Friday, December 30, 2011 at 3:40 PM by Nick DeMartino
To try and see as many of the year-end releases as possible, I’ve saved my movie “best-of” list til last among the four 2011 posts (television, books, software & movies).
Not only does the industry in all its wisdom release most worthy titles bunched up at year’s end, but the poorly released foreign and Indie titles begin appearing on DVD and Netflix too! Not enough time to see everything.
One tries to catch up with contenders before Oscar night, of course, but this nutty pattern creates a bit of a problem with year-end lists, doesn’t it? Do I offer you my favorites released in 2011 or viewed (by me) in 2011?
Well, I’ll try to do both in this post with lists first, and then the reviews, which I have written throughout the year on Flixster here (if you follow me on Twitter or FB, you may have read a few, as well).
First Tier Favorites:
- The Descendants
- Tree of Life
- Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
- We Need to Talk About Kevin
- A Separation
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
- Win Win
- The Help
Second Tier Favorites:
- Martha Marcy May Marlene
- Young Adult
- Another Earth
- The Artist
- The Lady
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
- Margin Call
- Bill Cunningham New York
- Jane Eyre
- Source Code
- The Skin I Live In
- A Dangerous Mind
Also enjoyed in 2011, no matter when released:
- In A Better World
- Red Road
- Inside Job
First Tier Faves:
- The Descendants. Clooney's Matt King should have it more together than he does, what with substantial inherited wealth and a rich life filled with friends and family, but we learn, pretty much as he does, that his life is a mess. And we learn, pretty much as he does, that he has the character to pull the wandering strands of his life into a pattern that might help him build a future. The razor sharp script, filled with many knowing epiphanies, gives an ensemble led by Clooney scene after scene of power, tinged with bruised humor and a lovely historical Hawaii overlay. I'd vote for Clooney's performance as the year's best male.
- Hugo. Gasp provoking and deeply satisfying, Scorcese's homage to the early magic of the movies was a blast, one of my favorites in a year when the movies themselves are front and center as subject matter (The Artist, My Week with Marilyn). Not to mention the astonishing use of 3D technology, the insanely inventive sets (like something out of Terry Gilliam), and a lovely feel for humor. It's a long way from Mean Streets to this enchanting train station, the shy boy, and the lost soul of cinema. The latter, embodied in Kingsley's charming performance, is the driver that makes the film more than just a visual thrill ride, because of course, the throwaway attitude towards culture is everywhere and mightily present today.
- Tree of Life. The carrier of Malick's deepest emotional sense-memory, Tree of Life uses various experimental film modalities to "tell" a story, sort of. I presume it's his story, his memories of childhood in central Texas. And I presumed that the resonance, the febrile vibrations which I felt erupted because I spent my 13th and 14th years in central Texas too -- but no, my movie companions responded to the delicate and harsh gestural and emotional content of this segment of the film as strongly as I. Much has been made of the layering of different modalities -- the formation of the earth, the cosmology of the planets, the birth of empathy via the raptors, alongside his somewhat murky family story. I liked a lot of that stuff, in part because of the sheer beauty. What I decidedly did NOT like was the ending, with the zombie-like wanderings on the beach, presumably a sort of heaven or purgatory. Indeed, the insertion of the adult Jack, e.g., Sean Penn, seemed out of sync with the rest. A minor whine, because overall, I was overwhelmed.
- Melancholia. Magisterial in its pacing, exquisite in its visual lushness, disturbing in its theme, MELANCHOLIA is a picture that will stay with you for a long time, I think. We believe at first that this is a picture about a woman's mental illness, e.g., the title, as we watch newlywed Dunst self-destruct in odd and fairly boring fashion. I must say, I could have given up had we not reach part 2, focusing upon her sister (a very impactful Gainsbourg) and her rich husband (Sutherland), who have sheltered Dunst in their castle while awaiting what may or may not be the end of the world as they know it, due to the pending "pass-by" of another planet, drolly called Melancholia. As the horses and the people begin to go crazy under the stress of not knowing, we contemplate "what if" ourselves. Unnerving is an understatement. A word about the "foreward" -- Von Trier uses a sort of stop-motion technique pioneered by video artist Bill Viola, kind of like animated GIFs on the web. Slight motion changes occur in what otherwise would appear to be a still image. The sequence serves as a kind of visual executive summary of the movie, only we don't know it yet, as we wonder at the beauty of the imagery. This and the celestial and cosmological concerns made me keep thinking about TREE OF LIFE all throughout the picture.
- Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I was overwhelmed by this movie, even as I'd read reviewers who found it manipulative and exploitive (like this one from the always illuminating Manohla Dargis). Maybe because I've recently become aware of Asperger's through a new friend, I felt that this story was extremely particularized to this unusual kid's way of trying to make sense of the impossible-to-comprehend, e.g., the senseless losses of 9/11. There's no question that this is a movie that hinges on the audience response/memory to that tragedy, but I felt that the understanding of the unique psychology of the protagonist, the hyper-intelligent and overly bright Oskar, could have happened in any context, that the retelling of the 9/11 story was, in a sense, an excuse. All I know is that I was wrung out and bereft at the end of the film and have placed it in my top ten of this year. And I take back all of the testy things I've said about Eric Roth over the years (principally because of his penchant, ironically, for story manipulations in Forrest Gump and Benjamin Button). And Sandra Bullock, btw, as well. See it, judge for yourself.
- We Need to Talk About Kevin. Tangibly toxic from beginning to end, this movie about a monster child and his mother's attempt to cope, right up to and after his descent into mass murder at high school, KEVIN is a harsh dose of reality and an exhilarating dose of brilliant artistry, from its dazzling cinematography to a wonderful score by Jonny Greenwood. But mostly because of Tilda Swinton's fearless portrayal of the mother. Wow!
- Pariah. Nothing stereotyped about this coming of age drama about an African-American lesbian from Brooklyn in a killer script by writer-director Dee Rees and a passel of nuanced performances by a largely unknown cast. The central character (and everyone else) knows she's gay, but she's a shy, literary virgin who is struggling with many dimensions of her personality and family life. 7 years in the making, with a big Sundance push, this gem should get attention in the indie world, and wider, if there are movie gods.
- A Separation. We learn more from this little film about a complicated modern Iranian family under stress than a dozen documentaries. Like most great art, the universality comes only through accumulation of the particular, in this case, the daily lives of modern urban dwellers in Tehran. We see how the courts operate (startling, actually), the decisive role of religion, filtered through lenses of different classes, and most especially, the role of women in various stages of revelation as the story proceeds. This will win the Oscar, I think, and deservedly so.
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Amazing production with first class acting and a script that defies gravity. How did he get all those plots and subplots in a coherent tale in just two hours? I recently listened to the audiobook version (10 hours) and rewatched the BBC Alec Guiness miniseries (5.5 hours) in preparation for this film. Maybe that helped me track the characters, but I think this is just a case of economic and skillful mastery of the film narrative arts. Oldman surpasses, but the surprise here is Cumberbatch, who I found a bit smarmy as the modernized Sherlock Holmes on PBS this year. Not so here.
- Weekend. This is a story of ships passing in the night: how a one-night-stand turns into something else, and then something else again. We get to know the characters as they get to know each other, two gay men in different stages of their lives, looking for love and not looking for love. The tender beauty of unspoken words, the gesture that carries years of meaning, the breath you take with the characters on the screen -- a new kind of intimacy, not so much erotic as soulful.
- Moneyball. Brad Pitt is surprising me again and again these days, turning in such excellent performances. He is also choosing great material, like this gripping suspense tale disguised as a sports movie. Very contemporary. Excellent texture and tone.
- Win Win. Just about a perfect little movie for my money, beautifully cast with actors you love to watch and a story with heart, not sap. Cannavale is a stand-out as the puppy-eager sidekick.
- 50/50. Gordon-Levitt is one of our best actors, totally believable (and loveable) as the earnest NPR young reporter with a rare spinal cancer. Surrounding him are those who love him, often in their own screwed up ways, including a smother/mother, a cheating girlfriend, an inexperienced and inappropriate shrink, and his best friend, tender gross-out artist Seth Rogan. The story flowed from a real-life situation faced by Rogan and a fellow writer. This feels authentic. And is both tragic and laugh-out-loud funny.
- The Help. Given that I raced to see the movie version of the wonderful novel THE HELP (which I listened to in gratitude along the mean hot streets of LA), I guess you could say I'm in the target audience, and indeed, for the most part, I really liked it. Anchored by masterful performances by Viola Davis as the deeply sad maid Aibileen and a scene-stealing Octavia Spencer as spunky Minnie, the movie is at its best when it sticks to the black characters. Except for the revelatory Jessica Chastain as an outsider (white-trash sexpot from Skunk Holler, whatever), the white women are one-note wonders. None of them do much besides scowl and grimace and play cards as they inhabit their pre-assigned social roles. Stone is adequate, but I saw what is now becoming her trademark quirky nose-squiggling ingénue yet again (better than most ingénues, mind you), and definitely not Skeeter. I was especially disappointed in Alison Janney's performance as Skeeter's cancer-ridden Mom. I just didn't buy the sudden transformation. But Davis and Spenser and Chastain light up the screen. Twill be interesting to see if any or all get best-supporting Oscar nods. Davis would seem to have the inside track, given her prior Acad history, but there is a LOT of buzz, deservedly, for the other two women as well. This is a grown-up movie about a major theme in the history of the America. Would that the kids could take out a minute from their action figures and such to walk in these stepped-upon shoes.
- Poetry (2010) Absorbing and beautifully told story of a poor elderly woman in the hinterlands who finds poetry when she really needs it. Why don't Americans make movies this beautiful any more?
- Incendies. I'm still reeling almost a week after seeing this intense French Canadian mystery/thriller, though I'm not sure any category is sufficient to capture the power of this journey into the nightmare past of sectarian violence in an unnamed, Lebanon-like Middle Eastern country. From the opening scene when a pair of twins, one man and one woman, hear the will of their late mother, all the way through the searing final "reveal," there is not a single moment which doesn't thoroughly grab your emotions and wring you out. There are manifold aesthetic pleasures, even within the deep well of sadness: Superb filmmaking. Only minor complaint is that I didn't buy the ethnicity of the kids, but their acting chops were strong enough to overcome.
- Martha Marcy May Marlene. What we learn and how we learn it is the stunning achievement in this deliberately paced thriller, an amazing collaboration between the writer/director and an awfully great cast, led by newcomer Elizabeth Olsen. Difficult to watch, increasingly so as the nailbiting finale approaches, the movie takes you on a ride you'd probably just as soon ignore, but cannot.
- Young Adult. My kind of romantic comedy, namely, not so romantic and very dark. Theron is fearless in delivering a very unpleasant lead character through a story arc which gets worse, more humiliating and grim as we go along. Reitman, and especially Cody's script, do not take the happy ending way out, either. This character is committed to her delusions. Just like all of our real-life friends, actually. Why I liked, I think.
- Another Earth. A tender, tragic love story, grafted with a truly inventive sci-fi premise, beautifully presented and acted. What more could you want from an indie film? Brit Marling is someone to watch. Mapother is profound. This has made it to the tipping point of my top-ten list for 2011, I think. So far.
- Drive. It will stay with you, not really because of the violence, but rather the propulsive narrative, rendered with a full kit of cinematic tools by a terrific emerging filmmaker. Gosling is suitably blank, moving in and out of the lightness and darkness and their representative characters with the ease of the damned -- damned because in this world, a conscience is not helpful.
- Shame. Fassbender is charismatic, driven by a need to get off sexually in many different configurations. Mulligan is equally driven as the woman who loves too much and hates herself. The unspoken here, given that they are brother and sister, is the awful past that must have warped them in their youth--- only hints are given. McQueen excels at holding the camera in place as the painful unfurls before us, and I don't just mean sex, which is part of the story here, for sure. This is really a story of the loneliness of modern life, how we move into contorted versions of reality that seem normal while we're in them -- I don't like to aggrandize the word addiction. The compulsive sexual behaviors seemed symptomatic of a deeper inauthenticity.
- The Artist. This improbable film tribute to the era of silent movies will blow you away. Hazanavicius pulls off a miracle of tone and balance, using the form and, yes, the clichés of the era to wrap a deeply felt, very modern movie about how the movies can move us. The cast is flawless. Ditto for the editing and music (oh my, the Bernard Herman references nearly sent me over the edge). Simple and pure enchantment.
- The Lady. I'm a sucker for real-life stories of heroism in the face of oppression, so I was eager to experience the biopic of this Burmese Nobel Prize winner whose struggle continues even now, after global pressure led the military regime to release her from a very long house arrest in Rangoon. What I wasn't prepared for was Yeoh's towering performance of quiet determination and honor in the face of escalating pressures, especially after her husband, whom she is prevented from seeing, learns he has prostate cancer. The emotional tone of the film continues to build until your heart almost breaks while you watch these heartbroken but unbroken people navigate through a world of impossible choices, simply because they must. The mise-en-scene is superb, the supporting cast revelatory, but this is Michelle's movie & I would love to see her recognized.
- Coriolanus. Fiennes' Coriolanus is "Syriana" in ancient Rome, shot in a very modern and believable fashion. Fine acting by actors who use the language to convey meaning, which is helpful with Shakespearean dialogue. My only reservation is with old Will's plot, or maybe the direction. For the life of me, I really could not believe that Martius cared one way or the other about the Consul position. He seemed the opposite of ambitious. Only when his ego (and his mother) are triggered does he warrant the plots that bring him to his tragic end. Quibbling, I know.
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. As a longtime fan of Swedish police procedurals, I was a big fan of the Millennium novels, and quite liked last year's Swedish adaptation, which I gather had been cut from a TV miniseries version. Of course, Americans ignored it, given their pathological ignorance when it comes to subtitled movies. Alas, I digress. Fincher is operating at full mastery, especially the levers of suspense. Its unusual length (more than 2.5 hours) didn't seem so, largely because of the propulsion of the storytelling and the mesmerizing appeal of the heroine, which is totally the creation of Larsson's novels. The talent is high in every department, and Sweden seems like Sweden, dark and sinister, which I was afraid would be lost along with the original language. Altogether a great thrill ride.
- Margin Call. A day in the life of capitalism, only not just any day: THE DAY, e.g., the beginning of the end of the housing bubble inside a big Wall St. firm. Part thriller, part character study, part indictment of untrammeled greed, this is an important piece of the record, even though it's fictional -- a sort of TOO BIG TO FAIL without the need to impersonate specific people. I do feel that the Spacey character was presented a bit too much like a victim, when the guy had been raping and pillaging for decades. Yes, this is said by another character, probably Bettany's Will Emerson, and yet, here we have him at the end of the movie, a sort of pathetic figure in the dark. (Also: all the characters have a few too many pat speeches for my taste in this movie. We could have used a bit more "show" and a bit less "tell".)
- Bill Cunningham New York. Here's a guy whose passions and peculiar lifestyle choices allowed him to create a unique, one-of-a-kind body of work in the otherwise sleazy world of celebrity/style photography. You love him in this movie, Bill C., dashing about in his disheveled clothes from gala to street corner, and then holing up in a cubicle decorated with the filing cabinets that hold millions of his images. A weird and wonderful character, told engagingly.
- Beginners. Perfect tone in this quirky love story with a Euro sensibility and a heart of love. McGregor is awkward, caring, tender, and not sappy, a spot-on performance from one of my faves. The film packs an emotional wallop, too, with the passing of Plummer's character, the dad who comes out at age 70 when his wife dies. We see the flowering of his love thru the son's eyes, a rarity. And the whimsical touches manage to flirt with “cute” (without going all the way).
- Source Code. An edgy suspense drama which, once you swallow the ridiculous premise, is totally absorbing, like the demon spawn of Groundhog Day and Inception. Jake is good and there is believable chemistry between he and Ms. Monaghan. Farmiga is solid. Weak point, as often tends to be the case in good vs. bad movies, is the Jeffrey Wright character, a twist on the mad scientist or the out of control businessman. Belongs in a Batman movie, not here.
- Senna. I knew nothing of Senna's story, or about Formula One racing, but I caught this doc about the charismatic Brazilian racecar driver because of the very strong reviews. Very well crafted from a mountain of footage that documents virtually every moment of a driver's life, including amazing stuff from car-mounted cameras, the film does a very good job of creating a story arc for this guy's tragic and inspiring life. I could have used a little more info about the sport itself (how much does a world champion win? How much is spent by the ubiquitous sponsors? Do the French control the sport? Is that what is meant by the frequent and spooky use of the word "political"? ) Seems like the filmmakers assumed the audience would be true-believers only.
- Jane Eyre. Yes, they've made another screen version of this English class classic (we had trouble recalling details). The tone and pace are mesmerizing, and the story grabs, even at this distance in cultural time and space. Fassbender is smoldering, Dench is arch (perhaps a bit too too). Wasikowska, whom I loved in IN TREATMENT, is flat in more ways than one, an overall affectlessness that undermines the passion that must drive the ebb and flow of the actions that her character is compelled to take.
- The Skin I Live In. Given that Almodovar is the greatest director working today, suffice it to say I watch this latest bombshell of a movie slackjawed at his virtuosity and brilliance. His work here is a colder, almost clinically distant mode with a different palette and pacing than usual, appropriate to the medical and emotional horror story he's telling. That coolness may have put me off a bit, accustomed as I am to the Almodovar wallow, his unique form of cinematic inside-outness that uses our knowledge of movie history to rip our own hearts out. Less so here, more Hitchcockian. And welcome back Mr. Bandaras from the land of puss n boots.
- A Dangerous Method. This is a well-made and -acted telling of a sticky historical love triangle of sorts between Freud, Jung and a female patient, a kind of Germanic sexual hygiene drama along the lines of KINSEY. Despite the erotic, psychological and historical fireworks, the pic is oddly cold. Clinical, one might say. I never really warmed to any of these folks, but it was fun to watch, especially Fassbender, who is a very strong screen presence. I wanted to know more about the substance of the Jung/Freud split.
Other notables I loved, no matter when released:
- In a Better World. A moral tale, intense and suspenseful, whipping us back and forth between contemporary Denmark and an unnamed African medical station as we witness two scenarios of escalating violence and revenge -- one perpetrated by a savage warlord, the other by a grieving and raging child. The acting, especially Mikael Persbrandt and young Markus Rygaard, was astonishing. Having not had the chance to see this, I had been rooting for BIUTIFUL to grab the best foreign film Oscar. IN A BETTER WORLD is a masterpiece.
- Biutiful. Bardem delivers an indelible portrayal of a tortured soul trying to scratch a living for himself and his bipolar drunk of a wife and their two lovely kids in contemporary Barcelona. He does so via a slew of illegal schemes involving immigrants, as well as helping poor folks resolve their grief for the dead through his supernatural gifts. Things go wrong, and then wronger. Through it all, we believe in him and his ethical center, though this belief is tried over and over. Innarritu narrows his storytelling palette considerably in this film, compared to his multi-story epics (Babel, Amores Perros). He's a fierce and uncompromising artist with penetrating insight and a powerful mission of compassion for the human flaws of his very believable characters. I'd bet on this one for best foreign film Oscar this year.
- Carlos. I had to see Assayas' deep cinematic dive into the culture of international terrorism, not only because it's a "now" movie and I'm devoted to film culture, but because the topic seems to be an abiding obsession, a hangover from my own flirtation with radical politics in the 70s (though I wielded placards, not Uzi's). There are stylistic similarities to Germany's THE BAADER-MEINHOF KOMPLEX, which I also loved. No question, then, for me, I am drawn to the historical mise-en-scene, with the many reminders of historical events through the eyes of these self-appointed and frequently opportunistic anti-imperialist cadre. And I love the style Assayas imposes on the material, a rapid-fire tumble of events and emotions, a tiny bit like real life, which makes the epic viewing experience whizzzz by. It is the central performance of Edgar Ramirez, shouting, spewing, shooting, scheming, flirting, fucking, killing and sweating -- in half a dozen languages no less --- that holds it all together. He is mesmerizing, towering, an extraordinary occupation of many hours of screen time that should be recognized by the industry. BTW, this year's novel AMERICAN SUBVERSIVE mines the same terrain in a contemporary setting. Interesting contrast, especially the change in motivations.
- Catfish. I watched this unsettling documentary with a vague tremor of fear, made more absorbing despite, or perhaps because of a nagging question of its veracity. Who was lying? How did all this stuff get on film? Were the protagonists in danger? All of this is enabled by a highly skilled and well-edited unfolding of the story that is emblematic of our digital lifestyle era which has forever transformed our understanding of words like sharing, identity, privacy, meaning & ultimately, love.
- GasLand. I will never drink tap water again, let me tell you, as a result of this searing expose of the frenzied exploitation of natural gas mineral rights that opened as a result of a Bush-Cheney sellout -- even though I'm nowhere near a hydraulic well (I think). This first-time documentarian, driven by the prospect of such a well on his own family's land in Pennsylvania, helps us learn about this outrage as he learns about it himself, on a journey across the country and back. Now, it seems, the lobbyists have petitioned the Academy to deny the filmmaker his 2011 Oscar nom. That's enough reason to give them the award. This country has a whole lot of bad karma.
- Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (L'ennemi public n1) I've seen this two-part crime drama compared to THE GODFATHER---maybe by me---but it's only the epic sweep of time and the brutality that make a comparison possible. Mesrine is about a megalomaniac who finds that he's good at robbery and jail-breaks, just as the culture of celebrity sweeps the world, France too. Richet glamorizes Mesrine, more like the recent two-parter about Carlos the Jackel than a naive heroic like Bonnie and Clyde. Whatever-- Mesrine is fascinating, primarily because of the propulsive and riveting performance by Vincent Cassel, who is on screen 99% of the time. Alas, they shot him down, just like Bonnie said. And there was a dogged detective who did the deed, just like B&C. The movie feels ultra-realistic, sexy, crazy, and moves like a downhill freight train.
- Mother (Madeo) This is, above all, a character study of a slightly unhinged rural Korean mother of a mentally challenged young son who is accused of murder. As the plot unravels the mystery, so too does it unravel her sanity and our understanding of the possible truths in the specific situation and their larger history. Brilliant performance by the lead actress and a charasmatic supporting cast. Has a shot at foreign language Oscar.
- Red Road (2006) How to tell a story through surveillance footage. And well. With suspense, anguish and heart.
- Dogtooth (Kynodontas) (2009) Stunningly executed (pun intended) conceptual horror movie about an upper class Greek businessman who has trapped his three young adult children since birth, presumably (and maybe his wife) in their suburban home. "Plot" revolves primarily around the difficulties in finding a way for the eldest, the son, to get his rocks off, which we get to watch, first with an employee from the plant (doesn't work out too well) and then one of the sisters. This is not sex like you've ever seen it, unless you count dreams or perhaps an existentialist or two. But really, this is not about the story, it's about the premise and the philosophical critique of modern life it presents in its own exaggerated and surreal fashion. The scenes are almost all creepy in one way or another, and many of the tropes are inventive (the family uses different meanings for common words, eg., zombie is a yellow flower... The world is dangerous outside the home's walls, primarily because of terrifying giant cats who eat children... You get the idea. I'm stunned that this one was included among the five best foreign language Oscar noms for 2010.
- Inside Job (2010) If you've reached the denial or numb stage of grief over the state of the world and its economy, see this movie. It will move you back very very quickly into a state of anger, nay, homicidal rage. Those Mother *#@ers! etc., etc. Ferguson's systematic unpeeling of the story is masterful, as are his persistent questions. As the evidence mounts, he, like the viewer, gets more and more impatient and argumentative. Those few guilty parties who agree to appear on camera squirm nicely (obviously, as the head of Harvard's Biz School actually says, I should never have agreed to do this interview!). Ferguson also uses to great effect title cards announcing the many, many culprits who refused to be interviewed, including Bernanke, Geitner, Greenspan, and Sommers, who in combo form the gang of four who demonstrate what it means to be the handmaidens of the ruling class. In reality, the film should be called the Inevitable Result of Radical Deregulation on the Forces of Rapacious Capitalism. For it's clear that without a restraining hand by the people (read: our government), these fuckers will do what comes naturally, which is, evidently, to steal, rob, lie and cheat. A sucker is born every day, e.g., more than half the population of the USA. This film should get the Oscar spotlight, if only so that a few more folks might see it.