Best Films of 2011, so far

What's the name of that disorder where you see someone doing something and immediately do it. That's what happened here. I've been noticing critics already beginning their year-end listology by telling everyone what their favourite films of the year far. It's only July, after all. So I thought I'd do the same with my film-going friends and contributors here. So, without further ado, here's our late-midyear round-up.


Super 8
Water for Elephants
Cowboys and Aliens
Harry Potter & Deathly Hallows, part 2

Mr. Danvers:

Certified Copy
13 Assassins
The Trip
Midnight In Paris


Black Death
Super 8

Laura Jorgensen:

Bibliotheque Pascal

Tucker Johnson:

13 Assassins
I think I'm a lot more a fan of Takashi Miike's technical skill and personal demeanor than I am of his films. Audition and Ichi the Killer are a little too...juicy for my taste and Sukiyaki Western Django is fun but its best feature is creating Bloody Benton who only gets a little bit of screen time. But luckily 2011 allowed the world to get a glimpse of Miike's newest obsession. Samurai films. Good ones. 13 Assassins is one of those flicks that I actually take pride in recommending to people. I treat it like I made it myself (and openly wish I did). This movie does everything correctly. The serious scenes are as sharp as the swords that are fated to appear later on. The over the top villain is built up on some truly horrifying pedestals which allows the film's audience to feel as much blood lust as the villain himself. The action is as good as any film can boast and even though there are 13 main characters to remember and care about, the film is executed in such a way that you'll love then all and truly feel for them in their moments of triumph and torment alike. This film is simply a triumph.

Wes Anderson's visual style had a baby with Robert Downey Jr's frenetic speech pattern. The result is one of the coolest flicks to hop the pond. Driven by some of the best narration in film, the story of an English teen's first crush is so funny you have to treat it like your best friend. But with ups come downs. Not in quality though. The downs come in the form of the main character's parents imminent divorce but even in a film that features heavy humor, the divorce is treated with true gravity and if you've ever experienced such a thing, you'll know that Richard Ayoade, the director must have too. He captures the mood perfectly and even though you come out of the theater quoting line after line, what really sticks is how well they treat the more serious and tender moments.

Super 8
If America had to be famous for a certain kind of film, Super 8 is the prime example for what I'd vote for. Its action packed, has kids, pets, monsters, and you don't really have to think to enjoy it. But even though this one is easy on the cerebrum, JJ Abrams definitely busted ass creating a film that nails being a kid just as well as it nails being an amateur filmmaker. The child acting is great, the special effects are explosive to use a pun, and the lens flares are rampant. I instantly fell in love with JJ's amazingly well written characters and his fast paced but never rushed story telling. Its an Amblin Entertainment Ode but I think its just as good if not better as anything that house ever put out.

Tree of Life
Long before it was polarizing audiences at Cannes, I really wanted to see this one. Terrence Malick is famous for creating overly thought out films about everything from murder and war to love and farming. Based on subject matter alone Tree of Life pales in comparison to the others. Its just about a family run by a strong willed, angry and jealous man. But because Malick disguised this pretty normal story in a near 3 hour film that also features the dawn of civilization portrayed in beautiful imagery and whispered narration audiences became outraged for some reason. We aren't talking about Un Chien Andalou or Meshes of the Afternoon here. All I know is that if I trapped these same people in a theater with a dvd of Stan Brakhage material, they'd be clamouring for Malick's “impenetrable” film. The whole reason this movie exists for me however because of Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography. With his camera work and Malick's unparalleled ability to capture the most pure and life like moments, this film stops being about the story its trying to tell and instead becomes a kind of visual poem. An entity that taunts you into relishing its craft rather than the message its trying to sell you. It's the most beautiful film I've ever seen. Period.

Tournee (On Tour)
Mathieu Amalric plays actor/director in this documentary style film about a burlesque tour of France. At first fairly straight forward, it soon steps away from the traditional narrative in the way that only European films can do. This isn't a problem but I figured I'd mention it. All of the performers in the film are actually who they say they are and their acting is so naturalistic that at times you forget its a narrative film. The entire cast hops in and out of English and French like its nothing and to anyone else but Americans, this is pretty much the case with being bilingual. Christophe Beaucarne's cinematography is definitely worth mentioning. There's no unorthodox camera moves or angles. Instead, he makes sure to consistently fill the frame with things to look at. Every frame is splendidly colorful and there is always someone moving, talking, or both. Each frame becomes a strange work of art and its definitely something that should be emulated. And though the film doesn't rely on it, the soundtrack is perfect and definitely helps to empower many scenes and characters. I had to fight with myself to pick this one over Beginners by Mike Mills which is definitely deserving of such a list so I'll give it an honorable mention here.

Films I'm Most Looking Forward To:
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Sean Van Deuren:

5. The Trip
There’s more beneath the surface of The Trip than just hilarious impersonations and witty, improvised banter – it is a Michael Winterbottom film, after all. What really makes the The Trip exciting, just as with all of Winterbottom’s work, is the way it explores the psychology of its characters. Under examination is the semi-fictionalized friendship between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who just so happen to be two of the funniest people alive today. There are no heavy plot mechanics in The Trip, instead the film relies on capturing the subtle status interactions at work within male friendships, and from beginning to end it’s a delight to watch.

4. Meek’s Cutoff
Not only is Meeks Cutoff the best existential/feminist western ever made, it’s . . . well, probably the only existential/feminist western ever made. With only her third feature, Kelly Reichardt has proven she’s one of the most exciting auteurs working today. Meeks Cutoff, her most meticulously made film yet, is slow burning and tense throughout. It is also one of the most riveting, beautiful, and surprisingly political films of the year – with an ending that’s as startling as it is inevitable, and above all wholly satisfying in it’s stark view of life.

3. Certified Copy
Rare is the art film that manages to simultaneously challenge and invite its audience in. Certified Copy – with its impenetrable relationship between a man and a woman who may or may not be married, or may or may not be complete strangers pretending to be married, or may or may not be anywhere in between – is that just kind of gem. What matters is not the specific details of the relationship anyway, but instead the examination of the universal qualities in all intimate relationships. In his first feature made outside of Iran, Abbas Kiarostami has created one of the most playful, puzzling, and emotionally honest films of the year.

2. Silver Bullets/Art History
With the wonderfully self-conscious double feature of Silver Bullets/Art History, Joe Swanberg has pushed his filmmaking to the next level. Both thematically and in terms of craftsmanship, these films display an impressive artistic growth for Swanberg, whose accomplishment may go under the radar of the uninitiated. However, for those familiar with the polarizing director’s work – and the negative reaction from his harsher critics – they prove nothing short of astonishing in their ambition and quest for honesty. In both films, we see Swanberg toying with and openly questioning his own persona as a filmmaker. These are two of the most direct and personal feeling films I’ve ever seen about the process of making movies. Silver Bullets/Art History are dark, uncomfortable films made by a filmmaker dealing with the ramifications of his obsession for capturing moments of honesty.

1. Tree of Life
Despite all the hype and curiosity surrounding Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s long gestating film stands on its own as the most ambitious and beautiful of the year so far. Though Tree of Life is not nearly as experimental as the film’s naysayers state, what it does accomplish is so stunning because of the delicate balance between how breathtaking and yet completely familiar feeling it is. Malick is the master of threading moments together to recreate the sensation of life, and with Tree of Life he has captured a boy’s childhood. The real power of the film, though, lies in its universal quality. It’s not just one boy’s childhood, it’s everyone’s childhood; and it is awe-inspiring.

Scout (these are excerpts from what will be year-end review):

I'm not sure whether to give credit to Joe Dunthorne's novel or Richard Ayoade's script/direction for totally understanding the things that happen inside the head of a troubled, obsessive teenage boy, but I'll go ahead and give it to Ayoade because his visual representation of these events is what hits me the most. Take for instance his decision to give Yasmin Paige's Jordana the Louise Brooks/Anna Karina/Melanie Griffith hair cut. In an instant we know everything about her we need to. She's no good, but she's the one he has to have. Zoe Preece deserves the nicest version of Oliver, but he's too damaged to be that for her. He wants Jordana and more importantly he deserves Jordana because they need to mature together. They'll never age and be better people if they don't get all the horrid out of their system at once. And that's what Submarine attempts to do: get all of the dysfunction out in the open.

13 Assassins
And then Kôji Yakusho smiles. Not only is he happy to hear that a gang has come together to overthrow the shogun, he is fucking thrilled that they've chosen him to be the one to kill him. He's been living idly, fishing, getting by, resigned to the idea that he'll die for nothing. And now this. His twisted happiness is also ours because we then spend the rest of the movie just fucking itching to watch him tear the shogun a new asshole. It's a movie that is approximately half build-up and half delivery, a near perfect treatment of the Jidai-Geki.

Tree of Life
In order to get the 'why' of Tree of Life, you don't need to get Tree of Life. Picture this if you will. It's opening day in New York in a theatre literally underground. It's the only theatre in town playing this movie so far as my search concluded, which means that it was the only screen in the north east playing it (it wouldn't open in Boston for another week and nowhere else had it yet). So naturally the theatre is full, me and my dad had to sit separately as it was too full and the movie was still twenty minutes from opening. Everyone seems to be biting their nails in anticipation. The people in front of me couldn't stop talking, but there was a nervousness to it, like they were afraid to sit in silence in anticipation. I for one couldn't keep my legs from shaking. One of the theatre employees came out at about five minutes to show time basically to remind us that we could buy food at the counter we'd all past on our way down here. Even the staff was nervous. Why? The movie had just won the Palme d'Or for christ's sakes, what did anyone have to be nervous about. I can't speak for everyone else there, but I knew this movie meant something.

Just when you have the film pegged and you can play out his nightmare descent into drugs, Jesus steps off the cross. First to dance with him, then stab him. And then there's the knives taped to his hands and the trip to the zoo. It's entirely unpredictable and boy christ is that something I was grateful for. As wily and foolhardy as its protagonist, Peter Mullan's style and incendiary take on English life is reminiscent of the best of Lindsay Anderson in its cool viciousness and black humour. Mullan's voice tears through convention like a tornado through a trailer.

Norwegian Wood
Seeing a boy go from spending what looked like carefree time with his girlfriend to filling a car with exhaust and slowly dying from it and then seeing a spider on the forest floor did it. The spider has nothing to do with what goes on around its inclusion, but having the narrator talk about moving on after his friend's suicide while watching an image so beautiful and disorienting drew me in immediately. A few scenes later Watanabe walks through his college surrounded by a rampaging Vietnam protest, the period detail spot on, but relegated to set dressing, even less pronounced than the graffiti in Children of Men. Trần Anh Hùng had gotten every detail right and his camera was so assured, his gaze so intensely focused, yet he chose not to show off the work that they had done. All the signifiers that the film's 1969 setting had been done justice are hidden away from our view thanks to The swift editing and piercing camera work. Trần rightly sees that there is far more importance in damaged beauty Rinko Kikuchi's face as she meets with Watanabe after long absences. She's heartbreak itself and though the film moves at an unstoppable pace, throwing out one totally flooring image after another, it slows down enough to capture what infatuation and frustration feel like when mixed.

Films I'm Most Looking Forward To:

Ten Forgotten Albums of the Decade

I always feel a twinge of regret when I buy an album that's a year or two old and it becomes a favourite. I'm thrilled, obviously, but part of me wishes I had been able to rave about it at the time. Seeing that the Horrors excellent new album will be released today reminds me that I missed their sophomore release and thus missed celebrating it on time. I love doing year-end reviews because I like putting artists on pedestals. I like heaping praise at their feet. I hope that they find these words and know that they have fans eagerly awaiting what they do next, each new direction, each change of instrument. So I feel silly showing up late to the party, but I guess late is better than never. So, here are ten albums that would handily have made my best of 2000-2009 if I'd thought to include them/heard them in time. I try to explain why they didn't make the cut (I know, excuses, excuses) and celebrate what makes them so amazing. Please, please, please go out and buy these albums if you don't have them.

Nick Cave - Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus
⁃ This album(s?) has some of Cave's best songs and some of the Bad Seeds greatest arrangements. I've long had a weak spot for Cave's black lyricism, his tales of murder and sin, but his compositions don't always present the greatest accompaniment. There's such a thing as too weird and bleak, after all. But Orpheus delivers compositions that tow the line between creepy and unforgettably catchy. There's "Fable of the Brown Ape" as the standout of the former and the awesome "Spell," "Supernaturally," and "There She Goes My Beautiful World" in the latter. There are love songs, rock songs and fittingly a few murder ballads that spell out the best of Cave's many sides. And then there are the soaring rockers which make this a record I can't help but spin every now and again.

Portishead - Third
⁃ I chalk this, like so many of these, up to just not having heard it yet. Because if I had, it definitely would have made the list. There's a lot to praise here, but to keep it fairly concise, I'll just say that loneliness and paranoia are tough to reproduce using musical instruments and a voice, especially when they seem to be effortlessly producing the best album of their career and aiming more at aloof and mysterious. They achieve all four and that's a testament to the harmony the members of Portishead work in. One of those albums that builds up phantasmagoria in your mind's eye after just a few seconds of any given song.

The Horrors - Primary Colours
⁃ Doing a stylistic 180 can be tricky. You risk alienating your fans and never getting back to the foothold you'd managed with whatever you'd become known for. The Horrors did such a tremendous job convertng themselves into potential one-hit wonders into the most vital band in England that I often forget they were once a swamp-blues band staffed by kids who dressed like The Cure. And apparently, on their latest, they've done it again. What a difference an album makes. Primary Colours proved they weren't a fluke but indeed one of the most powerful new bands on earth. Fusing elements of My Bloody Valentine and The Stone Roses with 60s Brit Pop, The Horrors have a sound that will trip a lot of wires in your brain that tell you you're listening to a classic and long after you've thought of the things it maybe reminds you of, what will linger is the astonishing production that's essentially the sonic equivalent of Christopher Doyle's cinematography, the haunting songcraft, and the overwhelming feeling that The Horrors are the coolest band alive.

J. Tillman - Vacilando Territory Blues
⁃ Some artists need less than a minute to capture your heart. Coldplay managed it on the title track of their first album. Thanks to those 46 seconds, I'll listen to everything they put out even they start to match the pomposity of their heroes, U2. The same can be said of "All You See," the 48 second opener of Vacilando, the first of two great albums the multi-instrumentalist put out in 2009. In those few seconds he demonstrates his knack for melody, his ability to nearly force you to tears just by harmonizing with himself, and his command of production. The four-track scratch of the opener doesn't ever return, but it so fits the first yawn of the piece, like a breeze carrying over waves into the porch of a beachfront cabin where sleeping lovers awake. That the song that follows is "No Occasion" is almost unfair. How could anyone write songs this good and have the audacity to put them NEXT to each other? Anyone who knows anything about my films knows that Tillman's music is beyond important to me. If you want to know why, here's where you dive in.

Guillemots - Through The Windowpane
⁃ I...ok, the reason I didn't consider this at the time is because a few of the songs are too aimless and feel more like jubilation given aural form. The sort of thing that you could see ewoks dancing too. Those things aside, I really should have just put this on here because it has a few of the best pop choruses ever written. "Made Up Love Song #43" is just the kind of thing lovers embarrass themselves saying to each other, it's first love, it's wonderful. I love its earnestness, I love the creeping happiness that overtakes you as it goes on. I love the bouncing bass, skittering drums and jangling guitar that support Fyfe Dangerfield's voice. How has the man not been called out for how fucking beautiful his voice is? Nevermind that he's written "Trains to Brazil," which ought to go in the national registry. It ought to be played in town squares. It ought to replace the bible. "Trains To Brazil" is all anyone needs and I'm convinced that it's powers fall no shorter than ending famine and world hunger if applied liberally to any crisis. The song is amazing. It's unbelievable. And then there's the album closer. While it's half the kind of nervous thing that Dangerfield usually pens, it shifts midstream and becomes the biggest, cutest, most lovable chorus in the world. "Sao Paolo" might be my favourite song if "Trains to Brazil" weren't already it. (note: I say this about a lot of songs, but these two are very near the top). Listening to the banging around of percussion that accompanies the shift, it's a little like hearing a closet full of toys come to life. The whole album is like a child's dream of first love, so why not? Leave your cynicism behind and let the record rock you to blissful sleep.

LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
⁃ I have no excuse for not including this in my best of the decade. It does everything I love; it bounces and clicks like post-punk, wails like Bowie, beeps like dark wave, clangs like a kitchen come to life, and it's catchy as all fucking get out). You don't need me to tell you why this is brilliant, but I'll just say it's the one dance record that people too awkward and terrified to dance actually own. I'd wager that James Murphy has inspired more people to get a keyboard and a drum machine than all of the 80s combined. Getting sucked into one of LCD's grooves is one of the best ways to kill six minutes. Seeing this band live is something I will never forget. Hearing their albums is thankfully something I will always be able to do.

Loose Fur - Born Again In The USA

⁃ I don't know how this slipped by me. I've been listening to this album since a week before it came out (record store clerk). It's got the chewiest rock riffs of the decade, a spirit of inventiveness and improvisation and the shitkicker attitude of the best 70s cockrockers, but delivered through everyman Jeff Tweedy's beautifully wounded whisper. You might not buy him as the dick at the bar sitting hitting on your sister, but his guitar sells it well enough. He and Jim O'Rourke are a couple of goddamned phoenixes on this album. Glenn Kotche's drumming is unflashy, monochromatic even; or more precisely that muted grey/green that shows up in early 70s movies. But he's so assured and proficient that he never wastes a measure. He gets a bunch of those noise breaks that Wilco does so well in the middle of "Wreckroom" and then falls right back in line. O'Rourke's singing is pretty stunning. His few songs are well taken. His "Answers to your Questions" smacks of the late 60s California folk scene, but has something timeless in its woe. Those songs were all hope and sunshine. Those things are here by virtue of the arrangement and the beautiful lapsteel solo, but O'Rourke doesn't let them escape without clouds overhead. He does sombre well. But he also leads a rocker with the best of them. "Stupid as the Sun" is fucking boss. One of the most fun aspects of this record is trying to figure out which of the two six string dynamos is playing which lick. The game and the record never get old.

Sparklehorse - It's A Wonderful Life
⁃ Death fascinates me more than it should. Case in point, everytime a well-known artist dies, I tend to dig deep into their catalog and try to figure them out. It happened when Clarence Clemons died. Though looking back on my first flirtation with the E-Street Band, there was already something legendary about the man. He was bigger than life and so when he died, I changed very little about the way I perceived him. Mark Linkous is someone I can't quite accept as being dead even though his entire body of work seemed to come from beyond the grave. He was singing on borrowed time. Indeed without watching Guy Maddin's expressionist music video, it's tough not to picture Linkous singing the title track of his magnum opus standing in his own grave. Many singers whisper better than they sing; Linkous split the difference and held the world captive in doing so. "Gold Day" is almost a taunt in its simplicity and beauty. The optimistic flute that opens it gives way to the mournful strings and definitive drums. He'd like to be with us, but the world is full of walls and limits and the man responsible for these arrangements was too beautiful for us. His last project was held up by red tape. All he wanted was to make music but his depression and an unfair establishment kept him from doing it. I've been obsessed with It's A Wonderful Life since his death because it feels so much like a confession and a eulogy in one aching statement, a musical Morvern Callar. I never knew him but I miss him.

Lily Allen - Alright Still/It's Not Me, It's You
⁃ I have to confess that were it not for a spread in Q magazine in which Lily Allen appeared scantily clad with a pair of leopards in late 2009, I wouldn't have bothered with her music. Thank christ for leopards. Chris Blasucci had tried to get me into her but I wasn't having any of it. She was popular, thus she was meritless. But then I read into her. She had issues, she was a tabloid mess, she had had several abortions, she'd had a shit childhood. How much of that was true I have no clue, but it painted a picture of a fighter. Her lyrics confirmed as much. Taking on shithead ex-boyfriends and chronic one-night-stand artists, drugs, religious fanatics and retarded presidents, ungrateful lovers and trashy overnight sensations. She rebelled both against the people taking pictures of her and god himself. She wasn't afraid of anything and she wasn't taking any of your shit. Does it help that this scrappy warrior delivers this message from behind one of the cutest noses on earth and swathed in hooky Madchester hooks? Yes it does. But it's her pragmatism and realist lyrics. She doesn't deal in absolutes or rhetoric. She never repeats the words of her peers and forebears. I'd like to hear Madonna or Britney Spears say "I've spent ages giving head," or all but namecheck the US president and then call him a racist and an idiot. She had a song called "Fuck You" long before Cee-Lo. Lily Allen's looks/hooks are probably a hindrance for many people as they were for me initially, but the music speaks for itself. There are songs I like better than others, and my ideal album draws from both her debut and her sophomore effort, but she has a voice. And I anxiously await the next thing it says.

Feu Thérèse - Feu Thérèse
⁃ Going to Canada was the best thing to my musical sensibility since getting a job at a record store. Making Superconnected led me to follow connections I hadn't been aware of, discover new voices like Andre Ethier and Julie Fader, and to always keep an open mind when a side project emerged. On a total whim I bought several records by Constellation band Fly Pan Am and their artier side project Feu Thérèse. Good choice. I like Fly Pan Am, a lot, and while I enjoy delving into their soundscapes when I have the time, when I want sneering rock music that seems furiously yet coolly played at a concrete wall, Feu Thérèse is my drug of choice. With a remarkable beat that recalls a more experimental Steve Shelley, keyboards soar overtop of what could be guitar and bass and the odd smoky vocal. I don't like to pick it apart because I enjoy the mystery. It's quintessential art rock and the less you understand the easier it is to nod your head to the beat. I love this record because it simultaneously tears the roof off the image of gallery openings and manages to remain as elusive and wretchedly beautiful as a modern art masterpiece. It also rocks pretty hard.

Punishment Cookie

Hey, remember Chris Blasucci? Well, for those who don't, he's the handsome fellow who taught guitar, drums and trumpet at Solebury School for many years. In 2007, he wrote a song that he and I played on a CD I produced. It's one of the only ones that I can still listen to. Anyway, I think he knew that the song was too good to just play once, so he saved it, and when he formed a new band called Hair Rocket, he rearranged it for his killer new four piece. They released an EP and then started prepping a full length, which after some serious crowd funding, is done. And now, you can buy it here. Chris is, to quote the late Jim Rowland, a font of creativity and I'd be grateful to you if you bought this record to make sure he can keep expressing himself and playing music, which is his true love. Watching Chris play is watching someone in the throes of passion, you can tell by looking at him that he wouldn't trade places with anyone. I can't tell you how happy I am for him that he's released this album and seems to be teetering on the brink of being able to do this comfortably for a long time. Please, please, please support Hair Rocket!

The record is a brash, bluesy, lo-fi rock jolt that's loaded with hooks and seething guitar. To pick but three of my favourite songs, "Hair Rocket" sounds like Wire playing The Feelies, "Ok Alright" is a paranoid barnburner with an unforgettable wordless chorus, "Imagining" is sweet but persistent. It has the intensity and immediacy of other Philadelphia bands like Laguardia or Pepper's Ghost, but Blasucci has a confident enough voice that he'll outlast them and make a lasting impression. His debut record has a sound simultaneously solid and loose and I've been listening almost non-stop since I got it.