30
Dec
2011
Jordan's Top Ten Films of 2011
Top Ten Movies of 2011
Jordan
The Year 2011 was a fascinating one for film, even if it didn't hit the heights of the best cinematic years. This was a year full to the brim of interesting cinematic experiments, a year in which foreign and independent films showed the studio system what it's missing by keeping their talents outside its doors. After spending the last two years griping about my difficulty cutting the list down to ten, I decided to stop being a slave to standard list criteria this year. For those of you who think a list longer than ten movies indulgent, I am not ranking the next five movies I am listing here; these are the honorable mentions, and their blurbs will be shorter as a result. Even allowing myself the room to recognize fifteen great movies from 2011, I still found it tough to figure out which very good films were being left out of my list. For those of you dying to see what other movies made it close to this list, worry not. I will have a lot to say in tomorrow's Best of the Rest roundup. For now, though, here were my favorite movies of the year:

Honorable mentions (unranked, and in no particular order):

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Apichatong Weerasethakul's beautiful film mixes a variety of film and storytelling styles and weaves Thai mythology and history into a film about no less than the death of cinema itself that also manages to function as a deeply moving story about what it means to let go of life, the ones we love, and the elderly in our society in general, whether we mourn them respectfully or neglect them until they are gone forever. Ponderous, strange, humorous, heart-breaking, and thought-provoking, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a film content to make you feel without worrying whether or not you'll understand exactly what you're seeing.

A Separation

Asghar Farhadi forms a near perfect character study that also manages to encompass all of Iranian society in A Separation. There are numerous conflicts in the film, yet the characters are all so well drawn, it is easy to understand where each is coming from and quickly becomes very difficult to take sides. What begins as an examination of an intractable marital dispute that threatens to tear a family apart (and forces a child to take sides), is transformed by a tragedy that exposes the fragility of each character's situation and sends them through a very flawed court system, where every word must be chosen carefully and every assertion backed by witnesses and evidence. A Separation is a vivid and mercilessly realistic examination of class, religion, marriage, and family, all seen through the lens of questions about truth and justice.

Shame

Michael Fassbender delivers a powerhouse, Oscar-worthy performance in Steve McQueen's merciless, bleak film about sex addiction and personal alienation. His Brandon is attractive, successful, and fatally flawed, with an obsession with sex that leaves him angry, depressed, and yes, ashamed. No pleasure remains in the act for him, nor in his life, and things are complicated even further when his sister (Carey Mulligan, also incredible), a creature of desperate, uninhibited need as much as he is buttoned down and terrified of opening up shows up asking him to let her stay. Shame is a great achievement in both directing and acting, a film that is hard to watch for the truths it exposes while being almost impossible to turn away from.

The Artist

On its surface, the artist is a simple film and a blatant piece of retro pastiche. A silent film about the advent of "talkies" and their effects on silent-film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, who gives a marvel of a performance when mugging alone might have sufficed), The Artist is both a comedy and a melodrama, as full of sight gags and physical comedy as it is pathos. Featuring stellar performances from Bernice Bejo, John Goodman, and James Cromwell and directed assuredly by Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist is a crowd pleaser without losing its high quality, a likely Best Picture nominee that certainly deserves that honor.

50/50

Based on the real life story of its screenwriter Will Reiser, 50/50, which follows an excellent Joseph Gordon Levitt as a young man diagnosed with terminal cancer, could easily have been a maudlin affair. Instead, it is a comedy that aims for the heart without ever coming across as saccharine. Gordon Levitt gives a performance that showcases his able comedic abilities without short-changing his dramatic chops, and Seth Rogen, Anjelica Huston, Bryce Dallas Howard and Anna Kendrick all give him very solid back up. The film is a dead-on examination of male friendship and its tendency to dance around difficult issues, but also a testament to the vitality of true bonds and to the ability to triumph over adversity with a sense of humor.

10. Win Win

A film that will get under your skin slowly and stay there for weeks after the credits roll, Win Win follows Paul Giamatti's sad sack lawyer and wrestling coach who violates his own ethical code and watches the situation continue to get more complicated as the ramifications of his mercenary decision make themselves clear. When he agrees to take custody of a client with dementia (Burt Young), he hopes he will make money off of the transaction by sticking the man in a retirement home. Yet he soon finds himself getting more involved when the man's grandson (Alex Shaffer) arrives looking for guidance and revealing himself to be the championship wrestler Giamatti's team needs. While the plot gets increasingly complicated as more and more factors enter into the relationships at its center, it remains less about plot than about the way its characters interact, how they connect and how they resign themselves from those connections. Featuring stellar supporting turns from Amy Ryan and Bobby Cannavale, Win Win becomes a testament to the will to make it on your own and the willingness to let others lend you a hand, in the process turning Giamatti's desperate struggle to retain even a little bit of dignity come across as an act of bold, everyday heroism.

9. Another Earth

Mike Cahill's directorial debut is on the surface a chilly, atmospheric sci-fi film about the possibility of multiple universes, but quickly reveals itself to be a deeply personal emotional exploration of loss, regret, and atonement. Brit Marling (who also co-wrote the film with Cahill) plays an astrophysics student whose life is dismantled when one moment of drunken carelessness results in a car crash that kills a woman and her child, leaving their husband to pick up the pieces of his shattered life. When a second, mirror Earth appears in the sky over our own, a great deal of philosophical soul-searching ensues as people wonder whether the people on the other Earth made the same mistakes, and whether they might be leading better or different lives. Another Earth is grim, a moody exploration of a fascinating philosophical problem that never loses sight of the real life implications of this startling discovery and eschews its sci-fi roots for a realistic, grounded portrayal of two characters grappling with a tragedy that has come to define them both in the wake of an earth-changing event that might mean everything, or nothing, to either of them.

8. The Descendants

George Clooney delivers an excellent performance as a tax attorney and descendant of one of Hawaii's first white land-owning families who must decide how to dissolve a trust that would open up a vast tract of Hawaiian land to tourism and consumerism. Further complicating his decision is a recent accident that has left his wife comatose and likely dying, forcing him to recognize he has spent most of his life focusing on work and now must learn to be a single parent to two troubled daughters (Amara Miller and the Oscar-worthy Shailene Woodley). Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election) has made a career out of depicting middle aged men in crisis, but he has rarely been better. The Descendants is funny and touching while carefully navigating the increasingly complex moral and familial decisions that face its central character.

7. Carnage

This film feels as if Roman Polanski was playing directly to my cinematic soft spot. A tense, funny, deeply philosophical battle royale set entirely within a Manhattan apartment, Carnage is a showcase for four great actors operating at the top of their game. A playground altercation between their children brings two couples (played phenomenally by Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster) together to resolve the problem amicably and in a civilized fashion. Their politically correct platitudes quickly devolve into verbal sparring that takes on the feel of bloodsport as the couples go straight for each other's throats. Alliances form and dissolve, coffee table books are ruined, hamsters are abandoned, great scotch is consumed, and the darkness in the human soul is revealed. In lesser hands the contrivances of the plot and the obvious slide toward savagery might sink the film, but Polanski and these top notch actors attack the material with such force and glee, it is a marvel to behold.

6. Young Adult

Four years after Juno, screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, the two reunite to deliver a film about arrested development that may be the most mature work wither has yet turned in. The film follows Mavis Gary (a never-better Charlize Theron) a YA writer who returns to her home town in hopes of winning back her high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson) in spite of the fact that he is married with a newborn child. Along the way she reconnects with a former classmate (the Oscar-worthy Patton Oswalt) who suffered a crippling and misdirected hate crime in their senior year. The film tones down Cody's tendency for obnoxious pop culture references and too-cute dialogue but retains her steely, black wit. Young Adult is by turns hilarious and hard to watch, a movie that garners laughs, pathos, and deep, deep discomfort all from how true to life it remains. I laughed, cringed, and felt for these characters partially because I didn't want to become them, but mostly because I saw that potential in myself. Unlocking the dark side in us all is a great cinematic achievement; doing it while being this funny and affecting is flat out mesmerizing.

5. Hugo

Hugo is nothing less than Martin Scorsese's love letter to cinema. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan who lives in a train station, tending the clocks and hiding from the vengeful station commander (Sacha Baron Cohen) who send orphans off to the orphanage without a second thought. Hugo is kept going only by the memory of his clock-maker father (Jude Law) and by the automaton the two were building together before his father died, a creature Hugo now endeavors to finish by stealing parts from a toymaker in the station (Ben Kingsley). When Hugo forms a friendship with the bitter man's daughter (Chloe Moretz, giving the best performance I've seen by a child actor outside of Keirnan Shipka on Mad Men in years), the two begin to discover that there is more to her father, and to the automaton Hugo hopes to construct, than either had first suspected. An invigorating and joyful children's film, Hugo also turns the story of the relationship between Hugo and the toymaker into the story of the invention of cinema itself, and a story about preserving our cultural heritage.

4. Certified Copy

Abbas Kiarostami turns in a twist on the talky relationship movie (think Before Sunset) that is both compelling and though provoking, a puzzle of a movie that studies a relationship more complicated than it first appears. An author (William Shimmel, in his film debut) visits Tuscany for a signing and is taken on a tour of a nearby town by an antique store owner (Juliette Binoche, who is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking in an incredible performance). What begins as small talk between two new acquaintances slowly grows more intimate as it becomes apparent that the relationship between these two may have a longer history than it seemed. The film never firmly defines the relationship between the two, which leaves viewers awash in a sea of mystery, working to piece together every glance, gesture, and word to suss out the history these two have and determine what their day together might mean to each. This plays out as a compelling intellectual exercise, but the film also functions on a deep emotional level, as the characters go through an emotional rollercoaster that is so well realized it is impossible not to feel their highs and lows along with them.

3. Martha Marcy May Marlene

A haunting and taut psychological thriller, Martha Marcy May Marlene follows an impressionable, lost young woman (an Oscar worthy Elisabeth Olsen) who breaks free from the cult she has lived with for several years, but fears she may not have truly escaped the grasp of its enigmatic, quietly terrifying leader (the excellent John Hawkes). She escapes to the remote home of her estranged sister (Sarah Paulson), who doesn't understand where her sister has been or what she is feeling. Olson gives a quiet, subtle performance, letting her silence and her lingering looks convey the damage the last years have caused her, and as she begins to confuse her memories with reality and the past begins to mix in with the future, her confusion and her terror are felt just as deeply by the audience. Martha Marcy May Marlene is the most terrifyingly intense film I saw this year, but it also manages to eschew the melodrama and flat out hysteria that many films about cults rely on, leaving behind a film that is at heart a quiet, tragic exploration of a woman's efforts to find a connection in this world, and the deep psychological trauma that those efforts can leave behind.

2. The Tree of Life

There was no more ambitious film made in 2011, and in fact, The Tree of Life recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey in its breathtaking scope and far-ranging explorations. Terrence Malick crafts a film that looks back to the big bang and forward to the end of time to tell a story about our small, insignificant place in the universe by examining a young boy growing up in Texas in the 1950's, torn between his sweet, gentle and spiritual mother (Jessica Chastain) and his hard-edged, do-it-yourself father (Brad Pitt). The small scale story that forms the film's center raises the questions Malick travels from the beginning to the end of time to answer. The Tree of Life is about the nature of God and man's relationship to him, the meaning of life, and our own significance in a massive (and massively complex) universe. It is a spiritual film, to be sure, but one that also appeals to those who don't believe in a higher power as an examination of one life and its place within a universe that can't help but be indifferent to the concerns that life may create.

1. Drive

The car is one of the most fluid existential metaphors in American culture, and in Nicolas Refn's breathtaking noir film, the philosophical power of driving is utilized to its fullest. An action film that strips away everything about the genre until all that remains is its cold, hard core and the noir elements out of which the action film grew, Drive follows a man with no name (Ryan Gosling) who is the perfect picture of the existential hero: a quiet stoic with no known past or attachments, defined only by his actions and his own moral compass. When he becomes infatuated with the woman next door (Carey Mulligan) and develops paternal feelings for her son, he is drawn into a scheme by her convict husband that goes awry and throws his perfectly calibrated life into disarray. A moody, contemplative film interspersed with moments of shocking violence, Drive captures the loneliness and alienation of a man living outside the law while also depicting the philosophical freedom he has by living the way he chooses. With a phenomenal supporting performance by Albert Brooks as a pragmatic sociopath, and great smaller turns by Bryan Cranston and Christina Hendricks, Drive is a film of stark power and undeniable cool, a movie that maximizes every moment and every shot, turning in a stunning study of economy in filmmaking, noir-tinged cool, and what our philosophical choices say about us as people and what we are willing to do for those we love.
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