Firstly, allow me to say how freaking cool it is to be in such good company. Thanks for the invite, Dennis.
Next, boy, how ‘bout that 2011? Last year was for me a thoroughly exciting and exhausting year. I keep track of how many films I’ve seen in a year and last year, I saw a total of 515 or so new features. Meaning 515 films that were new to me, not 515 movies that were releases theatrically in the year. I was and am still a glutton for films and took as many opportunities as possible to gorge on tons o’ stuff that struck my fancy. Going to the Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals were a real treat because I got to see movies by filmmakers I love and make great new friends.
I also worked my ass off to write as much as I could about all the films I saw. And I am constantly surprised and excited to learn that people actually read that stuff. I know that sounds like false modesty or some shit. But really, I couldn’t be more thankful.
Next: I must charge Dennis with heresy, which is sad since he’s the one that invited me into the Tree House in the first place. I mean, not liking The Tree of Life? Gosh, you’re really asking for it, pard.
Actually, I probably would have been sincerely upset about knowing that you weren’t over the moon for Malick’s latest a few months ago, Dennis. It’s a film that I think has a lot of knotty, fascinating things to say about how Malick sees God. His God is a flawed parent figure that learns from us as much as we do from him. Brad Pitt’s character also reminded me of my late grandfather (the scene at the diner where he’s flirting with the waitress reminded me of my dad’s father so much; I miss him dearly). I got a lot out of The Tree of Life and can’t think of a more vivid 2011 title.
But realistically, there are so many new (as in they were either produced or released in 2011) movies I want to share with my fellow Tree House members, so many things that I think you should see, so much cool stuff!
Too often when people make lists of the best films of the year, they ignore all the smaller parts, performances and ideas that impressed them. The empirical need to classify, however subjectively, one’s own absolute favorite films is understandable and a compulsion I totally get. But how about that one scene where the butcher in The Butcher, The Chef and The Swordsman cuts a horse in half with his cleaver? The movie’s not exactly a keeper. But I crack up just thinking about that scene.
Or how about Scabbard Samurai, a movie that hasn’t yet been released theatrically in America but was produced in 2011 and is surely one of my favorite films of the year? I mean, yes, I love Film Socialisme’s capitalist conspiracy theory hoohaa and Take Shelter’s gutting penultimate scene and wow, how about Love Exposure, folks, the best film by a filmmaker most Americans hadn’t even heard of until somebody said, “Jeepers, lookit this 4-hour tribute to Christ-like boners and finding divinity through perversion!”*
But what about all the other neat STUFF? I can’t think of another word for it other than “stuff” because there’s just so much of it and none of it fits together well. But hey, let’s throw some of it against a wall and see if any of it sticks with you as much as it has with me:
13: I adore this DTV meathead opus. It’s totally stupid but it’s so drunk on testosterone that I kind of fell in love with it. This short list of cast members should give you a hint as to why: Sam Riley, Michael Shannon, Mickey Rourke, Jason Statham, Ray Winstone, BEN GAZZARA, 50 Cent. I wrote about it s’more here.
Amigo: There are certain scenes and dramatic flourishes in this square drama that I fucking adore. This was the point where I realized: yup, I’m a John Sayles fan.
L’Amour Fou: The best character studies embrace and are maybe even a little bit about the limits of their knowledge, I think.
Conan the Barbarian: This movie’s the pits. But that Jason Momoa kid’s real good.
Dark Horse: Saw this one at Toronto. And all I could think while watching it (apart from gawping at Brian De Palma, who was seated riiiight across the aisle from me) was that Todd Solondz got into my head. Somehow, he got into my head. And he made a movie about what high school-aged me was most afraid of: being trapped in Long Island for the rest of my deceptively protracted adolescent life. This is a film about what an entitled fish-out-of-water teenager secretly fears he’ll become when he grows up, but only if he remains a Long Islander (Until 13, I lived in Queens, New York; then I moved a few to a house that’s literally three houses on the right of the Long Island/Queens border. And I became an angry young man…okay, angrier).
This black comedy hit so close to home that I was practically hyperventilating while watching it. I almost died twice after I recognized two childhood landmarks: 1) the office building where the lead protag’s dad works (it’s in Roslyn, near where my nana lives); and 2) the Scobee Diner from one scene (Scobee’s closed now but it used to be a staple of the community and my pre-adolescent life). I repeat: Todd Solondz got into my head. And he fucked me up.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: A very sharp remake, yessir.
Extraterrestrial: The reception at Toronto for Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo’s moving follow-up to Time Crimes, his slightly superior time travel thriller, was curiously non-existent. Oh, well. Extraterrestrial’s one of my favorites of this year’s festival titles, a clever science fiction film that’s more about the interpersonal drama that results from an absurd, unthinkable event than it is actually about that event. You should see this. Yes, you.
Final Destination 5: This year, I got into the habit of rewatching certain films in theaters, just to confirm my high opinion of them. This was one of them. My favorite summer movie!
Habemus Papam: I’ve yet to see a bad Nanni Moretti movie. Seriously, name one. Make my day.
The Housemaid: AND THEN SHE CATCHES FIRE. SHE ACTUALLY CATCHES ON FIRE. FWOOSH FWOOSH. 2011.html)
The Ides of March: As a director, George Clooney is what really made this political drama about the cycle of scandal and corruption that plagues American politics work for me. Somewhere along the way, he’s become a story-teller that knows exactly how to pace a scene. I hope he gets behind the camera more often.
Immortals: I like Tarsem Singh a whole bunch.
The Last Circus: A lot of the convolutions of this film’s messy and playfully grotesque allegory for post-Franco Spain went over my head. But I was still dazzled by it and wish more people had gotten a chance to see it (it’s on Netflix Instant now!). You’ll get dense political commentary and killer clowns while you puzzle over it. Of course, this is an Alex de la Iglesia picture, after all.
Let the Bullets Fly: Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting from actor-turned-director Jiang Wen’s follow-up to his jerky but momentarily amazing The Sun Also Rises. But it’s pretty freaking good….
Love Crime: Alain Corneau’s last film and a very good excuse to watch French women behave badly.
Life Without Principle: A year without a new Johnnie To movie might as well be a year without new movies.
Livid: If you’re wondering if the haunted house flick that the guys that made Inside recently unleashed at Toronto was any good: yes.
The Minister: Saw this French political drama at Cannes based on its surreal poster (a naked woman crawling into the mouth of a crocodile). But the scene advertised in that poster was totally unlike the rest of the film and, I think, could have easily been excised. Still, Dardenne brothers’ regular Olivier Gourmet starring in a Sorkin-esque movie about selling out in politics? Uh yuh, I like it.
Outside Satan: …what was that? No, really, I want answers.
Sleeping Beauty: Australian novelist Julia Leigh’s debut feature has a lot to say about the ritualized masochistic impulses surrounding sex and it says so much while talking in code…even when I felt like I got it, I knew that there was more to get. Plus, Emily Browning is great in this. I’ll never forget seeing this at Cannes with a totally befuddled audience at the end of the first full day of competition screenings.
Le Quattro Volte: Man becomes sheep. Sheep becomes tree. Tree becomes ash and air. Which then turns into a Jurassic Park reference, somehow…and whoever watches this (also on Netflix Instant!) will inherit the Earth.
Road to Nowhere: Wow.
3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy: Um. I’ll just leave this here…
The Thing: I love John Carpenter’s version, yes, it’s true. But I still think this movie is a lot better than most horror nerds thought it’d be. Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. deserves a lot of credit for making a genuinely creepy and clever homage to both The Thing and Alien.
This Must Be the Place: Paolo Sorrentino’s back! Hooray! Oh and Sean Penn’s good! Whoopee! Oh and hey, Judd Hirsch as a Nazi hunter! Huzz—what?!
True Legend: Best action movies of 2011. No joke.
A Useful Life: I can’t completely get behind the guiding sentiments behind this hour-long Uruguayan ode to film history and moviegoing/preservation. But I also can’t shake its absolute certainty that time has run out for film as a communal experience and how sad it is to now be on the cusp of being forgotten when there’s still so much to say and so much to see. It’s a very sad film but often a clever and moving one, too.
The Ward: I saw John Carpenter’s film once and really didn’t take to it. Then I watched it again so I could take notes for what I assumed would be a pan. And I rather liked (aspects of) it.
Win Win: The wrestling scenes in this film are boffo. Some of my favorite action scenes of the year.
The Woman: The brattiness of this film is kind of charming in and of itself. More Lucky McKee, please.
*That kind of sums up my taste in movies, incidentally.
Simon Abrams is a freelance writer for Slant and many other publications who also blogs at Extended Cut: Simon Abrams's Film Journal
TREE HOUSE POST #1: INTRODUCTIONS AND AN OPENING SALVO
TREE HOUSE POST #2: AGONY, ECSTASY AND THESPIAN PRIDE