Monday, January 2, 2012

The 25 Best Films of 2011

2011 was a year in which our best films delved further into deconstruction/reconstruction and grasped for legacy despite dissolution of family, memory and self.  It was a year that wasn’t afraid to search for absolutes, nor to ask questions only answered poetically.  It gave us the best film of the decade but one year in. 

“2011” movies that will have to wait for 2012: The Innkeepers, Into the Abyss 

Notably missed: I am less than excited to catch Margaret and Win Win, though, on a rare day off in late December, I nearly drove down to Tucson to catch a screening of Take Shelter.  I regret not having done so.

25. 50/50 (Jonathan Levine)
Something about Joseph Gordon-Levitt just doesn’t do it for me, but the power of the material and a spot-on performance by Anjelica Huston outweighed my reservations. 

24. Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston)
Though worried about Joss Whedon’s handling of the forthcoming Avengers, Johnston’s Americana places Captain America head-and-shoulders above any installment in the franchise.

23. Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
In late-season Arizona Diamondbacks dramatics, I asked my friend, Dan Crist if a pitcher ever dug himself so deep a hole in extra-innings and was bailed out.  The following morning I was given this response:

“Last night, Micah Owings gave up five runs in the tenth inning, but picked up the win as the Diamondbacks scored six in the bottom of the inning. Since 1919, this is the 137th time that a pitcher has given up five or more runs in relief, but picked up the win. Notable previous instances include two instances where it was done by Babe Ruth, once by Phil Collins, twice in a week by Carl Erskine of the 1949 Brooklyn Dodgers (he would later do it a third time in his career), and Eddie Rommel, who not only shares the record with Carl Erskine of accomplishing this thrice, but did it with two instances of six runs and one with the all-time record of most runs allowed by a winning relief pitcher of 14 runs (13 earned) in 17 innings of work (the starter only went one inning). Not one of these pitchers gave up (all of) their five runs in extra innings; the closest any of them came to duplicating Owings's feat was the only other pitcher to throw just one innings, Jack Knott of the 1934 St. Louis Browns, who came into a tie game in the top of the ninth and surrendered five runs to the Philadelphia Athletics before the Browns came through with six in the bottom of the inning to give him the win.”

Ladies and gentlemen, finally, the movie for Dan Crist.

22. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird)
Following a screening of The Descendants, my wife and I discussed the politics of awards season.  She was appalled to hear about the film’s presence in the critics’ circles and asked why something like the Alexander Payne picture would be nominated over Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.  From a purely rectitudinarian perspective, I had no answer.

21. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
Pauline Kael mocks the overly socially aware white-man guilt that led ‘60s film brats to strive toward a Western “that’s fair to Indians,” citing the victimization of Native peoples as incongruent to our baseline experience of the narrative.  Meek’s Cutoff may not be the “revolution in American movies” Kael scoffed at, but Reichardt’s masterful revisioning of racial and gender politics of the old West, at a pace reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, paints the New American dying West in existential tones.

20. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)
“They might drag me off to the loony bin,” Herzog opined referring to the closing sequence of his 3D documentary.  Like Kinski throwing the monkey in the river, like constructed myths presented as documentary in Bells From the Deep and Lessons of Darkness, Herzog is less concerned with what is true in the absolute sense and what is true in the poetic sense.  Suffice to say, Herzog was given the distinct honor to film France’s Chauvet Cave—his cinematic story of the oldest known cinematic story—and ends the film with albino crocodiles.

19. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
The further removed I am from my first screening of Midnight In Paris, the sillier it seems.  But why shouldn’t that be the point?  It’ll be nice to see Woody Allen at the Academy Awards, not merely as a prop of empty, self-congratulatory lifetime achievement, but because this film can legitimately stand with nine or so other films Hollywood chooses to recognize.  Further, it’s something of a welcome comeback for a whiffing Owen Wilson.  And the Prufrock line still kills me like his finest Annie Hall barbs.

18. The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg)
Spielberg’s Tintin hearkens to a deep-seeded, passionate love for film in a way more honest than Scorsese’s Hugo.  It strives for the love and adventure film brings, reminiscent of Saturday serials, not because film itself is the object of affection, but what it does to us.  The motion-capture looks great, the adventure is rollicking and the film is an American flop.  Go figure.

17. Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean)
Don’t call it a morality play, Muntean’s brutally meticulous unfolding of adultery allows all parties involved to speak for themselves, not without honest pain.  Though not realistic in the vérité sense—takes are often long, still and gaze-oriented—our observations of the depth of human emotion register because of formal, cinematic decisions.

16. I Saw the Devil (Kim Ji-woon)
In many ways the anti-David Fincher film, I Saw The Devil is a brutal, visceral and completely unsuspenseful revenge tale.  Like last year’s Mother, I Saw the Devil is a Korean take on American filmic influence, examining the breaking point at which man becomes monster.  And it makes us experience every unpleasant bit of the journey.

15. Le Quattro volte (Michaelangelo Frammartino)
There’s been something of a renaissance in animal husbandry pictures, what with last year’s Sweetgrass and this year’s Le Quattro volte.  In Frammartino’s silent feature (more so than either Lech Majewski’s striking The Mill and the Cross or Michel Hazanavicius’s pedestrian-to-the-point-of-insult The Artist) it’s a well-turned metaphor of passing and rebirth in a medieval village in which the poetry of the quiet everyday weighs heavily.

14. Fright Night (Craig Gillespie)
Further proof, alongside last year’s The Crazies, that hating horror remakes on principle is unfounded.

13. Poetry (Lee Chang-dong)
Add Lee to the growing list of unquestionable international talent coming from the cinematic hotbed of South Korea.  Poetry follows Yun Jeong-hie as a 66-year-old custody-holding grandmother approaching the verge of dementia.  It’s a thing of rare beauty, like the best films of the last few years, painfully grasping for legacy in what is becoming a uniquely Korean subtext dark as pitch.

12. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt)
Most-Crow-Eaten award of the year goes to my dismissal of Rise of the Planet of the Apes following the initial, lowbrow trailers.  It would be condescending to refer to it as any sort of shock or miracle; I was simply wrong.  A decade after 9/11, our best films still clutch phoenix symbolism, even if the focus is heavly skewed toward the ashes.  In a year internationally rife with dementia films (A Separation, Poetry, The Descendants, 50/50), it sometimes takes the popcorn blockbuster to show how deeply affected our public consciousness is with legacy.

11. Drive Angry (Patrick Lussier)
Academy Award Nominations for Best Supporting Actor if there were any justice:
Albert Brooks – Drive
Colin Farrell – Fright Night
William Fichtner – Drive Angry
Christopher Plummer – Beginners
Andy Serkis – Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Our own Christopher Centanni referred to Drive Angry as an "existential essential" which, if I didn't feel quite as deeply about, should at least have been Tarantino's favorite movie of the year with Nic Cage going full-Vampire's Kiss.  A hell of a good time that I'm not afraid to say deserves a Criterion release.

10. Tomboy (Céline Sciamma)
Earlier this year I picked nits with Sciamma’s feature-length debut, Water Lilies (in this blog’s most-read article, sorry Elvis) in what, after seeing her deeper, more mature, and similar-themed Tomboy, appears to lack in chops, not material.  Sciamma gets virtuoso performances from two children, Zoé Héran and Melonn Lévana that, beyond the eponymous source material, fleshes a relationship of sisterhood unparalleled in cinema.

9. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
I didn’t think it possible, used to bloated Bond flicks of similar length, for Alfredson to appropriately and deliberately transpose the seminal spy novel to appropriate feature length, given BBC’s 315-minute version in 1979.  Alfredson’s deliberate nihilism is shocking this green in his career and, coupled with Gary Oldman’s Oscar-worth performance (though I fear he will be snubbed even a nomination), there are moments when this adaptation even transcends its source material.  That being said, the audience needs to bring its A-game to the table.  It’s wordy, it’s smart, and it knows it.

8. Source Code (Duncan Jones)
Source Code is the sci-fi picture Inception fanboys should have wanted.  Its tropes and twists are dosed methodically in an intelligent popcorn film that transcends genre.  It presents a meta, fragmented world that demands reconstruction as its only source of survival and turns the axiom “we live, as we dream – alone” on its head.

7. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
Speaking of Inception, the mist has burnt away enough now that we can laugh at every Facebook status update that read “mind=blown,” can’t we?  I dare you to check your timeline.  But really, what was so confusing about a film in which every piece was explained like a roadmap by a talking head?  Enter Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, a film that reminds of Before Sunrise until we are forced to retrace each cobblestone for our dizzying lack of foundation.  Insufficient and condescending to pigeonhole as a mere relational metaphor, Certified Copy, like Source Code, like Poetry, like Le Quattro volte, like Cave of Forgotten Dreams, like Nostalgia for the Light, restructures legacy.  Mind=blown.

6. The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (Göran Olsson)
Though more traditionally “documentary” than the average Herzog documentary, Göran Olsson’s reconstructed found-footage documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 shares its philosophy with Herzog in that films tells our own story and documentary is anything but objective.  And like the more positively received (if highly structured) A Separation, perhaps truth is found in multiple layers.

5. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)
Imagine Gus Van Sant’s Elephant through a microscope.  It’s the details in Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin that are even more telling than Tilda Swinton’s astounding performance.  Is Ramsay honestly drawing Eisensteinian montage between a tomato-throwing festival and a bloodbath?  A shot lingers on ants devouring a smeared peanut butter sandwich.  And is that really the time for a Andy Warhol sight gag?  The dread is so deep, laughs come intensified and are immediately questioned.  We Need To Talk About Kevin is the best horror film since Antichrist, and I’m still not convinced it isn’t a comedy.

4. Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán)
On paper, Guzmán’s thesis sounds wholly contrived: Astronomers flock to Chile because its atmosphere connects them to a grander, Tree of Life-scale picture.  At the same time, Chile’s recent political climate represents a deliberate disconnect to their past.  However, the earnestness of his philosophy is the glue that binds the picture together.  The documentary is beautiful and haunting in its scope and not only seeks the answers to eternal questions, but believes it knows where to find them.

3. 13 Assassins (Takeshi Miike)
Miike’s Red Cliff, 13 Assassins is a samurai picture by way of spaghetti Western by way of samurai picture by way of Shakespeare.  Like Woo’s Red Cliff, it is epic in scope, traditional in tone, rather straight-laced (by Miike standards) and career-defining.

2. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Drive is arguably more neo-noir and more Los Angeles than L.A. Confidential.  It’s a Michael Mann movie more effortless in the self-referential and influence than the excellent Collateral.  Ryan Gosling is a classic noir loner, haunting in his empty-eyed stare.  Even when we know situations are bound to turn south, the violence is shocking, visceral and beautiful, accented by the slow-burn relation between characters.  Drive is the real deal, and it’s a shame my love for this movie is overshadowed by…

1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
I purposely avoided any buzz surrounding Malick’s Tree of Life, and the hoopla of boos, walkouts and d’Or’s at Cannes weighed heavily on my psyche.  The opportunity of two Malick pictures in six years seemed too good to be true, let alone one that might earn the respect that eluded The New World

But I kept hearing murmurings.  Offhand remarks like “it’s very autobiographical in the abuse he felt under his father.  Plus he wanted to wait ‘til the technology caught up to render the dinosaurs” BAFFLED me.  The casting of Sean Penn could have jumped the shark for me, but instead I got a game-changer.

The Tree of Life poked holes in the work of modern auteurs like Darren Aronofsky and Lars von Trier and, whose weighty Melancholia couldn’t escape an air of pretension (consider that the most affecting moment to come from the work was Jens Lekman’s 3-minute, 44-second-long “Waiting for Kirsten” which nearly equals the length of von Trier’s grounded direction in his film’s prologue.)  It baffles me that The Tree of Life is dismissed as pretentious by critics who pick Melancholia as film of the year.  Not that Melancholia is a bad movie; only that it reads as a film that bit off more than it could chew.

Whereas Malick’s handling is the epitome of anti-pretension: it flawlessly removes the diametric between secular and sacred and aspires to truth that links art to humanity.  It is, every last ounce, honest and beautiful and true to the art form I hold dear.  It isn’t simply a gushing love-letter like Scorsese’s Hugo which treats film as the end-all; it inspires beyond the bounds of the medium.  The Tree of Life is dwarfing, moving, changing, awestruck, inspired and all-encompassing of the human experience.  It isn’t merely the film of the year, but a film for all time.

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