How do we make sense of the past? What paths does memory take en route to truth, trauma or transcendence? What patterns emerge? Many of my favourite films of 2011, listed below in no particular order (though the first is first for a reason), respond to this question by contrasting the unfathomably vast with the infinitesimal, deep history with willful amnesia, the beginning and end of everything with the harrowing loss of a single life. (Or a single mind.)
Nostalgia for the Light
The central location of Patricio Guzmán’s essay film is Chile’s Atacama Desert, the most arid region on Earth, home to two of the world’s most powerful telescopes, a place where mothers and widows of the disappeared scour the desert floor for trace remains of loved ones while astronomers search the outer reaches of the universe for ancient signs of life. Like many of Guzmán’s earlier films (The Battle of Chile, Salvador Allende), the film interrogates his home country’s selective erasure of unresolved past horrors while waxing nostalgic about its old collective fascination with the wonders of the night sky. Nostalgia For the Light is eloquent, inventive, rigorous, tender, curious and immensely humane.
The Tree of Life
Wildly ambitious (and thus, appropriately, divisive and awkward), Terrence Malick’s latest (a perfect compliment to Guzmán’s—and a perfect corrective to the largely superficial but similarly personal-versus-total-apocalypse narrative of Melancholia) pushes his large canvas/whispered epiphany aesthetic into ever more rippling, impression-flecked terrain, juxtaposing scattered moments of revelation, joy and pain from the childhoods of three Texan boys with nothing less than the origins of life on Earth. The imagery is breathtaking, its arrangement inspired, dictated by its own internal psychic rhythms. The final, mystical sequence is somewhat dubious, but I wouldn’t excise a second of The Tree of Life if it meant dismantling any crucial element in this rare marriage of the spectacular with the personal.
On that note, Jeff Nichol’s follow-up to Shotgun Stories, his impressive debut, follows the mental collapse of an Ohio labourer and family man (embodied with singular, shambling unease by Michael Shannon) whose knowledge of his possible schizophrenia has him no less convinced that he may be a prophet of the End Times. Set against a all-too recognizable contemporary landscape of economic worries and catastrophic weather, Take Shelter at once speaks broadly to our moment and remains a character study. Like Tree of Life it takes risks and as a result features a problematic finale; like Tree of Life it features a truly remarkable supporting performance from Jessica Chastain in a very difficult matriarchal role.
White Material, Of Gods and Men
Claire Denis’ return to Cameroon finds the formidable Isabelle Huppert refusing to abandon her coffee plantation despite the escalation of a surrounding civil war. Xavier Beauvois’ latest, based on real events, chronicles the final days of a group of Trappist monks who resolve to remain in Algeria during the outbreak of its 1996 civil war. Both films convey a sophisticated sense of the foggy ethics of post-colonial relations and of one’s sense of belonging somewhere; both use music (courtesy of Tindersticks and chanting actors, respectively) to achieve sublime moments of lyricism. White Material is insightful, savage and sinisterly seductive, though one might argue that it, like several other titles on this list, features a clumsy ending, which transitions rather abruptly into the mythic, dragging its heroine along with it.
The intermingling of Europeans and Africans is also very much at the heart of Aki Kaurismäki’s most recent deadpan delight, which, set in the titular French port city, finds an aging shoeshiner helping an African boy with no documents find a safe place to rest and safe passage to London, where he hopes to be reunited with family members that are in an only marginally more secure social position. Le Harve is beautifully—and, typically, idiosyncratically—crafted, with great narrative economy, dry wit, masterful compositions and numerous affectionate homages to French cinema to balance its dour diagnosis of French xenophobia.
The fear of the Other is also key to Kelly Reichardt’s most recent work, by far her most industrious yet. It’s a western, albeit one with iconoclastic attention to the everyday chores and struggles of homesteaders lost in 1860s Oregon. The film’s handful of desperate families are led astray by a charismatic frontiersman and are ultimately confronted with the possibility that the dreaded Indian captive they’re traveling with (the magnificently stoic Ron Rondeaux) may be their sole hope for survival. Understated, blending classicism with quietude, and featuring yet another engrossing slow-burn of a performance from Michelle Williams, Meek’s Cutoff ensures Reichardt’s place within the finest American filmmakers of cinema’s second century. Will she continue to branch out into a grander scale of production or retreat into the familiar small? I look forward to whatever she does, either way.
Another filmmaker in transition: Abbas Kiarostami strays from his native Iran to make a film with a French star (Juliette Binoche, brilliant) and an English opera singer in Italy; the result is very much a Kiarostami film, riddled with a utterly compelling balance of ambiguity and complex emotional/philosophical truths—which says a lot about what we may have reduced to being an exclusively Iranian, Middle Eastern or Third World approach to cinematic storytelling. An author on tour in Tuscany takes a drive with an antique store owner. They discuss the notion of how we place value on the real thing versus the fake, or originals versus copies, of how we invest things with authenticity, and soon we’re unsure about the reality of the relationship we’re watching develop. Did they just meet, or are they in fact an estranged couple? All that matters is the immense resonance of their ongoing questions, grievances and longings, a dialogue with echoes of both Last Year at Marienbad and Before Sunset.
While Certified Copy mines a marriage for questions of how to make sense of the messy lives of its disparate halves, Kenneth Lonergan’s legally troubled, long-gestating and long-awaited (yet appallingly neglected) follow-up to the beloved You Can Count On Me examines the awakening of a young woman’s sense of existential responsibility. A horrific accident following an essentially innocent exchange of glances between Anna Paquin’s college student and Mark Ruffalo’s MTA bus driver prompts a complicated series of events involving familial dysfunction, litigation, mourning and arduous self-realization. Intricate and novel-like, Margaret is a film which would probably appear on more Best Of lists if more people (critics included) had actually seen it. It’s a meal of a movie, and deserves far more attention.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Into the Abyss
This pair of documentaries from the one and only Werner Herzog touch on numerous themes running through this list, most especially the modern as viewed against the ancient-mysterious and the balancing of crime with punishment in a violent world lacking moral guidance. Cave of Forgotten Dreams takes us into France’s Chauvet Cave and offers glimpses of the artistic soul already alive and well in Stone Age man; Into the Abyss ushers us into the US penal system to examine the lives of incarcerated young men whose abysmally meaningless crimes of murder are met with cold-blooded state-sanctioned murder. In both of these films Herzog’s focus remains firmly on people—souls, if you will—who provide us with illuminating, strange and diverse testaments to the irrepressible drive to survive, create and look ever-forward. Not a bad way to finish off a tumultuous year.