So it’s a bit late to be doing a “Best of 2011” list, as it is already mid January and past the Golden Globes… but I blame my laziness on NYU’s exceedingly long winter break, which has kept me in pajamas for far longer than acceptable. But better late than never!
Malick’s The Tree of Life is not only my top film of 2011, but one of my favorite films of all time. Besides its breathtaking special effects and sublime cinematography, it is one of the most powerful pieces of cinema made in years. The Tree of Life breaks the boundaries of contemporary filmmaking in preaching patience and conveying a story that is rarely seen in cinema today: the meaning of life and man’s constant struggle with spirituality. It is no doubt so many berated the film and walked out of the theatre, since our era of technology and expediency, who cares for such things? Malick, the cinematic poet that he is, reminds us that we should. He is the Tarkovsky of our day, a man unafraid of broaching the unspeakable or the unconventional. And if the spiritual inquiries of the film do not touch us, hopefully The Tree of Life reminds us of the power and potential of cinema, and allows us to slow down and examine the minute aspects of life that lie all around us.
While this belongs side-by-side Tree of Life at number one film of the year, for the purposes of a list, we’ll just slip it in at number two. Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is an immaculate piece of filmmaking, a miraculous work that undoubtedly deserves the Oscar for Best Picture — I doubt, sadly, Tree of Life will make the nominees and I’ve yet to see The Descendants, but sorry Clooney, you’ve got nothing on this gold. Just the audacious idea of a black and white silent film made today is enough to prove it’s worth! Hazanavicus has collected all the wonderful bits of Hollywood cinema and crafted them together into this humorous, sentimental, whimsical film that reaffirms the power of visual expression. Dujardin is not only extraordinarily charming and lovable, but his face moves in such incredible, evocative ways that you wonder how dialogue could ever again be necessary — those sure are some “independent eyebrows,”as he said in his Golden Globes Best Actor acceptance speech. With an enrapturing score, superb performances, and an inventive screenplay, there is absolutely no reason The Artist should be left out of any Greatest Cinematic Achievements list.
Drive is a film I could watch over and over again and still get a thrill from the opening car chase, still jump and cringe at every brutal murder, still mumble to myself in awe “Shit, this movie is incredible.” That’s probably why I went back and saw it for a second time in the theatre two days after it opened. Nichols Winding Refn’s film is commendable for not only being one of the most innovative action films ever for is genius pacing, but also because every moment, every shot is absolutely pristine. Outstanding would be an understatement for Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography. I could watch the film on mute and my jaw would still drop in astonishment as the beauty of each shot — as Driver turns his head to the side after a quick reverse and park under the bridge and his eye is illuminated in a perfect teardrop of gold, as the elevator lights dim around Driver and Irene while they embrace in a beautiful moment, then slowly rise as Driver turns to crush the man’s skull. And Cliff Martinez’s score? Must I even mention its perfect accompaniment to each scene? The throbbing undertones, seeping with emotion, that gently slink throughout the film, then pounce on us at the violent moments, like a feisty cat hiding in the shadows. I could go on and on about my extreme love and admiration for this film, but I think you get the point.
Now I don’t usually like Owen Wilson, he bothers the hell out of me with his cocky attitude and that stupid nose of his. But as a perfect epitome of Woody Allen, who could say no? And set against the ghastly Inez (pretty much a grown-up version Regina George) Wilson is charmingly delightful. But the real genius of Midnight in Paris is Allen’s terrific screenplay, filled with historical inside jokes and hilarious, witty dialogue that remind you of the true comedy that’s missing in today’s films. Midnight in Paris, the embodiment of every Paris-loving romantic’s dreams, is undoubtedly one of the most fun — and funniest — films of the year, and maybe one of the best of Allen’s career.
I feel that this tremendously impressive work of artistry deserves to be higher than number five, but honestly, numbers don’t really matter to me. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is one of the most beautifully photographed films of the year, besides Tree of Life and the best damn apocalypse film ever. Although filled with a star cast, von Trier avoids Hollywood conventions of the trite genre and instead gives us a film that reveals the terrifying power of depression and fear. Dunst definitely deserved Best Actress at Cannes this last year as this is her best performance yet.
For some reason I cannot understand, Take Shelter received minor praise this year. Maybe we’d just had enough of apocalyptic films, or maybe it’s due to its limited released, but Jeff Nichols’ sophomore film was one of the most intense and terrifying of the year (for me at least). The pacing of the film is absolutely phenomenal as we bounce back and forth from Curtis’ (Michael Shannon) real life of calm work and family time to his horrific, violent nightmares of a coming storm. The reason Take Shelter is better than any end-of-the-world film before it is that it’s more so a heavy character study than a story about doom. Shannon’s depiction of Curtis suffering with the possibility of having a mental disease—or maybe he really is having prophetic visions—is utterly heart-wrenching. Alongside the always wonderful, always poignant Jessica Chastain, how could this film be left out of any Best of 2011 list?
Everyone loves a little indie rom-com gem like this. I’m mad at myself for waiting so long to see this Beginners, but I finally did and it exceeded all expectations. The story is simple, yet its charm comes from the unique way we follow Oliver’s (Ewan McGregor) thoughts through flashes of images. It’s the Garden State of 2011 where two lonely people fall in love over a short period of time, but the question still hangs of whether distance will break them apart. They nonchalantly talk about the big questions of life in their first encounters, they roller skate through a Beverly Hills hotel, and Oliver has more conversations with his dog than anyone else. Christopher Plummer brings the perfect balance to the film with his refreshing humor and real emotion. Beginners was the witty lighthearted comedy we needed this year and I film I will be watching over and over.
I must admit, I was skeptical at first; as is usual with any big movie that gains an extraordinary amount of hype. But finally, I saw The Help this Christmas and my heart was won—yeah, I cried twice.. maybe three times.. While the screenplay is well written and funny, real power of this film lies in the performances of course. Just watching Viola Davis’ face struggle to hold a placid look while insults spill from the white women’s lips makes you choke up. With supporting roles by the versatile Jessica Chastain, who never ceases to amaze, and the hilarious, yet equally moving Octavia Spencer, The Help is one of the best acting ensembles of the year.
The final Harry Potter film was a great close to the 11-year film series. Although I was extremely disappointed in Part 1 as it dragged on at an excruciating pace, Part 2 definitely made up for it with Rickman’s best performance of Snape yet, Fienne best performance of Voldemort, and and dark intensity that never let up. There is not much left to say, as sadness is taking me over now that I realize Harry Potter is over forever…
As it appears, I only have 9 top films of 2011 and just can’t seem to come up with a 10th. However, I have a feeling that one of the films I have yet to see — Shame, We Need to Talk About Kevin, A Separation — will fill that gap once I do. Till then, here are some honorable mentions.
Although the film was good, it was a bit too much on the BBC Movie of the Week side. However, William’s performance as Monroe was perfectly sublime and unforgettable. And what a wonderful acceptance speech she gave for her Golden Globes Best Actress win; oh so humble.
MMMM, as they call it, was an incredible film with genius editing and cinematography and an astounding performance from Elizabeth Olsen. It is difficult to believe that is was writer director Sean Durkin’s first feature film. I wish it had gotten more award recognition, but at least Olsen got a nod.
Pedro Almodovar never ceases to shock and appall, and he certainly did with “The Skin I Live In.” If you don’t love it for the twisted plot or for Banderas’ terrifying intensity, than love it at least for the horny man in a tiger suit. It’s just too delightfully absurd to be dismissed.
While I was unimpressed with A Dangerous Method overall (see review here), it is worth watching if only for the performances, and especially that of Knightley. The first 10 minutes are beyond shocking, they are physically tormenting as you watch Knightley writhe as she juts her jaw into unhuman expressions and claws at her chair, like a violently possessed child. Once its over you’ll probably notice your mouth is wide open and your hands are squeezing the fabric out of the arm rests. This alone should gain Knightley a Best Actress nomination.