It's hard to believe, but the first half of 2011 is already history. That means it's time for a mid-year survey of the year in film. So, here are my picks for the best 5 films of the first half of 2011 (no one will be surprised at number 1):
1) The Tree of Life: Terrence Malick's magnificent film is breathtaking in both its ambition and its execution. This is a film that connects. It certainly connected with me, more so with each viewing (I've seen it 3 times). It's a film that pushes cinematic storytelling forward, imagining new ways to piece together image, sound, vocal fragment, idea. But the film is not just an exercise in style; it's a deeply personal, philosophical, punch-you-in-the-gut meditation on some of life's biggest questions. (my review)
2) Meek's Cutoff: I've been a fan of each of Kelly Reichardt's films (Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy), but her most recent is perhaps the most interesting. It's the most philosophical western I think I've ever seen--if you can call it a western. Actually it's more like a Gus van Sant-esque period road movie. In any case, it's a film of great restraint, mystery, and "you-fill-in-the-gap" insinuation. It's a film that beckons the audience to actively participate in the process of meaning making, which is a rarity I always appreciate. (my review)
3) Cave of Forgotten Dreams: I love Werner Herzog. His curiosity about the world is endearingly transparent in his wonder-filled films, and Cave is no exception. A documentary about prehistoric paintings discovered in a French cave, this film is educational, artful, inspiring, and thought provoking. In true Herzog fashion, it highlights the simultaneous majesty and silliness of human civilization against the backdrop of an endlessly mysterious natural world. How do we make sense of the world? Herzog hones in on this abstract question, even while he--a true artist/philosopher--lives it out himself. (my review)
4) Certified Copy: Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy is essentially Before Sunset in Italy, which is good because Sunset is one of my all time favorite films. Filmed in glorious Tuscany, featuring the sublime Juliette Binoche, and riffing on notions of originality, inspiration, and cinema itself, Copy is a complex modernist experiment in the style of Alain Resnais. Rent it.
5) Of Gods and Men. A true story about monks in North Africa who risk it all in pursuit of their mission, Gods is one of the most inspiring films about faith, sacrifice, and community that I've ever seen. A quiet, austere, but utterly transcendent film, Gods paints a picture of what it means to be faithfully present as Christ's ambassadors in a world that is beautiful, dynamic, and frequently hostile.
Honorable mention: Another Year. It came out in L.A. the last week of 2010 but everywhere else in 2011, so I'm not sure in which year it qualifies. In any case, it's an amazing film. A must-see for fans of Mike Leigh. (my review)
I also really enjoyed: Hanna, Midnight in Paris, Super 8, X Men: First Class, Bridesmaids.