I saw 21 theatrical films in 2011 — about 10% of the films qualified for the 2011 Oscars. Most of them were disappointments. Here are a handful that I can recommend.
First I must reiterate my prejudice that psychology and its bratty sibling, psychiatry, are bastions of quackery. (It immensely pleases me that Quackwatch.com was founded by a psychiatrist. If you think it takes one to know one, there is some profound proof for your pudding.)
However, it does not then follow that I disrespect all practitioners of this craft. Like theology, astrology, and economics, psychology and it tools (e.g., psychoanalysis) have inestimable cultural value as instruments of exploration, though I will choke before I will call them “science.” There is probably more science to be found in the game of poker than there is in psychology (or economics, for example).
It is by free will that the dealer shuffles the cards, and by free will that the player accepts the house rules and the hand he is dealt. It is by free will that he employs what he knows of science to play his hand. And it is by free will that he walks away from the table, with or without whatever coins he brought to it. Prayers ought not help a poker player, but science might.
So, it is a curiosity that my favorite films of 2011 have strong roots in psychology, and my favorite of this crop goes right to the root of psychiatry’s origins and defects. It is by free will that I choose which films I will pay to see. In a poker game, it would not amount to much. Pair of aces and some change.
Ace of Hearts: A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg.
Keira Knightley’s dangerously methodical performance as Sabina Spielrein is unnervingly manic in the first act, but allows us to observe the deliberate construction of sanity that she portrays in the last act.
What is sanity if not something we must construct anew, each day? We spin ourselves out of archetypes that emerged in the ancient mists, annihilating and rebuilding them, rocking the cradles of our transient consciousness, threading them everlastingly across the generations in subconscious warped and woven metamorphoses, raveling and unraveling, with the life-burning intensity of the ember that transforms Freud’s cigar from leaf into chalky dust.
Otto Gross, the renegade, maverick, erotic psychoanalyst, is delivered by Vincent Cassel with such understated brilliance that most audiences will dare not laugh even if they realize what he is doing — a clown dancing in a theater of treacherous addictions.
All of that is mere gift-wrapping around the performances of Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen as Jung and Freud. Though the one was a new age Protestant whose work might have been utterly stifled and lost if he had not had the fortune of his marriage to secure him, and the other was a radically conservative Jew who found one of humanity’s most elegant instruments for mitigating mental anguish stuffed so far up his own anal obsession that it shined out of his mouth, they were worthy opponents, not opposites. They spoke the same language (which sounds like English in this film, but is nonetheless German).
Ace of Clubs: Melancholia by Lars Von Trier.
There is a lot about Lars that is shaky, and it is not just his kinetosis-inspiring close-ups. He revels in rubbing our noses in his taboos. Still, his films usually turn out to be interesting, and Melancholia may be his most majestic work to date. It comes in three parts. First is a prelude that sets the stage and gives away the ending: This story takes place as the Earth is being destroyed in a collision with another planet. For my money, it is worth the price of admission for the prelude alone. It is an anti-2001: A Space Odyssey. It could be released separately as 2011: A Space Apocalypse. Then we have Part One and Part Two, each of which dwells on this apocalypse with the film’s two main characters; protagonist sisters who are each others antagonists, played by Kristen Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Jack of Diamonds: Moneyball by Bennett Miller.
If there were a case to be made that either psychology or economics is a science, it would have to explain Major League Baseball. I rest my case: The variables that account for success are so easily missed that, like the professional scouts in this story, you might as well predict mental health and economic trends by judging the beauty of someone’s significant other. This film follows Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and the Oakland Athletics from the post-season of 2001 though the end of the 2002 season as Beane attempted to prove I am wrong about psychology and economics in baseball. Nice try, Billy, but your results have been inconsistent.
The weirdest thing about this film was suspending disbelief to accept Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe. 2001 was the year that Ichiro and I were both MLB rookies. The All-Star game was in Seattle, with me lurking on the sidewalks just to see if there was any buzz (there was, some). September 11 brought a week of postponed games. The Mariners won 116 games, with the Athletics winning 102 to win the AL wild card. The division series that the Mariners played against a team from Cleveland was dramatic (and addictive).
Consequently, this film was a feast of nostalgia for me. I think any baseball fan would enjoy it.
Ten of Hearts: Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen.
A parable on the theme of “the grass was always greener in an earlier historical era,” staring the City of Lights, with Owen Wilson filling in on screen for Woody Allen. Youth is truly wasted on the young, but not yours and mine, my friends.
I did not like the woman cast as Zelda. That is a part for Blythe Danner (at least she was perfect for it in 1974) or more appropriately, for 2011, her daughter, but Woody is lucky to get the cast he gets, I suppose. I thought the various literary characters and artists were all quite well done, especially Ernest Hemingway. Kathy Bates is fun as Gertrude Stein.
Seven of Diamonds: Tree of Life by Terrence Malick.
Am I including this one just because so many other people are listing this film in their favorites for 2011? Even if I am, I do not know what it means. Like a long dream, I do not remember much of it, but I feel that it was vaguely frightening in a beautiful way. It may be all about feelings and dreams, and nothing more.
(Who keeps the Seven of Diamonds? Probably should have discarded this.)