More than halfway through January, I give you my 30 favorite films of the year. The final 15 will be up on Thursday. These are my favorites; not a list of the ‘best’ of the year, although it goes without saying I believe these are all excellent films. The idea of a restricting Top 10 sort of irritates me; I’ve always been someone who likes to broaden the field and point out a variety of different films that stuck out to me. Margaret, Into the Abyss, Love Exposure and The Mysteries of Lisbon are examples of gaping holes in my film viewing for this year. But I did get to a total of 136 films seen from 2011 and I feel like I saw the vast majority of what I had meant to. I’m thrilled with the group of films that stuck out for me this year. The films that just missed out on a spot were Super 8, The Sleeping Beauty, Tabloid, Rango, Kung Fu Panda 2, The Descendants, Love Crime, Weekend, 50/50, 13 Assassins, Meek’s Cutoff and Crazy, Stupid, Love. I’d love to come up with an introduction to this list that covered the year in film but so much has already been written in ways that go far beyond what I would have been capable to coming up with. I took snippets from my reviews for the films I reviewed here at some point this year, with links provided for the full reviews if anyone is interested. Without further ado…30-16!
It looks like Bridesmaids actually has a semblance of chance for a slot in the Best Picture race this year. Whether it happens or not is almost irrelevant; it is the mere chance that surprises. This notion brings with it much backlash. Between that and the constant references to the shitting in the sink scene (which at this point feels like it is the only scene in the film based on how often it gets brought up), it is easy to forget just how funny and surprisingly layered the film really is.
That the film is only ever put into the context of ‘see, women can be funny too’ proves just how sad the state of female-driven comedies is. Wiig and Annie Mumolo did not set out to prove anything here, but everyone acts as if they did. We should be past the point where an ensemble female comedy is a revelation, but based on the constant contextual discussions of Bridesmaids, it is clear we are not. It does not help that it was advertised using the idea of females doing comedy essentially as a gimmick.
After all is said and done though, it is about the flawed Annie (Kristen Wiig) who has reached a point in her life where nothing has worked out the way she planned. Her only stable focal point is her friendship with Lillian (Maya Rudolph). When Lillian’s wedding plans are taken over by Rose Byrne’s wealthy stylish woman who threatens to replace her as best friend (in Annie’s insecure eyes), she fights fire with fire by being petty and selfish, much to the amusement of the audience. But the film is about her realizing how she handles those situations, seeing her come to terms with that and being ready to rebuild her life. Annie’s character struck a chord with me; this along with Wiig’s performance is why I was so impressed with Bridesmaids as a whole. Is it too long? Yes. Does every joke hit its mark? No. Yet this is one of my favorite comedies to come along in a good long while. Really truly good comedies are infrequent these days (case in point; only three comedies are on this list). This is one of the good ones.
29. Moneyball (Miller)
There are going to be several films on this list that really took me by surprise and the first is Moneyball. I had really no interest in seeing this; in fact it took about 3 months and a rerelease for me to drag myself to the theater to see it. Sports films are generally not a genre I gravitate towards. What is so striking about 2011 is that four sports films made my list of favorites this year; an unprecedented number. Moneyball is mostly a behind-the-scenes look at baseball and how one person tries to change the deeply embedded system using unheard of strategies. It is the classic underdog tale, told with soul, drive, and a spirit of infectious perseverance headlined by Brad Pitt’s performance, which highlights Beane’s hasty insistence and inner detachment when he seals himself off from others. We know how the story ends, but the film earns the audience’s reservations as to how triumph could possibly reign supreme. Moneyball lifted me up and left me feeling roused and inspired.
28. The Trip (Winterbottom)
Full Review Link: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/05/03/review-the-trip-winterbottom-2011-iffboston2011/
The Trip boasts an unusual combination of dialogue-heavy comedy, of scenic travelogue complete with a focus on high-end food and finally a somber self-reflexive experiment. While these are occasionally at odds with each other, The Trip is hilarious from start-to-finish and ultimately insightful because of the persistent and atypical way it goes about making its point.
Their conversations are thoroughly escapist, with a strong air of competition. They throw themselves into moments, songs, melodies and impressions. They are constantly trying to one-up each other, whether by seeing who does the better Michael Caine impression or by testing how many octaves each can sing in. Steve may say to others on the phone that Rob is a ‘pain in the ass’, but he clearly gets something out of his hesitant friendship with Rob; the irreverence between the two and their conversations. Each knows what to expect from the other. Steve knows he can vent his frustrations by taking jabs at Rob’s career. He knows their friendship is based on nonsensical conversations. This allows a safety net of irreverence to form for Steve.
Underneath all of the improvised hilarity, The Trip is about understanding Steve and Rob’s friendship, where it comes from, how the film is using their repeatedly competitive conversations and what it all means. Some will see it as a film that goes nowhere. This is precisely the point; it is a story about fame and emptiness, which has been addressed in many recent films, but told in an uproarious, refreshing and unconventional way.
27. Win Win (McCarthy)
As I began watching Win Win on a plane destined for Korea (the TV’s reset themselves several times, forcing me to watch this over the course of four hours), at first I was not enjoying it. It felt like the kind of middle-of-the-road indie that tries really hard to garner some chuckles with some predictable music that evokes that delightfully amused small-town sound that so many films have. Once Alex Shaffer’s Kyle entered and got the story rolling, I found myself increasingly involved. By the last half hour I was glued to the screen, only several inches away from the small TV on the backseat. All of the characters feel dimensional by the end, and it sets up a complicated dilemma that has no easy answers. It is sweet and endearing without ever feeling slight. Tom McCarthy’s writing underlines the place that wrestling has in the characters’ lives, so that when it falls to the wayside for a domestically dramatic scenario to settle in, the sport always feels thematically front and center. Not to mention that Alex Shaffer’s real-life wrestling skills which make his sport-centered scenes a treat.
26. Warrior (O’Connor)
Short Review Link: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/12/04/short-review-warrior-2011-oconnor/
Sometimes it is the films that surprise us that become the most rewarding film experiences. They make us realize that so many films come with high expectations impossible to meet. What a breath of fresh air it is to go into a film with very low expectations, with no sign of the dreaded hype machine in tow, and to be completely won over to the point where my emotions were running as high as they could.
Steeped in the throes of Greek tragedy, Warrior takes chamber-piece family drama to the arena of MMA. Knowingly playing with clichés and being able to deliver on familiar grounds can be just as difficult to execute properly. It is no small task, but the film is able to deliver. The first hour is a lot of set-up. It is transparent where almost all of these scenes are going, but it conveys them with an unexpectedly quiet meditation. This gives the actors and the circumstances they have to play a refreshing amount of room to breathe. By the end, proportions of such raw physical intensity are reached that you can actually feel the decades of family dynamics being brought into the arena. The result is a well-earned cathartic finale as powerful as anything I have seen this year.
P.S – Make this a double bill with South Korea’s equally impressive 2005 boxing drama Crying Fist; you will not be sorry.
25. Jane Eyre (Fukunaga)
Full Review Link: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/review-jane-eyre-2011-fukunaga/
Jane Eyre succeeds because what it does take on is executed with memorable specificity as well as containing some of the best chemistry between two romantic leads in years. For those who are sick of the kinds of romance films that come put today, whether comedy, drama or fantasy, Jane Eyre provides an opportunity to revisit a classic.
Many period films, especially those depicting the Victorian era, unsurprisingly and understandably tend to have the same look and feel. Fukunaga and cinematographer Adriano Goldman create a very precise atmosphere, making full use of the many conventions of the Gothic romance. The film feels naturally lit throughout, creating an often dark and gloomy look with muted grey and brown tones. The barren landscapes, wind and rain and foreboding manors are just a few conventions employed here with stunning effect. Dario Marianelli’s score fills the soundtrack with emotive violins that express the suppressed passion that Jane and Rochester keep below the surface.
Mia Wasikowska, destined for an exciting lifetime of impressive performances, captures the essence of Jane Eyre. Her dignity, guardedness and centered unwavering morals are all perfectly portrayed. She is understated and powerful, conveying subtle transitions in her face at every turn. It might just be the perfect incarnation of the heroine.
It is a rare thing when the two romantic leads have the chemistry the story demands them to have; these two do. The film is most engaging when the two are onscreen together, not just from of the power their scenes have, but because of the way they portray the evolution of their relationship. Buffini makes sure that different circumstances surround each scene they have together, making every single interaction between the two unique.
The film may heavily dilute several themes from the book in a disappointing way, but Wasikowska infuses her performance with what is missing. Was yet another adaptation necessary? Probably not, but it is hard to imagine anyone complaining about it after seeing Fukunaga and Buffini’s splendid interpretation.
24. The Last Circus (Iglesia)
The most utterly berserk and unbridled film from this year, The Last Circus is a nutzoid accomplishment plagued with political undertones (and in-your-face purpose; hello opening credits) from the Franco regime of the 1970’s. A love triangle between two clowns and an acrobat (who is the definition of the self-destructive male fantasy woman), the film inhabits a heightened predicament where love, suffering, violence and insanity all inhabit the same space and become interchangeable. Most films have a set trajectory, where you have some sense of where it will go, even if you do not know how it will get there. The Last Circus reaches what I assumed would be its climactic scene before the halfway point and I realized I had absolutely no idea where it was headed next. It was an unfamiliar and exhilarating realization and I watched as the film darted off into entirely wacky and surreal territory. The last scene which gives off a feeling of finality, hopelessness and defeat is a singular moment in the film. The Last Circus is unforgettable.
23. Midnight in Paris (Allen)
Had it not been for Rachel McAdams’ increasingly shrill caricature, this would be even higher on my list. Considering how much love I have for this film, and seeing it in the 23 slot, it becomes clear just how necessary I feel it is to move beyond the idea of a Top 10. Indeed, this is one of my favorites from Allen, carrying that same magical air as The Purple Rose of Cairo (my absolute favorite from him). Leaving the theater with a giant gleaming smile on my face, Midnight in Paris wins people over for its literalized and fantastical look at the idea of nostalgia and yearning for a time past. And using 1920’s Paris for that is probably the most idealized time and place there is. Owen Wilson proves to be the perfect Allen avatar, neurosis and rationalizing take precedence with him. To see him this enthralled with all the artistic figures of the past is contagious. The romantic and rational sides of Allen interact here and come to several different conclusions. It’s a vicarious dream come true.
22. Shame (McQueen)
Full Review Link: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/12/11/review-shame-2011-mcqueen/
McQueen has the confidence of a veteran; his vision is clear and he presents it with poise. Between this and Hunger, it is obvious that long takes are his strong suit. One more film from him and they will be a fully-fledged trademark. He risks distracting the audience but he does not; his lengthy observations make us more attentive, more aware of the physical space and of body language. They allow us to get a fuller sense of the performances and they enhance the notion of the audience observing Brandon through the glass-plate walls; he is a test subject. McQueen distances us with the sterile environment and cagey glass. He puts us up close when it counts, and when it becomes important to unsettle the audience. Fassbender and Mulligan are astounding.
McQueen uses Brandon as cornerstone representative for addiction with a sibling dynamic ripe for rich exploration. Brandon’s surprisingly conventional, but no less powerful, arc towards disintegration is tinted with more hope than one would expect. Shame is arresting cinema that loyally follows its self-loathing protagonist wherever he may go.
21. Senna (Kapadia)
Full Review Link: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/review-senna-2011-kapadia/
Senna plays more like a narrative feature than any documentary in recent memory. Gripping from the start and refusing to let go, this immersive story will enthrall the viewer regardless of their ignorance of Formula One racing and/or three time Grand Prix world champion, Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna. Entirely comprised of archival footage, Senna offers a rare privilege of access for a documentary, resulting in a wholly distinct experience. It does not feel like you are watching something that has already happened; instead it largely unfolds as if for the first time.
I was the only one in my theater when I saw Senna, and I was allowed to have an emotional reaction with a freedom rarely afforded within the theater-going experience. By the end, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss. Interestingly enough, the two documentaries on this list spurred a stronger emotive response than anything else I saw this year.
Lee Chang-dong has a knack for staying a couple of steps away from melodrama with his unadorned camera and plots that never feel like plots. In some ways, he is the opposite of melodrama, but he somehow always gives off a sense of it without it defining or even distracting from his pictures. On the one hand, the film is a gentle tale of an elderly woman creeping up on Alzheimer’s who strives to understand how poetry works, looking everywhere for inspiration in order to write a poem. If this sounds nauseating, do not make the mistake of judging Poetry; it has none of the sentiment or predictability the story suggests.On the other hand, there is the tale of a horrific family crime committed, how Mi-ja copes with it as she deals with the aftermath of forced interaction for all parties involved and their differing motivations.
Lee mixes plot elements in ways that are unfamiliar and new, without ever having it feel like something is conventionally unfolding. His two films made after his time as Korea’s Minister of Culture and Tourism heavily deal with coping, the unforeseen circumstances surrounding tragedy and the various ways people try to coexist with their personal tragedies. It is simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting.
19. Tyrannosaur (Considine)
Actor Paddy Considine’s directorial debut sticks us with some pretty miserable folk. That Peter Mullan’s train-wreck of a protagonist, unable to keep himself contained for a moment, is the one that comes to be Hannah’s (Olivia Colman) only support system says it all. Tyrannosaur works because of the central relationship where mutually affectionate moments are able to burst through the defense mechanisms, secrets and stubbornness of the characters and the relentlessly bleak and violent nature of the film.
This is one of those ‘what do I do with myself now’ films that send one off into the world with a fuzzy haze of hopelessness. Some may not think it is worth it or that it does not justify being this depressing. But I appreciate Considine’s insistence on showing us two complicated people with no easy explanations to their predicaments or personalities. It is the matter-of-factness of it that I admire. Mullan has more rage than all the ‘angry young men’ characters of British cinema combined. He’s like the middle-aged present day result of those guys. Colman is in the most horrifically abusive marriage imaginable and has reached the point where excuses and suffering have seemingly buried escape.
18. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Durkin)
That Martha Marcy May Marlene held my spot at number 1 for a time after I saw it indicates that we have approached an even more intense level of appreciation for the films left on this list. Martha Marcy May Marlene disturbingly displays the susceptible nature of the mind and what mankind is capable of subverting through mutual groupthink. It is a complicated character study about a young woman unable to assimilate herself in any environment, and is left with heaps of traumas, sadly stubborn lingering ideologies and zero sense of self. She is a nearly broken being. Sean Durkin wrote and executed this story with staggering maturity. Some broad supporting characterization and some overstated dialogue only mildly hinder the experience. The complex characterization headlined by Olsen and the tension that instills the audience makes for a fearless film from a debut filmmaker.
17. Incendies (Villeneuve)
It has been many many months since I watched Incendies; almost a year. If I saw it again, it may even garner a higher spot on this list. After Biutiful and In a Better World left me underwhelmed (and with the former, downright annoyed), this is the other foreign language film nominee from last year’s Oscars that left an impact on me (the other is Dogtooth, which was my third favorite film of 2010, only to become my favorite after a rewatch taking over from Black Swan). It seems redundant to say that Incendies is involving, especially since I have been describing a number of films on this list as such. However, where some films involve me so much because I did not expect them to, for its thematic content or for filmmaking aspects more than anything else visceral or otherwise, Incendies involved me on a level of pure storytelling. There is no other film that involved me more this year (although several match it) on a storytelling level.
Remarkably devastating, the film balances political strife with the intensely personal and wraps it up in a disturbing familial central mystery. Several sequences are riveting, led by the wonderful Lubna Azabal. The film never feels small, with all of its war-torn setting, the unstoppable presence of politics and war and the linking of past and present using a flashback structure. Incendies leaves an indelible and powerful mark.
This is the most fun I had at the movies this year; by far the most satisfying action film I have seen since 2006’s Casino Royale. Brad Bird’s live-action debut proves that he has a knack for creating increasingly complicated set-pieces, never losing the high levels of energy, fun and genuine excitement he sets up for himself. There is literally no depth to this film at all and we are all the better for it.
This is what escapist cinema is all about. Seeing Tom Cruise reliably bringing his irreplaceable screen presence to the non-character that is Ethan Hunt is all we need. His penchant for doing as much of his own stunts as he can culminates in the stunning sequence atop the tallest skyscraper in the world; Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. There are no green-screen effects here; the cameras are filming onsite and Cruise really is leaping around and climbing on the outside. It is indescribably thrilling and revitalizing to see an action film pull out all the stops and give us onsite set-pieces that are a much-needed antidote to the typical green-screen action scene. Filmed in IMAX, it feels like we are up there with him; and this is only one scene. Each sequence would be a memorable standout of any other film; Ghost Protocol just gives us one after the other, constantly matching itself. The entire film keeps up this level of entertainment. To put it simply; I did not want this film to end.
Complete List of Films Seen in 2011: 13 Assassins, 50/50, A Better Life, A Dangerous Method, Albert Nobbs, American Grindhouse, Another Earth, Attack the Block, Beastly, Beginners, Being Elmo, Bellflower, Bill Cunningham, New York, Biutiful, Black Death, Bobby Fischer Against the World, Bridesmaids, Buck, Cameraman: the Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, Captain America: The First Avenger, Carnage, Cars 2, Caterpillar, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Cedar Rapids, Certified Copy, Cold Fish, Cold Weather, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, Contagion,, Cracks, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Dream Home, Drive, Edge of Dreaming, Hanna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Hesher, Hobo with a Shotgun, Horrible Bosses, Hugo, I Saw the Devil, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, In a Better World, In Time, Incendies, Insidious, J. Edgar, Jane Eyre, Kung Fu Panda 2, Last Night, Le Quattro Volte, Love Crime, Margin Call, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Meek’s Cutoff, Melancholia, Midnight in Paris, Mildred Pierce, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Moneyball, My Week with Marilyn, Of Gods and Men, Outrage, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Passion Play, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Poetry, Project Nim, Rampart, Rango, Red Riding Hood, Red State, Redline, Retreat, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rubber, Scream 4, Senna, Shame, Sleeping Beauty, Source Code, Submarine, Sucker Punch, Super, Super 8, Tabloid, Take Shelter, Terri, The Adventures of Tintin, The Arbor, The Artist, The Debt,The Descendants, The Devil’s Double, The Double Hour, The Future, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Green Hornet, The Help, The Housemaid, The Ides of March, The Last Circus, The Lincoln Lawyer, The Mill and the Cross, The Muppets, The Rite, The Roommate, A Separation, The Skin I Live In, The Sleeping Beauty, The Thing, The Tree of Life, The Trip, The Ward, The Woman, Thor, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, TrollHunter, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Tyrannosaur, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Unknown, War Horse, Warrior, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Weekend, Win Win, Winnie the Pooh, X-Men: First Class, Young Adult, Your Highness, Yves Saint-Laurent: L’Amour Fou