2011 saw way more bad movies than good, but were the good ones good enough to be considered great?…
Some film critics have called 2011 the Year Of Lowered Standards. Apparently, the sheer volume of crap last year was so overwhelming that it made mediocre films look like masterpieces. They’re saying that even the year’s best will, in time, be exposed as lesser works. I won’t speak of other critics’ taste in movies, but I believe my take of the Best Of 2011 can stand up against those of any other year.
Well, at least the Top 5 can. I must admit there is a slight disparity in quality between those films and the latter half of my list. Which isn’t to diminish any of my choices, as they all deserve to be honoured. However, I have a feeling things would’ve been a little different if I’d seen the following films: “Take Shelter”, “The Tree Of Life”, “Shame”, “The Artist”, “My Week With Marilyn”, “The Descendants”, “Hugo”, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, “A Dangerous Method”, “I Saw The Devil” and “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”.
If anything, I prefer to look at 2011 as the Year of Surprises. A fair number of films turned out to be quite different from what was expected of them. Also, many master filmmakers stepped out of their comfort zones to do something new. Steven Spielberg did a full CGI-animated feature; Martin Scorsese shot his first family picture, in 3D no less; Woody Allen flirted with sci-fi; Pedro Almodovar delved into what can easily be described as horror; and the madman of Japanese Cinema Takeshi Miike finally made a “normal” film (normal by his standards, that is). There may not have been very many great films last year, but I’ll take quality over quantity any time.
Oh, and this year we have a tie for the No1 spot. Simply because I got tired of always putting the previous year’s best in the current year’s list at the expense of another entry (no thanks to our local distributors’ wait-&-see mentality). So, I’ve made a wee bit more space this round. Here they are, ladies and gentlemen, the 11 most powerful, well-crafted, and downright watchable films of 2011…
This pulled off the feat of being the scariest ghost story of the year by going back to basics: using atmosphere, lighting and simple make-up. Its climax is a little overblown, but it never forgets its roots as a good old-fashioned horror movie, the kind Hollywood used to excel in.
Everyone’s always talking about “reinventing” the martial arts genre. Director Peter Chan actually succeeded. He injects just enough contemporary style to make “Wu Xia” feel fresh without betraying its traditional roots. And making the story a detective procedural is a clever way to deconstruct the fight skills on display. Purists may scoff, but they’re missing the point. Which is to have a kickass time at the movies.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL
It took a director who’s only ever worked in animation to show how action in live-action should be done. No one was expecting this to be half as good as it turned out. Tom Cruise now has a mini career revival on his hands, thanks to his shrewd choice of putting Brad Bird and (producer) JJ Abrams in charge.
Christopher Nolan had it easy. Batman is by nature dark and gritty, and therefore more predisposed to being taken seriously. “Thor” on the other hand was always going to be a tough sell. Not only is the character inherently campy, he belongs to the world of magic and myth. Making a Viking God in tights believable and relatable for modern audiences is a tall order. Marvel’s decision to hire Kenneth Branagh as director was the smartest move they ever made. His Shakesperean background comes through in the conflict between fathers and sons and brothers. It gives “Thor” a weight seldom seen in summer popcorn fare. It’s simply the best superhero movie of the year and an affecting family drama to boot.
Ever since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, everyone has been raving about this crime drama from Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn. It doesn’t fully live up to the massive hype (honestly, what movie ever does?), but it is a pretty good film nonetheless. I’d peg the power of “Drive” down to its hypnotic, almost meditative quality. And its mind-blowing soundtrack — hands down the year’s best, Oscar ineligibility be damned. In some ways it is the most immersive film on this list; so evocative are the visuals and music. Ryan Gosling’s performance isn’t the most accessible, at least not right away. Over the course of the story, his stony exterior gradually cracks, revealing his Driver as a violent man seething with barely containable rage. Underneath the film’s surface, it’s unlikely we’ll find much to chew on. But on the surface… oh my, how it shimmers. This is a triumph of mood and tone over narrative. For 95 minutes you’ll be under its spell, and at the end it’ll leave you feeling like you just woke up from a fever dream.
It’s no secret Judd Apatow understands what makes guys laugh. He’s responsible for a lot of successful male-oriented buddy comedies. What’s surprising is that he managed to transplant that type of humour into the chick flick, and make it work for women, too. The secret is the “buddy” part. At heart, Apatow movies are all about friendships, and that’s what resonated with audiences, both male and female. Even as a producer, his creative imprint is all over this. Of course, director Paul Feig, as well as star and co-writer Kristen Wiig also have a lot to do with why “Bridesmaids” is the best comedy of the year. Not to mention a hilarious, scene-stealing performance by Melissa McCarthy.
So if “Bridesmaids” is the best comedy of the year, then why is “50/50” ranked higher? Because it had a much, much harder task earning those laughs. Doing a comedy about cancer is just asking for it, really. Yet the filmmakers never go for cheap sentimentality or easy jokes. What they do go for is honesty, which makes the tears and the laughter feel justified. There is also a subtlety of characterisation not present in the No.8 film. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anna Kendrick are excellent as usual, but it’s Seth Rogen who makes the biggest impression with a performance that more than holds its own against his accomplished cast-mates (which, really, surprised the heck out of me). In dealing so good-naturedly with death, this has turned out to be a real life-affirming cinematic experience.
6. SOURCE CODE
Back in 2009, Duncan Jones’ debut film “Moon” landed on many critics’ Best Of lists (including mine). The son of David Bowie is now two for two, as far as I’m concerned. His follow-up effort is in fact more superior in many respects. Jones has shown noticeable advancement as a craftsman and storyteller. This sci-fi mystery thriller featuring time travel is way more complex narratively, and even in the hands of experienced directors, it could easily be messed up. Jones directs like an old pro, building and sustaining the tension so effectively that I wouldn’t hesitate to compare him with Alfred Hitchcock. He even makes a solid leading man out of Jake Gyllenhaal. “Source Code” is on this list also because it has one of the most beautiful endings I’ve seen in a while.
If I were to evaluate “Warrior” based on its premise, it wouldn’t score too highly since it reads like a cliché-fest. Two estranged brothers from an abusive household make a living as fighters. One’s doing it because he needs the money, the other because he needs an outlet for his self-loathing. Naturally, they end up facing each other in the ring. Yet, that’s merely a jumping off point for what makes the film so great. Let’s start with the acting. Holy shit, Tom Hardy is an absolute force of nature in this. Beyond his hulking physicality, the Brit actor really got into the headspace of a deeply-scarred man for the role. His Tommy Conlon is damaged goods, oozing hurt out of his pores in every scene. He is both terrifying and irresistible to watch. In stark contrast, Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte are all slow burn and false fronts, essaying the different ways men deal with emotional pain. And that’s really what the film is about. Some men let their pain consume them, turning them into hateful beings unable or unwilling to move on. Others just roll with the punches and become stronger for it. Even the fight scenes, as rousing as they are, are invested with meaning for each character. We want each brother to prevail for totally different reasons, and by the final showdown, the outcome will leave you exhilarated and exhausted. It did for me.
4. 13 ASSASSINS
Anyone who’s ever watched a Takeshi Miike film will be shocked at just how UN-Takeshi Miike this film is. For one, it’s not depraved and doesn’t contain a single scene that’ll make you go WTF. “13 Assassins” is lucid, measured, and dare I say, cultured. It’s his best work to date. Based loosely on historical events, the story tells of an elder samurai who decides that an evil new Shogun must be eliminated for the good of the nation. So he assembles a ragtag group of swordsmen for what is stoically accepted as a suicide mission. The first hour has some excellent character development, with Miike taking his time to flesh out the stakes should these men fail. Then the last 40 minutes or so is a glorious burst of sustained violence, featuring some of the best action in recent years. The director demonstrates a natural eye for staging clear, fluid and very thrilling fight scenes. It’s spectacularly bloodthirsty, but that’s to be expected of Miike. Although this is actually a 2010 production, I’d happily put this on my Top 10 list every year if I could.
3. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
Going back to my earlier point about 2011 being the year of surprises, no film but “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” best embodies this. If anyone told you a year ago that they knew just how awesome this movie would turn out, they’d either be lying, or in possession of a time machine. It’s not without its flaws: the human characters aren’t particularly strong, and the writing is patchy in places. All that is rendered insignificant, however, by the sheer magnetism of Andy Serkis’ ape king Caesar, brought to life via WETA Digital’s near-flawless execution. This is next-generation stuff, and I for one am thankful to be living in the era where it all began. On top of that is director Rupert Wyatt’s tight, focused storytelling, with an emphasis on making us care for the apes. All hail popcorn entertainment at its finest!
2. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
If ever there were a cinematic equivalent of a page-turner, this would be it. Based on the book by Lionel Shriver, “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is a searing look at how nurture sometimes just cannot overcome nature. The story is about a mother struggling with the growing realisation that there is something very wrong with her son. And there’s nothing she can do about it. Director Lynne Ramsay paints a stunning portrait of evil, and she shows us how terrifying it can be when there is simply no explanation or reason for evil to manifest. Make no mistake, this is a horror film. One that deals with real-life fears, especially for parents. In Kevin (played by Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller), we now have a cinematic monster on par with Hannibal Lecter. But this film belongs to Tilda Swinton. I can’t think of a female performance this year that even comes close to matching hers. I don’t know how she manages to convey so many complex emotions all at once, with just a look, but she does. Swinton is an amazing actress. I also love what Ramsay has done here. She uses lights, colour and sound to create a sense of dislocation and unease. Mundane, everyday things are subverted (literally, Buddy Holly’s “Every Day”) into a sinister context. It’s not an easy film to watch, but while you’re watching it, “Kevin” is one hell of an experience.
1. THE KING’S SPEECH
My favorite film at the dawn of 2011 still holds up a year later. And that’s why it’s right here at the top. Many Best Picture winners either do not age well or just aren’t that good (“Chicago”, anyone?). I recently re-watched “The King’s Speech” and found myself as impressed as I was before. For one, the film is frickin’ funny, thanks to a cracking screenplay by David Seidler and Geoffrey Rush’s brilliant comic timing. Then there is Colin Firth, who does a wonderful job of portraying a proud man riddled with insecurity. His Oscar win is well deserved. What I like most about “The King’s Speech” is that it celebrates the power of dialogue. Just two people in a room having a conversation can be as riveting and entertaining as any car chase or fight scene. Wielded correctly, the spoken word can change lives or even transform entire nations, as the film ultimately demonstrates.
1. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
It’s a shame this film has to share the limelight. Because it deserves to be singled out as THE absolute best I have seen in 2011. No other film has filled me with such delight and so thoroughly reinvigorated my love for Cinema. Which is saying a lot, since I’ve never been a big fan of Woody Allen. His work’s always been a little too neurotic for my tastes. Perhaps moving out of his usual New York setting has improved his outlook on life. Allen’s fascination with Europe continues with this very whimsical, breezy look at relationships (an Allen mainstay).
With a twist. A writer (Owen Wilson) on holiday in the City of Lights discovers that at the stroke of midnight, the clock turns back hundreds of years into the past, where he meets a whole host of historical figures from the literary and arts scene. Yes, time travel. In a Woody Allen movie. That’s really just an excuse for the director to unleash his gift for observing human frailty in a comical way. Through characters like Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, we learn about life, love and taking chances. On a deeper level, this is Allen’s homáge to the creative spirit.
This is by no means a perfect film. The celebrities are barely more than caricatures and the plot is quite predictable. But chances are you’ll be too swept up in the giddy, funny, romantic vision Allen has conjured up for those flaws to matter. This is also one gorgeous film, with rich, painterly colours and light giving Paris a surreal quality. The French Tourism Board should be ecstatic. Ultimately, I can think of no better praise than to say this movie reminded me why I love movies so much.
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