Critic’s Picks: The Top Films of 2011

An Eclectic Mix of Apocalyptic Fever,

Stifled Sexuality, and Cinematic Nostalgia

Let me start by saying I did not see every film this past year. Then again, not many people have. I have seen, however, quite a few and want to share my favorites of the year. This has been a difficult year for film, with box office numbers indicating theater attendance at its lowest mark in 16 years and certain films challenged with opening on the big screen and simultaneously being available on iTunes the same weekend. Yes, digital convergence is happening, something I’ve been able to track this year at school.  The film industry is making the transition from celluloid film into digital, a switch that all filmmakers  must soon confront and adapt towards.

Maybe that’s why some of Hollywood’s most revered directors created films appreciating the past. Scorsese’s Hugo and Spielberg’s War Horse are strong examples of this nostalgic love for the cinema. The latter, while it didn’t make my shortlist, contains exquisite shots of pastoral beauty . Its aesthetic and iconic sentiment must be seen in theaters to appreciate its picture. A more ambiguous theme that arose this year was sexuality, most blatantly shown in British Director Steve McQueen’s Shame, about a man addicted to sex. Clint Eastwood‘s J. Edgar delves into this material, an understated and intricate look at the confused and repressed J. Edgar Hoover. 2011 also contained a string of films with a cosmically destructive perspective, looks into the apocalyptic future. Ominous movies like Contagion, Take Shelter, Melancholia, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes presented the potential destruction of the human race. What do these types of film mean? Well, they could be an indicator of things to come (prophesied in the movie 2012 last year and the looming Aztec Calendar) or they could merely be a cultural fad. I guess we’ll find out!

Without further ado, here’s my list of favorite films, loosely in sequential order.

50/50 (Jonathan Levine)

So this isn’t technically the best movie of the year, but it just may be my favorite. Jonathan Levine’s heartwarming story of a young man diagnosed with a rare form of cancer is a subject that’s tricky to play around with. Yet, the honesty that is captured in this brilliantly written story by Will Reiser poignantly describes the ebbs and flows of sickness and how to combat its sometimes overbearing status. Joeseph Gordon-Levitt is superb as the cancer-stricken Adam, not only through his emotional outbursts of pain and sorrow but in his ability to grow throughout the entire film. Guiding him is an array of strong supporting performances. Laughter, raunch, and care from Seth Rogen, his friend; quirkiness, naiveté, and guidance from Anna Kendrick, his counselor; protection, worry, and love from Anjelica Huston, his mother. Together they form a strong synthesis of emotion, instruction on how to cope with unforseen illness and maturing through relationships. Its ability to induce laughter and tears, sometimes simultaneously, is a testament to its relatability and humanistic nature which is something to be cherished.

Full Review

The Descendants (Alexander Payne)

Alexander Payne’s first installment in seven years and it seems like he didn’t skip a beat. This film, like 50/50, perfectly blends an array of great performances that learn about themselves and each other traversing over the Hawaiian sand. The backdrop of the islands creates a nice contrast for the man in turmoil. Matt King, played with rugged sincerity and restraint by George Clooney, struggles with his new cuckold identity with a wife in comatose, two girls he must now learn to father, and a looming settlement for his 26 acres of lush Hawaiian land, inherited from his ancestors. He slowly finds the answers to his problem as he and his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) as well as tag-along friend Sid (Nick Krause) go on a lackadaisical search for his wife’s secret lover. Along the way, Matt finds himself, as a father, as a responsible landowner, and as someone able to forgive. It’s this release of bottled contempt and patches of humor that harmoniously mix under the setting sun and picturesque seascapes. Payne is so intentional with his camerawork, his vision speaks even when there is no dialogue, a master of his surroundings and the moods they create.

Full Review:

Melancholia (Lars von Trier)

I didn’t get the chance to review this, but Melancholia is one of the most visually powerful movies this year. Directed by Lars von Trier, the film is split into two parts and is preceded by an ethereal, slow-motioned prologue, hauntingly beautiful. The first part is entitled Justine, after the woman played by Kirsten Dunst. The movie follows her on her wedding day, namely the reception, and by consequence tracks her internal battle with depression. The second part is named after Justine’s sister Claire, played equally as wrenching by Charlotte Gainsbourg, battling her own inner fear and married to a self-assured astronomist played by Kiefer Sutherland. The ominous planet called Melancholia is looming towards the earth in its orbit and Claire must find strength in an unbewildered Justine, too overcome with her own melancholy with life, including a work-obsessed boss, a new husband, and cynical mother. Von Trier subtly uses the new planet’s trajectory toward earth as a metaphor for Justine’s unpredictable sentimental nature, a troubled soul juxtaposed against a potential cosmic apocalypse. Dunst’s performance is special in her mesmerizing ability to attain total focus from the audience. She elicits complete command in every word she speaks, faint and disturbed, her actions and tone dictate the film’s mood and garner undivided attention. In T.S. Elliot’s “The Hollow Men,” Elliot ends his poem by saying the world ends “not with a bang but with a whimper.” Lars von Trier instead ignites every sensuous bomb, and just like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, respectfully reverses Elliot’s logic. The ending overture is the most musically and visually gratifying experience I have ever had at a theater. It’s a stunning finish to one of the most unique films of the decade.

The Artist (Michael Hazanavicius)

 It’s hard to imagine that a movie without any audible dialogue could be just as inspiring, funny, dramatic, or romantic as one that contains words. But this clever silent film (it does have music in the background) has all of those feelings and then some. It opens with the inside of a theater in the late 1920s. Back then, there was a full orchestra to play music coinciding with the muted action on screen. Back then, at least in this semi-fictional world, George Valentin, played charismatically by Jean DuGard, is the number one movie star of the era. That is until a couple years later when “talkies” start becoming a viable and marketable new business venture. Leading this parade is George’s former friend Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who earned her break thanks to George. Now, with her signature mole and attractive mug, she becomes the new face of the movie industry, leaving George’s questionable inability to transition behind. The film isn’t perfectly silent, but that adds to its charm. It’s self-aware that it’s a silent film in a currently unapproached era, and thus aids its audience with written cue cards, exaggerated expressions, and tonal music shifts. It’s antiquated method of story telling may not be completely relatable, but it’s a pleasure from start to finish, and an indicator of how powerful human expression is in telling a story. On a side note, George’s Jack Russell Terrier should probably be included in some supporting actor nominations because aren’t dogs equal members on the set when no one in the film talks?

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

The imagery in this movie alone is enough to make it one of this year’s best. Terrence Malick’s latest feature explores numerous themes amongst a cosmological dig for the origins of the universe. Fatherhood, boyhood, and reconciliation, for the past and future, are bookended with calming, spiritual awe. It is less a narrative and more a collection of memories from the main character  Jack (played in his older self by Sean Penn). He looks back to his childhood in small-town Texas during the 1950s, vividly recounting his growth amongst a stern, discipline-first father, a more sympathetic and fragile mother (Jessica Chastain), and his two younger brothers. Jack’s younger self whispers narration over moving imagery. He looks back, contemplating life before his younger brother dies at 19. “Brother. Keep us. Guide us. To the end of time,” he breathlessly articulates. For some, Malick is painting his own version of the earth’s existence and grasping for the esoteric foundations of life. For me, this was an introspective look at the nature of boyhood during Cold War America. Crew cuts and “yes ma’ams” abundant, Malick provides one of the most authentic looks into the thoughts and feelings of adolescent boys. Hunter McCracken as young Jack is brilliant in his way of relating his repressed will, bottled by a sometimes abusive and controlling father figure who is seemingly unhappy with his own upbringing and unable to rationalize his domineering nature. The film is a rough scattering of profound artistry that at points can be confusing. But this is more of a critique of how memory works, particularly poignant moments in time that stand out, fade, and lead us to deeper, bolder questions.

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)

This movie has one word to describe it. Slick.  It may have others but the whole mood of Danish Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s film just feels this way. It may be the 1980’s hot pink graphics and subsequent “driving” soundtrack, eclectic pulses of electronica with breathy female vocals. Or it could just be Ryan Gosling’s character, simply named Driver. He gets money by doing stunts in movies, aiding criminals who need a fast getaway, and keeping a regular job at a garage. The plot loosely comes into play when one of these jobs becomes emotionally attached, thanks to a serene looking Carie Mulligan who plays Irene, his next door neighbor, a mother of one, and wife to an ex-convict. The other predicament is with his boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who gets into financial trouble with some coworkers Bernie (An uncharacteristically serious role for Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman). Gosling rarely speaks, fragmented sentences at best. Yet his facial expressions are enough to indicate his intentions, most notably his feelings for Irene and her son in the middle of urban Los Angeles. Driver’s natural GPS embedded mind among the nightlit streets serve as the film’s best shots: close-ups of Gosling navigating his way through alleys and highways, leather gloves attached to the wheel, and an unnerving severity strapped to his face. Unexpected jolts of gore and action don’t catapult this movie into inventive realms, however, its strangely satisfying intangible qualities provide a sleek and strong dynamic- that plainly said- is pretty cool.

Shame (Steve McQueen)

The topic of sexual addiction is difficult to express not only through the inner conscious of someone, but also because of its physical and graphic nature. Michael Fassbender takes on this demanding role with a specific heaviness, a man enslaved to his own demanding sexual satisfaction that doesn’t gratify emotional needs, but physical and visceral ones. He plays Brandon, who works at a corporate job. He obliges his boss with frequent outings to bars and clubs, trying to help him pick-up women, and jogs around Manhattan streets. These actions seem average enough, but hidden beneath these commonplace characteristics is his hidden layer of pervasive sexual fixes. His computer at his job contains viruses from porn sites, which he later visits on his personal laptop at his Chelsea apartment, and encounters between escorts and random women on the street fulfill his instant physical needs (when that doesn’t happen he’s happy to personally relieve himself too). Then his sister aptly named Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves in. Her suicidal past and vagabond spirit burdens Brandon into letting her stay with him, which jolts his daily flow. Sissy gets around by performing, and in an emotionally charged and telling scene, she sings an unforgettable version of “New York, New York” in an upscale bar Brandon attends. McQueen takes a page out of Quentin Tarantino’s book, shooting long and uncut scenes throughout, leaving the camera in one place and letting his characters weave in and out of the frame. That’s really the strength of this film, a collection of highly memorable sequences, authentic encounters, and the haunting effects of a man unable to create emotional connection. Both he and his sister “come from a bad place,” says Sissy, and though it’s details are not mentioned, its perceptibility is understandable. The “subway scene” (you’ll know it when you see it) may be the film’s most introspective of Brandon’s condition, a man filled with shame who battles a seemingly endless war with himself.

Hugo (Martin Scorsese)

Hugo is one of the year’s most beautifully told stories. Based off the original book Hugo Cabret, Scorsese brings life into the Paris train station in which the plot takes place. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is the main character, a boy whose father was inexplicably killed and who now lives in the station, fixing clocks in the guise of his older uncle, now amiss. He also has a penchant to pilfer things from a toy shop that an old, mysterious man (Ben Kingsley) owns. He eventually finds secrets about this man with the help of the shopkeeper’s granddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), all in the process of attempting to recreate an old, rusted automaton that Hugo’s father gave him. The film veers into two directions, emphasizing Scorsese’s visual craft and ability to meld a metaphor through the intricate workings of the station’s machines and Hugo’s personal philosophy. Scorsese also displays some of his nostalgia for film’s humble beginnings, iconicisizing George Mellies, one of film’s first pioneers, by devoting a storytelling session of some of the world’s first motion pictures. Scattered in are delightful supporting acts from the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen and Emily Mortimer. Scorsese has a dual platform he intends to get across and while he may not totally succeed at fusing the two, their separate visions, catered by some exquisite, fast-paced 3D shots, form a charming and lasting movie experience.

 Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)

Take Shelter is one of several films this year to have apocalyptic notions about the world, except in this case, the majority of the film takes place in one man’s mind. Curtis is his name (Michael Shannon), a married man with a deaf daughter. They live in the middle of the midwest, big open fields and abundant sky. That is where most of our attention is turned. Curtis has frightening visions, primarily pertaining to the clouds above, dreams and day-time hallucinations of massive thunderstorms, frightening shaded figures, and even swarms of birds. In one incredibly mind-bending sequence, he envisions the living room furniture floating in mid-air. These haunting interactions propel him to create a livable bunker for his family when the “killer storm” comes its way. This puts incredible weight upon his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), a struggling crafter who needs all the money she can receive for her daughter’s schooling, potential ear surgery, and their mortgage.  His visions get more authentic and the dissonance between Curtis and the rest of the town becomes incrementally more noticeable, just as it does between he and his burdened, but caring wife. This film soars because of its remarkable performances coming from both Shannon and Chastain; a man trying to protect his family in different ways and a woman loving enough to generously forgive and put faith in her husband. Nichols creates some abrasive and saddening scenes that lead up to a climactic and unforgettable finish, destined to enhance its powerfully speculative tone.

Beginners (Mike Mills)

Imagine you’re 38, and six months after your mother dies, your 75 year-old father tells you he’s gay. Such is the dilemma for Oliver (Ewan McGregor), who has borne witness to what many folks today will call a forced marriage between his parents. Now Oliver must reexamine his life, try to contemplate his childhood and see his father in a new light. This is the general plot from storyteller Mike Mills, a cathartic film based off his own experience with his newly converted father. The film chronicles Oliver, and his adorable and telepathic Jack Russell Terrier, in separate timelines, presently kindling a relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent) and examines his past encounters with his un-closeted dad, Hal. He’s played by a vivacious and free-spirited Christopher Plummer, who soon after revealing to his son the truth, starts embracing his liberated existence. He goes to clubs, has all guy movie night parties, and has a bonding relationship with a young fitness trainer named Andy. His marriage to his late wife Georgia was built upon the mutual understanding that he was a closeted human being. Now at 75, his homosexual exuberance bursts out and infects his company. Beginners gives a warm depiction of self-exploration and learning to find love. Hal in his late seventies still manages to find joy after a long-endured caged existence, if only for his last four years. He leaves his son and us a tasteful reminder. It’s never too late to begin again.

Full Review:

Hanna (Joe Wright)

Hanna was one of my favorite action movies this year- and one its stars, Eric Bana, didn’t even have that many violent scenes. Erik, his character name too, fathers Hanna (Saoirse Roman), who ends up stealing the show on screen. The two of them live in isolation, sixty miles south of the North Pole, in a small, wooden cabin. Within this white landscape, she is taught by her bearded patriarch how to kill, how to defend herself, and how to interact with the eventual outsiders. The latter may be her most necessary skill. The plot is sometimes indecipherable except for the fact that Hanna must learn to evade people that desperately want her. In charge of the chase is Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett, Babel), a C.I.A. operative with empowering conviction. Blanchett’s mushroom cut red bob, pristinely brushed teeth, and tight-fitting gloves give this determined “wicked witch” cringe-worthy attributes. Wiegler promptly sends her three “huntsmen” to capture Hanna while simultaneously focuses on her own hunt for Erik. Her motives are unclear and so are each character’s past; the situation is haunting, like a Grimm fairytale of sorts.

Dilating pupils, pounding hearts, and gasping breaths crescendo to a pulse-pumping, rhythmic musical masterpiece from the Chemical Brothers. The chase scenes get amplified with inspirational techno currents, a humming correlation to Hanna’s inquisitive nature of all things electric. A sheltered 16-year-old, she marvels at the inner workings of a light switch in a hotel while at the same time goes through chaotic confusion when the T.V. remote fails to turn off a boiling kettle. The scenes are skillfully edited, enough to feel Hanna’s rattling cerebral cortex. Roman’s pale blue eyes have an entrancing appeal. Innocent and docile, her gaze forces an interminable serenity that is forcefully used to her advantage. The white glow of snow bleaches her face stone cold, yet the Moroccan desert equally warms her penetrative blonde skin. “Adapt or die.” Her father’s incessant reminders could never be truer. Hanna wins best heroine of the year, something Joe Wright must like to explore, with his earlier works like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. He knows how to create a sensual side to his protagonist, but can also swiftly switch to her rougher edges, a necessary and gratifying distinction.

Runners Up:

Moneyball, Contagion, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Midnight in Paris, My Week with Marilyn, War Horse, J. Edgar

Best Foreign Films:

The Guard, The Skin I Live In, Le Havre

Best Performances:

Michael Fassbender, Shame; Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn; Michael Shannon, Take Shelter; Brendan Gleeson, The Guard; Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene; Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia; Brad Pitt, Moneyball;  Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar; Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Charlize Theron, Young Adult; Christopher Plummer, Beginners; George Clooney, The Descendants

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