Friends! Colleagues! Compatriots! Denizens!
It's that time of year again. That glorious time of year when we all assert our opinions loudly, judge each other's callously, and form unified fronts around those films that truly touched us over the course of the last year with the blunt, stoic, aggressively-biased solidarity.
The Oscar nominations are mere days away from being announced and the Golden Globe ceremony is closer still. So I figured I'm way overdue (as usual) to chime in and wax pontific about a handful of films that I would have loved to see get Oscar attention if only I wasn't so confidant that most of them wouldn't.
Let's hear it for 2011- the year of the good movie (please notice the lowercase G in all of its subtextual glory). Not every year can be 2010... as a matter of fact only 1 year can be 2010. But 2011 need not compare itself to 2010. After all, 2011 saw the cinematic death of Voldermort, goddamnit. And no year can ever take that away from it.
Let's get into this.
10. PROJECT NIM
James Marsh approaches documentary filmmaking as if he’s crafting narrative thrillers. MAN ON WIRE played as a heist film just as well as it did reportage. His stirring follow-up, PROJECT NIM, is a factual account of a Columbia University-financed experiment to raise a chimpanzee in a domestic human environment on the upper west side of Manhattan in the mid 1970s. It’s a smooth and studied excavation that is true and faithful to its documentary structure. But it’s also a familial melodrama, a bizarre love story and a shattering tragedy about the failure of ethics to properly discipline scientific experimentation. 2011 was an uncommonly strong year for documentaries. But filmmakers like James Marsh, Werner Herzog and Steve James all approach the format in a similarly progressive manner- by paying reverence to it while refusing to be confined by it. This film would certainly make for a fascinating double feature with the other wildly successful “monkey movie” of 2011- RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. They both venture into eerily similar thematic territory.
9. MEEK’S CUTOFF
Stories about characters becoming lost in the desert will always, almost inevitably, draw comparison to purgatory metaphors. And while MEEK’S CUTOFF certainly treads none-to-subtly into existential territory (often very effectively), the heaviest characteristics of this unconventional “western” (really a “northwestern”) are actually some of its most straight-forward and literal assets. The strongest component in writer/director Kelly Reichert’s bold, hypnotic and unexpected gem is the dynamic between pioneer wife Michelle Williams (who lately seems incapable of being anything but captivating on screen) and Bruce Greenwood as the titular Meek (he of the eponymous “cutoff”, a shortcut that sends our wagon trainers spiraling off into the aforementioned purgatory) as the most hilariously inept trailblazer since Blaine Fabin. As a matter of fact he reminded me so much of the infamous mountain man of WAITING FOR GUFFMAN lore that I half expected him to expound “Can you smell it? Can you smell the salt in the air? I have brought you to California!” But, lest we find the implications of Meek’s incompetence anything besides shockingly dangerous, Reichert ratchets up the tension with subtle dexterity. By the time Williams finally pulls a shotgun on Greenwood’s Meek, Reichert’s hard earned statement about feminism and trust is laid bare and the effect is mesmerizing.
8. CERTIFIED COPY
I would be remiss if I didn't fess up to an absolute ignorance towards the existence of this film prior to its ubiquitous presence on the top 10 lists of most of my favorite critics for the year 2011. I would be further remiss if I didn't fess up to a relative unfamiliarity with the astoundingly prolific career of writer/director Abbas Kiarostami before laying my eyes on his most recent achievement. But my eyes are certainly open now. Because his heartbreaking melodrama CERTIFIED COPY, employs the bona-fide talents of virtuosos Juliet Binoche and William Shimell in a romantic passion play that takes its place among the all time great "1 on 1" meta-dramas (think BEFORE SUNSET but with more mileage on the odometer). As a couple who may or may not have a checkered history together (depending on how you interpret the sub-narrative) Binoche and Shimell shuffle around the charming Italian hamlet of Arezzo- flirting, bickering, philosophizing, disagreeing and, quite possibly, falling in love again for the umpteenth time. Decide for yourself exactly what the heart-crushingly beautiful end title crawl means for our erstwhile lovers.
7. TAKE SHELTER
In a year rife with apocalyptic visions and end-of-the-world scenarios (see MELANCHOLIA, CONTAGION, THE TREE OF LIFE, et. al.) no film captured that quiet, mounting, paranoid dread of being the only person who knows the storm is coming nearly as well as Jeff Nichols’ stark, simple, unsettling TAKE SHELTER. As far as paranoia is concerned, it certainly doesn’t help that Michael Shannon’s family man, Curtis- a practical blue collar stalwart making a perfectly respectable living in rural Ohio, might very well be slowly slipping into the same kind of schizophrenic quicksand that plagued his ailing mother. Nichols approaches the material with a straight-forward and matter-of-fact sensibility that never judges Curtis’ actions (he channels his mounting hysteria into building an elaborate storm shelter in his back yard) nor those of his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, the hardest working woman in Hollywood in one of the 5 performances she turned in over the last 12 months) whose strained attempts to sympathize with her husband test the boundaries of their marriage and her sanity. For such a modestly-budgeted film the whole thing somehow manages to feel large in scope and production value. And much of this is due to the impressive and unsettling special effects work. Perhaps not since A SERIOUS MAN has a shot of an approaching storm been so eerily effective.
What’s so miraculous about a film as wonderful as BRIDESMAIDS isn’t just that it’s hilarious, heartwarming and approachable while still staying true to its irreverent (and raunchy) roots. But rather that it refuses to be a film easily pigeonholed or homogenized by negative influence even while swimming confidently in the murky waters of a genre that threatens to drown it at every turn. Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo are 2 of the most exciting and inventive voices working in comedy today (regardless of gender). Teamed up with the great Paul Feig (whose incomparable television work had eclipsed his uninspired film contributions prior to this winner) and a murderer’s row of contemporary comediennes (particularly the underrated Rose Byrne who steals EVERY scene she sashays into) all currently working at the height of their respective powers- they form a Voltron-like juggernaut of ensmeble gold. Anyone who is currently in production of a Katherine Heigl, Sarah Jessica Parker or Kate Hudson vehicle best stop whatever they’re currently doing, take a deep breath, sit down, watch BRIDESMAIDS again and take diligent notes. This is how the big kids do it. BRIDESMAIDS made the “chick flick” model her bitch. And we rewarded it by making it the highest grossing original screenplay of the year. Good for them. Good for us.
5. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
Who would have thought that an actor who spent the bulk of his career chewing scenery and playing aggressively over the top would end up painting his masterpiece out of a character who only speaks when it’s absolutely necessary, rarely raises his voice above a hushed tone, and does the bulk of his emoting from behind a pair of chunky glasses (the purchase of which plays a crucial role in the first act development of his character)? He’s an odd casting choice for what might very well be the role of his career and he anchors a British acting ensemble as strong as anything we’ve seen in years. Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch are all standouts and each digs into his role with voracious, incorrigible aplomb. But ultimately it’s Oldman’s show and he proves to be the indispensable piece of a truly extraordinary cinematic puzzlebox- a mind-bending, unpretentious spy yarn that never prizes being tricky over simply being intelligent and, above all, a whole lot of fun. Director Tomas Alfredson and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema lay the period detail on thickly and shroud the [already shady] proceedings in layers of pipe smoke and London fog- all captured elegantly behind the texture of a nice dense high-speed 35mm Fuji film grain structure. Color me smitten.
If I had already been a fan of either MMA cage fighting or Gavin O’Conner’s previous film work I probably would have been interested in this film regardless of its quality. But as someone who had virtually no experience with either, I'm sure I would have let this film slip through my fingers if not for 2 things which I couldn’t ignore: The instantaneous positive critical consensus the film was met with upon its release and [more importantly] the casting of Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton in the lead roles. As the cage-fighting Conlon Brothers- who set off on a runaway train trajectory that could ONLY end with them eventually meeting in the octagon for a climactic battle worthy of the greatest Hollywood foregone conclusions of all time, Hardy and Edgerton infuse this seemingly clichéd story arc with an unexpected surplus of grit and credibility. But it’s ultimately Nick Nolte as the tragic, recovering alcoholic patriarch, Paddy Conlon who gives the film its emotional core, grounds it firmly on dramatic terra firma and helps secure WARRIOR’s place alongside the all-time great sports tear-jerkers like BRIAN’S SONG and FIELD OF DREAMS. If you’re going to tread into well-worn underdog sports movie territory you better be able to tow the line and back it up with chutzpah. WARRIOR can more than back up its intentions. It’s an emotional steamroller.
3. THE ARTIST
To call THE ARTIST an experiment or gimmicky is simply, I believe, to sell this unexpected gem of a film inappropriately short. It’s certainly pastiche and most definitely a self-aware meta-reflection on cinema generally and silent film specifically. But, more than anything, it’s a reinforcement of the idea that strong performances and a moving story are really all a savvy audience need to be moved to emotion. With all due respect to the considerable talents and contributions of the artisans of sound effects and dialogue editing, if every filmmaker was as gifted with his visuals as impresario Michel Hazinavicius or lucky enough to get to fill their frame with faces as timelessly beautiful as those belonging to Jean Dujardin or Berenice Bejo, then we could probably go ahead and start using our production sound equipment to line hamster cages. A wry smile from the effortlessly debonair Dujardin or a knowing wink from the luminous and adorable Bejo moved me to good, old fashioned, silver-screen-inspired goose bumps more than almost anything I experienced in a movie theatre all year long. And in a time when the medium seems to be stubbornly hell-bent on creating new toys to tell mediocre stories in lieu of utilizing experienced tools to tell great stories, it’s refreshing to see a film that looks backwards reverently instead of looking forward recklessly. Though they share many similar themes, consider THE ARTIST the “anti-HUGO”. As such, it’s infinitely more effective than that [well-intentioned] film could ever hope to be.
Dismissed by many as merely an exercise in style but embraced by many more as something of an instant pulp-classic, Nicholas Winding Refn’s (he of the intensely Danish name that sounds like a Native American Spirit-moniker when pronounced phonetically) bizarre, brooding, beautiful descent into neo-neo-noir Los Angeles plays like a Steve McQueen (the old one, not the new one) gear head thriller filtered through the “sensibilities” of a Michael Mann fever dream. Not complacent in merely being a car chase movie, an artsy meditation on the existential repercussions of violence or a dialogue-light love story set in a Macarthur Park high rise, DRIVE instead wants to be all things simultaneously. And the effect of this surreal marriage of subject matter and approach is a palpable bouillon reduction of sharp violence and elegant visual meditation all set to the moody rhythms of Cliff Martinez’s transcendent synth pop score- the soundtrack of 2011 that was so ubiquitous it even ended up in the ipods of people who claimed to hate the film. Ryan Gosling’s minimalist take on the Driver with no name and Albert Brook’s galvanizing turn as a reluctant underworld string-puller (and straight-razor enthusiast) Bernie Rose embody DRIVE’s unique thematic language implicitly and the 2 characters prove to be the most exciting adversaries of 2011- moving blood-splattered chess pieces across the landscape of Refn’s hyper-real Los Angeles fantasy. But don’t go looking for verisimilitude here. This is not cinema vérité. This is cinema à la mode.
1. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
About a third of the way through writer/director Sean Durkin’s disturbing little cult-curious romp MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (greatest alliterated title ever?), heroine Elizabeth Olsen (our titular M4) listens intently to a folksy acoustic guitar ditty that John Hawkes’ character, Patrick introduces as “Marcy’s Song”. Patrick, the gaunt, grizzled, perennially boot-clad but curiously charismatic head of the “family” lords over a commune of lost, lonely, confused kids all sharing floor space (when they’re not sharing Patrick’s bed) in a farmhouse somewhere in a secluded valley of the Catskill mountains. As Patrick serenades the skeptical Martha with his lovely but sinister love song, her expression appears to melt, ever so subtly from mild interest to curiosity to something like elation, even infatuation. And it’s this incredible shift in emotion- occurring over the course of mere seconds but never seeming rushed or forced, that Elizabeth Olsen’s character (in one of the many standout scenes of her sublime, star-making performance) takes her first step towards becoming completely lost to the seduction of this “alternative lifestyle”. Olsen and Hawkes are both PERFECTLY cast in their respective roles and while Martha (or is it Marcy May?) and Patrick’s relationship represents the dark, philosophical core of this relentlessly unsettling examination of the intangible danger of psychological violence, it’s really in her relationship with her sister Lucy (played by the never-better Sarah Paulson), who takes Martha in after she manages to escape from the farm, that the film truly finds its devastating emotional foundation. By juxtaposing Martha’s re-assimilation into bourgeois New England "normalcy" with flashbacks of the increasingly perverse activities she was exposed to back in the commune, Durkin crafts a fascinating sociological examination of the battle for a young woman’s soul. Martha (or is it Marlene?) becomes an emotional ping-pong ball being bounced back and forth between both of her families- biological and surrogate. And Durkin refuses to take sides as to which will be more responsible for the damaged woman she will eventually become when the dust clears. Perhaps, no matter how psychologically independent or emotionally autonomous we may think we are, none of us ever really leaves the “farm”. I found this to be the scariest and most vivid message of the scariest and most vivid film I’ve seen in a very long time.