We’ve already told you what to think about music and television… now we finish the Big Three with the Year in Film. We’ll break down 2011’s Best old-school Siskel & Ebert style (let’s just say there are some physical similarities… we’ll let you guess who has the brain tumor and who has the reconstructed face). Will David Simon Cowell’s obsession with Ryan Gosling win out? Will The Dilemma’s with all things Westerny? Or will an extraordinary horse ride away with both our hearts?
David Simon Cowell: 10.) Crazy Stupid Love
Obviously, some of this is my crazy stupid, but deserved, love for Ryan Gosling (although The Ides Of March didn’t make my Top Ten). But mostly, this is me searching for a comedy to put on my list. As much as I may complain about television comedy dropping off, this year’s movie comedies were abysmal. This spot could have also gone to Midnight In Paris, but the dynamic of Gosling as a scumbag looking for a father figure and Steve Carell as a father looking for his balls worked in a way that it shouldn’t have. It had some genuine laughs and characters you ultimately cared about, which in the comedy wasteland of 2011 passes for a classic.
The Dilemma: 10.) Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
You have no idea how much it pains me to put a movie with a title like this in my top ten. But that shows how fucking putrid a year this was for film. Other than my top three or four, I didn’t love any of these movies. My top ten can be divided into two categories: 1.) Hollywood films that managed to defeat my vastly low expectations to be mildly entertaining in spite of a flood of product placement, cheesy script choices, and compromised messages; and 2.) decent indie films in a stunningly dry year for that field. Whither the Sundance/Miramax revolution of the ’90s? Anyway, so yeah — this was an enjoyable action film and the best of the Mission: Impossibles (thanks, Brad Bird and J.J. Abrams). In 2011, that’s enough.
Mission: Impossible definitely deserves some credit, since the third and fourth entries are the two best, which is rare for a franchise. My choice for entertaining action fluff is:
9.) Source Code
I couldn’t be more shocked that a Jake Gyllenhall movie made the list, but he finally made his first good choice since Zodiac (also Robert Downey Jr.’s last good movie). Even if the ending was complete copout bullshit, overall Source Code took an interesting idea and executed it well. It was a fun thriller that didn’t require that you completely check your brain at the door, which this year passes for high praise.
T.D.: 9.) Our Idiot Brother
…and here’s my formulaic Hollywood comedy. As Gosling is to you, Ruddsie is to me. Surprisingly sweet, with characters that didn’t play to their worst one-note potential. With the exception of one cartoonish villain, it’s a film that’s generally kind to its own characters, which is increasingly rare in comedies. Side note: I spent about half the movie thinking Elizabeth Banks was Parker Posey.
Wow, you really do love Ruddsie. I thought Idiot Brother had potential, but it couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. I wished it had done more with Rudd comedy-wise than just have him be stupidly naive over and over.
This is my choice for overrated, but watchable, non-fiction fiction film. I almost went with Margin Call, but since it spends its time setting up a frantic trading floor sell-off that it doesn’t show you, fuck it.
I generally love Aaron Sorkin (when I don’t want to hate-fuck him, artistically speaking), and he did a good job of adapting a somewhat non-narrative book. Of course, he did this by playing fast and loose with the facts, including ignoring Mulder/Zito/Hudson and unfairly demonizing Art Howe. It’s notable to the evolution of baseball that the best/highest-profile movie about the sport in a while is about the front office (I wouldn’t take that as a good sign if I were MLB, but we probably disagree on that). And, obviously, it featured the Best Original Song in a movie this year.
Moneyball was better than it had a right to be, given its source material, but it still played like three different movies that failed to adhere into a cohesive whole. And for baseball fans, or anyone who had read the book, it was basically “Moneyball for Dummies.” Which means its target market was people who haven’t read the book – and who have failed to pay attention to baseball since the turn of the millennium – and I can’t imagine it worked particularly well for them either. Although that daughter was adorable. (Adorkable?) Also, the fact that you take something as a bad sign for MLB isn’t exactly news: you spend your life examining tea leaves and looking for omens among flocks of birds that baseball is declining.
8.) Certified Copy
I’m not going to lie: this movie was a little boring. (2011 movie fever! Catch it!) Virtually the entire film consists of two people talking as they walk or drive around Tuscany. But it’s exceptionally well-shot, features two compelling lead performances (especially by William Shimell), and rewards perseverance with a second-half filled with mind-fuckery.
D.S.C.: 7.) The Adjustment Bureau
Of the three “meaning-of-life” movies on my list, this one was the most shallow (“true love conquers all”), but by far the most rewatchable. Nominally an examination of free will, the movie works because it focuses more on the thriller aspects of Matt Damon trying to escape with the girl. What can I say… I’m a sucker for Philip K. Dick films.
T.D.: 7.) Source Code
Our first crossover, though I’m guessing there will be more. With Moon and now Source Code, Duncan Jones is off to a promising start in his directing career. Source Code is action-movie fluff, no doubt, but at least it puts some effort into its conceit, and some semblance of thought into theme and message. As you pointed out, the ending was cheap (and felt tacked on by a committee of studio suits), but this was a solid, fun, quick-moving popcorn film — of which there are not nearly enough anymore.
D.S.C.: 6.) The Debt
In the tradition of Munich, a movie about Jews kicking ass and then feeling all guilty about it. Well constructed, well acted, and exciting. In a year when the loathsome The Help is given a pass because it empowers women, The Debt does the same without making you want to take a shower. The movie rests on the continually amazing Helen Mirren (who, at 66, is the Satchel Paige of attractive women) and Jessica Chastain playing the same character over decades.
T.D.: 6.) Young Adult
A killer performance from Charlize Theron. A movie with the balls not to redeem its immature, selfish lead character. A Diablo Cody script that manages to filter out most of her “look-at-me-I’m-a-writer!” tics (“Kentacohut” aside). Plus Patton Oswalt making moonshine in his garage. That’s a winning combination.
D.S.C.: 5.) The Tree of Life
My second straight Jessica Chastain film! Guess she’s my female Gosling (she was also the best thing about The Help, not to damn her with faint praise).
One thing that has never been said about a Terrence Malick film is that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, and The Tree of Life is no exception. But some of those parts are spectacular. The half-hour recap of the Earth’s history from Big Bang to dinosaurs is justly renowned, and the family relationships have some real depth to them. Malick obviously had no idea how to end it (everybody you know meets on a beach? Ugh!), but then again he was trying to tie the meaning of life to his childhood. More than just being nice that he has such ambitions and uses A-list talent to further them, The Tree of Life pays off despite its meanderings.
T.D.: 5.) The Descendants
Alexander Payne is a master at tone and setting, and he lends those very particular talents to The Descendants. George Clooney has taken Tom Hanks’ place as our most likable actor (now that Hanks is mired in a string of flops and terrible decisions), and little Kaitlin from the O.C. grew up to be both uncomfortably attractive and a good actress. Not everything in the movie worked – the land-grab subplot was never tied enough to the rest of the film, and the youngest daughter’s “natural” performance was almost unwatchable – but this had the hallmarks of a strong Payne film: gentle laughs, empathy and a wistful sadness even beyond the tragic events at the story’s core.
D.S.C.: 4.) Warrior
About two brothers fighting in an MMA tournament, Warrior follows the classic template of a sports movie. But it manages to overcome its cliches and coincidences with well-drawn characters and compelling family dynamics. The two brothers (Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton) both surpass their written roles, plus you get crusty Nick Nolte as their recovering alcoholic father/trainer. And, while it inevitably features the logical leaps-of-faith of all sports movies, Warrior manages to end with a fight with the outcome very much in doubt (and, more impressively, the viewer’s hope for the outcome equally ambivalent).
If Million Dollar Baby is a recent Best Picture winner, and The Fighter a recent nominee, Warrior deserves to be in this year’s Oscar discussion. It’s without a doubt the best sports flick in at least 8 years (Friday Night Lights & Radio), and this is from a guy that normally finds MMA tedious at best.
T.D.: 4.) Drive
I had trouble figuring out what to make of Drive until it occurred to me that it’s basically a Western in the guise of an ’80s heist flick, with Ryan Gosling’s character standing in for The Man With No Name. All the characters are morally ambiguous, their motivations murky. We root for Gosling because he’s the main character, because he’s cool, and he seems to be the least of several evils, not because he’s earned it in any classic dramatic sense. At times, the film hews too closely to a genre exercise, but some truly memorable scenes and atmospherics elevate it.
D.S.C.: 3.) Melancholia
The best of the “meaning-of-life” triumvirate, a good mix of Tree of Life’s focus on imagery and Adjustment Bureau’s focus on narrative. Revolving around two close-but-opposite sisters (fucked-up Kirsten Dunst and buttoned-down Charlotte Gainsbourg), it focuses on two events, the union of a wedding and the destruction of the end of the world. It grapples with putting the point of living in perspective when the end arrives (spoiler alert: fucked-up people take it better than buttoned-down people). Lars von Trier might be an asshole, but he can shoot imagery that takes your breath away.
T.D.: 3.) The Tree of Life
This is not typically the kind of movie I go for. Non-structured narrative, abstract imagery, big-picture philosophizing, film-student-style wankery…it’s like a perfect storm of elements conspiring to send me screaming from the theater. But this is just so fucking beautiful. If Emmanuel Lubezki doesn’t win an Oscar for best cinematography, something has gone horribly wrong. (Hunter McCracken also deserves consideration as young Sean Penn – he’s the rare child actor who comes across as neither precocious nor amateurish.) Not only did Malick have no idea how to end it, I’m not convinced he had any idea how to start or middle it either. But this is the kind of movie where the problems don’t matter as much as the overall experience. And Tree of Life is the winner of the 2011 award as the only film to partially crack my cold, black, fossilized heart enough to draw a tear or two. Normally, only baseball movies do that.
Also, you are leaving out the important fact that everyone you know doesn’t just meet on a beach – they meet on Heaven Beach!
D.S.C.: 2.) Martha Marcy May Marlene
Who knew? Olsen sisters can be both attractive and talented, instead of neither.
Martha Marcy manages to cast a constant pall of dread and nervousness, even when very little happens outside the main character’s mind. More than smoke and mirrors, though, it views the world through the prism of cult member mind-fucking in a way that manages to be both creepy and believable. John Harkes follows up Winter’s Bone with a great turn as the cult’s David Koresh, and Sarah Paulson continues to be one of the most annoying actors on Earth (although, that kind of works for her character). If Elizabeth Olsen isn’t Oscar-nominated for a performance in which she kills it as both the innocent primed to be indoctrinated and the shell that results, it’ll be a shame.
T.D.: 2.) Martha Marcy May Marlene
Both of my top two films share a sense of unyielding dread and impending doom…so, really, Jack and Jill should have made my top three. I agree with you on all counts: Olsen’s great, Paulson’s the worst, and the film repeatedly makes the perfect choices in terms of how much information to dole out and when to do so.
D.S.C.: 1.) Drive
Obviously, this one was coming from a mile away.
You’re right on the money… Drive is basically just a genre exercise, substituting L.A. car culture for an Eastwood western. But, the stylish affectations of director Nicolas Refn are really the entire point. The chase scenes, the neon noir view of L.A., the music… all of it comes together in a way that creates an environment that’s fresh and revealing. Add to it great performances from Gosling, Carey Mulligan, and Albert Brooks, among others, and its 2011’s most fully realized and successful movie.
Now, I’m going to brace myself the the abomination I feel coming.
T.D.: 1.) Meek’s Cutoff
Meet’s Cutoff moves at a crawl. It makes Certified Copy and Martha Marcy May Marlene look like Vin Diesel/The Rock collaborations. It’s steeped in anxiety and ambiguity, and with every inch that the wagon train party moves forward, you sense that they’re creeping toward their demise. There are no easy answers to the central questions for Cutoff’s characters, and no one to turn to. Michelle Williams, as the protagonist, knows no more than anybody else, but no less than the group’s leaders. Her party is lost in the Oregon desert with diminishing water and supplies, so close to the end of their journey but also one wrong decision away from death. They have no trust but to trust the Native American they’ve captured, who could be leading them either to water or slaughter. Virtually the whole film is stillness, and much of it is shown in darkness. You can’t see anything, you can only hear the frightened voices of the travelers and whatever other strange desert noises go off in the night.
The movie has a lot to say about modern America, its leadership vacuum, and how we’re hitting the end of a different kind of frontier — driven closer to the edge by all the awful choices we’ve made. But even without that layer, it’s a captivating, suffocating movie that ultimately rewards viewers’ patience by not holding their hands.
I feel like I’ve yielded the high ground here, because I’m obviously picking a movie you hated — I was desperately hoping that The Artist would appear somewhere in your Top Ten so I could unleash the 7,500-word rant I had prepared about it. So, on with it…
They say a movie is worthwhile if it makes you feel something, and Meek’s Cutoff made me feel thirsty in a way a movie hasn’t in a long time. Otherwise, I’m going to have to chalk up that ridiculous ranking to your Deadwood/Justified fetish. I would rather walk the Oregon Trail than watch that movie, and Bruce Greenwood’s ridiculous beard, again. I’m now officially afraid that a 4,000-word column about the greatness of Hell on Wheels is just around the corner. Of the films I saw in 2011 with ambition beyond the box office, it was by far my least favorite.
Of course, that pales next to these three, my least favorite movies from 2011:
3.) The Green Hornet: Just like with Elizabeth Banks (i.e. Parker Posey) in Our Idiot Brother, I spent most of this movie wondering who the old, haggard Cameron Diaz look-alike was… turned out it was Cameron Diaz.
2.) Scream 4: With that cast, at least this movie can be written off as charity.
1.) The Hangover: Part 2: Every person associated with this abomination should be ashamed, especially Zach Galifianakis.
I should mention that, until the closing credits rolled, I thought that Bruce Greenwood was Dennis Quaid, and that Quaid was doing a heckuva job.
My three least favorite (keeping in mind that I didn’t go near Hangover 2 or some other obvious disasters):
3) Captain America: Anemic.
2) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: I fell asleep during this movie three separate times. Thank God I didn’t sleep through the scene in which a lady fucks a catfish.
1) The Artist: Holy god did I hate this movie. And I went in anticipating it make my Top Ten list. More on this later.
Of course, the great white whale is still out there. Great brown horse? Whatever. WAR HORSE. So excited to see it.
I can’t believe you haven’t seen War Horse yet… I’ve never been more disappointed in a human being.
I was holding out hope we could see it together over the winter.
I wouldn’t want you to see my tears.