Combustible Celluloid

2011: The Year in Review

What Happened to Me in the Dark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Film keeps changing. The ways in which we watch it and talk about it are already drastically different from ten years ago. And yet one of the enuring themes of 2011 was mystery. My favorite movies were the ones that, despite the wealth of information that's usually available, refused to explain themselves to us. Another theme, much to my astonishment, was 3D movies. Despite all my complaining and scoffing, two 3D movies made my ten best list and others made my runner-up list. I even admired films like A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas and Final Destination 5. Aside from all that, I found quite a number of strong films that I just very much enjoyed and would be happy to see again. That's a trend that I hope continues.

1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

Malick's film pleased more people than I expected, but there are still the holdouts. They are the ones, I think, that can understand the powerful family story at the center, but resist all the rest: the origin of the universe, the dinosaurs and Sean Penn wandering on the beach. To me, these things provide a cosmic scale to the story, making everything, all the tragedies, trials, and triumphs, seem tiny. That's just one small mystery in this otherwise magnificent, unwieldy work of art.

2. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)

I spent a long time trying to decide which of these two movies would be #1; they're basically tied. Kiarostami's beautiful international production charts the rise and/or fall of a relationship, and contains a shift in narrative so striking that it reveals more truths than it does confusion. Juliette Binoche once again proves herself as perhaps the bravest and most intuitive actress working today.

3. Rango (Gore Verbinski)

This is the year's best animated movie, and the year's funniest movie, coming from a man that has never once made anything nearly as good. I suspect that anarchy ruled during the production of this bizarre-looking film that celebrates ugliness and peculiarities. It's as outrageous and zany as anything since Tex Avery.

4. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)

This is my favorite Scorsese movie in years, and, indeed, it's without a doubt his cuddliest movie. It's also the first time he has tackled his love of cinema in narrative form. But this time, the focus is on the mechanics of the machines that make the magic happen, ranging from giant clocks, to movie cameras and movie projectors, to far more spectacular, imaginative gizmos.

5. Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)

I'm a fan of Westerns, and I was thrilled to see two new twists on the genre this year: the unhinged Rango, and the withdrawn, subdued Meek's Cutoff. Director Reichardt even shot this in a very narrow scope so as not to make the wide open range look appealing. This is a movie about being lost, disconnected, and out of communication. It's certainly not about finding anything.

6. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)

This one surprised me. I'm not a spy movie buff, but Tomas Alfredson's brilliant follow-up to Let the Right One In takes an exceedingly complex story and translates it into a moody, atmospheric movie. It's not talky and it's not filled with chases, shootings, or explosions. And yet, it manages to generate terrific suspense simply through the arrangement of men in rooms. It seems to have many layers of character as well, making a second viewing something I'm looking forward to.

7. Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman)

Several filmmakers had "comebacks" this year, but none was more exciting or ignored as Monte Hellman's. Hellman made some of the finest American movies of all time back in the 1960s and 1970s, but has only completed 3 films in the last 30 years -- including this one (and not counting a short film he made as part of the anthology film Trapped Ashes). It's another mystery, a fascinating doubling-up of fact and fiction, of storytelling and filmmaking. It took audiences decades to catch up with Hellman's early work; I hope it doesn't take as long to catch up to this one.

8. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)

It's of huge historical importance that this movie was made at all, but that Werner Herzog was chosen to make it turns it into a work of art. Aside from filming those astounding cave drawings -- and making the world's greatest use of 3D thus far -- Herzog follows all the people that are interested in the drawings and tries to figure out what makes them tick; many of them are humorously eccentric, and, like The Tree of Life, you end up wondering about the connection between all humans, throughout all time.

9. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz)

One critic astutely nicknamed it "Mysteries of Mysteries of Libson." I enjoyed getting lost in this 4-1/2 hour wonder. The movie is so gorgeously, cleverly convoluted, with one section leading into another, almost as if in an attempt to offer a complete look at a story, with all its facets. Raul Ruiz had passed away by the time this opened in the U.S., only deepening its allure.

10. Moneyball (Bennett Miller)

Brad Pitt again... I found myself so thoroughly enjoying his performance in this that it occurred to me: he's one of the only actors alive today that truly conveys the joy of acting. He's fully aware of his impact onscreen, and he uses his body, eyes, line readings, and everything else like a jazz instrument, endlessly riffing. The movie itself is no slouch either, a combo of sparkling dialogue, baseball legend, and some subtle, intuitive direction that prevents it from slipping into biopic nonsense.

Runners Up: The Second Ten
The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi)
The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg)
Carnage (Roman Polanski)
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
The Guard (John Michael McDonagh)
Hanna (Joe Wright)
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
Page One: Inside the New York Times (Andrew Rossi)
The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

Honorable Mention: Attack the Block (Joe Cornish), Crazy Stupid Love (Glenn Ficarra, John Requa), Circo (Aaron Schock), Happy Feet Two (George Miller), Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog), J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood), Outrage (Takeshi Kitano), Tabloid (Errol Morris)

The Worst: Apollo 18, Arthur, The Art of Getting By, Battle: Los Angeles, Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star, Cars 2, Conan the Barbarian, Creature, Dream House, HappyThankYouMorePlease, I Am Number Four, Immortals, In a Better World, In the Land of Blood and Honey, The Iron Lady, Machine Gun Preacher, New Year's Eve, Shark Night, The Sitter, Something Borrowed, The Son of No One, Straw Dogs, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Whistleblower

Thanks, and best wishes for a happy 2012! -- JMA

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