Updated Thu, Feb 23, 2012 10:05 am
As the 84th annual Academy Awards draw closer, WOUB contributor Scott Pfeiffer looks back at his favorite nominated films of 2011, as well as a handful of outstanding movies that were overlooked by the Academy.
Pfeiffer's other film and music reviews can be found at The Moving World.
The Tree of Life (Best Picture, Cinematography, Directing)
Terrence Malick shows us a boy’s life in 1950s Texas, while elsewhere in the universe, explosions are creating new galaxies. When held up against the birth of time and the farthest reaches of the universe, an individual life and death is at once put into perspective, and at the same time shown as something that, in its way, is just as exultant, epochal, and full of wonder. This is filmmaking that is as free as I’ve always hoped it could be; an unspooling ribbon of time.
Midnight in Paris (Best Picture, Directing, Art Direction, Original Screenplay)
For everyone who's ever read A Moveable Feast and thought: Right, Paris in the '20s; that was the time and place for me. Woody Allen had me right from the opening montage, which gave me the uncanny sense that my own memories and mind's-eye views of Paris were being projected onto the screen.
There's been a bit of backlash against this one on the grounds that Allen doesn't do much more with the concept of an American whisked away into the world of the Lost Generation every night at midnight than drop names and sketch sketches. But the cameos are witty and Allen has managed to do something truly remarkable: to get down on film something that is in the air in Paris; something to do with history, memory, romance and magic. An homage to a Paris that is as much a state of mind as anything, and a reminder that the Golden Age is in us.
Hugo (Best Picture, Cinematography, Directing, Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects, Adapted Screenplay)
This story about a boy who meets George Melies is a joyful homage to early movie making from Martin Scorsese, and cinema has no one who is a more devoted, loving preserver and keeper of the flame. When Scorsese includes footage from early films in Hugo (not just Melies, but the Lumiere brothers, Porter, Harold Lloyd), it's as if he's saying to us, the modern audience: We must treat early film with care, it is a precious treasure, and here, I want to show you why...because it is alive. His first children’s film, and one of his most personal.
The Artist (Best Picture, Directing, Actor in a Leading Role, Actress in a Supporting Role, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing, Original Score, Original Screenplay)
Meta of the sweetest kind, a silent film with a delightfully expressive performance by Jean Dujardin as matinee idol George Valentin, who finds himself on the scrapheap of history when he falls through the historical divide between the silents and the talkies. I’m absolutely smitten with Berenice Bejo as Peppy, the new “It Girl” who enchants the country. And with Uggie, of course, a Jack Russell terrier who steals the show. Along with Hugo, these pictures form a 2011 double-bill about the dawn of the movies.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Actor in a Leading Role, Adapted Screenplay)
An elegy on betrayal and trust, both personal and geopolitical. The film expresses these themes through character, embodied by deft work from a stable of fine actors, as well as writers Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan (adapting a John Le Carre novel). At its center is an enigma: George Smiley. Smiley is played by Gary Oldman in a quiet, haunted performance that still resonates with me. The film is not about its labyrinthine plot. It is about those quiet moments that will haunt you long after you’ve forgotten the big action spectacles.
Drive (Sound Editing)
Ryan Gosling is a stuntman by day, getaway driver by night. Drive is pulsating, electric, cheesy, sleek and ultraviolent. Director Nicholas Winding Refn snatches up shiny bits that caught his eye from movies of the past and weaves his own thing out of it, dense with pop allusions. Riveting supporting work from Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston.
Other favorite nominations include The Descendants (Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role, Directing, Film Editing, Adapted Screenplay) and Bridesmaids (Actress in a Supporting Role)
What separates the "real" from the pretender? And if you pretend for long enough, don't you become "real" in some way? The borders between the real and the simulacrum are in play in Abbas Kiarostami's deeply moving Certified Copy, my favorite film of the year. It's a man and a woman: He's an art critic, she's an antique shopkeeper, talking over the course of a sometimes-harrowing Tuscan afternoon. Gradually, something very curious happens.
Their relationship shifts and morphs until at certain point you feel like, "Right, what's going on here?" This is perhaps the most surreal film I know of that operates utterly in a realistic style. But that’s not what floors me about it, nor is it why it was the most moving film of the year for me. It’s because it is two intelligent people speaking, without dogma, trying very hard to get to something real, to the heart of the matter. In the end, nothing is settled, except that all you can be is who you "really" are. That has to be enough, and is. Along with The Tree of Life, this was one of two pictures this year of which I felt strongly enough to go back to the theater and see again.
A storehouse of the most unforgettable images of the year, and the truest movie I’ve ever seen about depression and its crippling downsward spiral, as embodied in the gorgeous body and wicked-smart performance of Kirsten Dunst, as well as by planet Melancholia on its collision course with Earth. No one who’s had any experience with depression will scoff at that all-ameliorating metaphor. I won't forget a nude Dunst serenely bathing in the moonlight of planet Melancholia, come to annihilate all.
Mysteries of Lisbon
The first four-and-a-half hour film I’ve ever seen at the theater. The passage of time becomes part of the experience. Though playful Brechtian touches are interwoven throughout, this is a more straightforward narrative than other films I've seen by Raul Ruiz, who died this year. We meet an orphan, a noblewoman, a priest and a highwayman, with one level of story atop another. You move through one layer until a character begins to tell a story, and you drop down into the next level, burrowing deeper and deeper into the web of interlinking stories and identities, never getting lost. Of its many, many moments, there is never a dull one.
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play sly versions of themselves in my favorite comedy of the year, Michael Winterbottom’s lastest amalgam of documentary and fiction. Banter and verbal volleys fly as our boys tour the restaurant inns of Northern England, from the one-upmanship as to who does the best "Michael Caine" to Coogan's sadly funny exegesis on the brilliance of Abba's "The Winner Takes It All," when the film becomes surprisingly poignant.
Sex! Mormons! Bondage! Kidnapping! Another fascinating, funny documentary from Errol Morris, who, as always, is concerned with notions of "the truth," but amused more than ever here by its strangeness. In Joyce McKinney he found a character whom no fiction writer would dare invent. It makes me think of something I once overheard Christopher Hitchens say at a conference: "The truth never lies, but when it does lie, it lies somewhere in between."
Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives
In rural Thailand, a spirit returns in the shape of a big hairy Yeti to sit and visit with only mildly disconcerted relatives. People watch as they become disembodied from their own selves. Apitchatpong Weerasethakul (or "Joe" as he was known when he studied in Chicago) gives us an acceptance of many levels of existence at once.
Godard is a giant of film. That said, a lot of his work, especially his late-period stuff, is outside most audiences' frames of reference, particularly Americans. I think the first thing to keep in mind when thinking about Film Socialisme (which may by the 80-year-old’s last film) is that he’s not trying to entertain you. Rather, the sort of Brechtian idea of “dialectical film,” as I (struggle to) understand it, is to foreground the relationship between the observer and the movie. “The observer is a necessary and equal participant,” as film writer James Monaco puts it.
Watching late-period Godard is like reading Joyce or Pynchon in that there’s always a playfulness there, and you’re almost always rewarded for getting through the difficult bits with a passage of disarming beauty, tenderness, delightful wit or poetry. He’s not contemptuous of the audience. Quite the contrary: the whole approach of “dialectical film” is to get you involved. In Film Socialisme, there is an elegiac tone for things lost, in art and in politics, that moves me very much.
Other favorites from 2011 include Terri, Meek’s Cutoff, Life, Above All and Young Adult.
Born in Athens, Ohio, Scott Pfeiffer has lived in Chicago since 1993. He did a minor in film at Ohio University back in the day. These days, he knocks about Chi-town, taking in film, music and theater.