Thursday, February 23, 2012

My TOP 10 FILMS of 2011

I said this last year, too, but it's true again this year: putting this year's list together was incredibly difficult, perhaps the most difficult yet, due to the number of great films in 2011. I noticed a big trend this year. With 2012 just around the corner, many film makers in 2011 seemed to be exploring metaphysical concepts and themes. "The End of the World" and all the nervous fear and paranoia that comes along with that, as well as meditations on what it means to be human, to be alive, started creeping into cinema in very interesting and artistic ways, and I am not surprised that many of this year's best films went in this direction. This year I saw 40 films, and here are the 10 best...

1) The Tree of Life - This is the film visionary director Terrence Malick had been dreaming of making for decades, and thankfully, he finally got around to it. There's really no way to do this brilliant work of art justice with a paragraph; it just has to be experienced. It's the story of a Texas family in the 1950s, but it's so much more than that. The main narrative is placed within the context of the origin of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. Through a magnificent use of special effects photography we witness the cosmic birth of life, and the courses it follows as it evolves, Grace and Nature. These two themes are then woven into the 50s family, the mother representing Grace and the Father representing Nature, and the son who struggles with the two throughout his life. The Tree of Life, as with all of Malick's films, has strong themes of nature and with America's place in the world. No one can do more with minimal dialogue, he forces us to examine seemingly mundane aspects of everyday life, drawing a deeper significance, making us think about what it means to be alive. The plot isn't really what's important here, and trying to keep track of the narrative isn't the point. This is a film about life itself, and life can't be defined so easily. You just have to live it.

2) Melancholia - This is a film that seems to take place very much in the real world and yet it simultaneously seems to exist outside reality, in some sort of parallel universe. It's an isolating film, set entirely on the grounds of a mansion, and yet it's very much about what's happening in the outside world. It's a film of impending doom, as a mysterious planet called Melancholia has appeared in the sky and is set on a crash course with Earth. The first half of the film is set at the wedding of Justine, played brilliantly by Kirsten Dunst, where we meet her wealthy, dysfunctional family. There's a contrast drawn between the beauty of the high-class wedding and the inner ugliness of the people populating the rooms. By the end of the night everything has fallen apart, including the marriage. In the second half of the film, Justine returns to the mansion, this time in a catatonic state, and Melancholia is rapidly closing in. Gradually, the characters, each in their own way, must come to accept the inevitability of their deaths. It's a tragic film where everything we know at the beginning is turned on its head by the end.

3) Take Shelter - Continuing the theme of impending apocalypse, Take Shelter is the story of Curtis, a man who seems to have his life all put together. He lives in his Ohio home with his loving, beautiful wife and their daughter, and he has a stable construction job which allows his wife the opportunity to work on crafts at home and sell them at local markets and yard sales. But suddenly, Curtis begins to have visions of a terrible apocalyptic storm. His perfectly balanced life is thrown off its axis, and his behavior becomes erratic. In preparation for the coming disaster he starts to renovate the tornado shelter in the back yard, at great cost, both financially and personally. Take Shelter is a flawless blend of intimate, indie character drama, and special effects mystery thriller. Michael Shannon plays Curtis with depth and likability, and we really believe his descent into madness. Jessica Chastaine, my actress of the year, really drives home the love story embedded within this slow burning drama.

4) Warrior - The easy way to think of Warrior is as the Rocky of this generation, but that description barely scratches the surface. It's the story of two brothers, estranged both from each other and their recovering alcoholic father. One brother, Tommy, is a former soldier AWOL from the war, and the other, Brendan, is a school teacher. Both begin training for a mixed martial arts tournament, and we witness their rise through the ranks of the fighting world as they head toward their inevitable collision course, a fight in the octagon against each other. For a film about a brutally violent sport, it's filled with emotion and poignant moments as the dysfunctional family resolves its problems in the only way they know how.

5) Another Earth - This beautiful film is the brainchild of newcomer Brit Marling, the co-writer, co-producer, and star of the movie. Another Earth, like Melancholia, is about another planet appearing in the sky, except this time, as the title suggests, it's an exact clone of Earth. When Rhoda (Marling), first hears about the appearance of the second Earth she looks up into the sky while driving and crashes into another vehicle, killing two of the three people inside. After serving a prison sentence she struggles with her direction in life, until she runs into the man who survived the accident she caused. Concealing her real motive for getting to know him, they gradually become romantically involved. While under normal circumstances, this story might come across as bland and mundane, the presence of the second Earth casts a different perspective on every event in the film, and it explores many questions about the choices we make in life and the possibility of second chances.

6) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - This is a Cold War spy thriller unlike any other, drained of glamorized action as well as most of its color to the point that it's almost shot in sepia tones. This is the dark, dirty, and confusing world of espionage, a life and death game of cat and mouse, or rather cat and mole. Gary Oldman plays George, a recently retired British spy who is brought back into the fold to figure out which agent within MI6 is secretly working for the Soviets. It's a complicated tale of murder and deceit, and while it is incredibly difficult to follow, that's part of what makes it great. Even at the end you're not exactly sure what you've seen, and that's the way it really would be.

7) Beginners - My favorite genre of film is the Melancholy/Quirky/Drama-Comedy, which includes Lost in Translation, Adventureland, Everything is Illuminated, and Garden State, among many others. Beginners is a new classic that fits in perfectly among their ranks. It's about a cartoonist named Oliver who must deal with his father's dual announcement that he's gay and has cancer. The film cuts between the process of Oliver rekindling his relationship with his dying father and his relationship with a French actress after his father's death. Ewan McGregor is Oliver, and his monotone narration weaves together a historical context for the film, including references to the gay rights movement. It's a delicate, subtle film, and yet it's fearless in many ways. It unapologetically breaks the mold of conventional movie storytelling techniques, including subtitled dialogue for the pet dog. Not many people have seen this movie, but it's worth seeking out.

8) Midnight in Paris - Owen Wilson plays Gil in this magical film of literary time travel. Gil, a writer, and his fiancee are on vacation in Paris, and while on the surface they appear to be happily engaged, once Gil is mysteriously transported back in time to Paris in the '20s and encounters several classic writers and artists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Picasso, the distance between the two lovers is uncovered. Gil is a romantic who wants to take life as it comes, savoring every moment, while Inez wants security and consistency. Gil idolizes the past populated by his literary heroes, but in time he has to learn to find happiness in his own time and place, even though that means making some tough choices. Midnight in Paris is a fantasy, but it's grounded in real life questions about how to live the lives we want to live.

9) Drive - This sleek thriller is the story of a nameless Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for hire. He's a quite, solitary man whose only great skill is driving. He doesn't have much to live for, until he meets his beautiful neighbor, Irene, and her child. Irene's husband is released from prison, and trouble comes with him, and soon the Driver finds himself caught up in a battle with a crime syndicate in an effort to keep Irene safe. Drive is a highly stylized and ultra-violent film filled with otherworldly music. It's the kind of movie Tarantino would make if he could resist inserting gimmicks and jokes into otherwise serious stories. Thankfully, Nicolas Winding Refn was able to pull it off the right way.

10) Margin Call - Considering the severe recession that's been going on for four years now, this is the perfect film for the times. Margin Call takes us back to 2008 into the corridors of a nameless, fictional (yet all too real) financial firm on Wall Street and shows us the first hours of the great financial crisis from the inside. It's a unique film, approaching this subject as a thriller. We get to know the various players inside "the Firm" through a series of intense conversations in dark hallways. No one is safe from the coming flood, everyone braces for impact in their own way, and in the end some people drown while others swim. We never see the innocent victims, the "regular people" as they're called by the bankers, who compare their salaries and bonuses in the midst of the crisis, almost as a coping mechanism. But while one might think this is a film that could take cheap shots at the financial sector, it doesn't. In fact, it doesn't really judge the people who work for the banks, it doesn't paint them as evil, even while it shows how the work they do can drastically impact the lives of millions.


11) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
12) Hanna
13) 50/50
14) The Ledge
15) Super 8


This year's award for the worst film (that I bothered to see) goes to... Battle Los Angeles.


As always, it's impossible for me to see all the films I want to see before making this list. This year, I was unable to see: A Separation, The Guard, Sleeping Beauty, Hesher, I Melt with You, Answers to Nothing, Young Adult, Shame, Hugo, My Week with Marilyn, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and War Horse.

However, I WAS able to see J. Edgar, The Descendants, The Artist, The Help, Moneyball, The Ides of March, Contagion, Bridesmaids, One Day, No Strings Attached, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Source Code, Water for Elephants, and The Beaver. And while many of these films were very good, they couldn't quite crack the top 15 due to the number of great films made this year.

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