10. The Descendants
First, the great mysteries: why does the disturbingly sexy daughter character switch instantly, at about the 35-minute mark, from a boozy, moody punk into a model of mature wisdom? Why does the proud cuckolded Clooney character decide to make this same teenager his intimate, trusted confidant in all matters pertaining to his cuckolding? And where the hell is Randy Quaid in all of this? I can't find him anywhere!
These aren't minor issues, but still, Alexander Payne delivers the goods, and so does Hawaii, the funny 'Scott' kid, and, most surprising of all, Matthew Lillard, who has apparently come a long way from Summer Catch (you can tell, in part, by the "Stanford" t-shirt he wears while jogging).
Irving Howe once wrote an essay about what he called "punitive novels" -- works that "solicit pain and hoard guilt," ultimately provoking their reader to wonder, "Is this a punishment I am morally obliged to endure, even welcome, perhaps out of a sense of human solidarity?"
It's hard to believe he could write these lines before the emergence of Lars von Trier. This film, which is apparently much less punishing than many other von Trier exercises, nevertheless indulges in more than its fair share of guilt-hoarding and pain-solicitation. A portrait of a broken woman on the eve of the earth's destruction by a wayward planet, the film is managed with considerable, even astounding cinematic craft. The raucous, hollow din of the wedding party; the stomach-churning eerieness of the countdown to armaggeddon; the luscious greenish gloss that seems to coat the entire frame from beginning to end, making Melancholia look and feel like few other films: unlike 2011's other John Hurt vehicle (ha), this one will stick with me until 2020 and beyond.
But the problem is that all this skill and all this power is harnessed to a rigidly punitive -- and tediously simplistic -- vision of the world. Von Trier is filled with the self-satisfaction of the dissatisfied. Unlike the great modern classic of planetary sci-fi, Solaris, towards whose air of tragic melancholy it obviously aspires, Melancholia neither poses nor possesses any existential mysteries. And unlike 2011's own grandiose exploration of world-making and un-making, Tree of Life, its luridly sketched population lacks human complexity or even human interiors. Instead we have the rational-financial-male caricature of Kiefer Sutherland, the cowardly-bourgeois-female caricature of Charlotte Gainsbourg, and the Obvious Philosophical Voice Of The Director, Kirsten Dunst. She's gorgeous and merciless and all, but to what end? To make Lars Von Trier seem more coolly above it all? (If so, um, it didn't work.)
OK, that mini-dissertation on Melancholia leaves precious little space or time for the depth of analysis that Michael Fassbender's naked butt cheeks clearly deserve. I take Will's critique of the movie's implicit sexual conservatism, but as we discussed after watching together in D.C., there are a lot of mitigating factors, chief among them director Steve McQueen's sensous, penetrating lens -- this movie is beautifully shot and wonderfully paced.
So yes, I like my sugar.
7. Midnight in Paris
Woody, Woody, Woody! This dizzy farce lacks the dramatic urgency of Match Point (my IRON LIST #64) and the sexual verve of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but I'll be damned if Owen Wilson isn't the best Woody-substitute I've ever seen. He blows Kenneth Branagh and Will Ferrell clean out of the water (it's best for all parties concerned to forget that Larry David thing happened at all). A delightful valentine to Paris, a city where all wines are delicious, all midnight walks are rewarded, and each woman is more beautiful than the last. If I'm not mistaken.
Once again I must butt heads with my esteemed IRON UNCLE, but this might be the most underrated movie of the year. Director Duncan Jones, of the David Bowie Joneses, did Moon in '09 (personal IRON LIST #32) and this smart little sci-fi pic picks right up where that one left off. OK, so it doesn't quite have the magical simplicity of that film, either in its filming or its plot, but it does play its low-concept Groundhog Day gimmick to maximum effect. Jake Gyllenhaal is effectively exasperated and heroic, as the situation demands, and Jones's pacing is superb. My vote for raw action-entertainment film of the year.
On second thought, even Gosling's scorpion stitching doesn't get to be Coat of the Year: that honor must go to Jean Dujardin's racked jacket, brought wondrously to life by Bérénice Bejo. Sure, it drags a bit in the middle, and Happy George is much more memorable than Sad George, but still: this is a damned enjoyable silent film. To those who aver from on high that the original silent films did it better, well, I'm guessing most you haven't voluntarily settled in on a recent Saturday night with a DVD copy of George Fitzmaurice in The Son of the Sheik (if you have, let me know -- it looks pretty badass). In a year of movies about movies, and movies about planets, this is the best of the former bunch.
I have nothing whatsoever to add to Katherine's take on this, cut and pasted here for my pleasure and your edification:
"Yes, it’s slow, but so is walking the Oregon Trail! Yes, many of the scenes are hard to hear, but whispering men don’t intend to be heard when they’re lost in the wilderness with their wives. Yes, many of the nighttime scenes are dark, but many more are shot in the blisteringly bright light of day, with wagon train and human figures shrinking against a heat-cracked and unforgiving landscape. I love the way the characters are introduced, the men faraway and flimsy as reeds across a river, the women (led by Michelle Williams) faceless behind their bonnets. Even more, I love the way those bonnets continue to shelter and stifle the women in their timid challenges of male authority. Never has a head turn communicated so much about a culture so subtly. In scene after scene, the film depicts the group walking stoically alongside their wagons, a passage in American life I suppose might’ve envisioned before, but which Reichardt to her great credit made me consider as if for the first time. Seriously—they walked? Another stirring meditation on vulnerability at America’s edge."
No cute comments necessary here, but if you haven't seen it (or if you have), do yourself a favor and watch the funniest film scene of 2011:
So many interstellar objects, so little time. (Clearly, the outer-space arrival of Selita Ebanks in Kanye's Runaway film at the end of 2010 anticipated the whole of 2011 in cinema).
Mike Cahill's gently devastating debut illuminates a planet's worth of pain in just under ninety minutes of film. Far less ponderous than Melancholia, but at least its equal in dramatic distress, Another Earth rises to the challenge of its own agony. Like The Son, the Dardenne Brothers' great 2005 film of trauma and catharsis (my IRON LIST #13), it recognizes, without an ounce of schmaltz, that the power to harm is also the power to heal. We cannot all be redeemed, but we can always be forgiven.
Conveniently, my favorite film of the year was also the topic of my favorite film essay of the year (Yes, I'm the kind of person who reads a great many film essays; couldn't you tell by my references to Solaris and Irving Howe?)
So I'll happily lend this one out to Geoffrey O'Brien in the New York Review, who is at his best in describing why the National Geographic "cliches" of The Tree of Life's first hour are so essential to clinching the film's connection between the cosmic and the intimate:
"The extreme variations of scale are no afterthought in [Terence] Malick’s scheme. To show the world in a grain of sand he must first establish what the world is. So he will walk us through the stages and conditions and outer boundaries of human existence, provide a basic introduction to annihilating and fecundating cosmic forces, move freely back and forth in time for lingering glances at birth and death and family and memory as if they were only marginally familiar phenomena, as if no one had ever done any of this before, in a movie at least—and indeed who ever did in quite this head-on fashion? He manages to make childhood (and The Tree of Life is beyond anything else a movie descriptive of childhood) seem a somewhat neglected condition, deserving of reexamination. He is continually trying out different ways of representing acts of perception: the perspective of a child looking up at the adult world, or looking down from some hidden perch, the abrupt rhythm of a child looking quickly at some terrifying outburst of adult anger and then looking away, the sheared-off gaps in editing that can mark a moment as a fresh eternity disconnected from what preceded it."