2011 IN REVIEW: Davin’s Top Ten

Well, 2011 is officially gone. And to most cinephiles this is a sad occasion. Last year I may have pre-emptively labelled 2010 an excellent year. This is not to say that it was not without its merits, for in hindsight I still deem it a solid year. But standing in the wake of 2011, it simply pales in comparison. This year was magical. It was a rare occasion where it felt like, at least in the second half of the year, all of the chips fell in the right place. Many films, some that I like, others that I don’t so much, I anticipate will be swiftly referred to as classics and ultimately enjoyed and debated upon for years to come.

I saw 58 new films this year, setting a personal record. There are many I have yet to see, and many I wish I’d never been subjected to. But even many of the films that I would qualify as underwhelming or overrated, such as The Tree of Life and The Descendants, I appreciate in many ways and enjoy the critical debate that they have spurred.

What made 2011 so fantastic in my opinion is the sheer number of projects that seemed unlikely to succeed, that upon premiering, surprised me and many others and ultimately were greeted with great acclaim. The Tree of Life was a mystery project that many questioned due to its lack of distributor and repeated delays. But it ultimately won the Palme D’Or and is currently listed as the number one film of the year by Movie City News’s compilation of critic’s top ten lists. When it was announced that the Ryan Gosling action flick Drive, from Valhalla Rising director Nicolas Winding Refn would appear at Cannes, I was baffled. Lo and behold it is perhaps the most universally loved film of the year. When Hugo shortened its name twice–in vain to appear more commercial no less, was put in 3-D, and given the worst trailer of the year, my hopes were shattered. But it is nothing short of a masterpiece in its own chidlike way. Even Moneyball seemed unlikely to me. Steven Soderbergh was booted from the project and replaced by the talented but previously indistinguished director Bennett Miller (of only Capote). Despite its excellent cast, the trailer looked a bit light and average. More faith should have been had (at least on my part) on scribes Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian. The result is nothing short of brilliant. But more on most of those films later…

There are countless other examples I could give, but they each serve to prove the same point: many films were unexpected successes, and very few potential projects didn’t live up to their expectations. This year I am convinced that my prediction won’t be pre-emptively overconfident (although one can never be too sure, and I fully admit that I could be wrong), from where I’m standing right now, I can’t see anyone looking back on 2011 as anything other than a magical year at the movies!

Films I Didn’t See

  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Take Shelter
  • Le Havre
  • A Separation
  • A Dangerous Method
  • My Week with Marilyn
  • The Interrupters

Honorable Mentions

The Artist – I was unexpectedly, but quite gratefully, able to catch this one at the last minute. Going into the film, I was worried that it’s surface level simplicity might be a turn-off for me. But after seeing it, my doubts diminished. Although this is far from the most complex work of art released in 2011, that may in fact be its greatest asset. This is a silent film, more or less, from French director Michel Hazanavicius, who is responsible for the OSS 117 films. Those are basically modern day, French Pink Panther movies. Premiering at Cannes film festival, earning Hazanavicius the Best Director prize, the film has had a smooth sailing ride to the Oscars where it is hotly anticipated to win Best Picture. This had me under the horrid misconception that I should be taking the film much more seriously than it is intended to be taken. Hazanavicius is following in his own goofy footsepts with this quirky little movie. I’m happy that the film in no way strains itself to be the rebirth of silent cinema. It is simply a loving homage, and at times a spoof of a bygone era. And it is just wonderful fun… although I would argue it misuses Bernard Hermann’s score from Vertigo.

Friends with Benefits – Certainly an under-appreciated film, Friends with Benefits is the funniest film of the year. Unbelievably crude and obviously a film made and sold on the appeal of watching Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis get naked, this film wittily goes through the ropes of being a romantic comedy in total self-awareness. I know that being meta in this fashion is nothing new, but so does the film. It’s like this one takes it a step further, adds excellent performances, particularly from Woody Harrelson, and throws out some of the most wildly outrageous gags of the year. On top of that, the film knows how to keep an inside joke with the audience and only bring it back once the audience has totally forgotten about it, but not so long that they won’t remember it when it returns to full effect. Coming off of Easy A, which made my top ten last year, Will Gluck strikes me as a comedic director worth keeping an eye on.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – I can be quoted as having been in support of the Stieg Larsson series and the Swedish films that ensued, and it is true that I find them somewhat amusing. But the bulk of my appreciation comes from the fact that (like Harry Potter) I am impressed and appreciate the audience that the phenomonon has drawn to the unlikely activity of reading several 500+ page novels and watching foreign films. That said, anyone who reads the books and believes they are reading a work of literature is every bit as mistaken as anyone who watches the original films and believes they are watching an art film. The stories don’t really interest me. However, walking out of this vastly superior to the original remake (or reinterpretation), I texted to one of my friends: “David Fincher could honestly direct an empty house for three hours and make it artistically intriguing and absolutely riveting.” With the exception of Daniel Craig’s overly James Bond-y performance of a journalist in need of being saved, this excellent film is one of the year’s best.

Melancholia – I have been bitching and moaning for a while about how this film isn’t as good as auteur Lars Von Trier’s Dogville. But then again, what is as good as Dogville? At the end of the day I can’t help but admit that I was visually entranced by this poetic and beautiful depiction of the world’s end. It also is a profoundly moving embodiment of what it is like to suffer from depression. The combination of those two elements is impeccable as are many of the performances in this overall stunning feature. Weird as it may seem, this and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo fall in the same boat for me: they are cleanly and masterfully executed, but ultimately shallow features from two of the greatest living artists. But that’s okay. Not every film needs to be as philosophically or socially dense as The Social Network, Fight Club, Dogville, or Antichrist.

Meek’s Cutoff – In my original draft of this post, this film held the number ten spot. So I guess that makes it number eleven. It is painful for me to see it not on the list. But 2011 was too good for all of the gems to be on a list confined to ten features. I guess technically speaking Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff is a western. But the film offers no cowboys, hardly anything one could deem cinematic action, and no real crimes other than the inherent flaws of each character, who despite the way some of them behave, legitimately may be acting the best interest of the group. Here is a film about the Oregon trail and getting thirsty, not much else. It is also the sparse and poetic story of a woman unusually equipped to deal with her situation given the time-period she comes from. It is a minimalist film, but one that is poetic and entrancing. I don’t forsee myself recommending this film to many in the near future. But to those with the attention span to let characters and situations speak for themselves, this unforced drama features a powerhouse performance from Michelle Williams and some of the most carefully calculated scenarios and visuals I saw in any film all year. The standoff that appears in the film’s very appropriate poster is a great cinematic moment. It is quietly constructed and without exposition. It highlights everything I love about the film without the slightest overdramatization.  I shamefully admit that this is my first exposure to Kelly Reichardt. I have some catching up to do…

Rango – Where Pixar may have left a small void this year, Dreamworks happily filled it. Or rather, they found a way to happily do their own thing. Gore Verbinski (of the reprehensible Pirates of the Carribbean franchise) brought to life John Logan’s (who also scribed Hugo and Coriolanus this year) wilfully untraditional and absurdly surreal western in tremendously chaotic fashion. Yes, this is a talking animal animated film. But it isn’t the happy-go-lucky emotional thrill-ride that Pixar produces, regularly imitating the tone of Spielberg’s E.T. with a little more slapstick humor. This is an unhinged, off-the-deep-end tour-de-force of inventive creativity and intimate film knowledge. With aptly utilized references to such works as Blazing Saddles, Apocalypse Now, and the entire Clint Eastwood filmography, this is the clear best animated film of the year, and frankly, one of the best of the year, period.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – This dark, but heartwarming, surrealist gem took home the Pamle D’Or at 2010’s Cannes film festival. A touch further off the deep end than Malick’s film, Apichatpong Weersaethakul’s Uncle Boonmee draws heavily on eastern storytelling and philosophy to imbue the simple tale of a man’s passing with a magical life of its own. With a plain story to follow on the surface, Uncle Boonmee is a richly layered work that I can only describe as a meditation on life and death. Where the film really wins big with me is in its final twenty minutes, after Boonmee’s passing in which some light and humorous commentary on modern society adds a loving note of cynical mockery to the surviving characters. The film is gorgeous, touching, sad, and funny at different times, and occasionally all at once.

Win Win – I am not a fan of stories like this because they tend to lean too much on the Hallmark bench. I also generally find myself disinterested in sports films. But this sincere work about a young and talented High School wrestler is a profound analysis of morality that catches me with each viewing as not missing a note. It seems like a simple story that has been told a thousand times. But Thomas McCarthy distinguishes himself as an artsist by being so persistant with the morality of his universe, that the film ackowledges the darker side of even the characters we love. Paul Giamatti is an appopriate actor to work with McCarthy, and here we witness this darker side emerge from him, which is specifically unique to Giamatti. Every detail of this film is concise and serves a purpose in concocting the bigger picture. It is refreshing  to be reminded that stories like this can be told well and the reason they are retold is because there really is something to be gotten out of them.

Top Ten Films:

10. Moneyball

Bennett Miller’s astonishingly good baseball film enters my list despite my lack of interest in baseball, or even sports for that matter. Perhaps this is because it isn’t really about baseball at all. It’s about finding the right way to use what you are given in life to make the greatest difference in your own life and the lives around you, whether that be family, friends, your work, or the millions of fans impacted by what you do. At least that’s the way it was for Billy Beane, a failed baseball player turned manager of the Oakland A’s. Without money Billy Beane creates a winning team with the help of a Princeton economics graduate. They reinvent baseball and Billy Beane rediscovers his life. The story is stunning, but that could have still served up a perfectly average Hallmark movie. How does this film evade that fate? In every way possible. Starting with the screenplay, A-list writers Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) appropriately avoid the sport itself in favor of Beane’s personal struggle and the reality of the statistics that he instituted. But more importantly, they wrote the best damn dialogue of the year. The film is incredibly witty. But it is not without the appropriate melodramatic touch. The theme of the film is the inevitible romantic nature of baseball. Even by focusing on the most dry aspect of the sport, the film is moving. It ends on a truly beautiful note between Jonah Hill and Brad Pitt, who deliver excellent performances, by the way. I’ve written enough, but I can’t go without giving a shout-out to director Bennett Miller, whose work is Oscar worthy as well.

9. Young Adult

Charlize Theron is every bit as disturbing and destructive as a high school grad that refuses to grow up in Young Adult as she is a serial killer in Monster. Director Jason Reitman, coming off of his masterful Up in the Air, reteamed with writer Diablo Cody with whom he directed Juno. While both films have their merits, Young Adult more fully embodies the midwest as a culture and setting for the extreme bitchiness of Mavis Gary, a teenage hotshot that moved to the big cities to extend her high-point by constantly reliving it through the young adult book series that she ghost writes. As she is commissioned to write the concluding book of the series, she revisits her hometown to seduce her ex, who is now happily married. The chaos that ensues seems perfectly natural and completely midwestern. As someone who was raised in a small midwestern town, and still trying to escape on some pathetic level, this film seems almost painfully realistic and cynically truthful, even in its most absurd moments. What elevates the film most, however, is Mavis’s surprising relationship with the hate-crime guy (Patton Oswalt) who seems to be the opposite of her. Her inability to move on is a potential hazard to anyone. Reitman’s direction is fitting and his comedic timing is right on the mark. But the real star of the show is Diablo Cody who has delivered one of the screenplays of the year.

8. Another Earth

Brit Marling is perhaps the most astonishing breakout of the year. As co-writer and star of this shoe-string budget Sundance film, she shines in both roles. Marling and her collaborator Mike Cahill (who co-wrote, directed, shot, and edited the film) have really pulled off something special in this alarmingly though-provoking feature about the emergence of a mirror-reflection of Earth lingering in the sky just above our own planet. Marling plays an accepted MIT student who drunkenly crashes her car, distracted by the planet in the sky, into a music professors car, killing his wife and kid. Years later, she is released from jail and becomes involved with the man. A film about second chances, and alternative possibilities, this visually compelling drama needs very little in the way of actual special effects or animation to compel the viewer to only imagine the infinite philosophical implications of its simple premise. The film plays with the viewer like that, constantly hinting at becoming some kind of a surreal mind-fuck, while always keeping its feet on the ground. Without any CGI at all, the final shot of the film will leave any viewer stunned, even if they see it coming.

7. Midnight in Paris

I was convinced after seeing this film for the first time that I had seen the best film that I would see all year. Yet here it resides as low as number seven on this list. I love the film every bit as much as I did then, but damn, 2011… Anyway, Woody Allen has long been a favorite and least favorite of mine simultaneously, as I reckon he is of anyone who has seen both his mid-career and his late career’s work. As much of an inconsistent genius as he may be, there is nothing inconsistent about this near pitch-perfect comedy that doesn’t miss a beat and seems to constantly go the extra mile to put a smile on the audiences face and keep it there for the full 94 minute run-time. Featuring a plethora of celebraties from the 1920s, and a modern writer discovering it all in a drunken daze, one can’t help but fall head-over-heals in love with Owen Wilson’s neurotic charisma as he gets carried away by his fantasy, catching the audience up in the web of hilarity with him. A fable about the nature of reality and the ever-present sense of faded glory and romantic loss, the film is Allen’s best in years. One can only feel nostalgia if they have the power to look back from the present. And one can only shine in their own time. Thank you Woody Allen. I’ve seen the film four or five times, and each time I find myself just as captivated and laughing just as hard at the “idle (idol?) chatter.” Simple bliss.

6. Drive

This one has been hard for me to pin since its release. Alternating from off my list to the number one spot, I can’t help but admit that I love the film. From first frame to last it has a rare calculated precision in its aim, that surpasses just about any action film I’ve ever seen. There’s just something to it! This film has managed to make an appearance on just about every top ten list I’ve read and everyone I know personally who has seen it loves it too. It hits well with blockbuster fans, mainstream Oscar fans, and arthouse/foreign cinema fans. It is a perfect blend of everything cinematic. It is a minimalist film to be sure, but it is a traditional action B-movie elevated to arthouse status through being perfectly stylized and emotionally engaging. It’s a simple story about a soft-spoken auto-mechanic and stunt driver who gets caught up in mob violence through love. It isn’t my kind of film. But it works for me. Just like it works for everyone else. Something about this film rings universal. I can’t deny that from a cultural perspective, I think this film is the most important of the year. Already it feels iconic.

5. Submarine

My inner Holden Caulfield is coming out right here. Or some combination of that and my love of everything French New Wave. This oddball indie festival circuit hit had been opening to acclaim all around the world before opening to practically no response in America. Well, I’m here to make up for that seeing as I think it’s brilliant. The film is a charming and cold-hearted love story about an adolescent who simultaneously tries to pursue romance on his own whilst repairing his parents fragmented relationship in the 1960s in Wales. The film is hysterical from first frame to last. And even if its methods occasionally verge on tacky, I argue that they are put to specific narrative and thematic use. Beautifully captured, well acted, and cynically written, Submarine is the rare film that embodies its angstiness without ever feeling overdone or unjustified. Dealing with issues such as divorce, cancer, depression (or perhaps submersion), and loss of love in such darkly humorous  ways is risky, but effective in its own right.

4. Hugo

I absolutely adore Brian Selznick’s captivating children’s graphic novel-picture book-flipbook-straight-up book-thing The Invention of Hugo Cabret. To say that I had lost faith in the film leading up to its release would be a considerable understatement. But as word begin to come out after its surprise appearance at the New York Film Festival, my hopes began to rise. By the time the film had its U. S. release, it was clear that not only had Martin Scorsese revolutionized 3-D filmmaking with his eye-popping full-focus photography and stunning tracking shots, but that the film was sincere love-letter to cinema. Seeing this film brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion. It’s just a beautiful film in practically everyway. And it’s a side of Scorsese that we’ve never seen before. That’s not to say his thematic attraction to it isn’t apparent. But it is awesome to see his traditional flares as a filmmaker remain consistent as he stretches his visual boundaries as well as his storytelling powers. This was probably my favorite theater-going experience of the year. Utterly enchanting.

3. 50/50

Speaking of films that made me cry… This one caught me totally off-guard. As a person who fears death with about every fiber of my being, I have a certain discomfort about watching movies about young people getting diagnosed with cancer. After hearing nothing but raves, I finally cracked and saw it. Within ten minutes, I realized I’d been avoiding something special. 50/50 is a wildly quirky romp that is more about the people that surround you when you have cancer than it is about the disease itself. Will Reiser wrote the masterful screenplay about his own experience getting cancer at age 27 at a time when he was writing for Saturday Night Live. Seth Rogen was really his close friend at the time, so Rogen is essentially playing himself. Everything in the film feels equally as sincere and close to the heart of the event as possible. Joseph gordon-Levitt gives a sadly ignored performance that hits many comedic and dramatic notes right on the head. But as I mentioned before, it is everything around him that makes the film really fly. He has a bad girlfriend, a friend obsessed with getting laid, elderly pot-headed fellow cancer victims, a dog, and a neurotic mother. Each character and each scenario presented in the film is touching and hilarious. By the end of the film, my eyes were red, but I wanted to stand up and cheer. It’s that kind of movie. Once again, I’ve written too much, but when the film isn’t playing an excellently selected song to suit the moment, Michael Giacchino has composed a simple but moving score to fill the gaps.

2. Certified Copy

This ingenious film from Abbas Kiarostami is among the most talked about films of the past year and a half since it first premiered at the 2010 Cannes film festival. As elegantly crafted as each frame of the film is, and as stunning as the italian countrside is, the film’s visual appeal is perhaps its weakest element. I mean that as a compliment. Juliette Binoche gives one of the best performances of the year. But even that is given everything that it is in its ingenious screenplay. This is a writer’s movie. At least I think it is. It is a deft blend of Before Sunrise and Synecdoche, New York that tells the story of one couple, in one day. Throughout the day they debate the value of copies compared to  originals. It starts with a joke, then expands to full scenes, and eventually to people’s lives. It is a profound masterpeice that I suspect I will find more and more thematic representations each time I revisit it, which I hope will be many times, even in the very near future.

1. Shame

Steve McQueen’s second feature proves that he is a director that will consistently blow us away. His films are about as far from accessible as films can get, but they are gloriously directed and uncomprimising in the face of harsh material. Shame is the kind of film experience that I can only compare to Requiem for a Dream. But it is both artistically and narratively superior in believability, ambiguity, and sympathy. This bleak tale about sex addiction is a fearless voyage into the darkest corner of private shame. Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan both give best of career peformances, equally displaying new sides of their versatility. In long takes, the viewer can’t help but be forcibly drawn into the film and the tragedies of an unknown sadistic past. The staging is richly complex and the cinematography keeps up every step of the way. Every detail of this movie is captured with precise characterization and dramatic effect. I left the theater shaking. Whether I like it or not I consider this to be the unflinching artistic masterpeice of the year. It’s not a film I suspect I can watch on a regular basis, you’d have to be masochistic to do that. But I know I will find myself returning to it reliably because it is a film that pushes the one’s boundaries just to watch it.

Well, that wraps it up. This is far and away the longest post I’ve ever written. But I’d like to point out one odd little fact: this is the second year in a row that my number two film was Alex’s number one and Alex’s number eight film was my number one. Coincidence? Almost certainly. That fact bears no significance to the greater universe whatsoever. But it is nonetheless an odd little fact indeed.

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  • Luiz Angel

    Those films you haven’t seen, watch them first and make this list again.

    plus The Tree of Life.

  • Two years in a row your number two is my number one! We think quite similarly.

    • I just read that you put that in your last paragraph. I fail.

  • I am extremely happy with your #1. In my earliest rendition of my list, “Shame” landed in that spot too. I think the film is brilliant up to the very final scene, which rings too overt for my eyes. In problems with the evident, I certainly have my problems with “Submarine”, “Moneyball”, “Another Earth”, “50/50”, and especially “Hugo”. But as always, I’m extremely pleased by how many different opinions I’ve found on the site. It’s definitely a ripe place for a clash of opinions.

  • Very happy to see 50/50 so high in your list, delighted with your choices.
    Also i really appreciate you putting Friends With Benefits and Another Earth in your list. Perfect.

  • SHAME FOR THE WIN!!!

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