In full disclosure, I have not yet seen several titles that have have generated the loudest awards buzz from 2011 (A Separation, War Horse, and (gasp!) The Artist among them). But listed here are the ten titles out of the hundreds that I did see that left the most indelible impressions upon me throughout the year.
1. The Tree of Life – From its depiction of the origins of life and the minutia of childhood experience to the possibility of some form of an afterlife (or at least a final reckoning of one’s life), ‘The Tree of Life’ is the ‘2001’ of our generation in that it contemplates the largest unanswerable questions about our existence. Writer/director Terrence Malick sets out to portray the elusive, mysterious totality of it all. In presenting a vast sea of random stimuli in the form of clean, sumptuously poetic imagery, Malick forgoes a firm narrative structure, and encourages the viewer to make their own connections in their attempts to find meaning. This elusive stream-of-consciousness approach places us right there with Sean Penn’s character as he himself makes a similar attempt to find the meaning of his own life via random and confused bursts of memory.
The movie is best experienced as you would a memory. Moments from our lives play larger and more sensuously upon reflection, and the film’s vivid, yet fleeting visual landscapes create this impression in breathtaking fashion, coupled with a symphony of sounds which recall the feeling of childhood memory with more visceral power than I’ve ever before witnessed in a film.
At least upon first viewing, it’s a movie you embrace with your senses rather than your intellect, and intuit more than you interpret. I know I will be grappling with ‘The Tree of Life’ for many years to come, and that makes the film a very rare and welcomed gift.
2. We Need to Talk about Kevin – When was the last time you saw a thoughtful horror film? And make no mistake, ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ is a horror film in the truest sense.
The paralyzing fear of parenthood defines every frame of this lurid, yet curiously remote masterpiece. It’s about a mother who feels disconnected from her own flesh and blood, as her son inexplicably morphs into a sociopath before her eyes. Their central relationship remains indefinable to them, and to us.
Tilda Swinton provides her character with a collage of interesting and often conflicting colors. Her performance is marked by concern, bafflement, exasperation, and a suffocating sense of paranoia, but all the while maintains an impenetrable feeling of detachment that’s reflected in her child’s escalating psychological imbalance.
The profusion of red that colors nearly every scene reflects both the blood of carnage, and the unbreakable blood lines between mother and child. You can feel the spirit of Polanski (or perhaps De Palma without the delirium) in every frame. The striking stylistic flourishes and unusual narrative structure compliment this provocative subject to result in one the year’s most terrifying and intoxicating concoctions.
You can read my original review of the film at https://jameyduvall.wordpress.com/2011/12/28/we-need-to-talk-about-kevin-2011/
3. The Descendants – Writer/director Alexander Payne continues his unbroken streak of terrific films with his first work since the awards-darling ‘Sideways’ seven years ago. George Clooney plays Matt King, a befuddled father of two girls who must learn to care for them in the aftermath of a tragic boating accident which has left his wife comatose. All the while, he acts as the trustee for a sizable piece of Hawaiian real estate which he inherited from a long line of previous generations in his family. His journey is all about what he’s inherited throughout his life – his generous piece of paradisaical land, his children, his failed marriage – and the realization that he’s never truly owned any of it. Alexander Payne unblinkingly depicts the detours of rage, absurdity, jealousy, and galvanizing loss that await Matt along the road to taking ownership of his own life and the lives of those around him. Like many of Payne’s films, ‘The Descendants’ is a beautifully personal, intimate and often funny portrait of a man adrift.
4. Moneyball – Here’s an intelligent underdog sports film you’ve never seen before about baseball and mathematics. Sounds engrossing, huh? Part of the magic of ‘Moneyball’ is that you don’t have to be a baseball fan (or a fan of math for that matter) to enjoy every delectable moment of this breezy, charming, and very human gem.
Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s who risks his career and reputation on a revolutionary game plan for winning – recruitment based upon computer-generated stats instead of the league’s usual reliance on high-priced superstar talents. It’s really about a man who wants to make his mark and leave a worthy and lasting legacy on America’s favorite pastime, and that’s a dynamic that movingly extends to his role as father to a young teenaged daughter as well.
With a confident swagger, an easy, fully lived-in disposition, and charisma to burn, Pitt gives the movie-star performance of the year. As the stats cruncher taken under Pitt’s wing, Jonah Hill may seem out of his element away from the adolescent comedies for which he is generally known, but that only works in favor of this true fish-out-of-water character. And Philip Seymour Hoffman gives an unsung supporting performance as the bewildered and wearied baseball coach, expressing everything with the most muted of mannerisms.
The picture has a comfortable, conversational style reminiscent of the great ensemble films from the 70’s, and the screenplay by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin really sings.
5. Mildred Pierce – Like ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’, here’s another film consumed by a terse and ambiguous mother/offspring relationship, only this time fleshed out in the form of a melodrama.
Todd Haynes unites with actress Kate Winslet for this 5 ½ hour HBO miniseries remake of the 1945 Michael Curtiz/Joan Crawford collaboration, and the result is rich in period detail, distinct in its depiction of class, and a showcase for very good actors to craft naturalistic performances in a heightened cinematic form. Hayne’s version preserves the breadth of the James M. Cain novel on which both films are based, and while the tone and color palette of the film are much more subdued than Hayne’s Douglas Sirk-inspired ‘Far From Heaven’, the dramatics are no less urgent.
In the title role (and present in every scene), Kate Winslet truly grounds the film and invests her difficult character with a fierce determination and spirit that never wavers even as her world shatters around her; although many of the characters that inhabit her life attempt to make her feel worthless at every turn, her Mildred never crumbles into insufferability or martyrdom. Evan Rachel Wood plays her combative and fiercely disrespectful daughter Veda as a primal force who seems to strive for great success as an act of spite against her mother’s inability to shed what she views as the stench of the lower-middle class. Wood commits some truly petulant and devious deeds throughout the film, but she never allows us to lose sight of the frail and damaged psyche that inspires them. Rounding out the central cast is a supremely enjoyable Guy Pearce, who portrays Mildred’s suitor as a dashing and deceptive cad whose every word drips with blunt insincerity.
6. Midnight in Paris- Delicate and charming, this sweetly nostalgic jewel from Woody Allen continues his recent streak for discovering cinematic poetry on an international canvas. This time around, he’s given himself a zinger of a main theme: how our dependency on nostalgia keeps us from finding the golden age of our own life and times. It’s a message that isn’t pounded into the viewer, but materializes effortlessly out of a clever, amusing and heartfelt framework. Owen Wilson proves the most congenial and easy-mannered of all Woody Allen stand-ins, and Darius Khondji’s softly golden visuals are glorious. You can read my original review of the film at https://jameyduvall.wordpress.com/2011/12/22/midnight-in-paris-2011/
7. Hugo – This is what movie magic is all about. In fact, that’s the subject of this fantastical journey into the imaginative power of cinema and its ability to give flight to dreams. Director Martin Scorsese has explored the transformative power of the cinema in previous films through explorations in genre (New York, New York, Cape Fear, The Aviator, etc), but never before in such an immersive, all-inclusive and consuming manner. In realizing his “children’s” film, he’s tapped into the innovating spirit of the art form that forever shaped his own life as a youth. The 3D format is essential in articulating these themes, as its use evokes a similar sense of the magician-like wonderment provided by the earliest film pioneers the film celebrates. You can read my original review of this film at https://jameyduvall.wordpress.com/2011/12/22/hugo-2011/.
8. Beginners – A captivating and tender dual love story between a father and son, and the exciting woman who enters the young man’s life. You feel affectionate goodwill towards every frame of this film as Ewan McGregor’s character discovers something new and uncharted within the journeys of his father and girlfriend, and experiences his own journey of self- discovery in the process. The relationship between father and son (as portrayed by an ebullient Christopher Plummer and touchingly sensitive McGregor) is most refreshing for its complete lack of adversarial dramatics or neurosis. You can read my original review of this film at https://jameyduvall.wordpress.com/2011/12/22/beginners-2011/
9. George Harrison: Living in the Material World – Martin Scorsese’s documentary is an extraordinary portrait of an artist and a human being, and how both evolve and find harmony together.
The greatest documentaries of artists give you a visceral sense of where their art originates, and this one does it with marvelous grace and clarity. And there are few filmmakers better suited to exploring a spiritual journey expressed in musical form than Scorsese.
The history of The Beatles has been done to death, but Scorsese keeps their journey fresh by structuring their meteoric rise and eventual dissolution around a disjointed time structure and illuminating musical movements. But it’s the post-Beatles section of this 3 1/2 hour opus that truly soars, as Harrison goes searching for a higher muse, and finds the notes by which he defines the latter part of his life and work.
The film is a transcendent wonder, and you feel more human after watching it.
10. Drive – Is it possible for a dramatic film to be shallow yet wholly satisfying? Your answer may reveal your tolerance of ‘Drive’, which quickly became one of the most divisive films of 2011. Imagine the stylistic love child of Adrian Lyne, Michael Mann and David Lynch, and you get something that resembles this hypnotic and violent modern noir. It’s populated by types in place of people – the man without a name, the reluctant gangster, the crippled sidekick, the fragile, angelic love interest – but the film finds substance in its style. The Los Angeles of ‘Drive’ is equal parts seedy and shiny, brought to life in a pop art collage of silvery greys, deep blacks, hot pinks, tangerine oranges, and sickly greens. If you’re able to tune into its frequency – the soothing tranquility jarred by jolts of vicious brutality – you’ll find yourself lulled, but always alert. For my money, it’s the year’s most daring and transfixing mood piece.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol – The can-do heroics of Tom Cruise elevate this latest chapter of the popular franchise, as do the clever stagings from first-time live-action filmmaker Brad Bird (The Incredibles). The picture is ridiculous fun, and contains the year’s most jaw-dropping and audacious action sequences, particularly a vertigo-inducing segment atop the world’s tallest building. You can read my original review of this film at https://jameyduvall.wordpress.com/2011/12/22/mission-impossible-ghost-protocol-2011/
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil – Finally, a horror/comedy that gets it right. Inventive, gruesome and genuinely funny, this overlooked indie redefines the well-worn backwoods redneck/college teen subgenre with great panache.
Bobby Fischer Against the World – The razor-thin divide between genius and madness distinguishes this enthralling portrait of the famed, eccentric chess champion.
Warrior – A somber, deeply felt family drama set on the outskirts of a mixed martial arts tournament. Strong performances abound, particularly from a bravely unsentimental Tom Hardy, and a tortured, heartbreaking Nick Nolte as his demon-riddled alcoholic father.
We Bought a Zoo – You can read my original review of this film at https://jameyduvall.wordpress.com/2011/12/22/we-bought-a-zoo-2011/.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – You can read my original review of this film at https://jameyduvall.wordpress.com/2011/12/22/the-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo-2011/.
The Skin I Live In – Delirious, bold and obsessively twisted story of a plastic surgeon and his perfect creation. Pure Pedro Almodovar goodness through and through.