Here is my top ten for 2011. Hopefully, Ryan’s, Beth’s and Craig’s will follow.
2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
3. Rise of the Planet of the Apes/Project Nim
6. The Descendants
7. The Artist
8. We Need to Talk About Kevin
9. Margin Call
10. Attack the Block
12. J. Edgar
14. Tree of Life
15. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
The imperfect but worthy:
18. War Horse
21. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
More of my top ten for 2011.
Most unforgivably overlooked film of the year by the critics and industry: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Most overlooked film of the year period: Attack the Block
Best film I haven’t seen yet: A Separation
Biggest balls: Jason Reitman for creating a totally unlikable character in a film that is torture to sit through – but he stuck to his guns with Young Adult.
Top performances by an Actress
1. Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
2. Viola Davis, The Help
3. Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
4. Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin
5. Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
6. Bernice Bejo, The Artist
7. Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
8. Olivia Colman, Tyrannosaur
9. Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
10. Octavia Spencer, The Help
11. Charlize Theron, Young Adult
Top performances by an Actor
1. Michael Fassbender, Shame
2. Brad Pitt, Moneyball
3. George Clooney, The Descendant
4. Woody Harrelson, Rampart
5. Jean Dujardin, The Artist
6. Gary Oldman, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
7. Patton Oswalt, Young Adult
8. Ezra Miller, We Need to Talk About Kevin
9. Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar
10. Kevin Spacey, Margin Call
11. Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
12. Jonah Hill, Moneyball
13. Demian Bichir, A Better Life
14. Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The directors who rewrote the rules:
1. Martin Scorsese, Hugo
2. Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
3. Lynne Ramsay, We Need to Talk About Kevin
4. David Fincher, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
5. Lars von Trier, Melancholia
6. Steve McQueen, Shame
7. Terrence Malick, Tree of Life
8. JC Chandor, Margin Call
9. Rupert Wyatt, Rise of the Planet of the Apes
10. George Clooney, The Ides of March
The directors who played by the rules but did so brilliantly:
1. Alexander Payne, The Descendants
2. Bennett Miller, Moneyball
3. Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
4. Tate Taylor, The Help
5. Steven Spielberg, War Horse
6. Tomas Alfredson, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Singular elements that moved me beyond words–
Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross in their second collaboration with David Fincher almost reinvents the wheel of what film scoring can be. It’s hard to imagine anyone topping The Social Network’s score yet somehow they did. It is weird, deep, unforgettable and pulsates through Fincher’s thriller like controlled gusts of hot wind. It leaves you perplexed, disturbed, off balance and then all at once returns to sweetness.
Andy Serkis and the rest of the performance capture apes in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, still one of the biggest surprises of 2011. Watching them in their cages finding the spirit to break out of their prison and find freedom was one of the most rapturous cinematic moments of the year. The reason Rise of the Planets of the Apes is such a good film has to do with how Wyatt handled the touchy topic of portraying chimps. Unlike what Steven Spielberg did with War Horse, and to a less serious degree, Hazanavicius with the dog in The Artist, Wyatt treats the animals with respect to what they are. The chimps only become human-like when they are dosed with a drug that gives them the kind of intelligence we have. To see a mainstream Hollywood film get the basic tenants of anthropology and science right (within the realm of sci-fi) was an unexpected stroke of genius. I paired it above with the documentary Project Nim because, really, they do go hand in hand. Nim is what really happens to apes in our country. They are mostly mistreated, tested, used in silly ways — kept as pets, abandoned. We project ourselves onto them in hopes that they will obey by our rules of conduct. Alas, chimps have not evolved the way we have. They are wild at heart. That Nim is finally rescued and given a mostly livable life for his last ten years is a relief. But oh, the primal satisfaction of watching the chimps rise up in Wyatt’s film, that’s the stuff, my friends.
Martin Scorsese trying his hand at 3-D for the first time was something to behold. He didn’t waste a frame. And how anyone could say “the first part was slow” is beyond me: can they not see? Did they not look? There isn’t a more pronounced visual master than Scorsese — whose right hand man is a woman, his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. The two of them side by side shaping Hugo, one dazzling shot after another. Scorsese wanted to make a movie for his daughter, and that tender inspiration brought forth his most moving film, and one of the most unexpectedly magical films of the year. If you want a reason to plunk down your money to see a film, here is something wholly original.
Meryl Streep told someone to find great material for Viola Davis and finally someone did. She is cast in exactly the right role at the right time. Yes, she’s playing a black maid in 2011. But she plays more than a maid when she’s “off work” — a mother, a closet writer, a revolutionary. If the film can’t be forgiven for its celebration of the success of a white writer, it should be remembered for its willingness to make a film that addresses the lack of voices of black women working as nannies and housekeepers. Someone did it in 2011. It took way too long but at least someone did it. The most unforgivable part of Whitey’s reception of The Help is that it is not PC enough for them. I admit to being one of those people. But i had to check myself because I wonder, what is is I’m really saying? Do I want everything to really have changed? Well, has it? I don’t know. Are there enough black women writers telling their stories? Are nannies treated well now? Hispanic nannies in Los Angeles? I sure hope so. Because if one white liberal yoga-going soy latte drinking mother comes at me whining about The Help while underpaying and overworking her own nanny?
A silent black and white film, you say? Michel Hazanavicius had the audacity to make it, pulled it off with a team of great actors and a command of story in The Artist, the frontrunner and new punching bag for people who don’t think it’s deep enough. I’ll admit it isn’t the deepest film but it is filmmaking at its most adept and pure. Sometimes the simplest stories are the best stories because you’re seeing something you’ve sort of seen before but you’re seeing it done totally differently. The actors in the Artist don’t act the way silent film actors acted. They act in a natural style and lampoon the way the actors acted in silent films. It’s a silent movie that makes a comment about sound as it selectively introduced it back in. It’s a silent movie where a dog can communicate wordlessly, as we know animals do, the same way the people are communicating wordlessly. We are saturated with dialogue-dependent cinema – it was something really special to see the power of story almost entirely without words. No one who appreciates film can turn their back on The Artist and live with themselves the next day. Yes, I would love to see a film by an American director in the American studio system win Best Picture. But to reward The Artist is to reward excellence. And that’s really all there is to it.
When I think of a film that defines 2011 for me, not necessarily one that reflects our past like Hugo or The Artist or War Horse, I think of Moneyball. Top to bottom, Moneyball is one of the most satisfying films of the year because it rings so true to me. It’s easy, in a way, to lump Moneyball with The Descendants for reasons that really have nothing to do with the original stories. But the one they do have in common is that they are decidedly American films. Moneyball is about baseball, yes. But it is also about our corruptive need to build people up and then watch them either burn out or fade away. Moneyball is about Billy Beane and how his life was almost ruined with premature adulation at a time when he wasn’t really ready for it. We don’t consider their futures, these superstars. We just want them to rise to the top as quickly as possible. And so Billy Beane falls. And he falls. And he falls. But eventually, he decides that he might be a mediocre ball player. He might be a mediocre general manager, but he’ll get another shot at trying a big move. He can’t do the genius work so he hires someone. But that success is bittersweet, of course. Here in America we want victories. We love triumphs and happy endings. Some movies gave us that. Some didn’t. But Moneyball is out for the truth: winning isn’t everything. But what touched me so deeply in Moneyball was how hard it was for Beane to have any amount of hope that things would work out. When he can’t watch the game or step onto the field, when he can’t believe that they didn’t triumph because they lost the series. Yeah, he hit a homerun and he didn’t even realize it.
War Horse is not a perfect film. It isn’t even one of Spielberg’s best, but it has within it some of the most stirring sequences Spielberg has ever shot. The one that really stands out, of course, is the horse running through the fields of war at night and getting tangled up in barbed wire. How that scene is set up, how it concludes, is worth the price of admission alone. And in those moments one can almost forgive the the way the film opens and the way it ends. In the Oscar race we look for perfection now. Though Spielberg overplayed his hand with the sentimentality, as he sometimes does, you won’t see any better footage than that horse in war. It is dazzling, heartstopping filmmaking.
Tree of Life is a movie that is so hard to fathom. On the one hand it, like life itself, feels incomplete. On the other hand, what Terrence Malick renders is, in its own way, as silent a film as The Artist, only Tree of Life doesn’t have a traditional plot. It doesn’t tell a linear narrative the way The Artist does and yet, like that film, so much of it depends on an impressionistic view of life heard in whispers, seen in flickers of light. There is so much beauty in that film, so much mystery, it would take decades to really figure it all out. This is shares with Kubrick’s 2001. And damnit all if we didn’t have a director up to the task of delivering such a big Hollywood movie with big Hollywood stars that so tells its story with daring and very nearly dismisses the notion of needing a plot entirely.
The last few shots of violence played out in Lynne Ramsay’s exceptional horror masterpiece, We Need to Talk About Kevin, were among the most vivid, most memorable scenes of the year. Four characters – a mother, a father, a son and a daughter – the dynamics at play there never once accepted any of them as a stereotype. The mother was given complexity. The father, occasionally disconnected but unfailingly compassionate. The daughter, sweetly innocent and admiring of her big brother – the symbol of what sociopathic evil seeks to destroy. And the son – was he born that way or made that way? Who can deny the power of that performance? And yet, the awards race will never acknowledge this film in any major capacity, least of all to honor Ezra Miller as Kevin or the visual master, Lynne Ramsay. The darkness here, well let’s just say it took a woman to go there.
Finally, I don’t know that there was a more moving moment in cinema, and that includes all of the tears jerked for War Horse, than George Clooney saying goodbye to his wife in The Descendants. It was an unexpected moment of naked emotion and it felt so true, so necessary. That movie is about saying all of the things you can’t say to people when they’re alive. It’s about a lot of things but that’s one of them. To me it will be one of those tiny moments in movies that eventually become big moments because we all remember them and retell them to future generations of film lovers.
I feel like I’ve had to defend Steve McQueen’s Shame for the misinterpretations by critics, the mislabeling of the NC-17, and frankly I’m seeing too much conservatism in this year’s Oscar race — and those who write about it. It’s as though the notion of “family film” has now spread throughout the entire film community because no movie can make any money now unless it appeals to those younger audiences and so we thinking adults are forced to go underground to film festivals to find any sort of gnawing on humanity – you know, there is no replacing life experience. And the one thing people can’t seem to go near, can’t seem to touch – women especially – is sex. It’s been driven underground and seems to have no place in any of the films headed for Oscar. And yet Shame, and Steve McQueen must not have gotten the memo because he goes right for it. Beyond the subject matter being about sex, Shame is really about pain. I hope that McQueen is not stopped by the extreme response to his film over here. I hope he continues to dive deep.
My daughter is now 13. I bought her the Harry Potter series before she was old enough to read it. I didn’t know if she would take to it, of course. All of these years later I’ve watched her devour those books, reading them over and over again. I watched her grow up with Harry Potter movies – I had to sit with her through each and every one of them. I watched the series grow darker and more violent. Every year, the Harry Potter films were events for generations of kids who grew up on the books and the movies. To not acknowledge this series and the millions of fans who loved the films is something about this year’s Oscar race that we’ll never have a good answer for. Sure, if there were ten nominees this movie would get in. If there were ten nominees a lot of movies would get in. But they’re playing favorites with a group of voters who probably won’t go for the Harry Potter film, to put it mildly. If it couldn’t even make the BFCA’s top ten list it seems hopeless for Oscar. Still, you can’t really talk about 2011 without talking about Harry Potter.
There aren’t many directors who have as much control over the canvas as David Fincher does. Of course, the main thrust of Dragon Tattoo is its heroine, Lisbeth Salander, a woman whose been mistreated by men her entire life becomes a survivor. Because she is still sexual, because that sex bends back and forth between men and women it seems to have made some critics uncomfortable. I even heard someone mention sexism on Twitter. Of all the things to talk about with Dragon Tattoo I never thought anyone would go there. But go they did. Yes, let’s please always have female characters that check off a list of what they are and aren’t supposed to be because you know, if there’s one thing 2011 needs more of it’s films about men! Men, it seems, are the only people who are allowed to play a wide variety of characters in film. Women and minorities — well, you better be PC because otherwise, watch out. Yes, by all means let’s dismiss any unique characters and successful films with women and minorities because they don’t fit into our ideas of what they SHOULD be. Nothing makes my blood boil more, frankly. Dragon Tattoo is easily one of the best films of the year — it’s an adult film, finally, in a sea of films aimed at younger audiences. And for me, it was like a midnight ride bareback, wind whipping past me, not knowing what’s coming next. And then when I go back looking for the intricacy I know Fincher laid out, it’s there. Frame by frame, it’s there. But I always knew people would mostly have their knives sharpened for Fincher coming off of a year like last. I also figured they’d be made mighty uncomfortable by such a threatening female character. I don’t think Fincher would have made the film otherwise. This movie is a tribute to her.
When I look back on 2011, how it all started so hopefully in Cannes, and continued through the festival circuit and now to the ugliest part of the year, the unforgiving, most hideous awards race where we must judge films by things they should never be judged by, where we let a few people to a few hundred thousand people decide what should be called best of the year. And as we all catalog them and place them and rank them — each of knows, because we’ve been here before, what happens during the awards race STAYS in the awards race. It rarely escapes, up to and including all of the years to come when films have nothing to live up to except how wonderfully they play. It’s been a great year for filmmakers all over the world. Whatever film wins Best Picture this year it’s going to be a great movie. They are all great, aren’t they? — beautiful visions, delightful declarations of feeling and inspiration this year, in these films.