The criteria for my favorite films are progressive political and cultural content plus artistic excellence in terms of using the uniquely cinematic attributes of the movie medium. Astute readers may observe that half of the motion pictures on my Top 10 list for 2011 were shot and/or set in France. And while it’s true that your erstwhile cinephile actually did return to France last August, and that I do indeed speak French, it would be a mistake to assume that I am a Francophile. In fact, I did lots of reporting on the nuclear free and independent Pacific movement that was highly critical of French colonialism in New Caledonia and French-occupied Polynesia. But that is a flashback to another life, so suffice it to say that the land of the Lumiere Brothers, Georges Melies and the New Wave remains a vital cinematic force and center, so — in no particular order –my Top 10 films of 2011 are:
Hugo – And speaking of Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley), Martin Scorsese’s optically opulent, loving tribute (with an antiwar subtext) to that movie master of illusion in sumptuous 3D is a delightful tribute to a motion picture pioneer and the art form we are so besotted with: Cinema.
The Artist – French auteur Michel Hazanavicius’ film, set in Hollywood in the 1920s as the talkie emerged, is likewise an adoring ode to the silent screen that reminds us silence truly is golden.
The Iron Lady – Meryl Streep uncannily depicts Britain’s vicious originator of mad cow disease in this biopic about dictatorial Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whom husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) nicknames “M.T.” (Get it? As in “empty.”) Too bad the IRA missed.
The Conquest – Xavier Durringer’s biopic about reactionary pig Nicholas Sarkozy’s (Denis Podalydes) rise to the presidency of France, and his miserable relationship with wife Cecilia (and with just about everybody else), is a rightwing bookend to The Iron Lady about another conservative tyrant.
Coriolanus & The Flowers of War – Both Ralph Fiennes’ modern dress version of Shakespeare’s drama about a Roman general co-starring Vanessa Redgrave and Zhang Yimou’s epic about the rape of Nanking co-starring Christian Bale are both historically set antiwar films that tied for a space on my Top 10 list.
Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 – This documentary about Civil Rights activists, nationalists and revolutionaries perfectly captures what one of its interview subjects, Stokely Carmichael, once said (and I paraphrase): “Molotov cocktails and ghetto riots – ahhh, that’s the stuff dreams are made of.” With Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Louis Farrakhan, and other luminaries of the Black liberation struggle during the sizzling sixties and seventies.
Potiche – This 1970s-set French feminist farce and musical comedy stars the ever radiant Catherine Deneuve, whose factory owner husband (Fabrice Luchini) vies with the town’s Communist mayor (Gerard Depardieu) in the class struggle and for his wife’s affections. Deneuve delightfully turns the tables on these Frenchmen when she enters politics as a matriarchal candidate.
A Dangerous Method – The psychological ménage a trois of patient-turned-shrink Sabina Spielrein (poetically portrayed by Keira Kinightley), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbinder) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson) is anything but comic as the founders of psychoanalysis clash. This historical drama is spellbinding, and poor Spielrein’s offscreen fate is absolutely heart rending.
Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen’s wonderfully witty time traveling comedy is a laugh a minute romp that takes a contemporary emotionally lost scriptwriter (a droll Owen Wilson) back to the Lost Generation of American and other expatriates who inhabited the City of Light in the 1920s. Full of insights about the creative process (not to mention human longings, in and out of bed), this is the Woodman’s funniest comedy in years, as well as reportedly Allen’s highest grossing film ever. And you haven’t lived until you see Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, the role she was born to play!
The Names of Love – I’ve saved the best for last, as this very sexy, very funny French farce is my favorite film of 2011, one of those movies that makes you feel glad to be alive. What can I say? – I’m in love. Sensuous Sara Forestier deservedly won the Best Actress César (the French counterpart to the Oscar) for her role as the Reichian dream girl incarnate, a lefty woman who (pardon my French) fucks for freedom. Viva la revolucion!