Monday, 2 January 2012

Top 10 Films for 2011 (and another list, for good measure)

Well, that was a hell of year, the one just gone. Cinema viewing and film writing was at a woeful low for the entirety of the year – sometimes life just deals you a multitude of things, both brilliant and not-so-brilliant, that kind of take over the whole show. I’m currently setting a few targets in my brain-sack, in order to help overcome the potential onslaught of life-distractions in the coming year and stay on track with some good ol’ film appreciation.

For a while I thought I had nothing under my belt to even cobble together a Top 10 for the year, but the more I tallied up my viewings the better I felt.

Here’s my little contribution to the wide world of end-of-year countdowns.

10. THE TREE OF LIFE (Terrence Malick; USA)

This film seemed to operate on two speeds concurrently – an absolute barrage of moments but presented in Malick’s familiar gliding lilting manner. If I had seen the film more than once, I’d no doubt say that the film would soar a lot higher on the list. As it happens, I saw this feeling exhausted and grumpy, meaning that the magnificence and audacity of Malick’s vision was tempered with feeling that the voice-overs, so affective in The Thin Red Line, bordered on pretentious this time around. I’m wondering what a return viewing might reveal.

9. ARCHIPELAGO (Joanna Hogg; UK)

Following up on her superb 2008 debut Unrelated, Hogg is stamping herself as one of the most intriguing new directors to emerge from the UK. A majestic hilly and lush rural environment provides the setting for a family get-together that moves from faux-conviviality to screaming and hostility. The film concentrates on the incapability of truly connecting with or understanding others via subtle micro-gestures of frustration, anger, and confusion, thus making this film a remarkable study of unspoken and suppressed emotions.

8. TUESDAY, AFTER CHRISTMAS (Radu Muntean; Romania)

More domestic breakdowns, this time between husband and wife. Muntean gives life to the usual husband-having-an-affair narrative by infusing each scene with intimacy and natural grace. And despite the husband’s duplicity, this film is remarkable for presenting the trauma of infidelity and the difficult decisions to be made with quiet, naked honesty.

7. SENNA (Asif Kapadia; UK)

This film is utterly deserving of claims made this year that this may be the best sports documentary of all-time. This is much more than just a biography of a talented racing driver’s career – the film hones in on unbridled passion for one’s vocation, national pride, spiritual commitment, a growing weariness and concern in one’s chosen passion, and an uncanny sense of predestination. First and foremost, though, this film holds a specific allure for allowing the story to unfold purely through archival footage.

6. INTO ETERNITY (Michael Madsen; Denmark)

On paper, the premise seems straight-forward – this is a documentary about Onkalo, an underground nuclear-storage facility in Finland being created from solid rock, which is required to last for 100,000 years, the period of time that this waste remains hazardous. But the film delivers so much more than this, as the accumulation of interviews from various parties begins to reveal the magnitude of complexities involved in engaging in this project. Its presentation as a document for the future errs on the side of beguiling rather than merely pretentious, and the film is often visually alluring, filled with the geometries of the nuclear storage units and crystal-white labyrinthine corridors.

5. MEEK’S CUTOFF (Kelly Reichardt; USA)

This perambulatory drift of three families lead by a hired guide often looks like the cinematic 19th century relation to Gus van Sant’s lost-in-the-desert Gerry. Issues of trust form the emotional core of the film, but Reichardt builds on these issues by patiently elaborating long scenes of characters listening and observing the conversations of others. Eavesdropping has never been so riveting. Reichardt also reveals a love for creating beautiful asymmetrical compositions from the groupings of people against the barren landscape.

4. THE TURIN HORSE (Bela Tarr; Hungary/ France/ Germany/ Switzerland/ USA)

After the disappointing Man From London, Tarr hits the mark with his (supposedly) final work. The repetition of daily chores seems to conjure up thoughts of some kind of distant, barren, wind-afflicted ancestry to Jeanne Dielman, but the gripping focus here is on the simplicity of the struggle to survive. Tarr has the unusual ability to make bleakness vividly and strikingly compelling. And the constant howling music that the wind makes throughout the entirety of the film haunts your ears long after the final fade-out.

3. THIS IS NOT A FILM (Jafar Panahi/ Mojtaba Mirtahmasb; Iran)

Possibly the best film about what it means to create film, to be a director, to transfer words on a page into the magic of cinema. Panahi, under house arrest and not allowed to create a film, puts on the guise of an actor, and proves himself to be a natural and arresting ‘performer’. This is not simply about the heart-break of Panahi’s plight – it is a deep and engaging philosophical essay on the mechanics of filmmaking and perhaps time may reveal this as Panahi’s best film.

2. DISORDER (Huang Weikai; China)

This 58-minute documentary should nestle within the history of cinema as the ultimate anti-city-symphony. Focussing on approximately 20 separate unusual events occurring in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, the film is a collaged marvel of editing as everything we see is actually amateur footage shot by various camera-people. The events reveal a city in the throes of some kind of surrealist chaos – pigs run amok through traffic, a shop filled with illegal frozen ant-eaters and bear paws is ransacked, a shirtless nutcase tries to perform his own style of tai-chi while walking through peak-hour traffic. Huang Weikai meticulously weaves all of the events together, to create an interlocking disorienting melange, portraying a city on the brink of chaos and madness.

1. LE QUATTRO VOLTE (Michelangelo Frammartino; Italy/ Germany/ Switzerland)

An incredible film that successfully does away with focussing on the social world of humans and gives equal weight to the animal, vegetable, mineral, and human realms (hence the ‘four times’ of the title). Thus, the film allows a goat, a tree, and charcoal to be considered as characters on an equal footing with an old goat-herder. Almost entirely wordless, the film breathes the rhythms of the natural world. From goat-herder to goat to tree to charcoal, we are passed through different seasons and different manifestations of continual birth and death. This is pure elemental cinema at its best, providing an extremely rich experience that provokes all the senses.

Bubbling under the Top 10; Aurora (Cristi Puiu); Post Mortem (Pablo Larrain); Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin); The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne); Elena (Andrei Zvyagintsev).


In terms of general film viewing, 2011 was sporadic to say the least. I barely touched base with silent film, and saw very few films from the 1930’s through the 1950’s. This was not be design, it just seems to have shaken out that way, and in hindsight it feels like my cinema diet was lacking in essential nutrients last year. I’ll need to redress this for 2012.

I seem to have spent more time delving into documentaries and experimental cinema last year, and as this was immensely rewarding, I intend to keep this up for the following year.

The range of films to choose from is awfully low compared to other years for me, but below is a selection of the best new film experiences for 2011, in alphabetical order.

Allures (Jordan Belson; USA; 1961)
A Married Couple (Allan King; Canada; 1969)
Anti-Clock (Jane Arden/ Jack Bond; UK; 1979)
A Tale of the Wind (Joris Ivens/ Marceline Loridan; 1988; France)
At Sea (Peter Hutton: USA; 2007)
Ballast (Lance Hammer; USA; 2008)
Deux Fois (Jackie Raynal; France/ Spain; 1968)
Downs Are Feminine (Lewis Klahr; USA; 1994)
Gaea Girls (Kim Longinotto/ Jano Williams; UK; 2000)
Hotel des Invalides (Georges Franju; France; 1951)
In Vanda’s Room (Pedro Costa; Portugal; 2000)
Labyrint (Jan Lenica; Poland; 1963)
Local Hero (Bill Forsyth; UK; 1983)
Odd Man Out (Carol Reed; UK; 1947)
Point of Order (Emile de Antonio; USA: 1964)
Red Road (Andrea Arnold; UK; 2006)
sleep, furiously (Gideon Koppel; UK; 2009)
Unpolished (Pia Marais; Germany; 2006)
Unrelated (Joanna Hogg; UK; 2008)
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (Douglas Gordon/ Philippe Parreno; France; 2006)


  1. Excellent list, Michael. Love seeing Tuesday, After Christmas and The Tree of Life, and especially Meek's Cutoff on your top 10. The latter, which I had as my favorite of the year, I just watched again the other night, and I'm happy to report that it holds up great. It's a really special movie.

    Love seeing the Hutton and the Klahr on your separate list. Klahr in particular is a huge favorite of mine. His stuff isn't the easiest to find, but I've loved everything I've seen. My favorite is probably Altair, which I believe is on Youtube if you haven't seen it yet.

  2. What a fabulous list Michael considering you were not able to see as many new films this past year. I have seen 6 out of your 10 films, a list which includes 2 titles that I have not heard about. Also, I missed seeing Post Mortem as it only showed once in my city at a time that I could not make. I look forward to seeing it this year as I do for some of the other titles on your list.

    Glad to see you liked Zidane and A Married Couple as both were incredible experiences for me. Plus, I got to see Zidane for a second time in 2011 at part of a museum installation and that was even better than seeing the film -- in the museum, two wall size screens were setup with the left screen showing the film and the right screen showing raw footage from camera 1. That resulted in an even more complete view of events.

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  4. Drew, thanks for stopping by, much appreciated. Pleased to hear that Meek's Cutoff holds up with repeat viewings - this is always the true test of a good film, and I'm actually looking forward to watching it again some time in the first month of this year.

    I love Klahr as well, I truly wish I could access more of his work. I've only seen Altair, Pony Glass, Lulu and Downs are Feminine and they are all utterly exquisite.

    Thanks for your comment, Sachin. Post Mortem was a great film, although I was so tired when viewing it that I nodded off a couple of times, thus marring my full appreciation of the film. If i watch it again I'm sure it will rate higher in my estimation. I loved Larrain's earlier film Tony Manero, it was my film of the year for 2009 - a very talented director.
    I'm looking forward to seeing more Allan King this year -I recall your blog post on King's work, which compelled me to add his other titles to my 'must watch' list. Zidane is just sublime, isn't it - I wish I had seen it on the big screen when it first screened here in Melbourne, but on a smaller home screen it's still marvellous.