Conventional wisdom holds that two things are true: 1) There are fewer good movies than ever, and 2) they're all back-loaded toward award season at year's end. Yet when Scene contributors Steven Hale, Craig D. Lindsey, Noel Murray, Jim Ridley, Jason Shawhan, Michael Sicinski and Sam Smith looked back over their lists of 2011's best films, they found the opposite was true. Not only was there something worthwhile playing in Nashville theaters every week of the year (thanks, Belcourt!), many of the strongest titles came from the first five months of 2011. Rather than compile lists, our writers decided to start a conversation — which we'd love for you to join.
What was your favorite movie of 2011?
Jim Ridley: The Tree of Life. I understand all the problems people have with it, and share a few of them (e.g., the Sean Penn Rapture coda), but no other movie this year seemed so alive in the instant — or took such advantage of the possibilities that movies provide, leaping in an eyeblink from the individual to the universal and back again. And yeah, that includes tracing a spiritual continuum from dinosaurs to people that suggests every living organism has the capacity for mercy. The movie I most look forward to seeing again: Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret. Talk about a movie that contains multitudes.
Sam Smith: The Tree of Life sits in its own kind of category: It's such a personal work, it's a beautiful experience, and it was a cinematic event that drew a certain line in the sand. Meanwhile, Hanna was a movie seemingly made for me, with its fairy-tale mythology, badass teenage heroine and synthy score.
Steven Hale: I'm going back and forth between The Tree of Life and Martha Marcy May Marlene here. While The Tree of Life exerts much of its pressure externally — via the weight of eternity and divine mystery — MMMM does so by way of internal crises (memory, identity, etc.). Both films made it hard to leave the theater afterward. What pains me most, though, is the thought of someone deciding to pick up Malick's masterpiece at the Kroger Red Box and judging it based on a screening in front of their 30-inch TV over dinner. The film should be played in theaters every couple of weeks for those who missed it the first time around.
Craig D. Lindsey: A toss-up between Attack the Block (I wish more people saw this blatant Spielberg salute instead of the Spielberg-produced Super 8) and Certified Copy (the best mind-fuck of the year).
Michael Sicinski: Usually I have to make a distinction between films released to theaters in 2011 and films released out to the world during the calendar year. But Kiarostami's Certified Copy is pretty much my pick for film of the decade. I saw it last year, it was released this year, and it'll still be the movie to beat next year. It's a perfect statement on human emotion, time's cruelty to love, and art's possible place in the mix. As a bonus: The best film I saw that was actually made in 2011 was a 10-minute single-shot film of kids frolicking in a river in Suriname, shown backwards. It's called "River Rites," it's by a guy named Ben Russell, and it blew my mind.
Jason Shawhan: Margaret.
Noel Murray: I saw Martha Marcy May Marlene at Sundance to start the year, and the movie has stuck with me ever since. I know some people have been put off by MMMM's persistent ambiguity —all the way down to its creepy final shot — but that's what rattled me in a screening room in Park City and that's what's kept me thinking about the film all year. What constitutes an accurate memory in the mind of a mentally unstable young woman? What's merely a projection, or a dream? That's a disturbing question, especially since there are potentially deadly consequences at stake in this particular story. But what I especially liked about Martha Marcy May Marlene is that writer-director Sean Durkin frames those ideas in the context of real, believable conflicts: between siblings, between classes, between values, and between the wounds of the past and the possibilities of the present.
What movie, performance or other element surprised you most this year, good or bad?
Michael Sicinski: I really didn't have any expectations for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy one way or the other. I wasn't particularly impressed with Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In, aside from the swimming pool scene. But this was a cool, almost aggressively bloodless procedural that kept me enthralled. It's so anal and persnickety, just doing its fussy little thing. Also, I feel like I finally "got" Gary Oldman, after years of feeling like (to borrow a phrase from In the Loop) he was just "room meat" as British actors go.
Steven Hale: Rubber. And Elizabeth Olsen's performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Primarily because I didn't know there was another Olsen, but also because she was brilliant.
Craig D. Lindsey: The DreamWorks animated movies, especially the underrated Kung Fu Panda 2, were better than the one Pixar film that was released. (Then again, it was Cars 2.) Also, the fact that Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol is not only all kinds of awesome, but it's the first studio film since The Dark Knight that deserves to be seen in IMAX. (Real IMAX, not those bullshit IMAX theaters that have been popping up in multiplexes.)
Noel Murray: I'd have to go back to Sundance again, and to Miranda July's The Future. I wasn't a fan of July's debut feature Me and You and Everyone We Know, which had that blend of twee cutesiness and the exploitation of real human pain that I find so aggravating in Amerindie cinema. But I was knocked out by The Future, in large part because the main characters — a couple going through disruptive mutual midlife crises — aren't so much deeply emotionally damaged as terminally self-absorbed, and because July seems to acknowledge that her heroes are fairly ridiculous. I found The Future's gentle mockery of these ninnies to be pretty hilarious, and yet surprisingly emotionally affecting in the second half of the film, as they come to realize that even well-meaning whimsy can come to unintended and unfortunate ends.
Jim Ridley: Thanks mainly to low expectations, the biggest surprises I got all year were at the megaplexes. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an unusually rousing and provocative "reboot" (ugh), with lead motion-capture performer Andy Serkis giving a performance expressive enough for silent cinema in 21st century technology; the delightful, impeccably acted and designed Captain America gave my little boy and me a very happy Saturday afternoon full of wholesome thrills (not including femme fatale Hayley Atwell); and Final Destination 5 deployed some of the best 3-D effects ever, repeatedly extending its bony finger through the fourth wall to push my phobic buttons (heights, bridges, feet vs. protruding nails).
Jason Shawhan: I'm amazed that all of the bile and revulsion that should have been dumped on The Hangover II has been diverted to I Melt With You. It's a mess, certainly, and worthy of some mockery; but people are hating on this film like it stole their lunch money in elementary school. Its overdramatic sensibility at least gives the viewer something to respond to besides unfunny "jokes" and fratty racism. If only they could have switched endings — now that would have been something. And hey, now you can say you've seen Sasha Grey do everything onscreen.
Sam Smith: Mike Mills' Beginners came out of nowhere and really moved me unexpectedly. Attack the Block at least briefly restored my faith in mainstream movie entertainment. On the negative spectrum, I was disappointed that Steven Soderbergh, a director whose work I admire, didn't do something more interesting with the concept behind Contagion.
What pattern or motif did you notice in this year's movies, whether good or evil?
Jason Shawhan: A dearth of decent horror movies.
Jim Ridley: A pronounced cinema-history bent amid anxiety over the passing of celluloid (The Artist, Hugo, My Week With Marilyn, Super 8); audiences rediscovering the power of stuntwork, from Drive to Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.
Sam Smith: There's the dog-proliferation theme (which the dog in Le Quattro Volte would easily win were it a contest), and Michael Fassbender trumping Ryan Gosling as actor MVP, and a general tone of growing apocalyptic dread and cosmic awe that I find interesting and strangely comforting. I am 100 percent behind the movement of shooting on IMAX as a specific response against the 3-D trend, even if it's only represented by a couple of filmmakers. On the dark side, the amount of filmmakers who continue to use CG, 3-D, and technology in general as a creative crutch.
Steven Hale: The most obvious, I suppose, would be all the nostalgic homages. Some of them are quite good, but I hope the film-as-secret-handshake trend doesn't get out of hand. On another note, are there so few superheroes that we must constantly be rebooting all of them? I've just now gotten over the image of Tobey Maguire jazz-walking down the street in Spiderman 3 — do we really have to start all over again?
Michael Sicinski: A great many films seemed to employ some variation of continuity editing, and tended to maintain an incremental similarity from millisecond to millisecond, to produce the illusion of movement. They also tended to take the present social arrangement for granted, rather than proposing some revolutionary form of existence. One notable exception was Godard's Film Socialisme.
Craig D. Lindsey: Man, that Jessica Chastain chick was in everything!
The Help — discuss.
Craig D. Lindsey: I'd rather not.
Jason Shawhan: At best, a wish-fulfillment fantasy for everyone who insists they could never have gone along with the deeply institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow South. At worst, a comic lie that glosses over how such a scenario would have played out in real life. I think Viola Davis is stellar, and I don't think the film deserves her. You can talk about friendships and giving voice to marginalized black and female characters, and I'm all for that. Stockett's book and Taylor's film gives voice to archetypes and schematics and cartoons. I wish, as a film, it was worthy of Davis' performance. But it is not. It's just another example of film that lets people congratulate themselves on "how far we've come."
Best special effect?
Steven Hale: After the train-wreck scene in Super 8, I didn't think there were any special effects left in existence — so I don't know how to answer this question.
Sam Smith: Special mention must be given to the effects team behind The Tree of Life and its "creation of the universe" sequence, which saw Kubrick's 2001 collaborator Douglas Trumbull returning to the field of organically rendered visual effects.
Jim Ridley: Medusa the flame-throwing car, Bellflower. Bonus points for the live demonstration at NaFF '11.
Craig D. Lindsey: A tie between Ryan Gosling smashing that guy's head in Drive and Ryan Gosling's obviously digitally enhanced physique in Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Come on — nobody's that ripped!)
Michael Sicinski: The bulging arm veins of John Hawkes. All year, they signified, "I'm a wiry, methed-out Southern boy. But I'll be nice to you ...."
Jason Shawhan: Wafflebot, from A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.
What movie do you wish more people had seen?
Steven Hale: I wish everyone who will ever watch The Tree of Life could see it in a theater. Also, Rubber. Going forward, I hope as many people as possible will see A Separation.
Craig D. Lindsey: Attack the Block (see above).
Sam Smith: The Interrupters, a documentary that should be seen by as many people as possible.
Noel Murray: Easy: Winnie The Pooh. A traditionally animated Disney feature as funny and heartwarming as any in the company's formidable catalog, and yet it came and went so fast that even a lot of parents weren't aware either that it existed (or that it's delightful).
Jim Ridley: I wish more people had seen the gripping Romanian divorce drama Tuesday, After Christmas — and if you're reading this on Thursday the 5th, you've got one last day to see the dynamic crime thriller Elite Squad: The Enemy Within at The Belcourt, which broke records and made headlines in its native Brazil. More often, though, I was pleasantly surprised to see big Nashville audiences give warm receptions to movies such as Senna and Certified Copy, and sellouts at this year's NaFF for Uncle Boonmee and Le Quattro Volte. Maybe I should wish bigger audiences had taken a chance on the late Raul Ruiz's hugely entertaining four-hour melodrama Mysteries of Lisbon — but instead I was grateful that 60 people showed up the night I went, and we all had a ball.
Jason Shawhan: As a card-carrying member of #teammargaret, that's the first one. Kaboom, The Catechism Cataclysm, Road to Nowhere, The Double Hour.
Michael Sicinski: Oh, there are so many. Margaret. House of Pleasures. Uncle Boonmee. Winnie the Pooh. Weekend. The Arbor. So maybe instead, I'll sound the alarm. In 2012, I hope more people will see some of the great movies coming down the pike: Elena, The Island President, The Day He Arrives, A Separation, The Deep Blue Sea, Keyhole, Goodbye First Love, The Turin Horse, and The Kid with the Bike.
What's the best old movie you saw on the big screen this year?
Jason Shawhan: Play It As it Lays, The Night of The Hunter, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Secret Ceremony, Boom!, Metropolis: The Giorgio Moroder Reconstruction, Anguish, Halloween ('78), In a Lonely Place, Performance.
Sam Smith: Finally seeing Tarkovsky's Stalker on the big screen with a great local turnout was a kind of religious experience, one of the many great revivals this year at the Belcourt along with World on a Wire and the Terrence Malick retrospective. And special mention must be made of Lady Terminator at the (hopefully first annual) 12 Hours of Terror fest, a near-riot-inducing onslaught of bewildering hilarity.
Jim Ridley: Yeah, The Belcourt makes this category harder every year. Was it the blaxploitation-era discovery Book of Numbers from the "Visions of the South" series; Jonathan Rosenbaum introducing The Phenix City Story; the blue-moon-rare screening of the gorgeous Party Girl from the Nicholas Ray retrospective; or John Carpenter's They Live at a wonderfully rowdy (heh) midnight show? I'll go with the Alloy Orchestra performing alongside Dziga Vertov's mind-blowing Soviet silent Man With a Movie Camera.
Craig D. Lindsey: I revisited Carpenter's still-badass Assault on Precinct 13 at a theater in Raleigh. It was part of a double feature with this shitty Bruce Campbell-scripted movie called Thou Shalt Not Kill ... Except. When the organizer of the double feature heard me talking shit about that movie with some friends in the lobby afterwards, he banned me from all future screenings he puts on.
Death match: The Artist or Hugo?
Craig D. Lindsey: Hugo is basically Scorsese's film-studies lesson for kids, and I mean that as a compliment. However, I wouldn't be surprised if the cute and accessible The Artist becomes not only an awards magnet, but an across-all-ages date movie. I say The Artist leaves the cage on this one.
Sam Smith: Both were disappointing, and both had surprisingly unlikable leads. In a match I give the edge to Hugo for its obvious passion for early cinema and Méliès, even though its methods didn't really work for me.
Noel Murray: I'm not as down on The Artist as some of my colleagues. I think it starts strong and ends even stronger, with a final scene that sends audiences out on a real high. It's really only the interminable middle hour — in which the hero suffers one predictable indignity after another — that leaves me wondering how The Artist became such a contender. That said, though I think The Artist is a fine film on its own merits, it's not in the same league for me as Hugo, which is isn't just about technical inventiveness, collaboration and creation, but also conveys the real joy of making things, and of the relationships forged by people who work together to construct something amazing.
Jason Shawhan: Hugo is the better film, and it certainly means more to people who value film. But The Artist is better paced and more entertaining. Hugo is the best 3-D I've ever seen, and The Artist has an exceptional performance by the three dogs playing Uggie. Hugo wins.
Michael Sicinski: No contest. One is hackwork with no true sense of the age of silents. One is a whimsical, bittersweet love letter to the previous century by an old master. Naturally, The Artist will triumph both on Oscar night and at the box office.
Complete this sentence: "If I could go back in time, I would erase_________"
Jim Ridley: ... the words "I'll do it!" from Nicolas Cage's vocabulary.
Michael Sicinski: ... the computer program that facilitates Real3D and/or any other current 3-D technology. Also, Hitler.
Steven Hale: Erase seems harsh, but most of my complaints could be addressed by seriously distracting James Cameron right before he made Avatar.
Jason Shawhan: Shark Night 3D. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The Nothing. Transformers 3. Toast.
Sam Smith: The Muppets. Sorry, but I would. And Super 8, which confused so many people into thinking it was something more than a Spielberg nostalgia-fest.
Craig D. Lindsey: I'm gonna assume the Scene doesn't have enough space for me to complete this. So I'll just move on.
What was the best use of a piece of music in a film?
Steven Hale: While Drive didn't do as much for me as it did for a lot of people, I did love it stylistically. That's due in large part to the music. "A Real Hero" was perfect. I'll also say that the complete absence of music (save the closing shot / credits) was vital to A Separation.
Sam Smith: "A Real Hero" gets the popular vote for being such an appealing theme for Drive, but I loved Buika's performance of "Por el amor de amar" in Almodovar's The Skin I Live In.
Craig D. Lindsey: The Artist using Bernard Herrmann's "Scene d'Amour" from Vertigo for a suspenseful sequence. (You thought I was gonna say something from Drive, huh?)
Jim Ridley: I didn't love the movie — unlike almost everyone I know — but who could resist Sidney Bechet's recording of "Si Tu Vois Ma Mere" over Woody Allen's opening Valentine to Midnight in Paris? And thanks to The Tree of Life, Smetana's "The Moldau" has pretty much the opposite effect on me that Malcolm McDowell gets from Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange.
Jason Shawhan: Well, The Tree of Life owns this category. But I have a special appreciation for the way Eric Carmen's "It Hurts Too Much" is used in Super.
Michael Sicinski: No contest: The Moody Blues, "Nights in White Satin," in House of Pleasures. The worst: a tie: Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo love theme, The Artist; "Walk This Way," The Smurfs.
Noel Murray: I could wax rhapsodic about Drive or House of Pleasures, but instead I'm going to go negative if that's OK. I watched Moneyball again last week and I still have no idea what the hell was going on with the use of Lenka's "The Show," which the movie implies was written by Billy Beane's daughter. A good piece of music in a movie should illuminate both the song and the scene. In Moneyball, "The Show" just leaves audiences saying, "Wait, didn't ... ? Haven't I ... ? I mean, isn't there already ... ?"
What performer were you happiest to see get naked in 2011?
Craig D. Lindsey: I'm starting to become a big fan of Carey Mulligan whenever she gets butt-bald. (See Shame.) However, seeing Elizabeth Olsen's ample attributes in Martha Marcy May Marlene was nice. And a special shout-out goes to Juno Temple for spending most of Kaboom basically ass-out nekkid.
Michael Sicinski: I didn't know it until I saw it during Melancholia (and maybe I was just happy for a little line of joy during that film) but hey, Kirsten Dunst, that wasn't bad.
Jason Shawhan: Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, Michael Fassbender in Shame, Paul Rudd in Our Idiot Brother, Frieda Pinto's body double in Immortals, and the casts of Kaboom, I Melt With You and Weekend.
What, if anything, made you cry in the cinema in '11?
Jim Ridley: The "Moldau" montage of a Southern childhood in The Tree of Life may be the first thing I've ever seen that made me feel like Anton Ego in Ratatouille experiencing the sense memory of his mama's cooking. I saw it three times just for that scene, and cried every time.
Steven Hale: At the risk of being redundant, I have to go back to The Tree of Life and Martha Marcy May Marlene. The former made me cry at several points, while the latter made me want to cry if only for proof that I was still in touch with myself, emotionally.
Noel Murray: I bawled like a baby through the pretty much the entire last half hour of Being Elmo, which serves up one scene after another of Kevin Clash and his puppeteering pals doing good deeds and sharing their gifts. (That's another movie I saw at Sundance, too. It was a good fest last year.)
Michael Sicinski: The "Nights in White Satin" scene in House of Pleasures; the dinosaur mercy scene, The Tree of Life; most of the sheer beauty of Nathaniel Dorsky's 23-minute avant-garde study of obscured light, "The Return."
Jason Shawhan: Young Adult, The Muppets, The Future, the end of Margaret, the footage from Jim Henson's funeral in Being Elmo, Weekend.
Craig D. Lindsey: Let's see: The Smurfs, Johnny English Reborn, I Don't Know How She Does It, anything Adam Sandler produced or starred in. But seriously, I'm dead inside, so I don't think I'm emotionally equipped to answer that question.
What are you most looking forward to in 2012?
Steven Hale: The Dark Knight Rises.
Sam Smith: Seeing The Dark Knight Rises on IMAX, and Michael Haneke's next, Amour.
Jason Shawhan: Prometheus. And also Cronenberg's Cosmopolis. Seeing if an awesome, gutsy distributor will pick up Code Blue or Dreileben.
Jim Ridley: Everything from the Hugh Jackman-Russell Crowe Les Miserables to Matthew Wilder's Linda Lovelace biopic Inferno and a new Brian De Palma joint. And please oh please, somebody, show Edward Yang's staggering 1991 epic A Brighter Summer Day, which just got its first U.S. release — and which people have been trying to screen locally without success for at least 12 years.
Noel Murray: Naturally, I'm very excited for Sundance in a couple of weeks, where I'll have the chance to see new movies by Antonio Campos, Spike Lee and other formidable filmmakers, including some newcomers who could be the next Sean Durkin.
Michael Sicinski: I have no idea, really, but that's the way I like it. Total surprises! The promise of astonishment!
Craig D. Lindsey: A job with benefits. But if you're talking cinematically, 21 Jump Street — I guess.
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