Of course since posting my year-end list of my 10 favorite films of 2011, my opinion has changed. I’ve seen a few more movies, or maybe it’s just Friday. Whatever. Life, not to mention film appreciation, is subjective. Regardless, I hope this read provides a refreshing guide celebrating 20 of what I consider are the best films cinema had to offer in 2011… as far as the independent ethos is concerned.

I could not find the time to see every movie released this year (what human being can?). I even have not seen (sacrilege!) Oscar® contenders like Moneyball and the Artist. But it is safe to say I satisfied by craving for art house films. Any film below that I also reviewed at length in this blog is followed by an *. So, search for their titles in the box to your right for more in-depth thoughts on what made these films special.

Please consider this list as an antidote for all the hype leading up to Sunday’s big night. Sure, I can try to predict what happens on Oscar® night (though the race seems more interesting than years past), but I prefer to dwell on the films I saw that touched me on an artistic level, free from the hype and commercialism that surrounds the Hollywood-centric event. This list goes out to the truly independent spirits, many of whom went under-appreciated partly because they probably did not have the marketing budgets of Hollywood films but also because they offered unusual and original cinematic experiences, be they independent movies, foreign films or people working in Hollywood bucking the “tent pole” and sequel/prequel trend. I’ll start with number 20 (All titles link to their Amazon.com pages. If you click through the links and purchase the movie, you will provide financial support to this blog):

20. Source Code

Time travel films can make for messy movies, and this one seems to be unraveling all the time until it all snaps together in one surprising mental “click” at the very end. It felt as thought director Duncan Jones had just pulled of a magic trick using the narrative techniques of cinema. Sci-fi has never felt both this entertaining and intelligent in a long time.

19. A Dangerous Method

This is as minimalist a Cronenberg film can get: go to the father of psychology (Sigmund Freud, as played by Viggo Mortensen) and examine the tensions between him and his most famous student (Carl Jung, as played by Michael Fassbender) and put a woman seething with id between them. Keira Knightley gives an underrated performance as the Cronenberg monster Sabina Spielrein, the animalistic Russian woman exploding in fits and ticks when encountering authority. Her contorting during Jung’s initial session looks like a special effect: a shape-shifting monster struggling to fix its short circuits in order to retain its human form. The dynamics that ensue thrills on the analytical, psychological level.

18. Drive

One of of the few films I watched in the theaters that physically affected me. I was shivering with nerves like I haven’t in a long time. The slowburn aggression of Ryan Gosling’s character coupled with the stylization of director Nicolas Winding-Refn, who clearly delights in violence, had me quaking like a little kid.

17. Martha Marcy May Marlene

First-time feature director Sean Durkin rises above a stellar, hype-stealing star turn by Elizabeth Olsen (the younger sister of the Olsen twins) with Martha Marcy May Marlene. Though she compliments the film with a delicate and dynamic performance, her character is also a cog in a twisted tale told through a twisted knot of edits that continuously flashback to her life in a cult. Marcy May somehow escapes the cult, returning to the open arms of her sister (Sarah Paulson) to reclaim her birth name Martha. However, she cannot seem to shake her past, which may or may not be catching up to her in real life. The film’s ambiguity does tremendous respect to this mixed up character. The director makes a great, if risky, move at film’s end, staying true to the feeling of helplessness of a person who cannot seem to distinguish “reality”— whatever that is— from fantasy, imagination, hallucination, dreams or what have you.

16. Take Shelter*

A film telling a story from the perspective of a schizophrenic personality always makes for an interesting subject via the cinematic art form. It allows for wide-ranging amounts of mystery. But it can also be a harrowing experience, as one can never tell what lies around the corner from one scene to the next. Take Shelter piles on the stakes, as the main character, family man Curtis (Michael Shannon), slowly unravels while his family seems to need more with each passing day. Some might say there is a big reveal at the end of the film, yet you cannot really trust where director Jeff Nichols decides to place the final frame, as this is a story from the perspective of Curtis.

15. Le Havre*

With Le Havre, Finland’s most popular director, Aki Kaurismäki, reveals a refined, focused talent that has not compromised its sensibilities. The film contains many a breathtaking scene, like the starkly lit stacks of containers at the harbor where we meet the young African migrant Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) at the film’s beginning. Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a good-hearted elderly shoe-shiner, will invest all he has to help that boy get to his mother in London, finding karmic reward at film’s end, represented by a neatly framed shot of a cherry blossom tree in his front yard. Le Havre is a delicate, charming film that recalls the best of the most efficient of world cinema. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes but lost out to the more bombastic Tree of Life. The film flows with the ease and charm for the joie de vivre of both adventurous youth and aging with grace. At the film’s heart is a boy embarking on a new life, daunted by a new, alien land and an old man happy in his groove of life, scraping together the few Euros needed to stay afloat and support his wife, home and dog.

14. Film Socialisme*

If it had a musical equivalent, Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme would be Sun Ra record from. The “music” of the movie’s imagery is one of the wonderful things about Godard’s obscuring of narrative that seems to bring out a rhythm inherent to the medium of cinema. It was as if JLG was exploring cinema in its purist form. As such, it seems to have more in common with a symphony rather than a book, as movies are so often compared or associated with. As with all great art, be it paintings, poetry, sculpture or music, you will get as much out of Film Socialisme as you put into it.

13. Mysteries of Lisbon*

The stories that make up Mysteries of Lisbon offer something beyond anything I have ever seen in a movie theater. It follows a curving narrative line that cannot be contained. One might imagine it follows a path that can only be illustrated as a three-dimensional cone that begins as a dot and spirals wider into a curlicue with gaps as branches sprout off the curls and twirl off in their own twisting manner into a dark abyss. All the stories within this epic 4-and-a-half-hour film. no matter how brief or long, are swollen with implication and possibilities. The movie’s layering of stories comes across almost dream-like, recalling a recent Hollywood movie that excited movie goers by diverting from the traditional form of blockbuster films, meshing together layers of ever-shifting settings and even goals: Inception. Like Inception, when the finale in Mysteries of Lisbon arrives, the audience is left to wonder: was all that happened really a sort of fever dream, brilliantly adding a layer of infinite possibilities to the proceedings with another surreal bow on top.

12. The Hedgehog

This film took me by surprise. Opening with the annoyingly precious precociousness of a young French girl preparing to kill herself, as documented in family home videos of her bourgeois life, the film becomes a testament to living.

11. Project Nim*

As I watched the story of the oft-abandoned and re-purposed chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky, I could not help but think of Robert Bresson’s classic story of a mule, Au hasard Balthazar. Project Nim has no heroes. The people in Nim’s life come off self-righteous in their presumption to know the soul of a chimpanzee. Director James Marsh splices together a moving documentary that hooks you early and never lets go. The film’s richness comes from a cast of characters who express their love for Nim that reveal how good intentions and human folly can wreak havoc on a living creature. Yes, Nim may have a consciousness, but his mind is not human, an immutable fact that dooms this 1970s-era experiment in assimilating a chimp into a human family from the beginning. Laura-Ann Petitto, Nim’s second surrogate mother, lays it plainly at one point in the film: “You can’t give human nurturing to an animal that can kill you.” The film also offered a powerful precursor to that other great chimp movie of the year: Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

This list continues in this post:

An antidote for Oscar hype: My 20 favorite films of 2011 (numbers 10 – 1)

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

A rare opportunity to see a nice part of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s work in a revival art house setting is underway in— of all places— Miami Beach, Florida. In a bold move of programming, the Miami Beach Cinematheque, is presenting select pictures by Kaurismäki throughout the month of November under the banner of “Helsinki Cowboy.” So far, I have caught the career-defining Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) and his latest, 2011’s Le Havre. Both distributed by Janus Films, the label behind the Criterion Collection home video series. As can be expected from Janus/Criterion the films indeed justify a theatrical setting, as the images are impeccable from the hi-def projector of the MBC.

Beyond the wonderful images, the films reveal a heartfelt yet serious director with a droll comedic bent. Later films to be screened during this retrospective include The Man Without a Past (2002). It was a breakthrough work that saw distribution in the US by Sony Pictures Classics and earned the director an Oscar nomination in the foreign film category. His follow-up, Lights in the Dusk (2006), will also screen. That film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival upon its release. Also screening before the movies are several Kaurismäki-directed music videos featuring the Leningrad Cowboys, the stars of Leningrad Cowboys Go America.

Thanks to my family in Finland, I had heard of Kaurismäki, especially his fictionalized band of “musicians,” the Leningrad Cowboys, who apparently were a regular fixture on the MTV of that part of the world in the early nineties. Because of Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America, the band that played the titular group was eclipsed in popularity by the fictional band of the movie. The Sleepy Sleepers would then carry on as the Leningrad Cowboys, thanks to the notoriety of that film. Below, see a clip of the Sleepy Sleepers only a year before the theatrical release of Leningrad Cowboys Go America, at a music festival:

Their look would become more uniform for the Kaurismäki film. Defined by a style that seemed to parody that of classic fifties-era American rock ‘n’ rollers, with exaggerated pompadours, pointy shoes and sunglasses, the “group” played over-the-top rock, that would fit comfortably in the rockabilly resurrection and ska sounds that were part of the late seventies and early eighties. It was fitting that their sound was 10 years behind the trend yet still fit in well with then modern, western acts like Fishbone and Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who also resurrected the sound in the nineties alternative rock era.

Though Finland is Scandinavian and democratic, the implication was that this fictitious act came from the backwoods of Siberia. Kaurismäki introduced the “band” as some strange crossover vessel of cold war eastern European culture adapting to the growing pop culture of the West, as the iron curtain began to crumble in the late eighties. The film where this group made its debut offers a hint of the director’s quirky cinematic style as it was blossoming. He has an amazing deadpan sensibility, like a bitter, old Wes Anderson who still has a vague sense of what it was to be young and naïve.

The movie opens with the group of musicians, who seem to be the only inhabitants of some odd Siberian village, where the locals are defined by conical pompadours and pointy shoes (even a baby has a tall, triangular tuft of hair sticking up from out of the top of a crib). The band performs oompah-like music in a ramshackle shed to someone who appears to be a record label executive. After the music comes to a screaming halt, the band members stare in anticipation at the A&R rep who pauses to puff from a cigarette. “Shit,” he states. “No commercial potential. Go to America. They like all kinds of shit there.”

The band indeed head to America, rolling out of their village on tractors, dragging their frozen stiff bass player in a poor man’s coffin, his pointy shoes and pointy hair sticking up through the planks of wood. Following false promises of playing Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium by their shifty manager, they hit the road for a fantasy trip across the music landscape of the USA with Jim Jarmusch handing them the keys to their banged up wheels (two musicians need to sit in chairs in the open trunk of the old sedan in order to fit in the car, the bassist in his coffin strapped to the roof).

These characters arrived at the final warming of the cold war. Though Finnish, they clearly reference the chilly, stark distance of Mother Russia. With mostly deadpan presence, they crunch out driving rock tunes at an array of dive bars for change. It’s decades of repression taking its first baby steps to find a way to express itself. Though the Leningrad Cowboys find some love in New Orleans, the band only seems to reach some level of success after playing a wedding in Mexico. Leningrad Cowboys Go America was an odd introduction to what would turn out to be a seminal work by Finland’s auteur. A love of old time rock ‘n’ roll and the driest, drollest sense of humor clash in an almost surreal way.

Though the Cowboys was a breakthrough movie for Kaurismäki, Le Havre reveals a more refined, focused director who has not compromised his sensibilities. The film contains many a breathtaking scene, like the starkly lit stacks of containers at the harbor where we meet the young African migrant Idrissa (Blondin Miguel). Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a good-hearted elderly shoe-shiner, will invest all he has to help the boy get to his mother in London. He will find karmic reward at film’s end, represented by a the neatly framed shot of the cherry blossom tree in his front yard. It’s a delicate, charming film that recalls the best of efficient world cinema. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes but lost out to the more bombastic Tree of Life.

Throughout Le Havre, characters have both colorful personalities and colorful attire that make them pop in the chiaroscuro lighting that defines the movie. Kaurismäki maintains the signature stagey feel of Leningrad Cowboys Go America. Often characters stare before taking action, giving the film a quietly unfolding, oddly-paced but charming feel, again recalling Anderson. And, look, there is Jean-Pierre Léaud playing the nosy, curmudgeonly neighbor who cannot abide “those immigrants.” Léaud’s appearance is fitting, seeing as the film owes a debt to the director that made him a famous actor in France as the star of 1959’s the 400 Blows: François Truffaut— also a touchstone for Anderson. The film flows with the ease and charm for the joie de vivre of both adventurous youth and aging with grace. At the film’s heart is the boy embarking on a new life, daunted by this new alien land where police are on the hunt and an old man happy in his groove of life, scraping together the few Euros needed to stay afloat and support his wife, home and dog.

When one thinks of world cinema, the thought of what Finland may have contributed does not often come to mind. Therefore I had not got around to checking out the output of Kaurismäki. I still have some catching up to do on Bergman and Kurosawa, but an opportunity to see this distinctive filmmaker on the big screen should not be passed up. As November’s choice in MBC’s monthly “Great Directors” series, Kaurismäki rewards a big screen presentation. Seeing the disparity of his early career-defining work, Leningrad Cowboys Go America, and the culmination of his refinement as a director, Le Havre, is a revelation. In these two films alone, Kaurismäki has proven a delight to watch. His quirky cinematic sensibilities, and the growth and refinement between the two films, also prove his movies still to come during this month’s series will offer interesting viewing.

Le Havre continues its run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, tonight through Tuesday only. This Thursday, the Man Without a Past will screen for one night only, at 8 p.m. The series concludes Wednesday, Nov. 23, with the one-night only screening of Lights In the Dusk, also at 8 p.m.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)