The list of 2011’s highest-grossing films—Transformers: the Dark of the Moon, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Kung Fu Panda 2, The Hangover Part II—reads like something engineered for insomniacs. The top 10, all but two of them sequels, don’t inspire much beyond a resigned, “So what?”
Fortunately, it was also a year when some of cinema’s most elusive veterans and prolific directors released new films. These make for a more promising list, with work by Terrence Malick, Pedro Almodovar, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg (not one, but two films), Lars von Trier, Alexander Payne, Kelly Reichardt, and Nicolas Winding Refn. They helped to make 2011 a noteworthy year for “auteur filmmaking.” Most of them are working at or reaching their peak, crafting films of immediacy, facility, and assuredness.
The year’s most acclaimed films were ambitious works of art. Some pairs of movies demonstrated how very different artists tackled similar or complementary themes (The Tree of Life and Melancholia are obvious examples, as are Beginners and The Future). Other films begged comparisons with classic works of the past, and still others offered new, if not precisely singular, visions.
Perhaps most compellingly, several of the best movies were undercut by significant flaws that left them imperfect on the whole. These imperfections, matched with the potency of individual visions, helped to make 2011 a remarkable year in film.
The most prominent example was The Tree of Life. No other 2011 film more invites the label “classic.” Sprawling and splendid, it imagines the creation of the universe, a coming-of-age saga in 1950s Texas and an imagined afterlife. It flagrantly disregards movie convention for passages of undeniable technical brilliance, an unlikely mix of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Bible. The film’s nebulousness, its overarching spirituality, and its awkward moments of overreach -– the pointless detours with dinosaurs -– confront the audience with a stark choice. One can either embrace its vision wholeheartedly, or reject it; if the latter option, its pompousness and grandstanding become unbearable. It’s not often a movie presents us with an all-or-nothing choice like that. The Tree of Life, despite its prettified images and wispish etherealness, is a provocative and stimulating work.
Yet the film is also lopsided and lacks focus. Its flashback-flashforwards from Brad Pitt’s to Sean Penn’s characters are poorly handled and redundant. The pacing slows during the long creation of the universe sagas, which don’t so much add to the film as pull it away from its logical centre of gravity, the 1950s family drama that seems most personal. Perhaps the most telling comment about The Tree of Life was Penn’s remark that he found the script one of the most powerful he’d ever read, but didn’t really “understand” the movie.
By fortuitous coincidence, Melancholia was also released this year. The simple story about the end of the world is the shrewd provocateur von Trier’s most “mad scientist” movie yet. It’s occasionally astounding and technically brilliant, a yin to Malick’s yang. In glorifying an impending apocalypse, it renders its titular subject, a rogue planet, as both sinister and alluring (this is helped by ravishing FX work). It is also awash with an aesthetic of German romanticism, epitomised by the use of a blaring excerpt from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, as well as other highbrow art references and astronomy, all conjuring a sense of cosmic fate. “Life on Earth is evil,” breathes Kirsten Dunst’s character to her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg). “No one will grieve for it.”
While The Tree of Life is breathtakingly beautiful, Melancholia has a jolie-faide quality to it. Von Trier’s vision of chaos finds perfect embodiment in a transcendent sequence at the end of the film: the sisters wait on the lawn, under a pathetic “castle” of sticks, as the approaching planet devours the screen behind them; there is a wall of fire, and then blackness. One won’t find another celluloid moment that paints such terrible immediacy and inevitability.
Yet Melancholia is far from a great film. Von Trier suffocates most of the two-and-a-half hour runtime with interminable dialogue and insufferable characters. Its failures include an abortive wedding that takes up its first hour and serves little purpose.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive has cemented his reputation as an auteur on the fringes of mainstream. A confident, stylish riff on a crime thriller, it has a brooding, seductive power. This is partly due to Cliff Martinez’ soundtrack, easily the year’s best, which develops a character arc for its protagonist (Ryan Gosling), who, to put it mildly, doesn’t talk much. Still, the film is also somewhat empty beneath its slick surface and at times too self-conscious direction. Nothing much happens for the first hour, and then the plot erupts into a symphony of bad taste: heads splatter, people are stomped on in elevators and stabbed in the eye in restaurants. All of this is set in a manifestly unreal world of offbeat and reluctant gangsters. Yet the film takes a late turn to convince us Gosling’s driver is a moral hero. “You have proved yourself to be a real human being / And a real hero,” the soundtrack tells us. I wasn’t convinced.
Reichardt’s indie drama Meek’s Cutoff is less compromising. As it follows pioneers crossing the Oregon Trail in 1845, the film takes a woman’s (Michelle Williams) perspective as the party becomes lost under the (mis)direction of their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). It’s a bleak set-up for a political allegory vitiated by its open ending. The ambiguous ending did work well in several 2011 films—A Separation and Last Night, to name two—but the way Meek’s Cutoff ends, or doesn’t, seems calculated to send art house movie fans into clutching-at-straws mode. Still, its intimation of hopelessness, set in a desolate wilderness, is impossible to forget.
Many films this year explored self-consciously “big” themes, revealing that sometimes the line between felicity of expression and facileness can be unclear. That said, standout movies navigated this complexity, connecting with viewers in ways that sometime seemed overwhelming, appealing beyond reason. The clarity and idiosyncrasy of these personal visions made 2011’s best films intense and immediate, potent and prescient.