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January 2nd, 2012 / 3:40 pm
Film

My Favorite New Movies of 2011

Happy New Year, HTMLnets. I watched fewer new films in 2011 than usual, but that won’t stop me from opining on what I saw. Although I should clarify that the following list isn’t limited to 2011, but covers “the thirty newish films I saw this past year.” And here are my lists from 2009 and 2010, for comparison’s sake.

We’ll start with the best…

THE BEST!

1. Bronson (2008, Nicholas Winding Refn)

Drive compelled me to catch up with this, a film I’d regretted missing since it came out. Refn channels Derek Jarman and coaxes a brutally astonishing performance fromTom Hardy. I just wish I’d seen it sooner, and in the theater.

2. Drive (2011, Nicholas Winding Refn)

http://youtu.be/K4oJr6QZXRk

A total surprise, and probably my favorite new film in 2011. I loved every second of it, and wrote more about it here, here, and here.

3. Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl (2009, Manoel de Oliveira)

How to explain this one’s marvelous perversity? De Oliveira—one of the world’s twenty greatest living directors*—adapted a 19th-century story by Eça de Queiroz, but set it in the present day. But he kept the 19th-century manners completely intact—so when the protagonist spies and instantly falls in love with the titular blonde-haired girl, he must first arrange some way to be properly introduced to her, then make his fortune before he can ask for her hand. And so he flies to Africa to supervise a business dealing. Words don’t do it justice; you just need to see it. You should go watch it right now—it’s only an hour long!

(*They are, in addition to de Oliveira, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Tsai Ming-Liang, Hayao Miyazaki, Agnes Varda, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and thirteen others who must remain secret for now.)

4. Film Socialisme (2010, Jean-Luc Godard)

I saw this only once, which wasn’t enough for me to claim to understand it, or even begin to understand it, but its greatness is immediately apparent. 50+ years into his career, Godard is still finding new ways to deform and reshape cinema, even as he surveys his entire career. (This is obviously his final film, or a film that could be his last; even as it feels totally new, it includes repeated nods toward his previous works.) In the six months since I watched it, I’ve been haunted by various fragments: the cell phone shots made aboard the cruise ship; the two children terrorizing their parents in a forlorn garage; the found footage of Egyptian statues rotating against black abstraction. (You can see some of that, and more, in the trailer above.) I can’t wait to see it again; until then, I recommend checking out this wonderfully thorough annotation.

5. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Review (2011, Mike Stoklasa)

I despised Crystal Skull when I saw it in the theater, and a second time when I caught it on TV, a few months ago. So I’m grateful to Mr. Stoklasa—I mean, Mr. Plinkett—for once again going to so much trouble to so thoroughly and amusingly articulate so much of what dismayed me on those two occasions. (Note that the link in the title will take you directly to the film.)

6. Mysteries of Lisbon (2010, Raoul Ruiz)

My good pal Jeremy wrote more about Ruiz (who passed away earlier this year) here. I’m not as big a fan as he is, but there’s no denying the man’s brilliance, which is repeatedly on display throughout Mysteries. Like with Film Socialisme, one viewing didn’t allow me to fully grasp Ruiz’s convoluted narratives—I also saw the shortened US theatrical release—but I was deeply engrossed throughout, and look forward to sitting down with it again—perhaps after I finally catch up with more of Ruiz’s earlier films.

7. POWER (2010, Marco Brambilla & Kanye West)

I watched this more than any other movie in 2011.

8. The Portuguese Nun (2009, Eugène Green)

Robert Bresson’s influences on Green are immediately obvious, but with this one the man extends his palette further, drawing in elements from Manoel de Oliveira and Jacques Rivette—which only makes sense, as they are two of cinema’s most fantastical directors, and Green seems obsessed with fantasy (and the limits of fantasy). And I thoroughly enjoyed the resulting film, albeit not as much as I did his first earlier feature, Le monde vivant (2003), one of my favorite films of the past decade. (One of my goals for 2012 is to finally watch his second feature, Le pont des Arts.)

Apichatpong, de Oliveira, Green, Miyazaki, Rivette, Tsai, Varda—they are making some of the most fun, most sensuous, most purely enjoyable movies out there. So many other films feel so solemn and leaden in contrast. (Wes Anderson is the only US director I can think of who shares both their skill and their sense of playfulness.)

9. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

Jeremy and I talked more about this one here, as part of a little series we ran last summer. I don’t think that Uncle Boonmee is my favorite Apichatpong film—that would be either Tropical Malady or Syndromes and a Century—but that’s like saying The Castle of Crossed Destinies isn’t my favorite Calvino novel.

Allusions to experimental writers come easily when discussing Apichatpong, as he’s one of the most narratively playful filmmakers out there. (His first feature, Mysterious Object at Noon, is an exquisite corpse.) Uncle Boonmee, like his other films, is less a straight narrative than a catalog of possible narratives, as characters and plotlines transform into other selves. What’s more, as his filmography grows, and actors return, the films are starting to play more like alternate versions of one another. Apichatpong, like his fellow SE Asian filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang, is not only making some of the best films of the present moment, but writing some of our best and strangest fiction.

10. X-Men: First Class (2011, Matthew Vaughn)

Walking into the theater, my only thought was, “Please let this be over quickly.” What a surprise, then, to see one of the most enjoyable films of the year! It’s gratifying to finally see an X-Men movie that captures a little of what made the comics so much fun. I think I can endure another round of superhero films if they’re half as sexy and clever as this one is. (For more, including some tangents about Uncanny X-Men, see my conversation about this one with Jeremy.)

Now for the rest of what I saw.

THE GOOD

1. Half in the Bag Episode 21: Jack and Jill (2011, Mike Stoklasa & Jay Bauman)

I’ve enjoyed all of the Half in the Bag reviews so far, even if only as background commentary while I work on something else. But this one, a merciless critique of Adam Sandler’s newest film, stands out as the first must-see (well, that and their glowing review of Drive).  Stoklasa and Bauman’s “hypothetical” (but entirely correct) assault on Sandler’s sheer laziness and greed calls attention to a side of Hollywood that’s far too infrequently discussed. (Once again, the link in the title will take you directly to the film. Part 2 is where things get really savage.)

2. L’illusionniste (2010, Sylvain Chomet)

It’s clever to use 2D animation to realize another Hulot film, even if it falls far short of the brilliance of Play Time or Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, or even Mon Oncle. But Chomet contributes a tremendous amount of sentiment, making this more a welcome homage than imitation.

3. Midnight in Paris (2011, Woody Allen)

I like Woody Allen more than I should. This isn’t his best film but I enjoyed it and what else can I say besides I’m sorry? Vicky Christina Barcelona and Scoop and Whatever Works are better but this one is perfectly fine and you can understand why it’s become Allen’s highest-grossing film, even though it shouldn’t be. Jeremy and I talked more about it here, and then ranked all of Woody Allen’s films here.

Bizarrely, 2011 ended without delivering a “Niggas / Midnight in Paris” mashup:

Family says I’m the illest
But the 20s the realist
When it’s midnight in Paris
Hemingway goes gorillas, huh!

No one would know what it meant, but it would be provocative.

4. Source Code (2011, Duncan Jones)

This one hasn’t lingered with me the way that Moon did, but it’s still a great little film. Keep making movies, Duncan Jones! Jeremy and I talked more about it here and here.

THE OK

1. Let Me In (2010, Matt Reeves)

A friend showed me this, insisting that it was being unfairly maligned. And I did like it better than the Swedish original, which I faulted (last year) for its weak direction and failure to adequately criticize its gory little protagonist. Reeves includes some nice scenes and production elements, but he’s also lost some of the original’s all-important atmosphere. There’s also the question of how good this material can get. (This is a good example of that somber, leaden quality I described above.)

2. Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams)

Remember way back in June, when the Secret of Super 8 was the Secret of the Summer? There’s a lesson for all of us in the merit of internet hype. As for the movie, I rather liked its muted opening, and the first hour in general. I liked less how, after wringing sympathy from the mother’s having perished in an industrial accident, the film got down to its real business: flinging CGI train cars all over the screen. From there, things literally grew increasingly cartoonish. Still, all in all, I found this less offensive than Abrams’s Star Trek!

I guess a lot of my problems with contemporary Hollywood—a place where many fine movies are still being made, mind you—has to do with the scale of its productions. So much money is at stake in Hollywood these days, its filmmaking’s grown so very cautious. When I watch things like Super 8, which is perfectly well made and perfectly enjoyable in many ways, I still can’t help but feel as though I can feel the director steadily training his eyes on me, worried at all times as to whether I’m having fun—the safe, sanctioned fun of Hollywood. Which is why it’s so exciting to see someone like Nicolas Winding Refn come in and make a film as nimble and unpredictable as Drive. (Refn’s first move as director was to reduce the budget from something like $60 million to $15 million.)

3. The Pink Hotel (2010, Chris Hefner)

This debut feature was made by a friend of friends of mine; I attended its premiere, and it was fun. (I sat with a friend who had a small role in it.) I admire anyone who can make a film, and I wish Chris Hefner the best. I also don’t remember much else about this, except that there’s a cute scene where people eat small birds, and the whole thing is heavily indebted to Guy Maddin.

…albeit lacking that man’s sense of fun. Hipster culture is too overly reverential, and far too concerned with whether others like them. Young directors of America—be fearless!

4. Thor (2011, Kenneth Branagh)

More safe, prescribed fun from Hollywood. Chris Hemsworth, you’re very muscly, aren’t you? And Tom Hiddleston, you make for a curiously moody Loki. Oh! Natalie Portman! You were in this, too! Why? And Tadanobu Asano—why didn’t Kenneth Branagh give you something to do? Ichi the Killer, Bright Future, Last Life in the Universe, Café Lumière, Taboo, Picnic…now I want to go watch a real film! Meanwhile, Jeremy and I talked more about this so-so one here.

THE PROBLEMATIC

1. Gamer (2009, Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor)

This is the kind of movie that should be unforgettable, and yet it’s instantly forgettable (except for its musical number). So it’s bad satire, and beyond that just bad filmmaking? Still, it’s trying to be something—its makers just didn’t know how to get there.

2. Superman Returns (2006, Bryan Singer)

I finally caught this, and think it’s my favorite Bryan Singer film to date. It’s obvious why fans and mass audiences rejected it outright—and that’s probably why I find myself fond of it now. Which is shallow, perhaps, but I admire Singer’s willingness to at least try something different from other superhero films (and other Superman stories), even if it doesn’t really work. It helps that the production design, including the completely inert Brandon Routh, is all so pretty.

Also, carrying on a theme of this post, despite this one’s thoroughly moody tone, the film itself—its direction, its production—feels rather light, and lighthearted. I appreciated that.

3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Andrew Dominik)

Here, by way of contrast, is pure solemnity. I wrote more about it all here; it’s the final twenty minutes or so that save this one for me. That plus the Yogi Bear parody—which, come to think of it, should be listed among my favorite movies here.

4. The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)

Many have called this one polarizing, but it left me feeling ambivalent. Tree sure is exceedingly pretty at times, and I’m sure Malick’s trying to say something Very Important. But he’s a few revisions/edits away from something that isn’t a cliche-ridden, muddled mess—the art house equivalent of Michael Bay. (Jeremy and I discussed it in much greater depth here.)

5. Valhalla Rising (2009, Nicholas Winding Refn)

My love of Drive also sent me in search of this, and I’m glad that I saw it, but it’s Refn’s Tree of Life. And kind of pointless since The New World and Aguirre and Stalker also exist.

& THE BAD

1. Angels & Demons (2009, Ron Howard)

As Slavoj Zizek observed, Ron Howard cut the sex scene at the end, as well as what precious little kinky fun existed in Dan Brown’s originals (which was indeed precious little). Here’s hoping that Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is better?

2. Road to Nowhere (2010, Monte Hellman)

I’m a huge fan of Hellman’s early masterpiece Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), so you can imagine my dismay at seeing that this new one is nothing but a painfully long, garish talk-fest centered around recycling hoary metatextual tropes. Case in point: the film concludes with the police commanding the director of the movie-within-a-movie, who’s holding a camera, to “PUT THE GUN DOWN!” Godard this isn’t—but at least the title’s honest.

3. Terminator Salvation (2009, McG)

In which the Terminator movies finally get ground into the dirt the same way the Alien franchise did. No trace remains now of Cameron’s original two masterpieces. I like to think that someone titled this ironically.

4. The Heartbreak Kid (2007, Bobby Farrelly & Peter Farrelly)

Another movie also missing the point. Screening this alongside the original might prove the most instructive way to appreciate the differences between sex comedies of the ’70s and the present day. In the 1972 version, protagonist Lenny Cantrow is an anti-hero in the vein of Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock and Jack Nicholson’s Robert Eroica Dupea, and it’s cringe-inducing to see his sexual insecurities and fear of commitment so nakedly displayed. In this new one, Ben Stiller’s “Eddie’” is a man-child in the vein of Vince Vaughn’s Jeremy Grey and Will Ferrell’s Frank “The Tank” Richard—and the Farrellys want us to sympathize with his insistently infantile behavior, because women are icky. Unlike with Terminator Salvation, here a once-ironic title has been rendered meaningless.

5. Vidal Sassoon: The Movie (2010, Craig Teper)

Did you know that Vidal Sassoon invented short haircuts? He also invented haircuts, and hair! This “documentary” is pure hagiography, and a not-very-well-disguised commercial for the Sassoon franchise. What I liked best about it was seeing it with a Sassoon model at a premier that Sassoon himself attended. He’s so dreamy!

And that’s it! There were many more movies I wanted to see this year, but they’ll just have to wait. Until which time—

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