Rob: 2011 in Review

2011 has been sort of a strange year for me. There were a lot of films that I liked but not too many that I genuinely loved. I might have even liked more this year than I did last year. But nothing emerges quite as all-around stunning as The Social Network or as ingeniously trippy as Black Swan, and nothing affected me quite as profoundly as Blue Valentine or Another Year. So I’m recollecting a bit in disappointment. On the other hand, I still have a lot to see. After I’ve caught up with everything, then, I may have a different opinion of film in 2011. Before my tentative ten list, here are some titles I really enjoyed: The Ides of March, Moneyball, 50/50, The Help (which might be the strongest ensemble all year), Win Win, Bridesmaids, Mission Impossible-Ghost Protocol, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and even Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Rango is an absolute blast: a real movie lover’s movie (incorporating Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, and Sergio Leone films), dazzling, colorful, unapologetically wacky, and delightfully performed. Pearl Jam Twenty is a fabulous documentary showcasing some of my favorite music. And Melancholia, frustrating as it can be, creates an intensely memorable experience. But alas, none of them cracked my ten. I’m sure this list will change, because there are so many I have yet to see: Take Shelter, Shame, A Separation, The Artist, Hugo, The Descendants, The Adventures of Tintin, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Into the Abyss, Margaret, Weekend, Miss Bala, Alps, etc. I’m sure there are more. Feel free to offer up your ten lists.

#10

“Margin Call”

On one fateful night, populating steely offices and lensed in cool-blue hues, the men of Margin Call swiftly decide to protect their pockets, their reputations, and their livelihoods at the expense of propelling an economic crisis and disenfranchising untold numbers of individuals. J.C. Chandor’s directorial debut makes us feel the weight, the sweat, the speeding pulses, the ticking minds, the unshaven faces…the men, in other words, who sound like monsters even though we’ve never filled out those plush leather shoes. Anchored by a stellar ensemble (particularly Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, and Stanley Tucci) delivering muscular but not too showy dialogue, Margin Call attains a claustrophobic atmosphere without becoming too stagey. Sympathy might now be less elusive, but we’re nevertheless suffering the ramifications of this sort-of fictionalized series of events.

#9

“Rampart”

Like Drive, Rampart takes a story we think we’ve all seen before—a dirty cop wading through professional scandals and personal relationship troubles—and transforms it into some kind of conceptual art-work. Oren Moverman’s eagerly awaited follow-up to The Messenger contains multiple characters and sub-plots, but it’s not really about any of them. In fact, it’s not really about anything, save for the spiraling head-space of its inscrutable protagonist, Dave “Date Rape” Brown. This effect can exasperate the mind, but it can also invigorate the senses. Woody Harrelson is firing on all cylinders.

#8

“Certified Copy”

As thematically dense as a novel and as verbally sharp as a stage-play, Certified Copy is founded on a mystery it does not seek to solve, and it’s all the better for it. This warmly intelligent and poignantly melancholy two-hander weaves a tale of life, love, and art (which, naturally, extends to filmmaking itself) around a man and a woman walking and talking for one-hundred minutes. The screenplay gracefully sings through William Shimell and Juliette Binoche. It’s a universally humane triumph in three languages.

#7

“We Need to Talk About Kevin”

Like many films on this list, Kevin produces a distinct viewing experience, which is something I react to strongly. It increasingly shows itself to be less about a nightmarish parenthood scenario—and the violence that springs from it—and more about subjectivity itself, as recollection binds with perception and the past bleeds into the present (kind of like another title this year). Baked in ambiguity and spiced with the abstract, We Need to Talk About Kevin features searing imagery, exquisite editing, and a tonally ambitious commitment to specificity. It’s sure to generate some lively coffee-house conversations, but what’s most impressive is its ability to settle under the skin long after you think you’ve shaken it off. Tilda Swinton is masterfully controlled in a role that would keep the best of the best up all night in anxiety.

#6

“Tyrannosaur”

A revisit is not on my near-future to-do-list, but I can’t deny that Paddy Considine’s debut feature hit me harder than nearly any other film this year. Almost oppressively bleak, excessively earnest, and sadistically provocative, Tyrannosaur elevates from the ground because the degree of care, sympathy, and humanity found in its “almost” goes a long way. Olivia Colman is heartbreaking as a woman whose wish for a better life never quite surpasses anything more than a wish, and Peter Mullan is terrifying as a man who feels so much pain that he can’t help but inflict it on others. This bare-bones study of two especially un-special people illustrates that sometimes the most touching narratives stem not from those who make up the pages of history but from those who make up its footnotes.

#5

“Martha Marcy May Marlene”

This tersely written, hauntingly realized art-house horror-show drowns you in its foreboding atmosphere and chills you in its behavioral perception. Eschewing sensationalism and frenetic trick-turning, first-time director Sean Durkin creates an assuredly measured, indelibly slow-burn experience predicated on a non-chronological parallel narrative that serves a purpose of both character and story. To the dismay of certain audiences, the refreshingly unfussy Martha Marcy bathes in minimalism, but it is as all the more unsettling because it does so. Elizabeth Olsen—with a stone-cold face that implies indifference and a pair of eyes that betray a past filled with trauma—announces herself as a young actor with talent to spare.

#4

“I Saw the Devil”

Jee-woon Kim’s brutal Korean revenge thriller demonstrates that no matter how simple a film’s premise might be, the director’s execution can raise it to unimagined heights. With captivating cinematography, two pummeling central performances, and a clever sense of pace, I Saw the Devil twists and turns and doesn’t let up until the final frame. Your heart will be racing and your eyes will be fixated. The dark and the beautiful have rarely walked so hand-in-fitting-hand.

#3

“The Tree of Life”

Terrence Malick’s visually arresting and philosophically probing meditation on adolescence, loss, grief, and the universe itself tends to drift into “admire more than love” territory (for me), but this type of achievement—regardless of certain unsatisfactory aspects that come along with it—deserves respect from those who wish to see the language of cinema expanded in more sensory ways. What we have here are not so much “scenes” as fleeting moments in time, strung together to impressionistically create one family’s experience in the cosmos. Brad Pitt movingly navigates between open-heart and iron-fist, and Malick himself offers a brand of humanism that is sorely lacking in today’s cinematic landscape.

#2

“Drive”

The accomplishment of Nicolas Winding Refn cannot be underscored: he takes the plot points of a sub-standard crime film and turns them into a gorgeous (but still bloody), passionate tone poem. So instantly iconic is the imagery that Drive settles in your memory as a silent film. Enigmatic, off-center, and moodily rapturous, this doomed story of a getaway-man doesn’t reinvent any wheels, but it adds fresh gloss to those already in existence. Ryan Gosling diverts from his scruffy, naturalistic turn in Blue Valentine and emerges, somewhat shockingly, as an all-out movie star. “All style; no substance” might not be a wholly inaccurate criticism, but with a surface this dazzling, who can complain?

#1

“Young Adult”

Short but far from sweet, Young Adult initially holds Mavis Gary up as a figure of ridicule, only to then employ her as a mirror through which we can examine the darker corners of our lives. It stands as a cringe-worthy portrayal of self-delusion, all while maintaining its entertainment value and its sense of the crisply funny. Diablo Cody goes in a decidedly anti-Juno direction; Jason Reitman directs with confidence and economy; and Charlize Theron proves once again why she’s one of our greatest actors. No other film this year stirred such an emotional response without crossing the line to the completely unpleasant.

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