The New York Times
By Stephen Holden
Dec. 14, 2011
IT was the season of apocalypse. Whether your idea of the end is reconciliatory (a family reunion on a misty far shore in “The Tree of Life”) or punishing — the collision of Earth with another planet in “Melancholia”; extinction in a metaphysical tornado in “Take Shelter” — 2011 was the year of brooding cosmic consciousness in serious films. Even the mystical “Tree of Life” is shadowed with the notion of a fearsome, authoritarian God.
Movies, of course, have always flirted with disaster, but usually with a playful attitude. Remember the days of “shake and bake”? (The nickname applied to “Earthquake” and “The Towering Inferno,” which appeared back to back in 1974.) Science fiction has had no dearth of end-of-the-world fantasies, but in Hollywood most have been packaged as roller-coaster thrills for audiences who feel safe; heroes gallop in to save the day.
This year was different. The impulse of movies to think big and dark was probably spurred by the global financial crisis and the continuing recession, which have eroded a fundamental sense of material security and allowed a premonition of impending chaos to spread. That sense of insecurity coincides with movies like “Margin Call,” “Moneyball” and “The Descendants,” all of which address money with a hardheaded realism.
This eschatological mood seems the natural outgrowth of the “we’re all connected” school of movies like “Crash” and “Babel” several years ago that anticipated the hyperconnectivity of the new social media. But it is one short step from “we’re all connected” to Tom Lehrer’s grimly jolly fantasy of nuclear annihilation, “We Will All Go Together When We Go.” Back in 1959, when the song was written, we assumed our little nest eggs were secure. You couldn’t take it with you, but at least it was there.
These are my Top 10 movies of 2011:
1. ‘THE DESCENDANTS’ In Alexander Payne’s second-best movie (after “Election”) George Clooney gives his most complex and compelling screen performance (he even weeps) as Matt King, a wealthy Hawaiian landowner who learns of his wife’s infidelity while she is on life support after a boating accident. With his two daughters in tow he travels from Oahu to Kauai to confront her lover, a married, high-flying real estate broker.
The movie, adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is rich with Hawaiian lore as Matt argues with his relatives over whether or not to sell his family’s valuable coastal property. A pitch-perfect study of middle-aged male angst and family conflict, with some sharp comic moments, “The Descendants” is one of the most adult American films ever made about love, money, betrayal and the ties that should bind but sometimes don’t.
2. ‘OF GODS AND MEN’ The wrenching French film, directed by Xavier Beauvois, is based on a true story of the life-and-death choices facing a group of French Cistercian Trappist monks in Algeria in the 1990s after a massacre of foreign workers by Islamic militants. Should they leave their monastery or stay and face almost certain death, despite their good works and strong ties to the townspeople? This study of the courage and faith that sustains a band of brothers who have renounced all worldly aspirations culminates with an indelible scene of the monks sharing a last supper to the strains of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” It is spiritually transcendent.
3. ‘THE TREE OF LIFE’ The core of a film that asks big questions about God, creation and the afterlife is its eerily accurate evocation of 1950s boyhood in the American heartland. Brad Pitt (wonderful) is a loving but sternly moral patriarch who rules his Waco, Tex., family as if he were God’s enforcer. The movie, unwittingly or not, is a troubling meditation on the weight of patriarchal tradition and its negative effect on children. Nobody could accuse its director, Terrence Malick, of having a sense of humor. But once you settle into its mood of uninterrupted solemnity, deepened by an eclectic classical score, it makes you ponder the ineffable.
4. ‘MARGIN CALL’ In J. C. Chandor’s taut, concise corporate thriller, inspired by the fall of Lehman Brothers, a stock analyst discovers information that could destroy the company if it doesn’t act immediately and dump billions of dollars in toxic assets. This devastating portrait of greed, panic and malfeasance in high places has the strongest performances in years by Jeremy Irons and Kevin Spacey. It offers a grim picture of the ruthless pecking order at an investment bank whose leaders don’t understand the destructive financial instruments they wield with a callous disregard for everyone but themselves.
5. ‘MELANCHOLIA’ In the Danish trickster Lars von Trier’s dual study of clinical depression and the end of the world as a hidden planet named Melancholia threatens to collide with Earth, Kirsten Dunst rises to the role of a deeply troubled young woman stoically facing the end. “Melancholia” is really two films very loosely connected by the title and its double meanings. The first part portrays her disastrous wedding reception; the cinematically ravishing second part puts it in despairing cosmic perspective. The majestic soundtrack for the apocalypse is the Prelude and Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde.”
6. ‘WE WERE HERE’ Although its story is unbearably sad, David Weissman’s documentary history of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco told through the experiences of several caregivers is an inspiring communal portrait of selfless human beings who chose to face the fire rather than run away and hide. Devoid of sentimentality and self-congratulation, it is a powerful reminder that unsung everyday heroes are everywhere.
7. ‘INCENDIES’ In Denis Villeneuve’s harrowing drama adapted from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, a notary gives a twin brother and sister, whose mother (the remarkable Lubna Azabal) has died, two envelopes with instructions to deliver them to their father, whom they had presumed dead, and a brother they didn’t know existed. Interweaving scenes of their mother’s hidden story of survival in an unnamed war-torn country that resembles Lebanon, the movie has the inexorable momentum of a Greek tragedy and culminates with a shattering revelation.
8. ‘A DANGEROUS METHOD’ David Cronenberg’s portrayal of the rivalrous friendship of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) is a thoughtful film of ideas clearly articulated, with a frisson of kinkiness involving their mutual patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), with whom Jung (in the movie) had an affair. Even if Mr. Mortensen’s Freud is nothing like the father of psychoanalysis — who would know? — it is dramatically persuasive.
9. ‘CERTIFIED COPY’ The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s first feature made outside Iran follows a middle-aged man and woman (William Shimell and Juliette Binoche) as they drive through Tuscany while discussing artistic authenticity and pondering the notion of the value of a copy versus an original. Then it applies the same concept to their relationship. Have they just met, or are they married and pretending to be strangers? The movie is a brainteaser worthy of Michelangelo Antonioni.
10. ‘MONEYBALL’ A sports movie for our time, this adaptation of Michael Lewis’s nonfiction best seller about the Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), who drafted major league baseball players using a computer, is mercifully free of macho sentimentality and home runs that solve everything. Although its insider’s perspective is at times intimidating, it offers a starkly accurate portrait of baseball as a big business in the age of big money.