Saturday, February 25, 2012

Best Movies of 2011

Most people tend to do their movies list at the end of the year. I prefer to do them before the Oscars, that way I'm able to catch all the movies that open in limited release during the year, but don't become available nationwide until January. It does come late, but when I look back at my lists from past years, they feel well informed and not rushed. Moving on, 2011 had plenty of delights for cinema lovers, just like every year.

1. Hugo

Granted, I rarely see live-action movies in 3-D, but it's no secret that the general consensus is that a lot of movies that employ this technique are lacking. The extra surcharge that comes with admission has resulted in more revenue for certain movies, which has lead to Hollywood abusing 3-D and using it more as a gimmick instead of a tool. Hugo was the first film since Avatar that felt like it gave a damn about 3-D and used it in smart ways that helped embellish the story. The maximum enjoyment of this film is probably best experienced in that format, but it would have still been my favorite film of 2011 without it. Hugo is about a Parisian boy who lives in a train station during the 1920s and the setting plays a key part in the movie's magic. It's a film heavy on wonder and enchantment with the skill of one our greatest filmmakers in Martin Scorcese. When you go into a theater hoping to be entertained and moved, you want it to do so at the level that Hugo does.

2. A Separation

There are no easy questions and no easy answers in A Separation. I'm always intrigued by movies that live in a shade of grey where you may not necessarily agree with the characters, but you can understand their perspective because it is all so achingly human. There probably wasn't a movie I saw this year that examined human nature as deeply as this one. The setting of it factors heavily into it as well, since it takes place in present-day Iran, where Islam is a huge part of the law and causes further conflict. The movie follows a married couple looking to divorce, along with a few other issues that arise and make their decisions more complicated. It's shot in an observant style that consistently feels authentic, allowing our empathy for what's happening on the screen to be magnified that much more. It is almost certain at this point that it will be considered one of the best films of this young decade.

3. The Skin I Live In

All I will tell you is this: Antonio Banderas plays a brilliant plastic surgeon who keeps a woman prisoner in his mansion that resembles his deceased wife. Anything else and I'm afraid that I would taint the surprising twists that come after. I was genuinely shocked with each engaging turn and as the film became more and more bizarre, the moral complications were that much more intriguing. The Skin I Live In differs from Pedro Almodovar's previous work in the sense that it is more sensationalistic than what we're used to from him, but like some of his best films, we're able to get deep inside of these characters and we understand their actions as if they existed in our world.

4. Shame

How Michael Fassbender was passed over for a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards for this film is baffling. His portrayal as a sex addict in New York was as bleak and heartbreaking as any performance I saw this year. For a lot of people, sex is something that is to be enjoyed, but when we close in on Fassbender's face during one of human nature's most emotional acts, we see a man who is cold and pained. Shame is unflinching in its depiction, but is also subtle in that it doesn't provide an outright answer as to why Fassbender's character is the way he is. Any other approach would have cheapened the movie's experience and its powerful impact.

5. Poetry

One of the year's most overlooked performances came from Jeong-hie Yun in this Korean film where she plays an elderly woman suffering through the early stages of Alzheimer's disease and takes up a poetry to class to cope. She carries the movie with understated glances and a sweet gentle manner as her mind is slowly slipping away from her. True to the title, the movie does have poetic tones with a hushed atmosphere and multiple layers of meaning that make it more revealing with each viewing.

6. The Interrupters

Steve James' latest documentary takes an inside look at the world of violence interrupters, a group of former gang members in Chicago who use peaceful methods to diffuse potentially fatal conflicts. The Interrupters gives a glimpse into a culture that most people don't know outside of what is portrayed in the media and provides one of the most honest portraits of low-income life since James' 1994 film Hoop Dreams, which was also set in Chicago. As much as the movie is interested in delivering its message, I found myself being engaged when it observed how gang violence starts at a root level. I grew up in neighborhoods such as the ones shown in this movie and knew people exactly like those on camera, but by simply giving these kids a platform to express their desires and grievances, I found myself knowing more than I did before, which is the hallmark of any great documentary.

7. Meek's Cutoff

In director Kelly Reichardt's follow-up to Wendy and Lucy, 19th century American settlers are traveling West in hopes of a better life, but are endlessly led around by a guide who may or not be lost. Meek's Cutoff continues the slow-paced, realistic style of Reichardt's previous work and we as the audience feel just as lost as the characters in return. A lot of times, one would be upset at the lack of clearly audible dialogue during an important exchange between characters, but when it happens here, it only helps to put us in the same bewilderment as the travelers. The movie's overall ability to authenticially transport you to another time while keeping you guessing made it one of the most entrancing experiences in film for 2011.

8. Tabloid

I knew nothing of the Joyce McKinney scandal before Tabloid was released, but the story itself already ensured that it would make an entertaining film. The outrageous nature of the tale lends itself well to Errol Morris' patented interview approach and an uptempo style that matches the sensationalism of tabloid journalism. McKinney herself is one of the most colorful documentary subjects I've seen in some time and over the course of the movie it was easy to see how she captured England's attention during the late '70s.

9. The Artist

This was probably one of the few movies this year that made me smile from beginning to end. Being a cinema lover, I appreciated all of the nods and references to Hollywood in the 1920s, but aside from that, The Artist was as charming as anything in 2011. The story doesn't reinvent the wheel, nor does it try to and nor does it need to. To bring a 21st century sensibility and awareness to a silent film would have ruined it completely. Instead, director Michel Hazanavicius created a work of art filled with respect, sincerity and love, which showed in every frame. Special kudos must go to the fantastic performances of the two leads, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, who convey a spectrum of emotions with just their eyes and very little dialogue.

10. Crazy, Stupid Love

If more romantic comedies were this smart, honest and plausible, most serious moviegoers probably wouldn't groan whenever a new movie from the genre appeared. Crazy, Stupid Love works because it understands how complicated relationships are and treats its characters as individuals instead of archetypes that are pre-destined to follow the blueprint the genre sets out. The movie follows three stories: a married couple going through a separation (set in California, not Iran), a young woman looking for more out of her long-term relationship and a teenage girl who is hopelessly in love with the husband of the couple. Love is not used simply as an artificial plot device here, but as a living, breathing thing that can bring either joy or pain to these characters. If I've made it sound serious, rest assured that there are plenty of laughs to be found, including a parent-teacher conference that made me howl as loud in the theater as much as any scene in Bridesmaids.

11. Rango
12. Bridesmaids
13. Tree of Life
14. Drive
15. Moneyball
16. Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench
17. Super 8
18. Real Steel
19. Beats, Rhymes and Life
20. I Saw The Devil
21. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
22. The Descendants
23. The Guard
24. Midnight In Paris
25. Melancholia
26. Potiche
27. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
28. Young Adult
29. Beginners
30. My Week With Marilyn
31. 13 Assassins
32. The Ides of March
33. The Housemaid
34. Kung Fu Panda 2
35. Certified Copy
36. Attack The Block
37. Hanna
38. The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975
39. Submarine
40. Cedar Rapids
41. Win Win
42. The Help
43. Hobo With A Shotgun
44. The Muppets
45. Everything Must Go
46. Of Gods And Men
47. X-Men: First Class
48. Horrible Bosses
49. Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

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