Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Top 10: 2011

Last week I asked my Facebook friends what their favorite 2011 movies were; the unanimous answer was The Muppets. That a reflection on characters many of us grew up with touched a collective nerve makes sense; 2011 was a year of looking back, both out of nostalgia and to understand what our past reveals to us about our present. Two of the Oscar front-runners are celebrations of the silent film era, and the nominees also include movies about World War I, 9/11, the civil rights movement and the Cold War. It's not unique for the Academy to nominate period pieces; what is unique is how many of these movies are preoccupied with what these moments of time tell about where we are today (with varying degrees of success). The most critically acclaimed movie of the year looks all the way back to the creation of the universe to give context to a story that takes place in the recent past and the present. As A.O. Scott put it, "A glance at the nominees for best picture at this year’s Oscars will confirm that the movies, a forward-looking medium tumbling headlong into a digital future, find themselves in a moment of retrospection." Even the films on the list with a contemporary setting, and even those which rely heavily on CGI or digital technology are build on an archetypal foundation that reaches back to 1930s noir, or the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, or the comedy of discomfort perfected by Woody Allen and Albert Brooks. The language of film is constantly evolving, but the stories are eternal.

Many of the films on my list were low-key affairs in one way or another; a few are downright gentle. Was this a trend in films in general, or am I just prematurely becoming an old fogy? I guess if you see me in line for the opening night of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, you'll have your answer. The hardest part of making a list this year was sorting out the last few slots; there were a great deal of movies that were problematic but still well worth seeing, or movies with modest ambitions that were excellent in their way. And it's very possible that if I'd had the opportunity to see Take Shelter, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Margaret, A Separation and other potentially great movies that never played in my neck of the woods, this list could be very different. Of course, it's never possible to see everything, and it's beside the point to take list-making too seriously. A friend of mine asked me a while ago what is the point of making lists; I guess there isn't one really, except as a snapshot of the things that intrigued me, made me think and moved me over the past twelve months or so. Plus, it's just too much fun to resist.

1. Drive As much as this modern-day L.A. noir owes to filmmakers like Michael Mann and Walter Hill, it's also very much the work of a director with a wholly original voice. Nicolas Winding Refn, making his English-language debut, brings to this story of a stuntman and getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) who gets in dangerously over his head trying to protect the woman he loves (Carey Mulligan) a razor-sharp awareness of what makes his genre archetypes resonate so deeply. At once an examination of the action movie's fetishism of fast cars and big guns, a sort of urban samurai story and an inversion/feminization of its stoic, toothpick-chewing road warrior, Drive is like a synth-pop tone poem punctuated with perfectly calibrated bursts of shocking violence. It's also a masterpiece of filmmaking craft, perfectly acted (Albert Brooks is terrific, and Gosling is so much more interesting now that he's stopped taking himself seriously) and wonderfully stylish in a way that fits perfectly with the story. Refn's the real deal - Drive is the ballsiest movie of the year and a hell of a lot of fun.

2. The Tree of Life A movie that is completely out of step with the time it was made. Terrence Malick's epic meditation on childhood, memory, God and our place in the universe demands to be revisited and given serious thought in an opening weekend-driven film culture that demands we move on to one next big thing after another. But it's pointless to gripe; some films just aren't for everyone, even if they're about everything. But for a movie with a narrative scope that extends from the first moments of the universe to its death, The Tree of Life is remarkably personal, even private. Though this leads to some moments that contain a meaning that perhaps only Malick fully understands, the cumulative effect is cinema's most fully realized depiction of the persistence of memory. Breathtaking in both its ambition and its moments of startling intimacy, The Tree of Life is certainly a challenging and sometimes baffling work. But if you approach it with an open mind and let it meet you where you are, it's a deeply affecting, one-of-a-kind cinematic experience.

3. Shame A close-up examination of the life of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a sex addict whose life is a perpetual, joyless cycle thrown into chaos by a visit from his vulnerable, emotionally turbulent sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). While director Steve McQueen's rigid, controlled style had a distancing effect for some, his unflinching and deeply empathetic study of two wounded souls was almost too painful to watch. It's a very explicit film, but never gratuitous or crass - here, sex is an externalization of one character's pain, and it's depicted with maturity and insight. It's a film where a conversation between two siblings watching cartoons - one who is incapable of connection, another with a desperate need to connect - carries a disturbing, almost violent psychological charge. Beautifully photographed against the backdrop of a New York that becomes a sort of melancholy third protagonist, Shame is a hard experience to shake, and the work of a filmmaker capable of profound compassion and grace.

4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy A film that fits comfortably alongside '70s classics like The Conversation and The Parallax View, Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of John Le Carre's novel shares with those films an understanding of the spy story as a metaphor for truth's elusive, shifting nature. The film's condensation of Le Carre's plot is a labyrinth of mysterious motives, secret allegiances and narrative asides that, once all the pieces have fallen into place, proves to be nearly airtight in its construction. Between this and his previous film, the masterpiece Let the Right One In, Alfredson has proven to be a master of understatement; the film is a triumph of story revealed through subtle accumulating details, anchored by Gary Oldman's marvelously restrained performance as George Smiley, a British agent whose quiet personality hides a fierce intelligence. A triumph of art direction - the film is a maze of cluttered, claustrophobic interiors - filmed through a haze that is seemingly equal parts nicotine and decaying film stock, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a fiendishly fun mystery, punctuated by moments of pitch-black humor and a perverse sense of what constitutes a happy ending.

5. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo The book's Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women, which gets to the heart of why Stieg Larsson's book about a journalist and a hacker tracking a killer of women resonated so deeply with so many readers. The mystery plot is pure pulp, but it's redeemed by Larsson's blunt anger at the many ways women are treated like shit and the unforgettable character Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant, antisocial force of nature who isn't afraid to fight back. Director David Fincher focuses on the strongest and most cinematic elements of the source material, crafting a violent, disturbing, sexy beginning (I hope) of a franchise for adults (frankly, stating that the pretentious, thuddingly literal-minded Swedish film is better is lunacy). Fincher is smartly treats the central mystery as a Macguffin and emphasizes the relationship between Salander (the mesmerizing Rooney Mara) and sexy, feminist-friendly lefty hunk Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig, underrated here). As process-obsessed as all of Fincher's films, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is less about finding out what happened to Harriet Vanger as it is about a budding love story between an abused, alienated prodigy and the first man she could ever trust; taken this way, the ending is positively devastating. And as this is Fincher, it almost goes without saying that it's perfectly shot, edited and scored - one can derive two and a half hours of pleasure just from enjoying the way that Fincher captures the feeling of snow like no filmmaker ever has before. Bonus points for the perverse misuse of "Orinoco Flow."

6. Hugo Scorsese's latest is a walking contradiction, a valentine to the earliest days of silent cinema that utilizes hyper-modern technology to tell its story. That Scorsese embraces and revels in this contradiction is just one reason Hugo is so easy to love - in the scenes of filmmaker Georges Méliès meticulously and lovingly staging his early cinematic sleights of hand, one can trace a line directly to 3D and what it has the potential to be (but rarely is). Here, the immersive 3D effects compliment the beautifully realized world of a train station in 1920s Paris where a little boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls, winding the station's clocks and hoping to solve a mystery left behind by his deceased father that takes the form of a wide-eyed automaton. Scorsese's typically kinetic, vital filmmaking is used for the first time in the service of a story that is meant to evoke wonder; the result is a $150-million kids' movie about the virtues of film preservation that is every bit as weird, geeky and magical as that description suggests.

7. Midnight in Paris Woody Allen's best film in 25 years is also his gentlest and most sincere. While the film is recognizably Allen's in every way - certainly nobody who knows his work should be the least bit surprised that his version of Oz is a 1920s Paris populated by the period's great artists and thinkers - there are moments in Midnight in Paris that feel like the unexpected summation of everything Allen has been expressing throughout his filmography. When Owen Wilson's writer Gil suggests that a city like Paris, teeming with life and possibility, is a beacon of hope in a dark universe, it took me aback; Allen has found Paris (or Manhattan) to be the answer to the question of where meaning can be found in life, and connecting his existential angst with his romantic view of urban life seems so obvious in retrospect and yet so profound. It's a pleasure to follow Gil on his time-travel journey and hang out with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and the whole gang (I was particularly tickled by Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali), and yet Allen is also perceptive about how the idea that things used to be better is a constant illusion in every period. As with The Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen at once celebrates our fantasies and gently subverts our nostalgia; still, who can help being nostalgic when the past is brought to life with this much wit and warmth?

8. Bridesmaids Besides just being constantly hilarious from beginning to end, Bridesmaids is terrific because its humor comes from a very real and frightening place - getting older, getting poorer and watching your closest friends move on while you're still struggling to get your shit together. While the film is in the improv-heavy mold of its fellow Apatow productions, it benefits from the sturdier structure and fully realized characters that we can identify with even when they're shitting in a sink (maybe not as much then, but otherwise). It's funny because it's true, and the movie mines as many laughs from smaller moments of social awkwardness as it does from the aforementioned sink pooping and other, soon-to-be-classic setpieces like the dueling toasts and Annie's freak-out on the plane. Kristen Wiig has long been the best thing about SNL (along with Bill Hader), and she proves here to be a gifted writer as well; I wouldn't be surprised if this is the start of a large and impressive filmography.

9. War Horse Steven Spielberg's WWI epic isn't gritty and explicit in the way of Saving Private Ryan; based on the young adult novel by Michael Morpugo, it's a fable with a simple but profound anti-war message. The story of a young man (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse separated by war and trying to make their way home to each other is deeply moving and beautifully realized. The staging of the battle scenes is worthy of one of Spielberg's favorite films, Kubrick's Paths of Glory, and the early scenes of life in the English countryside have a lush palette worthy of John Ford or David Lean; this is a beautiful example of deliberately old-fashioned, classical Hollywood cinema. And it's a reminder that, when Spielberg is firing on all cylinders, there's nobody better. I can't wait to share this one with my kids when they're a bit older.

10. A Dangerous Method David Cronenberg's adaptation of Christopher Hampton's play about the rift between Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung (Michael Fassbender) caused by Jung's affair with his brilliant, volatile patient Sabina Spelrein (Keira Knightley) has been unfairly dismissed as a boringly conventional period piece. But while it may contain less strange creatures or unruly bodily fluids than the average Cronenberg film, it's every bit as brilliantly kinky as any he's made, perhaps more subversively so. Sabina, and Knightley's jaw-dropping performance, are as uncontrollable a monster as Jeff Goldblum's mutation in The Fly and the Mugwumps in Naked Lunch, minus the makeup effects. It's the film about the monstrous feminine and how it changed these two men, completely reshaping our understanding of human psychology in the process. It's impeccably acted, heightened by Cronenberg's mastery of the frame's ability to underline our anxieties, and diabolically funny. Bonus points to Mortensen for getting so much mileage out of Freud's cigars.