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The Best Films Of 2011...So Far

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist June 21, 2011 at 4:05AM

Well, today is the first day of summer, more or less the midpoint of the year, and looking back over the the first six months of 2011, it’s definitely been a bit more of a scattershot movie year compared to the arthouse heavy start of 2010. We'll be honest, compiling this list wasn't exactly easy, the year has been uneven so far, but that said, it's certainly not without highlights: Terrence Malick finally delivered his long awaited film, Woody Allen flexed some of the old magic we love him for, and Michael Winterbottom found life and heart from a familiar comic pairing, while Joe Wright moved completely in a new, exciting direction. Over at the multiplex, big summer entertainment has already made that overpriced, greasy bag of popcorn worth the price with J.J. Abrams proving that genre thrills don't have to be empty, while one of the year’s best efforts unfolded beautifully on the small screen.
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I Saw the Devil” -- At what point does justice turn to revenge? And when does that revenge mutate into something even more sinister? These are the questions asked by director Kim Jee-woon in his epic, violent, ugly and bleakly funny “I Saw the Devil,” yet another astounding entry from a South Korean cinematic scene that is producing some of the most breathtaking genre films these days. When a police officer’s (Lee Byung-hun) pregnant fiance becomes the latest victim of a vicious serial killer (Choi Min-sik from “Oldboy” in a memorably deranged performance), his pursuit to bring him in turns into a battle of wills that leaves a trail of bodies and blood in its wake. Running nearly two-and-a-half hours long, director Kim Jee-woon (“The Good the Bad and the Weird”) not only allows his film to simmer into a searing boil, he unfolds a story that with each moment unveils a new unexpected twist or surprise turn that feels utterly organic in the universe for his characters, whose notions of good and bad are not just tested, but tossed out the window completely. “I Saw the Devil” doesn’t just present evil, it makes the disturbing case that, one can easily slip into madness themselves when a confronted the darkest, most horrific depths of depraved humanity. Graphic but not gratuitous, Kim makes every drop of blood count and while those moments will make your stomach churn and skin crawl, it's the ramifications of violence and vengeance that offers up the biggest scares of them all.

Win Win” -- In the unofficial list of greatest American filmmakers currently working today, one name is frequently left off and forgotten: Tom McCarthy. The writer, director and sometimes actor first made a big wave behind the camera with “The Station Agent” a film with a quirky premise -- a little person takes up residence in an old train station in rural New Jersey -- that found a lovely, relatable core of humanity and heart. For this next effort, McCarthy waded towards an “issues film” with “The Visitor” but once again defied expectations, allowing the richness of cultural diversity play out on screen between Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman to quietly underscore that importance that the immigrant experience has on everyone in this country. And McCarthy scores once again with “Win Win,” a highly original story that finds him returning to a familiar theme about the rewards of reaching out to someone who needs a helping hand. In this case the unlikely hero is Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a not-so-honest lawyer who winds up taking care of a client’s runaway grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer). Facing financial and professional difficulties, Mike is reluctant to take on yet another responsibility but as more of Kyle’s story comes to the fore, he teams with his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) to give the kid an opportunity at a life he never knew he could have. Heartwarming, real and absolutely hilarious, McCarthy’s film is a character driven story in the vein of Alexander Payne, with the thematic and social reach of Mike Leigh. “Win Win” lives up to its title.

Bill Cunningham New York” -- Even though everyone is ready their books and newspapers on their iPads or Kindles, the ritual of the Sunday New York Times -- the biggest edition of the week that demands to be read over breakfast with sections scattered over the table -- is something that can’t be replicated digitally. And one of the staples of the Sunday Times is Bill Cunningham’s “On The Street” section, a document of the week in fashion in one of the most fashionable cities in the country in all its creative, outrageous, refined and glamorous glory. Lovingly directed by Richard Press, “Bill Cunningham New York” is a love letter to a New York institution whose keen eye for fashion often sets or precedes the trends that later appear in the pages of Vogue or other highly influential magazines. Yet, despite working for one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world in an industry that could certainly allow him to live a life of luxury, it’s Cunningham’s humble attitude, spartan lifestyle and dedication to everyday people instead of the glitterati that makes for a fascinating and at times, surprisingly moving documentary. One of the last residents of the famed Carnegie Hall apartments -- living in apartment not much bigger than a closet -- Cunningham offers a window into a New York that is essentially gone, but it's his dedication to what the average person is wearing that makes his work so unique, treasured and relevant. A flip through his decades long work with the New York Times is essentially a history lesson and time capsule but also a remarkable social document. Through his frequent subjects, admirers of work and colleagues, “Bill Cunningham New York” paints a lovely portrait of a man, slavishly dedicated to his job, highly protective of his subjects, who keeps his private life to himself and prefers to let his work do the talking for him. However, his acceptance speech in 2008 when receiving a special award from the French Ministry of Culture says all you need to know about the man, and it will leave in you tears.

This article is related to: Films, Foreign Films, Super 8, The Tree Of Life, Meek's Cutoff, Jane Eyre, Bridesmaids, Midnight In Paris, Submarine, Hanna, Beginners, Mildred Pierce, The Trip, I Saw The Devil, Win Win


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