Margaret—written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me), starring Anna Paquin, with key supporting performances from Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo—is the best film of 2011. Chances are very, very good you haven't seen it—or were even aware it was something you could see. And right now, it isn't.
Written in 2003, shot in 2005, and mired in post-production troubles and subsequent lawsuits, Margaret was not theatrically released until September of this year—and almost as soon as it arrived in theaters (very few theaters), it disappeared. A coming-of-age tale infused with post-9/11 anxiety, Margaret features Paquin—in the performance of the year—as Lisa, a Manhattan high-schooler whose role in a fatal bus accident leads to a battle with her self-absorbed, actress, single mom, a few reckless (if awkward) seductions, and the obsessive pursuit of retribution on behalf of the accident victim.
Margaret opened on a single screen in Los Angeles on Sept. 30—and closed two weeks later. In many cities, it never opened at all. Given its production history, it's something of a miracle it played anywhere.
So what happened? According to the Los Angeles Times, after spending years in the editing room and seeking counsel from friends such as Martin Scorsese (who called an early cut of Margaret "a masterpiece"), Lonergan was unable to produce a version that would, per his contractual obligation with Fox Searchlight, come in at less than two and a half hours. Searchlight demanded that Lonergan turn in an edit in 2008; he gave them his director's cut, which was longer than the 149-minute film eventually released. Why did it take three years to get from the director's cut to this year's film? Financier Gary Gilbert and distributor Fox Searchlight sued each other and settled; then Gilbert sued Lonergan, a case that is due in court later this year.
Lonergan has given exactly one interview during all of this, and even that was monitored by his attorney due to the ongoing litigation. "I love this movie," he told TIME's Mary Pol. "I have never worked harder or longer on anything in my professional life. It would mean everything to me if the film could at least have a fair chance at a life of its own."
Embracing the film and giving its cause some year-end awards momentum, some critics and bloggers are trying to provide that chance (#teammargaret has become a bona fide Twitter meme). But it's pretty clear Fox Searchlight had and has no real incentive to spend energy or advertising dollars on Margaret, and when asked to explain why the film so quickly disappeared from theaters in the few major cities where it did open and why it failed to expand to other markets, Searchlight can legitimately point to dismal box-office returns. (The film grossed a total of $46,495.) The argument against this, of course, is that the audience could hardly have shown up for a movie it didn't know existed. A film given a blink-and-you'll-miss-it release in a highly competitive market such as New York or Los Angeles, deprived of the benefit of significant advertising or media coverage, might as well not be released at all.
There is also the matter of reception. Margaret is a divisive movie, and not all critics are boosting it. The New York Times' A.O. Scott wrote that in Margaret's second half, "the sense that anything is really at stake, or that anything even makes sense, dwindles before your eyes." This is not a totally inaccurate assessment of the film—though I would say it's a willful rejection of the film's deliberate climate of confusion. When I called Margaret "a remarkable mess of a movie" in my own review, I didn't mean that as a pejorative. Lonergan's 185-page shooting script, which has been making the rounds online, suggests that the distracted nature of the film is not a product of the tough edit, but of an intentional aesthetic. The theatrically released cut, while not fully faithful to Lonergan's script, seems remarkably faithful to his script's spirit.
If Margaret is a mess, it only makes us conscious of the messiness that we somehow manage to navigate every moment of our lives. Maybe it's imperfect; maybe it's not for everyone. Maybe nothing worth paying attention to is. I hope you get a chance to judge for yourself.
If Margaret is unequivocally my choice for the film of the year, after that, it gets complicated. As I went through the annual end-of-year process of catch-up, re-evaluation, and revision, my top five films solidified—and roughly 30 films took turns occupying the remaining five slots. In the end, all things being equal, I went with the titles that gave me the purest pleasure as a filmgoer.
* * *
Kenneth Lonergan, United States
Lars von Trier, Denmark
The sheer beauty and personal depth of von Trier's triangle of depression, anxiety and cosmic apocalypse has been well-documented. What has been overlooked, I think—and what pushes Melancholia into masterpiece realm, for me—is its subversion of Hollywood's two primary currencies: the special-effects epic and, in the casting of Kirsten Dunst as von Trier's alter ego, the celebrity confessional.
3. MEEK'S CUTOFF
Kelly Reichardt, United States
Has a better American film been made about survival instincts in the face of economic desperation since the start of the downturn than Reichardt's gorgeously unsettling Oregon Trail tale? In a great year for supporting actors, Bruce Greenwood's incredible transformation into the rugged titular character is the most unjustly overlooked.
4. THE TREE OF LIFE
Terrence Malick, United States
Even if the reach of Malick's infinite loop exceeds its grasp, that reach is unprecedented. At Cannes, it was tempting to pick a side between Tree of Life and Melancholia—Team Terry's earnest theological questioning versus Team Lars' Dogme dystopia. But even in their wildly diverging stylistic and philosophical approaches to life, death and the mysteries of the universe, the two films defined the year in film with their implicit dialogue between each other.
5. THE ARBOR
Clio Barnard, United Kingdom
Not just the best nonfiction film of 2011, Barnard's hybrid of primary-source reporting and dramatic staging to tell the tale of alcoholic British council estate bard Andrea Dunbar and the daughters she left behind is also the most innovative—not a small feat in a year that also brought the archival super-edit The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu.
6. A SEPARATION
Asghar Farhadi, Iran
A master class in storytelling and character study under any circumstances, Farhadi's Berlinale winner, about the reverberations of one middle-class housewife's decision to leave her family when her husband refuses to leave Iran, is all the more impressive as an implicit—but, in an incredible feat of footwork, never direct—critique of the standards and practices of the Iranian government that sanctioned its production.
Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark
The best music video Michael Mann never made. Ryan Gosling's (unsuccessful) campaign ad for the crown of Sexiest Man Alive. A movie-length, escalating joke about the manipulative seduction of genre-film tropes, Drive is the visual-pleasure bomb that critiques itself.
Steven Soderbergh, United States
A filmmaker whose primary obsessions have been work and sex, Soderbergh turned an outbreak story that demonizes both into an unflinching, dispassionate nail biter. Contagion is uniquely Soderberghian in its appropriation of a Hollywood genre for personal ends. When the big emotional catharsis comes, it's all the more devastating as a break from the total coldness that preceded it.
9. THE FUTURE
Miranda July, United States
The best of 2011's many Sundance-hits-turned-box-office-bombs. The reception accorded July's second feature—a deeply personal and fully unique hybrid of hipster relationship drama, lo-fi sci-fi and filmed performance art—only affirms its courage as a would-be commercial endeavor.
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Bennett Miller, United States
Am I biased as a baseball fan? Maybe, though as a faithful follower of the Dodgers—whose 2011 season offered a gripping seesaw of tragedy and triumph—I hardly needed to go looking for baseball drama elsewhere. Less an adaptation of Michael Lewis' best-seller than a cinematic rendering of the unlikely marriage between passion and fiscal ration that motivated the sport to put its faith in sabermetrics, Moneyball moved me to tears. Twice. My vote for most satisfying popcorn movie of the year.
The following films (listed alphabetically) almost made the cut: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Beginners, Certified Copy, City of Life and Death, A Dangerous Method, Dragonslayer, Fast Five, Go Go Tales, House of Pleasures, Jane Eyre, The Lincoln Lawyer, Love Exposure, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Mysteries of Lisbon, Rubber, Silver Bullets, Take Shelter, The Trip, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Winnie the Pooh.