Just to add even more to the barrage of Best you’ve certainly received already, we have another version for you. Catch my list here, if you haven’t already.
Every year around this time we get the barrage of “top ten” lists, and every year around this time I feel out of the loop. Not having the privilege of living in the vicinity of a major metropolitan area, many of the critics’ favorite films of the “year” do not actually see the light of day in my part of the country until well after the new year, leaving me to play catch up about a month or so later.
Unfortunately, this is yet again the case in 2011, subsequently seriously handicapping my own formation of any “best of” list in a timely manner. Despite this set back, the change over from one year to the next is an irresistibly retrospective wellspring, so I felt I must conjure up some sort of list, no matter how incomplete or uninformed.
In a couple of weeks, once I am able to see some of the year’s best received and awarded movies, if I feel the amount of changes in my list warrant an update, I will make an amended list. For now then, consider my list a “preliminary” Top Ten of 2011.
Now just so we’re clear, and before you get your ire up, like some drunken Scotsman, over a blatant sin of omission (my apologies to any offended Scots, but I’m guessing you’re used to the stereotype by now, here is a list of films I have yet to see that either: a) I personally am greatly anticipating or, b) Is hyped as one of the year’s best by the larger film critics community:
The Artist; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; The Iron Lady; Shame; Martha Marcy May Marlene; A Dangerous Method; A Separation; We Need to Talk About Kevin; Margaret; Take Shelter; Melancholia; Rampart; Albert Nobbs; Tyrannosaur; Carnage.
If any of these films would make your own personal top ten, don’t be offended by their absence. I may totally agree with your analysis, but I just haven’t had the opportunity to check them out.
Before I get into the actual preliminary list, I also feel compelled to offer some overall observations of the year in film that was 2011. With the obvious caveat of the large list of films above I have yet to see, from my own personal list of 2011 movies, I feel it’s been a rather weak year. Out of the movies I’ve seen this year, only one garnered a 5 star rating (a film that stands head and shoulders above everything else for me), and only three other films earned 4.5 stars. There were a fair amount of decent movies, but not a lot films I saw this year took big chances.
Of course, the overwhelmingly defining feature of cinema in 2011 was sequels and franchise films. I don’t want to get on my soapbox (especially since I already covered this topic in my review of Red State), but the lack of originality in current mainstream cinema is frightening. Movie studios seem determined only to invest in movies with some established roots in previously proven intellectual property, and the worst part is, we the audience are rewarding them with unending bags of cash for the timid, lazy, formulaic slop they continue to feed us. I’m using my small corner of the world wide web then to make a plea: please stop seeing the same old crap and give movies you have never heard of before a chance. You never know, you just might be pleasantly surprised.
Anyway, enough of the sanctimonious preaching and on to my
(preliminary) top ten films of 2011:
10. Young Adult
Jason Reitman’s second collaboration with screenwriter Diablo Cody, Young Adult is a much more authentic, less snippy film than their first go around, Juno. The film tells the story Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a late-30’s-something “adult fiction” writer who lives a shallow, alcohol-induced haze of a life in Minneapolis. After receiving an email from her old high school flame, she decides to pay a visit to her former small town suburban stomping grounds, determined to win back the man she let get away. The only small, tiny little detail keeping the high school prom king and queen from reuniting: the fact that he’s happily married and the father of a newborn baby girl.
Young Adult lurches along, slowly revealing more and more insight into its characters and their motivations. The film is a bit too modest, and the third act feels rushed, but what the film gets right (helped by wonderful performances from Charlize Theron and comedian Patton Oswalt as the grown-up version of the high school loser), it gets really right. Plus, the film deserves a pat on the back for prominently featuring chain retail stores such as Staples and a Kentucky Fried Chicken/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut, important landmarks of any suburb that nevertheless seem to be hidden away in most movies that take place in the “burbs”.
9. The Guard
In terms of pure quantity of laughs, The Guard is easily the funniest film of the year. The impressive debut feature of John Michael McDonagh (brother of Martin McDonagh, who had an excellent debut himself in 2008 with In Bruges), The Guard has a clear sense of style and comedy that makes John Michael McDonagh a name to watch for fans of dark comedies. The film is a bit shorter than I would have liked, and it under-utilizes Don Cheadle’s character, but with the best lines of any movie this year (such as, “I’m Irish. Racism is part of my culture,” and my personal favorite, “Like a donkey fucking a hippopotamus, it’s time to party”), you’ll want to do what ever you need to do in order to check out this movie. Even if it’s just to watch Brendan Gleeson in one of the year’s best performances as an unorthodox small town Irish cop seemingly in over his head amidst a drug conspiracy, this film is worth your time. With heroes who discuss Fellini’s 8 1/2 at a crime scene and villains who discuss the works of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, there was no way in hell I wasn’t going to love this movie.
If you peruse the internet, you’ll find critics espousing the wonders of Drive more than any other film this year. It is undeniably the film critic’s darling of 2011. Now, before I had a chance to check out the film and judge it on my own, I had already read much of the hype, giving it impossibly high expectations to live up to. While it didn’t quite meet these lofty heights, there is an irresistible “cool” about the film that can not be denied.
Drive deals in archetypes with almost nonexistent character development, but this is not out of some lack of professionalism, rather it is a distinct and purposeful decision made by visionary director Nicholas Winding Refn to emphasize style over substance (because if there’s one thing Drive has, it’s style). With some of the most iconic images of the year, a snazzy 80’s influenced synth soundtrack, and the best film villain of the year in Albert Brooks’s Bernie Rose, Drive will be a film that is frequently referred to for some time.
Even though Beginners came out to theaters back in June, I only recently watched it. The reason for the procrastination is, frankly, I just didn’t think the movie looked very good. An old dude announces to his son that he’s gay and has been all his life, leaving the son to pick up the pieces psychologically. How zany! How kooky! How indie!… Surprisingly though, that’s not the tone of the film at all.
In fact, if you looked up the word melancholy in the dictionary, you’re likely to find the poster for Beginners.
Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical screenplay details the evolution of compromises forced upon people due to societal pressure, and the aftershocks unintentionally felt by the next generation.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) never guessed his father’s homosexuality, but as a kid the lack of love between his mother and father was palpable, forever frightening him from becoming too seriously involved in a romantic relationship with another human being.
It’s a very touching and sad story, as we watch Oliver’s attempts to try to overcome a sense of resignation to living life alone and apart. The film is also very sweet, and one of the most beautifully put together movies of the last few years. Christopher Plummer is likely to win this year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and he does a remarkable job as the newly “freed” man living on borrowed time, but I was even more impressed by the lead performance from Ewan McGregor and especially by the performance of Melanie Laurent, who does more with her eyes in this film than most modern actresses have done in their entire careers. If your hesitant to see this film like I was, don’t be. It’s one of the true gems of 2011.
6. Midnight in Paris
Midnight in Paris is a return to comedic form for legendary director/writer/actor Woody Allen. After spending most of the last decade dabbling in more serious dramatic work (with varying results), Allen, the most prolific director of his generation, has hit a cord with the ingenious set up of Midnight in Paris. After strolling the streets of Paris one night, as the clock strikes midnight, Gil (Owen Wilson), a frustrated Hollywood writer tired of turning out the same old schlock and yearning to write something more substantial (like a novel), finds himself transported to 1920’s Paris. While in this time warp, he happens to run into one artistic luminary after another, from Ernest Hemingway, to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, to Gertrude Stein, to Pablo Picasso, all of whom are artistic idols for Gil.
People who criticize the film seem to think the plot a bit too twee, but I for one enjoy seeing Woody Allen’s funny side emerge again after efforts such as Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, which were too satisfied with their own sense of gravitas. Does Midnight in Paris boil down to cameo after cameo of famous “stars”, like some 1950’s Hollywood extravaganza such as Around the World in 80 Days?
Absolutely, but who cares. It’s fun, and with some good performances, especially by Owen Wilson who’s able to channel the “Woody Allen” role without coming off like some bad impression, Midnight in Paris is easily my favorite Woody Allen film since 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown.
I usually hate the “cancer” genre with a passion. Films in this genre typically use cancer as a plot device for the sole purpose of manipulating their audience in a course manner, yanking as many cheap tears out of them as possible. It’s a crude and calculated gesture that comes off as sickeningly inauthentic, because the thing of it is, people with cancer don’t view it as an opportunity to be the star of their own melodramatic soap opera. More than anything, they just want the cancer gone, or in other words, denial. In 50/50, we finally have a film that understands this perspective and captures it in a realistic (as well as humorous) fashion.
Of course, one of the reasons why 50/50 may have an advantage over other movies in the genre is the fact that its writer actually did have cancer and the film is essentially the story of his battle with the life-threatening disease. Changing his name from Will Reiser to Adam for the film (and played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), while Seth Rogen (who was Reiser’s friend in real life as he was battling cancer), basically plays himself as the buddy seeing him through the hardship, this low-key dramedy was undoubtedly helped by the weird intersection between fiction and reality.
There’s a strange sense of self-deprecating humor, along with a vague feeling of terror lurking in the background, that could only emerge from real life. The film is also helped tremendously by a wonderful cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives the best performance of his career and one of the best of the year, while Anna Kendrick proves her praise for Up in the Air wasn’t a fluke in a very underrated turn, and everyone else from Seth Rogen to Anjelica Huston rounds out a superb ensemble. It’s a shame the movie didn’t do better at the box office, but here’s to hoping it finds a deserved second life in the retail and rental phase.
For some reason, Contagion did not seem to click with most people and critics as it did with me. The film has its backers here and there, but I have yet to see it make any other top ten list other than my own (easily making it my nominee for most underrated film of the year). The mainstream audience was undoubtedly turned off by it’s terse and impersonal nature. The film is aesthetically and emotionally cool, keeping us at an arms distance from any character by constantly switching between multiple narrative threads, thereby preventing any close attachment to a single individual. I am surprised more critics didn’t appreciate the result of this procedural approach taken by screenwriter Scoot Z. Burns and director Steven Soderburgh, which was to turn the disease itself into the star of the film (making Contagion the Jaws of epidemic outbreak films).
In a film with as many big names as Contagion, it would seem counter-intuitive to limit their use and focus on an invisible killer plague as the central character, but this is the film’s the stroke of genius. With the amount of huge Hollywood egos involved in the movie, you have to give kudos to everyone for putting their own “star” images aside and joining on as good team players. The result is one of the best acting ensembles I’ve seen over the last decade. From Matt Damon, to Kate Winslett, to Gwyneth Paltrow, to Elliot Gould, to Laurence Fishburne (my own personal favorite), this is one hell of cast. While I personally wished the film would have gone even a bit further in its detachment towards its characters, with a great sense of pacing and a brilliant score from Cliff Martinez, Contagion is the most thrilling experience I had at the movies this year.
Scorsese’s first foray into the family genre, Hugo does not rank as one of the all-time great films of Scorsese’s prestigious career, but is still a stellar film nonetheless. Using the plot of an orphaned boy living in the 1930’s Parisian train station who is attempting to repair a mysterious old automoton as a ruse to highlight one of Scorsese’s life long passions, film preservation, the auteur’s love for film history and the early days of cinema leap right out of the screen.
This is a movie lover’s movie, made by the Cinema Czar himself, Mr. Martin Scorsese. From the visual references to iconic moments in classic silent cinema (including actual clips from some of early cinema’s most highly regarded films), to the inclusion of one of the film industry’s first and greatest pioneers as a major character in the film, Hugo amounts to one man’s essay on why the medium stands above all other art forms, even in its earliest stages of infancy.
Ironically, for a film with as many fantasy elements as it has, Hugo is one of the best historical films made in some time. Beyond documenting the increasingly forgotten beginnings of the film industry that was the dawn of cinema, Hugo also does a remarkable job accurately portraying the cultural trajectory of the “West” (aka Europe and America) from the 1910’s to the 1930’s. Moving from unbridled optimism and an unshakable belief in progress to a cynical nihilism after the massive gut punch that was the First World War, this fascinatingly tragic narrative has seldom been explored on film (almost undoubtedly due to being overshadowed by the undeniable heroism of the Second World War). It may only approach these themes as an afterthought, but with beautifully evocative art direction overseen by the brilliant Dante Ferretti and Scorsese’s typical attention to detail, like most of Scorsese’s other films, Hugo simultaneously works on many levels.
2. War Horse
On its face, War Horse is an overly sentimental, manipulative piece of “hurrah!” populism. With a little bit of action, a little bit of humor, a little bit of drama, an adorable animal protagonist, and the obligatory happy ending (sending the audience home with a reassuring smile), there is no denying the film fits the bill of the generic all-around crowd-pleaser that led to the creation of the derogatory term “awards bait”. Despite these aspects though, in reality, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is one of the ballsiest movies made this year.
Now if your face is plastered with a scowl of disapproving befuddlement, hear me out for a second. While it’s easy to be blinded by the shiny gloss of Janusz Kaminski’s lensing, consider what Steven Spielberg has done here. In the era of techno-chic cynicism, Spielberg went out a made a 1940’s-50’s John Ford film. Not an ode, not an homage, not a parody, not an amalgamation, but a true to life, God’s honest, studio era Hollywood film. While Spielberg’s clout obviously give him a lot of free rein to choose the type of movies he wants to make, it’s still a very risky move to make the most aggressively old-fashioned film in quite some time (at least since the 1970’s). In it’s pacing, style, aesthetic, and story, this is a film that can only be compared to the works of Wyler, Hawks (Sergeant York was the film that came to my mind most frequently), Lean, and the aforementioned Ford. There simply is no modern equivalent.
Watching Turner Classic Films, I often wondered if it would be possible to make the type of films that were produced during the “Golden Age of Cinema”. Time and time again, I would come to the conclusion that it was not possible. I thought that time had moved too far and culture shifted too much, making any attempt at catching the magic of the early days of cinema a cartoonish parody, but Spielberg proved me wrong. Any fans of the early years of cinema owe it to themselves to check out this film, and with an excellent ensemble cast (with particularly fine performances by Neils Arestrup and Peter
Mullan) and superb artistry throughout, even if your not a classic cinema buff, you should still make a point to see War Horse.
1. The Tree of Life
Out of all the choices I had to make in ranking my top ten, this was the easiest. The only true masterpiece of the year, as I hinted at in the opening of my list, The Tree of Life was light-years ahead of every other movie I saw this year. Now despite winning the Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival and receiving high praise from many corners of the film critics community, the film has been a polarizing one to say the least. From reports of massive walkouts, theaters warning their patrons beforehand of its “unusual” nature and refusing refunds, a smattering of boos during its premiere at Cannes, and one discussion I personally had with a man who declared Terrence Malick should be shot for having made the movie, the love for the film is anything but universal. The film’s extremely unorthodox, almost experimental, “narrative-light” approach, including a non sequitur sequence detailing the evolution of the universe from the big bang and onward, was clearly a huge turn off for many, undoubtedly seeming too pretentious and high brow for the mainstream movie going audience.
Ironically though, for me, The Tree of Life is Malick’s most accessible film yet. While I have admired most of his previous work (everything except for The New World), I do not worship the ground Malick walks on as do some of his devotees, and to be honest, I wasn’t even anticipating The Tree of Life all that much. The problem with some of Malick’s previous efforts is that while he deals with themes such as man’s relation to God and Existence, he has always done so through the prism of a typical cinematic narrative, essentially forcing the proverbial square peg through the round hole. The result has been a somewhat disquieting coolness, leaving his characters as pawns in a pointless story. In The Tree of Life though, Malick leaves behind all preconceived notions of narrative, finally dealing directly with the issues that have been nagging at him his whole life. Using a semi-autobiographical look at his own childhood, The Tree of Life is his most personal, humanistic film to date.
For some, the “evolution” sequence is an automatic deal breaker (forever insuring their hatred for the film), because they make no thematic connection between the creation of the universe and the life of this suburban family in 1950’s Waco, Texas. The connection between these seemingly disparate elements (at least in my view) is that in the eyes’ of Malick, the two events are equal in terms of importance.
It’s as if Malick is suggesting that time itself is an illusion, that all moments, from the smallest minute events to events as big as the creation of existence itself, simultaneously cohabit the same basic space (the word that repeatedly kept entering my mind was “enormity”).
That the past, present, and future coexist in some bigger NOW, where temporal differentiation has no meaning.
If issues such as this make your eyes glaze over, you’ll probably not like this film. The Tree of Life is not a movie for all tastes, which is why I can’t, and haven’t, freely recommended it to everyone (or almost anyone for that matter). Personally though, no film meant as much to this year as The Tree of Life, and with three beautiful performances (Jessica Chastain as the mother, Brad Pitt as the father, and my favorite performance this year, Hunter McCracken as Young Jack) along with extraordinary cinematography, The Tree of Life is a film I will be thinking about for years to come.