A career-defining film from director Terrence Malick and a comedy about an insurance agent gone wild at a business convention vied for the top spot on my list. Yes, it was that rich of a movie year.
Terrence Malick - the pretentious poet of American art cinema - finally creates a sunset tableau worthy of his decades-long thematic obsession: the tragedy of original sin. This is audacious stuff - including a now-infamous creation sequence - that finds a personal locus (a first for Malick) in the life of a 1950s Texas family. Amidst breathtaking imagery, a young boy born into domestic bliss slowly, agonizingly awakens to sin - in his parents, his friends and himself.
As the moral compass of Ed Helms' insurance agent spins out of control, this sly, raunchy comedy explores an irony that has been noted by G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, among others: that bad behavior makes us feel less liberated, and instead suffocated by guilt, broken relationships and a general sense of unease. Not that the movie moralizes. Indeed, in the way Helms gets his bearings back - and the unlikely, imperfect characters who help him - "Cedar Rapids" understands that being "good" is never as simple as rejecting black in favor of white.
The prospect of being lost has rarely been as fearfully felt as it is in indie director Kelly Reichardt's existential Western, about a group of pioneers who have taken a wrong turn on the Oregon Trail. With a minimalist sound design, a period-appropriate lighting scheme and ambiguous dialogue, Reichardt puts you right there - and there is nowhere at all.
Don't underestimate the restorative power of silliness. The holy nonsense on display in this revival of the puppet franchise is not only soothing to troubled, weary souls, but also hopeful of a restored creation where strife is no more. In its place will be praise for the sublime, but surely there also will be room for the sort of goofing around in which the Muppets excel.
If 2011 had a movie mascot, it would be this riveting thriller about a father (Michael Shannon) who believes his visions of extreme weather are signs of a coming apocalypse. Never mind Harold Camping, it was the floods, tornadoes and hurricanes - to say nothing of the collapsing financial markets and global protests - that gave 2011 a tinge of end times.
Marriage is so much more complicated than "Fireproof." That, if nothing else, is clear in this slippery import from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, in which Juliette Binoche and William Shimmel begin the film as new acquaintances strolling through Tuscany and gradually begin talking as if they're partners in a fading marriage. What we're left with is something opaque but undeniably romantic: an ode to commitments that last.
The most stirring example of onscreen grace took place in a documentary about an unconventional method of crime intervention in Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods. In confronting a troubled teen girl with a message of reconciliation rather than handcuffs, one of the film's "violence interrupters" speaks words that could have come from the Gospel: "Do you want to be loved? Absolutely. Do you deserve to be loved? Absolutely."
Supreme special effects allow a potentially silly story to take on a "King Kong" quality. As experienced through the eyes of the intelligent and abused chimp Caesar (played via motion-capture animation by Andy Serkis), this isdoom-laden, affecting and tragic. Like "Kong," "Rise" charts both how we exploit creation and the allegorical price we pay for doing so.
This teeters on the edge of being exploitatively violent - OK, it smashes that edge with a sledgehammer - but "Drive" is also an interesting exploration of male savagery when seen alongside the other films of director Nicolas Winding Refn. In "Bronson" and "Valhalla Rising," Refn focused on terrifying characters who knew nothing but pain; the Hollywood stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who gets reluctantly caught up with the mob here is something different. In sudden, shocking bursts, he discovers a darkness within. Is it in all of us?
A young woman (Elizabeth Olsen, in the year's best female performance) tries to readjust to the real world after fleeing an abusive commune. This insidious, meticulously crafted psychological thriller exposes how vulnerable our insecurities make us, as well as the disastrously misguided ways we go about trying to overcome them.
What were your favorite films of 2011? Share your thoughts/lists below.
(Illustration by Schuyler Roozeboom.)