Discoveries of 2011

It’s that time of the year again, where everyone posts their best of the year film lists. However, given that I’ve seen roughly 30 films from 2011, I’ll be continuing my tradition of highlighting my discoveries from the year. There’s only one rule: it has to be a film related thing from the past, so no 2011 films.


7th Heaven

Director Frank Borzage was one of my discoveries of last year and this year 7th Heaven is easily the best of his films I saw this year. No other film this year moved me as much, yet another testament to Borzage’s ability to craft empathetic characters and take them on a raw, redemptive emotional journey.

Blow Out

Cinematic. Trashy. Trancendent. B-Grade. Art. Sensationalism. Brian De Palma’s magnificient thriller rips down the barriers between high and low art, melding styles and sensibilities into a sweltering, obsessive work.

City Girl

It’s possibly F. W. Murnau’s most visual restrained picture, but his ability to use pure images to convey the psychology of desire is supurb, forming the basis of a powerful and memorable melodrama. The fact it shares a lot of similarities to, and probably served as an inspiration for, Days of Heaven only enhanced my experience with the film.

Diary of a Country Priest

I caught up with more fantastic Bresson films this year and Diary of a Country Priest is easily the best of those that I saw, a film that stands among the best of Bresson’s films. It’s the origins of his signature restrained, minimal acting style and the true creative birth of one of cinema’s finest directors.


When people talk about the great late ‘90s sci-fi breakout, they’re usually referring to either Dark City or The Matrix and while both are stellar films, eXistenZ was sadly lost inbetween the two films, also questioning the existence of reality, but in a more lucid, waking dreamlike state. It’s the film’s courage to take the premise to its ultimate conclusion that makes it stand as a worthy third competitor to the Dark City vs. The Matrix debate.

Femme Fatale (2002)

Take Mission: Impossible, blend it with Mulholland Dr. and some neo-noir and you might get a basic idea of what Femme Fatale is. The truth is that Brian De Palma’s bizarre, masterful film is layered with so many devices, plot points and twists that the film is hard to explain and perhaps ever harder to completely understand. That’s part of what made Femme Fatale one of the standout films I saw this year, but it’s also the reason why you’re not going to see a review of this film until I at least rewatch it.

Heaven (2002)

While it’s Krzysztof Kieslowski and Piesiewizk’s final screenplay which attracted me to Heaven, Tom Tykwer’s soft, uneasy style and the fantastic performances by Cate Blanchette and Giovanni Ribisi echos what I love about Kieslowski’s work while also being its own magnificent masterstroke.

Heaven’s Gate

Maybe it’s because I expected the most infamous boxoffice flop of all time to be terrible, but I actually found myself enjoying the broad, drawn out dance sequences and grotesque perversion of the old West in Michael Cimino’s follow-up to The Deer Hunter. Perhaps not a truly great film, it’s still the one film this year that took me the most by surprise.


About once every year I see a film that challenges what films can be and do. My ever evolving preconceptions of cinema went through yet another dramatic shift as I watched this narrativeless, characterless sky voyage through the modern world.

Lady Vengeance

While Lady Vengeance lives in the shadow of the cult hit Oldboy, I found this film much more beautiful, elegant and involving. Park Chan-wook uses all three films in his vengeance trilogy to explore the different ways revenge can lead his characters, but Lady Vengeance was the only one that left me simultaneously shake and distraught as well as hopeful for the future of the characters.


A film that excels on so many levels it’s difficult to know where to begin. The strong screenplay weaves in politics, religion, class struggle and ideology into an involving drama set across the backdrop of one of the most visually distinct sci-fi motifs. Metropolis is the granddaddy of pretty much every great dystopian film made since and few can live up to its legacy.

Only Angels Have Wings

Amidst the flurry of smart, quippy wordplay and tense, breathless suspense setpieces, Only Angels Have Wings weaves a heartbreaking, tragic world of men who live life on the edge and the poor women doomed to fall in love with them. Easily the best Cary Grant movie I discovered this year. Also, who’s Joe?

Phantom of the Paradise

Old souls caught up in a retelling of Faust blends that thing special to me, the rock opera musical into De Palma’s pulpy style for somebody super like you. It finds life at last in the upholstery of the pure expressiveness of musicals and the sheer bizarriety of pulp fiction. And that’s the hell of it.

Rio Bravo

A town drunk, a cocky young kid, a jaded old sheriff and a gimpy jailer become the ensemble of one of the best westerns ever made. Add the ravishing and cold Angie Dickinson only seals the film as an all time great.


No film has terrified me as much as Safe did. There were sequences where I found myself holding my breath, just as frightened as the protagonist to take in any air. Todd Haynes’ strong screenplay and masterful direction make what could be a silly, paranoid story into one of the most empathetic and disempowering movies I’ve ever seen.


I’m surprised how frank and biting this film is. It’s a pull no punches look at human suffering and while I’m not completely sure how I feel about the details of what it has to say, the core relationship of the film as well as the climax is absolutely fantastic.

Straw Dogs

Sam Peckinpah might be one of the most misunderstood directors of all time. While many see his films as violently sensational, I see them as harrowing and complex explorations of just how messy and horrific violence is. Straw Dogs takes this even farther by adding a social dimension as well as sexual violence into the mix, making it a complicated, but ultimately condemning look at violent masculinity.

The Straight Story

A beautiful portrait of a man’s last journey, both literal and figurative, as he drives hundreds of miles on his riding mower to visit his brother one last time.  It’s the encounters he has along the way, the people he meets and the way they react which makes the film so rich. Brought to you by David Lynch!

Whisper of the Heart

There are many films about artist and the creative process, but few get to the struggle, the self-doubt, the frustration and angst of trying to create as well as the childhood tale in Whisper of the Heart. It might be Studio Ghibli’s most straightforward film, essential a human drama, but it’s also one of their most magnificent and touching

Wayne’s World

Has satire ever been so funny and yet so dumb? Part cultural riff on the ‘80s, part quasi-meta media satire, Mike Myer’s comedy classic is pure comedic gold. It triumphs in great part because it’s just as willing to make fun of itself as it is to make fun of others. And I can no longer hear Dream Weaver without cracking up into laughter. Party on, Wayne! Party on, Garth! That’s what she said.


Luis Buñuel

The surreal, absurd humor of Luis Buñuel made for two of the most magnificent and funny films I saw this year. That Obscure Object of Desire brilliantly spoofs the artsy, navel gazing romance while The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie made the dinner party both a dreaded and hilarious affair. I also enjoyed the solid The Exterminating Angel and look forward to watching even more of his work in the future.

Dardenne Brothers

The slow, formally stilted films of the Dardennes Brothers were some of the most involving and provoking films I saw this year. It’s The Child which still grips me and I think Lorna’s Silence is also underrated by some of their fans. I didn’t find The Son as gripping as most, but I still found it compelling and I’m eager to check out The Kid with the Bike whenever I can get a chance to see it.

Claire Denis

Even when I didn’t like a Denis film, I found it fascinating. Hence I found myself reading a lot about Trouble Every Day even though it was the Denis film I didn’t care for the most. But enough about that, what made Denis such a wonderful director is her ability to capture sensations in such a gleeful manner. I think it’s best expressed in Friday Night but I also found myself caught up in films like The Intruder, White Material and Chocolat because of Denis’ smart visual eye.

Abbas Kiarostami

My first experience with Kiarostami didn’t overwhelm me. While I enjoyed Close-Up, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. After seeing this year’s Certified Copy, his style clicked for me as a bluing inbetween reality and fiction, built around surprisingly strong and emotional cores. I quickly watched Shirin and Taste of Cherry, both of which make me eager catch up with his other films.

Leni Riefenstahl

One of the most important, influential and controversial filmmakers of all time. While I understand some of the abrasion and responses I’ve gotten toward engaging with her films, I think she has a fantastic sense of motion that kept me entranced throughout the lengthy Olympia. For my thoughts on Triumph of the Will, I point to my review. While I understand why many would not want to spend time with Riefenstahl, I do not regret any moment I spent with her work.

Jean Vigo

I watched all of Jean Vigo’s films in a day and it was one of my best days of movie watching of the year. The strong debut of À propos de Nice overshadowed the rest of Vigo’s brief career and while Taris and Zero de Conduite were cute, albeit not particularly memorable, asides L’Atalante firmly established Jean Vigo as one of the great directors that tragically died before he was able to launch a career. Few directors with tenfold the films can claim as much pure fun, joy and delight in Vigo’s few hours of film.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing

  • BLOW OUT …. I championed that film as well. Unique picks here James.

    • It’s a great film. Be sure to check out more De Palma. That guy has made some great stuff off the beaten track.

  • I’m with you on eXistenZ. When Inception came out, I heard many comparisons to The Matrix and Dark City both, but after seeing eXistenZ this year, it’s more a throwback to that with the multiple levels and question of reality. It’s sad that this Cronenberg gem has been so overlooked, but I’ve noticed more chatter about it this past year so maybe more people are discovering it.

    As a random sidenote, I saw Wayne’s World in the theater when I was 9. At the time I didn’t catch half the references, but still loved the film, and appreciated it so much more once I was old enough to really get it. Any time someone randomly gives me a gift (i.e. not for an annual celebration or holiday) my first response is always “If it’s a severed head, I’m going to be very upset.”

    • eXistenZ is easily my favorite Cronenberg film and I’m hoping more people will discover and reevaluate it as we get some distance from the ’90s.

      Wayne’s World has so many wonderful lines worth referencing as much as possible.

  • Great stuff. Kiarostami is a discovery as well not just in Taste of Cherry but also the short he made for To Each His Own Cinema as I’m eager to check out more of his work.

    Safe, of course, is among my all-time favorite films though I doubt I will write an essay on that film this year. Yet, I’ll give you props on Femme Fatale which I think is one of the most underrated films of the last decade while I also think eXistenZ is a film people should see more. I agree that Heaven’s Gate is not a great film but I don’t think it’s as bad as people claim to be though I still think it is a very bloated and messy film despite Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography.

    • I’ll have to keep an eye out for that Kiarostami short. Glad to see someone else really digs Femme Fatale. I haven’t looked much at how people feel about that film, but I could see a lot of people hating it.

  • It was a genuine pleasure to read a column that dealt with an expansive and challenging cinema appetite. Yours was truly a year well lived.

  • Sandy

    So many great titles! I’m really glad that you liked Shadowlands. It makes a great companion piece to Remains of the Day. Both of Hopkins characters are self contained, but in ROTD, he chooses not to open himself up to love and lives with the consequences. In Shadowlands he chooses differently and lives with the consequences. “Why love, if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore: only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”

    I can’t wait to see 7th heaven. It looks like the Artist took a scene from that screen shot. I need to bookmark your site, so I can get here more often. I miss reading your reviews.

    • I’ll have to keep an eye out for Remainder of Days.

      And The Artist might have stole that scene from 7th Heaven. I do recommend you check it out.

  • I love seeing Koyaanisqatsi here. It’s a film that always surprises me with how powerful it is and how much I like it. It’s also a film experience that is greatly enhanced by its excellent soundtrack.

    I agree with you on KIarostami, too. Close-Up is hard to make sense of.

    • I wasn’t even sure what Koyaanisqatsi was about going into it, so when I started watch it, the film was an eery and riveting experience. It’s a film I’ve returned to several last year times when discussing with people what films are and what films can be.

  • I also am glad to see Koyaaisqatsi here. What an exhilarating experience. I also just had my first experience with Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry), which I adored. Also, eXistenZ was a Cronenberg that I missed when I went through his resume early in 2011, but caught up with later. One of my favourites from him. You saw some great stuff in 2011 – and a hell of a lot that I have never heard of and also need to see.

    • I’m delightfully surprised by how many of my readers have seen Koyaaisqatsi. It’s a film I wish more people talked about.

  • That’s a great list James…Lady Vengeance is in my top 20 of all time – I simply adore that film in every single respect. Koyaanisqatsi is gorgeous. Have you seen the follow-up Powaqqatsi (ie. “Life In Transformation”)? If it isn’t as consistently stunning, it’s not that far behind. Watch also for Samsara – a recent film made by the cinematographer of the qatsi films…The sweet and gentle nature of Whisper Of The Heart makes it one of my favourite Studio Ghibli films. If you love that, you should also really enjoy Only Yesterday which I finally broke down and got on region 2. And Rio Bravo is also one of my fave Westerns and easily my fave John Wayne (though Red River is no slouch).

    A few first-timers for you this year were also first-timers for me. Only Angels Have Wings was so much more entertaining than I expected. Jean Arthur and Cary Grant are huge reasons of course, but the story and script just kept popping along. And De Palma’s Phantom Of The Paradise was one of the best surprises of the year – the music was catchy in the best sense of the word, the film was fun and the finale was insanely great.

    I really do need to catch up with Borzage and add some more Murnau to my experience. I’ve put off Femme Fatale for awhile now, but I think you’ve got me curious enough to bump it back up the list. De Palma is very hit and miss for me, but it sounds like there’s enough intriguing elements in FF to satisfy.

    Diary Of A Country Priest is probably the only one of the list (that I’ve seen) that doesn’t quite work for me. The first half drew me in completely, but then it lost me…Safe is not a film I’m going to cozy up to either, but I completely admire its claustrophobic qualities.

    • I’ve not seen Powaqqatsi, but it’s one I plan to check out this year. Only Yesterday is another I want to see, but availability is an issue there. I don’t even think it’s got a US DVD release yet. (Cmon Disney, make some good of that Ghibli partnership!)

      I highly recommend Frank Borzage, one of the great overlooked directors from those I’ve seen.

      Yes, De Palma is hit or miss, for every film of his I love, there’s another I hate, so I imagine a lot of people will probably dislike Femme Fatale as well.

      Bresson’s style is polarizing and I do think he pushes the story of Diary in a way that could certainly make the style feel like a disservice to the second half, but I think it works seamlessly.

  • Rio Bravo is my top 20 films in 2011,which I wrote about here
    Luis Bunuel is one of my fav director,watched his discreet charm of the bourgeoisie and phantom of liberty many many times.

    • I need to check out Phantom of Liberty. Probably will check it out soon.