This list should have come about probably… um, six or seven months ago. But, I don’t get out often and my social life is more of a social networking life, so that generally prevents me from seeing a lot of films in the theater throughout the year. Personal ethics and the voices in my head prevent me from pirating or streaming generally, so I either end up seeing the film in the theater (I see an average of about… nine films in theater a year. I know, awesome) or I’ll catch the film on home video.
Anyways, last year was a pretty good year for film. I won’t say it was overly grand or abymal (I will, however, say, that the Oscars were abysmal), because how can you really compare a year to another just based on the films. I don’t even think if “more great films” were released on year than another would make it a “better year in film”. Aside from considering social/political/economic relevance, I don’t think the year matters as much anymore. That being said, the best films (to me) were the darkest ones. And they all, at least with regard to my list, had to do with life. Yes, you could argue that every film has to do with life, but the top ten films I chose from 2011 dealt with life in a particularly large magnitude. The ending of life on earth. The beginning of life on earth. The life of a man seeking redemption and meaning. What it means to live in your skin. What it means to grow up and live life as an adult. What it means to care and nurture for life. What it means for your life to be owned by someone else. What it means to consider the possibility of the end of all life. The ability to life as yourself and not as a lie. And what it means to live life in the present and reconcile nostalgia for the painful truth of now. And, in an honorable mention, what it means to give up your life for that of your bratty daughter. Yes, more than anything, I think the underlying theme of the best films of 2011 was about Life.
Which is ironic, because I don’t have one.
1. Melancholia | Directed by Lars von Trier
It’s no secret that Lars von Trier is the benevolent sadist of art cinema. His films are rarely easy to watch, always beautiful, and always challenging. With Melancholia, he presents to us an operating staging of the end of the world. Though, the end of the world hardly means anything in comparison to the characters he studies in the film and the lives he analyzes. The fly by planet may be that manifestation of depression for Justine, but it’s Kirsten Dunst’s stand out performance that makes the end of the world so memorable. Charlotte Gainsbourg, too, is outstanding ass Justine’s older sister, and their relationship dynamic slowly disintegrates throughout the film. The cinematography, despite being hand held in nature, still captures beautiful scenes and portraits. The impact Justine has, as her emotions fly out of control, is just as damaging as the collision of Earth and Melancholia. But that’s what great art is: a collision of beautiful ideas, sounds, images, and emotion.
2. The Tree of Life | Directed by Terrence Malick
It seems far less important understanding or analyzing the film than it is simply basking in all of its beautiful, daring, and undoubtedly striking spell. At its core, the film may (or may not) be about a family in Texas, as a child begins to rebel against his strict father. But, throughout that story of man versus nature, Terrence Malick dares us to sit and watch as the universe comes together before our eyes. It can be a turn-off for some, but one has to admire his audacity and the sheer scope of the challenge. Brad Pitt’s fierce storm of acting and Jessica Chastain’s effervescent mother nature is a wonder to behold. Love it or hate it, The Tree of Life certainly is a wonder.
3. Drive | Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
What Nicolas Winding Refn often does is say a lot without saying a word. This is especially true of his minimalist, post-modern, nostalgic Drive, in which Ryan Gosling fleshes out an entire character, sans origin story, and still makes us care for his journey in search of self. It’s a credit to Gosling’s ability as an actor that he can convey so much with just a, shall we say, vacant and dreamy look in his eye. With its ‘80s-esque pumped soundtrack, the turbulent and shocking bursts of violence, the neon drenched cinematography, and the love story at the center of everything, the film shifts between being completely original and out of left field and being “Camus Behind the Wheel”.
4. The Skin I Live In | Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Although Pedro Almodóvar revisits his usual themes In The Skin I Live In, the approach is, well, rather different. Taking a page out of Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face, The Skin I Live In mixes horror, a little science fiction, and classic domestic drama for one of the most compelling thrillers of the year. With its production design that negates sterility with fruitful virility, the non-linear story, and superb cast, the film dances around decadent and painful themes of identity, sexuality, and masculinity. The story, though, retains a dark yet bubbly and soapy aspect, sure to please anyone who likes a good twist. Almodóvar’s experiment in horror examines what it means to live as who you are versus who you were meant to be.
5. Young Adult | Directed by Jason Reitman
I sure as hell hope that I don’t end up knowing, or turning into, Mavis from Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s righteous and darkly hilarious Young Adult. Charlize Theron has the looks to have played a high school bitch, and she fits right into the role, almost as if she’d been playing it since birth. Cody’s razor sharp screenplay not only contains painfully funny dialogue, but even more painful examinations of disappointment and maturity, or lack thereof. She is as stuck in the past as one could ever be, manifesting her desires in her dying young adult book series. Joined by a stellar Patton Oswalt, maybe these guys should have paid attention during history, as they ended up being doomed and repeating it.
6. We Need to Talk About Kevin | Directed by Lynne Ramsay
(I’ll have to review this in full later.) It isn’t what you think it is and the trailer does a good job misrepresenting it. I say that as a compliment, for nothing can prepare you for the thrilling rollercoaster that is We Need to Talk About Kevin. With its subjective, completely non-linear style, cracked, broken and fragmented like memories, Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller make the most out of sneers, looks of contempt, and a haunting score. The looks convey more volatility and pain than the dialogue, and director Lynne Ramsay is perfectly aware of that. This is acting and cinematography and direction that kills. For all of its title, once you reach the end of the film, you may be left completely speechless.
7. Martha Marcy May Marlene | Directed by Sean Durkin
A part of me really, really wanted for Elizabeth Olsen to get an Oscar nod for this film. Actually, all of me did, as she would have completely deserved it. But, Olsen does what her sisters didn’t (or couldn’t, I don’t know) do: she challenged herself right off the bat. Playing a damaged girl returning home after escaping a cult, Olsen is effortlessly professional on screen, at once making you think that she’s been doing this for years yet still retaining the naiveté needed to make her character believable. Sean Durkin’s tale of a life owned and then a life trying to get a hold of itself once more is cynical, scary, but downright enthralling.
8. Take Shelter | Directed by Jeff Nichols
More like Apocalypse Wow, if you know what I mean. So many of the year’s best films were actor driven, and Take Shelter is no different. Led by Michael Shannon and his visions of the apocalypse, his descent into madness is arguably one of the most convincing ever on screen. It’s never over the top or hammy, and throughout his problem, there is always a sense of vulnerability that’s there. Jessica Chastain once again pops up and once again gives a superb performance as Shannon’s wife. It’s all about the world ending, and whose lives mean the most to him and how he intends on protecting them.
9. Beginners | Directed by Mike Mills
It may be a little quirky, but it is, above all, incredibly sincere. Beginners is about life, love, and relationship dynamics, but I’m sure you already knew that from the trailer. With its subjective, twee perspective, Ewan McGregor embarks on a new life with a new girl as he remembers when he and his father embarked on a new life when his father came out of the closet. Christopher Plummer is endearing and perfect, as is Melanie Laurents, both of whom give beautifully naturalistic performances. Punctuated by different memories and cute storytelling elements, throughout its entirety, there’s never a false note. Its honesty is the most refreshing thing about it.
10. Midnight in Paris | Directed by Woody ALlen
If you know me or talk to me, you may be a tad surprised that a Woody Allen film, one that I raved and ranted about since its release, is this “low” on the list. Well, a) lists and rankings are essentially arbitrary and b) it’s not that my opinion has changed, it’s that I’ve restrained myself a little. Nevertheless Woody Allen’s delightful tale of the dangers of nostalgia is a pitch perfect comedy that hits every right note. Owen Wilson brings something new to the Woody archetype, making his struggling screenwriter his own, while the supporting cast is absolutely amazing. From mean girl Rachel McAdams, the pedantic Michael Sheen, and the tons of historical figures that appear as Gil travels back to Paris in the 1920’s (notably Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and Dali), Allen is at the top of his game here. Midnight in Paris is a film that both warns one of the dangers of nostalgia, but enjoys it all the same.
Honorable Mention: Mildred Pierce | Directed by Todd Haynes
Okay, technically, this appeared on HBO as a mini-series, but it also premiered at the Venice Film Festival as a five hour movie. Mildred Pierce, for all of its length, is the closest anyone will ever get to a transliteration of a novel, every word and scene from James M. Cain’s noirish domestic drama brought to life by Kate Winslet. Winslet continues to impress me, taking on the role of the thankless mother as she gives in to her willful daughter’s demands. It’s a sight for the eyes, with the glorious cinematography and production value once again showing off HBO’s good tastes. Todd Haynes classic techniques and attention to detail is to die for. Winslet, though, is clearly the star, and won’t take no for an answer.
Last, but Certainly Not Least: Rango | Directed by Gore Verbinski
Rango is the perfect example of an animated film that just so happens to be aimed at kids, but whose subverted subject matter is elegantly and fantastically handled. It’s a quasi-Western about a lizard who, as the convention holds, pretends to be something he is not. Conventions notwithstanding, the dialogue, allusions, and voice work are enough to wipe any of the inconsistencies out of mind. The animation, however… will blow your mind. Industrial Light and Magic, you know the guys who brought Star Wars to life, make their first feature film and it is gorgeous. It’s photorealistic to the point where you have to squint to make sure it’s only computer generated imagery. Johnny Depp is wonderful, of course. With a story ripped out of Chinatown, Rango superbly goes where all animated films go but few do with such panache: self-reflexivity and meta-humor.
Come back in 12 months for my inevitable belated Top 10 of 2012!