Thursday, December 29, 2011

Film Shuffle's Top 20 of 2011

It's that time of year again! Time for me to play make-believe movie critic and do my "best of" list. I made it 20 this year instead of 10, because ... well, I just felt like it. Everybody who does a list like this has their own rules, and I have mine. Most notably I try to only count movies officially released in 2011, which excludes films from 2010 that I didn't get around to seeing until early 2011. There are a few big releases I've yet to see - namely War Horse, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Pariah and We Bought a Zoo. I may end up seeing one or more of those before the year is out, but I don't trust my opinion on any movie for a list like this when I've had less than a week to marinate my thoughts.

ANYWAY, here goes. Several of these are favorites on other lists, but hopefully there will be some surprises.

"My boy Treelore always said we gonna have a writer in the family one day. I guess it's gonna be me."

20. The Help (Dir. Tate Taylor)
There are two ways to misread this movie, in my opinion. One is to treat it like it's trying to be the definitive work on racism and the true experience of black maids in white households, and by extension finding it offensively wanting in that goal. The second is to treat it like it *is* the definitive work on racism and the true experience of black maids in white households, and to love it for being a great success at that. It's a movie, y'all. An entertaining, often moving flick about women, friendship, and taking a stand. And no matter what you think of the material, it's hard to argue that the cast - especially Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Jessica Chastain - make it sing despite its weaknesses. (Original review)

"I'll be the candle."

19. Arthur Christmas (Dir. Sarah Smith, Barry Cook)
This is a new Christmas classic, as far as I'm concerned. Right up there with Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol, and Black Christmas. (Okay, your mileage may vary on the classic-ness of that last one, but probably because you haven't yet discovered it.) It may be the time of year in which I'm writing this prejudicing me in this film's favor, but then again maybe not. Because it's not just that it's thoroughly drenched in the Christmas spirit or that it makes me want to believe in Santa again that makes it special to me. It's clever and witty in a way that reminds me of Aardman's other brilliant movies. (Original review)

"Elizabeth is dying. Wait ... f*** you! And she's dying."

18. The Descendants (Dir. Alexander Payne)
I'm probably kinder to and fonder of this film than I ought to be, but I think it's quite a good picture of the complexity of grief and family. Better certainly than most death-in-the-family melodramas that we've all seen and which tend to elicit a sort of Pavlovian response of emotion. This boasts at least two of the best performances of the year, by George Clooney and Shailene Woodley, and for Clooney's part it's a career best. (Original review)

"No man can walk out of his own story."

17. Rango (Dir. Gore Verbinski)
The animated western is a seriously underexplored genre. This is some of the most original and beautiful animation i've ever seen and a love song to both "spaghetti westerns" and their more romantic John-Ford-y predecessors. As much as I love Pixar, I'm glad to see other studios get a chance to shine in this medium. This is not a cute and fluffy animated film for kids. There's a sass to this movie that's irresistible and very entertaining to watch. (Original review)

"I don't know anything. I'm just a rock in the sky"

16. The Future (Dir. Miranda July)
Miranda July sees the world in a very unique way, and I envy her for it. I'm also grateful that she sometimes lets me see the world through her filter by way of her filmmaking. A couple adopting a cat might seem like a simple thing that could not sustain a movie, but July turns it into a Great Life Crisis for her characters as this commitment forces them to realize the limits of their own lives. Yet these limits are as nothing compared with those of the cat they hope to adopt, and one of the (many) strokes of genius in this movie is that the cat itself is given a voice to tell us about its anxieties, making it as complex and neurotic a character as any human in the film. (Original review)

"With pleasure."

15. The Artist (Dir. Michel Hazanavicius)
I find it hilarious that people are so surprised that a black and white silent movie can be engaging and entertaining. Of course you can tell a great story with no dialogue! Hollywood was doing it for years before Al Jolson turned the sound on. What I find more impressive about the movie is the modern sensibilities it brings to it. The dream sequence - one of the only scenes in the movie that has sound - is one of my favorite scenes in a movie this year. This is an old story, using old tools, but made with modern eyes and hands. And the modern is what makes it remarkable. (Original review)

"That's what everybody's been saying: You'll feel better and don't worry and this is all fine and it's not."

14. 50/50 (Dir. Jonathan Levine)
This movie is a rare tear-jerker that earns its tears. It's not precious about the main character's cancer, nor does it trick you into feeling something because you think you're supposed to. We've seen loads of people in movies fighting cancer, but this movie makes the bold decision (though calling it bold is sad, however true it is) to show real people dealing with it. Not just the patients themselves but the people around them. Some handle it well, others spectacularly not, but that's life. And it's refreshing to see those rare occasions when actors and storytellers manage to conjure that elusive life and capture it on film. (Original review)

"If you ever wonder where your dreams come from, look around - this is where they are made."

13. Hugo (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
I've said a lot about the first hour of this film, which I still find incredibly flat, especially when it's in the same movie as the amazing second half. But that second half can't be ignored. As much a tribute to film preservation as to film history, Hugo is something I love more than pretty much anything else - a surprise. Once Hugo and Isabelle finally uncover the mystery of the automaton, the movie (like many of the characters in it) finally finds its purpose. And it's a beauty to behold. The recreation of iconic images of early cinema are less realistic and more evocative of the dreams that must have inspired them. As Norma Desmond would sing in the Sunset Boulevard musical, "we taught the world new ways to dream." And nowhere is that clearer or more beautifully portrayed than in the last act of this movie. (Original review)

"Stop talking about production value, the Air Force is going to kill us!"

12. Super 8 (Dir. J.J. Abrams)
With all the attention Hugo has gotten for its moviemaking nostalgia, I'm surprised a lot of people seem to have forgotten this gem from J.J. Abrams which riffs most obviously on Spielberg's E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind but also Alien and The Thing. A group of kids are making a monster movie and a real monster movie basically shows up and starts happening to them. Great, natural performances from the young actors, which is rare. Also rare - a Fanning that doesn't make me roll my eyes. (Original review)

"You are a piece of work."

11. Young Adult (Dir. Jason Reitman)
As prickly and unpleasant as Juno was cuddly and offbeat, this was a bold move for director Jason Reitman's and screenwriter Diablo Cody's reunion. This movie is more a character sketch than a story, and the journey of the main character is an unusual one, leaving her worse off in the end than she was in the beginning (despite passing through a clear "epiphany" moment, which is turned completely inside out). This is a bitch of a movie. Uncomfortable, but undeniably brilliant.

"I've always wanted to do that spell!"

10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (Dir. David Yates)
More than providing a fitting conclusion to a series of films that - along with the books that inspired them - have consumed the last decade of my life. More than the thrill of seeing people I'd watched since they were practically babies grow into actual actors. The accomplishment that means the most to me is that when it was all over I wasn't sad. I wasn't thinking about the end of an era and what on earth I'd do with my life now. I was thinking about how proud I was. Proud that these films were passing into the halls of cinema history alongside other beloved epic fantasy adventures, in whose company (to paraphrase Theoden in Return of the King) it need not be ashamed. (Original review)

"At first, I did not know it was your diary. I thought it was a very sad handwritten book."

9. Bridesmaids (Dir. Paul Feig)
Just like it's a mistake to expect The Help to be the kitchen sink of movies about racism, it's a mistake to expect Bridesmaids to be the definitive work on women. What this movie is is a refreshing kick in the panties to the traditional "chick flick" and (in a smaller way) a portrait of how intimidating and soul-crushing a wedding can be when you're not the one getting married (and ESPECIALLY if you've NEVER been the one getting married). I found this movie surprisingly relatable, and I hope it's the beginning of more good and entertaining stories about us wimmins. Not holding my breath, but it's certainly a start. (Original review)

"I should have known if a guy like me talked to a girl like you, somebody would end up dead."

8. Tucker and Dale vs Evil (Dir. Eli Craig)
On the surface, this is a spoof, plain and simple. But a closer look shows a surprisingly clever script with more genre subversions than seems possible in one movie. The idea of plopping kids in the woods and using their prejudices about rural people against them is a genius one, and the fact that the movie is able to sustain the joke for as long as it does is rather amazing. Honestly one of the best times I had in a movie theater this year. (Original review)

"There's worse things out there to be scared of than us tonight. Trust it."

7. Attack the Block (Dir. Joe Cornish)
I can't remember the last time I was as scared by a movie monster as I was by the creatures in this movie. GAH! But this is not just a monster movie. This movie is like if Aliens married the fourth season of The Wire. There's some great characterization and social commentary here, but not so much of the latter that the movie drowns in its own self-importance. The wonderful cast of kids is led by the amazing John Boyega, who I'm certain we'll see much more of in the future. And boo to the AMPAS for passing over the awesome score, which gives the film its urban pulse. Awesome, awesome movie. (Original review)

"I shall accomplish your task with magnificence."

6. 13 Assassins (Dir. Takashi Miike)
Samurai stories hold a real fascination for me. The idea that men train for years and years in preparation for battles that will almost surely end their lives. The idea that in so many of these stories, these warriors volunteer for causes that have little to do with them personally but are a stand against a dishonor that is too great to be borne. That this was made by Takashi Miike, who has given us some of the most twisted films to come out of Japan (Fudoh, I'm looking at you), is kind of flabbergasting to me. But, as I said above, I do so love a surprise. The final battle is one of the most breathtaking action sequences in any movie this year. In any year, really.

"Your hard drive is filthy."

5. Shame (Dir. Steve McQueen)
We have such a tendency as human beings to judge people who are different from us, who are dealing with demons that we will hopefully never have to face. What makes Shame such an incredible film is not its bold, unflinching portrayal of its protagonist's depravity, but its sympathy for his suffering (even if it's suffering that we can't quite understand). Michael Fassbender gives easily the most astonishing and painful - not to mention far and away the best, male or female - performance this year. An excellent, excruciating movie that I'm not sure I could watch a second time. (Original review)

"Why would I not understand the context? I am the context."

4. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Dir. Lynne Ramsay)
A horror movie along the lines of The Bad Seed or The Good Son, this movie presents a fascinating relationship between a bad kid and a bad parent. This inevitably reminds many viewers of the events at Columbine in 1999, but what's at play here is more than a reference. Tilda Swinton plays a mother at three different stages - in the beginning and formative years of her son's life, in the weeks/months leading up to the horrible crime he commits, and some time after his crime as she deals with the aftermath, at least some of which is almost certainly in her own mind. I went in thinking this would be an "eat your spinach, it's good for you" indie film, but I was gobsmacked at how compelling it is, especially the astonishing performance of Tilda Swinton.

"It was a good time back then."
"It was a war, Connie."

3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Dir. Tomas Alfredson)
Chilly, methodical, and precise. That describes most of the characters in this film, but it describes the film itself as well. The plot is so tightly wound that you're afraid to blink in case you miss something, and the cast is a who's who of Britain's greatest (male) acting talent. On top of that, the nostalgia of the period setting lends itself uncommonly well to the pervasive sense of an era coming to an end. A near perfect suspense thriller.

"I can never decide whether Paris is more beautiful by day or by night."

2. Midnight in Paris (Dir. Woody Allen)
This movie contains my absolute favorite moment in any film this year, and I think it's at least partially responsible for a film project I'm undertaking in the coming year. I've admired Woody Allen's films for many years, but this is the first film of his I've loved. It's pure magic, and a dream - everything I ask from a movie. C'est magnifique. (Original review)

"And you have proved to be a real human being and a real hero."

1. Drive (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
I wish I'd posted this list sooner, because this film has cropped up at the top of a lot of lists lately, and now I look like a bandwagoneer. But in all honesty, this was my number one as soon as I saw it in September. This is a movie that seems to be directly lifted from my subconscious - like the team from Inception went into my brain and downloaded everything I thought was awesome and made a movie about it. Every single thing about this movie - the music (THE MUSIC!), the meticulously framed shots, the badass yet surprisingly likable villain, the Gosling, the Gosling's satin jacket - seems like it is just for me. Like Midnight in Paris, this movie shaped my movie watching in general. And I can't remember the last time (maybe never) that I thought of Los Angeles as a cool and romantic place. Guys, this movie. THIS MOVIE. *swoons* (Original review)

Alright, 2012 - whatcha got?

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