The Top Tens: Top Ten Films of 2011

Posted on Jan 4, 2012

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Top Ten Films of 2011

It’s no secret that the national, and international, mood has been pretty intense over the last few years. Funny thing about collective mood – it tends to seep into a culture’s art. So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of this year’s very best films have heavy themes at their heart – Economic Uncertainty, Anxiety, Addiction, Repression, Death. That being said, there were plenty of notable lighthearted comedies and adventures out there to lighten the mood in these tough times.

Here are some films that I valued but didn’t quite make it into my Top Ten of 2011:

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s brilliant and sexy flirting elevated the fun rom-com Crazy, Stupid, Love into something special.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s hyper-violent and endlessly odd Drive feels like David Cronenberg directing an old-school Steve McQueen movie. The opening scene and Albert Brooks’ showdown with Bryan Cranston are instant classics.

David Fincher (with actors Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig and music by Oscar-winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) brought as much craft and class as possible to the pulpy The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

The excellent ensemble in Margin Call, led by Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, does the seemingly impossible of humanizing Wall Street bankers on the eve of the financial crisis.

Maybe I have a blind spot for Guy Ritchie’s critically dismissed Sherlock Holmes films, but I thought A Game of Shadows, with Downey Jr’s detective matching wits with Jared Harris’ Moriarty, was even better than the original.

The Top Ten:

10.            Warrior

This Rocky-style mixed-martial-arts flick would be terrible if it weren’t so damn good. The script is pure formula – two blue-collar brothers, both underdogs from a rough family, competing in the same winner-take-all competition – but Gavin O’Conner’s taut direction (especially of the film’s crushing fight sequences) and gritty performances by Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte elevate Warrior into the realm of classic sports films.

9.            Moneyball

Yes, Moneyball is about baseball, but it’s also about the intersection of sports and commerce, about innovation in the face of economic stagnation, about personal evolution through new modes of thinking – it may have been the most topical film of 2011. Brad Pitt, wily yet dignified, plays Billy Beane, the manager of the hopeless Oakland A’s, and Jonah Hill plays against type as a Harvard-educated number geek that devises an effective, if unglamorous, way to build a better baseball team. This may be the smartest “ragtag team of misfits makes good” film ever made.

8.         Source Code

A few years ago, Duncan Jones was best known as David Bowie’s son who also directed a few commercials. Now, he’s known as one of the most promising, young sci-fi directors around. First, there was the Sam Rockwell kaleidoscope Moon, and now the time- and dimension-skipping mind-warp Source Code, starring Jake Gyllenhaal in one of his best performances as a deeply confused Iraq-vet who finds himself repeating the same seven minutes. Aboard a train. That’s about to explode. In someone else’s body.  Source Code is a nimble thriller full truly surprising plot twists, thought provoking ideas, and deep, well-earned pathos.

7.             Beginners

This charming, ultimately wrenching, semi-autobiography by director Mike Mills about a thirty-something creative type (Ewan McGregor) coming to grips with his father’s (Christopher Plummer) late-life revelation of his homosexuality, may be a bit too cute-indie for some (there is a talking dog), but the deeply-felt truth behind its quirks is unmistakable. McGregor is charming and affecting as usual, but Christopher Plummer, as a dying man finally allowing himself personal and sexual satisfaction after a 40-year marriage of convenience, is both spry and heartbreakingly fragile in what may be the best performance of his already legendary career.

6.         The Adventures of TinTin

Though he’s undeniably hit and miss (take, for instance, this year’s turgidly cornball War Horse), when Steven Spielberg brings his A-game, there is no other director like him. Working in the realm of boyhood adventure has always suited Spielberg, and with the internationally beloved TinTin comics as his source material and the best motion capture animation money can buy, the director has uncorked his most unabashedly entertaining film since Jurassic Park. True, the story is completely one-dimensional, but the ultra-kinetic, balletic action sequences on display in The Adventures of TinTin – a flashback aboard a pirate ship and a motorcycle escape from a crumbling dam – are the most virtuosic set pieces Spielberg has unleashed in over a decade.

5.            Midnight in Paris

I’m not generally a Woody Allen fan – his older work ranges from amusing to uncomfortably neurotic for me, and his newer “European Renaissance” has up until now left me unmoved. With that grain of salt, I think Midnight In Paris is easily Woody Allen’s best film in over two decades. Thanks to the inspired paring of Owen Wilson’s natural good humor with Allen’s neurotic dialogue, and to the lightly fanciful homage to the denizens of France’s bohemian past (Hemmingway, Cole Porter, Dali and more make appearances in the film’s time-shifting plot), and to the beguiling scenery photographed by DP Darius Khondji, Midnight in Paris is the director’s loosest, most likable work in recent memory. The film is a charming, rewarding hat-tip to – and in the end, a gentle rebuke of – romanticizing the past.

4.         A Dangerous Method

I’m a bit surprised at the general critical indifference to David Cronenberg’s incredibly smart and absorbing A Dangerous Method – it’s as if critics were upset that the director’s trademark geysers of blood and overly disturbing sex scenes weren’t present in this costume drama about the conflict between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and the disturbed patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) that comes between them. In a film primarily about repression, though, Cronenberg’s usual flourishes would be out of place. Instead, the director clamps down, revealing only his incredible intelligence and coldly brilliant sense of craft (the costumes and cinematography are Oscar-caliber) while allowing the story’s keen psycho-sexual and socio-economic observations to peek out between the lines. As the prickly, pragmatic Freud, Mortensen gives another terrific performance in his third collaboration with Cronenberg.

3.         Shame

Unfortunately, like most sexually explicit films, Shame seems destined to be more well remembered for the actors’ body parts on display than for the film’s actual merits, which is an infuriatingly reductive reaction to such a richly directed and acted work of art such as this. Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, an upper-middle class suit in an impossible to define career who spends every waking moment joylessly pursuing sex in any form he can get it. Carey Mulligan plays Brandon’s hopelessly lost and needy sister Sissy. This is a tale of a damaged brother and sister, but it’s also an epic meditation on modern urban loneliness and inability to connect. Director Steve McQueen, formerly a notable video artist, stages long, dialogue free sequences with operatic intensity – Sissy’s heartbreaking acoustic cabaret performance of “New York, New York” (alone for which Mulligan deserves an Oscar nomination), Brandon’s rendezvous with a married woman on the subway, Brandon’s joyless patronage of two prostitutes. And though this film is packed with wall-to-wall sex, the sex is completely devoid of true, personal connection (it’s no coincidence that the film’s only truly sexy sex scene, where Brandon goes on an actual date with a co-worker, ends in disaster for him). Fassbender’s Brandon is a hopeless addict, and the actor’s full-bodied commitment to such a dead-end character is riveting. Shame is ultimately not even about sex, it’s about finding oneself when one’s sense of human connection is almost hopelessly devoid of empathy.

2.         Take Shelter

If any film held a mirror up to the country’s collective unconscious to reflect back it’s worry and anxiety, it was writer/director Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter. Michael Shannon, the explosive previous Oscar-nominee for his sooth-saying role in Revolutionary Road, dials himself way down to play Curtis, a decent family man who suddenly becomes stricken with terrifying visions about unruly storms, birds falling from the sky and earthquakes. Is Curtis channeling some sort of pre-End of Days vision, or is he merely succumbing to his family’s history of paranoid schizophrenia? Nichols stages Curtis’ dreams, especially an early one where a storm envelops Curtis and his hearing-impaired daughter in a car, with heart-in-the-mouth dread. More impressive, though, is how the director allows these brilliant set-pieces to subtly intrude upon the rest of the film, where Curtis risks his job and the affection of his wife (the incredible Jessica Chastain, whose performance here is the best of her banner year that also included The Help and The Tree of Life) in order to build a giant fallout shelter in his back yard. Take Shelter has a keen aplomb for small town life and a meticulous screw-turning sense of suspense that brings to mind the early Coen Brothers films. It tells us that in these trying times, where things might actually not be okay, that it’s more important than ever to stick together.

1.         The Descendents

Alexander Payne’s previous films – Citizen Ruth, Election (the best, most ruthless comedy of the 90s, in my opinion), About Schmidt, and Sideways – for all their brilliance, often felt like clinical examinations of quirky characters rather than empathetic character studies. In his seven years away from the director’s chair, though, it seems Payne has found a heart. The Descendents, about a landowner in Hawaii whose wife falls into a coma, retains the touchstones of Payne’s previous work – quirky characters, explosively awkward humor – but infuses it with profound, wise and achingly true emotion. George Clooney, in a performance of tremendous range, plays Matt King, the befuddled father of two girls who must manage his family and his finances in a time of profound personal crisis. Not only is Matt’s wife in a coma, he learns from his rebellious teenage daughter Alexandra (the excellent Shailene Woodley) that his wife was having an affair. Watching Matt and Alexandra bond over finding and confronting the wife/mother’s lover comprises the film’s funniest set piece, but it also gives the characters time to breathe together, to sort out the complicated emotions of dealing with an infirmed love one. I can’t recall a movie that more accurately and empathetically dramatizes the way that family can learn new things about each other, and move even closer together, in the wake of personal tragedy than The Descendents. The film’s final scenes in the hospital will ring nauseatingly true for anyone that has dealt with death in its shocking, surreal and numbing finality. But The Descendents ultimately isn’t a downer – it’s a reminder that as bad as things seem, some bonds cannot break, and will always continue to get stronger.

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