Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Sixteen Best Films of 2011

Actually, I did manage to find more than Ten Best films of 2011.  That being the case, I'm going to push it the Sixteen Best films of 2011.  Is that cheating?  Perhaps.  It is a good sign that we managed to find enough good films to praise.  It matches the number of awful films I found, so without further ado, let's pick out our Sixteen Best Films of 2011.  Not all have been reviewed, but all have been seen.

Fast Five
I have a reputation as a film snob.  That, my friends, is a false image.  I freely and openly confess that I am a HUGE fan of the Fast & Furious franchise (even the much-maligned Tokyo Drift).  Fast Five knows what it is: cool cars, hot chicks, wild action.  It is a film that seeks only to give me a good adrenaline rush, and I enjoy the mixture of elaborate heists and beautiful women and great cars. 

Is it deep?  No.  Is it entertaining?  Yes, Yes, and YES.  Even better, I found the resolution to be remarkably logical, and while I know that there will be another Fast & Furious movie, it is a rare treat that I actually am looking forward to seeing another Fast & Furious film.  There's something to be said about good, goofy fun.

If a film set out to give me a good scare, Insidious then should be counted as a smashing success.  I don't get scared in movies, so I didn't jump during Insidious.  However, I recognize that the audience was totally in the grips of the film, and they really were getting into the horror of the film.

What I found positive in Insidious is that it was scary without being overtly graphic.  There wasn't the gory nature of other horror films (such as the Saw and/or Hostel series).  Instead, it was mood, it was quick jumps that brought the terror in Insidious.  I think it's acknowledged that the ending didn't work, lessening the impact of the film.  However, if a good scare (one that might leave you awake at night) is what you're looking for, Insidious truly fits the bill. 

I should say that the one thing I didn't believe in Contagion is the idea that a plague such as the one presented would have led to a total breakdown of society.  However, in building suspense and tension as to the growing virus destroying the world, Contagion was wildly effective.  This was a killer that could strike anywhere and almost anyone. 

Again, there was a logic to how the plague spread, and how such a crisis brought out the best and worst in people.  Some were heroic, some were self-serving, some were a mixture of both.  Again, here the ending was a touch too much, almost a slam against industry that didn't need to go that way by making the whole thing ironic.  However, with its great cast, its strong story and directing, and the great score, Contagion worked on almost every level.

One of the best things about Contagion (the score) was also one of the best things about Drive.  No surprise given that it had the same composer (Cliff Martinez).  As much as I might ridicule avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling (namely by referring to him as 'avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling' for his penchant to be in films that are dark and edgy and get away from being a former Mouseketeer), he is a great actor.  Drive is proof enough.  It's difficult to do what avant-garde actor Gosling did: to express so much by being so quiet, but his character is so opaque that he doesn't even have a name.  This blankness is really all there is to him, a hollow man who passes no view on the morality of his actions.

That is, until he meets someone who might break through his emotional walls.  Oddly, it isn't strictly the woman, but her child.  It isn't a surprise to see that 'one last job' go wildly wrong, but Drive has an intense story and made an intellectual feature: it's The Fast & The Furious for the intellectual set.  Throw in a villainous turn by comic Albert Brooks (showing there's more to him than intellectual humor), and you have a fine, well-acted, and remarkably exciting cross of action and thought.

Win Win
The family drama involving a troubled teen can be hokey and maudlin, but Win Win manages to skirt that by giving all the characters relatable flaws.  Even though Paul Giamatti's character does unethical things, we don't see him as a villain.  You also have a great performance from Alex Shaffer as the taciturn teen who, minus his troubled upbringing, is in many ways an average teen.

Win Win kept a good balance between the human comedy of how the characters behaved towards each other and in their actions with a tender story of people learning from their mistakes.  My favorite moment is really a small one.  Shaffer's Kyle is about to leave, knowing how Mike has used his grandfather to get some cash.  Amy Ryan's character (Mike's wife) starts to leave, only to stop and tell Kyle that they love him.  Any other movie would have made it a big moment, overblown with sentimentality.  Instead, because it was so short and direct, it made it all so real.

Horrible Bosses
In a year that had a cavalcade of lousy comedies that dulled your brain (Just Go With It, Larry Crowne, The Change-UpThe Hangover Part II), it was good to see a comedy that actually was funny and that even worked (no pun intended).  Horrible Bosses was something that people could relate to (up to a point), but by making everything so exaggerated they could get away with it.

What made Horrible Bosses funnier than all the other comedies this year is that all the characters were amazingly idiotic or insane, so we always knew that despite their best efforts, they were all going to fail spectacularly.  Moreover, there was a logic to the plot (albeit a ridiculous one), and some wild turns that made sense but still brought out laughter.  Granted, there was a touch too much bathroom humor, but unfortunately that is par for the course today.  However, hearing that there will be a Horrible Bosses II (or 2 if you like) has me extremely worried: sometimes, it's best to leave a good thing alone. 

I can't believe we are  not at the Top Ten Film of 2011.  Well, here we go.

Captain America: The First Avenger
This was a year where we had many films based on comic book characters.  Some were truly atrocious (Green Lantern), some were good but in my view overrated (X-Men: First Class, Thor), and then there was Captain America (full title, Captain America: The First Avenger, in order to signal there would be more Captain America films and to not upset those who wouldn't like a shamelessly patriotic character).  What then made Captain America the best comic book adaptation of 2011?

Well, the fact that it knew what it was: a comic book movie.  It went against the grain of most present-day comic book adaptations in that its lead wasn't dark, brooding, highly troubled.  Steve Rogers was actually eager to do something for his country.  There was an optimism to Captain America.  The villain was clear-cut with no moral shadings.  Finally, the film was openly and unabashedly fun.  No great moral crisis, no depression.  It had action, it had romance, it even did something up to now seemingly impossible: it made Chris Evans actually act!  That in itself is a miracle.  The ending didn't work for me: it was a tie-in to the massive Avengers this year, but minus that, Captain America worked...and it has a damn catchy song in Star-Spangled Man.

Midnight In Paris
Woody, it's so nice to have you back where you belong.  One had worried whether the Woodster had anything left in him.  Trust him to turn nostalgia into box office gold...and an actual comedy.  Midnight in Paris was a return to form for Woody Allen, who showed that he could still have an inventive idea or two rattling in his mind.

Owen Wilson would appear to be a good faux-Woody, but his nasal twang and slightly dim persona actually made the performance all the more better as the man who yearns for the Lost Generation of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, manages to actually find it, only to discover the past isn't how one remembers it.  I could have done without the stereotypical shrill fiancee and her boorish parents (Allen may not be the best person to take moral stands against others...just a hint), but at its heart Midnight in Paris is a nostalgic trip that reminds us nostalgia is not clear-cut. 

Finally, I should point out that in smaller roles we can see just how good some actors can be: Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí, Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, and especially Tom Hiddleton (Loki himself!) as F. Scott Fitzgerald.  That kid has a bright future ahead of him. 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
I've heard a lot of nonsense about, "it's too complicated; it's too confusing; you won't understand it".  To that I say...damn balderdash!  I'm hardly a high intellectual, but I didn't have a hard time following the plot.  The same was said about Inception, and frankly I understood everything going on (even if the open-ending didn't please the audience I was with, but now I digress). 

For those still concerned that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may be too opaque to follow, I offer this: it's an intellectual spy thriller, and espionage isn't suppose to be obvious.  In the same way avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling said so much by saying/doing so little, so does Gary Oldman (in one of his greatest screen performances) tell us so much about George Smiley with his perfectly controlled performance.  Tinker Tailor is a smorgasbord of brilliant screen actors: John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, and Colin Firth, all doing their best to show who is boss (and the younger ones like Hardy and especially Cumberbatch--one to keep your eye on-- keeping up with some of the very best).  There isn't a false note, one off performance within the film. 

I am aware that there were more Smiley stories from John Le Carré, and while Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ends with the faintest suggestion that there might be a sequel, this may be the first time I don't object to seeing more of The Circus. 

If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
This documentary is one that thoroughly snuck up on me.  As I watched it, I thought the story of the rise and fall of the environment group the Earth Liberation Front became a deeply personal story of one man: Daniel McGowan.  His story was a sad one: young man with a good heart gets radicalized (in his mind, for the good cause of saving the planet), and becomes emeshed in a group that destroys private property.  The group itself begins to become too radical, but the government brings it down before acts of vandalism and arson become acts of actual violence.

As the days and weeks went, If A Tree Falls continued to grow on me (no pun intended).  I was haunted by the story, and especially McGowan, who seemed to be a genuinely nice person who just got himself into something wrong, perhaps with the best of intentions but which still brought a lot of fear and destruction.  However, the film had me asking things about myself.  My reaction to what happened to protesters in Oregon at the hands of the police appalled me, but then again, so did the protester's acts in Seattle.  A great thing about If A Tree Falls is that it doesn't attempt to rationalize or lionize the actions of the ELF: we get to hear from the investigators (shown to be the efficient people they are) and those whose lumber mills were attacked (not the greedy monsters the ELF and their sympathizers paint them as). 

At its heart, If A Tree Falls is about knowing people like McGowan and seeing him not as a monstrous, evil terrorist, but as merely a man, no different than you or me save for his actions. We at the end of If A Tree Falls have to ask if McGowan really is on the same level as an al-Qaeda or Taliban member. Damn but that I ended up liking McGowan (even if I fiercely reject and condemn his work with the ELF).  If I were to ever take some sort of political stance, it would be for a Presidential pardon for Daniel McGowan... 

The Help
Another film that snuck up on me despite all my instincts.  I didn't want to like The Help: I have a reaction against sweet stories of people overcoming.  However, it is so difficult not to get emotional when Viola Davis' Aibileen tells you about the death of her only son.  With just her voice, her face, it all but has you overwhelmed with tears. 

The Help has the benefit of great performances: not just from Davis, but Octavia Spenser as the bold Minny, Bryce Dallas Howard as the malicious Miss Hilly, and It-Girl Jessica Chastain as the naive/ignorant white trash Miss Celia.  Frankly, I didn't care one bit for Emma Stone's main character of Skeeter (I found her irritating and had no interest in her story: love or otherwise).  However, I think it is important in the Age of Obama to remember it wasn't all that long ago when blacks were legally kept down, and that it did take courage to start to stand up and say, "I Am Somebody". 

And a bit of pie never hurt either...

I didn't think that Pariah would be as good as it was, given how it touches a lot of what Precious took on: a young black woman in New York coming to her own.  However, unlike Precious, Pariah had an added hurdle: she wasn't just coming to her own, she was coming out. 

Alike (pronounced A-Lee-Kay) has a remarkably difficult journey: not just to acknowledge her homosexuality to her parents, or even to herself, but to find out exactly who she is.  When she's with her butch friends, she is masculine in her attire and manner (even going by Lee).  With her family, she is more feminine (even if her parents can't admit to themselves the truth they already know).  Alike has the burden of first love and first love lost, but at the end, she finds out that she doesn't have to fit either image put before her.  She is herself, and her journey is about to start.  Her final poem about being broken, being open, being's simply some of the most beautiful dialogue I've heard all year.

The Artist
My little film-loving heart thrills at the phrase, "one of the best films of 2011 is a silent film".  Technically, The Artist ISN'T an all-silent film: there is some sound (including when we get to hear Jean Dujardin's obvious French accent).  However, The Artist proves what I have long argued about silent film in general: it is a beautiful thing, it isn't full of exagerrated acting, and the lack of dialogue is hardly missed.

The Artist has so much going for it: proof of how acting, true acting, doesn't need translations, the joy of films, that we can overlook some of its flaws (in particular the use of the Love Theme from Vertigo).  I don't know how good Mr. Dujardin or Miss Berenice Bejo's English is (the former from France, the latter from Argentina), but what you see on the screen is undeniable: great performances speak for themselves.

If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have believed it: a 3-D children's Martin Scorsese.  This is Martin Scorsese: the guy from Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed.  His bread and butter is the chronicling of the underbelly of society, so how he'd make a 3-D children's movie?

Here's how: he's Martin Scorsese--genius.  He also is Martin Scorsese: unabashed film enthusiast.  Hugo is a love letter to the early days of cinema, where it was done by literal magicians (such as French film pioneer Georges Mélies.  The loving recreation of Mélies' studio and films are a tribute by one brilliant filmmaker to another.  We also couldn't help notice how Scorsese introduced the importance of film preservation into the story (and do it so well).

Yes, it is amazing to see a man best know for gritty images of the criminal underworld give us such a lovely portrait of youth and childhood innocence, but really, what can't Scorsese NOT do?  Hugo has the added bonus of being (with the possible exception of Avatar) the only 3-D film where the 3-D didn't interfere with the story or appear out of place.  There wasn't any 'thrusting out to the audience' images...instead, for me, the most beautiful and brilliant 3-D image will be of a snowy Parisian night...

I would never have thought that a documentary about a Formula One driver would have been not only so compelling, but so thrilling and ultimately so moving.  I figure there are thousands if not millions of Americans (even sports buffs) who have never heard of Ayrton Senna, but Senna is something that does what appears as impossible as one of his races: moves you emotionally.

Documentaries can be a hard sell, but Senna makes brilliant use of the thousands of hours of archival footage (even when we see our hero with Xuxa: the most voluptuous of children's television hosts) to make his life story a remarkable journey: both of Ayrton's soul and his races.   Soon, we thoroughly forget we're watching a documentary because we get caught up in the thrill of the race, the antagonism with Senna's racing rivals, his passion for his beloved Brazil and her people, and finally the great heartbreak of his death.

It is a sign of Senna's brilliance that it never feels like anything other than a real movie: we never see it as a dry recitation of facts.  It helps that Ayrton Senna's life was never dry.  While a feature film of his life is possible (I imagine Zachary Levi or Andrew Garfield would make strong candidates), it might not be believed that such a man could have achieved what Ayrton Senna achieved.  Senna, the documentary, may simply be too good to be remade as a feature.

And choice for the Best Picture of 2011...

Jane Eyre
Few movies have stayed with me, continued deep in my memory, as Jane Eyre.  I saw this movie in April, and nearly a year later, I still get swept away into its romantic, brooding, Gothic story.  Jane Eyre still haunts me, still moves me, still remains in my memory, dazzling me with its sweeping romance. 

While Michael Fassbender is causing my fellow critics to masturbate over his role in Shame (perhaps literally--I have no way of knowing their predilections), I still argue that was not his best performance this year.  Perhaps Fassbender, or as I lovingly call him: Fassie Bare-All, will earn a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Shame; however, I predict he WILL NOT WIN. 

How do I know?  Well, first, his competition will be fierce (I suspect Gary Oldman will be in the running for his first-ever nomination for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Jean Dujardin will have older voters enchanted for his silent turn in The Artist).  Second, and most important: said older Academy members WILL NEVER VOTE for a guy who is seeing totally naked on screen.  I argued that many Academy members would never countenance seeing a clip of Fassbender jerking off in a montage with other Best Actor winners like James Stewart, Clark Gable, Laurence Olivier, or Colin Firth.  Yes, I'm sure they won't actually have a clip of him masturbating on screen (or getting a blow job from some random guy at a gay bar), but despite Hollywood's reputation there is a strong conservative element inside the Academy itself.  After all, there were some Academy members who wouldn't even watch Brokeback Mountain because of the 'gay cowboy sex', let alone vote it Best Picture (hence, Crash). 

However, when it comes to Fassie we are rather spoiled for choice: not only was he the sex addict in Shame, he also reinvigorated the mutant Magneto in X-Men: First Class (which I wasn't crazy about), the kinky Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method (which I've yet to see), and the mysterious, romantic, brooding Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre.  For my money, it was the latter that was his best performance.

I don't normally say this about another man, but damn it's true: Michael Fassbender was SO DREAMY!

Actually, the real revelation in Jane Eyre is my secret love: Mia Wasikowska.  She was the perfect California teen in The Kids Are All Right (overrated), and when she took on our heroine, I thought, 'oh, she's British and can do a good American accent'.  Then I find she's actually Australian, and decide then and there that she is our generation's Meryl Streep.  I don't think I was ever as overwhelmed by a performance as I was with Wasikowska.  Even in films I don't like (Alice in Wonderland, for example), I cannot help but admire and love Mia Wasikowska for her extraordinary range.

Throw in great performances from Dame Judi Dench (Brother Gabe's secret love...inside joke), and even Billy Elliot himself, Jamie Bell, and one of the best adaptations of a literary work becomes the film I went absolutely mad for (almost mad enough to put me in the attic).  I was totally wrapped in the film at the onset and when it was over, I truly wanted more.  I confess to never having read the book, but if it's as good as the movie, it deserves its reputation as a literary classic.

When Mr. Rochester tells Jane, "you transfix me quite", I could have said the same about Jane Eyre: my choice for the Best Picture of 2011.

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