2011 was undoubtedly the year of Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life." It just wasn't for me. After winning the Palme d'Or on the same day that I saw the movie, I was left feeling baffled. Like I had missed something. Only I hadn't. "The Tree of Life" is beautiful, for sure, haunting and experimental in new and profound ways. But it's also deeply square, politically, and ultimately it doesn't add up to much. I'm still figuring out how a family in the 1950s connects to the formation of the cosmos and dinosaurs and Sean Penn getting lost in a metaphysical netherworld that has lovingly been dubbed Playa Symbolico. Malick isn't interested in telling stories anymore; he's interested in setting a mood. And I guess he accomplished that. It just wasn't for me.
I wonder if, in a year more crowded with quality films, Malick's big bang doodle would have come under greater scrutiny. It feels like this year we were faced with such an extreme drought that people were looking for something (anything) to latch onto – a boundary-pushing epic, by a troubled director, and a production that lasted, off and on, for four decades, is the kind of thing that really gets a film person's heart rate going. But not mine.
Instead, the movies that spoke to me were ones about heartache and loss, about love and violence (and how those two intermingle), about the ties and technology that bind us. Oh and spies. Yes, my list is chock full of spies – wicked witch spies and stiff-upper-lip spies and spies that dangle from the outside of the world's tallest building like it's nothing at all (because, to a spy, it really is nothing at all). Maybe it's just time to spy my list? I think so.
Going into "Beginners," I had no clue what I was in for. Or what it even was, really. I had never seen the trailer or the terrible poster (that somehow became the terrible Blu-ray art) and all I knew was that it was about Ewan McGregor and his father, played by Christopher Plummer. Based on that one sentence, I thought I was in for a snooze and prepared appropriately by ordering a bathtub-sized Coke. But from the opening frames, I was mesmerized, transfixed; for the rest of the running time I was alternately choked up, laughing out loud, or finding my heart very much in my throat, caught in swirling romantic swoon gusts. "Beginners" broke my heart in the ways I was hoping "Tree of Life" would, without having to resort to cosmic hoo-ha or dinosaurs. And yes, while there are a couple of twee touches that we could have skipped (has anyone ever in the history of human existence ever roller-skated around an empty hotel?), the movie is amazing in its emotional acuteness, depiction of loss and mourning and newfound, all-consuming love are beautiful and totally spot-on. And few films capture the sensation of memory as well as writer-director Mike Mills does here, the way that the mere act of standing in a particular doorway can send you down a zigzag of heartbreak and longing, unstuck in time and helpless to control it. We haven't even talked about the trio of pitch-perfect performances that anchor the film. Ewan McGregor, as the son who is dealing with the death of his father (Christopher Plummer), who came out as gay after his mother died, is the rare sad sack you root for; while Plummer gives the performance of his career, deeply nuanced and heartfelt. Melanie Laurent, as the French actress McGregor falls for after his dad's death, is radiant to the point of blindness. Movies like this, that don't have any hook to hang your hat on, rarely speak to me the way "Beginners" did. It's a micro-masterpiece.
02 "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"
There are those that will complain that this version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is just as cold and wintery as its blustery Swedish locations, but they'd be wrong. Unlike the original Swedish movie, which lacked both style and substance, there's a very big (if very black) heart beating at the center of David Fincher's ashen adaptation. Thematically, it nicely compliments Fincher's earlier "Zodiac" and "The Social Network," both in the nitty-grittiness of real, tactile police work and the ways that technology drives us apart and brings us together. But whereas "Zodiac" was about the elusiveness of truth, a whodunit that never ends, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" doggedly proceeds towards a definite solution. And if Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the goth-girl warrior and future feminist icon, isn't the manifestation of Mark Zuckerberg's inner autistic rebel, I don't know what is. There's a lot going on in this version, culturally (with talk about the Old Sweden and the New Sweden; there's a reason we have so many lingering shots of that bridge), artistically (has a dungeon showdown been done with so much scary, funny wit?) and meta-textually (Lisbeth munches on Happy Meals as Fincher's way of saying, "I finally did a big Hollywood franchise film, but just try to make action figures out this"). But back to the movie's heart – the film concludes, in a protracted, extra-long third act that includes a sly spy mission worthy of "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol," with two big emotional beats. I don't really feel comfortable talking about either just yet, but that final moment, scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' atmospheric drone, absolutely tore my heart out. Lisbeth is skilled at computers and crime, able to link disparate elements into one cohesive whole, but making a connection with another human proves infinitely harder.
2011's coolest movie was a tantalizing tale of a nameless stunt driver who drives getaway cars by night, scored by poppy electro jams and a eerie electronic score. Director Nicolas Winding Refn, building on the blood-and-disco aesthetic he's built in movies like "Bronson" and "Valhalla Rising," populated the pulpy atmosphere with colorful characters (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks' Jewish gangsters, Bryan Cranston's conflicted father-figure) and splashes of Technicolor violence. Ryan Gosling embodied the character brilliantly – dreamy and composed one minute, stomping a guy's head into mashed paste the next. Together, the pair (Refn and Gosling) subverted the superhero genre, commented on the phoniness of Hollywood action movies, and made a compelling, singular piece of work all their own. Chances are, if you love movies, you loved "Drive."
04 "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"
For all the confusion and accusations that the movie is remote and damp (not unlike the claims leveled at "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"), I found "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," Tomas Alfredson's elegant adaptation of the beloved John le Carre novel, to be one of the most emotionally resonate movies of the year. Yes, it's ostensibly a Cold War thriller about stuffy British spies, led by a bespectacled, brilliant Gary Oldman, trying desperately to uncover a Russian mole operating amongst them. But what the movie is really about is far more dangerous: male insecurity. Why else would Alfredson linger on shots of men simply staring at each other? What's in that gaze? What does it say about the dynamics of male wifriendship, especially when that friendship becomes something more? With a gaggle of the most talented British actors of today and yesterday (everyone from John Hurt and Colin Firth to Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and Tom Hardy, in a role originally intended for Michael Fassbender), Alfredson gives you the impression that the spies' domestic life is just as deadly as anything to do with international espionage. Bonus points for the year's best movie-closing montage, set to the funky disco version of "La Mer" by Julio Iglesias.
05 "The Skin I Live In"
Tonally, "The Skin I Live In" exists in that uncomfortable middle ground between high art and total camp, in which things like sex change operations, rape, and revenge, are tossed around with gleeful abandon like glitter at some underground sex party. This, as you might expect, put off some people. But that doesn't change the fact that "The Skin I Live In," Almodovar's twisted, beautifully told story of a mad scientist (Antonio Banderas) and his quest for revenge (yes, really), isn't totally balls-out (or balls-off) brilliant because, well, it is. Banderas, reuniting with the director for the first time in many, many years, brings a kind of unhinged dementedness to the character that could have easily been one-note and off-putting. But in his capable hands, he becomes a character who, in an odd way, you root for. His emotions are valid even if his actions are not. And Elena Anya, after a string of wonderful supporting performances in movies like "Room in Rome" and "Sex and Lucia," is a worthy successor to Penelope Cruz in the Almodovar canon as the object of Banderas' experimentation/obsession. A truly thrilling thriller, with a bizarre, labyrinthine structure, it might also be Almodovar's most beautiful-looking film, awash in color (including vibrant streaks of bright red blood). In a year when David Cronenberg dropped a humdrum psychoanalytic dud, Almodovar picked up the mantle and made a body horror stunner.
It's Irwin Allen by way of George Romero in Steven Soderbergh's humanist horror epic, lovingly embracing the traditions and tropes of 1970s disaster movies (particularly those films' reputation for all-star casts, here represented by Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lawrence Fishburne, and Jude Law) and creating a very real and very scary scenario for apocalyptic devastation, in which fear is just as deadly as the film's flu-like virus. "Contagion" is, in an era of increased distrust of the government and its motives, is surprisingly lefty in its politics – the pandemic is swiftly handled by a responsible and organized government. There are still doubts, at the end of the movie, about the potential side effects of the vaccine (expressed via Law's paranoid Australian blogger), but for the most part, it's a great ode to the talented, creative, and highly skilled government workers who are equipped to deal with not only the virus but the crush of disinformation which can spread just as quickly. Soderbergh cuts the movie together beautifully, weaving a dozen stories in almost as many countries, into a cohesive, compelling whole (Clint Martinez's spooky score helps too). "Contagion" also acts as a reminder of how crippling Soderbergh's planned retirement will really be.
07 "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol"
When I originally submitted my list, I had "Rango" in this spot. I hadn't seen "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol" nor did I think it had any shot of cracking my list, let alone landing so high on it. Well, lists are always changing, and I loved "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol" to an almost unhealthy degree. Brad Bird, the animated master behind "Ratatouille," "The Incredibles," and "The Iron Giant," makes his first foray into the live action genre with this, the fourth entry in an admittedly tired franchise. Just don't tell Bird that. Rarely are giant tentpole movies authorial, but Bird is all over every frame of this thing. It was the best action movie of the year, hands down, and watching it in IMAX was one of the most enjoyable theater experiences we had all year. Each galvanic set piece seemed to top the one that came before it (highlighted by Tom Cruise dangling outside of the world's tallest building like some sort of skyscraper tree frog), with Bird building sequences like Robert Zemeckis in his heyday. He understands that it's not just about the objective, it's about the obstacle. And Bird put emphasis where it needed to be – in the characterization of the team, in the crisp editing, and in shaking up the formula we had grown all to aware (and weary) of. After week after week of big budget letdown, right before the year ends, we get this fizzy pop masterpiece. Choose to accept it.
Director Joe Wright, who previously helmed the buttoned-down period pieces "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement," got some flak this year for suggesting that Zack Snyder's boobs-and-bullets fantasy epic "Sucker Punch," was misogyny masquerading as feminism, and he should know: he was responsible for "Hanna," which can only (poorly) be described as an oddball feminist fairytale. Wright has always been good with putting a sequence together, but for "Hanna," the tale of a young girl (Saoirse Ronan) trained by her father (Eric Bana) to be an assassin, he created a kind action movie cubism. Part of this has to do with his love of long, unbroken takes – sequences that would have been cut to ribbons by any other filmmaker now take on an unhurried elegance, as smooth as a chrome hubcap, that emphasize the physical choreography and spatial geography over the frenzied blast of post-'Bourne' adrenaline. It also has to do with the film's key contributors, electronic music pioneers The Chemical Brothers, who blurred the line between sound design and soundtrack and created the block rocking beats for Wright to rest his lovely experiment on. Joe Wright might not have reinvented the chase thriller, but he made it a hell of a lot weirder. Adapt or die.
I feel kind of lucky just to have seen Kenneth Lonergan's messy, overlong (and long overdue) follow-up to "You Can Count On Me," which came out this fall with little critical fanfare and barely any box office. It feels like a film that Fox Searchlight, usually a strong supporter of more challenging, arty work, just wanted to get rid of, after years of post-production woes and multiple lawsuits filed. But its champions (myself included) will vigorously defend it, for its multilayered, novelistic sprawl; for its finely tuned, deeply human performances (had we seen Anna Paquin in this before "True Blood," as it was originally intended, she would have been revelatory); for its beautifully composited shots of New York City, or Paquin moving in slow motion through the streets; for the way it confronted 9/11 when things were still sensitive and raw. It might not be perfect and honestly I'd love to see the longer, Martin Scorsese-assisted cut, but few movies this year matched "Margaret's" ambition and fewer still matched its clarity of intent, visible even through the multiple cuts, creative infighting, delayed release and limp distribution. It's sort of amazing that "Margaret" was released at all; the fact that it's so good is nothing short of miraculous.
The most assured directorial debut of 2011 came from Joe Cornish, a frequent partner of Edgar Wright (the two co-wrote the frantic "Adventures of Tintin" for some guy named Spielberg), who actually created a movie as cool as its tagline: "Inner city versus outer space." That's more or less all you need to know: aliens invade London, but pick the wrong part of town. Cornish corralled fine performances out of a cast of mostly non-actors, and peppered the scenario with a playful sense of gruesome gore, creatures both scary and unique, witty pop culture references, and a soundtrack, co-composed by electro-poppers Basement Jaxx, that was skuzzy and unforgettable. The movie's debut, at a midnight screening at South by Southwest, very nearly reached pandemonium-levels of excitement, and remains the movie-going highlight of 2011. It may not have made a dent at the box office, but this is deemed for cult classic status. See you at midnight.
Best Animated Movie
2011 was not a particularly strong year for animated movies – Pixar produced its first creative (if not commercial) dud in the ideas-free "Cars 2," while Steven Spielberg finally made an animated film with "The Adventures of Tintin," possibly to show us the definitive example of what happens when enthusiasm tips over into mania. But "Rango" felt genuinely new and genuinely weird, the debut animated feature from both "Pirates of the Caribbean" director Gore Verbinski and the visual effects house Industrial Light & Magic. A riff on everything from classic westerns to "Chinatown," "Rango" was as idiosyncratically strange as it was visually ravishing, an animated western starring a chameleon (Johnny Depp) who is going through an existential identity crisis. Those expect the kind of cuddly DreamWorks fare were sorely disappointed – "Rango" is long and violent and thematically thorny; as refreshing as a tall glass of icy water in a dusty western town.
Runner-Up: "Winnie the Pooh," the beautifully animated Disney movie, which was given the forehead-slapping release date opposite "Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Part 2." By the time parents needed something else to take their kids to, the charming and funny "Winnie the Pooh" had already left the theaters.
Errol Morris returned to gonzo greatness and nobody gave a shit, apparently. Was it because he wasn't tackling a "serious" subject? Because I defy you to find a documentary as weird or wonderful as "Tabloid." An inspiring tale of love and fame, we saw this documentary way back on November 7th, 2010. And we've been in love ever since. The story, of a former beauty queen who traveled to England to abduct her former love, is told "Rashomon"-like, with various talking heads explaining his or her side of the subject. When the dust settles, you won't know who to believe (or what actually happened), but man, was it a rollercoaster. Why it didn't get more attention is beyond me, although you can (and should) rent it now.
Runner-Up: "Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel," a lovingly crafted homage to Roger Corman, the king of exploitation cinema. Director Alex Stapleton has an ideal biographical subject but doesn't go the easy route, instead showing us the complex man behind truly questionable films.
Best Foreign Film
Heaps of praise are being thrown at "A Separation," less a film than an endurance test, and yet precious little ink is being spilled about "Miss Bala," a harrowing tale of the Mexican drug scene told in long, swirling, unbroken shots that would make Brian De Palma jealous. My guess is that "Miss Bala" is just too intense for most people, too adrenalized and in-your-face, compared to the stuffy and emotionally exhausting "A Separation." "Miss Bala" is a truly singular, thrilling experience and when it's released commercially early next year, you'll be hearing a lot more about it.
Runner-Up: "I Saw the Devil," the staggering South Korean horror epic by Kim Ji-woon that followed the fucked-up relationship between a serial killer and the husband of one of his victims, a sadistic (wait for it) spy!