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Best of VOD 2011

We look back at 2011 favorites that bypassed theaters entirely.

Many of this year’s most interesting movies bypassed Chicago theaters entirely. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite films from VOD and streaming.

Ben Kenigsberg, Film editor

1.Mildred Pierce Adapted from James M. Cain’s novel, Todd Haynes’s Emmy-winning HBO miniseries is his best work since Safe, in part because the director keeps his trademark irony in check. In a(nother?) career performance, Kate Winslet moves fluidly between casual carnality and the buttoned-up rectitude of the “women’s picture.”

2.House of Pleasures The scandal of Cannes arrived on VOD last month under a misleading title. Until recently, it was known as House of Tolerance. Director Bertrand Bonello stages a breathtaking immersion in Parisian brothel life circa 1900. Available on demand widely.

3. American Masters: Woody Allen—A Documentary This nearly four-hour examination of the Woodman’s career is one of the best and most illuminating samplers of his work—particularly in its first half, which details Allen’s rise to fame. The interview-averse director has made himself available at length, and anecdotes from five decades’ worth of collaborators brilliantly parse Woody from “Woody.” Streaming at pbs.org/americanmasters.

4. Essential Killing You wouldn’t necessarily think of Moonlighting director Jerzy Skolimowski as a superior action auteur, but Essential Killing offers 80 minutes of raw, gripping survival picture, following a guerrilla fighter (Vincent Gallo!?) from an unnamed Middle Eastern country (implied to be Afghanistan) who’s sent via rendition to Poland. When he escapes, Fugitive-style, he’s forced to traverse the wintry landscape.

5. We Are What We Are A festival favorite last year, this Mexican splatterfest—about a family of cannibals—never found its audience.

A.A. Dowd, Film writer

1. House of Pleasures Bonello’s dreamy glimpse inside a turn-of-the-20th-century Parisian brothel is a glorious mess of contradictions. Should we be seduced by its opium-den glamour or disturbed by the horrors and hardships inflicted on its bartered beauties? Like Marie Antoinette, House of Pleasures punctures its era-specific trappings with a blast of pop-music anachronism.

2.The Arbor Clio Barnard’s documentary on playwright Andrea Dunbar, which had just two shows at the Siskel in March, explodes the conventions of its medium. The Arbor evokes the complicated modus operandi of its subject’s work—the heated back-and-forth between fiction and memoir, art and life. Available on Netflix Watch Instantly.

3.Heartbeats Like Wong Kar-wai with a wink, French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan simultaneously commiserates with and pokes gentle fun at the hopelessly infatuated. In the director’s airy second feature, two tightly wound romantics—a guy and a girl—fall for the same vacuous, pretty-boy tease.

4.We Were Here Relying mainly on talking heads and still photographs, this poignant documentary about the first outbreak of AIDS in San Francisco boasts none of the formal innovations of The Arbor. It doesn’t need them: The war stories and survivor testimonials speak for themselves. Available on demand widely.

5.Black Death Flat-out filthy, Black Death recalls the old-world, blood-caked barbarism of Valhalla Rising and The 13th Warrior. It also revives the Christian-versus-pagan title fights of late-’60s medieval horror films. Somewhere, Roger Corman is smiling.

Many of this year’s most interesting movies bypassed Chicago theaters entirely. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite films from VOD and streaming.

Ben Kenigsberg, Film editor

1.Mildred Pierce Adapted from James M. Cain’s novel, Todd Haynes’s Emmy-winning HBO miniseries is his best work since Safe, in part because the director keeps his trademark irony in check. In a(nother?) career performance, Kate Winslet moves fluidly between casual carnality and the buttoned-up rectitude of the “women’s picture.”

2.House of Pleasures The scandal of Cannes arrived on VOD last month under a misleading title. Until recently, it was known as House of Tolerance. Director Bertrand Bonello stages a breathtaking immersion in Parisian brothel life circa 1900. Available on demand widely.

3. American Masters: Woody Allen—A Documentary This nearly four-hour examination of the Woodman’s career is one of the best and most illuminating samplers of his work—particularly in its first half, which details Allen’s rise to fame. The interview-averse director has made himself available at length, and anecdotes from five decades’ worth of collaborators brilliantly parse Woody from “Woody.” Streaming at pbs.org/americanmasters.

4. Essential Killing You wouldn’t necessarily think of Moonlighting director Jerzy Skolimowski as a superior action auteur, but Essential Killing offers 80 minutes of raw, gripping survival picture, following a guerrilla fighter (Vincent Gallo!?) from an unnamed Middle Eastern country (implied to be Afghanistan) who’s sent via rendition to Poland. When he escapes, Fugitive-style, he’s forced to traverse the wintry landscape.

5. We Are What We Are A festival favorite last year, this Mexican splatterfest—about a family of cannibals—never found its audience.

A.A. Dowd, Film writer

1. House of Pleasures Bonello’s dreamy glimpse inside a turn-of-the-20th-century Parisian brothel is a glorious mess of contradictions. Should we be seduced by its opium-den glamour or disturbed by the horrors and hardships inflicted on its bartered beauties? Like Marie Antoinette, House of Pleasures punctures its era-specific trappings with a blast of pop-music anachronism.

2.The Arbor Clio Barnard’s documentary on playwright Andrea Dunbar, which had just two shows at the Siskel in March, explodes the conventions of its medium. The Arbor evokes the complicated modus operandi of its subject’s work—the heated back-and-forth between fiction and memoir, art and life. Available on Netflix Watch Instantly.

3.Heartbeats Like Wong Kar-wai with a wink, French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan simultaneously commiserates with and pokes gentle fun at the hopelessly infatuated. In the director’s airy second feature, two tightly wound romantics—a guy and a girl—fall for the same vacuous, pretty-boy tease.

4.We Were Here Relying mainly on talking heads and still photographs, this poignant documentary about the first outbreak of AIDS in San Francisco boasts none of the formal innovations of The Arbor. It doesn’t need them: The war stories and survivor testimonials speak for themselves. Available on demand widely.

5.Black Death Flat-out filthy, Black Death recalls the old-world, blood-caked barbarism of Valhalla Rising and The 13th Warrior. It also revives the Christian-versus-pagan title fights of late-’60s medieval horror films. Somewhere, Roger Corman is smiling.

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