my top ten movies of 2011

Better late than never…

The major reason it took me so long to finally compile my own list was that so many of the major releases (the critically acclaimed ones) took until 2012 to reach Athens.  So there.

I need to make some qualifications to the following list.  They are listed in order, Hugo and The Guard were the most fun I had at the movies all year, the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce would make the very top of my list but I cut it out because it’s cheating, Drive almost made my #10 spot but not even its seductive style could make me forgive its stupidity, and the greatest movies I watched all year were older titles.  I’m no movie crank always yearning for the good old days.  It was a pretty good year for cinema, but nothing I watched in 2011 was as good as revisiting Rio Bravo or Only Angels Have Wings or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or seeing The Big Sleep on the big screen for the first time.  But there were moments in Hugo, The Tree of Life, and Mysteries of Lisbon that made me think and see movies in a new way.  They altered in their own distinctive ways my perceptions of what the medium was still capable of.  That’s pretty great and you really can’t ask for anything more special than that.

Also, the most overrated movie of 2011 is Lars von Trier’s MelancholiaYou can read my original Flagpole review here.

Now… onward!

1.  Hugo–dir: Martin Scorsese; cast:  Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moritz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law.

Martin Scorsese surprised everyone and directed a 3D kids movie.  To say too much about the plot would ruin the many surprises in it, but Hugo is essentially a glorious fantasy, a mystery, and a lovingly heartfelt, moving tribute to the motion picture and the power of storytelling itself.  What it’s not is a simpleminded nostalgia trip.  Scorsese honors the past and somehow accomplishes it without coming off as reactionary.  He and his fellow craftspeople utilize today’s most advanced cinematic tools and techniques to conjure up a Paris and a time that never existed quite like this.  I can’t stand the way the majority of modern films use the 3D process.  This film, however, is a wonderful example of the spatial and visual possibilities it offers a filmmaker with a true artistic sense.  Pure joy this was.

2.  The Guard–dir: John Michael McDonagh; cast: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, David Wilmot, Fionnula Flanagan, Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong.

“You know, I can’t tell if you’re really motherfucking dumb or really motherfucking smart.”

I don’t think I enjoyed myself more at a movie all year than when I watched director/writer John Michael McDonagh’s feature debut.  Like his brother, playwright and film director Martin, McDonagh has a deft way with dialogue, he’s equipped with a savage wit, and he incisively knows how to undercut stereotypes and clichés with a casually detonated word or by capturing an actor’s spot on reaction shot.  This is breezy and riotously funny stuff.  It’s almost too laid-back for its own good, however, which offsets how brilliant much of it is.  It’s one part ’80s buddy cop movie, mixed with the gritty hilarity of crime writers like Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford, and Joe Lansdale, and outfitted in the balls-out stylization of a vintage spaghetti Western movie, The Guard makes for one twisted and anarchic concoction.  There were undoubtedly more ambitious movies released in 2011 (The Tree of Life; Melancholia; Margaret), so if you’re looking to figure out the mysteries of the universe and your not-so-important place in it, you might want to move on.  If you’re looking for some laughs and a lot of heart, though, and want something far removed from the humorless angst plentiful in so many other movies right now, The Guard may be your man or… eh, film.

3.  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy–dir: Tomas Alfredson; cast: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch.

Set in the early 1970s, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy deals with the intricate inner workings of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service a.k.a. the Circus and the hunt for a possible Soviet mole within its highest rank.  The film, directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), is a meticulously paced thriller that generates a wealth of tension through the slow accretion of significant dramatic details, plunging us into a maze of cryptic information curated by offices of silently suffering agents of moral relativism.  We live in a country where the lies running the engines of politics aren’t even hidden any longer and foreign policy is always reduced to clear black and white, good guy/bad guy scenarios straight out of a John Wayne B-Western, so the impact (and irony) of the moral betrayal on spy George Smiley (Oldman) may feel alien to many viewers looking for a decisive narrative throughline.  This is a rich, rewarding movie if you’re patient.  It’s stubbornly antithetical to the current fashion in high concept, easily digested commercial cinema, and I loved it even more for that.  Oldman’s slow-burn of a performance is one of his finest too… a perfect example of less-is-more acting.

4.  The Tree of Life–dir: Terrence Malick; cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, God.

Malick’s overwhelmingly ambitious coming-of-age drama is simultaneously poignant, intimate, profound, mystifying, frustrating, bewildering, sublime, ridiculous, warm, and cosmic.  From its performances—Pitt as the domineering father, Chastain as the benevolent mother, and McCracken as the wide-eyed son caught in the middle between fierce instinct and transcendent compassion—to its extraordinary cinematography courtesy Emmanuel Lubezki and Alexandre Desplat’s majestic score, The Tree of Life was a big budget experimental film in the guise of a Hollywood production.  You’ve certainly never seen anything like it.  Is it the masterpiece many of us expected?  No, I don’t think so.  But what does that matter?  This is nevertheless a major film… thoughtful, brave, emotional, and it contains some absolutely beautiful, haunting moments.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film so successfully convey how memories move us through the currents of time.  That Pitt and Chastain effectively gave depth to roles that were basically archetypes, is nothing short of a miracle.

5.   Mysteries of Lisbon–dir: Raoul Ruiz; cast: Adriano Luz, Maria João Bastos, Ricardo Pereira, Clotilde Hesme, José Afonso Pimentel.

A glorious, enigmatic historical epic from the late Ruiz.  The movie is filled with seductive surprises and part of the pure enjoyment of it all is to not know where Ruiz is leading us. The journey, however, is brilliantly unfurled and incorporates straight melodrama, the evocation of Borgesian dream imagery and absurdist irony into its multi-layered pattern. It’s sumptuously filmed, but also subtly playful in a manner that will surprise viewers expecting yet another dry period piece. Watching Mysteries of Lisbon, it becomes increasingly clear that the best way to fully appreciate its enigmatic power is to just let go and disappear into this sprawling yet meticulously constructed masterwork.  We are all fiction!

6.   Hanna–dir: Joe Wright; cast: Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemying.

A head-tripping exercise in style and action.  Films from Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan regularly indulge in expanding the grammar of action sequences with fast cutting, inventive blocking, and by daring to betray the laws of physics.  This isn’t always a good thing, since the more a director strays from physical or emotional authenticity, the more likely we are to disengage from the material.  A truly imaginative director like Takashi Miike can keep us connected because he’s so over-the-top we can’t believe what we’re seeing.  He’s unique.  Director Joe Wright, who was previously not known for delving into action, doesn’t embrace the outlandish like Miike does, but he is committed to the pleasures of far-fetched melodrama and he has a keen visual sense that makes this movie pop in all the right ways.  In telling his tale of a teenage girl, Hanna (Ronan), trained to be a lethal killer by her father (Bana), an ex-CIA agent, Wright always keeps things grounded in the human despite the pulp premise.  At times it reminded me of a mash-up of anime, fairy tales, comic books, and Sergio Leone.  That’s a must-see in my book.

7.  Road to Nowhere–dir: Monte Hellman; cast: Cliff De Young, Waylon Payne, Shannyn Sossamon, Tygh Runyan, Dominique Swain.

In Road to Nowhere–director Monte Hellman’s first feature film in 21 years–the destination at the end of the plot doesn’t matter.  To expect some sort of emotional or intellectual epiphany–a moment of dramatic clarity—at the finale of its 121-minute running time will only bring unneeded anguish on you.  That is not to suggest, however, that the film doesn’t reward the patient, adventurous viewer along the way.  The dark mysteries running through the film are as perplexing and seductive as anything you’ll encounter in a David Lynch work like Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive.  But in an age where subtlety and ambiguity are verboten from the majority of American commercial films—even ones with arty pretensions—Hellman’s return may be a trip many filmgoers may not be willing to take.  Which is unfortunate, considering Hellman has long been one of our most original directors working.  Written by Steven Gaydos, a Variety writer and long-time collaborator with Hellman, the film immediately plunges us into its narrative subterfuge when a blogger (Dominique Swain) pops in a DVD called Road to Nowhere, a mystery film directed by Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) about a real-life criminal case involving murder, embezzlement, and a missing woman.  Haven’s film stars a mysterious actress named Laurel (Shannyn Sossamon), who actually may be the real missing woman, and he immediately falls for her in proper doomed romantic fashion.  Toss in a sleazy but determined insurance investigator (Waylon Payne) pursuing Laurel and questions about identity and the relationship between truth and fiction, and one could easily expect a modern, existentialist-flavored film noir.  But melodrama, even of the noirish variety, is not the film’s ultimate concern.  The more philosophical aspects are its focus, however, and as each character finds themselves tangled in their own fictions, we become lost in the existential wilderness ourselves.  Being entangled in an unsolvable mystery such as this, though, never felt so satisfying.

8.  Meek’s Cutoff–dir: Kelly Reichardt; cast: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Zoe Kazan, Will Patton.

This minimalist Western, set and shot in the high desert of Eastern Oregon, is further proof how sturdy yet malleable this old genre still is for an imaginative filmmaker like Reichardt.  Critics and moviegoers keep writing the Western off… hell, they did that decades ago.  But every few years significant Westerns are released.  In the last few years we’ve had The Claim, Tears of the Black Tiger, The Missing, Blueberry aka Renegade, Dead Birds, Brokeback Mountain, The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 3:10 to Yuma, Seraphim Falls, There Will Be Blood, Appaloosa, The Good, the Bad,the Weird, True Grit, and many more.  Doesn’t sound like a genre on its last legs to me.  Looks pretty damn durable.  There’s not a lot of action in Meek’s Cutoff.  It’s not a plot-oriented movie.  There’s plenty of suspense, however, and the moral quandary that the characters are mired in is deep and thought-provoking.

9.  The Artist–dir: Michel Hazanavicius; cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Penelope Ann Miller, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Uggie.

This is a wonderful, funny, and poignant tribute to the silent film era and it’s a splendid entertainment.  I even loved the damn dog

10.  Attack the Block–dir: Joe Cornish; cast John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Nick Frost, Leeon Jones, Luke Treadaway.

Much like District 9 from a few years ago, this science fiction/comedy/action hybrid came out of seemingly nowhere and impressed me with its ingenuity, wit, and a playfulness that is largely missing from the majority of big budget Hollywood product.  This is the antithesis of everything the Hollywood studios are doing right now—it’s largely character-driven, it’s an ensemble piece structured around a bunch of unknown actors, and the leads are unlikeable for the most part.  At first.  This is a homage to the sort of picture John Carpenter made in his heyday of the late ’70s and ’80s, as well as a subversion of the kind of movie Spielberg made during the same period.  White suburban youths were frequently visited by sweet-natured aliens in Spielberg movies (and in the work of his imitators) or allowed to go on some sort of fantastical adventure.  Cornish takes that idea and flips it on its head.  What would happen if the aliens landed in inner city London and encountered a bunch of amoral toughs instead? And the aliens and youths weren’t cuddly either.  Believe it!

Honorable Mentions:

Mildred Pierce

Young Adult

Martha Marcy May Marlene

The Future

Senna

Le Havre

Contagion

Higher Ground

Take Shelter

Carnage

Drive

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Films I Haven’t Seen Yet But That May Have Made the Cut:

The Descendants

Margaret

The Turin Horse

Midnight in Paris

A Separation

We Need to Talk About Kevin

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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