Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, by Richard T. Jameson, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, lists

The Best of 2011 on MSN

MSN Movies published its annual Best of the Year poll this week, featuring Top Ten lists from thirteen MSN writers including a trio of Parallax View contributors: Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy and Sean Axmaker. The rest of the line-up isn’t too shabby either: Jim Emerson, Don Kaye, Glenn Kenny, Kim Morgan, Mary Pols, James Rocchi, Glenn Whipp and out editor, Dave McCoy.

'The Tree of Life'

It’s the first published Top Ten List from most of us (the individual lists are collected here and here) and deadlines being what they, they were made before at least some of us were able to see some of the most talked about releases set for release before the end of the year (to qualify for the Academy Awards). Given that, it turned out to be such a strong year that there was no shortage of films to vie for spots on the lists.

MSN’s gallery-style feature begins here with an introduction by Glenn Kenny and continues with essays on the top ten films by the contributing critics. Jim Emerson comments on the list on Scanners here and Glenn Kenny muses on the project at Some Came Running here, while Richard Jameson reflects on the ritual of lists at Straight Shooting here.

Here are clips from the individual essays (in my laziness, I’m borrowing the editorial acumen of Emerson’s feature on Scanners).

10. “Meek’s Cutoff” (Kelly Reichardt) by James Rocchi:

“This has the big vistas and open spaces of a classic Western, to be sure (it’s even shot in the pre-widescreen Western aspect ratio we know from John Ford films and a thousand other classics), but it also has a rare sense of time as an element of composition: You’re pulled into the rhythm of the trek, slow and steady and terrified.”

9. “Hugo” (Martin Scorsese) by Glenn Kenny:

“While this film is first and foremost a fairy tale, it is still at heart a quintessential Scorsese story of lonely people and the worlds they make for themselves. Only here the invented worlds, works of imagination, are benign, and actually end up reaching out to the other characters and bringing them together.”

'The Artist'

8. “The Artist” (Michel Hazanavicius) by Mary Pols:

“The film is a study of hubris and fear, but mostly, of the easy refuge found in artificiality, the very definition of most contemporary filmmaking. No scene stands out more than a series of takes from George’s silent ‘A German Affair,’ where he dances with Peppy. In one take they flirt, in another they giggle, and finally, as they try to be serious, something real blooms. George, undone, must leave the set….”

7. “A Dangerous Method” (David Cronenberg) by Kat Murphy:

“Do 2011’s end-of-days movies signal some collective anxiety? Electrified by energy and intelligence, David Cronenberg’s ‘A Dangerous Method’ also chronicles end-times, the halcyon era when Freud, Jung, et al., brought the unconscious to light even as the dark seeds of two world wars were germinating. ‘Method’ marks the rise of killer ideas; revolutionary theories skitter like hungry termites behind the film’s perfectly composed interiors and idyllic landscapes. There’s evident strain between civilized surfaces and the dangerous new work of defining madness. For Cronenberg, ideas aren’t dry abstractions; they’re as disturbingly alive, as wildly subversive as those phallic phages in ‘They Came From Within.'”

6. “Certified Copy” (Abbas Kiarostami) by Sean Axmaker:

“You could describe ‘Certified Copy,’ his first production made outside of the borders of Iran, as the cinematic equivalent of a Picasso cubist portrait, presenting multiple experiences along the timeline of a relationship in a single day. The breathtaking tectonic shift is all the more impressive by the subtlety and slyness of the transition, played out in long takes and the easy rhythms of Kiarostami’s heightened naturalism. He has a way of turning the details of his environment into evocative images: The river of sky reflecting across a car windshield illustrates the gulf between Binoche and Shimell, and a parade of hopeful young newlyweds and stooped old married couples continue their life story by proxy.”

5. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (Tomas Alfredson) by Richard T. Jameson:

“Early in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,’ veteran cold warrior and abruptly retired spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman, magnificent) stares across his sitting room at a painting. The screen is vast, the painting tiny; we can make out only a pattern of frames within frames, one of them as red as a wound. Director Tomas Alfredson ‘s credit appears over the shot, making it seem a mite insistent as an abstraction of impenetrably enigmatic John le Carr√© world and an assertion of stylistic principle. The movie often has us watching people watching through frames — windows, doorways, ironwork — and being themselves watched; sometimes they furtively cherish the mutual recognition. Yet Alfredson’s signature shot isn’t just a viewing instruction….”

'Uncle Boonmee'

4. “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) by Jim Emerson:

“The mythological terrain here is as personal to Apichatpong as ‘Tree of Life”s is to Terrence Malick. You might recognize characters (or names) from his earlier pictures (‘Tropical Malady,’ ‘Syndromes and a Century). And you can read about some of the how the film became (at some stage in its gestation) part of a larger multimedia installation/exhibition called Primitive; or how he envisioned it as a six-reel film shot in six different styles (from Thai horror movie to European art film), but all that is really incidental to the experience you have while watching and interpreting the film yourself. While it unfolds before you, it is, to borrow the title of another Apichatpong movie, blissfully yours.”

3. “The Descendants” (Alexander Payne) by Don Kaye:

“A number of major movies this year were about looking into the past and attempting to find some sort of solace or meaning there, creatively, personally or otherwise. But as Woody Allen revealed in his ‘Midnight in Paris,’ our view of the past is often distorted by our own desires, and things weren’t truly any better then than they are now. That’s why there’s not a whole lot of emotional truth in a simple homage. But there’s a ton of it in ‘The Descendants,’ which is ultimately about taking one’s eyes off the rearview mirror and peering into the future.”

2. “The Tree of Life” (Terrence Malick) by Glenn Whipp:

“There’s beauty, poetry, tyranny, death. There’s the birth of the universe. There are dinosaurs! Why dinosaurs? Short answer: (Again) Why not? Long answer: Perhaps Malick is reminding us that the creatures that once held dominion over the Earth no longer exist. Could the same fate befall their successors? Or maybe that little moment of grace where the big lizard spares its sickly cousin shows a way of avoiding that destiny. Again, it’s all about the questions, and Malick gives you enough to chew on here that you could return repeatedly to ‘Tree’ for years to come, knowing (and savoring) that your experience will be different each time you watch it.”

1. “Melancholia” (Lars Von Trier) by Kim Morgan:

“Von Trier, a sufferer himself, sincerely understands depression (just as he understood anxiety in ‘Antichrist’), which may be why he maddens many. Weaving himself into his characters, he’s sadistic, masochist, empathetic, self-obsessed, morbid and morbidly funny and then honest and honestly confused. With ‘Melancholia’ he grants depressives a gift….”