The Best of 2011 – Film Edition

By Alan Mattli

2012 has been going on for more than a month now already but as Hollywood’s “Award Season” is picking up speed, let’s have a look at some of the best movies of 2011, although you won’t find Oscar favourites like The Descendants, The Artist, Moneyball or Hugo on here, simply because they hit Swiss cinemas this year. So I will count down my top ten favourite films of 2011, based on their Swiss cinema release.

Honourable Mentions

Les émotifs anonymes

(Jean-Pierre Améris; France/Belgium)

A delightful romantic comedy about two hyper-nervous people trying to overcome their shyness. Sweet, sensitive, concise, and with a pitch-perfect ending.

Four Lions

(Chris Morris; UK)

Who’s afraid of al-Qaeda? Chris Morris, one of Britain’s most prolific comedians takes on the western world’s fear of terrorism in one of the darkest satires of the last few years.

Midnight in Paris

(Woody Allen; USA/Spain)

A Hollywood writer falls in love with Paris and finds himself traveling back to the 1920s where he meets his cultural heroes. Beautiful, witty, and touching portrait of nostalgia – Woody Allen’s best in years.

Restless

(Gus Van Sant; USA/UK)

Capraesque romance about a teenage loner falling for a quirky girl who’s dying of brain cancer. Fantastically off-beat and heartwarmingly melancholic, this is a movie about death that’s truly uplifting.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

(Rupert Wyatt; USA)

Nobody thought it could work but it did. This film tells the emotionally gripping story of the monkey rebellion’s inception. Led by Andy Serkis’ brilliant motion capture performance, Wyatt’s film is a shining example for a great prequel and pulls off the feat of giving the apes a soul.

Submarine

(Richard Ayoade; UK)

A coming-of-age-film that isn’t. Director Ayoade’s debut centers around the life of an idiosyncratic, self-absorbed teenage boy trying to cope with love and his parents’ failing marriage. Features magnificent acting, a terrific look, and clever ideas.

———————————————-

10

Le quattro volte

(Michelangelo Frammartino; Italy/Germany/Switzerland)

While everyone was raving about the spiritual and philosophical depth of Terrence Malick’s tedious The Tree of Life, this film quietly opened in a handful of arthouse cinemas. The story of a dying shepherd, one of his goats, a tree and some smoke is a stunning cinematic essay on transmigration and reincarnation. Less presumptuous than Malick’s opus magnum, more accessible than Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – which is still a fascinating movie, though – Le quattro volte manages to be profound, enthralling, and deeply moving – without any dialogue.

9

Habemus Papam

(Nanni Moretti; Italy)

The Catholic church is in distress, and atheist director Nanni Moretti made a movie about it. After the Pope’s death, a new one is elected. But the new one doesn’t feel up to the challenge, so he sneaks away. Habemus Papam never feels like a malicious satire, it is rather a somewhat benevolent juxtaposition of ancient, never-changing Catholic tradtion and the modern world outside the Vatican City. The runaway Pope is played by 86-year-old French acting legend Michel Piccoli, who gives a regal performance; the comedy is poignant and succinct; yet the subtext is never forgotten. Habemus Papam is at its core a study of a simple man overwhelmed by the faith bestowed upon him.

8

Le Havre

(Aki Kaurismäki; Finland/France/Germany)

Kaurismäki, the great Finnish director and grumbler, has always been a friend of social outcasts and their fairly unremarkable lives. Set in Le Havre, instead of Helsinki for once, we follow the story of a shoeshiner – the same character, played by the same actor, we saw in 1992’s La vie de bohème, Kaurismäki’s last French-language movie – who takes in a little Gabonese boy, who came to France in a ship container carrying refugees, while dealing with his wife’s illness. Le Havre incorporates everything you’ve come to love about Kaurismäki: the dry humour, the unspectacular way of filming, the great nostalgic sets, the wonderful actors, and a tendency to catch you off-guard with an anticlimactic ending.

7

La tête en friche

(Jean Becker; France)

If you like movies with thoroughly likeable characters who engage in funny, everyday conversations, you should start watching Jean Becker’s works as soon as possible. The director of the gloriously simple Dialogue avec mon jardinier (2007), who has made only ten films in 50 years, teamed up with French acting greats Gérard Depardieu and 97-year-old Gisèle Casadesus to make La tête en friche about a nearly illiterate gardener/construction worker meeting a well-read old woman who teaches him the joys of literature and encourages him to take a stab at reading again. It’s a moving friendship free of clichés Becker put to film here; Depardieu and Casadesus work perfectly together; and the movie as a whole is a wonderful homage to literature.

6

The Guard

(John Michael McDonagh; Ireland)

In 2008, Martin McDonagh’s wrote and directed the fabulous gangster comedy-drama In Bruges – my favourite movie of the 2000s – about two Irish crooks hiding out in “Belgium’s Venice”. Now his brother delivered his screen debut, and it’s a hilarious one. Brendan Gleeson, who played one of In Bruges‘ main characters, plays a good-natured but slightly racist, drug- and prostitute-loving Connemara policeman, a garda, who has to work with an American FBI agent in order to thwart a huge drug deal. Not only does The Guard contain textbook examples of Irish humour and culture, the whole film can even be seen as a vintage “Come All Ye” story. And there’s a Daniel O’Donnell poster in the bedroom of Gleeson’s character.

5

Carnage

(Roman Polanski; France/Germany/Poland/Spain)

Many critics didn’t like Polanski’s first film since his involuntary Gstaad vacation, some even calling it tasteless and insulting. And that’s exactly the reason why Carnage is such a fantastic film. It proves that Polanski, always a passionate agent provocateur, still has the ability to shock and apall, even at 78 years. The movie, based on Yasmina Reza’s play Le dieu de carnage, has a simple enough premise: two couples meet to discuss a row that erupted between their respective offspring and which resultet in one child losing two teeth. What starts out as a friendly get-together soon escalates into a war of opinions, world views and social differences – harking back to Edward Albee’s iconic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. It’s a gripping movie which mingles elements of a psychological thriller with the absurd, making for an outrageous comedy that ranks among the funniest in recent years.

4

True Grit

(Joel Coen, Ethan Coen; USA)

If you’ve read my Top 5 Coen Brothers Films article on this very website, then you’ll know all about my love for Joel and Ethan Coen’s reinterpretation of Charles Portis’ novel. True Grit is a fantastic entry into the genre of “revisionist” westerns – on a par with masterstrokes like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch or Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. The story of a young girl out to avenge her father’s blood with the help of a rogue U.S. Marshal, played by the sensational Jeff Bridges, and a silver-tongued Texas Ranger. Brilliant performances, superb character development, gorgeous art direction, and beautiful camera work – Roger Deakins works his magic once again – make for a consummate western cinema experience.

3

Howl

(Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman; USA)

One of the masters of the 20th century’s poetry was, without doubt, beatnik maestro Allen Ginsberg, his masterpiece being “Howl”, a Whitmanesque spiritual journey through 1950s America. In Howl, the directors’ narrative debut, Rob Epstein, who won an Oscar for his documentaries The Times of Harvey Milk, in 1985, and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt in 1990, and Jeffrey Friedman, who co-directed the latter film, focus on the obscenity court case against Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the publisher of “Howl”. They tie this superbly acted plot thread – Jon Hamm and David Strathairn star – together with a reenacted interview with Ginsberg, expertly played by James Franco, in which he recounts the making of the poem and how it connects to his experiences as a homosexual in post-war America, the poem’s first public reading, and a stunning visual interpretation of the poem itself, told via beautifully surreal animation. Stylistically and with regards to content, Howl can be situated somewhere between Todd Haynes’ eccentric Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There and 1960’s Inherit the Wind, Stanley Kramer’s brilliant plea for science, reason, and civility.

2

Another Year

(Mike Leigh; UK)

Much like Jean Becker, Mike Leigh is interested in his characters, which always seem to come right out of real life. In Another Year, we see the events of, well, one year as seen from the perspective of Tom and Gerri, a loveable London couple in their late 50s/early 60s. We, as well as their friends, whom we become acquainted with throughout the film, envy them for their humble yet peaceful life; she works as a psychologist, he as a consulting geologist, their thirtyish son is independent, has a good job, and comes to visit every few weeks. They talk, they laugh, they poke fun at each other, and Tom and Gerri tend to their allotment. Leigh chronicles their year using the four seasons as a frame and focusing both on the main and supporting characters’ worries, be they of the little everyday kind or the big, profound one. It’s a gentle, quiet film with excellent protagonists and a script that perfectly hits the happy medium between being plot-driven and being associative. Calling it a masterpiece would not be a major overstatement.

1

A Separation

(Asghar Farhadi; Iran)

When we hear Iran, most people picture a society consisting solely of radical Muslims unanimously planning world jihad. But even if you’re not that ignorant, the notion of this Mullah-run country being there frightens us at least a little bit. And then we see Asghar Farhadi’s staggering drama – a masterpiece, a landmark film –, and we feel bad for labeling an entire people like that. However, that’s not the only remarkable thing about A Separation – “Jodái-e Náder az Simin” is the original Persian title –, not by a long shot. Nader and Simin have been happily married for almost 15 years and live with their 11-year-old daughter Termeh in Tehran. The family belongs to the urban upper middle-class and husband and wife are on the verge of separation. In order for Termeh to have better prospects, Simin wants to leave Iran for Europe. Nader, basically, agrees but doesn’t want to leave just yet as he is tending for his father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. After having reached an impasse, Simin moves out of the apartment, so Nader hires a maid from the religious working class, who soon finds that caring for the senile old man is too much for her to bear. After finding his father tied to the bed, Nader fires the maid, who then in turn accuses him of killing her unborn child. The genius of A Separation lies in the complexity of its breathtaking script. While the film works perfectly as an intimate character drama, it is at the same time a societal parable reflecting not only the conflicts modern Iran is facing – discrepancies between the rich and the poor, the religious and the secular, tradition and progress –, but also basic human tragedies – the attempt to live a good life, no matter what. Farhadi manages to convey a stunning amount of subtext without coming across as scholarly, preachy, formulaic, or contrived. We truly feel for the characters, we see the motivation in every single one of them – there is no black and white, only shades of grey –, and we see and understand their struggle. There is no pointing fingers either; the viewers have to decide for themselves whose pleas and desires they find to be the most convincing. Add to that a cast of astounding actors, in which everyone excels, fantastic pacing, and great cinematography, and you have yourself a groundbreaking film that will stay with you for a good long while.

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