Last year was a surprisingly arty time for mainstream Hollywood. This year wasn’t. Despite the fact that wise-guy Martin Scorsese dropped a remarkably good children’s movie, the majority of 2011 was Hollywood business as usual: remakes, sequels, lurching franchises, and comic book adaptations. Granted, it was also the year of the (relatively) small pro-women’s film like Bridesmaids and The Help that crashed Hollywood’s CGI-machismo party, taking home a sizeable slice of the guests. But neither of those movies are any good (nor on our list), despite their claims to feminism. Which left Hollywood right where it generally likes to be: profitable and dull.
Which also left Tiny Mix Tapes in our most favored position. We young culture writers have noticed the trends, yes, but we’ve responded mainly by eschewing the big stuff (to be fair, we did favorably review Thor and Captain America) in order to keep our keen eyes and ears on what really mattered, on where and how film really thrived: among the outsiders, in fresh forms whose relevance may take time to become clear. The list below is our proof that 2011 can stand beside the best recent years for artistic genius in film, if, as we did, you look carefully.
Perhaps the individual greatnesses of our 25 picks have some common link, a sense of vibrant loneliness that puts them in touch with the modern world. Certainly the big names that appear on our list (Kiarostami, Apichatpong, von Trier, Malick, Almodovar, July) were aiming to define the isolation made real by an ungrounded, frenetic time. But look at the films we’ve noticed that the year all but passed over — Cold Weather, The Four Times, Meek’s Cutoff, Leap Year, William Never Married, Dragonslayer — and ask yourself if the link isn’t just as much a collective, unconscious backlash against Hollywood’s tentpole mentality, a simple need for good films possessed by the times themselves. Maybe all we’re doing is keeping our eyes open. —Alex Peterson
25. The Interrupters
Dir. Steve James
Early in The Interrupters, an epidemiologist matter-of-factly states that violence is a disease. He makes a strong case, noting that, like a disease, the best way to stop violence is by changing a population’s behavior. Still, the scientist is a secondary player in Steve James’ stunning documentary. For the film, James documented the fearless members of the Chicago group CeaseFire as they try to stop young people from killing each other. Following the interrupters for a year, James recorded heartbreaking footage of an urban culture where simple disputes can have deadly consequences. The key to the CeaseFire’s success is the simplicity of its message. Members never report any activity to police and at times actually condone gang membership. Because they’re from the street, interrupters can communicate with young people and understand why they feel violence is the only answer. Through simple conversation, CeaseFire create spaces for pause and reflection, which allows any anger to subside. The film was sometimes difficult to watch — there are scenes where families grieve with dignity, and others where young people lash out in chaotic ways — but that was also the film’s greatest strength. It’s also why we think it’s one of the year’s most important documentaries.
24. Leap Year
Dir. Michael Rowe
February 29 is an especially bad day to die. But in some way, it’s also the most precise. The dead one smiled out of an old photo every now and then, his spirit winking in and out of his daughter’s life — his strength grows throughout the month, and then… nothing, but not a kind of nothing we can put our fingers on or wrap our heads around or metaphorize — a jump discontinuity. Leap Year was brutal in its simplicity and honesty. Laura (Monica del Carmen) was a young woman who worked from home for a newspaper, went out to a club once a week to bring home a guy who wasn’t interested beyond fucking her, and lied to her mother about having friends. When the final lover arrived, we knew it wasn’t going to end well. We suffered flashbacks of In the Realm of the Senses while watching the choking. But the part that really messed us up was the care with which Laura arranged her longed-for final meeting: the incongruity between her sadistic death wish and the love of and for a better-adjusted little brother. Mercifully, Leap Year arrived a year early.
• Strand: http://www.strandreleasing.com
23. The Mill and the Cross
Dir. Lech Majewski
In the history of films that insist on not only being art, but on literally diving into it — a history that would include Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo, and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le mystère Picasso — there has never been so thoroughly dedicated an entrant as The Mill and the Cross, 2011’s Polish answer to the age old question: What are all the peasants in medieval paintings doing on the other side of the canvas? Director Lech Majewski pulled out all the stops with his art director and set designers in order to do a lifesize recreation of Flemish master Pieter Breughel the Elder’s The Procession to the Calvary (1564), and the result is achingly gorgeous. Majewski may well intend his film to be a religious experience too, and whether or not such an experience is had probably depends on the belief system held by any particular viewer (there is no denying the possibility of religious conversion). But you wouldn’t have to be previously curious about medieval painting to be carried away by The Mill and the Cross; its devotion to art is contagious.
22. Take Shelter
Dir. Jeff Nichols
[Sony Pictures Classics]
As an examination of the power and control exerted by dread, few films could surpass Take Shelter. Jeff Nichols’ film put contemporary anxiety at the fore, both as psychological event and as a new type of natural disaster. Cyrus (Michael Shannon) struggled to distinguish his apocalyptic visions from the knowledge that he is very likely developing schizophrenia, bringing social and financial ruin on his family in the meantime. The film’s interpretations of catastrophe were various and haunting, as shadowy figures, violent weather, vicious creatures, and ultimately those closest to Cyrus each infiltrated his visions and attempted to undo him. Nichols expertly structured waves of tension, offering only moments of gasping relief before again inflicting Cyrus on himself. Cyrus tested wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) relentlessly; as she approached a fuller understanding of his demons, she commited as fully as possible to her husband, protecting and supporting however she could. The trust Cyrus demanded was impossible, but Samantha intuited that the only way out of his madness was by going through it. Buoyed by flawless performances from Chastain and Shannon, Nichols delivered a remarkable sketch of what family can mean at its best in such a decidedly exasperating and ominous era.
21. In The Family
Dir. Patrick Wang
In The Family, the astonishing debut by Patrick Wang, seemed to appear out of nowhere, but once word got out, its ascent was rapid, earning its director critical love and an Independent Spirit award nomination for Best First Feature. All the more remarkable since Wang had to go it alone for so long. In the face of incomprehension and rejection by producers, festival programmers, and distributors, Wang poured his life savings into financing and self-distributing his film. The plot could have so easily fallen into cliché: a gay Asian man living in the small-town South loses his partner in a car accident and must battle for custody of their son. But Wang, who comes from a theatrical background, employed a restrained yet deliberate style. He was uninterested in the easy cinematic and commercial jolts of sex, violence, or melodrama, and rejected hollow conventions at every turn. What he was deeply invested in was truth, and he told an honest, subtle, and very human story about the dense, bewildering terrain of family, grief, and forgiveness. In an era where glibness is king, In The Family was a quiet revolution, and the work of a remarkably talented director.
• In The Family: http://www.inthefamilythemovie.com
20. The Four Times (Le Quattro Volte)
Dir. Michelangelo Frammartino
The Four Times, Michelangelo Frammartino’s meditation on the Pythagorean divisions of living matter, initially sounded like the worst kind of filmic indulgence. It had no dialogue and only one human character, a goatherd who staves off death by drinking the dust from the floor of his church. The camera lingered on goats overrunning the land, on a tree engaged in a ritual as old as itself, on charcoal being born; while the film embraced reincarnation with the merest means necessary. But with remarkable patience, Frammartino crafted a thesis on the circularity of living beings that contained the things we recognize and need — humor, loss, fear, celebration — without once tempering his ambition. The film succeeded brilliantly because it ignored artifice. Rather than use mysticism to say something about life, Frammartino used the almost aggressively quotidian to study life’s most essential interactions with itself. In doing so, he revealed both that we all simultaneously share in the earth’s data and that such collisions were rarely bereft of beauty. By couching his film in the isolation of rural Calabria, Frammartino was able to speak to his themes through a nearly fable-like microcosm. Fewer films have ignored modernity so well and found such profound rewards in doing so.
Dir. Andrew Haigh
Glen and Russell hook up after a lonely night at a gay bar. Glen’s comfort with his (homo)sexuality presents itself the next morning as he whips out a tape recorder and eggs Russell on to recount the previous evening for use in an art project. Russell is cowed, but relents and then exposes himself as a romantic: he tells Glen’s eventual audience not that it was a fun random hookup, but that he thought they “were having a really nice time.” This exposed moment reflected director Andrew Haigh’s approach to capturing the brief but intense romance of Glen and Russell, two diametrically opposed modern gay archetypes, played by Tom Cullen and Chris New. Weekend had a naturalistic feel that allowed the viewer to get extremely close to the couple, both sexually and emotionally. Were Glen and Russell pulled to one another because they were genuinely meant to be together, because they were opposites, or because there was a countdown clock on their time together? Haigh didn’t provide a coda explaining what happened after their two days spent together; he simply offered an intimate look at two people who had connected deeply, however fleetingly, an experience that transcended the constructs of film romance, regardless of sexual orientation.
Dir. Azazel Jacobs
With such a strong depiction of a boy’s inescapably depressing life, there were moments in director Azazel Jacobs’ Terri that made me forget that it was a work of fiction. At times, the muted color palette, minimal dialogue, and general bleakness made the film feel as if it were shot in a backyard over the weekend. Dust motes from the natural lighting seemed to filter through the screen, and as I watched Terri eating beans and toast on a forlorn sofa, I felt like I was there, or I remembered where “there” was. The unpopular/disfigured/misunderstood teen is a trope that hinges largely on the strengths of the lead and the writers, and in this case, it’s a moon-faced kid with morbid obesity shuffling between school and home in his pajamas, portrayed with aplomb by Jacob Wysocki in his screen debut. But the film wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable without the misfits who latch onto him, including yet another pitch-perfect performance from John C. Reilly as assistant principal Mr. Fitzgerald. Jacobs is really coming into his own as one of our great young auteurs, and with Terri, he created the kind of offbeat charm that attracts a devoted cult of followers, and maybe even some imitators.
17. I Saw The Devil
Dir. Kim Ji-woon
South Korea has been the forerunner in doing cinematic violence right for at least a decade, finessing its brutality with psychological circumspection, humor, and a poignant sense of despair where others are content to saw their way through one genre film after another. Director Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw the Devil joined the pantheon as a film of eviscerating violence that also succeeded as a probing essay about the degenerative effect of revenge on the human psyche. Choi Min-sik, your favorite Oldboy, returned to the revenge-themed screen to deliver a bone-chillingly triumphant performance as the creepiest of remorseless serial killers ever to make you paranoid about pretty girls going places alone. As his eye-for-an-eye relationship with a victim-turned-vigilante spiraled into spectacular mayhem, we were reminded that vengeance and predation — just like masochism and sadism — can be two sides of the same coin. The film was beautifully shot with a painstaking eye for detail and symbolism that you might not have noticed since you were steeling yourself for the next blow. Cannibalism mirrored the self-consuming nature of obsession, and unquenchable bloodlust proved to be just as hobbling as a severed Achilles tendon. In between gasps and cringes, we were engrossed by a cycle of infliction and retribution that would put the Capulets and the Montagues to shame. Seeing the devil might just mean becoming one.
16. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Dir. Sean Durkin
Yes, this film was about a cult. Yes, it starred Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of the Full House twins. But those were just details that distracted from the strength of Sean Durkin’s debut feature. I went into the film with arched brow, expecting another closed-room lovefest: Durkin collaborated with indie wunderkinds António Campos and Josh Mond, a Tisch-spawned collective with Cannes and Sundance cred. But this film caught me by surprise, from its cool, tight pacing to Olsen’s steely, jarring performance. An underestimated skill of directors is the ability to align yourself with talent, and Durkin pulled quite a Sofia Coppola here, particularly with DP Jody Lee Lipes (whose name pops up on best-of lists again and again). They worked in tandem, using framing and hard cuts for temporal shifts and flashbacks, wordlessly communicating Olsen’s confusion and terror. She escaped the cult, but remains stunned and somewhat feral, equally entrapped in her sister’s bourgie lake house. Martha Marcy may have been stylized, thin on characterization, and skittish about addressing a world larger than its own confines, but I give tremendous credit to Durkin for allowing the women to dominate this story, making the catty, stiff relationship between the sisters the film’s psychological core. The dark, dark side of the Bridesmaids coin, Durkin’s thriller externalized the terror that lurks in female sexuality, and was a nervy and chilling debut.