Top 10 Films of 2011

This article originally appeared on Capital New York.

Certified Copy, directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is a mirror, a dream of doubles, a mystery, and a love story. It is also the first film shot outside of Kiarostami’s native Iran, and his second collaboration with Juliette Binoche (the first being Shirin). A writer (William Shimell) and an unnamed art dealer specializing in forgeries (Binoche) drive through the beautiful Tuscany countryside, and as they drive, we view them through the front windshield, reflections sweeping across their faces in a dizzying river. At first it seems that the two are strangers. Then it seems that they are a married couple, in the process of growing estranged. But then it doubles back and they seem to be strangers again, playing a game, only pretending they are married.

The issue of authenticity (in art, in relationships) is the main theme of their conversations, and as the day progresses the arguments get intense. Kiarostami has always been obsessed with authenticity and his films have often used Brechtian distancing techniques to force the audience to remember that they are watching a film (i.e.: a “copy” of reality, as opposed to the real thing).

In Certified Copy, both actors periodically talk directly to the camera, as though talking to one another across a table, and we see emotions and thoughts float across their faces, similar to the reflections on the windshield. Deep underground shifts take place.

Filmed in Kiarostami’s typical naturalistic style, which serves only to underline the question of what is authentic and what is not, Certified Copy ends up being one of the most moving love stories of the year. The couple has disappointed one another, although how is not made clear. They hover over an abyss of shared sadness and loss. Maybe they are just playing a game. Maybe they are strangers trying to imagine their way into an alternate universe where they love one another.

Both Shimell and Binoche are superb, and the image of Binoche staring directly into the camera (which is supposed to be a bathroom mirror) and meticulously applying bright red lipstick in order to get his attention when she goes back to the table, is one of the most touching cinematic moments of the year.

Jane Eyre, directed by Cary Fukunaga

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre has been brought to the screen, large and small, more times than can be counted, and Cary Fukunaga’s version comes the closest to capturing the eerie Gothic quality of Bronte’s very strange book.

Every image is a carefully constructed work of art. The picture oozes with mood and color, the interiors of Thornfield Hall chilly and vast, with the face of Jane Eyre emerging clearly in a circle of candlelight. Fukunaga doesn’t do too much, and he also doesn’t do too little. He is in service to the story.

The romance of Mr. Rochester and his employee Jane Eyre is singular in literature, and oftentimes film adaptations don’t get it right. It is a difficult dynamic to capture. These two would never fit into Jane Austen’s more polite world. Their conversations are prickly, honest, and loaded with unspoken psychological backstory. Both are misfits, although Jane’s position makes her position more unstable. Both are lonely, wounded, and misunderstood.

Watching Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre and Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester banter in a quiet, dark room with a crackling fire is a great joy. Fukunaga lets the conversation play out. He allows for silence, for tension to build, for there to be long moments where the two just look at one another, as though thinking: Can it be that I have found my match? Is this person before me … the one?

Michael Fassbender has had quite a year, what with X-Men: First Class this summer, and the one-two punch of A Dangerous Method and Shame this fall. But his performance as the gloomy, tormented Mr. Rochester in Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre shows his potential as straight-up leading man. Jane Eyre was a feast for the mind and spirit.

Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is the story of three brothers growing up in 1950s Texas and it is also the story of the beginning of the cosmos. The universe explodes, and from out of darkness comes light, and from out of the light comes life. Dinosaurs roamed the earth. And little boys grow up in Texas.

Brad Pitt turns in an extraordinary performance as the stern father of the young boys, and Jessica Chastain (an actress who has had a groundbreaking year) plays the mostly wordless wife and mother, in a performance showing her palpable cinematic presence.

Through the dizzying, undulating collage of the film, we are allowed great space to rise to meet the film, to engage with it, to argue with it, to resist, to submit. And yes, there are dinosaurs in Tree of Life. By putting dinosaurs in juxtaposition with scenes of a 1950s childhood, Malick seems to be mourning all that will be lost when the human race will extinguish itself.

Throughout the film, we hear supplicating questions in whispering voice-over, thrown out to the unseen force that watches over all of us. Is God listening?

Tree of Life is courageous enough to ask, insistently: What is the meaning of it all? Why are we here? What is our purpose?

Midnight in Paris, directed by Woody Allen

One of the surprise hits of the year, and Woody Allen’s most profitable movie to date, Midnight in Paris is awash in self-conscious nostalgia for a lost so-called Golden Age.

Owen Wilson, Woody Allen’s best alter ego to date, plays Gil, engaged to be married to the awful and humorless Inez (Rachel McAdams). During a trip to Paris, Gil finds himself on a magic staircase that catapults him back in time to cavort with his idols, the expat authors and artists gathered in Paris in the 1920s: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, etc.

Gil is a successful screenwriter but he has also written a novel he can’t seem to finish. He wants to have a more meaningful life, so he figures maybe he should move to Paris and live in a garret. Inez is not only unsympathetic but downright hostile to these ideas.

Woody Allen’s nostalgia has been a trap for him on occasion, tipping his movies over into self-pity. Not here. Midnight in Paris has affection for the impractical dreamers among us, and is a loving tribute to the giants of the past who continue to light our way.

A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi

Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale Film Festival and was also named the year’s best foreign film by the New York Film Critics Circle. It is a harrowing film, a domestic tragedy unfolding with the inevitability of a multi-car pile-up on the freeway.

A Separation is not only a domestic tragedy but a tale revealing the class divide in Iran and the sometimes-deadly clash between modernism and tradition.

Starring Leila Hatami and Peyman Moadi as a Simin and Nader, a separated Iranian couple with an 11-year-old daughter caught in the middle, A Separation takes an unblinking view of the events that unfold. Simin wants to leave Iran and wants to take their daughter with her. Nader will not allow it. The couple has reached an impasse.

Needing help caring for his father stricken with Alzheimer’s, Nadir hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) as a day-nurse. She is from the lower class and wears the full chador, unlike his wife in her stylish headscarf. One day, Razieh makes a decision while caring for Nader’s father that will have terrible consequences. Once the ball is set in motion, it cannot be stopped.

Watching A Separation is a helpless feeling, like watching Nora in Ibsen’s Doll’s House wildly dance a tarantella to keep her husband from going to the mailbox, where a letter awaits that will ruin their lives. Farhadi knows his Ibsen. A Separation has the same desperate and awful impact. There are no villains, just people caught up in circumstances beyond their control, doing the best they can in dealing with events, but at a certain point, all will be lost. There is no hope for reconciliation.

This Is Not a Film, co-directed by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb

Imprisoned Iranian director Jafar Panahi filmed This Is Not a Film in part on his iPhone, and in part on the borrowed camera of a colleague, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. It takes place on a day in Panahi’s life, as he waits around in his Tehran apartment, talking to his lawyer about his upcoming sentence, and, finally, inviting Mirtahmasb over to film Panahi telling us the story of the upcoming movie he now will not be allowed to make.

Hence, “this is not a film”. But it is. It is one of the most important films ever made, seen in the context of the oppression Iranian filmmakers currently face. Panahi’s sentence was brutal: six years in prison, as well as a 20-year ban on filmmaking, travel and interviews.

He talks to the camera in This Is Not a Film, describing the plot and the set and the cast of the film he had been working on. This may be all we ever get from Panahi again.

This Is Not a Film was smuggled into France inside a cake, in order to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb was arrested in September of this year, and was released after three months, but Panahi remains in prison.

Panahi’s career has been dogged by run-ins with Iranian cultural authorities and mullahs, due to his explicit dealing with social issues in Iran, primarily the position of women. What is happening to Iranian filmmakers right now is the most important thing happening in the film world. This Is Not a Film is an obituary for a man who is still alive.

Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier

Not being a fan of the “provocateur” Lars von Trier, I went into Melancholia skeptical, and within five minutes found myself swept away. A haunting, emotional ride, Melancholia tells the story of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and how their destinies are impacted by the approach of a rogue planet.

Justine’s chaotic and strange wedding takes up the first half of the film. She puts on a happy face, but from time to time we see shadows creep into her eyes, suggesting all is not well with this young woman. She keeps glancing up at the night sky. It seems there is a new star up there. Nobody else notices it yet. Justine keeps disappearing from her own wedding, to take a nap, to take a bath, to screw some random guy on the golf course.

In the second half of the film, Melancholy, in its most aggressive guise, has taken over Justine’s psyche. She can barely get out of bed anymore and is now being taken care of by Claire, who has to help her bathe and force her to eat. Meanwhile, the pesky star in the sky turns out to be an approaching planet named Melancholia, a planet nobody had ever heard of before. It might “interfere” with the earth. It may very well be the end of the world.

The roles reverse. Claire disintegrates the closer the planet comes, and Justine gains strength and power. Her melancholy has prepared her for her own end. She is not afraid.

Featuring terrific performances from the two leads (Dunst has never been better), as well as the supporting cast of Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, and Stellan Skarsgård, Melancholia has a bitter heart, a knowing attitude, and a gloriously theatrical sensibility. It is a very weird movie, and I loved it.

The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne

There’s a moment in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants when Matt King (George Clooney, in one of his first pater familias roles), informs his teenage daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) that her mother will never come out of her coma. The young girl, sitting on the edge of the pool in the backyard, is still for a moment, trying to process her own tragedy, and then she spontaneously leaps into the pool, submerging herself completely. Payne’s camera catches her underwater, swimming toward the camera, a silent scream of agony contorting her face. A visceral marriage of directing, cinematography and acting, it is one of my favorite shots of the year.

Set in Hawaii, The Descendants tells the story of Matt King, heir to a pineapple fortune, and holder of one of the last undeveloped tracts of land in Hawaii. His wife is in a coma following a boating accident, and it is revealed she had been having an affair. King begins a quest to “find the guy”, involving his two young daughters in what amounts to crazy stalking throughout the various Hawaiian islands.

The Descendants is funny and touching, and reveals beautifully the relationship between a distant father and his two young daughters who are exploding into puberty before his startled eyes. Clooney, who often is isolated in films by his movie-star status, here fits in with a noisy, raucous ensemble. Except for the terrible voiceover by Clooney which starts the film, telling us everything we apparently need to know (which we could easily figure out without the intrusion), The Descendants is perfect.

Flowers of Evil, directed by David Dusa

Flowers of Evil played at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and while it has not received distribution (which may make its inclusion my list somewhat unfair), I couldn’t leave it off. It is one of the most enjoyable and emotional experiences I had in the movie theatre this year.

Taking place in Paris, Flowers of Evil is a romance between two young people in exile from their homelands. Anahita (Alice Belaïdi) is an Iranian college student sent to Paris by her parents to get her out of the way of the violence erupting in Iran during the highly contested elections in 2009. Frantic to keep in touch with events, Anahita spends all of her free time looking at YouTube videos of the violence, and begging her friends via Twitter to keep her informed.

A young French-Algerian man named Gecko (Rachid Youcef) is a bellhop in the Paris hotel where she is staying and he is drawn to the beautiful yet distracted girl he sees in the lobby. They befriend one another. They check each other out on Facebook. They send emails and texts, the contents of which unfurl across the screen against the dark Parisian nightscape.

Gecko has no ties to Algeria or to France. He is isolated, yet free and open. It is an extraordinary debut for this young actor with the mop-top of black curls. Two Muslim kids on their own in a foreign land, they romance one another, circling around, talking, dancing, eating, sightseeing, reading out loud. But Iran keeps calling to Anahita. It seems wrong to her to not be back there, fighting alongside her friends.

David Dusa’s camera is frenetic, energetic, quick-cutting between Anahita’s solitary Web-surfing and Gecko’s Parkour routines through the Paris streets. When the two finally kiss, you can feel the ground move beneath their feet.

Flowers of Evil is about nationalism and violence, it is about love and connection, it is about how we live today. Those who fret that social media increases our isolation from one another speak from a privileged position where the stakes are low. Revolutions in the Middle East have erupted over the past year, and Twitter and YouTube and Facebook have been tools for disseminating crucial information.

David Dusa’s story is, at its heart, a sweet and poignant love story. With two beautiful performances from the two leads (there aren’t any other characters in the movie), Flowers of Evil is a film to look out for.

Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese

It is probably the first time in Martin Scorsese’s career that “a film the whole family can enjoy” would be an appropriate descriptor for one of his movies. It’s also in 3D. What country, friends, is this?

Hugo tells the story of a little boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who lives behind the walls of the train station in Paris in the mid-1930s, winding the clocks throughout the building, living in a hidden world of giant moving mechanics and shifting gears. It is a steampunk fantasy to the nth degree. Hugo was orphaned, and his father (Jude Law) had found a broken automaton in a museum and devoted his free time to trying to fix it. The automaton is all Hugo has left of his father, and he works on it, stealing tiny parts from mechanical toys at a toy store in the station, run by the cranky and terrifying Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley).

Perhaps only a movie buff will recognize the name George Méliès, but now the world can discover him, thanks to Scorsese. Méliès was a pioneer of French film (you may recognize his most famous shot, of a rocket plummeting into the cheesy wincing face of the moon), long forgotten at the time Hugo takes place, except by a few fanatical film historians.

Hugo is not just the story of a young boy trying to fix an automaton in order to feel closer to his dead father, and it is not just the story of George Méliès, a bitter forgotten man finally realizing the impact he has had on the world; it is also a celebration of the history of film and the importance of film preservation, a topic obviously dear to Scorsese’s heart. In this sense, Hugo can be seen as Scorsese’s most personal film to date. Funny, breathtaking, fantastical, with incredible image after incredible image unfurling across the screen, Hugo features fantastic performances by not only Asa Butterfield, who essentially carries the film on his slender shoulders, but Kingsley, Helen McCrory, Emily Mortimer, and Sacha Baron Cohen as a cranky limping station inspector (and Hugo’s nemesis).

3D, annoying when used as a gimmick, is utilized here to plunge us into the terrifying maze of the world behind the walls, the hidden ladders and swinging pendulums, all creating a dizzying landscape reminiscent of an Escher drawing. It is fitting Scorsese would use 3D as a tool to tell his story. Cinema is the story of innovation, of changing technology, of embracing the new. One of the scenes in Hugo portrays the effect on an early audience of the image of a train rushing into a station toward the camera. The audience shrieked and ducked, thinking they would be crushed by the train on the screen. What is that, if not 3D?

Hugo meets a little girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) in the train station and they become friends. She has never been to the movies. Hugo can’t believe it, this is the worst thing he ever heard of, so he sneaks her into a showing of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last, which includes the famous scene of Lloyd hanging on to a clock high above the streets below, a clock as big as the one Hugo lives behind. The little girl’s face watching the movie is not only agog at her new experience of seeing a movie, but with trembling fear about the fate of the man up on the screen. She gasps, she winces, she cries out loud, she watches in silent horror, she clings to Hugo’s arm.

Her response represents what movies can do, what the best of them do, and even what the not-so-great ones can do. They can bring us out of ourselves for a time, they can help us invest in someone else’s story, they can provide escape, wish-fulfillment, catharsis.

Hugo, then, is a celebration of the art form that acts as a projector screen for our own journeys, and for our own wishes, hopes and dreams.

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12 Responses to Top 10 Films of 2011

  1. ted says:

    Oh my gosh, I’ve only seen one of them! Where have I been? Under a rock?!

  2. sheila says:

    Ted – I forget- which one did you see? Certified Copy?

    I have a feeling you might flip over Hugo. And This Is Not a Film, which is shattering.

  3. sheila says:

    or no – you probably saw Midnight in Paris – am I right?

  4. Jake Cole says:

    Leaving aside This Is Not a Film and Flowers of Evil (which I haven’t seen, obviously), I think the only one of your choices that won’t make an appearance on my own list is Jane Eyre, and I even loved that. I’m almost glad for once that I can attend no festivals; I can’t even get my list down to under 25; if I’d gone to Cannes or Toronto I’d have just given up altogether. Such a good year for great human works as well as fantastic exercises in style. I even keep finding things to love about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which you can link to pretty much anything in Fincher’s filmography, be it a woman marooned among misogynists (Alien 3) or Lisbeth’s punk Zuckerberg. I think I’ve completely reordered my list about six times in the last week.

  5. ted says:

    Yes, Midnight in Paris. Though Hugo, This is Not a Film, and Certified Copy are all on my list.

  6. sheila says:

    When This Is Not a Film gets its release, can we go see it together? Have you seen any of Panahi’s other films?

    Regardless: it’s one of the best process movies I have ever seen, which makes the tragedy that much more relentless. Would love to see and discuss with you.

  7. sheila says:

    Jake – Please promise me that you will seek out Flowers of Evil. It may not even be distributed – which is ridiculous to me – this is a romantic and important movie. Maybe it will show up on Netflix or Youtube: it is a GEM!!!!

    • Jake Cole says:

      I absolutely will. I’ll be in Birmingham next semester which will sadly limit my possibilities even more since I can’t just up and head to Atlanta without making a full day of it, but that one’s high on my list along with This is Not a Film (I seriously think about this film EVERY DAY and I haven’t even had a chance to see it!). I hope I can either nab review copies if they’re sent out or that they make their way to Netflix with all speed. I feel like This Is Not a Film should have been plastered all over the Internet the way Godard permitted Film Socialisme to float around. It’s too important to just slowly filter down the usual channels.

      • sheila says:

        Well, it was the talk of the NYFF – and hopefully when it gets its wider release, it will be even more talked about.

        It’s a ruthless and powerful piece of work. So moving. I was torn up throughout. Devastating.

  8. Dwight says:

    Tree of Life continues to haunt me, several months after seeing it. It’s not something I can view anytime soon…not that there is anything wrong with the movie but Malick’s approach still unnerves me on subjects that can hit a little close to home.

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