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But there is still a nagging sense that movies — and the public discussion of movies — are not what they used to be. That kind of nostalgia informed a lot of the recent writing about Pauline Kael on the 10th anniversary of her death this year, and it also shows up in a lot of movies. Cultural nostalgia in general was the subject of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” which just missed my Top 20, but backward-looking movie love informed some of the most interesting releases of the year: Michel Hazanavicius’s “Artist” and Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” which both evoked the glories of the silent era; Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,” which evoked the glories of old-fashioned, wide-screen epic filmmaking; and “Super 8,” which evoked the glories of Steven Spielberg. I’m ordinarily suspicious of antiquarianism, but I have to say that in most of these cases I found the impulse to explore the cinematic past refreshing, as much about recovering the idea of the new as about worshiping the old.
DARGIS The movies are not what they used to be and haven’t been since people started watching them on television in the 1950s, a process that made the sacred cinema object more profane. The de-sacralization continues and now seems nearly complete, which is why I cherish the ecclesiastical rituals of moviegoing even more. I like the convenience of streaming movies, but it’s transporting to sit in the dark, alone and with other people, watching bigger-than-life images. It can be especially affecting when the audience is with a movie, as they were when I caught “Warrior” a few months after it opened, and everyone burst into sustained applause at the end.
I can’t imagine, for instance, watching “War Horse” on a television, much less an iPhone: this is a self-consciously old-fashioned movie, shot in gorgeous film, which deserves to be seen projected on a big, bright screen and not via a thinner-looking “digital cinema package.” (This is the studios’ term for the compressed and encrypted digital files they use to store and distribute content, i.e., movies.) The use of the past in, say, “The Artist,” a cute gimmick stretched to feature length, is very different from how Mr. Spielberg (in “Tintin” and “War Horse”) and Mr. Scorsese (in “Hugo” and last year’s “Shutter Island”) self-consciously invoke and engage the cinema of earlier eras.
Both these filmmakers, two of the greatest of the movie-brat generation, are preoccupied, in their respective ways, sometimes nostalgically, with older movies, both European and Hollywood. (The movie brats are New Hollywood directors schooled in cinema who emerged in the 1970s; the other great being Francis Ford Coppola.) That nostalgia is sometimes inscribed both in the filmmaking and in the story, as with “Raging Bull,” a (largely) period piece shot primarily in black and white and very much a film about Mr. Scorsese’s own love of movies, with one of his touchstones, for instance, the black-and-white cinematography of “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957). With “Raging Bull” Mr. Scorsese even started a campaign to raise awareness about the fragility of color film.
The heart of “Hugo” is Mr. Scorsese’s ode to the early filmmaker Georges Méliès, a homage that’s also a tribute to cinema, which gives the movie a sense of urgency, particularly because what cinema was, for much of its history, has been eclipsed by the convenience of televised and now streaming images. Film history also matters in “War Horse,” and that’s partly why it’s so involving. It isn’t just about war and loss, which makes tears flow; it’s also about movies as they once were (and can be, as this film proves). When Mr. Scorsese was asked about the influence of Samuel Fuller’s “Shock Corridor” (1963) on “Shutter Island,” he said of the earlier film, “It’s in me.” Looking at “War Horse” you can see how John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley,” among many other films, is in Mr. Spielberg.
SCOTT Although I admired the visual bravura of “Hugo” and was touched by its sincere affection for Méliès and his work (the gorgeous restoration of his masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon” that was shown at the Cannes and Telluride film festivals was surely a cinematic highlight of the year, maybe the century), I was not as enthralled as perhaps I should have been. Or as enraptured as Mr. Scorsese clearly wanted me to be. The many breathless invocations of “the magic of cinema” lessen the magic, and the busy, showoffy historicist aesthetic prevents a deep and powerful register of feeling from developing (except in Ben Kingsley’s marvelously melancholy face).
“War Horse,” in contrast, uses its saturation in older styles of moviemaking to stir up the sort of simple and emphatic emotions that have always been central to the collective moviegoing experience. Mr. Spielberg’s formidable technical command is very much in evidence, but it is placed in the service (as it was in “E.T.”) of forceful and almost naïve sentiment. In other words, the movie does not seem to be, as “Hugo” is, primarily about its director’s bottomless love of movies.
Still, I am happy to have seen so many senior auteurs pushing themselves in ambitious and surprising new directions. A year with noteworthy new work from Mr. Spielberg, Mr. Scorsese, Mr. Allen and Clint Eastwood — as well as Jean-Luc Godard (“Film Socialisme”), Pedro Almodóvar and Raúl Ruiz, who made more than 100 films in his life and saved one of his very best, “Mysteries of Lisbon,” for last — cannot be a bad year. And there was also a lot of ferment on the younger end of the generational spectrum, and quite a few exciting movies that were no less ambitious for being modestly scaled, intimately focused and absorbed in the present.
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Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” with the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender as a sex-addicted yuppie (is that still what they’re called?), has received a lot of attention for its frankness, but I think it and its admirers confuse moralistic misery with honesty. I found more of that — more real tenderness, anguish, longing and humor — in Dee Rees’s “Pariah,” about a Brooklyn teenager coming out; in Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend,” about a one-night stand that turns into something more; and in Radu Muntean’s “Tuesday, After Christmas,” about the catastrophic impact of adultery on a marriage. I like to be deceived by movies, to be beguiled by fantasies and seduced by magical thinking, but I also like movies that feel like they’re telling the truth.
DARGIS There’s more to “Hugo” than Mr. Scorsese’s passion for movies, though there’s nothing wrong with that. It is also an argument for cinema, for cinema as a constituent part of modern life, which means it’s also a way of telling the truth. “Hugo” largely concerns its title character, who’s at once a watcher (like the viewer) and something of a director in the sense that his observations of the habitués in the train station where he lives resemble little movies. (I think he’s a proxy for the young Mr. Scorsese.) These vignettes or cine-fragments show us how Hugo views the world, how he makes sense of it and, importantly, they also show him the way to finding his place in it. As that great philosopher of film, Stanley Cavell, has written, “It is through fantasy that our conviction of the worth of reality is established; to forgo our fantasies would be to forgo our touch with the world.”
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I like Mr. Fassbender, though I don’t at all like “Shame,” which is British film miserabilism at its most miserable. The obviousness of that movie contrasts vividly with another much-talked-about if little-seen American movie from this year, “Margaret,” from Kenneth Lonergan. To recap briefly, Mr. Lonergan had a difficult time finishing the movie; received editing help from Mr. Scorsese; entered into legal wrangling; and a 2 hour 29 minute cut — not Mr. Lonergan’s longer preferred cut — received a cursory, perhaps contractually obligated theatrical release by Fox Searchlight. It was reviewed, somewhat favorably, if often with hesitations and qualifications, and then disappeared after four weeks only to become the subject of a passionate campaign to have it reshown to critics for awards voting.
I saw the movie finally a few weeks ago and was surprised by how much I liked it, despite its unevenness. I really admire its ambition. It makes such a stark contrast to so much American independent cinema, less in terms of budget and production scale than in its towering ambition toward that most fascinating subject: another human being. Part of what Mr. Lonergan has in mind is nothing less than the inner life of a teenager, Lisa (Anna Paquin): not just her boy problems and mother troubles but the entirety of her being at a certain moment in post-Sept. 11 time on the Upper West Side, New York, the United States, the World, the Universe.
SCOTT Yes, cinema is an integral part of modern life, but that does not mean that modern life is all cinema, which is part of the structuring fantasy of “Hugo.” And movies that construct dreams primarily out of other movies — “Hugo” and “Inception,” but also “Captain America” and “Sucker Punch” — often close off other avenues of imagination and leave vast realms of the modern unconscious unexplored, or even obstructed. Mr. Scorsese, following Brian Selznick’s wide-eyed and meticulous picture book, makes a strong case for Méliès’s visionary originality. But (since we’re quoting philosophers) why shouldn’t Mr. Scorsese, like his predecessors, enjoy an original relationship to the universe? Why should we, because we happened to arrive late in the short history of cinema so far, settle for secondhand, recycled dreams?
“Margaret” is most certainly a movie that fights, like its young heroine, to free itself from received wisdom and genre conventions. I’m afraid it scores, at best, a Pyrrhic victory. There are scenes as wild and insightful as anything on screen this year: the fatal bus accident that sets the story in motion; the awkward, funny, ruthlessly serious sex scene involving Ms. Paquin and Kieran Culkin; the angry, precocious classroom political debates. But then, after about 90 amazing minutes, it all falls apart. The writing becomes more shrill, the scenes choppier, the themes at once hectically muddy and overemphatic. And a story that seemed so wonderfully expansive dwindles back into anecdote.
“Margaret” was not the only movie that tried to take account of that feeling of bigness, of mystery, that lurks within ordinary experience. “The Tree of Life” went the furthest in connecting the individual soul with its cosmic correlatives, and even though I’m skeptical of Terrence Malick’s cosmology, I believe in his movie completely. And I have faith in “The Future” as well, a mopey hipster breakup movie bent by Miranda July’s deadpan rigor into a DIY sci-fi epic, a surreal foray into the inner lives of its passive, wounded characters, including the cat who serves as its conscience and narrator.
Speaking of which: What a year for animals! Uggie, the dog from “The Artist,” may have the Oscar buzz at the moment, but we should not forget the goat in “Le Quattro Volte,” the ape men and the amorous catfish in “Uncle Boonmee” and Caesar, the noblest ape on the planet.
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DARGIS Oh, and let’s not forget the magnificent horses in “War Horse,” though I wish I could forget the poor cat Ms. July’s character lets die as she tries to find the meaning of life while examining her navel lint. It’s funny that Ms. July’s husband, the director Mike Mills, has such a memorable dog in his movie “Beginners,” a Jack Russell terrier named Arthur who talks, via subtitles, to his human, Oliver (Ewan McGregor). “Beginners” didn’t fully work, but the scenes between Oliver and Arthur were true and soulful, and it’s lovely that Cosmo, the dog who played Arthur, was a rescue. Thank goodness he didn’t star in Ms. July’s movie or he would have never made it out alive.
SCOTT In the end, though, no one, human or beast, gets out alive, except perhaps in “The Tree of Life,” which leaps on the wings of celestial music from Waco, Tex., into eternity. It is surely a sign of these anxious times that, while some filmmakers looked back in fondness at the picturesque past, others squinted into the future and saw the end of everything. Apocalypse now, indeed, starring Kirsten Dunst (“Melancholia”), Michael Shannon (“Take Shelter”), Matt Damon (“Contagion”) and James Franco (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”). A year from now, if we’re still around, we can talk about what it all means.
A. O. SCOTT’S BEST OF 2011
In alphabetical order:
“Bridesmaids” (Paul Feig); “A Brighter Summer Day” (Edward Yang); “Cedar Rapids” (Miguel Arteta); “A Dangerous Method” (David Cronenberg); “The Descendants” (Alexander Payne); “The Future” (Miranda July); “The Help” (Tate Taylor); “Incendies” (Denis Villeneuve); “Into the Abyss” (Werner Herzog); “Margin Call” (J. C. Chandor); “Meek’s Cutoff” (Kelly Reichardt); “Mysteries of Lisbon” (Raúl Ruiz); “Le Quattro Volte” (Michelangelo Frammartino); “The Tree of Life” (Terrence Malick); “Tuesday, After Christmas” (Radu Muntean); “War Horse” (Steven Spielberg); “Warrior” (Gavin O’Connor); “Weekend” (Andrew Haigh); “Winnie the Pooh” (Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall); “Young Adult” (Jason Reitman).
MANOHLA DARGIS’S BEST OF 2011
In alphabetical order:
“Abracadabra” (Ernie Gehr); “Aurora” (Cristi Puiu); “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu” (Andrei Ujica); “Bridesmaids” (Paul Feig); “Contagion” (Steven Soderbergh); “A Dangerous Method” (David Cronenberg); “J. Edgar” (Clint Eastwood); “Le Havre” (Aki Kaurismaki); “Hugo” (Martin Scorsese); “Melancholia” (Lars von Trier); “Moneyball” (Bennett Miller); “My Joy” (Sergei Loznitsa); “Mysteries of Lisbon” (Raúl Ruiz); “Of Gods and Men” (Xavier Beauvois); “Poetry” (Lee Chang-dong); “Le Quattro Volte” (Michelangelo Frammartino); “The Return” (Nathaniel Dorsky); “Seeking the Monkey King” (Ken Jacobs); “The Skin I Live In” (Pedro Almodóvar); “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (Tomas Alfredson); “Voluptuous Sleep” (Betzy Bromberg); “Warrior” (Gavin O’Connor).