Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Entertainment Junkie's Top 10 Films of 2011

Yeah, its been a few days since 2012 actually began, but now its time for The Entertainment Junkie's 2011 Year in Review Extravaganza TM. Today is the Top 10 films of the year, followed by the Jarmo Awards tomorrow (my own personal Oscars, if you will), and on Thursday a look ahead at what this year will bring in theaters. Feel free to share your own favorites and your thoughts in the comments.

10. Moneyball (dir. Bennett Miller)


"Its hard not to get romantic about baseball." This is what Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager of the Oakland A's, tells Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) early on in the film. Its hard not to get romantic about Moneyball, either, as writers Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and director Miller take Michael Lewis' statistics-minded nonfiction bestseller and turn it into a portrait of outsized ambition and human tenacity, of how success and failure often go hand-in-hand. Its hard to not get romantic about Pitt's brilliant, soulful performance, one of the best of his career, or Hill's surprisingly nuanced work as Beane's unlikely business partner. Its hard to not get romantic about the beautiful cinematography, making the various baseball stadiums seem like cathedrals to the human spirit. And its hard not to get romantic about the film's standout scene, in which Beane listens to his daughter sing (anachronistically, but that's neither here nor there) to him what he's always needed to hear: "just enjoy the show."

9. The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick)


The Tree of Life arrived with such monumental anticipation (from the arthouse crowd, at least) that it seemed inevitable that many would hail it a masterpiece. After all, this is the most ambitious film Malick, cinema's foremost naturalist/philosopher, has made so far, putting the entire history of creation into the context of one Texas family in the 1950s. For some, this film was practically a religious experience, and combined with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski's awe-inspiring images, its exploration of Nature versus Grace is a wonder to behold. The film is not without its problems; there are segments (by now you know the ones) that seem underdeveloped. But it comes very close to being a masterpiece, and while Malick and Lubezski have dominated the attention, it wouldn't be nearly as effective without the powerful and captivating performances of Brad Pitt as the father (and, philosophically, Nature), Jessica Chastain as the mother (Grace), and Hunter McCracken as their oldest son (Man). The film's received a lot of comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and those comparisons are well-earned in every right. But if Kubrick's film was a look at creation as mechanical and cold, The Tree of Life is a celebration of the heart and soul of life.

8. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (dir. David Yates)


Did the final Harry Potter book, Deathly Hallows, necessarily need to be split into two movies? Probably not. But doing so gave each film room to breathe, and the result was an action-packed, high-stakes finale for the highest-grossing franchise of all time. It could have been a limp entry in the series (like Goblet of Fire), but instead it soared, functioning on all cylinders and delivering the goods in a manner that was certainly satisfactory for fans like me. Sure, it could have delved more into Snape's (Alan Rickman, the franchise's MVP) backstory with Lily Potter (Geraldine Somerville) instead of including the "we're all grown up!" epilogue (it was tacky in the book, and its tacky here too). But this was the filmmaking team putting everything together one last time, and everyone seemed to be giving it their all. The resulting film was a fantastically fun end to the series, and a great thing to enjoy before the franchise is inevitably "rebooted" in 10-20 years.

7. Beginners (dir. Mike Mills)


It seems that every year, I come across a film that I see at just the right moment in my life. When I went to see Beginners last summer, someone close to me had recently come out of the closet, and I found myself at the end of long relationship wondering what would come next. What I saw in Mills' very personal film, about a man, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), whose father (Christopher Plummer) comes out to him and is diagnosed with cancer, was also personal to me. This is cutesy in a very-indie way (not surprising, considering Mills is married to none other than Miranda July), but never overbearingly so. What makes it work so well is that it has a beating heart in McGregor, Plummer, and Melaine Laurent, who plays Oliver's love interest Anna. This is a film about how you're never too old to realize yourself and be happy, and its a lovely mini-marvel.

6. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (dir. Rupert Wyatt)


There was absolutely no reason to have any expectations for this film at the beginning of the year. The original Planet of the Apes has gained some notoriety as a "masterpiece," but its really an overglorified but still fun B-movie, the sequels were far from great, and Tim Burton's 2001 remake has its merits but its ultimately a disappointment. But something incredible happened here: Rise turned out to not just be good, but really good, easily the best entry in this unlikely franchise. The reason for this comes from two men, neither of whom ever appear onscreen. Wyatt, who only had one director's credit prior to this, proves himself to be a masterful action director; just check out that brilliant breakout sequence and siege of San Francisco. The other is Andy Serkis, who plays Caesar the chimpanzee in motion-capture. Though James Franco, Frieda Pinto, and John Lithgow fill out the human cast, this is Caesar's story, and Serkis plays him as an all-too-human tragic figure, abandoned and then leading a resistance. These two, combined with some truly remarkable visual effects, made this the surprise of the year.

5. The Ides of March (dir. George Clooney)


There was perhaps no better year for this underrated political morality play to premiere. With the circus that is the Republican debates proving (among other things) that no one is politics is beneath attacking one another, the time seemed right for a twisty political thriller. The Ides of March, based on co-screenwriter Beau Willimon's play Farragut North, takes place in the days before an Ohio Democratic primary, where Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) and his crack campaign staff headed by Steve (Ryan Gosling) and Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are seeking a critical victory. However, things get out-of-hand as secrets are revealed, and Steve has to decide whether he should stay on the Morris campaign or defect to his opponent's camp. There's a lot of turmoil here, as power corrupts before its even attained. The moral: nobody makes it in politics without getting blood on their hands.

4. Young Adult (dir. Jason Reitman)


This was the year of "women behaving badly," between the antics of the Bridesmaids to Jennifer Aniston's Horrible Bosses to Cameron Diaz being a Bad Teacher. But no female character was more deliciously and heartbreakingly irredeemable than Mavis Gary, Charlize Theron's ghost-writing, Diet-Coke-and-whiskey-swilling, homewrecking character in Young Adult. This film, written with deep-cutting humor by Juno scribe Diablo Cody, takes on the hard truth of growing up and undiagnosed mental illness, as Mavis decides to win back her high-school sweetheart Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), who's now married with a new baby. Theron is smart enough to understand the character and play her without looking for sympathy or empathy, and everyone around her both acknowledges and encourages her issues. The film's humor comes almost in spite of itself, deftly walking the line between comedy and tragedy from beginning to end. Mavis may not be a good person, but her travails definitely make for a terrific movie.

3. Weekend (dir. Andrew Haigh)


The concept is simple: Russell (Tom Cullen) goes to a gay club in his native Nottingham, picks up Glenn (Chris New), and the two have a one-night stand that becomes something more. And Haigh wisely takes a minimalist approach with this film, avoiding contrivances and cliches and instead letting these two simply exist with each other. This couldn't have been a better choice: Cullen and New have the best chemistry of any on-screen couple this year, and watching the two of them interact is captivating. This is an intimate film that focuses almost exclusively on its characters, allowing us to get to know them as they get to know each other. The love that develops between them is crushing, and by the end you can't help but hope to see them again soon. It's perhaps the best film about a random romantic encounter since Before Sunrise.

2. Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin)


The title is in itself the central mystery of the film: who are the women? They are all, in fact, the same woman, as played by Elizabeth Olsen, who becomes involved with a cult in the Catskills and escapes to live with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and her husband (Hugh Dancy). But is Martha, known as Marcy May in the commune and Marlene over the phone, again Martha once she escapes, or is she still Marcy May? Or, more frightening, is she none of the above? Durkin's film is a masterful, complex, and beautifully shot and acted rumination on identity, and he proves himself to be one to watch. So does Olsen, who's remarkably subtle in her performance and completely engrossing; you'll never take your eyes off her, even as the emptiness in her eyes dares you to. The film also provided the most indelibly creepy and hypnotic sequence in film this year: Patrick's (a magnificent John Hawkes) rendition of "Marcy's Song" as everyone gathers around to listen. MMMM is a quiet film, but it will haunt you long after its over.

1. Drive (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)


The first time I saw Drive (I ended up seeing it three times; I rarely see a movie more than once in theaters), the first thing I did was get on iTunes and bought the soundtrack. I proceeded to burn that soundtrack to a disc, and then put that disc in my car's CD changer, where it has resided ever since. This is not just a testament to the awesome soundtrack - easily the year's best - but also to the visceral thrills I experienced during the movie, which I (safely) relive every time I drive. Ryan Gosling's Driver is an old-school movie hero, strong and silent, a Man With No Name for our times. Carey Mulligan radiates as an inadvertent femme fatale, with a earnest Oscar Isaac as her ne'er-do-well husband who ends up in a situation way over his head. It really shouldn't have so surprising that Albert Brooks could be convincingly menacing as a gangster with a ruthless streak, but no expected that even Sons of Anarchy's Ron Perlman and Bryan Cranston - Walter White himself - would think twice before crossing him. The real star of the film, though, is Refn's slick direction, giving the film a contemplative gloss while still providing some truly shocking moments of brutal violence, as well as cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel's gorgeous night-cityscapes and editor Mat Newman's tight cutting. Oh, and that effortlessly cool and instantly iconic soundtrack, of course.

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And for those of you who are curious, here's a full ranked catalogue of everything I saw from this year, starting at what just missed the Top 10.

11. Super 8
12. The Help
13. Attack the Block
14. Midnight in Paris
15. Jane Eyre
16. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
17. Crazy, Stupid, Love
18. Bridesmaids
19. The Muppets
20. Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol
21. Take Shelter
22. Source Code
23. Rango
24. Hugo
25. Horrible Bosses
26. The Future
27. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
28. Red State
29. Cars 2
30. The Adjustment Bureau
31. A Better Life
32. Cold Weather
33. Thor
34. Paul
35. Battle: Los Angeles
36. Bad Teacher
37. The Conspirator
38. J. Edgar
39. Sucker Punch
40. The Green Hornet
41. Cowboys & Aliens

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