This Was the Year Of…
In 2011’s echo chamber of movies celebrating movies (The Artist, Hugo, My Week with Marilyn), only one of them fully functioned as a well-tooled thrill machine on its own terms, and that was Drive. You could pick out the ’80s homage stuck between your teeth, or simply savor the perfect action.”—Joshua Rothkopf
This was a strong year for terrific genre films in less noticeable places. The big money-grosser was Paranormal Activity 3, but another thrilling mock doc, Trollhunter, is more deserving of acclaim. This brilliant environmental satire uses an overdone “found footage” conceit and does wonderful things with it—both technologically, with first-rate special effects, and by developing a highly original take on established folklore, re-imagining it within the context of government bureaucracy. The trollhunter in question is tired of playing babysitter to the country’s unruly monsters, but he does the dirty clean-up work because it’s the only thing that keeps him (and Norway) going. It’s the Scandinavian Men in Black. — Eric Kohn
2011 has been strong, both in terms of world premieres on the festival circuit and foreign / independent features from 2010 which were reaching North American cinemas for the first time this year. By contrast, we’re watching helplessly as the studios perpetrate one of the weakest crops of year-end Oscar-bait in nearly a decade—one auteurist triumph (Hugo), two shrug-worthy mediocrities (The Artist and The Descendants), and a bunch of movies based on “beloved properties,” so focus-grouped that we’re all tired of them before they even open. Who cares? The bottom line: the contrast between genuinely attentive critics and studio shills has rarely been starker. — Michael Sicinski
Soon after the Occupy Wall Street movement got underway, an organization called Occupy Cinema appeared. They programmed a screening of Peter Watkins’ 1971 Punishment Park. As good as Peter Watkins’ film is, I fear that its close association with the ’60s counterculture inadvertently plays into the notion that OWS protesters are patchouli oil-scented neo-hippies. But what contemporary political films could they have chosen? Apart from some films inspired by the Iraq War, overt politics are notably missing from American narrative cinema these days, dwelling instead in the documentary ghetto. (Protected by genre and allegory, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a startling exception.) To be fair, Occupy Cinema did go on to present a contemporary film, Cédric Klapisch’s My Piece of the Pie. Of the films on my top 10 list, the Chinese documentary “Petition” seems most relevant to the Arab Spring and OWS movements. Made two years ago (and shown for only a week in New York), it depicts ordinary Chinese men and women standing up against their government, even becoming homeless in order to file lawsuits against it. Their courage is breathtaking. Director Zhao Liang then made the odd move of making a feature-length PSA about HIV awareness funded by the Chinese government. While not a bad film, it killed off Western festivals’ interest in him, even if he was the subject of a New York Times cover story last summer. —Steven Erickson
My comment on 2011 films? Look. The Descendants, The Artist, Moneyball, Hugo et al are all exceptional, four-star movies. But years from now, when I’m channel-flipping at home on a cold night, I’m heading straight for Bridesmaids. —Mara Reinstein
Oops, We Forgot Some Winners
Most Overexposed Actor, Double Entendre Division: Michael Fassbender.
Most Overexposed Actor, Non-Double Entendre Division: Ryan Gosling. The Ides of March would have been a lot more plausible—and maybe even more compelling—if we’d learned that Ryan’s incongruously credulous PR “genius” had received a blunt head trauma just before the opening scene.
Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease Award: the wheezing wagon axles of Meek’s Cutoff were the sound design coup of the year. Kudos to Leslie Schatz for finding the perfect aural corollary to Kelly Reichardt’s dusty, trudging visuals.
Best Thor: not Chris Hemsworth’s hammer-wielding hero, but Chris Zylka’s brawny, bicurious dorm-room hunk in Gregg Araki’s kinky Kaboom. Let’s see Marvel’s Thor try to give himself a blow job—and without CGI, I might add. —Adam Nayman
My Breakthrough of the Year was Kevin Smith, who finally was delivered from making one charming-or-less-charming slacker comedy after another…to creating a dark genre movie that riffs on the mythos of Fred (“God Hates Fags”) Phelps and feels as perfectly in tune with the lunacy of this historical moment as any recent American picture. Zigging and zagging from an ’80s teen sex comedy (with 2011 dialogue), to an Eli Roth torture-porn ritual (performed on a born-again altar), and climaxing in a Waco-style cops-and-wingnuts showdown that’s more Carpenter than Carpenter, Red State is written as a series of High Church of Quentin virtuoso monologues but delivers action with sniper-school precision. The Too-Fat-to-Fly Guy finally got his robe and his little tasseled hat: he graduated to Real Filmmaker—and Real Good Filmmaker at that! —Matthew Wilder
Margaret Margaret Margaret
Rarely has the chasm between the year’s best films and the ones being celebrated seemed so wide. Presented with twelve months of exciting international cinema, too many voting groups have already fallen in lockstep behind the same middling crop of prospective award contenders. On the other hand, the late wellspring of support for Margaret proves that taking up the cause of an unsung hero hasn’t gone completely out of fashion. What value do any of us serve if we can’t direct readers to something they’ve never heard of? — A.A. Dowd
Another overlooked gem that barely gained any recognition during its measly release, and only now seems to have developed a slow-building cult following: Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. I stand by the assertion that this not-quite-completed work is the director’s Magnificent Ambersons, a masterful sophomore effort held down by studio pressure that has kept the director’s cut from seeing the light of day (yet). It’s a fragmented experience mainly anchored by Anna Paquin’s impressive turn as a scowling, confused young woman, but remains one of the most unnerving evocations of teen angst since Thirteen. — Eric Kohn
The Tree of Life will probably win critics’ “most audacious American film” award, though only because hardly anyone’s seen Margaret. By doing for Upper West Side precociousness what Gena Rowlands did in A Woman Under the Influence—that is, make 19 different nervous breakdowns communicate distinctly—Paquin’s performance reflects an impressive number of post-9/11 angst-modes: self-pity, righteous (if misguided) indignance, and even a touch of honest world-weariness. And unlike Malick, Lonergan actually sticks his ending, too. —Seth Colter Walls
Anyone notice yet that the whole #teammargaret campaign ends just like the movie itself: two people in a theater, hugging and crying? —Joshua Rothkopf
Viewing memories, 2011: Kirsten Dunst’s Justine watching with deathly calm as her sister makes a frantic attempt to escape planetary doom by car in Melancholia; Ellen Page’s psychotic Tasmanian devil getting an overdue reality check in Super; Jessica Chastain dancing on air in The Tree of Life and facing the tide in Take Shelter; every minute of the hypnotic tilt-shift cinematography of Bellflower; Vera Farmiga lighting up a jazz cigarette in Henry’s Crime; an ex-con confessing to the community activists of The Interrupters that he’d like to return to prison, where life is less boring; Ron Perlman head-butting a demon in Season of the Witch; Paul Bettany’s empty suit totting up his hooker expenses for the last fiscal year in Margin Call; The Arbor’s youngest daughter/abuse survivor recalling bad times in her musical Yorkshire brogue: “That were mad, that were.” —Ryan Stewart
A year of matching sets and mirror images: the phantom planets of Another Earth and Melancholia; repelled suburban invasions of Attack the Block and Super 8; fogey-ish auteurs trying to live on the technological cutting edge in Hugo and Tintin (to say nothing of Francis Ford Coppola’s endearingly batshit, intermittently 3-D Twixt, which is the film of a free man). Still, there were singular sensations on offer, from the opium-tinged camera drifts of Bertrand Bonello’s House of Pleasures (a much better film than Julia Leigh’s similarly themed and more hyped bordello fantasy Sleeping Beauty) to the anxious widescreen vistas of Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter (a superior take on personal apocalypse to Lars von Trier’s) to the slipstream rhythms and shimmering beauty of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (wounded plesiosaurs and all). Best of all were the verdant night-scapes and gently materializing apparitions of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a film without a twin in sight—although Attack the Block‘s neon-fanged gorilla-wolf motherfuckers looked, in the dark, like close cousins to Apichatpong’s soulful glowing-eyed monkey men. —Adam Nayman