The Best Movies of 2011

Monkey Ghost

2011 was a great year for movies. It won’t be a good year for Oscars (the two are more than likely related), but it was the best year for movies since at least 2007. I’m actually hard-pressed to think of a better year for movies since 1975 (my personally favorite year). From the greatest living directors (Scorsese, Godard, Kioristami) to filmmakers who’ve just started to make a name for themselves (Farhadi, Refn, McQueen), 2011 saw an awful lot of great artists at the absolute top of their games. I’ve listed the 30 best movies released in 2011 that I’ve seen, and written about the top 15. This was, to say the least, difficult. Any of my top 7 could have been my number 1, and any of my top 20 could have fit in with my top 10, easily. But I think, after putting considerable time into thinking about the order, I got it right. There’s a few well-reviewed movies I’ve missed out on, from House of Pleasures to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, so the list is, at best, transitional. But I don’t think there will be too many changes going forward with masterpieces like this. Without further ado:

The Top 15

A Separation
1. A Separation – In a year when Abbas Kioristami left the country and Jafar Parahdi began his imprisonment and forced hiatus from filmmaking, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation made an excellent case that he is the next great filmmaker to come out of Iran. With one of the best scripts in years and subtle, gorgeous performances, what could have easily been an interesting chamber drama about a husband refusing to leave Iran with his wife or grant her a divorce takes a turn to become a masterful, nearly perfect analysis of justice in a situation where no one is guilty and no one is innocent.

2. Drive – After the dust of the well-deserved hype and the inevitable and in some ways just as deserved backlash has cleared, it’s interesting to look back on Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive with more objective eyes. I thought maybe I’d like it less when I looked back on it soberly, but to be honest, if anything, I love it more now that I’ve had time to think about it. On the surface, Drive is the ultimate “cool” movie: strong, silent hero, car chases, ultra-realistic violence, and a soundtrack that sounds like it was lifted from an episode of Miami Vice. But these elements are also what separate it from a run-of-the-mill but intelligent, cool-in-quotation-marks thriller. Underneath all the sheen, it’s a movie about stunted adolescence crossing the line into delusion. Ryan Gosling’s Driver is an emotionally stunted teenager surrounded by people who play right into his fantasies, and when he runs into Albert Brooks’s Bernie Rose, the only adult in the movie, the results are as violent and explosive as any movie I’ve seen.

3. Meek’s Cutoff – Kelly Reichart takes the revisionist western to its logical extreme in a movie with none of the hallmarks of the genre, just a small group of pioneers crossing a rocky, arid desert. They’re led by a man named Meek and an Indian they’ve captured, neither of whom they trust. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it is a rewarding one. Reichart makes innovative use of her mise-en-scène and sound design to craft a gorgeous film that makes deft points women in a world with no respect for them and the equalizing power of desperation.

4. Tree of Life – With 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick presented science in religious terms. All the awe and beauty once reserved for Biblical epics, Kubrick used to create the greatest science fiction film of all time. With Tree of Life, Terrence Malick presents religion in scientific terms. It’s a movie very much about God and mortality, told from the perspective of Sean Penn’s Jack, who tries, in the film’s most nascently famous scene, to imagine the scope of a truly supreme being who existed before the dawn of time. Between the bookends of this truly awesome scene and an ending that includes an image of heaven and the end of the world, Malick creates cinema’s greatest Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness.

5. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – I’m not completely sure what to say about Uncle Boonmee. To be honest, I don’t know what you can say. No blurb could explain the plot, no description could explain its techniques, and no words could do it justice. So I’ll simply say this: I wouldn’t recommend Uncle Boonmee to most people, even most people who love movies. That said, it’s a gorgeous, meditative film about rebirth, death, and the quality of the life that takes place in between. It’s a weird movie, but at its core, it’s a universal one.

6. Certified Copy – In Certified Copy, Juliette Binoche gives not only the best performance of the year, but also the best performance of her already formidable career. It’s never clear exactly what’s going in this movie. Sometimes, it feels like we’re watching an intellectual exercise, sometimes, a budding love affair, sometimes, a dying marriage. While for some movies, this confusion would be messy, it actually helps Certified Copy. The audience intrinsically knows the emotions on the screen are not real, but what we see is that an imitation of a emotion is sometimes just as valuable as the real thing. Abbas Kioristami has created a true masterpiece in the vein of Before Sunset and Voyage in Italy.

7. The Interrupters – My girlfriend and I were lucky enough to see The Interrupters followed by an Q&A with Steve James (who also directed another one of my favorite documentaries, Hoop Dreams), the founders of CeaseFire, several other people involved in both the production and the program it documents, and, best of all, Ameena Matthews. Once you’ve seen this movie (and this may be the one movie in my top 10 I’d unequivocally recommend to everyone), you will never forget Ameena. The Interrupters is not just a portrait of a community plagued by a disease, but also a real-life superhero movie about people like Matthews who are amazing enough to make a dent, no matter how small, in the violence that’s destroying a city.

8. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – One of the big debates I had with myself while organizing this list was whether to put Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or 13 Assassins at 8. It probably came down to the fact that I saw TTSS a couple of weeks ago, and haven’t seen 13 Assassins in a few months. Both are excellent genre films that, instead of redefining their respective genres, look backwards, TTSS to pre-James Bond Cold War spy films like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and 13 Assassins to Kurosawa’s great samurai action movies. Neither is particularly original, but both make an excellent case for virtuosity over originality.

9. 13 Assassins – TOTAL MASSACRE. Nuff said.

10. Tabloid – For the second year in a row, following Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop, the most purely entertaining movie of the year has been a documentary, this time by one the medium’s greatest provocateurs, Errol Morris. I’ve been reading Morris’s Believing Is Seeing, about the difference between what we see in photographs and reality. One of his central points is that doctored or posed photos often tell a more accurate, complete story than the photos we think of as authentic. The story of Joyce McKinney and her battle against the British tabloids is a perfect example of how true this can be. The tabloids manufacture stories about McKinney, but in the end, even the masters of the insane supermarket schlock can’t keep up with the truth.

11. Shame – Michael Fassbender had a very good year, and he capped it with his best performance yet. He plays a sex addict whose life is interrupted by not only his sister coming to live with him, but his own attempts to break free of the cycle of one night stands and anonymous sex. Steve McQueen’s stunning camera work capturing a nearly flawless performance from Fassbender solidifies this relationship as one of the most exciting to watch in film right now.

12. Weekend – Finally, a movie that’s more about homosexual love than homophobia. In its own quiet, lackadaisical way, Weekend is as radical as any movie that deals with homosexuality from a more political angle, because it shows a relationship between two men not as socially transgressive, but as touching a love story as there is.

13. Poetry – There are films as lovely and simple, but movies like Poetry are rarely this compelling. The less you know about this movie, the better, but I can tell you that Chang-dong Lee’s melodrama may sound staid from a quick DVD blurb, but it is simply one of the most unflinching, elegiac films I’ve seen in a very long time.

14. The Skin I Live In – As much as I’ve liked his last few movies, it’s great to see Pedro Almodovar back to being Pedro Almodovar with his best movie since Talk to Her. It’s refreshing to see a movie so full of bizarre twists bordering on the surreal that can use those same twists to explore gender, ethics, love and identity in such a clear and straightforward way. It’s sort of a horror movie, sort of a science fiction movie, and sort of a melodrama, in a way that only an Almodovar movie can be any of those things.

15. Hugo – Anyone who knows my taste in movies knows I am a big Martin Scorsese fan (I routinely list Raging Bull as my favorite movie) and I love Georges Méliès almost as much. Even so, I was more than a little nervous about the concept of Scorsese making a 3D children’s movie. When you think of Scorsese, orphans living in train stations, automatons, and magicians aren’t the first things to come to mind. But Hugo proves that Scorsese can still, after almost 40 years, surprise you. Scorsese borrows not just from the great Méliès films he recreates in the movie’s second half, but also later silent comedies and movies from the French poetic realist era, and the resulting cocktail makes a charming, beautiful case for film preservation. There are plenty of times it lacks subtlety, but sometimes subtlety is overrated.

 16 through 30:

John Hawkes
16. Martha Marcy May Marlene

17. Margaret

18. Silent Souls

19. Bridesmaids

20. Contagion

21. Take Shelter

22. The Arbor

23. Le Quattro Volte

24. Attack the Block

25. Melancholia

26. Film Socialisme

27. The Trip

28. Super 8

29. The Artist

30. The Myth of the American Sleepover

Louie Louie Louie Louie

I’m going to ask you a question, and I want you to try to answer without using Google or IMDB. What won Best Short Film, Live Action, at the Oscars in 2007? Hint: it was the year The Departed won Best Picture. Clock’s ticking.

I’m going to assume that even the devoted film addicts and Oscar historians among you didn’t get it, and probably only the people who made West Bank Story would be able to tell you that they, in fact, won an Oscar less than 5 years ago. There’s a reason for that. Since the beginning of the sound era, the short film format has been ghettoized. It’s not so much that it’s considered illegitimate; it’s more that it’s considered either a proving ground to young filmmakers who go on to do better things in their “real” movies, or a home to bizarre experimental cinema too mind-boggling to be consumed in larger chunks. In days of the silver screen (or, still, in the case of Pixar), short films were shown before features, cementing their reputation as warm-ups rather than headliners.

But there’s hope for short film; hope that comes from an unexpected source: Louis C.K. For those of you who don’t know, C.K. is one of the best and most popular stand-up comedians working today. He also writes, directs, edits, produces, and stars every episode of his FX series, Louie, which, despite somewhat tepid ratings, is nearing the end of its second season and has been picked up for a third. It’s one of the best, most exciting shows on TV right now.

One of the things that makes it so radically different is the format. Every week, Louie presents us with one or two stories about Louis C.K, a divorced comedian with two young daughters living in New York City. Louis C.K., the character, is pretty much just Louis C.K. the comedian, but with a few gently surreal touches mixed in. The result is a mixture of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor and Jorge Luis Borges fiction. It’s not always a comedy (though the clips of C.K.’s stand-up that get mixed in are always hilarious), but it always tells a compelling story.

That brings me back to my point. By telling these insular stories with a lack of continuity between them, C.K. is doing for short film what Harvey Pekar did for comic strips. He may not be making them popular again, but he is getting attention for making them. Each episode is a short movie, using the same cast and characters, but none really being explicitly connected. What happens at the end of one episode will have little effect on what happens at the beginning of the next (beyond, perhaps, a callback or a wink to an earlier story).

Of course, Louie is a TV show. It’s not a movie. It’s not shown in theaters. But if I were a young filmmaker thinking about making short films, I wouldn’t look any further than what C.K. is doing every Thursday night. He explores how to tell an exciting story in just 10 minutes without making it feel rushed. Most of his shorts even take on a lazy sort of pace, which is amazing considering how much plot he can get into that short span.

He’s even, on occasion, had the chance to explore different genres. Most episodes fit into the same dark situational comedy that was popular in the 70s, but once in a while Louie goes out on a limb. The best example so far has been “Duckling”, which premiered last week. Based on C.K.’s experience in Afghanistan on a U.S.O. tour and a story by his daughter, it combines aspects of both the war movie and the road movie.

“Duckling” is, in my mind, the best representation of what Louie can do. Not only does it show that short films can be just as ambitious as their full-length counterparts, but it shows the power of telling a small story. This isn’t The Thin Red Line or Platoon. It’s just like any other episode of Louie. Louis C.K., the character, is a guy who gets into awkward situations and only feels comfortable up on stage; it doesn’t matter if it’s in Manhattan or Afghanistan, he’s probably going to strike out with a pretty girl and make an ass out of himself around people who actually know what they’re doing. Louis C.K., the comedian, never loses sight of the fact that it is, at its heart, a short film, with all the same limitations, and all the same benefits.

The Dilemma of the Will

How Netflix Helped Me Come To Terms With  A Notorious Piece of Nazi Propaganda

Technology confronts us with new facets to familiar problems. The internet does this more than any other technology. How do we protect children from pornography and violence when it’s always a pop-up away? How do we read War and Peace when twitter is right there? How do we formulate a cogent political opinion when thousands of well-argued contradictions to any viewpoint are literally at our fingertips? If you’re reading this, you’re probably encountering something akin to one of these problems right this minute (perhaps you should be doing work instead of reading some guy’s blog, for example). It’s a wonder we haven’t become a nation of agoraphobics.

A few weeks ago, I encountered a new problem that, while seeming to be completely insignificant, has been on my mind ever since. Triumph of the Will is one of those legendary cinematic boogeymen that no one really wants to see, but cinephiles and people who study film feel compelled to watch. Leni Riefenstahl’s most famous film, and the most infamous piece of propaganda to come out of Nazi Germany (or perhaps anywhere), Triumph of the Will has long been considered one of the most important, greatest films of the 1930s. It’s not hard to look at it this way. But after I watched it, I was presented with a dilemma Susan Sontag, Mick Jagger and Roger Ebert never had to face: how do you rate Triumph of the Will on Netflix?

This may sound like a silly question, and it is. If there’s any sort of afterlife, I doubt the grade I gave Triumph of the Will will have much bearing on the scales of judgment. But it’s also a difficult question; it would be easy to write thousands of words about the film from a historical or an artistic perspective, but it’s not easy to say whether I like it or not. The fate of my soul may not rely on whether I rate Triumph of the Will with one star or five stars, but in the end it does say something about me.

Of course, this question isn’t entirely new, just the way it’s being asked. Roger Ebert wrote, in his review of a 1994 documentary about Riefenstahl’s life, The Wonderful Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl, about Triumph of the Will and her other masterpiece, Olympia:

These are by general consent two of the best documentaries ever made. But because they reflect the ideology of a monstrous movement, they pose a classic question of the contest between art and morality: Is there such a thing as pure art, or does all art make a political statement?

Does the political statement a work of art makes matter? Film critics from Pauline Kael to Tasha Robinson have complained about action movies being works of fascist art, yet often these accusations come in positive reviews. I often see the same things in these movies, with their dolce et decorum est attitudes toward military service and their almost sadistic love of violence, but I don’t think I’ve ever held these fascist attitudes against an action movie that I thought was truly great. So why do I have a problem with giving Triumph of the Will the same five-star rating I’ve given to Predator?

Perhaps the moral objections I have are borne less from the actual political statements presented—as reprehensible as they are—than the way they are presented. When I first started thinking about the dilemma of how to rate Triumph of the Will, I looked back at how I rated another important film that espouses political beliefs that I find disgusting: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. The Birth of a Nation is generally considered to be the first major full-length motion picture, but cannot be mentioned without referencing its blatant racism and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and victimization of the South after the Civil War. I rated it five stars on Netflix, seemingly without a second thought. Why? Because it’s not propaganda. It wears its racism and revisionism on the sleeve of its white robe. There’s only one reference to any sort of bigotry in Triumph of the Will, when Hitler claims that Aryan blood must be kept pure. But compared to the Kristallnacht and the pogrom that ensued and finally concluded with 6,000,000 Jews dying horrible deaths in the Holocaust, this one mere mention of impurity, not even directly referencing the Jews, is nothing. The Nazi Germany we see in Triumph of the Will is merely an efficient, nationalistic country full of patriotic youth who take honor in their heritage. The Birth of a Nation seems downright honest in comparison.

There’s also the fact that while Griffith is most often associated with his disturbing film from 1915, in the ensuing four years he made two movies that seem to completely contradict the opinions presented in The Birth of a Nation: 1916’s Intolerance, a monumental production which looks at cultural and personal intolerance and alienation through the ages, and 1919’s Broken Blossoms, which presents us with cinema’s first great interracial romance—which, of course, being a movie from 1919 wasn’t exactly racially enlightened, but was still ahead of its time. Add to this that the historical viewpoint presented in The Birth of a Nation was an accepted view at the time, and it almost seems that history has been unkind to it—almost.

While The Birth of a Nation benefits from context in Griffith’s other work, Riefenstahl followed Triumph of the Will with the aforementioned Olympia, which does for the 1936 Olympics what Triumph did for the 1934 Nuremberg Rally. Her last film, Tiefland, was financed by Hitler and the Nazi party (though it was completed long after the end of World War II), and since its release it has been revealed that as a direct result of the production, some of the gypsies used as extras were sent to concentration camps. Riefenstahl tried to end her career as something other than a propagandist, but, in the end, she was never able to balance the evil she helped accelerate.

There are other filmmakers who have done things so notoriously disgusting that it affects how people look at their films. Roman Polanski is, perhaps, the most famous example; I’ve talked to plenty of people who refuse to watch a Polanski movie, and, honestly, it’s hard to blame them. But I’ve never had a problem separating an artist from a work of art. Maybe it’s because I had seen and loved Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown before I knew about the fact that he drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl, but sitting through a Polanski movie doesn’t have the same effect on me it has on some others.

Riefenstahl, on the other hand, is less notorious as a person than she is as a filmmaker. She claimed, until the day she died, that she was never a Nazi. She claimed that Triumph of the Will and Olympia were both merely the products of cameras capturing the events of the day. While it’s been suggested that she was more involved in the planning of the Nuremberg Rally than she admitted, I don’t know if she was lying. People did horrible things in Nazi Germany, some out of hatred, some out of cultural hysteria, some out of fear. I can’t pass judgment on her for her actions; I can only pass judgment on what survives of her actions: her films. Triumph of the Will has all the notoriety that Rosemary’s Baby lacks.

I’ve written about 800 words so far comparing Triumph of the Will to other movies with which many film-goers and critics take issue. And it’s been surprisingly easy. It’s easy to talk about a movie like this. Easier than most, even. I doubt 800 words about 24 Hour Party People would have come so easily to me. But that’s the point. I have no problem giving 24 Hour Party People five stars when it comes time to rate it on Netflix, and I’ll have no problem rating Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Piano Teacher, A Taste of Cherry, and Certified Copy when it comes time to click the right stars below the titles. I will never be comfortable with the number of stars below Triumph of the Will. It won’t haunt me, but it will give me pause every time I come across it in a search.

There’s a critical cliché about movies that “defy easy categorization”. Usually it’s used to describe avmovie that jumps effortlessly between genres, like Blade Runner, which applies noir style and plotting to a science fiction plot, and went on to be one of the best examples of both genres. But it also applies to Triumph of the Will. It’s a work of propaganda, pure and simple, but it’s also a work of artistic genius. Propaganda is not supposed to be art. Propaganda is the opposite of art, some would say. James Joyce described art as static, and everything else as pornography (I’m simplifying for the sake of brevity). But Triumph of the Will somehow excels at being both. The Germany we see in the film is a strong, efficient, beautiful nation which may be graced by God Himself. The camera moves with such deftness, the images are constructed with such clarity, and the shadow the film casts is so long. Nazi Germany got what it wanted, and the world of art got what it wanted. In the end, Triumph of the Will‘s greatest achievement may be the fact that it functions so well in two such separate worlds.

And that’s what makes it so hard to rate. It’d be easy to throw one star at a lesser work of propaganda, and I give five stars to great works of art all the time. But how am I supposed to rate something that does both equally well? The easy solution would be to give it three stars and say it was the average of the two, but that feels cheap. Three stars means mediocrity, and Triumph of the Will is anything but mediocre. Quite the opposite is true, I think; Triumph of the Will may be the most singular, exceptional movie ever made. It’s unique in the fact that it’s so blandly hard to watch. It’s not Salo or Irreversible; there’s no shock, no vomit-inducing, head-turning moments. But it has all the cultural cachet of the history that we know behind it. When we see Hitler giving a speech, the images conjured in our minds are the horrible things we’ve seen and read about Auschwitz, Treblinka and other Nazi concentration camps. In 1960, Erwin Leiser recut Triumph of the Will to juxtapose footage of the Nazi rally with footage taken from concentration camps and released it as Mein Kampf. I haven’t seen Mein Kampf, but to me, it seems completely unnecessary. Hitler, the swastikas, the imagery of innate superiority, they all carry so much weight as mere signifiers already. Why would I need a movie to juxtapose these images with Holocaust footage when my brain does it automatically?

About a month before I watched Triumph of the Will, I had the great opportunity to see Shoah at the Gene Siskel Film Center. I spent a Saturday sitting in a dark theater with about 30 other people, watching 9 hours of interviews with survivors, perpetrators and witnesses of the Holocaust. It was perhaps the most intense experience of my film-going life (and one that I recommend to everyone who has the chance to see it). When I walked out of the theater after midnight that night and got on the red line train to head home, I thought for a long time about what made Shoah so visceral and new when I’ve been seeing movies and reading books about the Holocaust for years and years. How can a story I know so well be told in a new way? The fact that Claude Lanzmann based the film entirely on interviews, on stories told by people who were there, often spoken over images of the sites of the camps as they are now, might have made the Holocaust seem distant in another film, but every time a man, 40 years after he cut the hair of Jewish women headed into the gas chamber, asks the camera to stop and balks at telling his story, every time we hear the song a man who survived by going into town to get supplies for the Nazis sing the same song he sang back then, every time a former Nazi tries to wash his hands of this tragedy but is forced, again and again, to face the atrocities he committed, it does for the Holocaust what no picture or memoir could: it makes it human.

In a way Triumph of the Will does the same thing, if only accidentally. Watching the marching soldiers, the marching workers, and the orating Nazi leaders, I kept thinking the same thing over and over: These were human beings. These were people. Hitler, Goebbels, Bormann, they were genetically no different from any person you passed on the street this morning, your roommate, or any person you love. We can call them monsters, but what happened in the concentration camps and ghettos wasn’t the work of monsters, it was the work of human beings. Shoah shows us the faces of people who survived the Holocaust; Triumph of the Will shows us the faces of people who made the Holocaust. It doesn’t contain a single frame of Holocaust imagery, and only a single direct reference to racial purity, yet Triumph of the Will is more important as a Holocaust document than most actual Holocaust documents.

Obviously, I can’t simply dismiss Triumph of the Will as a mediocre but important piece of propaganda, but what about the other option? Why can’t I just give it one star? It’s a piece of Nazi propaganda! Who would blame me? No one. Not even myself. I’d be perfectly happy just to say “Yeah, it’s beautifully shot but it might as well have been called Nazi Supermen Are Our Superiors” and go on with my life. But I can’t. Not only is it a beautiful film, it’s an important film. It’s a film I think everyone should see. It may be a piece of political propaganda for one of the most horrible and deadly dictatorships that the Earth has ever seen, but as Roger Ebert asks above, is there anything that isn’t political? The fact that I’ve written for so long and wracked my brain about a simple five star rating on Netflix for almost a month is a testament to the fact that some works of art are much more political than others, but Triumph of the Will is still a work of art, and in my mind, I need to grade it as one.