Shitting in a sink, dinosaurs with morals, and Meryl Streep; The Very Best Films of 2011

It’s become a standard for me to disagree with close to 99% (I’ve done the math) of what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has to say this time of year. They’re the ones who, by some force of divine intervention, managed to convince thousands that Kate Winslet’s supporting role in “The Reader” was that of a Lead actress (and that it was worthy of praise in the first place); they were the ones who shoved “The Blind Side” into the Best Picture category, tacked on to soften the blow of Sandra Bullock’s wholeheartedly political win for Lead Actress (at least they got the category right). This is also the same organization I’ve slathered with praise in a gut-reaction post earlier today for nominating “The Tree of Life” for Best Picture (though I’ve had time to reflect; my sense of dread in realizing I praised an institution who left out Michael Fassbender and Shailene Woodley grew as today sloshed on).

While my relationship with the Academy has been Whitney/Bobby at best (I’m addicted and can’t walk away to their, um, “substances,” but they’re bound to be the death of me at some point), I always find it necessary for those of us who have no need to be political come awards season share our opinions on the best of the best of 2011. Granted, I’ve yet to see Shame, Pariah, A Better Life, A Separation, W.E., or Pina (Holla C-Market Pittsburgh status!).

Without further ado, here’s my personal Top 10 films for 2011 (#1 being the best, qualifier is being released in the United States theatrically sometime between January 1, 2011 and December 31, 2011) along with my personal nominations in every category the Oscars deems worthy to acknowledge in their own right (plus an ensemble acting category. Suck it, AMPAS).

Honorable mentions: Carnage – Roman Polanski, Hanna – Joe Wright, Like Crazy – Drake Doremus, Contagion – Steven Soderbergh, The Iron Lady – Phyllida Lloyd, Moneyball – Bennett Miller, The Descendants – Alexander Payne, The Debt – John Madden, The Help – Tate Taylor, Life, Above All – Oliver Schmitz, Viva Riva! – Djo Tunga Wa Munga, Crazy Stupid Love – Glenn Ficara + John Requa, Untouchable Girls – Leanne Pooley

10 – Beginners – Mike Mills

Imagine your father is dying. Imagine he was married to your mother for decades. Imagine the foundation of your life shattering to pieces once he tells you he’s gay. Your reaction might be very similar to that of Oliver (Ewan McGregor) in Mike Mills’ Beginners, a film which chronicles the post-rock bottom resurgence of a man who did each of the aforementioned. Christopher Plummer gives a beautifully intimate performance as the “born-again gay” in question, enveloped within a gorgeously crafted screenplay that ponders not only the mysticism of life itself, but the importance of finding a new one if yours isn’t, you know, working out. Melanie Laurent rounds out the superb cast in this wise, contemplative, progressive drama.

 

9 – Submarine – Richard Ayoade

Coming-of-age tales are a standard in any year-end film arsenal. Richard Ayoade’s Submarine introduces us to Oliver, a meek English teen whose demeanor perfectly matches the dreary, rain-soaked landscape which contains him. The film is characterized largely through its gorgeous aesthetic quality, with ingenious cinematography and intelligent editing elevating a somewhat standard tale to greatness. Submarine is, at its core, just another coming-of-age tale, albeit in beautifully alternative fashion that values the retention of the teenage experience as one ages.

 

8 – Martha Marcy May Marlene – Sean Durkin

State of mind was a large theme running throughout the films of 2011, and Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene takes no prisoners as it immerses you into the mind of a runaway schizophrenic. Big on atmospherics and narratively disorienting editing (intentional effect and affect, of course), Durkin’s film showcases the power of the medium when a talented mind takes advantage of its power to force an audience into submission and feel it instead of simply seeing it. Elizabeth Olsen takes out the entire 20-plus year acting career of her sisters in one fell swoop to round out this disturbingly underappreciated masterpiece from a first-time director.

 

7 – Bridesmaids – Paul Feig

“If this is only a chick flick, then call me a chick!”. Such is the most prominent text on the back of the DVD case for 2011′s smash hit Bridesmaids, written by The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern in his review of the film in May. There are two glaring issues here. The first being the fact that such a statement (no doubt wank to his own clever pairing of words) was made in the first place. The second being the decision of the marketing team behind Bridesmaids chose to feature it in their promo. It’s this kind of gendered pandering (that the marketing for Bridesmaids is fully guilty of as well) that unfairly pigeonholes a film like Bridesmaids into a categorical hole the critic in question clearly felt the need to dig it out of before he even saw it. It’s got an all-female focal cast. It’s written by two women. Thematically it tackles issues of feminine companionship and coupling–hell, it even concludes with a Wilson Phillips (cue the bro at the back of the bar, hands cupped to mouth; “GAAAY!”) musical number–most of which are explored while its leading ladies parade in four inch heels. But its elements like that which force a simple “comedy” one way or another into the realm of being “unacceptable” for a male audience to consume and, as Morgenstern would suggest, enjoy. In recent popular culture, critics and audiences alike will have you believe that ”Bridesmaids” is only “correct” when it’s trailblazing in the romantic comedy genre; when it’s “women telling really dirty jokes and succeeding” and not just “a really fucking fantastic script written by one of the most endearing comedic writers and character performers of today,” which a more appropriate form of praise would be. Bridesmaids is a film which relies more on the charismatic persona of Wiig to shine both on script and screen. It’s a seamless fusion of her screenwriting talents and her ability to work that script into a physical comedic spectacle. The screenplay for Bridesmaids doesn’t succeed on a “Film Studies” level, if you will, but rather simply on being an unpretentious, consistently hilarious vessel for an artist’s infectious talent. Is it so wrong to champion Wiig and Mumolo’s screenplay for simply being “funny?” Or have we in the realm of entertainment consumption strayed so far into self-important territory that we’re afraid to praise something simply for succeeding on the most basic of levels? (the millions who tune in to “Saturday Night Live” every weekend to watch Wiig’s character creations would probably argue otherwise).  Must we really pad a movie that includes a scene of a woman shitting herself in the street as a defining piece of “feminist” comedy in order to legitimize its presence on the awards circuit this year? Some will say yes, it’s not a high enough form of praise to analyze something on the basis of simplicity. I’d rather sit back and laugh.

 

6 – Young Adult – Jason Reitman

If there ever was a time where I enjoyed being whipped around in the “wrong” direction, it was when I saw Young Adult, Juno-writer Diablo Cody’s brilliant concoction, for the first time. The film is a challenge not only to the waning morals and standards of America’s women, but also to our classically-conditioned notions of what a film should and should not “do” for its audience. Closure and satisfaction are two things Cody’s screenplay denies its audience here; we’re presented with a character, Mavis (Charlize Theron), who we dislike at the beginning of the film and despise by its end. The screenplay flashes bits of hope in front of our face and snatches them away and punishes us for ever thinking we were right in the act of expectation. Young Adult is a powerful social comment thematically and structurally that succeeds largely on its refusal to let its audience win.

 

5 – Pariah – Dee Rees

 

4 – Take Shelter – Jeff Nichols

Another film which forces us into a daze of its beautiful atmospherics, Take Shelter showcases not only some of the finest performances of 2011 (Jessica Chastain shines as usual, Michael Shannon gives the best male performance of the entire year) but also some of the most inventive storytelling we’ve seen in years. The film is, at times, a muddled comment on our society’s clouded values, stifled prophets, and familial complacency.

 

3 – The Artist – Michel Hazanavicius

It could have easily become a gimmick; a contemporary picture paying the most intense of homages to the silent era which laid foundation for what we see on screens at megaplexes and art theaters alike, becoming a “silent” film itself. It was through the silence of the early 1900s that cinema was able to become heard throughout the rest of the world, and Michel Hazanavicius’ gorgeous tribute to the “father” era doesn’t rely on its best selling point as a crutch to tell a ho-hum story. The Artist doesn’t just use silence (and the eventual interplay of sound towards the middle and ending bits) as a gimmick, but rather utilizes aural emptiness to mean something within the context of its thematic structure, updating the style of 1920s silent cinema for a contemporary audience and intermixing it with modern cinematography and editing. Gorgeous aesthetics (costumes, makeup, and performance are all spot-on here) round out one of 2011’s most ingenious entries.

 

2 – Melancholia – Lars von Trier

Von Trier’s films aren’t the easiest to digest,  and Melancholia is no different. It’s a deeply depressing voyage into the mind of one of the most pessimistic (misogynistic) artists working in cinema. But judging a filmmakers’ personality versus their input is ludicrous, and Melancholia channels that personality into a cinematic representation of the apocalypse. Von Trier sets the tone for his film on a grim note and lets its implications simmer for the next 120 minutes, building upon the already infectious sense of dread in a gloriously terrifying crescendo. Gorgeous cinematography, haunting performances by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst, and the darkest tone this side of Dogville make Melancholia one of the most deeply disturbing films I’ve ever seen.

1 – The Tree of Life – Terrence Malick

The Tree of Life does everything the medium of cinema is supposed to do. It transports, it mystifies, it astounds, it affects, it makes dynamic the world we take for granted all around us. It’s a powerful testament to the medium, reflecting its crafter’s soul in a highly personal, lyrical encapsulation of life through the eyes of one of its subjects. It’s a film that largely defies words, that deserves to be experienced versus watched, absorbed versus interpreted. At its core it’s a tale of familial dischordance, but Malick’s inventive methods of filmmaking convey much more to us than could ever be reduced to a mere plot description. It’s a masterpiece of cinema, one which speaks to us through power which can only be conjured through visual language and affect. A true testament to why “film” gets under our skin, and why dreams like The Tree of Life blur the line between experiential fantasy and the reality  binding you to the couch you sit on, basking in everything Malick wants to show you.

My personal nominations for films from 2011 (Winners announced the same night as the Oscars):

BEST PICTURE OF THE YEAR: My Top 10 Films of 2011

1 – The Tree of Life

2 – Melancholia

3 – The Artist

4 – Take Shelter

5 – Pariah

6 – Young Adult

7 – Bridesmaids

8 – Martha Marcy May Marlene

9 – Submarine

10 – Beginners

BEST FOREIGN FILM:

Viva Riva!

The Artist

Life, Above All

Submarine

Trollhunter

BEST ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE:

Bridesmaids

The Help

Melancholia

The Tree of Life

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Contagion

Beginners

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE:

Charlize Theron – Young Adult

Jessica Chastain – The Tree of Life

Kirsten Dunst – Melancholia

Kristen Wiig – Bridesmaids

Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady

Elizabeth Olsen – Martha Marcy May Marlene

Rooney Mara – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE:

Leonardo DiCaprio – J. Edgar

Michael Shannon – Take Shelter

Ewan McGregor – Beginners

Brad Pitt – The Tree of Life

Jean Dujardin – The Artist

David Hyde Pierce – The Perfect Host

Brad Pitt – Moneyball

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE:

Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids

Shailene Woodley – The Descendants

Jessica Chastain – The Help

Harriet Lenabe – Life, Above All

Octavia Spencer – The Help

Manie Malone – Viva Riva!

Kim Wayans – Pariah

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE:

Christopher Plummer – Beginners

Christoph Waltz – Carnage

Armie Hammer – J. Edgar

Jonah Hill – Moneyball

Hunter McCracken – The Tree of Life

Charles Parnell – Pariah

BEST DIRECTION:

Lars Von Trier – Melancholia

Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist

Jeff Nichols – Take Shelter

Steven Soderbergh – Contagion

Terrence Malick – The Tree of Life

Mike Mills – Beginners

Joe Wright – Hanna

BEST SCREENPLAY (ADAPTED + ORIGINAL):

Take Shelter

Beginners

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Young Adult

Bridesmaids

Carnage

Pariah

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY:

Pariah

The Tree of Life

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Hanna

Submarine

BEST FILM EDITING:

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Moneyball

Take Shelter

War Horse

Hanna

BEST SOUND:

Hanna

War Horse

Take Shelter

The Tree of Life

Trollhunter

BEST SCORE:

War Horse

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Hanna

Contagion

The Artist

BEST COSTUME DESIGN:

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The Artist

The Help

My Week With Marilyn

War Horse

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