Some have argued that 2011 was a terrible year for films. Perhaps they should clarify that it was the Hollywood system with its upside down economics that massively under-delivered, leaving room for little films, documentaries and comedies to shine through. I was able to see most of these films at festivals or stream them on Netflix or Amazon not long after they had quickly come and gone in theaters. Which invites the question, when will theaters follow the book and record store path, and become unnecessary? I’d like to think that films are always better on a big screen that forces you to put away your phones, tablets and remote controls and tune off the internet and tune into the movies themselves. That said, it seems incredible that even now certain films find themselves without an easy way of being seen. There still exists a kind of limbo where films leave a theatrical run and exist, but are inaccessible on pay-per-view, streaming, iTunes or even DVD. Perhaps this is the real problem. Why shouldn’t people be able to choose what they want and where and when they want it if they are willing to pay. Perhaps a year from now there will be a solution; until then it is somewhat reassuring that films’ loss has been usurped by an increasingly more sophisticated television marketplace where the best talent has come to work.
1) Tree of Life – Dir. Terrance Malick (Brad Pitt, Sean Penn)
This is not a movie for the masses, but it is one for the ages. Beautiful, sweeping, serene, explosive, pretentious, chaotic, non-linear, heart-wrenching, uplifting, metaphoric, and nostalgic- all of these words help describe the most challenging and provocative film of the year. “Tree of Life” is a masterpiece that is equal parts “2001”, “Koyaanisqatsi” and “Stand By Me,” mixing images, emotions and glimpses of a time gone by.
To enjoy this film it is helpful to prepare yourself for it emotionally. Far from your typical Pitt-Penn Hollywood fare, auteur Terrance Malick, who has only made 5 films in four decades, has created a visual, sensual film that relies on mood and images far more than on dialogue or plot. Ultimately it is the story of a family in Waco, Texas who experiences a tragedy that is described only vaguely, but expressed metaphorically as merely a part of the cycle of life, the randomness of nature, and the unpredictability of the human experience.
The cinematography is brilliant, with lush bucolic domestic small town USA serenity and other-worldly natural and scientific images that convey the interconnectedness of life. Brad Pitt’s strict, dominating father is as compelling as anything he has ever done, but exposes the tension between a parent’s desire to impose morality and the constraints of being human. In the end this film is the ultimate exploration of what it is to live a life in a world filled with natural and omnipotent forces well beyond our comprehension.
2) Drive – Dir. Nicolas Winding (Ryan Gosling, Albert Brooks)
Over the past decade Ryan Gosling has emerged as the undisputed king of cool, a real life chameleon of an actor who most likely picks the best movies and the broadest range of characters. In “Drive” he blends the icy cool of Steve McQueen with the understated sparseness of Brando. This is a film, however, with everything: violence, stylized cinematography, incredible chase scenes and a rich cast of colorful supporters.
At its core “Drive” is an action film, but it is also a drama. Gosling’s mechanic/stunt man has wheels that never stop turning, and a plot that never slows down. There was not another film this year that moved so quickly, but lingered just long enough to capture every detail.
3) The Trip – Dir. Michael Winterbottom (Steve Cooghan, Rob Brydon)
Like a bromance for Ivy leaguers, “The Trip” is a relentless romp through the English countryside where two friends trade impersonations, eat wonderful meals, and reassess the current state of their respective lives. The always wonderful Steve Cooghan plays a version of himself, a still single playboy on hiatus from his much younger American girlfriend. Buddy Rob Brydon fills in for her on this magazine-sponsored foodie tour.
For Byrdon, with two kids and a loving wife at home, the trip is a much needed break, and although he has no real complaints, there is the nagging envy of his single friend and his life of freedom. Of course the fundamental irony is that Cooghan longs for the boring familial existence of his friend. Shot across the beautiful English countryside, and filled with a relentlessly clever script, “The Trip” is a trip through the adolescent preoccupations that fill the male mind.
4) Martha Marcy May Marlene – Dir. T. Sean Durkin (Elizabeth Olson, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy)
There was not a more beautifully creepy film in 2011 than this one. There was also no more surprising and seductive a performance than that of Elizabeth Olson, the younger sister of her more famous twin sisters. The story begins as a disoriented Marcy (Olson) flees a rural farm, and stumbles into town where she frantically calls her older sister from a pay phone.
Alternating between an initially peaceful seeming commune in Upstate New York, to an opulent and tranquil lake house in rural Connecticut, the film is a puzzle that leaves you unsettled and mesmerized at the same time. But the core beauty of the film is in its infinite ambiguity. Something tragic happed to the siblings while growing up, but it is never clear. What happened to their parents? What else happened on the commune? How did she get there? This film is a dreamy mediation on how life just tosses us around leaving us no choice but to keep moving.
5) Win Win – Dir. Thomas McCarthy (Paul Giamatti, Bobby Cannavale)
No matter how many times I see Paul Giamatti play the same sad-sack depressive, I still can’t help but like him even more. Like Nicholson or DeNiro, he has a very specific presence that draws you in immediately. For most actors such a distinct persona relegates them to recurring character acting bits. But Giamatti is a star, the anti- Tom Cruise in every way. The film is directed by the criminally underrated auteur Tom McCarthy whose “Station Agent” and “The Visitor” are among the finest independent films of the decade, and whose delicate touch and understanding of human nature exude a kind of beautiful realism throughout “Win Win.”
In the film, he plays a floundering small town lawyer who moonlights as a wrestling coach for a hapless bunch of losers. Then in walks a small miracle in the form of a damaged teenage boy who has shown up in town to stay with his grandfather, whose estate Giamatti is “managing.” Despite appearances, this film is very much a comedy but does so with a subtlety that creates a different kind of texture. It is a film about the infinite gray areas that defines modern life and how right and wrong they are and rarely so simple. Many lives are saved in this film, but mostly it is about the title that reminds us to do the right thing.
6) Cedar Rapids – Dir. Miguel Arteta (Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche)
It is hard to imagine a better John C. Reilly performance than what he did in “Cyrus” last year, but in “Cedar Rapids” he officially one-ups himself by playing an even more amped-up caricature of his everyman personna. Here he plays an oafish insurance agent letting it all hang out at a conference held at a cheesy Cedars Rapids business hotel. Tthe film really belongs to Ed Helm’s beautifully naïve and somewhat tragic hero. His character has literally never been out of his small town, and to him Cedar Rapids represents not only the big city, but the moment when the picket fences give way to the real world.
Although there is a serious thread that lurks just below the hysterical surface of “Cedar Rapids,” there is as much humanity in this film as in any of the more serious films that were released this year. In between endless comedic innuendo, ace director and true master of the indie dramedy, Miguel Arteta, explores loneliness, escapism and the massive walls people create to keep others from knowing who they really are. You will just as easily laugh as cry as pump your fist rooting for the underdog to wake up and grab life by the horns.
7) Margin Call – Dir. J.C. Chandor (Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey)
You’d be hard pressed to find a better cast and a more topical film than the shockingly under-seen Wall Street fiction “Margin Call.” Set over a twenty-four hour period, it chronicles the discovery of and reaction to the impending Armageddon of the sub-prime mortgage meltdown at one venerable Wall Street firm (insert whichever: Goldman, Lehman, Morgan …).
But unlike the glitz of “Wall Street,” this film is shot in dark saturated tones, and despite its blue chip cast, it is performed with thoughtful restraint. What “Margin Call” manages to capture is the pervasive schizophrenia that drives Wall Street. On the one hand greed, while not good, is more the evil that drives the capitalist system than it is an inherent quality of the people who work there. In the end you realize that modern capitalism has become an untamable monster that has evolved uncontrollably over hundreds of years. To unwind the problem seems impossible, but something has to change.
8) Midnight in Paris – Dir. Woody Allen (Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams)
Prolific, profane, provocative, and occasionally prophetic, Woody Allen seems nowhere close to having said everything that he has to say. In his finest film since “Deconstructing Harry,” Allen cast Owen Wilson as himself, to explore the timeless question of whether or not every past generation lived in an era more romantic than the ones that followed. Nostalgia here is a drug that is both blinding and euphoric, yet necessary and unavoidable.
Set in and elegantly filmed in Paris, Wilson plays a writer engaged to a woman he doesn’t really love, in a city that he loves for what he imagines it to be. Most Allen films rely on a gimmick, but in “Midnight in Paris” it is a time warp that allows you to look back to a time with both a longing and logic that suggests the importance of living in the now. Wilson has never been better and more authentic than he is here, McAdams plays her prissy idealist perfectly, and Allen is at peace as both a realist and a cynic for the ages.
9) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Dir. Tomas Alfredson (Gary Oldman, Colin Firth)
Most Le Carre novels and films rely on keeping very close track of the details and paranoia of the complicated spy business of the Cold War. Although I’ll admit to being lost for large chunks of the film, the gray-toned cinematography and ambiguous calm and texture of this film is mesmerizing. Gary Oldman’s M16 agent George Smiley is the perfect manifestation of clever bureaucratic competence that drives the workings of multi-national geo-politics.
The plot, if you can follow it, is oddly straightforward. There is a Russian mole in the British secret service. With a broad cast of potential infiltrators, Smiley is tasked with flushing out the rat. The film captures the colors and nuance of the era effortlessly, creating a familiar yet disorienting feeling that makes the film compelling despite its complexity. If there is a film that deserved to be seen more than once this year, it was this one. Sometimes history plays like fiction and modern society seems much more complicated than yesterday’s.
10) The Arbor – Dir. Clio Bernard (Andrea Dunbar)
You have never seen a documentary as creative and unusual as “The Arbor.” Based on and incorporating the stage play of the same name, written by a 15 year old girl from the projects outside of Manchester, the film takes archival footage of the young Andrea Dunbar and mashes it up with reenactments of the play itself and lip-synced performances by actors of real interviews with the late Dunbar’s family and friends. The play feels like Bukowski or R. Crumb as told by a young girl.
As hard as it is to imagine, the film flows fluidly, creating a lovely distance from the heartbreaking reality of the actual story. Dunbar’s working class roots, and self-destructive short life, create a gritty tragic backdrop against which to explore the lives of the children she left behind. History and self abuse repeat themselves here, but even on the dingy streets and neglected buildings of Manchester there is hope, redemption and forgiveness.
11) Certified Copy – Dir. Abbas Kiarostami (Juliette Binoche, William Shimell)
I have never seen a film that toys with reality as subtly as “Certified Copy.” There is no CGI, no convoluted plot twists, only an afternoon spent between two people who talk and walk and talk and ultimately leave us wondering what is real and what is imagined.
Like the art house cousin of “Before Sunrise,” a French expat in Tuscany (the ageless Juliette Binoche) meets a scholarly writer that she may or may not know. They spend a day together playing out either a shared history or an invented series of moments. It is hard not to feel comfortably disoriented and gracefully seduced into this mystery of emotion and intrigue.
12) Pina – Dir. Wim Wenders / Cave of Forgotten Dreams – Dir. Werner Herzog
It’s odd that the two best 3D films of the year were both documentaries directed by 60+ German auteurs. Until seeing “Pina,” I might have felt comfortable admitting that I have no particular interest in dance, modern or classic. Perhaps this is because I have never experienced a form of dance that genuinely resonated with my artistic orientations. But Pina Baucsch, the German modern dance innovator, created a theatrical, emotive sensual style unlike anything I have ever seen. In the same way that the Velvet Underground defined both a sound and a haunting interpretation the human condition, Bausch creates an atmosphere of beautiful, fluid, jarring expression. If her choreography alone didn’t create a unique texture, director Wim Wenders embraced 3D technology to add further dimensionality to translate the nuance and emotion of modern dance. This is not just a documentary about dance, but about filmmaking itself .
Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” tells the story of the 30,000 year old impeccably preserved and recently discovered Chauvet Cave. Inside the cave are cave drawings of bears, lions and mammoths as detailed and artistic as anything created today. Everything in the cave has been frozen in time, and the 3D filming creates an almost tactile visual experience that makes you feel right there in this time capsule.
Both films serve as proof that 3D filmmaking, appropriately used, can enhance the theatrical experience well beyond what it does for animation and action films. The future is most certainly now, but the past is even better today.
13) The Descendants – Dir. Alexander Payne (George Clooney, Beau Bridges)
Every year there is a smallish film that reaches the masses, and manages to serve as token proof that the broad public can appreciate something more precious and soulful than CGI and potty jokes. “The Descendants” is exactly that film, with help from George Clooney who manages to toe the art house line as well as anybody, consistently exposes the audience to themes and stories more challenging than mere Friday night fare.
This is the story of a somewhat broken nuclear family dealing with the impending death of the mother, and an extended family dealing with the potential loss of a century-old inherited Hawaiian paradise. Both perspectives tell the same story, which is about being present in the present, and taking the time necessary to appreciate the past. The cast is uniformly excellent, the dialogue crisp and believable, and in the end things don’t turn out as you’d expect. Here people can and do change, which gives hope to us all.
14) Moneyball – Dir. Bennett Miller (Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill)
You don’t have to like baseball to like this film, but if you love baseball you will love this film. There is not a hair out place in the adaptation of the Michael Lewis’ groundbreaking book about finding gold in the numbers that only spreadsheet jockeys were paying attention to. Brad Pitt becomes the handsome nonconformist Billy Beane effortlessly, creating his own rules and building a dynasty out of misfit toys.
“Moneyball” is a film that mirrors the understated determination of the characters themselves. In an era when well-funded teams and even better funded films tend to steam-role the competition, the story is a real metaphor about taking risks and being loyal to yourself and those people who let you swing for the bleachers.
Also must be seen …
15) The Artist – Dir. Michel Hazanavisious (Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo) Its funny how clever it seems to make a black and white silent film in the age of 3D. It really is clever though.
16) Shame – Dir. Steve McQueen (Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan) Watching addictions, like rubber necking car accidents, is addictive. Watching addictive sex addicts is even more addictive.
17) Take Shelter – Dir. Jeff Nichols (Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain) A man begins to confuse his dreams for reality and builds a storm shelter to protect his family from some imagined impending doom.
18) Beginners – Dir. Mike Mills (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer) When your dad comes out of the closet at 75, your dog can talk, and you fall for a beautiful French movie star, you know every day is the first day of the rest of your life.
19) Like Crazy – Dir. Drake Doremus (Felicity Jones, Anton Yelchin) If you can’t remember how powerful first love and loss felt, this film expresses it better than anything you have ever seen.
20) Bridesmaids – Dir. Paul Feig (Kristin Wiig, Rose Byrne) Finally a potty mouthed flick starring chicks that even dudes will like.
21) Meek ‘s Cutoff – Dir. Kelly Reichardt (Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood) A sparse, beautiful trip across the Oregon Trail depicts the pioneer spirit as a journey filled with endless moral and geographical uncertainty.
22) I Melt With You – Dir. Mark Pellington (Rob Lowe, Jeremy Piven, Thomas Jane) Perhaps the bleakest, darkest, and most drug addled film ever made with big stars, but also the Sundance film that stuck with me thr longest.