My Year at the Movies, 2011

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I don’t make lists, though somehow one slipped out of me last year. More precisely, I posted a list of favorite movies I viewed in 2010 by any means at all as a way of giving them more exposure. I am assured that such opinions do matter to filmmakers and distributors of arthouse and independent films, as the media tornado swirling around the firing of Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman spits out a number of pronouncements about the causes and repercussions of this action.

This Is Not a Film

Of course, this “end of an era” at the Village Voice is only one front on which the world has changed—whether for the better or worse depends upon who is making the judgment. The year in film also had this valedictory quality to it, as many older filmmakers turned a nostalgic gaze on their own life’s work. Monte Hellman ended a 20+-year absence from feature films to present us with a skillful, entertaining look at his own career in Road to Nowhere. Claude Lelouch, long consigned to the ash heap by the French, made a similar survey of his own history, both personal and professional, in the criminally overlooked What Love May Bring. Martin Scorsese paid homage to the father of his industry, Georges Méliès, in Hugo. Sadly, two Iranian filmmakers said farewell to their vocation—Mohammad Rasoulof with his film Good Bye and Jafar Panahi with This Is Not a Film—as the iron fist of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his regime banned and imprisoned them both. Finally, the late Raúl Ruiz made, as Rod said, “a classic example of a grace-note film from an aging director,” with his final film Mysteries of Lisbon.

King of Devil’s Island

A number of films had a retro aspect to them. The extremely entertaining Madame X, a first feature from Indonesian director Lucky Kuswandi, wore its love of 60s pop action films on its sleeve. The new silent film The Artist not only paid its respects to the silent era literally, but also quoted from such classic films as Citizen Kane and A Star Is Born. King of Devil’s Island from Norwegian filmmaker Marius Holst was crafted with a classic style and care that reminded me of Howard Hawks. Even Terrence Malick’s much-lauded The Tree of Life made comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey all but inevitable.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

I watched many more current releases than I have in many a year thanks to the screeners sent “for your consideration.” Despite numerous fine performances from a bevy of talented actors, was it really necessary for Michelle Williams, Michael Fassbender, and Jessica Chastain to be in so many of them? I like and admire these artists, but their multiple appearances seem retro as well, as though the Hollywood dream factory were still pressing contract stars into assembly-line service. Certainly, the paucity of any really imaginative or mold-breaking films from Hollywood (aside from pop/fantasy films well covered by Rod here) and the continued use of the 3D gimmick to get butts in seats signal that the business of show hasn’t changed much in decades. I much preferred the American independent films I was able to find: Without and Monogamy were two relationship movies from first-time feature directors Mark Jackson and Dana Adam Shapiro that perfectly captured the seductive terror of aloneness the new generation faces. First-time feature director Sean Durkin echoed this unease in Martha Marcy May Marlene, a studio film with a credible indie feel that, in condemning cults, actually reinforced the conformity of mainline living Durkin said he was trying to critique.

My Week with Marilyn

Rod and I discussed whether this was “the year of” anything. For him, it was the year of the ensemble, and given how many of his favorite films were ensemble-driven, that is entirely reasonable. I saw many more chamber dramas, and for me, it was the year of the star turn. Albert Nobbs, Shame, Martha Marcy May Marlene, My Week with Marilyn, The Iron Lady, and to a lesser extent Jane Eyre, Drive, J. Edgar, and The Artist all contained dominant central characters that largely drove the films. Some of these films were complete successes, and some were a triumph of acting over incompletely realized material, some bordering on vanity project (e.g., Albert Nobbs).

South Side Projections’ Mike Phillips at the projector

The Chicago front saw some new players enter the scene, some established players retrench, and others break out and work wonders. My good friend Mike Phillips founded South Side Projections, which became an instant treasure to underserved audiences on Chicago’s working class and African-American South Side. Mike’s protégé Julian Antos and Becca Hall launched the Northwest Chicago Film Society, moving the popular Bank of America classics series from the now-demolished home it had for more than 40 years to the nearby Portage Theater. Fans of the series worried about the change of venue and day (from Saturday to Wednesday), but Julian and Becca’s valuable and eclectic programming has seen them through a very successful year and a strong opening in 2012. Roger Ebert relaunched At the Movies at WTTW, the public television station where he and Gene Siskel started their television careers; financial trouble has sent the series, hosted by Christie Lemire of the Associated Press and local critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, into a limbo from which it may not emerge.

Finally, Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren hosted the second For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, to benefit the Film Noir Foundation. We raised $5,700 to help restore the Cy Endfield film The Sound of Fury, just in time to learn that the major studios are abandoning celluloid forever. Future preservation efforts will need to take a new focus, but we intend to continue the battle to save our film heritage with a third blogathon.

  • Pat spoke:
    5th/01/2012 to 4:56 pm

    I enjoyed reading this post, especially since you do such a fine job of seeking out and bringing to light films that I’d otherwise probably never hear of. I’m hoping to get to films at the Portage this year, as well as to get to the Siskel Center more often to expand my horizons a bit.

  • Tinky spoke:
    5th/01/2012 to 5:20 pm

    This is a very gentle and helpful (to those of us who don’t see too many movies) ALMOST list. Thanks as always for your thoughtful analysis, Marilyn. Happy new year……..

  • Rod spoke:
    5th/01/2012 to 5:50 pm

    It’s interesting, Mare, that between Without and Monogamy in your viewing and The Myth of the American Sleepover in mine, plus a bunch of others that have earned some acclaim of late, including Bellflower, Take Shelter, and Putty Hill and even Road to Nowhere, that the American indie scene, so long a lost faith, seems to be kicking back to life again precisely when it’s supposed to be dead for failing to produce more Juno/Little Miss Sunshine hits. Which is probably exactly why it’s showing new signs of life.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/01/2012 to 6:40 pm

    Pat – Thanks. I hope to see you at both venues from time to time.

    Tinky – I’m glad you got something out of my little summation. Happier New Year to you.

    Rod – Indie films have come a long way since Steven Soderbergh sold out to Hollywood. I think he represents the fake indie movement, and now we are seeing the real indie movement as Hollywood has become terrified of taking a risk on a director like Soderbergh. I’m going to see Take Shelter the week of Jan 20, and I can’t wait!

  • Jon spoke:
    5th/01/2012 to 6:59 pm

    Ahem….too much Michelle Williams????? Not possible. 😉 This was a fine recap Marilyn and I’ve enjoyed reading your blog in 2011 and look forward to more great stuff in 2012. I’ve yet to fully catch up with all the 2011 releases and it will take a little while to do so. Best wishes in 2012 and keep up the great work!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/01/2012 to 7:21 pm

    Jon – You got me! I actually added Michelle Williams’ name with some regret.

    It has been great having you visit the blog, Jon, and look forward to sharing movies with you this year.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    8th/01/2012 to 10:50 am

    I was probably one of the few to see DEVIL’S ISLAND, a a film I pretty much stand with you on through and through. I first heard of the film through your impressive coverage of the CIFF. I know you don’t care to make lists (can’t say I blame you as my own attempt to finalize over the past days has been a real downer in every sense) and applaud you on your abstract take of the year in concrete terms, especially since numerical regard invariably changes from day to day. I loved THE ARTIST, JANE EYRE and DRIVE and thought MY WEEK WITH MARILYN was solid and found MARCY MARLENE, J. EDGAR and ALBERT NOBBS more problematic. But that’s neither here nor there. What counts most as always is the commendable performance you sustain for film preservation and the high quality output offered up regularly at FERDY-ON-FILMS.

    Best wishes in 2012.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/01/2012 to 11:24 am

    Hi Sam, and best wishes to you in 2012 as well. Thanks for your loyal readership and comments, and for the opportunity to contribute to WitD as well.

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