by Jason Whyte
The Artist - The Best Film of 2011!
If anything, many movies released in 2011 had a recurring theme: nostaliga. I know many filmmakers didn't have this in mind, but it seemed that many movies were remembering a time that had past in one way or another. The way things used to be. Was it really all a better time, or are we refleting on what was good about our past and utilizing this to make better choices now? Whatever the reason, this was a simply awesome year for movies. Anyone who doesn't feel this way clearly didn't watch a lot of movies, stuck exclusively to major Hollywood releases, or is a grumpy pants.
2011 was also an important year for how we see movies. New theaters using larger, IMAX like screens or cinema bars-slash-restaurants popped up left and right. Audiences are dwindling and thus the capacity sizes of auditoriums. Many theaters have switched from 35mm projection to digital cinema projection, which might not mean much to some but for me is a complete change in how movies are watched on a big screen. Instead of the clatter of film projection, we are now watching ultra high resolution ones and zeroes on a programmed list. Many filmgoers are also now waiting for the home video release of a film, choosing to watch a high definitiuon Blu Ray or a download rather than shell out for a theatrical experience. While Blu Ray is great and I'm a staunch film collector, I have always felt that movies should be seen on a big screen, really loud, with a captive audience. There are also film festivals, which are a must for any movie lover.
It was a very busy year with a lot of releases. This critic viewed hundreds of screenings in chain cinemas, attended five film festivals and even watched a few of those pesky screener DVDs. I scoured the world, travelled to two countries and racked my brain to choose my favorite of this year. It's a lot of work to entertain you, the reader, of what I felt the best of 2011 had to offer. So enjoy it, that's an order! Enjoy the nostaliga...
The Best Films of 2011:
#1. The Artist
A silent film star. The breakthrough of talkies. The changing of one medium to another. A lead with the charm of Cary Grant and a gorgeous ingenue with stardom going in different directions of fame. A celebration of the making and enjoyment of film and all the pleasure and pain that goes with it, "The Artist" is, to me, the pinaccle of what movies should be. It's a celebration of film, but it is also much more than that. It is a movie with a lot under the surface and succeeds in being so entertaining at doing so. It is also a truly risky film; it's silent, not in widescreen (it retains the boxy, full frame, 1.37:1 aspect ratio of the 20's era silent films) and features some of the most gorgeous black and white cinematography you will ever see. A real challenge to today's audiences, but I have yet to meet a single person who has not enjoyed it. The film is fueled as well by not only director Michel Hazanavicus' fearless hand that refuses to compromise, but also unforgettable lead performances by Jean Dejuradin and Berenice Bejo and Ludovic Bource's flawless score, running near constantly throughout the 100 minute running time. "The Artist" could have come across as a silly gimmick or a fleeting memory of a movie, yet stands strong as a flawless, original work that is simulteanously familiar as an old pair of shoes. And as Jack, the adorable terrier that is a pivotal character, Uggie the dog is a revelation. Should this movie win any Oscars, please bring Uggie up on stage to help accept the statues. He has earned it.
#2. Take Shelter
A brutal and effecting portrait of a man balancing between his dreams and reality, Jeff Nichols' unforgettable film got under my skin, stayed there and haunted me like no other film did in 2011. It's tragic lead, Curtis (Michael Shannon), is a man who may or may not be envisioning a big storm coming in his neighborhood, and decides to build a tornado shelter despite the pleas of his wife (Jessica Chastain, in her best performance in a year of many) and community surrounding him. Balancing unforgettable images -- one dream sequence involving a house's furnature "jumping" is forever embedded in my memory -- powerhouse acting and a scene in a community centre that rocked me to my core, "Take Shelter" is an experience to remember for a long time. This was by far my favorite film at the 2011 Fantastic Fest (which takes place in Austin, Texas) and a fitting selection for that festival's offbeat and genre programming.
#3. Midnight In Paris
"What the heck is a nostaliga shop?", asks a pivotal past figure to Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a man from current time stuck in a limbo attached to the past, to nostaliga. Gil is a Hollywood screenwriter looking to change his life, and comes across a strange, sublime piece of magic that allows him to connect with those who inspired him so many years ago. How this magic happens is irrelevant in description. What is relevant, however, is that Woody Allen has created his best, most alive work in years; eager to please, funny and with some of the year's most quotable dialogue (including a line that uses the word "pedantic" which I have been waiting for a movie to use for a long time), it was such an entertaining experience that was also truly about something. It is also a fitting love letter to Paris; not since "Paris Je'Taime" have I wanted to visit the city and take in the whole experience.
#4. The Tree of Life
Quite possibly the most talked about movie this year in cinephile circles, "The Tree of Life" was Terrence Malick's first feature since "The New World" (also high on my "Best Of" list that year) and one that sparked many a conversation about its images, its story and overall meaning. For me, "Tree of Life" was an experience of memory, of small change amidst an ever changing planet. Malick doesn't make this easy for the viewer (no surprise coming from him) as his gorgeous visuals are matched with haunting music, quiet narration and introspective performances from his small yet memorable cast. The movie's lead, played by Brad Pitt, is a father who wanted to be something but life taking him in another direction...marriage, fatherhood, and raising three children in small town Texas. This speaks to virtually everyone whose life doesn't turn out the way they want it to. Is how he takes it out on his wife (Jessica Chastain) and kids intentional? Or was he just another product of Texas, circa 1950's? Throughout, we are treated to images of the planet far in the past all the way into the future, including Sean Penn playing an adult figure of one of Pitt's children, who reflects on his success and the lack of success of his father. At the end of this big story, Malick is probably asking us a simple question: aren't we just a speck in the grand scheme of things?
#5. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
In a year of serious fare and a silent movie rocking the top of my chart, one of the biggest studio movies is smack on this list, loud and proud. "Ghost Protocol" is not only the best film in the "Mission: Impossible" cannon but also one of the best action adventure movies in many a moon. Who knew that the action adventure movie, which I felt had really stalled in creativity in the past film generation, gets new life in this decade? Everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in to this mission: an involving nuclear takeover plot, a crazy bad guy, exotic locales, pyrotechnics and gadgets galore, high octane action scenes that defy explanation (and in one classic sequence involving the world's tallest building in Dubai, they defy heights) and a wonderful overall cast, led by Tom Cruise in a true return-to-form that solidifies his grasp on being one of the best entertainers in the industry. Helmed in a surprising turn by Brad Bird (known to many as the director of animated classics like "Ratatouille", "The Incredibles" and "The Iron Giant"), it's not only great fun but a grand action epic that left me exhausted as the end credits rolled, and in the best way possible.
A dark, atmospheric drama set in Los Angles that is full of life and vision, "Drive" almost feels like a throwback to the 80's neon-fused William Friedkin or Michael Mann epics with a soundtrack that makes me yearn for some Tangerine Dream. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn ("Bronson") and led by an outstanding lead performance from Ryan Gosling, he plays a stunt driver for the movies who moonlights as a getaway driver with rules more strict than Jason Statham in "The Transporter" movies. Sounds simple enough, but it gets a bit more complicated when he links up with some mobsters (led by Albert Brooks in a career high of a performance), finds love for a neighbor next door (Carey Mulligan) and tries to keep his head above water throughout. Not everything turns out the way you think in "Drive", and to me that's the most exciting aspect of the film.
#7. In The Family
Patrick Wang's beautiful, thought-provoking independent film snuck up on me out of nowhere; a ballsy yet powerful family drama of love, loss and redemption that had me in tears by the end of its epic running time. To describe the plot would spoil many of the joys of how everything plays out, as we learn so much about our lead Joey (Wang in a truly unique and memorable performance) as the movie progresses. His Joey is a gay Asian man who is trying to get a six year old back into his custody after his partner dies. Joey lives in a small town in middle America admist a strong family barrier and community resist, and the experience of seeing it all unfold was one of the most riveting experiences of the year. The running time of nearly three hours is absolutely essential; as cliche as it sounds, Mr. Wang echoes early Cassavetes and Ozu in his long takes, drawn out encounters and the final deposition sequence, which is the most powerful sequence I have seen in a movie all year. Shot for next to no money yet having a great polish and feel, "In The Family" is an auspicious debut by Mr. Wang, a fiercly talented filmmaker you are going to hear about one day. This movie is REAL. It plays real. It is a terrific cinematic experience that I hope more people get to see.
Note: "In The Family" was released pretty on a lone screen in New York in the fall and is also currently playing on the festival circuit (full disclosure: I saw this via a screener DVD before a screening of the film at the Whistler Film Festival). If this comes anywhere near you by any means, don't hesitate to seek it out.
#8. The Guard
What I just mentioned about "In The Family" being ballsy could also apply to this hilarious yet dark crime drama set in the most Northern part of Ireland, where cops have no problem drinking on the job and the language barrier is just the start of the shenanigans. There's a big drug ring going on up here, and on the job is an American FBI agent (Don Cheadle) who teams up with a crazy Irish policeman (Brendan Gleeson) who may be "totally dumb, or totally smart", according to Cheadle's character. I think it's a bit of both. Directed by John Michael McDonagh and made by most of the same team that made the excellent "In Bruges" from a few years ago, "The Guard" is a laugh out loud comedy of manners.
The year's smartest script is matched in a big budget, studio driven picture that we so rarely see anymore. It looks at baseball through the very courageous manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) of the Oakland A's, who uses game statistics of the past to work out the perfect team. Working against a lot of opposition, from his fellow mangement team and even the players themselves, it is a really stunning look behind the scenes of baseball. Yet Aaron Sorkin's brilliant script is accessible to virtually anyone. Further than that, "Moneyball" asks us to think, to do a little bit of work and Sorkin, along with Bennett Miller's excellent direction, refuses to take the easy way out. Yet it's such a great movie with a lot of money and talent -- some of the biggest in the industry, in fact -- behind it that it really feels like old fashioned entertainment. This is a movie that if David O'Selznick got to see, I swear he'd walk out of the cinema beaming, "My my. That is one good picture!"
#10. Attack The Block & Troll Hunter (TIE)
Winner of an audience award at this year's South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, "Attack The Block" was a surprise and a delight and an odd tribute to the low-budget horror thrillers of the 80's. Director Joe Cornish has a wacky idea of teens in a poor section of London battling aliens that comes out aces, bruv. What makes this stand out is the lead character Moses (John Boyega) who is part of a gang who leads the attack to save his block. Filled with a lot of tongue and cheek humour as well as some truly great set pieces, it was one of the true discoveries of 2011. Believe. Tied with this movie is the wowser of an import from Norway. "Troll Hunter" in a way reminds us of the charms of the faux documentaries "The Blair Witch Project" and "Cloverfield"...except in this case it's a group of college students following around a Norwegian hunter of trolls. Yes, trolls. And the lengths they go to find them in the mountains is nothing short of brilliant and original. Both these films represent genre filmmaking at its best.
Note: Both films are readily available on Blu Ray. This would make a great double bill in your home or, better yet, if you have a rep theater in your area try to get these shown on the big screen. It's worth the effort.
Special Jury Awards
Just skirmishing below the Top 10, all of the below films were excellent in their own right. Instead of trying to cram them all, how about a little tribute here?
The number eleven position. Every year, I have a movie I just wish I could slide into the Top 10 and "Tyrannosaur" is no exception, as this film knocked me on my sides at the Vancouver International Film Festival screening back in October. Paddy Considine's great first feature follows a brute, aging man (Peter Mullan, quite possibly my favorite actor in movies today) trying as he might to change his ways as the story begins. He befriends a woman who is tormented by his abusive husband and builds a unique relationship with her, trying to help despite his own troubled past. We think the movie is going in a certain direction, and part of our instincts want the movie to take that route, but Considine is wise with holding back both his characters and his reveals. The result is a powerful look at a man who may be through with his past, but it isn't quite done with him just yet.
#12. Winnie The Pooh and Puss In Boots (TIE)
The two best animated films this year were a bit of a surprise. "Winnie The Pooh" is one of the best movies made for children, and is wonderful for any age. It translates A.A. Milne's simple words to the screen, sometimes even literally (with characters like Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore getting messed up in the book's letters) and comes across as what current culture would consider original, even though we used to see animated films like this all the time. Another movie that proves that Pixar isn't the only animation giant in town, Walt Disney Animation Studios has created yet another classic that will last generations.
"Puss In Boots" is also, bar none, the best film in the "Shrek" series and now I know why; I just simply didn't like the Shrek character. At all. That adorable kitty named Puss (voiced by Antonio Banderas) gets his own movie, and it's just a perfect fit. On his own, his character is allowed to breathe, have an actual background story that makes sense, and let those sad cat eyes beam (which was one of my biggest laughs of any movie this year, by the way). It has a wonderful story, great animation, fun cat characters, and, most importantly a complete lack of pop culture reference and movie jokes. My thanks to Dreamworks Animation for making their best film yet.
Other great films in 2011 included The Descendants, Alexander Payne's harsh yet moving family drama starring George Clooney, Martin Scorsese's Hugo which is a fitting tribute to the first filmmaking generation, the stunning Iranian import A Separation which was one of the most talked about festival titles of the year, The Muppets which brought back so many nostaliga tears to my eyes that I lost count, Martha Marcy May Marlene from Sean Durkin featuring one of the year's best performances by Elisabeth Olsen, Bridesmaides which is the funniest movie of the year featuring great direction by Paul Feig and a great lead performance by Kirsten Wiig, Source Code which was a fun time-bending thriller from Duncan Jones, and Jason Reitman's courageous Young Adult featuring another stellar performance from Charlize Theron.
Best Documentaries of 2011
There were so many great documentaries this year that they just had to have their own section in 2011. There was no way I could fit these onto my Top 10, try as I might.
#1. Thunder Soul
Finally recieving a theatrical release last Septmber after witnessing the world premiere all the way back at South By Southwest in 2010, Mark Landsman's outstanding documentary is about music, teaching and honoring that passion as time goes on. Conrad "Prof" Johnson was a pivotal teacher in an inner city high school in Houston in the 1970's, helping a large group of students create funk soul music. Cut to today, and many of his older students decide to put on a tribute concert for Prof. This documentary has absolutely everything that makes me love the movies: a stunning presentation featuring interviews with key players in Prof's life, vintage footage and a thumpin' soundtrack, complete with a final tribute performance that had tears in the eyes of every audience member. Winner of many audience awards at SxSW, Hot Docs and Los Angeles Film Festival, "Thunder Soul" is worth seeking out.
#2. The Interrupters
Steve James' best documentary since his legendary "Hoop Dreams" many years ago, his latest work focuses on a group called the Cease Fire organization in Chicago; mostly older Chicago ex-convicts that focus on preventing gang activity. James' camera crew is relentless, going right onto the street where these gangs reside, as well as painfully revealing the hardships of Cease Fire as they try to help stop further murders and crime. (Note: I saw a much longer version at SxSW than the version that was eventually released to cinemas.)
From Errol Moris, creator of some of my favorite documentaries ("The Fog of War" and "Gates of Heaven" among many) now brings us quite possibly his most bizarre subject in his entire career, that of Joyce McKinney who has been somewhat of a tabloid superstar over the past few decades. To say more would ruin the fun of the documentary, which plants McKinney right in the center of a widescreen frame as we hear her many, ahem, "stories" about her past which made all the gossip rags. It's equal parts funny and disturbing, and that makes it all more the wonderful.
#4. Andrew Bird: Fever Year
By far the best documentary of this year's Vancouver International Film Festival, Xan Aranda's gorgeous take on Chicago based, folk musician Andrew Bird by way of recording, concert performances and intimate interviews as he goes on a very long and rigorous tour, is a unique piece of work with some great tunes to boot. It's also a flat out gorgeous theatrical experience; shot digitally yet having a romantic film look to it, it was such a joy to watch on a big screen with a great sound mix. I was already a fan of Bird's long before the doc, yet everyone I ran into after the Vancouver screenings declared themselves fans after and swore to buy some of his music. The power of documentaries right there.
You may have never heard of bare-knuckle fighter James Quinn McDonagh, but after seeing him in eye-opening brawls using nothing but their bare fists, you'll never forget him. Ian Palmer's somewhat horrifying look into travelling fighters in Ireland. Many families have this long-standing tradition of fights, and McDonagh is no slouch. Yet he's also a pretty nice guy and has a level of intellect to him. Palmer and his crew shot footage over the course of a decade, and this gets right up and close with McDonagh and many around him. It's a rare, fascinating look into a world that very few know about. This is also the kind of doc you want to see if you liked Brad Pitt's famous Irish gypsy in Guy Ritchie's "Snatch". Like that film, if you watch the Blu Ray of "Knuckle" I highly recommend turning the subtitles on. You're welcome.
Worst 10 Films of 2011:
Now moving quickly from great to absolutely abysmal. While I felt 2011 was a great year for movies overall, of course there are films that I took a chance on and either wanted to walk out of, break something or have a few stiff drinks over. These ten are no exception.
#1. Bucky Larson: Born To Be A Star
Selecting this film as the worst of 2011 almost seems like a cliche. I could say that of course a lousy Adam Sandler proudction would top the list as the worst that cinema had to offer this year. I could say that the film is criminally unfunny. I could even say that it wastes all of the talent in front and behind the camera. Sure, it is all of those things. No, what sets this movie apart? It isn't a real movie. "Bucky Larson" is a collection of edited together scenes resembling nothing coherent or making any sense whatsoever. There's a throughline of sorts, with idiot Bucky Larson (Nick Swardson, no stranger to harassing this website) striving to be a porn star like his parents, and then seemingly random sequences, characters and situations come in and out of the movie for no apparent reason. One of particular note is Kevin Nealon, who was so funny as the Saturday Night Live anchor years ago, just stumbling about here without anyone stopping him. The filmmakers clearly knew that their (tiny) audience wouldn't have a care in the world, so they just released this unfinished garbage on the public. Well, filmmakers, I saw your movie and it's a piece of shit.
#2. The Hangover II
Hey kids! Remember when you saw The Hangover in 2009? Wasn't it hilarious? Didn't you laugh at all the shenanigans when they couldn't find their buddy Doug in Las Vegas after a forgotten night of drunken tomfoolery? Well guess what, you get to see the exact same movie all over again, but this time it's set in Asia, so it might take about five minutes after you leave the cinema to discover the filmmakers just ripped you off. I did like the first "The Hangover" movie, just barely; I felt there were strong enough laughs and funny sequences to keep one entertained, but even then everyone kept coming up to me informing me that it was the funniest movie ever made. Warner, a studio that is usually more on their feet than this, must have quickly rushed this onto their slate without a care in the world how it turns out; they knew the runaway smash numbers of the first would be repeated again, so it didn't matter what happens in its running time. This sequel doesn't understand the simple concept of trying new ideas; instead it just plods along the exact same path but doesn't offer any laughs or excitement along the way. Oh, and it's also racist, homophobic and hates women. Just thought I'd slide that in there.
#3. Larry Crowne
This movie exists in a parallel universe. An aging man (Tom Hanks) working in a Wal-Mart clone is inexplicably fired and decides to take adult classes to get a new job. Already in bad screenwriting territory, his character comes across some kind of bigger crack in the space-time continumn: scooter clubs parading around LA, an every-weekend thrift mart sale that the neighborhood doesn't seem to care about, where you can get a job as a line cook simply by being a regular in said establishment, and a snooty husband to Julia Roberts (!) who is apparently considered to be cheating because he downloads PG-rated pornography. Doesn't really sound like a winning idea, does it? It's not surprising to me to learn that Nia Vardalos wrote the script, which has a hint of hating men and writing them all to look like buffoons. What IS surprising is that the movie was directed by the film's star, Tom Hanks, and backed by his entire production company. How this movie ever got from script to screen in this manner is beyond me. This whole idea smacks of a drunken 3am conversation in LA where the film was agreed upon by drunken agents and producers. "Larry Crowne" is so bad that when I heard of a story where a cinema in the US accidentally scratched their 35mm print, the manager beamed "Good! It looks better that way!"
#4. Apollo 18
Imagine if "Cloverfield" had the camera man constantly tilting the camera down to the ground, whipping it up again and shaking it constantly,ad nauseum, for 90 minutes. In space. With a soundtrack that sounds like a vaccum that refuses to shut off. That's this lame excuse for a movie, a supposed suggestion of aliens on the moon and a cover up by denying this expedition ever took place. It's a nauseating suggestion, made all the worse by an unlikable, ugly presentation that makes you long for the credits to roll.
#5. Dream House
I normally hate the expression "If you've seen the trailer, you've seen the movie", but in the case of "Dream House" it absolutely fits. Jump onto Youtube when you get a second and give the entire movie a watch for free in two minutes. I, however, endured the entire presentation of this feature and was bored out of my mind. What seems like an interesting idea -- a potentially haunted house, a father (Daniel Craig) who may not be all he's made out to be, creepy girls who keep trying to be this generation's Grady twins -- unravels at legendary speed and crashes on impact. More than that, I can tell director Jim Sheridan (who IS a talented and award winning filmmaker; give "In The Name of the Father" a look) had the keys taken away from him by the studio at some point and this mess of a motion picture came and went from screens in just a couple of weeks. Good riddance.
#6. Something Borrowed
Morally wrong, bankrupt on romance and free of anything resembling drama or comedy, this piffle of a movie has bitchy girlfriends, cheating husbands and a lot of drinking, yelling and over-written conversations. Now THAT'S entertainment! The first problem is the casting of Ginnifer Goodwin, the "other woman" to a replusive married couple played by Colin Eggersfield and Kate Hudson, of all people. Goodwin is more appealing, lovely and interesting to look at than the replusive Hudson, the woman who is being cheated on. Director Luke Greenfield (who made the pretty great "The Girl Next Door" back in 2004) has no clue how to make us react to these horrible people, and we leave the theater two agonizing hours later wanting something, anything that makes us care. The movie's poster looks all lovely and lively, suggesting a romantic comedy with an edge. If only.
#7. 30 Minutes Or Less
If you wanted to know what watching a comedy in a cinema completely free of anyone laughing during its entire running time, "30 Minutes or Less" would be the hot ticket. Jesse Eisenberg plays a pizza delivery man who has a bomb strapped to his chest and has to rob a bank before it goes off. The concept for this movie was actually based off a real incident that happened back in 2003, which makes this movie even disturbing on reflection. That the movie also has a career killing performance by Danny McBride (who also appeared in "Your Highness", another pretty lousy piece of work) and an appearance by Mr. Bucky Larson himself, Nick Swardson, makes the experience even more unbearable.
#8. The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence
Back in 2009, I did a rare thing by walking out of "The Human Centipede" at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. I have still never seen the end of the movie. It wasn't because I was replused...okay, I was, but I was also bored out of my mind and felt I could achieve a better zen drinking at the bar. Yet I returned at the 2011 edition of Fantastic Fest and sat through this entire sequel which opened the festival and yes, it's garbage. What a surprise. Tom Six, our director and writer extraordinare, is obviously pushing boundaries and going for something that is truly out there...but that doesn't mean that we have to like it. It's ugly, endless and meandering junk that I know a few genre fans lapped up, but it seems to me that they only felt like they HAD to like it, instead of seeing it for what it really is. But I digress. If Mr. Six ever reads this, it would probably make him chuckle and think "Well at least he thought "Apollo 18" was worse."
#9. Cars 2
A Pixar film is one of the worst of the year? I never saw it coming either. While I was of the not so lone opinion that "Cars" was a somewhat weak entry in the Pixar cannon, this sequel is a flat out waste of time and surprisingly, the least visually appealing of them all too. All those creepy eyed cars from the first film return in an around the world race/chase movie that seems to never end with visuals so busy they look like the work of latter day George Lucas. The biggest red flag is the addition of the character Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, seemingly doing his best imitation of Jim Varney), a character that comes on front stage and grinds on our nerves for what feels like an eternity.
#10. Snow Flower & The Secret Fan
Wayne Wang is a filmmaker who has had many great movies on his resume ("The Joy Luck Club", "Smoke") and some not so good ("Because of Winn Dixie"). His latest surprised me as it is probably his worst one yet, featuring parallel stories between 19th century Chinese girls and modern day women in Shanghai, and both sets of girls are bound by the Chinese tradition "Laotong" or "sames"...and none of this is made interesting by any of the performances or the filmmakers. It's a lazy piece of filmmaking that pretty much no one saw in theatrical release and will be quickly forgotten.
Here's to a great 2012, hopefully filled with more nostaliga and less Bucky Larson. Feel free to comment about this article in the forums, to the email below or follow my daily movie updates on Twitter!
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3350
originally posted: 01/04/12 05:57:05