Best Films of 2011

Many of 2011's most salient movies retrieved cinema's glory days,
from Hugo to The Artist and The Skin I Live In
HIGH FIVE: Brad Pitt and Laramie Eppler celebrate (in a low-key, Malickian way), the many accolades for 'The Tree of Life' handed out in 2011. Photograph by Merie Wallace

WHEN a doddering lunatic from Alameda predicted that the world was ending, he found enough appreciative listeners to get himself on the TV news. Likely, he gained traction since there were enough people who felt that we were at the end of something. In the movie world, people were mourning the end of 35mm film, the end of 3-D as the savior of the theatrical experience, maybe the end of cinema itself.

Once images are recorded, they are in a sense destroyed. At the movies, we watch sequences composed of dead moments; and if we watch old films, we watch dead actors making their gestures.

In an age of relentless digital sampling and borrowing, the walls of individual movies become so thin that they start to leak. In 2011, in Hugo, Ben Kingsley suddenly stars in a Georges Meilies film. In The Artist, Jean Dujardin edits himself into Douglas Fairbanks' The Mark of Zorro. And in a great cinephilic outrage (much blogged over), director Michel Hazanavicius helps himself to the music from Vertigo. (For that matter, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows rips off some vintage Ennio Morricone.)

Item: Hooman Khalili's entirely shot-on-Nokia feature film Olive stars Gena Rowlands, living legacy of the homebrewed Cassavetes movie. Now, this seemingly intimate hand-held motion picture is screening at a four-walled L.A. Theater to qualify for the Oscars.

Item: The seat-of-the-pants filmmakers of the movie Bellflower engineer a digital camera to look like old Super 8 camera.

Item: A film about the Super 8 days titled, unsurprisingly, Super 8, offers nostalgia for a nearly vanished film ratio, with the emulation of an entire old Super 8 movie as the ending.

I interviewed a theatrical knight once. He said that the first question the queen asked him, after she ennobled him, was "Do people still go to the theater?"

I'll restate the obvious: Seeing a film in a plaster paradise of a grand old theater is a boutique experience vs. the live-tweeted mass viewing in a hundred spread-out households: one eye on the TV, half an eye on the smartphone.

If it really is curtains for cinema, it was surprising this past year to see Pedro Almodovar going grand and theatrical, handsomely refurbishing a Franjuesque revenge plot in The Skin I Live In. And kudos to Martin Scorsese's Hugo, a kamikaze attempt to sneak some early cinema onto the kids' plates.

Many other critics have put on their Top 10 of 2011 lists The Artist; which tells how sound film replaced obsolescent, corny silent cinema. Perhaps The Artist has some cachet because nearly everyone feels obsolete now. The film's battle between silence and sound might be a metaphor for the career of Jean Dujardin, a world-class French comic actor trying to crack an American market that cannot read subtitles.

We may not be able to get many more prints of 35mm films, but they must be viable somehow. What is War Horse if not Steven Spielberg running out of a burning movie studio, carrying all the tropes he could loot?

The best films of the year were haunted. Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life cherished youth and greenery; it mourned; and it was rounded with a nondenominational Valhalla. The "Shall We Gather at the River" sequence was the deal-breaker to people who survived the dinosaur scenes.

When I saw The Tree of Life the second time, I was followed out by a woman, pleading to anyone who would listen, to explain to her why the film had "no closure." I sort of snarled at her: "They went to heaven! How much closure do you want?" (If only the dead in The Tree of Life had actually gathered at a theater for some afterlife movies.)

Lars von Trier's Melancholia posited the world about to carom off a shadow planet, bringing the most final ending to a film since 1970's Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

Margin Call's intense exploration of a skyscraper of purgatory ended with the sound of the scrape of a shovel digging a grave.

Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss compounded the eeriness of sitting in the presence of a murderer with the dead-man-talking interview sequences.

Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, too, was a kind of hellish vision of love, whether real or counterfeited. Roman legends of the world of the dead claim amnesia is an essential part of being in Hades.

Recalled from the dead, too: a lean, bearded and sightless Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre. This is Michael Fassbender's best performance of 2011, despite how much he gives up in Shame.

The dead inhabit the perimeter of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy's tale of mortal treachery. One of the most exciting moments in this retelling of John le Carr–'s novel of endless surveillance: Gary Oldman as George Smiley indicating an empty chair that represents his Soviet counterpart in the spy game; "Karla" takes on a kind of spirit form as the cagy (but half-alive) Smiley re-creates him for us.

In the "guerrilla war is the new entertainment" department, we have Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes' bloody and highly exciting Balkan War adaptation of Shakespeare (opening here sometime in January). Philosopher and cultural critic Slavko Zizek, a fan of the movie, pronounces this story anti-fascist. A superficial (and probably accurate) reading of the play might consider it as a full-throated endorsement of Roman valor. In Fiennes, we see what a first-rate actor has been wasting his time making hoarse and empty threats against Harry Potter.

A ghostly absence lies at the heart of the avant-garde in the documentary Pina (late January in San Jose), a festschrift for the choreographer Pina Bausch. Let's end-run inevitable accusations of elitism; in fact, Bausch's choreography honors sweat, toil, ordinary terrors and ordinary life.

Director Wim Wenders' use of 3-D for the dance performances demonstrates what's magical about the format. So does Captain America chasing a Nazi through Brooklyn in the days when it was really Brooklyn, a city visible two blocks deep on all sides. So does Tintin having a dispute with a thieving falcon while trying to pilot a motorcycle down a treacherous hill.

So, for that matter, does Hugo's toylike Beaux-Arts French train station, and so does Scorsese's use of a simple effect: the ballooning, lunatic face of Sacha Baron Cohen. Guess it's time to stop claiming that the best use of 3-D ever was 57 years ago, in the Three Stooges' Spooks (1953), where Moe Howard advanced straight at the viewer, two fingers splayed and ready.

Snippets of Hugo—such as Richard Griffiths frowning at a snappish lap dog—I'd happily trade for the entirety of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. Good for Allen for lifting the mortgages on so many struggling theaters, and most of them are struggling. But that tepid minor movie needs to be called out at year's end for what it is: carrion for culture vultures.

As for the worst movies, there's no substitute for the traditionals. Adam Sandler, you're a genius: Just Go With It, a rewarming of a worm-eaten old French farce, made even Hawaii look ugly. (Somehow I forgot to see his monster hit Jack and Jill.) I Don't Know How She Does It turned every theater seat into a 21st-century replica of the infamous medieval "Judas Chair." Is it worse than the abject creepiness of The Green Hornet? I just don't know how they do it.

Let's go with the Hornet as 2011's nadir, because we fan boys are responsible. Barring Mayan apocalypse, foaming Republicans shutting down the theaters or even some kind of killer comet, 2012 promises us a Spider-Man, a Batman, a Superman, an Avengers assembly, a new 007 adventure and even a new (why?) Ghost Rider. The fan boys' eyes may be bigger than their bellies, which is hard to imagine if you've seen those bellies. In the face of that planetary alignment of pop, only supposed machos can complain about chick flicks. Real machos, of course, complain about nothing.

2011's Top 10 films

Certified Copy


Into the Abyss

Jane Eyre

Margin Call



The Skin I Live In

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The Tree of Life

Runners up: Mysteries of Lisbon, Moneyball, Hugo

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