Kumars at the movies: The 10 best films of 2011

Now for something more personal than political: for years, I followed film (particularly North American) and the Academy Awards rather religiously. That includes predictions. Year-round. The first installment of The Lord of the Rings had an inordinate amount to do with this infatuation, and remains to this day dearer to my heart than any film in existence. I did not realize it at first, but every year the Hollywood and the Oscars revealed more and more of what makes the middlebrow self-congratulation of the masturbatory-industrial complex so inanely predictable.

In 2006, Crash became the most offensively vacuous film to win the Best Picture award during my lifetime, beating out such mediocre crapfests as Braveheart and A Beautiful Mind. Two years later, the Best Picture lineup consisted of the following: Slumdog Millionaire, The Reader, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Milk, and Frost/Nixon. This, ladies and gentlemen, was the straw that broke this pretentious film buff’s back. Every year since, as I channeled my idealistic discontent into philosophy and revolutionary politics, I have paid less and less attention to mainstream film production.

It is with a sigh of relief that I declare 2011, all things considered, the best year for films since Mulholland Drive, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Fellowship of the Ring, Gosford Park, and In the Mood for Love topped my list in 2001. Without further ado, in the lead-up to Oscar Sunday (still the only February competition I can be bothered to watch), my top 10 feature films of the past year:

10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)

This year, three Scandinavian filmmakers directed English-language films that took on Hollywood generic conventions and surpassed, in almost every possible way, the output of their Anglo-American contemporaries. Alfredson, who in 2008 showed international audiences how a vampire film is really made with Let the Right One In, has this time produced the most challenging spy thriller in recent memory. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, and John Hurt headline an impressive, mostly British ensemble, each subtly augmenting a slow-build, inductive narrative style. The complexity (and ultimate consistency) of the screenplay and the restrained pacing make for a thoroughly fun, yet not the least bit intellectually lazy, puzzle of a film. My kind of fluff.

9. Le quattro volte [The Four Times] (Michelangelo Frammartino)

Featuring only a few moments of unintelligible Italian dialogue and no subtitles, this idiosyncratic docu-essay purports to be inspired by Pythagoras’ belief in four-fold transmigration – from human to animal to vegetable to mineral. The sober, circular narrative eschews both blatant symbolism and active interpretation, inviting instead a meditation of the life-and-death-and-life drama immanent in nature.

8. La piel que habito [The Skin I Live In] (Pedro Almodovar)

Almodovar’s latest film, while lacking the unmitigated passion of a masterpiece like Volver, is a twisted reworking of the darker themes that recur throughout his oeuvre. Both a departure from his subtler brand of ironic humor and an intensification of his melodramatic tendencies, La piel employs shock and telenovela tropes in the service of a scathing genealogy of the power dynamics of gender formation that suggests, by turns, Nietzschean inscription and Butlerian performative resistance.

7. Beginners (Mike Mills)

In a post-Wes Anderson Hollywood, there are many films like Beginners, and I usually hate them: quirky, maudlin romanticism whose mawkish self-indulgence recalls the worst of hipster cinema’s stylized excess. This one, I like: the clever stream-of-consciousness imagery and the understated melancholy of the relationship between Obi-Wan McGregor and the scene-stealing Christopher Plummer resonate uncannily in the film’s witty, pop-cultural juxtaposition of interior and exterior histories.

6. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

It’s no The Thin Red Line, but by golly, it’ll do. Malick’s most personal (and least accessible) film to date is a nonlinear tapestry of ontological poetics – making it doubly impressive that it earned a spot in the “will watch The Artist win Best Picture” lineup. As close to an exercise in radical subjectivity as one is likely to find in narrative cinema, The Tree of Life literally spans millions of years in its metaphysical consideration of the theology of existence. Even if certain subplots (I’m looking at you, Sean Penn) remain frustratingly undeveloped and stunted by heavy-handed symbolism, what cannot be denied is the film’s frankly peerless attempt at representing the aesthetics of emotional memory.

5. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)

Danish filmmaker Winding Refn’s nostalgic pastiche of neo-noir recalls, by turns, the jarring glitz of Scarface and the claustrophobic solitude of The Conversation; Taxi Driver in the endless cityscape of Blade Runner. For the first time in recent memory, reflexive ambiguity pervades the American action thriller: an infectious, cheesy 80s-inspired soundtrack both contrast with and augment the startling moments of ultraviolence; Winding Refn’s contemplative camera pores futilely over the inscrutable visage of Ryan Gosling’s opaque, postmodern Gary Cooper. Like nothing Hollywood has seen in years, Drive is an existential crisis in action film form, a sleek, shiny, utterly pessimistic reflection of the fate of the strong, silent archetype in an age of normalized authoritarianism, shattered idealism, and overdetermined motivations.

4. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)

Woody Allen at his best is witty, delightful, completely uncompromising, and thoroughly unserious – and for the first time since Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen is at his best. The cornucopia of historical references are sure to delight, but they provide only the accents to a remarkably earnest thought experiment: What does it mean to live in a time and place? What is nostalgia, and why do we outgrow it? Where do our invented memories come from, and where do they go when we no longer need them? As always, with Allen, the easiest answers are the most unsatisfying, and the cleverest leave us in awe of their poetic simplicity.

3. Copie conforme [Certified Copy] (Abbas Kiarostami)

Iranian auteur Kiarostami’s “French” film, with a virtually two-person cast of Juliette Binoche and British opera singer William Shimell, begins with an aesthetic debate on artistic reproduction worthy of Walter Benjamin. As the story develops, the film transforms itself, in frustratingly indiscernable leaps, into a formal and thematic meditation on the very core of authenticity as a component of human memory and expression – using Kiarostami’s signature ambiguity as a tool for destabilizing meaning at all levels of the narrative, to startling philosophical effect.

2. Nader and Simin: A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)

Alongside the Scandinavian directors, Iranian filmmakers made a significant dent in what would otherwise be a fairly unremarkable year at the movies. A Separation’s reputation precedes it: despite its relatively low placement on year-end lists, in terms of published reviews it’s comfortably the best-reviewed film of the year and unless the anti-Iran sentiment in Hollywood proves an insurmountable obstacle it will  take home the Oscar for Foreign Language Film. I won’t dwell on the film’s meticulously layered moral ambiguity; its impeccably subtle performances; its sensitive and unflinching exploration of class tensions; or its laudable refusal to pander (a la Azar Nafisi) to Western audiences’ orientalism/closet-neoconservatism by demonizing the Iranian government. There is no New Wave abstraction here; this is a new Iranian cinema, a historical-materialist drama of human passion and weakness – a perfect film.

1. Melancholia (Lars von Trier)

Given my personal and professional love affair with the criminally mischievous Danish auteur, it should be no surprise to see his latest film rank high on my year-end list. If you can believe me, however, I assure you I played no favorites: Melancholia tops my list on its own merit. And what merit! No film since There Will Be Blood has had this prolonged and visceral an impact on me, riveted me so deeply on emotional and intellectual levels – in fact, no film since Blade Runner accentuates so incisively the interdependence of emotion and intellect in the way we view the world.

The narrative is some sick fusion of the psychoanalytic and the surreal, of the symbolic and the sublime, of Brechtian Verfremdung and Bergmanian psychodrama – a more uncanny representation of depression in art, I have never seen. From the balletic violence of the opening sequence’s explicit foreshadowing to the whopping Götterdämmerung of the ending, from the wickedly satirical dialogue to the brilliant recasting of Jack Bauer as tragic climate-denier, Melancholia is both von Trier’s most philosophically straightforward film and his most indescribably overwhelming one. If A Separation is a perfect film, Melancholia transcends such categorizations – it is the culmination of von Trier’s obsession with contradiction, an embrace of both pessimistic negation and faith in the absurd – of what can be expressed in words, and of what remains.

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