You may have noticed by now that I don’t really write “Best Of” lists. I write about favorites. My criteria is esoteric and personal in determining these things: How strongly did I “feel” during the film? How much did I gush about it to others? How long did I think about it when it was over? How much do I want to watch it again? This isn’t hardcore journalism here, folks. This is just a girl who watches, and loves, a lot of films.
2011 had some noticeable trends. Many of the best films, including at least one I have yet to see, harkened back to other eras. Hugo and The Artist celebrated silent film-making. War Horse emulated the rich landscapes and scenery of a John Ford film. My Week With Marilyn looked as if it was filmed in Technicolor. Super 8 was a Spielberg film circa 1982. On Twitter, I dubbed 2011 as “The Year We Hated The Present”.
Two other things I noticed: I’ve never been so captivated by silence (by that I mean lack of dialogue) as I was this year, and I don’t think I’ve used the word “beautiful” so often after seeing a variety of films (I mean visually, not topically).
As a final disclaimer to my amateur list, I must note that many major films haven’t been released here yet. In early 2012, I’ll be able to see The Artist, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Shame. Okay. Here we go.
15. WEEKEND/LIKE CRAZY
I feel like a cheat lumping these two together, but it makes sense in a way. Both fall into the same realm as Before Sunrise and Blue Valentine regarding the quiet, realistic portrayal of a struggling/fateful relationship. While Like Crazy’s protagonists veered into “frustrating” by the end, there was still something honest in the portrayal, especially for anyone who has ever had a relationship that they just HAD TO MAKE WORK for reasons that become unclear over time. Weekend perfectly captured the glorious, terrifying feeling of getting to know someone new, and it was a breath of fresh air to see a film about a gay relationship without the main conflict being “GAY!”.
I am a young person with an incurable disease. Granted, mine isn’t cancer, nor is it potentially fatal, but it can make my personal life complicated and the diagnosis period of my life was filled with a lot of overcompensating affections, pandering, sympathetic looks, and general misunderstandings. Adam’s journey is realistic and sentimental in all the right ways. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s star has been rising for a few years now, but his performance here allowed me to glimpse the entirety of his potential. Subtle and nuanced, he hit the right notes. Also, does he remind anyone else more and more of Heath Ledger? As he gets older, I feel like he’s channeling Heath, and I’m okay with that.
I’m a sucker for a few things. Sports movies, baseball in particular, is one of them. Maybe I like the thrill of living vicariously, since athletics aren’t exactly my strong suit. Or maybe I just love a good underdog story, which most sports-oriented films inevitably are. In the grand tradition of The Bad News Bears and Major League, Moneyball is another story about a ragtag baseball team except this time IT REALLY HAPPENED! Because of MATH! I wasn’t following baseball during my college years, which is when this film takes place, so I had no idea that the A’s won that record-breaking game. I can tell you that scene is the most tense, on-the-edge-of-my-seat I’ve ever been during a sports flick, and I watch a lot of them. Everyone says Ryan Gosling owned 2011, and I certainly would agree, but Brad Pitt makes a very solid First Runner-Up. His turn in this and in Tree of Life are the sort of performances careers are made on, and he proved he’s still got it.
12. TAKE SHELTER
This may sound stupid, but one of the things I liked best about this movie was that it didn’t fall into any of the tropes I suspected of it as I watched. Not one of my “Oh, I see where this is going“‘s panned out, and I always appreciate that. Is there going to be a huge, embarrassing situation that pits him against the town? Kind of, but not really. Is he going to lose his family because of this? Nope. OHMYGOD IS HE GOING TO MURDER HIS FAMILY DOWN IN THAT SHELTER OR NOT LET THEM OUT OHMYGOD. Not at all. The dream sequences were the scariest things I saw on film all year, and yet, while being utterly disturbing, the film managed to make a quiet parallel between his situation and mental illness. That he was so self-aware of his situation at any given time was unexpected. And I like the unexpected.
11. INTO THE ABYSS
I’ve been pretty vocal on my feelings about the death penalty. Werner Herzog’s doc was a must-see for me, and I wasn’t disappointed. While, in one sentence near the beginning, Herzog makes his feelings about the capital system known, the film doesn’t seem to take one side or the other. It presents facts. It presents both victims and perpetrators. It shows you the entire crime, including brutal crime scene footage. It let’s you draw your own conclusions. I can only imagine that being interviewed by Werner Herzog would be a total trip, yet it is continually astounding what he is able to bring out in people. At one point, Herzog interviews the father of one of the perpetrators, who is also doing time for an unrelated charge. This is where the film gelled for me, and where it hit its deepest emotional core.
In my opinion, Warrior was possibly the most underrated film of the year. It’s almost impossible to ignore comparisons with The Fighter, and while it was one of my favorites last year, Warrior tackles similar subject matter much more deftly. This film never holds your hand, and I like a film, a mainstream film at that, that trusts the audience to put things together on its own. We never know exactly why this family is at odds, but the script and acting cues offer enough context clues that we don’t feel cheated. Tom Hardy’s Tommy is a man of few words, but, as with many films in 2011, silence is golden. If you haven’t seen Warrior yet, I suggest you make it a priority in 2012. I don’t buy movies very often anymore, but this is one I want for my collection. And Nick Nolte: Bravo.
9. MY WEEK WITH MARILYN
The look of Technicolor. Many discussions about Method acting. Seeing Vivien Leigh and Arthur Miller portrayed to a T. Michelle Williams’ performance. This was a theater nerd/cinephile’s wet dream. Was it groundbreaking or subversive? No. Did it push any envelopes or remind me what it is exactly that film can do? No. But I loved the shit out of every minute of this movie. It succeeded where J. Edgar failed: J. Edgar tried to compress into 2 hours what was a very long and fascinating life; Marilyn took one particular instance and leisurely let you fold into it. The result was clunkiness for the former, delicate voyeurism for the latter. We, as the audience, didn’t see as Marilyn Monroe, we saw Marilyn Monroe through Colin Clark’s eyes, who was just as star-struck as any of us would have been. Note: I loved that there was no epilogue. No “And then Marilyn Monroe was found dead, etc etc etc blah blah blah”. The film acknowledges that the audience might know a thing or two besides what’s immediately in front of us.
8. WIN WIN
I feel like Thomas McCarthy’s first three films could almost be an unofficial trilogy. The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win all deal with men struggling to figure out their lives and finding unlikely families in the process. The humor, message, and even color palette are the same throughout. “The Found Families” Trilogy. Don’t steal it. I’ll send him a memo. And damned if Alex Shaffer isn’t a young Sean Penn. I hope he gets offered more roles, but I always fear the Stallone Problem: Oh you mean he IS Rocky, and that’s why he’s so good.
7. THE DESCENDANTS
Another film where my personal life may or may not have clouded my feelings about what I was seeing. I have all sorts of Sick Mom Anger Issues, and while my mother is still very much alive, the frustration of forced silence lingers. I spoke with someone else who thought that the mommy issues were secondary to Matt’s struggles, but if his wife were not in the state she was in, would we even have a movie? Even though it’s in the background, Matt’s relationship with his wife is what propels the majority of the action. But what sticks out for me is the silence. She can’t be confronted. She can’t deny her actions or defend them. No one can vent their anger or frustration at her. She’s a blank slate, and the characters have to play off of that void. This aspect resonates with me in ways I hope you will never have to understand, and seeing it portrayed on screen was cathartic.
This isn’t the last film on my list that reminds me of how magical movies can be, and isn’t that really the point of the film? People have reduced it down to an homage to Melies, a call for film preservation, a vague autobiography of Scorsese himself. But when you boil it down, didn’t Marty just make a film about the magic of film? Within the film, cinema brings people together and tears them apart. It both makes and ruins lives. It is our greatest triumph and our biggest tragedy. It is our own reflection. That’s what I got anyway, and Marty doesn’t hold back in using every tool available to him to make the story burst with life on screen. The CGI didn’t annoy me. The 3D was breathtaking. The historical context was appropriate without being disarming. Scorsese created a world defined in the opening sequences, and then expanded on each visual to full effect. I was sold the moment we saw Hugo’s larger than life eyes peer out of the clock in the train station. It’s important to notice iconic images as they happen. I feel privileged to have noted and remembered it the first time through. We’ll see it over and over again in years to come.
5. ATTACK THE BLOCK
In all fairness, I just watched this movie last night and haven’t had the proper time to digest it. But, it should say something that it instantaneously made it into my top five. It’s like the creepy negative version of Super 8, but works just as effectively if not more so (depending on your taste). Instead of white suburban kids fighting aliens with kindness, we get a rag tag crew of of urban hoodlums fighting evil aliens with guns, knives, and Super Soakers. Instead of the world stopping in awe to watch the alien depart, we see kids getting arrested as the aliens burn. The two movies would make a great film-study double feature about how to diversify a familiar story.
4. WAR HORSE
Sorry, guys. I’m a Spielberg nut, and in terms of directing this is some of his best work. Yes, my God, it is ridiculously sentimental and manipulative, but that’s always been Steve’s niche, no? What he lacks in subtlety he makes up for in skill behind the camera here, because any film junkie’s breath should be stolen by the stunning landscapes, transitions, camera work and color palette. I don’t generally do well with stories about animals, it’s the one thing I’m overly sensitive about, but sitting through the few gut-wrenching scenes (I had to hide my eyes) was well worth it. It’s the sort of film you feel nostalgic about even while you’re watching it. It doesn’t seem of this time or place, and you can picture children, as they age, telling stories about how it was the first movie that made them cry, or the first movie that really made them appreciate film as a medium. Or maybe it’s just the sort of movie that will confuse the children of 2011 into thinking they were watching an older movie, in the same way that Happy Days confused me when I was younger: Wait, it’s from WHAT year? Those sort of reactions aren’t to be ignored; they signify an achievement in film-making that only few can accomplish: timelessness.
I honestly didn’t think I would like this movie. I’ve shied away from von Trier because I have a thing against movies that appear to be disturbing for disturbing’s sake. However, I walked out of the theater shaking in a way that I’ve never shook before. I was ecstatic about what I’d just seen, not depressed. The culmination of music and visuals at the end affected me physically, and I can’t think of another film I can say that about. It was the most visceral experience I’ve ever had in a movie theater. There isn’t a whole lot I can say for people that haven’t had the experience, but I can offer a protip for those who will be watching it at home: Watch it in the dark with the volume as loud as you dare.
2. SUPER 8
This was my number one film of the year, easily, until I saw the movie that became my number one. I’ve gone over this again and again, reading about other opinions about film in general, but, is there anything wrong with getting lost in a movie that simply reminds you of the magic of movies? Leaving Super 8 for the first time, I had a feeling that I hadn’t had since Jurassic Park. It was a feeling that other cinephiles should recognize, regardless of the film, that feeling of your world opening up and knowing you’d just seen something truly special. It makes your heart pound and your senses open. It makes you want to tell everyone you come across to RUN DO NOT WALK TO THE NEAREST THEATER. It makes you almost want to punch someone who doesn’t share the same opinion because the feeling you just had is too good not to be had by others. It makes you high. From the stunning train crash to the deep, sad eyes of Joel Courtney, Super 8 hits every emotional beat. Here’s how it breaks down. I can think of two artists that, in my opinion, can write and portray children better than any other: Stephen King and Steven Spielberg. This ability is what makes their best stories, and their best characters, stand out in what is often considered overly popular pap. I know Super 8 is an Abrams film, but come on, we all know what Abrams was up to here, and it worked. Becoming the next Spielberg means harnessing his magic, and harnessing much of his magic involves grasping the idea of child-like wonder. It reduces the audience to its most basic, common denominators.
I feel pressure to say something profound here. ::panic:: For as much style and thematic riffing as Drive had, it really synthesized itself down to its most basic components. Romance meets gangsters meets violence meets tragedy. It could be a thousand other films, but no film is Drive. It’s so tightly wound that you can feel the spring about to pop at any moment and in each of the films many silences you can read into it at least a thousand words. When we left the theater, my friend and I decided that Drive is a combination of Tarantino and Lynch; the story and its bursts of hyper-realistic violence are Tarantinoesque, but its bizarre, silent distance with unsettling shots such as the Driver staring into the club with that mask on are Lynch at his best. It’s a weird combination, and neither director has been mentioned in terms of the films myriad influences, but it’s what I saw immediately, and made me wonder what it would be like if those two dudes ever decided to work together. It was the highlight of My Year At The Movies. I hope you’ve enjoyed your stay.
Martha Marcy May Marlene, Tree of Life
I really liked both, but the former made me feel nothing, and I’m sick of those ‘huh’ endings, and the latter made me feel so much that I need to watch it again before I decide anything.
MOVIE I ALMOST PUT ON MY LIST BUT DIDN’T OUT OF FEAR OF BEING SHUNNED
The Twilight Saga, Breaking Dawn Part 1
The best of the series, bros. Sorry to say.
MY FAVORITE SUPERHERO MOVIE
X-Men: First Class
MOST EMBARRASSING MOVIE-GOING CONFESSION
I got weepy every single god damned time I saw a trailer for Titanic 3D.
The Swell Season
FAVORITE UNNECESSARY REMAKE