With the Oscars coming up this Sunday, it seemed like the last chance to post The Populist Art House’s Top 10 films of 2011.
It turned out to be a great year for film. Whereas the bigger studio productions stood strong in 2010, this past year the smaller films really made their mark. Many newer cinematic voices were heard, and old masters came back with excellent work.
So here it is, my Top 10 of 2011.
The modern American comedy may be in dire straits, but this by turns touching and hilarious film gives hope to a moribund genre. Though cancer and laughs hardly seem natural partners, a great script and an incredible performance by the rising Joseph Gordon-Leavitt make many moments into amusing exemplars for the better ways we can confront our lives and the possibility of our end. A graceful expression of the power of human connection in times of crisis.
9. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II
The fantasy epic has finally reached its cinematic conclusion, and the last film is a worthy close for a wonderful series. The stakes are sky-high and the characters who have spent seven films coming to life behave in touching, frightening, and surprising ways as the battle between good and evil descends on our beloved Hogwarts. The actors have all grown into their roles, and the excellent direction and stunning visuals combine with an enchanting darkness to create an excellent final chapter. It’s been a wonderful ride.
8. Meek’s Cutoff
A harsh and endless trek of a film, appropriate to its stripped-down story of a pioneer caravan heading west across an indifferent American wilderness. Kelly Reichardt lets her setting breath and watches as her characters study both the environment and each other in hopes of figuring out the way ahead. Michelle Williams lends an intelligent resolve to a very dire situation, and the horizon sitting across the endless plain offers no answer as to whether this journey will ever reach its destination. It’s a parable of a nation finding its path, tough yet weary, with eyes always cast toward the darkness on either side of the trail.
7. The Descendants
The central situation may not be the most relatable (don’t we all have the trouble of deciding whether or not to sell our $200 million Hawaiian land claim?), but Alexander Payne finds the humanity in every story he writes and every character he creates. The film is not so much about land as it confronting the pain left behind by ourselves and those we love, deciding whether to reject on the basis of that pain or to embrace it as part of the greater human puzzle. George Clooney is as good as he’s ever been, and Payne welcomes the beauty and slow pace of Hawaii while never letting them turn his film into a postcard.
What seems at first glance to be a simple tournament-fight flick turns out to be much more. Flailing patriarchs and lost boy soldiers take to the MMA ring because that’s really the only thing they can do. There’s a desperation and wounded masculinity in the film which speak to an age where strong men are questioning their place as civilization seems to pass them by. A resurgent Nick Nolte earns the Oscar nom he recently received, but it’s the imposing Tom Hardy who owns the film as a hurt and angry child boiling inside the body of a terrifying goliath.
The best horror film of the year, and capable of doing for physical contact what Jaws did for beach vacations. The film’s plague may wind down thanks to the realistically heroic efforts of disease fighters, but the unease does not end at the credits, nor does it stay in the theater after you leave for home. Steven Soderberg paints an anxious portrait of a world crammed together like never before, where the better aspects of our nature (making connections with the people around us, comforting those in distress) can be turned into the engines of our destruction. An all-too-plausible nightmare.
4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
A precise and engrossing old-fashioned spy flick executed to near-perfection. It wrings more tension from people sitting in chairs and listening to phones than its modernized brethren could ever get from frantic chases and overblown set-pieces. There is also a palpable sense of futility in the film that makes it all the more disturbing, a sensation felt by the waning British Empire during the Cold War that its best efforts make no difference against the rolling tide of history…a sensation of which we in America might now be getting a feel. Gary Oldman is brilliant in the lead.
Maybe it is all style. But my, what style. A visually captivating and tonally perfect blend of Far-East samurai films, Euro-art-house mood pieces, and ultra-graphic American action flicks, no film this year burned up the screen with greater intensity than Drive. Ryan Gosling adds to his impressive recent resume with an iconic “hero” who is little more than psychosis wrapped in cool, but whose simmering presence and spectacular penchant for violence make it impossible to look away from him. Also the best soundtrack of the year, hands down.
2. Take Shelter
There’s something very wrong in our world today, isn’t there? Some sneaking suspicion that one age is ending, and that a more uncertain and frightening era is about to begin. No film captured the pervasive state of modern unease better than Jeff Nichol’s eerily quiet masterwork. Michael Shannon delivers the year’s best performance as a working man plagued by dreams of a great coming storm, a powerful manifestation of a more general premonition of doom. He is not afraid of losing out on greater gain so much as losing all that he already has; that the world as he knows it teeters on the brink. As potent a contemporary artistic comment as there was in 2011.
1. The Tree of Life
A luminous and searching piece of poetic filmmaking as only Terrence Malick can produce, linking questions and events both gigantic and intimate as if there weren’t any difference between the two. Through breathtaking imagery and sublime storytelling, it blends the birth and maturation of the universe with the birth and maturation of single boy in 1950s Texas, evoking their beauties, terrors, and mysteries as pieces of the same spiritual cloth. A grand and profound work of pure cinema.
There were a lot of good films released in 2011. Here is a list of honorable mentions.
Attack the Block
Crazy Stupid Love
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Midnight in Paris
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
And here are my personal picks in the Oscar categories (only one of which stands a chance of winning, in the cinematography category)
Best Director – Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life)
Best Actor – Michael Shannon (Take Shelter)
Best Actress – Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene)
Best Supporting Actor – Albert Brooks (Drive)
Best Supporting Actress – Jessica Chastain (Take Shelter)
Best Original Shelter – Take Shelter
Best Adapted Screenplay – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Best Editing – The Tree of Life
Best Cinematography – The Tree of Life
Best Art Direction – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Best Original Score – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Best Visual Effects – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II
Strong Out of the Gate
With Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and the masterful Deadwood, creator David Milch has a rightful claim as the greatest world creator in the history of television. He takes full advantage of the medium, using the length of the televised format to lay out exquisitely detailed domains and populate them with a panorama of compelling characters who succeed and fail within the world’s finely defined parameters.
After tackling the concrete jungle of urban law enforcement and the scratch-built starter civilizations of the Wild West, Milch has now set his sights on the horse track in HBO’s Luck. A successful horse owner himself (he has two Breeder’s Cups on his mantle), it’s a world Milch knows intimately, and one where he clearly recognizes the potential to condense high-stakes human endeavors in a micro-universe where the main event starts and finishes in a matter of minutes.
And judging by the pilot episode aired last week on HBO, the project has the potential for brilliance.
There is a hint of vastness to the premier of Luck which can only be achieved through television. At least a dozen primary characters are set up and given motivations and faults that will surely take more than season to flesh out in full. They are so well-sketched, their situations so compelling, that is easy to forget that the bulk of their actions and concerns revolve around horse races.
But Milch does not get so grounded into his characters that he neglects the visceral impact of the races themselves. They are at once elegant and brutal, with majestic animals pounding their hooves against the earth with the violence of thunder. The hopes and dreams of the people who dwell within this universe ride on the speed and minor changes in direction of creatures that have no idea what kinds of fortunes they can build of the lives they can ruin. Milch knows the eternal allure of sport, the way it boils lifetimes of effort and struggle into short win-or-lose displays of competitive excellence. And when you add the ever-fascinating gambling world on top of it, it makes for some of the most rousing television I’ve seen in recent years.
Michael Mann is an excellent choice to direct the pilot and establish the show’s visual palette. Much like Deadwood, Luck is a primarily a tough guy’s showcase, and no one films smart guys with large egos and devastating flaws better than Mann. At his and the show’s disposal is one of the best male casts ever assembled on TV, with Nick Nolte and Dustin Hoffman in particular reminding us that they are still two of the most powerful screen presences around. From a motley crew of professional gamblers to a wunderkind Cajun jockey to a former track emperor just released from prison, these characters all come out of the gate and grab our interest while we know their stories will take a long time to tell, as they do in all of Milch’s work.
And if the show builds on the promise of its fantastic pilot, I’ll be along for the whole ride.
The latest entry in a very talented editor’s Cinema series. Incredible job yet again.