20. An instant-classic of sorts (though that certainly depends on who you're asking), Apichatpong Weerasethakul's (I'll stick with Joe) latest patience tester returns him to Tropical Malady form, engaging another Thai folk legend as the central conceit for family strife - this time, red eyed, furry creatures who allegorize the dieing recollections of Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), which, in turn, gives the film a highly episodic nature, each development more bizarre, fascinating, and worthwhile than the last. Elliptical and meditative, there is an essence, an evocation consistently present, attaining intimation through suggestion rather than direct or obvious statements, which keeps the family dynamics unstable, the filmmaking responsive.
19. Many critics have championed Midnight in Paris and Beginners as the best love stories of the year, but in Weekend, director Andrew Haight gets by those films’ juvenile proclivity for whimsy and precious nostalgia with only a dash of fairy tale ethos planted inside a thoroughly neo-realist conversation piece that rarely wallows in its own indie-ness. That’s a major accomplishment , even if a relative one, and if Haight doesn’t yet have the delicate eye for textual detail and intimacy of a John Cassavettes, his handling of leads Tom Cullen and Chris New proves his measured work with actors is somewhere close.
18. It should almost go without saying that Werner Herzog conjures up gorgeous, mesmerizing, and wholly transcendental images in his latest documentary, also in 3D, though that's more of a tangential perk than anything worth discussing. What truly brings vitality to the material are the interviews with numerous scientists and archeologists, all of whom have devoted significant amounts of time to studying the Chauvet caves of Southern France. Human idiosyncrasy (of the interviewees) parallels the incomprehensible drawings of cavemen, still preserved and astonishingly legible. Herzog posits the findings as lost or forgotten dreams, even going so far as to refer to their attempts of depicting movement as "proto-cinema."
17. Unlike Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life, which is the greatest sports film ever made, the question of desire (and how brutish assertion approaches the Lacanian jouissance) remains an inconsequential one in Warrior. Nevertheless, O'Connor's visual work with the male specimen (actual bodies) is one of the finest breaks from contempo-cliche in recent years. O’Connor knows when to go in for a close-up on Tom Hardy's ferocious mug. In many ways, actor's presence supersedes directorial authority, compelling mainly because of O'Connor's conduits, rather than his mise-en-scene or insights. Nick Nolte enervates the veneer of method-acting histrionics by encircling actual, palpable pain, a "papa" that permeates archetype to unearth pure emotion. It's a performer's showcase, especially between Hardy and Nolte (Joel Edgerton is good, but nowhere near his fellow actors' levels of unrestricted feeling). Were they not contained in a film heavily reliant on cultural pandering, they would qualify as stand alone works of art. Perhaps they still do.
16. Never have Steven Soderbergh's detached, clinical formal techniques been put to better use than in Contagion (well, except for his masterpiece, the recent Haywire) - in fact, the prolific director's latest is arguably the first time he's ever managed a successful synthesis of form and content. Contagion never stops to mourn its lost human lives, but that doesn't make it passionless. In fact, through subtle close-ups and moments of human pain, Soderbergh communicates far more humanist concern than ever before. The world he depicts is cold, calculating, distant, but he finally removes himself from that alignment, recognizing the banality of apocalypse without rooting for destruction. Almost Kubrickian at times, Soderbergh solves the misanthropic puzzle that's plagued his entire filmography by separating himself from the destructivist impulses of his Darwinian milieu. Cliff Martinez's kinetic score verges on sensationalism at times, but Soderbergh's restraint resonates more as a waking-fever dream, succinct in its humorless resolve, human life as a societal contingency of postindustrial isolation.
15. Surfaces and depths become indistinguishable from one another in Lynne Ramsay's most provocative film to date - We Need To Talk About Kevin emits a suffocating, claustrophobic intensity throughout, even though there's nary a sequence that seeks to exploit the central quandary - what compelled Kevin Khatchadourian (Ezra Miller) to go on a high school killing spree and, more intricately, what blame is felt by his mother Eva (Tilda Swinton)? In a sense, Kevin is Ramsay's built in defense for her own film, based on the bestselling novel by Lionel Shiver, since every potential rebuttal to his portrayal, to psychoanalyze him, must run head-on into the fact that any reason, suggestion, is arbitrary in that it cannot achieve a universally affirmative causation for moral breakdown and absence. Ramsay tells the story more sensory than causal too, refracting memory, color, sight, and sound through Eva's broken, post-homicide body - pale, sickly, abject.
14. Gregg Araki's kaleidoscopic tale of young lust, ennui, and angst is also a perversely subversive rebuttal to both Indie and Hollywood filmmaking, where sex is either sugar-coated or ignored altogether. It may be the director's most accomplished satirical work to date - though Mysterious Skin remains his magnum opus, Kaboom intricately sets itself up as playful auto-critique, especially in the final third, when literal apocalyptic doom becomes a credible threat, inherently making fun of Blockbusters that take such spectacle-driven nonsense seriously. That the protagonist's roommate is named Thor is not a mistake - Araki is fusing his own intimate pop sensibilities (what must unfortunately be called esoteric) and imploding them (thus the title). The results are giddy with sophistication: Kaboom does to the summer Blockbuster what Scream did to the slasher film.
13. The Skin I Live In, Almodóvar's most impassioned film since Bad Education, the contorted, almost amorphous body of Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya) stretches, bends-backwards over a couch. Her body becomes the locus of filmic (image) obsession, seeking to capture (enclose) through understanding, mechanism, form, flesh, reconstruction, (re)imagining, the means by which touch, contact (and perpetual, existential isolation) construct an understanding of individualistic worth, coded through patriarchal sexuality. Though perhaps more explicit than ever before, Vera's eventual plight is essentially that of any Almodóvar protagonist, male or female - a line dissipated here. To say Almodóvar has finally made his horror film is to miss the message - he's always made horror films, the horror of confinement, the border, the frame, the limits of corporeal control. Striving for liberation, Almodóvar remains among the most refined, progressive, thoughtful contemporary filmmakers.
12. Lee Chang-Dong makes sprawling, expansive films about individuals grappling and seeking meaning at various stages in their lives. His films are about duration, temporal, geographical motifs abounding, in Poetry seen through the deteriorating health of Mija (Jeong-hie Yun), whose early onset Alzheimer's symptoms compel her to join a poetry class, to reclaim her individuality. Far from the soapy smile-and-cry hokum a brief synopsis may suggest, Chang-Dong uses Mija's condition to address numerous other issues, among them the intrusion of technology within youth culture, which deteriorates emotive expression just as much as Mija's memory loss. Micro and macro intersect, one of many subtle, intelligent moves made by Chang-Dong's steady, mature directorial hands.
11. While Attack the Block and Martha Marcy May Marlene may be the best feature debuts of 2011, it is Evan Glodell's Bellflower that suggest the most distinct vision in how it takes a central conceit - a fractured relationship - and injects that sense of loss and disillusionment into both its aesthetic and characters, all of whom thrive on endeavors that are either illusory or surely doomed from the get-go. Eventually vacillating between perverse male fantasy, nihilistic destruction, and a calmer sense of forward-progression, there's much that's messy and seemingly illogical (no one works or ever even mentions a job, as the film ignores (or is unconcerned with) its characters social status), but amidst the fuzziness, Glodell uses the medium to symphonic ends. It's unfortunate that so many filmmakers feel the need to align their symphonic desires with violence, but Bellflower, like Drive, is honing in on both cinematic fetishism and male psychology, and has ideology beneath the havoc.
10. Encompassing the holistic experience of viewing The Woodmans must begin with a reconciliation of its often suffocating moments – some filled with joy, others with pain, the majority somewhere in between. It is, indeed, a film of moments or, perhaps better stated, moments of refracted memories. Francesca Woodman, at the age of 22, took her own life after years of struggling with both herself (her body) and the means with which she was (un)able to satisfactorily express a passionate artistry, emotionality. Director C. Willis Scott situates her struggle within a moderately conventional documentary framework, using talking heads of friends and (primarily) family. However, Willis uses this form not to patly situate a psychological rendering, but to abstractly emote Francesca’s truly unknowable essence – that, being her disembodied consciousness, still pulsating from within her raw, mature art works.
9. Beneath the surface of Scream 4's jokey dialectic lies an ambivalent bitterness. Nothing explicates this better than a kill late into the film, as a victim lies upon the interior of her front door, only to be stabbed in the back, through the now anachronistic mail slot, a relic of cordiality and domesticity erased by the intrusion of e-mail, texting, and electronic subterfuge. That which brings us closer draws us further apart - a literal stab in the back to decency. Moreover, as the film's tagline asserts and is stated in the film: "New Decade, New Rules." Yet, this should not be taken as a thoughtless maxim, but an ironic moral question: Do the changing times excuse/explain historical disregard? Imitation (or, more precisely, replication) as murder begins the film, yet the remake craze also cannibalizes and distorts socially conscious investment for profit. "Don't fuck with the original," as Sidney tells a killer. But Scream 4 is doing just that: fucking things up, but surely just as fucked as the milieu from which it springs. Is Scream 4 too much? Of course it is - grossly so, it defies rationality with its intrinsic absurdity. Nevertheless, it is a necessary film, a much needed reminder of how stupid life becomes when culturally fueled instant gratification devours a calmer intuition.
8. Young Adult corrects Diablo Cody's Juno sins, with a shift in emphasis, away from solipsistic smart-assery and towards a more thoroughly satiric, but genuine examination of generational anxiety, of a distinctly feminine variety. By integrating not just more-obvious allusions to reality-TV image-making, but implicitly condemning the malpractice that goes into forced cultural construction, Cody and director Jason Reitman excavate the crux of both contemporary malaise and displacement. There were few better performances this year than Charlize Theron's heartbreakingly self-inflicted wounds, festering beneath her veneer of strength and agency. Her vulnerability goes a long way to refuting faux-outcast syndrome (unlike Glee, Cody and Reitman have no prescription or remedy for privileged isolationism) and joyously breaks away from something like Bridesmaids's false catharsis.
7. The bleakest, most perverse satire of American, patriarchal domesticity since A History of Violence, Lucky McKee returns after two lukewarm entries (The Woods, Red) to finally fulfill the promise of his debut feature (May). Unlike in his lesser films, The Woman challenges dominant norms that resonate more through suggestion of a prolonged period of exploitation than explicit real-world links; here, it's the American narrative of nuclear family under patriarchal rule, the "in the name of the (white) father" order that facilitates racism, misogyny, and bigotry. There's a persistent ambivalence concurrent throughout, and right when The Woman feels like it's about to go off-the-rails, McKee tightens the screws, ups the ante, and dares you, to use a crude (but appropriate) colloquialism, to "pull-out." When McKee's at his sharpest, there are no easy answers.
6. Great horror films express themselves in a way that's inseparable from the milieu they inhabit - environment is the direct correlative for enabling a breakdown of order, consciousness, and control. Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, while not outwardly projecting archetypes that readily signify its terrifying implications, functions on dread (the obvious term), but more precisely, the horror of post-dread, not that something bad is inevitably going to happen, but that there's no solution to correct said inevitability - a sense that an abject past, an intangible sin, has solidified (predetermined, if you will) an unwavering temporal logic, irrational in its seeming fixity. Nichols brilliantly takes these sensations and anxieties, then deftly ties them to a zeitgeist that feels nearly prescient in its class-based specificity. Everything about Take Shelter is implicit.
5. Tomas Alfredson, based on the quality of his first two features, deserves immediate consideration as perhaps the classiest, most distinct new filmmaker of the past decade. Many will see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and claim tedium or a lack of significance, based on Alfredson's deliberate pacing and disinterest in providing readily identifiable signifiers to "pay attention now." Much looser, sprawling, and impeccably timed for subtle revelation, especially in virtuoso performances from Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, and John Hurt, the inquisition-style narrative, based on John Le Carre's novel, recalls and updates The Third Man's post-war sense of chaos and corruption for the 21st century's fascination and near-obsession with conspiracy and suspicion of governmental agencies and appointed officials. Instead of sensationalizing these impulses, Alfredson gives George Smiley (Oldman) the diegetic wherewithal to align these allegorical postulations, a man detached and calm, calculated and almost post-human, were it not for glimpses of humility and empathy towards his ratted-out comrades and lost love-affairs. Classical but contemporary, Alfredson isn't making a period piece for a bygone era - he's speaking to contemporary anxieties with the nerve and precision of a great, refined filmmaker.
4. I was certain it would happen someday; A filmmakers has finally made a contemporary, near-equivalent to John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 - that someone being Joe Cornish, whose writer/director debut Attack the Block amicably demonstrates his flair for minimalist depth, utilizing the cinematic medium nearly as centrally as he places genuinely emotive characters, whose camaraderie is rooted within a discernible sense of the social real, but tinged with a proclivity for genre archetypes. Even sharper, using teenagers who're dropped into an adult narrative, Cornish deftly negotiates a terrain between Goonies-like adolescent bait and hard-edged affect, stylish and genuine. Listen to Cornish's ear for a minimalist synth-score as an accompanyment to his stripped down, but crystal-clear humanist ethos. Flippant viewers will try and pinpoint a Spielberg lineage, but Cornish's terse style never bogs down in sentimentality, staying true to its we-don't-give-a-fuck protagonists.
3. A recent trend towards so-called “sociopath porn” in indie cinema is undeniable, as debut feature filmmakers begin satiating their infatuations (and dissatisfactions) with societal division and trauma, while leaving a distinctive formal mark. Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, however, transcends any of these potential trapping by taking a page from cinematic greats like Bergman, Polanski, and Altman, all of whom exist somewhere in Durkin’s deliberate, elliptical provocation. Durkin does not intend to valorize the ugly, the poor, the geographically "imparied" (to explain poverty-porn critical hits like Frozen River, Winter's Bone, and Precious, all of which received a Sundance stamp of approval). It takes sly aim at not simply class (the aforementioned films are not about "class struggle," but the exploitation of class to assuage liberal, humanist anxiety guilt), but the deeper-rooted tenants of exploitation: ideology.
2. Like many of the characters in Drive, director Nicolas Winding Refn’s hands are dirty; honing a reflexive postulation of the postmodernist hero while infusing pop art gravitas via neon flared mise-en-scene, tracks by Kavinsky, College, and Desire, and an original score by the great Cliff Martinez, Refn’s fetishistic modus operandi blatantly flaunts moral consideration for aesthetic nihilism: beautiful, horrifying, and deranged. It’s a vision to rival the sure-handedness of cinema’s greatest “underbelly” filmmakers (Kubrick, Lynch, Ferrara), made lithe and piercing by Ryan Gosling’s adolescent, violent love, Carey Mulligan’s meet-cute vulnerability, Oscar Issac’s bittersweet machismo, and Albert Brooks’ hardened cynicism. Rather than using genre for product, Refn’s film is an ambiguous step-forward into the abyss of implosive hyperreality, where character, actor, and motivation become indistinguishable. Is Drive critiquing these impulses or engaging them? Like any great work of art, the ends aren’t so readily perceptible, and the polemics remain bubbling and intimating, rather than overt.
1. What is great filmmaking, a lucid envisioning, at its core, if not a wholly personal endeavor? Positivists may try to downplay or negate Malick’s affectual output through a rationalization of nostalgic tendencies, anchored by sentimental melodrama – but these images are irreducible and impressionistic, not trite or manipulative. In fact, by beginning with the micro story of a single, fractured family in 1950’s Waco, Texas, and projecting their uncertainties towards the cosmos, Malick fuses silence, movement, music, and scale – lingering, while he never stops plowing forward. The Tree of Life is fleet and determined in its pacing; time keeps moving, which reveals the unrefined perceptions of critics and viewers who deemed it “ponderous,” pretentious,” and, worst of all, “uneven.” A rebuke to conventional filmmaking, storytelling, and structure, Malick manages to evade simple nostalgia by complicating subjectivity, never wholly forthright about exactly why or how the images come forth, and comes staggeringly close to a truly profound postulation on life lost, memories muddled, and the medium through which one may try to resuscitate them.
NOTE*** Due to my own negligence, there are several films I suspect I would like/love that I have not yet seen. Among them are A Dangerous Method, A Separation, Pina, Margaret, Mysteries of Lisbon, and Pariah. Once I see them, I will update the list accordingly, if necessary.
BEST DIRECTOR: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Runners-Up: Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive & Tomas Alfredson, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
BEST ACTRESS: Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin
Runners-Up: Charlize Theron, Young Adult & Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
BEST ACTOR: Gary Oldman, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Runners-Up: Michael Shannon, Take Shelter & Antonio Banderas, The Skin I Live In
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter
Runners-Up: Hayden Panettiere, Scream 4 & Pollyanna McIntosh, The Woman
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
Runners-Up: Nick Nolte, Warrior & Albert Brooks, Drive
BEST SCREENPLAY: Joe Cornish, Attack the Block
Runners-Up: Pedro Almodovar, The Skin I Live In & Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter
WORST FILM: The Adjustment Bureau
Runners-Up: The Artist & Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star
Films I haven't seen that are getting awards buzz and I suspect I would hate them: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, War Horse, The Iron Lady, and Albert Nobbs.