Monday, June 4, 2012

THE 11 BEST FILMS OF 2011, AND A FEW MORE TO WATCH FOR


It's past time for my annual ritual of recognizing the best of the films released in 2011, and I'm relieved to finally be closing the gap.  I couldn't whittle the list down to 10 this year, so I have given you 11.  Three are spiritually rich documentaries as unlike each other as you could possibly imagine; two are devastating Iranian dramas; and there is a whimsical French story of life-giving friendship.  The rest are English-language dramas that probe the meaning of life, explore the nature of loneliness and connection, and tell stories of courage and transformation.  I've written on half of these films before, so some of this will sound familiar, but I've added to all these reviews, including bits about who received and who deserved Oscar recognition. To start with, here's the list of my best 11 of '11:

1.  Pina 3D

 2. The Tree of Life

 3.  The White Meadows

 4.  Jane Eyre
 
5.  How to Die in Oregon

 6.  Bill Cunningham New York

 7.  Beginners

8.  A Separation

9.  The Hedgehog

 10..  Shame
 
11.  Meek's Cut-off

 I've added at the end five films (including three documentaries) that have stuck with me, even though they didn't make my top 11, all of which are obscure enough that you might miss them.   They are:

 Buck

 Being Elmo

 Of Gods and Men

 The Black Power Mixtape

Higher Ground

 1.  Though it's called a documentary and, indeed, was nominated for an Oscar in that category, "PINA 3D" (10) defies categorization.  It's a tribute to choreographer Pina Bausch, a modern dance pioneer who studied and worked in the U.S. for a time and then returned to Germany to found a dance company and choreographed works that capture  pure, raw emotion and longing.  Aesthetics are secondary to emotional authenticity in her work--company members dance "The Rite of Spring" barely clothed and covered in dirt; in another piece a woman stands utterly limp while being strangely mauled by a pack of men of all ages; in another (Cafe' Muller), the players, eyes closed, hurtle toward overturned chairs on the stage as a man rushes to move them out of the way. 

 Director Wim Wenders (best known for "Wings of Desire") first met Bausch twenty years ago after his girlfriend drug him to a performance of Cafe Muller.  Though he had never taken an interest in dance before, he was thunderstruck by the performance and became friends with Bausch shortly afterwards.  They began talking about making a film featuring her work, but Wenders was never satisfied that a film could do it justice--until he saw a U2 concert film in 3D.  Here, finally, was a way to capture the breadth and physicality of Bausch's work. 

 But just as they began pre-production, Bausch died unexpectedly.  Wenders decided not to make the planned film--but the members of her heartbroken dance company persuaded him to make a tribute film instead.  They went about staging, then, several of Bausch's works for the project, as well as some original pieces created by members of the company in Bausch's honor.

 The result is so much more than a dance film--though the opportunity to watch dance performances this dazzling in 3D is reason enough to see it.   But it also works as a meditation on what it means to be human.   The dances express the most elemental human experiences--longing and struggle and pathos and missed connections and whimsy and joyous abandon.  Some of the dances are staged productions in the setting Bausch envisioned--but some of the smaller pieces are staged in and around Wuppertal where the company was based, including beneath and inside its monorail.  Only the hardest of hearts will mss the evocation of some aspect of their experience.

 The company members express their deepest hearts not only physically and artistically, but also verbally, as  each briefly reminisces on his or her relationship with Bausch.  They speak of her in tones of reference, and though no one uses the word, it struck me that they related to her as if she was their guru; often the advice she gave them has meaning beyond performance.  You get the sense that Bausch really saw her performers, that she worked with them in a way that called forth their most authentic selves.  We see reflected in their work the most elemental longing and struggle and pathos and love.

 Something happened to me  over the course of watching the film, on both occasions that I saw it.  The dances are powerful and moving, especially as experienced in 3D--but more than that, I began to feel that I was watching something quite profound.  Pausch had assembled a group of dancers that were extremely diverse in terms of their ethnicity and physical expressiveness.  It became apparent that she worked with them in a way that celebrated that diversity; no culture is dominant (as in the usual situation where, for example, white cultural norms set the stage and differences appear in contrast to those norms).  Rather, the richness of their differences is celebrated in all its fullness; they speak in their own languages and differences in personality and age and physical type are savored as well.  In the end, it felt to me like Bausch has left us with an unparalled vision of what it would look like to truly celebrate diversity.  

 Bausch is never interviewed for the film, but instead appears in a few clips.  She did not want this to be biography of her; she desired instead that her work be allowed to speak.  It does, richly, profoundly, expressing her challenge to "dance, dance; otherwise we are lost."    [In English, German, French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, Korean, Croatian, and Portuguese; rated PG for some sensuality/partial nudity and smoking; on at least one other critics' top ten list; nominated for Academy Awards for best documentary feature and best foreign language film; still showing in theaters in 3D and well worth making the effort]

 2.        A friend of mine commented that, if it were possible for any film to create religious belief, “THE TREE OF LIFE” (10) would be that film.   I appreciate that reaction.  I came to the film already a believer, and what I experienced somehow confronted me with the wonder of belief.  The film portrays in very non-linear fashion a story so profoundly universal, and yet so acutely particular, that it steered me to places in my psyche I do not regularly visit-- to my own places of deepest grief and loss, to the questions that trouble me most, to the intimations of meaning I scarcely know how to describe, let alone account for.  What director Terrence Malick has attempted here belongs in the realm of poetry or music or paintings that reach toward ultimate questions; he seeks to depict how humans exist in relation to our own consciousness, and how we reach for ultimate meaning—how we relate to God, if you will.  Where most films fit comfortably in the range of pop music, this film resides in the realm of the Gregorian chants or Mozart’s “Requiem.”

 The film begins with a quote from the book of Job, the  troubling biblical story of how humans make sense of suffering and struggle for relationship with God.  In the story, Job experiences a string of devastating losses, and his pious friends insist that those losses must somehow be attributable to his own fault in some way.  Job cries out to God, who finally answers with the question:“Where were you when the foundations of the earth were laid?  God launches into a discourse about creation that ultimately suggests, without stating it directly, that Job is part of something far more vast than he can possibly comprehend, and that he would not understand the answers he is demanding.

 It is a fitting reference, for the opening scenes of “The Tree of Life” reveal a family — specifically, a mother, a father, and Jack, the eldest of their three sons—struggling to come to grips with the death of the middle son at age 19.  The film does not fix to any one point in time; we see the mother receiving the news of the death; each parent grieving and receiving counsel on how to grieve; and Jack as an adult still in the grip of that loss, as well, perhaps, as other losses.  Then, as if to suggest that one cannot understand the story without a profoundly larger context, the film moves to an extended section meant to depict the origins of life.  I think it is meant to be disorienting—indeed, in both screenings I saw, a handful of people left.  Rock, water, fire, light—all of this somehow leads eventually to Jack’s own pre-birth existence, his parents’ early love, and his own birth. 

 At this point, the film becomes more acutely particular than any I can remember.  We see Jack’s babyhood—his mother’s caresses, his father’s tenderness, the softness of his baby skin, his wonder at his mother’s voice.  We observe Jack’s fleeting, murderous look at the baby brother who comes soon after; listen to the gentle guidance of his mother; notice how his father’s tone hardens and becomes didactic as soon as his toddler son becomes verbal.

 Jack’s mother tells him that there exist two ways of approaching life—the way of nature and the way of grace—and here his parents stake out two paths that define his childhood.  His father’s is clearly the way of nature—he sees the world as a hard place where one must fight for everything, and never stops instructing  his sons from their earliest childhood.  Jack’s mother has chosen the way of grace—open, kind, encircling her sons with warmth and kindness.  Most of the film depicts Jack’s childhood in 1950’s Waco, Texas as the three boys run wild and free, caught between their father’s stern insistence on molding the boys into his version of who they should be, and their mother’s open-handed gentleness.

 Never has childhood, and family life, been rendered so acutely.  The roughness of the boys’ play and their small power struggles; the push-pull of their responses to their mother’s kindness; the small ways they brace themselves for their father’s lectures and rebukes and instruction; the fear that drives the father to drive his sons.   In voiceover we hear Jack’s innermost thoughts and, sometimes, his mother’s and father’s, as each makes sense of the world and reaches toward the divine as they conceive it.  Why should I be good if you aren’t?   Jack murmurs his inward defiance in response to his father’s small hypocrisies.  Why does he hurt us?  What have I started?  What have I done?  How do I get back to where they are?  The father, too, struggles inwardly, and the mother.  What I want to do I can’t do.  I do what I hate.  And to God, when a neighbor boy drowns: Where were you? 

 t is hard to capture the richness of the images here.  One critic wrote that he would be glad to have literally any frame of the film blown up and hung on his wall—and I agree.  Every image, every moment is weighted with beauty and import.  Likewise the push-pull of family relationships, and of consciousness.   The film captures the sense that each person chooses, and is also compelled to act at times; the ways in which people grasp for a place from which to operate, and occasionally lose the grip they thought they had; how it is that the same person can be capable of tenderness and brutality.  A family fight might bring out the worst in someone, and the next crisis, the best.  When one falters, he or she struggles to find the way back.  I didn’t know how to name you then, but I see it was you.  Always you were calling me.

All of this, then, provides the larger context for returning to the loss of the middle son.  After lingering with each character’s struggle with that loss, the film does not answer or solve it, but rather observes and appreciates the struggle, and envisions a future of reconciliation and release.  Even to call it a future may not be correct—perhaps it is another dimension, a spiritual reality—but the resolution, if I may call it that, is rendered with a sort of mythic beauty that, to me, recalled those words from Job but made them seem reassuring rather than chiding.  The film conveys a sense of being buoyed by forces beyond one’s understanding, of being carried beyond consciousness.  It is a feat of cinematic genius.

 Malick’s vision is aided by matchless cinematography and music that carries the images, and by the performances of the family members.  Brad Pitt makes the father recognizable, hard and complex, and Jessica Chastain grounds the mother’s ethereal beauty and grace.  All the children are far more natural than what one usually sees on screen, especially Hunter McCracken, a newcomer who conveys the boy Jack’s seething anger and restlessness.  But most of all, one is struck by Malick’s mastery, and the heights he has aimed for.  [Rated PG-13 for some thematic material; on at least 75 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography, and should have won all three; available on DVD]

3.  "THE WHITE MEADOWS" (10) is the work of Iranian director and screenwriter Mohammad Rasoulof, who has periodically been imprisoned for his work as a director.  (I reviewed his latest film, "Goodbye," for PIFF this year.)  . I have never seen anything like this mesmerizing film. It follows Rahmat, an older man who travels between salty white islands on a bleached sea, visiting scenes of despair and cruelty, listening to people's heartaches and collecting their tears in a tiny pitcher. He treats these tears as precious; it is rumored that he turns them into pearls, and perhaps in some sense he does. He encounters a succession of preventable tragedies: a beautiful young woman, buried in salt, whose death is unexplained but is seen as a relief because her beauty made the men in the village tremble; a village whose inhabitants are enacting a strange and brutal ritual to appease a fairy who they believe holds the power to address their sorrows; a young virgin whose village sacrifices her to the sea in hopes of obtaining rain; a man whose village is punishing him for choosing the wrong color to paint the sea. In each case, Rahmat serves as a nonjudgmental witness, carefully collecting and preserving the tears of the lost and the suffering.

 Gorgeously shot, the film kept the audience absolutely spellbound both times I saw it. Full of metaphors that are simultaneously clear and enigmatic, it seems, at the least, a parable about the brutality wrought by corrosive collective thought.   It isn't hard to see why this devastating film put Rasoulof in hot water with a repressive Iranian government--but I hope those lucky enough to see it will not miss the parallels to how groups everywhere commonly treat those who are seen as expendable or dangerous.  Rasoulof's masterpiece suggests the relentless persistence of these patterns, but also the value of a ministry of presence, and the existence of a divine heart that attends to the tears of all those who suffer.  [In Persian; pretty hard to find yet but I hope it will have a DVD release.  Netflix lets you save it to your queue.]

4.  I went to see "JANE EYRE" (10) with low expectations; I had yet to see a film adaption that captured what I found so compelling in the novel I loved best from childhood. The 2011 version, with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, finally does not disappoint, faithfully capturing the novel's smoldering passion, grief, and valor. If you've not read it, this film may inspire you to do so.

Like only the best period films, this one transcends the sense of modern people dressed up in self-conscious period costumes. Jane's world looks actually lived in, conveying what it must have felt like to run in a corset and petticoats and ridiculously uncomfortable shoes, or to travel by buggy across large expanses of the English moors, or to spend many of one's waking hours in dark spaces lit only by fire and candlelight. Social conventions that seem strange now are believably portrayed in all their intractability--the rigidity of Jane's orphaned circumstances, her dependence on the benevolence of her cruel aunt, the confines of her status as Rochester's hired subordinate. The best period films (about Victorian times especially) manage, as this one does, to convey social mores that now seem strange and needless in such a way that one reflects on which of our social conventions also qualify as self-imposed prisons.

The most significant and inescapable prisons here involve Rochester, who hires Jane to serve as governess to his ward. Fassbender (always compelling, and here especially so) makes sense of Rochester's gruffness, his imposing and mercurial moods. This man is trapped, has pulled out of meaningful engagement with life, convinced that real happiness and human connection is to be denied him. He toys with his money and social position only to acquire experiences that divert and distract him from his profound isolation.

In the world of this film, then, it is apparent why Rochester finds Jane so compelling. From earliest childhood, she displays a fierceness and a penchant for identifying the truths that are covered over by privilege and social convention. She is brave, declaring, at the moment of greatest childhood loss at her aunt's hands, that people view the woman as good when really she is hard-hearted. Jane speaks this truth with such clear-eyed precision that her aunt reacts to it years later as though the statement had been a curse. And though Jane spends the rest of her childhood denied all comfort and affection and devotes herself to acquiring the discipline necessary to withstand suffering, she retains her longing for beauty and genuine love, as well as her capacity to name what is true.

Thus, from the moment of their first encounter, Jane, though intimidated and often confused by Rochester, asserts herself, conveying a respect (for him as well as for herself) that goes beyond convention. He responds to her innocence, her genuineness, her unswerving courage, her piercing intelligence. He comments on the distance between the self each of them projects and their true natures, and with increasing directness identifies their essential equality, as Jane does herself. "It is my spirit that addresses your spirit," she says in a moment of anguish, scarcely recognizing or daring to hope that his spirit seeks to make a similar address but from a place of even deeper anguish.

This retelling is greatly helped by Moira Buffini's intelligent screenplay, director Cary Fukunaga's fresh eyes for the soul of the story and his attention to period detail, and the three performances at its center. The dialogue brilliantly renders a sense of daring in the conversations between Jane and Rochester, even as the language of each remains within the confines of Victorian restraint, and Buffini has cleverly begun the story at the end, with Jane's exile with the austere St. John Rivers, framing the story from Jane's lowest point in a way that makes sense of what went before. Mia Wasikowska perfectly captures Jane's gravity and fierceness, and Fassbender Rochester's tormented longing. And Dame Judi Dench is a perfect Mrs. Fairfax, simple and kind-hearted.

One comes away profoundly affected by the archetypes of the novel, its sense that real love requires vision, creativity, and courage. Love also requires self-respect, something Jane begins with and then acquires more of through the hardship of loss. She tells Rochester at a critical moment, "I would do anything for you, sir--anything that was right." Later when a desperate Rochester suggests a solution to their dilemma that is too far outside what social convention allows, she breaks away with the desperate comment, "I must respect myself." Her time with St. John Rivers helps Jane to move to a more essential sense of right within her circumstances, and to recognize that not all forms of self-denial qualify as right. That transformation continues to inspire me. [Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements, including a nude image and brief violent content; on at least three other critics' top ten lists; nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design; should have received the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (it was not nominated and the award went to "The Descendents," which at least was a worthy nominee); also should have received nominations for best actor (Michael Fassbender) and best actress (Mia Wasikowska); available on DVD]

 5.  The second documentary on my list, "HOW TO DIE IN OREGON" (10), won the award for best documentary at Sundance but apparently did not receive sufficiently wide release to qualify for Oscar consideration under the new rules.  It's a pity.  This brave and luminous examination of ultimate questions in the context of Oregon's death-with-dignity law deserves a much wider audience.  (It did air on HBO recently and is available on DVD.)

The director, Oregonian Peter Richardson, is particularly skilled at handling difficult and polarizing subjects; his first film, "Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon," waded into a live controversy in Oregon's timber country and managed to present both sides' views in a way that exposed each's merits and weaknesses. This time, however, rather than seeking to portray the polarized views of those for and against Oregon's ground-breaking law, Richardson set out to do something more delicate: he explores the stories of people who are making the choice to use the law. When I asked him about that choice after the screening at PIFF in 2011, he noted that the controversy has been well-aired, but these stories have not been fully explored; he knew he had the capacity to do so and felt a sense of calling to try.

 After watching Richardson's sensitive film, I was not surprised to hear him refer to a sense of calling. With the great empathy and care that such stories demand, Richardson follows the journeys of several people who contemplated taking advantage of the legal permission to take a lethal dose of barbiturate (not all of them ended up doing so), and thereby greatly deepens public conversation about death and dying.  He lets them speak for themselves and, indeed, the film's opening sequence involves an older gentleman's joyful use of the law, surrounded by family and friends.  A former radio personality and singer confronts treatment options that seem to deny him everything that makes his life bearable; a man on the Oregon Health Plan decries the state's willingness to pay for him to use the law but not to continue his chemotherapy treatments (the state later reversed that decision); and a woman work's to change Washington law as part of a vow she made to her beloved husband as he was facing  an agonizing death that robbed him of his dignity.

 Much of the film focuses on ten months in the life of Cody Curtis, a lovely Portland woman in her early-50s walking through the painful process of confronting limited options left to her by a recurrence of liver cancer.  She and her family are perfect subjects--emotionally present, articulate about their contradictory reactions to Curtis's choice to use the law; unswervingly devoted to respect for each other and for Curtis.  And Curtis herself is inspiring--she shares her journey with candor and authenticity that seems to spring from a generosity essential to her character. They may not be exactly a typical family, but their journey through Curtis's illness, a brief, blessed remission, and then a resurgence of terrifying symptoms makes plain the unthinkable.

 Richardson's months of being on-call to ride the waves of terminal illness with Curtis and others are, in the end, a gift to the world, a filmmaker's ministry of presence yielding a film that, while agonizing at times to watch, is also quite moving and life-affirming, in the way of all such clear-eyed work. His film equips those who are willing to be similarly present, and similarly clear-eyed. (Winner of the award for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival; on at least one other critic's top ten list; available on DVD)

 6.  Take the values espoused by any of the great spiritual traditions, and you will find them embodied in the subject of the third documentary on my list, "BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK" (10), an 80-year-old gentleman who has spent the last 40 years photographing street style and couture in New York. To me he is a modern-day Christ figure--modest, buoyant, and faithfully and unceremoniously living his values, "to be honest and straight" in a city and an industry where those qualities are often in short supply.

Cunningham has been soaking up fashion in New York since the late 40s, working in department stores, in advertising, and as a writer covering fashion for Women's Wear Daily, the Chicago Tribune, and Details magazine. In the 60s, someone gave him a camera and he tumbled into photographing what he finds on the street. For many years he has been contributing two weekly columns to the New York Times--"On the Street," depicting the style he captures out on the street every day, and "Evening Hours," his photographic chronicle of New York society.

From the beginning of this appreciative depiction, Cunningham's delightful personality shines through, and I relaxed into watching an enjoyable film about a city and a subject that I love. But gradually the significance of what I was witnessing snuck up on me--I was aware of a dawning comprehension that I was seeing greatness of a kind I would not have expected to find in a film about a fashion photographer.

It's apparent in both aspects of Cunningham's work. His idea of street style is so different from what you'd find in most fashion mags--what he is on about is genuine appreciation of the creativity he finds on the street. He will do anything for a shot of a great shoe or an interesting hemline or an inventive ensemble, in use by an actual person. "You have to let the street speak to you," he confides--and because he has been listening so attentively and for so long, he has contributed a visual history of New York style dating back decades.

Cunningham doesn't want to embarrass anyone; it's not about who's in and who's out--it's all equally in. In fact, his former editor at Details tells a pivotal story of his falling-out with Women's Wear Daily; he had photographed items seen on the runway and contrasted them with pictures of real women wearing those items on the street. The magazine changed his copy to make it critical of the ordinary women, and he was absolutely devastated and "beyond upset," and ended his relationship with the daily. Because his approach is so appreciative, his subjects are always delighted to be captured by him; people like Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Tom Wolfe, and Annette de la Renta agreed to be interviewed for the film out of their obvious affection for him, and the famously frosty Wintour warmly acknowledges that "we all get dressed for Bill."

Yet Cunningham is no celebrity worshipper. He's interested in clothes, not celebrity; the film shows him declining to photograph Catherine Deneuve at a Paris event because she wasn't wearing anything interesting. He chooses what society events to attend based on the worthiness of the charity or cause being promoted, and refuses to accept even a glass of water while working the events because he doesn't want to be bought. And he is interested in invention wherever he finds it; one decked-out transvestite recalls appreciatively how Cunningham lobbied the Times to publish pictures of him in a dress long before that was acceptable.

Cunningham is remarkably unaffected by the extravagance he observes. He travels all over Manhattan, day and night, by bicycle, riding from event to event with a orange safety vest over his dark jacket. He appears almost everywhere, including Paris fashion week, in the same trademark blue cotton work jacket worn by Paris street sweepers, because it is practical and he likes the color, and rather than sitting at the end of the runway with a straight-on shot like the other photographers, he sits off to the side and only lifts his camera when he discerns something really interesting. He knows his stuff, too.

For fifty years, Cunningham (like a host of other artists) lived over Carnegie Hall in a spartan, rent-controlled studio without a bathroom or kitchen, lined with filing cabinets filled with negatives of his photos. ("Who the hell wants a kitchen and a bathroom?" he asks.) He slept on a single mattress among the cabinets and hung his few clothes on the handle of one of the cabinets. At the time this documentary was being made, Carnegie Hall was in the process of evicting its venerable artist tenants to use the space for other things. Yet Cunningham faced his impending displacement with characteristic equanimity; "I suppose it will bother me at the time," he says, "but you can't concern yourself with that nonsense."

Cunningham's choices are not an affectation and they don't come with disdain for anyone else. He patches his rain ponchos with duct tape and survives on simple $3 sandwiches--but though he makes kidding comments about "damn wasteful New Yorkers" he also notes that his choices simply work for him. He is genuinely self-effacing; the film shows him being honored as an officer of the Order of Arts and Letters in France, a very prestigious honor, and he appears in his blue work jacket and snaps pictures up until the award is presented. He gives a very gracious acceptance speech in which he protests that he doesn't deserve the recognition since he is only doing what he loves, and then chokes back a little sob of gratitude as he remarks, "He who seeks beauty will find it."

And find it he does. More than that, he evokes it. I saw a whole documentary about Anna Wintaur and never saw a fraction of the humanity that she reveals here when talking about Cunningham. He calls nearly everyone "kid," and everyone from designer Michael Kors to the wait staff at charity events to philanthropist and socialite Brooke Astor greets Cunningham with affection. Cunningham doesn't "get a lift" out of being with society people, as Tom Wolfe observes--but it does seem they get a lift out of being with him. He works day and night, but nearly always with a grin that indicates he is having the time of his life. His child-like joy is infectious, too; in one scene, his colleagues at the Times surprise him with a very endearing birthday celebration, and he literally jumps up and down when he blows out the candles.

The film contains an interview with Cunningham from about twenty years ago where he talks passionately about fashion and its importance. He calls it the armor we use to survive the reality of everyday life. You couldn't do away with fashion, he comments; that would be like "doing away with civilization." It's a typically buoyant Cunningham moment, but it only captures a part of what I observed. There is something about the quality and enthusiasm of his attention to the people who cross his path that struck me as more than just style photography or society reporting--it is a ministry of presence that people respond to without understanding it.

Director Richard Press, here with his first feature, approaches the task of telling Cunningham's story with patience and a discerning eye that befits its subject. It took Press eight years to persuade Cunningham to go along with the project, and then he had to approach the filming process with great care, filming only with small, handheld cameras that did not compromise Cunningham's goal of being unobtrusive in his own work. Press's patience--which also meant waiting for the rare moments when Cunningham would consent to be filmed--pays off here in a very sensitive portrait of an extraordinary soul. There's a fine interaction late in the film when Cunningham discusses his family, his solitary life, and his religious faith, that could only come about as a result of the painstaking work of trustbuilding necessary to this subject. By that point in the film, I had fully realized I was in the presence of greatness, of a living example of all the values I hold dear and can only dream of embodying in anything like the fullness of this fashion photographer.

The end credits play to accompaniment of the Velvet Underground's song, "I'll Be Your Mirror." It's a fitting tribute to the portrait just witnessed, and a lasting inspiration: "I'll be your mirror/reflect what you are/in case you don't know./When you think the night has seen your mind,/that inside you're twisted and unkind,/let me stand to show you that you are blind./Please put down your hands 'cause I see you./I find it hard to believe you don't know/the beauty you are./But if you don't, let me be your eyes,/a hand in your darkness so you won't be afraid."  [On at least three other critics' top ten lists; available on DVD]

7.  "Beginners" (9.5) maintains a remarkably light touch while telling a story with layers of deep sadness. In fact, part of what I loved about it was the sense that a clear-eyed experience of life contains not only grief but also whimsy and sweetness.

 At its center is Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a man in his late-30s who has recently lost his father after an extended bout with cancer. Four years earlier, Oliver lost his mother, also to cancer (I suspect we are onto something here), and shortly thereafter his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), revealed that he was gay. Not only Hal's death but, more particularly, his last four years of life--in contrast to the 44 years that he was married to Oliver's mother, Georgia--seem to have left Oliver lost in grief and confusion. For in that last four years, he saw a father he had never known--joyfully reveling in life outside the closet where he had lived for so many years. Hal found a younger boyfriend and a whole community of gay friends. He changed his wardrobe and went to clubs and joined a book group. Even as his health deteriorated, he embraced life with deepening fervor and optimism.

This is not the father Oliver knew growing up. We see from flashbacks that Hal wasn't around much in Oliver's childhood. Oliver spent most of his time with Georgia (Mary Page Keller), whose quirkiness, in retrospect, barely masks her deep loneliness. Both of Oliver's parents maintained that they loved each other--indeed, Hal believably insists on that even in his last years. But their evident distance from each other has left Oliver unsettled, even more so having seen the warmth and intimacy and hopefulness of which it turned out Hal was capable.

But this is not a didactic "issue" film. Its observations are revealed with subtlety and tenderness, without implausible explanatory speeches. Yet I can't think of a film that conveys more profoundly the costs of living in the closet (in whatever sense--Hal's closet isn't the only kind). One sees how sacrificing his essential nature hollowed out Hal, and also left Georgia, and Oliver, bereft. Each endures the kind of loss that is both profound and barely perceptible, the kind that one can go decades without ever acknowledging or naming, even to oneself.

Oliver arrives at his late thirties unable to trust that intimacy is possible, a string of failed relationships in his wake. But shortly after Hal's death, Oliver meets Anna (Melanie Laurent), a lovely French actress who shares his perceptiveness and sense of whimsy. They share moments of wonder and fun, until both of them hit a wall of fear and uncertainty that each has learned to expect from relationships. The film's joys involve them navigating their first baby steps toward intimacy, instructed by the example of the courage Hal discovered in his later years.

Writer-director Mike Mills--reportedly drawing from his own life--maintains a tone of such sincerity and truthfulness that details that would seem too precious in a lesser film (Oliver's narration, his cartoons depicting a "history of sadness," his ongoing conversations with his father's grieving Jack Russell terrier, a newly discovered interest in graffiti) serve as convincing vehicles for conveying Oliver's inner life. Ewan MacGregor does his best work since "Trainspotting," conveying, often wordlessly, Oliver's sadness and watchfulness. He is matched by all three of the important people in Oliver's world. Christopher Plummer is a revelation as Hal, who we see only in his latter years but who manages to embody both Hal's newfound youthfulness and also his years as a stoic, respectable man. We see Georgia only in flashbacks to Oliver's childhood, and Mary Page Keller evinces her off-kilter beauty and the origins of Oliver's use of whimsy as a defense against despair. And Melanie Laurent (the amazing female lead in "Inglourious Basterds") is again wonderful here, the perfect embodiment of a woman who, like Oliver, is both an old soul and an arrested one.  [Rated R for language and some sexual content; on at least 26 other critics' top ten lists; winner of the Academy Award for best supporting actor (Christopher Plummer)  and should have received a nomination for best original screenplay; available on DVD]

 8.  "A SEPARATION"  (9.5) is, frankly, a pretty exhausting film to watch--but that is because the director has achieved the feat of holding this intense and emotionally truthful story in a nearly perfect state of tension.  It is the kind of tension that can arise when basically good people, pushed by untenable economic, political, and personal circumstances, take power in the only way they can, by refusing to yield their ground.  Add to that a legal system in which combatants basically sit in a small room with the judge and shout over each other until he (not sure if there is ever a she--there wasn't in the film) barks out a judgment, and you've got enough tension to challenge even the coolest temperament.

 Two disputes land the characters in this legal system.  The film begins with an educated couple disputing whether she can leave the country with their middle-school-age daughter.  She cannot without his permission and, though they have finally obtained a long-sought VISA enabling their departure, he has changed his mind because of his commitment to care for his father, who is in a declining state of dementia.  As the film progresses we get the sense that the wife has been the elderly man's primary caregiver, but at this point she sees the family's route out of the country and can hardly believe that her husband is now refusing.  Each of them sounds reasonable and unreasonable, often in the same moment, but the bottom line is that she cannot take their daughter without her husband's permission, and he is not budging.  The judge tells her she does not have a good reason for a divorce ("Does he beat you?  Refuse to give you an allowance?"  the judge asks, and she replies, "No, he is a good and decent man.") so she separates from her husband, the first separation in the film. 

 Much of the rest of the film takes place in their home, where the husband still resides with their daughter while the wife goes to stay with her parents.  The daughter is clearly a sensitive and sensible girl who loves her parents and is caught between these two good people throughout the film.  At several points, we can see the parents caught between their love for and desire to protect their daughter and their sense that her allegiance is essential to whatever objective is at stake.  The daughter, extraordinarily well-played by the director's daughter, is, in a sense, the eye at the center of the film's storming tensions; it is painful to watch how often the adults leave it to her to resolve what they cannot.  It's one of several very perceptive aspects of this depiction of how power struggles often play out, often foisting painful consequences on those with the least power and the least capacity to bear them.

 I haven't even gotten to the tensions that absorb most of the movie's action, between the central couple, who are obviously educated, secular, and relatively well-off (though clearly both adults work and grapple with daily struggle that seem simply to be  a part of making life happen in Iranian culture) and a less well-off, more traditional couple.  Following the educated couple's separation, he must hire a caregiver for his father, and his wife helps him locate a younger woman who must travel several hours by bus to come to the home.  The younger woman is clearly religious, consumed with ensuring that her actions will meet with approval of religious authorities--a problem that first arises when it appears that the old man requires more intimate care than she feels is proper for a woman alone.  But that is only the beginning; this woman's economic circumstances, her religious convictions, and her duties to a volatile, depressed, and unemployed husband keep her in a state of panic as she struggles to manage irreconcilable demands.  An incident occurs early in her employment that then gives rise to a legal dispute between the young caregiver and her employer that pushes each of the adults to the limits of their capacity, and catches their children in the cross-fire.

 To give away more would blunt the film's considerable power for those of you who haven't yet seen it.  Part of what makes this film so remarkable is that the director so wisely presents the dilemmas of each of the characters so that we understand their motivations and feel some sympathy for them even as we are watching them behave in ways that are destructive.  The role the law plays in all this is also important--for me as an American judge who operates in and sees the flaws in our own system, I could hardly bear to watch how what passes for the rule of law in Iran serves to heighten and exacerbate tensions between people who are simply struggling to live productive lives with the means available to them.  This film contains rich insights into current Iranian culture (I can hardly believe that the government allowed it to be submitted for Oscar consideration) but also more universal insights into how human beings function under stress. [In Persian; rated PG-13 for thematic material; on at least 44 other critics' top ten lists; won the Academy Award for best foreign language film; nominated for the Academy Award for best original screenplay; still in theaters]

 9.  "THE HEDGEHOG" (9.5) is one of the most delightful films on my list, though it may not sound so from the description.  It's the story of a precocious and dillusioned girl, Paloma, who has decided to document the absurdity of life with her father's camcorder before killing herself on her 12th birthday.  For her this decision is a matter of logic and self-determination that follows from being the most awake person in her immediate world, which feels to her like a fishbowl.  Her wealthy parents are too absorbed in their lives (her mother in her pills and the plants that she addresses like children, her father in his political career) to notice or inquire into their obviously gifted daughter's inner life; her older sister is absorbed in meaningless adolescent concerns and notices Paloma only to chastise her; and all Paloma sees around her is self-importance and mendacity.  Though her response to what she perceives is perhaps a bit over-dramatic, her thinking contains a certain soundness; Paloma sees what others refuse to see (including herself), and it rightly troubles her.  She plans to overdose on her mother's pills, which she has been stockpiling unnoticed.

 Despite her disenchantment, Paloma's gift for art and narrative keeps her absorbed in her documentation project, which also includes elaborate and whimsical drawings which, in the film's convention, occasionally spring to animated life.  Her observations lead her to notice lots of things others miss--most fruitfully, the grouchy middle-aged woman, Renee', who serves as the concierge for the swanky Paris apartment building where Paloma and her family and other snooty neighbors reside.  Paloma begins to take a particular interest in Renee', whom she observes is like a hedgehog, "prickly on the outside but elegant and refined on the inside."  Widowed fifteen years earlier and having given up on hoping for much from life, Renee' has let herself go and maintains the kind of rough courtesy in her dealings with the building's tenants that reinforce their inclination never to actually see her.  They would never guess that she retreats each day into a small room in her apartment lined with treasured books and drinks deeply of their pleasures.

 Paloma, it turns out, is not the only person to take notice of Renee'; a wealthy Japanese man, Ozu, moves into the building and takes notice of both the girl and the concierge.  He enters as a sort of healing presence, drawing forth the essential goodness of each and also appreciating the hidden depths that others miss.  Paloma he addresses with gentle interest and kindness to which she immediately responds; Renee', too, responds despite herself to his courtly attentions, which include an original volume of Anna Karenina (a shared interest), carefully prepared Japanese meals, and an opportunity to view a classic of Japanese cinema in his elegant home.  Watching Renee' warm to Oka's attentions and also to the needy child are among the film's deep pleasures.

 In the end, this film is about nurturing and acknowledging the parts of oneself that one has learned to keep hidden, about drinking deeply of beauty and art for its own sake, and about finding hope in the true connections that come into one's life.  Paloma and Renee' learn these lessons in response to each other and the gentle healer that enters their world, and we learn it by savoring their discoveries.  [In French and Japanese; doesn't appear to be on any other critics' top ten lists, but many of them contain a lot less worthy entries (!); should have received an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay; available on DVD]

 10.  "SHAME" (9.5) is not for everyone, but for those willing to travel its dark passage, it is a revelation.  Michael Fassbender, so splendid in "Jane Eyre," is also remarkable here as Brandon, a handsome New Yorker whose career and life are under tight control.  He lives alone in a rather hermetic apartment and is coolly disciplined and successful in his professional life.  He is a true contrast to Sissy (Carey Mulligan), the sister who disappears from his life at intervals and then turns up penniless and rootless.  She crashes at his place and quickly injects chaos, invading his carefully maintained order with her utter lack of discipline.  She drinks to excess, makes desperate phone calls to a lover who has discarded her, brings Brandon's boss home to have sex with him in Brandon's bed, and seems to have no regard for herself or for her own or anyone else's personal space.
 
The connection between the two siblings is a key to this film.  Though never explained, it becomes clear that the two of them suffered through something profound as children, and each has taken a different path to absorb that suffering.  Soon after Sissy's arrival, she invites Brandon to hear her sing at a nightclub, where she performs a quite wrenching rendition of "New York, New York" that clearly moves the audience, and especially her brother.  It is the only genuine emotion he displays for most of the film, quickly buttoned down.

 Also quite early, it is apparent that Brandon is a sex addict.  But the film wisely refrains from directly analyzing or naming that fact, nor does it offer any reasons why Brandon insatiably consumes hard-care pornography and anonymous sex of all kinds.  The film asks only that you observe, and not for prurience; watching the hot bodies greedily at work here is surprisingly unappealing.  What director Steve McQueen (a remarkable British director of African descent) has managed to depict--and masterfully so, in a medium so obsessed with hot sex between hot bodies--is the deep loneliness and self-loathing that drives Brandon. 

 A critical piece of that depiction is Brandon's brief attempt at a romance with a beautiful co-worker.  Their first date is a marvel of awkwardness, and what eventually comes clear is that Brandon is incapable of pursuing actual intimacy.  Fassbender carries Brandon's pain in every muscle of his body, and the failure of his encounter with the co-worker is heart-stopping and visceral.  The spiral that follows reveals that Brandon and Sissy are, ultimately, more similar than different. 

 I appreciate a film that demands deep investment and deep observation.  McQueen takes a subject that is full of illusion in most films and uses it as the context for a film about profound suffering.  Had he offered some psychological explanation for why Sissy and Brandon are so lost, most viewers would have take the opportunity to distance themselves from the story.  As it is, McQueen and his remarkable leads have found a way to depict suffering in a more universal sense, and have asked viewers to reflect on the profound pain that people may be privately carrying.  I left filled with sorrow, and gratitude.  [Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual content; on at least 26 other critics' top ten lists; deserved an Academy Award nomination for best actor (Michael Fassbender) and also deserved a nomination for best supporting actress (Carey Mulligan); available on DVD]

 11.  "MEEK'S CUT-OFF" (9.5), Kelly Reichardt's haunting, acutely observant film about lost pioneers, is more enriching than it is entertaining; in fact, some may find it a slog. But it rewards the patient and the curious with rich insights into human nature, the dynamics of power, and what life was really like for people, and especially women, on the pioneer trail.

The film follows three pioneer couples in 1845, who apparently have wasted the money they spent on a guide to lead them to the Willamette Valley. They have been wandering for weeks longer than Stephen Meeks told them to expect, and their growing dread is palpable. Being lost is unsettling enough in a car driving through an unfamiliar neighborhood--but as this film depicts in excruciatingly concrete detail, it's another matter entirely when you are mostly on foot in a huge open desert where days might go by without any sight of water and where all your belongings are stuffed into rickety wagons. As days drag on and family heirlooms become just weight to be jettisoned, Meeks shows no signs of fear or contrition, remaining ever quick with trail wisdom and tall tales of his own exploits.

Meeks' bragging becomes increasingly insufferable to Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), a newly married young woman whose husband, Solomon, appears to be the de facto leader of the group. She and the other wives are not privy to the conversations in which the men decide what measures the group will take; we, and they, only overhear muffled tones from a distance. But Solomon keeps his wife informed of what the men are up to and even seems to value her input.

When the group members encounter a lone Indian, they are thrust into the dilemma of what to do with him. Meeks wants to kill him, but Solomon recognizes that the Indian may be useful. Everyone fears the stranger, with whom communication is virtually impossible, yet the film nicely straddles the prejudices and ignorance and misunderstandings that would surely have characterized how white people would have perceived an Indian in 1845 with our regretful current perspective, holding both in tension. The encounter with the Indian becomes the locus of a power shift from Meeks to Emily, who experiences an awakening of sorts occasioned by her dawning sense of the truth about Meeks, the Indian, and the realities of the group's situation. She finds her power in standing up not only to Meeks but to the limits of her own understanding, acting on what she knows and standing up in the face of what she doesn't know.

Unlike so many period films, this one (like "Jane Eyre") looks lived in. Director Kelly Reichardt has the patience to depict the painstaking realities of life on the trail, with its unrelenting dust and exertions and tedium and long silences filled only by the sound of creaking wagon wheels. She has assembled a stellar cast, most notably Rod Rondeaux as the enigmatic Indian and Williams, who captures the subtle shifts that characterize a genuine transformation and conveys Emily's contrasting qualities, her weariness and her acuteness. Reichardt's patience pays off in a revelatory vision that places pioneer experience and women's experience in the larger context of the human struggle. What does it mean to be lost? How is power gained, lost, and shared?  [Rated PG for some mild violent content, brief language, and smoking (!); on at 16 other critics' top ten lists; deserved an Oscar nomination for best actress (Michelle Williams); available on DVD]

 Honorable mention:

 Five films barely missed my top 11 but deserve notice among the others I saw in 2011:

- I posted a full-length review of "BUCK" (9) last July, and it is a documentary that offers the rare combination of universal appeal and profound insight.  Its hero, horse whisperer Buck Brannigan, has turned his own childhood trauma into deep wisdom about horses, and people.

- "BEING ELMO" (9) is also, I expect, a pretty universally appealing documentary.  Its hero, Kevin Clash, is the creative genius behind the popular Sesame Street character--and significantly, as I have been fond of saying, he is a black dude.  His story of watching Sesame Street as a youngster and recognizing and then pursuing his own calling validates everything I believe and work for about the importance of helping young people defy expectations to become the selves they are meant to be.

- "OF GODS AND MEN"(8) is a moving story of heroic faith, based on true events involving a group of monks who were eventually martyred in Algeria.  The film is an unparalleled attempt to capture the kind of struggle that goes into heroism, as this devoted group of clerics agonizes over whether to stay and continue the work among poor Algerians to which they have devoted their lives as they are faced with the threat of escalating violence. The struggle occurs in the midst of daily prayer and singing, and provided me with important inspiration for my own less dramatic but still daunting struggles.

-   "THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE" (8.5) is a remarkable collection of footage of the Black Power movement, courtesy of a group of Swedish journalists who found the movement endlessly fascinating.  Sometimes it takes outsiders to help insiders see what is happening, and these Swedes have offered us a view of our history that most of us don't know.  I left wondering where is the biopic on Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis and many of the other heroes here who still are subjects of suspicion.  I wish everyone would see this film.

- And finally, "HIGHER GROUND" (8) is a particular favorite of mine because it so wisely depicts a struggle for faith with which I deeply identify.  Vera Farmiga, one of our most gifted actresses, directs and stars in this story about a woman who marries young and becomes involved with the Jesus people movement in the 70s.  The brand of religion depicted here will seem foreign to many, but for me it is quite familiar, and I love the authenticity of her struggle and the place she ends up, which feels to me like faith.

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