Sunday, January 22, 2012

Top films of 2011. Kinda sorta.

I have to start with a confession: I didn't see as many movies as I had wanted to last year. I usually try to post this list by January 15th, in order to get a chance for last minute releases to show up in whatever city I'm in and a few final DVD releases to come out. But the way the last 6 weeks has gone, if I try to catch up on the last dozen films I've been meaning to see, this list might not come out till the Oscars. *sigh*

So - the notable omissions for the year: Tinker Tailor, Young Adult, War Horse, Cold Weather, Win Win, Margin Call, House of Pleasures, Bellflower, 50/50, Beginners, Higher Ground, 3, the Mill and the Cross, the Mysteries of Lisbon, Take Shelter, London Boulevard, Red State, the Princess of Montpensier, Like Crazy, Incendies, Melancholia, the Skin I Live in, Coriolanus, Tyrannosaur, Sleeping Beauty, Weekend, and so on and so forth.

I do have plans to see War Horse, Tinker Tailor (can we say Sherlock withdrawal?), and Mission Impossible in the next couple of days. So... I may have notes on those. We'll see if this week is as crazy as the last few.

Please note that those films most assured of an Oscar nomination at this point; The Descendants, Hugo, The Artist, The Help, and Midnight in Paris, are not to be found on this list. 

Top films of 2011:
1. Drive. Yup. Pretty surprised by this, but, as I've mentioned before, it's been a weird year for movies. The Artist is more or less the one to beat for Best Picture (more on that later), and while it's fine, it isn't something I fell in love with (unlike Winter's Bone or The Hurt Locker). So it turns out the best time I had at the movies this year was high-art pulp. Like many of the films on the list, this one stood out for being visually striking. From my earlier review; "I loved it. It is really, really wonderful. First up, and important to know before watching, there are not many car chases in the film, aside from the brilliantly shot opening. Also, knowing Nicolas Winding Refn's work (and his propensity for filming violence) is probably good. That said, I was just riveted by the whole film. The supporting cast is good, but much of the movie is just an understated performance by Ryan Gosling. Also, the rumors of a bromance between Refn and Gosling must be true, because the movie is framed around Gosling to his best effect in each scene. It reminded me of Meet Me in St. Louis and how lovingly Minnelli filmed Judy Garland. I'm not a huge Ryan Gosling fan (although I think he does good work), but you seriously can't take your eyes off of him here. Hmmm... I'm finding it hard to word this without coming off as a fan girl. What I mean is, this character, the way he is shot, and the performance are all completely compelling. (And I'm sure those women who were fans of the Notebook will appreciate Gosling as eye candy, too.) Furthermore, the movie just exudes cool. The retro 80s pink font in the titles, his varsity jacket and driving gloves, and the slow-burn, taut direction; all of of it is stylish fun. It's an art-house pulp film. It's awesome."

2. Stake Land. My SFIFF review; "I LOVED this film. It is sort of The Road with a supernatural bent, or I've heard it described as a 'post-apocalyptic, vampire western.' And it is scary. Not because of the vampires, although those are good for a few good jump scares, but because of the picture it paints of how America would disintegrate in the wake of an apocalypse. It is horrifying because it feels true. As the protagonist explains, cults pop up everywhere and the religious right goes off the deep end (not that they have far to go, but I digress). It isn't the vampires you have to survive so much as the people. (The main religious cult actually ended up reminding me a bit of the cult that springs up in Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.) I think everyone likes to think that they'd be able to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, given that it is a popular genre. And while I think I might be able to feed myself and find shelter, the film taps into the primal fear that there isn't anything you'd be able to do against religious fundamentalism-crazy. Could any sense of goodness or culture survive when nutjobs drop vampires from helicopters to cleanse the world of sinners? Anyways, the characters in the film are fabulous. It is mostly about a boy named Martin, who is taken under the wing of a vampire-killer, known only as Mister. Mister schools Martin in the finer arts of vampire killing and survival and along the way they meet up with other survivors. All of the character development is great. And there are some really fun killing vampire parts. But that sense of scary is definitely going to linger"
3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It's impossible not to compare this film to the Swedish original, given how quickly it was remade. My personal take is that there are parts that were left out of each. I liked some of what was kept in the American version and some of what was kept in the Swedish. I personally come down on the Noomi Rapace side of the actress debate. She just came across as more of a coiled fist, whereas Rooney Mara came off as slightly more damaged and vulnerable (much as I loved her aesthetic). What did make the remake come alive for me was David Fincher's direction. Not only do I love the way he directs the production design and cinematography, he managed to keep a long, complex, and splintered story hum along for three hours without losing any tension or momentum. It's a beautifully crafted film, and one which managed to highlight parts that I particularly loved from the book.

4. Another Earth. From my SFIFF review; "This was brilliant. I completely loved it. I don't really know how best to describe it. It's about a woman, Rhoda, who on the eve of being accepted into MIT's astrophysics program, makes a horrible mistake. It is also the same evening that a second Earth is discovered. The film then follows Rhoda as she attempts to atone for what she has done and find a way forward in her life. It's much more a character drama than a sci-fi label might suggest (Moon notwithstanding). Although the second Earth discovery does prompt a myriad of questions and possibilities. What if there is another me out there? Did they make the same choices? What would their life be like? The two leads, William Mapother and Brit Marling (co-writer, co-producer) give absolutely amazing performances. If anything, I wanted more time with the characters - they were just such complete, interesting portraits."

5. Cave of Forgotten Dreams. From my SFIFF review; "Oh god. This was the film I was most looking forward to in the festival. And it was everything I had hoped it would be. AND SO MUCH MORE! First of all, Werner Herzog got unprecedented access to film inside the Chauvet cave in France, which has the world's oldest cave paintings. And they are stunning. Next, he realized that to properly appreciate the paintings, which make use of the topography of the cave walls, they needed to be filmed in 3-d. This is the first film I've seen that really necessitated the use of 3-d and it is wonderfully done. There are long stretches of the film that are just gazing at these paintings, beautifully filmed, while some wonderful choir compositions play. (A lot of the music was fabulous; some bits got a little too atonal, even for me, but a lot of the pieces were clearly written to play off of the acoustics in a cathedral, and accompanied the space inside a cave really well.) Also - just seeing the stalactites and stalagmites in 3-d is worth the price of admission on its own. So all of that is awesome (in the original sense of that word) and completely makes it a 5 star film. But then - THEN! - the fact that it is Werner Herzog means that you get his incredible musings on the nature of art and humanity. I giggled through long segments of the film. Plus, he gathers up several of the craziest French people he can find, which is just even more wonderful. And while some of the funny bits were clearly intentional, I also think he is just becoming more and more a parody of himself as he ages. It's no wonder he worked with Nicholas Cage on Bad Lieutenant. The postscript to the film might be one of the funniest things I've seen this year."

6. Jane Eyre. A Gothic period piece that uses shadows and the desolate moors to great affect, with incredible actors owning the iconic roles Jane and Mr. Rochester. From the Cinematical (RIP!) review; "Fukunaga, enabled by a terrific script by Moira Buffini ('Tamara Drewe'), makes their disputes seem more like connections, and in the most complimentary way possible creates a perfect equal for the other that transcends shared interests or even the immediacy of physical attraction. For her part, Wasikowska seems remarkably at home in a corset and dowdy governess' dress with her hair finely, modestly styled to suit her poverty-level class status, but she exudes the kind of attractiveness that comes from a person who knows her own self-worth, and refuses to settle for a value less than she deserves. Meanwhile, Fassbender is so effortlessly sexy as Rochester -- born for breeches and a fancy-lad shirt that somehow only further showcases his masculinity -- that the actor's natural intelligence only enhances his attractiveness. He gives the character a palpable connection to the young woman who has captured his fancy, and less because she happens to be genuinely, secretly beautiful underneath her businesslike appearance than the fact that her own irrepressible charm and personality fairly enchanted him."  

7. The Ides of March. I'm surprised that this film was written off so quickly. I went to see it after the NBR added it to their top 10 list, and I was very pleasantly surprised. It is very much an actor's film and the cast assembled is stunning. I thought it was as good or better than Good Night and Good Luck, if more cynical.

8. The Guard. It's a black comedy by Martin McDonagh's brother. OF COURSE I was going to love it. But there was a good reason for Brandan Gleeson to be at the Golden Globes; he gets a role that he really tears into and he is excellent in it. Set in the West of Ireland, Gleeson plays a world-weary, foul-mouthed cop who may or may not be stupid like a fox. The criminals (including Liam Cunningham and Mark Strong) are hilarious. A very sharp, smart crime drama.

9. Circumstance. My SFIFF review; "This was so good. (And, as a side note, it won the audience award at Sundance.) It's about two teenage girls in Iran who fall in love and try to survive adolescence in Iran. Much as I love Persepolis, I think this film gives a much clearer idea of what it would be like to grow up under such heavy restrictions. To have to do everything in secret, underground, to be scared of who to trust not to turn you in to the government - and to have such dire consequences when you most feel the need to rebel and experiment and act out. It's a beautiful love story, a wonderful portrait of a family trying its best to cope under difficult times, and a fully realized vision of Iranian youth culture. It has fantastic character development, it's funny, sexy and heartbreaking. Go see it."

10. Shame.  From The Guardian's review; "Steve McQueen's film about a damaged sibling relationship, co-written with Abi Morgan, is a nightmarish, laugh-free black comedy about neurosis and dysfunction. It has the same icy, unwavering stare as his previous work, Hunger, about the Irish republican hunger-striker Bobby Sands, with the same degree-zero long camera takes." Carey Mulligan interestingly compared working on Shame to theater, as Steve McQueen used only one camera and long takes and this approach heightens the focus on the characters.

11. Martha Marcy Mae Marlene. The story of a young woman trying to leave a cult, as told through narrative jumps between her time at the farm and her trying to recuperate with her estranged sister. Elizabeth Olson broke out as the damaged titular character who was trying to make sense of what was real anymore. Most of the film was very brilliant, and part of why this didn't crack the top 10 was the unbelievable brother-in-law, played by Hugh Dancy. It was the only part which seemed to be written without much thought or attention to detail and drew me out of the film. Which was too bad, because the rest of it was so immersing.

12. Meek's Cutoff. My SFIFF review: "I ended up really enjoying this a lot. It's a very minimalist film, and probably not everyone's cup of tea, but I think it ends up being an incredibly realistic telling of what life on the Oregon Trail must have been like. It would have been hard, tedious, and scary. There would have been a looming threat of not making it, and having your survival dependent upon the abilities of your traveling companions. The other really interesting thing is that the film was not shot in wide screen, which was so unusual. I thought it ended up mimicking how the women would have seen the landscape out of their bonnets, and it worked well to focus your attention on the characters. 

13. Hanna. A fractured fairy tale of the best kind. Joe Wright's globe-trotting, diminutive assassin is terrific fun to watch. Even though the ending turns a little predictable, the actors are having so much fun (particularly Cate Blanchett and Tom Hollander), that it remains well worth watching. As my co-watched said afterwards, "they marketed it as an action film and then tricked everyone into seeing an art film."

14. Tree of Life. I love Terrence Malick. I love the way he looks at things. So, I loved a lot of the Tree of Life. Even if I didn't think it entirely hung together the way the Thin Red Line or the New World did. From Lisa Schwartzbaum's review; "There’s a certain awesome delight to be had from giving oneself over to all this narrative ambition and visual bravado, this swirl of desire and yearning, bumping up against the limits of translation on the part of so interesting an artist."

15. Rango. Well, I know that at least one film I really enjoyed will be winning an Oscar. From Roger Ebert's review; "Rango" is some kind of a miracle: An animated comedy for smart moviegoers, wonderfully made, great to look at, wickedly satirical, and (gasp!) filmed in glorious 2-D. Its brilliant colors and startling characters spring from the screen and remind us how very, very tired we are of simpleminded little characters bouncing around dimly in 3-D. This is an inspired comic Western, deserving comparison with "Blazing Saddles," from which it borrows a lot of farts. The more movies you've seen, the more you may like it; it even enlists big bats to lampoon the helicopter attack in "Apocalypse Now."" Really, of all the films this year that borrow heavily from cinematic tradition, this one was the best.

16. The Future. My SFIFF review; "I... am not sure I totally understood this film. But I liked it. It is about a couple who will be picking up a stray cat from the vet in a month and adopting it. They realize that this means it will be their last true month of freedom and they decide to be open to the possibilities that affords while facing the uncertainties of... well, the future. However, a certain amount of magical realism creeps into the film which makes it feel much more original than your generic indie romance. And it features a talking cat. I came into this film not knowing anything about Miranda July's performance background, and I haven't gotten around to watching her first film Me and You and Everyone We Know. She did a Q&A after the film and while those can sometimes just be awkward or not particularly informative, she was surprisingly charming and had a really unique perspective on film, since she is an artist who works primarily in other media. Both she and Hamish Linklater (Groove!) give great performances and it certainly surprised me with the twists and turns the plot took."

17. Le Quattro Volte. My SFIFF review; "If Meek's Cutoff is somewhat of an art film which may not be for everyone, that goes double for Le Quattro Volte (quadruple?). I don't really want to describe it, because I think going in without knowing much adds to the experience. I will just say that there is almost no dialogue and, as the introduction at the film fest went, it "pushes the boundaries of what is possible cinematically." That said, I don't want the non-traditional plot to scare off potential viewers. There are moments that work as well as any Charlie Chaplin film (seriously - the whole theater was laughing). And it is incredibly well made. The only thing I will say about the subject matter is; Goats! Lots and lots of goats! (So, also a good film for those who enjoy Cute Overload.)"

18. Kaboom.  The apocalypse. With lots of college sex. From the SF Weekly review; "As spacey as its title suggests, Gregg Araki's latest youth film is an occult mystery set in the ultimate SoCal college playpen. Kaboom is Scooby Doo with sex, drugs, and tattooed hotties...With its pop colors and compositions — including a giant close-up of mac-and-cheese — Kaboom is a garish billboard for id unbridled, filled with wicked one-liners, relentlessly over-the-top in the tradition of Waters, George Kuchar, and underground comix. The action more or less proceeds from one bed to the next — the sex embellished by mysterious tantric starbursts and outlandish setups."

19. Submarine. My SFIFF review; "It is adorable. Very much in the Wes Anderson vibe, and it is quite cute. It's a coming of age set in Wales in the 80s and has Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins, along with Paddy Considine, whom I did not know was in it as all. So - fantastic cast and very charming. Hmm... that all comes off as precious. And it isn't, really. It's very deadpan. And it doesn't succumb to the cliche of wrapping everything up in a neat little uplifting bow. It's a lovely romance with lots of clever monologues, but the film also touches on heartbreak and depression. It's a pretty ambitious first film and the director carries it all off."

20. Moneyball. My earlier review; "I also saw Moneyball, which I enjoyed, but not quite as much as I had thought I would. Maybe it is because I put off seeing it for a week or two after the season ended and was subconsciously sad there wasn't more of the actual game in the film. Or, actual talk about stats... In terms of being an adult movie, which is entertaining and accessible to those who don't actually care about baseball or stats, it works quite well. I think I was expecting more of an Aaron Sorkin influence, but he only revised the script and didn't actually write it. So there wasn't as much smart banter between Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill as I had hoped. I think I generally went in with my expectations a bit too high. But it is a good film. It just kind of made me want to re-watch The Social Network. And last year's world series."

21. Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I enjoyed this more than I expected to. Andy Serkis as Caesar is completely brilliant. I think this was maybe the film Avatar wanted to be.

22. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Do I actually need to explain this?

23. The Muppets. I've described this as more of a love letter than an actual film. For anyone who grew up on The Muppet Show, it is impossible not to love this. The tone, the songs, the gags, it is all really wonderful.

24. Attack the Block. I wanted to toss this on here, because I thought the concept was really clever. It's a fun, well-made action film, but it sets itself apart for being set in a council estate in London and for having really original aliens. Definitely worth seeing.

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