The Film Issue

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

As gifted as anyone of his generation at marrying form and feeling (Wings of Desire confidently combined a poetic elegy, a philosophical treatise and a sappy love story), Wenders endured years of rough footing until this major revival. The same can be said of Herzog, whose condescending, self-serving, self-parodic (and yes, occasionally entertaining) stentorian narration had corrupted much of his recent nonfiction work (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World). Outside of an audacious Herzogian coda, he's comparatively restrained in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, seemingly and appropriately awed by the 30,000-year-old cave paintings he ventures to capture. Unlike his American counterparts, Herzog maintains the integrity of his 2-D source — there's no making these pictures "come to life" via CGI — instead using the extra dimension to insert the audience into the cramped space of the cave, letting us marvel at these rediscovered masterpieces through his camera's eye.

Yet all four films, excluding perhaps Pina at times, function just fine in two dimensions, making what came of the technology less crucial than what the technology inspired (which can't be said for, say, Shark Night 3D). Each film feels like a reboot, like an unlikely renewal. Each is motivated by possibility, by wonder, by forms and effects unknown; each is a kind of adventure film. With the movie business as conservative and risk-averse as ever (or at least since 3-D was last a thing), it's gratifying to see these four directors — decorated vets who could easily rest on their good names or retire — spend Hollywood coin on passion projects. Even as the industry wrestles with anxieties old and new, they show how film can still revive itself and take us somewhere new.


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.

Some of our notables showed great courage this year, others are simply notorious, but all ten had a big impact in 2011.

Kristen Wiig

Six years of Saturday Night Live was threatening to calcify Kristen Wiig's brand of highly physical yet conceptual comedy of awkwardness. Turns out she was working on a second act all along: As co-writer and star of the summer blockbuster Bridesmaids, Wiig proved, first and foremost, that female-fronted comedy can fuel mainstream box office, which is, to date, nearly $170 million. She also proved that she can carry a film (and that she can write a career-changing role for co-star Melissa McCarthy). Next up for Wiig: a starring role in the indie drama Imogene, directed by American Splendor pair Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. (KL)

Jafar Panahi

Sentenced to house arrest in his Tehran apartment and banned from filmmaking (his crime was allegedly planning to make a film about post-election unrest in Iran), writer/director Jafar Panahi collaborated with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (who himself was just released from Evin Prison after three months in jail) to make This Is Not a Film, a video diary documenting a day in his life, his struggle to come to terms with his restrictive situation and reconcile his identity without breaking the law. This stunning "not-a-film" was smuggled out of the country on a flash drive hidden in a cake so that it could premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, which it did, to huge praise. The movie won't be released stateside until 2012, but Panahi's ongoing persecution and his remarkable act of resistance were the world cinema story of 2011. (KL)

Reed Hastings

Netflix began 2011 riding high on the popularity of its Watch Instantly service, the industry standard for legal movie streaming which the company offered as a "free" added benefit to all DVD-by-mail subscription plans. The first of a string of PR disasters came in July, when ­Netflix announced that subscribers would now have to pay for DVDs and streaming separately, amounting to as much as a 60 percent price hike for some customers. In an effort to quiet the public outcry, CEO Reed Hastings wrote a late-night blog post fashioned as an apology, explaining that he was spinning the DVD service into a new company, Qwikster, to justify the two charges. A month later, in response to further backlash, Hastings killed the Qwikster plan — but left the price hikes in place. With Netflix's stock price plummeting and subscribers fleeing, the 12-year-old company, a survivor of numerous tech and e-commerce bubbles that itself had a major hand in the death of Blockbuster, suddenly seemed to combine the worst of two worlds: the inexperience of a start-up with the cash-gouging hubris of a corporate titan. In a climate when companies are failing without such major fuck-ups, the impetuous Hastings presided over the Unnecessary Industry Meltdown of the year. (KL)

The "Cast" of The Interrupters

One would be hard pressed to find scenes in any drama this year with as much impact and resonance as those in Steve James's documentary The Interrupters. Following a group of former Chicago gang members who now act as intermediaries in disrupting street violence, the film approaches main subjects Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra not so much as heroes but as humans, capturing the ways each of them is trying to get right with the world. The film's straightforward style is immersive and overwhelming, overflowing with heartbreak, insight, startling access and hard-won uplift. After the legendary snub of his landmark Hoop Dreams, that James has again been left out of the race for the documentary Oscar only proves that category is in need of its own intervention. (MO)

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