ALL THAT ELEVEN ALLOWS

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I plead guilty. I’ve committed the writer’s sin of entitling this article with a heavily loaded pun that threatens to undermine what follows. Referencing a 65-year-old recognized masterwork of classic Hollywood melodrama — one by Douglas Sirk, no less — that has stood the test of time, then segueing into more of the best-of-this-and-that-from-2011 litanies that every film journo is tossing into the blogosphere right now, stacks the deck against the most recent productions. A few will be remembered, but All That Heaven Allows stays with us. Out of all possibilities, this is the one Todd Haynes chose as a point of departure for the revisionist melodrama that became Far From Heaven. Of course many of the best contemporary filmmakers work against, or oblique to, the widely accepted codes of film grammar that Sirk inherited from the likes of D.W. Griffith, who codified what was arbitrary in the first place. We can not just rehash conventional Hollywood form. It must be questioned, subverted, maybe amplified. The times were so different, as were the modes of production: When a studio produced a film, the workplace was a glorified assembly line. A built-in equilibrium functioned as quality control.

Here I have noted, in no particular order, films of all stripes, genres, and budgets from the past year that have provoked as well as pleased me the most. Not all have the gloss of the old Hollywood model, but I consider that secondary to the successful reworking of a genre, or an organic sensibility that compensates for financial limitations.

The first group: fiction features, grouped for ease according to four recurring themes. These are followed by documentaries, which precede the most memorable performances in a year with the best on-screen acting in recent memory. I do elaborate on my choices in a few cases. In some others, I might just throw out something about their topic or a standout characteristic. Most listings are title only, especially for films that have been written about extensively. But a straight list with no comments at all is just too… Duane Reade alone on a Saturday night. I just couldn’t go there. 

FICTION FEATURES

NOVEL APPROACHES TO THE PARENT/CHILD BOND

Some are comic, some tragic, but all of them honor, or dishonor, the intrinsic link between children and their mothers and fathers. We speak of unconditional love as almost an absolute, but here we also have unconditional hatred. Either way, the connection is impossible to sever. These films explore the force behind that tie and its impact on family and community.

Wetlands (Guy Edoin, Canada)

Two emotionally loaded plot strands run through this triumph of cinematic naturalism: like a phoenix, a beautiful middle-aged milk farmer’s widow overcomes more tragic circumstances than most mortals could bear; and her clumsy 17-year-old son comes of age, taking responsibility for her well-being and acknowledging his homosexual inclinations. The combination of affective and psychological depth with a seductive agrarian backdrop is a winning one, balanced with precision by Quebecois director Edoin.

He shot the film on the farm he grew up on; his attachment to the land gives this movie its mojo and much of its poignancy. Farming is dying in many places, but in Quebec a depressed economy and an unusually hot and dry summer combine to make life insufferable and financial stability nearly impossible. That the characters play out their deepest fears against this backdrop makes their struggle more credible. The film does not feel acted.

Expiration Date (Kenya Marquez, Mexico)

How much more can you delve into the undervalued terrain of black comedy than setting it around a morgue, plotting it around a lonely old woman’s search for her presumably dead only child and an abused young woman’s bloody revenge, offing one of the only likable characters, and revelling in nonstop miscommunication and misinterpretation? Not much, and Marquez, in her first feature at the age of 39, does it masterfully in this revisit to the nearly lost Mexican genre of mature dark humour with bucketloads of bite.

Marquez works from an imaginative, meticulously economical screenplay that tells the same story successively from two different characters’ points of view—dangerous turf to retread, but here it functions well. Much of the action is carefully anticipated with telling details. Expiration Date is a wonderfully twisted isomporph of the traditional rom com.

We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK)

The film (pictured above, with Tilda Swinton) is violent in a personal way: no legions of fallen troops, but shockingly intentional injuries and deaths, all of which relate back to a mother’s dearth of maternal instinct for her son.

Las Acacias (Pablo Georgelli, Argentina) (opens in 2012)

A minimalist two-hander that takes place almost entirely in the cab of a truck.

Footnote (Joseph Cedar, Israel) (opens in 2012)

The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France) (opens in 2012)

 

UNUSUAL APPROACHES TO LOVE

Many of these titles take a stab at redefining the concept of love, which used to be depicted fairly homogeneously. There is little consistency here: Love appears in a wide variety of forms. It can be uncertain, legally derailed, or turned inward, toward the self — onanistic. 

Both Your Sister’s Sister and Green pulled mumblecore up to a more mature worldview from what often felt like a genre of slumming inarticulation. That these two films are directed by women could easily have something to do with it.

Your Sister’s Sister (Lynn Shelton, US)

Shelton’s Humpday was a cut above other mumblecore films. Sure, there was the generic talking and sparring over the dining table, but it also addressed serious topics, like what might lurk under the veneer of masculinity. With Your Sister’s Sister, an appealing feast of expressive dialogue, excellent performances (much of it improvised), and striking cinematography, she elevates the brand several notches. Its more adult approach and sheer confidence allow it to cross over into Wally Shawn and Woody Allen talkfest territory.

The complex relationships between siblings takes center stage. Affection and rivalry compete for attention. An emerging love story between Jack (Mark Duplass), who lost his brother Tom a year before, and Iris (Emily Blunt), Jack’s best friend and Tom’s ex, plays second fiddle. The emphasis is more on the unresolved conflicts between Jack and his brother, whom he barely saw in the period prior to his death, and Iris and her half-sister Hannah (Rosemary Dewitt), a lesbian and hardcore vegan just out of a seven-year relationship.

Green (Sophia Takal, US)

Green is a three-hander that threatens to become a ménage-a-trois between a young man, his girlfriend, and a young woman whom they befriend. It never does; it is much more than that overused device, a highly original take on jealousy and insecurity between females, written and directed by a woman. The male is little more than a catalyst.

The film is solidly executed by director/screenwriter Takal, whose understanding of the energy behind a cut or a two-shot, or the perfect moment to interject musical chords, is especially surprising for a 25-year-old first-timer who shot on a shoestring budget over two separate weeks. During the in-between time, the actors improvised. What emerged Takal used to alter and lengthen what had been a sketchy script.

Shame (Steve McQueen, UK)

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France)

Like Crazy (Drake Doremus, US)

Few films have questioned the absolute quality of love as well as this one, and it does so subtly and with grace.

 

BREACH OF SOCIAL CONTRACT

Encompassing all genres, the films listed here expose scratches in the veneer of civilized society. The culprits include faulty leadership, calamitous socio-economic conditions, chaotic organization, and exploitation. Keith Olbermann might call many of those responsible “the worst persons in the world.”

UFO in Her Eyes (Guo Xiaolu, Germany)

An exquisite adaptation of her own novel, London-based Chinese director Guo’s film is a triumph of visual style. Few artists are as accomplished with both word and image. The fluid cinematography (colour and black and white) is at the service of her dark satire aimed at twin targets: the rigidity of a now anachronistic Communist ideology, and the new capitalism that has thrown the system into free-form chaos, with as little regard for individual rights as Maoism.

A self-proclaimed surrealist, Guo juxtaposes disparate entities: for example a close-up of an earthworm adjacent to a shot of a meeting in a village. She takes the spectator on delightful detours. Even though the film has an ending, sweet if predictable, the process is of more interest to her than closure.  

Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, US)

The Guard (John Michael McDonagh, Ireland)

Tyrranosaurus (Paddy Considine, UK)

Le Havre (Aki Kaurismaki, France)

Corpo Celeste (Alice Rohrwacher, Italy/Switzerland)

 

DYSTOPIAN

Here is one area in which some of the best directors working today depart most from the legacy of studio movies: A happy ending is no longer de rigeuer. It is to their credit that, if the tone or spirit of the film is cynical or pessimistic, then a tacked-on, uplifting finale is recognized by most viewers as false. These filmmakers battle the odds: Their financiers, even actors’ agents, will sometimes push to maintain the fraud. Realistic, often troubling assessment has replaced as the norm the smugness of ‘50s contentedness. Feelgood no longer necessarily means feel good.   

The two best films I caught in 2011 both fall into this category: Melancholia and Miss Bala. Perhaps that says more about the writer than the movies, but whatever the reasons, these are at the top of the heap in my playbook.

Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark)

Kirsten Dunst’s Justine in Melancholia is a depressive, as von Trier says he was when he made the film. But it is less about her psychological condition and the impending end of the world than about her up-and-down relationship with sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a control freak. Von Trier divides the film in two, each titled with one of the sibling’s names. In the first part, we observe Justine’s decline over the course of one evening from radiant bride at a beautiful wedding dinner to a maniacal nightmare, while Claire attempts to maintain some order amidst the madness.

In part two, a completely depressed, nearly catatonic Justine returns for nurture to Claire’s estate, scene of the aborted marriage celebration. Yet when the planet Melancholia enters the earth’s atmosphere for what they realize is the imminent end to life on our planet — an astronomical echo of Justine’s state of mind — it is the unbalanced but seer-like, Justine who manages their response, while ever-cool Claire loses her bearings. The weighty prologue to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde accompanies the director’s characteristic jump cuts, ellipses, and seemingly random camera movement.

Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico) (opens in 2012)

Shootouts, magnificently choreographed, occur without high-gloss Hollywood backdrops or F/X, but instead crassly, on charmless city streets or next to soulless motorways in Tijuana—in other words, as in life.

Drive (Nicolas Wending Refn, US)

Red State (Kevin Smith, US)

The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, Hungary)

 

DOCUMENTARY FEATURES

Neither of the Werner Herzog docs did it for me; I find him a mite lazy and his voice irritating. (Unfortunately, I missed Wenders’s Pina.) The two films I expand upon here, The Miners’ Hymns and Walk Away Renee, rely in large part on old footage of radically different types, taking full advantage of the longevity and impact of moving images to advance their subjects. Two of the other docs were shot right in the middle of the demonstrations in Cairo last winter.

The Miners’ Hymns (Bill Morrison, UK/US)

Unless used as brief inserts, archival footage is generally deployed in films to convey information, the visual component of a more or less linear historical narrative. The leader of the pack these days is Ken Burns, and countless television and film documentarians assemble in a similar content-oriented manner. Morrison does not assemble, nor does he go directly from point A to point B. He manipulates images, enhancing mood and scoring progressive political points through his juxtapositions. The Burnsians are gifted artisans; Morrison goes further: He is an unapologetic poet.

The subject here is the coal miners of northeast England, in Durham, where the working class had clout, and the now-camouflaged coal mines that provided sustenance for the men’s families and a cultural and moral identity that extended far beyond the workplace. The recurring annual celebration of their organizations is pure pageantry, replete with parades and the requisite brass bands. Lest one get lost in such charming spectacle, Morrison regularly cuts to the dark, dank interiors of the mines, their Metropolis-like labor conditions, the netherworld the miners inhabited for half of each working day.

Walk Away Renee (Jonathan Caouette, US/France)

Artful fragmentation of old footage from his own and his unusual family’s lives in the 2004 Tarnation, assembled for next to nothing with free Imovie software on a Mac, put Caouette on connoisseurs’ talent radar, but pigeonholed him as a festival darling. Walk Away Renee is a gigantic leap forward: a real crew and more refined footage, and with an more accessible, linear structure–a quasi-road movie with many more naturalistic scenes than Tarnation. Here he takes his mentally ill mother, Renee Leblanc, by U-Haul truck from an assisted living facility in his hometown of Houston, Texas to his current residence in New York City.

In a role reversal, son has taken on the role of parent to his now brain-damaged mother. Through time shifts in which he shows Leblanc at various ages and in assorted states, as well as footage of their interaction at different phases of their lives, we come to understand what attaches him to her so tightly that he puts his own needs aside to make sure she is not mistreated by the medical establishment.

The Tiniest Place (Tatiana Huezo Sanchez, Mexico)

Against an almost cruelly gorgeous landscape, residents who have returned to a Salvadorean village destroyed in the civil war reflect on their irreplaceable losses.

Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician (Tamer Ezzat, Ayten Amin, Amr Salama, Egypt/Germany)

Tahrir (Stefano Savona, France/Italy)

The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975 (Goran Olsson, Sweden)

This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran)

The Patron Saints (Brian M. Cassidy, Melanie Shatzky, Canada)

The filmmakers handle their geriatric subjects gently and affectionately in this sometimes chilling portrait of life inside a nursing home.

 

PERFORMANCES

This might have been called the year of the actor — but a strange one, anomalous. On one hand, it looked like a handful of actors were playing all the plum roles, including Michael Fassbender and Jessica Chastain, with Carey Mulligan and Ryan Gosling not far behind. On the other, it was the year of the ensemble, and related to that (perhaps false) equalizer is the fact that frequently leading men and women deigned to take on supporting parts. We see this more in the theater, or in British films, but in the U.S., where the accumulation of money and power drives much of the industry, it is atypical. As is the backing of otherwise unproduced indie films by major stars (Brad Pitt and Moneyball come to mind). No matter the scale or the budget of the project, or the amount of screen time or position in the credits, the following are the strongest performances we experienced this year.

FOR THEIR ENSEMBLE WORK

John Goodman (Red State)

Vanessa Redgrave (Coriolanus)

Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus)

Jessica Chastain (The Help, Coriolanus, The Tree of Life, Take Shelter)

Albert Brooks (Drive)

Kevin Spacey (Margin Call)

Gary Oldman (Tinker Tinker Soldier Spy)

Kenneth Branagh (My Week With Marilyn)

Eddie Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn)

Christoph Waltz (Carnage)

Not only a terrific performance, but how did this Austrian actor dispense with any trace of a German accent?

Olivia Spencer (The Help)

Sissy Spacek (The Help)

Viggo Mortensen (A Dangerous Method)

 

FOR MORE STAND-ALONE ROLES

Tilda Swinton (We Need To Talk About Kevin)

Ryan Gosling (Drive)

Olivia Colman (Tyrannosaurus)

Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia)

Jean Dujardin (The Artist)

Goran Kostic (In the Land of Blood and Honey)

Michael Fassbender (Shame, Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method)

Gilles Lellouche (Point Blank)

His mutable face is perfect for the manic action in this French thriller.

Pascale Bussieres (Wetlands)

Brad Pitt (Moneyball, The Tree of Life)

Brendan Gleeson (The Guard)

Robert Wieckiewicz (In Darkness)

He plays a simple petty thief who combs the sewers of Lvov, Poland during the German occupation and ends up as unwilling, profiteering guardian for a group of Jews in hiding.

Christopher Plummer (Beginners)

Nadezhda Markina (Elena)

An understated performance of an older woman torn between loyalty to her lazy children and her wealthy second husband. This is like the pre-1989 value system clashes with the new capitalism.

Ursula Pruneda (Lu’s Dream)

A young Mexican mother who has lost her only child tries to reengage in life.

Felicity Jones (Like Crazy)