Best of the 2010s: My Favorite Films of 2011

My Favorite Films of 2011

Monsieur Lazhar (directed by Philippe Falardeau)
From my review:
The film contains messages about multiculturalism and the themes of mentors & proteges, but it does this without feeling didactic. The way Lazhar adapts to the Quebecois culture and how his students learn from him is done organically without speeches or exposition. Offscreen events occur as we move through the winter and into the spring, but we are shown enough to get a sense of growth happening in Lazhar’s classroom. The performances by Mohammed Fellig (as Lazhar) and Sophie Nélisse (as Alice) are rich and layered, without being maudlin. As I watched the film, I kept thinking about how a Hollywood version of this would get so much wrong and essentially already has in so many other teaching centered movies.

Kill List (directed by Ben Wheatley)
Ben Wheatley introduced himself to audiences with what would be the first of many films about paranoia and the creeping evil that he sees existing in all people. We follow a retired hitman coming back for one last job to make ends meet for his wife and young son. His former partner pulls him down a rabbit hole of seemingly innocuous targets who have committed acts so vile we never get to hear what they are. The entire affair has a sense of foreboding, a sensation that the longer our protagonist lingers in this dark world, the worse he will be visited by fate when he wants to get out. A standard creepy crime flick comes to a head when all sense of reason crumbles in the chaotic finale. Images that don’t quite make sense are played out in the shadows of an old English estate and the ultimate realization of what the hitman did will haunt the viewer for a long time.

Sound of My Voice (directed by Zal Batmanglij)
I have become a fan of filmmakers Zal Batmanglji and Brit Marling’s work with the Netflix series The OA, but one of their earlier success came with Sound of my Voice. A couple is conducting an investigative report of a growing cult in Los Angeles and go undercover as members. The figurehead is Maggie, a woman claiming to be a visitor from 2054, traveling back to our time to warn us of the horrors to come. Marling plays Maggie and does so with quiet dignity, never presenting her as the type of person we’ve come to expect from movie cult leaders. Maggie is incredibly reasonable, and there is an overwhelming amount of evidence experienced by the main characters that lead them to believe that Maggie might be the real thing. The whole picture there’s a mystery being woven in the background, seemingly unrelated and how this story ends up connecting with Maggie’s is one of the delights of the picture.

The Woman (directed by Lucky McKee)
This was one of the most unexpected horror treats I’ve seen this decade. Directed by acclaimed horror filmmaker Lucky McKee and written by the terrifying Jack Ketchum, The Woman tells the story of how a domineering patriarch captures the feral title character. This incredibly clean cut but disturbed daddy decides to use The Woman as a tool to educated his wife, daughters, and son on his misogynistic world view. Chris, the antagonist father, is one of the most chilling movie monsters I’ve ever seen and the film does an excellent job in slowly revealing the extent of his depravity. The cast is filled with some of the best indie horror actors working right now like Angela Bettis (from McKee’s film May) and Lauren Ashley Carter (who went on to star in Jughead and Darling). McKee builds a frighteningly believable world of women being sheltered from the world by hateful men that feels way too real.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (directed by Tomas Alfredson)
From my review:
There are no pulse-pounding shootouts or explosions within this story, merely an ever-increasing tension and the rush from piece together what we think is the truth. Director Tomas Alfredson, who had brought us Let the Right One In previous to this film, has delivered a moody, masterful ode to 1970s spy literature. While James Bond has always been one for more theatrical set pieces, George Smiley has remained a much more true-to-form icon of British espionage. He is an older man, not spry and going on missions across the globe. Smiley works at his desk and is a high-level bureaucrat, which doesn’t seem exciting at first. The character in the hands of Gary Oldman comes alive, we never get an emotionally compelling performance but by no means do we need that. Restraint is what makes Tinker Tailor such a gripping movie. There’s always the sense we’re on the edge of something important.

Oslo, August 31st (directed by Joachim Trier)
From my review:
The most potent scene of the film for me happens midway through when Anders has stopped at a coffee shop after his disastrous interview. He’s alone and lost in his anxieties, but begins to listen in on the conversations of the people around him. Director Joachim Trier creates a beautiful mosaic of lives glimpsed in fragments, first allowing us to hear conversations in progress, then training his camera on the speakers. Through Anders’ eyes, we’re shown how rich, and complex the world around us can be. There are young women sharing details of their sex lives, people amid existential crises, and others just talking about nothing of any particular import. While this scene is vibrant and brimming with life, there is a darker subtext at work. As Anders journey through the city continues, we find that he appreciates the way others are savoring life but doesn’t feel capable of participating. As a university student he’s spending the evening with goes to skinny dip she implores Anders to join her. He silently tries to smile but seems incapable of telling her why he can’t; he observes from the edge of the pool and eventually gets up and walks away.

Elena (directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev)
From my review:
There’s the first inclination to think Zvyagintsev has a made a film about the dangerous underclass but when I reflect on Loveless and what I know of his other work that doesn’t parse. In my limited knowledge of contemporary Russia (fueled mostly by my reading of Masha Gessen’s The Future is History) I think Zvyagintsev is examining the nature of survival and lack of charity in the country. There’s a sense of entitlement from the richest to the poorest here, and you can justify it all from a variety of ideological points of view. Vlad deserves his money and his current state of sloth; he worked hard for it. Sergey was born already disadvantaged, and his sloth and alcoholism are ways he self-sedates. Katya deserves every dime of her father’s fortune due to birthright. Elena deserves the money because she has been there for the last two years doing the work. There is no simple answer here, and the film leaves us with a constant underlying sense of tension. A musical cue by Phillip Glass is used multiple times in the movie to evoke that tense movement forward into the unknown. Zvyagintsev isn’t interested in telling us how to think about these people; he merely wants us to examine every angle, even the ugliest ones.

The Tree of Life (directed by Terence Malick)
From my review:
Despite its three hour run time, I felt the film zoom by due to its continually moving camera and its perfect editing. Moreover, I admit, at the finale of the film, I burst into big, visceral tears. To pinpoint the cause of this reaction is hard. There’s so much going on in the film that taps into the subconscious that you could end up weeping without even knowing why. I think the crux of the film, the Mother’s grief over the dead son, is incredibly affecting and plays a significant part in the denouement of the picture. The Tree of Life is by no means a film that will be enjoyed by all, but it is not meant to be. This is a piece of art, and like all art, it will inevitably produce different reactions depending on what the viewer brings to the images. It’s a film everyone should see and then converse with others in the hope of discovering the multiple interpretations and reactions.

Weekend (directed by Andrew Haigh)
From my review:
Weekend vibrates with the tactile feel of first love, the early morning headache after a night of drinking, the haze of a tryst half-remembered. You can feel that nervous emotion the morning after, the tightrope of how intimate we should be after our night together. Russell brushes his teeth before making coffee and bringing it to Glen whom he left sleeping in bed. There’s the exchange of numbers, the questioning of whether we will see each other again. Then that moment where the unnameable truth of love has born fruit and the immediate fear to rush away from its intensity. Haigh masterfully captures the pain of goodbye when the circumstances of life draw you apart from a person, the person you know you need to be with. He smartly drowns out Russell’s words with the sound of a train so that we only see their arms clutching each other tighter, see them kiss in the hope that it will tether them across oceans until they meet again.

Drive (directed by Nicholas Winding Refn)
From my review:
Director Winding plays with our expectations of the plot by creating a series of hooks that could lead the film into well-trodden territory; however, he never allows it to go there. For a moment it appears this will be a Transporter style film, then a switch to a racing movie, then a heist film, then a film about stuntmen, until finally, it chooses to go its way and end with a tinge of the supernatural. Refraining from naming The Driver lends to the mythic sense of the character. Much work was put into the soundtrack, and it gives another layer of mystique to the main character.

Shame (directed by Steve McQueen)
From my review:
Shame is a film that should leave you feeling dirty and even more importantly, numb. Brandon reaches a psychological and emotional threshold where he’s overloaded and therefore seems not to feel anything. There’s a striking image in the final scene as a subway is reflected in the glass and we see a mirrored train moving in the opposite direction. Two paths lay before the protagonist. His life can continue in the cycle that destructive addictions always seem to take or he can try to get clean. The film doesn’t tell us what Brandon does next and is all the better for it. We need to sit with this nuanced and affecting story and decide where we believe Brandon goes next.

We Need To Talk About Kevin (directed by Lynne Ramsey)
Mass shootings, particularly school shootings, are a social problem that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. In the aftermath, everyone is quick to make their judgments about the causes, and bad parenting is often a common refrain. Lynne Ramsey tells the story of one perpetrator of these acts through the eyes of his mother. The actual moment of attack is a small part of the third act and instead, we watch Kevin growing up as his mother, Eva watches on, noticing minor abnormalities not just with her son but with herself. Eva is hit with post-partum depression hard and never feels an emotional connection to her child, while her husband has the exact opposite experience. That lack of feeling eventually evolves into a dark antagonism with Kevin very aware of his mother’s internal struggles. There is no way you can conclude this picture without feeling Eva’s anxiety rooting inside you, a visceral film experience that will make you view the next news announcement of an armed killer differently.

A Separation (directed by Asghar Farhadi)
From my review:
What A Separation does best is to create a space for moral ambiguity. Eventually, we find our characters before an interrogating judge, Iran’s system of law on display. There are no lawyers, just the two parties before a single magistrate who will interpret Muslim law to determine the level of guilt. Even this judge is positioned as a neutral party whom the audience may disagree with but ultimately understands. It’s clear why Razieh has done what she has done and so too are Nader’s motives clear. Simin proves to be a force of proactivity attempting to resolve the matter outside of court, using her family’s middle-class status to buy Razieh and her husband’s agreement. Everyone is doing what is best for themselves and their family at the moment.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (directed by Sean Durkin)
From my review:
Sean Durkin has referred to Martha Marcy May Marlene as a horror film. And I tend to agree. The horror is the effect a small number of people can have on your mind for the rest of your life. The fear that you can run as far as you like but your memories stay with you. When she asks Lucy “How far are we from yesterday?” we see that idea full bore. Martha will never outrun yesterday. She will continually slip into the hell of her memories. Maybe she will get some help from where Ted and Marcy are taking her, perhaps not. I don’t think we ever learn who this woman is. The title is a collection of labels she’s been given, names from other people, but none of them tell us who this person is who sits looking into our eyes as the screen goes black.

Take Shelter (directed by Jeff Nichols)
From my review:
To put a genre label on Take Shelter is a very tricky thing to do. It is a personal drama about one man’s conflict with dementia. It’s an interpersonal drama about a husband and wife. It is a horror film about a man’s descent into madness. It’s a fantasy film about visions of the end of the world. All things are balanced with a deft hand by Jeff Nichols. This was my first film of his, but he has garnered much acclaim for his other works (Shotgun Diaries, Mud) and I am very interested in his upcoming film, Midnight Special. What Nichols does well is ground high concepts in an interesting mundanity. This reminded me of sci-fi films from the 1970s where special effects were secondary to the exploration of the fantastic idea at the core of the story. Front and center in the cast is the always excellent Michael Shannon. With every film or tv show, I see this gentleman in he becomes my favorite more and more. There is still a sense of simmering rage in a Shannon performance, and the best ones are where that anger is never allowed to come to a boil. In Take Shelter, we have a man who is afraid of his mind, so he is always restraining himself. Shannon plays Curtis, a Midwestern construction worker who is having vivid hallucinations of a coming storm that destroys everything in its path. He struggles to keep it secret while damaging every meaningful relationship he has in the process. The big question of the film is “Is Curtis crazy or are these visions real?” and how the film answers that is what keeps it coming back into my mind.

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One thought on “Best of the 2010s: My Favorite Films of 2011”

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