The best movies of 2011
Apes, black birds and dinosaurs rise to the top
Published: December 29, 2011
As you’re reading this, planet Earth’s real-life MacGuffin machine, the appropriately intimidating-looking Large Hadron Collider, which is buried underground in Switzerland, is smashing particles together to see what comes out. (As of the day of this writing, it has already led to the discovery of a brand new particle, though not quite the one they’re looking for – the Higgs Boson, aka the “God particle.”) This multi-billion-dollar revolutionary device has long been the source of high societal anxiety: Particularly skittish folk have worried that it will create a black hole that will devour us all, while other concerning factors abound, from an alleged terrorist discovered within the ranks of CERN, the international organization in charge of the LHC, to some of the world’s greatest minds, Holger Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya, proposing a couple of years ago that the machine’s work is so “abhorrent” to nature that time-traveling beings from the future may be trying to sabotage the thing now. Even my wife isn’t immune to its gloomy shadow: Via the NASA “Apod” app, she’s sent a new space/science image as wallpaper on her phone every day. Recently, the photo was of the LHC, and she could hardly stand to look at it.
Considering the magnitude of CERN’s mission, along with revolutionary advances in science that seem to pop up every day, like the parallel universe theory or the conscience-altering discoveries of NASA’s Kepler mission and more minor reminders of our species’ fragility (Google “This place is not a place of honor” for a hell of a genuinely weird story about what the Department of Energy is up to), it’s no wonder that mankind’s increasing awareness of its cosmic insignificance has weighed on us heavily in recent times.
It’s only fitting that movies reflect that social unease – in fact, it’s traditional; memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki birthed Godzilla in 1950s Japanese cinema just as the horrors of Vietnam gave rise to the George Romero-led zombie-movie craze in the ’60s and ’70s. In the ’90s, pop millenarianism took root in anxieties over Y2K in the form of disaster movies like Twister, Volcano, Independence Day, Armageddon and countless others. But, as Stephen Keane points out in his book Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe, Hollywood blew its load a bit early, and audience fatigue set in for the pictures well before 1999 was over.
In 2011, the timing worked. Some of the year’s most provocative films – Melancholia, The Tree of Life and Another Earth, to name a few – played like reflective preludes to LHC’s big December moment. And while violent fin de siècle alien cinema was as omnipresent as ever (Super 8, Attack the Block, Cowboys & Aliens, Apollo 18 or Christmas Day latecomer The Darkest Hour), a surprising number of celestially minded films reflected a surprisingly tranquil emotional response.