Given the monumental task of trying to see every new release in a given year before that year is up, it’s a miracle any critic is able to catch up on the previous year’s films. With that being said, here is a list of five of the best arthouse films of 2011, or the five best that this critic was able to see in time for the perennial round up of “best” lists.
5. Le Quattro Volte
What sounds like a parody of art films–slow and ponderous takes, no dialogue, no musical score–is merely a means for the viewer’s self reflection. Le Quattro Volte, or The Four Times, refers to the Buddhist belief that the soul takes four forms before it reaches transcendence: human, animal, plant, and mineral. Each stage is realized in beautifully simplistic detail as a goat farmer succumbs to an illness, a baby goat is born, a fur tree is uprooted for a village festival, and the same tree is chopped up and made into charcoal for the village residents. Instead of lengthy poetic diatribes, the film reminds us of the circle of life through memorable yet fleeting images, none more humorous than the escape of the herd of goats into the village, a moment that, light as it is, never loses sight of the impeccable grace of life.
4. Meek’s Cutoff
Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist take on the Western subtly explores feminist themes as three families get lost in the deserts of Oregon on their way to starting a new life. Michelle Williams is appropriately understated as a fierce frontier woman whose dubiousness at her party’s guide (a joyously grizzled Bruce Greenwood) forces her to reconsider her “place” in the name of survival as well as the instant panic her party incurs when they come upon an Indian straggler. The true marvel of the film is the cinematography, which is more than wide open vistas (in fact it was shot in the old aspect ratio of 4:3), but earthly textures, inky silhouettes against white skies, and dim flames in the pitch black of night. It’s a methodical, agonizing record of what life must have been like back then, but also a pointed lesson in ambiguity that stretches the idea of isolation and desperation to its bewildering conclusion.
Like last year’s The American, Drive is a genre exercise that upended audience appetites for familiar stories wrapped in tidy little bows. Like Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samurai or Walter Hill’s similarly titled The Driver, Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn’s bizarrely retro take on a nameless Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver put hunk and a half Ryan Gosling in the eternal role of the brooding knight in shining armor. With its pastel color palette and its synth soundtrack, Drive wouldn’t have been out of place in the 80’s. In this decade though, it feels right at home as nostalgia piece and as genre subversion, a cold exercise in style that leaves you thumping to its rhythms as you gasp from its violence.
2. 13 Assassins
Winner for most badass finale of the year must certainly go to Takashi Miike’s samurai masterpiece, which is little more than a build up to an epic near hour long fight scene between 13 fierce samurai warriors against dozens of imperial guards protecting a vicious lord. Immaculately choreographed, staged, and paced, the film demonstrates how effective a slim premise can be when executed to superlative levels of craft.
1. The Tree of Life
The most magnetic, majestic, and mystifying film of the year, Terrence Malick’s evocation of a 1950’s Texas childhood juxtaposed with the creation and obliteration of the universe is an ever evolving work of art, constantly contracting and expanding to offer portraits intimate, grand, and divine. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain make ineffaceable impressions as a strict yet loving father and his luminous wife, each of whom become the diametric forces in their 12-year-old son’s life. With a God like eye behind the lens, Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki capture the everlasting and ephemeral nature of what it is to be the center of your own world and yet feel so small in it. Read my review here.