1. Certified Copy (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
2011 was when 3D hit its saturation point in theaters, but for me the year’s most innovative cinematic experience was the psychological and emotional 3D I felt watching this movie. Juliette Binoche and William Shimell have a Tuscan tryst that grows increasingly ambiguous and surreal until it’s the mother of all dysfunctional relationships. By the third act we have no idea what to believe anymore, but through sheer execution it stays real and painfully true to life. As Aaron Cutler says in a video essay on Binoche’s performance (embedded below – watch the 4:50 mark to get a slo-mo glimpse of her at her best, a manic pixie dream girl in middle age), “Facts matter less than the presentation of them.” Truer words never spoken.
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Watch Abbas Kiarostami’s groundbreaking tribute to his favorite actresses, Shirin, on Fandor – free with a One Week Pass!
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2. Petition (dir. Zhao Liang)
3. Margaret (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
Two epically personal achievements about people stranded in tragic and absurd quests for justice, that strangely morph into psychic diaries of their directors. Zhao Liang spent a decade filming petitioners in futile attempts to have their grievances heard by the government; Kenneth Lonergan spent over half a decade struggling to finish his film about a teenager’s downward spiral after witnessing (and partly causing) a fatal accident. Both directors appear in their movies and pivotally affect the plot (a particular complication for Zhao since he’s ostensibly filming an objective documentary, but a project like this makes objective journalism seem like self-deception). Both leave deeply troubling questions over the definition of justice – whether sought by homeless Beijing migrants or a privileged Manhattan prep school girl – while never failing to empathize with their subjects through all their devastating missteps.
Watch Zhao Liang’s breakthrough documentary Crime and Punishment on Fandor with a free pass.
4. The Tree of Life(dir. Terrence Malick)
The greatest classical music fan video ever made.
5. Into the Abyss (dir. Werner Herzog)
6. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (dir. Werner Herzog)
Herzog the documentarian is in peak form these days. With all due respect to Martin Scorsese and Hugo, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is arguably the year’s best use of 3D (allowing us to fully explore and inhabit a space prohibited to us) and the most thoughtful investigation of the origins of cinema, reaching far into our species’ prehistoric impulses to capture life’s motion on a screen. Into the Abyss explores another primal impulse: murderous violence at its most senseless, investigating a group murder and finding tragedy on all sides so powerful that it manges to silence another impulse: Herzog’s tendency towards cloying voiceover.
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7. Meek’s Cutoff (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
The most fully realized feature to date by Reichardt (Old Joy), this isn’t so much a revisionist Western as a return to basics, with an expedition of Oregon homesteaders portrayed as an experience of sheer material particulars. Chris Blauvelt’s camerawork captures this epic trek through nature in both its gritty detail and panoramic splendor, culminating in something unexpectedly mystical and humbling.
Watch Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy on Fandor – did you know that you can watch it free with a One Week Pass?
8. Film Socialisme (dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
Here’s an instance where my job had a direct impact on my appreciation of a film. While Fandor has a few deserving 2011 releases that didn’t quite make my own list (Poetry, Le Quattro Volte, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno), next month it will release one that did: what is reputedly the last film by one of cinema’s true revolutionaries. I admit that the first time I watched it left me fairly stupefied; but now, presently preparing a video essay on the film, I am reveling in its audio-visual textures. Having English subtitles (Navajo or otherwise) is a red herring – just let this wash over you and get back in touch with cinema in its untamed state.
Learn about the early career of Jean-Luc Godard in Two in the Wave (free on Fandor with, you guessed it, a One Week Pass) and look for his newest film Film Socialisme coming soon to Fandor!
9. El Sicario: Room 164 (dir. Gianfranco Rosi)
Appropriating a motel room used by the Mexican mafia, this film spends its entirety filming a hooded, nameless hitman sharing a career of kidnappings and killings, pantomiming torture techniques and using a notepad to diagram the details of mafia life. Through this simple, stark setup, the film evokes a Mexican goodfellas lifestyle as richly and terrifyingly as a Scorsese movie, letting our imaginations paint pictures as grisly as we can conceive.
10. A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi)
tie- Tuesday, After Christmas (dir. Radu Muntean)
With everyone in the “developed” or “developing” world aspiring to live like happy consuming Americans, the films from these countries are starting to follow the same lead (take China’s all-out adoption of Hollywood blockbuster formulas; they’ve even recruited Christian Bale, for Mao’s sake!). There are also some gifted filmmakers who can retain a critical view of the commercial and cultural liberalization of their societies, like these two films, which do a better job of diagnosing our own social illnesses (class conflict, sexual strife, and crass consumerism) than Hollywood could ever dream of doing.
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Films that weren’t released in theaters this year but demand recognition and viewership:
When the Bough Breaks (dir. Ji Dan)
Mildred Pierce (dir. Todd Haynes)
Dreileben (dirs. Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, Christoph Hochhausler)
Let the Bullets Fly (dir. Jiang Wen)
The Turin Horse (dir. Bela Tarr)
Two Years at Sea (dir. Ben Rivers)
Slow Action (dir. Ben Rivers)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Policeman (dir. Nadav Lapid)
The Color Wheel (dir. Alex Ross Perry)
And finally, though I don’t feel comfortable placing it on a list of new releases in 2011, I should acknowledge the long anticipated theatrical release of A Brighter Summer Day (1991), the greatest film by the late Edward Yang, and therefore one of the greatest films ever made.
Kevin B. Lee is the editor of Keyframe. Follow him on Twitter.