Let’s be honest: the past year saw a lot of versatile takes on interesting subjects in film form. There was plenty of talent on display in a number of movies that were good enough to justify spending the ever-rising price of tickets. But that’s all that the year in film was: good enough, rife with some very good movies, if no outright masterpiece was in sight. Below, in ascending order, are the most effective and affecting works I saw (sorry to movies like Take Shelter that I never made it to!) in 2011. And in looking at the least, see which themes kept repeating themselves in these works:
Weekend: Boy meets boy. Boy takes boy home. Then the boys realize they might really have something together. On paper, it doesn’t sound like the most novel of plots, but the beauty of Brit, Andrew Haigh’s honest film is how well it all works, and how real it all feels on celluloid. Kudos to stars Tom Cullen and Chris New for so believably portraying the excitement that goes on when you meet someone new – and all the uncertainty that lies therein as well.
Beginners: Director-writer Mike Mills’ romantic dramedy was a refreshing antidote to the by-the-numbers formula pap being pumped into theaters because it gave us real characters to care about. Whether it was Ewan McGregor finding love (starting with a wonderful meet-cute) with Mélanie Laurent or widower Christopher Plummer coming out and facing a terminal diagnosis, Beginners gave us people unafraid to look love and death in the eye. Now that’s a great visual effect.
Moneyball: I’m a baseball fan and am pretty good with numbers, and even I didn’t think I was gonna like Bennett Miller’s adaptation of the Michael Lewis book chronicling the Oakland A’s ascent to be just a middling team. And then I saw this passionate film, a tale about economics so economically told that it never had a chance to bore. And while Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane was solid, it was Jonah Hill as AGM Peter brand and Chris Pratt as first baseman Scott Hatteberg that really hit it out of the park. Talk about a fall classic.
Of Gods and Men: Xavier Beauvois’ gorgeous French film covers the seemingly obscure story of Algerian monastery Tibhirine, a peaceful enclave suddenly thrust into the devastation of civil war. It’s an examination of faith versus free will, as well as a look at what brotherhood truly means. And just like the most powerful of horror films, it’s a palpable examination of the power of fear. Except the horror this time came from some place all too real.
The Trip: British comics Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan play versions of themselves on a road trip. Ostensibly reviewing restaurants along northern England, Michael Winterbottom’s mockumentary (which originally aired on the BBC), is not only a look at competition among two adult males; it’s also an examination of what it means to devote oneself to a career in the arts. Bonus: the duo’s performance of ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All.”
Melancholia: Even the best of Lars von Trier’s work – Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville– feel like what I call movies for medicinal purposes. “Watch this,” we’re told, “it’s good for you.” But this opus, featuring stellar work from Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg as sisters forced to question the world they know as another one threatens to crash into it, burns with psychological insight. If Ingmar Bergman had come of age in the modern era, this might have been the result.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol: With a different major director behind each installment, the M:Iseries is as much of a chameleon as the IMF agents it features. This time, Pixar stalwart Brad Bird took the reins, and not since Casino Royale has there been an action reboot been so merited, with solid acting (Tom Cruise the movie star, we miss you), visually arresting stunts and a plot that’s neither too complicated nor condescending. The medium was made for great action films, from The Thief of Baghdad to Star Wars to The Fugitive, and M:I – GP ranks among the best of the bunch.
The Descendants: Seven years after the masterpiece that was Sideways, director Alexander Payne returned with another incisive look into the neutered adult male psyche. George Clooney offers the most lived-in performance of his career as Matt King, a privileged Hawaii native on the precipice of two big cliffs: selling the family estate and saying goodbye to his unfaithful comatose wife. Did I mention this movie was a comedy? As ever, Payne employs all resources – his actors, camera angles, long takes, editing, ambient sound, local music – to let us into the humor, embarrassment and pathos that exist in the world of the Kings. And also as ever, he reminds us just how often these roads must overlap.
A Separation: I mentioned Bergman before, and now I’ll do so again. Iranian Asghar Farhadi’s look at the dissolution of a marriage of course invited comparison to Scenes from a Marriage. Except this film, with political, legal, social and familial commentary, ultimately talks about much more than the intimate voids Farhadi examines so perceptively. There isn’t a single wasted frame or line of dialogue in this incredible work, which challenges its viewer in all the right ways. It acts locally, but forces us to think globally.
The Artist: Not necessarily a more perfect movie than any other ones on the list, but definitely the most blatantly joyful. Which is not to cay the central story in The Artist is a carefree one. French performer Jean Dujardin is the find of the year as a matinee idol who loses not just his fame but his pride and his livelihood as the silent film era ends and the Depression begins. Multi-talented filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius’s tale of redemption pays homage not just to the most innocent days of filmdom in The Artist but to such other classics as A Star is Born, All About Eve and Umberto D. And yet this movie is not just for cinephiles; it’s for anyone who’s ever loved, lost or found the power to soldier on. His film is called The Artist, but I call Hazanavicius the magician.
Runners-up: Attack the Block, Cedar Rapids, Certified Copy, A Dangerous Method, Hugo, Margin Call, The Mysteries of Lisbon, Take Shelter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Win Win
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