Thursday, February 16, 2012

Top Ten of 2011

The time has come:

Part humanistic story of a man plagued with very relevant American concerns of adequately being able to provide for his family, part paranoia tale of a person's questioning of their own sanity while terrorized by visions of a looming apocalypse.  Whatever the take, Jeff Nichols' haunting and masterfully minimalist drama never takes a side, put presents a small slice of life horror story, lead with great control and authority by a never better Michael Shannon, whose googly-eyed, ticking time bomb blue collar schmo reads achingly authentic whether staring at a nearby twister in his head or in the arms of his concerned wife (played with maternal grace by Jessica Chastain.)  The slowly built film takes its time, but builds to a simply shot, but tantalizingly chilly finale.  One of the finer American films to explore the insights of a troubling nation through the prism of an ordinary person to come around in some time.

It's difficult to shake the disturbing and often wonky baggage of Lynne Ramsay's told to the rafters film starring a spellbinding Tilda Swinton as woman coping with her culpability to a high school tragedy.  Told within a tightly structured back and forth narrative, showing the before and after in chilling ways, this may be the most divisive film on my list.  I grappled with it since first viewing, and still am honestly.  But this mad hybrid of The Omen and Elephant mixed in with own unique and inescapable aesthetic is memorable for it's messiness and inspiring when it's mad, jacked-up thrills work just right.  And Swinton's performance (sadly overlooked by the Academy) elevates and modulates the shakier sidesteps by her precise and chilly expressiveness.

An exuberant film that feels like it will collapse nearly every second on its own preciousness.  It doesn't because writer\director Mike Mills' nakedly personal and humanistic semi-autobiographical tale is told with such loving affection and acted with such tenderness, but also has a scarcely acknowledged finely-honed visual craft of its own.  A tale of son, dealing with his elderly fathers recent coming-out and his impending death, all the while embarking on a scary new relationship of his own works for because it's ensemble put so much heart and conviction, with nary a bit of sentiment.  Ewan McGregor hasn't given as heartfelt a performance since Moulin Rouge and Oscar-nominee Christopher Plummer, dare I say it, is revelatory, in a performance that confirms that life can start anew, a with joyful optimism even towards the end of ones life.  As rich and nuanced as anything this year.

The coolest film of 2011, with its tripped out music video aesthetic matched with volatile intensity and pure movie magic.  While improperly marketed to the Fast & Furious crowd when it initially opened, movie fans must admit that Nicholas Refn Winding's madly intoxicating ride will likely become cult fodder for generations to come.  Each image so precisely and elegantly staged, all steeped and dripping in classic film noir.  Each frame pretty and grimy at once, and each performance, informed line reading, sound cue, and soundtrack choice so fun and dizzy and crush-worthy and artful at once.  Ryan Gosling brings soul and conviction to his taciturn Driver, a movie stuntman with a dangerous side-job, and burns the screen with such magnitude, it feels akin to what it must have been like to experience James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause for the first time.

Michael Fassbender's performance as Brandon, the emotionally stilted big city player with a nasty sex addiction is one of the most essential and focused turns all year, and the major, not only, reason that Shame, Steve McQueen's brooding and dark film, works as potently as it does.  It hits a nerve so sharp and so strong, that even when the film bobbles from time to time, and nails the Lost Weekend-motif a bit too neatly, he leaves such an aching and intangible reality in his character, one that's most terrified of true intimacy with another.  One of the darkest and most sexually frank films to come around in some time, and while the controversy (and it's NC-17 rating) spoke much of it's content, it missed the point-- this is not an arousing piece of exploitation, but a deep meditation of a dark, unhappy person.  And one of the most absorbing, and, ahem- penetrating pieces of work this year.

Director Andrew Rossi was given unprecedented access to the mecca of mainstream media and documents the fears, agony and stress that underlines what is meant to be a New York Times journalist.  Yet this startling, super-smart and incisive documentary is perhaps one of the most relevant to come about in a while, an avid indictment of the modern world of news-making and reporting and public taste-- what happens to the world if The New York Times folds?  Rossi follows the crew who work in the trenches through and through, quietly masking their fears of tomorrow.  And yet, there's certain joy in a film that could easily read as a dry fan play, a reverie not just the troop of gifted professionals who give them all to the paper, but in the filmmaking itself.  Plus colorful and intelligent commentators like David Carr prove an inspiration to the written word any day.

There's two great sense of discovery to be held in Martha Marcy May Marlene.  The first is the great leading performance from Elizabeth Olsen, whose character of a girl trying to re-assimilate after being seduced by a cult, one such that by design lacks dimension that is delivered with such authority and movie-star in the making expressiveness.  The other is from writer\director Sean Durkin, who is in his debut feature has mounted a film of such intelligence and haunting scope and ambiguity.  The crispness of the editing, the somber but achingly realistic performances, the beautifully and chilly photography-- how could something this accomplished, and of such few first-time hiccups, be concocted by someone so new.  Whatever the magic, I eagerly await the next outing.  And Olsen's as well, who shines in a fresh ensemble cast, including John Hawkes, whose resume undone, is absolutely credible as MMMM's seducer.

He's been called many things-- misogynist, misanthrope, Nazi sympathizer-- but who would ever expect to add the romantic to the long laundry list of words to describe auteur Lars von Trier.  Especially when his tacking something like the end of the world.  Whatever happened, it needs no explanation, as long it creates more movies like Melancholia, a tender, achingly beautiful operetta that while exploring things like the apocalypse and crippling depression happen to showcase the softest side to von Trier perhaps ever.  A tale of sisters-- masterfully played by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourgh-- and a chart through the human condition of grief, anguish and romance, Melancholia is perhaps the closest 2011 ever came to something like true cinema.

Andrew Haigh's documentary-like Brief Encounter with two handsome guys from Yorkshore who share a weekend, and nothing more, of conversation, debate and sex, was the greatest romance of the year, perhaps one of the greatest in some time in it's raw honesty and deep understanding of it's characters and their place inside and out.  The transcendent nature is rooted in two contradictory ways-- one in which Haigh's revelatory feature harkens back to great Queer New Wave of the early '90s (when the likes of van Sant, Haynes and Aroki were setting the bar) but also in it's own sophistication and insight is a light to any relationship, gay or straight.  Much of the praise too must be bestowed to leading actors Tom Cullen and Chris New, both newcomers, and both who recite with such an unforced intimacy and graceful naturalism that this tightly structured chamber piece feels entirely the opposite-- lived-in and natural.

So here's the pitch:  there's this silent film, shot in black and white, one that's a throwback to Hollywood silents of yore (not just in style, but technique), oh and it's directed by a French filmmaker, starring French actors, shot in Hollywood.  Whatever the case, Harvey Weinstein new what he was doing when he snatched this joyful and playful homage to old-school cinema back at last years Cannes Film Festival.  And be grateful he did, now that everyone has a chance to revel in it's one of a kind movie magic.  What strikes first as mere pastiche, proves a heart-breaking journey of the expression of the medium itself.  Director Michel Hazanavicius doesn't shy away from his influences, but creates something special and unique in his own-- a film unabashedly in love with the possibilities and impossibilities of movie-making, and lasting piece piece of cinema in its own right.  Jean Dujardin, whose a cross between Douglas Fairbanks and Gene Kelly, has so much radiance and charm that we forget about words within minutes, and remember the great Norma Desmond quote, "We had faces then," that crazy, murderous bat would be proud.

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