So this is not a list of the year’s best films. Nor is it any sort of complete list since there are still many movies that I haven’t seen. But of the movies I saw in the theaters in 2011, these were the ones that stayed with me. I recommend these films for anyone who is looking for something out of the ordinary. You may not love them, but you will remember them.
Let’s start with the weirdoes. The most shocking Foreign Film Oscar nominee ever, Dogtooth is the story of a twisted Greek family (is there any other kind?) whose three twenty-something siblings are kept sadistically ignorant about the world beyond their family compound. They are told the wrong words for everyday objects, forbidden from using basic technology, and engage in strange sexual activities. The siblings exist in a monotonous infantilism that is unnerving even before the occasional violence rears itself like a donkey kick. Part science fiction, part dark comedy, all disturbing, Dogtooth is the furthest you can get from anything Hollywood makes. This would have been the most uncomfortable cinema experience I had this year except for…
9) BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW
Like last year’s Enter The Void, this movie will be a moment in my movie-going that I will never forget. Not that it matters, but the plot to this as-yet-unreleased midnight movie classic-to-be involves a pyschiatrist conducting severe pyschotropic experiments on a girl who may or may not have pyschic powers in an alternate 1983 universe. The kicker? The movie is shot and presented as if if actually was created in 1983. Everything from the synth-heavy music to the title font to the faded print screams 80s kitsch. It’s as if someone handed you a secret VHS tape of a lost Kubrick film that has been buried since Reagan was president. When Canadian director, Panos Cosmatos, presented Beyond The Black Rainbow at the 2011 AFI FEST he simply said, “I hope you’re as out of your mind now as I was when I made this film.”
With apologies to Upright Citizens Brigade member Matt Walsh’s new improv flick, High Road, the movie that put improvisation front and center in 2011 was an animated movie that featured the voice of Johnny Depp as a bullshitting lizard. Stunning animation sequences that borrow heavily from film history (Chinatown, Star Wars, John Ford, and Apocalypse Now are just a few) almost make up for the pirate slop that Depp and director Gore Verbinski have foisted upon us for years. Almost.
7) SOURCE CODE
Okay, here’s where I may lose credibility among other film buffs. The story has holes through which you can easily drive an exploding train. The switcheroo happy ending nearly chokes itself with good feelings. And the sequel potential officially makes this Quantum Leap. But this was Run Lola Run on acid made by a computer. Are we predestined or can we control our fates? This question resonates deeply with my life and, quite simply, I enjoyed how the movie dealt with it. So there.
6) JANE EYRE
For Eyre’s 19th cinematic incarnation in 100 years, director Cary Fukunaga has made gauzy and languid seem modern. It helps to have Michael Fassbender, Mia Wasikowska, Jamie Bell, and Judi Dench onscreen as well. I’ve never read the book, so the “secret” in the movie hit just the right note of devastation and sorrow. Expect your kids to be watching this in high school one day. It’s so good, you won’t feel weird asking them if you can sit in and watch it with them.
5) THE TREE OF LIFE
Leave it to Terence Malick to create a film that makes a tough Texas upbringing seem vibrantly elegaic. Whether you think the movie is a bunch of pedantic hooey or a deeply philosophical rumination on the energy that binds us all (from stars to dinos to Brad Pitt, we are connected!), this is a movie unlike anything you’ve ever seen (if you’ve never seen any other Terence Malick movie). The Oxford-educated filmmaker has several new films in the works so his days of making a new movie every nine years is over. I, for one, am very grateful for this.
4) THE CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS
You could argue that our representations of seeing have finally come full circle and nothing new can be shown. Would that explain a 3-D movie about mankind’s very first art, the cave paintings at Chauvet Pont d’Arc? Filmed by Werner Herzog, the film is elevated beyond documentaries to a level of incrutible human examination. Why do humans have this need to express what’s in our minds? The answers that this documentary digs up within you will change with every viewing.
When I moved to LA last year, I was warned about the amount of time I would spend in my car. The traffic, the idiots, Carmmageddon! But you what? I grew up in Texas where simply getting milk is a twenty minute drive. Big whup. And you know what else? LA is a gorgeous driving city. Sure, mountain lion cubs get run over on the 405 from time to time. But I can drive to a waterfall! At night, you can even hit warp speed on the freeways because everyone goes to bed early. All I need is a satin jacket and I’m good to go.
2) NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT
The world would be a better place if people questioned their understanding like Chilean national treasure, Patricio Guzmán. His slow and melodic narration throughout this documentary is the anti-Herzog. Heartbroken women search for their missing loved ones through the Atacama desert dust while scientists probe the furthest reaches of the universe through nearby telescopes. History, near and far, is examined in this utterly transcendental documentary.
1) ATTACK THE BLOCK
The best foreign film of the year. Sure, these South London street kids technically speak English, but you may need subtitles unless you grew up in councils (projects) yourself. The way these kids band together in the face of an alien invasion, however, needs no translation for anyone who’s ever had a home that they would live and die for. A mash-up of other, more expensive, movies that you’ll recognize in each scene, Attack the Block will return the energy of youthful chivalry to your chest. Trust.
The news of Sidney Lumet’s death has hit me particularly hard. He was a filmmaker that I admired deeply and his movies rank among the greatest ever made. Like anyone, I record onto my emotional memory the precise time and place that I experience vivid works of art. Many people do it with music. For me, it’s movies. And I remember being alone in a tiny DC room the summer after my freshman year in 1996 when I saw The Anderson Tapes. That summer I devoured everything from the 70s. The Anderson Tapes (the precursor to Coppola’s The Conversation by about three years) led me to the world of Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and Prince of the City. Lumet, Coppola, Scorsese, and Kubrick all kept me company on many muggy nights that summer. I remember Q & A with its muscular acting and racist dialogue. New York, as seen in the movies, was indeed a dirty, dirty town.
And ultimately, that’s what Sidney Lumet was: a New York director. He was born in Philly (though I doubt anyone held it against him) and then raised in New York. Whip smart, Jewish, and gregarious…where else could he be? His memoirs, Making Movies, is a book that I constantly re-read, something that I don’t do with many books. In it, he describes the rehearsal process for his films. It’s fascinating the way he makes his work sound normal since he literally worked with every titan of the cinema. As if having Al Pacino (or Brando or Burton or Fonda or Newman or Hoffman or Redgrave…you get it) show up to a midtown loft for a read-through is the most natural thing in the world. That vitality, that world, grounded in the theater, honed by television, doesn’t really exist anymore. You can still find the journeyman (and women) of that mid-century New York film world working in the emaciated studios and buildings around town but it isn’t the same and they’ll tell you so.
And then there’s Network, which I consider to be Lumet’s greatest film. Along with Annie Hall and Blazing Saddles (also made by New York Jews, what was so damn funny about New York in the 70s?) it ranks among the greatest comedies of all-time. I know it’s technically a satire, but what a hysterical satire! It’s basically a bad taste foreshadow of the Fox Network, except that the real Fox News Network seems at times, like a really bad taste imitation of the UBS (the network in the film). Penned by one of our greatest American writers, Paddy Chayefsky, Network takes us behind the scenes of a formerly glorious television network that is seeing its ratings slide. Its fortunes turn when a laid-off reporter, played with obvious relish by Peter Finch, proclaims he will kill himself on television, which of course spikes the ratings (that storyline is based on the real-life televised suicide of Sarasota reporter Christine Chubbuck who shot herself on-camera in 1974). A young executive, Faye Dunaway, sleeps with an older William Holden, who himself is in charge in of the news division. Is it love? Or is it politics? Who cares? With performances ranging from delicious to deranged (five actors were nominated for Oscars, three won including Finch who did it posthumously), the movie stands the test of time and prompts a horrific question that is still around to this day: how low can T.V. possibly sink? It’s a love letter written with a poison pen as both Lumet and Chayefsky were television veterans. Fat chance of such a movie being made today with conglomerates owning all media (in the movie, the network is bought by Arabs!)
Thank you, Sidney Lumet for simultaneously showing us America at its worst and its best. You are a legend and I suddenly realized that I never got through your entire repetoire. It’s trite, but a fitting remembrance will be to cozy up this week with one of your masterpieces and a big bowl of popcorn. Let’s see, I never saw Murder on the Orient Express…or 12 Angry Men. Oh my! Here’s The Hill. Wow, the list of treasures goes on and on.