Bottled up: the best films of 2011
If you listened to Friday's Oscar Talk podcast, then you already know both my feelings on the 2011 film year and the 10 films I thought represented the best that it had to offer. But to elaborate a bit...
It's been an interesting year. I've tried to make sense of things via the weekly Off the Carpet columns, which aim to contextualize the year as it pushes forward. But with each passing week, it became clear to me that I didn't particularly love what 2011 had to offer. Don't misunderstand. The films that landed at the top for me are personal treasures. Nevertheless, it's a distillation of a year in film that I broadly liked, but didn't particularly love in any deep way. It reminds me of my reaction to 2005, but I'm more positive on this lot.
Whittling the list down was strangely difficult as a result. You'd think that the cream would really be evident when there's so little of it to rise, but the truth is, that kind of thing makes you start to really consider those on the outside of the list more than you normally would. At least I found this to be the case.
Bennett Miller's "Moneyball," from one of the year's best screenplays, will be a consistent watch for years to come. "Beginners" is a film I adore from a fresh directorial voice. Neither made a compelling case, though, when I was rounding up the titles.
"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" is a meticulous piece of craftsmanship with a stunning ensemble performance. "The Ides of March" is a stellar dismantling of human frailty in the guise of a political drama. I couldn't find room for them, either.
"We Need to Talk About Kevin" is a wonder of abstract storytelling with a commanding central performance. "Young Adult" is an uncompromising portrait with same. But they couldn't muscle their way in.
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes," "The Muppets," "Hugo," "Contagion" and "Anonymous" were studio efforts that I really admired for various reasons. Indies like "50/50," "Midnight in Paris" and "Win Win" were modest gems. They remained on the periphery.
I loved documentaries like "Pearl Jam Twenty," "Into the Abyss" and "Tabloid." Foreign titles like "In a Better World" and "Le Havre" got a definite reaction out of me. None of them lingered enough to register at the top, however.
But ultimately, 10 stood out from the pack. And the bulk of those films, I'm kind of stunned to recognize, deal with intense internalizations, bottled up characterizations, lots of deep currents betraying ripples on the surface. For me, those films were:
Directed by Gore Verbinski
Films like "The Artist," "Hugo" and "Super 8" have been at the forefront of discussion when considering a year that has paid homage to the art of filmmaking. But one film has curiously been left out of that conversation. Gore Verbinski's animated "Rango" is a pure celebration of cinema history through a unique prism. Some might argue that it merely riffs on films like "Chinatown," "Apocalypse Now" and "Once Upon a Time in the West" via imitation and reference, but I see it as a striking piece of imaginative, reverential filmmaking flavored by a love of genre and that which came before it.
Directed by Jeff Nichols
In “Take Shelter,” actor Michael Shannon covers so much performance terrain with such controlled ease that it’s just awe-inspiring. And the performance comes in the midst of one of the year’s standout films, surrounded by equally confident portrayals of all shades. Director Jeff Nichols has unique talent in the face of current Amerindie cinema. His latest film has real focus and a passionate, observational tone. A vague ending could be read a couple of ways, but bottom line: the film burrows in and you begin to crave the unsettling feeling it manifests. That takes some doing.
"THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN"
Directed by Steven Spielberg
The "animated" aspect of Steven Spielberg's one-two punch this year is a dazzling experience, full of the director's trademark cinematic energy. It's his best film in nearly a decade (since "Minority Report," at least). The experience put a smile on my face and kept it there. It's Spielberg invigorated, the performance-capture and animation process allowing him to do things with the camera that he had only dreamed of, conjuring angles and set-pieces that surely have existed only in his head for decades, but now have the freedom to run wild on the screen. The film is simply a landmark of visual conception, briskly paced, assured in its capacity to entertain.
Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” is a masterful piece of work that will be with me for a very long time. On the surface it is about the fallout of an Iranian couple headed for divorce, but side-tracked by a tragic accident that leaves the husband tangled in a judicial web. On a deeper level it’s about so much more. Call it “divorce and its discontents,” because it is, ultimately, a study of parenthood and integrity and situational decisions that impact the impressionable, as well as a portrait of a region, boiled to an essence. The film features a number of expertly tuned performances and the humanity of Farhadi’s work, its skillful grace, is incredibly moving.
"MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE"
Directed by Sean Durkin
Sean Durkin's debut feature is an elegantly structured film that not only finds a unique way of telling backstory but bleeds it into the present in such a way as to put the viewer right in the paranoid perspective of the troubled titular character. Durkin weaves a kaleidoscope of slow-boiling intrigue while getting quality work out of his actors. Elizabeth Olsen is every bit the revelation she’s been considered, her performance an unsettling slice of lived-in, burrowed-under skill. She betrays flashes of a former self with her eyes, is meticulous in mannered moments and emits paranoia so precisely it leaves you wondering what’s real yourself.
Directed by Steve McQueen
The story of Steve McQueen's "Hunger" follow-up, "Shame," is Michael Fassbender’s remarkable performance as a sex addict with a dark past that is only vaguely addressed on the page, allowing the actor to indicate with subtlety and precious strokes. Once again, McQueen utilizes long takes to allow his actors to explore under the harsh gaze of the camera. But the technique, perhaps more than his previous effort, even, becomes a tool for navigating the viewer. The effect goes beyond mere observation, ushering us, without cheap manipulation, into a character’s mindset.
Directed by Oren Moverman
Oren Moverman’s “Rampart” is a considerable directorial achievement, an exciting, brazen departure from his excellent 2009 debut, “The Messenger.” The film — from an original screenplay by James Ellroy, re-written by Moverman — uses the 1999 Los Angeles Police Department Rampart corruption scandal as a frame, a state of mind, a narrative hook, an atmosphere for conveying an intense, probing, yet curiously vague character study in the form of a corrupt LAPD officer. And in that role, Woody Harrelson offers his best work to date, a firehouse performance of subtle strokes and vivid internalizations, a master class in clenched but emotive power.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Nicolas Winding Refn is the most exciting filmmaker working today, offering an invigorating injection of originality in the cinema landscape. The actual plot of his latest, "Drive," couldn’t be more rote or by the numbers, but Refn — as appears to be his trademark — merely uses genre as a springboard for mining character intricacy in ways we just haven’t seen in quite a while. The film is a modern day "Thief," both in narrative drive and stylistic signature, and indeed, the reverence for urban Los Angeles as captured by Refn’s vision is noteworthy. You can sense a love for the city’s tangled web of concrete, glass and steel, much like the cinema of Michael Mann.
"THE TREE OF LIFE"
Directed by Terrence Malick
Heavily anticipated for a number of years, "The Tree of Life" is director Terrence Malick’s most epic endeavor. Paradoxically, it is also his most intimate. It is a film that, love it or hate it, makes its way inside you and, if you allow as much, forces you to consider it. It asserts that, despite the intense drama of everyday circumstance, that plight is but a spec in the perspective of the greater cosmos around us. That theme mingles with a Malick standby: man's capacity for violence and impulse as well as love and compassion. They are themes Malick has flirted with throughout his career, but here he aims to reconcile them with the great unknown.
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
The long and troubled road for Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret" to the screen has been an unfortunate one. It is stunning that we were nearly denied one of the freshest, most honest and raw depictions of the post-9/11 mindset so many filmmakers (including one this year) have been chasing on the screen, an accidental masterpiece. The film bathes in themes of loss, grief and guilt in incredibly organic ways, the editing precise and purposeful, the whole a messy but truthful construction that ranks as one of the most impeccably acted films I've ever seen, packed with ideas on the page that put Lonergan -- if he wasn't already there -- in the top echelon of writers in the field. It's one of the few instances of Fox Searchlight mishandling a great piece of work, if ever there was an instance, but it demands to be seen. It bears the scars but wears them as a badge of honor and, in some ways, they become inherently tied to the themes being explored. It wasn't released, it escaped, and it's the best film of the year.
There you have it. If you want to listen to Friday's podcast, you can do so here. Stay tuned throughout the week as we continue to wind the year down. Wednesday brings "The Longlists," a substitute for the usual "If I Had a Ballot" post that recognizes a wider margin of accomplishments in various fields. Finally, Friday will bring the annual superlatives post, giving out my own "awards" to various talent showcased in 2011.
One more time, my top 10 films of 2011:
2. "The Tree of Life"
6. "Martha Marcy May Marlene"
7. "A Separation"
8. "The Adventures of Tintin"
9. "Take Shelter"
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