Saturday, December 31, 2011

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And Now the End Is Near: Best of 2011

Yes, friends, it's the annual year-end Top 25 Films Countdown. These lists are always fluid, always changing. When I look back at last year's Fifteen Honorable Mentions and the Ten Best, I find myself second-guessing the placements of The Runaways and The American (should be higher), Piranha 3D and The Kids Are All Right (should be lower), but I still feel confident that the titles themselves are right. Maybe I would now switch out For Colored Girls and Never Let Me Go for The Runaways and Get Low. But then I remember certain moments of each film and think, "Hm. Maybe not."

I've still got so much to see, so much that could still qualify for the Hollmann Awards (dare I limit it to movies I actually saw in 2011?). Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Win Win, Rango, Melancholia, Meek's Cutoff, Warrior, Pariah, Jane Eyre, Captain America, The Housemaid, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Margin Call, Coriolanus, A Better Life...these are the films I still need to see. It just didn't happen for me.

In all, I saw 82 films this year, a pretty good number I think, though nowhere near the hundred-plus that more energetic writers manage to pull off. If I waited until I saw the fourteen listed, of course, I would have 95, which is still close, but....

Ach. What of it? There are still only 25 slots, meaning that I had to cruelly, painfully cast off 57 other flicks. Ok, maybe only 51, since there are seven films that I found to be just terrible (Another Earth, Bride Flight, Cat Run, The Descendants, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Jack & Jill, In Time, The Robber). Suffice to say, I did have to whittle down, justify positioning, try to remember which ones I enjoyed, which ones fell short. I tried to keep movies I wouldn't watch again, movies I only liked but didn't love, movies that I barely remember, off the list entirely. I tried my best. I'm sure that by next year, I'll have decided that The Big Year really did deserve a mention in my Top Ten. Doubtful, even though I know I'll buy it, but perceptions and opinions change with time.

Enough of that bullshit. You want to see the list. Ladies and gentlemen, the ranked list of the fifteen semi-finalists; or, 25-11 of the Top 25.

25. The Iron Lady
(Number 8 on 25 Most Anticipated)
Also the last film I saw in 2011. While it may not be the most cleanly put-together film, I found the attempt not just laudable, but sometimes exciting. It makes me want to learn more about the period, more about Maggie and Thatcherism, more about the workings of the British government. Phyllida Lloyd has now caught Meryl at her broadest and at her most realistic. Even Thatcher's BIG scenes ring true. Generally, I liked it.

24. War Horse
(Number 17 on 25 Most Anticipated)
Those first ten minutes were rough going, but once that horse went to war, Spielberg worked his magic. The title creature manages to bring hope to those who come in contact with it, a necessity in a time as dire as the First World War. It seems a fleeting hope; war dooms the young, the old, the brave, the fearful. Still, they hold on to this miracle horse that has managed to survive against all logic. Yes, for some it may prove futile, but that horse inspires faith and courage in a time where men shoot blindly in a godless no man's land. Yeah, it got me.

23. Shame
A film that I more respected than liked when I saw it, I found myself falling deeper in love with every conversation I had about it. A sterile and dirty picture, with Fassbender's intense, controlled turn boosted by Mulligan's surprisingly loose, painful support. The single-take date scene between Fassbender and Nicole Beharie is riveting, with the growing intimacy implied through the seemingly banal conversation. Sound, editing, cinematography, etc., all working in perfect harmony.

22. The Muppets
I did find some problems with the ending, but the movie does accomplish what it sets out to do: remind us how much we love and miss those felt vaudevillians. If the subplot concerning the human characters doesn't quite gel, it's because the Muppets themselves are written with such careful depth and consideration. And really, it's all about them, so fuck the humans.

21. Gnomeo & Juliet
Oh, goodness, this is just some of the most fun I've had all year. It's got corny jokes and stupid puns, but it also boasts some clever moments and engaging characters. Sue me. I love it.

20. Hugo
(Number 10 on 25 Most Anticipated)
 The costumes, Sacha Baron Cohen's phone conversations, the score, the 3D work, visual effects, etc., etc., etc. Ben Kingsley and Helen McCrory are the standouts, for me, as you see the light in their eyes when they can finally recall with fondness a time they tried to forget. It is not just about a love of cinema, but about every man's fulfillment of his purpose. Those who do not, suffer; those who do, are greatly rewarded. A beauty.
19. The Artist
Like Hugo, there's more to this film than just some metaphorical snogging of a bygone era. Certainly the conceit of a modern-day silent film about an actor threatened by the emergence of sound can initially seem like a gimmicky, one-off artistic exercise. But might it not also be the perfect depiction of the stubbornness and ego of an establishment that prefers to turn a deaf ear to progress rather than make a compromise? Yes, The Artist, the delightful comedy with heroic animals, cigar-chomping producers and tap-dancing finales, somehow managed to symbolize the current climate better than any other film this year.

18. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
(Number 11 on 25 Most Anticipated)
How surprised I am by this ranking! I hotly anticipated it last year, grew excited as the year went on, started to feel a little suffocated by the insistently "bad-ass" image it forced on the public, heard a few "mehs" from friends and critics I respect....then I saw it. Hooked from the opening credits, I found a mystery that trusts its audience to follow the details, protagonists with palpable chemistry, performances that intrigued and impressed, editing that ratcheted up the suspense until it became almost unbearable, and Enya. Well done.

17. Hanna
Yes, sometimes the early bird does catch the worm. A unique treat from earlier this year, Hanna gave me a different Joe Wright than what I was used to. He and his crew, and of course leading lady Saoirse Ronan, manage to create a new world out of the one we already know, one where the lights and noise of the city are a blinding cacophany to a girl raised in isolation. Ronan's sometimes feral innocent is the main attraction, of course, but the sharp editing, dreamy cinematography, fantastical sets -- they're worth it. Also, Cate Blanchett.

16. Carnage
Stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of false exits, interrupted conversations, ringing phones and vomit, two couples attempt to settle as adults a conflict among their children. Subtly, skillfully directed by Roman Polanski, who allows his actors to go vein-popping nuts without losing credibility. I thought so, anyway. Hard to pick a standout. Kate Winslet gets one line reading that I would hail as best-in-show; God, how I laughed! Yet Jodie Foster and Christoph Waltz really do walk with it, he with ease, she with unexpected violence. Probably not everyone's cuppa, but I'll have some, thanks.

15. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
When discussing Apes with friends, it was always brought up how underdeveloped and poorly-written the human characters were. My defense: it's not their story; it's a movie wherein a hyper-intelligent ape becomes a hero by freeing aggressive primates and revolting against humanity. Look at it as a history written by the eventual winners.  It can't be accidental, either; Caesar, Rocket and Maurice are too well-developed and expertly-written. It's the rise of the apes from their point of view, and every moment actually had me on the edge of my seat. So help me, Lawgiver, it did!

14. Submarine
And then there's this surprisingly sweet tale of a somewhat pretentious, neurotic, dickish, British 15-year-old. It's been quite a year for young actors, and to a list that already includes Ronan, the Hugo kids, and the cast of Super 8, we can safely and proudly add Craig Gregory -- whose portrayal of Oliver reveals all the unconscious negatives without becoming insufferable -- and Yasmin Paige -- whose portrayal of his crush naturally conveys the pain, vanity and confusion of the age. A unique, promising debut from Richard Ayoade.

13. Ceremony
I don't know how to explain it. On the surface, it has all the trappings of your Typical Indie Film, with the mature/pretentious/intellectual young guy, the beautiful older woman who for some reason befriends him, the bohemian wedding party, the anachronistic clothing. But there's a deeper level here, one that explores flaky women who never grow up, egoists capable of self-sacrifice, trauma victims who hold on to every wound instead of opening themselves up to healing. And of course, a generation of young people with all the promise and ego of success with none of the humility or self-awareness to actually achieve it. It's a film about the excuses we make so we don't have to move on. And that shit cuts deep.

12. The Skin I Live In
Winner of the Most Deliciously Shocking Reveal of the Year award.

11. Albert Nobbs
I guess #11 is my slot for quiet character studies that precursors love and critics are lukewarm on. Like last year's Get Low, Nobbs surprised me with its warmth and humor, while still leaving me a tear-wracked mess by film's end. My introduction to Rodrigo Garcia tells me he has a light touch, yet a confident one that knows just what to do with his actors and camera. It doesn't draw attention to itself, but it makes a difference. Count me as one of those hoping it will be recognized for costume and original song. Oh, and Glenn Close's beautiful performance, of course.

And now we move on to the second half: The Top Ten of the Year. These are presented alphabetically, for those of you who follow the Hollmann Awards with great anticipation every year. After all, I must have some sort of suspense. Last year, I had a thing for 

Black Swan
I Am Love
The Social Network
The Fighter
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Easy A
The King's Speech
Never Let Me Go
For Colored Girls that order. This year, only five of these films will make it to the Hollmann Awards. Will I once again favor Oscar fare? Will I find room for a foreign language film? Will you find your favorite film of the year among the Ten? There's only one way to find out, isn't there?

I am an unapologetic fan of the films of Roland Emmerich, and while not all of the actors were quite up to the task, I confess to being spellbound by this period thriller. The arts vs. the government; conspiracies, politics, sex...MURDER??? Give Emmerich and writer John Orloff credit where it's due: they know how to keep an audience entertained. Rhys Ifans' somber portrait of a nobleman hiding his genius is one of the more haunting performances this year; Vanessa Redgrave brought the crazy equally well. Yet I was most caught off guard by Edward Hogg's hunchbacked villain, a pitiable, wonderful creation whose final speech said as much about his character as it did Ifans'. And the efforts of visual effects supervisors Volker Engel and Marc Weigert cannot go unpraised. Meticulous and seamless.

A quiet surprise that has stayed me since I saw it alone in the theater down the street. I love the chemistry between Melanie Laurent and Ewan McGregor; the sensitive handling of Christopher Plummer's storyline; the sidetracking that reveals how McGregor makes sense of what's happening. It's a lovely little love gem.

(Number 4 of 25 Most Anticipated)
I just found it very involving. The Matt Damon storyline was heartbreaking; the Jude Law storyline rang true. Laurence Fishburne underplays for once. But it was Jennifer Ehle, an actress that was barely on my radar before, who blew me away. Hers is a simple character, but Ehle's performance is carefully layered and authentic. This isn't just another Movie Scientist. I know that woman. Little nuances in the acting, Scott Z. Burns' script, and Steven Soderbergh's overall handling of it all, brought up unlikely triumphs amid chaos. I teared up a little, I have to say.

Heard I should see it, so I caught the midnight. Twelve hours later, I was back in the theater for a second go-round. It was even better. There's an ugly beauty to the film, which is to be expected when a pretty mug like Ryan Gosling gets blood splatter all over his face. Every choice in editing, cinematography and music create a woozy nightmare, a fairy tale gone wrong, where the white knight is sadistic, the damsel in distress is already wed, and the villain is just as human and sympathetic as his victims. Operatic.

The Ides of March
(Number 3 on 25 Most Anticipated) 
A political drama reflecting the problem with politics today -- and it ain't just our leaders, folks. It's also the bright-eyed optimists who seek to canonize their candidate, ignoring the fact that people in power are all rather corrupt, and as for politicians....! It took me back to my marathon of 1964 political films, with the sophistication, wit and honesty of The Best Man and pieces of Seven Days in May. Sharp dialogue, epic score (really, it's a big score for such a small story, but it works), quiet Philip Seymour Hoffman. Quieter, anyway.

Midnight in Paris
(Number 1 on 25 Most Anticipated)
I needed this. It was magical and lovely.

Super 8
You know, I understand the flaws of the film. It's uneven, it's beats are incomplete, the finale doesn't quite make sense if you think about it. I understand all that when I hear others talk about it -- but it hasn't bothered me yet while watching it. I've surrendered myself to a love story between two adolescents, an ensemble of best friends that I recognize, an ode to move magic (quite a theme this year). Then there's Giacchino's score, which some call manipulative; I call it "effective...appropriate". And the confrontation between father and son kills me.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
(Number 9 on 25 Most Anticipated)
Thrice I've seen this now. Deliberately-paced, boasting the best ensemble of the year, Tinker Tailor is quiet, grey, and surprisingly thrilling. It's a film of loyalties and infidelities, whether towards one's country, friends, or marriage. It's a film of a lost generation, trying to keep their heads high as the victors of a world war while checking over their shoulders during a cold one.

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Nightmarish and hypnotic. Eva isn't Joan Crawford, but she isn't exactly mother of the year, either. Did she birth Satan's spawn...or did she push him there through years of obvious dislike and distance? It's nature vs. nurture -- or non-nurture, rather -- and the ever-incredible Tilda Swinton once again crafts an unforgettable human being haunted by mistakes she may or may not have made. The bold cinematographic and editing choices give us an insight into Eva's fractured state of mind. A surreal and sickening masterwork.

Young Adult
Diablo Cody's strongest work yet. Charlize Theron beautifully sketches in the depression, self-doubt and anger that fuels Mavis Gary's destructive path back to her high school boyfriend, now married with a kid. A painfully funny character study.

1 comment:

Andrew K. said...

"quiet Philip Seymour Hoffman. Quieter, anyway."

Love that line. People seem to hate PSH for being a ham, I don't find him to be really that over the top - but he is loud. I don't have the energy to comment on everything, but The Ides of March in your top ten is the surprise in particular. I too appreciated it, although unlike you I did not expect to. And that score is profound. Desplat is a wonder.