Earlier this week, we kicked off a 4-part series examining how film festivals can define the year in cinema – and how our perspective can change in the years to come. We’ll be looking back at the year-in-festivals of 5, 10, 25, and 50 years ago.
Today we go back one decade to 2011. Let’s see what went down.
Awards Front-Runner: A Separation
Critical Favorite: Martha Marcy May Marlene
Breakout Potential: John Boyega, Attack the Block
Indie Darling: Weekend; Meek’s Cutoff
Peaked Here: Like Crazy
Under the Radar: Margin Call
Change Gon’ Come: Denis Villeneuve, Incendies; Tom McCarthy, Win Win
2011 Sundance kicked off with a bang and a whimper – following a 2010 laden with eventual Oscar nominees, the festival crushed the previous year’s acquisition total (45 to 14!), only to see its quality dip, especially among those films that critics and festival-goers gave the most attention.
But let’s start with the good. Martha Marcy May Marlene earned Sean Durkin a directing award for his debut feature, and the world would have to wait another 9 years before his eventual follow-up would return to Park City, with 2020’s The Nest. Durkin would take his film onto that year’s Cannes (more on that later), and he would be joined in the Sundance-to-France leap by Take Shelter filmmaker Jeff Nichols. The two were labelled early on as would-be saviors of imaginative mid-budget filmmaking. One Spielberg; the other Cassavetes. Though both remain talented filmmakers, neither quite caught fire like the festival high led many to believe.
One film announced itself as the first (and potentially only) major work to come from the pre-Cannes period. After somewhat of a breakthrough winning the Silver Bear for Best Director at Berlin with 2009’s About Elly, Asghar Farhadi returned to the German festival with his first masterpiece: A Separation. His film won the Golden Bear, and both Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi won their respective acting prizes. The film became an immediate juggernaut, continuing on from festival to festival until eventually pulling in a respectable $24 million, winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and getting a nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
But there’s a flipside to these successes. Early 2011 saw peak Drake Doremus hype, when the young director was supposed to be the Next Big Thing to come out of independent film. His feature Like Crazy even drew a strong cast of Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, and Felicity Jones. Like Crazy took home the jury award at Sundance for dramatic film, and even the earned “most likely to succeed” at the following year’s Oscars label from several critics. The film did not succeed, and Doremus has failed to elevate past his limited audience in the mumblecore-improve-independent world – this is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, just perhaps not what many expected at the time.
Hindsight gives us lots to enjoy. Denis Villeneuve brought his talents to America with Incendies, playing both Sundance and SXSW with his fourth feature, and what would be his last one without a major Hollywood star and put out by a major Hollywood studio (it premiered the prior year). Then actor-turned-indie darling Tom McCarthy brought his third film in a row to Sundance, Win Win, just four years out from shedding his independent skin and making Netflix’s The Cobbler and Best Picture winner Spotlight in a 12-month period.
As always with these early films, great films went under-talked-about. JC Chandor’s Margin Call might still be the best film about the 2008 financial crisis, and its lackluster reception certainly foreshadowed the long-term under-appreciation for that film. Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block snuck into SXSW under the radar, though it would eventually earn cult classic status and would launch the career of its lead John Boyega.
Speaking of SXSW: the Texas festival helped launch a number of careers in 2011, cementing its status as a major stop on the circuit. In its spectacularly prescient Emerging Visions category, the film played the world premieres of Green (Sophia Takal’s debut) and Weekend (Andrew Haigh’s debut). The festival also secured the much-desired US debut of Mike Mills’ breakout Beginners, which had played Toronto the prior year but wouldn’t receive a release until the summer of 2011. In its Shorts category, the festival had entries from established filmmakers (David Lowery and Spike Jonze) and up-and-comers who would explode onto the scene in the next decade (Janicza Bravo and the Safdie Brothers). And all of that ignores SXSW’s headline work-in-progress World Premiere screening: Bridesmaids. If there’s a winner of this phase of festival season, it just might have been SXSW.
Awards Front-Runner: Midnight in Paris
Critical Favorite: The Tree of Life
Breakout Potential: Ezra Miller, We Need to Talk about Kevin and Another Happy Day
Indie Darling: Take Shelter
Peaked Here: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Under the Radar: The Artist
Change Gon’ Come: Ryan Gosling, Drive
“But one can't help but think that the movie will still lack the mass-market appeal it needs to succeed at the box office. Though there is little doubt that it is destined to be a cult-classic.”
The exact words of a critic – and certainly the sentiment of several more – referring to eventual Oscar heavyweight The Artist after its Cannes premiere. It’s tough to go under-the-radar when The Weinstein Company snatches you up as an Oscar play, but this fairly light romp through the transition from silent film to talkies would eventually catch most of Hollywood by surprise in the Fall and Winter of 2011. So despite its generally positive reception at Cannes, it should still be considered as having been under the radar.
The delightful, time-travelling comedy with an homage to the arts that did seem to have the momentum at the time? Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris – which, along with another entry in this season’s circuit, should be a dark reminder of just how recently the industry heaped praise onto known bad actors. A third bid at broad popularity crashed: after having the honor of playing the Croisette, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides would go on to become the worst reviewed (thus far) of the franchise – though it did pull in over a billion dollars globally.
On the flip-side, Cannes was also littered with darker, more obtuse, opaque, challenge works. Terrence Malick joined the small group of Americans to win the Palme D’or with The Tree of Life, a film that seemed to shake the earth underneath critics’ feet at the time. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive began its journey to cult status in France, including by launching Refn to the attention of both American audiences and studios. And Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin earned its fair share of praise, including for young actor Ezra Miller, who popped up in both Ramsay’s film and the award-winning Another Happy Day at Sundance, shooting his star skywards and on the way to the following year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. And Lars Von Trier premiered arguably his best work, Melancholia, with Kirsten Dunst taking home the top prize for acting.
The Fall Festivals
Awards Front-Runner: The Artist
Critical Favorite: A Separation
Breakout Potential: Michael Fassbender, Shame; Yorgos Lanthimos, Alps
Indie Darling: The Duplass Brothers, Jeff, Who Lives At Home and Your Sister’s Sister
Peaked Here: Great Directors (Béla Tarr, Joel Schumacher, William Friedkin, Chantal Akerman)
Under the Radar: The Descendants
Change Gon’ Come: Roman Polanski (Carnage), Pawel Pawlikowski, Fifth
2011 was a time of change in the film industry. After a 2-year flirtation with 10 Best Picture nominees, the Academy adopted the sliding scale approach that it would keep for the next decade (they will revert back to a guaranteed 10 this coming ceremony). The prior year, Netflix went from being one of the largest customers of the USPS to one of the most trafficked websites on the continent – a product of its shift from DVD to streaming.
And as festival season wore on, we saw the final bows of legendary filmmakers as others rose to take the mantle. Béla Tarr made The Turin Horse. Chantal Akerman made Almayer’s Folly. Joel Schumacher made Trespass. Francis Ford Coppola had Twixt. William Friedkin put out Killer Joe. Two (Akerman and Schumacher) have passed away, but not a single one of these screen legends have made another film in the last decade.
Meanwhile, bowing at Venice, Shame marked not only the formal arrival of director Steve McQueen, but helped launch Michael Fassbender as one of the next great leading men – Fassbender brought home the acting prize from the Italian festival. Similarly award-winning at Venice, writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos took home a screenwriting prize for Alps, just one film before much of the world would be introduced to him with 2015’s The Lobster. And in the independent world, The Duplass Brothers finally broke through – as directors with Jeff, Who Lives At Home, and for Mark, as an actor with Your Sister’s Sister, both debuting at Toronto.
But the benefit of a decade has colored my retrospective – in reality, the fall festivals exchanged short-term success for the long-term. At the time, the futures of people like Lanthimos and Duplass weren’t clear. Instead, Venice put its chips on star power – films celebrities-turned-directors mostly flopped on the Lido, including Al Pacino’s Wilde Salome, Madonna’s W.E, and George Clooney’s Ides of March. The globe continued to inexplicably fete Roman Polanski, with his Carnage not only playing Venice but opening the New York Film Festival. Telluride was still getting its footing, with few successful world premieres outside The Descendants, which would sneak its way toward a bevy of Oscar nominations despite few die-hard fans.
Toronto’s genre fare is worth noting: Adam Wingard’s viciously fun You’re Next, Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca, and Gareth Evans The Raid. Wingard would go on to blockbuster filmmaking, including this year’s Godzilla v Kong, and both Wheatley and Evans would make big-budget period films for Netflix in the coming years (Rebecca and Apostle, respectively). Wim Wenders’ dance documentary Pina also played both Toronto and Telluride, and would make its way toward an Oscar nom for best documentary.
Odds and Ends
There’s little to report for how the movie year developed after the big three Fall festivals. Aside from a disgraceful opening night film, NYFF added little to the mix, though Michelle Williams shined in the premiere of My Week with Marilyn, the centerpiece of the festival, and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo debuted as well. The most notable bit of programming might be Nadav Lapid’s narrative feature film The Policeman, which despite debuting to strong reviews at the Locarno and Jerusalem film festivals, was not selected for a North American festival until New York got its hands on it. Lapid has gone on to international acclaim with The Kindergarten Teacher, Synonyms, and this year’s Ahed’s Knee, competing for the Palme D’or in Cannes.
AFI Fest opened with J. Edgar, but included a similarly surprising film from a small, independent filmmaker. Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel made the mid-year festival circuit (Sarasota in April, Locarno, Vancouver, Maryland, and others) only to fail to find a distributor, ultimately earning the award for best undistributed film of 2011. In late 2011, AFI brought it to a much wider audience, and the film ultimately found distribution a few months later. Perry has gone on to become something of an indie starlet, with a pair of 2018 films threatening to break him into the mainstream – Christopher Robin and Her Smell.
2011 was a tumultuous year, and the film festivals reflect its ups and downs. Check back next week for our look back a quarter-century at the year 1996 in film.