The end of the world has been depicted — repeatedly — in movies before. But 2011 wasn’t a time for grand heroics, for world saving and self-sacrifice. Instead, we got existential angst. Maybe that sounds a little grim, and sometimes it was. Dead birds fell from the sky; young men, overgrown kids, built flamethrowers for their violent fantasy life; a planet appeared, slipping out from its hiding place behind the sun, and someone named it Melancholia.
|3) A Separation|
|4) Attack the Block|
|6) Certified Copy|
|7) Meek’s Cutoff|
|10) The Tree of Life|
I left Melancholia, the most astonishing of the year’s apocalyptic visions, with my heart racing and my breath a little short. Leave it to Lars von Trier to nearly bring on a panic attack. He couldn’t have done it without two superb stars: Charlotte Gainsbourg, as Claire, offers the capable but frightened flip side — the “normal” life, the husband and kids, the practicality — to Kirsten Dunst’s self-destructive, disconnected Justine. Justine cannot get it together, much to the annoyance of her family, who are almost willfully oblivious to the depths of Justine’s depression.
Life on earth is evil, Justine says, as fear sets in around her; Melancholia may pass by Earth, or it may hit. Claire takes a different viewpoint: Life is, and it matters. Life is, until subsumed by Melancholia. Von Trier’s glorious doomsday fable wraps all kinds of fears into its elegant, operatic whole — fear for one’s children, fear of losing oneself, fear of the unknown, fear of death, fear of everything you can’t control. Its bleakness is overwhelming and yet somehow, in all the loss and destruction, there’s a strange peace in his explosive finale.
Where does all this apocalyptic fallout come from? The easy answers: the economy, the uncertainty, the deteriorating belief in various American dreams. (The glib answer: Well, the world’s supposed to end in a few months, right?) In Take Shelter, an ordinary husband sees visions of the end, but whether those visions are prophecy or madness, writer-director Jeff Nichols leaves in your hands — until he doesn’t, and the film cracks, a sharp fracture right through the middle of it.
Von Trier’s feminine apocalypse is particularly welcome as a counterpoint to Bellflower, in which writer-director Evan Glodell stars as Woodrow, a directionless post-collegiate fellow whose most productive free time is spent working on a flamethrower or tricking out his car so that the heating system dispenses whiskey (it’s California; who needs heat?). He and his buddy Aiden (Tyler Dawson) figure that when the world ends, they’ll have the best weapons. Woodrow’s world ends in a rather different fashion, in violent upheaval and a rage fantasy so intense and nightmarish it made me feel physically ill. But Bellflower isn’t glorifying anything; the film’s super-stylized look, perfect bumbling dialogue and self-destructive characters combine for a sharp critique of a hard-to-pin-down kind of aimless young male rage. Is it self-loathing or a terribly keen eye for what bubbles behind all that too-cool posturing that fuels Glodell’s film? Either way, I can’t get it out of my head, much as I’d like to.
The world almost ends in a London council estate in the underappreciated Attack the Block, a scruffy, clever (and raucously fun) flick that dismantles a handful of sci-fi tropes while leaving the fate of the world — or at least the building — in the hands of a gaggle of would-be muggers. Even Kelly Reichardt’s atypical Western, Meek’s Cutoff, has a fatalistic quality, one made tangible in the dry, unforgiving Eastern Oregon settings through which the film’s characters slowly traipse. The Willamette Valley is so close, but so far, especially when your guide is unreliable and your party is coming apart under the strain.
Apocalypse aside, if there was one other trend in the movies that most moved me last year, it was one even less expected: family. (Stop rolling your eyes; I saw that.) Some of these families were traditional, like the parents and child of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language film that finds a compelling, painful story in the small, terrible dramas of the everyday. Parents argue. Their 11-year-old daughter gets stuck in the middle, both parents asking her to make an adult’s decisions. Arguments escalate, leading to oddly personal trials. Everyone is right in this Iranian film, and everyone is wrong, and the stakes are both high and completely average. The film’s verité style, the natural, assertive performances, the pacing — everything about A Separation seems ordinary, though the result is anything but.
The brother and sister in Cold Weather; the father and daughters in Alexander Payne’s surprisingly sympathetic The Descendants; the family ties that streak through Steven Soderberg’s anxious (and semi-apocalyptic) Contagion; the family bubble and the beginning of the universe (I think?) in The Tree of Life — these are the things that balance the coming darkness, at least in last year’s films. My favorite family was easily that conjured up by Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer in Mike Mills’ assured, lovely Beginners. Full of art and life and loneliness, and lasting pain, Beginners concerns itself with the people we are and the people we might have been, an inescapable tangle of memory and truth.
History and memory inform Martin Scorsese’s wonderful, buoyant Hugo, which loves movies as much as its director, and which offers a sweet but never cloying reminder that a family is not always made up of the people you’re related to.
Plenty of film lovers clearly love to find trends and commonalities in a year’s offerings — just think of how delighted people have been to point out that two Best Picture nominees, Hugo and the overrated The Artist, look back to the history of movies — but not everything will fit neatly into thematic boxes. Pina, Wim Wenders’ Oscar-nominated documentary about choreographer Pina Bausch, is a beautiful, nebulous film in which Bausch’s story is seen as much as heard. Members of Bausch’s company speak about her influence and her art in voiceovers that play as the speakers, faces still, look directly into the camera. These scenes are intercut with pieces from Bausch’s work, staged in a theater (where the camera sometimes sits like a member of the audience), in a park, on a street median. I know nothing about Bausch and very little about dance, yet I left the film feeling as if I’d begun to understand, a little bit, what it means to those who perform it. I left another exceptional documentary, How to Die in Oregon, beginning to understand, a little bit, how people can make the decision to end their lives, and what it means for a society to accept this.
And then there’s Certified Copy, Abbas Kiarostami’s philosophical, charming, playfully brilliant reflection on originality, perception and truth. “Reflection,” like “meditation,” too often suggests “boring talky talking piece,” and there’s a lot of talking in Copy, but the shifting narrative, gorgeous scenery and exceptional performance from the always-reliable Juliette Binoche make Copy into something truly unexpected: a film that satisfies even as it offers you nothing definite, nothing like resolution — nothing but questions. What is the truth of the relationship between the main characters? What history do they share? Does it matter? Does their conversation ring any less true if they’re strangers? Does their relationship change depending on how they are perceived by others?
Will you get something out of this film other than what I did? Yes, most likely. And that’s as it should be. The past year had its cinematic frustrations, but it also had a bounty of films that were beautiful, stunning, revelatory, clever, funny and smart — and that refused to spell things out for their audiences. They gave us questions and explorations, challenges and inspirations. “Films have the power to capture dreams,” says a character in Hugo. Idealistic? Yes. True? Also yes. Sometimes, all you want from a film is a pretty explosion. Sometimes you want a challenge. Sometimes you get a little of both.
3) A Separation
4) Attack the Block
6) Certified Copy
7) Meek’s Cutoff
10) The Tree of Life
(in alphabetical order):
How to Die in Oregon