Normally the final weeks of December find me frantically scrutinising the published top ten lists of my fellow film types, in a mad dash effort to fit in a few more last minute screeners for movies I’d somehow missed, which would endlessly haunt me due to their omission from my final ten. This time round I didn’t do that. In fact I buried my head, stuck my fingers in my ears and shouted the mantra “no more, no more” loudly as I didn’t want to increase the pain of an already excruciating culling process by adding to the list of worthy contenders. Therefore, you’ll see that conspicuous by their absence are Alps, Tyrannosaur, A Separation, The Skin I Live In and The Tree of Life. This also means that some very worthy films I’ve seen just missed the cut; Sleeping Beauty, Attenberg, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Meek’s Cutoff and Natural Selection, I can only apologise, another day, another frame of mind and you’d be on the list. I’m not sure if 2011 was a particularly great year for film but it certainly felt like a great year for my favourite kind of cinema – the low key, naturalistic, short on backstory, exposition and characters, indie gem seemed to be in happy abundance this year, long may it reign.
10. Sound of My Voice – Zal Batmanglij
This is the first of two very different cult related films to make it on to my list. Brit Marling plays enigmatic and mysterious cult leader Maggie who claims to hail from a near future where civil war has radically altered our way of life. Peter and Lorna infiltrate the group to surreptitiously film a documentary exposing Maggie as the fraud they believe her to be, but the longer they’re exposed to Maggie and her true believers, the wider the gulf between them grows. Sound of My Voice is an intriguing study on the nature of blind faith, how one can be caught up in it and how well it holds up in the face of inconsistencies. Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling (who also co-wrote) have indicated that this is the first part of a trilogy; if the remaining two go ahead I hope they don’t fall into the trap of explaining away the mysteries which made Sound of My Voice so compelling.
9. Hesher – Spencer Susser
We’ve been piling on the praise for the Blue Tongue Films gang here at DN for quite a while now – I’m still to see them misstep – and last year David Michôd came in at a very respectable no 3. in our overall Top Ten of 2010 with Animal Kingdom, but the guy who began our love affair with all things BTF was Spencer Susser with his ‘Wonder Zombie Years’ short I Love Sarah Jane. If that alone wasn’t reason enough for me to get excited about his first feature, then the addition of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular Hesher – a metal-booze-fire-loving drifter who serves as uninvited house guest and emotional catharsis for 13-year-old T.J after his mother dies in a car crash, leaving his father in a barely present prescription drug haze, put me into a frenzy of anticipation. The resulting film is an astute study of grief tempered in the fires of recklessness, and frankly I can’t think of a director I’d rather bring us the tale of a fucked up Mary Poppins.
Listen to the DN interview with directer Spencer Susser.
8. Another Earth – Mike Cahill
The fact that Brit Marling makes a second appearance in this list for another film she stars in, co-wrote and produced, highlights her as a force of filmmaking nature I’ll be watching very closely in the coming years. In Mike Cahill’s Another Earth she plays Rhoda, a woman who destroys lives in a moment but finds a way to repair one and perhaps her own a little too. It’s a film about second chances, and the appearance of Earth 2, is a celestial reminder of the diverging paths our every decision can send our lives down.
Read the DN review of Another Earth.
7. Drive – Nicolas Winding Refn
There was no way I was going to get to see Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive oblivious to the mountains of hype hot on its tail, but even after prepping myself with a retrospective play through The Pusher Trilogy, and remembering that this is the same director who jumped styles from Bronson to Valhalla Rising, I still wasn’t prepared for the fever dream of Ryan Gosling’s near-mute driver, risking it all for the love of the girl next door. Refn’s filmmaking is as assured as his lead character’s prowess behind the wheel, and I don’t think any other screen kiss will ever come close to matching the one shared by Gosling and Mulligan here.
Read the DN review of Drive.
6. Green – Sophia Takal
Jealousy may be known as the green eyed monster, but in the hands of Sophia Takal, it’s a monster that lurks in the nearby woods of Genevieve and Sebastian’s sustainable living, intellectual hipster experiment in the country, always threatening, but never quite invading the narrative with its violent tendencies. Takal has said that she wanted to imbue Green with the tone of someone who’s jealous but have the plot remain true to real life. Whenever I recall the experience of watching the film, I’m taken back to the unsettling unease I felt pretty much throughout but thankfully couldn’t point you to a moment when it broils over into yet another lover run amok in the woods, which makes a pleasant change from the norm.
Listen to the DN interview with Sophia Takal & Lawrence Michael Levine.
5. Without – Mark Jackson
If you were to read a little bit too much into this list it may seem that I have an unnatural propensity towards tales of damaged young woman, with only a fingernail’s grip on reality. Perhaps? But it might just be that’s where filmmakers were finding their most compelling stories in 2011. Mark Jackson’s portrayal of Joslyn, damaged by loss, who finds her grip slipping when she takes on the care of an elderly gentleman in a vegatative state, transforms the modern tools of communication into totems of frustration which have a fracturing effect on this isolated young woman.
Listen to the DN interview with director Mark Jackson.
4. Michael – Markus Schleinzer
Markus Schleinzer’s Michael, played with such matter of fact normality by Michael Fuith, is the definition of an unassuming, average guy. He’s good at his job in insurance – a promotion is in the offing – has a mother and sister who care about him, goes on the occasional skiing trip with friends, oh and keeps 10-year-old Wolfgang in a soundproof room locked in his basement unbeknownst to anyone, letting him out once his house role shutters are down. So why would I place the story of a pedophile so high in my top ten? Well, it’s the straight forward depiction of Michael that Schleinzer brings to screen which makes it such an engaging and deeply unsettling watch. In documented cases such as Natascha Kampusch the girl in the cellar or Josef Fritzl, we’re led to believe the perpetrators we’re foaming at the mouth monsters; Michael is all the more disturbing for the fact that these people could easily be your neighbours, your work colleagues or your holiday companions and you’d be none the wiser.
3. Martha Marcy May Marlene – Sean Durkin
Much has been written about Elizabeth Olsen’s convincingly vulnerable performance in Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, and the fluidity of time as we slide back and forth along the two distinct periods of Martha’s cult life timeline. However, for me the most compelling element of the MMMM story is her relationship with Sarah Paulson’s Lucy, her older sister. Barely hidden beneath the concerns and worry as to Martha’s whereabouts over the previous two years lies a resentment which, although never stated, could easily have been the fuel to drive Martha into the heart of John Hawkes’ surrogate family.
Read the DN review of Martha Marcy May Marlene.
2. Kill List – Ben Wheatley
The greatest disservice I could do to you and Ben Wheatley’s terror inducing Kill List would be to inadvertently tell you too much about it. Suffice to say, it’s a horror/hit man movie unlike any you’ve seen to date, but shares its genetic makeup with Wheatley’s previous feature Down Terrace. In the broadest of strokes, Kill List is about Jay, a hit man who’s finding it difficult to return to work after the events of a botched job in Kiev. Pressured by his wife Shel, he takes up a new contract with his partner Gal and let’s just say things start messed up and descend from there. Again, don’t read about Kill List or talk to any blabbermouths who’ve seen it, just make sure you watch it and be prepare to be justifiably distressed and impressed in equal measures.
Listen to the DN interview with director Ben Wheatley – I promise it’s 100% spoiler free.
1. Bad Fever – Dustin Guy Defa
When we spoke just after SXSW, director Dustin Guy Defa stated that, “I feel like there’s such an enormous amount of loneliness in the world.” In his debut feature Bad Fever, it feels like Dustin has distilled all that loneliness and infused it into his delicate lead Eddie, played with heartbreaking sincerity by Kentucker Audley. Eddie isn’t the cool misunderstood loner, destined to prove his worth and win through triumphant – he’s lonely, lives with his mother and holds unrealistic dreams of changing his fortunes with a moment in the sun stand up set at the local comedy club. In drifts Irene to his life, this new relationship is going to take more than it gives and is just as fabricated as the prepared conversations and routines he mutters into his tape recorder.
I would love to claim some super natural intuition on my part for discovering Bad Fever, but I have the wonderful Andrew Johnson to thank for his call, “MarBelle, drop whatever you’re doing and come meet the director of one of the best films no one’s talking about.” He wasn’t wrong, and ever since my return from Austin I’ve clutched my screener close to my chest and demanded everyone I come in contact with watch it. I hope you’ll do the same because the lonely need your company more than most.