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:
Life, Above All
BEST ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE:
The Tree of Life
Crazy, Stupid, Love.
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
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):
Martha Marcy May Marlene
The Tree of Life
Martha Marcy May Marlene
BEST FILM EDITING:
Martha Marcy May Marlene
The Tree of Life
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
BEST COSTUME DESIGN:
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
My Week With Marilyn