The Top Films of 2011

#10 Martha Marcy May Marlene—This story follows Martha (Elizabeth Olson, younger sister of the Michelle and Michelle Tanner) during the first few weeks of her escape from a cult in upper state New York. The film’s focus is Martha’s complex journey to find safety within her mind and environment. The archetypal cult elements are delineated primarily through charismatic cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes), who employs brainwashing, semi-forced sex, violence masked as protection, and re-identification (eg. changing Martha’s name to Marcy May and having all women that answer the phone use the name Marlene). Martha’s plight is one of paranoia, confusion, and social blunders as she attempts to reintegrate into her sister’s shallow, yuppie environment, one that regardless of her mental state she clearly distastes. There is a real sadness to her salvation and her distance from any sort of safety is apparent and frightening. Strong supporting performances from Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy but Elizabeth Olson carries this film.

#9 The Guard—Remember how you felt the first time you saw In Bruges? This movie made me feel the same way. What an absolute treat. Brendan Gleeson plays a veteran beat cop in Ireland forced to partner up with Don Cheadle to investigate a drug trafficking case and subsequent murders. Gleeson’s character shines from the opening scene, where he comes upon a car crash, finds some acid in the dead kid’s pocket, and drops it with a wry smile. All in good fun. He’s a charming man that loves his mother, beer, prostitutes, and witty banter. A new take on the buddy cop movie, and most likely the funniest film of the year.

#8 Carnage—Penelope and Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster) invite Alan and Nancy Cowen (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) into their home to resolve an incident of violence involving the couples’ sons on the playground. What begins as a civil discourse on social justice quickly (d)evolves into a critique of one another’s parenting skills and scathing personal attacks. Each has their own idea, none are right or wrong, and the clash of personalities is incredibly enjoyable once the veil of civility has been lifted. Maybe I haven’t seen enough of Roman Polanski’s work, but this feels more like a Woody Allen film to me. It’s cynical, neurotic, clever, awkward, absurd, and very funny. Four pros just doing what they do.

#7 Take Shelter—Following his masterful performance in Revolutionary Road, Michael Shannon delivers again as Curtis, a husband and father experiencing apocalyptic visions.  He believes his refuge to be found by building out the tornado shelter in his backyard, at all costs. Is he putting his family’s future in peril or assuring its safety? Is he suffering from a psychotic episode or is he a prophet? Jessica Chastain is brilliant in a complex role as Curtis’ wife. Take Shelter is a haunting and uncomfortable theatre experience. Expect to crawl out of your skin.

#6 We Need to Talk About Kevin—I should probably just come out and say it: I don’t like Tilda Swinton. Now I know this may not be popular with my bi-curious female friends who love androgynous women, but she grates on my nerves. That being said, she’s probably Best Actress worthy as Eva, the penitent mother of Kevin (Ezra Miller) in We Need to Talk About Kevin. This classic story of nature versus nurture, shot in a non-linear format, foreshadows a disastrous event that presumably involves Kevin. The narrative is Eva’s, who regrets bearing this child, but also believes the child to be fundamentally evil. The more she expresses to her husband Franklin (John C Reilly) that Kevin is problematic, the more this idea manifests. There is a great scene near the beginning of the film where Eva is holding baby Kevin in the air as he cries. She’s cooing at him, praying, pleading, begging for him to stop crying. Her smile is wrought and pained, a desperate grimace that is certainly no comfort to either of them. This juxtaposition illustrates the tumultuousness of their relationship from the onset. Kevin’s awareness of his mother’s remorse fuels his animosity, and his intelligence and patience beget a sinister revenge on an unloving world. In the horror of Eva’s world, she’s Frankenstein.

#5 The Artist—Old is new in this silent, black and white film from French director Michael Hazanavicius (try saying that three times fast, or once for that matter). This monochromatic, supremely charming love story is told through movement, expression, and orchestration. Hollywood’s biggest silent film star, George Valentin (Jean DuJardin) finds himself out of work and penniless when talkies emerge during the great depression, but not before a chance discovery of Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), the next big star. Their chemistry is dynamic as they smile and dance their way into our hearts. The choreography is enchanting. The Artist should be seen at the theatre, not solely for its charm, but to reward the producers for taking a chance and reinforcing that more films like this should be made. It’s a very difficult film to market, but not to enjoy.

#4 Shame—Steve McQueen’s super slick Shame is for adults only. This story follows Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a New York based marketing executive who designs his life to feed his sex addiction. What may seem like a shallow premise or an invalid mental disease turns out to be profoundly troubling as Brandon’s obsession to satiate his desires is unrelenting. A deep fear of intimacy is supplanted by prostitutes, internet porn, and one night stands.  When his semi-estranged sister, the aptly named Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes to stay with Brandon, we are exposed to the rage, disgust, sadness, and guilt induced by his preoccupation. McQueen’s deftly crafted screenplay and artistic direction should propel him to that of Hollywood’s elite. Shame is a beacon for film lovers, Freudians, and perverts alike.

#3 Melancholia—Lars von Trier (Anitchrist, Dogville) writes and directs this two-part tale, starring Kirsten Dunst (Justine), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Claire), Alexander Skarsgard (Michael) and Keifer Sutherland (John).
Act one, entitled Justine, is set at the countryside mansion of John and Claire who are hosting the wedding reception of Michael and Justine. Justine is not your typical blissful bride. She oscillates from playful to brooding, imaginative to logical, kind to erratic. She has little regard for anyone or anything other than her mood, which is deeply unhappy. Subservient Michael simply ignores her careless behavior until he’s jilted at the point of consummation.
The supporting actors in part one are superbly crafted. John, our noble and vainglorious host’s ego is bruised by his guests lack of decorum, while Claire, the thoughtful but sensitive sister and hostess can only stretch her patience so far before snapping. Justine’s divorced parents, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), the stubborn, hopeless, miserable mother, and Dexter (John Hurt), the free-loving, playful, unaccountable father are brilliant. Dexter’s accompaniment by two dates named Betty is a wonderful comedic touch.
Act two, Claire, concerns a planet dubbed Melancholia that has been hiding behind the sun and is now approaching Earth. This none too subtle metaphor of planets colliding provides an ominous though supremely beautiful backdrop to explore said subject. The viewer knows something bad is going to happen, but the intrigue comes from watching how it will unfold. Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde exudes a romantic feel to the apocalyptic scenario, drawing out the pleasures of sweet sorrow.
Melancholia is like watching a painting come to life. This is simply a gorgeous film from a true artist. Dunst is dazzling and had it not been for LVT’s political miscue at Cannes would have certainly been a consideration for Best Actress.

#2 The Tree of Life—A deeply philosophical film about nature, God, and grace, The Tree of Life is a sprawling epic from the masterful Terrence Malick. As both writer and director, Malick presents the story of a family, set in the 1950’s, navigating the turbulent waters of the American Dream. The film centers around Jack (Sean Penn) who is attempting to understand his place in the modern world by examining his life as a youth and his relationship with his father (Brad Pitt).
Easily the best directed film of the year, Malick exhibits his craftsmanship through patience and dedication to each frame. His penchant for natural light to encapsulate the perfect shot is legendary. The editing effort required for this film is of mammoth proportions. Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Sean Penn are superb, but the talent Malick displays in communicating his vision infinitely supersedes that of these actors.
There is almost no dialogue in the first third of this film. What is verbally communicated are haunting questions, emotional requests, and melancholic statements whispered through narration.
A 15 minute impressionistic art piece, representing the gurgling fractures that beget life, had a handful of people exiting the theatre; however, those that stayed were delighted by shot after shot of beautiful cinematography. It’s a brave interlude and the depth of this section serves to open the mind and inspire.
The linear portion of the film is a broad brush stroke of the American Dream. What would be described as a typical Midwestern upbringing is broken down to reveal the parts that make up the whole. Jack’s modern life is successful by American standards (suit, high rise office bldg., an architecturally beautiful home, reminiscent of that used in Atom Egoyan’s Chloe), but he is deeply unhappy. Upon examination of his youth, we are exposed to the moments that shaped him. The realization that his father is a man with flaws. That God may not exist, and if He does, how can he allow bad things to happen? That character comes from nature and nurture. That the world is an unfair place. That each of us are free to decide from moment to moment how we act, but with this realization comes the knowledge that we are truly alone. Malick’s mastery is his ability to dissect complex issues and convey them in their simplest terms.
The allegorical shots to close the film include fallen statues, holes, doors, ladders, veils, waves, waterfalls, bridges, and elevators. These beautiful metaphors provide an opportunity to reflect and induce a deeply emotional response. This is a film to experience, and for good reason, the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

#1 Drive —It’s true. My Ryan Gosling boner is huge. Gosling is the new Paul Newman. The new James Dean. The new Steve McQueen. Headlining his third blockbuster of the year, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Gosling cements his place as the coolest actor in Hollywood right now.
Why is this film my favorite of the year? Simply said, it’s very fucking cool.
The opening credits roll in hot pink Mistral typeface. This combination of 50’s lettering and 80’s colour jumps off the screen, immediately establishing an artistic tone.
The opening scene segues to a hotel room where the Driver (Gosling) prepares for a job. We’re brought along on a heist and led on a chase through downtown LA where he is able to elude a police helicopter and numerous units by employing skill, cunning, and a bit of luck. Steering the souped up Chevy Impala (the most popular car in California) into the Staples Center parking lot as the buzzer sounds to end the Clippers game brings an ingenious conclusion to the chase, highlighting the Driver’s literal and figurative street smarts. Kavinsky’s Nightcall kicks in, allowing us a moment to bask in the glory that is Gosling. “There’s something inside you. It’s hard to explain. They’re talking about you boy. But you’re still the same.” The Cliff Martinez produced soundtrack is the best soundtrack since 2004’s Garden State.
Now what makes Gosling so cool? In addition to being ridiculously handsome, his scorpion jacket, toothpick, classic car and driving gloves pay homage to the archetypal leather jacket/motorcycle heroes of yesteryears. His manly professions (mechanic/stuntman/getaway driver) are romanticized by men and women of all ages. His dialogue is sparse, but for good reason. It’s what creates the tone of loneliness and hope. We empathize with his solitary lifestyle. His only friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston) is his employer on all fronts and although their relationship is jovial, it’s more professional than personal. When he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio, we swoon as the deeply caring relationship blossoms. The personal complications of the characters serve to heighten their desires. The scenes with Carey Mulligan seethe with sexual tension as they eye fuck each other time and again.
Dichotomous to this vulnerability is a side of fearlessness and bravery. He’ll place himself in peril for what he believes. He’ll flip a car. He’ll stomp a henchman’s head into pulp. There are deadly elements to the life he leads, but he doesn’t blink in the face of danger.
The sudden bursts of stone cold violence jolt us back to the realities of gangsterism. Refn creates an odd juxtaposition in these violent scenes by combining a detached, clinical feel with an over the top, almost cartoonish brutality. The breakneck speed, precision, and awe-inspiring effects are a distinct trademark of his films. Rarely do one of these outbursts not result in a Keanu-like “whoa.” Albert Brooks (Bernie Rose) is especially noteworthy during his murder of Cook, in which he jams a fork in his eye, and then stabs him in the throat repeatedly with a chef’s knife. His subsequent murder of Shannon (slitting his arm open from elbow to wrist while murmuring “don’t worry, that’s it, it’s done. There’s no pain. It’s over. It’s over”) is such a professional kill that we’re left terrified yet comforted by the painless death.
Aside from artistic vision, flawless direction, a superb soundtrack, and impeccable casting, this movie is intense, exciting and super cool. The film is about the choices that shackle us, and the romanticism of overcoming them. It’s the deep desire for integrity and fearlessness, no matter how difficult the choices. It’s the story of a real human being, and a real hero.

Films that were considered, but did not make the cut (in no particular order):

Beginners
A Separation
50/50
My Week with Marilyn
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
A Dangerous Method
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Margin Call
The Ides of March
Moneyball
Hanna
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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