Once again, it's been a while since i've posted, and i have been catching up on movies. I've submitted my lists for the annual Village Voice/LA Weekly and IndieWire polls; as usual (and this time, not really by design) i only mention any particular film once, which means that if i decided to list "Martha Marcy May Marlene" for the performance by Elizabeth Olsen (which i did), then i chose some other film for the Best First Feature category (this year, "Circumstance"). But it was such a good year for movies! Of course, i'm only going on films released in 2011, and i keep finding more films which i forgot i saw which were released this year. For the record, my Top Ten Films of 2011 were: 1) "A Brighter Summer Day"; 2) "To Die Like a Man"; 3) "The Mysteries of Lisbon"; 4) "Film Socialisme"; 5) "Nostalgia For the Light"; 6) "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives"; 7) "A Dangerous Method"; 8) "Putty Hill"; 9) "Le Quattro Volte"; 10) "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975". My choice for Best Director was Cristi Puiu for "Aurora" which i felt was very tense and suspenseful for its almost three-hour running time, so that was an impressive achievement. But i also thought that Nicolas Winding Refn's direction was spectacular in "Drive". There were just a lot of good movies. In fact, it might be better to say there were a lot of great movies.
I've also been catching up with movies on HBO and Showtime, things like "The Adjustment Bureau" and even the Harry Potter series, including "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1". (I have to say, about the Harry Potter series, it is a bit of a slog, but there's always somebody that turns up, some eminence or near-eminence in the British acting pantheon, so there's always something to look forward to, and some of the effects are delightful. The pacing is a little stolid, i keep wishing somebody among the various directors would be a little less reverential, but i was surprised at how enjoyable i found the whole series.)
The VV/LA Weekly poll had the category "Breakthrough of the Year": this seemed like the obvious catgeory for Jessica Chastain, who wound up in seven movies which were released or completed in 2011: "The Tree of Life", "The Help", "The Debt", "Take Shelter", "Texas Killing Fields", "Coriolanus" and "Wilde Salome" (this was her first movie, another Al Pacino documentary about a classic play, but the editing is supposed to be completed and the film awaits release). But other breakthroughs (the category is supposed to include anything that could be considered a breakthrough) for me would include BAM CinemaFest, which i feel has finally come into its own as a film festival; Michael Fassbender with four movies ("Jane Eyre", "X Men: First Class", "A Dangerous Method" and "Shame"); and the fact that many independent filmmakers (including Todd Haynes, and Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini) were able to find a way to accommodate their work to the demands of cable TV ("Mildred Pierce" and "Cinema Verite", both for HBO), as well as many documentary filmmakers who had their works on cable TV with movies like "Bobby Fisher Against the World" and "Borg/McEnroe: Fire and Ice". Martin Scorsese had two documentaries this year which were on HBO: "Public Speaking" (his portrait of Fran Lebowitz) and "George Harrison: Living In the Material World". If independent filmmakers were trying to figure out ways of working with HBO or Showtime, several Hollywood veterans were involved in new network TV series: Jonathan Demme as executive producer and sometimes director of "A Gifted Man", and Philip Noyce as executive producer and sometimes director of "Revenge". And this was also a year when so many people came into their own: Ryan Gosling has been doing excellent work for a decade, mostly in independent films (he had a brief fling with Hollywood when he did "Murder By Numbers" and "The Notebook", but he retreated from that, fast, and really sought out independent projects which excited him) but this year, he made two movies which certified him as a star: "Drive" and "Crazy Stupid Love". Brad Pitt proved, with two movies ("The Tree of Life" and "Moneyball"), what a fine actor he has become. Viola Davis found herself finally receiving major recognition for "The Help" (the acclaim for her work in "Doubt" a few years back might have brought her that recognition if the film had been a box office success, which it wasn't). And (aside from "Circumstance") there were quite a few amazing first features this year: "Martha Marcy May Marlene", "Margin Call", "Pariah", "Take Shelter" and "In the Family", the last a self-distributed film by Patrick Wang which would have been the type of film i would have championed if i was still involved in programming on the festival circuit.
So all in all, an amazing year. It was a year when film was in transition: new methods of filmmaking, new modes of presentation and exhibition, new formats. But movies were still getting made, and so many movies were finally finding their way to audiences. And i haven't even gotten into everything that happened this year, including the developments in 3D filmmaking: Werner Herzog (with "Cave of Forgotten Dreams"), Wim Wenders (with "Pina") and Martin Scorsese (with "Hugo") finally used 3D as an integral part of their artistic vision, rather than just as a gimmicky adjunct, and the results were breathtaking. In fact, "Pina" was my choice for Documentary of the year, and i have to say why: i detested Pina Bausch's work, i went to three of her concerts when her company was first brought to the US (at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), and all three times, i had to walk out. The incessant repetition, the unrelieved po-faced angst (i remember Arlene Croce's description of Pina Bausch as "an entrepeneuse of despair"; i love that, "entrepeneuse" like "poetess"), the unmodulated dynamics: enough! Yet the film was so skillful in presenting snippets of the works so that the dances seemed palatable, and the 3D cinematography was so tactile and sensual, the entire film was transporting. The damned movie made me appreciate Pina Bausch in a way i hadn't before. And that's quite an accomplishment! So for that reason, i had to say "Pina" was a revelatory documentary, as well as a major advance in the problem of putting dance on film.
But there's so much more. Of course, the year was swamped by comic-book franchise movies, but if you didn't go to any of them (and i didn't), there were always good movies to see.