Tuesday, January 31, 2012

2011 Year in Review: Best Supporting Actress

Dominated by two actresses this year, the supporting actress category was actually quite strong, with a lot of quality work this year.

Runners-Up: Sareh Bayet in A Separation, Jessica Chastain in The Help, Judi Dench in J. Edgar, Elle Fanning in Super 8, Jodie Foster in Carnage, Leila Hatami in A Separation, Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs, Chloe Grace Moretz in Hugo, Sarah Paulson in Martha Marcy May Marlene, Maria Popistasu in Tuesday, After Christmas, Octavia Spencer in The Help, Kate Winslet in Contagion, Evan Rachel Wood in The Ides of March

10. Cate Blanchatt in Hanna
Cate Blanchatt has never been afraid to go over the top – whether it’s as a Commie bad guy in Indiana Jones or Bob Dylan. Here, affecting a strange, Southern drawl, she plays a truly woman, hell-bent on tracking down and killing the title character – a teenage girl. Yes, Blanchatt goes over the top, but would you really want it any other way, considering just as evil her character is? Often times, work in genre films is sadly overlooked, but Blanchatt’s wonderfully malicious performance here shouldn’t be.

9. Marion Cottillard in Midnight in Paris
Marion Cottillard is so beautiful and charming in Midnight in Paris, you have no trouble believing that she could be the muse that inspires practically every great artist and writer living in Paris in the 1920s. With Cottillard, it’s all in the most beautiful set of eyes of any actress currently working – when she turns those big eyes towards the camera, you cannot help but fall in love. She has been used by some directors as merely an object at times in her career, but not here, where Allen gives her a plum romantic role, and she runs with it. It’s pure bliss watching her in this movie.

8. Berenice Bejo in The Artist
It really doesn’t take long to fall in love with Berenice Bejo in The Artist. From her flirty first scene she exudes such sweetness, such charm that you just want to hug her. Like Dujardin, her co-star, she took a real risk here, attempting to recreated silent screen acting, which is miles away from the acting she is normally called on to do, and like him, she pulls it off brilliantly. Her role doesn’t require her to hit as many notes as Dujardin’s does, but with those big doe eyes, she does whatever she is called upon to do wonderfully. A great performance.

7. Judy Greer in The Descendants
Judy Greer has often been stuck in the “best friend” role during the course of her career, in one lame romantic comedy after another – yet she’s always been better than the material deserves. Here, she finally gets a role worthy of her talent. She plays the wife of the man who Clooney’s wife was having an affair with – at first chipper, smart, funny and kind when these strangers show up in her life. Her final scene though, as she visits the comatose woman her husband cheated on her with, is devastatingly good – especially her exit line, which is downright cruel, even though we understand where it’s coming from.

6. Shailene Woodley in The Descendants
I have suffered through a number of episodes of Shailene Woodley’s awful TV show The Secret Life of the American Teenager, so no one was more surprised than I was to discover what a great actress was lurking beneath the surface, waiting for a director as skilled as Alexander Payne to draw it out. As Clooney’s older daughter, a wild child who they’ve had to send away to protect her from her own darker impulses, Woodley creates a portrait of a troubled teenager that captures that confusing time in everyone’s life just about perfectly. I don’t know if this performance is the start of a great career, or simply an anomaly, but in this movie anyway, Woodley is just right.

5. Jessica Chastain in Take Shelter
Jessica Chastain had a breakthrough year in 2011, and her brilliant turn in Take Shelter isn’t even her best work. Yet it is much deeper than most “wife” roles in thrillers. Yes she is concerned that her husband is going to ruin their lives, spend all of their money, and perhaps kill them as he sinks further and further into his delusions (unless they aren’t delusions after all). As the movie progresses, she becomes more determined to stand by her husband – to help him, and not abandon him like everyone else, and perhaps that’s the key to understand the ending of the movie after all. This is the start of what should be a great career.

4. Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life
It can be very hard to play a complete character in a movie like The Tree of Life, with all of its stylistics, and hushed dialogue, but that is precisely what Jessica Chastain does in this movie – her best performance in a year where she delivered quite a few. She plays Malick’s view of perfect motherhood – kind, gentle, delicate, sensitive – the opposite of their stern father. She’s also the symbol of her son’s confused sexual awakening, with Oedipal feelings running through him to a certain extent. That Chastain conveys so much, by saying so little in the film, is quite remarkable. Yes, she has gotten more awards attention for her work in The Help (and she is great in that movie, despite my feelings towards the movie as a whole), but it was The Tree of Life where she did her best work this year.

3. Carey Mulligan in Drive
Carey Mulligan’s face has been an inspiration to directors since her breakthrough role in An Education a few years ago. With those big doe eyes, mixed with the intelligence that shines through, and her seemingly fragile nature that makes you want to take care of her, you cannot help but fall in love with Mulligan. And never has that been more apparent than in Drive, where she simply looks at Ryan Gosling, and he melts. She is literally the damsel in distress in this movie, and although she says little, he leaves a definite mark in this film. The look in her eyes when the elevator door closes is wonderful.

2. Vanessa Redgrave in Coriolanus
There are a number of great performances in Coriolanus – but none quite match the level of Vanessa Redgrave’s bitch of a mother, who drives her son so hard, first into politics, which he isn’t suited for and everyone knows it, and then she destroys him completely when he comes back, guns blazing. I have a feeling that many actresses would have gone big and bold with this performance, but Redgrave smartly does not go that route. She is subtle in her manipulation of her son, even as she pushes him to his doom. Hers is the most complex character and performance in the movie – and it’s the best work this Oscar winning legend has done in years.

1. Carey Mulligan in Shame
Michael Fassbender has deservingly won many awards and hogged most of the acclaim for Steve McQueen’s drama Shame, but Carey Mulligan, as his equally damaged sister, is just as good as Fassbender was. From her far to intimate introduction (naked in the shower) to her slowed down rendition of New York, New York, to her encounter with Brandon’s boss, to her emotional breakdown at the end of the film, Mulligan is never less than brilliant – and holds our gaze, much like she does Brandon’s when singing. She is the reason why Fassbender breaks down – but she’s there to try and find a lifeline, something to save herself. But it’s too late for her; it’s too late for Brandon. Mulligan has quickly become one of the best actresses of her generation, and in Shame, she delivers her best performance to date.

2011 Year in Review: Best Supporting Actor

For the second straight year, I thought this was actually a rather weak category. Yes, my top 3 would have been in the “Oscar slots” in almost any year, but after that, the quality drops quite a bit.

Runners-Up: Kenneth Branagh in My Week with Marilyn, Brian Cranston in Drive, Vincent Cassell in A Dangerous Method, Brian Cox in Coriolanus, James Cromwell in The Artist, Jonah Hill in Moneyball, Ben Kingsley in Hugo, Viggo Mortenson in A Dangerous Method, John C. Reilly in Carnage, John C. Reilly in Terri, Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris, Mark Strong in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Max von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

10. Jonah Hill in Moneyball
Jonah Hill brings a much needed humor to Moneyball – but not the broad sort of humor for which he is known. He matches Brad Pitt’s wittiness in their scenes together, going from a super smart, shy guy afraid to open his mouth, into something much more confident. There isn’t all that much depth to his character, and yet Hill makes him seem real – and likable throughout. Great comic actors can usually do great dramatic work if they are given a chance to – Jonah Hill was given a chance with Moneyball, and he made the most of it.

9. Tom Hardy in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
It was a very good year from Tom Hardy – who channeled Marlon Brando in the MMA epic Warrior, and left an impression in the trailer for the new Batman movie as Bane – giving fans hope that perhaps Heath Ledger’s Joker could be replaced by another villain. But it’s his small role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that impressed me the most. Here, he plays a man that everyone thought had gone rogue, but was really just hiding out, licking his wounds. He has become disillusioned with his role in The Circus, but wants revenge for the wrong done to the woman he loves. Chain smoking his way through the movie, Hardy once again reminded me of Brando – and unlike most actors who try to channel the acting legend, he actually pulls it off.

8. Benedict Cumberbatch in Tinker Tailor Solider Spy
Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, like that of Gary Oldman’s, is all about subtly, and watching what happens when he isn’t talking. He plays a man who has essentially been written off by the Circus, who sees a chance to move back into its good graces – and he’s not going to let it go. When he’s called in to see his bosses, he has a masterful scene as he defends himself. But there is one moment in this performance that I will never forget – it last only a few seconds after he’s had to kick his gay lover out of his house to protect both of them, and he breaks down and cries in a moment of heartbreaking simplicity.

7. Christopher Plummer in Beginners
Christopher Plummer has been a great actor for decades now, and in Beginners, he gets one of the best roles of his career. He plays a man who has been in a loveless marriage for more than 40 years, but when his wife dies, he is finally “free” – and he uses this freedom to announce to his son that he is gay. He only has a few years left before cancer will take hold of him, but he uses them to full advantage – it’s never too late to find happiness. Yes, I thought the movie was perhaps a little too much of a fantasy (and I couldn’t help but feel more sympathy for Plummer’s late wife than anyone else in the movie – as she is the only one who doesn’t get to find happiness before she dies), and yes, Plummer’s role seems to be written with the idea of winning an Oscar in mind – he’s gets to the play gay and die of a long gestating illness – but Plummer transcends these clichés to find the humanity inside this character. A great performance by a great actor.

6. Ezra Miller in We Need to Talk About Kevin
Ezra Miller has been forgotten for most of this awards season, and I know why. Many people see his Kevin, as horrifying as it is, as a one note monster – a cynical, cruel, sadistic asshole who has does everything possible to piss off his mother – including killing his classmates. But Miller’s performance is more subtle than that – he matches Swinton’s performance with his own, and holds up a mirror to her, which is why she is so terrified of him. Yes, outwardly, Kevin is a monster, but if you pay attention and look closer, there’s much more to his character, and Miller’s performance, than that.

5. Patton Oswalt in Young Adult
A quiet performance by Oswalt, as a man who was beat up and permanently disabled in high school because everyone thought he was gay (he wasn’t), who has become a man who will never grow past high school. While everyone else can see what a train wreck Charlize Theron’s queen bitch character has become, he still idolizes her as the personification of female perfection he envisioned in high school. Yes, he tries to get her to see things clearly, but his own vision is so clouded, he can’t. Unlike Theron’s character however, we can’t help but feel sorry for him. A great performance by an under rated actor.

4. John Hawkes in Martha Marcy May Marlene
There is no creepier moment in any 2011 film than when John Hawkes sings Marcy’s Song to Elizabeth Olson. The song is outwardly beautiful – a sweet melody – and yet when you listen to the lyrics, you realize just how little he thinks of her (“She, she’s just a picture, that’s all”). This describes the entirely of Hawkes’ brilliant performance in one scene – where he puts on the guise of wise, older leader to his “family”, he’s really just exploiting them. Hawkes, who had a breakthrough last year in Winter’s Bone, delivers an even better performance this year. A great character actor finally getting the roles he deserves.

3. Andy Serkis in Rise of the Planet of the Apes
I have a feeling that a few decades from now, Andy Serkis will be looked upon as an acting pioneer. It started with his work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films, got better with his work as King Kong, and has reached its peak with his role as Caesar in this film. Yes, Serkis is covered in CGI, but it’s not that much different than being covered in makeup is it? Watch how they did the special effects, and you will see their efforts were made to try and give Serkis’ performance more, not less, importance. Caesar is one of the most fascinating, and yes, complex characters of the year, and while the special effects wizards certainly deserve recognition for that, Andy Serkis is the man who deserves the most credit. Yes, he should be eligible for an Oscar for his brilliant turn in this film.

2. Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life
It was a great year for Brad Pitt – his movie star persona shone through brightly in Moneyball – but his quiet, restrained work in The Tree of Life is equally brilliant, in a completely different way. His stern, strict father is not a monster – but a man who loves his children and wants the best for them, but who is unable to express his more tender feelings towards them. His performance is quiet and subtle – from the tense moments around the dinner table, to the few moments he does let that softer side through. Pitt is brilliant in The Tree of Life, and he deserves a little more credit for it than he has gotten so far this season.

1. Albert Brooks in Drive
I always love it when an actor with a seemingly set screen persona gets a role that allows them to turn it on its head. Alfred Hitchcock was a master at this, turning Cary Grant into an asshole and Jimmy Stewart into a creep, while all the while outwardly, they were the charming movies stars they always had been. For Albert Brooks’ in Drive, he still plays a fast talking, self absorbed man as he always had – but this time, he’s not charming or funny, but heartless, cruel and violent. His lines sound like they should be funny, but somehow you don’t laugh, because his delivery is blood chilling. Brooks’ has played the same basic character in pretty much every movie he has been in for his entire, brilliant career. But in Drive, he gets to take that screen persona, and turn it inside out. The result is not only the best villain of the year, but also the best performance of Brooks’ career.

2011 Year in Review: Best Actress

An almost unfathomable about of great performances in this category this year – any of the top 8 would have been right at home in the “Oscar slots”, and the strength in the runners-up section is unprecedented.

Runners-Up: Maria Bello in Beautiful Boy, Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs, Viola Davis in The Help, Vera Farmiga in Higher Ground, Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method, Felicity Jones in Like Crazy, Lina Liberto in Trust, Miriela Oprisor in Tuesday, After Christmas, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre, Michelle Williams in Meek’s Cutoff

10. Saorise Ronan in Hanna
Saorise Ronan had a great coming out party with her Oscar nominated turn in Atonement a few years ago and this young actress continues to do great work in practically all of her films. In Hanna, she plays a the title character, a young girl raised in the middle of nowhere by her father (Eric Bana) to be a killing machine. Yet, while her character starts out as a little robotic, as the movie progresses and she gets out into the real world her character grows before your eyes – underneath it all, she is normal teenager – but one that can kill you. The movie could have so easily flown off the rails had it not been for this great performance.

9. Juliette Binoche in Certified Copy
Juliette Binoche is one of those actresses not afraid to throw herself into any role offered to her, by any director. Here, she teams up with Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, to create a complex portrait that questions the nature of cinematic reality. While her co-star, William Shammell, is a little too stiff, Binoche is fearless, ripping into her dual role – one as a woman on a first date, one as a long suffering wife, as the film fractures half way through and makes us question everything we’ve seen. No matter, because Binoche is our baseline – and once again this great actress isn’t afraid to take chances. That she pulls it off is all the more impressive.

8. Olivia Colman in Tyrannosaur
Olivia Colman’s work in Tyrannosaur is quietly mesmerizing. When we first meet her, she seems like a nice, timid woman working in a Christian charity store, when the violent Peter Mullan storms in. But as the movie progresses, and we get to know her own violent life, her performance takes on added dimensions. Colman plays this role like a dog who has beaten repeatedly – meek, shy, timid, untrusting – until one day she can quite simply no longer take it. Mullan is a such a powerful, forceful actor that he can be difficult to keep up with, but Colman handles her role brilliantly – she really does become the center of the movie by the end, and her performance is heartbreaking.

7. Charlize Theron in Young Adult
This is the best work of Theron’s career. One of the most beautiful women in the world becomes a depressed, alcoholic with a sharp wit, who cannot see that everyone in her hometown – who he looks down – no longer, envies her like they did in high school. Now, they feel sorry for the mess she has become. Theron pulls no punches, never tries to make her character likable or sympathetic, but instead embraces her characters flaws, and makes her one of the nastier character of the year – who you would pity, if she wasn’t such a bitch. A great, brave performance by Theron.

6. Yun Jeong-hie in Poetry
Yun Jeong-hie is quietly brilliant as the woman at the heart of Lee Chang-dong’s character study. It is the story of a woman, raising her grandson on her own, who has to deal with the knowledge that he participated in a gang rape (and doesn’t feel sorry for it, even though the girl killed herself) and that she has Alzheimer’s. She bravely carried on with her life, even trying to expand her mind before she loses it, by taking a poetry class. This is a quiet, perceptive movie, that depends on this performance to make it as great as it is. Another triumph for director Lee Chang-dong to be sure, but also one for Yun Jeong-hie.

5. Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn
One of the ways to win an Oscar is to play a famous person – everyone knows that. And yet, Michelle Williams’s performance as Marilyn Monroe goes far deeper than most in biopics. This isn’t Williams simply imitating Monroe’s famous breathy voice, her innocent, sultry sexuality. Williams becomes Monroe, and shows us so many different sides of her during the course of the movie – the movie star basking in fame, the gifted comedic actress, the insecure little girl, the drug addict losing control and on and on. It’s a little bit of a shame that the movie itself is so light hearted, and inconsequential. Yes, it’s enjoyable, but Williams brings another dimension to the movie. If you want to look at the difference between imitation and embodiment, all you have to do is look at the difference between Williams and her co-star Kenneth Branagh, who while doing a spot on Laurence Olivier imitation, never becomes him. Williams becomes Monroe – and in doing so, elevates the whole movie.

4. Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Rooney Mara lobbied hard for this role from David Fincher – and she was quite right that she would be perfect for it. She is not the typical beauty the studio wanted for the role, which we can all be thankful for, since it would have been wrong for Lisbeth Salander. Mara is asked to do a lot – convey a lot of complex emotions, while saying little. Salander has built up walls around herself to avoid getting hurt, and she keeps everyone away. As she digs into the past, she comes alive, and even learns to trust, only to be betrayed once again. This is a magnificent performance.

3. Kristen Dunst in Melancholia
Kristen Dunst has always been a talented actress, but even I have to admit that I didn’t suspect that she had this sort of performance in her. As the depressed, self involved center of the films first part, Dunst fearlessly embraces her characters flaws and contradictions. For some of the second half, she pretty much goes catatonic, but when she comes out of it for the finale, she once again reminds us that she really is the center of this movie. Dunst goes for broke here, and delivers. It’s not easy to work with Lars von Trier, but Dunst manages to give a career re-defining performance in this film.

2. Elizabeth Olson in Martha Marcy May Marlene
Elizabeth Olson delivers an expert performance in one of the most difficult roles of the year. The film flashes back and forth in time to show her both as a member of a Manson family like cult, and her efforts to fit back into society. Because the setting are both so similar – trees play a big role in the visual motif of the film – Olson has to show how disconnected she is in both settings. She is really isolated in both settings, alone with her thoughts, as she thinks what the cult is doing in wrong, and yet when she leaves, she cannot behave the way she is supposed to. Right up until the final, ambiguous frames of the movie, Olson carries this film brilliantly.

1. Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin
Tilda Swinton is probably the most fearless actress in the world right now. She is not afraid to do anything, work with anyone, speak in other languages, or deliver a performance like this one – where she has to paint a monstrous portrait of motherhood. Is there another movie mother who hates her own child as much as she does here, and yet keeps it as bottled up as she does – that resentment spilling over in everything else? She makes no effort to make her character more sympathetic, and that’s precisely why you do feel some degree of sympathy for her. We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the darkest portraits of parenthood ever put on screen. What’s truly scary is how believable it is – and that’s do to Swinton’s brilliant performance.

2011 Year in Review: Best Actor

I would have been happy to include any of my top 8 choices in the top five “Oscar slots” this year, but there just wasn’t room. A fairly strong year for this category.

Runners-Up: Demian Bichar in A Better Life, Michael Fassbender in Jane Eyre, Paul Giamatti in Win Win, Brendan Gleason in The Guard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50, Ryan Gosling in The Ides of March, Tom Hardy in Warrior, Woody Harrelson in Rampart, Peyman Moaadi in A Separation, Peter Mullan in Tyrannosaur, Cristi Puiu in Aurora, Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris.

10. Michael Fassbender in A Dangerous Method
Michael Fassbender had a great year, and his work in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, while great, isn’t even his best. Here, he plays Carl Jung, a disciple of Sigmund Freud, who will take Freud’s theories farther than he ever did – and then he’ll cross a line. Strangely, the movie reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, and Fassbender’s work here deserves comparisons to Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Archer – a repressed man, who wants what he cannot have, and tries, hopelessly, to repress it. Keira Knightley goes over the top, Viggo Mortenson has a lot of fun, but Fassbender quietly delivers the films finest performance.

9. Jean Dujardin in The Artist
You have to give credit to Jean Dujardin, who was gutsy enough to take the lead role in a silent, black and white film. He was most likely cast because he has the right look – I had no trouble believing that he was silent action star – but Dujardin goes a little bit deeper than that as well. Yes, he throws himself into the comedy of the movie – and does a wonderful job with it – but he also embraces the melodramatic side. In effect, he has to do three distinct styles of silent movie acting – the over the top action sequences for his film, the deft physical comedy, and the heartbreaking melodrama. That he attempted it means he’s brave. That he pulled it off means he’s brilliant.

8. Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar
Playing J. Edgar Hoover from his early days at the Bureau of Investigation right up until his death could not have been an easy task for DiCaprio, and yet he absolutely nails it. As the older Hoover, covered in makeup, DiCaprio never loses his grip on the character – never allows the makeup to do the work for him. He is a man obsessed with secrets, his own and everyone else’s, and he destroys others lives, while trying to get what he wants. He is a man who loves three people in his life, and cannot sleep with any of them, but needs them close to him. The rest of the cast are not very well defined, but DiCaprio who is the heart of every scene carries the movie. He elevates the entire film. More proof that DiCaprio really is one of the best actors of his generation.

7. Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus
When I think about Fiennes’ performance in his own directorial debut, Coriolanus, it is his eyes that come to mind first. When engaged in battle – against his enemies either on the battlefield or the political arena – they take on a wildness, a rage, almost an insanity. Later, when he has lost everything, and is seeking revenge, his eyes have gone cold and dead – remorseless. Yet, throughout, all he has to do is look at his domineering mother, and his eyes melt, and he becomes a little boy once more. Yes, Fiennes handles Shakespeare’s dialogue expertly, but unlike some actors when he delivers those lines, he doesn’t seem like he’s reading in class – but that he’s feeling every word. This is Fiennes’ best work in years.

6. Michael Shannon in Take Shelter
Michael Shannon has been a rising star for a few years now – the strange, gung ho military man in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (far and away the highlight of the movie), the paranoid veteran in William Friedkin’s underrated Bug, the insane truth teller in Revolutionary Road and Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols’ debut film Shotgun Stories, about two warring sets of brothers were all great performances. But in Take Shelter he outdoes himself, even while he still has the same trademark intensity, and paranoid ramblings he has become known before. Shannon is not repeating himself, but he is doing variations on a theme. He anchors Take Shelter with his performance, and lets us get inside his head, until we are as paranoid as he is. A great performance by one of the best actors working.

5. Ryan Gosling in Drive
Ryan Gosling begins Drive as a blank slate, which is precisely what leads Carey Mulligan to project her needs onto him – and because he loves her, he becomes whatever she needs on a scene to scene basis. Yes, Gosling barely says a word throughout the movie – he doesn’t need to, as he is a man of action, not words. But watch his performance as it takes on one dimension after another as the movie goes along, from sensitive confidant, into avenging hero; this is actually one of the most complex performances of the year. Shame so many seemed to have missed that.

4. George Clooney in The Descendants
Clooney gives his best, most multilayered performance in Alexander Payne’s deft comedy/drama. He plays a lawyer reeling from the revelation that his comatose wife was having an affair – and he is determined to track down the man she was cheating on him with to deliver the news. This is not altruism on his part, but curiosity, and a way to avoid dealing with his feelings about pulling the plug – not to mention the big real estate deal he has to close. Ultimately however, his performance tracks this man as he changes – grows closer to his daughters, becoming a real parent for the first time. Yes, Clooney turns on the charm here, and as always, he can be as funny as anyone else. But his performance has more heart than anyone else’s this year. Clooney continues to evolve as an actor in interesting ways.

3. Brad Pitt in Moneyball
At first, Brad Pitt’s performance as Billy Beane, Oakland A’s GM, seems like it’s going to be another one of his movie star performances, where he exudes charm and humor – and there’s nothing wrong with that, as Pitt does that better than nearly anyone else around right now. But as the movie goes along, Pitt’s performance takes on different elements – anger and resentment at his own stalled career, and how no one seems to want to listen to him, obsession over whether or not he’s ruined his career, and nervousness as he stalks around the clubhouse during the games. There is also a surprising, and welcome, emotional element in the sweet relationship between Beane and his daughter. Pitt is such a fine actor, and he does exude such charm in this movie, that’s easy to overlook just how complex it really is.

2. Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Gary Oldman is very still throughout much of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – his George Smiley spends more time listening and thinking than talking. Hidden behind huge glasses that distort his face, Oldman keeps an even keel throughout the whole movie – only raising his voice once. But this is far from a one note performance. Watch Oldman in his stillness and see what masterful, subtle acting is going on behind those huge glasses. The centerpiece of his performance is inarguably the scene where he looks directly into the camera and describes his meeting with Karla years before. In that scene all of Smiley’s doubts, all of his moral ambiguity comes out in full force. Oldman delivers a subtle, sly tour-de-force in this movie.

1. Michael Fassbender in Shame
In my mind, the best performance in any category this year was Michael Fassbender as Brandon in Steve McQueen’s examination of sex addiction, and the sins of the past haunting the present. Brandon seems to have it all – a good job, good looks and a constant stream of women in his life. He keeps everything compartmentalized until his sister shows up, and throws him into a tailspin of shame and despair. Fassbender’s back-story is not explained, but hinted at. Fassbender does a brilliant job with this role, often wordlessly conveying the complex feelings running through Brandon’s head, as he breaks down again and again, until finally, he goes on a bender to end the film that is the most painful one I can imagine. This was the year Fassbender truly broke out, became star in many people’s eyes, even though he delivered a number of great performances before this year (Hunger, Inglorious Basterds, Eden Lake, Fish Tank). With his work in Shame, not to mention A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre and X-Men: First Class, Fassbender proved himself to be one of the great actors of his generation. This is his finest performance to date.

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 clichéd, 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.