Sunday, January 22, 2012

Year in Review: Top 10 Films of 2011

I decided to put off writing this article until I saw the consensus film of the year, The Artist. Yet, it makes no appearance on this list whatsoever. With the Oscar nominations getting released on Tuesday, I felt it necessary to let everyone know how the Academy should be voting. Here are a few examples of the best achievements of 2011, capped by my long-awaited top 10 list…

Films seen: 126

Thumbs up percentage: 47.62%

Actor of the year: Michael Fassbender (A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre, Shame, X-Men: First Class)

Actress of the year: Jessica Chastain (Coriolanus, The Debt, The Help, Take Shelter, Texas Killing Fields, The Tree of Life, Wilde Salome)

Performances of the year: Michael Shannon – Take Shelter, Jeong-hie Yun - Poetry, Brad Pitt - The Tree of Life, Carey Mulligan – Shame

Most underrated film: The Conspirator

Most overrated film: War Horse

Biggest surprise: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Biggest disappointment: J. Edgar

Best ensemble casts: Carnage, Cold Fish, Margin Call

Best screenplays: Carnage, Margin Call, Moneyball

Bottom five of the year (from bad to worst): Bridesmaids, Father of Invention, The Hangover Part II, Super, Green Lantern

Most anticipated unseen films: The Interrupters, Margaret, Melancholia, Rampart, A Separation

Honorable mention: Carnage, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Rubber

10. Midnight in Paris (directed by Woody Allen)

This is probably the biggest surprise entry to my top 10 list. After three consecutive horrible films You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Cassandra’s Dream, and one of the worst films of the decade Whatever Works, my confidence in Woody Allen’s ability to still make great cinema had almost completely diminished. With Midnight in Paris, Allen made what I have come to accept as being his best film since Bullets Over Broadway. This nostalgic, beautifully-shot film about an author (Oscar-worthy Owen Wilson) who keeps getting taken back to his favorite place and time, 1920s Paris, is a whimsical, quietly hilarious, and superbly-crafted film. It may have a fair amount of indulgence in its screenplay, but these kinds of throwback films are where Allen really shines and is able to show his true talent as a filmmaker. Woody Allen has returned to form (at least for one year) with this relative masterpiece that is indisputably the best comedy of 2011.

9. Tabloid (directed by Errol Morris)

I still have a bunch of documentaries to see from last year, but this is the only one that really stuck with me. This film is about the notorious Joyce McKinney, former Miss Wyoming, who was charged with kidnapping and imprisoning her boyfriend (refused to be interviewed) while he was away on a Mormon mission in Europe. I could have watched a movie just about her, but it is the other interviews that really give this movie a brilliant atmosphere. Each person interviewed had a first-person account of what happened, yet none of them are close to being on the same page. She allegedly kidnapped her boyfriend from a mission, but she believes that she saved him from a brainwashing cult. She allegedly used him as a sex slave, but she believes that they had a romantic, kinky sex-filled honeymoon of sorts. It is fascinating to watch. Errol Morris does the questioning, and instead of searching for the truth, he is more like a viewer, asking questions about interesting aspects rather than trying to exploit the person or find the truth. The entertainment value on this documentary soars, and it is one of the more memorable films released last year.

8. The Myth of the American Sleepover (directed by David Robert Mitchell)

There is a movie each year that I come across by accident that ends up being one of the best of the year. This film, which I watched randomly on Showtime a while back, is another very nostalgic entry to this list. It takes its place alongside Dazed and Confused, American Graffiti, and Superbad as being among the essential high school hangout films. The film follows a group of interconnected teenagers on a late summer night in metro-Detroit. The themes of the movie are timeless, and the performances from the first-time actors (particularly newcomer Claire Sloma) are terrific. The screenplay is a marvel and a realistic portrait of a typical summer night, filled with slumber parties and juvenile activity. You really begin to feel like you know these characters and that you experienced their search for love and parties with them. It is a wonderful little drama, and had the annoying Christy from At the Movies not had this on her top 10, I would probably be a lot higher on it. Isn’t that frustrating when you feel like you discovered something then someone else publicizes it before you can? That would be like someone else saying Manito is one of the best films of the 2000s. There, at least I still have that one.

7. Shame (directed by Steve McQueen)

The best character study of 2011 is the brilliant and disturbingly authentic Shame. After Hunger, McQueen showed that he had a really keen talent with the camera. That movie was pretty good, but it is nothing compared to this dark and brutal drama. Brandon (the extraordinary Michael Fassbender) is one of the most interesting characters of 2011. The sex-obsessed businessman is faced with his deepest fears, including the exposure of his addiction. His sister (the incredible Carey Mulligan) comes to live him without any real notice and starts to notice certain skeletons that Brandon has long tried to cover up. McQueen exploits the issues of sex-addiction, and goes at it in a way that has not been explored on film. The title of the film is as succinct and meaningful as any of the year. The film shows the reality of the Brandon’s struggles and does not pull any punches. The NC-17 rating should not shy away any audience; it is an astonishing, haunting, and challenging picture.

6. Hugo (directed by Martin Scorsese)

I was completely blown away by this amazing, beautiful, heart-pounding epic by the master Martin Scorsese. From the moment I first heard about Scorsese making a family picture in 3D, I was beyond skeptical. Even when the trailer was released, I had my doubts. The movie could not have been any more magical of an experience. The story is about Hugo Cabret (the talented Asa Butterfield), a young boy who is trying endlessly to get his father’s automaton to work again. He finds friendship, love, and several misfortunes on his way to accomplish his task. Ben Kingsley plays an old man who may have the answer to what he is looking for as well as a man with an important secret past. The plot is not really what makes the film as great as it is. The artistic elements are top notch, and the last act of the film is all about classic Scorsese film preservation messages and a love letter to the origins of cinema. It is a magnificent picture that will capture the heart of anyone who gives it a chance.

5. Margin Call (directed by JC Chandor)

This is one of the best and most realistic Wall Street movies ever made. The film is about a company whose risk management associate (Zachary Quinto) is given research data depicting a major flaw in the company’s projections. The steps he takes to send the vital, potentially disastrous information to his superiors are documented. The film takes place all in about a 24 hour period, which makes each scene fascinating and thrilling. Margin Call has a superb eye for the hierarchy of a business and the expertise of each level of leadership. The conversations in the film and how the actors are able to completely embody their characters are astonishing. This breezy, breathtaking film is the most intelligent film of the year and one of finest collection of character actors in recent years. There is neither a false note nor one wasted second in this mini-masterpiece. With time and another viewing, this could make a case for being my number one of the year.

4. The Tree of Life (directed by Terrence Malick)

Watching The Tree of Life on the big screen was one of the great movie-going experiences in my life. The beauty and scale of the movie is beyond anything that has ever been portrayed on screen, and it works on almost every level. It is of course not a flawless film, but artistically and technically it is something to behold. The stories about an abusive father (Oscar-deserving Brad Pitt) in the 1950s as well as his son Jack (the superb Hunter McCracken) trying to find his place are well-told and poignant, but it is everything else that makes the movie a masterpiece. There are long sequences of space and scenery that could only be shot by the magnificent cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The film has this brilliant, thought-provoking message about nature vs. grace and really has an interesting perspective on the origin of the universe and life. If for nothing else that to sit there and marvel at the screen watching some of the most gorgeous shots ever and to take a step inside the mind of Terrence Malick, you must see this movie. It is certainly not for everyone, but the themes and story are something that anyone can appreciate and get caught up in. It is one of the essential movies of the year, and one that will stand the test of time and be looked at as one of the defining films of this age of cinema.

3. Tyrannosaur (directed by Paddy Considine)

This is about as brutal and devastating of an experience as I have had at the movies in my life. Paddy Considine makes his directorial debut in this gritty British drama about Joseph (Peter Mullan, astonishing), a widower who is on his alcohol and violence-induced path to self-destruction. He meets Hannah (Olivia Colman, equally good), who just may be his salvation. The images in the movie will haunt me forever, and the ending is just perfect. The movie is a gut-wrenching 90 minutes, and it is something what I will never quite be able to shake. Considine certainly learned a great deal from his friend/mentor Shane Meadows, and this first film eclipsed anything that Meadows has accomplished. Tyrannosaur did not get much pub in America (I saw it at a film festival in June), but it is an absolute must-see.

2. Take Shelter (directed by Jeff Nichols)

This film snuck up on me and floored me more than any movie I can remember. This Jeff Nichols indie centers on Curtis (Michael Shannon, best performance of the year), who is a mentally-challenged man with apocalyptic dreams of an impending storm. The dreams become so painful and potent that he is waking up in cold sweats and with injuries. He decides to take up a storm shelter, despite the worries from his loyal wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, Oscar-worthy) and his friends and coworkers. This movie has an approach to mental disability that I have never come across in a film, and while it is a devastating drama, it is also one of the most authentic and compelling thrillers in the past few years. Take Shelter has the best third act of any film in 2011, a spellbinding 45 minutes capped with a brilliant, thought-provoking final scene. It is an incredible character study and an exercise in minimalist filmmaking, and arguable the most stunning and hypnotic film of the year.

1. Drive (directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)

At no point did I really expect Drive to remain my number one film throughout the year. It appears that 2011 has had a very underwhelming conclusion. That is not to say that this is not a worthy movie, though. It is as enjoyable of a movie-going experience as anyone could ask for. It is a brutal, funny, perceptive, and endlessly entertaining crime drama. Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a wheelman/stunt driver/mechanic who unwittingly gets involved in a botched robbery trying to free his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) from the sins of her ex-con husband. That is the plot, but the experience and style of it are what make this movie-going bliss. The “action” scenes are quick, brutal, and realistic, bringing to mind such scenes in films like A History of Violence and Scarface. The music and color of the film may seem out-of-place, but that only makes it more mysterious, eerie, and intoxicating. Drive is as intense as any movie that you are likely to see, but it is very quiet and less about thrilling the audience than telling its story in its own fresh way. It is so much different than anything I have ever seen, and it completely blew my mind. Drive is my number one film of 2011, and I have no reservations about it.

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