As I slowly start to realize that the calendar year has changed (Hollywood makes that so hard when it's January\February offerings are so unappetizing), it's time to recount my favorites of the last year. Before I get to the creme de la creme of 2011, first I'd light to indulge and highlight a few favorites that didn't make my final list. Admittedly, 2011 was a bit shy in brilliant cinema, but here's a few runners-up that caught my attention and stayed with me enough:
Certainly the best full-on comedy of 2011, and at times a deeply felt portrait of depression and self hatred. Kristen Wiig co-wrote and starred in a tour de force performance that's ugly in that's utterly truthful and hysterical in its full on mania. While the film sometimes feels shapeless and edited by shards (perhaps that's understandable to a degree, what with the wide range of improv pros in its ensemble...this must have been a monster edit to condense ever line reading into something that was coherent) and wears out it's welcome by a considerable run time, Bridesmaids need not be remembered as the female Hangover, but as an entity all of its own (and a surprise 2-time Oscar nominee) showcasing a wealth of talent, at least three whoppers of comedic sequencing (the endless toast, the airplane scene and the messy bridal shopping scene) and finally an ultimate coming out party for a star that's been at the sides for to long...that would be Wiig!
My second (or third) favorite Best Picture nominee depending on the moment of the day is Martin Scorsese's loving and beautifully rendered ode to le cinema. Who else could turn something so dependent on major movie studio cash (in 3-D no less) and come up with something so utterly non-commercial and lush and an ultimate statement on film preservation. Part of the joy of Hugo is, I believe, just that-- how else could a film be so critically beloved and Oscar-approved if it wasn't directed by the medium's most loyal admirer. The slow and dithering first act finally seep into the realm of the magical when the auteur let's loose on the films (and his) most personal passion. It also helps that Ben Kingsley gives such a moving (and sadly un-nominated) performance as Scorsese's stand-in-- a passionate filmmaker obsessed with the wonders of the past and the hopes of entwining it with the future.
Few people saw Michael Rowe's provocative film from Mexico, a Cannes winner at the 2010 festival. Hardly matters, I suppose, for I'd hope the few brave moviegoers that did felt the same as me watching this difficult, raw and exposed portrait of a young woman, struck by guilt and shame, and only roused by the dangerous sexual ploys of her latest suitor. Monica del Carmen and Gustavo Sanchez Parra may never become household names, but their intimate and soulfully rendered performances charge this voyeuristic and unsettling film. Leap Year was notable, albeit only the small art house foreign language world, as a film full of sex, and that's more than true, but there's a genuine chill, not just from the content, but of the raw exposure that the actors dare to show and stillness that Rowe films it. From a synopsis that might read as the NC-17-rated dramatic version of Bridget Jones's Diary comes an almost heartbreaking story of romantic longing and baggage that separates two people. NETFLIX it!
I just saw, and just wrote about, but I can't quite shake Kenneth Lonergan's messy tapestry of a small personal tragedy woven into a greater post 9\11 mindset, thought-provoking drama. Mostly I can't shake Anna Paquin's difficult, demanding and altogether stellar performance as a self-deprecating, self absorbent, hysterical teenager rapt by hormones and guilt-- it's such an exquisitely calibrated piece of acting that one certainly hopes that it's internal PR problems don't overshadow it's legacy. That of which is a supremely flawed, but ambitious piece of filmmaking that feels all too literary and universally cinematic at once.
Every once in a while Woody Allen surprises us with something that reminds us why he is America's favorite screenwriter (or at least the Oscars) with something so undeniably charming and nimble and a perfect anecdote, not just for franchise filmmaking doldrums, but those who enjoy (and likely miss) the pitter-patter of delightfully witty banter. While I feel that Midnight in Paris was ultimately too lightweight and slightly overrated (it's Allen highest grossing film in history, unadjusted for inflation) to get a shout out on my true top ten, I still feel more than smitten with his ode to Paris and his endless ruminations of the past. For Woody Allen has never been hip, but a nerdy paean to his own neurosis-- that after a million pictures, maybe he's soften (and realized that not every one of films needs an Allen surrogate; though Owen Wilson is quite close to the model) and become playful and maybe even inventive like he was in the 80s with such confections as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Zelig again. Whatever the case, Midnight in Paris, while not transcendent is still pretty lovely.
Again with lightweight, but whatever, The Muppets was pure joy through and through, even when it stretched out farther than it needed to, and even though not quite every joke landed. The film started with the wondrous refrain, "Life's a Happy Song," and for the most part lived up to it. For me it was almost an awakening of characters I hadn't realized that I missed-- a silly and madcap caper with the best showbiz "let's go on with the show" attitude I've seen in years.
James Marsh won an Oscar for directing Man on a Wire, and his follow-up was shortlisted this year for the Academy. Unfortunately, it didn't make the final cut, but kvetching aside, Project Nim was one of the best documentaries of the last year for sure. In recounting, using clever archival footage, reenactments and actor accompaniment, Marsh made a sad, unforgiving and poignant feature about a chimp that was raised like a human in the late 1970s. While the animal abuse angle of the subject is the most emotional, the human aspect to Nim and the humanity in which his story is told is bold and unforgettable.
What with Hugo and The Artist, 2011 was quite a year for the grand homage to filmmaking. While The Artist payed tribute to the silent era, and Hugo delved even earlier, Super 8 was all about the age of Spielberg, and it was a nice and humble tribute that while may have delivered less than its blockbuster intent was a gleefully (perhaps too sincere) ode to the naivete of youthful creativity. Whatever criticisms exist, and many are quite valid, even a fan must admit, there's a dash of magic and spark of awe that lights up in remembering J.J. Abrams homemade-felt dash of 70s-seaped, Close Encounters-inspired pastiche.
How does one tell a crazy story of an ex-beauty queen who kidnapped her lover and seduced him to turn his Mormon beliefs away so they can be together. Well, one hires Errol Morris, the classiest and shrewdest American documentarian of modern times and the rest sells itself. Tabloid was a genuine contender on my top ten, and stands as one of the best documentaries of recent year. Of course the Academy wasn't going to bit...it's so weird, and playful with the subject too wild and Morris is clearly having too much fun baiting Joyce McKinney, a woman of a questionable past and perhaps even more questionable memory. The film makes perhaps an obvious, not dishonest, note about the nature of infamy in our pop culture, and McKinney, through strangeness (and perhaps high IQ) is either a knowing or naive product of such...she's now best known as a crazy broad who cloned her dog.
Most of praise of the underrated dark comedy was given to Charlize Theron's beautifully ugly comedic performance as a writer of teen lit trying to woo back her old boyfriend, as well as writer Diablo Cody's anti-Juno antihero creation. While I toast both (Theron is terrific in the role, even more specific and texture than her Oscar-winning Monster), I think the true champion of Jason Reitman's fourth feature as a director is film editor Dana E. Glauberman, whose lean finessing leaves a trim finished product without a wasted shot and with precise attention to Theron's terse and ingenious line readings. Young Adult was a strong contender for my last slot, and I almost feel remiss to include it in the also ran pile, however despite it's paltry box office and zero Oscar interest, I'm hopeful not just for the films legacy, but for the opportunity to see more of Cody's dark side and Theron's funny side...she's got a gift!