What mattered in 2011

Time to take stock, filmwise, of the year that was. My grading system (from 0—none this year though I could barely bring myself to give a 6 to the much-applauded Tree of Life—to 20) helps do a quick scan of the hundreds of films I’ve seen in 2011. What does a film have to be and do to get 20? Keep me consistently engaged, not have any off moment, not have any special goofs or anachronistic touches, offer intelligent writing, strong cinematography, and powerful acting. In other words, be perfect.

Way up there, absolutely qualifying for top gold, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, both of which I reviewed for Screen Comment. The two are so different, there’s no way I can pick one over the other. So, a few comments on each of the two and on other films I loved.

Melancholia. The gloom and doom left me trying to catch my breath. The extraordinary last scene, after many extraordinary scenes, left the public stunned and glued to their seats. A word on that last scene: One can imagine the high-wire editing of a lesser director engaging in a furious back-and-forth from one or the other of the three characters (I won’t explain in case you haven’t seen the film) to the approaching menace. LVT does the opposite, focuses on expressions until the very last image, then Bang!

The Artist. Or how a black-and-white and silent flick, French to boot, can be more exhilarating than anything we’ve seen in recent years. No wonder that The Artist would be a best-movie Oscar contender, and not a best foreign-film contender, a perfect demonstration of the border-transcending art of silent movies. Also, way beyond wanting to please audiences, The Artist tells the story in a straightforward manner, devoid of the irony that in these jaded days we feel we have to infuse in everything we say or produce, especially when going back to more innocent times.

A Separation. Talking about foreign-film contenders, none appears as strong as this powerful offering from Iran. Director Farhadi has his hand on the pulse of this country filled with contradictions, a society where the disconnect could not be greater between a regime on its last leg and a large, highly educated middle class. Without ever stressing a point or making a statement, Farhadi takes us through the clashes that occur when people are alienated from their own environment.

Midnight in Paris. Another reenactment of older and perhaps better times. Woody Allen may still consider himself fragmented but his vision of the Paris of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein is firmly in place. In this gem of a movie, his alter ego, Owen Wilson, is properly starry-eyed while literate enough to understand any number of appropriate quips for an educated audience. Someone gives Luis Bunuel an idea for a film that would show a party with a bunch of people unable to leave a room. “Why?” asks the nonplussed Spanish director, the perfect question for anyone who wondered the same upon viewing his Exterminating Angel.

Nostalgia for the Light. If I may quote myself, this is how I started my Screen Comment review when this film came out: “There is no present, only the past,” an astronomer says in Patricio Guzman’s “Nostalgia for the Light.” He goes on to explain that as both light and sound take time to travel, by the time he hears the interviewer’s question in this documentary—if a film so profound can be called a documentary—or perceives his features at any given time, both voice and face as they look and sound in that nanosecond are already in the past. The Chilean director who, for the last forty years, has never stopped reflecting on his country’s history, gives us not only a stunning synthesis of that history but a metaphysical view of what it means to be human, of our origins and those of the planet we inhabit.

The King’s Speech. I’ve heard all the arguments against this film. It’s ponderous, it’s Masterpiece Theatre stuff, etc. What can I say, I enjoyed it from beginning to end, giving in to our endless fascination with British royals, to what remains incredible to this day, the King of England abdicating to marry the woman he loves, and to my personal endless fascination with Colin Firth. He is hammy perfection as younger Bertie who would grudgingly become George VI upon his brother’s defection, as is Geoffrey Rush in the role of the speech therapist.

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