Monday, January 30, 2012

2011 Year in Review: Runners-Up: 30-21

As always, I admired more films this year than I could possibly include on my list – even when I extend it to 30. The following films are ones that I didn’t have room for above, although I would gladly watch any of them again: Beautiful Boy (Shawn Ku), Beginners (Mike Mills), Bellflower (Evan Glodell), A Better Life (Chris Weitz), Café de Flore (Jean Marc Valle), Captain America (Joe Johnson), City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan), 50/50 (Jonathan Levine), The Guard (John Michael McDonagh), Hanna (Joe Wright), The Ides of March (George Clooney), Insidious (James Wan), I Saw the Devil (Jee-Woon Kimg), Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga), Margin Call (JC Chandor), Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird), Monsieur Lazhar (Phillippe Falardeau), The Muppets (James Bobin), My Week with Marilyn (Simon Curtis), Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz), Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois), Terri (Azazel Jacobs), Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean), Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman), Straw Dogs (Rod Lurie), Submarine (Richard Aoyade), Trust (David Schwimmer), Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine), Warrior (Gavin O’Connor), Win Win (Thomas McCarthy), X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn). Documentaries will get their own list.

The Runners-Up: 30-21
While I’m not sure that any of these are truly great films, they were all very good, borderline excellent and deserve your attention.

30. War Horse/The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg)
A double shot of Spielberg nostalgia hit theaters in December, and both were wonderful throwbacks to the films of yesteryear. The Adventures of Tintin, a 3-D animated adventure is the film the most recent Indiana Jones wanted to be – a wonderful throwback to the Saturday afternoon serials that inspired Indy in the first place. Working in 3-D and animation for the first time, Spielberg has crafted a wonderful, witty adventure, that while it looks great, doesn’t have the visuals overshadow the story. In War Horse, he has made another throwback to the inspirational, sentimental (some would say sappy) films that Hollywood churned out all the time in the studio era. Perhaps it is too innocent for these cynical times, but the filmmaking in impeccable, and yes, I admit it, I welled up a little as Joey went running through no man’s land. Neither film quite stacks up to Spielberg’s best – but then again, so few films do.

29. 13 Assassins (Takahasi Miike)
Japanese filmmaker Takahasi Miike has a well earned reputation for being the most extreme of all extreme Japanese filmmakers. But in 13 Assassins, he may well have made his best film – and he plays it mostly straight (there is one shot where the other Miike comes out of hiding). Yes, 13 Assassins is as violent as anything he has made before, but unlike his worst films, this doesn’t seem to be violence for the sake of violence. Instead, he has crafted one of the best samurai films in decades. It has all the elements of a traditional samurai film (it is after all a remake of a film from the 1960s, the golden age of Samurai films) – an insane, madman hell bent on power, who must be taken down, a selfless group of samurais, approaching the end of their era, who vow to stop him. The film is long, but doesn’t feel like – and the action climax, which makes up nearly 45 minutes of running time, is superb. Could Miike really be maturing here?

28. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
Like his masterpiece Close-Up, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy plays with the idea of cinema and reality. The first part of this film has Juliette Binoche and William Shammell playing a couple who has just met, and are heading out on a long first date of getting to know you. Half way through, that changes, and they are long married couple teetering on the brink of divorce. So what half is fake? Are they a married couple trying to rekindle the magic or a new couple trying to see where this is heading? Or, perhaps are they a new couple in the first half and a married couple in the second half – the same people, occupying the same space, but completely different? The more you think about the film, the more damn complex it gets.

27. Harry Potter and the Deathy Hallows Part II (David Yates)
Finally, after 10 years and 8 movies, the Harry Potter franchise comes to an end. What is amazing to me about the series is how each and every one of the 8 films is quality entertainment – yes, some are better than others, but the quality of the series was always top notch. Taken together, as one big long movie, I think Deathly Hallows is probably the best of the series – and is certainly the most emotionally satisfying. Some have not liked director David Yates approach since he took over in film 5, but I think he has done a remarkable job with such long, complex books. Yes, I still believe that Harry Potter should have died at the end of the series – it really is the only ending that makes sense – but I got over that years ago. What we’re left with is a truly wonderful series – with this as the capper.

26. Super 8 (JJ Abrahms)
While Spielberg was indulging in nostalgia for his childhood this year with Tintin and War Horse, JJ Abrahms was indulging in nostalgia of his own childhood – namely early Spielberg films. The result is an exciting alien invasion movie, set in small town America, where the heroes are a group of kids. The young cast is excellent, no one moreso than Elle Fanning, as that girl we all had a crush on in 7th grade (she is already a better, more interesting actress than her sister). The film is well made, well paced, exciting, fun and humorous. It may not be E.T., but damn it if it doesn’t deserved to be mentioned alongside it.

25. Young Adult (Jason Reitman)
Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s second collaboration (following Juno) is a much darker, less witty than their previous one. This one centers on Charlize Theron’s best ever performance as the queen bitch from high school, drowning in alcoholism and depression, who decides to head back to her home town and win back her high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) – despite the fact that he clearly is happy with his wife and new daughter. Theron ends up spending more time with Patton Oswalt, a high school loser, who still idolizes her for what she once, was, not the mess she has become. This is an awkwardly hilarious comedy, with dark overtones about depression. This one pulls no punches. The feel bad comedy of the year, handled well by Reitman, Cody, Oswalt and especially Theron.

24. Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
Steven Soderbergh’s icy cold examination of the world under attack by a new superbug – but unlike the ones we see on the news, this one actually does wipe out millions. Paranoia starts spreading across the globe as more and more people become sick and die shortly thereafter. The virus kills quickly, and the scientists can’t figure it out. We hop around the world from Matt Damon as a father trying to protect his daughter to Laurence Fishburne trying to figure out from the CDC, to Kate Winslet on the ground trying to help people, to Jennifer Ehle as a researcher looking for a cure to Marion Cottillard taken prisoner in Asian until a cure is found to Jude Law as a profiteering blogger. There isn’t a trace of sentimentality in the film, which feels all too scarily real.

23. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
Larger in scale than Kelly Reichardt’s previous two films, Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy, but no less well observed, Meek’s Cutoff is a story of a wagon train to Oregon in the 1840s that gets hopelessly lost. The film is devoid of the clichés that usually make up Wagon Train movies (like John Ford’s great Wagon Master); this is a quiet film where small events turn the story. Michelle Williams is the moral center of the film, as a young wife who lets the men think they’re making the decisions, when she really is. The heart of the movie is made up of three scenes – the beginning where the settlers discuss whether or not to hang their guide who lead them to nowhere, a later scene where they discuss whether or not to hang a Cayuse Indian who is following them, and the quietest of all, where a simple act of kindness by Williams could save them all. The cinematography is in 1.33: 1 that rarely used format that keeps these people at the heart of the frame at all times. A quiet, subtle film, where some may complain that nothing happens – when really, a whole hell of a lot does.

22. Rango (Gore Verbinski)
The year’s best animated film was Gore Verbinski’s endlessly funny and inventive Western spoof. Johnny Depp voices the title character – a pet lizard who finds himself trapped in a small desert town with no water, who reinvents himself as a hero – that is, until he has to prove it. No animated film this year looked better than this one did, none was written better or voices better. And for fans of the Western genre – and I consider myself to be a big one – this movie is packed with in jokes, that add, not detract for the narrative. An early year highlight that was impossible to forget. One of the most enjoyable film going experiences of the year.

21. J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood)
I know a lot of critics found Clint Eastwood’s biopic of former FBI Boss J. Edgar Hoover to be a long, drawn out bore, but I wasn’t one of them. After a few disappointing movies (Changeling and Gran Torino weren’t as good as they should have been and Hereafter was awful), Eastwood has made another fine film – a film about the different face we show to the world, and the one we keep private, which is a theme that has run through his work. As Hoover, Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a brilliant performance – the rest of the supporting cast does suffer a little bit by comparison (although Judi Dench telling him she’s rather have a dead son than a tulip was chilling). Made with fine attention to detail, the movie traces Hoover’s story in a traditional biopic fashion, but is never less than fascinating. The movie is in many ways a love story – it reminded me of Brokeback Mountain in more ways than one. I have a feeling this one is going to be better liked a few years from now than it was when it was released.

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