2011 was a peculiarly reminiscent year for my favorite movies. Maybe it’s because my age is rapidly approaching the Hitchhiker’s answer to The Big Question. Maybe we are at the cusp of a generational shift, wherein a perfect storm of technology, distribution platforms, and expanding thematic material have led us back to a cultural wild wild west like we have not seen since the Corman generation. Some films hearkened back to the tone of the 1970’s & 80’s films on which I was raised, films created by that film school educated Corman generation: Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, Spielberg et al. Some featured staple characters of the era: bands of felt and fur, buddy cops, and fringe-dwelling loners. Other films were created by luminaries whose 70’s and 80’s films aided in my nerd evolution: Woody Allen, Werner Herzog, and Pedro Almadovar all hit career highlights in 2011.
10. THE GUARD, written & directed by John Michael McDonagh. McDonagh’s brother Martin wrote and directed IN BRUGES, another stand out film for Brendan Gleeson, which makes me wonder what growing up in their house must have been like?! Gleeson plays County Galway police sergeant Gerry Boyle, a drunken whoring embarrassment of a cop, who realizes he is the one cop in his precinct who is not on take from local drug smugglers. Don Cheadle plays the Felix to Gleeson’s Oscar, FBI agent Wendell Everett. The interplay between these two powerful actors, so natural at their craft that they make delivering award-worthy performances seem easy, reminded me how long it’s been since we’ve had a really good buddy cop movie. Gleefully politically incorrect dialogue, some very unexpected dramatic twists, and a perfectly balanced tone of raunchiness and danger make THE GUARD a more enjoyable experience than a summer full of franchises.
9. THE MUPPETS, directed by James Bobin & RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, directed by Rupert Wyatt. The Muppets and the Apes were as much a part of my upbringing as STAR WARS. It is a great personal joy for me to see both return this year in a style befitting their positions in the nerd pantheon. The Muppets continue to load a cannon full of chickens and fire it at the fourth wall, and the Apes allegorically respond once again to the social and political climate in which they find themselves. It is an entirely different joy to see both return in a manner that hands the baton to a new generation, a direction that will hopefully lead to continued adventures. I’ve heard plenty of fans complain that these films are not up to their predecessors, that our 70’s and 80’s childhoods are somehow being tainted and capitalized upon; I couldn’t disagree more. The movies with Roddy McDowell in Ape make-up and Jim Henson operating Kermit have not gone anywhere. Our childhood is intact. It’s someone elses turn; if you grew up loving these characters, love them enough to let them go. Lose your cargo shorts and Metallica t-shirt, put on some long pants and a shirt with a collar, and take your kids to see the elder statesmen (statesmuppets? statesmonkeys?) of American fantasy films.
8. MONEYBALL, directed by Bennett Miller. written by Stan Chervin, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. I expected MONEYBALL to be good, but not that it would be a singular story within baseball films, and sports films in general. Miller shows the same sure-handed direction that he did with CAPOTE, similar to Eastwood at his best, allowing each moment to resonate without dragging. Miller’s style is a perfect match for for Zailian’s pace and Sorkin’s dialogue. Though Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) observes the tendency to romanticize baseball, there is very little thrill-of-the-grass here. This movie lives and breathes in the florescent lit cinderblock offices and conference rooms beneath the stadium. MONEYBALL has more in common with the verbal brinksmanship of THIRTEEN DAYS than it does with other sports movies. By the time the story turns to the action on the field, we have become so familiar with the head aches and heart attacks it took to get there, that the loses sting more deeply and the wins are joyous but nonetheless emotionally draining.
7. CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, written & directed by Werner Herzog. I have been a devout fan of Werner Herzog since a revival screening of NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (which I attended for extra credit in my high school German class) set me on a path of following him to corners of the world and the mind where most filmmakers fear to tread. In the past decade or so I’ve come to appreciate Herzog’s documentaries even more than his narrative films. His blatantly honest and provocatively insightful presence as interviewer and commentator makes his docs a unique experience in the field of nonfiction film. Here he has chosen to use the 3-D format to render one of those remote corners that most of us will never ever get to see, and in greater detail than we ever could have hoped for. The titular caves are in rural France, and contain probably the earliest known examples of cave drawings by prehistoric man. Leave it to Herzog to take an art form so untested that many still see it more as a commercial ploy than a tool of a “serious artist” and use it to explore the most ancient form of human storytelling.
6. 13 ASSASSINS, directed by Takashi Miike. Being a fan of Takashi Miike can be as frustrating an experience as being a Prince fan. These are two such relentlessly creative forces that their output frequently tasks our ability to process all of it. Their work is usually very good, but occasionally mediocre; often when they do something amazing, they’re already two or three projects further down the road by the time we realize it! 13 ASSASSINS is as impressive as Miike’s manic ICHI THE KILLER, but it also contains the gnawing reservedness of AUDITION. When samurai ultra violence erupts, bodies fly and blood spatters like a hurricane. In between those battles though, we are treated to vividly drawn character moments worthy of Kihachi Okamoto. Of course Miike had already completed two features and a television pilot, and was shooting another feature and in pre-production on yet another, by the time 13 ASSASSINS opened in the U.S.
5. THE TREE OF LIFE, written & directed by Terrence Malick. A movie theater in Connecticut reportedly taped a sign inside their box office informing patrons that there would be no refunds for people who do not understand THE TREE OF LIFE. I love Terrence Malick for maintaining the same elegiac vision that frustrated a legion of moviegoers who expected a Pacific Theater companion to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN from the trailers for THE THIN RED LINE. This movie really is nowhere near as challenging as some make it out to be. It is simply the story of the O’Briens, an average family in an average Texas town, with three average children growing up in the 1950’s. What sets it aside from a litany of other coming of age films is that Malick chooses to focus on quiet moments of genuine personal epiphany rather than the same tired big family gathering events that stereotypically drive these stories. We are told very little, but we are shown everything, if we pay attention. My favorite example of this is a sublime moment after Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt, having a damn good year!) threatens his family and evicts his sons from the dinner table. The dinner table has been a standard symbol of the family in so many films. When Mr. O’Brien sits back down to his dinner following the uproar, he does not scoot his chair to the table, he yanks to entire table to his chair. If you cannot understand the significance of the gesture in that image, I wouldn’t give you a refund either!
4. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, written & directed by Woody Allen. It is so great to see Woody Allen back to form. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS contains so much of what has marked his most endearing and enduring comedies: the fantasy of PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, the literacy of LOVE & DEATH, the cultural hero worship of PLAY IT AGAIN SAM, the cinematic visual acuity of SHADOWS & FOG, the free spirited romance of VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA, and the colorfully drawn characters and vivid use of locations from a dozen New York stories. Not content to simply repeat what he is so good at, Woody uses the framework of a standard time travel fantasy to reflect on reconciling oneself with the past, and deliver a little hope to hopeless romantics everywhere.
3. THE SKIN I LIVE IN, written & directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Holy $#!+ Almodóvar is a mad genius?!? Aside from his own impressive resume, I dig him for rescuing my hero Guillermo del Toro from the Hollywood system, by bringing Guillermo to Spain and producing some of his best films. Now Almodóvar raises the bar for intelligent horror so far that even Guillermo must be awe struck. THE SKIN I LIVE IN has elements of EYES WITHOUT A FACE and the nervous energy of early Cronenberg, but the psyche-bending sexual politics and tragic performances are pure Almodóvar. Many Americans, and perhaps many in the international audience, were first introduced to Antonio Banderas by several Almodóvar films in the 1980’s. Happily, Almodóvar’s best film in years also affords him the opportunity to present Banderas with his most challenging role in years. THE SKIN I LIVE IN is that rare kinky quirky celebration of unsettling oddity and plain otherness that I could only recommend to a select type of movie fan; if you have an open mind and indelicate sensibilities, you’ll be in for a helluva ride.
2. DRIVE, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Refn has batted it out of the park yet again. Whether stalking the earth through the eyes of a Danish drug pusher, a one-eyed Viking crusader, a frequent customer of the British penal system, or a Hollywood stunt driver, Refn has an acute ability to explore the inner life of violent men. His judicious delivery of only the information we absolutely need allows DRIVE to sidestep most standard “action movie” cliches, focusing instead on the soul of a man who is comfortable driving 100mph on surface streets, but who is out of his element trying to hold a simple conversation. We don’t need to know why the Driver (Ryan Gosling, also having a damn good year!) is so capable of unleashing skull crushing fury, only that he can, and will. Something in his life has led him excel at driving and close-quarter hand to hand killing. The vast majority of disposable crime movies would give him PTSD military flashbacks, or a reluctant monologue detailing past personal experience with abuse. Instead DRIVE gives us a man who for whatever reason has these abilities, and finds himself tasked with conflicting options to use them, as well as the question of whether that use will make him a villain or a hero. I’ve heard that James Sallis, on whose novel DRIVE is based, has written a sequel that picks up with Driver six years later. Here’s hoping for another movie; Gosling as Driver just might be the coolest antihero since Kurt Russell wore an eyepatch.
1. CITY OF LIFE & DEATH, written & directed by Chuan Lu. I am cheating here to a degree, but also reiterating my 13 ASSASSINS point about international release dates. This movie opened in China in 2009, and played in many other countries and international film festivals throughout 2009 and 2010. The U.S. limited theatrical release did not happen until this year. Scheduling doesn’t matter, CITY OF LIFE & DEATH is one for the ages. The only thing that kept the story from crushing me was the awe that I felt for Chuan Lu’s filmmaking skill. The film follows civilian of Nanjing and Japanese soldiers who invaded in 1937. Masterful black and white cinematography simultaneously recalls Movietone news reels, rule defining textbook films like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, and rule smashing cinéma vérité luminaries like BATTLE OF ALGIERS. The sound design is every bit as ambitious and unnerving. This is not simply one of the most intense war movies I can think of, it is one of the most flawlessly realized films in any genre that I have ever seen.
PLUS A FEW OTHER FAVORITES:
THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU Love is God, God is Love, and you can experience both if you have the right hat.
THE ARTIST I’m so happy that this large an audience and critical mass has embraced a silent film. This should send a message to The Powers That Be that audiences will accept something out of left field as long as it’s good … and has a puppy in it!
ATTACK THE BLOCK makes SUPER 8 look like THE GOONIES.
COLOMBIANA Yes Luc Besson has taken us here before, but Zoe Saldana just might be the bad@$$ love child of Pam Grier and Charles Bronson.
CRAZY STUPID LOVE Like I say, Gosling having a helluva year!
THE DEBT Raise your hand if you knew this was a remake.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK Hey, someone still has to champion Hammer style horror films, and I’m just the nerd to do it!
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO See, not all remakes suck, give ’em a chance.
THE HEDGEHOG This is the love story that ONE DAY and LIKE CRAZY advertised themselves as being.
THE MAN NOBODY KNEW To me the hallmark of a good liberal is one who questions his own ideology as vigorously has he does those with whom he disagrees. Carl Colby is my kind of liberal.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE This is why we have film festivals. Hollywood does what they do, sometimes they even do it well, but it’s very reassuring to see that a movie like this can find an audience.
MELANCHOLIA I know you’re not really a Nazi, Lars, and I’ll always love you for stirring the $#!+storm.
RANGO the Man With No Name wanders into CHINATOWN, disguised as a lizard. What’s not to love?!
WAR HORSE I was totally unprepared for Spielberg to use this story to send a valentine to John Ford and Cecil B. DeMille.
WARRIOR God bless Nick Nolte. I doubt he’ll win his Oscar nomination, but I’m so glad they at least acknowledged him.