To be perfectly honest, these lists are kind of arbitrary. Actually, they are most definitely arbitrary and yet, people always get butt-hurt over other people’s choices or rules. I like to do them because they are just a good bit of fun and it’s also nice to take a few moments to reflect on films I found very special each year. Since this is my top ten of 2011, we’ll be playing by my rules. They are simple. Any film released theatrically (or on VOD) in 2011 is fair game. Pretty standard and straightforward yeah?
There are most definitely many great films I missed that may have made this list as well as many more that easily could have taken a spot from one of the ten below – 50/50, Take Shelter, Young Adult, MI:4 Ghotocol, Warrior, Kung Fu Panda 2, The Adventures of Tintin, Captain America, Senna and Rango. However, I can’t see everything and not every great film can make the final ten. I don’t know about you but I think this year offered a pretty solid slate of flicker shows. And on that note, here are the films I’m calling the top ten of 2011…
10. The Descendants
In a way it’s odd that this film made my top ten. I say that only because I pretty much hated the opening ten minutes. The voice over was excruciatingly bad and very uncharacteristic of a film written and directed by the great Alexander Payne (a script he rewrote from an initial adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemming’s book by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon). Then, George Clooney’s Matt King stopped telling us what we needed to know and the film started showing us. The story suddenly found life despite largely being about our mortality.
I suppose that’s fitting though because facing our mortality doesn’t just mean accepting the inevitable (and all too soon) but it also brings the whole being alive part into focus and all the mistakes that go with it. A beautifully shot, wonderfully written and impeccably acted (especially Shailene Woodley, who delivers what can only be described as a ‘didn’t know she could do that’ performance) tragicomedy, The Descendants offers another subtle examination of family, friendship and all our flaws by one of the best writer-directors we have. “Everything just happens.”
9. Tree of Life
If there was a better example of the power of images in 2011, I didn’t see it. Sure, spectacular visuals are expected with a Terrence Malick film and yet Tree of Life may be the most beautiful, moving and lasting cinematic experience of his career. Truly a seminal piece of work, it’s a meditation on collective memories, uniting common experiences, and reflecting on not just our existence but the existence of our entire world. We are just a small piece of the pie yet still vital because it’s all we have and we don’t have it for long. One of the most striking philosophical, intellectual and emotional films in recent memory.
As abstract as the film may get – the 15 or 20 minute creation of the universe sequence, complete with the much discussed dinosaur head stomp, caused more than a few patrons to head for the aisles – there is still a very emotional family story at it’s core. The incredible ensemble deliver performances that feel both archetypal and singular. Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt and newcomer Hunter McCraken are all astonishingly impressive as the three focal points of the O’Brien family in small town, 1950s Texas. The parents representing two extremes, two paths for the young boy to navigate his inevitable struggles, or reflect upon those already past. “Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”
I was not a fan of Thumbsucker, writer-director Mike Mill’s first film. It felt like an artist who was trying to make an indie film (or being too ‘precious’ which seems to be the common term these days) instead of just expressing his vision. Beginners, on the other hand, has perhaps even more quirks and idiosyncrasies but they all somehow feel less contrived. Mills was a very successful graphic designer before making the jump to film and the visual and narrative pastiche come across as a natural progression resulting in an incredibly funny, romantic and touching film (all set to a wonderful soundtrack and score).
The story has a lot of auto-biographical elements – and by a lot, I mean a lot – and that’s probably the main reason that behind the whimsical-depression, behind the voice over or documentary footage, lies a very true story of two different but equally powerful kinds of love – one familial, the other romantic – and all the ensuing messy emotional side effects. Christopher Plummer is being praised, and justly, for his wonderful performance (as is Cosmo, as Arthur the Jack Russell Terrier) but for me it’s the unsung and understated turn by the always great Ewan McGregor that really caught my attention. Oh, and Melanie Laurent is also in it. So there’s that. ”Maybe I’m not perfect at it. I don’t really know what I’m doing. But I want to be here.”
7. Project Nim
I want to stress one thing with this entry. This isn’t some obligatory documentary slot. I don’t care what genre or method of storytelling, this is just the ten best films. Now. Project Nim, James Marsh’s followup to his Academy Award winning Man on Wire, is perhaps the most complete movie going experience I had this year. The true story of Nim Chimpsky is funny, despicable, touching, bizarre, heartbreaking and deeply satisfying. A natural progression of his most interesting and compelling visual style, Marsh uses all the tricks at his disposable, from re-enactments to found footage to talking heads to share this unbelievable story of one amazing chimpanzee.
In the early 1970s, a newborn chimp was sent to live with a hippie family as an experiment. They wanted to raise him, Nim Chimpsky, as though he was a human, just another member of the family. One of the primary objectives was communication, which meant teaching him sign language. However, the household (and bizarre matriarch) was not exactly the best environment for scientific study so the young chimp is soon relocated to another estate and another before the ‘experiment’ is abandoned. Soon, he’s subjected to other, more invasive research studies. And that’s only half the story. Spanning more than two decades, the doc examines all the best and worst of nature, collapsing the boundaries between humans and the other animals in the kingdom. ”It didn’t occur to me that animals had that kind of personality, like ours.”
6. Midnight in Paris
To be honest, I never thought a Woody Allen movie would ever make a top ten list of mine. I, like most people, thought his best work was behind him – his very best well before I was born. Even with his latest resurgence, and as much as I liked Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona, he was still a long way from best of the year conversations. It was that patronizing, ‘it’s just nice to see Woody making good films again.’ Midnight in Paris is a great film. It has all the laughs, all the emotion and all the whimsy of his best work as well as something meaningful and poignant to say. How we constantly inject magic into the past to the point where it stops being history and becomes clouded by nostalgia. An atavistic longing, all the more ironic since it has me waxing lyrical about the Woody’s early work.
If it wasn’t for a certain British spy thriller, I would say that Allen’s tale of magic at midnight in the world’s most romantic city is the best ensemble of the year. When you have a whole slew of historical figures – writers, painters, critics and costumers – to cast it’s certainly no easy task but hey, it’s a Woody Allen film so of course the best were lining up. Aside from Owen Wilson’s effortlessly charming and neurotic performance as Gil Pender (the film’s Woody stand-in and the best surrogate since John Cusack), some of the more memorable turns come from Tom Hiddleston as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali and Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway. I also love Michael Sheen as the pretentious know it all, irritating Gil in the present when he isn’t too busy gallivanting in the past. ”That’s what the present is, it’s a little unsatisfying because life’s a little unsatisfying.”
5. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
David Fincher and Steve Zallian’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s best selling The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was easily my most anticipated movie of 2011. I fully expected it to cruise safely into the number one spot and it’s quite a testament to this year in film that it could only climb as high (as low?) as the number five. With expectations as high as mine were, it was damn near impossible for the film to live up to them and yet, it did just that and more. And let’s not dismiss this as the rantings of a Fincher fanboy because I can recognize when the man isn’t at the top of his game (Ben Button) and, well, when you make films as good as Se7en, Zodiac and The Social Network it’s hard not to be a fervent admirer of the artist’s work. Even though this film can’t claim top spot on his impressive filmography, it certainly is of the highest quality.
The filmmaker’s work here is as technically precise and brilliant as ever (with now frequent DP Jeff Cronenweth) and yet somehow much less ostentatious. And it’s not to get out of the way of the story, Fincher seems as disinterested in the mystery as I am, but in order to immerse us into the world and give full attention to his two wonderful protagonists and the very talent actors bringing them to life. Daniel Craig’s the best he been as the disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist but Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander really steals the film. She doesn’t just top Noomi Rapace’s also excellent portrayal but she might just deliver the performance of the year. I was captivated by her every moment she’s on screen. The film’s score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross deserves a post of its own, with the last number (“What If We Could?”) adding such emotional resonance to the film’s final frames. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is quite possibly the most affecting film of David Fincher’s career. ”Hey. Hey.”
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive somehow feels vintage and yet completely fresh at the same time. I knew the moment the hot-pink letters hit the screen after the insanely gripping opening sequence, that this is pulp/art filmmaking at its very best. Or, you know, just filmmaking at its very best, which is why NWR was awarded Best Director at Cannes not to mention the buzz that suggested it competed hard with Tree of Life for the Palme. The elevator sequence is as stunning and moving as anything you saw this year. Oh, and you can add Cliff Martinez (a Soderbergh regular) to the list on collaborators that truly make this film an experience, since the soundscape plays as key a role as any. Like any noir, there’s a strong Western vibe here – just substitute horses for cars – and my mind instantly thought of Shane, with Driver’s relationship with the young boy, not to mention the ending.
Driver’s chemistry with Irene and the kid makes me willing to believe that the stakes are worth driving for and this isn’t purely an exercise in effortless cool. Effortless cool… that’s a phrase I often use to describe Godard’s Breathless, and like that iconoclastic filmmaker says, all you need is a girl and a gun. The whole cast give great performances but none like Albert Brooks as the villain. They make formidable adversaries, which obviously makes any movie that much more worthwhile, especially when you add Refn’s impeccably precise direction that captures the various moods, plays with your expectations and delivers a hyper-stylized version of reality. An intense look at the scorpion and the frog. This is a film you have to see. “Do you understand?”
My first reaction walking out of Hugo was something like ‘I didn’t know that Martin Scorsese had that film in him.’ I’m not sure why I would think that since the man wears his love of cinema on his sleeve but it’s just so tonally different than anything in his oeuvre that it I guess it came as a surprise. And all the more surprising is he didn’t just pull it off, he delivered one of his very best films – also the best 3D film I have ever seen and I hate 3D. It’s easy to say the film’s an easy sell to a former film schooler (it is about the history, preservation and magic of cinema) but there’s so much more to love like the magical direction, whimsical script and some truly great performances.
Adapted by John Logan from the bestselling teen novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, the script starts slow, setting up the our magical world and the ecclectic characters that work (and live, if you’re our lead ) in Gare Montparnasse in Paris. Once Sir Ben Kingsley enters the story as the mysterious and surly Papa Georges – in another award worthy turn – it takes off and I became completely lost and enraptured by every moment. The flashbacks to, or should I say recreations of, famous magician / filmmaker George Melies’ glass studio left me completely in awe and lost in the magic. “If you ever wonder where your dreams come from, look around, this is where they’re made.”
Bennett Miller’s Moneyball is not a sports movie, or more accurately, not a baseball movie. Well, that’s not completely fair. Moneyball is a baseball movie the same way The Social Network is a Facebook movie. It’s just the backdrop, albeit a nostalgic one, a playing field on which the human drama unfolds. The comparisons to The Social Network are inevitable with the script co-written by Aaron Sorkin with Steven Zaillian and Bennet Miller’s direction, while not nearly as cold, is equally as calculated and captivating as David Fincher’s. A sure-handed and confident sophomore effort from the director, aided by the often beautiful, sometimes rough and always dynamic cinematography from Oscar winner Wally Pfister. The masterwork of montage plays over a lovely score by Mychael Danna – equal parts delicate and rousing.
The lineup of players are all wonderful. Brad Pitt, is going through an interesting phase in his career and as he gets older the roles certainly have been changing. Pitt is truly compelling, handling the lightning dialogue, the dogged determination and the weight of failure with great subtlety. This isn’t your showy Oscar role, but it just might be worthy of a look. Pitt’s playmate in the odd-ball, buddy-comedy side of the narrative is Jonah Hill and it’s easily the best the young comedian has been, sharing amazing chemistry with the established star. And he better since they share a large portion of the film. An inspiring underdog true story that smartly focuses on the big hearts of its main characters, Moneyball might not be a perfect game, but it’s definitely a big win. Sorry, sports metaphors. ”It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.”
1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Adapted from the genre redefining spy novel by John Le Carré and also a remake of a terrific British mini-series from the late 70s, Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is very dense, layered and complex. If you prefer your espionage thrillers slow burning, narratively complex (not for complexity’s sake but instead an incredibly detailed and intricately woven story) and very, very English, then Tomas Alfredson’s followup to the outstanding Let the Right One In will prove as rewarding for you as it was for me. The film has left some people cold (perhaps they were too entangled in the plot) but I found it very emotional because once you get passed code names and wade through the labyrinth you realize that there are many genuine relationships at the Circus.
In many ways the entire film is simply a study of humanity – our motives, secrets, strengths and weaknesses (and the masks, deceptions and moves they make against one another are essentially also being played on us). It helps that bringing these naturally secretive, and yet conflicted and complex, characters to life is the best ensemble of the year with Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, John Hurt and, last year’s Best Actor, Colin Firth. In fact, the enigmatic and inconspicuous master spy George Smiley just might be the role that finally lands Mr. Oldman his, believe it or not, first Academy Award nomination. After being bombarded by action-heavy spy thrillers for the last few years, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a thinking man’s entry in the genre, is more than a welcome change of pace. It’s easily the finest script of the year (by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan) and with those performances and Alfredson behind the camera, none of the brilliance was lost in tranlastion from page to screen.”You’ll have to assume they’re watching you.”