2011: Year in film

Our lead film critic unwraps 2011’s cinematic gifts

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris

Juan-Carlos Selznick's best films of 2011

Tree of Life
Of Gods and Men
Certified Copy
Blue Valentine
The Way Back
Meek's Cutoff
Midnight in Paris
The Strange Case of Angelica

Juan-Carlos’ best films of 2011


I had a very good time at the movies in 2011, but only a part of it was literally “at the movies.” Once again, at least half of the year’s best movie experiences reached us by way of video, and with many foreign and indie releases becoming available on demand the same day they opened in theaters, a growing portion of serious moviegoing seemed to take another large step away from the big-screen experience.

My first look at Blackthorn, Mateo Gil’s imaginative update of the Butch Cassidy saga, came via Comcast On Demand. I saw it again on a DVD screener, and then a third time during its week-long run at the Pageant Theatre. It got better each time, and I couldn’t help wonder if it might have improved even more had it been shown in 35mm on the really, really big main-floor screen at the Senator Theatre in days of yore.

The Strange Case of Angelica

I still prefer that big-screen experience, but the digital innovations in video have made an approximation of that experience available in any space equipped with a player connected to a screen of any size. Home video isolates viewers from each other, but it also provides unprecedented access to the art of motion pictures, past and present, and that makes it more or less irresistible.

Apart from that, one of the best things about the movies of the last 50 or so weeks is there were quite a few films that took on spiritual themes in lively, soulful and sometimes experimental ways. I’m thinking in particular of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life; Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men from France; and Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte from Italy, but also of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (from Thailand) and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground, a modest effort by comparison, deserves mention in this group as well, and it’s one more sign that by some quirk of the cinematic fates, there’s been quite a lot of artistically vibrant soul-searching going on among gifted filmmakers.

Le Quattro Volte

Those films are particularly admirable, but for me the year was also distinguished by several more conventional entertainments, many of which missed getting widespread attention. Two remarkable animated features, Gore Verbinski’s Rango and Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist (France), belong in that group, as do such offbeat crime films as The Lincoln Lawyer, The Robber (Germany), Point Blank (France), and Police, Adjective (Romania). Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Peter Weir’s The Way Back are adamantly unconventional, but their tweaking of familiar movie genres is part of their exceptional interest.

Genre-tweaking was also a factor with the year’s appealingly diverse crop of movies about cowboys and the Old West. Cowboys & Aliens triumphed over sci-fi monsters, Rango took on the whole history of the genre in cartoon form, and a grizzled Butch Cassidy turned up for one more convoluted outlaw adventure in Blackthorn. Buck, the horse-whisperer documentary, and Kelly Reichardt’s feminist take on the Oregon Trail, Meek’s Cutoff, were among the best films of the year, regardless of genre.

Upsetting conventional expectations was inevitably a major ingredient in the best of the year’s character-driven dramas. Blue Valentine, Barney’s Version, Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, Mike Leigh’s Another Year and Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy were especially notable examples. And Road to Nowhere, Monte Hellman’s Pirandellian movie-within-a-movie murder mystery confounded expectations across the board to mostly dazzling effect.

The Strange Case of Angelica, from Portugal’s centenarian auteur Manoel de Oliveira, has a partial claim on each of the categories mentioned above, but floats gracefully beyond them all. Inspired crossovers are also in full flower in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, both of which stand out as auteur art films that also deliver plenty of buoyant entertainment.

To some, the various retrospective moods of the above trio might smack of nostalgic escapism, but I’d argue that these three films by over-60 directors constitute inspired bits of time travel, with each serving implicitly as a counterforce to the blind spots and brutalities of contemporary media culture. As such they have a pertinence and a resonance that eluded even the best of the films explicitly addressing contemporary issues: Margin Call and The Ides of March, among the dramas; Source Code and Essential Killing, among the serious-minded action films.