11 March 2012

The best films of 2011

The ides of March draw near, and it's high time I finally posted my thoughts on some movies from last year other than The Tree of Life, despite the fact that I saw pitifully few movies from 2011 compared to usual, and despite the fact that I didn't get to see nearly everything one would generally be expected to see before composing such a list in order for it to have any worth whatsoever. By way of comparison, I saw 53 films from 2011; that's way fewer than the 80 or so I ultimately saw from the two years prior to that, and substantially fewer than the 100 I saw from 2004. I didn't get to see Beginners, because the movie gods hate me, apparently; ditto A Separation, Pina and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Those were probably my biggest failures/gaps in knowledge/experience as a cinephile of last year. And sweet lord, did I ever wish I was able to see them, so get off my back, man! I also didn't get to see those end-of-the-year girl/woman-power biopics The Iron Lady or My Week With Marilyn, which I'm not really that sad about, since I've heard they're not all that anyways. I saw pitifully few documentaries, although I was lucky enough to finally get to see Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and even luckier enough to see Nostalgia for the Light, which a quick glance at Metacritic informs me hardly anyone saw. Like Crazy, War Horse, and Attack the Block were a few more things I sort of wanted to see but that eluded my grasp for one reason or another. If there's anything else you think I'm crazy for not including, maybe I didn't see that either. A quick glance at my 2009-11 movie viewing log over yonder to the right there (- - > ) will allow you to verify if this is the case. Or maybe I did see it and wasn't as impressed as you were with it. Tough break.

The best list also goes to 15 this year because too many things I was wild about didn't quite crack the top-10, so consider it an added bonus.

With that housekeeping out of the way, let's start the ball rolling!

Honourable mentions:

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog), a mesmerizing rumination on what it means to be human that takes off in profound, if sometimes obscure, philosophical directions from the starting point of the Chauvet Cave paintings, the earliest known works of art ever discovered. It's a beautiful, haunting, and leisurely film, with Werner Herzog masterfully exploring the meaning, mythology, and method behind these unfathomably early forms of human expression, finding something oddly new and relevant in the unearthing. (Unfortunately, I have no comment as to the success of failure of Herzog's use of 3-D, since this was a DVD rental. I know, I suck.)

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Glenn Ficarra, John Requa), a polished, bittersweet romantic dramedy that ends up just where you expect it to, yet it's surprisingly spiky fun to watch it get there. The performers gel perfectly together, whether it's Steve Carell as a straight-laced recently single middle-aged yuppie, Ryan Gosling as the smooth-talking and dressing lothario who helps the sadsack back onto his feet, Emma Stone as the girl who's so delightful she may just get Gosling's character to settle down, or Julianne Moore, as Carell's sweet but unsatisfied now-ex-wife. The energy and wit and emotional sincerity and vibrancy that the whole team brings to the enterprise is winning enough to suggest classic Hollywood screwball comedy, and though the plot is largely programmed from the beginning, the storytelling itself is deft.

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg), a stately, searingly acted, maybe a bit fanciful, but nevertheless illuminating examination of the real friendship between pioneers of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen, biting into yet another role for director David Cronenberg with gusto) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender, astonishing), as well as Sabrina Spielrein (an appropriately agitated Keira Knightley), the woman that provided one of Jung's earliest case studies and got in between the two men before staking out a psychoanalytic career of her own. It's a movie that excites both cerebrally (as expected) and bodily, with the sexual themes that animated Freud and much of Jung's work bubbling to the surface in compelling ways.

The Ides of March (George Clooney), an almost ridiculously star-studded affair that provides a bracingly cynical, if not wholly original, look at the elaborate backstage of American politics. Director George Clooney marshalls a stunning array of talent, including, well, himself as a hopeful and charismatic presidential candidate, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as his chief advisor, Ryan Gosling (again!) as an eager upstart on the campaign, Paul Giamatti as a slick and weaselly advisor for the other team, Marisa Tomei as an ambitious reporter... need I go on? The film is a suspenseful and intelligent immersion in the deeply intertwined worlds of politics and the media--the spin zone, in other words--that strives for, and almost achieves, the heft of a modern-day tragedy. It's frequently exhilarating even if it might be almost too focused on its sprawling (but talented!) cast and shoehorning all these disparate characters into the fray.

The Muppets (James Bobin), a blast of pure unironic joy. The plot may be wispy and fall apart under close inspection, yet the film is such a bouncy delight, full of clever and goofy songs, it's hard not to leave the cinema grinning from ear to ear. And Jason Segel and Amy Adams really are the perfect old-school-charming stars to lead this endeavour.

Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois), a sobering and quietly enthralling look at human (and spiritual) determination in the midst of an ever-changing world fraught with political upheaval. Great performances, especially from Lambert Wilson, beautifully portray the resolve (and perhaps the folly) of these stoic men who are doing the best to follow their hearts.

Rango (Gore Verbinski), the year's best animated film (and it pains me to say that in a year with a Pixar offering), a rambunctious cavalcade of irreverent metacinematic references, witty one-liners, rowdy slapstick, rollicking adventure, and delightfully odd and distinct sights and sounds, served up in a daringly ugly (yet starkly beautiful, for all that) brand of CGI animation well-suited to the withered and parched desert critters it depicts.


The real list!

15. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
Under the controlled direction of David Fincher, this American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo effortlessly rises above the sleek and competent if a bit unspired Swedish adaptations of Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy to give its mysteries and depths of seediness and psychological affliction an often mythic, always exhilarating (even at two-and-a-half hours) appeal. The movie seems overly faithful at times to Larsson's verbosity and somewhat messy plot structure (based on an assessment of the length of the book and comments of people who've actually read it), and yet there's such a tonic mixture of the grittily realistic and the awesomely operatic going on in the texture of Fincher's filmmaking that it's smooth going even over these occasional lumps. And he has found a remarkable muse in Rooney Mara, an absolute revelation as the titular figure, Lisbeth Salander, a shockingly intelligent and disturbed computer hacker with a violent past, abused by the systems that bind her. Daniel Craig is compelling as Mikael Blomkvist, an intrepid but recently disgraced reporter hoping to uncover a new story that will restore his tarnished reputation, mixing grim determination with a surprisingly easygoing affability that makes his character all the more watchably human. Christopher Plummer is shadily plummy as the patriarch of the Vangers, a wealthy industrialist family, who sits atop the untold secrets of the clan, while Stellan Skarsgard is creepily intense as Martin Vanger, who may have been involved in the mysterious disapparence, years ago, of one of the other Vanger children. These performances are enthralling but the movie really belongs to Mara, riveting from first frame to last, who makes Lisbeth's quest for truth and freedom (and revenge) downright iconic. Fincher's aesthetic instincts are top-notch across the board, his expert use of music and visuals emphasizing the swirling undercurrents of repressed trauma and violence and scandal and tension that lie beneath the surface. Under his steady hand, the film becomes a darkly exhilarating thriller that brings Larsson's novel to full and clear cinematic life.

14. The Future (Miranda July)
Fair warning: my lists tend to be an eclectic mixture. There is a fairly decent heap of whimsy going on in Miranda July's latest cinematic endeavour (she previously directed the enchantingly odd 2005 trinket Me and You and Everyone We Know) that many viewers may find off-putting and overly precious--or possibly just inexplicable. I didn't quite foresee myself falling so completely under the spell of this unassuming story of two flighty, naïve, self-absorbed, hipster-ish early-thirty-something lovers (played by July herself and Hamish Linklater) and their impulsive, half-heartedly life-altering decision of adopting a stray cat, a choice that winds up having far more profound an impact on both of them than they first envisioned. We shouldn't logically care about these people, and yet July draws us in. Both characters seem to drift apart and make new connections with other people and eventually time and space start to break down as secrets and regrets bubble to the surface and Linklater's character literally stops time (with the help of a kindly, personified moon) in order to prevent the inevitable catastrophe from occurring. Oh yeah, and the cat, Paw-Paw, actually speaks, delivering touchingly pseudo-philosophical monologues as he waits around for his owners to come retrieve him from the animal shelter. The film presents the sweet innocence of these characters' lives only to pull the rug out from under us when reality finally does intrude on these isolated, almost infantile characters, making the emotional impact all the more poignant. The mood is serene; July's direction, writing, and acting here are constantly inventive, surprising, calm, and assured; light and dark, hope and despair, love and fear, airy goofiness and deep contemplation are finely balanced. This ridiculous premise has no business working as well as it does, and it's a tribute to July's singular talent that it resonates so thoroughly in spite of itself.

13. Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)
Undoubtedly the best pure 'popcorn movie' in many a moon, Super 8 feels fresh in its very cozy nostalgia. This riveting tale of amateur movie-making children who stumble inadvertently onto something big and possibly otherworldly that even causes adults to panic and call in the cavalry, Super 8 zooms full-speed ahead into the cinematic stratosphere buoyed by skillful, inventive, knowing, loving writing and direction from J.J. Abrams that harkens back to cinematic blockbuster tradition of yore and deeply committed performances from the best child ensemble (with Elle Fanning being a particularly recognizable and effective standout) since... I don't even remember; possibly Stand by Me, even. And that's not to detract from the charms of Kyle Chandler as a determined small-town sherriff who has a way of tough but nevertheless sincere love for his family and his community. While the suspense drains away a bit the more we see of the "monster," there's a wonderfully sustained sense of child-like wonder and awe going on in the movie, a palpable fear of the unknown mitigated, finally, by a stirring reassertion of the strength of love and friendship. Classic Hollywood-style filmmaking at its most potently effective.

12. Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
Those who know me well know I don't generally give two figs about baseball, so a baseball movie is often a tough sell, but I was sure rooting for team Moneyball from beginning to end. (Although, come to think of it, I was quite fond of Bull Durham, and Field of Dreams and The Rookie were both enjoyable romps in the field of corniness.) This is a sharply written, crisply and excitingly directed (there's a bit of a lag in the seventh-inning stretch but the pacing is generally as smooth as a freshly dusted home plate... are my baseball metaphors working here at all?), and winningly acted story about the daring it takes to think critically, adopt a different yet sound strategy despite protests from traditionalists, and the guts and leadership to put it all into place. Brad Pitt chomps into the meaty roll of charismatic, fast-talking, but desperate Billy Beane, manager of the Oakland A's, forced to adopt a more mathematical, anti-intuitive scouting strategy to get his failing team back on track. Jonah Hill is remarkable (miles away from his stereotypical fat-funny-dude roles he often takes on in various Apatow and Apatow-like comedies and bromances) as the behind-the-scenes numbers-cruncher who takes on a central importance in the A's management; the new role looks good on the character as well as the actor. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is also in peak form as an increasingly weary coach who questions Beane's strategy. Everything is on the money here, and the film is a brisk and exciting examination of politics, strategy, resolve, open-mindedness, empathy (many of the players Beane winds up recruiting thought they were done for good but find they do still have a place in the world--and on Beane's eclectically spruced-up team), decision-making, and masculinity. I'd call it a cinematic home run, but I figure you'd throw things at me if I continue with the baseball puns.

11. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Ryan Gosling was all over the place last year, and apparently all over this list, too. Here, he's a stoic, perma-composed stunt driver who moonlights as a ruthlessly efficient get-away driver for all manner of criminal and low-life thug. The opening chase scene is breathlessly intense and ingeniously staged, and lest we worry that director Nicolas Winding Refn has spent all his wiles and energy one this one virtuoso setpiece, the pace hardly lets up from there. After that, Gosling gets tangled up with a Dame (a radiant Carey Mulligan), as is often the case with this sort of thing, and things get complicated when it turns out she's married to a recently released convict who has lingering trouble surrounding him... trouble that threatens the family the Driver (that's the only name we get for Gosling's character) has grown so close to... trouble that must be dealt with, with extreme severity. Bryan Cranston (nicely jovial) also shows up as a mechanic and trusty friend to the Driver, as does Albert Brooks (calmly menacing) as a calculating thug and Ron Perlman (the gruff, noble bruiser of a title character in Hellboy; gruff but somewhat more lunkish and less noble here) pops in as a muscly goon; Christina Hendricks makes a nifty femme fatale. While the focus has rightly been on Gosling and Brooks here, the movie really boasts a fine ensemble all around, well-integrated and always playing off each other in fascinating and surprising ways. The movie's plot is all surface, or should I say the style is so thick and invigorating here as to become the content? There's little depth here, nor did I really expect there to be, but that's not to negate the movie's achievements; in Drive's best moments, and there are a lot of them, the characters almost slide into archetype, myth. It helps that the direction from Nicolas Winding Refn is beautifully modulated, at one moment calm and controlled, then bursting into an operatic grandeur with its stylish, slow-paced brutality, sleek imagery, and gorgeous music. The movie wallows in terse hegemonic masculinity--the Driver seems to hardly say a word; he lets his body do the talking--and equally stereotypical femininity--Mulligan doesn't have much to do about look radiant and fret about the awful things the men in her life are getting up to. I don't know quite how to feel about the film's portrayal of gender roles; I halfway think Refn is offering up these portrayals with tongue in cheek, as part and parcel of the '80s action movies to which he lovingly, slightly edgily alludes here. By harkening back with such verve to cinema of yore, Drive ironically becomes a breath of fresh air.

10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows--Part 2 (David Yates)
The final instalment of the indomitable Harry Potter film franchise also happens, luckily, to be the strongest. As much as I enjoyed to different extents the prior episodes--particularly The Prisoner of Azkaban, The Order of the Phoenix (which focused and distilled the best parts of an otherwise excessive, dry, and verbose novel) and part 1 of The Deathly Hallows--this last is the one that most clearly and passionately stands on its own as cinema, rather than simply as a filmed adaptation of a book. It starts off on a note of breathtaking melancholy and anxiety with Voldemort's discovery of the Elder Wand and the death of Dobby (an event which I'm not ashamed to say drew very real tears from me) that never lets up during the film's brisk two-and-a-bit hour running time. The film shrewdly draws on its audience's collective memories of the Harry Potter saga, not plunging into excess exposition where none is required. Instead, it surges ahead with thrilling adventure and admirable emotional/psychological depth, zooming in on the original story's vibrant undertones of bravery, determination, hesitation, jealousy, fear, love, family, friendship, loyalty, betrayal, and grief. Its cast is as excellent as it's ever been, the younger actors biting into their roles with more vigour than we've seen so far (particularly, and more evidently than ever, Rupert Grint's Ron Weasley is a performance to go down in cinematic history; Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson find new depths to Harry and Hermione; Matthew Lewis also has some good, unexpected moments as the secretly heroic Neville Longbottom), and the adult actors all but searing the screen with intensity and life (Ralph Fiennes makes the perfect icy Voldemort; Helena Bonham Carter makes utter psychopathy alluringly intense; Alan Rickman summons Greek tragedy-levels of empathy for his secretly loyal and tormented Snape; Jim Broadbent and Maggie Smith are delicious hoots as always; I could go on...). The scenery gives a beautiful backdrop to the richness of the action. The writing from Steve Kloves is crisp and true to the vision of J.K. Rowling's novel but without being overly beholden to it. The focused direction of David Yates gives the whole thing a solid shape and pace. With a final instalment this moving and intelligently designed, it will be harder than ever to bid a final adieu to the Harry Potter universe, but what a magnificent, (dare I say it?) magical conclusion it is!

9. Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman)
This exquisite documentary, meanwhile, is calmly magical in its own right, zooming in on astronomers and victims (direct and indirect) of Pinochet's brutality as they go about their various searches for truth in the Atacama Desert of Chile. The subjects seem a bit at odds with each other at first, the scientists using the emptiness of the desert and the clarity of its skies as an ideal site from which to look out and observe the heavens, while the survivors look down into the sands for bone fragments of their disappeared loved ones, scattered across the desert during Pinochet's regime. The languid pacing doesn't help pull us in at first or connect these seemingly disparate threads, but once you pick up what Guzman is laying down, the film begins to work its wonders on you. "Memory has a gravitational force," the director tells us, and indeed Nostalgia for the Light is an engrossing, intimate meditation on the weighty power of memory and the arduous, possibly futile task to reconstruct the past. The cruel irony of the film is that the astronomers seem to have a much easier time of observing deep into the past (after all, the light from those stars takes years to reach us; observing the heavens is literally gazing into the past) and far into space than the old women do of reconstructing the memories and bodies of their more recently lost loved ones, some of them tragically never achieving closure. Connections are deftly made here between the historical and the geographical, the personal and the political, the fragmentary and the astronomical, the absence at the heart of life and the need to complete the record, the clarity and beauty versus the harshness of the desert, and the science that ties it altogether on an elemental level. Memory doesn't just exist in tangible records like bones or photographs; it's an ongoing process of discovery and connection, and Guzman mirrors this process, approaching his filmmaking task like an archaeologist digging through the sands of the desert to uncover newer and richer layers of the past. The tone here is quiet and contemplative, the camerawork never showy; Guzman's camera seems to have infinite patience as it observes its eclectic interviewees at their work, lingering over the beauty of dust specks in the dry air of its chosen landscape or the twinkling stars in the expansive, luxurious night sky. Nostalgia for the Light is an aesthetically gorgeous film, and Guzman gradually draws us in, gravitationally, mesmerically, to his deep and layered, specific and universal story of memory, time, life, death, and the cosmic origins of it all.

8. Bridesmaids (Paul Feig)
Yeah, I told you this list would be eclectic. Now for something completely different: While some circles have ever-so-slightly overexaggerated the unity and classic comic perfection of this crude, witty, exuberant examination of female friendship and the stresses that can invade it (I'm looking at you, Entertainment Weekly! I'm not sure the movie is completely without pacing issues), some equally silly things have been said about it along the lines that it is simply a female version of The Hangover (I'd say, if anything, I Love You, Man would be the stronger comparison; but really, it's its own beast in a lot of ways) or that its gross-out gags don't mesh with its occasional tilts toward sentimentality--as if such mixture, pulled off just as deftly here, wasn't Judd Apatow's whole claim to fame. Bridesmaids is a sharp, energetic, uproariously funny, solidly structured, and--most importantly--humane comedy. It boasts an eminently realistic and identifiable lead character in Annie, an anxious woman beset by feelings of jealousy, inadequacy, and insecurity at the impending nuptials of her best friend who struggles nonetheless to fit in with the rest of her bridesmaids in wishing her well--seemingly a cringe-inducing figure in a lot of ways who's made surprisingly appealing and believable thanks to the magnificent, revelatory lead performance of Kristen Wiig (one of the absolute best female performances of the year). It's superbly written by Wiig and co-writer Annie Mumolo, mixing elaborate physical comedy setpieces and verbal acrobatics, biting cynicism and warm-hearted romantic optimism with aplomb. The direction of sitcom veteran Paul Feig keeps it all flowing smoothly, with only a few hiccups towards the middle. Best of all, the excellent ensemble cast--including, in addition to Wiig, Maya Rudolph (as the bride-to-be), Melissa McCarthy (commandingly brusque), Rose Byrne, and Ellie Kemper--come together with extreme professionalism, with each performer supporting and improving the work of her colleagues. With Wiig's Annie, a heartfelt, dazzlingly funny, three-dimensional study in very real (and thus all the more keenly felt) awkwardness and yearning, effortlessly leading the way, this rowdy team comes together to form a female "wolf pack" far more entertaining and inspired, because more fully developed, (although just as hilariously raunchy) as their supposed Hangover counterparts, making Bridesmaids a surprisingly deep, constantly entertaining delight.

1 April 2012: OK everyone, sorry to keep you in suspense. I'm sure you were all pulling out your hair in frustration with me. I've been super-busy and will be until the end of this month, roughly, so I'm just going to give you the rest of the list sans (much) commentary and then maybe I'll go back some day and fill in the blanks with why I'm thought these were so particularly great (or, in the case of the worst movies, why I was so disappointed in them)... I should also mention here that I've also seem a couple movies since starting the list that would have been included had I seen them earlier, particularly Poetry from Lee Chang-dong, so unfortunately that one won't be making an appearance despite its brilliance. Anyways, here's the rest of the list in a fairly boring, less elaborate fashion than what came before:

7. Le Havre (Aki Kaurismaki)
Pure delight. A calm, charming, minimalist, deadpan-hilarious Finnish gem from the inimitable Aki Kaurismaki (if you haven't seen The Man Without a Past yet, that is heartily recommended) about a shoe-shiner and his stalwart wife in the titular French port town deciding to help a young illegal immigrant, discovered hiding from an inspector on the docks, evade capture and get back to his family in England. If the pitch-perfect acting and pared-down but lovely screenplay and direction (this could almost be a silent film) in Le Havre doesn't bring a smile to your face, you may have a heart of stone.

6. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
Speaking of (near-)silent films, this is a wonderful throwback to the silent era that is, again, exquisitely charming. While its revolutionary approach might have been slightly exaggerated, The Artist stands tall as a wonderful curio and imitation of the cinematic past while also functioning as its own deeply entertaining story of a man struggling to find his voice... and a woman who helps him along. Jean Dujardin is towering, and Berenice Bejo is a lively treat to watch.

5. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
There's not a moment to breathe in this vivid and psychologically complex thriller about a man, with a history of mental illness, who, after experiencing terrifying visions (or are they real?) of impending meteorological doom, begins obsessively building a storm shelter in his backyard, to the dismay of his friends, neighbours, family. This pursuit begins to take its toll on his health, his career, and his finances, which is all the more devastating since his family needs the money for surgery on their young, nearly deaf child. Multifarious anxieties (none more pervasive than the economic woes, which make Take Shelter a perfectly timely endeavour) bubble to the surface, with dialogue, performance (Michael Shannon is absolutely mesmerizing as the troubled family man, with every facial expression suggesting new depths of fear, and nearly matched by Jessica Chastain--is there anything she wasn't in last year?), and elaborate setpieces summoned forth to full effect by director Jeff Nichols to convey the interior and exterior worlds of this fascinating character. Perhaps no other movie this year worked its magic quite so vigorously on the nerves and the emotions.

4. The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
Director Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways) is back in full force after a seven-year break, and luckily, The Descendants doesn't disappoint, in many ways delivering a story just as powerful as his previous masterpieces while taking his unique style to new and invigorating places. Really, you all probably know my feelings on George Clooney and Payne, and this utilizes both talents to full effect. It's a funny, sad, wise, wistful, high-brow, low-brow, soulful, real symphony of storytelling as only Payne could deliver. Stuff you might not know/expect: Shailene Woodley gives one of the most believable adolescent performances in quite some time as Clooney's wayward but clever and good-hearted daughter, Alex, and Amara Miller is always surprising and delightful as younger daughter, Scottie.

3. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
A snakily complex movie that I can't really summarize adequately in the time I have. It messes with and muses ever so elegantly and breathtakingly on themes of reality and performance, genuineness and forgery, past and present and future (blurred temporalities in general, really), and ritual and emotion (and in what way is all emotion and connection sort of ritualized?). The rich dialogue unfolds at a masterfully Linklater-ian pace and the Tuscan scenery is exquisite, with Kiarostami's camera casually observing as this twisty tale takes its natural, ambiguous, and totally unexpected course. Juliette Binoche and William Shimell are simply extraordinary as a... couple? maybe? Just watch it.

2. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
What an odd quirk that two of the finest movies of last year harken back to the early days of cinematic history--the French one (The Artist) throwing end-of-the-silent-era American cinema under its spotlight while this American one deftly weaves turn-of-the-20th-century French cinema, particularly that of George Melies, into its vibrant storytelling structure. I'm certainly not one to complain when the results are as glorious as they are, though. Hugo is a marvellous wind-up toy of a film, moving, funny, rich, intelligent, almost absurdly gorgeous (3-D technology has rarely been so well used as it is here by Martin Scorsese, et al.), constantly surprising as it reveals more and more layers to its densely packed but never overburdened story, based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brain Selznick. It's also a love letter to early-20th-century Paris far more effective than, say, Woody Allen's forced Midnight in Paris. It's also got a pair of wonderful child actors in Asa Butterfield (as the titular eager young orpahn) and Chloe Grace-Moretz, and rescues Ben Kingsley from seeming oblivion--the actor is tremendous as the aforementioned French filmmaking genius. It's also... well, let's leave it at that. I liked everything about Hugo. I ate all of it up with a spoon.

1. Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
Of all the wondrous cinematic sights and sounds that were offered up with such generosity by filmmakers last year, nothing stirred me as much, brought me to such exquisite highs of pleasure and deep lows of fear and despair, or took the cinema in such creative and profound new directions as Lars von Trier's Melancholia. This was the year of the cosmic, life-the-universe-and-everything film, apparently, with this one and The Tree of Life ambitiously going to the beginnings and ends of time and the universe to reveal something essential about humanity (and Another Earth sort of just floundering about). While I appreciate Terrence Malick's singular effort more the more I think about it, it still seems a slightly incoherent effort despite its discrete moments of awe-inspiring brilliance. Melancholia, though, despite its two distinct chapters, fits together brilliantly, as the interior depression of Kirsten Dunst's (possibly the performance of the year) beautiful, tormented bride bumps up against the public extravagance of a lavish wedding ceremony, then morphs into an outward manifestation of terror, as a new, threatening planet named Melancholia is discovered, possibly on a collision course with earth, that is more private--the guests have by this point all vanished from the mansion in an almost ghostly fashion, leaving Dunst alone with her sister, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg (extraordinary as a perfect psychological counterpoint to Dunst's character), as well as her husband (a suitably intense Kiefer Sutherland) and son. The film gorgeously and exquisitely blends the inner and outer, public and private, the micro and the macro-manifestations of a very real apocalypse and a crushing psychological affliction that can make one feel that the earth is about to end; as with Take Shelter, even in its early moments of levity (John Hurt, one of my favourite actors ever, makes a wonderfully crusty drunken uncle) and luxury, there is always a palpable undercurrent of tension here.

Von Trier has struggled with his own bouts of devastating depression, which resulted in the queasy, dismal, and muddled awfulness of the director's last film, Antichrist. This only makes his triumph here all the more surprising and heroic. The true, sublime accomplishment of Melancholia--which can also be read as a personal feat for von Trier--is how exhilarating and joyous the film becomes, borne aloft on swelling strains of Wagner and the electrifying, composed, Baroque beauty of its images, even as it hurtles towards an impossibly dark ending. That feeling is a rare and precious one to come across in a film; it's pure awe.


And now for something completely different! The list of the worst films of 2011! Please keep in mind, as in years past, that I tend to avoid the worst cinematic efforts of any given year. I have a pretty keen lemon detector, and why would I want to spend money to see something awful, anyways? This means that I am fully aware there were probably dozens of movies from last year that were worse than those listed here... think of these as the ones that slipped past my defenses against terribleness, or that I thought would be good and just wound up disappointing the hell out of me. With that disclaimer out of the way, let's get started...

The worst films of 2011

This list won't be as long since I tend to have a pretty good nose for stinkers and avoid seeing many of the really dreadful films that come out in a particular year. In addition, why dwell on the negative any longer than we have to?

4. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
While insanely prolific and often brilliant, Woody Allen has also become, of late, horribly inconsistent. I am nearly alone in thinking that Midnight in Paris was one of his recent misfires. Yet this was a tiresome romp populated with one-dimensional cartoons of famous artists and writers of yesteryear that never gives us a strong main character to anchor the action (a miscast Owen Wilson is a little too affable and charming to play a Woody Allen stand-in). The premise wears thin quickly. The dialogue is often way too on-the-nose (political discussions between characters of different generations early on ring particularly hollow) and beneath the normally sparkling wit of Allen. This is a movie that wallows too much in its nostalgia for early 20th-century Paris without giving us a convincing modern reality against which to balance this portrait, which SPOILER ALERTS!! . . . (but probably not really) leaves its sentimental ending feeling wholly unearned.

3. Carnage (Roman Polanski)
A shrill, overacted sitcom of a domestic drama about two sets of parents who come together to decide how to proceed when their children have a fight that results in one being injured. With such a fine cast as Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, and Jodie Foster, one might be excused for expecting a fine ensemble piece that ratchets up the tension and comedy. Instead, Roman Polanski (adapting a stage play by Yasmina Reza) keeps the action static and implausible, with characters saying they want to leave but never leaving and loudly talking on cell phones amidst everyone else. This is a film that never quite figures out how to stop being a play. Even at only 80 minutes, this loud and abrasive affair starts grating on the nerves early on and never lets up.

2. The Devil's Double (Lee Tamahori)
What could have been a revealing account of life behind the fortress walls of Saddam Hussein's (and family's) Iraqi palace--the story of a man hired to act as Uday Hussein's double in public in case of assassination attempts (both Uday and his double are played by Dominic Cooper)--instead becomes a sleazy, by-the-numbers action pic that puts the emphasis on gloss, luxury, and tittilation over elaborating the complex and no doubt more intriguing psychological dynamics of this arrangement. It wallows thoroughly in low-rent mediocrity. What a waste!

1. Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder)
A junky, exploitative, exhaustingly monochromatic, and video game-like (in the worst, most alienating sense of that word) affair that relishes in dull, relentless violence, lifeless CGI, and a faux-female empowerment story. The movie serves up its one-dimensional characters as sweet but decidedly un-nutritious treats for the male gaze, thus further reinforcing the ugly sexual exploitation it pretends to struggle against. It's the audience who becomes the suckers in this vacuous affair. I've been told that the director's cut may offer me something more to chew on, but is it really worth going back into this dismal cinematic world on the off-chance there's only slightly more to it?


  1. Having only just now seen Asghar Farhadi's absolutely riveting 'A Separation,' I am now slotting that title in at #4, and honestly, 'The Descendants' is slipping back to #6, since I think 'Take Shelter,' which remains at #5, has held up ever so slightly better in my mind. God, these lists are arbitrary and fickle business. Everything from 'The Artist' on slips one spot.

  2. Almost forgot: 'Pina,' another too-late viewing, would now definitely be on the list, somewhere around 'Le Havre.'