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Friday, January 20, 2012

Top 10 Week... Films of 2011

#10: Midnight In Paris

For me, there's no harder film to pick than the one that ends up #10 - it's the last one, after all, and no matter which one you choose, it means that one or two other films are being left out. I did a lot of debating about which film would take the final slot, deciding finally on Midnight In Paris, Woody Allen's charming literary fantasy. With a wonderful cast led by Owen Wilson, this funny time travel fable ensconces itself in the Paris ex-pat scene of the 1920s, celebrating nostalgia and the desire to return to times of the past, but also arguing that no time and place is so perfect that another doesn't seem better in comparison. Though not as deep as Allen's best work, it is a minor gem and a return to form after a couple of recent disappointments.

#9: Beginners

A gentle and very moving film with a message that is all the more important in 2012, as gay rights always become a more hot button issue than usual in election years. The story of a son dealing with the revelation that his father is gay (and, later, that his father is dying), the film presents an emotionally complex picture of familial and romantic relationships. Without ever passing judgment on its characters, Beginners allows them to stumble and learn, make mistakes and make things right; they aren't perfect, but they are deeply human. Written and directed by Mike Mills based on his own experiences with his father, Beginners is a film that shows that love, in whatever form it takes, is the most essential human experience.

#8: War Horse

Sentimental? Yes. Sappy? No. Steven Spielberg's WWI epic War Horse unfolds as a series of episode in the life of an extraordinary horse and the various people who from time to time call themselves his owner. It is designed to tug at your heartstrings, but it does so in a way that is not cloying but, instead, is reminiscent of films of eras past. The battle scenes, particularly the sequence at the Somme and the cavalry charge closer to the beginning, are amongst the best scenes Spielberg has ever filmed, on par with the D-Day landing sequence from Saving Private Ryan. It isn't a perfect film, but it is so gloriously and unapologetically cinematic that I just couldn't resist it.

#7: Jane Eyre

How do you adapt one of the best known English language novels ever written, which has already been adapted numerous times in film, television, radio and for the stage (not to mention the various literary retellings), and make it seem in any way fresh? If you're director Cary Fukunaga you find the perfect middle ground between radical reinvention and period stiffness and cast two dynamic performers as the protagonist and her beloved. Visually striking, wonderfully acted, gracefully directed, and boasting a screenplay that captures the strengths of the themes and characterizations that made the source so well-known to begin with, this version of Jane Eyre is everything that a literary adaptation ought to be and more.

#6: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

An amazing documentary from one of the greatest living directors, Werner Herzog. Taking us inside the Chauvet Cave, located in southern France, Herzog provides us with images that are haunting, beautiful, and positively astonishing. Closed over for thousands of years, the cave contains the earliest known cave paintings, all perfectly preserved, as well as numerous bones (some arranged in such a way as to suggest that they were used in some kind of social or religious ritual) and footprints from both animals and humans. I don't know that any cinematic image from the last year is more awe-inspiring than the image of two handprints side by side, one made 5,000 years after the other. Though Cave of Forgotten Dreams is told in a simple, unobtrusive way, it is the kind of film that will take root deep inside you and continue to stimulate your imagination ever after.

#5: The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick's deeply personal meditation on the meaning of life is a film that requires patience but that is deeply rewarding if you can stick with it. This massively ambitious film is visually stunning and features great performances from Hunter McCracken as an adolescent just starting to come into his own, and Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as the parents who represent the poles of "nature" and "grace" which he must ultimately choose between. The film, which mixes the personal (the family's grief over the death of one of their own) with the universal (the amazing fact of life itself), is one of wonder and deep feeling, spiritual without being preachy. It's a beautiful film from a masterful filmmaker.

#4: Drive

The title of Nicholas Wending Refn's destined to be cult classic refers to the occupation of its cold as ice protagonist, but it also refers to his unspoken preoccupation. Ryan Gosling's character is driven by dark desires, namely an instinct towards violence that adopts the guise of chivalry. In his own mind, this is a fairytale and he is the white knight out to rescue the damsel in distress. In reality, he is merely someone who has finally found an outlet for the violence that resides at his core - and it must reside there because it comes so readily to him. Propelled forward by the performances of Gosling and Albert Brooks, not to mention the stylish direction of Refn, Drive is a film not to be missed.

#3: The Artist

Innovation is a good thing, but there's value in old school methods as well, as Michel Hazanvicius' loving homage to silent cinema proves. Not only is the film silent, but Hazanvicius also shot it in 1.33:1 ratio to help further the look and feel of silent cinema. One of the film's most visually striking scenes involves a conversation between its two leads on a staircase which, viewed in long shot, not only shows them in relation to each other, but also shows the people moving along the landings above and below them. It may sound odd to single this out but if you see the film, you'll see what I mean: the way the scene is framed feels vaguely familiar but it's definitely not something you see very often in contemporary films. The Artist has a lot of little touches like this, all of which help add up to a pretty great (and terrifically entertaining) film.

#2: Certified Copy

Certified Copy has its roots in a gimmick but with masterful storytelling and two great leading performances, it quickly transcends this device to become something meaningful and intriguing. The premise offers few frills: two people spend the day together exploring the Tuscan countryside. At first they appear to be strangers but later it appears that they are a married couple. Were they married all along, and merely pretending to be strangers? Are they strangers who are using each other to work out the issues in their actual relationships? In putting it to us to question which relationship is real and which is fraud, writer/director Abbas Kiarostami explores the very nature of art itself.

#1: Melancholia

From its operatic beginning straight through to its exhilarating end, Lars von Trier's Melancholia is absolutely entrancing. The story of two sisters and their very different reactions to the fact that the world is on the verge of ending, the film is darkly funny, deeply moving, and, for a story about the destruction of the planet, surprisingly uplifting. Justine and Claire, the sisters played so wonderfully by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourgh, are opposites who gradually shift places in their dynamic as the fate of the world becomes inescapably clear. As the film opens, Claire is the grounded one who has control over herself while Justine succumbs to what seems like a fit of madness. As the film enters its second stage, however, it's Justine who is the grounded force who sees things for how they are and tries to bring Claire back down to Earth to face it. Plenty of films are "of the moment," but I think that Melancholia touches such deep and resonant chords that it will prove to be timeless.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Yes! Melancholia at number one, finally somebody who agrees...

I must also seek out Certified Copy in the near future; it's getting a great deal of love in the end-of-year lists.