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 that you haven't seen it — or weren't even aware that it was something you could see. And right now, it isn't — at least, not in LA.
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 female performance of the year, per the 95 critics who participated in our annual Critics' Poll — 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. (There is no character named Margaret — the film gets its title from the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem "Spring and Fall.")
Is Lisa traumatized — or is she a teenager? The movie makes that ambiguity fascinating by refusing to make those options mutually exclusive. Both dryly funny and deeply affecting, Margaret is novelistic in its scope and theatrical in its approach. Its performances are heightened, but its gaze is distanced, even distracted; there's no audience surrogate, because identifying with a character would prevent us from seeing him or her as a complete person.
Margaret opened in L.A. on Sept. 30, on a single screen, and closed two weeks later. In many cities, it never opened at all. Given its production history, it's something of a miracle that it played anywhere.
According to the L.A. 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 I saw.
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's due in court later this year.
Lonergan has given exactly one interview during all of this, to Time's Mary Pols, and even that was monitored by his attorney due to the ongoing litigation. "I love this movie," he told Pols. "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 have been pushing Searchlight to provide that chance (#teammargaret has become a bona fide Twitter meme). In fairness to the distributor, after the nightmare of trying to get the film out of the editing room, and with legal action still pending, Fox Searchlight has had no real incentive to spend energy or advertising dollars on Margaret. 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 fairly point to dismal box office returns. (The film grossed a total of $46,495.)
The counterargument, of course, is that the audience could hardly have shown up for a movie they didn't know existed.
A film given a blink-and-you'll-miss-it release of a week or two in a highly competitive market like New York or L.A., deprived of the benefit of significant advertising or media coverage (Searchlight arranged few press screenings, and the starry cast's promotional efforts were kept to a minimum), 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 deeper we get into the story, the more you need a flow chart to keep up," Betsy Sharkey complained in the L.A. Times. "It's as if Lonergan had far too much on his mind." 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."
These are not totally inaccurate assessments of the film, but they are willful rejections of Margaret's deliberate climate of confusion. When I called it "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 the distracted nature of the film is not a product of the tough edit but an intentional aesthetic. The theatrically released cut, while not fully faithful to Lonergan's script, seems remarkably faithful to his script's spirit.
As much as Lonergan's most obvious model might be the great American novel, Margaret's rambling structure and infectious restlessness feel like the cinematic mirror of Web surfing. We follow one link, then another, then another, and then, almost as if in a trance, we end up at a destination we didn't expect. We keep multiple tabs open in a browser, bouncing back and forth between different concerns without letting any of them dominate focus. We listen to music as we chat, doing both constantly as we work.
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 that you get a chance to judge for yourself.
You just might: Last week, in response to our query regarding a rumor that was floating around on Twitter, a Fox Searchlight spokesman told us, "We have no plans to rerelease the film." But on Tuesday, showtimes for Margaret quietly appeared on the website of Manhattan art house Cinema Village: the film will open there Fri., Dec. 23, for two shows a day. As of press time, no local showtimes had been announced, and Searchlight publicists had not responded to an email. We'll keep you posted.
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 most pure pleasure as a filmgoer.
1. MARGARET, Kenneth Lonergan (U.S.)
2. MELANCHOLIA, Lars von Trier (Denmark)
The sheer beauty and personal depth of Lars von Trier's triangle of depression, anxiety and cosmic apocalypse have 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 (U.S.)
Has a better American film been made about survival instincts in the face of economic desperation, since the start of the downturn, than Kelly 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 (U.S.)
Even if the reach of Terrence 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 with one another.
5. THE ARBOR, Clio Barnard (U.K.)
Not just the best nonfiction film of 2011, Clio 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 brought the archival superedit The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu.
6. A SEPARATION, Asghar Farhadi (Iran)
A master class in storytelling and character study under any circumstances, Asghar 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.
7. DRIVE, 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.
8. CONTAGION, Steven Soderbergh (U.S.)
A filmmaker whose primary obsessions have been work and sex, Steven Soderbergh turned an outbreak story that demonizes both into an unflinching, dispassionate nail-biter. 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 (U.S.)
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The best of 2011's many Sundance hits–turned–box office bombs. The reception accorded Miranda 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.
10. MONEYBALL, Bennett Miller (U.S.)
Am I biased as a baseball fan? Maybe, although 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 necessity that motivated the sport to put its faith in sabermetrics, Moneyball moved me to tears. Twice. My vote for the 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.