Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Subtlety Guide to Shit You Should Have Seen in 2011

I’ve been hesitant to post a “top 10” this year. Usually I keep a good diary of the films I’ve seen to reflect back on, but this year my hard drive got a big glass of wine spilled on it and, um. I did as much research as I could to try and figure out what came out in 2011, but I’m sure I’m forgetting something. Also due to circumstances beyond my control I missed a bunch of biggies this year, including but not limited to IN TIME, YOUNG ADULT, DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, HAROLD AND KUMAR 3, IMMORTALS, HUGO, THE MUPPETS (to my eternal shame), TINTIN, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE PRESENTS GHOST PROTOCOL, SOURCE CODE, UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES, BELLFLOWER, QUATTRO VOLTE, A SEPARATION, INTO THE ABYSS, RANGO, THE ARTIST, THE MILL AND THE CROSS, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, RED TAILS, TAKE SHELTER, EVERYDAY SUNSHINE, A DANGEROUS METHOD, 50/50 and THE INTERRUPTERs. People seem to be digging on all of those, so who knows what I would have thought.

Anyway, that stuff notwithstanding, it's fucking February already so here are my favorites from 2011 in no particular order. I’m not sure I’d necessarily call these the best films; in fact, I have some on here which have some pretty obvious flaws. But these are the ones I ended up respecting the most, for my own esoteric reasons. Consider them recommendations at your own risk

The Big Winners

DRIVE: OK, so everyone and their Uncle Boonme knows this one is amazing, but that doesn’t make it less so. Hypnotic yet gripping, familiar yet unexpected, mysterious yet satisfying. Exactly perfect at being exactly what it is.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY: Ok, no surprise here either. Who am I to argue with an impeccably constructed, impeccably acted, thoroughly entertaining Gary Oldman vehicle? And he finally gets to use his British accent!

ATTACK THE BLOCK: This one got so hyped up that I feel like the backlash of disappointment had started almost before it even made it to most movie screens. Was it worth the hype? Not sure, but it was definitely worth the praise. Another small miracle of meticulously tight construction and execution, with a few unique twists and some light social commentary to make it a little more than a sum of its parts.

MELANCHOLIA: Who knew Lars Von Triers was capable of making such a gorgeous film? Here, everything he’s been perfecting throughout his career comes to a head: dense psychological realism, extreme emotional states, apocalyptic surrealism, and an insanely dark streak of humor make this a potent, deeply affecting concoction. No talking fox this time, either.

ANONYMOUS: Here’s where things get interesting. I seriously doubt anyone shares the same affliction I have which causes me to love Emmerich’s movies, but I can’t deny it anymore. There’s something completely sublime about this film’s utterly grim ludicrousness. Everything about it is heroically, ponderously epic, which just makes its’ stone-faced preposterousness all the more endearing. And say what you will about him, Emmerich knows how to hold his camera still and build something which is as visually dramatic as he seems to think the narrative is. An absolutely stellar cast of British actors (including a fantastic Vanessa Redgrave) complete this bizarrely entertaining mix of class and crass.

HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN: Another one I think only I could really love. Like DRIVE, this one uses the trappings of a bygone time period to create something unflinchingly bizarre and imaginatively twisted. It’s a fever dream of surreal violence powered by a Rutger Hauer performance strong enough to melt steel. It’s a completely outrageous experience which is also savvy enough to channel the insanity into a sleek, electrifying cinematic ride.  

RED STATE: It’s hard to imagine anyone exactly liking this vicious little piece of nihilistic misanthropy from Kevin Smith, but the more I think about it the more impressed I am with it. Smith begins with the surprisingly effective trappings of a standard horror-porn film, and then thrashes about in every direction laying waste to the poisonously divided US cultural landscape in ways which are sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, but always surprising. Fiercely good performances by John Goodman and especially Michael Parks tip the scales resoundingly into greatness, even when the film making doesn’t back them up.

THE FUTURE: Miranda July takes the hipster leanings of her debut and pushes them to unexpectedly melancholy, surreal places. The film can still be a little precious at times, but its heartache and loneliness ring painfully true. The world isn’t exactly hurting for films about angsty young adults trying to find their purpose, but here July manages to find new ways of expressing our fears and insecurities which are both poetic and resonant.  

TABLOID: I find it hard to imagine a world in which an Errol Morris film wouldn’t crack my top ten any given year one came out. TABLOID returns to his favorite theme of the subjective nature of experience and reality, but in a completely different way than earlier work like THE THIN BLUE LINE and THE FOG OF WAR did. Way more kinky sex, for one thing. Morris tells a story you can hardly believe (and maybe you shouldn’t believe) with a breathless sense of fun, a sly sense of humor, and a forgiving affection that keeps things from feeling too mean-spirited. Riveting, hilarious, and oddly moving.

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS: Werner Herzog turns a nice, polite National Geographic type documentary into a poetic meditation on art, humanity, and the soul. A triumph of genuine historical interest mixed with spectacular film making, and a masterful use use of 3-D technology to boot. The long sequence which simply depicts the cave drawings at the center of the film -- first in silence, and then gradually building with the film’s excellent score-- highlights what a master of his craft Herzog is and probably ranks as the single greatest sequence I saw this year. A unique classic.  

Runner ups:

PAGE ONE: Interesting rumination on the tumultuously changing art of journalism, anchored by acid-tongued wit of editor David Carr, probably the greatest film character of the year.

KILL THE IRISHMAN: An expansive crime saga with a different kind of badass at its center, in the vein of GOODFELLAS and MESRINE. Not quite as good as those, but wholly immersive, deeply satisfying, and featuring a dynamite cast.

BEGINNERS: Overcomes being saddled with literally every rom com cliche in the book through virtue of its good nature, keen eye for human drama, and an utterly adorable performance from Christopher Plummer.

TREE OF LIFE: Reaches astonishing heights with its hazy central narrative, only to wear out its welcome by overreaching for a meaning which was already there. Still a phenomenal, stunning work by a true master.

I SAW THE DEVIL: I remain convinced that Jee-Woon Kim is among the most gifted, effortlessly cinematic filmmaker alive today. The story here is a little loose, but in the hands of a master like Kim you’d hardly notice. Brutal and well-realized.  

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS: Complete movie buff fluff from Woody Allen, but with a subtly winning charm. Wilson may be the best Woody Allen since John Cusack, but appropriately no one is a match for Corey Stoll as Hemingway.

ANOTHER EARTH: A little forced, but a lot beautiful. Its bold surrealism and excellent cast make a combination potent enough to sell a somewhat strained story.

FIGHT NIGHT: Colin Ferrall continues his inexplicable SHOGUN-esque mission to walk the Earth turning in astoundingly great performances in movies no one could really be expected to see. Nice supporting work, likeable characters, and some effective set pieces make this a film which has some reason to exist.

WARRIOR: Predictable drama, but solid fundamentals and great performances make for a satisfying experience. Believable fights and a committed cast, especially Nick Nolte, help a lot.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: Dumb as a dufflebag full of colobus monkies, which somehow doesn’t stop if from being great. For some fool reason it seems to think its job is to entertain us, and just won’t stop doing that. Great apes indeed.

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS: Also pretty dumb, but with Michael Fassbender’s charisma turned up so loud you can’t really hear anything else. And Kevin Bacon wears a maroon leisure suite. And Michael Ironside is in there somewhere, too. 

13 ASSASSINS: Didn't really stick with me like you might want it to, but you can't argue that it delivers the goods. 

RUM DIARY: Depp disappointingly coasts through his second try at playing Hunter Thompson, the script removes a key character from the book who’s basically the whole point of telling the story, and it has an awful ending which undermines everything good about everything else about it. But other than those minor complaints, Director Bruce Robinson fashions a meandering story full of fun characters, great period and local detail, and a few scenes of genuinely sublime depravity. Worth it for Giovanni Ribisi’s glorious human trainwreck Moberg, if nothing else.  

ADDENDUM 2/22: MISSION IMPOSSIBLE GHOST PROTOCOL: The most assured, inventive, and breathless action film I saw all year, with the best actual action sequences by miles. Yet somehow feels a little disposable. Maybe it's the vaguely drawn villain, maybe its just that Cruise is such a cypher, maybe it's that the whole thing seems a little too eager to please. Worth the time to watch, but I hope Brad Bird moves on to directing action movies this good which have a little more character to them.  

ADDENDUM 3/6: RANGO: A gorgeous, unique, kinetic and gripping take on Westerns which is postmodern enough to fly in this day and age, but actually best when it embraces it's authentically Western spirit. Depp, who -lets face it- has been coasting lately, comes wonderfully to weirdo life when freed of his own body. Definitely one of my favorites of the year.

ADDENDUM 4/1: HUGO: Martin Scorcese creates some beautiful images and gets some great mileage out of his 3-D, but doesn't seem to know what to do with the sense of whimsy he's trying so aggressively to cultivate. His passion for the early days of cinema the film's narrative explores here is evident, but his obvious disinterest in the kid's story at the center of the film is a somewhat surprising drawback. Seeing 3D-ized Melies is a real treat, but the rest of the film tends towards the sterile and maudlin. However, anyone besides me think its weird that both Gandhi and Jinnah are finally in a film together and nobody made a big deal about it? 

ADDENDUM 4/19: MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE: Near pitch-perfect depiction of subtle psychological violence, portraying the complete breakdown of the protagonist --and the ensuing lingering damage -- with chilling authenticity. Director Sean Durkin expertly reshapes two linear narratives into a twisting mess until we can't help but feel poor Martha Marcy's rudderless confusion. Arresting and deeply disturbing, but feels a little unresolved (although I suppose that's part of the point).  

ADDENDUM 4/20: SOURCE CODE: Duncan Jones' follow up to MOON is a much more conventional action/sci-fi film, but it passes the time nicely as a twisty, compelling GROUNDHOG DAY-on-a-train scenario. Jake Gyllenhaal works surprisingly well as a somewhat badass character, and it's nice to see comedian Russel Peters in there, too. Not quite as mind-bendy as it seems to think it is, but you gotta admit it's a meticulously well-built entertainment machine. 

ADDENDUM 5/17: THE MUPPETS: Jason Segel's attempt to revive one of my most beloved franchises has some issues, but mostly works thanks to its old-fashioned corny sweetness melded with its very lightly sly humor. The jokes and setup are good, but watching it I can't help but shake the feeling that by writing Segel himself and his muppet "brother" as the main characters foolishly steals time and attention from our beloved favorites and makes the film feel overcrowded. Still, the last act in particular (where they return to their original theater) is sublime, the guest stars are fun, the songs are good, and that old Muppets magic is in stronger effect than it's been since MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND back in 1897 or whatever when Tim Curry was still skinny. 

ADDENDUM 5/30: A VERY HAROLD AND KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS: The film lacks a suitable climax and ditches most of the clever racial commentary which made the first two so unique and refreshing, but that's OK because it makes up for it by being delightfully hilarious and surprisingly heartfelt. The series may have started as a way to make fun of all the fratty white boy comedies of the early 2000s, but since then its two leads have kinda wormed their way into our hearts and it's a nice reward to have a film which treats their drama with some respect. It doesn't hurt that Cho and Penn are both spectacularly entertaining actors with an easy rapport which is stronger than ever. Also expect more NPH action, a charming claymation sequence, and a series of jokes about a toddler getting high on cocaine. Guaranteed to jingle your bells (although should be seen in 3-D to really get the full experience).

ADDENDUM 12/10: TINTIN: Kinetic, freewheeling slapstick from Spielberg, who makes great use of his animated world to try some jaw-dropping sequences. The sensory overload of the wildly detailed animation sometimes threatens the simpler charms of Herge's characters, but there's enough honest life in them to (barely) come out on top, particularly once Andy Serkis's hilarious drunken Scotsman Captain Haddock enters the fray.

ADDENDUM 12/17/2013: 50/50: An very emotionally honest performance by Joseph Gordon "Robin" Levitt is at the center of this cancer dramedy, but only Seth Rogan has many funny moments and he's mostly a side character. Not terrible as this sort of thing goes, and I appreciate it's genuine earnestness about the subject matter, but I'm baffled by people who called it one of the year's best. 

That's it, Sports Fans. What did I miss, what was I wrong about, what do you suspect I saw breathtakingly stoned?


  1. Awww man...Dan just got Rum Diary in from Netflix solely because I wanted to see it, and that's solely because I loved the book when I read it ~10 years ago. I should not have read your review beforehand, methinks.

  2. Okay, well we've seen each others' lists, so there's no real point in talking about the things we agree about. I'll skip right to the part where I call you an idiot/cinematically illiterate/worse than Hitler/etc.

    I think Kim Ji-Woon (Jee-Woon? I swear I've seen his name spelled a million different ways) has a lot of talent, but he can never seem to seal the deal for me. He has strong visual and storytelling chops, but his movies (except for TALE OF TWO SISTERS, my fave) always seem to go off the rails along the way. I SAW THE DEVIL is like 50% awesome, 20% silly in a good way, 15% silly in a bad way, and 15% this is dragging on too long and I don't know why this is in the movie. The ending in particular is a real disappointment; unsatisfying and confusing, and not in a way that I felt was deliberate. One day I hope Kim will hit a home run, but for now I think South Korea already has two bonafide geniuses (Park Chan-Wook and Bong Joon-Ho) making these kinds of movies (arty genre films) a lot more successfully.

    Also, I guess I just missed the boat on this one, but I did not see what the big deal was about ATTACK THE BLOCK. Outside of a great lead performance (I hope that kid becomes a big star) and some fun moments, I found it mainly unimaginative, not as funny as it seemed to think it was, with most of the major set pieces not particularly well-executed. It's not a bad film or anything, just kind of generic despite the seeming originality of its premise. I guess it's kind of like my issues with SUPER 8, where the film actively invites too many comparisons with legitimately great films, and can't hope to match up. This Joe Cornish guy is no John Carpenter.

  3. Melancholia gets my vote for best of the year. Apart from Antichrist, I don't even like Von Trier that much, but this shit was phenomenal. Maybe it's because I've been feeling generally awful about everything, and Von Trier has a pretty dour view of the world, but I responded to this more than any other film I saw this year, most of which completely underwhelmed me, if not outright sucked. Everything I've been feeling was just so perfectly and artfully captured. A string perfect performances and powerful dramatic scenes one right after the other, all framed by amazing special effects heavy opening and closing sequences. A brilliant drama about depression that begins and ends with the actual fucking apocoplypse. If only all movies were this intimate and epic at the same time.

    And Kirsten Dunst, serenely bathing naked in the eerie blue light of the oncoming planet that will destroy everything? That is some haunting shit.

    Also, best ending to a film this year.

  4. Hmm, all those references to this year ACTUALLY said last year, you just read it wrong, idiot.

  5. Shenan -- Actually, I think going in with somewhat lowered expectations is likely to allow you to enjoy it more for what it is. I am completely enamored with the novel and was really hoping for a new classic with this cast and the material, but instead only got a half-classic. They remove Yeoman's character, which seems spectacularly wrong-headed to me since as far as I'm concerned the whole central conflict of the book is between Yeoman's youthful idealism, Sanderson's amoral hedonism, and Kemp's wavering cynicism. But if they get the central ideas all wrong, they succeed in getting the details right. It's full of great characters and well-constructed sequences, and well worth it for those aspects.

    Dan -- I don't disagree with you on Jee-Woon Kim or DEVIL. He has yet to actually make a single film which quite adds up. But while Park Chan-Wook and Bong Joon-Ho have a filmography of more solid final products, Kim's just has such astoundingly great cinematic instincts that he excites me the most out of all of them. His particular aesthetic is enormously appealing and suggest a huge amount of versitility, so I don't doubt that it's only a matter of time before he finds the right material to make a true classic. In the meantime, I'll settle for this tier of very-near-greatness-but-also-don't-quite-work-the-way-they-should films like DEVIL or GOOD BAD WEIRD.

    It's true that Joe Cornish is no John Carpenter, but I don't see that comparison being an especially relevant one. I think of Cornish more like Edgar Wright, making a very carefully --almost fastidiously-- constructed genre film which is explicitly calculated to be entertaining and satisfying on nearly every level. It's nothing revolutionary or especially imaginative, but its pretty rare to see a film which just WORKS so well. Engaging characters, well-structured story, scary monsters, good setpieces, exciting action, excellent acting across the board, and a subtle whiff of social commentary. It's an admittedly minor treat, but I gotta respect a film which so completely succeeds at everything it tries -- there's nary a false note in the whole thing (by no means an easy feat to pull off, considering its juggling at least four distinct tones and intentions).

    So, by no means something which is gonna change the world, but I feel like I should give credit to a film which just entirely pulls off what it's trying to do (for the record, I feel the same about TINKER TAILOR SOLIDER SPY). I should say, I saw it quite a bit after the initial fanatical hype had died down, which may have made me more forgiving.

    Andy -- Felt the same way. Of all the film on the list, that one probably had the most lasting impact on me. Tying the surrealism to such painfully real emotional characterizations is an unexpected and effective move. I also appreciate the way he handles multiple perspectives, allowing us to completely empathize with the main characters but also see how completely impossible they are to deal with (Poor Kiefer Sutherland is really the only reasonable, responsible human being in the whole film, and of course he's the one who ends up being the most wrong). The imagery is stunning and, unlike ANTICHRIST (which I love) feels more carefully directed. It's actually an insanely ambitious film, come to think of it, but it's pulled of so eloquently it feels easy and even accessible. Who'd have thought ol' Lars had that in him?

  6. Also: Hobo With A Shotgun for breathtakingly stoned? Or, (wildcard) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?

  7. OK, now that I've actually seen Rum Diary:

    They cut Yeoman. Yes. It felt like gutting an important rib from the story (if you can gut a rib?). On the other hand, I still fucking love "Oh God. Why'd she have to come along? Just when I was doing so well without her" and "You're high, you fool! Drink some rum!" In other words, yeah, they did a little mutilating of the conceptual framework. But they captured the zeitgeist and the aesthetic of the book pretty well. But, my view of it like that could be due in part to the fact that, as I said, it's been about a decade since I've read the book. If I'd been a little closer to the experience temporally, I might've been more hurt at what the movie wasn't. As it is, I liked what it was well enough to enjoy it.

  8. Yeah, I don't mean to be too harsh on it, because I think it has some great sequences and some excellent acting, particularly Ribisi and the Michael Rispoli (finally cast as something other than a gangster). I might have been more generous with it had it not tried for a completely undeserved happy ending (complete with AMERICAN GRAFFITI-style insulting post-script text). I'm glad its finally out in the world, but I think Bruce Robinson doesn't ever quite get a handle on what the point of the thing is (actually, its more that he tries to force a moral onto something which is more of an experience than a parable).

  9. OK, I had to come back to this and comment to say: Dan and I watched Tabloid finally a week or so ago, and it was nuts. In a really entertaining way, and just as frenetic as the subject's life seemed to be. I actually (due to being incredibly sleep-deprived, per usual) fell asleep for like 15 minutes in the middle, and woke up, and all of a sudden she was past all the kidnap accusations and was cloning her dog. I was like, wtf just happened? But Dan said it wasn't any more explicable having watched the whole thing, just awesome. I think "inexplicable but awesome" sums up how I feel about it.