It was the best of times … 2011

31 12 2011

As the few minutes left in 2011 quickly wane, I wanted to reflect on all the good that has come from this trying year of 2011.  As Lester Burnham said in “American Beauty” – and I quoted on my senior page in the yearbook – it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world.

No matter the general consensus of film in a year (and I don’t think it takes an expert to tell you this wasn’t a stellar one), the top 10 list is a reminder to all critics and readers that there will always be something to celebrate.  Even amidst all the chaos of the year, we found reasons to be happy … and thus a way to be happy.

Much was said about high profile divorces – Demi and Ashton, Sinead O’Connor, Kim Kardashian – but the whole world tuned in for the Royal Wedding.  Even with the American divorce rate soaring and half of all marriages are unable to last, it was love that brought us together.

Much was said about our military’s inefficacy in Iraq as we pulled out the last troops in December, but Seal Team Six gave Americans something to be proud of as they flawlessly took down the elusive Osama bin Laden.  Failure and cynicism may make for an interesting editorial page, but it was success that captured the attention and the heart of America.

Much was said about the dumbing down of youth with mindless blockbusters like “Transformers” grossing a billion dollars worldwide and mindless literature like “Twilight” flying off the shelves.  Yet the young generation – my generation – proved it was hardly an empty one by turning out in record numbers on the opening day of the final “Harry Potter” movie.  If you couldn’t feel a real magic from the movie, you had to take comfort in seeing that the experiences of reading a book and going to a movie theater, thought be many to be endangered, were alive and well.

So while our president may have abandoned hope and change for 2012, I, for one, am full of it.  I am confident that all will pan out for the future, especially given how willing filmmakers were in 2011 to tackle some of the toughest issues facing our society.  In my top 10, you will see movies committed to showing us how to live, how to love, and – most importantly – how to change.  Like Owen Wilson’s Gil Pender from “Midnight in Paris,” living in the past only works as a fantasy.  We have to live in the now; we have to face its challenges; we have to accept pain as a natural part of progress.

So, without further ado, here were the 10 best movies I saw in 2011:

#10
“The Beaver”
Directed by Jodie Foster
Wirten by Kyle Killin
Starring Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, and Anton Yelchin

“While everything may not be okay, one thing I know is true: you do not have to be alone.” – Jennifer Lawrence as Norah

I hope that one day people will drop their preconceived notions of this movie as “Mel Gibson’s latest crazy shenanigan” and watch this movie to discover the potency of its message.  Jodie Foster crafts a fantastic drama about the challenges of living in a digital world as it deteriorates our connections to our family and to our society.  Gibson’s character, Walter, looks to distance himself from the unbearable burden of his past through the use of a charming beaver puppet, not unlike how we use clean, neat Facebook profiles to represent our lives as orderly to the world around us.  It’s an incredibly cathartic moment not just for Jennifer Lawrence’s Norah towards the end of the film when she openly declares, “I’m not okay; I’m missing something.”  It’s cathartic for us as she says what most of us are too scared to admit.

#9
In a Better World
Directed by Susanne Bier
Written by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen
Starring Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, and Ulrich Thomsen

“If you hit him, he hits you, and then it never ends.” – Ulrich Thomsen as Claus

Melodrama is usually akin to nails on a chalkboard to me, and when I use the word in a review, it almost always carries a negative connotation.  Yet when I watched Susanne Bier’s latest film – which is a melodrama indeed – I found myself being incredibly moved on a very deep emotional level.  I couldn’t help but care passionately for the two children at the heart of the movie, Elias and Christian, as they grapple with the complicated morals of violence after an incident of bullying.  Bier makes us feel, which then make us contemplate.  And I couldn’t be happier to have this film lingering in my mind for weeks on end.  (As a side note, this won an Oscar in 2010 but didn’t hit the United States until 2011, so I count it for this year.)

#8
“Life in a Day”
Directed by Kevin Macdonald

“I want people to know that I’m here.  I don’t want to cease to exist.” – YouTube user

Diversity has become a hot-button issue as our culture has globalized thanks to the Internet, but Kevin Maccdonald along with Ridley Scott and some other geniuses nullify any controversy associated with the word through a documentary of staggering proportions.  Their paean to the human experience, confined to a single ordinary Saturday in July 2010, celebrates how every culture and every individual is different.  We all have our own way through life, but as humans, we are all linked by basic practices. Be it brushing our teeth or fretting about what the future holds, Macdonald reminds us that we all have more in common that we normally think.

#7
“Young Adult”
Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Diablo Cody
Starring Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, and Patrick Wilson

“Love conquers all. Haven’t you seen ‘The Graduate?'” – Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary

I now find it easy to resist old-fashioned emotional goading, such as the score that commands you to feel sad at a certain moment or the cinematography that forces you to feel captivated.  I’m much more taken by the style of filmmaking that I call emotional manipulation, which makes you feel something inexplicably and then forces you to go back and uncover why you feel the way you do.  The old king was Alexander Payne, but with Jason Reitman’s latest work, the student may have eclipsed the master.  Thanks to a great script by Diablo Cody, the movie is able to play with established genre narratives and character archetypes.  One moment, it feels like a romantic comedy; the next, a horror movie as you clasp your hands over your face in shock.  Behind a ruthless performance by Charlize Theron, the movie soars as both a critique of a generation unable to leave high school and audiences who want their comedy to be run-of-the-mill waste.

#6
The Help
Written and directed by Tate Taylor
Starring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Emma Stone

“You is smart, you is kind, you is important.” – Viola Davis as Abileen

The only movie on my top 10 list to take place explicitly in a prior era, Tate Taylor’s adaptation of his friend Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel hardly teaches antiquated lessons.  The movie serves as a reminder that discrimination still exists in America; while much still lingers for African-Americans, quite a bit has transferred to Hispanics and homosexuals.  But, most strongly, it simply communicates that these barriers are no match for love, courage, and understanding.  If the story doesn’t move you, the acting definitely will.  I struggle to think of a movie better acted from top to bottom, and this phenomenal cast adds an extra jolt of life to the feel-great movie of the year.

#5
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
Directed by David Yates
Written by Steve Kloves
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint

“Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.” – Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore

It was the bookend of a generation, and it did not disappoint one bit.  This series has been the uniting artistic link for a generation, and I couldn’t have been prouder to close a chapter of my life with this movie.  It reminded us of the power of the story, the power of acting, the power of visual effects, the power of direction … and the power of movie magic.

#4
“Martha Marcy May Marlene”
Written and directed by Sean Durkin
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, and Sarah Paulson

“If you want to have a meaningful relationship, you need to let your guard down.” – John Hawkes as Patrick

I can’t in good conscience try to declare some grand social significance to Sean Durkin’s debut feature after he said time and again that it was not any sort of statement.  So for what it is, the portrait of Martha, a haunted, traumatized cult escapee, the movie is an absolute knockout.  He takes us into her mind as she struggles to acclimate to normal life and come to terms with what happened to her.  But at the end of the movie, as she has yet to find closure or answers, neither have we.  What Durkin leaves us with is a puzzle to solve without every piece.  It’s an experience that is at once frustrating and exhilarating; add in the spellbinding performance of Elizabeth Olsen, and you have a movie that may render you unable to move when the credits roll.  The movie isn’t meant to end for the viewer after the final shot, and the hour-long conversation I had afterwards in the lobby is one of my fondest moviegoing memories of 2011.

#3
Midnight in Paris
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, and Marion Cotillard

“The present is a little unsatisfying because life’s a little unsatisfying.” – Owen Wilson as Gil Pender

An unapologetic love letter to the City of Lights and a cautionary tale of Golden-Age Thinking, Woody Allen’s return to form clicked with me on an incredibly personal level (and may very well be the reason why you don’t see “The Artist” or “Hugo” on this list).  While the neurotic director packed up his camera and went abroad and into the past, the existential problems that face all of his neurotic protagonists in New York come along with him.  Anxiety and unpleasantness can’t just be left at home; they always make into our emotional baggage.  There is, of course, the route of denial.  But I dare you to make that choice after Allen makes the case once he’s totally won you over with his trademark wit and uncharacteristic charm.

#2
“Shame”
Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen
Starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan

“I don’t wanna talk. Try not talking. Try just listening or thinking for a change.” – Michael Fassbender as Brandon

The most gripping movie experience of last year came courtesy of a schizophrenic ballerina in New York; this year, it came from the tribulations of a sex addict in the same city.  It’s the dark underside of Carrie and the gang’s activities as the adjectives most likely to be associated with fornication in Steve McQueen’s sophomore feature are painful, agonizing, monotonous – really anything BUT pleasurable.  Thanks to the fierce commitment of leading man Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s vision is achieved and lucidly portrayed.  Sex has pervaded our culture, and we are bombarded with it nonstop.  Fassbender’s insatiable Brandon is a victim of its constant barrage, and coupled with a rough childhood, his obsession has become self-destructive.  Brandon also prefers prostitutes or online chat rooms, allowing him to satisfy his desires without having to deal with messy emotions or connections.  As the digital generation matures and begins to face the consequences of constant sexual exposure, I have confidence that McQueen’s film  will be looked at as a warning far ahead of its time.

#1
“Win Win”
Written and directed by Thomas McCarthy
Starring Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, and Alex Shaffer

“Me? I’m pretty good.” – Paul Giamatti as Mike Flaherty

In a hypothetical time capsule for the year 2011, I would choose Tom McCarthy’s exploration of recession morality as our representative.  If cinema is truly the representation of the collective unconscious thought, there is no better movie that captures us as we are.  McCarthy centers his story on Mike Flaherty, played understatedly yet superbly by Paul Giamatti, a man who makes some poor decisions.  Yet he’s not a bad person; in fact, he’s a great father, a volunteer wrestling coach at a local high school, and agrees to take on the financial responsibilities of raising a teenager in a real pinch.  In a year when most people looked to idealized or simplified versions of the triumph of the human spirit, I saw this as the most inspiring, real, and worthwhile vision of America.  We can all be lead astray, sure, but we are all good people at heart.  We will all eventually have to answer for our mistakes, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be happy.  And that, my friends, is my zeitgeist of 2011.


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9 responses

1 01 2012
1 01 2012
Stu

The Beaver was a lot of fun – and a downer as well. It won’t be making my tops list but I think I’ll be seeing it again soon.

It’s nice to see some summer action “Deathly Hallows” included as well. So often, “Best” lists seem to be focused on the high-brow. As we all know, art films aren’t all there is to cinema.

1 01 2012
Marshall

Glad I’m not the only one willing to give “The Beaver” a shot!

And “Deathly Hallows” was THE moviegoing experience of the year. It’s a nice reminder that the word “event picture” isn’t going the way of the floppy disk.

2 01 2012
Eric

I haven’t seen Win Win on too many lists, let alone at #1. I thought it was one of last year’s more underrated films myself, so it’s nice to see it get some recognition. Great list!

2 01 2012
Marshall

It’s VERY underappreciated. I’m praying it will pop up in the Best Original Screenplay field at the Oscars and get some much deserved viewers for this truly amazing film.

6 01 2012
wilde.dash

Win WIn was good fun, glad to see it get some recognition. Hopefully it at least sneaks in for a screenplay nod at the Oscars?

6 01 2012
Marshall

That’s what I’m hoping!!!

13 01 2012
Tom Clift

Damn, quite a few on this list I’m yet to see (missed In A Better World and The Beaver, while Young Adult and Shame are yet to play down under). I was however a big fan of Potter, MMMM, Life in a Day (very underrated) and Win Win. Wasn’t AS crazy about The Help, although it’s hard to disagree that it’s one of the best acted movies of 2011.

Also can’t help but note that quite a few of the critics favourites (Drive, Tree of Life, The Artist) are missing from your list. Not a fan or are you yet to see them?

14 01 2012
Marshall

I’ve seen pretty much everything that’s making waves, except maybe “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” so those critical favorites all missed the list for one reason or the other. Some were close, like “The Descendants” and “The Artist,” which drifted in and out of consideration for the list.

But normally my lists look a lot like the big Oscar contenders – my top 5 was all nominated for Best Picture last year. This year, there will likely only be two nominees in my entire top 10. So it just goes in waves. Sometimes I like the critical majority; other years, I just don’t watch movies the same way.

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