The Tree of Life

All told, I saw 100 films released in America in 2011. That’s considerably more than years past, so I feel more prepared than ever to unveil my Top 10 films of the year. (You can see numbers 20-11 here, and a ranked list of all 100 here.) Certainly covering the New York Film Festival helped to pad my numbers, but, as always, there are still inevitably films that I miss. This year, my list of regrets you won’t see here include Moneyball, The Descendants, Project Nim, House of Tolerance and We Need to Talk About Kevin.

2011 was a very strong year for films, but it may have taken a trip beyond the multiplex to discover some of its best offerings. I think this list also points to the malleability of so-called “art” cinema, comprising documentaries, sober philosophizing, comedy and even gruesome revenge thrillers. There’s amazing variety in film today, perhaps more than ever, as genres blend and global styles gain influence. So if you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution, why not attempt some cinematic diversity in 2012?

10) Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory / Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky

Since 1993, documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have been creating films about the case of the West Memphis Three, teenagers wrongfully accused of the murder of three younger boy. What’s remarkable about the story is not just the injustice of the Three’s imprisonment, or the brutal details of the crime, but the role the films and the filmmakers themselves have played. Berlinger and Sinofsky are not afraid to enter an ethical grey-area: their films brought the case to a national audience but the media circus they represented led to judicial haste. For this concluding film, the pair revisit the case and its recent resolution with ferocious style and an uncompromising eye.

9) I Saw the Devil / Kim Ji-woon

You may call it gratuitous or you may call it unconscionable, but I call the violence in I Saw the Devil enthralling and explosive. Films about revenge aren’t exactly new, comprising a great many classic Westerns, but director Kim Ji-woon’s small, calibrated changes in pacing and his creative brand of action do feel new. The psychological story of the film’s unhinged hunter/hunted pair, as well as committed performances from Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik are more than enough to justify another revenge thriller, but its Kim’s relentless style that thrills here.

8) A Separation / Asghar Farhadi

A Separation is about a divorce, but with the precision and attention of screenwriter/director Asghar Farhadi it’s about much more. Like Cache, the film inhabits a thoroughly lived-in world, where the actions of its characters—here a middle-class Iranian family and another clan who becomes involved—are never simple plot devices. Instead their influences reverberate in myriad, unforeseeable ways, as they do in life. Farhadi masterfully juggles a convincing and emotional portrait of one family against the social backdrop of contemporary Iran, suggesting, never forcing, comparisons.

7) Cave of Forgotten Dreams / Werner Herzog

The most justified use of 3D technology yet, this documentary about ancient cave paintings offers something for the eyes and the mind, a great benchmark for any piece of cinema. Though Herzog is unable to mine curious human protagonists for thematic weigh, as he so often does in his documentaries, he provides an utterly fascinating examination of the oldest example of human artistic endeavor. As his 3D cameras, with unprecedented access, capture the subtle shadings and topographic undulations of the cave paintings, his narration explains the awe-inspiring chasm of time that separates us from the artists. Herzog can only guess at the purpose and origin of these remarkable works, but their existence alone sends the mind racing.

6) Shame / Steve McQueen

Featuring the best performance of the year from Michael Fassbender, Steve McQueen’s mesmerizing film about sex addiction turns New York into both a dark, lurid den of inequity and a colorful, glimmering city of lights. An accomplished visual artist, McQueen brings the same ability to find beauty among horror to Shame as he demonstrated in his debut film Hunger. Though Shame squarely inhabits the mental world of loneliness, denial and shame its protagonist cannot escape, McQueen also subtly introduces color and hope to the film, both visually and through the script’s mirrored structure.

5) Le Havre / Aki Kaurismäki

For a film ostensibly about the trails and hardships faced by African immigrants to Europe, Le Havre is refreshingly fantastical. It’s a comic fable, not a gritty political drama, and that formal paradox is only the most obvious of the film’s many touches of irony. Kaurismäki is known for his dry sense of humor and bleak blends of comedy and tragedy, but in Le Havre he fully embraces optimism, using his power as a writer to miraculously solve his characters’ problems just like that. It’s warm, kindhearted, immensely clever and even hilarious, but if the only way to grapple with immigration is to resort to this level of fantasy, maybe it’s even more a problem than we think. Still, you can think about that after you’ve enjoyed the movie.

4) Film socialisme / Jean-Luc Godard

Godard’s mixed-media video-art essay feels like the work of indefatigable rebel, not an assured master nearing the end of his career. Many called it an abomination or anti-cinematic, but its daring cacophony and formally experimentation, while frustrating at times, seemed to me a confirmation of the power of cinema. Somewhere buried beneath its Finnegans Wake-like melange of fractured bits of various languages, and its mix of streaming video, cell phone cameras, home videos and hi-grade film stock, Film socialisme is about the dis-integration of European identity, historical, linguistic and cultural. Yes, it’s distancing and maddening, but in its own muddled way it has a lot to say.

3) Meek’s Cutoff / Kelly Reichardt

Known for the modern “neo neo-realism” of films like Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy, Kelly Reichardt found a beautiful expression of her style on the Oregon Trail of the 19th-century. Adding an element of myth and an awareness of shared cinematic culture to Reichardt’s naturalism, Meek’s Cutoff follows the long, slow, dangerous journey of a group of settlers led by the enigmatic Stephen Meek, who may or may not know his way amongst the wilderness. The film’s sepia hues and square aspect ratio play on the legacy of old Westerns, but with a revisionist twist belonging exclusively to Reichardt.

2) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives / Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, like all of Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work, is a strange and hypnotic experience, sure to captivate some viewers while alienating others. His films are better felt than understood, and this one emerges as a graceful, wryly comic spiritual work about the spaces we share with memories, ghosts, animals and spirits. Part of Apichatpong’s multimedia project PRIMITIVE, Uncle Boonmee deals with cultural and political memories of Thailand’s tumultuous past, but its pleasures are much more tactile, buzzing with jungle sounds and mesmerizing, expressive cinematography.

1) The Tree of Life / Terrence Malick

The Tree of Life is an illusory, fragmented and exhilarating cinematic experience, yet for all its experimentation, it’s not the opaque, impenetrable film it may seem. Rather, it’s a lucid, cogent meditation on the grace and transcendence present in life everywhere, from the planet we live on, to a blade of grass or a beam of light, to the thoughts inside our heads. With his unique eye for small moments of beauty and a decentralized narrative style, Terrence Malick collapses these ideas into one realm of existence, made tangible and real. For all its philosophizing, it’s still an entirely cinematic experience, crafting a full and fleshed-out existence both within and without its central character, Jack. Malick has created a design so grand and ambitious as to consider all of life, and has filled it with a dense poetry of images and layers of meaning, all the more beautiful for the impossibility of ever discovering them all.