Thursday, June 30, 2011

Half Time Top 10: The Best films of 2011 So Far

I have found it somewhat harder to see all the films I want to in 2011. So there are several films that I really do wish I had seen before I did this half time top ten – Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Beginners, 13 Assassins, The Trip, The Princess of Montpensier, Submarine, Cold Weather, A Better Life, City of Life and Death, Tuesday After Christmas foremost among them. Yet, I still think that this is a fairly strong half time top 10. Obviously, most of the best films come out in the fall, but so far this year we have seen a fair share of strong films. I could have easily included Hanna, Trust, Beautiful Boy or X-Men: First Class to this list had there been room. But there wasn’t.

10. Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga)
Charlotte Bronte’s oft filmed story of a mild mannered governess who falls in love with her boss has never seemed so romantic or lustful on screen before now. The production is lush and keeps perfectly with the story’s gothic romantic roots. Mia Washikowska is wonderful as Jane, and Michael Fassbender is even better as Rochester. Add in great supporting turns from Judi Dench, as the ever nosy housekeeper, and Jamie Bell as the cold, religious man who also falls for Jane, and you have the ingredients of a great little film. Director Cary Fukunaga seems like an odd choice to direct – his only other film being the Spanish language Sin Nombre about South Americans trying to sneak into America – but he does a wonderful job here. A terrific movie romance.

9. I Saw the Devil (Jee-Woon Kim)
Without a doubt the most disturbing movie from the year’s first six months, Jee-Woon Kim’s tale of a serial killer and the fiancé of one of his victims who tracks him down with the intention of torturing him, is the most violent film of the year. It is disturbing in the extreme, but that is the way it was meant to be. This isn’t an exploitation flick, not really anyway, but a dark revenge tale akin to fellow Korean filmmaker Chan Wook Park’s Oldboy. The film even stars Oldboy’s Min-sik Choi as the deranged serial killer. What impressed me most about the movie – aside from its style which is terrific – was the nuances in the performance. This is not torture porn, but a complex, moral puzzle that involves torture. I was surprised by how involved I became in it. Not for the faint of heart, but a wonderful film.

8. Insidious (James Wan)
No one is more surprised than me that James Wan’s Insidious is on this list. He is oft blamed for starting the torture porn genre with Saw, but looking back, the original Saw was not really about torture – and he has distanced himself from the sequels. Insidious is a grand old haunted house movie – with Patrick Wilson and Rose Bryne terrific as worried parents to a young boy who may or may not be possessed. To say anything else would be to give away the fun of the movie – but I will say that this is one of the few recent, American horror films that got under my skin and actually scared me. Wan is a talented filmmaker, with a respect for the old school horror film - something that harkens back much further than most filmmakers currently work in the genre. A must for fans of the genre.

7. Super 8 (JJ Abrams)
JJ Abrams is in love with old Steven Spielberg movies, and with Super 8 he made a loving homage to his cinematic hero. Lucky for me, I love Spielberg as well. Super 8 has the innocence that so few movies of its kind have anymore – it gets the sensation of being a kid right, and then adds in a terrific alien invasion plotline. Yes, to a certain extent Super 8 is little more than a clone of early Spielberg movie clichés – but I didn’t much care when I was watching it. I was too busy being thoroughly entertained – as well as amazed by just how good an actress young Elle Fanning really is. Abrams has brought back that sense of joy and discovery to the summer blockbuster, that too often gets obscured by directors who just like to blow shit up.

6. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
Depending on how you look at it, Abbas Kiarostami’s film is either a film about a long married couple who pretend to have just met when the film opens until the ugliness of their troubled relationship comes to the surface, or the story of two people who just met, who on a whim decide to pretend to an long suffering married couple. Or both. Or neither. No matter what you make of Abbas Kiarostami’s play on European art films (particularly Roberto Rosselini’s Voyage in Italy and Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad) doesn’t really matter. There is not right or wrong answer. But for me, one of the biggest pleasures to be had so far this year was trying to figure it all out – and seeing Juliette Binoche in one of her greatest roles to date.

5. Rango (Gore Verbinski)
Gore Verbinski’s Rango is an endlessly inventive animated comedy/Western. I am so glad he rejected directing the forgettable Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and instead opted to make this wonderful film, as this film has the sense of adventure and fun that the Pirates series lost at least 2 movies ago. Johnny Depp is wonderful as the title character – a pet lizard thrown from his car, which ends up in a desert town where he becomes a legend. I loved the supporting voice work of Bill Nighy as an evil snake, Ned Beatty as the town's corrupt mayor (with this and Toy Story 3, Beatty is becoming the go to guy for bad guys in animated films) and Ilsa Fisher as a scared woman. This is most likely a film that people like me – huge fans of Westerns – will enjoy a lot more than the children the film is aimed at – but I don’t care. This is a movie buff’s dream film, and I couldn’t get enough.

4. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
Another Western – but this one couldn’t be more different from Rango. This film, directed by Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy) is a muted Western about a group of settlers being lead across the desert by Meek (Bruce Greenwood, looking like a crazed hillbilly), who doesn’t know where he’s going. The settlers argue and bicker, and continue to trudge on – until they meet an Indian who may be able to help out. The film is deliberately paced, but never less than completely fascinating. Michelle Williams delivers yet another great performance as the groups moral compass. Reichardt’s decision to shoot in the little used 1.33:1 aspect ratio, keeps the focus on the settlers, and not the vast landscapes around them. They push on, towards a future that they are not sure of.

3. Poetry (Lee Chang-dong)
Lee Chang-dong is one of the greatest filmmakers in the world that hardly anyone in North America knows about. Hopefully that will change this year, with the release of his 2007 masterpiece Secret Sunshine on DVD by Criterion, and his brilliant follow-up Poetry. The film stars Jeong-hee Yoon as a Korean grandmother stuck raising her teenage grandson because her daughter has run off to the city – and only communicates by the occasional phone call. Two things throw this grandmother’s world into chaos – one is that she is told she has early Alzheimers, and the other is that her grandson has been accused of a gang rape that eventually led to the girl in question’s suicide. She tries to ignore these two traumatic events, and instead takes a poetry class. Poetry is an odd movie, but one anchored by a terrific lead performance and Lee Chang-dong’s terrific, insightful writing and directing. The film didn’t make much of a splash at the box office, but be sure to put it on your Must See List when it comes to DVD.

2. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
I think of Woody Allen films as cinematic comfort food – you know what you’re going to get going in, but it still fills you up and makes you feel good. He has been hit and miss for at least a decade now, but with Midnight in Paris he has made one of his very best films. The film stars Owen Wilson as a screenwriting vacationing with his materialistic fiancée (Rachel McAdams) in Paris. While he’s interested in the romance of the city, she likes to shop. One night, while hanging out on an anonymous street corner and old car pulls up and the occupants beckon to Wilson to get in. It turns out that inside the car are F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and unknowingly, Wilson has stepped back into the Paris of the 1920s. The film is wonderful comic fantasy – bringing to mind Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. Wilson has perhaps never been better – he resists the urge to do a Woody Allen impression, and it works. The cast of actors playing the famous denizens of 1920s Paris – including Hemingway, Dali, Bunuel, etc. – are all excellent. I did not have more fun at the movies so far this year than I did at Midnight in Paris – and I doubt I’ll have as much fun again this year.

1. The Tree of Life (Terence Malick)
There are certain films that come along that are just completely one of a kind. Despite the fact that Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life has been compared to films likes 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, it really is a film unto itself. A mind bending journey for the beginning of time, to perhaps it end. There is a terrific visual sequence that shows us the big bang right up until the dinosaurs walked the earth, and then the film changes course slightly, and tells the story of a young boy (Hunter McCracken) growing up in 1950s Texas, with a strict father (Brad Pitt) and a loving mother (Jessica Chastin). Then there is Sean Penn as the haunted older version of this boy, remembering the summer where he lost his innocence. The film is spellbinding – a huge technical accomplishment, but also a profound statement on humanity. Malick has always been a great filmmaking, but in The Tree of Life he outdoes himself. Will I see a better film this year than this? It’s possible – after all Scorsese, Cronenberg, Spielberg, Eastwood, Fincher and others have films on tap for later this year. But it’s not probable.

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