The Film Issue

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


Miranda July, United States

The best of 2011's many Sundance-hits-turned-box-office-bombs. The reception accorded Miranda July's second feature — a deeply personal and fully unique hybrid of hipster relationship drama, lo-fi sci-fi and filmed performance art — only affirms its courage as a would-be commercial endeavor.

Take Shelter: tough to sit through, but worth it.
© 2011 - Sony Pictures Classics
Take Shelter: tough to sit through, but worth it.
Anna Paquin gives the performance of the year in Margaret.
© 2011 - Fox Searchlight
Anna Paquin gives the performance of the year in Margaret.


Bennett Miller, United States

Am I biased as a baseball fan? Maybe, though as a faithful follower of the Dodgers — whose 2011 season offered a gripping seesaw of tragedy and triumph — I hardly needed to go looking for baseball drama elsewhere. Less an adaptation of Michael Lewis's bestseller than a cinematic rendering of the unlikely marriage between passion and fiscal ration that motivated the sport to put its faith in sabermetrics, Moneyball moved me to tears. Twice. My vote for most satisfying popcorn movie of the year.

The following films (listed alphabetically) almost made the cut: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Beginners, Certified Copy, City of Life and Death, A Dangerous Method, Dragonslayer, Fast Five, Go Go Tales, House of Pleasures, Jane Eyre, The Lincoln Lawyer, Love Exposure, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Mysteries of Lisbon, Rubber, Silver Bullets, Take Shelter, The Trip, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Winnie the Pooh.

Transcending the gimmick in 2011.

It was 1952 in Haddon Township, New Jersey, and five-year-old Steven Spielberg was bummed about The Greatest Show on Earth, the first movie he saw in a theater. "I wanted to see three-dimensional characters, and all this was was flat shadows, flat surfaces," he once told biographer Joseph McBride. Little Spielberg had expected a real circus, with live elephants and clowns. "I was disappointed in everything after that." A year later in Manhattan, ten-year-old Martin Scorsese got Spielberg's wish: He witnessed André de Toth's House of Wax in stereoscopic 3-D. "The sense of depth took me into another universe," he recently told the Guardian.

Nearly 60 years later, both directors have finally released their first 3-D films (The Adventures of Tintin and Hugo, respectively), as have two German contemporaries: Wim Wenders (Pina) and Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams). Going in and out of fashion for decades, but always the domain of money-grubbing blockbusters and projectile-hurling genre pictures, 3-D came of age in 2011 thanks to these four artistically accomplished films. But more importantly, the format seems to have re-energized these auteurs to make what the besieged movie business might need most: impassioned and ambitiously personal movies.

Born within four years of one another — bracketing the beginning and ending of the second World War — these four filmmakers discovered cinema in the 1950s, when postwar pop culture was exploding and diversifying, and television was threatening Hollywood's dominance (much as it's now threatened by the digital hydra). Spielberg, Scorsese and Wenders all grew up with TV and never knew a time when the cinema had the only screen in town. Raised in rural Bavaria free of mass media, Herzog knew no loyalties, either. Theirs was an era of appropriation and possibility (yes to TV, 3-D, rock and roll and Disney), and each, in his own way, came to feel entitled to his ambitions, whether it was taking a bicycle ride across the moon in E.T. or tugging a steamship up the side of a mountain in Fitzcarraldo. All four came of age during the new waves of the 1960s, and in the '70s helped chart a course of cinema for a generation. Now established, bankable veterans in their late '60s, they're in a position to do it again, seizing the latest industry trend not as a gimmick but an opportunity.

In Hugo, Scorsese uses 21st-century technology to honor 19th-century innovation, evoking the magic of early cinema via 3-D sleight of hand. He depicts 1920s Paris as a city of bygone fantasy, where details are period-specific but the camera can seemingly do anything it wants, such as careening through a crowded train station at jet speed, or placing Ben Kingsley in a Georges Méliès film. (Contrast Scorsese's provocative and productive anachronisms with Michel Hazanavicius's dead-ended exercise in fidelity, The Artist.) Consistent with Scorsese's career (as both filmmaker and film preservationist), Hugo celebrates cinema's past, argues for its enduring relevance and eagerly partakes of its evolving powers.

Although different in form and tone, Spielberg's Tintin also animates a fantastical past (vaguely 1930s) with contemporary tools. Like Scorsese's picture-book adaptation, Spielberg brings a two-dimensional source to three-dimensional life, yet Tintin retains its comic-strip look and feel. Clearly turned on by the elastic potential of motion-capture CGI, Spielberg outdoes his own live-action virtuosity (epitomized in several Raiders of the Lost Ark set pieces) without abandoning classic film framing or pacing. An epic long-take chase sequence through a winding Moroccan village is breathtaking because it mimics — rather than disregards — the daredevilry of physical action, craftily preserving a sense of danger even though, thanks to CGI, anything's technically possible. For all his intervening achievements — and despite Tintin's wearying relentlessness — it has been decades since a Spielberg film was this adventurous, this infectiously adolescent.

Of all four films, Wenders's Pina is most revelatory in its use of 3-D. Challenged to do justice to the late Pina Bausch's dance-theater choreography — to make a record of her intrinsically transient work and have it make sense as cinema — Wenders has created a documentary meditation on perception and sensation, reconsidering both physical and virtual/cinematic spaces by constantly reconfiguring our perspective on them. As the movement unfolds around us, sometimes we're on the floor, immersed and orbited; other times we're removed, peering at dancers in a cinematic doll's house.

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