Sunday, January 15, 2012

The (Rest of the) Best Films of 2011

After listing The Ten Best Films of 2011 in an earlier post, I want to talk about the year's other great movies - and there were many. In fact, my second Top Ten are all films that would easily make the final ten in a weaker year. 2011 was a particularly strong year for movies, in my opinion, and all fifty-six of these titles are worth your time and consideration (and believe me - plenty of worthy films were left off the list entirely).

11. Shame (Steve McQueen)

Shame is an uncomfortably vivid and raw portrait of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a sex addict in New York City. Oh, but the film is about so much more, touching on our fear of emotional intimacy in the twenty-first century and examining addiction and self-abuse more profoundly than any film since Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas (1995). Director Steve McQueen shoots most of the movie in long, unbroken takes that are extraordinarily uncomfortable and effective. Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, as Brandon’s sister, give two of the year’s best performances.

12. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)

In the midst of an almost unbearable summer full of superhero garbage and brainless sequels, Woody Allen released Midnight in Paris only seven months after the release of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, his 2010 offering (which, although critically maligned, I found every bit as profound and affecting as Midnight in Paris). Owen Wilson gives one of his best performances as Gil (the ‘Woody’ character), an American writer visiting Paris with his fiancé (Rachel McAdams) and her unbearably uppity parents. Gil, bored with his status as a hack Hollywood screenwriter, yearns for the Paris of the 1920s, when F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso walked the streets and tossed ideas around in cafes. And so it happens that, while Gil is walking alone through the city after midnight, Paris magically morphs into that era, and Gil quite literally hangs out with the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway and the rest of the gang. Along the way, he falls in love with Picasso’s mistress Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard, who perfectly embodies all of the beauty of Paris in any era. With the playful and fantastical premise, Allen is free to wrestle with large ideas in a very funny manner (not dissimilar to his work in 1985’s wonderful The Purple Rose of Cairo).

Along the way, Allen takes playful jabs at the current state of Hollywood screenwriting, Tea Party dimwits, and pseudo-intellectuals alike (Michael Sheen is perfect as that guy – you’ll know the character once you see him). More importantly, it’s a wonderful movie about nostalgia, a force so strong and bittersweet that Allen has devoted an entire film to the subject. Gradually, our protagonist learns that all people feel disillusioned with their own time and place, and secretly yearn to live in the idealized past, no matter the current era. It’s Gil’s (and Allen’s) own discovery of this truth that lends Midnight in Paris its poignant insight. For this particular Woody Allen fan who holds Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) close to my heart, I mean it when I say that Midnight in Paris is as wonderfully poetic, sad, touching and funny as anything Woody Allen has ever made.

13. Beginners (Mike Mills)

Beginners is one of the most heartfelt movies I’ve seen in a long time, and it features two of the most touching love stories of the year – the first, between Ewan McGregor and his dying father, Christopher Plummer; and the other, between McGregor and Melanie Laurent. In any other year, Beginners would have easily placed very high on my top ten list. Plummer is deservedly winning many of this year’s Best Supporting Actor accolades.

14. Moneyball (Bennett Miller)

Expertly directed by Bennett Miller and featuring brilliant performances from Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Moneyball opened exactly one year after the release of David Fincher's brilliant The Social Network - another talky, fact-based account of recent-year events written by Aaron Sorkin, who co-wrote Moneyball with Steve Zaillian. Both movies are relentlessly fascinating, and they serve as rare examples of high art and popular entertainment. If every major studio release were as smart and compelling as Moneyball, it would be a golden age for cinema. Pitt gives yet another outstanding performance (after his extraordinary work earlier this year in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life) as Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, who, in 2002, changed the game of baseball by using new and radical methods to select players for the team. Moneyball works as just about everything - a rousing sports movie, a powerful character study, an involving look inside the politics behind baseball and, most notably, superb entertainment for all audiences - baseball fans or not.

15. Young Adult (Jason Reitman)

For some people, high school is easily forgettable, a simple opening chapter to a larger and better life. But in Mercury, Minnesota, high school is the life experience that defines everyone and follows them to the end of their lives. Mavis (Charlize Theron), the heroine of Jason Reitman’s incendiary and brilliant Young Adult, escaped Mercury and fled to the big city – Minneapolis – at a young age, becoming a somewhat successful author of young adult novels. Divorced, unhappy and a bitter alcoholic, Mavis returns to Mercury at the opening of Young Adult to win back her now-married high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), who she believes is unhappy in his marriage. Yes, Mavis suffers from delusions, and yet the film doesn’t ignore the delusions and imperfections of the small town people, as well. At one point, Mavis tells her parents that she thinks she’s an alcoholic. Both her mother and her father laugh it off, and we immediately understand a bit of the genesis of her problem. But Young Adult isn’t afraid to embrace Mavis’ delusions and even bypass that whole redemption nonsense by the film’s end, opting for a startlingly honest and bold closing chapter.

This is a sad film with characters who reek of desperation, and the result is a little uncomfortable (it shares a number of similarities, in fact, with Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece The King of Comedy). Diablo Cody wrote the screenplay, and for my money, she eclipses the work she did in Juno (2007). The movie is harsh and oftentimes a little bleak – but the film – and Theron’s character – are also right on the money. The last thirty minutes of Young Adult are as biting, risky and audacious as anything I’ve seen in a mainstream comedy in years.

16. We Bought A Zoo (Cameron Crowe)

I’m embarrassed to admit the number of times Cameron Crowe’s We Bought A Zoo brought tears to my eyes. A deeply personal filmmaker, Crowe ranks among my favorite directors, and his movies – from Jerry Maguire (1996) to Almost Famous (2000) – are full of heart, hope and absolute sincerity. We Bought A Zoo also features many perfect soundtrack moments (a signature of Crowe’s pictures) with Cat Stevens’ Don’t Be Shy, Bob Dylan’s Buckets of Rain and a powerful original score by Jonsi adding to the warm atmosphere. In the center of the picture is an honest and soulful lead performance from the endlessly talented Matt Damon that stands alongside the other moving portraits of single fathers this year (The Descendants, Moneyball). With a wonderful supporting cast (Thomas Haden Church! Peter Riegert! Scarlett Johansson!), We Bought A Zoo is a genuine movie about a family in grief moving forward. The human comedies of Cameron Crowe, Alexander Payne and Jason Reitman are the kind of pictures I want to make, and I'm overjoyed that all three of those filmmakers released new films this year.

17. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)

Ryan Gosling – who, if you recall, deserved last year’s Best Actor Academy Award for Blue Valentine (2010) – continues his streak of excellent performances with this thrilling neo-noir directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, who won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Drive is a rewarding, pulpy masterpiece – partially resembling both the Los Angeles noirs of Michael Mann and the 1980s romances of John Hughes (that Hughes comparison comes straight from Gosling himself, in fact). There’s nothing ironic about the film, though – it’s meant to be taken seriously, and it features one of the most fascinating and complex antiheroes of the year.

18. The Ides of March (George Clooney)

George Clooney’s The Ides of March is the sort of film that almost doesn’t exist anymore – a serious adult drama starring Hollywood’s finest working actors released by a major studio. Ryan Gosling undergoes a Michael Corleone-esque transformation as a naïve staff member for an inspiring presidential candidate (Clooney) battling to win the Ohio Democratic primary. It goes without saying that the performances from Gosling, Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are outstanding.

19. Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)

The personal drama among estranged brothers, Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton), and their alcoholic father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), paves the way for a rousing series of Mixed Martial Arts tournaments in Warrior. Brendan fights for his family’s survival (they are in desperate need of money), while war hero Tommy fights for the family of a fallen soldier. Paddy trains Tommy, while desperately seeking to regain the love of both of his sons. Warrior is a heart tugging, emotionally satisfying sports film that will easily resonate with audiences – I heard cheering and applause regularly in my theater during the second half of the movie. But while the film’s fighting scenes are wonderfully directed, it’s the human drama – the time that director Gavin O’Connor spends outside the ring with his characters – that makes Warrior such a powerhouse. Hardy and Edgerton, two excellent actors, are given the spotlight, and they are never anything less than brilliant. But Nolte’s performance is perhaps the best of his entire career. There’s an incredibly touching scene near the end of the picture in which Paddy has relapsed into his alcoholism, and Tommy finally breaks from his stone exterior and comforts his father. It’s more likely to make you weep than anything in the film’s stunning finale.

20. Rampart (Oren Moverman)

Woody Harrelson gives the performance of a lifetime as a corrupt Los Angeles police officer in Rampart, an outstanding film from Oren Moverman. “I’m not a racist,” Dave Brown (Harrelson) says. “I hate all people equally.” He may be telling the truth, and the most disturbing part of Rampart is watching Dave as he tries to do the right thing, in his own perverse and corrupt way. A decidedly different but equally powerful take on the Bad Lieutenant films, Rampart is its own modern-day Raging Bull (1980) or Taxi Driver (1976). Harrelson and Moverman previously collaborated on 2009's The Messenger, which established Moverman as one of the great new filmmakers.

21. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)

The Artist is a wonderfully charming film. Any hesitation on the part of audiences to see a silent, black-and-white film will hopefully be eradicated by the overwhelming critical praise the film has received since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.

22. A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)

Viggo Mortensen, Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender are absolutely wonderful in this involving and incredibly engaging film from director David Cronenberg. The deep focus shots are stunning.

23. Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)

I saw Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss at its Opening Night Gala presentation at the DOC NYC Festival. I was particularly excited for this Herzog film, as it explores the story of a death row inmate in Huntsville, Texas convicted of murdering three people, and his accomplice, who is serving a jail sentence of forty years. The film, which studies the impact of the murders on the surrounding community, is astonishingly powerful, and Herzog allows us to see the humanity of everyone involved in this tragedy – the victims, their family members and even the murderers themselves. There is so much sadness and regret in the film, and yet Herzog shows us that beyond this horrible tragedy, there is still life and love among the survivors. It's rare that I see a movie where I feel so strongly for so many characters - or subjects, I should say – all of them so honest and so human. In the live discussion after the film, Herzog spoke about his stance on the death penalty and the process behind making the film. After the discussion, my friends and I talked briefly with Mr. Herzog about Texas and his Rogue Film School, which I'm hoping he brings back to New York City in the near future.

24. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)

To quote Roger Ebert, Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff is "the first film I've seen that evokes what must have been the reality of wagon trains to the West." A gorgeously filmed, immersive mood piece starring Michelle Williams (the best actress of her generation), Meek's Cutoff is destined to become an art-house classic.

25. 50/50 (Jonathan Levine)

How much did I love 50/50? When Joseph Gordon-Levitt tells Anna Kendrick, "I wish you were my girlfriend," my heart melted a little bit.

26. Everything Must Go (Dan Rush)

When I say I wish I had made this film, I mean that wholeheartedly. Everything Must Go is a wonderful, moving portrait of an alcoholic, with a lead performance from Will Ferrell that should do for him what Punch-Drunk Love (2002) did for Adam Sandler.

27. Margin Call (J.C. Chandor)

Everything about J.C. Chandor's debut feature film Margin Call is absolutely first-rate, particularly its brilliant screenplay and outstanding performances from Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons. When I saw the film at New York’s Angelika, Chandor spoke afterward about the challenges of making a movie about the “bad guys” on Wall Street. I eagerly anticipate his next work.

28. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)

Sean Durkin's film Martha Marcy May Marlene is a major triumph not only for the filmmakers and stars Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes, but also for the Tisch School of the Arts, from which a wave of new talent has made its way into cinemas.

29. War Horse (Steven Spielberg)

After a three-year absence, it's nice to have Steven Spielberg back with a new directorial work. War Horse is a beautiful and crowd-pleasing picture, and the battle scenes are quite outstanding.

30. Carnage (Roman Polanski)

Roman Polanski's adaptation of God of Carnage is just as much fun as the Broadway stage version (performances from both are outstanding - I don't see a reason to compare). While the film lacks the immediacy of a live performance, we do get a claustrophobic sense of what house arrest must have been like for Polanski.

The Rest:

31. Another Earth (Mike Cahill)
32. Win Win (Thomas McCarthy)
33. Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
34. Terri (Azazel Jacobs)
35. Submarine (Richard Ayoade)
36. Rango (Gore Verbinski)
37. Source Code (Duncan Jones)
38. The Guard (John Michael McDonagh)
39. Tabloid (Errol Morris)
40. The Beaver (Jodie Foster)
41. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird)
42. Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Glenn Ficarra)
43. My Week With Marilyn (Simon Curtis)
44. Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
45. Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)
46. Our Idiot Brother (Jesse Peretz)
47. Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times (Andrew Rossi)
48. Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)
49. Hanna (Joe Wright)
50. A Better Life (Chris Weitz)
51. The Muppets (James Bobin)
52. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)
53. The Future (Miranda July)
54. Horrible Bosses (Seth Gordon)
55. The Conspirator (Robert Redford)
56. Cedar Rapids (Miguel Arteta)

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