The first half of 2011 is now behind us, and you know what that means…half-year lists! So here are my picks for the best films of the first half of 2011. Criteria – it had to be released in the US from January 1 through June 30, which means late 2010 releases that went wide in 2011 are not eligible, nor are festival releases I saw in 2011 that have not yet been released in theatres (i.e., most of that stuff at the LA Film Fest). Why do half-year lists? Well, firstly, because lists are fun. But also because film releases are usually stacked toward the end of the year, which means films released in the first half of the year, even really good ones, often get lost in the year-end shuffle. I didn’t limit it to a certain number of entries, just picked my top tier of favorites to write about, and then my second tier to list without writing about.
#6 – MEEK’S CUTOFF
Although Kelly Reichardt’s two previous films Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy are highly acclaimed, I have so far failed to catch up with either. When I heard she was doing a slow burn western with Michelle Williams (and an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood), I vowed I wouldn’t let it pass me by, and I’m glad I didn’t. I won’t say I loved the film, because it’s frankly a tough film to love. Slow burn doesn’t quite cover it; the film is mostly the agonizingly slow progress a small group of Oregon Trail pioneers makes across a near-wasteland, their trust in their guide Meek dwindling with every hard-won step. It’s not easy to watch, but it wasn’t easy to live, either, and the film captures that with a visceral intensity that belies its slow pace. Williams’ strong central performance grounds the film further, while an existential streak pulls the other direction, giving the film a metaphorical level and heightening the hell that surrounds our struggling pioneers.
#5 – RANGO
Apparently it takes a live-action director like Gore Verbinski (even sharper than he was in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie dipping his toes in the animation waters to get an amazing pop-culture pastiche like Rango – with somewhat abrasive and unusual character designs, a dryly witty script, and references to a boatload of movies from Chinatown to Apocalypse Now, there’s not much I didn’t like about Rango, which serves as an antidote to the cutesy, kidsy animated features that make up the majority of the landscape these days. Films that draw this much on cinematic history walk a fine line, as the references can easily come off unearned, but here, the very narrative of the identity-challenged gecko who takes on the persona of Rango, gunslinger extraordinaire, almost make it inevitable that he will build that persona out of iconic stories, and it all works perfectly. Crucially, it works whether you get the references or not, because it’s a well-written and well-made story on its own – realizing where the tropes and images come from is just icing on an already delicious cake.
#4 – JANE EYRE
My reaction on hearing that this film was in production was a) “another version of Jane Eyre” and b) “but wait, it’s directed by Sin Nombre director Cary Fukunaga and stars Michael Fassbender? Okay then.” And turns out the second reaction is more accurate, since this version of Jane Eyre betters all the other ones I’ve seen, really highlighting the gothic novel aspects while never losing sight of Jane, brought to life with a strong but subtle portrayal by Mia Wasikowski. This Jane is attractive, but not beautiful; she’s quiet, but not weak; and she’s both restrained and passionate as necessary. Fassbender brings a menace and a sadness to Rochester. This is also one of the first versions I’ve seen of the story that has a really strong sense of place, of being on the wild moors of northern England. For some reason most adaptations of Jane Eyre treat it as if it’s a Victorian novel, full of social niceties and straight-laced propriety, but this is a romantic gothic novel, with weirdness and madness all around the edges. This is the first time I’ve seen that in a film version, and it was breathtaking.
#3 – HANNA
When I heard Joe Wright was doing Hanna, I was a bit skeptical – I mean, his previous two films were both sumptuous period piece literary adaptations (Pride and Prejudice and Atonement). How would he handle an action film about a teenaged assassin? Answer: mighty well indeed. Hanna is a genre mashup of the best kind, mixing well-played long-take action with Run Lola Run style techno and James Bond espionage plots with the slow burn quality of more serious spy drama, with a thoughtful bit of coming of age drama as well. Saoirse Ronan is fantastic as the title character, and you’ll love to hate Cate Blanchett as her ice-cold nemesis.
#2 – CERTIFIED COPY
Technically a 2010 release in France, but it didn’t release at all in the US until 2011 (except festivals), so I’m counting it here. Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s first film outside his home country, set in the Europe of the arthouse cinema. Part philosophical treatise on the value of copies vs originals, as argued by art critic William Shimell and reader Juliette Binoche in the first half of the film, and half exploration of a marriage between the two which may or not be real – that is, it may be an original, or it may be a copy. In doing so, Kiarostami manages to comment on cinema, art, and life itself. It’s a very cerebral film, and one that took me some amount of time to warm to after seeing it, but it’s only been growing in my estimation since.
#1 – THE TREE OF LIFE
Terrence Malick’s newest film has been at the top of my most anticipated list, and while it’s gathered some mixed and even polarizing reactions from critics, it didn’t disappoint me a bit. He mixes the micro (one family in 1950s Texas, especially one specific summer from the point of view of the oldest son at age twelve) and the macro (the creation, evolution, and destruction of the entire universe), a concept that’s ambitious at the least, and for me at least, it ended up being an emotionally gripping and beautiful experience. Though it has a narrative in it, surrounding the twelve-year-old’s uneasy relationship with his dad, it really works on an associative, poetic level – pulling associations from the audience to make its illusive statements rather than laying it all out itself. But it’s clear that Malick has put his heart and soul into this film, and I was more than happy to go on the journey with him. Easily the best of the year so far for me.