Last year was easily the worst year for cinema in the time I’ve been viewing films critically. My usual practice is to prioritize my favorite 10 films from the year, and then list 10 more alphabetically that are equally worthy of your time. I couldn’t even think of 10 last year, let alone 20.
With all that in mind, 2011 got movies back on track. It was an extremely good year; so good, in fact, that I’m going to list 15 movies in order instead of 10. No more disclaimer: let’s get right to it. (Titles link to my initial reviews, if I did indeed review it.)
15. Trust – dir. by David Schwimmer
Yes, Ross from Friends made a film this year, and a great one at that. Trust chronicles a teenage girl’s first foray into love with a boy she meets online. When young, precocious Annie finally meets up with Charlie, she discovers what we’ve already suspected: that Charlie is a grown man, full of charm, void of shame. What you think happens, happens, sending Annie’s family (including father Clive Owen and mother Catherine Kenner, both as good as they’ve ever been), into a tailspin. Problem is, Annie (played by Liana Liberato, in arguably the year’s most overlooked performance), actually defends “Charlie” for what he’s done. She emits a humility that is utterly heartbreaking.
Trust is a very good, very hard-to-stomach film, rooted appropriately (or devastatingly) in cynicism. Available on DVD and Netflix Instant
14. Cave of Forgotten Dreams – dir. by Werner Herzog
Of all the great documentaries this year (and there were many), none raised my eyebrows quite like Herzog’s slow, transcendental Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The film follows Herzog and his small crew as they unveil the Chauvet Caves in France, which contain the oldest known picture creations by human beings. The film’s content is jaw dropping, and its 3D execution is astonishing. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, like the art the film discovers, deserves to be preserved in a time capsule. Available on DVD and Netflix Instant
13. Take Shelter – dir. By Jeff Nichols
Jeff Nichols’ follow up to his equally haunting Shotgun Stories tells the tale of a simple man, plagued with demonic thoughts. When Curtis (Michael Shannon, who is slowly being robbed of an Oscar nomination) dreams, he dreams of hell. The sky twists and turns in a thunderous rage, birds swoop in to attack, the family dog becomes a predator, and so on. As the film progresses, Curtis’ hallucinations begin to bleed over into his real life, worrying his wife (Jessica Chastain, in one of her many great performances for 2011), and young daughter. Is it real? Is it imagined? I’ll be damned to reveal. Available on DVD Feb. 14, how fitting
12. Last Night – dir. by Massy Tadjedin
In Last Night, not-so-happily married couple, Joanna and Michael (Keira Knightly and Sam Worthington, both remarkable) are split apart for a night, and subsequently tempted by fire. While out of town on business, Michael flirts with his coworker (played perfectly by Eva Mendes), while Joanna wines and dines with a former flame (Tell No One director Guillaume Canet).
Sure, the situation is implausible, but get past that and you have a steadily paced, beautifully acted adult drama about the good, the bad, and the ugly surrounding adultery. It is, in short, the best movie about relationships in turmoil I’ve seen since Closer. Available on DVD and Netflix Instant
11. We Need to Talk About Kevin – dir. by Lynne Ramsay
Not for the faint of heart, We Need to Talk About Kevin, is a unsettling drama about Eva (a career-best Tilda Swinton) attempting to come to terms with a horrific act her horrific teenage son has done. But that’s not even the half of it. Lynne Ramsay and Rory Kinnear’s screenplay (based on Lionel Shriver’s episodic novel) twists in and out-back and forth in time to uniquely reveal how Kevin has been Eva’s personal hell since his birth. The film, which is as high in imagery as Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (well, almost), is relentless in its display of a family gone awry. As Kevin, Ezra Miller (in a star making role) is as haunting a contemporary movie character as you’re likely to find. Abandon all faith, ye who enter here. Currently in limited release, it may expand once Swinton gets nominated for an Oscar on Jan. 24
10. The Trip – dir. by Michael Winterbottom
The funniest film I’ve seen in years is Michael Winterbottom’s quasi road movie, The Trip, about two blokes (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing versions of themselves, maybe) who embark on a food tasting tour around rural England. Isolated in the country with endless amounts of good food and expensive booze, Coogan and Brydon spend their holiday one-upping each other with spot-on impersonations, lengthy monologues, arrogance of wine, you name it. The film’s heavily improvised structure (no screenwriter is listed in the credits) is not for everyone. Me? I first saw it in July and haven’t stopped quoting it since. Available on DVD and Netflix Instant
9. Melancholia – dir. by Lars von Trier
Sure, Melancholia is best known as the movie von Trier was promoting at Cannes when he went off on his wildly taken-out-context Nazi spiel, but detractors beware: Melancholia is a beautifully audacious work of art from one of cinema’s most demented masters.
The film is split in two parts: the first chronicles the hilariously flawed wedding reception of manic-depressive Justine (Kristen Dunst, another actress robbed of serious awards consideration) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), while the second has four characters debating if Melancholia, a large planet hurling toward Earth, will indeed crash into our divine globe. What happens? Hell if I’ll say. But make no mistake that Melancholia deserves to be ranked among von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville, which is saying a whole hell of a lot. Currently available OnDemand, depending on your location; on DVD March 13
8. The Skin I Live In – dir. by Pedro Almodóvar
In the beginning, tortured Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, delivering the best performance of his career) mercifully observes his proudest test subject, Vera, as she lives imprisoned in his grand estate. Vera sleeps, eats, and writes in her giant bedroom as Robert monitors her every move via security cameras. Why is she there? Why is she under lock and key? Why does she not seem to mind? Then, in that perfect Almodóvarian way, the film retraces it steps, going back in time to reveal one of the most twisted love stories in recent film.
As Vera, Elena Anaya delivers a subtle tour de force. Like an immaculate chess player, she’s always thinking three steps ahead. Same goes for Almodóvar’s screenplay, which will fool even the most cautions viewer. I’ve seen nearly every Pedro Almodóvar film, and for my money, none rival The Skin I Live In as his best. Available on DVD March 6
7. The Double Hour – dir. by Giuseppe Capotondi
The Double Hour is 2011’s great enigma. Released in its native Italy in 2009 before hitting the foreign film festival circuit, the film received a barely-there domestic release before fading away into obscurity. This lack of love, more so than any film from last year, is astounding, given that The Double Hour is a perfectly constructed romantic thriller, rivaling any film in the genre I’ve seen in years.
Pointless to describe what the movie is about, as there are far too many twists and turns to logically convey in print, but as I stated in my initial review, The Double Hour is as suspenseful as Hitchcock, as patient as De Palma, as smooth as Nolan, and as narrative-focused as Tarantino. It has (finally) received a DVD release date, for which I am eternally grateful. As will you be. Available on DVD April 3
6. Another Happy Day – dir. by Sam Levinson
Finding virtually no life in theaters, Sam Levinson’s exceptional family drama depicts a weekend in the life of Lynn (Ellen Barkin), a woman trying to keep her head above water as her family attempts to drown her. No, that’s not right. They attempt to rid her of her hands and feet, put duct tape over her mouth, then throw her off a cliff into the ocean, mumbling, “Good luck,” on the way down. They’re that bad.
Despite the fact that Lynn is never at fault, everyone in her family despises her. She’s blamed for all of her family’s many problems, including her failed marriage, her daughter Alice’s suicidal tendencies, her teenage son Elliot’s drug addiction, and so on.
I should stop now, because I could go on ceaselessly about how precise this tumultuous family drama is. It presents its convoluted family structure with no warning or exposition. This is who they are. Lock in a buckle up.
As Elliot, Ezra Miller surpasses the same demonic mania he achieved in We Need to Talk About Kevin, and as Lynn’s Ellen Barkin surpasses not only everything she’s ever done, but anything any female actress did in 2011. She’s just that good. Currently available On Demand; on DVD Jan. 24
5. Hugo – dir. by Martin Scorsese
The only truly mainstream movie on this list belongs to Martin Scorsese’s impossible film. Impossible because it had everything going against it: PG-friendly content by a guy who was made famous directing anything but, often worthless 3D technology, a star you’ve never heard of, a horribly misguided trailer, and so on. But damn if Hugo didn’t make me a believer. Watching the film, and namely Ben Kingsley’s revelatory performance in it (also criminally overlook this awards season), did something that very little films do: it reminded me why I love movies.
The film was met with its share of haters (mostly fellow bloggers), and that’s fair enough. Through Hugo Cabret’s need to solve a self-imposed mystery, he quite literally discovers the birth of film. He reads about (and we see) ancient masterpieces by Georges Méliès, the Lumière brothers, Edwin S. Porter, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and more. Hugo’s reaction to this iconic work is the exact same reaction I had upon first seeing these films in my film courses in college. They’re so simple and old, yet wildly skilled and new. They, like Scorsese’s film, continue to take my breath away. Currently out of theaters, but will return after it receives its many Oscar nominations
4. The Tree of Life – dir. by Terrence Malick
The Tree of Life is worthy of all the hyperbolic hype that has been bestowed upon it. Simple as that. Malick’s otherworldly, operatic magnum opus conveys the birth of life, as told through the eyes of troubled O’Brien family. Well, kind of. You could summarize the movie a dozen different ways, all of which would be accurate. The film, like all of Malick’s work, is not justified by the written word, but rather by the poetry of lens. And poetry is it ever.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s fluid, game-changing camera work (which should win the next five Oscars for Best Cinematography) captures the essence of what (I believe) Malick was trying to capture, better than any of the auteur’s pervious films. A critical darling met with its fair share of naysayers, The Tree of Life is in no way for everyone. It contains laboriously extended sequences of special effects that draw comparison to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, The Tree of Life shares more than its look with Kubrick’s masterpiece, it shares its tone, its thought, its feel. The Tree of Life is a film that is unspeakably alive. Available on DVD
3. Drive – dir. by Nicolas Winding Refn
There’s no denying it: Drive was the coolest, most stylish flick of the year. Everything about it, from its impossibly catchy electronica score, to its colorful look, to its sudden, shocking violence, Drive is a movie in perfect understanding with what it is. Every shot, every acting cue, every cut is done with determined precision. The movie feels immaculately thought out, yet gloriously fresh.
Known as nothing more than Driver (or “the Kid” as Bryan Cranston prefers), Ryan Gosling is a quiet, patient force of nature. Give him a time and place, he’ll give you a five minute window. He doesn’t sit in while you run it down, he doesn’t carry a gun – he drives. And boy does he ever. The opening scene of this film, in which Driver drives two thieves away from pursuing cops not with speed but with perfect command of his vehicle and an encyclopedic knowledge of LA’s streets, is one of the best film openings I’ve ever seen. It perfectly sets the tone for what is to follow. One of the most enjoyably baddass films of this or any year. Available on DVD Jan. 31
2. Incendies – dir. by Denis Villeneuve
Nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar last year (how it didn’t win is beyond me) but released in the US this summer, Incendies is an excruciatingly realized, meticulously detailed, and gloriously cynical look into the crushing dynamics of the Marwan family.
The plot is (relatively) simple: after Nawal dies, she leaves two sealed envelopes for her twin children to deliver. One envelope, her will instructs, is for Jeanne to deliver to the twins’ father. Simon is to deliver the other envelope to their brother. Problem is, their father died before they were born, and they never knew they had a brother.
Once Jeanna embarks on her journey, the film seamlessly cuts back to Nawal’s life as a young woman fighting to stay alive in an unnamed (but hinted at) Middle East country. The country, stuck in a feverish religious war soldiered by remorseless men, is the cause of much strife to Nawal. So, basically, the film follows Nawal around as the mystery in the will is born, while also following Jeanne in the same country, attempting to unveil the same mystery. If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. No matter, under Villeneuve’s steady guidance, Incendies never loses its viewer once. It does, however, manage to shock and transcend the definitions and limitations that plague most movies.
When my good friend returned from Sundance in January of 2011, he sent me a list of films with brief descriptions on why I should see them once released in theaters. Under Incendies, he attempted to explain his reasoning, then gave up, opting for, “I don't want to tell you anything. Just go see it,” instead. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Available on DVD
1. Shame – dir. by Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen’s masterpiece (remember that word), chronicles a week or so in the life of Brandon, a wealthy, troubled sex addict whose every literal action in life is to feed his addition. The money he makes from his fancy job, the glances he gives on the subway, the amount of drinks he orders at a bar; every little thing is done to achieve his next fix. Initially, we’re given no indication that Brandon’s compulsion is of great detriment to his well being. He lives his life as he lives it, quietly and alone, frequently among the presence of strangers to fill his carnal desires. That is until his explosive sister, Sissy, arrives at his New York high rise and demands to stay indefinitely.
Similar to McQueen’s first feature, Hunger, Shame reels you in with its painstakingly specific execution of its flawlessly written material (by McQueen and Abi Morgan). The film, better than any of recent memory, is so certain of its every move and gesture, its every reveal and action, that it feels oddly comforting, even when the film exposes itself to its many unsettling circumstances.
For example: there is sequence late in the film that crosscuts the events of one night in shuffled order. The sequence puts Brandon in several places of dread and horror, internally or otherwise. It is, in effect, his binge. Propelled by Joe Walker’s faultless editing, Henry Escott’s haunting score, and Michael Fassbender’s this-is-the-shit-they-should-teach-in-acting-school performance, the segment ends with the scene the film has become most famous for (which also, incidentally, singlehandedly earns the film its NC-17 rating). In short, it is the most flawlessly executed consecutive 10 minutes of film I have seen in many years.
As Brandon, Michael Fassbender is a revelation to the profession. Rarely is pain and anguish conveyed as candidly as it is here. Likewise Carey Mulligan, who as Sissy surpasses the peaks she has already set for herself as an actress.
“Masterpiece,” is a term I use very rarely when discussing films. A movie may be masterful, and it may contain perfect elements, but seldom does an entire film deserve such specific recognition. True, in the past I’ve had a tendency to dish out the word undeservingly, but the last masterpiece I saw was Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, and Shame is the best film I’ve seen since. Films like Shame are the exact reason why I love movies. It spends 101 minutes justifying a passion I’ve lived with for 26 years. Masterpiece, as it were, seems too modest a word. Available only in theaters approved to show NC-17 films, which, sadly, is not many.