The Best Films of 2011
2011 has served as a rather complicated year for cinema. Hollywood witnessed one of the least attended years since the mid-1990's. The top ten grossing movies of the year were all derived from comic books or sequels. Many of these sequels performed poorly in comparison to their predecessors (e.g. Pirates 4, Kung Fu Panda 2, Transformers 3, Happy Feet 2), begging explanation as to why they are continuously made even if the demand for them within the domestic market has dried up. (However, their grosses overseas have made most of these films profitable). "The Help" and "Bridesmaids" demonstrated the strength of female audiences and the benefit of word of mouth this past summer. The awards season has been littered with over bloated fare that have performed rather poorly, and, unlike last year's "King's Speech" or "True Grit," no massive hit has emerged from the pack. There were several films this year that posed interesting perspectives to themes on human relations, even though many of these have been ignored by the Academy.
1. "Drive"--Nicolas Refn's adaptation of James Sallis' novel takes viewers on a winding, high-intensity tour through the streets of Los Angeles, as we follow a stunt driver (given no name during the course of the film) who helps a neighbor with one last heist. The heist goes terribly wrong and the characters are faced with an intricate web of relationships and vindictive vengeance to navigate themselves out of a seemingly impossible situation to resolve. With a star turn from the smoldering Ryan Gosling and a subtle, yet evil Albert Brooks, "Drive" is a film of images. The film has slight dialogue and the bass 1980's synth pop created for the soundtrack adds a flair to the numerous scenes of fast cars in the fast streets of Hollywood. The Danish director has crafted an ode to Hollywood car chase cinema (most notably "Bullitt") that surpasses all of the films emerging from Hollywood in the past year.
2. "The Artist"--To think that the most innovative movie of the year was a black and white silent film about Hollywood in the 1920's seems far-fetched, but French director Michel Hazanavicius (best known for a series of spy romps) has managed such a feat. Following the antics of a matinee idol, played to delightful effect by the dashing Jean Dujardin, the film, much like "Singin in the Rain," analyzes the shifts of film-making from a silent method of production to new sound technologies and the careers which this innovation ended. The star of the film is the Jack Russell terrier named Uggie, who was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With a brilliant score that references the love theme from bernard Herrmann's score to Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and some of the most interesting sound effects editing of the entire year, "The Artist" succeeds as the year's most loving homage to cinema.
3. "Hugo"--Martin Scorsese wanted to direct a film that his young daughter could watch without censorship and, within the acclaimed fillmmaker's oeuvre, that is simply not possible with the violence of his gangster films or the subtle sophistication of his literary adaptations. "Hugo," however, allows audiences to revel in the early days of cinema in France--a period that far precedes the 1920's of "The Artist." The movie has been divisive for some, but the film is a touching evocation of Paris in the decade after World War I, as Georges Mélies toils in a toy shop in the Gare Montparnasse. His career faded into oblivion by 1914, and the film follows as a young orphan, who sets the clocks in the train station, helps revive the career and memory of the aging Melies (played to the hilt by Sir Ben Kingsley). With wonderful footage of Mélies' films contained, "Hugo" succeeds as bringing a period of cinema seemingly consigned to the wastebin of history vibrantly back to life.
4. "Midnight in Paris"--Woody Allen's latest film has been the most successful critically and commercially since his apex in the 1980's. In an imaginative tale of an American writer in Paris, the film navigates around the meanings of nostalgia and Paris' importance to the psyche of American novelists for the past century. When Gil, played by Owen Wilson in his everyman sensibilities, discovers that at the stroke of midnight on a certain street of Paris one can actually travel back in time and have drinks with Fitzgerald, Dali, Gertrude Stein, or Josephine Baker. The film ends by telling us that nostalgia has its pitfalls and dangers and makes us miss the pleasures of our present, a point of prescience that Allen would not have necessarily made in the 1970's, but Allen has matured and blossomed in this new stage of his career.
5. "Bridesmaids"--When I first saw the preview of this film, I was convinced that it was nothing more than a tired derivation of "The Hangover" in order to lure in female audiences. I was wildly incorrect, however. Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo have created a delighful, if raunchy, wedding comedy that innovates by having few male characters (save for Wiig's love interest) in a film about matrimony. And it is a platitude that women care more about nuptials than men, but weddigns can also strain the relationships of female friends and break apart bonds through the act of marrying two other individuals. With a supporting cast of talented improv artists, "Bridesmaids" may usher in a bold sea change in Hollywood where women can call the shots in the usually male-dominated world of comedy.
6. "Melancholia"--Lars von Trier's oeuvre is dedicated to women on the edge, females unable to cope in a world where their personal situations have become unbearable. From "Dancer in the Dark" to "Dogville," Trier has taken on women ambivalent towards the men in their lives and "Melancholia is no different, except this time the world is about to end as a large planet is about to collide with the earth. Kirsten Dunst, in the best performance of her career (but it's still Dunst, so it's not that good), has married someone, while this planet is hurtling towards our planet. The family's last hours are dedicated to fighting and attempting to resolve familial issues to no avail. The opening and ending montages are particularly striking and gorgeous.
7. "Tree of Life"--There are numerous ties between Trier's film and Terence Malick's meditation on life, earth and even dinosaurs (yes, T. Rex and brachiosauruses!): gorgeous cinematography and haunting scores and attempting to answer all of the philosophical questions of life in one film. Malick who has made only a handful of films in his long career has attempted to fashion a history of the world through the narration of one family's troubled domestic space in 1950's heartland America. The movie grates on the nerves of many filmgoers for being pretentious, and it is most certainly that, but the film tells a haunting tale of the perseverance of violence through networks of kinship as resentment replaces the ability to communicate effectively.
8. "Shame"--British artist Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the now dead American actor) has been known for a body of work (much of it video art) analyzing oppression, usually deploying humor, in the UK. His first film, "Hunger," retold the story of a hunger strike among Irish political prisoners in Thatcherite Britain. "Shame" looks at the effects of an obsession with sex on the psyche of a man who cannot build sustainable relationships. The film ventures into territory that can be interpreted as sex-phobic, but McQueen is not dismissing the sexual acts as problematic but this character's inability to relate beyond the orgasm and the emptiness he faces in a life with no true emotional attachments and only a vast collection of porn.
9. "The Help"--Many believe this feel-good movie should be called "Makes White People Feel Good About Racism," and it is true that the movie like the Kathryn Stockett novel upon which it is based is deeply problematic. I don't understand why the maids in the movie would agree to be interviewed, when they would have faced persecution and perhaps even death from the fact that they spoke of their white employers in less than glowing terms. The cast of actors, most especially Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, have been able to fashion characters far more profound than anything Stockett was able to write. Davis gives a profound performance that elicits emotional responses from the audience in a deeper way than anything Spielberg has created in the last decade.
10. "The Descendants"--I believe Alexander Payne's new film is deeply flawed: his main character faces little emotional growth over the course of the film and to have the work's main conflict be between a man and his comatose wife leads to a very one-sided approach to marital discord. In a stronger year of cinema, this movie would not have made my list, a rather sad fact of this year in cinema. The film does treat Hawaii as the colonized space that it is, analyzing the effect of such a tropical space on its colonial elite as their decadence begins to wear on the islands. I did appreciate that attention to political context, usually devoid in any film about white people in Hawaii.
(I do, however, admit that I have yet to see the Iranian film, "A Separation," or the trans-drama "Pariah")