In lieu of the customary and arbitrary year-end list of the best movies of the year, your curmudgeonly correspondent offers up a tenfold survey of the state of the art.
1. Big Ideas on the big screen. Even in the age of the blockbuster, there've always been directors exploring profound philosophical concerns. They were usually alienated Europeans such as Jean-Luc Godard, and their movies didn't reach and provoke discussion among mainstream Americans. Not one but two films with lofty intellectual and artistic ambitions breached the gates in 2011, as Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life and Lars Von Trier's Melancholia asked us to contemplate our place in the cosmos as well as our relationships with other people. Are they timeless masterpieces or gorgeously photographed hooey? Both directors were plainly more interested in Big Ideas than in their human protagonists -- a charge also levied at Stanley Kubrick about 2001: A Space Odyssey.
2. Paying homage to cinema's pioneers. French director Michel Hazanivicius saluted (and mocked) the craft of Hollywood silent filmmaking in The Artist, while Martin Scorsese honored early French filmmaker George Meliés' innovative science-fiction illusions in Hugo. Beyond the transatlantic, cross-cultural implications -- which can best be seen as evidence that directors view themselves as kindred spirits, and members of the same clan—both films promote the value of our collective cinematic heritage, as well as a love for celluloid. It's not a coincidence that Hazanivicius and Scorsese made their works as 35mm film is on the verge of being completely displaced by digital cameras. If this is too abstract or inside baseball for you, pick up a copy of Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938, the new box set of restored and preserved films released by the National Film Preservation Foundation. (The San Francisco-based nonprofit was just honored with the San Francisco Film Critics Circle's Marlon Riggs Award.) There's our history, in two-reelers and travelogues with a couple of rare features, to marvel at and savor.
My Week With Marilyn
3. Musical performances. It was not uncommon through the 1940s for Hollywood dramas to include a musical number to satisfy audiences who remembered the days when a live show preceded the movie. One of my pantheon films, the Raymond Chandler private-eye caper The Big Sleep (1946), features Lauren Bacall singing a jazzy tune at an illicit roadhouse gambling house. (Of course, once upon a time movie stars came out of vaudeville or the theater, and were trained singers, dancers, jugglers, joke-tellers and dramatic line-readers.) Carey Mulligan's breathy, slowed-down rendition of “New York, New York” is a tense highlight of Shame, while Michelle Williams' opening and closing numbers as MM in My Week With Marilyn add a dash of wit and style to a slight movie about moviemaking. Other musical moments that stick with me: Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo's tap-dancing climax in The Artist and cult leader John Hawkes' spooky solo acoustic “ballad” in Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Midnight in Paris
4. Bastardized history. The aforementioned Godard has long railed at American directors, especially Steven Spielberg, for cultural imperialism. The Swiss-based director has his own failings, character and otherwise, but you could appreciate his outrage if you listened to Hugo's French characters speaking English with British accents, or swallowed Spielberg's glossily art-directed and simple-minded slant on World War I in War Horse. The real takeaway of these movies -- every true event or work of literature in the history of the world is fair game for American filmmakers with large enough budgets -- makes the globetrotting, explosion-spewing arrogance of the James Bond flicks look like eco-tourism. A separate kind of ignominy attends to Woody Allen for resurrecting the Left Bank in the 1920s Paris in Midnight in Paris with every cliché intact. For the record, I concede but don't accept the possibility that Allen wasn't pandering to Americans' Cliff Notes awareness of Hemingway, Picasso, Dali, Man Ray, et al, but satirizing our superficial knowledge.
5. The end of trust. The mood of the country is grim and tentative, notwithstanding the bonhomie and booze of the holiday season and the optimism we'll be force-fed in next year's election campaign. My favorite film of 2011, Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, deftly depicted the ambitions, rivalries and jealousies of the top intelligence operatives charged with protecting England during the Cold War. Look no further than the halls of Congress, where the nation's interests and priorities are ignored in the pursuit of personal power and material wealth, for the film's contemporary relevance. The themes of manipulation, mistrust and betrayal that propel Tinker Tailor, as well as Ralph Fiennes' bold and muscular adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, reflect the moment: Bankers pocket bonuses while the Occupy movement is beaten and busted by mayors around the country.
6. Hollywood won't die. That's the good news, believe it or not. For all the junk that American movie industry puts out 10 months of the year, and the pretentious, pandering twaddle that's passed off as “quality film” the other two months, there is a particular kind of well-executed, smooth-edged entertainment with social-issue undertones that Hollywood still gets right once or twice a year. This year's model was Tate Taylor's The Help which, for all its pat homilies and eliding of real-life degradation, at least did not pander to a fifth-grade mentality. That's about the best what we can hope for.
The Mill and the Cross
7. The invisibility of foreign films. You have to be one dedicated filmgoer to see more than a couple foreign films a year. The number of releases keeps shrinking, and their runs get shorter. The most unique and revelatory import of 2011, Lech Majewski's The Mill and the Cross bucked the trend and hung around for weeks, perhaps because it tapped into the art history and museum audience. Michel Leclerc's The Names of Love improbably meshed outspoken political commentary and full-frontal nudity to terrific effect, while Apichatpong Weerasethakul's meditative and mysterious Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives beguiled in a completely different way. Keep an eye out for Polish director Agnieskza Holland's visceral and mesmerizing In Darkness (opening Feb. 10), a fact-based Holocaust drama that takes on the sticky question of whether the Poles were opportunists, victims, collaborators, heroes and/or anti-Semites.
8. Real life, with a twist, rules. Most weeks of the year, in most cities in the country, the best film playing in theaters was a documentary. It was likely also the most creative, and the most inspired. Documentarians are actively playing with the line between fact and fiction -- a line that reality TV has made more negotiable than ever -- and the results are genuinely exciting. In The Arbor, Clio Barnard cast actors to lip-synch to audio interviews she did with the daughters and family members of British playwright Andrea Dunbar (Rita, Sue and Bob Too!). This was some of the best acting on display all year, but it's not a gimmick: It adds real poignancy while echoing Dunbar's own gift for turning her real-life circumstances into drama. I also adored Michael Madsen's Into Eternity, a cool, stylized, Big Ideas study of an underground Finnish facility being constructed to store nuclear waste, and Cindy Meehl's deeply humanist Buck, a ground-level portrait of a soft-spoken horse (and people) trainer who knows more about horses (and people) than the director of War Horse. Bay Area filmmakers enjoyed a banner year, led by Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway's Better This World , David Weissman's We Were Here, Yoav Potash's Crime After Crime and Lynn Hershman Leeson's !Women Art Revolution.
9. It's always independents' day. A problem with contemporary American movies is that their makers lack the real-world seasoning, from manual labor to battlefield experience, of previous generations. Film school is not a substitute, needless to say. And yet a few thoughtful, substantive independent movies are produced each year, poking out from the steaming pile of flicks about twenty-something love affairs, dysfunctional families, quirky road trips and gun-toting crime. The directors of Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter, Weekend and Like Crazy understand cinema as an art form rather than simply a medium for telling stories to people to lazy to read.
10. Cinema's immortals, R.I.P. The parade of stars ascending into the heavens of immortality was led by Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Russell and Peter Falk. The last 12 months claimed way too many heavyweight directors, including Raul Ruiz (Mysteries of Lisbon, Ken Russell (The Devils), Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon), Gary Winick (Tadpole) and the Bay Area's George Kuchar (Hold Me While I'm Naked). And we also lost Graham Leggat, the executive director of the San Francisco Film Society (presenter of the S.F. International Film Festival and countless year-round programs). For all he accomplished in his five-plus years at the helm, he left us much too soon, and far too young.