Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Top 10 Films of 2011

When you're a film critic, you try to be as objective as possible when reviewing movies. But sometimes circumstances prevent you from being 100% objective. Maybe you're cranky and irate from work, or maybe you're tired and in no mood for the latest existential masterpiece from a third-world auteur. While looking over the films of last year, it was immediately clear that the ones I responded to the most where the ones that reflected my life in 2011. Nothing that happened to me during those 12 months was especially profound nor was it anything that millions of post-graduates trying to find themselves in the land of adults after four years of playing house weren't going through as well. That is, however, where my mind was at for most of the year, and it's definitely reflected in the upcoming list: in at least half of my top 10--debatably even more--you'll find characters stuck in a rut, blindly repeating the same, terrible life choices, hoping that something, anything will change and they will finally be happy again. Reading that sentence over as I write it, maybe I wasn't objective enough with this list. But, even so, I can safely admit that watching these movies helped me. Yes, my life is still messy. No, I don't know what I want to do with the rest of my life. For a couple hours at a time, though, these movies, in their own peculiar ways, showed me that everything will eventually work itself out and I'll be okay. In short: objectivity, be damned! Now, on with the top 10 films of 2011:

10. Warrior
The rare film where I came for the beefcake but stayed for practically everything else, Warrior surprised me in multiple ways. I was surprised by Warrior's ability to ring every drop of pathos and melodrama out of the most tired clichés imaginable. I was surprised that my interest was not only sustained throughout its excessive 140 minute runtime, but after pausing it in the middle to grab a drink with friends, I cut out early so I could come back home and finish the movie. Yes, I know that last sentence is hard to believe but you heard me correctly: I declined more alcohol for Warrior. Most people will scoff at this choice, and under different circumstances I couldn't exactly blame them. But Warrior deserves massive recognition for turning what could have been extreme crap in less capable hands into the best familial melodrama of the year.

09. Scream 4
"Don't fuck with the original," Sidney, the ever-battered heroine of Wes Craven's Scream series, spouts at this installment's crazed killer. It's a lesson Hollywood has problems with, especially when it comes to horror franchises. One successful film and immediately sequels and spin-offs are planned to cash-in on the brand's recognition. Scream is no stranger to this formula, particularly since the film was under the guise of Harvey Weinstein. Yet Scream has somehow always been able to overcome the typical problems of multiple sequels. Whereas the original parodied the horror genre, the second and third films, in their own ways, became parodies of the original, further extending the brand into an interesting and original direction. More than a decade after the last film, Scream 4 revisits the original's intention: parodying the horror genre, which had undergone numerous changes in the past 11 years. The technology may be better and the teens may be more self-aware, but that doesn't prevent Scream 4 from staying true to its original intentions in new surroundings.

08. Certified Copy
Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami teams up with French living legend Juliette Binoche for this cerebral take on the romance film. Binoche meets writer William Shimell at a lecture where he's discussing his latest book, a critical analysis on the artistic worth of "certified copies" of art masterpieces. She invites him to coffee to discuss, and what begins as a normal conversation involves into something more, something which may or may not reveal their true pasts and relationship with each other. What sets Certified Copy apart from other "thesis as film" excursions into pretension are that the questions it raises--Which of the scenarios is the "original" and which are the certified copies? Does it truly matter, even if we enjoyed a copy more than the original?--are original and probing and that Kiarostami actually wants us to care about these characters as people, rather than intellectual mouth pieces.

07. Senna
Piecing together a documentary out of hours of stock footage from a decade of racing events is one thing. But piecing together a documentary out of hours of stock footage from a decade of racing events so that it flows like a narrative film and manages to be as exciting and suspenseful as the best sports dramas is another thing all together. Director Asif Kapadia works wonders with the limitations, crafting an intense look at how Brazilian outsider Ayrton Senna, met with contempt and outright derision from European Formula One racers and even the organization's president, became one of the sport's most beloved figures. As with Warrior, it probably sounds trite on paper, but the storytelling and technical work involved makes Senna a can't miss movie.

06. The Muppets
Other than a passing knowledge of them through the Muppet Babies cartoon when I was a kid, I had no real earth shattering connection to the Muppets when I went to see their much ballyhooed return to the big screen. So, while most people were disappointed that the Muppets were mostly business as usual with no "new" ideas in their comedy, I found myself marveling at the many clashing Muppet personalities, somehow working together and against each other to stage a grand comeback. What struck me most about the film, and is probably the reason I responded so strongly to the movie, was the melancholy buried deep beneath the boundless optimism of the Muppets. In a way, The Muppets is a film about a group of people whose life didn't turn out exactly as they planned: they lost touch, drifted their own ways, settled into their sad existences but never really examined if they were happy with what they were doing. Is it any wonder why this movie moved me so much, particularly during this past year?

05. Drive
Instantly iconic, effortlessly cool, stylized within an inch of its life and guided by a star-making performance from Ryan Gosling, Drive is a monstrosity of a movie (in the best way possible). It's so BIG, particularly during the final half, it makes every other 2011 film look small; how does any film dare compete with the Scorpion Jacket or the vivid, retro-feeling soundtrack floating over the film? Drive is one of the best pure moviegoing experiences of the year. From a nearly wordless protagonist to its increasingly out-of-time dream (?) sequences bookended with pure, harsh reality, Nicolas Winding Refn's joyfully plays with audiences expectations at how an action film should look. The entirety of Drive feels breezy and carefree, but it's always the easiest-looking films that have the most thought put behind them.

04. Hanna
If I was a blurb whore, I would call Hanna the best action film since Speed and leave it at that. But since I'm not, I'll offer a bit more explanation as to why I loved this movie so much. Joe Wright, known primarily for period pieces, proves that (a) he can do more than period and (b) you can meld arthouse visual flourishes with the action genre's sensibilities for a hybrid that is both unique and fascinating to watch. From the pounding, memorable Chemical Brothers score, to the long take Eric Bana fight scene, to the chase sequence on top of those stock yard crates, every bit of Hanna has been completely thought out and executed flawlessly. If all action films were this intelligent and well-made, I'd be a bigger fan of the genre.

03. Young Adult
When I saw Young Adult on a Friday afternoon in mid-December, I left the theatre feeling like I had just been punched in the stomach. What was that movie? I didn't hate it, not by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, I couldn't quite shake the cold, dark pit it had left in the bottom of my soul. I walked around the mall near the theatre, shopping for Christmas presents, and I wondered how Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) would react to all of the nonsense going around. I imagined the sneer, the look of contempt she would give these lowly shoppers, spending their sad, pathetic lives in this sad, pathetic mall. Without even realizing it, Mavis had invaded my soul, and that's what bothered me so much about the movie. Even though we are disgusted by the stupid, selfish vanity and egotism Mavis Gary represents, all of us can relate to her at least on some level. From small things to keeping up the appearance of popularity by continuously texting nonsense into your phone or sleeping with someone even though you find everything they say and feel to be utterly contemptible to something bigger like the inability to find happiness in anything, let alone the small things the people around you can and do with relative ease, Young Adult manages the tricky task of finding the reprehensible relatable. The controversial ending to Diablo Cody's masterclass of a screenplay sticks a sharp dagger into the cold, dead soul of this movie--and feels all the more alive because of it.

02. Beginners
If Young Adult was like a punch to the gut, Beginners was like pulling out a nose hair: I was in an incredible amount of (emotional) pain, and I suppressed the urge to cry for no specific reason. A lot of people compliment writers/directors on caring about their characters, but none of them can touch the amount of empathy writer/director Mike Mills feels for every single character on-screen as they find the courage to begin their lives again after setbacks or life-changing moments. Some find it easier than others, yet they all soldier on even when they want to throw the towel in. Beginners is masterful in its ability to find warmth even in the face of death, whether it's of a relationship or a literal one. It's these little glimpses of humor and life in the darker moments which make them all the more affecting and heartbreaking. A perfect mix of light and dark, Beginners is one of the best melancholic comedies you're ever likely to see.

01. Bridesmaids
It's 2012, yet comedy is still treated like a second-class art form. "Sure, Bridesmaids was funny," you'll hear pretentious arthouse snobs sneer after extolling the artistic virtues of the latest Terence Malick snooze fest, "But it's not a great film." "Oh, fuck off," is my response to these ignorant moviegoers, unwilling to even consider the fact that great doesn't always equal serious. Under the guise of a raucous, foul-mouthed gross-out comedy, Bridesmaids smartly sets itself apart from nearly every other studio-financed comedy out there by exploring serious, even potentially dark, subjects through outlandish, in-your-face, comedic set pieces. While laughing at Annie's (Kristen Wiig) numerous meltdowns, you can't help but see how fucking sad it all is. This is a woman who feels the need to compete a smug, condescending stranger at a wedding party because she's afraid of losing her best friend or who picks a fight with a 13 year old girl and calls her a cunt because she realizes just how shitty her life has become. Even the go-get-'em speech at the end, delivered to Annie by fellow bridesmaid Megan (Academy Award-nominee Melissa McCarthy), doesn't ever feel as corny as it should, delivered with good intentions and conviction by McCarthy but layered with so much comedy you don't realize how beautiful what she says is until much later. Yes, Bridesmaids is "just" a comedy, but no film in 2012--hell, at least the past five years--has opened my eyes more to the many possibilities film has to offer.


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