Last year, I was enthusiastic but ambivalent about my choice for the top movie of the year — Darren Aronofsky’s lurid, hyperventilating Black Swan. That said, I called the then-unseen Blue Valentine a better candidate for the most representative flick, being a study in repulsion and attraction. (Having since seen it, I can say Valentine indeed merits a retroactive slot on my 2010 list.) If 2010 was a middling year that offered few movies I loved without reservation, 2011 is an embarrassment of riches. It’s entirely possible that Black Swan wouldn’t have even cracked the top ten this year, and at least five of the movies listed below would’ve probably been my #1 for the last two or three years running.
Most of the happy blame can be assigned to the continuing efforts of the programmers from Take-Up Productions (e.g. Trylon Microcinema, the Heights), the Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul (St. Anthony Main), the Walker Art Center, Landmark Theaters and others — and the full slates for any number of continuing film festivals, all of which ensured that the Twin Cities were not left to languish in the land of sequels, superheroes and hopeful action franchises. Here were ten of my favorite movies I saw this year. — Eric Henderson
01. The Tree of Life
(Dir: Terrence Malick; U.S.)
Ignore everyone who says this movie is impenetrable or difficult to follow. Terrence Malick’s epoch-spanning would-be art-film-blockbuster may stick what might as well be the final reel of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the front end of its second act, but at its heart, The Tree of Life is one of the best cinematic attempts to convey the shattered sense of one’s earliest memories, and the way adults wrestle with them. (Consider this the sober, spiritual cousin to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.) And even if you don’t buy that interpretation, you’ve still got cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s endlessly gorgeous images clipping by at an overwhelming rate. The most purely pleasurable movie experience of the year.
02. Certified Copy
(Dir: Abbas Kiarostami; France)
Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami isn’t a household name here, and his crossover experiment into something like mainstream French cinema Certified Copy didn’t break any box-office records here. In fact, I believe it played on one Landmark Theaters screen for one, maybe two weeks. Too bad for everyone who missed it. Juliette Binoche is absolutely radiant as an intellectually and romantically curious woman either embarking on a new romance with an author. Unless she’s currently involved with him and they’re spicing it up with some role-play. Kiarostami never makes clear what the exact nature of their relationship is, which plays beautifully against their conversations about art, imitations and reality. A puzzle that plays like a daydream.
(Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn; U.S.)
Yes, the fanboys will be worshipping at this movie’s altar for years to come. Yes, it’s ultimately a carefully crafted pastiche more interested in textures, effects and soundtrack cues than delving deeply into human nature. Yes, Ryan Gosling doesn’t exactly stretch his acting muscle here other than to resist the urge to say anything until he’s counted to 10 in his head. And yes, it’s the most propulsive pure entertainment of the year. Directed like a Michael Mann movie — albeit less Miami Vice and more Vice Magazine — that alternately makes pit stops in Urban Outfitters and the beginning of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, Drive is like Gosling’s star persona in movie form. Self-consciously too cool by half, but you fall in love with him/it anyway.
(Dir: Andrew Haigh; U.K.)
I almost called Certified Copy this year’s heir to the Before Sunrise/Before Sunset throne, but there was an even more romantic, more urgent “love against the clock” fable. Weekend is a working class British charmer about a shy, reserved gay man’s whirlwind, two-day affair with the guy who may just be Mr. Right, only they’ll never know because the guy is set to leave for America on Monday and possibly never come back. In contrast to the spate of movies that make “no big deal” about their gay content, Weekend dares to suggest that there really might be something “equal but different” about how its two lead characters (brilliantly acted by Tom Cullen and Chris New). It builds to a train station scene that’s as unbearably moving as it is knowingly cliché. The date movie of the year.
05. The Interrupters
(Dir: Steve James & Alex Kotlowitz; U.S.)
No movie character exuded quite so imposing an impression as Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, Eddie Bocanegra and all the rest of the members of Chicago’s CeaseFire Interrupters as profiled in Hoop Dreams director Steve James’ documentary (made in collaboration with New York Times Magazine writer Alex Kotlowitz) about the Windy City’s epidemic levels of gang violence. Though the brutality compares to that of a legitimate war zone, The Interrupters keeps a clear head as it profiles the people daring to delve right to the source in their attempts to cut the trail of homicide cold. The scope of the problem is made all too obvious when Matthews, who has taken a bullet herself, says, “Words will get you killed.” But The Interrupters suggests they’re also our best defense.
(Dir: Lars Von Trier; Denmark/France)
This was the movie that got Lars Von Trier banned from Cannes this year. But don’t let that sway you. He was banned over his irascible (and I’m being kind) press conference behavior, not the quality of his movie, which forms a companion piece to his inflammatory pagan gender-battle Antichrist. Menalcholia (which also stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, along with a possibly never-better Kristen Dunst) is like the stately fugue against Antichrist‘s attention-getting prelude. Program them both for a very Paxil-worthy double feature.
07. We Need To Talk About Kevin
(Dir: Lynne Ramsay; U.K.)
Like Melancholia, I imagine We Need To Talk About Kevin won’t find much of an audience among those impatient with the crippling effects of depression. I admit Kevin even tested my patience a few times, and I’m Norwegian. We devour depression for breakfast. Director Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel — in which a mother struggles to come to terms with her son’s terrible act that remains nebulous (but admittedly predictable) until the very end — stresses the withdrawn-from-real-time effect its self-destructive central character has subjected herself to, endlessly replaying scenes in a hopeless attempt to blame herself for what has transpired. Tilda Swinton, normally so forceful on screen, brilliantly plays up her posh, brittle angles.
08. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
(Dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul; Thailand)
Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul’s latest doesn’t quite have the same plumes of mystery that marked his earlier masterpieces Tropical Malady and Syndromes of a Century, but its mélange of shadow people, doting ghosts, sensuous catfish and sparkling crepuscular caves still adds up to one unforgettable trip. And if none of that previous sentence makes one lick of sense to you, my advice is probably to skip this one.
09. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
(Dir: Rupert Wyatt; U.S.)
This year’s most ferocious call to arms within the confines of pop culture, the newest entry in the Apes franchise — in which the downtrodden get wise and stage an uprising that takes everyone by surprise — very well may have predicted the Occupy protest movement. Or, if you prefer, it could also simply be the best summer trash-sterpiece in recent memory. Or both.
10. War Horse
(Dir: Steven Spielberg; U.S.)
Steven Spielberg’s latter-day movies have a tendency to grow in stature long after I’ve seen them, so I’m willing to cut this deliberately retrograde WWI epic-slash-equine Bildungsroman (in which a horse and the devoted boy who trained him are separated in battle) a little more slack than others. It may emerge as Spielberg’s great pastoral, or it might end up just a notch above Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Only time will tell.