and English opera singer William Shimell, are aware they’ve been married the entire time and act as strangers at the beginning in an odd effort to recreate the romantic roots of their marriage. Shimell’s character begins the movie giving a lecture on the value of artistic copies and the way they direct the audience to the original artwork. Could he and his wife be attempting something similar? To find their way back to their earliest and purest expressions of love for each other?
It’s possible. That explanation doesn’t stick entirely either. And perhaps that’s by design. Either way, Abbas Kiarostami is insanely good at what he does.
I generally hate “mumblecore” movies. In fact, it seems strange to me that term came out of the film world. It sounds like something a bunch of indie rock fans would use to describe an irrelevant group of shitty bands they loved. Aaron Katz, the writer and director of Cold Weather, from what I understand, has made those kinds of movies before. But with Cold Weather, he does something interesting: Instead of making 80 minutes of meandering bullshit anti-narrative about retarded Generation Y ennui, he drops those characters in the middle of a genre setup (or as close to a genre setup as he’s willing to go): a detective film.
And suddenly, a bunch of characters who annoyed the hell of me, have to do something they seem completely incapable of doing – they have to do something constructive. The details about what happens aren’t that important. There’s a group of friends, and one of them disappears. The main character, in his mid-20s, has a degree in forensics (even though he works in an ice factory) and loves reading about Sherlock Holmes, and smokes a pipe just like him. But in a likable way. Not a handlebar mustache-skinny jeans-Vice magazine kind of way. He and his DJ friend aim to find out what happened to the girl – a simple but intriguing setup. “Cold Weather” has simple but stylish direction, slow but deliberately paced storytelling and, by the end, relatable characters. If only because, once your friend disappears and you’ve got to find her, to an audience, everything you do becomes relatable.
Warrior is the most criminally under-watched movie on this list, a bonafide financial failure, and you can’t blame it on the marketing. I saw trailers and ads all over the place for Warrior. It’s because people don’t think they like mixed martial arts. And they don’t. I don’t. Even after watching this masterpiece of a sports movie, I’ll probably still never watch a full MMA match.
But Warrior transcends all that to achieve a poignancy in a sports film I haven’t felt since, maybe, Rocky. That’s thanks to four people: the cast of Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte and director Gavin O’Connor. Hardy and Edgerton will be full-blown, front-page, People magazine stars within the next 300 days, and they deserve it. They’re fantastic actors and stars who play estranged brothers born of an abusive wrestling coach father played by Nolte. The movie is about their reconciliation at a top MMA tournament with a $5 million purse. Hardy plays an AWOL Marine who abandoned his unit in Iraq, and Edgerton plays a down-on-his-luck father and high school physics teacher fighting secretly in his spare time to rescue his home from certain foreclosure.
As the trailer shows, the brothers will fight for the championship. If that sounds like an insane, crappy ‘90s movie, I don’t blame you. It’s a ridiculous, reckless way to end a movie like that because if you tried to get that ending right 1,000 times, only a handful might succeed. But O’Connor, through airtight storytelling and steady, honest direction, masterfully figures it out. It’s not perfect, but it’s so improbably good, the movie is some kind of startling achievement.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is, I’m told, a very good book with a terrific main character in Lisbeth Salander. It’s a dark book, really dark. It’s Scandinavian, which means not only is it dark thematically, it’s probably going to be dark and chilly visually. It’s a detective story. With Nazis. And a really grisly rape scene. And an equally grisly revenge scene. And a serial killer. And the rapist and the serial killer aren’t even the same character. Think about that.
Choosing director David Fincher for this wasn’t a creative decision. It was mathematical. He knocks this kind of material over the fences on the regular. And props to Rooney Mara, who plays Salander as a cold, calculating, brilliant hacker and investigator who keeps her emotions locked deep inside like Fincher’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. That is, if Zuckerberg also liked to kill and maim evil-doers. But it’s the final scene that really makes the film. It’s a quiet, heartbreaking moment of sweetness from Salander’s character that illuminates her carnality and, in a roundabout way, explains her brutality. It’s a wonderfully sad way to end the movie. I really hope Fincher does the sequel.
Incendies is kind of a bubble movie. It’s a very, very good movie about two young Canadian siblings discovering the truth about their heritage in a fictional Middle Eastern country while fulfilling the last wishes of their dead, troublesome mother. The plot ends up being a bit writerly, but it’s great storytelling, and even when you see the twist ending coming, it’s kind of such a good idea, you wait for the revelation. You’re not bored by it. I don’t whether Incendies will stand the test of time, but it was one of the best films of 2011.