A Brighter Summer Day
A cruel story of youth, paced to within an inch of its life yet expansive enough to live in—Edward Yang’s lost and found 1991 masterpiece is a gift from the past.
Curator Tom Tykwer makes personal films from which he’s completely absent—save for his brainstorms, favorite neighborhood haunts, and friends’ art projects. As both halves of a long-term Berlin-boho couple fall for the same man, Tykwer makes the humanist case for polyamory, which is, roughly, “just look at all these lovely, lovely people.”
Tree of Life and Certified Copy
Everyone has their reasons for Terrence Malick's fifth; mine is that I can remember no film that so quickly inspired such a vast, thrilling body of criticism. Meanwhile, Robert Coover’s short-story shadowplay “Matinée,” from the July 25 New Yorker, was the best possible reply to Certified Copy, layering more echoes over Abbas Kiarostami’s ghostly call-and-response.
Margaret and A Separation
The differently idiosyncratic legal systems of New York and Tehran pull together far-flung representatives of metropolitan life to talk past each other in respective writer-directors Kenneth Longergan and Asghar Farhadi's dialogue, so teemingly evocative of class, cultural status, taste, political orientation, emotional hang-ups and moral paradox.
As the young Brooklynite Alex Ross Perry's supremely antsy road movie The Color Wheel hit the festival circuit, the reRun graciously made his 2009 debut poll-eligible. It’s a self-parodic, self-flagellating, no-budget Gravity’s Rainbow riff with a sense of America, and Americana, as a fathomless, perplexing and sinister warren of scabrously funny nonsequitur.
As the tagalong skate-videographer and mixtape master for SoCal thrashers whose knee-skinning, 40-swilling reveries are becoming a lifestyle faster than they know, Tristan Patterson evokes adolescence in all its regrettable purity.
Lars von Trier can even make self-pitying depressive wish-fulfillment aesthetically ravishing.
The New Museum’s exhibition of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s videos, in which young men play with fire opposite oblique reminders of absence and political violence, is both playful reincarnation, like his films, and an ambivalent inquiry into what youth knows of death.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Apichatpong Weerasethakul's film asks no less of you than to reconsider the ways you understand not just movies but, via mystical Buddhism, the entire universe, from reality's fungible borders to the transmutability of the soul. Life changing.
Genre trash rewrit as highbrow treasure, Nicolas Winding Refn's latest is drop-dead gorgeous, the epitome of cool, and the purest cinema you could see all year.
About blue-collar hipster versions of Holmes and Watson who deconstruct the mystery genre in order to find themselves, Aaron Katz's movie testifies to the everyman's capacity for greatness.
Lee Chang-dong juxtaposes ubiquitous natural beauty with man-made violence and cruelty to demonstrate how, out of that conflict, arises poetry.
Another exceptional allegory from Kelly Reichardt and writer Jon Raymond, this one about rejecting cowboy leadership (Bush) for that of the mysterious Other (Obama).
Tuesday, After Christmas
Radu Muntean's suffocating long takes intensify this domestic drama, which employs the devices of the Romanian New Wave to tell a personal rather than political story. It's shattering.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The summer's best blockbuster, an animal-rights tirade that anticipated the autumn's revolutionary fervor. Rupert Wyatt actually gets us to side with the apes and root against our own kind.
In the Family
In Patrick Wang's unseen indie melodrama/art-house weepie, a Southern gay man fights for custody of his dead partner's son. Sensitive and devastating.
Joe Swanberg's self-conscious exploration of moviemaking, what it means and what it's worth—if anything!—is his smartest and most sophisticated to date.
Michael Madsen's poetic, stupefying documentary about the unfathomably long life of nuclear waste, and what that means for its storage.
Death of Lazarescu director Cristi Puiu returns, casting himself as a disturbed engineer and taking apart the storytelling of crack-up crime in a three-hour study of increasing deviation from the mean.
A Dangerous Method
Psychological brinksmanship, annotated adultery, and schisms of several kinds make David Cronenberg’s film a riveting highlight of the season, with superb performances from Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightley.
Ranking among his finest game-playing, Abbas Kiarostami’s newest film about a hard-to-pin-down relationship fulfills the genuine strangeness of its title with a mesmerizing take on experience in action.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
As psycho-historical snapshot, it’s Zodiac 2: Stockholm Syndrome, and, though David Fincher really needs to abandon the structuralist temptation of serial-killer stories, his filmmaking about these dark places is just too damned pretty to turn away.
Mistaken for another hit of misanthropy, Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic fantasy delivers a portrait of depression in all its destructive pain and helpless narcissism.
Nostalgia for the Light
The routine cataclysms of the universe meet Pinochet’s murders, in Patricio Guzmán’s moving documentary essay about a Chilean desert that hosts the remains of the disappeared and scientists scanning the night sky.
The Princess of Montpensier
Bertrand Tavernier orchestrates exquisite 16th-century intrigue, setting into motion romantic vectors and power plays, while revealing the behind-the-scenes sentiments about it all.
Errol Morris’s absurd, and absurdly entertaining, narrative of obsession and desire also acts as a summary statement for the filmmaker as storyteller and professional fascinated person.
To Die Like a Man
Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodriguez brings a waking-dream visual intensity and disarming sensitivity to the story of a beleaguered drag queen
The Sky Turns
This Rotterdam prizewinner from 2005 improbably turned out to be 2011's most poignant meditation on the passage of time. Mercedes Álvarez returns for one year to her birthplace, a corner of northern Spain whose few remaining inhabitants, all elderly, muse casually about the landscape, which has preserved the footprints of dinosaurs, as well as interred the bones of countless ancestors.
Nostalgia for the Light
Another documentary concerned with pasts both recent and remote. Patricio Guzmán's film is a somber, and politically pointed, essay on searches for the past (in the ground and in the sky) in Chile's Atacama Desert.
Into the Abyss
By now you gather that I take the story of the year to be the quality of its nonfiction films. Werner Herzog kept his own intrusions to a minimum in this crime-and-punishment story—and turned in his most engaged work in years.
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
This everyday legal nightmare from Iran possesses all the intensity of an argument escalating right in front of you on the subway.
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujica)
A model repurposing: The official record excoriates itself.
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
"Where do I rank the flawed but staggeringly beautiful masterwork?" is a question I wish I found myself asking more often this time of year. Also of a piece with #1 and #2.
Debut director Zachary Levy finds a nearly perfect subject for this type of vérité portraiture: Stanley "Stanless Steel" Pleskun, "the strongest man in the world at bending steel and metal."
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
A late-year period piece actually alive with ideas, as opposed to embalmed in nostalgia.
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar)
Pulpy and hard-edged, this plastic-surgery thriller also asks some legitimately surprising questions about identity.
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
It might all wash away during the course of a storm, or with the slightest change in brain chemistry. Not perfect, but a very promising sophomore effort, filled with fine-grained detail.
It's like an Amblin movie from the 80s! Except that, minus the Amblin pictures that Spielberg actually directed himself, it's actually better! I was too busy enjoying the shininess of Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek to notice just how funny J.J. Abrams is; here, as solo screenwriter in addition to director, his skill with young-teenage dialogue shines as brightly as his lens flares. Like Hugo and The Artist, among others, Super 8 is a movie about making movies, but with an aching coming-of-age kick absent from its 2011 siblings, or, for that matter, the likes of The Goonies. The kids communicate through their ambitious home movies, just as the actual monster communicates through disaster-movie destruction.
Technically speaking, it has some story hiccups and maybe one too many defeatist moments for the indomitable Kermit the Frog, but practically speaking, little this year made me as happy as Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller, and James Bobin's revival of Jim Henson's Muppets—a wonderfully entertaining run-through of a simple getting-the-band-back-together narrative. That's not just nostalgia: The Muppets recalls Toy Story 2 or a great Simpsons episode in the sheer consistency and ebullience of its joke-writing (and songwriting! Can Best Song be an all-Muppet category this year?). It makes the act of doing silly comedy seem transcendent.
The first two features by Aaron Katz were beautifully shot movies about people hanging out. Cold Weather introduces a plot, slowly but surely, until it turns into an amateur detective story with surprising tension between the central mystery, the slacker-ish protagonist, and his wary older sister. With his natural eye and sense of place, Katz captures a semi-seedy underbelly of Portland. This is the best character-based mystery since Brick.
It sounds like a simple Hollywood thriller, and it sort of is: a sci-fi Groundhog Day, with a soldier reliving the same eight-minute fragment of time in hopes of finding the identity of a terrorist bomber. But Duncan Jones, director of Moon, has a way of rooting science fiction in a single character's psyche and point of view. As such, everything about Source Code that could seem cheesy—its twists of plot and timeline, its gimmicky structure, its unlikely love story—comes alive with crackling feeling.
The Tree of Life
This feels like the movie Terrence Malick has been trying to make, or thinking about making, for decades. The origin-of-life sequence gets a lot of love, and it does justify the big-screen experience so much more beautifully than most summer movies, but the impressionistic story of life in 50s Texas dominated by an unhappy father (Brad Pitt, never better) is just as remarkable, especially for its employment of child's-eye-view cinematography (courtesy of the gifted Emmanuel Lubezki) that never turns condescending or cloying.
Some people called this movie twee because it has a few scenes with a talking cat. I'd probably go "emotionally unsparing and near-devastating" more than "twee," but, you know, that's just me. Miranda July goes bigger and smaller in her follow-up to Me and You and Everyone We Know: through a tight focus on a couple who tries to get their life together in thirty days before an adopted cat arrives at their home, July channels the power to stop time, to disappear, to change everything. In other words, powers we all have and that still can't fix us. The thirtysomething ennui didn't strike me as self-pitying or cute. It pretty much just struck me, hard.
X-Men: First Class
Matthew Vaughn helps get the X-Men series back on track with a witty, exciting reminder of what can be done with this world and these characters: superheroics that feel connected to the world at large, even if by goofy historical revisionism. Michael Fassbender has done great work all year; as Magneto, he proves himself a potential movie star, and former next big thing James McAvoy is reinvigorated into his own best work in years.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
In other revitalized-franchise news, they finally made another awesome Planet of the Apes movie, twenty-nine years after Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and, as it happens, most closely related to that underrated fourth entry in the original film series. The climactic ape mayhem is a given, and immensely satisfying, but Rupert Wyatt spends ample time building to and explaining the circumstances of the ape-versus-human conflict; the mechanics of the ape revolution turn out to be fascinating beyond even the sight of gorillas leaping at helicopters (also: that).
I'm not a Juno hater, but it's thrilling to see Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody toss out that movie's innate likability for their reteaming, about an alcoholic YA writer Mavis Gehry (Charlize Theron) who returns to her hometown to claim her high-school boyfriend. Yet the two movies aren't unrelated: Young Adult is as cynical and sad about the idea of nostalgia as Juno was, well, sweetly nostalgic for the ways that you can define yourself as a teenager. As Mavis, Charlize Theron never overdoes her queen-bitch routine, containing so much disdain, anger, and heartbreak in slight narrowing of her eyes or quivers of her lips. It's a razor-fanged performance in a smart, pointy, sometimes very funny movie.
Is Drive to old-school Michael Mann fans as The Muppets is to old-school Kermit fans? Possibly. It's certainly Mann-worthy, with one of the highest gorgeous-shots-per-minute ratios since Public Enemies, but its sensibility is more pulp and less opera. Director Nicolas Winding Refn understands that the key to a memorable thriller is less hurtling action than the tension, character, and mood that linger in between the screeching tires.
... and the Worst: You know, it's always a struggle to suss out whether I should single out the literal worst movie I've seen in a given year—usually either a disastrously incompetent indie, some manner of studio junk that I saw out of morbid curiosity, or some unholy offspring of the two (what's up, The Double!)—or a higher-profile movie that I particularly hated in proportion to the number of passes it got from other critics. In 2011, I'm going with the latter in the form of Real Steel, because it's a companion of sorts to Super 8. Or at least that's what I read with increasing disbelief: that this 80s filmed and enthusiastically (over)acted Shawn Levy joint was a reasonable, enjoyable evocation of 80s Amblin pictures. More accurately, it evokes the kind of bastardized Spielberg popularized by the likes of Michael Bay and Brett Ratner— only I found Transformers 3 and Tower Heist less excruciating to sit through this year. To be clear, I'd happily watch a boxing-robots movie that didn't feature performances and emotions pitched to the cheap seats at top volume (loud is the new sincere) and a complete lack of interesting things for boxing robots to actually do.
The Top 25 films of the year, as voted on and praised by our stable of film critics.
Jan 9, 2012