Year In Review: The Top 11 Trends, Topics, and Debates of 2011

Culture WarriorUsually I’m quite cynical about end-of-year lists, as they demand a forced encapsulation of an arbitrary block of time that is not yet over into something simplified. I typically find end-of-year lists fun, but rarely useful.

But 2011 is different. As Scott Tobias pointed out, while “quiet,” this was a surprisingly strong year for interesting and risk-taking films. What’s most interesting has been the variety: barely anything has emerged as a leading contender that tops either critics’ lists or dominates awards buzz. Quite honestly, at the end of 2010 I struggled to find compelling topics, trends, and events to define the year in cinema. The final days of 2011 brought a quite opposite struggle, for this year’s surprising glut of interesting and disparate films spoke to one another in a way that makes it difficult to isolate any of the year’s significant works. Arguments in the critical community actually led to insightful points as they addressed essential questions of what it means to be a filmgoer and a cinephile. Mainstream Hollywood machine-work and limited release arthouse fare defied expectations in several directions. New stars arose. Tired Hollywood rituals and ostensibly reliable technologies both met new breaking points.

“2011” hangs over this year in cinema, and the interaction between the films – and the events and conversations that surrounded them – makes this year’s offerings particular to their time and subject to their context. This is what I took away from this surprising year:

11. The Best and Worst Awards Shows

Depending on what you look for in awards shows, this was probably the best or worst year for you on record (perhaps both). In January, cringe-comic Ricky Gervais eviscerated the pompous privilege of the Golden Globes ceremony and its celebrity constituents through his confrontational and discomfiting style of comedy, while all the action in James Franco’s co-hosting gig at the Academy Awards this past February mostly occurred on his twitter feed while he slept through the slog of events onstage.

Both were praised and condemned for their work, but one thing’s for certain: Gervais and (to a lesser extent) Franco have stuck a fork in the road of awards show hosting which will determine what it means to emcee mammoth, lavish, and utterly meaningless ceremonies like these in the future.

10. The End of the World as We Know It

We’re used to seeing effects-laden science-fiction and apocalyptic narratives from big Hollywood studios, but 2011 framed the relationship between humanity and the cosmos on an intimate and personal scale with indie and arthouse fare like Jeff Nichols’s Southern gothic rapture narrative Take Shelter, Mike Cahill’s competing planets as a proscenium for existential pondering in Another Earth, Lars von Trier’s frank portrayal of the indifference of the universe in Melancholia, and Terrence Malick’s beautiful-but-flawed Tree of Life, which portrays the beginning of creation as a graceful symphony, its middle as postwar human life in Waco, Texas, and the celestial end as a Louis Vuitton ad.

These films were as disparate in their themes and interpretations of our existence as they were in their stylistic approaches to their subjects, but they collectively bring together the compelling case that life outside human existence is better explored through a few individuals rather than a bombastic Roland Emmerich-style mosaic.

9. Sports Movies For People Who Don’t Like Sports Movies (aka Me)

If 2010’s The Fighter showed that clichés, when done right, can work to a film’s advantage even in the most contrived and predictable of genres, 2011 both made good on that promise and showed that there’s more than one way to skin a sports movie. Bennett Miller’s Moneyball made the numbers came exciting, and created an unlikely sports movie underdog (redundant, I know) out of Jonah Hill; Gavin O’Connor made good on The Fighter’s promise by staging Mixed Martial Arts as a compelling family drama in Warrior; Tom McCarthy’s Win Win took the Emilio Estevez archetype and stripped away its simplistic morality and tidy endings; and Asif Kapadia’s firecracker of a documentary Senna will, to say the very least, prevent you from ever confusing NASCAR and Formula One again. I can barely sit through the full duration of any actual sports event, but the quality of these varied approaches to the genre will more than transcend anyone’s given interest in the game itself.

8. Rise of the Fassbender and the Gosling

Michael Fassbender in Shame

The talented and handsome Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling are in no way “new” to the consciousness of many a filmgoer, but this year these two rising stars dominated movie culture in ways that few stars have. Usually a star’s overexposure is detrimental to their worth (i.e., Ben Stiller and Jude Law in 2003-04), but it seems that we couldn’t get enough of these two throughout 2011. Fassbender made a credible Hollywood transition as the standout performance in Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, did literary costume drama right in Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Jane Eyre, and gave an uncanny awards season one-two punch with dual sexual frustration pics: Steve McQueen’s Shame and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method.

After receiving critical raves to the wide expansion of Blue Valentine, Gosling was all over the map in a good way with Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s summertime romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love (not a great movie in my opinion, but if Gosling’s character had been played by anybody else he’d be hard to tolerate), gave us one of the greatest zen loner action heroes in a long time with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, and embodied a descent into political corruption with George Clooney’s The Ides of March. Fassbender comes out the winner in terms of consistent quality movies (sorry Crazy and Ides), but between hilarious memes and Drive’s impressive fan culture, Gosling was on our radar one way or another.

7. The Great Docu-Biopic

Documentaries have often proven to be a useful means of exploring the life of an important individual. The non-fiction biopic can give us a closer connection to the real person (living or dead) than any famous actor caked in makeup and accompanied with an imitating voice (for example, see Eastwood’s J. Edgar – or better yet, don’t). But 2011 gave a smorgasbord of great documentaries that dove into the lives of fascinating individuals who might not have otherwise made the history books.

Cindy Meehl’s Buck captured the incredible story of a horse-training professional who spoke to horses after humans failed him at an early age. Richard Press’s Bill Cunningham: New York examined the annals of the city’s fashion history as it’s been lensed by a charming and enigmatic elderly man for decades, and in the process slyly says more about the newspaper industry than Page One and more about fashion than The September Issue.

Errol Morris approached reality as absurdist comedy by reviving the unbelievable true story of Joyce McKinney in Tabloid. 2011 in non-fiction stands as empirical proof that fascinating people can be found almost anywhere.

6. The One Percent

Several movies in 2010 tried to make sense of the 2008 financial crisis: The Other Guys (didactic), Wall Street 2 (incomprehensible), and Inside Job (near perfect). But with the rise of Occupy Wall Street and the newfound ubiquity of terms like “1 perfect,” “99 percent,” “income inequality,” and “Cornel West” in our lexicon, mainstream movies like Brett Ratner’s Tower Heist (which features the middle class stealing from their rich autocrat) and Seth Gordon’s Horrible Bosses (the characters explicitly justify killing their bosses because they can’t quit their jobs in this economy) made it clear that Hollywood is at least echoing – if not co-opting and profiting off of – the economic distress that motivated such protests.

OWS also prompted an interesting discussion of who within Hollywood constitutes the one percent. And no year could have been a better time to release J. C. Chandor’s still-underrated Margin Call (which, alongside Horrible Bosses, makes Kevin Spacey 2011’s one percent personified), a wonderfully sober film that makes disturbingly perfect sense of systematic senselessness.

…Oh, and Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 came out.


5. Not-So-Unnecessary Prequels

Many words have been spilled over Hollywood’s hyperactive greenlighting of remakes, prequels, and franchise reboots, and the term most often tied to them is “unnecessary.” Two films this year made a case that, in the realm of prequels at least, the question isn’t one of necessity, but quality and inspiration.

X-Men: First Class gave us two compelling (if a bit rough and hurried) origin stories which exercised the MLK/Malcolm X relationship mode between Professor X and Magneto that was only hinted at in the previous present-set films. However, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes hurtled well over the evident obstacle of an audience knowing a film’s ending by its very concept through its patient means of depicting the gradual overcoming of species-ist oppression. While straightforward remakes suffered this year, prequels made a case that beneath every story, there’s another one waiting to be told, and maybe even one that makes you root against the entire human race.

4. The “Cultural Vegetables” Debate

After the release of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, New York Magazine writer Dan Kois wrote a rather personalized article on what he viewed to be “cultural vegetarianism” in critical and social circles, which resulted in him “coming out” with a genuine preference for mass-culture’s processed meat. While there’s nothing wrong with a critic being autobiographically transparent about their own particular tastes, especially in regard to how that changes over time and life’s inevitable transitions, the suggestion that critics perform cultural vegetarianism proved to be a controversial point that (while contradicting the fact of “taste,” whether it be innate, acquired, or conditioned), brought about many conversations in editorials and on podcasts whose ensuing responses often proved more interesting than the originating concept.

If taste in quality cinema is conditioned through critical consensus, then isn’t taste in mass cinema conditioned through Hollywood? Is either better, worse, or less sincere? Is entertainment cinema actually all that entertaining, or do we simply categorize it as such? Why should it sound suspect to find films like Meek’s Cutoff or Apichatpong Weerasethakhul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives entertaining? How do we define boring?

“Cultural vegetables” may be an unfortunately coined metaphor, and several points brought to the fore might not be that critically revelatory, but the article (and its extension of last year’s “slow cinema” debate) did inspire an essential conversation that warrants regular revisitation about the supposed divide between “critics” and “audiences,” how taste both high and low is conditioned by outside forces, what constitutes “entertainment,” and questions surrounding how transparent critics should be about their tastes, preferences, and biases.

3. The End of Celluloid


Changes in production, exhibition, and distribution strategies have all but ensured the end of celluloid projection for new mass-market movies. The presence of digital projection in mainstream cinemas has risen significantly; Panavision, ARRI, and Aaton announced that they are ceasing the production of film cameras; and studios have even threatened to stop renting out 35mm prints from their archives for repertory screenings. Eulogies and obituaries have been written. Projectionists have reminisced on a romantic line of work that is nearing obsolescence. And Martin Scorsese released Hugo, an incredible children’s film that promotes film preservation not in the idealist hopes of keeping old projectors in regular movie theaters (Hugo itself was exhibited with new technology, not old), but for the moral imperative of preserving history. Rarely has a children’s movie seemed so urgently necessary.

2. The Year 3D Became Interesting

Last year it was a gimmick – a means of overcharging consumers by rolling films through an unwarranted postproduction process and posing it as added value. Sure, Avatar was “good 3D,” but how ironic is it that a film of such shallow thematic and narrative depth was presented in three dimensions?

3D may still resemble its 2009 and 2010 existence, but 2011 provided several important cases that bucked the stereotype by exemplifying that certain films – the right films – could actually be improved upon by such an upgrade. As I alluded to before, Hugo used new cinematic technology to depict old cinematic technology, thus exhibiting the constancy of film as spectacle despite its changing means of capturing that spectacle. But the most surprising and interesting place to find quality 3D cinema this year has been in documentaries.

Similarly to Hugo, Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams used 3D not only to depict the crevices of ancient space-defined art in tactile detail, but utilized new means of visual expression to capture the oldest means of making sense of the world through (“moving”) images. And Wim Wenders’s recently-released Pina captures dance on film in a way that it never has been, thus enlivening the intersection between one art form and another. While 3D may continue to be a gimmick on the mainstream front, it’s comforting to know that it can provide unexpected innovation elsewhere.

1. The Past is Among Us

This summer, Tom Shone of Slate wrote an article about the presence of past-obsessed summer films like X-Men: First Class, J. J. Abrams’s Super 8, and Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger. As I argued in response, the same can be said about nearly any cinematic year, but what makes 2011 interesting is its employment of a past understood particularly through previous films and other media (The 60s-set X-Men as a response to Mad Men; Super 8 recreating 70s/80s Spielberg films; hell, Captain America even has a post-credits sequence where the title character jumps out of the set of a 40s hospital).

This point only remained truer as 2011 progressed. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist and Hugo reminisced on a past as understood and experienced through silent cinema. Tate Taylor’s The Help regurgitated an simplistic and dangerously past-exclusive Hollywood version of the Civil Rights struggle that we’ve seen over and over again. Simon Curtis’s My Week With Marilyn reflected on an era determined by its media starlets.

The haze and mood of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy recalls 60s and 70s “quiet thrillers” ranging from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold to All the President’s Men and anything in between. And Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is imbued with a blanket of sentimental nostalgia befitting its Christmas release date. In each of these cases, the past is presented as it is already understood to be – a mediated past. It is thus summarily fitting that Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was released this year, a film whose central theme posits that the past as we reflect on it through nostalgia’s haze is never the way it was, but the way we want it to be.

Reflect on a year of culture with more Culture Warrior

Landon is a PhD candidate currently writing a dissertation on rock 'n' roll movies at Indiana University's department of Communication and Culture. He enjoys slow films on the beach.

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