My Top Ten Cinematic Experiences of 2011

It’s list time. I voted in the 2011 IndieWire poll, but that list is only for films that were “released” in 2011, so films that I saw in 2010 (for example, Cristi Puiu’s amazing Aurora or Mike Mills’ Beginners) are included there whereas several films that I saw this year that are coming to screens in 2012 were ineligible. It’s the same problem every year, so every year I create this list of my favorite film “experiences,” a list which includes not only films, but personal moments and obsessions that may orbit cinematic culture but which were a big part of my own thinking. You could cut the subjectivity of this list with a cheese knife so, knowing all of the caveats, let’s get on with it.

10. Rampart At The Toronto Film Festival

Rampart

This year saw the launch of a new phase in my professional life; for the first time ever, I was invited to rough cut screenings of films to give feedback. It was, by far, the most rewarding screening experience of the year. I was allowed to use my role as a viewer to think about films in a few way, not just analyzing what they are, but also thinking about what they might still be, which is incredibly exciting. I took the responsibility very seriously and did my best. The first of these screenings was for Oren Moverman’s Rampart, which inspired me on so many levels. having seen that cut and then being on hand to see the final cut at Toronto was incredibly rewarding, like seeing a chiseled stone of a film become a full fledged sculpture. That the film itself is one of the best performance vehicles of the year is a testament to Oren Moverman’s skill and generosity and Woody Harrelson’s gifts, but having seen and given my thoughts on this film was a very encouraging process, allowing me the confidence to attend later screenings and support the work of artists I admire.

9. Tuesday, After Christmas on a DVD screener

Tuesday After Christmas

There are moments that galvanize you as a film programmer, and one of them is being handed a screener by a colleague and being told that you will “love” a film. Suddenly, things are put on the line; will I really love it? What does it mean about my relationship with my colleague if I don’t respond? In this instance, my trust was validated; from the first shot of a naked couple lying on a bed, I was absolutely smitten with Tuesday, After Christmas, a terribly under-seen relationship drama from Romanian director Radu Muntean. I type a variation on the following sentence every year, but it remains invariably true; the Romanian National Center for Cinematography is probably the greatest cinematic institution in the world right now, generating more great films and filmmakers per capita (and in less than ideal circumstances) than anywhere else. Tuesday, After Christmas is a scalding movie, featuring one of the great scenes of the year; a breathtaking, heartbreaking fifteen minute tour de force between a husband and wife that reconfigures the entire film. This film is available now on Netflix; don’t miss it.

8. Take Shelter</b and Martha Marcy May Marlene at Sundance

Take Shelter

I love Sundance. I love the snow, I love the altitude, I love peeing every five minutes, I love the Press & Industry venues, I love catching up with colleagues, I love the early mornings and the late nights. It is a great film festival, primarily because, of all of the festivals in the USA, it bears the heaviest burden for discovering new talent. Sundance will never be my favorite festival, mostly because it can’t compete with the quality of selections in a “best of” festival like New York or the fact that it has a different mission (and far bigger program) than the international auteur focus of Cannes, but the ratio of good to bad is incredible considering how much brand new work is on display. And no festival anywhere launches a wider variety of good movies, including documentary and micro-budget cinema, than Sundance. It remains one of two festivals in the USA (the other being SXSW, which I never can attend due to its proximity to my own event) that truly takes massive risks in what it chooses to feature. 2011 featured a lot of good work, but two films remain stuck in my mind; Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter and Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, two American independent films that blew the doors off of most of what the studio system could muster. If this were the 1970’s, Sean and Jeff would be rolling up their sleeves on their studio debuts right now. Instead, it is 2012 and, after the modest commercial appeal of both films, who knows. I expect both filmmakers to continue to do great things in the coming years, but how is it that both of these movies were not a part of the national conversation?

7. The Tree Of Life at BAM

This makes the list not just because I loved Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life , but because seeing it in a packed public screening on a Saturday night in the biggest theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is about as close to an ideal screening situation as you can get. The movie more than delivered, but so did the feeling of communion in the room, the solidarity among the audience that this film was an event to be taken seriously, to be discussed and debated, a movie worthy of collective focus. You could have heard a pin drop in that theater; no cell phones were on, no one was Tweeting or texting, barely a whisper between people. It was really beautiful to me. My favorite film critic Kent Jones once wrote something along the lines of stating that the difference between film critics and non-professional film writers and bloggers is that, often, the amateurs conflate the experience of going to movies with the movies themselves, and in my case, he’s 100% right. I can’t help but be swayed by the magic of the movie theater and this experience was, for me, one of the best public screenings ever. People with their prejudices can cry “hipster” all they want , but this was Brooklyn all the way. It felt like home, like being alive in the right place at the right time.

6. ALPS at The Toronto Film Festival

This is an interesting choice for me, not because I didn’t absolutely love this film, which I did, but because the screening itself was a relatively unremarkable experience for me at the Toronto Film Festival. For some reason, coming off of a lot of attention at Venice and given the relative popularity of director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous film Dogtooth, Toronto scheduled the industry screening of ALPS in a relatively small theater, causing the annual bout of shouting and shoving among those not able to make it in. It happens every year at the weirdest films; I remember the absolute frenzy among an industry crowd trying to get in to Lucas Moodyson’s A Hole In My Heart which, in retrospect, is crazy. Anyway, I made it in, barely; squeezed in near the front, but happy as a clam.

The film itself was one of my favorite of the year and, as is the case with my own Sarasota Film Festival, there is a perverse pleasure to be taken from seeing a film like ALPS in a multiplex environment; big screen, terrific sound, stadium seating. I was at Toronto on my first Press pass, and I wrote about the film for my now more frequent home, Hammer To Nail. There, I wrote:

“If Dogtooth is anything, it is a literalization of familial role playing, of the hierarchies and power at play in our foundational social unit; the film is no more absurd or perverse in exposing our faith in the family than our general adherence to that faith itself. But where Dogtooth drafted its formal boundaries around an isolated family compound, Lanthimos’ new film ALPS redraws the lines, circumscribing the social response to death and loss as another game of self-denial and role-playing.”

Can’t get enough of that.

5. The Turin Horse, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and A Separation At The New York Film Festival

This year’s New York Film Festival, to be clear, my favorite film festival, featured not one, not two, but three stone cold masterpieces that essentially defined my year. Of the three, only Asghar Farhadi’s tormented family drama A Separation saw a release in 2011 (on the penultimate day of the year, no less.) 2012 will see the release of both Bela Tarr’s incredible The Turin Horse and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s brilliant Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, both from the good people at The Cinema Guild. All three of these films, viewed in the ideal environment at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, took me to the heights that only great cinema can deliver. I wrote about Tarr and Ceylan’s films already, but the blog migration has not helped things. I will re-post those pieces here asap. In the meantime…

On The Turin Horse:

“…a statement on the suffering of others that is at once as profoundly moving as it is formally rigorous. And although the film does feature a horse, a beautiful animal whose vulnerable physicality dominates every scene in which it appears, the anecdote that begins the film may not necessarily relate to the animal alone, but to the human beings who, in concert with the horse, suffer at the hands of a relentlessly unforgiving universe. This is a movie that openly grieves for the state of the world…”

On Once Upon A Time In Anatolia:

“Like the filthy glass of the opening shot, the men who populate Ceylan’s latest film are external surfaces betrayed by the complexity that escapes from within them, unconsciously and with tremendous force. Masculinity has always been a crucial subject for Ceylan; from the impossibility of male communication in Distant, to the callous, violent sexual vanity on display in Climates, to the corruption of the individual by his duty that sets the fates in motion in Three Monkeys, Ceylan has always understood the emasculating brutality of power and the impact it has on the lives of men who desire and feel bound to its tropes.”

More on all of these soon, but incredible films all.

4. Netflix

NFLX

Nothing inspired both pleasure and derision in equal measure as did my experience with Netflix. On the one hand, as a loyal customer of their Blu-ray and Streaming, I fell in love with the integrated streaming service on my PlayStation 3. I found so many great films on there, suddenly available in incredibly high quality HD streams, that i could not keep up. Couple that with a steady stream of “get to them when I can” DVDs, and I had more film viewing at my finger tips than I could ever hope to complete. Netflix is an incredible service, one to which I am happy to subscribe, a service to which I hope to stay loyal for years to come.

And then there was the company’s disastrous decision to change its pricing structure, which alienated a huge swath of the customer base, followed by an even worse decision to separate the streaming and DVD functions into two websites that would not integrate user data. The launch and near-immediate demise of Qwikster remains one of the worst ideas in the history of the internet age, and it cost the company dearly, sending Netflix stock into a downward spiral that propelled it from a high of $293.73 at the close of the market on July 13 to a low of $63.86 on November 11, a loss of $230 a share. The stock has only recovered roughly $5 since.

In July, I was kicking myself for not buying shares in the company, but by September 15th, when the stock took a huge nosedive, I was kicking myself for not shorting it. Watching Netflix lose billions of dollars in market capitalization was not pleasurable, especially since I assume it will limit the ability of the service to deliver its best to customers like me. Still, I couldn’t help but almost take secret delight in the fact that such terrible corporate decisions came home to roost in a meaningful way. May all content providers learn the lesson of Netflix in 2011; the customer experience is king and if your internal strategy doesn’t serve to make it better, you’re going to bear a heavy cost.

3. The Color Wheel on a DVD screener

The Color Wheel

Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel was one of my favorite movies of the year, a pure moment of discovery that will go down as one of the best programming experiences I’ll likely have. Discretion prevents me from telling the full story of how it came to be that the DVD screener for this film, which languished in my programming pile as I wormed my way toward it over the course of several weeks, finally found its way into my laptop and how, after watching the film, I sent a frantic email to Perry declaring my unconditional love for the movie and how, given how good it was and where my own Sarasota Film Festival falls on the calendar, we ended up World Premiering the film at Sarasota (which is incredibly rare for us), but needless to say I’ve never been luckier to find a movie in my life than I was when I got that screener of The Color Wheel. You live for moments like this as a programmer and this year, I got mine. Contentment.


The closing credits of The Color Wheel feature this lovely number… enjoy!

2. Margaret at The Fox Screening Room

Margaret

No movie blew me out of my seat like Margaret. I don’t admire it because of the film’s now legendary problems in post-production, the lawsuits and recriminations that followed, the almost invisible theatrical release it received, the online campaign among admirers, know as Team Margaret, to get the film back in theaters. I am not looking for wounded, precious films to love. I love Margaret because, even in its imperfect form (I’ve read the screenplay, which features even more complexity and depth), it is the apex of American film this year. Yes, it’s been setting on an Avid for a few years as the machinations of the film business failed to sort themselves out, but given how alive it still feels all these years later only confirms its mastery. It is a messy film, full of problems, but even at its most problematic, it retains a humanism and a depth of feeling and meaning in tune with its structure that is transcendent. No one in American film is making movies like this anymore. I give all credit to Kenneth Lonergan for battling for his vision and, having had a look at the 180+ page script, it is clear to me that, as a friend said “it’s all on the page… he knew exactly what he was doing.”

Which brings me to my all-time pet peeve, this contractual and cultural obsession with the run times of films. The main issue behind Margaret’s relative invisibility and its essential demise at the box office is the battle over Lonergan’s inability to turn in a cut under three hours. Meanwhile, film after film comes into theaters well over two and a half hours, none of them as alive from moment to moment as the incomplete Margaret. Squeezing in four instead of three shows a day makes commercial sense, but four vs three of what? Who would look at Lonergan’s script and think about cutting it down? Do the scenes on the cutting room floor simply not work? To my eyes, they seem vital to the story being told. The length of a movie is irrelevant to everything but its maximum commercial delivery; I land on the side of the story, of the film, of making what you clearly set out to make. Margaret is not only a case of what gloriously is, but what mind-blowingly might have been. I hope to one day see it in its intended glory, tucked into my couch with all the time in the world to take it in.

1. Christopher Plummer and David Edelstein In Conversation at The Sarasota Film Festival

If you look up the word “panache” in the dictionary, you will not find a picture of Christopher Plummer, but by all accounts, you should. I have never met anyone more comfortable in their own skin, more aware of their own presence in the room, more generous and wise about the business of acting. At the Sarasota Film Festival this year, we hosted a conversation with Plummer, moderated by David Edelstein, in celebration of our Tribute to Plummer and our Closing Night Film Beginners. David took the opportunity and ran with it, conducting a sprawling 90 minute discussion with Plummer that covered almost every phase of his career. To watch David’s deep knowledge go toe-to-toe with Plummer’s amazing storytelling ability was the highlight of my year. The conversation was so good, the whole thing was licensed by BBC America, who made it a stand-alone bonus DVD on their release of Plummer’s long-unseen Hamlet At Elsinore, the restoration of which we premiered at the festival (it’s great!). Grab a copy of that disc and see if the conversation between Plummer and Edelstein doesn’t stack up against any you’ve ever seen.

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