Sunday, January 22, 2012

Best Feature Films of 2011

OK, buckle your seatbelts. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

I have to start with my probably obvious disclaimer that I’m not a professional film critic, and since I hold a full-time job doing something other than watching and writing about movies all day, I unfortunately don’t get to see everything. I guess there is a silver lining to that fact: at least I was spared the pain of The Smurfs, Chipwrecked, Zookeeper, the most recent Twilight, The Beaver (what was Jodie Foster thinking?), Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill, and that lame gnome version of Romeo and Juliet—most of which my six-year-old either saw with his mom or wants to see. Thank you for indulging him, Tracy. It makes me shudder just thinking about them, and I sort of feel sorry for professional film critics who have to see stuff like that. Unfortunately, I was not spared the pain of a few truly horrible blockbusters. I’m thinking specifically of Cars 2, Battle: Los Angeles, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I’ll never get back those six hours!!

A few notable films I didn’t see yet include Shame, Drive, The Skin I Live In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Take Shelter, United Red Army, Margaret, and A Separation. If they are good enough, I might write about them later.

Also, this year I decided to split my “best of” list into two and remove the documentaries from this one. There are several docs I really liked, so I’ll work on that one soon.

Here’s my list:

1. Hugo. Directed by the brilliant Martin Scorsese, Hugo tells the story of a young orphan boy living in a Paris train station in 1930s. His goal is to repair a mechanical man his late father worked on. Based on an award-winning book by Brian Selznick, the film is also a fictionalized account of Hugo’s relationship with the great Frenchman Georges Méliès, whose Trip to the Moon and other magical and surreal films of the early 1900s established him as one of the earliest and most revolutionary filmmakers in the history of cinema. Méliès was almost completely forgotten by the time the film takes place with nearly all of his films seemingly lost and film historians thinking him dead. The film added to the excellent novel by including a couple of minor romantic pairings and fleshing out the book’s cruel station master, making him a comedic but more fully human character played by the surprisingly restrained Sacha Baron Cohen. What is truly memorable about the film is that in addition to its compelling story, Scorsese demonstrates with images, music, and editing his great passion for the silent films of the early 1900s (The Artist also does this, and while I liked it overall, I didn’t feel its middle quite matched the amazing beginning and ending). I have to say that it’s a contagious passion because immediately after seeing the film with my six-year-old, Wyatt said, “Dad, we should watch some Georges Méliès.” And we did! He loved most of the films and even watched nearly a whole 2-hour disc without me. Visually rich, touching, and quite funny, Hugo isn’t to be missed. I can’t recommend it highly enough. And this is one of those films that you want to see in 3D; Scorsese utilizes the technology to enhance the story and not for showing off the effects.  

2. 13 Assassins. Since I wrote about this elsewhere on this blog, I won’t say much here. This is quite simply an excellent samurai film directed with (mostly) untypical restraint by Takashi Miike.

3. Poetry. This Korean film tells the fascinating story of an aging grandmother who enrolls in a poetry class as she finds herself in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Living with the grandmother is her apathetic and self-centered grandson, and she struggles to maintain a relationship with him beyond merely cooking him dinner or whisking him off to school. It’s a moving story about aging, generational conflicts, deep moral questions, and the creative process. Poetry becomes a metaphor in the film for coming to terms with life and all of its unsavory and seemingly meaningless aspects. If my description makes it sound boring, trust me, it isn’t. There’s a whole complicated plot about the rape (not shown) and suicide of a young girl, so it’s not just a film about old people sitting around writing poetry—which, I should add, I would probably enjoy. It’s a film about life, love, family, art, and death. It’s about what it means to be human.

4. Tree of Life. I’ve written twice about this film elsewhere, so I will just say that even though parts are slow and certain elements are confusing, this is on the whole one of the most beautiful and thought-provoking films I have ever seen. I need to see it again.

5. Certified Copy. Directed by the renowned Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy unfolds the mysterious story of two people, one is a British writer and the other a French art dealer (played by the always exquisite Juliette Binoche). The writer has just published a book titled Certified Copy—it’s about the idea that a copy is just as beautiful and important as the original and the silliness of our society’s frowning upon copied art. I won’t give anything away, but I will say that about half way through something very interesting is said that calls into question our very understanding of this couple and their relationship. A film about art, love, relationships, and the past, Certified Copy is an engaging and enlightening film that takes us in unexpected directions.

6. City of Life and Death. A powerful black-and-white film about the Japanese conquest and occupation of Nanking in China in 1937. It’s an unconventional film in that it doesn’t follow a single story line—though there are several characters—and doesn’t really have much of a plot. I suppose the best way to describe it would be to call it a poem, a poem about the horrors of war. Controversial in China when it was first released, City of Life and Death does not demonize all of the Japanese nor does it romanticize the Chinese.

7. Crazy, Stupid Love. I’m surprised this groundbreaking comedy isn’t showing up on more (or any?) top-ten lists. Ryan Gosling, who is possibly the greatest living American actor, is paired with Steve Carell, who normally underwhelms me but in this case he was just right. It’s a hilarious movie (also starring Emma Stone, Julianne Moore, Kevin Bacon, and Marisa Tomei) that walks a fine line between being conventional and breaking lots of rules. I put it on this list because it thoroughly entertained me but also because it said some insightful things about relationships and what it means to be happy as a human being. Steve Carell’s character is a bit like Siddhartha in his search for happiness and enlightenment. Think about it.

8. The Descendents. This is George Clooney’s best role. It’s interesting how “normal” he can look and act. Normal hair, normal clothes. In this film he is a normal guy, a guy with two kids who finds out after his wife has been in a terrible accident that she was cheating on him. On the surface the film is about his discovery of this information and what he decides to do with it. But it’s also about his coming to terms with his less-than-mediocre parenting skills and taking small steps to becoming a better father—and a better person. Directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election, About Schmidt), The Descendents is what Payne himself has called a “minor” film, but that’s what I liked about it. It’s a small film about a small family crisis. There’s nothing outwardly deep or philosophical or showy about it. But there is something moving and profound in its small way about Clooney’s character’s realizations and actions. He’s a normal guy who has to choose whether he’s going to do the right things. Also, Shailene Woodley, the 20-year-old actress who plays Clooney’s daughter, is a revelation.

9. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I was a little surprised how much I liked David Fincher’s new film. I had read the books and enjoyed them—though not as much as some people. That is, I thought they were fairly entertaining and Lisbeth Salander was truly an original, but to me they were merely genre fiction and didn’t really transcend any literary boundaries. (I realize how snobby that sounds). I started watching the Swedish film version of Dragon Tattoo but stopped after about ten minutes. I was bored. So, I went into the new American version with very low expectations. Fincher’s version, perhaps not surprisingly if you’ve seen anything else by him, is much darker than the earlier film or even the novel. The lighting, the overall mood, the near total lack of humor. Even the sex has a dark edge to it. And I should add that this is a very adult film with a couple of very brutal rape scenes and several serial-killer aftermath photos. Watching it just confirms what I have felt for years: that David Fincher is one of the greatest living American directors. The film is very well constructed, beautifully (and darkly) shot, and well paced. This is what all Hollywood films should be like.

10. Melancholia. Lars von Trier is a pretty arrogant and annoying person, but with Melancholia he’s made a philosophical and provocative film. A film about melancholy, dysfunctional families, quite possibly the worst imaginable wedding-reception ever, and an impending collision with a huge planet, Melancholia is ultimately about the need to find human connections in a world that pushes us toward isolation. I’m pretty sure it’s also a metaphor for embracing melancholy and not treating it like an illness.  

Other independent or art-house films I enjoyed: Le Quattro Volte (a completely wordless and poetic film about the transmigration of the soul); The Artist; Incendies (a French film about two grown twins discovering their family history in the war torn Middle East); Jane Eyre; Ides of March; Midnight in Paris; A Dangerous Method (Keira Knightley was a bit too much for me, but who can pass up the story of Freud and Jung?); Win, Win (one of the greatest sports movies ever!); Red State (Kevin Smith makes a horror film that also makes a total mockery of red staters), and The Trip (has three or four of the funniest scenes in any movies I saw this year).

Other blockbuster/popular films I enjoyed: Moneyball (Brad Pitt is great and it’s simply an inspiring story about how hard it is to break free of conventional thinking), Kung Fu Panda 2, Bridesmaids (hilarious at times; pretty crude in others), X-Men: First Class (I thought this was the best of the X-Men films and the best superhero film this year), Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (not a great film but it has some seriously amazing action sequences), Super 8, Point Blank (a French action thriller about a male nurse on the run for a crime he didn’t commit), and Limitless (a smart and gripping mainstream film).


  1. You're right about Ghost Protocol. The action scenes are awesome!! I actually screamed a little when he was about to fall of the tower in dubai when we saw it at the science center IMAX. Dang, it was cool.
    And yes, Hugo, was a great film!!

  2. Yes, I felt the rush as if I was there. Palms sweating. Head spinning. IMAX is the best route for the true Ghost Protocol experience.

  3. Well, I only saw three in your top ten, as I was likely in the other theater watching Chipwrecked...:) I'm glad I dragged you to Crazy, Stupid Love for a date night. Who knew we BOTH loved Ryan Gosling so much?

  4. Another brilliant list. I love Le Quattro as well--not enough people were able to see that film. I might elevate The Trip to the top ten. I loved The Skin I Live In, but it didn't really take at the box office. Almodovar continues to be the most classical yet outré filmmaker that actually gets his films released in the US. Just finishing my days at Sundance--watch for The Beasts of the Southern Wild. The most wildly original film I've seen in many moons, simply incredible artistry.

    1. I'm so envious that you get to go to Sundance each year.

  5. Just curious,

    "Ryan Gosling, who is possibly the greatest living American actor"

    Please explain how Ryan has yet to compare with past (but living) legends like Jack Nicholson or say Robert Duvall.
    Moreover, how does he compare with current great American actors such as Sean Penn, Tom Hanks, and Kevin Spacey. (Also, dare I mention Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Johnny Depp, and George Clooney who occasionally shine very very brightly.)

    Great post by the way! Keep it up!

  6. "Possibly" gives me some wiggle room. Based on three films (Half Nelson, Drive, and Crazy, Stupid Love), Gosling does measure up to any of those you mention, and he clearly has a great future. He is excellent in all of those. Maybe I should have said "greatest young actor." Even though Nicholson is still alive, he hasn't been in anything worth watching since the 1980s. The same goes for Robert Deniro, whom I love, but he hasn't been in anything good for a long time either. His highpoint was probably Raging Bull, and his last few movies were awful. I do like those you mention, but Tom Hanks is totally overrated. He's more a character actor than a great actor. Brad Pitt was excellent in Tree of Life, but other than that (even though I like his movies), he's not great. George Clooney is fun to watch and entertaining in Out of Sight, the Oceans films, Three Kings and others, but I would say his only great performances have been The American and The Descendents. I'll give you Duvall, though. He gets better with age.

    1. Great! Thanks

      Just curious, what's your opinion on Streep? Overrated or well-deserving as one of the best?

    2. I haven't seen the Iron Lady yet, so I can't really give an opinion about her performance in it. The previews make it seem like she is doing more of an imitation than a fully realized command performance, but I'm sure they are misleading. In general I would say she is an excellent actress, though.