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.)

OK, I hate giving up this list so early, but ’tis the season of lists and best of’s, so below you will find 10 of my favorite films that I caught in 2011 (so far). I’ve linked the titles to their Amazon pages. If you click through the links and purchase the movie (on blu-ray, which is the best way to see movies at home, for now), you will provide financial support to this blog. Here you go:

1. My Joy
2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
3. Super 8 (I saw it three times!)
4. The Tree of Life
5. Meek’s Cutoff
6. Ten Thousand Waves (More a film installation than an actual movie, but here’s a link to the fancy art book)
7. Mysteries of Lisbon
8. Dogtooth
9. Project Nim
10. The Hedgehog

There. I will provide a much more comprehensive list that will also include a bottom 10 and summaries of sentiments in February to counter the Oscar craze around that time (the Oscars are so over-rated. It’s easier to pick winners based on studio campaigning than actual artistic merit! I like to provide my list of 20 as an antidote to all the hype of awards season and also allow for time to catch up on all those foreign films that take a little longer to hit US theaters).

All the films are diverse and one at least impossible to re-experience (Ten Thousand Waves was displayed on nine different screens that could be seen from different angles and no image was ever the same): But the decision of placing these films on this list came from something quite simple: Did I have a reaction in the gut while watching the film that was elusive and stirring? At least half these films saw review in this blog, so I can go a bit deeper than that, but that exciting feeling in the gut is clear, potent, undeniable and definitive enough.

Even with the invitations to preview screenings and screeners studios loaned me (the most for me ever in a year) there are still many films from 2011 I have yet to see and already have much buzz as greats of the year (The Mill and the Cross; A Dangerous Method; Moneyball; A Separation; Weekend; Leap Year; The Artist; Pina; The Kid With a Bike; Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy; Beginners; Rampart; Crazy, Stupid Love). Who knows, maybe the top 10 might even shift some, that’s how subjective these lists are.

Hans Morgenstern

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

So Cowboys and Aliens isn’t your thing this opening weekend at the movies? Well, a couple of days ago, I reviewed a real alternative option for sci-fi fans as well as a documentary about a chimpanzee researchers tried to raise as a human, which are opening this weekend at a pair of local art houses.

My review for James Marsh’s Project Nim appeared exclusively on Beached Miami’s blog: “Project Nim: Chimpanzee as guinea pig.” I had high hopes going in, seeing as I consider Marsh’s 2008 documentary, Man on Wire (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon), one of the most moving and powerful films I have ever seen. I was not let down. Though I loved how Marsh captures high-wire walker Philippe Petit’s transcendental experience by walking a wire between the then under-construction Twin Towers in NYC in Man on Wire, there is no transcendence in Nim’s sad tale, which concludes with the obvious: Nim is not human. However, the drama Marsh creates on his way to that conclusion with talking heads, atmospheric music and archival footage is unrelenting in its power.

There is also no transcendence to be found in World on a Wire, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s obscure foray into science fiction. However, it is quite a meditative work on man’s possibility to transcend the self via alternate realities augmented by a super computer. As detailed in my lengthy review posted here earlier this week, Fassbinder is an amazingly brazen filmmaker of the German New Wave Cinema scene. Though the film was a challenge to keep up with at three and half hours long, Fassbinder comes across as giddy with the possibilities of science fiction via is creative use of set design, otherworldly music and the obtuse acting of his cast. Beached Miami ran a shorter version of my review, here: “‘World on a Wire’: Fassbinder’s sci-fi mindbender.”

Go through the hot links to Beached Miami for the reviews and the specific screening dates.

Hans Morgenstern

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