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 film telling a story from the perspective of a schizophrenic personality 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. Some film goers who prefer to know what is really happening might feel frustrated. You could even boil down the “action” from one frame to the next, as even the edits can be hard to trust in such a movie. I personally love to get lost in these kind of films, as they thrive on inherently unpredictable qualities.

There have been only a few such movies, but this year’s Take Shelter rises up among the best in recent times. Curtis (Michael Shannon) is growing more aware that either his sense of reality is falling apart or he has developed some sort of unique clairvoyance giving him visions of an impending epic storm. In a way, it recalls the original cut of 1999’s Donnie Darko. In that film, however, the imperfect mess in the story involving worm holes, a specter in a bunny suit that only the titular character (Jake Gyllenhaal) can see and hear coupled with an airplane crash that has yet to happen actually supported the notion that the protagonist may indeed be schizophrenic.*

Take Shelter is much more focused and character-driven. Despite some key awe-inducing scenes of special effects, the effects never overshadow the drama at the heart of the film. It also offers a brilliant “out” at the film’s conclusion that most will never see coming.

Curtis is the main bread-winner in a family of three living in a small Ohio town. He oversees a team of workers at what seems to be a rock quarry. The decision to not bother with the details of the job adds a nice layer of mystery. Beyond some conversation with his boss in an office, the viewer only sees Curtis at work with a co-worker, Dewart (Shea Whigham), using giant industrial equipment to drill into the ground, a dangerous job for a man in Curtis’ state. His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), in the meantime, occupies herself by putting her stitching skills to work, scraping together a few bucks for a trip to the beach. The couple have a deaf 6-year-old daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) who is about to have surgery for an implanted hearing aid, thanks to Curtis’ health insurance from work. It is clear this family needs Curtis.

You follow Curtis as he gradually becomes aware of his hallucinations, which include visions of swelling storm clouds that no one else sees in the waking world. Meanwhile, his subconscious begins to feel more real to him during dreams that leave him with phantom pain all day long. When his dog bites him in a dream, he feels compelled to move the animal out of the house and fence him in the yard. He later admits to Samantha that he could feel the bite on his arm long after the dream had occurred.

As Curtis seems to unravel, something indeed feels at stake throughout the movie. No wonder he wants to resist his visions, despite wetting the bed and the fact his mother had to go into assisted living due to her own mental illness, which overtook her at around the same age as Curtis.

As the days go by, Curtis grows more concerned, while the visions and dreams grow more violent. To say more would be to spoil the experience of seeing the movie. First-time director Jeff Nichols does a brilliant thing to make viewers feel as though they are seeing these things as Curtis. He never preempts a “dream” sequence with a set up of Curtis going to sleep. This, in turn, allows the viewer to sympathize with the visions in the waking world that no one else but Curtis seems to notice.

It does not hurt that the film features sensitive and sincere performances by all involved. Chastain won the Hollywood Breakthrough Award as “Actress of the Year” at the 2011 Hollywood Film Festival for her presence in several great films this year, which have also included the Tree of Life, the Help and the Debt (Here’s a nice image gallery from “Rolling Stone” highlighting her roles in 2011). As a result, Shannon does not have the same star power, but he has already established he can bring the crazy out of his characters. He breathed some insane, creepy warmth to the otherwise cold and dull Revolutionary Road for which he wound up earning a best supporting actor Oscar® nod in 2008.

In an inspired bit of programming, it is worth noting that capping the screening week of Take Shelter locally at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, that same theater will host a one-night only screening of Shannon’s star turn in 2006’s Bug. That film also happened to deal with the gray world of perceived mental illness. It was a labor of love film by director William Friedkin, who saw Shannon in the stage play that he would adapt for the screen with the same title. It confounded critics, audiences and the studio’s marketing department. Who were these down-in-the-dumps, messed up people portrayed by Shannon and Ashley Judd, who take a mutual mental roller coaster trip into the depths of private hell, fearing their bodies were nothing but producers of tiny bugs? Where are the monstrous creatures? Do they even exist? This is a movie by the director of the Exorcist, after all. Critics were divided and most audiences hated it.

What was even stranger about Bug is the question whether so-called “body bugs” actually exist or is indeed a mental illness. A local news station (full disclosure: I work there), did a series of investigative reports on the phenomena (read the scripts to the stories by 7News’ senior reporter Patrick Fraser in Part 1 and Part 2). All that baggage aside, this film indeed walks that disquieting line of mental breakdown as related to paranoid schizophrenia in that inspired, ambiguous way that might be upsetting to some viewers and thrilling for others.

At the heart is a tight story involving the dynamics of three stellar actors who also include a mean Harry Connick Jr. Then there is the choice of some expressive lighting by Friedkin, who does know a thing or two about thrillers, be they horror (1973’s the Exorcist) or action (1971’s The French Connection). As an odd side note on Friedkin, he is also the director once in talks with Peter Gabriel of adapting a film version of the 1974 Genesis album, the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, about a New York street punk on a mythical journey of self-actualization via encounters with sex and death. Friedkin knows a mad experience, and he puts it on full intimate display in Bug.

Call me biased to these kinds of cryptic movies that both exploit the medium of cinema, defined by editing and special effects, playing tricks on the mind of a viewer, and offering a puzzle of a story that, by definition of its genre, can never offer pat conclusions. It celebrates both the inherent quality of the art of a movie and story.

Some of these movies wait until the end for a great big reveal that rationalizes the puzzle presented before it. It’s the easiest abuse of the schizophrenic character at the heart of such films, and movie goers looking for a true mystery might feel cheated. It’s akin to ending a story with “and then he woke up.” Some great directors have fallen back on this trope, like Martin Scorsese with Shutter Island and even David Cronenberg with Spider.

Though Spider did have an amazing mysterious mood throughout, Cronenberg would more powerfully capture the mood of schizophrenia with eXistenZ, though the film was about role-players or “gamers,” to use a more modern term, involved in fantasy worlds akin to taking on a persona in real-time games like World of Warcraft. However, in eXistenZ players tapped directly into a fleshy “game pod” with a plug that connects to a “port” implanted in the player’s spinal column and participated in games that only dealt in plots surrounding the creation of role-playing games that tap directly into a player’s spinal column, and on and on, from one alternate layer of existence to another, until reality becomes blurred and imperceptible. It is one of my all-time favorite movies, having the elements of a similar film that came out the same year, the Matrix, which I did not like at all. eXistenZ never tried to rationalize what was real with boring exposition that some might feel more satisfied or at peace with, as it explained what was reality and what was not. In my opinion, eXistenZ blew the Matrix out of the water as far as creating a true feeling of living in an alternate reality by never short-changing the mystery at the heart of the film, creating that sublime sense of helpless schizophrenia that is existence.

This year, you can also add one other movie along with Take Shelter that captures this similar theme: Martha Marcy May Marlene. I caught that movie at a multiplex only a few weeks ago. The film, also by a first-time feature director showing great promise (Sean Durkin), has had to rise above a stellar performance by the triple identity character within the title: Martha, Marcy May and Marlene, played by Elizabeth Olsen (the younger sister of the Olsen twins). While most everyone in the audience that day may have been drawn to the movie for the rising star at the center and the baggage her name carries, she compliments the film with a delicate performance that reveals her presence as but a cog in a twisted tale, told through a twisted knot of edits that continuously flashback to Martha’s life in a cult as Marcy May. She somehow escapes the cult, returning to the open arms of her sister (Sarah Paulson) and reclaiming 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 ambiguous ending did tremendous respect to this mixed up character. However, I was surrounded by a cantankerous crowd of people who thought the movie “terrible.” But I thought the director did the story a great, if risky, move, staying true to the feeling of helplessness of a person who cannot tell “reality”— whatever that is— from fantasy, imagination, hallucination, dreams, what have you.

To reveal the ending of Martha Marcy May Marlene would be to do the film an injustice. It comes as a surprise, as you certainly want resolution for the character, but it feels right, considering the confused character at the center of it. But even more tidy, if there can be a tidy schizoid movie, is Take Shelter. I refuse to be specific for fear of spoiling the film for viewers, and some might think this concluding statement reveals too much, so read this last bit only if you do not care if some of the magic of this movie is spoiled before experiencing it for yourself:  Some might say there is a big reveal at the end of the film, yet you cannot really trust where the filmmaker decides to place the final frame, as this is a story from the perspective of Curtis. It’s a nice (possibly) ambiguous ending.

Take Shelter is rated R, runs 120 min., and opens in South Florida Friday, Dec. 9, at 6:50 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. It also opens that same day further north, in Broward County, at 9 p.m. and Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. The Miami Beach Cinematheque has also programmed Bug (Rated R, 102 min.) for a one-night only screening during the theater’s on-going Cinephile’s Choice series, on Thursday, Dec. 15, at 8 p.m. MBC members get free admission to this special screening. All others will pay $10 ($9 for students and seniors).

Hans Morgenstern


*The director of Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly, would later extend the film in a “director’s cut” with less ambiguity, which even saw re-release in theaters, as a cult following had grown around the DVD because of the film’s mysterious elements.

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