electricsheep

Best Films of 2011

Black Swan

Electric Sheep writers review the best films of 2011.

Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Take Shelter is Michael Shannon‘s second collaboration with Jeff Nichols since the director’s acclaimed 2007 debut Shotgun Stories. Shannon plays the troubled construction worker Curtis LaForche, a loving husband and father, who slowly loses touch with reality as he becomes haunted by nightmares and apocalyptic visions about a fatal cyclone whose exceptional strength causes devastation on an unprecedented scale. Being the son of a paranoid-schizophrenic mother, Curtis decides to seek the help of a doctor, but as the hallucinations grow, he scraps the advised psychological treatment and instead takes out a risky bank loan to rebuild and fully equip the shabby storm shelter in the family’s garden. Shannon makes the story work, with support from an equally convincing Jessica Chastain as the caring wife who is desperate to understand her husband, while Nichols’s remarkably assured directing style creates a deep sense of unease about an unsettling near-future, in the vein of Todd Haynes’s Safe. Shot with a careful eye for colour, light and framing, and refined with an array of stylish visual effects, the film impresses most in the way Nichols manages to keep the tension at a nerve-racking level in a film that deliberately refuses to give much space to hope and optimism. Pamela Jahn

Essential Killing (Jerzy Skolimowsky, 2010)

Sparse and economical, Essential Killing is a stripped-down, existential tale of pure survival in which Vincent Gallo is an unnamed (possibly Afghan or Iraqi) fighter, taken prisoner and flown to an alien country; confronted with well-equipped pursuers and a spectacular, but hostile nature, he becomes increasingly animal-like. Despite the initial, politically charged prison scenes, legendary Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski is not interested in making specific political points, but rather in presenting a universally resonant story. Gallo gives an extraordinarily intense performance and his astonishing emotional involvement in the character keeps the audience firmly on his side as extreme circumstances force him to commit increasingly desperate and brutal acts. Poetic, savage and beautifully expressive visually, Essential Killing is an exceptionally rich and powerful cinematographic experience that should not be missed. Virginie Sélavy

Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2010)

Two women stand against a white wall, their tongues intertwined but their bodies stiff as they stand as far apart from each other as possible. It’s perhaps one of the least erotic kisses seen on screen. Twenty-three-year-old Marina has never kissed a man before; she lives in a modernist, failed workers’ utopia that still houses a factory but few inhabitants. Living alone with her father, a disillusioned architect who is terminally ill, she sees life through the prism of Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries, the human species as animal; her relationship with her only friend, the much more experienced Bella, is primitive, physical. Athina Rachel Tsangari‘s film is a beautifully observed, often playful, study of one woman’s alienation; Marina, awkward, naí¯ve, contemptuous, slowly learns that she needs more than just her father and Bella. It’s a refreshing and unsentimental film about sex, relationships and death. Aesthetically, the film mixes elements of the nouvelle vague with touches of performance art, plus a terrific soundtrack (Suicide is Marina’s favourite band). There’s real beauty in the shots of the empty town and factory and the clean, crisp modernist spaces inhabited by the actors. Sarah Cronin

Post Mortem (Pablo Larraín, 2010)

This third feature film from young Chilean director Pablo Larraín revisits the 1970s Santiago of Tony Manero (2007), his story of a Saturday Night Fever-obsessed loner, but sets the scene some years earlier, in the midst of the 1973 military coup that installed Augusto Pinochet as the country’s leader. Larraín’s stylistic restraint in Post Mortem is entirely appropriate, creating an atmosphere of quiet horror and incipient crisis, and reflecting the morbid, flat world of his new protagonist. Mario (Alfredo Castro), who describes himself as a ‘functionary’, is surrounded by death: his job is to type up autopsy reports at the local morgue. His neighbour, Nancy (Antonia Zegers), is a cabaret dancer with whom he develops a sexual obsession that turns into a vague affair. In the background of this, far from the screen, the momentous events of a revolution are occurring. The only criticism of Larraí­n’s confident and brutal minimalism might be that it’s hard to see where he could go next with this subject matter, and perhaps with this cast and crew; but I will be watching whatever he and Alfredo Castro do next, however harsh. Frances Morgan

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

Released in the UK in January after a striking festival run in 2010, Darren Aronofsky‘s Black Swan remained one of the most exciting films to come out this year. A dizzying, intoxicating dark tale of passion, obsession and jealousy, the film follows young ballet dancer Nina (Nathalie Portman) who becomes dangerously caught up in her aspiration for perfection when she is offered the difficult dual part of the Swan Queen in the company’s new production of the classical ballet. During rehearsals, Nina performs a technically perfect White Swan but consistently fails to deliver an equally convincing Black Swan breathing sex appeal and malevolence. Pushed by her impresario Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), her narcissistic former dancer mother and Lily (Mila Kunis), the feisty new arrival in the company and potential rival, Nina becomes increasingly embroiled into a maze of delusion, lust and violence until fantasy and reality collide in the film’s formidable last act. Blurring the line between the supernatural and the psychological with touches of horror, Aronofsky pulls off some astonishing visual twists in a glorious melodrama that might bring nothing new to the table but certainly makes for a thrilling ride. Pamela Jahn

Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, 2010)

When Mija, played with ornate naturalism by veteran actress Yun Jung-hee, is informed that her grandson was involved in a gang rape that led to the suicide of a high-school girl her expression shows little visible change. She proceeds with her daily routine, attending to her daycare service for an elderly disabled man, and continuing to feed the teenage boy as part of her maternal obligations. Hints of forgetfulness lead to her discovery that she has developed Alzheimer’s, yet she carries on with her life as if little had changed. Rather than descending into sentiment, director Lee Chang-dong chooses to depict trauma by slowly filtering the emotions in a process that denies grandiose gestures. Together with Mija, the film searches for the beauty of life to translate into poetry, yet struggles to direct its lens away from the indecent behaviour that surrounds and continually interrupts its quest. Ultimately, Mija’s failures as a poet are more than compensated for by Lee’s camera and its ability to capture the complexities of its subject. Her quiet gestures, gentle gaze and tender pose transform themselves into stanzas as they rhyme with Lee’s cinema. Julian Ross

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Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)

A dysfunctional upper-class family gathered for the lavish but excruciating stately-home wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), organised by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), awaits and then experiences the end of the world, courtesy of a rogue planet (the Melancholia of the title) that collides with Earth. In the way that von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) co-opted aspects of the horror genre, Melancholia nods to disaster movies. The film’s take on the End Times is in line with Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice (1986) or Doris Lessing’s lengthy novel, The Four-Gated City, in that it’s not the approaching disaster itself that’s the point, but how a small group of individuals anticipate, discuss and respond to it. Opinions on whether the classy cast succeed in transcending some of the plot’s holes and clunky dialogue will be as polarised as those concerning the monumental music and visionary opening scenes. But this is not supposed to be an attractive film, despite the beautiful country house setting and elegant actors; and von Trier’s suggestion that the idea of being crushed by an alien land mass might actually seem preferable to being suffocated by your family and destroyed by your own psyche rings with a certain bleak sincerity - even if it is, in fact, the awful false logic of depression. Frances Morgan

Confessions

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)

Werner Herzog has been making documentaries almost his whole career. His approach is that of a man following his own obsessions, his own line of thought. He is the opposite of the parochial, petit bourgeois smugness of a Michael Palin, who doesn’t seem happy unless comparing Timbuktu/an Afghanistan opium market/a Vietnamese wedding to Saturday afternoon on Clapham High Street. Having said that, Herzog’s The Flying Doctors of East Africa (1969) does have a Palinesque fascination with the foreign only in so much as it reflects on the normal. Of late, Herzog has sought out obsession obsessively: White Diamond, Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World are all brilliant in their portrayals of a mad engagement with the world to match Herzog’s own. Cave of Forgotten Dreams includes a similar cast of oddball scientist - Herzog can barely contain his delight on hearing one of the scientist was a circus performer - but it is the place, a unique archaeological site containing the oldest cave art, that is the star. Despite his fun with the scientists (openly scoffing at one boffin’s inability to throw a spear), Herzog is seriously fascinated with the paintings, and his breathless enthusiasm and the patient unveiling of the cave’s wonders create a hypnotic meditation on life and art. The time scales are enormous, tens of thousands of years, and yet, despite this, Herzog manages to convey a sense of both humanity and continuity, arguing persuasively that his own activity as a filmmaker is analogous to the cave painters’ art, crooked little fingers and all. John Bleasdale

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

This intriguing social drama by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi attracted many awards this year, including Berlin’s Golden Bear for best film and Silver Bears for its ensemble cast. Powerful, convincing performances are essential to the film’s dramatic tension, which starts with middle-class couple Nader and Simin arguing over a divorce. Marital discord is just the beginning. When Simin moves out, Nader needs someone to look after his elderly father. He hires Razieh, a woman from a poor family, and before long, they are making grave mutual accusations of theft, violence and neglect. The film’s surprising shifts in perspective make for a thoroughly engaging experience. Each character has his or her own version of events, but as a spectator you believe that you have a fairly clear sense of what really happened. This impression of omniscience falls apart as the film gradually reveals facts that the characters would prefer to keep secret. A Separation is also notable for its portrait of contemporary Iran: while highlighting stark differences in lifestyle and worldview between bourgeois and proletarian families, the film shows that both groups are vulnerable to the country’s arbitrary judicial system. Alison Frank

Confessions (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2010)

If there was an award for the best opening sequence it would unarguably go to Tetsuya Nakashima for the mesmerising, if not comfortable, first-act monologue in which teacher Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) tells her unruly class on the last day of term that she won’t be returning after the holidays as she believes that the murderers of her four-year-old daughter - whom she refers to as student A and student B - are in the room and that she, knowing that the law won’t help her, has subtly and unobtrusively taken revenge. Adapted from the debut novel by Kanae Minato, Nakashima’s refined, bleakly ironic, yet deeply unsettling thriller is more than just another coming-of-age schoolyard bullying horror tale about the troubled Japanese youth. With wonderfully natural performances and remaining faithful to a script that plays with deft pacing while keeping a perfect balance between hypnotic tension and surprising plot twists, Confessions is an unexpected emotional tour de force that keeps you petrified in your seat from the very moment teacher Yuko begins her lesson in revenge. Pamela Jahn

Red White and Blue (Simon Rumley, 2010)

Erica likes to fuck and run. She doesn’t fall in love and she doesn’t ‘do friends’. But when the dangerous-looking, craggy-faced Nate moves into the same lodging house, some sort of relationship develops between them. Soon, however, the dysfunctional tenderness that unites them is disrupted by the re-appearance of a former lover of Erica’s, who brings bad news. Unflinchingly gruesome in parts, yet sensitively, elliptically, edited, Red White & Blue has fully rounded characters who, although capable of the most terrible acts, are neither good nor evil, but always achingly human. Director Simon Rumley has crafted an original take on the serial killer genre that flirts with horror but subverts the rules to create a deeply affecting twisted romance. Virginie Sélavy

Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino,2010)

On paper, a virtually dialogue-free art-house movie set in and around a mountain village in Italy, which unfolds at a snail’s pace and focuses on an elderly, dying goat shepherd, a lost kid and a fir tree, might sound like one to avoid for all but the hardiest of cineastes. For my money though, Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times) is one of the year’s finest movies, charming, delicate and subtly transcendent. Frammartino’s visually poetic docu-essay, advertised by perhaps the year’s most beguiling promo poster - a memorable image of a goat on a table - seduces the viewer with its gently undulating rhythm, flashes of slapstick humour and understated approach to its dominant themes; the cycle of life, inter-connectedness, rituals, communities and time. Frammartino tackles these weighty and complex concerns in a deftly simplistic manner that exudes a quietly reverential understanding of the symbiotic nature between humankind and the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms. The relentless cycle of death and rebirth, collapse and rejuvenation, is poignantly threaded throughout Le Quattro Volte, from the shepherd’s death, via the kid’s separation from the herd to the preparation of the charcoal after the fir tree is felled. A contemplative, yet accessible examination of ‘big’ ideas. Neil Mitchell

Las acacias (Pablo Giorgelli, 2011)

This quiet little film is about a mother and her baby who get picked up and driven in a truck the 1,5000 miles from Asuncií³n, Paraguay, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Filmed mostly in the constricted space of the cab of the truck, these two strangers lives slowly open up. It is a spare, affecting and exemplary model of slow cinema and proves that layers of non-diegetic (or indeed diegetic) sound need not be employed to aid the viewer in ‘getting’ the story. The film won best new director and film awards at Cannes, Oslo, Mumbai, San Sebastian and London FF. Patience will pay off with this one. James B. Evans

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2 Comments

  1. I have a question. Is this List a ranking list? or no ranking?

  2. The films are not ranked, the order in which they appear doesn’t mean anything. They were chosen by Electric Sheep writers for a variety of reasons so it would have been difficult to rank them. They are simply the films we found the most interesting this year.