First off, a mea culpa. When I posted my top 10 of 2008 a few years back, I intended it to be a yearly thing. But obviously that hasn’t happened. 2009 was a complete write-off. I kept track of what I watched and compiled a top 10, but never found the time to actually write everything up. (Just for the record, my favourite film that year was Inglourious Basterds.) The next year was a similar story: no write up. But I did manage to preview the Oscars, and at least speak about my favourite films of the year thanks to the very first Slandering Others Anonymously Film Podcast episode ever.
This year, I’m getting back on track. I’m presenting my top 10 below, my Oscar predictions are up, and Matthew and I have done a 2011 wrap-up podcast. Needless to say, I’m really happy to have gotten all of these things pulled together this year.
So, 2011 was a banner year for me as a moviegoer. As of now, I’ve seen 69 films from 2011 – by far my highest total for a single year (the previous high was 51). And yet, looking back on the field, I feel a little disappointed. In the past, I’ve found that my overall feelings about movies tend to line up rather closely with the majority. In other words, what most people like, I like too.
But this year was different somehow. Movies like Hugo, The Descendants, Moneyball, Bridesmaids, Young Adult, Warrior, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and many others were loved by critics. Even The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, my most anticipated movie of the year, was pretty well received. But to me, they all felt pretty flawed in one way or another. Still good movies? Okay, sure. But great ones? No.
But enough of that. This is going to a long enough read as it is without me pontificating about what could’ve been. And for all my complaints, there was still a lot of fun to be had at the movies this past year. Without further ado, my top 10 of 2011.
10. Melancholia – The story of the end of the world, viewed through the eyes of a severely depressed woman. It begins on an upbeat note, with a bride and groom (Kirsten Dunst and Alexander Skarsgard) arriving late to their wedding. As their limo driver struggles to make his way up a narrow, curved road, the two can’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of their situation. But the light mood is only temporary. When the couple finally arrives, family tensions are running high, sending Dunst’s character into a downward spiral.
It took me awhile to warm up to this movie, and there are still things I don’t like about it. In particular, I think the first half is much stronger than the second. Of course, that first act is bolstered by the presence of such veterans as John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgard, and a hilarious Udo Kier. The second act focuses on a much smaller group of people, and to me this made for a somewhat uneven viewing experience.
Anyway, the acting is uniformly great, and the visuals are pretty unique and interesting (especially in the opening minutes). I’ve always been a fan of Lars Von Trier’s films, and while this one probably isn’t my favourite, it’s worth a look.
9. Source Code – The second film from director Duncan Jones (whose debut, Moon, was number eight on my top 10 from 2009). This is a really cool sci-fi film with shades of Groundhog Day. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright.
This is one of those movies that’s really more fun to go into cold, so I’ll try to be vague here. But basically there’s an attack on a train and Jake Gyllenhaal’s character has to stop it. There’s a lot more to it than that, but we’ll keep it simple.
Anyway, Gyllenhaal gives a great performance in Source Code. It’s been overlooked, but I think he deserves more credit than he got. His character is thrust into this very confusing situation, and finds himself having to adapt and figure things out on the fly. He plays the confusion very well, but once the film starts switching gears, he gets to be a lot more assertive. And there’s even a nice emotional payoff toward the film’s conclusion. Gyllenhaal gets all the tones just right, and if this movie works for you at all, it’ll be mostly thanks to his performance.
Not all the sci-fi stuff makes a lot of sense (especially the ending), but if you just go with it, it mostly hangs together. The story is structured really well, so even though you get a lot of exposition doled out in big chunks, it’s not all right up front. By the time you start learning exactly what’s going on, you’re already invested in the story and the characters, making everything a bit easier to swallow.
Like he did with Moon, Duncan Jones mixes elements of action, humor, and even romance together. I don’t know if I like this film quite as much as his first, but it’s still a great ride.
8. The Artist – I’ve already written a pretty full review of this one, so I’ll be brief this time around. This is the most critically praised movie on my list, having earned 10 Oscar nominations. The story is simple, but it’s also effective, thanks to great acting from Bérénice Bejo and Jean Dujardin. Watch it, enjoy it.
7. The Tree Of Life – It’s been six years since Terrence Malick’s last film. For most directors, this is a pretty long time. But for Malick (who took 20 years off between 1978’s Days Of Heaven and 1998’s The Thin Red Line), it’s barely a blink of an eye. And this newfound productivity looks like it’s going to continue. Right now, the reclusive filmmaker has two movies in post-production and another two in pre-production.
I, for one, am excited.
Malick tells two stories in The Tree Of Life. One is a heavily autobiographical account of a family living in Texas in the mid-1960s. Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt play the parents of three boys, with newcomer Hunter McCracken as the middle son. This is intercut with another story depicting the birth and death of the universe, as rendered in a series of stunningly gorgeous images. Visual effects guru Douglas Trumbull (of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame) contributed to the film’s look.
I’ll be the first to tell you that the story here doesn’t always make sense. There’s stuff in there with Sean Penn as the grown-up Hunter McCracken that doesn’t feel necessary. But this film is still incredibly powerful. Malick has a way of filming everyday life that’s fascinating to see. His approach is almost documentary style – very real and organic. If for no other reason than the beautiful visuals it puts together, you must see The Tree Of Life. Preferably on an big a screen as possible.
As much as visuals play a role, The Tree Of Life has more to offer. The performances are wonderful. As the parents, Chastain and Pitt bring two distinctly different performances. Chastain’s character is a nurturer, while Pitt is an old-school, tough love dad. They have both been nominated at this year’s Oscars for other films, but I think the best work either of them did in 2011 is in The Tree Of Life.
As a last note, I love the music in this film. If you’ve seen the trailer, then you’ve already gotten a taste of the classical music Malick employs. It really adds to the sense of grandeur and scope of his movie.
There’s not a lot of middle ground to be had when it comes to The Tree Of Life. Viewers tend to fall into two camps. Some see it as overblown, pretentious, and ultimately too ponderous and obscure to hold real meaning. Others find it to be a deeply philosophical film about the nature of life and death, and what comes after it all. I can understand both views, but would tend to lump myself in with the second group. Again, that’s not to say the movie is without flaws, but what it really comes down to is there aren’t a lot of movies like this getting made. I didn’t see another movie this year that was remotely like this, and it’ll probably be a long time before I see another.
There’s value in putting yourself out there with a unique vision and just going for it, and I believe that’s what Malick did here. I respect directors like him way more than I do guys who are just out to make a buck by copying whatever’s popular in the moment.
6. I Saw The Devil – In the last few years, I’ve been falling in love with South Korean cinema. I started out with Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy. Then after that I saw Mother, by Joon-ho Bong. And finally this year, it was I Saw The Devil, by Jee-woon Kim. All three are set to make their English language directorial debuts soon, and I can’t wait for the world at large to be introduced to their bizarre sensibilities. They each know how to make movies with gripping narratives and they don’t shy away from violence. I’m a pretty jaded moviegoer. It takes a lot to get me squirming in my seat. But these guys do it on a regular basis.
Anyway, getting back to I Saw The Devil, this is a film about revenge. After his wife is murdered, a police officer (played by Byung-hun Lee) goes on the hunt for the killer. But simply catching said killer (played by Min-sik Choi) isn’t enough for him. He wants “a real, complete revenge.”
This is a very disturbing film that’s not going to be for everyone. But in the end, I found myself loving it. Kim has a way of juxtaposing beautiful images with horrific violence. I Saw The Devil has a scene that takes place in a car that still boggles my mind a little. Or another where a search team locates a body (or part of one, anyway). These are images that continue to stick in my mind long after the movie’s over.
On the acting side of things, Lee is mostly playing cold and emotionless for large stretches of the film’s running time, but he does have some nice moments as the cost of his attempts at revenge begin to sink in. As for Choi, he comes out full force – yelling, shrieking, snarling… He pretty much does it all. It’s an over-the-top performance, but he totally commits to it, and as a result he’s one of the year’s most compelling and frightening cinematic villains.
The movie has its share of flaws in terms of plot holes, and the ending isn’t quite as effective as it could’ve been. But it remains one of the most visceral, shocking movies I watched in 2011.
5. The Guard – As with The Artist, I’ve already done a full review, so I’ll be a bit shorter here. This is a really fun film. It’s the classic buddy cop comedy formula, with Brendan Gleeson as the colorful, unorthodox, but surprisingly smart one, and Don Cheadle as the logical, by-the-book one. It’s directed by John Michael McDonagh. It’s a bit similar to his brother Martin’s film In Bruges (which was one of my favourite films from 2008). To be honest, I think In Bruges is actually quite a bit better than The Guard, but I like both movies, and I look forward to seeing what the McDonagh boys do next.
4. Hanna – Not since Natalie Portman in Léon has a little girl kicked this much ass onscreen. Saoirse Ronan stars as Hanna, a girl raised in the wilderness by her father, a former CIA agent (played by Eric Bana). After years of training in isolation, she’s sent to kill another agent (played by Cate Blanchett). Things don’t go as planned, and Hanna finds herself on the run. Along the way, she experiences a world that’s completely foreign to her, and befriends an English girl on vacation with her family.
There’s a lot to like here. The supporting cast is excellent, but Ronan steals the show as Hanna. She’s got the physicality and demeanor of a trained killer, but the movie doesn’t forget she’s still a kid. The world is a huge, confusing place, filled with all sorts of things that are outside of her experience. Ronan conveys all of this this wonderfully.
Director Joe Wright brings a lot to the material, finding clever ways to shoot the action in the film. The best example comes near the midway point as Bana’s character is attacked by several agents. The scene is shot in a single long steadicam shot lasting just over three minutes. The camera follows Bana as he gets off a bus, walks through a terminal, down to a subway station, and finally confronts his attackers.
This long take thing is a trick Wright has used before (and obviously he’s not the only guy out there who does it), but I can’t get enough of it. In fact… Attention other directors (Paul Greengrass, you should listen to this, ‘cause this concerns you): this is the way to shoot action. I know, I know, shaking the camera all around is more “gritty”. It captures the chaos and intensity of a fight better than a steady shot. I don’t care! Actors put in all sorts of work to learn how to fight and learn the choreography. So stop cutting every two seconds, pull that camera back and let me see what’s happening! Thank you.
Ahem… Anyway, sorry for the sidetrack there but shakycam is one of my pet peeves when it comes to movies. Getting back to Hanna, let’s talk music for a second. The score to Hanna was done by the Chemical Brothers, and it’s great. At times it’s very melodic and soothing, elsewhere it’s very deep and bass-y. I loved it.
So that’s Hanna – a coming of age story wrapped in a slick thriller. I had a lot of fun with it.
3. Martha Marcy May Marlene – Interesting that I’m finally writing about this movie. I’ve known about it for about a year (in fact, I spoke briefly about it on episode two of the podcast), but haven’t said much. Well, now’s the time…
This is an excellent film. It deals with a young woman named Martha (played by Elizabeth Olsen). Unsure of where to turn in life, she falls in with a cult, led by the spookily charismatic Patrick (played by John Hawkes). The movie begins with her departure from this cult, and then flashes back and forth, intercutting scenes of her attempts to regain a normal life with scenes of her experiences within the cult.
The film’s structure is vital to its effectiveness. By flashing back and forth between past and present, director Sean Durkin keeps us scrambling to keep up. It gives the viewer insight into Martha’s own confused state of mind. Things that happen in the present are constantly reminding her of things she’s experienced before. Even mundane things like the sound of something falling on a rooftop wind up having huge significance. This information is parceled out piece by horrifying piece.
In the end, Martha’s grasp on reality seems to be slipping away. Or is it? Like Martha herself, we don’t know. We have reason to question what we see, but the film doesn’t give us a definitive answer. That ambiguity is preserved right up to (and beyond) the final frame.
For all its narrative ingenuity, Martha Marcy May Marlene would of course be nothing without great acting. Elizabeth Olsen gives one of the absolute best performances of the year. I love everything about it. She gets all the big moments of emotional turmoil (like the heartbreaking phone call near the film’s opening) spot on, but she also does all the little things. Little nervous gestures and looks, her slow smile when Patrick plays her a song. Truly some great work, and I have to say I’m a little surprised to see Olsen overlooked during awards season. Hawkes too for that matter. He’s only in a few scenes, but he makes a huge impression as the manipulative cult leader.
If I had to pick at any flaws, I’d say the transitions between past and present aren’t always done in the most narratively consistent way. And the score gets a little heavy-handed here and there. These minor flaws aside, this is fantastic and troubling stuff.
2. Drive – One of the year’s coolest films, this is director Nicholas Winding Refn’s art house rendition of the “wheelman” movie. It stars Ryan Gosling as a mysterious character known only as “Driver,” a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver. So yeah… Basically, if you’re not already sold, I don’t what else to tell you.
As plots go, they don’t get much simpler, but it’s the execution of the story that makes Drive so memorable. The brilliant opening scene takes you along for a ride with the Driver as he takes police on a wild chase through Los Angeles following a job. You get a lot of long silences as the tension builds, punctuated by loud, fast action beats as he makes his escape.
It should be noted that this movie, like I Saw The Devil, won’t be for everyone. There’s some pretty crazy violence at times. And unlike in Jee-woon Kim’s film, which tends to build up the madness gradually, often times these images come out of nowhere in Drive. Refn seems to favour a “slow, then fast” approach to action. You’re almost lulled along as things seem to be going smoothly, and then suddenly you’re confronted by a shockingly violent image.
Another unique aspect of Drive is its lack of dialogue, especially from the main character himself. Driver is virtually mute throughout the film. It’s an interesting choice and something of an acquired taste. For me personally, I tend to like very “talky” movies. Lots of back and forth, lots of witty exchanges. This movie has almost none of that, but its tone is so consistent throughout that it still worked for me.
One of the things I like most about Drive is its sense of deliberateness. Everything in the movie – every shot, every song – feels like a calculated choice by Refn. I don’t necessarily always like the choices, but this isn’t a guy who just keeps rolling and hopes to cobble something together in the editing room. Every scene is carefully assembled, and structured for maximum impact.
Like I said, the movie isn’t perfect. There’s a love story between the Driver and a character named Irene (played by Carey Mulligan) that doesn’t entirely work. Again, it’s hard to convey these things without having much interaction or dialogue between the actors. But the movie keeps finding ways to win me over. Albert Brooks being cast a villain is pretty ingenious, and Bryan Cranston as Driver’s hard-luck, likable boss is one of the few sympathetic characters to be found.
1. Midnight In Paris – I gave this movie another look just prior to writing this, and I’m very happy to have it as my number one for the year. Woody Allen continues to knock it out of the park. I know a lot of people are partial to his earlier work (stuff like Manhattan, or Annie Hall, or The Purple Rose Of Cairo), and while I think those are perfectly good films, I really like what he’s been doing lately. I had a lot of fun with Match Point, I loved Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and now this.
Even now I’m a bit hesitant to talk too much about the plot here, because a lot of the fun with Midnight In Paris lies in its surprises. The first trailer set things up perfectly without giving away too much. Basically you have Owen Wilson as Gil, a Hollywood hack trying to write a novel. He’s in Paris with his fiancée Inez, played by Rachel MacAdams. They meet up with friends Paul and Carol (Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda). Rachel likes Paul, but Gil refers to him derisively as “a pseudo-intellectual”. Gil starts taking walks at midnight in an attempt to gain inspiration for his writing, and it leads him off on a series of adventures.
This is a movie made for arts majors (which, for awhile anyway, I was). Midnight In Paris is crammed with references to paintings, literature, sculpture, music, and movies. Some of these little nods are more obscure than others, but the great thing about Midnight In Paris is that even if you don’t get all the little throwaway jokes about Djuna Barnes or Luis Bunuel, there’s still a lot of fun to be had.
Wilson makes a great stand-in for Woody Allen, capturing his somewhat bumbling, neurotic personality, while being slightly more credible as a leading man. MacAdams is intentionally cast against type as the self-absorbed, shallow Inez. Michael Sheen doesn’t have many scenes, but he definitely makes an impression as the arrogant and pretentious Paul. He’s a character you’ll love to hate. The movie also features great supporting performances from the likes of Alison Pill, Marion Cotillard and Adrien Brody.
As if all that weren’t enough, Midnight In Paris looks gorgeous, thanks to cinematographer Darius Khondji. I’m not an adventurous person, and I don’t really think about travel all that much, but this movie certainly makes Paris seem like a great place to visit. Gil is obsessed with nostalgia, and the visuals of Midnight In Paris make a pretty compelling case for him.
Oh, and let’s not forget the film’s delightful soundtrack, featuring the jaunty acoustic guitar of Stephane Wrembel.
Midnight In Paris made me laugh, it made me think, and ultimately it transported me to a different world. That’s everything I go to the movies for in a nutshell, and that’s why this film is my favourite from 2011.
That pretty well wraps it up. Not the best year for movies, but not too shabby either. As I said, Matthew and I also did a 2011 wrap-up on our most recent podcast episode. We talk about a ton of stuff (including everything listed above). I talk about some of my favourite overlooked performances of the year, and Matthew chimes in with a few of his favourite films too. So that’s it. If all goes according to plan, we’ll be back again next year to do all this again!