With the technological boom of the 21st century driving art and media forward at a head-spinning rate, even films from just a few years ago are being regarded as ‘dated.’ While mediocre films will always hold subjective value to their fond viewers, the more demanding audience will crave style and relevance from films, delivered at any point in time. The movies that remain timeless are those with messages that take thought to digest: reflection, honesty, abstraction of truth, and like any great work of art, contemplation of the past, consideration for the future, and an exhibition of contemporary self-awareness. 2011 was a damn good year for film, in that sense, because for the first time in a long while, audiences could be inspired by the notion the traditionally flashy and vapid Hollywood does not necessarily have to govern our theater-going experiences. This exegesis is a reflection on the 2011 films that exhibited artistic intelligence, and will surely remain timeless due to their representations of contemporary consciousness.
Tree of Life
Likened in many reviews to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tree of Life really holds no comparison aside from it’s relentless contemplation on the nature of humanity, but for this reason, Terrence Malick’s artistic masterpiece will remain one for the galleries. Promoted with an ambiguous, but beautiful, trailer, viewers might find themselves wondering when the drama about Brad Pitt and Sean Penn really sets in. Well, once the viewer accepts that those anticipations will not be met, they can sit back and go on one of the most meaningful movie-theater rides available.
The film examines philosophical issues such as life, death, guilt, love, and family through the ever-evolving dialectical battle between nature and grace. Never has the complexity of a youth’s consciousness in our time been so accurately portrayed in film: love for his mother, resentment for his father, his relationship to his siblings and friends, his desire to be loved, and the latent masochist who betrays the trust of those closest to him. Freudian themes subtly appear throughout the film. Focusing more on the significance of certain themes in human development, rather than traditional cinematic character development, Tree of Life has tagged itself as the hallmark film for expression through thematic representation. If you’re not interested in looking into Malick’s profound philosophical quandaries, then the gorgeous cinematic visuals will leave you breathless.
Perhaps the best film of 2011, Shame has established Steve McQueen as more than merely a completely capable filmmaker, but may implicate him as one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers of this era. Aside from the impeccable performances from Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, and James Dale, it is the way this film invites the viewer into a sex addict’s psyche and causes the viewer to feel his humiliation that makes Shame a seminal film. Holding back on nothing, McQueen picks away at the socially constructed boundaries of sexuality and says, Yes! We think about fucking our relatives, and Yes! We all question our sexuality, and despite knowing that we all wonder and imagine, we deny our curiosity and regard our contemplations as perverted, which ultimately leads to the manifestation of resent and angst.
Despite the unique story, and the brutal honesty behind it, what really makes Shame a work of genius is its masterful use of subtlety. A fierce run, the insidious crossing of legs, the restlessness, the playful wresting which erupts into a fight, and of course, the piercing stares; it is the careful attention to these details that really lets us into our hero’s mind. Perhaps one of the greatest scenes in film history: Fassbender runs toward us (the scope of the camera), breaking down, and falls to his knees, and we (the camera) look down on him as he prostrates himself. We are the eyes of judgment that arouse his shame, and then the camera takes on a second view from behind Fassbender, still on his knees, to reveal him kneeling before a barren horizon, for there is no one there – the eyes of judgment are within. There is no doubt that Shame will be a classic, regarded in generations to come.
Melancholia and Take Shelter
Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter are ideological cousins, both following an enigmatic champion with foresight into an apocalyptic future. As per usual, Von Trier implements a confounded and misunderstood woman, in this case Kirsten Dunst, to tell a story of woe along with his usual-unusual cinematic style of drawn out slow motion sequences with deeply-moving music. Melancholia is equally beautiful as it is bizarre. From the start of the film, at Dunst’s wedding, there is a sense of something strange – an impending doom. As the film carries on, we discover that there are reports of a planet in orbit that may potentially collide with the Earth. Media broadcasts and all the characters of the film rest assured that the planet will pass by harmlessly, but Dunst is certain of the impact. What we as an audience have to ask ourselves about this predicament is how the story of an impending doom relates to our reality. Von Trier expressed that the film was inspired by his depression, thus, we can regard the strange planet as a metaphor for the certainty of death and the pointlessness of living in the face of that truth - quite literally, melancholy. In this way, Melancholia may very well be held up beside absurdist masterpieces such as Albert Camus’ novel, The Stranger.
Like Nichol’s first film, Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter is not an especially stunning film; however, what he succeeds in doing with this film is express the frustration of precognition in the presence of ignorant peers. While this film can be dissected and interpreted in any number of ways, its metaphorical significance is due to its contemporary relevance. Take Shelter uses the common tale of a man who sees what others are blind to, challenging the people’s faith, such that, in the midst of warning, society dismisses the prophet as a lunatic until it is too late. Given the prophecies of world’s end that frequent our attention in current news/media, society fails to meet the measures necessary to prevent and/or prepare for potential disasters. Also, society at large fails to recognize the ignorance of its ways and hears only a faint echo of warning in the back of its mind. Take Shelter is one of very few films to approach a contemporary real-world dilemma through an artistic lens, which makes this film one of 2011’s most worthwhile cinematic experiences.
As portrayed by these popular blockbuster hits, independent films are now capable of keeping up with the high quality of major studio films. Each of these brilliant works feature high definition quality and are worth seeing on the big screen, with blu-ray media or through other high-def mediums to experience the full creative dimensions of these beautiful and powerful films.
Rhys Raiskin graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in anthropology, and is now immersing himself in the film and music industries. Follow him at @rhys_on.