Well, another year remains in a blur and in the fragile haze of January 1st I shall christen this blog with its first post. A cinematic year in review. The best films of 2011 as chosen by me, a guy who sees a lot of movies. Let the countdown begin.
10. 50/50 (Jonathan Levine)  – USA
One of the more anticipated films of the year, 50/50 did not disappoint. The ever-popular Joseph Gordon-Levitt teams up with funnyman Seth Rogen to give a portrait of a young man struggling against cancer that is at times candid, honest, sentimental, inspiring and often very funny.
Status: I laughed, I cried; it moved me, Bob.
9. Moneyball (Bennett Miller)  – USA
Brad Pitt eats a lot of nuts in this film.
I don’t even like baseball. I barely consider it a sport. I played baseball all through junior and high school until I realized, somewhere around grade 11 that baseball sucks and I hate it. But there’s still something inexplicably nostalgic about it. Like the film’s Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) says, “It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.” Billy Beane is the General Manager of the Oakland A’s, one of the MLB’s poorest teams. Tired of having his best players poached by the Yankees and the Red Sox and competing against teams with more that three times his own team’s budget, he enlists the help of a young statistician (Jonah Hill) to rebuild his team on a budget. From master screenwriters Steve Zaillian (American Gangster, Mission: Impossible, Schindler’s List, to name a few) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, The West Wing), this inspired-by-true-events film manages to make the business of baseball absolutely fascinating. It offers a glimpse into the world of managers, money, and scouts that is rare to see inHollywood.
Status: Much more entertaining than standing in right field not doing anything for 2 1/2 hours.
8. A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) (Asghar Farhadi)  – Iran
The shining Leila Hatami as Simin.
An Iranian family melodrama about a middle-class couple’s pending divorce and an argument with a poor family that escalates out of control. …What’s that? You’d rather watch cars race fast and then explode? Try Drive Angry with Nicolas Cage (which also includes a fully-clothed sex scene — the best kind!). In all seriousness, though, this film is an achievement in subtlety and realism that is nigh on unmatchable. Where most films cut around the intricacies of daily life, Farhadi dives right in to them, using the little moments that make up the day to build his film into a thoroughly-engaging portrait of an Iranian household. It’s a mystery at heart, but a mystery framed in such a way that, even though we watched the event in question happen and saw everything leading up to it, we still don’t really know anything. Who is to blame? What did we see? Will we ever get closer to the truth or will the more we uncover simply take us further away from certainty? The film has already picked up a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Fest (as well as Silver Bears for literally the entire cast, who bloody well deserved it!), a Golden Globe nomination, and will be my pick for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2012.
Status: Existential crisis.
7. The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) (Pedro Almodóvar)  – Spain
Dark, twisted, frightening, engaging: Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar (Volver, Bad Education) delivers a psychoanalyst’s dream. Antonio Banderas plays a plastic surgeon who is trying to create a synthetic skin that will withstand fire and pain. He experiments on the beautiful Vera (Almodóvar favourite Elena Anaya) who he keeps locked in a room in his estate. Dealing with themes of obsession, gender, identity, revenge, memory, insanity, it’s difficult to say more about it without giving stuff away. Let’s just say that Antonio Banderas is back, oozing his patented sexual charms, but this time in a creepy I’m-going-to-do-horrible-things-to-you sort of way.
6. The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)  – Belgium/France/Italy
The stunningly simple story of Cyril (Thomas Doret), a disenfranchised 11-year old who has been abandoned by his father (Jérémie Renier). He finds a home of sorts in weekend foster care with a well-intentioned hairdresser (Cécile De France) but still longs for the father he so idealizes. The Dardenne brothers never pander, never solicit our affections, never caricature. There are no “movie characters” in this film, only people. Like the aforementioned A Separation, this film is so perfectly natural it could be a documentary. It owes much to François Truffaut’s seminal film The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups), but then again, what film about childhood doesn’t?
Status: “He who mocks the infant’s faith / Shall be mock’d in age and death. / He who shall teach the child to doubt / The rotting grave shall ne’er get out.” (That’s right. William-fucking-Blake. Taken completely out of context to supplement a halfways-passable movie review.)
5. Hugo (Martin Scorcese)  – USA
I went into Hugo as a huge fan of the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. And let me tell you how much jizz was in Selznick’s pants when he heard that Martin-fucking-Scorsese was going to direct the film adaptation of his book. Because Selznick loves the movies. Adores them. Would marry them if they were a single, gender-specific entity and I didn’t already have dibs. The winner of the 2008 Caldecott Medal, the book is told in alternating sections of pictures and prose. And while his pencil-sketch drawings are good and do have a certain aesthetic to them, they’re not great. They’re basically just a storyboard for a film. So when you’ve got Martin Scorcese (one of the greatest directors of our time) and Robert Richardson (one of the greatest cinematographers of our time – google that muthafucka, seriously) in charge of your visuals, it’s gonna be a hell of a lot better-looking than some guy with a pencil can make it.
Set in a Paris train station in the 1930s, we follow Hugo (Asa Butterfield), the orphan son of a clockmaker who steals parts from a toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley) to fix a mechanical man that his father (Jude Law) had found before his untimely demise. The film adaptation follows the book very closely, dropping only a small character arc in favour of creating a new one for Sacha Baron Cohen’s Station Inspector that is actually quite satisfying.
The film ends up being a very engaging history lesson on the advent of the silent film. All of the history in the film is factual, with work from silent film greats like Harold Lloyd, Edwin S. Porter, Georges Méliès, Thomas Edison, Buster Keaton, and the Lumière brothers (among others) appearing. As a huge silent film fan myself, I had to clamp my mouth shut with my fingers to refrain from shouting “SAFETY LAST!” at the screen or grabbing the person next to me and stage-whispering “BusterKeatonBusterKeatonBusterKeaton! That’s The General! Did you see that movie??”
Status: Jizz in my pants. And on my copy of the book. Now the pages stick together, shit.
4. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)  – USA
Ryan Gosling just oozing sexiness, taking his cues from Clint Eastwood's reticent Man With No Name.
The only way Ryan Gosling could get any cooler is if he married Nicolas Cage and they both starred in Drive Angry 2: The Reckoning wherein they grip each others hands, say “I love you” and drive off a cliff. … Or he could just keep doing what he’s doing. He took a bit of a break after Lars and the Real Girl (2007), but he’s been spectacular since returning last year in Blue Valentine, appearing in Crazy, Stupid, Love., Drive, and The Ides of March, and already has three films pending (including another round with Nicolas Winding Refn in Only God Forgives and a place in art-house master Terrence Malick’s new film Lawless).
LEST YE BE MISLED… [Like the Michigan woman who is suing FilmDistrict (the company who produced Drive‘s trailer) because there was “very little driving in the motion picture” (unlike the trailer had suggested to her)]… this is not a quote-unquote “action film.” It’s an ultra-cool art-house drama with a hip, 80s-inspired soundtrack about a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for various criminals, kinda-maybe falls in love with his sexy neighbor (Carey Mulligan), and gets mixed up in some deep mafia-type shit.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising, Bronson, the Pusher trilogy), the film has more in common with Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï than The Transporter. It’s slow, ponderous, beautifully shot by Newton Thomas Sigel, and focuses more on existential crisis than on cars that race fast and then explode.
Status: Despite the best of your intentions, getting a shiny scorpion jacket will not make you as cool as Ryan Gosling. But it will make you cooler than you used to be.
3. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)  – France/Belgium
Even more glorious silent film magic than the aforementioned Hugo, The Artist is an honest-to-god silent film. As in the actors don’t talk. As in dialogue is spelled out using intertitles. Set in Hollywood in 1927, Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent film mega-star who scoffs at the idea of “talkies” ever catching on. I think we all know how that story ends, even if we haven’t seen Sunset Blvd. So a silent film about silent films becomes, I guess, a meta-silent film.
Now, when your brain watches a silent film, it will often go through something of an adjustment period. Kind of like watching Shakespeare, it takes your mind 10 or 15 minutes to adjust to silent film “language.” Adjusting to no dialogue, minimal sound effects, archaic cinematography techniques, and the weird displacement of reading dialogue after it’s been “spoken” is very taxing to viewers with 7-second attention spans. But Hazanavicius knows what the hell he’s doing. Watching The Artist is not only effortless, it’s an absolute joy. I sat, grinning like an idiot, at the highlight of my Vancouver International Film Festival experience. The film is funny, engaging, poignant, and you’ll have as much fun as Dujardin and costar Bérénice Bejo are clearly having on screen. They devour their roles with the exuberance and charisma of the old silent stars, yet their eagerness comes across as disarming rather than overwrought.
Status: The world is such a wonderful place after watching this film.
2. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)  – USA/Spain
So. Much. Nostalgia. Now, I’ve never been the loudest voice lauding the purported masterworks of Mr. Woody Allen, but this film got to me. Perhaps filtering Allen’s neuroses through the medium of Owen Wilson helped to make the film more palatable.
Midnight in Paris had a lot of press, so if the conceit of the film hasn’t already been spoiled for you, I might as well do it now. Owen Wilson plays Gil, a successful scriptwriter (i.e. Hollywood hack) who is taking a stab at his first novel. On holiday with his mega-bitch of a fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her equally bitchy parents, Gil daydreams about living in Paris in the 1920s when, lo and behold, he is magically transported back to Paris in the 1920s where he meets everybody who was ever cool (Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dali, etc.) and flirts with a pretty French girl (Marion Cotillard). Gertrude Stein critiques his novel and Hemingway gives him manly advice about death and love and shooting a lion in the face.
It’s a very silly, yet a very honest film, despite (and, in fact, because of) its hyperbole. Everyone is caricatured to just-about the point of absurdity, but not beyond. Allen pokes fun at everybody in his film, but the caricatures are done so lovingly that it’s impossible not to fall in love with Paris à la Woody Allen.
Status: I wanna go back in time, kill F. Scott Fitzgerald with a bottle of whiskey-flavoured cyanide and pretend that I wrote The Great Gatsby.
1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)  – USA
And now I must talk about Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. This is a cinematic experience unto itself. There is nothing really quite like it. At least these days. You might find some comparisons when looking at films like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Jean Cocteau’s The Testament of Orpheus. But nothing in the last decade (with the exception of maybe Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain) reaches quite this magnitude.
Now, people talk about polarizing films: “You either love it or you hate it.” I don’t think there has ever been a truer example of that. And this is probably due to its wide release and A-list actors (Brad Pitt & Sean Penn, to be precise). Because this is the art film to end all art films and a significant portion of its incidental audience was simply unprepared for it. Because this is a very unorthodox film. There is very little linear narrative in the film. Characters are developed through very subtle moments, immaculate staging, whispered narration. Working with master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, The New World), Malick creates a visual poem, ethereal and elusive and aesthetically incomparable. The film takes place ostensibly in the blink of an eye as Jack (Sean Penn) looks back on his childhood in 1950sAmerica, his strong-willed father (Brad Pitt) and his fragile mother (Jessica Chastain). The simple moments of childhood are given as much import as the origin of all life. Evolution, God, the loss of innocence, death, grief, childhood, faith, memory — the human condition is a lofty subject for anyone to tackle and such grandiose philosophizing may be labeled unfashionable or, worse still, the most dreaded adjective of all…
Pretentious: this is a word that gets thrown around a lot when talking about this film. And, to a certain extent, its use is justified. Because Malick has serious artistic pretensions. Miriam-Webster defines “pretension” as “an aspiration or intention that may or may not reach fulfillment.” So, in that sense, the pretensions are there. The fact that the film dares to have them (pretensions, that is) is not a quality worthy of scorn. The question is whether or not those artistic pretensions are fulfilled. And to determine that, you must engage with the film on its own terms.
Whether or not it is successful as a “film” is, in a sense, irrelevant if you want to call the film “pretentious.” It is a different type of criticism altogether to discuss the viewing experience of the film on an enjoyability level. The fluidity of the narrative, the now-infamous 20-minute sequence of supernovas, cells and dinosaurs, the film’s curtain call with sand, sea and sky — all these things can be discussed without delving into Malick’s philosophy (“It was boring” vs “It was beautiful”) but to do so is to sell the film short.
Status: All of my childhood is herein contained. All of it.
So that’s it. My Top 11. I’ll give 3 or 4 words for each of the next 10 on the list, just so they don’t feel left out.
12. The Trip (Michael Winterbottom)  -UK…..This is how Michael Caine speaks.
13. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (David Yates)  -UK,USA…..The end of an era.
14. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)  -USA…..Elizabeth. Olsen. That is all.
15. Beginners (Mike Mills)  -USA…..I want to go clubbing with Christopher Plummer.
16. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Takashi Miike)  -Japan…..Unnecessarily 3D.
17. Melancholia (Lars von Trier)  -Denmark,Sweden,France,Germany…..Fuck you, Lars von Trier, you’re amazing and your movie is depressing as shit. But also amazing.
18. The Future (Miranda July)  -USA,Germany…..Two words: kitty narrator.
19. Win Win (Thomas McCarthy)  -USA…..Heart. Felt.
20. Water for Elephants (Francis Lawrence)  -USA…..Fuck off I liked it. Don’t judge me.
21. Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)  -USA…..Wash your hands. Immediately.
There are a few movies that I either missed or haven’t seen yet that may eventually change this list. They are as follows.
1. A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
2. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
3. The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
4. Shame (Steve McQueen)
5. Footnote (Joseph Cedar)
6. Carnage (Roman Polanski)
7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
8. Pina (Wim Wenders)
9. War Horse (Steven Spielberg)
10. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird)