I had actually seen one of Malick’s films before: The Thin Red Line (1998). I remember that at the time it made a strong impression on me, and certain aspects of it have stayed with me: that a war film should be presided over by a contemplative spirit was unusual, to say the least. But I am an obtuse man, and it never occurred to me to follow up by watching Malick’s other films, of which there were (at that time) three: Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), and The New World (2005). What prompted me, this year, to go back and watch all of these films was the release of his most recent, The Tree of Life (about which, more below). I would now say, first, that Malick is one of the most intriguing and impressive filmmakers of whom I am aware, and, second, that he is getting better. There are some fascinating formal things going on in his films: spare dialogue, editing that violates the usual syntax of continuity and perspective, extensive use of voiceover, occasional bursts of surrealism; and all is woven together by a gentle spirit who gives the viewer time and space to consider, carefully, what is being set before his eyes. Of all his work, it was The New World that most affected me. It is a profoundly beautiful picture, both visually and spiritually, a meditation on beauty and love and longing filtered through the tale of Pocahontas. Highly recommended — and the same goes for all of his films.
It was a priest at our parish who introduced me to Whit Stillman’s films over dinner one evening. To my knowledge, I had never heard of him before, nor of any of his films, of which there were (at that time) three: Metropolitan (1989), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998). (In 2011 was added Damsels in Distress, which has not yet seen wide release and which I have not seen.) All three of Stillman’s films have a similar aesthetic and common themes, and they could be seen, I think, as a kind of unofficial trilogy. What we get from Stillman — who, like Malick, both writes and directs his films — is a gentle but cunning examination of the social, moral, and intellectual lives of upper middle-class twentysomethings — what a character in Metropolitan calls “the UHB”, “the urban haute-bourgeoisie”. Naturally, these young men and women are, mostly, unreflectively liberal in their views, and I believe the films can be seen as deeply understated satires of the liberal ethos, the sexual revolution, and so on. But I stress that they are very far from being polemical. On the contrary, they are funny, intelligent, winsome, and touching. As my priest put it, Stillman is arguably something like a conservative Woody Allen. He gives us comedies of manners, with people talking, and what they say is not only interesting in its own right, but it tells us a great deal about them, for better and for worse. His films are wonderful.
Alright then, on with the show. In what follows I restrict my comments to films that were released in 2011, although, because I do not get to the cinema very often, I include films issued on DVD this year as well. It is perhaps worth noting up front that I did not see any of the most popular films of the year — nor, to be honest, do I intend to see any of them.
My favourite film of the year was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Not only was it the most thought provoking and moving film that I saw in 2011, it was also the most gloriously cinematic experience that I have had in years. It is almost absurdly ambitious, and whether it finally ‘works’ is a question about which I remain undecided, but I certainly admire its audacity. It tells the story of a middle-class Texan family in the 1950s, setting their story against a (literal) cosmic backdrop. There is so much that could be said about this film that I hardly know where to begin. It probes the texture of everyday life for those cracks where glory, beauty, and transcendence can break in. It asks hard questions about the meaningfulness of our lives, about why we suffer, and about how we ought to live. It wonders about God and our relationship to Him, and about sin, and death. It vividly evokes the experience of boyhood, that experience which is, as Chesterton said, like having a hundred windows open on all sides of the head. It is visually stunning. Its music is gorgeous. I have a prejudice against Brad Pitt, but his performance here, as the father, is very good; Jessica Chastain is unforgettable as the mother: her beautiful spirit, exemplifying “the way of grace”, hovers over the film like a benediction.
The rest of the films I’ll discuss in no particular order.
The brilliantly-titled Animal Kingdom (2010) is an engrossing crime drama from Australia that was issued on DVD this year. I don’t think it had a very wide theatrical release, though it did get an Oscar nomination for Jacki Weaver in the Best Actress category. (Alas, she did not win.) It tells the story of a young man, orphaned, who goes to live with his relatives. They make their living in the drug trade. Naturally, he tries to stay at arm’s length, but, naturally as well, this is not as easy as it might sound. The film plays on shifting allegiances, uncertainties, and betrayals, and it generates a good deal of tension. Structurally, it is very satisfying. The acting is excellent. A young actor named James Frecheville plays the central character, and his performance is a model of restraint: he very carefully treads the fine line between being understated and being comotose, but he gets the balance just right. Watch him carefully. It’s a very good film.
Robert Duvall’s Get Low is a quiet picture but it packs a wallop. A man who has lived as a hermit for forty years decides to hold his own funeral — while he is still alive — and invites people from the surrounding area to come and tell stories about him. Meanwhile he has a story that he wants to tell. What I most admired and appreciated about the film was its seriousness about the moral life; almost the whole drama of the film plays out in the souls of the characters as they wrestle with remorse, repentence, and forgiveness. It is also, I must add, quite funny at times, and with Duvall in the lead role and the likes of Bill Murray in the supporting cast, the acting is as good as it gets. It’s a beautiful film to look at too.
I have known the rough facts of the true story behind Of Gods and Men for several years; John Kiser wrote a good book about it. In the mid-1990s, seven Cistercian monks living in the Algerian countryside were captured and killed by Islamic militants during a period of particularly intense internal violence in that country. They had opportunity to leave but chose to stay. This film is wonderful in the way it explores the reasons why they did so. We get to know each of the seven men, and something of their various hopes and fears. Christians will appreciate the theological seriousness of the film, but I think anyone would find the story compelling. Personally, I believe that the lives and deaths of these men were important, and Of Gods and Men does a good service in helping us to remember them.
But, you may wonder, did I have any fun at the movies this year? I did. For instance: I saw two pretty good science-fiction films in Source Code and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The former was admirable for the fairly careful way it handled its complicated multi-timeline story, and the second, though not a great movie by any means, dazzled me with the astounding quality of its motion-capture-based visual effects. Through long sections of the film I just sat, gaping, hardly believing what I was seeing with my own two eyeballs. I know, I know: visual effects are just tricks and cannot substitute for story, characters, etc. I know. But maybe this movie is an exception.
I’ll say little about The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which was this year’s big disappointment for me. I love the book, and had high hopes for the film, all of which were dashed into little pieces, swept into a little pile, and thrown overboard.
I will close with a brief appreciation of two internet-based film reviewers whose work I particularly enjoyed this year. Steven Graydanus runs a one-man show at Decent Films. He reviews a lot of family-oriented films (which I am beginning to appreciate more than I once did), but his scope is quite broad. His special angle is that he brings a Catholic perspective to his reviews. His writing is consistently smart, and his critical judgements are, I find, quite trustworthy.
He also introduced me to the second reviewer, Tim Brayton, who runs another one-man show at Antagony and Ecstasy. I don’t know anything about him other than that he loves films, has seen pretty much everything, and apparently (judging from the sheer number of films he reviews and the amount he writes) has nothing to do but watch movies all day long and well into the night. I appreciate his reviews partly because he is tough to please, and also because he thinks about movies. It is also nice that his critical judgements are not always easy to anticipate: he finds grounds for praise or blame that I do not see from other reviewers. (Consider his remarkable take on the teen comedy Fired Up! — an extreme, but instructive, example of what I mean.) The only potential drawbacks to Tim’s site are that he has a too-dear affection for horror and his average review probably merits a PG-13 rating (for language).