Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Top 10 Films of 2011.

Regardless of the quality of his films, Nicolas Cage must feature in all collages.

Although the Academy is being particularly offensive with their nominations this year, 2011 has made the atrocity of 2010 seem like a bad dream.  There were twenty to thirty films in 2011 that I wouldn't yell at someone for including in their best of the year list.  Either I'm growing as a person (I'm not), or 2011 was a pretty good year.  So, brace yourself, this is going to be a long entry.  This list, as always, does not include documentaries.  Let's start with some honorable mentions/films of note.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Asian movie of the year goes to Detective Dee.  It certainly wasn't Poetry, which was the most unfortunate recommendation I bit on in 2011.  13 Assassins and I Saw the Devil weren't bad, but did they have a kung-fu-fighting deer?  Detective Dee is a cross between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Sherlock Holmes; a comparison which is, unfortunately, stolen from a tagline in the American trailer, yet true nonetheless.  Andy Lau is the wonderfully eccentric protagonist, and he's pretty good with a sword in between wisecracks and mystery solving.   


Bellflower may be the only low budget film I saw this year, but it's worth a mention.  Now, when I say low budget, I don't mean it was made for $1,000,000, I mean it was made for $20,000.  It's budget becomes apparent once the amateur actors start saying "dude" every other sentence, but if you can look beyond that, the film shows some immense promise.  First of all, even with the poor acting, the film remains entertaining.  The plot revolves around two childhood friends whose major goal in life is preparing to rule the apocalyptic wasteland that Earth will eventually become.  One of them endures heartbreak along the way, and while Bellflower may not be the most effective drama, it is certainly an intriguing one; and the young director behind it certainly shows that he has the talent to engage us with future endeavors.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Please do not take the mention of this film as a recommendation.  It's really not very good.  However, it is the most effective piece of cinematic birth control 2011 has to offer.  I had to watch this film twice, because at first viewing, I was so giddily pleased by the film's anti-child propaganda, that I forgot to notice how contrived it was.  Plus, I had just watched Meek's Cutoff, and therefore would have found anything entertaining.  We Need to Talk About Kevin has it's moments, but in the end, it's essentially just an exploration of what would have happened if Rosemary's Baby had grown up.  Had it been a more efficient debate on nature vs. nurture, it may have been more effective.  Unfortunately, Kevin is so blatantly an evil person from the moment of his birth, it tips the film towards the horror genre, in which all the potentially dramatic scenes just seem silly.

And without further ado:

10.  The Tree of Life

I did not, even after I watched it, think that The Tree of Life was going to make this list.  But it has stayed in my thoughts longer than most films do, so here it lies.  Certainly, it's messy.  It could be argued that you could miss the first forty-five minutes of the film and still see all of the best it has to offer.  I don't necessarily agree with that statement, but it is a long forty-five minutes.  At it's core, The Tree of Life is an effective capture of childhood, in which three boys grow up with two very different parents.  Their strict father (Brad Pitt), at times seems broken by his limited success in life.  "If you wanna succeed you can't be too good," he says at one point.  His capitalist drive is countered by his much more pleasant wife (Jessica Chastain), who is overwhelmingly good-natured and loving.  The film follows no strict narrative, but effectively weaves together scenes of various scenarios and themes that, when assembled, articulate a fine recalling of adolescence.  Of course, at the same time, Malick attempts to hammer home the idea that, in the grand scheme of things, our lives are immensely insignificant.  Sometimes Malick's commentary works and sometimes it doesn't, and it will likely work in different parts of the film depending on who you are.  And maybe that's the beauty of it.  Fair warning:  The Tree of Life requires your active participation much more than you're probably used to.

9.  The Artist

The Artist is a silent movie that, in the grand history of silent movies, isn't really that great.  Why that seems to matter so much to some people is beyond me.  The film is certainly flawed; but it has charm, humor, and the most fantastic canine performance this generation may ever know.  The Artist follows the downfall of George Valentin, the biggest star in silent Hollywood, as he is pushed aside to make way for the "talkies."  George's descent into depression tends to drag the film down with it, but The Artist maintains its value regardless.

What I found most compelling about The Artist, is that those unfamiliar with silent films seemed to be the ones who liked it the most.  So, even though the film offered nothing new, maybe, to some people it did.  There's a large number of critics angrily obsessing over the fact that The Artist is the favorite to win Best Picture.  To this, I say, "Ha.  Look at the other options."  In fact, let's pause to do that.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseMoneyballWar Horse, and The Help are completely throw away nominations.  Midnight in Paris and the Tree of Life are valid choices, yet are unlikely to garner the mass appeal it usually takes to win Best Picture.  That leaves Hugo and The Descendants, which are just as flawed (if we're nit-picking) as The Artist.  I'm assuming the people poo-pooing The Artist are rallying behind Hugo, but both films are guilty of faltering.  It's just a matter of which film nostalgia formula worked for you.  Let's keep this short though.  We can discuss it later if you like.  The Artist winning Best Picture wouldn't be that bad.  After all, except for the throwaway nominations, all of 2011's nominees are better than The King's Speech.  Let's just all be thankful that there's no chance of Crash winning.

8.  Weekend

Weekend is the story of two British men who, after a seemingly casual hookup, form a relationship over the course of a weekend.  One of them is leaving for America on Sunday, but 48 hours is more than enough time for the film to intimately encapsulate the beginnings of a relationship as the two get to know each other through drugs, sex and conversation.  Two guys drinking, smoking, talking and sleeping together may not seem like the most riveting narrative; but reality isn't a narrative, and it is in reality that Weekend asserts itself. The dialogue between Russel and Glen is raw and honest; Glen's unabashed frankness prompting the traditionally introverted Russel to reciprocate openness.  The two are certainly opposites, yet their affections for each other grow, and lead to a conclusion any romantic drama would be proud of.

Weekend has been repeatedly referred to as a "gay Before Sunrise."  On the surface, the comparison holds up.  The plots are very similar.  But to say Weekend is just the gay version of another movie is a marginalization.  The film doesn't exist in a "gay" universe (a fictional reality so many films with gay protagonists inhabit).  It exists in the universe, which (perhaps unbeknownst to some), gay people do actually exist.  Certainly, the sexuality of the two characters is relevant to the film, and justly steers much of the dialogue.  Yet, the intimacy of their relationship is universal, beautiful, and honest.  And I'm not just saying that because I'm feeling teary-eyed after watching War Horse.  Weekend is available on Netflix Instant Stream.

7.  Margin Call

It's not often that a film about executives makes it into my top ten list (or is even appealing) but Margin Call manages to make the collapse of Wall Street absolutely riveting.  Margin Call opens on a fictional firm, in which a large portion of the employees have just been laid off.    One of  the unfortunate, a mid-level risk manager, hands his protege (Zachary Quinto) a flash drive before he leaves.  He says, "Take a look at that.  And be careful."  What the information on the flash drive computes to is that the model the company bases its business on is flawed, and that everything is about to come crumbling down.  Zachary Quinto quickly sounds the alarm, and crisis management begins.  Outstanding performances from Kevin Spacey, Simon Baker, and Paul Bettany keep things rolling, but Jeremy Irons steals the show as the top level executive hell bent on keeping the firm alive.

What makes Margin Call a great film is the finesse it wields in the creation of its characters.  Certainly there are varying degrees of concern amongst the characters over doing the potentially "right thing,"  but there are no black-hatted Gordon Gekkos here, just real (albeit super rich) people deciding whether to doom their trading partners, or to risk their own firm.  It's a fast-paced exploration of a system our society relies on, and the people who operate it.

6.  Submarine

Oliver Tate manages to join the ranks of Max Fischer and Harold Chasen in my strange teenage boy hall of fame, so if you are a fan of precocious teenage boys who enjoy making extravagant gestures, Submarine should be on your list of films to see.  Oliver is a fifteen-year-old outcast set on romantically pursuing Jordana, a girl from school who is "moderately unpopular," and therefore, more likely to date him.  He is also keeping tabs on the disintegrating state of his parents' marriage.  They haven't had sex in months.  He can tell because he checks to see if their bedroom lights have been dimmed.  Between Oliver's narcissism, narration, and penchant for the extravagant, Submarine thrives on the peculiar, and fans of Wes Anderson will find themselves in familiar territory.

"Quirky" is a word that Juno ruined, but if you needed a more sufficient adjective for Submarine, there it is.  Maybe the pseudo-intellectual/depressed adolescent boy is getting played out, but don't let atrocities like The Art of Getting By or It's Kind of a Funny Story get you down.  Submarine is certainly familiarly peculiar, but in an offbeat, deadpan, Harold and Maude kind of way; not a silly, over-the-top, Diablo Cody kind of way.  That being said, if you like "quirky" you should like Submarine; if you're wary of it, you'll probably like Submarine; if you absolutely hate it, see Submarine anyway because I told you to.

5.  Certified Copy

It's not very often that two top films in one year draw comparisons to Before Sunset, but it's certainly not a bad thing.  Certified Copy tells the story of James, an author who has just written a book arguing that copies of things (such as paintings) are just as good as the originals.  When he meets an unnamed woman (Juliette Binoche) they begin a trip around Tuscany; discussing philosophy, James' book, etc.  A wrench is thrown in around the halfway point, when a cafe owner mistakes James and Binoche for a married couple.  For the rest of the film, the two play at being a married couple.  Or maybe they were married all along.  It's up to you to decide.  It's a strange dynamic:  Are James and Binoche married, or just a really good copy?  Regardless, the performances are excellent, and the conversation compelling.  There's not much else I can say without beginning to dissect the film (I've already given away more than many reviewers would), but Certified Copy is easily accessible on Netflix, so check it out for yourself.

4.  The Skin I Live In

Ladies and gentleman, I think I have a new favorite Almodovar film.  This is no small feat, as Volver was one of my favorite films of the last decade.  So, while I'll certainly have to rewatch Volver, be assured that I found The Skin I Live In completely fantastic.  And considering this is only number four on this list, 2011 must have been pretty decent, eh?

The Skin I Live In is the story of Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a brilliant mind with a troubled past who is developing synthetic human skin.  His test subject is Vera Cruz, a mysterious woman confined to her room in Robert's large home.  When Robert's housekeeper gets a visit from her outlaw son, he recognizes Vera, and the film takes off from there.

If you've read this blog before, you know that I subscribe to the idea that spoilers rarely matter.  The Skin I Live In is one of those rare cases.  Though there isn't really a "Shyamalan moment" (that's what we're calling it now), the haunting build towards clarity is a rewarding one, and I'd hate to ruin that now by telling you that Soylent Green is people.   I will say that Almodovar blends mystery, drama, and horror with ease, and The Skin I Live In shows that there's a bit more Cronenberg and Lynch in him then I ever would have thought.

3.  Drive

I hope Baby Goose doesn't get mad at me for two consecutive years of ranking his films at number 3.  I've seen what he can do with a hammer.  Drive certainly thrives on style, but any film that inspires a man to throw a hot dog at Tiger Woods, has got to be something great.

And it's pretty great.  Ryan Gosling plays a stoic loner who moonlights as a getaway driver.  He begins spending time with his neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her son, and gets involved with the mob in order to free her husband from a debt.  When the deal goes sour, Gosling finds himself on a beautifully shot, violent rampage.

Drive is truly a visceral experience.  It runs on atmosphere and mood; long moments of silent facial expression, bursting synth-pop, and carefully constructed camerawork.  It juxtaposes beauty with violence, the reserved with the excessive.  It's about instinct taking over, and where it leads you.  It's an action movie that largely rejects action and a love story that--in a narrative sense--barely takes place.  It's not a film about plot, it's a slow burn of bad-ass, cool, and sexy.  That last sentence is the most academic description of Drive ever written.

My original review of Drive.

2.  Hesher

If you haven't seen Hesher, do it now.  It won't appeal to everyone, but you owe it to yourself to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an arson-loving metal head.  If that doesn't pique your interest, leave this page now.

Hesher is the story of a family struggling with grief.  T.J. has just lost his mother, and he and his father (Rainn Wilson) are having a tough time.  They live with T.J.'s grandmother.  T.J. is obsessing over the car his mother died in, Rainn Wilson spends all day on the couch, and the grandmother is just trying to keep them together.  Then T.J. meets Hesher, a tattooed, metal-loving squatter, and Hesher follows him home.

The first act is entirely the Joseph Gordon-Levitt show.  He sets things on fire, blasts metal from his van, and dispenses wisdom in the form of graphic metaphors.  Vulgarity and absurdity are what keeps the film going, and it's more than enough for me.  Out of all the films on this list, Hesher probably has the most flaws, but it's so good that I just don't care.

My original review of Hesher.

1.  Midnight In Paris

Dear Woody,

We all knew how this list was destined to end.  When your movies hit their mark, they have a habit of skyrocketing up my lists, and Midnight In Paris has reached a mark you haven't reached in a long time.

First of all, it's your most profitable film ever.  That's not to say that profit is a representation of quality, but it certainly signifies you've hit a broader audience.  Who knows?  Maybe at 76 years old, you've finally hit the big time.  I expect a 200 million dollar action film next year.  I know, I know, you were pretty hot in the seventies and eighties, and Midnight In Paris can't touch a lot of those films, but it's certainly a delightful comedy.

What I like about you, Woody, is that you are incredibly intelligent, but shun the overtly intellectual.  Midnight in Paris is a fantastic reminder of that.  In a film filled with homages and references to literary figures and artistic works, you still find time to mercilessly mock Michael Sheen's character: the "pedantic" Paul.  Paul is delightfully detestable, Hemingway is absolutely hilarious, and Dali really likes rhinoceroses.  Your eclectic cast of caricaturized characters is absolutely splendid.  

The 1920's characters are so good, in fact, it's hard to accept your film's thesis.  Midnight In Paris is all about nostalgia, and  rejecting the urge to dwell on it.  It's pretty hard to resist longing for the past when you've painted it in such an amusing light.  Will this generation someday be longingly looked back on?  Probably not until we're fighting for survival in an apocalyptic wasteland, but there's always that chance.

Midnight In Paris is my favorite film of the year.  It's funny, charming, and it makes me want to write a book Hemingway would be proud of.  Well-written comedies have become rare in the last few years, people are even loudly celebrating the mediocre Bridesmaids.  Seriously, Woody.  Bridesmaids is nominated for awards (not that awards are a representation of quality).  Thankfully, you're still here to remind us what comedy should be.  Let's hope you make it to one hundred.

My original review of Midnight In Paris.

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