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The Film Issue

Looking back on the year in movies, and what's coming in 2012.

Embracing the film and giving its cause some year-end awards momentum, some critics and bloggers are trying to provide that chance. (#teammargaret has become a bona fide Twitter meme.) But it's pretty clear that Fox Searchlight had and has no real incentive to spend energy or advertising dollars on Margaret, and when asked to explain why the film so quickly disappeared from theaters in the few major cities where it did open and why it failed to expand to other markets, Searchlight can fairly point to dismal box-office returns. (The film grossed a total of $46,495.) The argument against this, of course, is that the audience could hardly have shown up for a movie they didn't know existed. A film given a blink-and-you'll-miss-it release in a highly competitive market like New York or Los Angeles, deprived of the benefit of significant advertising or media coverage, might as well not be released at all.

There is also the matter of reception. Margaret is a divisive movie, and not all critics are boosting it. The New York Times's A.O. Scott wrote that in Margaret's second half, "the sense that anything is really at stake, or that anything even makes sense, dwindles before your eyes." This is not a totally inaccurate assessment of the film — though I would say it's a willful rejection of the film's deliberate climate of confusion. When I called Margaret "a remarkable mess of a movie" in my own review, I didn't mean that as a pejorative. Lonergan's 185-page shooting script, which has been making the rounds online, suggests that the distracted nature of the film is not a product of the tough edit, but of an intentional aesthetic. The theatrically released cut, while not fully faithful to Lonergan's script, seems remarkably faithful to his script's spirit.

If Margaret is a mess, it only makes us conscious of the messiness that we somehow manage to navigate every moment of our lives. Maybe it's imperfect; maybe it's not for everyone. Maybe nothing worth paying attention to is. I hope that you get a chance to judge for yourself.

Details on Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator are scarce. 
But we're still excited about it.
© 2011 - Paramount Pictures
Details on Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator are scarce. But we're still excited about it.
A Dangerous Method
A Dangerous Method

If Margaret is unequivocally my choice for the film of the year, after that, it gets complicated. As I went through the annual end-of-year process of catch-up, re-evaluation and revision, my top five films solidified — and roughly 30 films took turns occupying the remaining five slots. In the end, all things being equal, I went with the titles that gave me the most pure pleasure as a filmgoer.

1. MARGARET

Kenneth Lonergan, United States

2. MELANCHOLIA

Lars von Trier, Denmark

The sheer beauty and personal depth of Lars von Trier's triangle of depression, anxiety and cosmic apocalypse has been well documented. What has been overlooked, I think — and what pushes Melancholia into masterpiece realm, for me — is its subversion of Hollywood's two primary currencies: the special-effects epic and, in the casting of Kirsten Dunst as von Trier's alter ego, the celebrity confessional.

3. MEEK'S CUTOFF

Kelly Reichardt, United States

Has a better American film about survival instincts in the face of economic desperation since the start of the downturn other than Kelly Reichardt's gorgeously unsettling Oregon Trail tale been made? In a great year for supporting actors, Bruce Greenwood's incredible transformation into the rugged titular character is the most unjustly overlooked.

4. THE TREE OF LIFE

Terrence Malick, United States

Even if the reach of Terrence Malick's infinite loop exceeds its grasp, that reach is unprecedented. At Cannes, it was tempting to pick a side between Tree of Life and Melancholia — Team Terry's earnest theological questioning versus Team Lars's Dogme dystopia. But even in their wildly diverging stylistic and philosophical approaches to life, death and the mysteries of the universe, the two films defined the year in film with their implicit dialogue between one another.

5. THE ARBOR

Clio Barnard, United Kingdom

Not just the best nonfiction film of 2011, Clio Barnard's hybrid of primary-source reporting and dramatic staging to tell the tale of alcoholic British council estate bard Andrea Dunbar and the daughters she left behind is also the most innovative — not a small feat in a year that also brought the archival super-edit The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu.

6. A SEPARATION

Asghar Farhadi, Iran

A master class in storytelling and character study under any circumstances, Asghar Farhadi's Berlinale winner, about the reverberations of one middle-class housewife's decision to leave her family when her husband refuses to leave Iran, is all the more impressive as an implicit — but, in an incredible feat of footwork, never direct — critique of the standards and practices of the Iranian government that sanctioned its production.

7. DRIVE

Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark

The best music video Michael Mann never made. Ryan Gosling's (unsuccessful) campaign ad for the crown of Sexiest Man Alive. A movie-length escalating joke about the manipulative seduction of genre-film tropes, Drive is the visual-pleasure bomb that critiques itself.

8. CONTAGION

Steven Soderbergh, United States

A filmmaker whose primary obsessions have been work and sex, Steven Soderbergh turned an outbreak story that demonizes both into an unflinching, dispassionate nail-biter. Contagion is uniquely Soderberghian in its appropriation of a Hollywood genre for personal ends. When the big emotional catharsis comes, it's all the more devastating as a break from the total coldness that preceded it.

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