Documentaries, violent swashbucklers and tales of fantasy make appearances in numbers 20-11 of my top films of the year. Stay tuned for the Top 10 later, but, in the meantime, you can pad out your Netflix queue with these 2011 gems.
“Quirk” has become a dirty word for indie comedies recently, but the eccentricities of The Future don’t function merely to manufacture “original” characters; they’re intrinsic to both the story and the voice of writer/director/star Miranda July. A ghostly narration delivered by a feral cat and touches of magic, for instance, serve the film’s sincere and surreal look at quarter-life crises and fears of commitment; they’re not ends themselves, as quirk has been in so many dramedies this year (Beginners, Terri, Submarine).
With great creativity and talent, newcomer Mike Cahill stretches a compelling premise and a low budget into a convincing sci-fi drama. The discovery of a duplicate of our planet in the heavens sparks not only some genuinely chilling moments familiar to the genre, but also a tentative romance and personal awakening in the film’s central pair. The haunting ending—satisfying and specific, yet happily ambiguous—typifies the tone of this thoughtful film.
2011 was a strong year for documentaries and Martin Scorsese’s 4-hour look into the quiet Beatle was among the most successful. Using amazing archival material and performance footage, along with interviews of the people Harrison touched, the film portrays George Harrison as a man more than a musician or a legend: a man whose art speaks to a life-long and utterly genuine quest for spiritual self-discovery.
The Arbor examines the troubled life of British playwright Andrea Dunbar and the pain that addiction and poverty caused her and her family. Featuring actors lip-synching recorded interviews of the Dunbar family, The Arbor’s unique format uses striking artificiality to locate the sentimental truth of the story. The film’s beautifully shot tableau-like long-takes allow the viewer entrance into Dunbar’s life as simple recreations couldn’t.
A grand samurai epic in the classic mold, Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins nonetheless shows hints of the edginess of Miike’s more notoriously extreme films. The measured chamber drama of the first half of the film explodes into a gloriously staged action spectacle in the second. Lead by the fantastic Kogi Yakusho, the titular band of rogues and swordfighters slash their way through an army commanded by one of the year’s most ruthless villains.
Though the talkiness of this stage adaptation has lead to jokes about A Dangerous Method’s misleading title, Cronenberg animates it with a litany of subtle cinematographic techniques suggesting layers of depth behind each scene. The feud of words between Jung and Freud emerges as a power struggle over yes, truly dangerous, ideas and a microcosm of continental politics about to explode into WWI. Still, Viggo Mortenson’s charismatic turn as Freud provides pleasure enough.
Egregiously left off the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary, Senna follows the fast-paced and too-brief career of 80s Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna through TV footage of the man and his races. The film is masterfully constructed, showing the power a skilled editor has to shape existing footage into a new narrative. Director Asif Kapadia teases an immensely compelling story of rivalry, fame and passion out of his material, no doubt fresher and more electrifying than the day it was shot.
Leave to Martin Scorsese to turn a children’s fantasy fable into an ode to silent cinema, yet somehow he manages to weave a rousing adventure and satisfy his thematic concerns at once. To accomplish the first, Scorsese uses immersive 3D, creative production design and a solid cast of supporting characters; to accomplish the second, he recreates whimsical scenes from silent director George Melies and employs a surprisingly emotional montage of early cinema.
Though he’ll always be associated with New York, over the past few years Woody has trained his lens on London, Barcelona and now Paris, capturing the vibrancy and authenticity of each city. With Midnight in Paris, that’s evident from the very beginning, rain falling in rapturous shots of the city streets, jazz on the soundtrack. From there, aided by the best lead performance in an Allen film in a long time from Owen Wilson, Woody breezes through a charming tale of love and nostalgia.
This dense and distancing espionage drama will make you work to keep up, but the efforts are rewarded with tense setpieces, a tremendous ensemble and an air of melancholy. Jumping back and forth through the Cold War and nesting stories of moles, intelligence and counter-intelligence, Alfredson focuses on men adrift, conditioned to trust neither colleagues nor loved ones. His arsenal of technical tricks and visual style may seem cold, but its the emotions hidden behind these trained spies that anchors the film.