Monday, January 16, 2012

Eric Van Uffelen's Top 10 Films of 2011

I’ve abandoned the premise of “these are the best films” – these types of lists are always so arbitrary, so these are my favorite new movies that I saw in 2011. This is a healthier angle to pursue, as you can argue about objectively ranking art, but you can’t dispute taste. (Please note that I've included an addendum at the end, now that I've thought about this some more and seen other films.)

10. Margaret  When lawsuits, distribution delays, and editing battles plague a film, and it receives a brief shuffle of a release, it is probably not worth seeing. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s follow-up to You Can Count on Me is a mesmerizing, glorious, and messy exception. Anna Paquin gives one of the most electric performances of the year, as a teen whose complicated involvement in a tragic bus accident shadows her already heady transition into adulthood.

9. The Descendants  A poignant and funny family drama directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election). Opening with a boating accident that leaves a woman in a coma, George Clooney and Shailene Woodley star as the woman’s husband and daughter, who travel Hawaii, notifying family members and bonding over further troubling secrets, and being continually reminded that life in paradise is anything but perfect.

8. Shame  Michael Fassbender is remarkable as a man with a sex addiction that gradually consumes his life. The arrival of his sister, played by Carey Mulligan, hastens his spiral and frames the fractured life that they barely emerged from. Director Steve McQueen doesn’t shy away from the depths of this portrait (the film was released as NC-17 almost as a rebellious act), and though the film is harrowing and difficult, it’s a stunning example of pushing boundaries and rewarding audiences with unique performances and insight.

7. Take Shelter  Writer-director Jeff Nichols turns a character study of a man (Michael Shannon, who is sadly being overlooked during awards season) plagued by disturbing hallucinations into a sensitive and stirring family drama (Jessica Chastain is note-perfect as his wife), and a commentary on not only mental illness and its stigma but of small town life during a recession.

6. Melancholia  I am not a fan of writer-director Lars von Trier, even of his approach to films, but this powerful work is impossible to deny. The prologue alone is worth the price of admission. Kirsten Dunst plays a bride who is crippled by depression, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is her sister who tries to understand. The looming arrival of an enormous planet takes over the narrative but focuses the emotional devastation. It all plays out at a beautiful estate in Sweden.

5. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol  So many other “smaller” films usually deserve attention that I might have been hesitant to include such an already popular, widely released movie, but director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) marks his live-action debut with such an assured, thrilling entry in the series that it had to make the list. Beyond the stunts, gadgetry, and scope of the film, I was impressed that the set-pieces were built on the agency and emotional makeup of the characters involved: the comedic, tech-heavy segment fit Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn; the improvised espionage stand-off fit Paula Patton’s Jane Carter and Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt; the epic fight at the end fit the stakes of Tom Cruise’s team leader Ethan Hunt. The most fun I had at the movies in 2011.

4. Certified Copy  A beautiful, rich, sensitive, and intelligent film from acclaimed writer-director Abbas Kiarostami, starring Juliette Binoche and William Shimmel. Set in Tuscany and taking place all in one afternoon, this powerful film deserves to be discovered without much to spoil it, and the subject matter is difficult to encompass in a capsule review. I will say that I’ve never been as impressed by what is not revealed on screen as I was with this film. (It is available for streaming on Netflix.)

3. The Artist / Hugo 3D  This is my list, and I had similar reactions to these films, which are each concerned with cinema itself, so I’m including a tie. The Artist is a silent, black and white film from writer-director Michel
Hazanavicius about a popular silent film star (Jean Dujardin) who finds himself drawn to a young novice actress (Bérénice Bejo) just as the “talkies” era is ushered in and he is ushered out. What is brilliant about the film is that it doesn’t just pay homage to that dramatic time in cinema history, it uses the subject matter and theme to quite literally portray the “language” of film narrative – the way shots are composed, camera movement, editing, etc. – all in a way that fits the story. It is delightful and quite moving, and should be required viewing for anyone who loves film. The same can be said for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which I recommend seeing in 3D. That film concerns an orphan (Asa Butterfield) living in a Paris train station in the 1930s, who tries to rebuild a mysterious automaton his father had discovered. Chloë Moretz plays his confidant and fellow adventurer, and Ben Kingsley is her mysterious godfather and a shop owner in the train station. All of this sounds like a “kid’s movie” (and it does work as one), but there is a reveal that is cultivated beautifully, into a stunning ode to the history and power of cinema. The 3D technology is purposeful and graceful (this is Scorsese, after all), and suggests that it is a viable technology for filmmakers. The Artist is about film finding its voice, and Hugo 3D is about the importance of preserving film, both literally and in our hearts and minds, using the latest technology available.

2. Martha Marcy May Marlene  This is one of the most eerie and disturbing films I’ve seen in a quite a long time. I was shaking after I left the theater, and not from the cold. It’s not a horror film, nor a thriller, but it is one of the most horrific and nerve-wracking films I’ve experienced, yet it’s told so beautifully. What makes this more phenomenal is that it marks the feature debut of both writer-director Sean Durkin and star Elizabeth Olsen as the title character(s). Olsen plays a young woman who escapes a cult and moves in with her sister, but cannot just simply readjust. Seamless, nuanced editing weaves her tale in and out of her time in the cult, and portrays not only why what she experienced affected her so irrevocably, but also why she might have joined the cult in the first place. John Hawkes is amazing (as usual) as the cult leader. There are many smart decisions that Durkin made in crafting this film, but the way the cult is handled is perhaps the most effective, as it isn’t clearly steeped in anything, and its practices remain elusive until it is too late.

1. The Tree of Life  I wrote 1100 words in my review of this masterpiece from writer-director Terrence Malick. I believe it is a hyper-realization of the themes Malick has already so beautifully developed throughout his career, and it is at once his most personal and most abstract work. In my review (for the Blu-ray/DVD), I noted that I saw this three times in the theaters, despite it never seeing wide release, and touched on the history of the film and my anticipation for it. What I left out was that I went to see this the day it opened in San Francisco while I was on crutches, I was that excited for it, and I openly wept at the end – not only was the film deeply moving, but it was more beautiful than I could have hoped for. Even if the film is not to your usual tastes, and I would encourage you to at least watch the trailer so you have some sort of understanding of it, I think you would find it difficult to argue that another film from last year offered as much pure cinema and ambition as The Tree of Life.

I did see Drive, yes, but was one of the apparently handful of people who hated it. I thought the new The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was well made, but I did not like it enough to rate it here. There are many films I was not able to see, but that have all received strong recommendations or critical acclaim, and I look forward to watching them soon; for example, Senna, Weekend, The Arbor, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams are all available to stream on Netflix. The early months of the year are traditionally a time when studios burn off their less-than-prestigious fare, so it’s a perfect time to catch up with films you may have missed. February 2012 update: I'd now put A Separation at #3 (it's perfect, really, and portrays the issues that it does like no other film I've seen), and would probably knock The Artist and Hugo 3D down to #5 and keep Certified Copy at #4. I'd move Margaret up to #9, and take out  The Descendants and replace it at #10 with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

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