The Best Films of 2011


10) The Interrupters (dir. Steve James)

One of art's primary functions, and something for which documentaries are particularly well suited, is to enrich our perspective on the world around us—to reveal it as simultaneously more complex than we'd ever dreamed yet easier to intuitively understand. The Interrupters takes the hot-button issue of inner-city violence in Chicago and divorces it from political agendas and impotent hand-wringing. Everything is boiled down to a single question: People are killing other people for no good reason; how do we make it stop? The solution of the CeaseFire organization is to personally intervene, one individual at a time. Steve James (Hoop Dreams) follows three volunteers, all former gang members with prison records, for a year as they make connections, get in people's faces, and even physically interpose themselves between would-be combatants. James's street-level footage accomplishes two things. First, it shows us the true face of those who commit shocking acts of violence, revealing them to be not the shadowy gangbangers of network news reports but simply angry, desperate human beings. Second, it's inspiring in the best sense of the word. When we watch CeaseFire's volunteers being passionate about something that matters, it reminds us how to do the same.

9) Poetry (dir. Lee Changdong)

If there's another film out there that does a better job of encapsulating the power of poetry, I haven't seen it. Plenty of films are "poetic," but when a film attempts to explore how actual written poetry works, the result is usually platitudinous fluff like Dead Poet's Society, where poetry is this romantic, mysterious, quasi-mystical pursuit that has more in common with the Force than anything else. Writer-director Lee Changdong, on the other hand, understands that most poetry's purpose is to reflect the world back at us in ways that cause us to see it all afresh, and his film finds a way to do just that. In contrast to most films that strive for lyricism, Lee's is not ostentatious about it. Like its protagonist, an aging maid who takes a poetry course for neophytes, it seems to discover the beauty in its story of Alzheimer's, tragedy, and selfishness as it goes along. Very few works of fiction could be called Poetry and make that title seem earned, but this is one of them.

8) Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin)

It's been a while since another film frightened me as much as Martha Marcy May Marlene. Best classified as a psychological horror movie, it centers on a young woman, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who flees the backwoods cult she's been living with for two years and seeks refuge with her estranged sister. Her experiences with the cult and its leader (a quietly menacing John Hawkes) have left her with deep emotional scars, so deep that she's unable to articulate them to herself, let alone to anyone else. All she knows is that she's terrified the cult will find her and drag her back. The film orients us so firmly in her headspace that we're terrified, too, even though it avoids most action, violence, and predictable thriller-movie scares. Sean Durkin composes his shots in such a way that we are constantly aware of Martha's surroundings and of the threat that may (or may not) be there, while Olsen projects a potent mixture of dislocation, numbness, and repressed hysteria. The expression on her face in the film's closing seconds stuck with me after I went to bed, listening to the small sounds outside my apartment and wondering what, if anything, was making them.

7) 13 Assassins (dir. Takashi Miike)

The samurai movie tends to be one of the most unvaried genres out there. That's not a criticism. Feudal Japan, unwavering codes of honor, the strong defending the weak, graceful confrontations between master swordsmen—one of the genre's chief pleasures is how effective its formula is, even as its most basic. And 13 Assassins certainly delivers in this regard. Being a Takashi Miike film, it's heightened to a fever pitch almost from the beginning. The entire second half is one continuous, immensely satisfying action sequence, pitting the titular heroes against the 300 bodyguards of the evil nobleman they've been tasked with assassinating. What elevates the film beyond its genre trappings is its ambivalence toward the attitudes that other samurai movies simply take for granted. It's stirring to watch men of action place honor above all other concerns, but isn't the obsession with those things futile in the end? When you come right down to it, personal honor is meaningless to a dead man.

6) Meek's Cutoff (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

Early in Meek's Cutoff, the entire plot is neatly encapsulated in a single edit. As the wagon train of the pioneer protagonists rolls past the camera in the foreground, the shot slowly dissolves into the next, with the line of the horizon staying constant. Then the same wagon train appears from the right side of the frame, traveling along that horizon line, silhouetted against the sky in the distance. Within that dissolve, Kelly Reichardt shows that these characters are literally traveling in circles, thoroughly lost in the trackless American West. The plot is simple and the pace slow, but Reichardt wrings plenty of suspense from the situation. This isn't the Oregon Trail computer game. If a wagon wheel breaks, these people will die of thirst before they can repair it and make it to the next water source. The sound design here is extremely effective—the creaking and groaning of the wagons in motion constantly reminds us of the knife's edge on which survival stands. And when the men of the expedition consult with their guide about which path they should take, their murmurs are barely audible to the women, who are obliged by social mores to stand back while their husbands decide their fates.

5) Certified Copy (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)

These days, it's uncommon to encounter a film as unapologetically challenging as Certified Copy. Even writing a satisfactory, succinct summary of the plot is difficult. Having just written a book arguing that artistic replicas are every bit as valuable as the original paintings, an author (William Shimell) encounters an antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) who immediately challenges him on the topic. They decide to take a day trip to a rural Italian village to continue their debate, and inspired by a misunderstanding, they end up feigning a married relationship with each other. The thing is, they're really, really good at pretending, right down to the complexly wounding things that only lifelong partners can say to each other. Are they actually married, or aren't they? The film slips between these two possibilities with the same fluidity that the two polyglot characters switch between French and English. The parallels with the question of whether a copy can be just as authentic as the original are obvious, but the wonder of the film is that it never fully tips its hand as to which category the characters' relationship belongs to. Fortunately, it's so gorgeously photographed that second, third, and fourth viewings are just as pleasurable as the first.

4) The Arbor (dir. Clio Barnard)

The technique used to make Clio Barnard's documentary The Arbor sounds fatally self-conscious and artsy at first. The film consists almost entirely of interviews, but instead of presenting these interviews in the straightforward talking-head manner of most documentaries, Barnard chooses to film actors lip-synching along to the audio recordings. This device has its roots in a theater movement known as "verbatim theater." It's fitting that it would be employed in service of a documentary about the British playwright Andrea Dunbar, but it still might have collapsed under the weight of its own artifice if it were not so perfectly suited to telling the heartbreaking personal stories of the troubled, alcoholic Dunbar and her children. Living in the low-income public housing communities of West Yorkshire, they were surrounded by—and participated in—all manner of horrible situations, from drugs to violence to prostitution. We almost need the slight remove created by Barnard so as not to be overcome with despair ourselves. Paradoxically, though, the lip-synching also fosters a closer connection to the stories themselves. If we were watching these individuals telling their stories on camera, we might distract ourselves with analyzing their physical demeanor or with questions of artistic exploitation. Barnard instead gives us the distance of drama, where we can engage more deeply with these people's stories of the sins of a mother being visited on the following generations.

3) Heartbeats (dir. Xavier Dolan)

One of the most frustrating things about 2009's 500 Days of Summer was how it kept interrupting its wry, sensitive portrayal of the vagaries of romance with cloying indie-quirk, as if it were contractually obligated to insert focus group–friendly clichés (Chloe-Grace Moretz's sassy prepubescent advisor is just the worst) to satisfy a meddlesome producer. Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats takes everything that's good about 500 Days and jettisons the rest, replacing it with scenes that flesh out all three of the characters involved in the love triangle at the film's center. Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Dolan) make fools of themselves vying for the affections of a self-centered Adonis (Niels Schneider), but the characters and situations are so sharply observed that we see ourselves in them even as we laugh at them. If you've ever suffered the awkwardness of trying to get a crush object to like you, you can relate to the scene of Marie quietly berating herself in the bathroom at a party, or to the faux-documentary interludes where an unnamed woman confesses her inept attempts to get a handsome stranger to notice her. Romantic infatuation has a way of turning us all into bumbling idiots, something that Dolan clearly understands. The resulting film is funny and human, and it's filmed with a visual panache that's the icing on the cake.

(A final note: Try to ignore the banal translation of the title. Why American distributors thought it was an improvement over the French Canadian Dolan's original Les Amours Imaginaires is beyond me.)

2) A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

On paper, A Separation sounds exactly like the sort of eat-your-broccoli arthouse film that mainstream American audiences avoid: a subtitled foreign film (not even from Europe!) that centers on the unsexy domestic struggles of everyday people. In practice, though, it has one of the most white-knuckle plots of the year. A married woman wants to leave Iran to attain a better life for herself and her daughter, but she can't because of the technicalities of Iranian divorce laws. Her husband, in turn, loves his family but has his hands tied by the demands of caring for his Alzheimer's-stricken father. The female caretaker he employs needs the work but must keep her employment secret from her religiously conservative spouse. When these three strands become tangled, they create a Gordian knot of conflict. Asghar Farhadi constructs the entire plot out of unstoppable forces and immovable objects, and the way he keeps turning the screws on his characters over the two-hour running time is breathlessly thrilling.

1) The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick)

An obvious film to compare with The Tree of Life is Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, in that both films are interested in the Big Questions: life, the universe, and everything. What makes The Tree of Life superior (yeah, I said it) is its ability to go small, grounding all its high-minded ambitions in human stories. In this case, the story is rooted in Terrence Malick's experiences growing up in 1950s Texas, which partly explains how he was able to capture the perspective of his young protagonists with such grace and sensitivity. An entire essay could be written on just his depictions of childhood's vicissitudes: the sense of boundless possibility, the mystery and terror that grown-ups wield, the sudden onset and equally sudden dispersal of stormy emotions.

If The Tree of Life consisted only of these sequences, it would be an enviable accomplishment. What elevates it to greatness are those other parts, which most reviews tended to gloss over because it's impossible to adequately express in words exactly why they are so good. Most people were content to describe these sections, which bookend the film, as sketching out the story of the universe, from the Big Bang to the present day. This is accurate, but a Christian viewer can go further: Malick is telling God's story. He begins the film with the image of a flame-like light in the darkness, accompanied by voiceover. "In the beginning was the Word." From there he launches out into a chronicle of Creation, and in the story of a childhood spent in small-town Texas he finds a microcosm of the human experience: innocence, then rebellion, and finally reconciliation. When we reach the final act, with its shots of people of all descriptions walking barefoot together along a sandy shore, it's moving because it touches something deep in us. We long for reunion.

I would hazard that one reason The Tree of Life met with such widespread praise is that it was able to make this feeling resonate across the oceans of unbelief, whispering some honest-to-God Truth in the ears of people who have long given up listening to evangelists. If this is true, then surely it's one of the most important films made in this generation. When you move an avowed atheist to write that he's "not sure if I should dance or cry from the unutterable glory of it," you know you're doing something right.