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Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Best of 2011

The Top Films of 2011

When compiling a "best of the year list", I always have ten spots, but around 15-20 movies as some films fill multiple spots.  2011 has been a terrible year for mainstream films, with a few big surprises (Rise of the Planet of the ApesX-Men: First Class), but one of the best in a while for indies.  I have seen 75 releases so far, but the reason why so many of them end up on my list is because I only try to see those that are well-received, as I do not have the time or money to blow on the garbage.  So, without further ado, here are my top films of the year:

1.  The Artist (Dir. Michel Hazanavicius) - The Artist is the best film I have seen in years for so many reasons.  It is incredibly clever, has some great performances, and it is SILENT!!!  Director Hazanavicius has done his homework as he nails every aspect of silent filmmaking from the 4:3 aspect ratio to the credits over a shaky background to the camera angles.  The Artist may very well be the Best Picture Oscar-winner of 2011 and would truly be a worthy winner.

1. A Separation (Dir. Asghar Farhadi) - One of the biggest surprises of the year,  the Iranian drama A Separation provoked the longest post-viewing discussion I've had in a while and is the one of the greatest films I have ever seen.  In the film, a woman wants to leave Iran for a better life for her daughter while her husband wants to stay to care for his father with Alzheimer's.  This causes the woman to want a divorce and that part of the story isn't even the half of it.  Nominated for two Oscars, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay, A Separation deserves both, hands down.  The characters are complex, as is the story, and writer/director/producer Asghar Farhadi makes a morally ambiguous and thrilling film out of humans being humans.  There are no governmental criticisms or religious overtones.  The film depicts modern-day Iran in a very different light than we get in the news.  Not everyone is a religious extremist out to nuke America.  The characters are everyday human beings and you will see people that you know in them.  Not one moment of this movie was boring, monotonous, or poorly acted.  In short, it was wall-to-wall perfection.

2.  Hugo (Dir. Martin Scorsese) - Hugo is a masterpiece by Scorsese and may very well be his best film. With this movie, Scorsese tells a wonderful story about a boy living in the walls of Paris' train station while still managing to throw in film history lessons.  With a bottomless budget and the best use of 3-D I have ever seen, Scorsese has triumphed again with this warm, wonderful gem.

3.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Dir. David Fincher) - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a completely unique vision of the novel of the same name by master director David Fincher (The Social NetworkSe7en).  By improving on both its source material and its Swedish predecessor and meeting my impossibly high expectations, this movie has accomplished a large feat.  Rooney Mara's performance is one of the top few that I have seen all year.

3. 50/50 (Dir. Jonathan Levine) - 50/50 is the story of a young man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who gets cancer and tries to beat it with the help of his friend (Seth Rogan). This movie really moved me with it's mix of searing honesty and laugh-out-loud humor. This movie never is disrespectful in it's blend of drama and humor and is elevated by amazing performances.

4. War Horse (Dir. Steven Spielberg) - War Horse is Steven Spielberg's homage to the past masters and melodramas and is beautiful.  The cinematography is superb and the battle scenes are incredibly realistic.  What really stood out to me is the anti-war message that the film conveyed.  Yes, we have all heard the story and seen it and its message before, but with Steven Spielberg rendering it via this drama, it is okay to see and hear it again.

4.  Martha Marcy May Marlene (Dir. Sean Durkin) - Martha Marcy May Marlene is a gripping psychological thriller that is also the feature film debut of director Sean Durkin.  It follows a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen in a dynamite performance) who, after escaping from a cult, becomes increasingly paranoid that they are following her.  It is a smartly scripted, beautifully photographed film that impressed me from start to finish.

5. Another Earth (Dir. Mike Cahill) - Another Earth is a little-known drama about a young woman who, after killing an entire family (save for a man) in a car crash, decides to help out the man after another earth appears in the sky.  Made for $250,000, this movie really packs an emotional impact with its symbolism, gritty realism, and message.  I was floored after finishing this gem, as the ending left me speechless.

5.  Tabloid (Dir. Errol Morris) - Tabloid follows Joyce McKinney, a woman who caused a scandal in the 1970s.  That is all that I'm going to tell you because if I told you more, I would be doing you a grave disservice.  Also, do not read any synopsis or look up McKinney as it would ruin much of the fun.  Tabloid was one of the most bizarre documentaries that I have ever seen and also one of the most entertaining.  Told entirely through interviews, Tabloid tells a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy the insanity.
6.  Melancholia (Dir. Lars von Trier) - After director Lars von Trier's disastrous Cannes press conference that led to his being labeled a "persona non grata", it is a miracle that this movie survived.  It won Kirsten Dunst the Best Actress award at Cannes, and follows a depressed bride (Dunst) and her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) during the last few days before a rogue planet, Melancholia, crashes into Earth.  This movie is the most beautiful of the year and is also thought-provoking and heartbreaking.  The acting is phenomenal and it also features the year's best sequence: its prologue of the destruction of Earth set to Wagner's prelude to Tristen and Isolde.

6. The Skin I Live In (Dir. Pedro Almodóvar) - The Skin I Live In is the new film by Almodóvar and is kinky, disturbing, but thought-provoking fun. It tells the story of a plastic surgeon whose wife was burned in a car crash and how he tries to make an indestructible skin. He also keeps a woman in his basement as his prisoner/patient. This movie features Almodóvar's signature melodramatic twists and plot elements combined with sex and murder. It also features an especially interesting twist that makes this movie brilliant and gives the movie a whole new meaning. Antonio Banderas and Elana Anaya as doctor and patient/prisoner are excellent. 

6. The Descendants (Dir. Alexander Payne) - The Descendants is the first film in 7 years by Alexander Payne (Sideways) and it is about a Hawaiian land baron, Matt King (George Clooney), who tries to keep his family together after his wife falls into a coma.  This movie has everything from laughs to tears, and whatever is in between.  It deftly balances, like 50/50, its emotional moments and its humorous ones and is also a story that many will be able to relate to.  What elevates this movie above most others is the acting and the writing.  Clooney gives a stipped-down and emotionally raw performance.  He is not the fast-talking Michael Clayton of Michael Clayton or the charming Ryan Bingham of Up in the Air.  This could be Oscar gold.  The rest of the cast also give the movie their best effort and succeed.  The script is crisp and kept me guessing all of the way.  The attention to detail, though, is really astounding as the screenwriters incorporate Hawaiian cultural aspects and one particularly moving scene towards the end (I will not tell you what happens for fear that the impact will be lessened) that moved me to tears and adds significant depth.  The Descendants is a must-see for anyone and will surely be honored come Oscar night.

7. Take Shelter (Dir. Jeff Nichols) - Take Shelter is director Jeff Nichols' sophomore feature film that won the Critics Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It is a thought-provoking drama with a powerful performance by Academy Award-nominee Michael Shannon who plays Curtis LaForche, a man who builds a storm shelter in his backyard after having visions of apocalyptic storms.  Jessica Chastain plays his wife.  The question behind the movie is whether Curtis is crazy, or the rest of the world is for not listening to him.  Throughout the film, I was riveted watching Shannon and Chastain act up a storm (no pun intended) and thinking about the insights this movie lends to present-day society.  This film will most likely get no Oscar nominations (although it definitely deserves some), but do not dismiss it when it is released on DVD, it is fascinating.

8. Drive (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn) - Winner of the Best Director Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, Drive is a unique thriller that follows an unnamed stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who drives getaway cars at night.  Featuring an '80s Europop soundtrack and a very distinct filming style, Drive is a thrill to watch from beginning to end.  However, this is not a Fast and Furious movie.  It is extremely violent, but it does not have wall-to-wall action and car chases.  The few car chases that it does have are played very quietly which make this movie a breath of fresh air.  This is Ryan Gosling's performance of the year as he plays Driver with a quiet intensity and relatively few words.  Overall, Drive is unlike any movie I have ever seen, and will not be for everyone, but those who give it a chance will be amply rewarded. 

8. Midnight in Paris (Dir. Woody Allen) - Twenty-three-time Oscar-nominee Woody Allen has always been one of my favorite directors, but recently his films have not been up to par with those of his past work.  However, with Midnight in Paris, he is back.  Allen tells the story of Gil (Owen Wilson), a writer who, while on vacation with his fiancé (Rachel McAdams), gets swept off at midnight to go to 1920s Paris, the place of his dreams.  The magic flows throughout this movie and the cast is excellent, especially Owen Wilson channeling the whiny nebbish of Woody Allen while still injecting some of his charm and charisma into the role.  Allen throws some clever side jokes into the movie and never loses sight of the message that he is trying to convey.  Midnight in Paris is Allen's highest-grossing movie to date and ran at the theater for nearly seven months.  It is a truly magic movie that hopefully will mark the restart of a chain of excellent Woody Allen movies and absolutely deserves a place on my top 10 of the year.

9. Like Crazy (Dir. Drake Doremus) - Winner of the Sundance Film Festival Dramatic Grand Prize and the Dramatic Grand Prize for Acting (for Felicity Jones), Like Crazy is the a refreshingly honest romance movie.  It follows two college students, Jacob and Anna (Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones, respectively), as they fall in love.  However, Anna's student visa runs out, and she has to return to England, so the two try to do whatever it takes to stay together.  Shot on a $250,000 budget and almost completely improvised, this movie, like The Descendants, has moments that are beautifully done and emphasize the emotions without words.  This movie is like 2011s Blue Valentine, but less grueling, and is was a satisfying, realistic viewing experience.

10. Shame (Dir. Steve McQueen) - Shame is one of the most provocative (it is rated NC-17) and ambitious of the year depicting what happens when a sex-addict's (Michael Fassbender) self-destructive sister (Carey Mulligan) moves in with him.  With a unique approach to the material, a phenomenal performance by Michael Fassbender, and scenes that will haunt you for months afterwards, Shame is a beautiful and different look at a very taboo subject.

Honorable Mention (HM): A Dangerous Method (Dir. David Cronenberg) - A Dangerous Method is a large departure from the usual Cronenberg films as it depicts the deterioration of the professional relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen in a career-best performance) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) over a mentally disturbed patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly).  It is a smart, well-acted, and well-written movie that may be too dry for those not interested in the psychologists.  I, however, am fascinated by 
them and was delighted to see these giants portrayed onscreen.  

HM: The Tree of Life (Dir. Terrence Malick) - Possibly the most polarizing film of 2011, Cannes Palm d'Or-winner The Tree of Life is either a beautiful and meditative view on life, the universe, and everything else, or a pretentious bore.  I found it to be the former.  Featuring gorgeous cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and a powerful performance by Brad Pitt, this movie was challenging and, ultimately, very rewarding.

HM: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 (Dir. David Yates) - I have always been a fan of the Harry Potter series, but have never loved any of the movies for many reasons which I will not discuss now.  However, with this final chapter in the series, director Yates and the entire cast have hit it out of the park.  This part has great acting, a fast pace, gorgeous visuals, and an emotionally resonant finale.  Bravo to everyone involved who has stayed with this series since 2001.   

HM. Jane Eyre (Dir. Cary Fukunaga) - Jane Eyre is a retelling of Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel of the same name.  It stars Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender and is a harsh new vision of the story.  What sets this movie apart from other period pieces is that it is not glamorous and shows what life in England was probably like in the early 19th Century.  Wasikowska and Fassbender are both great in their roles and Moira Buffini's script is crisp and quickly-paced.  Overall, what could have been a dry, big 
period piece turned out to be an electrifying film full of life with a unique take on a classic novel.

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