Monday, January 30, 2012

2011 Year in Review: The Top 10 Films

And finally, we arrive at the 10 best films of the year. I knew the best film of the year was going to be my favorite of the year as soon as it was over – even though most of the other great films of the year hadn’t been released yet. It towers over the rest.

10. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
Woody Allen has been a hit or miss filmmaker for nearly 20 years now, but Midnight in Paris is his best movie in years. An effortless, charming comic fantasy in which Owen Wilson plays a 2011 writer vacationing in Paris who discovers if he stands on a certain street corner at midnight, he can be transported back to 1920s Paris, and hob knob with some of the greatest writers and artists of all time. Allen makes no effort to explain why he can do this, because really, what explanation would do? The movie makes the best use of Wilson’s comic gifts that I have seen so far – you need someone with his wide eyed innocence and lack of cynicism to make this movie work, and Wilson does a wonderful job. The film is also beautiful to look at – the cinematography, the art direction; the costume design is all top notch. You get the feeling at this point in his career, Allen is simply making movies because he’s made one a year for more than 40 years now – but once in a while, he gets one right. And Midnight in Paris is a movie like that.

9. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
I find that often times, debut directors try to accomplish way too much in their films, and it isn’t until they have a few under their belt that they realize that less often equals more. But debut filmmaker Sean Durkin knows this right off the bat with his masterful Martha Marcy May Marlene, a disturbing movie about a young woman (Elisabeth Olson) who escapes from a Manson family like cult, and tries to reenter normal society. The way Durkin visually draws parallels between the compound the cult lives at, and the spacious wilderness home of her sister who she goes to live with is wonderful – showing us how Martha really doesn’t fit in anywhere (full credit has to go to the great cinematography here). She’s too smart to truly get in with the cult, and yet too warped by her time there to fit in with the rest of society. Durkin also gets great performances from his cast – especially John Hawkes, charming and creepy, often at the same time, and Elisabeth Olson herself, who does brilliantly in one of the most difficult, complex roles of the year. Durkin – and Olson – are talents to watch.

8. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
John LeCarre’s spy masterpiece gets a great adaptation from Tomas Alfredson. This is not the spy work as seen in James Bond movies, but rather presents it as the long, slow, work performed by men who dress and act like accountants. Set in the 1970s, it is about a possible mole in The Circus, the British spy group based on MI6, where they bring back the deposed George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to figure out what happened. Cold War paranoia runs through the film, and the period detail in the art direction and costume design, is perfect. But this is far from just a period piece, as it draws links to the present day, and questions who really is on the “right side” and the “wrong side” or even if such distinctions exist. As Smiley, Oldman delivers the best performance of his career – he has no delusions of right or wrong, but does his job because it is his job. The masterful addition of a series of flashbacks to a Christmas party (not included in LeCarre’s book) is really the movie in a microcosm – starting out showing us what we think is the men in a more innocent time, but with each progressive flashback, it becomes a darker and more sinister. A masterful spy drama where the enemy really is within.

7. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)
Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, adapted from the brilliant Lionel Shriver novel, is really a domestic horror film, where the killer kid is not the spawn of Satan or has supernatural powers, but is the result of either his genetics or his upbringing. It’s clear from the beginning of the movie that what we are seeing is entirely from the main characters’ point of view, and she sees her son Kevin as a soul sucking monster from birth. So is it any wonder he goes on one of those high school massacre sprees? Ramsay’s direction here is great – not a lot of dialogue is spoken for long stretches of time, and Ramsay’s paints a portrait of suburban malaise and resentment that gradually bubbles over. The sound design is the most intricate of the year. She also directs two of the year’s best performances – Ezra Miller as the unfeeling Kevin with dead eyes and constant menace, and even more brilliantly Tilda Swinton as his mother, who rips into this role and delivers her best work to date. Ramsay draws the connection between the two of them quite clearly – they have the same angular, androgynous features, and the same outlook on the world, only if Kevin is more willing to show it. This is a movie that provides no answers, but only questions on top of questions.

6. The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
Alexander Payne’s The Descendants strikes that delicate balance between comedy and drama as no one else currently working can do. This is a story of a Hawaiian lawyer (George Clooney) whose wife has fallen into a coma following a boating accident, who discovers she was having an affair when she died. Knowing they have to pull the plug, he takes his daughters and tries to track down her lover so that he can say goodbye to her – or at least that’s what he tells himself. This probably sounds like a downer, but in Payne’s hands, The Descendants is hilarious one moment, and heartbreaking the next – and yet somehow the tone remains constant, and the film never feels like a cheat. Ultimately, The Descendants is about Clooney’s character discovering who he really is – both as a father, as he connects with his daughters like he was incapable of doing before, and as man. Payne took 7 long years to follow up his 2004 masterwork Sideways, which was simple perfection, and even if The Descendants isn’t quite that good, it is definitely made by the same filmmaker – one with uncommon skill and humanity. Call me a sucker because I had my first child, a daughter, this year, but this film moved me to tears.

5. Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
Moneyball is about how the stats nerds took over the game, for better and worse (seriously, have you tried watching a baseball game lately – it’s only gotten more boring since everyone has started to play moneyball). Starring Brad Pitt in one of his best performances as Billy Beane, GM of the Oakland A’s, who loses his three biggest stars in one offseason because his team has no money. In order to stay competitive, he decides to hire a stats nerd (Jonah Hill) who tells him that MLB teams value the wrong things in players – and therefore, they can build a great team out of players no one else wants. This is a baseball movie without much baseball in it – just a bunch of guys sitting around in the backroom crunching numbers. And yet, a more exciting sports movie you will not get. A lot of credit goes to screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zallian, who have made all of this talk interesting, and the actors who exude charm, wit and intelligence. And director Bennett Miller finds the perfect pace for it all. Mainstream Hollywood entertainment at its absolute finest.

4. Shame (Steve McQueen)
I feel the need to take this space to defend Shame, which I think is a brilliant film, from some of the more ludicrous criticisms it has received since its release in early December. Steve McQueen’s masterful second film is not one that says sex itself is shameful, as many critics seem to think. The shame felt by Michael Fassbender’s character is because of what happened in his youth involving him and his sister – which is only hinted at in the movie (but to me, was obvious, was not incest between brother and sister, but rather molestation of the sister by someone else, that Fassbender did not stop – hence Fassbender’s breakdown when he hears his sister with his boss through walls, just like he would have as a child). This has forever damaged both brother Fassbender and sister Carey Mulligan, who have both become obsessed with sex in different ways – he keeping emotions completely out of it, not getting involving with anyone beyond a physical level, as a way to bury his demons, or at least keep them temporarily at bay. She inflates every sexual encounter she has to be a grand romance or love. Neither of them are healthy, both are damaged beyond repair. McQueen’s film daringly shows this descent by Fassbender, who becomes increasingly unhinged throughout the course of the movie. Just like his first film, Hunger, McQueen favors long, unbroken shots, often just sitting back and observing. And he is aided by two of the very best performances of the year by Fassbender and Mulligan. There are scenes here that are masterfully shot – the wordless subway flirtation, Mulligan’s slowed down rendition of New York, New York, and Fassbender breaking down during it. Shame, as much as a downer as it is, it is also masterful.

3. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
There were two films this year that looked back at the earlier days of cinema. While I think The Artist is a charming and brilliantly well made homage to silent films that was all it was for me. What Martin Scorsese does with Hugo is better and deeper. It looks back at the first movie magician, Georges Meilies, who was on the cutting edge of cinema technology more than 100 years ago, and pays homage to him by using cutting edge technology from today – I have a feeling he would be awestruck. Scorsese uses 3-D not to make his images jump out at the audience, but to add depth – it’s the only live action film besides Avatar to truly uses 3-D brilliantly. But more than even that, Scorsese’s movie is about why we go to the movies – whether it’s Meiles himself staring in wonder the first Lumiere brothers movies, Hugo’s father staring in wonder at Meilies films, Hugo and his friend staring in wonder at Harold Lloyd, or Scorsese’s audience staring in wonder at Hugo itself, the film is about that movie magic, and reminded me of why I fell in love with movies in the first place. Hugo is a thrilling family adventure, a visual masterpiece and a cinema history lesson all rolled into one magical package. It is another triumph for my favorite filmmaker in history.

2. Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn)
The one thing both supporters and detractors of Drive seem to agree on is that is a pastiche – although they don’t agree on who it’s based on as I’ve heard Jean-Pierre Melville, William Friedkin, Walter Hill and Michael Mann among others. But strangely, when director Nicholas Winding Refn talks about the film, he mentions fairy tales and not neo-noir as his reference point. And perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading a lot of fairy tales to my newborn daughter (no, she doesn’t understand them, but she likes being read to), but I knew exactly where he is coming from. Because Drive is not a neo-noir about a heartless professional going about his job, but the story of a fairly ordinary guy (Ryan Gosling) who transforms himself not once, but twice for the women he loves. Yes, he is a getaway driver when the movie begins, but as his rules make abundantly clear, he is no killer. When he first meets the damsel in distress (Carey Mulligan), she needs a shoulder to cry on, and a surrogate husband for the one she has who is in prison, and this former blank slate becomes that. When her husband gets out of jail and he screws everything up putting her and her son in danger, her need of the driver doesn’t go away, but changes – she needs him to be the vanquishing hero to save her, and so he becomes that. It reminded me of the story of The Brave Little Tailor, who has to become a dragon slayer because of a misunderstanding – and what the princess projects onto him. The Driver, in essence, does the same thing here. Yes, the film is outwardly, and visually, a film noir, but at its heart it’s a romance. The best single scene of any movie this year takes place in the elevator, when first Gosling draws Mulligan to him and kisses her, and then turns around and stomps a gangster into a bloody mess. This is the movie in a microcosm, as the two are drawn together and then forever forced apart in a split second. The fact that Drive is one of the most visually alive films of the year, with its effortless roaming camera, and also one of the most violent and contains in Albert Brooks’ the best villain of the year seems to have led people to believe one thing, when really what Drive is up to is on a whole different level.

1. The Tree of Life (Terence Malick)
I really did love the rest of the films on my top 10 list this year, and yet none of them ever came close to knocking Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life from the top spot. Malick’s film feels like the movie his entire career has been building to – a large scale epic that considers the creation of the world, and a intimate portrait of his own family in 1950s Texas. Both parts of the movie are brilliant on their own, and when taken together add up to the most ambitious film I have seen in a movie theater in years. The film left many viewers frustrated, because Malick doesn’t tell his story through a traditional narrative, and yet to me the entire movie was mesmerizing from start to finish. The creation of the world sequence that starts the film, and then builds to the first act of compassion, when one giant lizard refuses to kill another, is brilliantly handled – with old school special effects (still the best of the year), and recalls the genius of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. The part about growing up in Texas is as intimate as the beginning was epic – the story of childhood heard through whispers and remembered in moments. Yes, Malick’s version of the afterlife maybe a little clich├ęd, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful. To those who know me, it may seem surprising that I picked The Tree of Life as the year’s best – after all, The Tree of Life is ultimately a fairly religious movie, and yet to me, The Tree of Life is about an agnostic questioning God, and his faith, throughout, before finally accepting him in the end. I may not be at that point in my life, but the questions Malick raises are more important than the answers he ultimately gives. Malick, one of the best filmmakers in history, has outdone himself with The Tree of Life – he has made one of the few films in recent years that I know with absolute certainty people will still be discussing and debating decades from now.

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