A few weeks ago on Facebook -- that sly keeper of family secrets, whose memory seems to have increased incrementally with its new Timeline mumbo-jumbo -- an actor of some repute posted a list of the best Twitter accounts of 2011, as compiled by a wholly forgettable outlet. He had been placed relatively highly, and someone commented that it was a very subjective list. Apart from the fact that taking issue with "a list of the best Twitter accounts of 2011, lol" is by definition absurd, the statement presented a logical fallacy (I am fully aware of the irony of regarding a throwaway Facebook comment in such depth). All lists are subjective: that's why they're lists. Nonetheless, this fairly simple fact gets lost in the year-end frenzy as interested parties start calling for the list-maker's head, like angry villagers wielding pitchforks, if and when their favoured books, albums, films, etc fail to place on a given critic's compilation of the year's best.
2011 has been remarkable for film, which, I suppose, is the reason why reactions to many end of year polls or critics' lists have been so muted (in a good way). Individual choices still deviate, naturally, but the consensus is that we've just had one of those signature years; the best, as far as I'm concerned, since 1999. Before I get to my list of the year's best films, two caveats: when it comes to quality pictures (especially non-American ones), Turkey, where I'm based, has a widely varying release schedule compared to the United States. Similarly, numerous Istanbul film festivals tend to play a number of films which never even get a proper DVD release, let alone cinematic distribution.
This is why I've decided to have a fairly loose interpretation of what constitutes as a 2011 film. My number one pick doesn't open in the States till early 2012, but it played Istanbul in September. Another pick opened here on the very last day of 2010, three months before its US release. A bunch of my picks don't open in Istanbul till late February 2012 at the earliest, but I've already caught them at festivals or on screeners. In any case, I saw all these films for the first time in 2011, which I suppose is the most pertinent basis for classification.
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's crime-procedural is ostensibly about the search for a body as a number of law-enforcement types accompany two suspects through the vast Anatolian steppe during a very long, Sisyphean night. Through the quest to first find out the whereabouts of the victim, and then the long, strenuous bureaucracy that culminates in its autopsy, we follow the men, all flawed, all human, dealing with the case at hand, the infinite Anatolian plateau, and their own personal demons. In fact, this modern-day epic is akin to an autopsy of the human condition: what makes us tick, the consequences of our actions, whether we ever truly make a difference in the world; and, if we do, is it a decent one? Even though Ceylan works on the broadest canvas here of any of his films, ironically, "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" is his most personal work.
"Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" is a film of multitudes. It refuses to give answers; opting, instead, to present the viewer with a cornucopia of complex characters and emotions. It never strays; there is not one single shot too many. It is superbly acted, wonderfully written, and immaculately shot. It is a masterpiece.
We keep returning in flashbacks to an office Christmas party in Tomas Alfredson's masterful adaptation of John le Carré's 1974 seminal spy novel about the investigation into the identity of a Soviet double agent in the top echelons of MI6. The shindig doesn't quite provide all the answers to the plethora of conundrums elegantly weaved through the narrative, but it does give us a sense of love, loss, and betrayal. In a final melancholic montage, two tears mark the end (as they so often tend to do), one usual, the other less so, both sad.
Fans, as well as detractors, have talked about the seeming complexity of the story, a charge I've found baffling since, as these things go, it's rather straight forward. There is a mystery, though, and it is on an emotional level. The industrial apparatus of Cold War espionage engulfs the characters, who nonetheless find ways to express their humanity, mainly to the detriment of themselves as well as their jobs. The investigator George Smiley (Gary Oldman, magnificent) is at the centre of it all, watching everyone like a hawk, yet unable (or unwilling?) to turn that perceptive gaze upon himself.
3. "A Separation"
What's most incredible about Asghar Farhadi's film is how he got to make it. Iran is not renowned for artistic freedom, and a film such as this, which skewers with equal ease the country's complicit bourgeoisie as well as the poor masses stuck between the mollahs' oppressive regime and the yo-yoing calls for change. But it is not just daring that elevates the film's into greatness.
Whereas the film's original title, جدایی نادر از سیمین (The Separation - or Divorce - of Nader and Simin, literally), refers to the ugly breakdown of the central characters' marriage - the film's apparently central focus - , its international title is more apt. The use of the indefinite article is a trick, and the separation could easily be alluding to a number of conflicts within Iranian society as religion and tradition loom large over it. Iranian theocracy prides itself in having obliterated class struggle, yet Farhadi's film shows this not to be the case. But it is also a very human film finding, as they say, the universal in the local, and features one of the most harrowing last shots of the past few years.
A harrowing tragedy is at the centre of Lynne Ramsay's film, one we never quite see, although its repercussions we most certainly feel. The particulars of the event are at first ambiguous, and, paradoxically, it tends to become more so, thematically at least, once we find out the nature of it. Is it a mass killing at a high school? Or is there something deeper? Is the tragedy Kevin, a precocious psycho of a boy whose mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton), never really wanted? Is it, in fact, Eva's selfishness? Or is it, in fact, the apotheosis of motherhood that is the real tragedy? The anachronistic and misogynistic view that the female of the species was launched for one sole issue, armed and engined for the same?
The film doesn't provide the answers, instead offering a glimpse into Eva's psyche, both before and after the events that sent Kevin to prison. Eva's emotional self-immolation doesn't betray just an "oy vey iz mir" pity-party of one, but also a sort of solipsism: a misappropriation and transmogrification, perhaps, of Henley's "Invictus," with Eva not just as the master of her fate, but also the executioner of her soul.
5. "A Dangerous Method"
Religious identity is a subtle motif that slowly reveals itself in David Cronenberg's adaptation of "Talking Cure," screenwriter Christopher Hampton's own play about the bizarre, real-life triangle between Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and their patient (then colleague), Sabine Spielrein. Played by the ubiquitious (and really rather good) Michael Fassbender, Jung's eventual forays into the metaphysical drive a wedge between him and his strictly rationalist mentor (Viggo Mortensen, who plays Freud's latent anger very close to his chest), exacerbated by the young upstart's tempestuous love-affair with the feral Spielrein (Keira Knightley, magnificent). In a later scene, Freud upbraids Spielrein for still obsessing about Jung, reminding her that despite what bizarre fantasies she might harbour, she will still be a Jew, and their possible progeny would not be a mythical unifier of the two strata of Austro-German society. The taboo, in this case, is not just the affair between a doctor and his patient, but between a Christian (an "Aryan") and a Jew: a point underlined in the film's post-script recap of its players' fates.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cannes-winner is, indeed, bizarre (in a most positive way) with its foreboding yet welcoming jungle, ghosts with wanderlust, loquacious apemen, and libidinous catfish. Yet nothing is inscrutable, as with A Separation, a sort of universal truth is achieved, this time, though, through abstract imagery and sound. The film tells a fairly straight-forward story - a dying man, the eponymous uncle, is dying, and is visited by his memories - but its real achievement is the creation of a set of moods and modes. It has a dream-like quality with a particular aesthetic that eschews the usual boundaries between the rational and the irrational. By all means, film is a meticulously put-together form of art, yet Weerasethakul has formed here some sort of a transcendental masterpiece that defies its very form. Most importantly, the film invigorates, and ignites in the viewer feelings, which, at the end of the day, all one could really ask from any art form.
7. "Meek's Cutoff"
Kelly Reichardt's revisionist-Western tells the story of a group of pioneers on the Oregon trail, led astray from the usual route by the titular guide (Bruce Greenwood). As the group run out water, they spot an Indian (Rod Rondeaux) stalking them, who becomes their unwilling guide for not just passage through the rough terrain but also water. Communication, and miscommunication, play a key part in the film's success, with the inability to cross the conversational divide between the pioneers and the Indian as great as that between the various members of the travelling party, with the chasm between the men and the women particularly wide. Michelle Williams, one of her generation's greatest actors, is marvellous as an urfeminist, whose sterling work is particularly impressive considering Reichardt's compositions that regard the group from a fair distance. An earlier dissolve where Meek appears to be riding on the air over a barren landscape is one of this year's signature images in film.
Based on Yasmina Reza's worldwide smash-hit play "God of Carnage," Roman Polanski's film is a claustrophobic thriller masquerading as a, and I quote, "a comedy of manners without manners." Not to put too fine a point on it, but "Carnage" is also the tale of a multiple murder-suicide without the multiple murder-suicide. Two Brooklyn couples of fine-standing, one slightly richer than the other, but less well-adjusted as a social construct, meet one afternoon to discuss a recent playground-mishap between their respective two sons that resulted in one kid losing a few of his teeth. The claustrophobia of the apartment-setting becomes a fifth character as the couples come to one agreement after the other, yet find themselves unable to leave the battleground. This almost surreal motif, reminiscent of "The Exterminatin Angel", is but one of the fault lines that crash and converge, culminating in an emotional earthquake that brings out the worst in all four characters, with at least two of them exclaiming "This is the worst day of my life." All the leads (Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and John C. Reilly) are wonderful, but I loved Reilly the most.
9. "Midnight in Paris"
The most successful movie of Woody Allen's career (on nominal terms) is also his best since "Bullets Over Broadway," which, thankfully, is not a billet-doux to nostalgia or the trite idol worship that I feared it would be based on the trailer. Instead, it's a mature artist realising his own folly. You can't live in the past, yes. But that doesn't mean you should stop being a romantic. There's a melancholy yet the film's full of hope, with the final choice of the hero underlining the pointlessness of living the past, and the necessity of having to trudge on. A stunning work of art.
Aside: I have seen the film four times now. The first time, I was in Zurich, and after I came out of the cinema, I walked along the Limmat river, then sat on a bench under a tree and called up Prufrock on my blackberry. Seuqestered under the leaves, and overlooking the Limmat and the Fraumuenster Church, I read one of my favourite poems. Then, I got up, and left.
10. "Martha Marcy May Marlene"
Written and directed by newcomer Sean Durkin, and featuring a haunting - and haunted - central performance by Elizabeth Olsen, finds its title character in the grip of paranoia, as she tries to recall the nature of her sojourn with a brainwashing, and possibly murderous, cult in the Catskills Mountains, led by John Hawkes' charismatic yet abusive leader. But what was it that exactly happened? Olsen initially garners sympathy from the viewer, which is slowly eroded as we start to question her sanity. A sense of imminent doom is omnipresent, and the ambiguous ending provides more questions than answers. Here is a film that works both as a highly effective thriller, but also on a deeper level: about our obsessions and compulsions, and how our memories have the ability to restructure them in ever more hurtful ways.
Note: There are still a number of films I have yet to see, e.g. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," "War Horse," or "Young Adult," and if I do end up liking them, I'll try to find a way of updating the above, or honouring them some other way.
Ali Arikan is the chief film critic of Dipnot TV, a Turkish news portal and iPad magazine, and one of Roger Ebert's Far-Flung Correspondents. Ali also writes a weekly column on film and pop culture at IndieWire's PressPlay blog. Ali is also a regular contributor to The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's official blog, and Fandor.com. You can follow his updates on twitter @aliarikan.