If I were making a list of the best newish films that I saw in 2011, I’d have to include a bunch of movies that I’ve already written about on this blog—notably, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Arrietty the Borrower (2010), Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009), Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), Pablo Larraín’s Post Mortem (2010), and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010). However, since I have nothing more to say about these films, instead of repeating myself, what I’d rather do is turn my attention to a number of films that I greatly admire but haven’t been able to write about (either because I’ve been too busy with other things, or was too intimidated by them, or both). I don’t claim that all of my picks are masterpieces, but I like them all enough to look forward to seeing them again.
Copie conforme (Abbas Kiarostami) A rather puzzling two-part narrative about a pair of strangers pretending to be a couple, or a couple pretending to be strangers. (Or both, or maybe neither.) The verisimilitude of the film’s style is itself a fabrication, yet Kiarostami is such a master illusionist that it seems effortless.
Hahaha (Hong Sang-soo) Another two-part narrative experiment belied by the realism of the director’s mise en scène. The delightfully improbable plot is full of amusing surprises, making this the best, and funniest, South Korean movie I’ve seen since Lee Yoon-ki’s My Dear Enemy (2008).
Des Hommes et des dieux (Xavier Beauvois) Further evidence, along with Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (also 2010), that classical Hollywood cinema is alive and kicking—in Europe. Largely eschewing close-ups in favor of group stagings in medium and long shot, this moving film demonstrates how much can be achieved with simplicity and restraint.
Mildred Pierce (Todd Haynes) In terms of form and style, this five-part miniseries is the straightest movie Haynes has ever made, but it’s also the most political. The middle-class heroine’s sense of shame at having to work for a living is so powerfully felt that the first three episodes are almost unbearably agonizing to watch.
Police, Adjective (Corneliu Poromboiu) A cop movie where the victim is the criminal (a teenage drug dealer) and the villain is Romania’s puritanical legal code, which is enforced as thoughtlessly and as severely as the rules of grammar. The lengthy shots of our sullen hero standing around in front of grey, concrete buildings are so sensationally drab they’d make Jim Jarmusch feel jealous.
Rubber (Quentin Dupieux) A muscular European art film thinly disguised as a trashy American genre piece (making it the inverse of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive ), this surrealist road movie explodes narrative conventions faster than its exterminating axle explodes heads.
Snowtown (Justin Kurzel) I’m generally averse to serial killer movies, but this gripping Australian drama is distinguished in part by its uncommon seriousness. Although it doesn’t linger on the gory details, the unrelieved grimness of the film’s subject matter and mise en scène is often hard to bear.
The Time That Remains: Chronicle of a Present Absentee (Elia Suleiman) Beginning with the creation of the state of Israel and continuing up to the present, this deadpan tragicomedy about three generations of Palestinian Christians is as stylistically rigorous as it is historically resonant. Incidentally, it’s also funny.
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick) A fairy tale for grownups (for better or worse), Malick’s fifth is dramatically shapeless, but the rhythmic, graphically discontinuous editing, and its combinations of music and images, go straight to the heart.
White Material (Claire Denis) Centering on a protagonist with a clear goal, this powerful film about a colonial plantation owner attempting to go about business as usual in the midst of a civil war is the closest Denis has come to making a normal movie—as if she were deliberately attempting to court a wider audience. In any case, it’s easily the most suspenseful film she’s ever made.
Needless to say, this list isn’t exhaustive. I’d also recommend Theo Angelopoulos’ The Dust of Time (2009) for its magisterial camera movements; Jia Zhang-ke’s fascinating but unfocussed I Wish I Knew (2010); Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte (2010) for the director’s god-like control over mise en scène; Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (2011) for its narrative ambiguities and the clinical precision of Leigh’s mise en scène and framing, which both suggest the influence of Michael Haneke; and Duncan Jones’ Source Code (2011) for the way that it doles out exposition in small doses while the action moves relentlessly forward, so that (like the hero) we only gradually begin to grasp the situation.
Finally, if I were choosing he best films that I saw for the first time in 2011 regardless of when they were made—along with Angelopoulos’ The Traveling Players (1975), which I’ve already written about—my picks would be a quartet of French masterpieces: Jean Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936), Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la putain (1973), Alain Resnais’ Mélo (1986), and Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98). While Renoir’s proletarian comedy is plainly the most beguiling and optimistic movie on my list, Eustache’s bohemian psychodrama is the most emotionally devastating, and the director’s stripped down mise en scène puts particular emphasis on the performances. On the other hand, the style of Resnais’ film is flamboyantly theatrical, yet the story is no less moving for it. Indeed, along with La Maman et la putain, this was the most powerfully acted movie that I saw all year. Lastly, Godard’s eight-part series on video (the only avant-garde item on my list) has a reputation for being esoteric, but it strikes me as more accessible than any of his recent features precisely because it doesn’t tell a story. Thus, one can groove on the sounds and images without having to worry about processing the experience in terms of narrative. Like The Tree of Life, it’s a movie that sings rather than speaking.