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The Best (and the Rest) of 2011

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Posted on Jan 6, 2012

Camera-ready: Director Werner Herzog appears in his own film,“Into the Abyss.”

By Richard Schickel

Sorry about this—a 10-best list dragging along in the wake of all the others, which began appearing around Halloween. And it isn’t even a nice round 10 in number. I could come up with only six movies this year. I have my excuses. I went away for a well-earned vacation. And then I came home only to be felled by a dreadful cold, which slowed things up still more.

But the real problem is that it was just a terrible year at the movies. Critics always start saying that around Dec. 1 every year. But this time they were right. So I consider myself lucky to have half a dozen on my list. And, by golly, you can consider yourself lucky to see any one of them. They are, by the way, presented in no particular order—though I do think the first of them is, in its way, a masterpiece.

“Into the Abyss.” That dauntless documentarian, Werner Herzog, investigates the case of two feckless Texas teenagers who killed a woman essentially because they wanted to go joy-riding in her car. They were quickly apprehended, and when Herzog interviews them, Michael Perry is about to be put to death by lethal injection, and his partner, Jason Burkett, is going to spend the rest of his life in prison.
As always in his films, Herzog is the voice of reason, inquiring into the extreme—not to say hopeless—circumstances people sometimes find themselves in. These lads may not be entirely bright, but they are not completely stupid, either. I guess you could say that, for a few moments, things got out of hand with them.

That does not mean that Herzog thinks one of them should pay the ultimate price for his crime (though he does not ever say as much). His film, instead, is suffused with sorrow—Perry’s jailbird father wonders what he might have done to prevent his son from going wrong; a woman becomes romantically interested in Burkett and contrives to get herself pregnant by him; a prison guard who has overseen hundreds of executions quits his job (and his pension) because he cannot be a party to state-sponsored murder.

These are very simple people, but somehow, right up against the ultimate questions, they are haltingly, hesitantly asking the right questions. When the film had run its course, I found myself moved by it as I rarely am with fictional films. It is so raw, yet so gently put—and it puts to shame the many overheated melodramas on this subject. This, one feels, is how it really is to confront ritualized death—with a sad and shuddering sigh, with everyone speaking in banalities and clichés because our language does not have the words (or the moral amplitude) to confront the death penalty in all its terrible finality. 

“J. Edgar.” This, to me, is the most curious disappointment of the year, for Clint Eastwood’s biographical drama of the late, entirely unlamented FBI director, based on a lapidary screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (who won an Oscar for “Milk”) is perhaps the most thoughtful film of 2011. I think the problem with it is that it seems like ancient history to most people (Hoover died in 1972). They seem unable to make the imaginative leap to see that paranoid figures like Hoover are ever-dangerous in a democracy.

At least Leonardo DiCaprio is being acknowledged for a performance that digs into the shriveled soul of the man who was, as the cliché of the time had it, the nation’s “top cop,” but who was, in fact, its top bureaucrat and—bitter irony here—probably a homosexual, in spirit if not in fact. In other words, at the time, he was keeping the biggest secret of them all. Democracy is a very peculiar institution, as this quietly arresting movie makes abundantly clear.

“Hugo.” This is the year’s most paradoxical movie—an epic kid’s picture. It is huge, expensive and, you’d think, bound to be a stumbling disaster. It’s not. Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of a justifiably beloved children’s novel is about a little boy living in a Paris train station, and incidentally discovering the forgotten movie pioneer Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley) running a humble shop there and restoring him to his former fame. Sacha Baron Cohen is on hand to be relieved of his bitterness, too. How the movie manages all this without falling into self-conscious mess is one of the year’s cinematic miracles.

You may think you owe it to your kids to take them to see “Hugo.” Wrong. You owe it to yourself see it.  And be, of all rare things, enchanted by it.

“War Horse.” This film is part pastoral—in pre-World War I rural England, a boy acquires a horse named Joey whom he loves not wisely, but too well—and part sheer terror. The animal is drafted for duty in the trenches, and somehow survives the carnage and is returned to paradise when the shooting finally stops. Steven Spielberg’s film is an adaptation of a novel by Michael Morpurgo and of a stage production that featured large and complex puppets playing Joey and an equine companion. That was—no question about it—a fascinating coup de theatre, but I think the intense reality of the movie serves this story with equal force and passion.

In reality, I don’t suppose the horse would have survived more than a day or two in combat. But we desperately want him to—if only because we require some grace note to illuminate what is undoubtedly the most terrible war human history has yet recorded. Spielberg’s film is more than up to recording the horrors of trench warfare, and is also up to recording the honorable sentiments that somehow prevail—albeit provisionally (we are only 20 years from the next world war)—when the shooting finally stops. We feel entitled to the respite that descends, at last, on this film. Even though we know, of course, that it cannot last for very long.

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Migs's avatar

By Migs, January 11, 2012 at 9:07 pm Link to this comment

Apart from liking The Tree of Life, which affirmed that we spend too much time chasing pointless things while overlooking the glory that’s all around us, I agree that 2011 was a pretty bad year for films. In fact by the end of last year I gave up on contemporary films and started searching for classics I hadn’t seen yet and it’s paid off. I’ve recently watched Downfall, La Haine and The 400 Blows and I can recommend them all. However, I’m willing to give Hugo, Midnight in Paris and Into the Abyss a go.

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By mr. self destruct, January 10, 2012 at 12:48 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I agree that this was a truly terrible year for film, especially compared to the awesomeness of last year with movies like Black Swan, The King’s Speech, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, The Social Network.  But why didn’t The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo make this list?  It’s nothing short of spectacular.

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By camnai, January 9, 2012 at 5:23 pm Link to this comment

What about ‘The Artist’ or, if Mr Schickel can get past the idea of subtitles, ‘A

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By Dave Macaray, January 9, 2012 at 3:17 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

He was right about “Tree of Life.”  I disliked it not because it was religious or spiritual or too demanding, but because it was pretentious, self-indulgent tripe.  I love Malik!  I really looked forward to this movie.  What a disappointment.

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By howard.schumann, January 8, 2012 at 7:53 pm Link to this comment

I found The Tree of Life to be more spiritual than religious but in either event, it is not a reason to reject a film.

Malick opens our vision to the untranslatable miracle of life in all its aspects. No other film has so preoccupied itself with the process of learning about the world, from the infant’s first discovery of his ability to touch, to the stirrings of language, to the ability to discern differences, and ultimately to questioning where God lives and how life began

It is, on the whole, a beautiful, multi-layered, and deeply spiritual film that asks the hard questions, a film that everyone will respond to differently depending on their own experience.

To me, far from having an orthodox Judeo-Christian viewpoint, it says that the representation of reality that we see is a function of our own consciousness, that God is not an anthropomorphic perfection of ourselves, but lies within us, in our capacity for joy, compassion, and love.

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By Ehrenstein, January 8, 2012 at 11:54 am Link to this comment

Glad you liked “Hugo” and “Midnight in Paris” and had some good words for the inevitably flawed because so deeply ambitious, “J. Edgar.” But I’d hoped you’d mention “In the Land of Blood and Honey” and my favorite movie romance of the year “Weekend.”

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, January 8, 2012 at 8:10 am Link to this comment

In the movie ‘we’ are only 20 years from the next world war (#2).  It’s 1919, and World War 2 will (officially) begin in 1939.

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By DarthMiffy, January 8, 2012 at 2:09 am Link to this comment

What does the author mean by “the next World War in 20 years from now”?
Is he prescient? What does he know that we do not?

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EmileZ's avatar

By EmileZ, January 7, 2012 at 9:06 pm Link to this comment

I am not a big fan of movies that have speeches at the end of them, but Hugo up until that point, kind of suspended my judgement.

I watched this movie on a camera recording posted on The Pirate Bay (if I had not, it would have been years later from a library DVD).

One of the moments I was particularly intrigued by (aside from the dream sequences) was when the auteur discovered the young ones discovering his auteurship and was incapacitated for the moment.

It was so completely ridiculous and at the same time so perfect.

I dunno.

I was also quite fond of the mechanical mouse.

My big problem (forget about the speech) was that I hate that scene where the man on the moon or the moon or whatever gets shot in the eye and nasty yellowish-white blood, puss, candlewax, etc, oozes out.

It is disgusting and mean!!!!

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By Anarcissie, January 7, 2012 at 6:19 pm Link to this comment

Actually, Midnight In Paris is Hugo for grown-ups.  Hugo is good, however, and also has cinematic in-jokes for the cognoscenti who have taken their bane antidote in advance.  Also perhaps some Dramamine for overuse of CGI.  Don’t go to the movies without them!  But do go!

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By Mark Graham, January 7, 2012 at 12:01 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Schickel’s dead wrong about Malick.  Tree of Life was a beautiful film that was anything but fundamentalist and creationist and the Times critic alleged.  The establishment critics didn’t like it because it was religious, specifically (non-fundamentalist) Christian.  Well folks, religion has produced some great art here and there over the years, whether you agree with its message or not. 

For my money I’ve never relied too much on Schickel’s opinions—especially after his rave review of Kandahar which he called a “near documentary” and was in fact pure propaganda, used to promote the war on terror.

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By fieldcrow, January 7, 2012 at 8:59 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

really nice writing (reviews & list). thanks for
having the cultural ‘sand’ to include War Horse, a
film w/some ‘sentimentality’ - the bane of most

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