Favourites of 2011: Film

December 30, 2011

I’d like to start by praising two filmmakers whose work I discovered this year: Terrence Malick and Whit Stillman.

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).

33 Responses to “Favourites of 2011: Film”

  1. “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.”

    But. . . but. . . what about Kung Fu Panda 2?

  2. cburrell Says:

    I’m afraid you’ll just have to tell me how it was…

    • cburrell Says:

      Well, Osbert, yesterday at the mall I saw a few segments from Kung Fu Panda 2 on those banks of televisions one finds in places that sell televisions. My daughter thought it was terrific; I thought it was … busy.

  3. Janet Says:

    Well, I put the movies you recommended on my Netflix list, and I agree with everything you say about the movies that I’ve seen (Of Gods and Men, Tree of Life, and Metropolitan, which I saw because you suggested it), BUT I have to grouse about The New World, not because what you say isn’t true, but because the storyline is such a lie. Pocahontas was about 10 when she knew John Smith. John Smith said the Indians were demons. So, it’s a good movie but a horrible history lesson. Maybe this is okay, but most people seem to get their history lessons from movies nowadays, and things like this seem to feed the myth that drives the naive members of the Occupy movement and their kin. I have a great fear that I’ve said this before here, and if so, I’m sorry.

    I’m looking forward to the Get Low. I think Robert Duvall is wonderful.


  4. cburrell Says:

    Inaccurate history in films bugs me too, but I see The New World as being a fable, and am not really bothered by the liberties it takes with the historical record.

    I am glad you liked Metropolitan; I think you’ll really enjoy Get Low.

    Happy New Year.

  5. Grumpy Ex Pat Says:

    Thanks very much for this. I will also try to get hold of Get Low. The only thing I don’t agree about is Stephen Greydanus. I tried out a movie about Edith Stein which he recommends, and it was beyond dire.

  6. cburrell Says:

    I haven’t seen that one; still, in general, my experience has been that he doesn’t lead me wrong very often.

  7. I guess you didn’t get to see _Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy_ ?

  8. cburrell Says:

    As it happens, I saw it the day after I posted my list. I thought it was excellent — even if I am not entirely sure what happened in it — but I don’t think I liked it well enough to bump any of these films off my list.

  9. Mac Says:

    Pardon my tardiness–I’ve been trying for a week or so to get a leisurely moment to read this post.

    Of all the films you mention, I’ve seen only Tree of Life and Metropolitan. I loved the first. I really want to see it again, but I also really want that to be in a well-equipped theater. The one I saw it in is a small local independent one with equipment that’s no more than adequate, especially in the audio department, for a movie like this, which is very dependent on sophisticated technology–I mean, not in a gimmicky way, but in the very full use made of it.

    I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for Metropolitan. I can see that it’s skillfully done, but it didn’t really engage me. Probably my fault. Maybe I’ll give it another chance sometime.

    I had not even heard of the Robert Duvall movie. I’ll consider that a must-see.

    I don’t plan to see Tinker Tailor. For one thing, it would be impossible to put the book into a 2-hour movie. For another thing, one review said it contained a scene of very gruesome violence (it was more explicit, but I’ll spare you), which is not in the book and indicates to me that it isn’t in the spirit of the book. For a third thing, there’s the very very very good 1980s BBC dramatization.

    Sadly, I agree about the Dawn Treader. A disaster. A shambles. An insult–despite the fact that David Gresham approved and was involved. The best I can say about it is that it had a few good moments.

  10. Janet Says:

    Doug Gresham, not David. David doesn’t involve himself with any of the CSL stuff, and I wouldn’t want him to take any of the blame away from Doug.


  11. cburrell Says:

    Mac, I agree that seeing The Tree of Life in a big, loud, state-of-the-art cinema probably adds much to the experience. I think it probable, however, that the film’s tenure on the cinema circuit has come and gone…

    I can’t think of which scene in Tinker, Tailor you read about. I can’t remember anything especially gruesome. Of course, my sleep deprivation prevents my remembering quite a lot of things lately…

    I will say this in favour of the film version of Tinker, Tailor: I could almost follow the story! The same, alas, was far from true in the television adaptation. (The book is in my queue.)

    Interesting to hear that you didn’t care for Metropolitan. If I had had to guess, I think I would have guessed that you would have liked it. My favourite of the three was Barcelona, if you should ever think to give Stillman another chance.

  12. Grumpy Ex Pat Says:

    I love the TV adaptation of Tinker, Tailor so much I couldn’t face a movie version.

    The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was an option on my flight back from the UK, but I passed it up for a movie about the invasion of LA by aliens.

  13. Mac Says:

    The Tinker Tailor review didn’t describe it in detail, just said, in the ratings note at the end, something like “violence, including xxxxx”. So maybe it wasn’t that explicit.

    “didn’t care for” Metropolitan would be overstating it. I enjoyed it, I just wasn’t very enthusiastic. I’d heard a lot about Stillman and had high expectations. I’ll try Barcelona sometime.

    That was a good decision, ex pat.

  14. cburrell Says:

    I don’t know… that LA invasion movie might have given Voyage a run for its money.

    Anyone know if there are plans for another Narnia film? The Silver Chair?

    Oh, and has anyone (everyone!) seen the trailer for The Hobbit? I know, I know, not everyone is happy with Peter Jackson’s way with Tolkien. But the trailer looks pretty good.

  15. rgrano2@juno.com Says:

    I went to see 8 movies in 2011 (a little low for me) and ‘Tree of Life’ was by far my favorite. It’s become one of my all-time favorites, actually, and Malick is now a favorite filmmaker of mine. I’d say that the other standouts last year were ‘Hanna’ and ‘Take Shelter,’ both of which I really liked. ‘Hugo’ was also pretty impressive, and is well worth seeing.

    I agree with Craig on both ‘Get Low’ and ‘Animal Kingdom’.

    Personally, I think Stilman’s best movie is ‘The Last Days of Disco,’ which I’ve watched with considerable pleasure a couple times.

    I watched a ton of movies on DVD last year but can’t remember them all — I probably should keep a log.

  16. cburrell Says:

    Both ‘Take Shelter’ and ‘Hugo’ are on my list — alas, I was not able to see the latter in 3D, and it is now gone from theatres, I think. I did see ‘Hanna’, and I liked aspects of it, but I think it would have benefited from a tighter plot.

    I started keeping a log. My memory is not what it once was.

  17. Rob G Says:

    I saw ‘Hugo’ Sunday afternoon at a small second-run theater. It wasn’t bad at all, although I do see how 3D would have enhanced the experience.

    I didn’t pay too much attention to the tightness or lack thereof of the plot of ‘Hanna,’ as I thought of it more as a sort of fairytale than a realistic thriller. I liked the style and the humor (and the music!), and I thought the acting was top-notch. Saiorse Ronan is great.

  18. cburrell Says:

    I agree that Ronan was terrific. I read the film as a fairy tale too, which was part of the problem: the episodes with the family in the Winnebago (or whatever it was) in particular really lacked the fairy tale timbre for me. Had that been cut out or trimmed, I think it would have been a markedly better film.

    Have you seen any films in the new fangled 3D? I’m wondering what all the fuss is about. Roger Ebert, I know, is really down on the format.

    • Rob G Says:

      No, haven’t seen any, although I can understand how ‘Hugo’ might have been enhanced somewhat by seeing it in 3D. A friend saw it in that format and thought it was quite well done. Myself, I’m not particularly keen on the thing — seems far too gimmicky.

  19. Janet Says:

    I’ve seen several films in 3D–not because I wanted to, but because the films just happened to be in 3D. I was worried that they would make me sick, like the older 3D movies and IMAX did, but except for the glasses being uncomfortable, it was okay. There was one scene in Avatar that was probably much better for being in 3D, but overall, it doesn’t seem worth it to me.


  20. cburrell Says:

    The Hobbit is going to be in 3D; I hope that doesn’t ruin it.

  21. Janet Says:

    You can usually find a non-3D showing, which is also cheaper, but sometimes I can’t find them at the time when I can go.


  22. Rob G Says:

    This is a pretty good look at ToL/Malick that I missed back when the film was released. Someone just directed my attention to it in the last few days. It doesn’t mention the spirituality of the film much, however, and only notes the music in passing.


  23. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Rob G. I’ll be sure to read it as soon as I get a chance.

  24. Janet Says:

    We just finished watching “Get Low.” It was great, great, great. Thanks.


  25. cburrell Says:

    Wonderful! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  26. Janet Says:

    Hanna next.


  27. cburrell Says:

    It does for slender blondes what Jaws did for sharks.

  28. Janet Says:

    Well, it was a grim fairytale. I really did not like that family.


  29. cburrell Says:

    Nor I. I didn’t much care for the ending of the film either. I suppose my basic opinion of it is that it started well, and gradually declined.

  30. Grumpy Ex Pat Says:

    I watched Get Low last night and enjoyed it. Thanks for the recommendation.

  31. cburrell Says:

    Terrific. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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