Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011 in Film

So, 2011 wasn't the best year for movies. I still saw a bunch – the nature of becoming increasingly engaged with pop culture is such that I typically see more movies in any given year than I did the year before, and that happened yet again this year. This year, though, I didn't have a difficult time narrowing my list to 10 movies I really loved. I'm sure I missed a lot of great shit, and I'll acknowledge some of that after the list itself, but for now, here's that:

(There's probably some slightly spoiler-y stuff in here if you're a stickler about that.)

10. Rango, dir. Gore Verbinski

It's awfully hard to get excited about American animated features without the Pixar name attached these days, but Pirates director Gore Verbinski's reunion with Johnny Depp was some of the most fun I had at the theater all year. Some of that came from simply soaking in the gorgeously rendered world that the reptilian Rango and his vermin friends inhabited, but the film's biggest strength is homage. In a way that no Western (yes, this is a Western) since Once Upon a Time in the West has, Rango nods to the canon with direct visual cues. And after all that heady nonsense, it's still a wild ride sure to please even the most impatient of school-aged moviegoers.

9. Moneyball, dir. Bennett Miller

It was an odd year. The mainstream hit of the fall was an adaptation of a book about sabermetrics. Credit Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, whose screenplay managed to make Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane's unconventional approach to scouting players the focal point a movie that was not only watchable but endlessly entertaining. Brad Pitt does his part, too, turning in an effortless performance as the iconoclastic Beane. It's easy to overthink this film's importance in a post-Social Network world, but it's probably fairer to all involved to call it the best sports movie in years and leave it at that.

8. Weekend, dir. Andrew Haigh

The narrative that's seemed to prevail in discussions of the brilliant, minimal Weekend is one about how it's irrelevant that the lovers at its center are gay. This is patently untrue, but the film is better for that. Russell and Glen (Tom Cullen and Chris New; both phenomenal) spend a passionate weekend together and very nearly fall in love in the process, and almost all their conversations center on perceptions of homosexuality and how their orientation has impacted their lives. Yes, Weekend is a heartbreaking, taut indie romance, but it's also the best treatise on being gay in the 21st century I've ever seen.

7. Super 8, dir. J.J. Abrams

In a year full of cinematic homages, no film felt more genuine than J.J. Abrams' Spielberg-worshiping Super 8. From the heart-pounding train wreck sequence to the fleeting reveal of the alien, everything in this thriller works perfectly under the deft hand of its director. If all summer popcorn movies were this good, we wouldn't have to read nearly as many think pieces about the sorry state of the Hollywood machine.

6. Meek's Cutoff, dir. Kelly Reichardt

Meek's Cutoff is a frustrating film. Almost nothing happens in its 104-minute duration. And yet, the tension remains so high throughout the movie that it seems certain something will happen at any given moment. This was life on the Oregon Trail, and Kelly Reichardt's beautiful Western channels that rugged existence more poignantly than anyone before her. A handful of virtuosic performances help to flesh out a world that, even at the film's conclusion, remains hopelessly (and intentionally) opaque.

5. The Skin I Live In, dir. Pedro Almodóvar

Given the profession of its emotionally scarred protagonist, it's fitting that the new thriller by Pedro Almodóvar is as slick and surgically precise as it is. Antonio Banderas plays a brilliant plastic surgeon who uses his gift to exact a very particular type of revenge. The Skin I Live In isn't about its plot twist – anyone paying attention will uncover it halfway through – but the lengths to which Banderas' character will go for vengeance. Your move, Chan-wook Park.

4. Martha Marcy May Marlene, dir. Sean Durkin

"After his Oscar-nominated turn as the meth-addicted Teardrop in last year’s Winter’s Bone, the Charles Manson-like cult leader John Hawkes portrays in Martha Marcy May Marlene should feel more familiar and less terrifying but, of course, it doesn’t. With manipulative cuts that force us to see the world through the eyes of cult escapee Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), first-time director Sean Durkin paints a scarred existence from which there is no escape or refuge." (Originally printed in WEEKEND, Dec. 7)

3. War Horse, dir. Steven Spielberg

I tweeted shortly after seeing War Horse that it was the only movie to make me cry all year. As an addendum, I thought about War Horse yesterday and choked up a little. Spielberg packs an unbelievable amount of emotional punch into every scene in his World War I epic. The film is also a bigger visual delight than any other this year, with frame upon gorgeous frame suitable for printing and hanging. Spielberg's tribute to John Ford feels like a magnum opus, and for most directors, it would be. For the man behind Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, it's more evidence than we've had in a long time that, yes, he's one of the modern masters.

2. Drive, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

In the opening sequence to Nicolas Winding Refn's dark noir Drive, Ryan Gosling listens to a Los Angeles Clippers game on his car radio. Blake Griffin is playing. This is the only way we know it is 2011 and not, say, 1983. The costuming, colors and soundtrack to Refn's film are anachronistic, but it somehow makes the surreal experience feel all the realer. The approach to violence is patient and methodical, but when it does rain, it pours. It's too weird and too brutal for awards-show folks to pay it much attention, but it's likely to go down as the movie that broke a director we'll eventually call an auteur.

1. Midnight in Paris, dir. Woody Allen

"It’s been said that the real star of a Woody Allen picture isn’t a leading actor, but whatever city he chooses for the movie’s setting. That’s never been truer than in Midnight in Paris, a beautifully rendered, cautionary ode to nostalgia seen through the eyes of a Lost Generation-obsessed Owen Wilson. When Wilson’s character concludes that we must live for the present, not the past, it’s a fitting reflection of Allen himself, who at 76 years of age has made what may be his masterpiece." (Originally printed in WEEKEND, Dec. 7)

Last five films to be cut from this list:
Hugo, The Arbor, The Trip, Certified Copy, Senna

Five films I didn't see that I probably will like once I do:
The Artist, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Separation, Beginners, A Dangerous Method

Five films I didn't see that some people really like that I probably won't ever see:
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help, The Muppets, The Future, Submarine

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