Smile Politely

2011 movies in review


In 2012, time itself will take a final bow, when the 13th and final Baktun of the 5,125 year Mayan “Great Cycle” ends in December.

Mexico is preparing for an influx of apocalyptic tourism, but I’m not sure being at the great architectural sites of the Yucatan or Guatemala will be all that dramatic (particularly if overrun with Corona-drinking tourists). Nothing noticeable is going to happen anyway. Eternity is eternity, which means it’s all now, even now.

I watched 295 movies in 2011, down from the previous two years, but this nominally final year of earth I’m determined to watch fewer. No more enduring bad product just for the sake of seeing something (not that “wasting time” will have any significance when our concept of time ends regardless). Out of those 295 films, I’ve narrowed my list of the best movies down to two.

1. MELANCHOLIA – Lars von Trier’s end-of-the-world operatic wonderment is perfectly suited for a world in its final throes. Apart from the sheer beauty of its cosmic, significance-drenched images, there has never been a movie that so succinctly infused the viewer with a chilling, personal sense of mortality. Facing the death of everything, Kirsten Dunst revealed a character purged of sentimentality and filled with spunk and hard-edged acceptance.

There was also Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which tried – perhaps a little too hard –  to convey the eternal in the same way that von Trier nailed the terminal. For mystical spirituality, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee had the edge, ghosts and forests and monks watching TV, merging timeless immortality with the banal.

Facing the problems of us earthbound mortals, there were lovely and significant “small movies.”  On the hopeful side were the feminist western Meek’s Crossing; the wrestling morality play Win Win; Contracorriente, from Peru, an “it takes a village” coming out story, with a ghost. On the down side were the heartbreakingly hopeless Blue Valentine; the rediscovered Rainer Werner Fassbinder marriage drama from 1976 I Only Want You to Love Me; an almost sympathetic Wall Street drama, Margin Call; and some genuine humor in the emptiness and aimlessness of floundering college grads in Tiny Furniture.

Despite all the big budget product, sequels, overhyped, paint-by-the-focus-group-numbers, weekend box office, CGI, instantly forgettable, interchangeable clockwork oranges out there, the apocalypse was the ticket, including Contagion, Take Shelter, an awful do-it-yourself-destruction indie called Bellflower, and the genuinely funny Norwegian monster movie fake documentary Trollhunter.

Alfred Hitchcock presciently summed things up almost fifty years ago in The Birds, in the words of a tipsy barfly in Bodega Bay repeating the warning, “It’s the end of the world.”

2. PINA – As the trailer asks, is it dance? Is it theater? Or is it just life? I would have to conclude that whatever it is, it’s art. And we need that more than ever in the movies.

Wim Wenders planned to make a 3-D movie of Pina Bausch and her stunning dance creations for years, only to abandon the project when Bausch died unexpectedly. But Wenders and Bausch’s troupe – almost a family – decided to carry on and created what is a tribute to her vision and a stunning artifact of what can be accomplished in film, in dance, and in 3D technology.

The bizarre personal movies of Ryan Trecartin, such as I-Be Area, are shown in the top art museums and galleries at the same time you can watch them splash themselves out on YouTube.  I’m not much of a fan, but I do want to support the notion that there will be life beyond the multiplex and that film as art will survive, come global warming hell or high water.


DOCUMENTARIES – A number of memorable documentaries turned up in the past year, the very best of which was the PBS look at the Civil Rights movement, Freedom Riders.  All the current Republican candidates for President should be required to watch it.  Also on PBS, the four-hour Woody Allen: A Documentary revealed a true filmmaker and his self-effacing vision.  As a kind of time-traveling psychedelic footnote to 2011, Magic Trip unearthed the self-filmed footage of Ken Kesey and the Pranksters on their cross-country bus trip, a witness to the birth of the Sixties. The best part, however, is an extra on the DVD, the actual sound recording of Kesey’s first acid trip during secret government-funded testing.

THE WORST – If the movies as product were less than wholly entertaining in 2011, one cannot say the same for the Republican candidate debates. They were endlessly fascinating, right up there with (and of equal significance to) the Kardashians and Casey Anthony. But the worst movie of the year was one revered by many Republican pundits and candidates, the Ayn Rand preachy tract, Atlas Shrugged. If the world does survive, I hope they come through with the promised Part Two, but it would be hard to surpass a movie that made so little sense or was as outdated in its attempt to justify the causes of greed and selfishness, plus tacky clothes, architecture, and, yes, railroads.

DISCLAIMER – All right, I could not stop at just two movies. For one thing, I haven’t yet seen Drive. That may change everything, but I doubt it. And, I do need to add a third movie to my list: Bridesmaids made me laugh out loud.

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