The Screening of Life

Ten films that made 2011 one for the ages

Dec 28, 2011 at 8:48 am



ave to let you in on a little secret that helps me to define just how special a year in film has been. If a narrative or thematic thread emerges, in particular one that laces through the films that end up earning the top spots on my Top 10, then I have to rank the year in question as one of the greats. This year’s top one-two punch (which impossibly encompass the end and the beginning of life on the planet) puts 2011 up alongside 2002 (with Solaris and Punch Drunk Love) and 2007 (There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men) to claim its place as one for the ages.




At the center of this Lars von Trier affair sits the willful Justine (Kirsten Dunst). It is her wedding and so she believes the day is hers to destroy. She is the unhinged fury who must obliterate everything — that is her duty, her burden, her very destiny — and Dunst lets us see the effort. She knows the end — of life itself — is near and rather than merely accepting the fact she (through this character) shows us how powerful one can feel in the grip of such knowledge.


The Tree of Life

The film starts off with a bit of Scripture (Job 38:4, 7), which asks, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Where were we, indeed. That is the question that Terrence Malick’s latest, The Tree of Life, dares to pose and, better still, seeks to answer, but neither the question nor the answer matter much in the overall scheme of things. The effort is the point and purpose of the exercise, the meaning of life itself.


The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher, coming off the success of The Social Network and with a filmography that includes Seven, Panic Room and Zodiac, was the only choice with any real hope of etching another message in the pitch-black worth reading. What are the Vangers, if not a family that could have given birth to Spacey’s John Doe from Seven? And how about the futile investigation into the broken strands pursued in the real-life hunt for the Zodiac killer, where one break, one needle in a haystack, is all that separates that case from the atrocious discoveries in Dragon Tattoo?


The Descendants

Matt King (George Clooney) is a descendant of Alexander Payne’s richly put-upon leading men. Like Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) in Election, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) in About Schmidt and Miles (Paul Giamatti) in Sideways, King finds himself beset by the inevitable struggles of life. The Descendants benefits from time, coming seven years after Sideways, a period during which Payne also grappled with his own set of challenging circumstances (divorce, health, etc.) and came out the other side a different man, one more aware of his intrinsic humanity.


Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris is a love letter to the city at night and nostalgia for bygone days but it realizes, even as it celebrates these elements, that there is a trap in falling for the romance and old-fashioned romantic notions. Nostalgia, Woody Allen tells us, is denial of the present, the harsh realities, the swift movement forward that actually obliterates the now and seeks to erase everything that has come before.


A Separation


Marriage is a convenience that has become boringly inconvenient, to be dissolved, annuled or broken for differences we sometimes imagine in order to wash our hands and walk away. Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi presents a world and culture in A Separation where a married couple separates over questions about moving to provide a better life for their daughter or staying to support a father slipping deeper into the dementia. Every moment feels like an all-too real indictment of our moral laziness.


Martha Marcy May Marlene


Martha Marcy May Marlene, as an experience, is about watching Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) attempt to hold her breath underwater. How long can she last before she breaks the surface and replenishes her oxygen-depleted lungs? After taking that last gulp of air, Olsen sinks, as if tied to a great weight, but she doesn’t struggle or waste that breath. She watches each moment pass; this is her life flashing before her and she doesn’t miss a second. It could be viewed as a passive effort, but she trains us, reorienting the audience to how difficult it can be to find one’s true self.



This film is, first and foremost, not for children. To be perfectly honest, Hugo probably isn’t suitable for contemporary adult audiences. With Hugo, Scorcese completely indulged his inner child, the wildly imaginative free spirit in love with the dawn of the age of moving pictures and that initial time of wonder and magic when children and adults found themselves ensorceled by the spells and tricks of showmen like George Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who dreamed of life under the sea and rocketships blasting off and landing in the eye of the man on the moon.


Young Adult

There’s really nothing to love about Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) at all. And that’s what makes her so damned special. She’s the bitchy prom queen from hell who left the small town, continues to live life as if it were her very own MTV reality show and there’s nothing anyone can do or say to make her see it any other way. Writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman never attempt to make us love her; instead they trust us to embrace that self-centered social deviant streak that we lock away deep inside ourselves. Who needs to grow up?



Ethics philosopher Peter Singer’s senimal tome Animal Liberation was a call for the ethical treatment of animals — an argument equating, within well-defined limits, animal rights with human civil rights debate. Buck Brannaman, the subject of Cindy Meehl’s debut documentary Buck, lives his life as an example of this notion. He has been branded a horse whisperer based on his ability to work with horses without resorting to the traditional means of “breaking” the animals. He calls his technique “starting” and he helps owners “start” to develop a mutually beneficial working relationship with their horses rooted in trust, respect and the awareness of the largely unspoken bond between two living beings. ©