Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Best Films of 2011

Every year, when I compile my best-of-the-year list, people ask me, when did you find the time to see all of these films? The answer is, Thursday. Nearly every weekend this semester, I was working on a film shoot. Somehow, I ended up with a small window of time on Thursday afternoons, and so I carefully tried to take advantage of that time to catch up with the new releases. 2011 was an incredible year for films. For the first time in ages, I can honestly say that every single movie in my top twenty-five were considered at some point for the final top ten list.

1. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)

When watching Martin Scorsese’s new film Hugo, it’s as if my love for Scorsese has come full circle. I first fell in love with him – in obsession with him, really – when I was eleven years old, when I watched VHS copies of Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990) and Taxi Driver (1976) almost back-to-back. On a visceral and emotional level, I had never seen anything like these pictures. These first encounters with Scorsese occurred only a few months after the death of my father, and in a way, the events are forever linked in my mind. My eyes were opened to a different kind of world – a place where pain, obsession and guilt were always present, and the only way to express this pain was through cinema.

Although every one of Scorsese’s pictures is extremely personal – after all, that’s what’s so effective about his films – Hugo may be Scorsese’s most personal film of all. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a young boy living in the walls of a Parisian train station in the 1930s, discovers that an automaton left for him by his recently deceased father (Jude Law) may unlock the mystery behind George Méliès (Ben Kingsley), an unhappy elderly man who owns a toy shop in the train station. What Hugo and his newfound friend Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), Méliès’ goddaughter, gradually discover is that Méliès is one of the original pioneers of cinema, the director of over five hundred pictures and a revolutionary filmmaker. However, most of his films are believed to have been destroyed and melted at the rise of World War I, and Méliès, a broken machine without a purpose, resigns from life and fades into obscurity – until Hugo, who understands the pain of having one’s hopes and dreams disintegrate into flames – sets out to restore Méliès’ work.

Ah, film preservation – Scorsese’s most passionate cause, and the real subject of Hugo. The film is all about time, cruel time that batters away at celluloid. As the clocks tick-tock away in Hugo, the memories of our lives are slowly dying, the celluloid burning into ash and the preservation of our past decaying. But how can we let time destroy the magic and power of the cinema, of our memories?

The film gets you caught up in the magic of moviemaking, to the point where the audience gasps in astonishment at the beautiful remaining print of Méliès’ film A Trip to the Moon (1902), screened by film scholar Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), who worships Méliès, but, like many, believes him to be dead – until Hugo and Isabelle prove otherwise. Watching Hugo with an audience, there were further gasps of awe when Méliès – in one of the most visually arresting and beautiful flashback sequences I have ever seen – splices together a cut in one of his early films. It had never occurred to me that so many people would not have known the process behind film editing, but there you go.

To say that Hugo is the finest use of 3D technology that I’ve ever seen doesn’t do justice to what Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson achieve with this picture. I don’t particularly like 3D, and yet the visual bravura of Hugo has convinced me that, when utilized by a master filmmaker and treated as an artistic device, it is a major cinematic innovation, on par with the innovations of Méliès and the Lumière Brothers.

This movie is so rich – not just visually, but emotionally – that even after four viewings I am still overwhelmed by it. The performances, from the brilliant and hilarious physical comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Station Inspector, to Kingsley’s nuanced, powerful portrayal of Méliès, are superb. The editing, by the wonderful and loyal Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, is as crisp and exciting as ever.

But in the end, if Scorsese is Hugo, the film preservationist – the boy who restores the magic in a broken machine – then Méliès can be seen as a stand-in for any one of Scorsese’s filmmaking influences whose work he has restored through his Film Foundation, including Michael Powell, Elia Kazan, Luchino Visconti and, of course, Méliès himself. But surely Scorsese knows that, by the end of Hugo, when Méliès takes the stage and tearfully acknowledges Hugo before a screening of his restored work, that it’s impossible for someone like me to look at Méliès, the great innovator of cinema, without thinking of Scorsese, the wise master of filmmaking who influenced me.

This is the work of a master at the height of his cinematic powers. People who truly love film have, picture after picture, said this exact same thing about Scorsese many times. We said it when The Aviator (2004) soared as the most ambitious, energetic and entertaining Hollywood biopic in years. We said it when The Departed (2006) was no less than the great American tragedy of the 2000s, a masterful return to the gangster picture that held us captivated in our seats. And we’re saying it again for Hugo, a movie that has been surrounded by so much negativity from the first announcement that Scorsese would direct a 3D picture – as if the world’s finest filmmaker, who has never made anything short of a great film, wouldn’t find a way to discover the art in 3D technology and take it to an entirely new level – and not only that, but do it with his most passionate cause as his subject material.

My loyalty to Scorsese is boundless, and I’ve suffered through the lows – throwing things at the television when he unfairly lost Best Director Academy Awards for Gangs of New York and The Aviator to inferior films, listening to pseudo-intellectual hipsters knock on the brilliance of Shutter Island (2010) – and I’ve been with him through the highs. And let me tell you, there is nothing that feels as wonderful as watching the artist you love and defend your entire life receive the praise and admiration he so richly deserves, squashing the cynicism of those who feel his time has past. This is his time. George Méliès, step aside for another master of cinema. Martin Scorsese, take a bow.

2. The Descendants (Alexander Payne)

The Descendants is as moving, funny and poignant a film as I've ever seen. It might be writer/director Alexander Payne's best movie, and that's high praise, considering his Sideways (2004) and About Schmidt (2002) are two of the reasons I want to be a filmmaker (with these three masterpieces, Payne has also found the beauty in the road trip movie). His films move so effortlessly from great tragedy to human comedy, and The Descendants is no exception. George Clooney gives the best performance of his career (topping his extraordinary work in 2009’s Up in the Air) as Matt King, a Hawaiian landowner left to look after his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, both magnificent) and deal with his family after his wife falls into a coma.

Nick Pinkerton, in his interview with Payne in the Village Voice, best articulates the originality of Payne’s remarkably human and distinct voice as a filmmaker:

The viewer sees [his family and cousins] at first as King does: just more burden to bear. Eventually we come to realize, through Clooney’s artfully withholding reaction shots, that they are people with private fortitude and sadness all their own.

“To say something bad about someone, to caricaturize someone, but then to go, ‘Yeah, but God love ’em,’ that might be something particularly Midwestern,” Payne says. The harsh initial judgment, followed by the recall of the same judgment, is a signature of Payne’s films…

What makes The Descendants perfect isn’t simply the masterful screenplay, or the incredible ensemble acting from an inspired cast (including Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer) – it’s Payne’s unmistakably Midwestern attitude toward the material and the characters. With subject matter ripe for easy laughs and easy tears, Payne opts for neither. In the best closing credit sequence of the year, he leaves us not with an emotional epiphany, nor with a heartwarming close-up – but with a picture of the banal, everyday life that the King family will face in the years to come.

3. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a miracle, a picture consumed by the wonder, amazement and beauty of life. Watching the film on opening night in Austin with a packed audience (many of whom worked in some capacity on the film, which was shot in Smithville), it was not unlike taking in the grand spectacle of The Lion King on Broadway for the first time as a young child. It is an overwhelmingly emotional experience.

How many people will see this film and watch in awe as memories of their own childhood flash before their eyes? I know I did. The story concerns Jack, an eleven year-old boy raised in Texas in the 1950s whose wondrous and carefree childhood slowly gives way to a more troubling, complicated understanding of human nature as he loses his innocence. You can see where I might find some similarities (as long as we’re swapping the 1950s for the 1990s). As he grows into a disillusioned adult (Sean Penn), he struggles to come to terms with the two ways through life: the way of human nature, fierce will and determination, epitomized by his father (Brad Pitt, in a hauntingly understated performance); and the way of love, compassion and grace, epitomized by his mother (Jessica Chastain).

But Malick’s movie extends back to the beginning of time, offering us beautiful sequences depicting the creation of the world that call to mind similar scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). This is a film that requires patience and respect for Malick’s vision. I left The Tree of Life full of hope – not just spiritual hope, or the hope of someday understanding all things – but hope for the future of cinema.

4. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)

The films of David Fincher have appeared near the front of my top ten lists in recent years. Last year, he released The Social Network, still the best movie of this new decade (not that the Academy rewarded Fincher with a deserved Best Director Oscar, mind you). His films are fascinating because they are the work of an obsessive. Zodiac (2007), Fincher’s finest film, was a story about three men whose lives were consumed by their obsession with the unsolved Zodiac murders in the late 1960s. Fincher now returns to the serial killer genre with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a masterful film with bold and fearless lead performances from Daniel Craig and especially recent NYU graduate Rooney Mara (Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend in The Social Network) as anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander.

You may have read the book by Stieg Larsson. I have not, but I did love the Swedish film adaptation of the novel released last year. However – although I think it’s unfair to label Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo a remake (it’s an English-language adaptation of the original novel) – this is a case where the ‘American version,’ as it were, is largely superior to the ‘original’ movie. In one of the most haunting scenes of the year, Fincher makes extraordinarily creepy use of Enya’s song Orinoco Flow (similar to his disturbing and brilliant use of Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man in Zodiac).

There’s a bitter irony that the actress who represented the source of Mark Zuckerberg’s loneliness at the end of The Social Network – Erica Albright (Mara) – is on the receiving end of the rejection at the end of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, left alone in a man’s world. It’s a powerful and grim closing chapter to a new Fincher masterpiece.

5. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)

Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret is a stunning masterpiece. I can't remember the last time I saw such a brilliant film go completely unnoticed by the film community (although, in recent weeks, a movement petitioning Fox Searchlight Pictures to screen the film for end-of-year awards consideration has started online). The film, shot in 2005, has been in legal battles for years, stemming from post-production clashes between the producers, the studio and Lonergan.

Lonergan, a master playwright and writer/director of the outstanding You Can Count On Me (2000), even solicited the help of Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker to edit a final cut of the film (Lonergan co-wrote Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and Scorsese was an executive producer on You Can Count on Me), which was rumored to be a masterpiece. Unfortunately, Fox Searchlight Pictures rejected the cut and ordered a maximum length of two-and-a-half hours. Six years after production on the film wrapped, the two-and-a-half hour Margaret was half-heartedly released in select cities for no more than two weeks, and then disappeared from the film scene. I count myself among the lucky few who caught Margaret in New York City before it vanished.

New York City teenager Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), having seen a horrible bus accident right before her eyes, is fighting against a world where she seems to be the only person willing to admit her culpability in the accident. But Margaret is not only the story of a teenager trying to make sense of a tragedy and assign blame accordingly – the movie is a passionate and raw portrait of New York City in the wake of 9/11.

This movie has so many ideas and burning questions, and Paquin’s extraordinary performance is full of the tumultuous adolescent anxiety so rarely explored honestly onscreen. The movie’s dramatic ambitions and scope exceed those of any recent film I can recall – even in this studio-cut version, decidedly not approved by Lonergan, the picture has a dramatic power missing from nearly all of today's cinema. Margaret is perhaps the most important film release of 2011 – even if it is six years too late.

6. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)

We Need To Talk About Kevin is as perfect as any movie I've seen this year. Director Lynne Ramsay asks audacious and challenging questions in this disturbing and powerful film. Eva (Tilda Swinton) raises the son from hell – a malicious, dark and cold piece of work named Kevin. Is the mother responsible for the cruel and sadistic behavior of her son? Is Eva an unfit mother, or is she simply cursed with a demonic child? And, perhaps most disturbingly, is she somehow complicit in the violent actions of her son? We Need To Talk About Kevin doesn’t give easy answers. Ramsay’s bold visual approach and her extraordinarily powerful use of music (both Jonny Greenwood's haunting score and pop music, ranging from Buddy Holly to The Beach Boys, create an atmosphere of dread) results in one of the year's best pictures. Swinton should be the frontrunner for the Best Actress Academy Award, and John C. Reilly and Ezra Miller are terrific in supporting roles.

7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)

The complexity of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Solder Spy demands that you see the film twice – not necessarily because the movie is tough to understand (although pay attention, because it is a bit of a labyrinth), but in order to fully appreciate the subtle and wonderful character work occurring throughout the film. Everything about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is remarkably subtle, from its depiction of loyalty among cold men who are forced to abandon their every attachment in sight, to the masterful lead performance by Gary Oldman as British Intelligence Agent George Smiley.

It’s also a story of revitalization – watching Smiley, fresh from retirement, slowly outsmart the current agents at the center of the Circus and, by the film’s rousing coda, take the seat at the head of British Intelligence is an exciting cinematic lesson in controlled, disciplined filmmaking. This is the sort of complex and moody thriller you would expect from the cinema of the 1970s. The pacing is perfect, the cinematography is breathtaking and Oldman is so damn good, that to not nominate the man for an Academy Award would be an egregious oversight.

8. George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese)

Martin Scorsese’s documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World runs just shy of four hours – but as far as I’m concerned, the film could have lasted another four hours and I wouldn't have budged. I sat in awe, enveloped and entranced, during its one-week run at the Village East Cinema. A fascinating and moving portrait of Harrison from his early days with The Beatles through the end of his life, Scorsese places great emphasis on the material world combating against the spiritual world – a struggle that resonated heavily with Harrison. It’s rare to see a complete portrait of such a fascinating human being. By the time All Things Must Pass plays over the last days of Harrison’s life, it’s hard to hold back the tears. George Harrison: Living in the Material World is every bit as compelling as Scorsese’s best music documentaries, including No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005), The Last Waltz (1978) and Shine A Light (2008).

9. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)

Is Take Shelter an exploration of mental illness or a tale of modern-day anxiety as experienced by a common man? Either way, the film deals with its subject matter more maturely than any film I can recall. Michael Shannon is astounding as the tortured Curtis LaForche, a small-town family man in Ohio who builds a storm shelter in his backyard as an uneasy dread comes over him. This is a powerful and wrenching film, written and directed with such understanding by one of the great new filmmakers, Jeff Nichols. Take Shelter also features two of the year’s best performances from Shannon and Jessica Chastain, as Curtis’ wife – their scenes together represent the finest screen acting of the year.

10. J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood)

I can't remember the last time I've been at such odds with the major critics over a film as extraordinary as Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar – in my mind, it's the best work Eastwood has done since Letters From Iwo Jima (2006), every bit as great as his one-two punch of Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) - and this comes from someone who had endless adoration for Hereafter (2010), solid respect but some qualms with Invictus (2009), and just couldn't get on the Gran Torino (2008) train.

The cynicism of online bloggers and their passionate disdain for Eastwood be damned - J. Edgar is a great movie, shot in Eastwood's typically muted color palette and hauntingly staged in the deep shadows that so many of Eastwood's characters occupy. As Roger Ebert notes, "few films span seven decades this comfortably." It's true, and the transitions between the later years of J. Edgar Hoover's life and his glory days in the 1930s are seamless. If the first hour is a study in the evolution of fingerprint profiling (and other criminal investigation techniques revolutionized by Hoover), then the second hour concerns the personal repressions and demons that haunt Hoover for his entire life.

For the last decade, Eastwood's films have taken a revolutionary approach to the subject of masculinity, and our understanding of Eastwood - the quintessential tough guy - has evolved with his meditations on the afterlife (Hereafter), racial barriers (Invictus), World War II from both an American viewpoint and from the perspective of the 'enemy' (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima) and now on the most powerful (supposedly) homosexual man of the twentieth century with J. Edgar. What we see from Eastwood in these films is an enormous amount of compassion, a deeper understanding of the human experience and a total re-assessment of everything Eastwood has stood for in the minds of moviegoers for decades. The films work individually on their own, but they are even stronger taken in the context of Eastwood's larger body of work.

There are individual scenes with enormous power and sadness, with strong work from Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts and Judi Dench. But Leonardo DiCaprio is beyond outstanding as Hoover. In a career marked by outstanding performances (The Departed, The Aviator, Revolutionary Road, Shutter Island), this is one of his finest.

I will write about the other films I loved this year - The Best of the Rest, if you will - in an upcoming post. It was heartbreaking to leave so many extraordinary movies - including Midnight in Paris, Shame, Moneyball, Beginners, Young Adult and Drive - off of this top ten list. If I picked the winners of this year's awards, here's how I would vote:

Best Picture: Hugo
Runner-Ups: The Descendants, The Tree of Life, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Margaret, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, We Need To Talk About Kevin

Best Director: Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Runner-Ups: Alexander Payne, The Descendants; Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life; Tomas Alfredson, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; David Fincher, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo; Kenneth Lonergan, Margaret; Lynne Ramsay, We Need To Talk About Kevin

Best Actor: George Clooney, The Descendants
Runner-Ups: Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life and Moneyball; Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar; Michael Shannon, Take Shelter; Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Michael Fassbender, Shame; Woody Harrelson, Rampart

Best Actress: Anna Paquin, Margaret
Runner-Ups: Tilda Swinton, We Need To Talk About Kevin; Rooney Mara, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo; Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene; Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method; Charlize Theron, Young Adult; Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn and Meek's Cutoff

Best Supporting Actor: Ben Kingsley, Hugo
Runner-Ups: Christopher Plummer, Beginners; Nick Nolte, Warrior; Kevin Spacey, Margin Call; Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method; Albert Brooks, Drive

Best Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life and Take Shelter
Runner-Ups: Shailene Woodley, The Descendants; Berenice Bejo, The Artist; Carey Mulligan, Shame; Melanie Laurent, Beginners

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Descendants
Runner-Ups: Hugo, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Moneyball, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Best Original Screenplay: Midnight in Paris
Runner-Ups: Margaret, Margin Call, 50/50, The Tree of Life, Young Adult

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