It’s not fair to say director Terrence Malick has been dithering up to this point, but to my mind none of his earlier movie poems so eloquently explored the theme he’s obsessed over his entire career: the tragedy of original sin, this time as traced in a 1950s Texas family. In fact, some of those films were pretentious bores. The Tree of Life is the opposite: the art film as true transcendence.
2. Cedar Rapids
A mild-mannered insurance salesman’s (Ed Helms) moral compass goes completely, hilariously haywire while he’s at his first business convention. The result is the year’s funniest film and a surprisingly nuanced consideration of the tough choices we make every day (although it should be obvious that skinny-dipping with John C. Reilly in the hotel pool isn’t a good idea).
Kelly Reichardt directs this tale of pioneers lost along the Oregon Trail. A feminist Western, as some have claimed? Meek’s Cutoff is even better than that. The view of the world here is a holistic one in that it encompasses this specific time and place as it was experienced by everyone who was there: the men, the women, a mysterious Native American. With Reichardt regular Michelle Williams, excellent as a bonnet unafraid of beards.
4. The Muppets
What’s this nonsense, The Muppets on a top 10 list? Exactly. Few other artistic endeavors fully understand – and exuberantly capture – the palliative, restorative joy of being silly. Writer-producer-star Jason Segel has given them a loving update that also happens to be the best musical of 2011.
5. Take Shelter
The year’s most troubling film, both as a narrative of its own – Michael Shannon plays a disturbed young father who believes his visions of extreme weather are signs of a coming apocalypse – and for its macro implications. Take Shelter’s paranoid vibe resonated in a tumultuous year, when floods and tornadoes and hurricanes threatened to make things collapse if the financial markets and global protests didn’t do it first.
Why did I find Certified Copy so impossibly romantic, considering it seems to capture the fading embers of a marriage? There is the visual elegance of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, for one thing, and also the way a luminous Juliette Binoche fights for love to last. She plays a French antiques dealer who meets an English writer (William Shimell) at a book discussion, and as they spend the day together they slowly begin talking as if they’ve been married for 15 years. Have they? The mystery is yet another part of this slippery movie’s romantic allure.
“Do you want to be loved? Absolutely. Do you deserve to be loved? Absolutely.” The most important words spoken on screen all year, said to a troubled teen girl in director Steve James’ documentary about an unconventional method of crime intervention in Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods. Heart-breaking, yet hopeful, stuff.
As the chimp leader of the ape revolt, Andy Serkis and the visual-effects artists working with him bring motion-capture performance to a new level of legitimacy. In doing so, they elevate a franchise reboot rife with potential silliness into something of King Kong quality. This is doom-laden, affecting and tragic.
Is this more than director Nicolas Winding Refn showing off? I’m inclined not to care. When you have a filmmaker this assuredly, stylishly in control of his material, it’s hard to resist. Ryan Gosling is lethally entrancing as a Hollywood stunt driver who gets involved with some mob thugs, against his better judgment. Thematically, this may be a less rich exploration of male savagery than Refn’s previous work, but in terms of pure cinema it’s the year’s wildest rush.
As calculating and insinuating as a cult leader, which is appropriate considering the movie follows a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) as she tries to readjust to the real world after fleeing an abusive commune. Olsen, in the year’s best female performance, and writer-director Sean Durkin have such command that by the end of the film we’re locked in Martha’s head, which is a paranoid, fearful place to be.