However, despite my misgivings about making a list, there is one very good benefit to the process. In the grind of writing about movies every day, it's easy to keep looking ahead without ever taking a moment to just pause and breathe, and if anything, drafting a top ten forces the kind of reflection and thought I don't get to do too often for much of the year. It also demands that certain films get the extra attention they deserve (frankly, anyone ranking/or not ranking "The Tree of Life" based on one viewing is not giving the movie its full due).
Anyway, enough rationalization and justification. Here it is – my favourite movies of 2011 (warning some spoilers ahead).
So yeah, speaking of Terrence Malick's film, there is no secret that after the first time seeing it at Cannes, I didn't immediately take to it. But then again, an 8:30 a.m. screening in the midst of the festival, with deadlines forcing an opinion of some kind to be formed mere moments after stepping out of the theater isn't the best way to digest "The Tree of Life." Sitting with it again...well, it's still not a masterpiece. There are portions that are slightly bloated, the voiceover is still problematic from time to time, some of the symbolism and imagery is clunky, and it doesn't quite come together as tightly as one would hope. But there is no movie this year that took as big a swing personally, professionally, thematically, cinematically or otherwise than Malick's. Putting many elements of his own upbringing into plain view, and asking big open questions about and sometimes directly to God, "The Tree of Life" is naked, vulnerable risk-tasking that few filmmakers ever dare. Did God create the universe and leave us to suffer? What does our existence mean? What does it amount to? Why should we be good if God doesn't bear witness? At its finest moments, "The Tree of Life" is humbling, deeply moving, breathtaking and spiritual (not religious, there is a difference) in ways that few movies ever attempt, or even achieve. That Malick doesn't wrap up his theories and thoughts in a neat little bow – with an ending that suggests our search for God will continue when we move on to whatever is next after we die – likely rubbed those who weren't as willing to engage the movie, the wrong way. Their loss. Opening and revealing more layers and avenues on subsequent viewings, "The Tree of Life" may not be the best movie of the year, but it might be the only one to leave you questioning your own beliefs long afterward. So yeah, bring on the six-hour version because I would love to see more (and in case you're wondering here's a list of scenes that are known to be missing).
A movie about an illustrator, with a French actress girlfriend, a gay father and a "talking dog"...sounds like exactly the kind of quirkyfest film I'd generally like to punch right in the mouth. But in the hands of writer/director Mike Mills, who drew on his own experiences to make the film, "Beginners" brims with the quiet triumphs, sadness, heartbreak and swooning moments of love with an achingly real emotional sincerity. Oddly enough, the film does share some of the same thematic underpinnings as "The Tree of Life," sketching a portrait of a man whose current relationships seem to reflect the flawed union of his own parents, and how those shortcomings can pass from generation to generation. And while Malick's film might set its sights higher, Mills' is frankly more relatable. We may not have it all figured out, but meeting the right person, making the right choices and accepting who we are and who we choose to be with in all their fragile, broken, charming, messed up and beautiful glory might be enough to make our lives worthwhile in the short time we have. Humorous and heartfelt, creatively oddball and a real original, "Beginners" believes it's never too late to find the life you've always wanted.
As much a quintessential New York City movie as a drama about sex addiction (Carey Mulligan singing a stagily slow rendition of "New York New York" isn't just there to sell a few soundtracks), the real suprise of Steve McQueen's NC-17 drama was how much more there was to the story as you continued to strip it down (sorry, couldn't resist). Yes, Brandon is filthy, just like his computers at work and at home. And his carnal, even predatory need for sex stunts any attempts at real relationships. But this movie is about something far more simple than the act of sex...it's about connection. Emotional and physical, what Brandon searches for, he doesn't quite understand, as evidenced by his strange, uneasy relationship with his sister. His past is marked by an incident (or more likely incidents) that have warped the vulnerability needed to get close to someone intimately (in all senses of the word) into a hardened edge, where being in control sends him into a vicious circle of satisfaction and emptiness. Much has been said about the ending, but in my opinion, it has nothing to do with sexual orientation. If wasn't already, Brandon's body is merely a husk, a vessel, now empty which he longs to fill with something meaningful, but again, so tragically has he circled the drain that sex and emotion are both forever intertwined yet also completely separate. Some have said McQueen reveals a rather "conservative" view of sexuality with how the final act plays out, but again I strenously disagree. That would presume the director judges Brandon, but he doesn't. Instead, it's the final act of a man who has spent too long trying to find the comfort of the heart, in the pleasures of the flesh, and has run out of ideas or options. Brandon may want to "make a brand new start of it" but he has no idea how. Bravely adult, smashingly directed and featuring a brilliant turn by Michael Fassbender, "Shame" is undoubtedly "top of the heap."
Okay, I'm cheating a bit here. This technically won't come out until 2012, but given that it's been nominated for a Golden Globe puts it in a gray area, so I'm just gonna go ahead an include it. So with that disclaimer out of the way, one of the more casual criticims against the latest from Dardenne Brothers is that it doesn't find them doing anything different. And? If only directors could make one movie this good – the fact that the directing duo's technique and narrative style continues to yield rich results should be celebrated. And yes, while "The Kid With a Bike" doesn't reinvent the wheel, it's another penetrating, deeply soulful character study about a young (more or less) orphaned kid and the unlikely relationship he strikes up with a hairdresser. The chemistry between Cecile De France and Thomas Doret crackles as they come to realize they've come to depend on each other more than ever expected. As usual, the directors trust their audience to unwrap and decode the delicate emotional shifts in these characters as they take their unusual journey together, and the reward is a movie in which love may not heal all wounds, but at least serve as a foundation from which to start (over).
As "Nightcall" pumped through the theatre speakers, and the garish neon title cards came up, a big, goofy grin was slapped on my face and didn't leave until the credits rolled. What else is there to say about Nicolas Winding Refn's sizzling retro-future noir that hasn't been said already. In his review from Empire Big Screen, our own Oli Lyttleton said that the picture "reminds us why we love the movies." And he's exactly right. "Drive" is exactly the kind of movie we get far too rarely, a lean, entertaining thriller with great characters, terrific performances but most of all, a director who is having all kinds of fun behind the camera. For all the elegant cool, and head smashing bursts of violence, what people don't talk about enough is just how slyly funny "Drive" is too, with a morbid streak of humor and a dash of self-awareness that keeps it from tipping into a gauche amalgam of genre tics and tropes. Instead, it's a tough-as-nails romance and cardboard valentine vengeance story all rolled into a uniquely packaged, wickedly well-honed movie (it's probably the best edited film this year) unlike anything that graced the multiplex in quite some time. Taut and nervy, confident and cool, "Drive" is a modern western and fairytale for our times.
There I was, a total fucking mess. But I wasn't alone. Making its way to Montreal thanks to the folks at Cinema Politica at Concordia University, who each week during the school year program documentaries with a political bent, the screening was presented by director Steve James himself, and wisely, he kept his the bulk of comments for the Q&A after, and let the movie speak for itself. And all around me, as the documentary unfolded, you could see people in the packed cinema reaching for something to wipe their eyes with and lord knows, my face was tight with dried tears by time the credits rolled. There was no other movie – documentary or otherwise – that moved me more than "The Interrupters," a picture that isn't just a chronicle of the violence in Chicago's toughest neighbourhoods but a wake up call to a disease that has gone far too long ignored in the national conversation. But thank god for people like Ameena Davis, a fiery, inspiring and utterly fearless member of the group CeaseFire, former gangbangers and criminals who are using their experiences and street cred to try to stop the unending cycle of violence claiming too many young lives before it starts. But the tears you'll undoubtedly get from watching the movie, while coming from the very real pain and loss you'll witness, are also wrung by the astonishing generosity and even optimism these "interrupters" bring. Doing the real, 24/7, hands-on work that is required while politicians and officials make speeches and throw money at "programs," their unreserved and open self-sacrifice for the greater good of the future of their community and young people in it is truly remarkable, particularly in a political age ruled by soundbites and cynicism. There is no documentary more important or essential than "The Interrupters" this year, and that it won't be able to contend for an Oscar is downright shameful, and a sign of how truly out of touch the documentary branch of the Academy really is.
The prospect of a yet another adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's famed and beloved novel isn't exactly the most exciting idea, but toss in "Sin Nombre" director Cary Fukunaga and give him Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska to play the leads and suddenly, you've got our attention. And the movie more than rewarded the curious and Brontë fans alike. Imbued with gothic atmosphere, deeply sensual and borderline erotic, and powered by two fierce lead performers who gave it their all both on camera and off, "Jane Eyre" not only distinguished itself from its predecessors, it may have set a new benchmark. The biggest hurdle these kinds of movies generally face is the archaic language structure and delivery combined with outdated social mores that make it difficult for contemporary audiences to connect with it. But somehow, not only does the director and his actors embrace the formality of that time, they overcome it, finding the wrenching and roiling emotions simmering beneath the veneer and wildly different stations that society forces them to engage from. Words sting, looks burn and the distance within a single room can be measured for miles, and in Fukunaga's hands, Brontë has never been more beautiful or more tragic.
Sorry, Michael Fassbender. You're great, but for my money, Michael Shannon delivered the performance of 2011 in "Take Shelter," one of the finest American movies of the past few years, and confirmation that Jeff Nichols is one of the nation's most vital and important cinematic voices. On the surface about a man who becomes overwhelmed by the belief that an apocalypse is on the way, burrowed deep under the layers of the film is a greater thematic fear that is familiar to many. As Curtis watches the dollar signs whirl past on the gas pump, there is a not so subtle suggestion that concerns for providing for his family in a time when not everyone is guaranteed steady work is yet another factor weighing on his shoulders in addition to (and perhaps causing?) the visions he sees. And we can't really talk about the movie without addressing that ending. It won't be spoiled here, but I'm not sure why so many took it so literally (and in turn, wrote off the entire movie as a result). Nichols' bold choice is a masterstroke of metaphor, one that ties the narrative and thematic elements together into something that is far scarier than anything that would force you into a storm shelter. It's a daring final note in a movie that reveals the line between reality and madness is frighteningly thinner than we may care to admit.
A backlash of sorts has developed against this silent movie phenomenon, with some now shrugging their shoulders and claiming it's "only" a genre exercise. So? The same could arguably be said about many of the highly rated movies this year ("Drive" and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" come to mind) but "The Artist" is no mere stroll down Nostalgia Lane. Charming, massively entertaining and clever, Michel Hazanavicius not only revitalizes and rejuvenates a genre that these days is mostly peered at by scholarly types, but also delivers a film that serves as a reminder of the pure joys of classic cinema. The meta storyline follows a silent movie star who finds his star fading with the advent of the talkies while a young protege finds her star on the rise. While Berenice Bejo perfectly captures the innocent rise to fame of a new Hollywood "it girl," it's Jean Dujardin who gives the movie its voice, as a handsome star who had at all, forced to swallow his pride and find a way to gracefully exit the stage when the industry and public move on. Yes, it's a movie about movies, and a technically accomplished recreation (with a few winks) of an old timey moviemaking style. But it's also a rich love story, with more character development than most movies this year with dialogue, and the kind of sweeping, grand entertainment just like the kind they used to make. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Why Aki Kaurismaki remains in the arthouse ghetto and not given the same shine as some of his other foreign film director colleagues is mind boggling to me. That said, his deader-than-deadpan, specifically paced and edited dramas and comedies are an acquired taste. But as fans of the director know, once you've had a drink you're hooked, and "Le Havre" might be his finest achievement to date. For me, no other movie this year rang with such a deep chord of sincere humanity and fellowship than "Le Havre," but that Kaurismaki pulled it off without any hint of politicking or speech making in a film that uses illegal immigration to drive the plot was simply astonishing. Set in the titular neighbourhood, the film follows Marcel Marx (beautifully played by Andre Wilms), a former Parisian bohemian, as he enlists the help of his neighbours to shelter a young African boy who is trying to make his way to England, while evading the all seeing eye of the detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Daroussin). Witty, laugh out loud hilarious and deeply affecting, Kaurismaki's film quietly posits that we are all hands in each other's fates, with our lives linked to each other in ways that are often surprising and unexpected. And in a year where the movies seemed filled with characters defined by their isolation (Driver, Lisbeth Salander, Brandon Sullivan, George Smiley), this innocent suggestion was practically revolutionary.
Honorable Mention (in no particular order): "Pariah," "We Need To Talk About Kevin," "I Saw The Devil," "Win Win," "Bill Cunningham New York," "The Adjustment Bureau," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "Certified Copy," "Young Adult," "Rampart," "The Skin I Live In," "Miss Bala."
It kind of says something about the state of moviemaking these days, that one of the best cinematic experiences of the year was on television. Todd Haynes' five-part, mini-series take on the classic James M. Cain novel once again found the director showing everyone how to do melodrama right. The story is as absurdly pulpy as they come, chronicling a slowly disintegrating relationship between an overly generous mother and her ungrateful daughter, and how an insouciant, sexy male interloper uproots their lives. Cain's page-turner (which I've read) arguably becomes even more alive and layered on the big screen where the space to breathe over the generous running time opens up the shifting social mores and class division that are an important undercurrent to the movie and allows them to take root. Thus, when the betrayals and heartbreak are finally delivered, they ring not just with a callous, noir-ish edge, but with a deep and lasting tragedy. For me, "Mildred Pierce" might be the best thing Haynes has done, well, ever. And if major studios aren't going back to ambitious, mature dramas anymore, I'll gladly keep tuning in to HBO.
There was a time when I would eagerly try to see everything possible, but after enough shitty movies, I realized that I'd rather be doing anything else than spending two hours on whatever Adam Sandler has farted out. So this year, I generally stayed away from movies that I knew were going to be turds, because it's just not worth the time. That said, some movies I held out hope for or was curious about, still turned out to be stinkers. "Sucker Punch" tested the limits of my patience the most this year, but as Zack Snyder's movie kept going, the car crash that kept piling up on screen was just too much to walk away from. But man, talk about an example that studios will be using for years to say no to director passion projects. "Real Steel" took place in the potentially fascinating world of robot boxing, one that is never really explored or explained (except when its time to move the plot along), with Hugh Jackman redeeming himself for being a shitty dad thanks to an iPad. "Red Riding Hood" reinvented the fairy tale into a treacly romance with no bite, that even managed to waste a scenery chewing Gary Oldman, who seemed to be the only one aware of how campy the movie was. "In Time" clocked out of logic before the first twenty minutes were over. Finally, Gus Van Sant's attempt at a Wes Anderson movie in "Restless" was an embarrassment of character tics, vintage clothes and a hip soundtrack, all in service of a totally empty story. It seems no one this year could make a cancer movie that was actually about cancer (you'll see below).
I still don't get the wild love affair most critics are having with "A Separation," a movie I found to be a ridiculously over-the-top and histrionic soap opera. Brit Marling may have been the belle of Sundance, but "Another Earth" did nothing for me (and that ending felt like a cheap twist). The kid assassin flick "Hanna" was an interesting idea, completely undermined by its mulitple narrative inconsistencies (she doesn't know what electricity is but can research her DNA on the Internet? huh?) and the campiest villains this side of Adam West. "The Descendants" was pleasant, with solid performances, but that's all I can say positively about the movie that was well put together by Alexander Payne but also felt somewhat hollow...which is also an adjective that can be used for "50/50." Seemingly championed by a geek crowd who apparently never watched a drama before, the movie actively avoids any actual real emotions by shortcutting to Seth Rogen delivering some of his usual schtick to lighten the heaviness of cancer. The road to recovery in this is as cliche as they come.
I don't understand why no one rolled with "Fright Night" this summer. Colin Farrell was a blast as the aloof villain, David Tennant slayed as insecure magician and the perfectly self-aware remake was more fun than any of the comic book movies that landed in the multiplex. Same goes with "Your Highness," a fucking hilariously stupid comedy that pitched right down the plate of a very specific kind of funny – which may be why no one saw it, but I was in stitches. As for "J. Edgar," it seems critics had their knives out to skewer it because it wasn't harsh enough on the former FBI leader (or due to the lack of cross-dressing scenes). But Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer both give great performances and help lift an admittedly stodgy drama (not helped by its creaky narrative framing device) into something compelling. The movie wasn't nearly as bad as some would have you believe, and while it might be a tad too evenhanded, Hoover doesn't come out of it clean either.
That's it for now. Lots to come in 2012, so see you at the movies.