Real Virtuality’s Favourite Films of 2011

Better late than never, this is the inevitable look back at the filmic year 2011 in an arbitrary ranking of personal favourites. Many other lists I’ve read in the last weeks praised 2011 as a year of so many great films that it was hard to narrow it down to just ten. I felt the opposite way, having a hard time to even come up with ten films that justify the label “best” or “favourite” (at least Dana Stevens felt the same way).

Note that this list goes by German cinematic release dates (hence the inclusion of some nominal 2010 films) and that many of the movies in everyone else’s list haven’t been released yet in Germany (e.g. The Artist, Drive, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Hugo etc.). As always, I also simply didn’t get to see some of the films that were released and so wasn’t able to rate them, like A Separation and Winter’s Bone.

1. Cave of Forgotten Dreams

When I visit a cinema, some part of me is always out there, looking for that sense of wonder that drew me to movies in the first place: a flush of awe and excitement about the world on the screen that tingles down my spine. There have been very few films in the last ten years who managed to create this feeling. I admire Werner Herzog as a maverick film maker, but I cannot say I have really been a fan of his actual work so far. Cave of Forgotten Dreams changed this. From the moment its first three-dimensional images of the beautiful paintings in the Cave Chauvet appear onscreen, there was magic happening in the cinema and I, for one, was completely enchanted by it. Add to this Herzog’s philosophical ruminations and his quixotic coda about albino crocodiles and I came out of the theater thinking that I very probably just saw my film of the year.

2. 127 Hours

I have always admired Danny Boyle for his ability to convey his stories with visceral images. 127 Hours, the fiendishly clever construction of “an action movie about a guy who can’t move” pits about 15 minutes of visual representations of absolute freedom against over an hour of claustrophobic imprisonment. And new freedom can only be obtained by self-mutilation. The film stayed with me for a long time, even though I didn’t buy the DVD.

3. Black Swan

If nothing else, Black Swan is a stunning visual feat. But Darren Aronofsky’s film also manages to marry the seemingly sublime beauty of ballet with horror from the darkest aspects of the soul, and that’s what makes it so powerful. As usual, Aronofsky is as unsubtle about this as he can be, but sometimes cinema needs this unsubtlety to keep you locked in your seat.

4. Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen’s most successful film in decades didn’t really hit me until several weeks after I had seen it. Of course I laughed at the depictions of cultural icons that seem almost like a big humanities scholar in-joke parade, I admired the staging of Paris as a city and I agreed on critics’ assessment of Owen Wilson as a succesful Allen surrogate. But what really stayed with me was the film’s central thesis about the relativity of nostalgia. If every time has another time it nostalgically looks back on, because life was apparently so much better then, the converse argument can only be that we should, in fact, be looking ahead instead. This feeling of discarding nostalgia for prospect, coupled with the feeling that something big is going to happen is probably the most memorable thought that I will take with me from 2011.

5. Melancholia

Melancholia fed right into the aforementioned idea I took away from Midnight in Paris. Even though Lars von Trier’s film has enough flaws that have been mentioned elsewhere, I simply loved his intellectual exploration of “How would you react if global doom were upon you” coupled, as usual, with images designed to club you insensible to that intellectual exploration. Add to that the reading of the film as a reflection on depression, and you’ve earned a spot on my list.

6. The Adventures of Tintin

Screw the uncanny valley. I’m more than willing to let my complaints about it go, if someone presents me with a film that is simply so beautiful to look at and so well-constructed, clever and exciting. Nevermind that it is also overcrowded with story and setpieces, suffers from more exposition than the book of Genesis and might actually have worked better in key frame animation. For once, I’ll ignore all that and simply enjoy myself.

7. The Tree of Life

I cannot really bring myself to actually like this film. For many critics, the dreamlike retelling of a childhood was what made the film great. To me, this part didn’t speak at all. I grew tired of distraught faces staring into the distance while a whispered voiceover churns out platitudes. But I do admire Terrence Malick for his bombast and the sheer audacity of harnessing the power of cinema like no one else would dare to. That sequence with the birth of planets and the wacky dinosaurs? That was awesome as hell.

8. Bridesmaids

I can only repeat what so many other critics have already written: female-centric, broad and character-driven comedy that had me laughing more than any other film this year. You don’t need a long explanation why it made it onto this list. It simply deserved it.

9. The Ides of March

I saw three films based on stage plays this year. Of those, only one did not feel like a play. Instead, George Clooney renders his talkative scenes in soft images that somehow express the yearning for the honesty and beauty that the films narrative of political manipulation so aptly deconstructs. Clooney did this before in Good Night, and Good Luck, a film I also loved, and it proves to me once again, that he is a very talented director that will probably, one day, be compared to Clint Eastwood more often than he wants to. (The other two were Carnage and A Dangerous Method)

10. Jane Eyre

Cary Fukanaga’s adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel is a very classic one, but maybe that’s why I liked it. I enjoyed the starkness of the landscapes in which it is set, the quiet determination of Mia Wasikowska and the fiery eyes of Michael Fassbender, the effortless, sweeping camera and Dario Marinellis score. Maybe not a film that will be talked about in ages to come, but a moviegoing experience that somehow managed to stick with me long enough to convince me of its place in this list.

Honorable Mentions

The Guard would have been at number ten, if I hadn’t decided at the last minute to make at least one leftfield choice for the list. I probably laughed as much as I did in Bridesmaids and the film might even have the better staying power and a one-of-a-kind central character. But somehow, it just didn’t lodge itself into my subconscious strongly enough.

I enjoyed Thor immensely. I thought it was well-directed, funny and full of strong characters. Captain America, which most critics found somehow more interesting, however, I found dull and superficial. There is no explanation for these things.

Requiem // 102 – 19

I feel humbled to be able to take part in Requiem // 102, which I wrote about in detail earlier. See all the fascinating contributions on the project’s official site. Here is mine.

Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream comes with a reputation attached. Even though I had somehow managed to not see it yet before I signed up for this project, I knew from countless conversations that Requiem is 1. very disturbing, 2. cut very fast and 3. groundbreaking. While watching it, with the advantage of ten years hindsight of course, I found that it is 1. much too blatant to be disturbing and 2. not actually cut that fast in most portions (and not even that fast in the fast sequences, now that moviegoers’ brains are used to Paul Greengrass movies). I’ll try to get to 3. in the end and talk about my frame first.

The image is from minute 19 of the film and shows Jennifer Connelly’s character Marion looking at herself in her appartment’s bathroom mirror before one of the film’s famous drug montages shows the use of both heroin and cocaine. The drugs turn the desaturated gloom of this image into a triumph: The expressionless face in this frame changes to an expression of bliss, Marion slowly raising her arms while the image fades to white. In the scene before this one, Marion and Harry have decided to spend the money they make through drug dealing on a shop where she can sell her self-made clothes. The couple is not only high on drugs, they are drunk on their expected success.

The juxtaposition of the two facial expressions before and after the consumption of drugs is echoed again in the very fact that Marion is placed in front of a mirror for this scene. There are really two Marions here, the one that she sees („The most beautiful girl in the whole world“, as Harry tells her again and again) and the soon-to-become-lifeless junkie the audience recognizes.

The fact that the self-perception of the characters usually differs greatly from their actual appearance could be called one of the main thematic devices of the film. Here, Marion believes she is on her way up while it’s already pretty clear that the only way for all four main characters is down – after all, the film claims to be a requiem for their dream. Sara’s story expresses this notion even more explicitly: She believes she is looking and feeling great, while her general demeanor already has something quite harrowing about it when Harry visits her, and will collapse into complete delusion later on. Finally, Harry will believe that the wound on his arm is not actually that serious – only to have the same arm amputated in the final scenes.

Aronofsky revisits the bathroom setting, which is exclusively Marion’s domain, for two later scenes which nicely complement this one in the season triptych that structures the narrative. While the junkies are swimming in drug abundance this early in the film, the next scene featuring the bathroom has Marion in a stupor of withdrawal, knocking over furniture in search for drugs (for all his blatantness, Aronofsky resists the cliché of having her smash the mirror). The third act, of course, puts Marion in the bathroom again for one of the film’s most iconic scenes, in which she soaks in the tub and then screams into the water after she slept with Big Tim.

Marion is almost naked in this scene, wearing a bra but no panties, and glimpses of nudity like this one are probably among the reasons why the film caused such a stir at the time. Presented and lit the way it is here, of course, the exposed skin serves both as an indicator for the state of depravity that Marion is already in and as a symbol for her vulnerability.

My general feeling was that Requiem for a Dream, in accordance with its title, works very much like a piece of dramatic classical music, like an opera. Not only because its soundtrack is one of its best assets, but because it paints with such broad strokes, has such a clear-cut, symbol-laden three-act structure (Summer, Fall, Winter) and lets you expect early on that everyone will end up in a most tragic finale. The message that „Because of modern consumerism, we’re all junkies in one way or another“ is hammered home by means of the drug montages throughout the whole film. The concept might have been clever at the time (my comment on the issue of the film being groundbreaking), but I find it quite annoying in much the same way that Requiem seems unnecessesarily pessismistic in the way all characters are denied redemption – not because they’re unwilling to redeem themselves, however, but apparently because as junkies they deserve to be treated like shit by society.

When it comes to drug movies, I have to say I much prefer the three-years-older Trainspotting. It seems superior in the way it first presents you with a vibrant and funny image of being on drugs, only to punch you in the stomach with the horrors that follow. Requiem instead treats you with regular doses of foreboding, hyperbole and sentimentality – overwhelming you in much the same way a drug would do.