Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Best of 2011 So Far

MAY 2018 UPDATE: As some films were left off and some shifted positions during my inventory of past reviews, this is an updated Ten Best Films of 2011 List. Note that some may shift again once all 2011 films reviewed have been cataloged. 

Having had a chance to revisit and revise things, I now look back on 2011 and find that a Top Ten List is possible.  I was aghast at how awful some films were in 2011, but now I can see that there were good things too.

The Iron Lady
The Iron Lady was curiously left off the rankings the first time round, and now I've corrected that.  Ostensibly a hatchet job meant to portray the first female British Prime Minister as a combination bitch/bonkers broad, The Iron Lady, at least for me, had an opposite effect and made me admire Maggie more.  I think Meryl Streep does more impersonation than genuine acting, but I also think it was a very good performance.  I don't think she should have won Best Actress for this performance, but there it is.

Arthur Christmas
Arthur Christmas is a new addition to this Top Ten List, having been seen after the first version was published.  In its short running span I found the story of Santa Claus' younger son Arthur to be a charming, delightful little film that will be a welcome addition come Christmastime.  I was enchanted by Arthur Christmas, and it takes a lot to enchant me.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
I've heard a lot of nonsense about how Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is "too complicated, too confusing,  you won't understand it".  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.  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 best among them, and the younger ones like Hardy and especially Cumberbatch (one to keep your eye on) keeping up with them. 

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. 

The People vs. George Lucas
The first of three documentaries to make my Top Ten List, The People vs. George Lucas is interesting in that it isn't a nerd bashing of our Star Wars creator nor is it an impassioned defense of our subject.  Rather, it is an exploration about nerd culture, about what the creators of these works owe/don't owe those who have embraced their work, and whether Lucas has been good or bad for the film industry.  Lucas is both blessed and cursed with Star Wars, loved and hated in equal and passionate measure.  How history will remember him is still unclear, but there will be no middle ground.

If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
The second documentary to make the list, If A Tree Falls is a film that 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 is a sad story, one that haunts me still.

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.  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 Artist
I thrill 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 exaggerated 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, but what you see on the screen is undeniable: great performances speak for themselves.

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, down to 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 any image of who she's 'supposed' to be.  She becomes herself, and her journey is about to begin.  Her final poem about being broken, being open, being's simply some of the most beautiful dialogue I've heard all year.

If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have believed it: a 3-D children's movie by 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.  Hugo has the added bonus of being, with the possible exception of Avatarthe 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 people 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 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. Senna, the documentary, may simply be too good to be remade as a feature.

And choice for the Best Picture of 2011...

Image result for jane eyre 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. 

I can't think of a film from 2011 that had such brilliant performances.  Michael Fassbender seems to be able to run a wide range, from Magneto to the swoon-worthy Mr. Rochester.  Then there's Mia Wasikowska.  I don't think I was ever as overwhelmed by a performance as I was with Wasikowska's in Jane Eyre.  I cannot help but admire and love Mia Wasikowska for her extraordinary range equal to Fassbender, with the bonus that her career is shorter than his.

Throw in great performances from Dame Judi Dench andJamie Bell, and one of the best adaptations of a literary work. 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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