Thursday, January 12, 2012

Top of the Class: The 10 Best Films of 2011

Now that i've lashed out on the worst of the worst, it's time for me to honor the best of the best of what 2011 had to offer. There was nostalgia this year at the movies, from a love letter to Paris and the Roaring 20s, all the way to a a big, fat kiss to the silent movie era. We said goodbye to a beloved wizard, and one director said hello to the future of movies, and an all-female cast put the boys to shame in the comedy war. These are the movies you should have seen, need to see, and the types of movies that the Suits at Hollywood need to make more of.

1. The Artist - Of all the movies that came out this year, none made me more hopeful for filmmaking or stood out more than writer/director Michel Hazanavicius' love letter to the silent movie era. The Artist is exactly what you think it is: it's a silent, black-and-white movie, about a silent movie superstar in George Valentin (the brilliant Jean Durjardin) on the brink of obscurity as the talkies replace silent movies as the new way foreword in filmmaking, a wave the young, energetic Peppy Miller (an incandescent Berenice Bejo) rides to become Hollywood's newest and brightest star. How these two lives cross and collide lies at the heart of this musical/romantic-comedy/melodrama. I know what you're thinking: Everything that i've said so far sounds like this movie is a nice gimmick with heartwarming performances and a luscious scenery, but where's the substance? The substance is that The Artist reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place: we want to be entertained; we want to laugh, feel for the characters on-screen, and get lost in a world that we've not seen before. In this film's case, it's a world we've longed forgotten about, yet still feels familiar. It's often funny, it tugs at your heartstrings without being sappy, and its poignant and sentimental without demanding that you take out your hankey. In short - this movie is damn-near perfect.

2. Hugo - Martin Scorsese, the same man who uses gangsters, mob bosses, deranged degenerates,  crime and corruption as a torchway to the human condition, made a family film? And it's in 3D!? If it sounds like the man who made Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and The Departed has jumped the shark, prepare to be wrong and make room for this enchanting, visual and emotional masterwork that ranks alongside all the movies mentioned. Based on the story, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Scorsese's take on a orphan boy (a revelatory Asa Butterfield) trying to piece together a mechanical writing machine in 1930's Paris is more than what its synopsis reveals: It is a lovely, passion-filled ode to magic of cinema itself. Watching a never-better Ben Kingsley as the magician/filmmaker, turned toy mechanic in a montage of his days as a filmmaker with his wife is wondrous to behold, as is Scorsese's masterful use of the 3D technology, DanterFerretti's gorgeous art direction, and longtime Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker's top-notch level editing. Hugo shines a light on film's glorious past and gives you hope for it's future.

3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II - How do you put a capper on this generation's equivalent of the Star Wars saga after 10 years? By going out with an emotional and thrilling bang that deserves a Best Picture nomination the Academy has denied the franchise all this time. While Part I acted as a mere teaser to the final showdown between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Finnes, capturing the malice of You-Know-Who to a "T"), Part II races towards the finish line with a thrillingly-staged battle between the Death-Eaters, Voldemort's dark army, and the staff and students at Hogwarts. Yet, it is the film's quieter moments - the aftermath of the battle as Harry sees death and destruction fills the Great Hall, to the epilogue 19 years later, that give the film it's haunting, bittersweet and cathartic power. Everyone from Radcliffe, Emma Watson as Hermione and Rupert Grint as Ron bring their A-game, but the actor who triumphs here is Alan Rickman, as his true nature is finally revealed to Harry in a flashback of Snape's life, and his grieving heart. Of all the blockbusters to come out of 2011, it's the last installment of the Potter franchise which really stays with you, even after the credits roll. That's the film's real magic act.

4. Drive - In a year where Ryan Gosling played a disillusioned spin man for a Presidential campaign (The Ides of March) and a smooth-talking womanizer helping a soon-to-be divorced 40-something man get back in the dating game (Crazy Stupid Love), it's his role as a Hollywood stuntman/getaway drive for the bad guys protecting a mother and his kid from the mob that lands him in my 10 best list. Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn borrows from other crime movies like Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, Michael Mann's Collateral, Joel and Ethan Coen's Fargo and Sergi Leone's Man with No Name trilogy to create a stylistic, ultraviolet crime noir tale of a heist gone wrong and car chases that put to shame all of the Fast and the Furious movies. And who knew Albert Brooks could play a mob boss with such malice and menace?

5. The Descendants - Alexander Payne follows up to his dramedy 2004 classic Sideways with this hilarious and bruising Hawaiian family drama about a workaholic lawyer coming to terms with his wife's infidelity as she lies in a hospice about to be taken off life support, and his overall absence as a father. George Clooney scores a career-best performance as the weary husband dealing with his wife's impending death, his two daughters; reckless teenager Alexandria (a touching Shaileen Woodley) and ten year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), and a looming decision on whether to sell his handed-down 250,000-acre Kauai land for a big payday. In lesser hands, this would've been a sappy family melodrama. In Payne's, not a moment rings false or reeks of sentimental overkill as he balances hilarity as Matt and family head to confront the man who's been having an affair with his wife, (Matthew Lillard, who knew you had that in you!?) and themes of death and forgiveness, as Matt confronts his wife one last time in the hospice.

6. Moneyball - Here's an analogy: Moneyball is a movie about baseball, as The Social Network is a movie about Facebook, meaning it isn't. Instead of focusing on how Oakland's GM Billy Beane won 20 games in a row to catapult his team into the playoffs by going cheap, screenwriters Steve Zallian and Aaron Sorkin and director Bennett Miller dive into how Beane and number-crunching stat guru Peter Brand changed the nature of the game by going beyond batting averages and name recognition. Brad Pitt shines as Beane, a man haunted by past mistakes and his failure in the big leagues as a player for the Mets; Phillip Seymore Hoffman is near-perfect as the stoic Art Howe, the manager wrestling with Beane's new system and managing a band of misfits; and Jonah Hill nails the analytical mind of Brand. Best of all is the razor-sharp script penned by Zallain and Sorkin as they capture the conflict between the old ways of running a franchise and the new one emerging , and the excitement and the heartbreak of wining and losing the game.

7. The Skin I Live In - Pedro Almodóvar's latest movie seems oddly normal on the surface: Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) has successfully crafted a new kind of skin that cannot burn, thanks to years of testing and research by his test subject Vera (Elena Anaya) and assistant Marilia (Marisa Paredes). What drives this experiment is one dark, twisted rabbit hole that the acclaimed Spanish filmmaker takes us down, as each revelation is as shocking as the last, but almost never borders on full-on camp. Banderas is terrific as 21st century Frankenstein as he pushes his experiment to darker, disturbing venues, and Anaya's performance as Vera is as harrowing as it is quietly haunting.

8. Pariah - You won't recognize a single person in the beginning of this coming of age/coming out drama, but by the time it ends, you won't forget the name Adepero Oduye. She's brilliant as Alike, the 17 year-old African-American high school student struggling to come out to her ultra-religious mom (Kim Waynes) and her dad (Charles Parnell), and struggling to accept she herself is gay. First time director Dee Rees takes a familiar storyline and tells a powerful, heartbreaking and uplifting story of youth balancing identity and adversity and animosity without having both break her soaring spirit. The final lines is Alike's poem, which we see and hear the pain and exhilaration bursting from her voice, "Even breaking is opening. And I am broken. I am open." That's the best way to describe Oduye's knockout performance and this movie.

9. Midnight In Paris - Confession: Besides the 2008 comedy/melodrama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I have never watched a Woody Allen film, so I can't comment on whether or not Midnight in Paris ranks among his finest works like Annie Hall or Hanna and Her Sisters. But I can say is that i've never left the theater more giddy or drunk on films like Allen left me this summer. Not since Pixar's Ratatouille has there been a more intoxicating and perfectly filmed love letter to the city of Paris, France, but the 78 year-old writer/director goes one better: he throws in his admiration for writers and artists of the Roaring 20s, from Ernest Hemingway to Salvador Dali - literally as Gil (a terrific Owen Wilson) time travels to meet and party with his heroes every night, escaping his bitchy fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her staunch conservative parents. After 94 minutes in Allen's beautiful fantasy about escaping from reality, I've become a fan.

10 (tie) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Hanna - Both these well-crafted thrillers are the anti-James Bond and Jason Bourne, which makes both all the more exciting to watch. Tinker Tailor gives Gary Oldman of the finest performances of the year as George Smiley, a disgraced MI-6 agent brought back to uncover a mole within British Intelligence. But who is the mole within the agency? I'll never tell, but the supporting performances of Britain's finest - Toby Jones, Oscar-winner Colin Firth, Ciran Hinds, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, and Mark Strong come up aces as Smiley unravels the life - and lies - of each suspect in this cat-and-mouse drama that messes with your head and keeps you guessing until the end. And Joe Wright rebounds from the sentimental overkill of The Soloist with the livewire Hanna, a fast-paced kill-or-be killed thriller shot with kinetic style and an arthouse feel i'd never expected from the British director. Saoirse Ronan is acting dynamite as the title character, a teen training in the wilderness with her rouge father (Eric Bana) for one mission: kill Marissa Weigler, (Cate Blanchette) the CIA agent responsible for her mother's death...or die trying. The action scenes, along with the terrific electro-beat score of the Chemical Brothers, are the shot of adrenaline the multiplex needed after 3-plus months of cinematic dreck.

Best of the Rest: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Bridesmaids; Shame; Pariah; Super 8; Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Young Adult; Win Win; 50/50; Attack the Block


Anonymous said...

I may never see the artist but Berenice Bejo is fine.

Jonathan said...

You must see The Artist. Or, at the very least, watch it when it comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray. It really is a fantastic and dazzling movie experience.

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