What a difference a month makes! Shortly after the holidays, I posted my list of the best films of 2011 with the caveat that I could change it at will, and probably would as some of the year’s smaller films had yet to open in my area. Today, I still haven’t seen Martha Marcy May Marlene or Coriolanus, although I look forward to both. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Shame appeared suddenly at a local theater that tends to get limited releases, but were gone in less than two weeks, so neither is included in the list of films I saw in 2011. The Iron Lady, sadly, wasn’t worth the wait, but Moneyball was. And I was blindsided in the best possible way by Drive, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and Incendies (released in the U.S. in 2011), three films that knocked others off my best-of list and into the also-ran category.
But most important is the fact that, as expected, nothing bumped Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, a movie I continue to think about, from the #1 spot. Others films switched places countless times, as I rearranged them to find the best fit. I also decided to add what I think were the best performances of the year.
So, here we go…again.
Two men meet at a seedy bar and, through a series of riveting conversations, learn how to connect with others. No action sequences, sweeping drama, or contrived story lines. Just human beings discovering the untapped emotional well within themselves and each other. Frankly sexual, honest and sometimes painful, Weekend is anchored by two strong performances by Tom Cullen and Chris New. I cannot stop thinking about this film.
2. The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick’s cosmic meditation on the universe and the smallness of human life within it. The operatic visuals — a Malick hallmark — are quietly countered by key performances from Brad Pitt, as a strict 1950s father, and Jessica Chastain, as his whimsical wife. Hunter McCracken, in a terrific debut role, plays the eldest son who suffers the brunt of his father’s emotional and spiritual abuse.
A masterful amalgam of 60′s European art house, 70′s action exploitation, and a little Michael Mann. Ryan Gosling is a nameless stuntman by day and getaway driver by night. When a heist goes wrong, he finds himself trying to protect a newly widowed woman (Cary Mulligan) and her son. Expertly paced, shockingly violent, and one of the best-looking movies of 2011. Great supporting work by Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, and Bryan Cranston as the garage owner who can make any car go much, much faster.
Lubna Azabal gives the year’s best performance as Nawal Marwan, a refugee (possibly Lebanese) navigating the road to hell and back. Upon learning of Nawal’s death, her children, Jeanne and Simon, travel from Canada to the Middle East to deliver two letters — one to their father, the other to a brother they never knew about. Nawal’s story is told in flashbacks, where her children (and we) uncover the woman’s multitudinous tragic secrets. Profound and heartbreaking, with an ending that carries almost unbearable emotional weight.
5. I Saw the Devil
Jee-woon Kim’s ultra-violent — and ultra-bleak — crime thriller about a cop who implants a transmitter in the man who murdered his pregnant wife. Able to track the killer in a heartbeat, the cop plays a merciless game of cat-and-mouse, teaching him occasional lessons in unimaginable physical and mental pain. Stylishly filmed and electrifying from start to finish, but not for those with weak stomachs. Features one of the most masterful stretches of film I’ve ever seen, as the killer lashes out in a car, stabbing everything within reach. You’ve been warned.
6. Take Shelter
Sadly, Michael Shannon is only now on my radar after seeing his commanding performance as a man overcome by visions of the apocalypse in Take Shelter. His character may or may not be going mad, a fact that takes an emotional toll on those around him. Jessica Chastain, in another nuanced performance, plays his suffering wife. This is a strong film, quiet in its own way. Kathy Baker has a brief but almighty cameo as Shannon’s schizophrenic mother; she dominates the screen for the whole five minutes she’s on it.
7. The Artist
Who says a silent film from France can’t work in 2011? A fading 1920s Hollywood star resists the inevitable rise of the talkies, while the woman he loves catapults to stardom. A gloriously entertaining homage to the days when actors portrayed emotions not with words but their faces. Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, in two of the year’s finest performances, have the unenviable task of creating whole characters without uttering a single sentence. And a Jack Russell Terrier figures in a terrific, scene-stealing supporting role.
Brad Pitt as the manager of a losing baseball team who enlists the help of a nerdy statistician (Jonah Hill, worthy of his Oscar nom) to improve his overall trade picks. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is sharp and incisive, gradually developing two characters who live in a virtual bubble of sports language, and has a lot in common with his Oscar-winning script for The Social Network. Great stuff.
9. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Forget what the critics have told you. Here is a film marvelously written, directed, and acted, about a young boy coping with the loss of his father in the World Trade Center collapse. But the isn’t a story about 9/11; that tragic event is merely a catalyst. A young boy (newcomer Thomas Horn) and a mute old man (Oscar nominee Max von Sydow) go in search of the lock that fits a key that belonged to the boy’s deceased father. Some will have you believe the movie is manipulative and sentimental. It isn’t. Take a chance. Open your mind. This is a highly rewarding film. Cynics need not apply.
10. The Help
While some critics had less than kind things to say about The Help, I found it to be a rather profound portrayal of black maids trying to scrape by in 1960s Mississippi. Much of the film’s power comes from the stoic lead performance by Viola Davis, who may well win an Oscar, and the not-so-quiet Octavia Spencer as a maid with a sharp tongue who forms an unlikely bond with a white housewife (played by Jessica Chastain). Bryce Dallas Howard is suitably evil here as a woman who turns her disdain for the help into an art form. This film moved me deeply, though I never felt manipulated, and if you asked me to explain why, I probably couldn’t articulate. It’s just one of those things that is.
Tie for 11th place:
The year’s best comedy, which is arguably inarguable. Sharp, observant, and slightly sadistic, Bridesmaids follows the hapless Annie, as she selfishly navigates one life speedbump after another. Maya Rudolph, so sweet and funny, is Annie’s best friend, Lillian, the bride who has to juggle her impending nuptials and Annie’s manic absurdities. Melissa McCarthy received raves (and an Oscar nomination) for her performance as the blunt and brutish future sister-in-law, Megan, and she deserves it, stealing every scene she’s in like a greedy child running off with candy. Wiig holds her own, proving that she’s the real deal: a gifted comedic actress who also happens to be a damned fine writer (she co-wrote the screenplay). Not to be missed.
I’m often not sure if George Clooney is a gifted actor, or merely a really good A-list movie star. In Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, he shines in the former, as a man who finds himself in the awkward position of caring for two young daughters after his wife has a boating accident. Add to that the parcel of family land he must decide if he should sell and the news from his eldest daughter, Alex, that his wife was cheating on him. How much grief is one man supposed to take? Clooney handles the role with a quiet dignity that showcases his range of talent. And Shailene Woodley, as Alex, delivers a mesmerizing supporting role, turning what could have been a cliched petulant teenager into something special and kind of heartbreaking.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
A fresh take for me, since I haven’t read the source novels. David Fincher is in top form, allowing his visual gifts to take a back seat to the story of a disgraced journalist (Daniel Craig) hired to solve a forty-year-old mystery. Rooney Mara owns the screen as cyber-punk hacker Lisbeth Salander, who assists Craig in his investigation, even as she suffers her own deep psychic wounds. One of the year’s best thrillers, yes, but an even more observant human drama where Lisbeth is concerned.
Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen at his whimsical best. Owen Wilson is a screenwriter who just wants to walk through Paris in the rain. His love of the city is not shared by his ice-cold wife (a terrific Rachel McAdams, playing against type) or her supremely unfunny parents. Wilson follows a time warp back to the 1920s, where he meets many of his cinematic and literary idols. A wonderfully sharp and funny fairytale about understanding the greenness of other grasses.
Movies I admired: Attack the Block; Beginners; Captain America: The First Avenger; Crazy, Stupid, Love; Drive Angry (yes, I’m serious); Fast Five; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2; The Innkeepers; Insidious; Melancholia; Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol; My Week with Marilyn; Paul; Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale; X-Men: First Class
Movies that left me underwhelmed: Green Hornet; Hugo; I Am Number Four; The Iron Lady; My Week with Marilyn; Red State; Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Source Code; Super 8; The Debt; Thor
And the movie that has the dubious distinction of being the only one I hated: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
The Year’s Best Performances – Male:
Brad Pitt – The Tree of Life
Choi Min-sik – I Saw the Devil
Corey Stoll – Midnight in Paris
Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Jonah Hill – Moneyball
Kenneth Branagh – My Week with Marilyn
Michael Shannon – Take Shelter
Ryan Gosling – Drive
Thomas Horn – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Tom Cullen – Weekend
The Year’s Best Performances – Female:
Berenice Bejo – The Artist
Charlotte Gainsbourg – Melancholia
Jessica Chastain – The Tree of Life; Take Shelter
Kathy Baker – Take Shelter
Lubna Azabal – Incendies
Melanie Laurent – Beginners
Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids
Michelle Williams – My Week with Marilyn
Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Shailene Woodley – The Descendants
Viola Davis – The Help