It happens every January—movie ads fill up with boasts about awards they’ve won. Soon, those boasts will include Oscar nominations.
And The Artist is currently the most boastful of all. Filmmaker Michael Hazanavicius’s tribute to Hollywood’s silent film era is stirring up enthusiasm among audiences and critics alike.
Me, I enjoyed it. It was playful, funny, a hoot. Hazanavicius showed guts when he committed to reviving a form that hasn’t been popular for more than half a century.
And yet, a few minutes after the credits rolled, I felt that I’d been served a chocolate éclair when I’d been promised a feast. This film isn’t award-caliber material. Just because a recipe hasn't been used in decades doesn't mean that we should give highest honors to somebody who bakes up a batch to show it still works.
Moreover, in a year when filmmakers seemed especially preoccupied with questions about the meaning of life, why would we choose to give highest honors to a film that celebrates vanity? I don’t mind movies that revive old-fashioned methods. Hugo, The Muppets, Winnie the Pooh, and War Horse all did that in 2011, and they did so with inspiring stories.
The Artist is not only frivolous—it’s irresponsible in its glorification of fame, fortune, and glamour. And it celebrates a love-at-first-sight encounter that leads to an extramarital affair, going so far as to reduce the hero’s betrayed, neglected wife to comic relief, brushing her aside as a convenient punchline.
Nevertheless, Oscar forecasters see a Best Picture statue in The Artist’s future. Of course they do. The Academy Awards are a party that Hollywood throws for itself, and The Artist is a movie that worships Hollywood and its values. Looks like a done deal.
Let me recommend several good alternatives. I wouldn’t be so hasty or presumptuous as to claim these are the “Best Films of 2011.” Artistic experiences are too personal, too subjective for that. But I’m happy to recommend “favorites.”
10. (tie) Winnie the Pooh and The Muppets
Just as I praised Jason Segel’s impassioned, triumphant effort to revive the spirit of Jim Henson, I’m excited about Disney’s other impressive 2011 revival: Winnie the Pooh.
Some Hundred Acre Wood fans are purists, and they see Disney’s animated version as a betrayal of A.A. Milne. Perhaps I’d agree if my childhood hadn’t been saturated with both the books and the cartoons. They’re inseparable in my mind.
There’s a lot to admire about those early cartoons and the 1977 feature called The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. They were playful. They respected the sensibilities of a very young target audience. The characters came to life in simple, whimsical drawings, and they never became obnoxious or desperate to entertain like so many characters who distract children today. They even emphasized Pooh’s storybook beginnings by using typography as part of the characters’ environment.
2011’s Winnie the Pooh brings us back to those strengths. Less is so much more here.
9. War Horse
I defended Steven Spielberg’s much-criticized Word War One story in this Good Letters post last week.
8. Meek’s Cutoff
Here at Filmwell are my notes from a screening of Meek’s Cutoff, my favorite Western—and my favorite Michelle Williams film—of 2011. (Williams was great as Marilyn Monroe, but, well...I wrote about that film too.)
7. Nostalgia for the Light
Until Patrick Guzmán’s profound documentary, I’d never been to Chile’s Atacama Desert. Now it’s one of the most fascinating places on planet Earth to me.
Those desert skies are especially clear, so astronomers work there with high-powered telescopes. Get ready for some mind-boggling images of the cosmos—the real thing, not special effects.
It’s also a place where archaeologists dig for insights about the land’s troubled history, and the “mothers of the disappeared” sift the dust for the bones of loved ones who were carried off by Pinochet’s brutal regime.
The place becomes the base camp of humankind’s search for meaning in the midst of brokenness. My favorite documentaries are those that achieve something worthy of the name “poetry.” This one does.
6. Martha Marcy May Marlene
I wrote this Good Letters post about Martha Marcy May Marlene, my favorite horror film of the year, a few weeks ago.
Let’s make this documentary required viewing for all parents, teachers, bosses, and pastors. Buck has as much to say about how to lead people as it has to say about training horses. I sensed the spirit of Christ vividly portrayed in the patience, grace, and “tough love” of horse trainer Buck Brannaman.
Documentarian Cindy Meehl follows Brannaman as he hosts four-day “clinics” for ranchers with troubled horses all across America. He also served as an adviser on Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer. And as we learn about the horses, we learn about their owners.
But while Brannaman’s work is fascinating, he is, himself, quite a subject.
The film includes amazing early-60s footage of young Buck and his brother performing rope tricks on television, their fearsome father hovering over their performances.
It’s a miracle Brannaman survived that childhood; his alcoholic father was a tyrant. But Brannaman has turned those beatings, those scars, into a strength. His empathy for broken and mistreated horses enables him to put them on the path to rehabilitation and peace. And his work is as much about healing people as animals.
4. Of Gods and Men
Xavier Beauvois’s beautiful drama Of Gods and Men tells the true story of nine French Trappist monks at the Monastery of Our Lady of Atlas in Algeria’s Atlas Mountains who risked their lives to serve the locals during a 1996 insurgence of violent extremists during the Algerian Civil War.
The cast features Lambert Wilson of the Matrix series and Michael Lonsdale (one of the big-screen’s human treasures) in memorable roles. Beauvois’s attention to the faces of his actors, to the script’s weighty conversations, and to the even heavier silences, is commendable.
I agree with my colleagues Michael Leary (Filmwell.org) and Steven Greydanus (DecentFilms.com): The humble service of these men is as vivid a portrayal of Christian service as I’ve ever seen on the big screen.
Of Gods and Men shows Christians and Muslims interacting in peace, respect, and friendship. Instead of demonizing Muslims, these monks even read the Quran in order to better understand and love their neighbors.
3. The Mill and the Cross
We’ve seen so many movies about the outlandish behavior of famous artists. This is something else—a rare consideration of the process of art-making, one that will help viewers look closer and see more clearly.
It isn’t “a story inspired by a painting,” but a revelation of the life within a painting. In bringing to vivid life the drama in Pieter Bruegel’s 1554 work called “The Way to Calvary,” Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski asks us to consider the “web” that Bruegel (played by Rutger Hauer) was weaving, the method in his choreography of characters.
The painting is a busy scene, depicting the persecution of non-Catholic Flanders villagers by Spanish soldiers. In it, we see portrayals of common human misbehavior...and misbehavior. We see work, sex, childhood play, and soldiers who raise up heretics on wheels for the birds to tear apart.
Christ suffers at the center of the scene, overlooked, rejected, crucified again. The Almighty, dressed as a miller, looks down on the scene from atop his mill, and through his eyes, the picture is transformed.
One of the best reasons to see this movie is for the windmill at its center—one of the most awe-inspiring pieces of architecture I’ve seen at the movies. The sights and sounds of that monstrosity make it a memorable character.
2. The Tree of Life
I’m guessing that more has been written about The Tree of Life since its springtime release than any film of the last twenty years. And I’ve written far too much of it myself, defending it from dismissive reviews (even though it’s not my favorite Terrence Malick film). Here are my five commentaries: The Mystery in Materials; The Tree of Life: Did You Like It?; The Tree of Life: A Storm of Poetry; Sean Penn, The Tree of Life, and the Difference Between Prose and Poetry; and finally a commentary to mark the release of the Blu-ray.
And if you missed it, read this beautiful reflection by Vic Sizemore.
1. Certified Copy
I first saw Certified Copy last March. Almost ten months (and three viewings) later, it’s still my favorite movie of 2011. I professed my love for Abbas Kiarostami’s film I this Good Letters post. Until last week, it was very difficult for Americans to find. Now it’s on Netflix Instant. And get ready for a heated discussion afterward, and then the second viewing, when it reveals so much more.
Many 2011 releases have only just arrived. When I can, I’ll catch up with important titles I’ve missed, like A Separation, Tuesday After Christmas, The Iron Lady, Project Nim, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and let’s not forget the celebrated 386-minute epic Mysteries of Lisbon. Check LookingCloser.org for updates.
This has been one moviegoer’s “travel journal” of a year in movies. What about you? The adventure isn’t over yet. What have I overlooked?