The Mayans might have predicted the world would come to an end in 2012, but it’s hard to imagine a more apocalyptic year at the movies, both on and off-screen, than 2011. This was the year that theater attendance dipped to its lowest level since 1995 and critics played the role of coroners, declaring the film camera — and even film itself — officially dead. 2011 was the year that digital became the dominant medium of the movies, both in terms of recording and distribution. We still sometimes call them films, but we sure don’t watch them that way anymore, thanks to television, Blu-ray, HD digital projectors, and online streaming.
While pundits eulogized the death of film, a few directors celebrated its birth. Michel Hazanavicius made “The Artist,” about the forgotten magic of early silent cinema; Martin Scorsese made “Hugo,” an impassioned plea about the importance of film preservation masquerading as a children’s film about an orphan who lives in a train station. Both became critical darlings, maybe because in a time of great technological upheaval it felt appropriate to look back, with awe and admiration.
Looking ahead with anxiety, though, was a far more popular theme. In 2011, filmmakers envisioned the start of our investment banker-led economic collapse (“Margin Call”) and imagined the start of an ape-led social collapse (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”). They put big name movie stars up against cataclysmic viruses (“Contagion”) and cataclysmically shitty employers (“Horrible Bosses”). As more and more movies foretold the end of everything, more and more treated the end like a foregone conclusion rather than a point of suspense; in Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” Earth didn’t even survive past the opening credits. My own list of the best films of 2011 is bracketed by two movies about men haunted by dreams of impending Armageddon.
Ah, top ten lists. So fun to read, so excruciating to make, so contentious to discuss. “These are the greatest movies of the year.” “No, these are the most important movies of the year.” I’ve never been good at drawing those kinds of distinctions. All I can do is tell you honestly which movies affected me the most and try to explain why. That’s what I’m going to do here. Film may be dead, but cinema is alive and well. And here is the proof.
Directed by Evan Glodell
“DIY” doesn’t feel like a strong enough term to describe Evan Glodell’s “Bellflower” so I’m going to call it “DIAY” — do it all yourself. Glodell had a hand in editing, producing, writing, and directing this film; he also played the lead role of Woodrow and actually built all the gadgets and weapons his character uses in movie, including a flamethrowing muscle car called The Medusa. It’s an impressive accomplishment — and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that he also designed the custom camera he shot the movie with yet — but “Bellflower” is a lot more than a hollow technical exercise; it’s also a beautiful and tragic account of what it feels like to fall in and out of love (plus flamethrowers). It’s the best directorial debut of the year and the subject of my favorite movie trailer of the year to boot.
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Is this movie a mess? Yeah, kind of. But that’s also kind of the point. “Margaret” is about a teenage girl (Anna Paquin) who accidentally causes a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) to run over and kill a woman (Allison Janney, devastating and unforgettable in just one scene). Afterwards she’s left searching for answers; the only one she ever finds is that life is messy and rarely makes any sense. Neither does this film’s tortured backstory, which involves untold numbers of cuts and lawsuits spread out over half a decade. It sounded like a disaster on paper, but it’s actually a magnificent film about people living in the aftermath of a disaster, and scene after scene hit with the impact of an oncoming city bus. Playing “Margaret”‘s spoiled, confused, angry protagonist, Anna Paquin gives the performance of 2011, creating one of the most fully and complexly realized teenagers in movie history.
8. “Win Win”
Directed by Thomas McCarthy
Our perpetually recessed economy has a lot of people asking themselves how far they would go to provide for their family. Thomas McCarthy’s “Win Win” is not only one of the best recent films about the search for the answer to that question, it’s also also one the smartest and most unusual underdog sports movies in ages. New Jersey lawyer and high school wrestling coach Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti, as good as he’s ever been) is in danger of losing his feeble legal practice when he makes a sensible but morally indefensible choice: he has himself declared the guardian of one of his elderly clients, dumps him in a nursing home, and pockets the monthly $1500 stipend that comes with the guardianship. Mike’s decision bears unexpected consequences for his family and his wrestling team, all portrayed wonderfully by a cast that includes Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, and newcomer Alex Shaffer as Mike’s client’s grandson, a troubled teenager and wrestling savant. McCarthy’s film is full of astute, unsentimental observations about life in modern America and features an ending that is just about perfect.
Directed by Lee Chang-dong
An elderly woman named Mija (Yun Jung-hee) learns she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease and tries to keep her memory sharp by taking a poetry class in this heartbreaking film from Korean director Lee Chang-dong. Inspiration proves elusive, and only comes along eventually at great personal cost, one involving her grandson Wook (Lee David) and his role in the death of a girl at his school. Lee’s “Poetry” is about the connection between pain and beauty, and how the worst experiences sometimes spur the greatest works of art. Or, as Mija’s poetry teacher puts it, “It’s not difficult to write a poem, but to have the heart to write one.” It’s not hard to make a movie, either. Making one with this much heart is the real challenge.
6. “A Separation”
Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Like “Win Win,” this is another movie set in a universe of fascinating moral complexity. Like “Win Win” it’s a bit of a genre hybrid: part legal thriller, part family drama. It begins when an Iranian couple requests a divorce. The wife (Leila Hatami) wants to leave the country in order to keep their young daughter from growing up in the oppressive atmosphere of Tehran; the husband (Peyman Moaadi) can’t leave behind his father, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s and requires constant care. After the wife moves out, a situation arises that explains her concerns. To watch the father while he’s at work, the husband hires a pregnant woman as a housekeeper, but after a few days on the job, there is an incident in the house, and the father blames the housekeeper. Who is legally at fault? Who is morally at fault? Farhadi’s outstanding film explores how hard — or sometimes impossible — those questions are to answer, with subtle writing and brilliant performances.