Monday, January 9, 2012

Best Films of 2011, and other such nonsense

Actor of the Year:
1.       Ryan Gosling (Drive)
2.       Michael Fassbender (Shame)
3.       William Shimmel (Certified Copy)
4.       Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
5.       Tom Cullen (Weekend)

Honorable Mentions: Chris New (Weekend), Hunter McCracken (The Tree of Life), Brad Pitt (Moneyball), Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class), Ryan Gosling (Crazy, Stupid, Love.)
Actress of the Year:
1.       Juliette Binoche (Certified Copy)
2.       Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
3.       Michelle Williams (Meek’s Cutoff)
4.       Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia)
5.       Charlize Theron (Young Adult)
Honorable Mentions: Yun Jung-lee (Poetry), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Melancholia), Kristin Wiig (Bridesmaids), Saorise Ronan (Hanna), Mila Kunis (Friends with Benefits)
Supporting Actor of the Year:
1.       Bruce Greenwood (Meek’s Cutoff)
2.       Brad Pitt (The Tree of Life)
3.       Albert Brooks (Drive)
4.       Benedict Cumberbatch (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
5.       Tom Hardy (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

Honorable Mentions:  Jeremy Irvine (War Horse), Patton Oswalt (Young Adult), Ben Kingsley (Hugo), Christopher Plummer (Beginners), Andy Serkis (The Adventures of Tintin)
Supporting Actress of the Year:
1.       Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life)
2.       Elle Fanning (Super 8)
3.       Carey Mulligan (Shame)
4.       Carey Mulligan (Drive)
5.       Judy Greer (The Descendants)
Honorable Mentions: Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), Berenice Bejo (The Artist), Kathy Burke (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), Emma Stone (Crazy, Stupid, Love.)
Performances of the Year (all considered):
1.       Juliette Binoche (Certified Copy)
2.       Ryan Gosling (Drive)
3.       Bruce Greenwood (Meek’s Cutoff)
4.       Brad Pitt (The Tree of Life)
5.       Michael Fassbender (Shame)
6.       Albert Brooks (Drive)
7.       Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life)
8.       Elle Fanning (Super 8)
9.       Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
10.   Michelle Williams (Meek’s Cutoff)
Top Ten Films of the Year:

10. Shame: Steve McQueen’s sophomore effort takes the focus on ritual and men willing to destroy themselves from his debut feature Hunger and adds a new, more emotional element in the relationship between sex-addict Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and his troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). The film occasionally falls into overwrought territory near the end, but McQueen’s filmmaking, combined with powerhouse performances from Fassbender and Mulligan (doing a complete 180 on her An Education character), makes for an emotional gut-punch of a movie.
9. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of the classic John le Carré novel is as cold and meticulous as his cult vampire film Let the Right One In. Gary Oldman leads a murderer’s row of great British talent (also featuring Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Mark Strong…) in one of the most paranoid films in recent memory. But the focus is not on the politics in this Cold War-era thriller, but rather the mindset of the men forced to do battles of wits every day.
8. The Arbor: There were loads of critically acclaimed documentaries this year, but none were as innovative as Cleo Barnard’s study of English playwright Andrea Dunbar. Dunbar lived what she wrote, growing up in working-class Bradford around alcoholism, misogyny, and racism. She died young, leaving a mess behind with two daughters who reacted quite differently to her absence. One lived a full life. The main focus, Lorraine, struggled with drugs, depression, prostitution, and prison-time. It’s all a fascinating story that manages to fully avoid British-film miserablism, but Barnard brings something particularly exciting to the table: the subjects, while they have recorded their lines, do not appear on camera. Rather, actors appear and uncannily lip-sync their dialogue. The technique gives the film a startling immediacy while still acknowledging the inherent fakeness of film, all while paying tribute to Dunbar’s medium.
7. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: Few films were as maddening as Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s (or “Joe’s”) strange, truly unique Golden Palme winner. The film follows the titular Boonmee as he comes to terms with his impending death from kidney failure, but it is no dirge; rather, it is an achingly bittersweet celebration of life and examination of the meaning of death. And this is without looking at Boonmee’s past lives as a cow or a talking catfish, or his encounters with his dead wife and his long-lost son, who now looks vaguely like Chewbacca. The film operates on a beautiful dream logic all while serving as a fitting metaphor for the life and death of film, something that “Joe” has expressed sadness for.
6. Weekend: Bittersweet doesn’t even begin to describe Andrew Haigh’s beautiful debut film, often referred to as the “gay British Before Sunrise/Sunset”. That description doesn’t do justice to Haigh’s lovely, understated direction, nor his wonderfully constructed writing (truly the finest screenplay of the year). It doesn’t do justice to the two great performances at the film’s center: Tom Cullen and Chris New need to be in more films. The description finally does not do justice to one of the finest love stories in recent memory.
5. War Horse: Steven Spielberg’s best film in ten years is a love letter to the films of John Ford and a sweeping epic of the highest order. Jeremy Irvine makes a memorable debut as Albert, a farm boy whose determination and innocence matches that his beloved horse Joey, and the rest of the cast aids him well. But this is ultimately Spielberg’s film, and it makes a fine addition to the director’s explorations of both childhood innocence and innocence lost.
4. Meek’s Cutoff: In nearly any other year, Kelly Reichardt’s revisionist western would be in the number one spot. How remarkable that this masterpiece is ultimately only my number four film of the year. Michelle Williams stars as a member of a group on the Oregon Trail, led by wild man and all around character Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood in one of the finest performances of the year). She doesn’t like or trust Meek, and she believes that he’s leading them nowhere. When they stumble across a Native American, Meek’s first instinct is to kill him, but in such an unforgiving landscape, the group decides that they must take a chance and see if the man will lead them to water.  Reichardt is a master of slow-mounting tension, and she draws  it out to near interminable levels. Her use of negative space is tremendous: as much land as we’ve seen the group travel, it doesn’t even begin to cover what’s behind them…or what’s ahead.
3. Drive: Danish genre specialist Nicolas Winding Refn makes films about male savagery, and his protagonists embody the film’s thesis (Bronson was anarchy incarnate, One-Eye of Valhalla Rising violence itself). Drive is the film Refn has been building towards his whole career: Ryan Gosling is the ideal Refn muse, an actor whose good looks hide an incredible intensity, and here he is the American Hero myth brought to life. Refn pays tribute to genre greats Michael Mann, William Friedkin, and Walter Hill all while maintaining his personal vision: one of a man who is what he does, and what he’s willing to do to defend the only thing that made him feel human.
2. Certified Copy: Yet another example of a film that would be number one in nearly any other year. In a year filled with great, bittersweet moments, few were as bittersweet as Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s English-language debut. The plot concerns an English writer (Opera singer and first-time film actor William Shimmel) who maintains that no one needs to see the original copy of a work of art: a good copy will do, as it leads the viewer to the original piece and therefore has its own value. One of the attendees of his lecture in Tuscany, an antique-shop owner (Juliette Binoche), disagrees, and the two spend a day together. What happens next should not be spoiled for anyone, but needless to say that the film fits beautifully into Kiarostami’s career of films that mix reality and fiction to the point where it’s difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Binoche gives the single finest performance of the year (as well as the performance of her career) as a woman who is at different times charming, fragile, or irritated, but at all times a living, breathing person.
1. The Tree of Life: It’s not an original pick, but no film this year was as ambitious, beautiful, or stunning as Terrence Malick’s magnum opus. It is the film Malick has been building towards his whole career, as well as his most personal work. The film is highly autobiographical, dealing with a child (Hunter McCracken) torn between his graceful but childlike mother (Jessica Chastain) and his loving but domineering father (a never better Brad Pitt). It chronicles, as with most Malick films, the main character’s fall from grace, his realization that what he once thought to be perfect is flawed, and that death comes with life. It looks at personal tragedy and asks, in a whispered, thoughtful prayer to God, a simultaneously simple and impossible question: “Why? Why did this have to happen?” The film has no answers, only questions, and some found Malick’s decision to combine his personal story with an exploration of the cosmos, the origin of earth, and the nature of existence too thinly connected and pretentious. But when a master filmmaker and storyteller of Malick’s level grapples with such impossible questions and unknowable answers, it is with great care, intelligence, and passion. And yet the stunning, universe-spanning saga in the film’s first half (comparable only to Kubrick’s 2001) is not the sequence that mattered most to me this year. Rather, the return to the child’s birth and early life, with his playtime with his mother and his father’s loving approval, all set to Bedrich Smetana’s “Vltalva”, was the finest sequence in a film this year.
Honorable Mentions: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mission:  Impossible- Ghost Protocol, 13 Assassins, Melancholia, The Adventures of Tintin, Senna, Young Adult, The Muppets, Super 8, Moneyball
Lastly, here’s a list of films I still need to catch up with, just to say that this is no open and shut case. There’s still forty films I’m kicking myself for not seeing, and many of them could easily be all time greats:
1.       A Separation
2.       Martha Marcy May Marlene
3.       Take Shelter
4.       Margaret
5.       The Interrupters
6.       House of Pleasures
7.       We Need to Talk About Kevin
8.       Beats, Rhymes, And Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest
9.       Project Nim
10.   Attack the Block!
11.   Tabloid
12.   Carnage
13.   Terri
14.   Submarine
15.   Win Win
16.   Into the Abyss
17.   The Skin I Live In
18.   A Dangerous Method
19.   The Future
20.   Pariah
21.   Mysteries of Lisbon
22.   The Trip
23.   Potiche
24.   Le Quattro Volte
25.   Warrior
26.   50/50
27.   Bill Cunningham New York
28.   The Mill and the Cross
29.   Le Havre
30.   Margin Call
31.   Tuesday, After Christmas
32.   The Guard
33.   The Perfect Host
34.   The Myth of the American Sleepover
35.   Another  Earth
36.   Cave of Forgotten Dreams
37.   Amigo
38.   Tyrannosaur
39.   We Bought a Zoo
40.   Restless

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