Note: For the sake of encouraging more reading and less skimming, I'd like to point out that the length of what follows is mostly derived from images.
And now for the part of lists no one reads.
It feels a bit silly to create one of these types of lists after much of what appears on it has already been noted elsewhere, yet it feels even sillier to scrap the notes and captures I took a few weeks ago simply because I have this reservation. Too many of my posts end up getting abandoned due to loss of interest or frustration, and since that's something I want to work on curbing this year, finishing this post was the only sensible option.
This is not an attempt at a "Best of 2011" list or even "Best Moments of 2011" -- I see far too few new films for that (around 35 this year, with 9 or 10 viewed in the theater). The point was to select -- from the new films I did see -- the moments, feelings, and experiences that meant something to me in some way. The list is divided into two categories: "Theatrical Viewing" and "Home Viewing." The former is comprised of things I saw in the theater that I felt hinged on that particular format; the latter is made up of favorite moments I saw (again, new films) via a television. Though my selections range from 2008 - 2011, everything that follows -- due to distribution, when it premiered etc. -- is seemingly eligible for consideration under the grouping "2011."
For the sake of fulfilling a list's main function -- turning people on to things they might be unaware of -- what follows is likely to be lacking left-field picks. Unfortunately this cannot be helped; I don't live in a place that allows much opportunity for non-mainstream film viewing (I have yet to see The Turin Horse, to name a most frustrating example), and I don't make a practice of downloading films to my computer that will eventually be coming to DVD (even if I have to wait a few years). Perhaps "2011: A Year in Phantoms" or "Most Anticipated" would have been a better choice.
Theatrical Viewing 2011: Highlights
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, 2010):
Herzog: "3-D was imperative because I initially thought there were flat walls and paintings in the cave. But there are no flat areas. The drama of the bulges and niches was actually used by the artists. They did it with phenomenal skill, with great artistic skill, and there was something expressive about it, a drama of rock transformed and utilized, in the drama of paintings. This is why it was imperative to shoot in 3-D."
A detailed look at the 30,000 year old paintings in Chauvet Cave would have been enough to land this film on my list, but the fact that it was my first 3D film, and specifically because it was made with 3D as an integral component, easily makes Cave of Forgotten Dreams one of my standout movie experiences of 2011.
After reading several of Herzog's remarks concerning his choice of 3D, I made it a point to catch the film as it was intended to be seen (which meant driving over an hour -- pretty much the standard for seeing anything relatively non-commercial in my whereabouts). The experience was rewarding and often dazzling, and I was glad to have waited for something meaningful to introduce me to the format. Herzog's film demonstrates the difference between "a film shot in 3D" and "a 3D film."
I wouldn't rank Cave as one of Herzog's strongest "documentaries," though many who don't care much for the films I'd consider his best have unsurprisingly taken the opposite view. At any rate, these questions of "greatness" are soon made out to be a trifling matter by the glimpses we're given of the drawings in the Chauvet Cave. The images alone instantly elevate the film to essential viewing.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, 2010): Cave Sequence
A theatrical viewing of Boonmee showcases the film's murky darkness and does justice to the night scenes. But it also -- unless you have a great home set-up (I don't) -- allows the viewer to be enveloped in the film's buggy jungle sounds, which, as a crucial component to the atmosphere, play a key role in the film's success.
The highlight for me was the cave sequence, a section that takes all of the above into account and combines it with some of the best images in the film. It's a particularly strange and mysterious part of a particularly strange and mysterious film, and the fact that a movie theater can be experienced as as surrogate cave of sorts (dark, and often quite cold in the summer months) certainly doesn't hurt the film's ambiance.
Specific highlights: The moon roof, the spying ghost monkeys, the next morning when the dark cave shadow and the bright sun light bisect the characters bodies, and, most of all, the moment when the sparkling stones in the cave wall briefly turn into an artificial night sky...
I watched Boonmee again at home and, though I still liked it, it wasn't quite the same. I had to brighten one of the above images -- the "ghost monkeys" in the jungle -- just to make it discernible. (I remember how this shot looked in the theater and the above image isn't very close.)
Films that are first and foremost experiences seem to suffer the most on DVD and (especially) streaming.
Hugo (Scorsese, 2011): Papa Georges recalls his past lives (& Méliès in 3D)
I am referring to the montage wherein Georges waxes on about the days he spent creating dreams in his glass studio. This is where Hugo suggests that destroying people's imagination in order to fulfill some seemingly practical end (melting down Méliès' films -- his imaginative output -- in order to make shoes), is the first step in a mentality that leads, ultimately, to the burning of bodies on the battlefield. It's important to note that this largely factual remembrance, which takes place in a period that's been referred to as "the childhood of our era," is framed as being brought to an end by the violent adolescence of World War I. In Scorsese's world, Méliès is imagination made flesh, and he's brought to ruin by a world stripped of its sense of child-like wonder. In this metaphor, imagination (art) is not the opposite of "reality," "existence," or "reason", it's the opposite of immorality. (This reminds me of The Nutty Professor, a film in which Jerry Lewis attributes a moral component to humor.)
Hugo, though not great by any stretch, is, in its final third, a much needed paean to one of humanity's greatest, most luminous forces.
Along with the above, the opportunity to see selections from Méliès' films in 3D was a highlight. The novelty still fresh (Hugo was only my second 3D film), my experience was perhaps not wholly unlike -- solely in terms of its potential for causing wide-eyed wonder -- someone seeing the magic of Méliès' time-lapse techniques in the early 1900s.
The silliest moment in the film, which I only mention because, as far as I know, it has yet to be commented on, occurs when we're shown one of Méliès' old films. In it, a handful of French women in the background have their arms raised above their heads, and one of them is the director's wife. Being French women from that period they, of course, have hair under their arms in Méliès' original. But when Scorsese cuts to a close-up of Méliès' wife (obviously replaced with Helen McCrory, the actress playing his wife in the film), everything is meticulously recreated -- make-up, hairstyle, costumes, set -- except that her armpit is hairless. OK, yes, I get it; McCrory has shaved armpits in real life so it might seem silly to put some fake hair under her arm for the sake of continuity. But why bother with everything else if you're not going to try to make the cut looks as seamless as possible? Could it be, possibly, that they thought this would be off-putting or strange in some way for American children to see? I don't know. It might be a bit of a cynical leap, but it looks like cultural sanitation to me. Anyway, I thought it was silly, though I'm sure others will think I'm even sillier for commenting on it. (Note: It's possible I was imagining things... None of my friends knew what I was talking about when I pointed it out, and, like I said, I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere (most likely because no one cares). I'll have to watch it again before I can know for sure.)
Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011): the final 20 (or so) minutes
"[I]n spite of my melancholy temperament, I've never been able to take anything seriously—not even my worst troubles." --Strindberg
(The above quote is not an introduction to my remarks; I just thought it fit the film too well not to share.)
The way the final sequence of Melancholia made me feel was unique. For a moment while I was sitting in the darkness at the conclusion I felt, in some small capacity -- and for lack of a better and less-pretentious sounding phrase -- like I had some grasp of nothingness. For the last few seconds my mind felt completely clear, focused and unfocused at the same time. But then this feeling was ruined by the closing credits. Agitated, I remember thinking that von Trier had made a mistake by not choosing to have the credits at the beginning of the film, which would've been a much better choice because it would have allowed the black finale -- accompanied by the low rumble of galactic collision that only a movie theater can provide -- to stand as the film's true ending. Instead what we have is a recovery, the scrolling words reminding us -- all too soon! -- that it was all just a depressed man's dream.
A few images from the prologue (I couldn't find any good ones from the finale):
Drive (Refn, 2011): Opening scene + credits sequence
Drive eventually degenerates into what feels like a director trying to come up with more and more inventive ways to kill people off, but before that happens all I kept thinking about was how much I wished the film had been an hour shorter and directed by Kenneth Anger...
But even before all of that there is the opening scene, which is just flat out exhilarating filmmaking... And after it is the credits sequence, which I sat watching with a big goofy grin on my face... It was refreshing to see a film paying homage to all the worst aspects of Hollywood's 80s action/thriller sensibility without constantly winking at the audience. That (which includes the film's use of music and superimposition in the first half) is what Drive gets right. Unabashed pastiche. (Too bad it's little else.)
Tree of Life (Malick, 2011): Creation of the universe
The creation sequence (sans dinosaurs) was a definite highlight, especially the moments in outer space accompanied by Preisner's Lacrimosa. I saw this again recently at home and found it to be underwhelming compared to seeing it in the theater. A giant screen is definitely needed to overwhelm with image and sound. Looking forward to Malick's Voyage in Time (IMAX, I hope).
Home Viewing 2011 (DVD/VOD/Streaming): A few highlights
House of Tolerance (Bonello, 2011): "Nights in White Satin" mourning dance
Years ago, working nights at a book publishing warehouse, I distinctly remember The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" coming on the radio and filling the gigantic building with its tinny echoes. I remember this because I never liked the song before that moment. In fact, I hated it. (My mom used to play it over and over again on some tape she had while I was growing up, which conditioned me to resent it.) That night, however, standing alone in my aisle in the artificially lit warehouse, surrounded by stacks of cardboard boxes, books, and the humming of the omnipresent conveyor belt, I thought to myself that "Nights in White Satin" was the only true love song ever written.
And then, a few days later, I went back to hating it again.
I have no idea why I felt that way that night. I still don't like the song very much, and I certainly don't consider it to be the best, most authentic love song ever written...
But then recently I heard "Nights in White Satin" used during a particularly perfect moment in Bertrand Bonello's House of Tolerance, and it made me feel the same way again. Who knows, maybe it just needs to be accompanied by an atmosphere of utter despair before it can be fully appreciated?
Tree of Life (Malick, 2011): Waco, Texas
(This could easily be on the previous list, but, unlike the universe sequence, this part of the film doesn't lose as much on DVD.)
I concur with everyone who's said that The Tree of Life is deeply flawed yet completely remarkable. Taken as a whole, it's hard to argue that Tree isn't Malick's worst film. The ending -- and by that I mean the final 15 or 20 minutes -- is simply horrendous in every conceivable way. On the other hand, I'd put the 90 or so minutes that comprise the middle of the film up against anything that's ever been shot (minus the last minute or two in which the mother whispers a couple of cheesy lines of narration that cheapen everything that has preceded it by way of its simplistic, reductive summation). As a film about the major themes Malick seems to have been after, The Tree of Life is a failure. But the middle section -- a film about small moments, childhood, and growing up -- feels like a major success.
Putty Hill (Porterfield, 2010): The swimming hole
A favorite moment of a different sort occurred during Matthew Porterfield's Putty Hill. At one point in the film, a group of young people go swimming in a river... there's nothing more to it than that. But the scene caused me to have a disoriented feeling until I realized why it felt so strange: they were at the very place (somewhat secret, I thought) that I used to frequent growing up! Hiking, swimming, hanging out... A beautiful spot about 20 minutes from where I spent most of my adolescence. I've taken (or been taken) there with most of my close friends and still go from time to time.
Porterfield's DVD commentary confirmed the location, though since I knew he was a Maryland filmmaker, I was already convinced; I just wanted to hear what he might say about the place. Other locations in the film were recognizable but none with which I have a personal connection.
Le Quattro Volte (Frammartino, 2010): Part 2: The kid
I wish I'd caught this in the theater, though I'm not sure it even played anywhere in the remote vicinity. Anyway, there's a much talked about long take in the film some people are calling "the shot of the year" that's well deserving of its praise. That's the first highlight. The second highlight is the outstanding section that follows this take (it's obvious what I mean once you've seen the film).
Le Quattro Volte is a very fine film overall but the long take, and the section following it (part 2 of 4), are on a level the rest of the film doesn't quite reach. The first half, which contains the best parts, sorta reminded me of what it might be like had Roy Andersson directed Sweetgrass.
And now for some random categories.
Favorite dissolve: Meek's Cutoff (Reichardt, 2010)
Favorite metaphor: The Future (July, 2011)
The character Jason has recently joined an environmental organization. He goes door-to-door in order to raise money to help fight global warming. A man answers. Before even finding out why Jason is there, the man turns him down:
Jason: That's all right. I mean, it's probably too late for all of this anyway.
Jason: Well, you know how like in the cartoons, when the building gets hit with the wrecking ball, right before the building falls down, there's always this moment where it's perfectly still, right before it collapses? We're in that moment. The wrecking ball has already hit all of this, and this is just the moment before it all falls down.
Man: Is that the official word?
Jason: No, that's just my gut feeling.
Man: So why are you going around, then?
Jason: I thought this was great, all this... The air and the grass, yeah, but it was just the people and the houses and the cars and the TV and the music. I mean, I just -- I love this place.
The best part is that after giving the above speech, the man asks again why Jason is there, and, after Jason tells him, the man still doesn't change his mind. (I always thought the big flaw in Twelve Angry Men was Lee J. Cobb's character's epiphany at the end and his quick change of heart after it. It just doesn't reflect human behavior. Cobb's verdict comes off as completely contrived.)
Most ridiculous montage: Love Exposure (Sono, 2008): upskirt training camp
And the subsequent one where they take their newfound knowledge to the streets.
Sorry but there's no better way to comment than WTF? and LOL!
Best return to form: Hadewijch (Dumont, 2009)
Not actually. This is just my excuse to post pictures from the film. I was never one to think Dumont "let everyone down" after La Vie de Jésus, but those who did will likely be pleased with Hadewijch; he's back in La Vie de Jésus mode.
An amusing anecdote:
"Programming a Bruno Dumont movie under any circumstances is a risk. He's a great filmmaker, but his movies are slow, downbeat and depressing, and their appeal is rarefied, to say the least. But last week the Roxie Cinema went that one better: They booked Dumont's latest, "Hadewijch" [...] in the week between Christmas and New Year's. True, suicides tend to be up around the holidays, but how many like-minded people could the Roxie reasonably expect to find?
Well, on the first night things did not go well. For the 9:20 show Dec. 29, the theater had only one paid admission. The sole attendee? It was none other than filmmaker John Waters, who is, it turns out, a Bruno Dumont fan."
Anyway, I'm not even sure if Hadewijch is one of the best or one of the worst films I saw last year. What I do know is that I enjoyed watching it immensely. Whether Dumont is (or was) seen as Bresson's heir, imitator, or neither, it must be said that he -- like Bresson -- makes films that have absolutely zero fat.
Best film I saw that isn't getting enough attention:
(I imagine that Haigh's film -- which I have seen on a couple of Best of 2011 lists -- is probably underseen more than it is underappreciated.)