Best of 2011
1. Take Shelter
Directed by Jeff Nichols
"Take Shelter" embodies a moment in time, a period in American history when honest, hardworking people, who have done what the proverbial American dream has dictated they must do to succeed, have been stricken with the ominous premonition that something beyond their control threatens to come along and wash away everything they've worked for, the lives they've built for themselves. As a character study, it is intimate and candid, and Michael Shannon was more deserving of an Oscar nomination for his performance here than any other actor I saw in 2011. As a profile in paranoid schizophrenia it is accurate and heartbreaking. But as an allegory for the economic recession it is inventive and harrowing and very, very powerful. Jeff Nichols' "Take Shelter" has tapped into a national mood. With any discernible degree of cosmic justice, time will endow this film with historical significance. "Take Shelter" is the best movie of the year.
2. A Separation
Directed by Asghar Farhadi
That Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation" is an exquisite film, with great moral complexity and deep wells of humanity, is almost eclipsed by the nation of its origin. Indeed we needed a great film from Iran. Too easy has it become in America to forget that there is more to Iran than a crazed political hierarchy ravenous for nuclear armament. With irresponsible calls for war stemming from our rhetorically volatile election cycle, "A Separation" is an accomplished film that injects humanity into the discourse. It is about a very normal couple who embody a gamut of the issues that the Iranian people deal with on a daily basis. The couple want a divorce. She wants to take their daughter to America, away from the political strife of Iran. He has a father with Alzheimer's and can't in good conscience leave him behind. He hires someone to help see to his father. The woman who arrives is married, and under the laws of Islam, is not permitted to touch another man. "A Separation" is about good, well-meaning people burdened with life. It is a potent slice of reality from a region where too many of us seem to have forgotten that other people have their own problems to see to.
3. The Interrupters
Directed by Steve James
Filmed over the course of a year, in 2009 and 2010, when Chicago youth violence had reached a fever pitch so intense that the U.S. Military was asked to help, Steve James' harrowing documentary, "The Interrupters" chronicles the life and work of select members of Cease Fire, a Chicago-based volunteer organization of former gang members who try to discourage violence among Chicago's youth. "The Interrupters" feels like an important and timely film, and stands out because of the courage of James' inquiry as a filmmaker and the candor of the Interrupters he follows. Ameena James emerges as one of the most courageous, stoic women in recent memory. The daughter of one of Chicago's most legendary late gang leaders, Ameena queues us into a psychology and a language that connects with today's youth and acts as a window into a landscape of senseless and self-perpetuating brutality. The mission of Cease Fire seems impossible, but in their modest way, they save lives.
4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Simply put, Tomas Alfredson's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is among the most cinematic mystery films I've ever seen. Unburdened with literary pretensions and confident in the observational prowess of his audience, Alfredson has put together a political thriller-slash-whodunit that doesn't exhaust us with literal exposition or redundant clues. It is tremendously difficult for this reason, but all the more rewarding as a result. It is also a film wrought with memorable images. Alfredson makes splendid use of rack focus and creates a moody noir aura out of pale sepias and browns. And if the intricacies of the mystery elude you, what will not is the emotional strength of the effort, which illustrates with great poignancy (aided very much by Gary Oldman's astonishing performance) the extent to which political espionage - or perhaps just politics in general - hollows the souls of strong-willed men.
5. The Tree of Life
Directed by Terrence Mallick
In spite of his efforts to derail the project with a slew of overwrought religious imagery in the final act, Terrence Mallick's remarkable "The Tree of Life" does ultimately succeed in what I suspect is its primary goal, to place human life within the context of the awesome size of the universe and the breadth of time. Mallick's narrative, of a modest family in 1950's Waco, Texas, is largely formless. Mallick avoids conventions of dramatic conflict and focuses instead on fleeting moments, observing fragments of time from a distance and with an extraordinary honesty. This is perhaps the most ambitious film I've seen this side of "2001: A Space Odyssey", and for largely the same reason. Mallick looks in by looking out, and observing with an eye that isn't beholden to the petty concerns of mammals.
6. The Skin I Live In
Directed by Pedro Almodovar
Almodovar has long been interested in the complexities of sexuality, but here he pulls a fast one on us, drawing us into a tale of mysterious allure, creating a twisted, yet inviting sexual fantasy, then revealing that fantasy to be a nightmare. It forces the hand of honest reflection by setting traps of perspective. Beauty is the bait. Gender is the hook. "The Skin I Live In" preys on masculine insecurity, and raises a great number of questions about sexuality and gender identity. It is also stylish and sexy and deeply surreal, in that way that is distinctly Almodovar's.
Directed by Roman Polanski
Roman Polanski's "Carnage" is a direct descendant of other societal microcosms like those in "Heart of Darkness" or "Lord of the Flies". It posits that the manners of civilized society are but a ruse, and that under enough (or simply the right kind of) pressure, that veneer of civility will crumble away, revealing us for the savage primates we are and have always been. It takes an artist like Polanski to root out the humor in this. His origins in the theater of the absurd have left him well equipped. "Carnage" works well as a comedy, but it is also deeply sinister and frightening in its confrontational honesty.
Directed by Bennet Miller
Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian received final writing credits for Bennet Miller's thrilling "Moneyball", though judging by the number of writers actually involved in the project, one gets the sense that Sorkin and Zaillian won a game of musical chairs to appear in the credits. The two writers, respectively, have been responsible for writing the last two David Fincher films (And this would have been a much more exciting and riskier effort for Fincher than the curiously convenient "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"), but Sorkin's screenplay for the exquisite "The Social Network" last year is echoed here. Both films deal explicitly with the ever more sophisticated ways by which we communicate (both are also true stories, which I think is important). And "communication" indeed is the key word here. As our understanding of communication becomes more and more sophisticated, Our methods of applying this understanding are articulated in code - code that intensifies our knowledge of human psychology, and code that upends areas like, say baseball scouting, where codes had otherwise survived without skepticism or inquiry for some time.
9. Certified Copy
Directed by Abbios Kiarostami
"Certified Copy" is either about a married couple pretending to have just met each other, or two strangers pretending to have been married for some time. Abbios Kiarostami navigates this paradox with such precision and detail that both simply become true, and we can comfortably accept it as such, without feeling cheated. What's remarkable is that Kiarostami doesn't insist upon his premise. The opacity he maintains throughout the film, concealing this couple's history (which, again, we're led to believe they both have and do not have) and thus their motives, "Certified Copy" never feels distant or clinical. It is, instead, romantic and whimsical, and with plenty to say about the nature and complexity of human relationships.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" is much less a departure from the mean streets and the mobs of his earlier films than many might expect, in part because those mobs and mean streets were merely surfaces. At the heart of Scorsese's career is the act of watching, a kind of autobiographical metaphor for his own inspirations as a movie lover. His last film, "Shutter Island" dealt tactfully with the power of illusions and false narratives. Now he's incorporated the father of cinematic illusion (Georges Melies) into an environment that, for Scorsese fans, will seem both an enchanting departure and an exotic recollection of the harsh and unforgiving landscapes he has populated in the past.
Golden Iris Awards
Best Opening Shot
Gold - A Separation
Silver - Meek's Cutoff
Bronze - Melancholia
Best Final Shot
Gold - A Separation
Silver - Melancholia
Bronze - Meek's Cutoff
Best Supporting Actress
Gold - Charlotte Gainsbourg (Melancholia)
Silver - Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Live, Take Shelter)
Bronze - Shailene Woodley (The Descendants)
Most Perplexing Moment
Gold - Albino crocodiles in a nuclear power facility at the end of "Cave of Forgotten Dreams"
Silver - "That's a big one," a massive, omniscient eye looks over "Rango" and the gang as they travel underground.
Bronze - An existential talking cat in "The Future"
Best Love Scene
Gold - "Do you want to stop?" Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his patient (Keira Knightley) aroused by the psychology of misogyny in "A Dangerous Method".
Silver - Brandon (Michael Fassbender) panics in a moment of genuine passion in "Shame".
Bronze - "I was just thinking..." says Mikael (Daniel Craig) during an intimate moment with Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo". Their obsession with the case is their mutual attraction, and Lisbeth likes that he's sifting through clues even as they make love.
Best Supporting Actor
Gold - Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
Silver - Jonah Hill (Moneyball)
Bronze - Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris)
Gold - "Get a couple drinks in her and BAM!" Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly) sits in awe of all the "Carnage".
Silver - The ill-fated plane ride to Vegas in "Bridesmaids".
Bronze - Matt's (George Clooney) heart-breaking marathon across town in flip-flops to unearth the truth about his wife's affair in "The Descendants".
Best Chase Scene
Gold - The Driver (Ryan Gosling) plays Cat and Mouse with the L.A.P.D., patiently waiting for the end of a Clippers game and its subsequent crowd dispersal, within which to disappear in "Drive".
Silver - Pest (Alex Esmail) outruns an alien hyena with translucent blue teeth through a tired London slum in "Attack the Block".
Bronze - The Driver (Gosling), with more money than he realizes, tries to outrun the mysterious car that turned up at his friend's ill-fated pawn shop robbery in "Drive".
Gold - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall)
Silver - Moneyball (Christopher Tellefson)
Bronze - The Skin I Live In (Jose Salcedo)
Gold - Terrence Mallick (The Tree of Life)
Silver - Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
Bronze - Nicolas Winding Rey (Drive)
Gold - Michael Shannon (Take Shelter)
Silver - Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
Bronze - Brad Pitt (Moneyball, The Tree of Life)
Gold - Miranda July (The Future)
Silver - Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
Bronze - Elena Anaya (The Skin I Live In)
Most Memorable Moment
Gold - Two dinosaurs on a riverbank in "The Tree of Life". One lies near death in the rocks, the other places its foot on its head, then removes it and moves on. An act of pity? A gesture of dominance? The moment is powerful in its mystery.
Silver - Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), with her arm in George Valentin's jacket in "The Artist", enacts an intimate fantasy, a rogue hand caressing her, the smell of his jacket against her face...
Bronze - Curtis LaForche's (Michael Shannon) premonitions are realized (maybe?) at the end of "Take Shelter". He turns to his wife to validate his visions. Her response is short and simple and devastatingly powerful.