The Year in Review:
The Best of Film in 2011

Features, FILM,
The year’s cinematic highlights according to our editors and contributors.

Tim Wong

Editor, The Lumière Reader

  1. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, USA)
  2. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, Portugal/France, 2010)
  3. Las Acacias (Pablo Giorgelli, Argentina/Spain)
  4. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
  5. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, Hungary/France/Switzerland/Germany)
  6. A Useful Life (Federico Veiroj, Uruguay/Spain, 2010)
  7. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujicâ, Romania, 2010)
  8. Winter Vacation (Li Hongqi, China, 2010)
  9. Weekend (Andrew Haigh, UK)
  10. Le quattro volte (Michelangelo Frammartino, Italy/Germany/Switzerland, 2010)

Other highlights: Aita, Arrietty, Insidious, Love Like Poison, 13 Assassins, True Grit.

Regrettably missed: Another Earth, Love Story, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Midnight in Paris, Of Gods and Men, The Orator, A Separation, Sleeping Sickness, Tomboy.

Lowlight: Black Swan.

For one reason or another, my movie attendance outside of film festivals this year was severely limited, so regard the above selection as a pseudo-New Zealand International Film Festival top ten (reported on in full here). Had I included the likes of The Tree of Life, Melancholia, and Drive—exclamation marks in a Cannes-tinted programme that were exciting to see hot off the press and in the context of the festival, but were always destined for wide release shortly after—this list probably wouldn’t need such a disclaimer.

Impressive directorial works as they were, I was too indifferent towards the headline trio to consider them amongst the best of the year, though the Malick opus certainly deserves my admiration and a second chance. (Alas, on the small screen it will have to be.) Drive was a movie of two halves: all anti-climatic style and feeling to begin with; routinely violent and fatalistic by the end. Lars von Trier’s film may have wielded a grand metaphor for depression and a renewing performance from Kirsten Dunst, but too often drifted into self-parody (through self-flagellation).

My choice has also been restricted by the fact that many of the reoccurring favourites in end-of-year lists around the world—Hugo, Shame, A Dangerous Method, The Descendents, and so on—have yet to screen here in any form. (Most are scheduled to arrive in the first months of 2012.) Other excellent films that have been making critics’ lists—Certified Copy, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, The Arbor, and most significantly, Meek’s Cutoff—registered in my 2010 Year in Review, and thus appear as notable omissions.

As an aside, my viewing habits over the past twelve months tended towards discovering and rediscovering cinema on DVD, though when I did get out, the Film Society was invariably my first port of call. (The organisers there must be commended for bringing Pedro Costa’s Fontaínhas Trilogy to New Zealand: important works of contemporary cinema that, despite their unpopularity, exemplify the spirit behind why institutions such as the Film Society exist.) Some of my best finds on DVD (though not all were released this year) included the utterly compelling Actuality Dramas of Allan King (Eclipse), Marco Ferrari’s masterpiece of the mundane, Dillinger is Dead (Criterion), and two previously hard-to-see gems of Classic Hollywood: Joseph Losey’s creepy “perv-noir” The Prowler (1951, VCI), and Stars in My Crown (1950, Warner Archive), a moving realist western from Jacques Tourneur that, in a nice bit of symmetry, angles in on the same racism and quotidian existence of frontier Americans in the foreground of Kelly Reichardt’s multi-dimensional Meek’s Cutoff.

Brannavan Gnanalingam

Editor-at-Large, The Lumière Reader

2011 was an excellent year of films in New Zealand—mostly helped by an excellent New Zealand International Film Festival. Some great films didn’t quite make the cut: The Kid With a Bike, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Boxing Gym, and Tabloid. There were some flawed but interesting films such as The Tree of Life (which made me wish for the day that Malick moves away from his woman at one with nature stereotype) and Sleeping Beauty. There were also some great genre films: Senna (a superb sports documentary), Viva Riva! (a fun and sharp Congolese gangster film), and Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins. Other highlights included the re-screening of Carlos Saura’s brillient Cría Cuervos as part of the festival’s anniversary celebrations, and the revisiting of Merata Mita’s seminal Mana Waka. Some of the bigger disappointments included Andrey Zvyagintsev’s limp Elena, and Melancholia. (Which to be honest wasn’t a disappointment—I just assumed Lars von Trier would one day figure out the concepts of subtlety and learn not to bash his audience on the head with paradoxically thin ideas. I guess I was wrong.)

1. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, Portugal/France, 2010)
The late, great Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz’s eclecticism arguably saw him underrated throughout his ultra-prolific career. Hopefully, this marvelous film finally sees him gain the recognition he deserves (albeit too late). Made for French/Portuguese television, and based on a classic 19th century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, Mysteries of Lisbon is a sumptuous, witty, idiosyncratic take on the simple idea of spinning a yarn. But it’s much more than that. Death, radical shifts in Portuguese society, class conflicts, and the nature of time is wondrously explored. Five hours has rarely felt so short in cinema. Read More

2. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, Hungary/France/Switzerland/Germany)
Béla Tarr’s reputed final film is at first glance cinema stripped down to its basics—the elements, minimal dialogue and sets, little action. But its density and complexity belies its minimalism. It’s stunning cinema, aided by Fred Keleman’s astounding camerawork, which hypnotically reduces survival as the only option in a cruel and indifferent world. Nietzsche’s ghost (mad or not) stalks the very bones of the film.

3. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2010)
This western—in which the conquest of the West from its native inhabitants is stripped from its typical heroic narrative and reduced down to a single pathetic group on the Oregon Trail—is further proof that Kelly Reichardt is currently the most interesting auteur working in American cinema today. From its visual homages and tight performances (a marvelous Michelle Williams in particular), to its understated symbolism and moral ambivalence, it’s brave and rewarding cinema.

4. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujicâ, Romania, 2010)
Reportedly, Kim Jong-il was a huge film buff, and it would’ve been interesting to see what he would’ve made of this film (given his brief starring role), and its, err, black take on tyrants. Of course, Ujica could argue that he was showing the Romanian dictator as Ceasescu himself wanted to be seen, through the mere assemblage of Ceasescu’s propaganda films. But it’s the editing, the passage of the time, the brutal humour, and the grinding down effect of one propaganda piece after another, that make this one of the most bleakly funny films in years. Read More

5. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
A slow-burn police thriller, Ceylan’s film eschews genre conventions to instead focus on guilt, prescribed gender roles (only one word is spoken by a woman in the film), small-town ennui, and profound alienation. Like Leone’s film to which this refers, the puniness of individuals amongst nature and the inexorable dance towards death remain the potent visual and thematic markers.

6. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
A terrific script and some of the best performances in recent memory elevate what could have been a ‘small’ morality play into a full-blown contemporary tragedy. Drawing light on class, ideological, gender, and religious differences in contemporary Iran, it’s a wonderfully taut and resonant thriller. Read More

7. Las Acacias (Pablo Giorgelli, Argentina/Spain)
One of the loveliest films of the year, and a deserving first feature winner at Cannes, this Argentinean road movie concerns the unfolding friendship between a Paraguayan mother (armed with a toddler) and a gruff truck driver. Nothing much happens, but damned if you want to watch it again and again to capture its ineffable appeal.

8. Aita (José María de Orbe, Spain, 2010)
Evoking the underworld with its title, Aita’s placid and poignant look at repressed memories and unconscionable horror through a decaying medieval house sounds much heavier than it plays out. Blurring the line between documentary and fiction, the house is such a memorable character, that you barely notice the ephemeral individuals who inhabit it.

9. A Useful Life (Federico Veiroj, Uruguay/Spain, 2010)
Film as a preserver of memory plays out to wonderful effect in this charming Uruguayan film. Set in amongst a slowly dying cinémathèque in Montevideo, the sad-sack of a main character comes to realise that the language of film doesn’t need to be trapped in a physical repository, and as his comical and endearing attempt at romance shows, film lives on in those who love it.

10. Winter Vacation (Li Hongqi, China, 2010)
A mordant take on small-town boredom in industrial China. Rigorous mise-en-scène, disaffected characters, and the use of silence as a key tool in the script would rarely result in hilarity, but Winter Vacation achieves this easily. It perhaps overplays the social criticism (it was doing fine without the conclusion), but is a fascinating depiction of a changing China nonetheless.

Alexander Bisley

Editor-at-Large, The Lumière Reader

  • The Orator (Tusi Tamasese, Samoa/New Zealand)
  • Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
  • Billy Te: Te Movie (Ian Mune, New Zealand)
  • Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia)
  • Senna (Asif Kapadia, UK/USA/France, 2010)
  • 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, Japan, 2010)
  • The Fighter (David O. Russell, USA, 2010)
  • True Grit (Joel & Ethan Coen, USA, 2010)
  • Norwegian Wood (Tran Ahn Hung, Japan, 2010)
  • The Thick Of It (Armando Iannucci, DVD)

Jacob Powell

Contributing Editor, The Lumière Reader

1. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2010)
A vérité western focusing on the stories of women traveling in a wagon train—who’d have thought? Kelly Reichardt reinforces her growing reputation as an auteur of note with this meditative yet intense period piece. Based on actual trail journals, Reichardt eschews genre trappings, redefining the western myth by drawing the dramatic from the everyday. The perils in this film are the very real dangers of the lack of fresh drinking water and breakdown of essential equipment with no easy way to fix it. Meek’s lingering ‘academy ratio’ visuals easily match the open, undulating landscape and tone of the feature making this a work of abstemious beauty.

2. Silent Souls (Aleksei Fedorchenko, Russia, 2010)
Ostensibly a road movie, Aleksei Fedorchenko’s modern folktale tracks two colleagues engaged in a fading tribal death ritual after the passing of one’s wife. The narrative action is minimal; the tenor restrained. Yet the film is so alive; visual poetry as languid as the various rivers encountered, as insistent and urgent as the chattering of the portentous birds who share the journey. Subdued sound design, dialogue, and colour palette combine perfectly with Mikhail Krichman’s (The Return, Elena) dreamlike cinematography, making Silent Souls an opportunity not to miss for any budding ‘slow cinema’ enthusiast.

3. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark/France/Germany/Sweden)
Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is both a visual spectacle (of the best kind) and a structural masterpiece. To what degree he is playing out his personal issues with depression and the ramifications of those is, to me, a moot point. Von Trier has never been known for his subtle metaphors but his strategy of using the means as the message is quite an effective way of getting thematic hooks into his audience and he does so in a typically arresting manner. The heavily stylised (fashion catalogue-like) prefigurative opening alone is worth the price of admission, and the rest of the film shows the idiosyncratic Danish auteur at the top of his game.

4. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, USA)
I don’t usually like to employ the oft-misapplied label ‘revelation’ but virgin feature director Sean Durkin and his breakout lead Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of the Full House twins) totally deserve it. Playing like the work of a seasoned auteur, Martha’s marriage of narrative structure, visual and emotional tone, and character development makes for a taut, tense, and tightly packaged feature film that holds potential for both art house and multiplex audiences. Read More

5. True Grit (Joel & Ethan Coen, USA, 2010)
The Coens do it again with this (second) cinematic adaptation of Charles Portis’s 1968 western serial/novel of the same name. The brothers combine typically standout dialogue with excellent wide open shooting (regular Coen DOP Roger Deakins in particular killing it for them on this production), and inspired casting decisions into a terribly entertaining genre film with—tongue held firmly in cheek—bite. Add Hailee Steinfeld to the list of ridiculously talented young actresses able to grab hold of the silver screen and make it their own. Combine with several helpings of grizzled Coen regular (Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin), a dollop or two of star playing against type (Matt Damon), and you have a near guaranteed recipe for success! Call it Coen-lite if you like, but for my money True Grit is every bit as compelling as No Country For Old Men, even if it is more on their wry humour track than their disturbia one.

5. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
Impressive Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s ‘police procedural’ is so spacious and rich that, although a criminal timeline emerges from within its boundaries, the point truly is to tell the story of the eponymous locale—at once in broad strokes yet with great attention to detail. Each major character is given their own ‘once upon a time’ moment, the strand of which is weaved into the tapestry of the Anatolian character, like the massed individuals of a great choir forming a singular voice. Slow, deliberate, moody, Anatolia reflects the director’s appreciation for the recognised masters of the filmic arts. Read More

7. Tabloid (Errol Morris, USA, 2010)
Of the many good documentaries I saw in 2011 Errol Morris’ Tabloid truly stands out as something special. Where other documentaries (some listed below) may have had compelling subjects and great investigative technique Morris also brings to bear real filmmaking skill to a degree that no others did. Joyce McKinney, the film’s erstwhile Tabloid headline, is nothing if not a magnetic personality. In the usual fashion she opens up to Morris and his camera and then keeps on opening up until she’s layered herself in ‘truths’ and self-narratives leaving me wondering if she’s guessing at actual events and motivations as much as we are. Morris uses his constructive magic to create a grand comedic opera which, with deceptive lightness, poses us searching questions around truth, identity, and humanity’s capacity for self deception.

8. 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, Japan/UK, 2010)
Chameleonic Japanese provocateur Takashi Miike produces a classic take on the samurai epic, and damn if it doesn’t work exceptionally well! Eschewing his familiar ultra-graphic, ultra-stylised sensibility (Ichi the Killer, Sukiyaki Western Django) Miike has fashioned a beautifully realised ode to Japanese history/cinema comprised of taut drama, visceral action, and visual artistry. The marriage of dramatic weight to balletic-vs-brutal action makes 13 Assassins a film worthy of even Kurosawa’s (classic) Seven Samurai. Did I mention that the closing action ‘set-piece’ is approximately 45mins long?! So good.

9. The Last Circus (Álex de la Iglesia, Spain/France, 2010)
Playing like a B-grade film that is as surprised as we are that it gathered such a decent budget, Spaniard Álex de la Iglesia’s clownsploitation piece is the kind of messed up weirdness cine-geeks like myself glory in. You can imagine the pitch meetings: “So we’ve got these two clowns engaged in a kind of S&M love triangle whilst still putting on shows for the kids… My visual inspiration? Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen and Brazil for sure… What do you mean ‘what’s the point’? Crazy killer clowns! What else do you need???” and so on. That a film of this nature has such good production values is pleasantly bewildering, yet it retains the twisted genre appropriate humour, providing me with the most vigorous and unexpected laugh-out-loud moment I had in a cinema in 2011. Read More

10. Cold Weather (Aaron Katz, USA, 2010)
Bujalski meets Chandler in Aaron Katz’s ‘mumble noir’ oddity, which takes the slowest of naturalistic mumblecore relationship explorations and tacks a gumshoe mystery onto its long tail. Cold Weather may push its luck with an extended meandering setup, but once the noir narrative sets in the outworking of Beeswax-style dialogue/characterisation within a Holmes referencing amateur detective story transforms the film into something magical. The timing, self-deprecative humour, and unassuming characters make recognisable situations fresh and surprising. Any early pacing/character frustration I felt integrated into an overall cinematic experience that left me feeling exhilarated.

Honourable Mentions: Attack the Block, Blue Valentine, Catfish, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Of Gods and Men, Drive, Hobo with a Shotgun, Jane Eyre, Love Story, Restrepo, Source Code, Submarine, The Future, The Kid with a Bike, The Yellow Sea, Tucker & Dale vs Evil, Tyrannosaur.

Hoping to see/Looking forward to: Alps, Elena, Extraterrestrial, Kill List, Looper, Margaret, Take Shelter, The ABCs of Death, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Wrong.

Steve Garden

Contributing Editor, The Lumière Reader

2011 was extraordinarily busy for me, so film viewing was rather piecemeal. As usual, the best was crammed into my annual mid-winter holiday, 17 days of cinematic travel, this year to some 50-odd destinations, of which only two (one in a Norwegian wood, the other at a Danish wedding) looked better from a distance.

I regret missing Sleeping Sickness and Boxing Gym, and would like to have seen Take Shelter, Pina and Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I also haven’t seen Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film (widely acclaimed as one of the best films of 2011), and look forward to seeing Tusi Tamasese’s The Orator.

The films listed below were all strong and satisfying, and I would happily revisit them given the chance, especially Raul Ruiz’s penultimate (sadly) masterwork, Mysteries of Lisbon. Kelly Reichardt’s great film, Meek’s Cutoff, and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, are the films I most look forward to catching up with again. The list is in no particular order, although the first half dozen or so were exceptional:

  • The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, Hungary/France/Switzerland/Germany)
  • Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, Portugal/France, 2010)
  • Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
  • Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2010)
  • Aita (José María de Orbe, Spain, 2010)
  • The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujicâ, Romania, 2010)
  • Winter Vacation (Li Hongqi, China, 2010)
  • Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh, Australia)
  • Le quattro volte (Michelangelo Frammartino, Italy/Germany/Switzerland, 2010)
  • A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
  • The Day He Arrived (Hong Sang-soo, Korea)
  • Michael (Markus Schleinzer, Austria)
  • My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa, Russia, 2010)
  • Silent Souls (Aleksei Fedorchenko, Ukraine/Germany/Netherlands, 2010)
  • A Useful Life (Federico Veiroj, Uruguay/Spain, 2010)
  • Nainsukh (Amit Dutta, India, 2010)
  • Love Like Poison (Katell Quillévéré, France, 2010)
  • Las Acacias (Pablo Giorgelli, Argentina/Spain)
  • The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France)
  • Oki’s Movie (Hong Sang-soo, Korea, 2010)
  • The Forgiveness of Blood (Joshua Marston, USA/Albania)
  • Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia)
  • Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland/France)
  • The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, USA)

I deliberately put Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life last on the list. I wasn’t going to include it, but I have a soft spot for the film, which I read as a sincere attempt at personal (and national, perhaps even universal) re-evaluation. However, it struggles to withstand its own gravitas, let alone the weight of near-unanimous critical acclaim. Metaphysics aside, it’s a conventional, quintessentially American tale, but of course ‘the big picture’ is what The Tree of Life is all about (in more ways than one). Perhaps that’s why I have a soft spot for it. Any film that attempts to discuss these sorts of things with such uncompromising cinematic poetry and bravura is worthy of respect at least. Alas, I can’t bring myself to make the same concessions for Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which is essentially the thematic flipside to Malick’s coin. This could have lent the film considerable weight if von Trier hadn’t so cynically squandered the opportunity. Ironically, in its self-indulgent and gloating self-regard, the film testifies to the existential fruit borne of the flipside of Malick’s coin—i.e. what we bring upon ourselves.

I saw only a handful of documentaries this year, but they were all good, particularly Hot Coffee and The Black Power Mix-tape. Project Nim, Better This World, and Position Among the Stars (was this entirely a documentary?) were also very good.

Of the very few non-festival films I saw in a theatre this year (and they were very few indeed), Bill Cunningham in New York was well worth the ticket price. Midnight in Paris was an enjoyable diversion, a quintessential Woody Allen movie, and one of his better films of late (which isn’t saying much, to be frank). Of Gods and Men was a well-made, sincere portrait of French monks living in a Muslim community in Northern Africa, a true story that, for the most part, was well handled and often thought-provoking, but for me there was something old-fashioned and rather cosy about it. It was certainly less challenging than it could have been, both in terms of content and form, but to be fair, it wasn’t trying to be that sort of film. I missed Blue Valentine (among many others), but hope to catch up with it eventually. Missing Black Swan seems to have been a blessing.

My summer evenings will again be spent attempting to make a dent in my overstocked DVD library. Last year, the highlight was early French cinema, especially the timeless work of Jean Renoir. This year I’ll be plunging into the recently released Theo Angelopoulos collection (Artificial Eye), but I’m also looking forward to watching many of the film noir DVDs I’ve acquired over the years. Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944) kicked things off—a savvy, beautifully written, masterful gem that set the bar very high for the films to follow.