Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

The Best Films I Saw in 2011

In Film, Reviews on January 12, 2012 at 1:40 am

By Eric Plaag

As you might guess, Matt Smith’s tastes and mine differ a bit, so we don’t always agree about what makes a good movie or which ones are the best ones. I guess that’s a good reason for us to do a film review blog together — it wouldn’t be very interesting if we agreed with each other all the time.

As it turns out, we don’t necessarily agree on how a Top Ten Films list should be presented, either. Yes, we were able to work out some general ground rules — pick the ten best films we saw in 2011, plus another five that weren’t quite the best but were still very good, and then make sure to list the noteworthy films we haven’t had time or opportunity to see yet but think might have had a chance to make it onto our lists if we had seen them. But when it comes to listing those top ten, well, Matt and I fundamentally disagree as to how they should be ranked/presented. Matt has threatened to pull an Ebert and list his top ten alphabetically, but I think he may have said that just to get under my skin. We shall see.

In any case, here are the Top Ten Films I Saw in 2011, ranked in countdown fashion, preceded by five films that were very, very good but not quite worthy of a slot in the top ten. Each entry contains a condensed version of my review of the film. Where applicable, a link to the longer original review is also provided.

For the record, I have not yet seen Tabloid, Drive, Another Earth, Melancholia, A Separation, War Horse, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Adventures of Tintin, Terri, Trust, or the eagerly awaited General Orders No. 9, so please — no complaints about what the hell is wrong with me that those films aren’t on the list.

That said, we’d both love to hear your reactions to our lists. Feel free to comment at the bottom of our respective columns. We’ll read your thoughts and, where appropriate, respond with ours.

Five that just weren’t quite good enough but that you should see nonetheless

Hugo

Martin Scorsese’s visual feast that chronicles the films of groundbreaking silent-era auteur Georges Meliés was pitched as a kid’s film, but it is far, far more than that. Following the exploits of young Hugo Cabret, an orphan living in a Paris train station, Hugo allows us to glimpse the boy’s discoveries about the cinematic past with a wondrous, mesmerizing glee. While the film’s comic moments were occasionally a bit trite and its action sequences sometimes too contrived, Hugo nevertheless makes the inquisitive, appreciative viewer yearn for the magic and mystery of early films while also reminding us that even the most damaged among us have dreams that can be resurrected in spite of our present circumstances.

Contagion

Director Steven Soderbergh leads us through the horrors of a pandemic marked not by flesh-eating bacteria or zombie-inducing monkeys or even a government conspiracy to kill off some target population somewhere on the planet, but instead by the casual contact we engage in all the time with door knobs and commonly exchanged objects. What Soderbergh has created is a film as insidious and methodical in its progression as the outbreak it tracks, and he ingeniously follows events from a detached perspective that leaves plenty of functional ambiguity about the motives and ethics of some of its key characters. Like no other outbreak film I can think of, Contagion shows us realistically the unexpected but essential ways in which society at large and our local communities would break down under such a threat, forcing us to choose between taking great personal risk to help each other or doing everything necessary to protect those we love from the horrors of mob mentality. In this sense, we begin to understand just how tenuous and fragile a thing the social contract always is.

Original Review

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II

J. K. Rowling (author of the Harry Potter novels), Steve Kloves (screenplay), and director David Yates must have brushed up on their Joseph Campbell, because they sure do get this one right. I certainly didn’t anticipate it going in, but Deathly Hallows, Part II (and the whole Potter franchise) should now officially be required viewing for anyone who wants to learn how to do the hero cycle correctly. As one would expect of a finale, Deathly Hallows, Part II answers a host of unanswered questions about the real loyalties of many of its secondary players, and along the way, Yates aptly captures the seriousness and urgency of Harry’s steadily darker path, thereby creating a tone that has almost entirely left behind the playfulness of Harry’s earlier days at Hogwarts and culminates in this final entry, which brings full circle the necessity of Harry’s desperate and at times hopeless journey to confront the ultimate evil. This finale struggles at times in trying too hard to wrap up some of those loose ends, but as a whole it stands exactly where it should in the hero cycle, forcing us to see the deep-seated psychological pain and despair in Harry and the other characters with a clarity that makes the franchise more than just a series of exciting romps in the mind candy jar.

Original Review

Beginners

This quirky dramedy from writer and director Mike Mills focuses on Oliver (Ewan McGregor) as he mourns the passing of his recently out-of-the-closet father (Christopher Plummer) and tries to navigate a new relationship with French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent), who is herself dealing with a different kind of grief about her own father. Presented in a series of disjointed but somehow seamless flashbacks, Oliver’s reminiscences about his mother and father are the real emotional grist of the film, and Oliver’s imaginings about the Zen-like support of Arthur, his father’s orphaned Jack Russell, ground the film with a knowing playfulness that prevents things from ever veering too far into the extravagances of pathos. As Oliver inventories the damage he has suffered through the whole of his life, Beginners tiptoes carefully through its own emotional minefield, allowing us to feel sympathetic to all of its characters, in spite of the dislikeable things they do along the way, and root for them as they begin to heal.

Somewhere

Easily the film that was most difficult for me to exclude from my Top Ten, Somewhere is writer and director Sofia Coppola’s return to the bizarre universe of celebrity life where there never seems to be a sense of home. The film follows Hollywood action star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) and the transformation that must occur when he learns that his ex-wife is dumping their tween daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) into his lap while his ex goes off to “find herself.” What might have seemed a burden to any other man in Johnny’s situation is utter salvation to Johnny, culminating in his realization that in a world filled with fake boobs, easy women, and empty gestures, Cleo is not just his daughter. She is his spiritual soulmate. Cleo gently nudges Johnny back to a point where he can finally answer the nagging question that remains unanswered in so many of his pressers: “Who is Johnny Marco?” Through gestures large and small — a meticulously planned gourmet breakfast, a day spent together by the pool, an underwater tea party — Cleo reminds a man utterly lost at sea that home still lies out there, and that she is waiting for him to return.

The Top Ten Films I Saw in 2011

10. Red State

Writer and director Kevin Smith opens this recent homage to all things Tarantino with a quease-inducing set-up: Three high school boys (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, Nicholas Braun) get the bright idea that hooking up for a foursome with older woman Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo) would be a helluva lot of fun. After a boozy collision with a car in which the local sheriff (Stephen Root) is getting head from his gay lover, they settle in for “the devil’s work” at the woman’s trailer, only to discover that Sarah has other plans for the boys. When they awaken from their ruffied stupor, they find themselves bound and gagged, stuffed into the basement holding pen of the nearby Five Points Church, a gay-hating, Westboro Baptist-like congregation run by the very righteously vindictive Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). What follows is one of the strangest but most fascinating showdowns I have ever seen on film, featuring a standoff with the local ATF agent (John Goodman), a chaotic shootout, and what very well may be an intervention from the Almighty Himself. Smith’s writing and direction may be at its best here, and Parks deserves an Oscar nomination for his pitch-perfect performance, but I’ll be shocked if it happens.

Original Review

9. Jane Eyre

Director Cary Fukunaga offers a mostly faithful rendition of the Bronte classic, but what stands out in this version — unlike, for example, Zeffirelli’s 1996 version with Charlotte Gainsbourg — is not only the palpable brutality of how Jane (Mia Wasikowska) is repeatedly mistreated by relatives and the English social system alike, but also the relative poise and compassion with which Jane endures her various trials. Not only does Wasikowska’s Jane play out with deft precision and subtlety the socially bold role Bronte invented, but Wasikowska also brings to the part a certain heroic commitment to preserving her human side in a way that those actresses playing Jane’s earlier incarnations did not. Mr. Rochester speaks frequently of Jane’s direct gaze, of course, but in Wasikowska’s glances there is an intensity of purpose and self-assurance that is absent from earlier romantic attempts at portraying Jane as a strong-willed girl who becomes pliable in the hands of an older man. Here, in Wasikowska’s portrayal, we finally understand the complexity of Jane’s moral vision and her fierce determination to be with Mr. Rochester not as his paramour but only as someone who meets him on equal footing.

8. Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Oh, Werner Herzog, how I do love thee. Only you could end a documentary not by contemplating the meaning of the 32,000-year-old cave paintings that are the subject of your passionate cinematic treat but instead by focusing on a collection of radioactive, albino crocodiles housed nearby. And yet, somehow, you get away with it. Exploring these remarkable primitive works of art at France’s Chauvet caverns that are more than twice as old as any found elsewhere in the world, Herzog uses the recent innovations in 3D imaging technology to make the cave’s astonishing two-dimensional animals come to life with movement, allowing the play of light upon the walls and their layered outlines to amplify the sense of their motion. We feel as if we are there with Herzog, even as we sit in cushy theater seats several thousand miles away. The climax of the film is a roughly seven-minute sequence near the film’s end showing the most impressive features of the cave in astounding detail, all of it with no narration and only the accompaniment of music and the steady beat of a human heart. Some may choose to dismiss Herzog as a nut, or a fraud, or at the very least a man too much in love with his own enthusiastic, voracious mind. I disagree, because I know exactly how his questions about those paintings and those crocodiles played upon my psyche, my fears about how small I am in the grand scale of things, and my insecurities about finding meaning in my personal experience vis-à-vis the rest of the human condition. Those crocodiles will be in my subconscious for a long time. And Werner Herzog is a certifiable genius.

Original Review

7. Hanna

Director Joe Wright’s action thriller about a teenage killing machine may be the most pleasant surprise of the year. Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) has spent most of her life living in the wilderness with her putative father (Eric Bana), a rogue assassin with an ax to grind with his former handler (Cate Blanchett). Hanna, we learn, was specifically bred to be devoid of any sense of those things that make us human (compassion, pity, vulnerability to pain), but the genius of this film is that she’s the most humanizing force we see during the entire story. There is something about her dedication to both fairness and truth in the midst of mayhem and viciousness that still leaves me wondering where she has been all of my moviegoing life. In many respects, Hanna is the antithesis of her strong female lead cousins in countless big-budget, “GrrrlPower” action flicks, and that alone makes her role and this movie utterly refreshing. Unleashed upon the world to do her father’s dirty work, Hanna thrives not on murderous stoicism but instead on the fleeting moments of human connection she makes as she confronts the real world for the first time. Through these experiences, Hanna learns that there is much more at risk in trying to stay alive than anything her alleged father ever taught her. Living life, in fact, soon becomes far more precious to Hanna than merely being alive. When her nemesis finally forces Hanna to confront her mortality, Hanna’s survival depends less on her formidable skills as a killer than it does on her appeal to an appreciative understanding of this sanctity of life. That’s a story worth telling.

6. Submarine

Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), the fifteen-year-old, awkward narrator at the center of writer Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut, may be my favorite character in all the films I saw this year, if only because I know that what he tells us about his various excruciating disappointments is exactly true. Obsessively in love with his edgy, more popular classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige), Oliver is shocked when she returns his affections, even if she initially does so in the name of revenge against an ex. What Ayoade gets right, though, is his choice to focus not on yet another teen romance but instead on the kinds of baggage and fears that really shape our expectations, no matter how old we are. As Oliver and Jordana navigate the pressures of the depression of Oliver’s father (Noah Taylor), the threat posed to his parents’ marriage by the return of Oliver’s mother’s old boyfriend, and the devastatingly brave ways in which Jordana’s family tries to stand up to her mother’s terminal cancer, Oliver learns that love isn’t about romantic gestures or secret sex or even truly understanding one’s partner. It’s about being allies and having each other’s backs. No matter what. A fine soundtrack from Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys only underscores the quirky but somehow deeply satisfying feeling of living inside Oliver’s world of hopeless vulnerability.

5. The Future

In writer and director Miranda July’s latest film, Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are a couple who are stuck in a rut. As they struggle to come to terms with the existential dilemmas and disappointments of mid-life, time also tortures them in a micro sense. The film opens with the explanation that Sophie and Jason have rescued the film’s narrator, Paw Paw, an older stray cat suffering from renal failure and a broken front foot, but they must wait several weeks for the cat to heal before they can retrieve it from the humane society. The uncertainties Sophie and Jason have about Paw Paw, though, speak volumes about their fears about one another. They have become lost and do not yet know it. When Sophie’s malaise leads her to sleep with Marshall (David Warshofsky), an older man with a young daughter, Sophie must finally confront Jason about her choice, triggering a gorgeous but heartbreaking journey into magical realism that is pitch-perfect true to the otherworldly, floating confusion that we all experience when we walk in either Jason’s or Sophie’s shoes. Some folks have been viciously critical about Paw Paw’s narration of this film, but without this frame and the weightiness of Paw Paw’s words, there would not be any sense of the rippling consequences that our choices and our selfishness have beyond the immediate and obvious. This, of course, is July’s point, that everything is connected, that the world is speaking to us in codes and signs, and that when we don’t know how to listen, we end up doing irreparable harm, even if it is unintentional.

Original Review

4. Martha Marcy May Marlene

Writer-director Sean Durkin’s psychological thriller opens on a farm setting in the Catskills, which the viewer quickly deduces is more Manson-style commune than the high-end hipster organic community co-op it at first appears to be. Here, in the predawn hours, we see Marcy May (Elizabeth Olsen) slip out of the house with a small backpack, then eventually call her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), identifying herself as Martha and begging to be picked up and taken away. What follows is a haunting and deeply disturbing narrative that seamlessly slips in and out of Martha’s nightmares, memories, and building madness to reveal a present that she tries always to keep one step ahead of the frightening past she has left behind. At the center of Martha’s terror is Patrick (John Hawkes), the head of the commune who is the type of charismatic figure who can persuade young women with only a hint of his smile to change their names from Martha to Marcy May, then talk them into letting him rape them, then manipulate them into helping him rape others. His performance of “Marcy’s Song” during the community meeting on the day after he has “cleansed” Martha may be one of the most fascinating but skin-crawling moments on film ever, if only because — just for a second — you might find yourself falling in love with him, too. The fine performances aside, what really makes this movie work is Durkin’s direction and the stunning cinematography from Jody Lee Lipes. This is a film that lets you sit with its characters and contemplate them, even when the silences are uncomfortable. Martha Marcy May Marlene features no gore, nothing that is so viscerally disturbing that it is difficult to watch as it occurs. And yet its rhythms and imagery are so frightening, so harrowing, that I do not know whether I could watch it again any time soon.

Original Review

3. Take Shelter

Director Sean Nichols offers the story of Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), an Ohio gravel excavator who lives a conventional but difficult middle class life with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and hearing-impaired young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). Curtis’s sense of hope and well-being is plagued by apocalyptic dreams that he at first wants to dismiss as just vivid nightmares. Starlings play out terrifying murmurations in the sky before him. Strange rain falls from the sky. Twisters appear on the horizon. Soon, these tropes appear as waking visions. He dares not tell his wife, though, and his faint efforts to secure advice from his best friend and co-worker result only in strained awkwardness. Why? Because Curtis carries the stigma of knowing that his schizophrenic mother once abandoned him in public as a young boy, and he insists he will not let this happen to him, that he will not leave when the illness finally strikes him. His only true solace comes from his commitment to renovating and expanding the backyard tornado shelter, a project that gives him a haven in which to consider the implications of his illness and a hope that he will be able to save his wife and daughter from the apocalypse he nevertheless knows with certainty is coming. Take Shelter is a visually stunning, hauntingly choreographed fever dream on madness and love, insularity and insight. When Curtis stands before his friends and his community and warns them as only a fire and brimstone preacher might that “There is a storm a-comin’,” you will find it difficult not to recoil from him just as they do. But there is a storm a-coming, and when the credits finally roll, you will realize that you weren’t prepared for the indelible impression that Take Shelter will leave behind on your psyche.

Original Review

2. Blue Valentine

Director Derek Cianfrance’s first major feature finds Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) in a situation that has chosen them far more than the other way around. Love in the real world is usually like that. Cindy is a nurse who desperately wants to be a doctor, even though her job and her family and her baggage seem always to be in the way. Dean is a high school dropout who flits from one job to another with a carefree demeanor that masks his malaise and his need to drink before he shows up on the job. At first glance, one might not think to put these two disparate people together, and yet it is the first glance that does exactly that. Be warned, though: There are no clear good guys or bad guys in this relationship, just people who don’t know how they got here from there, with a young daughter trapped between them, in spite of their best and most noble intentions. It’s a rare accomplishment in movies like this to allow the audience to still love them both, even as the people around them appear to choose sides. As subtle as it is immersed in the raw beauty of hand-held jaggedness, Blue Valentine moves effortlessly between Cindy and Dean’s life together now and the moments after they met six years earlier. The effect is something like stepping into the punch-drunk confusion of the characters, who endure the disorientation of standing outside themselves and watching helplessly as their lives unravel, even as they replay the past, searching for the wrong turn. To call Cianfrance’s film a love story, as the trailers all seem to imply, does it a gross disservice. When his story finishes with you without actually ending, you may find yourself questioning every small, careless moment of your own present relationship, pondering the damage you have done and hoping it’s not as grave as you fear.

Original Review

1. The Tree of Life

Doing so seems like a colossal task, but if I were to condense the action of this film into a single sentence, it might go something like this: The Tree of Life is director Terrence Malick’s story of one afternoon in the deeply anguished mind of Jack (Sean Penn), a fifty-something industrial executive who spends that afternoon at work, the anniversary of his brother’s death, mulling how his understanding of the past and loss and memories and unspoken words have shaped him and led him to this moment now, a point when his fractured and in many ways unconsummated relationships with family and partner and self stand on the precipice. That’s what happens, I guess, but it’s not what this film is about.

So, what is The Tree of Life about? “There are two ways through life,” a voiceover from Jack’s mother (Jessica Chastain) tells us at the beginning of the film. “The way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” Jack’s father (Brad Pitt, in an Oscar-worthy performance) disagrees. “Your mother’s naïve,” he tells young Jack (Hunter McCracken). “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world….The world is run by trickery. You wanna succeed, you can’t be too good.” You may be tempted to read this paradox, as many misguided reviewers have, as Malick’s thesis, as an assertion that Jack’s mom’s way is right and his father’s way is wrong, but this posing of opposites is not the frame of Malick’s argument. No, Malick’s opening salvo is a dual hypothesis for you — and for the grown-up version of Jack — to test as you are bathed in shockingly beautiful, maddeningly lush images and sounds and glimpses of thought, memory, and imagining. The weight of what will surely be remembered as Malick’s cinematic masterpiece lies, therefore, in its small moments, in the precision with which Malick understands the hillocks and valleys of this emotional and psychological terrain. In this sense, Malick’s film is really about the symbiotic, yin/yang necessity of the coexistence of beauty and violence in everything we encounter, the persistent dilemma we face as human beings about how to live a life of love when so much around us argues against this choice. Malick understands that his story is not about the easy questions of morality or how to make sure good will conquer evil. He cares only about the mechanics and the consequences, as well as the ways in which we can best understand both.

Audiences at first may be perplexed by the long but startling sequences of the creation of the universe, galaxy, and planet that dominate the first act, as well as by a brief cameo from a pack of CGI dinosaurs. Its final sequence, an imagined crossing over in which opposites are reconciled and inconsolable losses are transformed into resolute joys, may be equally puzzling to some viewers who may misread it through the unfortunate but horribly inaccurate lens of religious (or at least spiritual) proselytizing. But if you can set aside these kinds of preconceptions and let The Tree of Life wash over you, then the fullness of this koan will finally come ‘round and grab hold of your soul, as tends to happen with koans, one way or another. In that moment, The Tree of Life will defy you to keep wearing that polished composure you work so hard at perfecting for everyone else, and you will be forever glad for it.

This is what a perfect film looks like.

Original Review

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