My Favorite Films Of 2011: Christopher Bell

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by Christopher Bell
December 20, 2011 2:30 PM
17 Comments
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Something that always bothered me about being a critic was that your feelings on whatever you're writing about suddenly get struck in stone after pushing that glorious "Publish" icon. Cinema is an art very dear to me but my feelings on it evolve, and the same can be said for specific movies as well. Emotions grow and change over time -- this sentiment feels obvious, but when you're putting your opinion out there and slapping a grade on it week after week, it seems like a natural occurrence that readers and writers rarely acknowledge.

Suddenly you're not at a film festival, you're not seeing four movies in a row on a stomach full of dry bagels. You can finally dwell on something, or maybe the luster that a certain picture had has faded to reveal its serious lack of substance or entertainment. Hopefully none of this sounds like a complaint; I'm extremely grateful for the whole shebang, but we do need to recognize these writings are completely a product of their time and the various factors surrounding that moment. A year progresses and I can't help but think that maybe I was too hard on "Tuesday After Christmas."

That said, I'm not just going to stop writing (sorry I guess) and, being born and raised on America Online with a healthy diet of chain-survey emails, I could never turn down the chance to compose a list of anything. The proceeding ten were carefully considered; all are poignant in their own way and made a profound impression. I meditated on it all rather than going with a slew of movies that charmed me the most recently. Because I'm human I haven't seen everything -- "Mysteries of Lisbon," "Beginners," "Young Adult," "Silent Souls," "Moneyball," "Contagion," "Hugo," "War Horse," "Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close," "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," "Pariah," "Weekend," "A Separation" -- though to completely judge a book by its cover and state something entirely overdramatic, I'm pretty positive that half of those didn't have a chance to overtake my heart.

And with that, forward...

10. "General Orders No. 9"
The Southern states of America tend to be unfairly stereotyped as being packed with dumb religious zealots with a gun by their side. It's so obviously a shameful, reductive judgment, but that doesn't stop anybody with a mouth and a city apartment from yapping on and on about it. Thankfully, Robert Persons stepped up to the plate with his debut, an experimental documentary detailing the environment of the South with respect and fascination. A not-so-removed cousin of "Baraka" and the like, Persons studies the art, architecture, landscape, and life without the usual doc framework/restrictions. 'General' plays by its own rules, whipping up a mysterious structure consisting of shots of the aforementioned, with an occasional poetic voice overlaid. And hey, it works really, really well. Ethereal and comely (with an occasional disturbing perspective of the modern, decayed south), this thoughtful dissertation is likely to move even the most ardent, close-minded urban hippo.

9. "You All Are Captains"
Full of the fiction/non-fiction blending that the Iranian new-wave was so fond of (think "Close-Up" and "The Mirror"), director Oliver Laxe makes a movie with and about some children from Tangiers but is ultimately axed from his position when the kids decide the movie is really just for and about him. Yet the celluloid continues to roll, following the students to a country retreat -- but not before a scene showing Laxe begging a friend to help him start a new film. Among other things, it seems to be taking aim at the nature of self-serving charity, when someone's good intentions are outweighed by the perks they're receiving in return. We're put in a weird position too: while he's almost entirely exploitive for his own sake, the director's got an impressive knack for capturing humanity and nature that's impossible to ignore. Moments in which the children go over hand-signs with their teacher feel like a memory unburied, and the few times the children run around their village with Bolex cameras are both precious yet inexplicably discomforting. In the end, the movie is smart enough to arrive at more questions than gift-wrapped answers and, along with "General Orders No. 9," one of the strangest/bravest directorial debuts in a long time.

8. "My Joy"
"I fear that the film may have destroyed my soul," so said a friend-of-a-friend after a screening of this angry, pessimistic film by Sergei Loznitsa. It's not necessarily a horror movie, but it doesn't pull any punches with its rough assessment of the country of Ukraine (at first I had thought it was attacking the large-and-in-charge Russia but was incorrect). Initially following a young truck driver before changing time periods and perspectives at will, nothing is safe from the filmmaker's cold scrutiny. Still, the way the ideas are employed is engrossing and a sweet alternative to films that have plenty to say but only do so through endless amounts of dialogue. The constantly changing subjects also makes the scope larger and gives the impression of a world fully realized and, comfortably or not, inhabited. It'll leave you disturbed and stricken, but there's plenty of substance for discourse to abate the post-screening blues.

7. "Tabloid"
...But if you're still feeling down, allow Errol Morris cheer you up. After years of making politically charged films with pseudo-thriller undercurrents, the filmmaker harkens back to his playful early days of "Gates of Heaven" and "Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control" for this popping piece on once-twice tabloid sensation Joyce McKinney. The former Miss Wyoming made headlines when she concocted a scheme to kidnap her main squeeze Kirk Anderson -- a devout Mormon missionary -- and "cleanse" him of his religion's brainwashing. Which, to her, meant tying him to a bed and raping him for days on end. If that wasn't bizarre enough, her five minutes of fame was extended years later after she successfully had her pit bull cloned. Most of the movie is built around a career-best interview with McKinney, a demandingly entertaining subject. Morris lets her lead the way, occasionally dipping into her home videos and pressing other subjects for their take. The result is frequently hilarious and, sometimes, intensely depressing. That said, the director is never condescending; even as he peers into this weird world of minor ex-celebrities, attention seekers, and outright liars, he treats everyone with a huge amount of respect. In the end, they're all just human.

6. "Shame"
Steve McQueen's sophomore effort is a much more easy-to-swallow, conventional movie than "Hunger," but of course that's completely relative considering it follows the life of a sex junkie. The handling of any kind of addiction is a tricky one -- many filmmakers (even those who aren't outright knuckleheads) fall into a generic morality lesson while others take a more horrific route, failing to humanize the users or being afraid to actually portray any sort of joy said "drug" gives without wagging a condescending finger. While the director here certainly doesn't "approve" of his character's vice, he also doesn't feel the need to paint the proceedings with bargain bucket destructive paint. Instead, he looks on these exploits with a fascination, digging deep into the needs and wants of people. From Fassbender's overly-horny and too-game boss to the sexually tense and, in turn, deeply uncomfortable relationship between brother and sister, conflict and ugliness brew with everyone seemingly suspicious about another's egocentric desire while whole-heartedly indulging in theirs. These aren't exactly inherently subtle facets of human behavior, but McQueen shows incredible restraint and prowess with frequent scenes devoid of dialogue (usually coupled with a powerful score that refrains from over-clarification in favor of a stranger tone) combined with simply covered, bare boned conversational scenes. When things wrap up, I'm not convinced our new Magneto is fully-cured by the end of the movie and McQueen doesn't seem to be either. The focus is alternately placed on a specific change in behavior: maybe not as important as a final cleansing, but we're all aware that addictions tend to rear their ugly heads over and over. It'd be easy but naive to conclude with a fairy tale ending on a topic so severe; the reluctance to do so only proves the intellect of the filmmaker.

5. "Meek's Cutoff"
I have to admit, this one had me at pre-production. "Wendy and Lucy" was my favorite film of its year and knowing that the next Kelly Reichardt was to be a slow, observational Western starring what she described as "background characters of other Westerns" nearly guaranteed some serious love -- I just had to hope that it was more than just conceptually promising. 'Meek's" is not just an effective slow-burn culminating with a verbal showdown between the always fantastic Michelle Williams and Bruce Greenwood, nor is it just an excellently detailed period piece that focuses on the dirty and difficult realism of the journey; the feature was also packed with various insights on the way females were treated during that period with plenty of allusions to the state of women's rights today. Heavier contemporary analyses can be made from this rich material (some see Meek-as-Bush which is fine if it suits you, but Indian-as-Obama is just birdbrained), which is wholly successful both literally and metaphorically. The most lasting visions are the diverse movie-magical experiences, ranging from a single-shot of Shirley Henderson chasing after a hat taken by the wind, to the Native American performing a ritual over a sickly wagoner. That's also not to mention the honest, final speech from Meek and the marvelous concluding sequence. From the beginning I knew this would be a terrific film, sure, but I had no idea how hard I'd be knocked on my ass by it.

4. "We Need To Talk About Kevin"
Many films claim to be completely within the perspective of their central character, but few actually make that transformation. With 'Kevin,' director Lynne Ramsay completely disappears and the entire movie is seen through the eyes, mind, and heart of Tilda Swinton's Eva. Supporting performances and scenes are heightened to comply with the emotions and biased nature of the devastated, shell-of-a-woman mother, so while we're not exactly getting verity here (who knows if what we see is actually real at all) we are still getting a different kind of truth, and a consistently grievous and distressing one at that. Despite this, there still manage to be sweeter moments that stick out, not just because of their contrary nature but because of their immense strength -- Eva pleasantly taking in a cacophony of jack hammering to drown out baby Kevin's wailing is hilarious and the single happy moment between mother and son is extremely tender (regardless of the bratty lip the boy gives his father when he interrupts their reading of Robin Hood). Centering a story around a school shooting has the potential to be very reckless (though somehow, through a strange twist of fate, the few that do indulge generally don't squeeze the horrors with Oscar-baity intentions), but 'Kevin' actually has little to do with the murdering spree and is more of an examination of two very similar people and the way their oblivious attitude destroys everyone around them, including themselves.

3. "Putty Hill"
This little gem came out of nowhere and immediately gave me a pleasuring jolt of optimism for the state of American indies. Its premise is simple: a boy dies from drug abuse and his friends and family come together for his funeral. Where "Putty Hill" truly shines is the way it finds the real soul of its story and characters -- every so often, the director will abruptly destroy the "fiction" divide and quietly ask prying questions to whomever is on camera. They respond with a thoughtful answer, but when the voice silences, their awareness of it does as well. It serves to exist not as a narrator or an interviewer, but maybe as a manifestation of their inner thoughts and true feelings. Whatever it is, it's an incredibly strong device that gives the already intimate tone a beautiful depth; it's such a pleasure to get a profound insight on people that are practically never given cinematic attention. And while the technique is much more affecting than I could possibly ever describe, the moments without it remain the most memorable: the grandmother and daughter-in-law sharing a comforting moment that displays both their emotional distance and their kindness, the bizarre party following the wake at a karaoke bar, and so on. Matt Porterfield continuously throws dozens of emotions at the audience and it's a difficult balancing act that he always manages to work out perfectly.

2. "Certified Copy"
At first it was a bit confusing as to why Abbas Kiarostami, the man who once made an entire movie out of women watching a staged poetry reading, decided to direct what looked like a straight romantic-drama in Europe. Starring auteur darling Juliette Binoche and opera-singer William Shimell, the extra layers of "Certified Copy" don't reveal themselves until the movie has convinced us that it will be just a handsome looking relationship flick… and then Kiarostami starts playing around. The history between his two leads continuously changes at his whim -- they're strangers, they've been married, they're divorced, so on -- enabling the director to study human behavior and interaction removed from the cluttering business of "context" and getting right down to the base. Something larger than the couple is also under the microscope, the difference between reality and fiction and whether something fabricated is any less genuine. Detractors have failed to emotionally connect because of Shimell's performance, something I didn't have a problem with (and, in fact, enjoyed) but that others found amateurish especially in the presence of La Binoche. You either buy it or you don't, apparently. But isn't that criticism part of Kiarostami's point as well? So you don't believe this operatic baritone can stand toe-to-toe with one of the best living actresses today. Does that make everything else in the film (most importantly what it ultimately says) any less substantial? It's a question that prods at the way we've been consuming movies for generations -- one of the many intriguing, startling inquiries contained in this dense picture.

1. "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives"
Uniquely affecting and bursting with allure, 'Uncle Boonmee' is magical piece of cinema from start to finish, tracking a dying man as his deceased wife and transformed son return to bid adeiu before he makes that ultimate journey. Filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (or simply "Joe") takes this opportunity to examine life in both a physical and spiritual sense, constantly fusing the two together by using ghosts and other creatures with a rather realistic, natural approach. At the same time it's a celebration on the joys of existence, giving the same amount of attention to close friends tasting fresh honey as anyone would give a sequence in which a princess makes love to a catfish. The entire thing is an incredibly mesmerizing dream, fueled by emotions and grace rather than by any tried-and-true formula -- what we have here is something very pure and absolute. There's no one behind the camera that better evokes mood, and with this film Joe is in top form, guiding us through his visions of leafy jungles populated by both the living and the dead. We can spend all day dissecting any of his works scene by scene -- the auteur's personal thoughts on connections, medicine, his country, etc. are all in there and not a moment is wasted -- but it's most important to note how moving his work by just experiencing it. We can "see" movies, they can entertain and teach us, and maybe we'll occasionally give in to the typical manipulations and shed a few tears. But it's not often that we truly "feel" cinema, especially in a way that we never have before. 'Uncle Boonmee' achieves this sensation by building atmosphere and then living in it, using the medium to accentuate the aural and temporal. It's a very particular vocabulary that the director communicates with, one that results in a wealth of unprecedented emotional responses. When touring with the movie, Apichatpong saw its entirety as creative closure, a goodbye to all of his works that had preceded it. Whether that statement suggests an entirely new mindset for future projects remains unclear, but one thing is certain -- we'll follow.

Honorable Mentions
This feels like a rejection letter: the original list of favorites was about 30 deep and it was extremely difficult to cut very worthwhile films. That said, it'd be kind of silly to list the rest of them here, but here are a few that might've had a better chance on a different day.

"The Arbor"
"Aurora"
"Bombay Beach"
"Drive"
"The Future"
"Le Quattro Volte"
"Leap Year"
"Melancholia"

Wait, Where Was "Tree of Life"?
Malick's latest stream-of-consciousness opus definitely impressed me with some of the most pristine, realistic snapshots of suburban childhood I have ever seen outside of my probably untrustworthy memory bank. Still, it's hard to shake some uneven feelings about its stretchier aspects, such as the creation sequence and the afterlife reunion party. Obviously an emotional film in every aspect, it's hard to judge as to whether or not these inclusions actually "work" or not -- we'd be critiquing the inherently illogical for not being logical. A second viewing to try and smooth over my opinion never happened, and while it certainly will in the future, this, for now, remains as a gorgeous curiosity.

Better Late Than Never
Two very worthy films were finally released in the States this year: Edward Yang's masterful "A Bright Summer Day" and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's seminal sci-fi thinker "World On A Wire." Both were lost treasures that still felt fresh, but their particular late-to-dinner distribution situations made it easier to give them their own category rather than trying to stuff them in an already bloated competition to make the list. Regardless, both are must-sees and deserve the reputation they've gained for their lack of availability.

Please Give These Films Distribution:
"Without"
"Green"
"New Jerusalem"
"Scenes of a Crime"
"In the Family"
"Post Mortem"

After being entirely too hard on the American micro-independent scene this year (really was a tad too rude -- all the directors are very kind and undeserving of bitter criticisms; the films have their fan base and I've learned that they're just not for me, time to move on), color me surprised to stumble upon five really smart, engaging movies sprouting up at various festivals. "Post Mortem" is another case: the creamy middle of Chilean director Pabo Larrain's Pinochet trilogy was seen at the 2010 New York Film Festival and managed to dig deep into my subconscious in the following months. It boggles my mind that none of these have been snapped up yet and I'm not really sure what is keeping them on the bench. None are particularly too experimental for even the small art-house runs and they actually contain plenty of weight, strong in form with plenty of substance to gum on. If they pop up near you, run don't walk. If you are a distributor and for some reason reading this, well, snatch them up and treat them right.

Signing out and looking forward to 2012. Michael Haneke, don't disappoint us.

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17 Comments

  • max | December 21, 2011 6:09 PMReply

    i'm loving this list.
    description of 'meek' makes me want to rewatch.

  • Miles Maker | December 21, 2011 5:26 PMReply

    Nice list for what you've scene!

    I'll add however that one of the things audiences appreciate about PARIAH is that it's surprisingly NOT melodramatic so I encourage you to see it for yourself and share your thoughts!

  • Christopher Bell | December 21, 2011 11:34 PM

    I will, that's actually one of the films that I mean to catch up with sooner rather than later.

  • jingmei | December 21, 2011 2:01 AMReply

    And one moment, oh yeah from Cannes film festival je sais.

  • Hmmm | December 20, 2011 9:12 PMReply

    Why would someone who hasn't even seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Young Adult, Pariah, or The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo feel like he is qualified to publish a top ten list?

  • fisher | December 22, 2011 4:09 PM

    ahaha

  • Christopher Bell | December 21, 2011 2:10 PM

    Uh, I guess. I have serious doubts about that, but maybe we could actually talk about that next year.

  • jimmiescoffee | December 21, 2011 4:07 AM

    i agree. that's a lot of important work to have missed.

  • jingmei | December 21, 2011 1:59 AM

    This list sounds like bit outcast of the so called mainstream another list you gave. Both not bad, i accept these all, and they can exist at the same time none of the other's business. actually i think chris's list is awesome.

  • Christopher Jason Bell | December 20, 2011 11:17 PM

    ...do you really think seeing those movies is some sort of qualification?

  • Nik Grape | December 20, 2011 4:50 PMReply

    Cool list! I never heard of "My Joy" or "You Are All Captains" but I'll seek them out now..also, props for giving a shout-out to "Without". Really cool and completely overlooked indie gem.

  • Fred | December 20, 2011 3:26 PMReply

    Hey guys, remember: if your picks are too obscure, you are pretentious. If your picks are too mainstream your taste is obvious suck.

  • Gabe Toro | December 20, 2011 3:09 PMReply

    Disappointing list, Chris Bell. I've actually HEARD of these.

  • Cory Everett | December 20, 2011 4:41 PM

    And I've seen 2 of them! (Though I've seen 8 of his "Haven't Seen These Yet" picks.)

  • jimmiescoffee | December 20, 2011 2:50 PMReply

    interesting list, however, i was underwhelmed by both your #1 and #2 (and most all the films that played cannes 2010.)

  • Jean Marco: Pretentious Talent Scout | December 20, 2011 2:43 PMReply

    Hahahahaha! You've won, dear friend. You're hired!

  • Christopher Bell | December 20, 2011 2:45 PM

    Finally!! You don't know how long I've been--

    oh, wait. This is sarcasm, isn't it? A joke?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Rav9ijyyZk

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