Saturday, February 11, 2012

My Favorite Films of 2011

10) Young Adult
Initially a dark comedy, Young Adult makes a brazen but assured choice to simply turn dark in its final act. It takes a certain courage for a movie (especially one with a female lead) to be so unabashedly misanthropic; that final flourish, a moment to contemplate wreckages both proverbial and literal, is sure to send some people out of the theater feeling frustrated and unredeemed. But to appreciate Mavis Gary is to simply let her live her life, as none of the residents of Mercury seem to understand, try as they might. Charlize Theron's performance as a woman suspended in the static mindset of the "young adult" books she writes never asks the audience for sympathy or even appreciation. She channels a lonely person who lives a life of complete emotional and developmental stasis, a handful of survivalist impulses and little more. It is an extremely observant depiction of an unfulfilled life, one that we could all stand to learn from.

9) Bridesmaids 
There was an odd gender-charged tumult surrounding the release of Bridesmaids, with various movie news outlets exacting a heavy degree of scrutiny on the success of this admittedly uncommon female take on the crude ensemble comedy. The general critical pulse seemed to think that if Bridesmaids was a public failure, or a shitty movie, then no movies starring women would ever be made again and we'd regress to the Shakespearean era where men would play all their parts. Though it's true that a certain excess of hyperbole from the film's staunchest defenders has elevated it to frankly unwarranted "funniest comedy of the last 20 years!!!!" status, Bridesmaids is brimming with heart and charm and more than enough laughs, a level of quality fortunately rewarded by its exceptional box-office performance. For my money, I would much rather see breathless hype than sexist slander, and when the object of adulation is as fun and committed as this, it is more than capable of standing on its own without the input of others.

8) Weekend
On the topic of box-office, this minuscule gay indie turned nearly $500,000 with a domestic release of only 26 theaters and over the course of less than three months. Taking scale into consideration, this is pretty impressive, especially so in light of its subject matter. Weekend features few of the tropes that most people expect from a gay movie, and in fact confronts those expectations through frustrated artist Glen: his art's not gay enough that widespread homosexual audiences will find any interest in it, and too gay for straight audiences to appreciate, a self-reflexive anxiety that pervades the film itself. From this locus unwinds a candid, intelligent, emotional film about the challenges of being homosexual and the transformative charge of finding a person who truly understands you, even if you aren't a complete match with one another. Weekend isn't screamingly gay, nor does it adhere to the now-exhausted "straight gay" archetype that seems more and more like a misguided overcompensation for all those mincing queens. It is a self-assured film with a clear, original identity, and I think there's a certain contingency of moviegoers who saw and appreciated that.

7) Beginners
Beginners is quite like an expanded version of Weekend, exploring the ramifications of one life-changing event as charted over a specific period of time. This film, broader in scope, operates constantly between two timelines, one before Christopher Plummer's death to cancer and one after. One change begets another - the diagnosis prompts his coming out at nearly seventy years of age, which in turn leads him to find a genuine love, which in turn inspires his son Oliver to be more passionate in his own affairs after his passing. Of course, nearly every movie operates on the basis of causality, but Beginners manipulates this in a particularly savvy way by putting these two timelines in constant dialogue with one another. The past is continually dredged up and expounded upon in service of Oliver's future, edited to allow us to learn right alongside him how exactly his departed father's actions have influenced his life. It is a remarkably expressive exploration of one man's growth in the face of radical change. What does all this amount to? Warm, simple humor, a bittersweet and confused romance, and a boatload of heartbreak.

6) Hanna
This is sort of a ridiculous movie, don't get me wrong, but it's the kind of action film that Hollywood should be doing more often. Composed under Joe Wright's judicious, intelligent hand, Hanna looks and sounds awesome and is exploding with nonstop kinetic energy. The plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and the fairy tale metaphors are about one step away from total overkill, but in terms of sheer spectacular escapism there was no other movie like this in 2011. Its titular character, embodied by Saoirse Ronan with a seemingly impossible combination of total blankness and deadpan humor, permits the film around her to express all kinds of tones: dark, gritty, dizzingly bright, confusing, warm, energetic, languorous. The new world around her is full of vastly different experiences and Hanna is primed to seize every single one of them. All this makes Hanna continually diverse, meaningful even when the plot is muddled and difficult; as long as we know what's going on in Hanna's head, we aren't completely in the dark. 

5) Shame
Shame is the victim of a pronounced critical back-and-forth that similarly plagued Black Swan in 2010. Overblown or operatic? Insultingly simple or human and fundamental? One way or another, the movie is loud, its enormous aesthetic cues working overtime to grant the film meaning alongside its very minimal dialogue and subject matter that is nearly elemental in its simplicity. For some people I imagine this approach reads as a "much ado about nothing," a bombastic attempt at spit-shining material that might otherwise read as base or exploitative. I was taken in by the clash between these expressive poles, entranced by this quiet loudness; Carey Mulligan's hyper-close-up, nearly unedited performance of "New York, New York" serves as an effective litmus test to how you might respond to Shame as a whole. It is a brute-force rendering of fixation in a movie constructed around fixation, and though some viewers find it a bit ridiculous, I think it is the first of many climactic highs this movie hits (though in all honesty I think the last five minutes of the film are something of a misstep). Check your cynicism at the door, I suppose.

4) Certified Copy
Wickedly high-concept, much more than its incredible quiet would suggest, Certified Copy is a bold exploration of art and humanity. It's a relationship drama that grows quietly trippy; it's a shifting palette of colors, feelings, and intellectual clash; it is unfamiliar yet heartbreaking, restrained and explosive, and is completely comfortable with all of the multifaceted ground it explores. Abbas Kiarostami's preoccupations with identity are explored to considerable academic effect here - far more than being mouthpieces for two sides of the film's argument about originality, the characters in Certified Copy are living and breathing embodiments of it. One stresses that there is an inimitable power in originality, while the other stresses that a copy has every bit the same merit as its source work. As their relationship begins to take on a strange, inexplicable form, it becomes clear that everything can be reconstructed and "copied," like a relationship, or a life. The stakes are removed totally from merely objective criticism and dissection of imitation within art, and with incredible dexterity, Juliette Binoche and William Shimell act out a facsimile of a complex relationship to an extent where even they start to believe in what they're saying. Is there an "original" to which their hypothetical scenario references, or is this film just the folie a deux of a pair of educated loners? It is a full-bodied, intriguing, emotional mystery, one worth exploring for every second.

3) Melancholia
Melancholia is a film bursting with meaning. It is tempting to reduce that meaning to its most unsubtle gesture - the positioning of this cataclysmic force, appropriately called Melancholia, over the events of the narrative - but it's more than just a metaphor for depression. Contextualized by the film's two-act structure, it represents a shift from defeat to inevitability, autonomy to acceptance. The movie also serves as a companion piece to Antichrist, moving the site of that all-consuming bleakness from one woman to all of Earth. It's impossible to miss the visual obsessions that Lars von Trier developed in creating the former film, namely the lush nature-centric images shot in slow motion and those awesome title cards. But I think it's most captivating as a statement on von Trier himself, who spoke publicly with his battle with depression when he was filming Antichrist. Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, both of them enormously capable avatars for von Trier's exploration of the ways that humans approach their impending doom, play out two internalized emotional battles that ultimately culminate with the realization that none of it really matters. Sumptuous, mature, blissful nihilism in cinematic form.

2) Drive
This movie is just sheer fun. Cheesy, sexy, hyper-violent, dark but unexpectedly humorous, and unburdened by tedious exposition, it's a judiciously made film that cuts straight through the bullshit and hits its beats with gale force. Most people will probably find Drive totally ridiculous, as its quiet scenes stand at definite odds with its dashes of brutality, but this unusual balance grants the film a sort of neo-exploitation feel. It's grindhouse for the arthouse set, to be reductive, but in the face of its lurid 80s music and its audacious visual choices (the newly iconic shocking pink font, Christina Hendricks in enormous heels strutting across a parking lot, the sun setting on the aftermath of a vicious fight), labels feel sort of immaterial. It isn't going to be for everyone but it doesn't care. It's unique, a commodity in considerable shortage in Hollywood action films.

(And yeah, this isn't a screenshot, but I'm obsessed with this unofficial poster. Learn more about it here.) 

1) The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is the sort of movie that exhausts everyone who sees it in every way conceivable, whether they hated it or loved it - and both camps are more than occupied, if you've been following the popular reception surrounding it at all. Above all, it is a solemn reminder that film is an art form, and a person's reaction to any piece of art is based on the aggregation of a series of life experiences. This film plays so ardently by its own rules that saying that it is "bad" or "good" feels totally reductive. It begs to be viewed by a certain more mature binary: did it work for the viewer, or didn't it? Though this approach seems antithetical to critical thought, the establishment of any sort of critical canon is in itself a collection of personal/subjective reactions that happen to be widely shared amongst a corpus of people who are preordained in our society as "film critics." In this way, The Tree of Life is an enormous, direct challenge to what film has become - rather than being a product that seeks to please, it simply seeks to relate, to provide, to commiserate. It functions as a resounding reminder that there's very little we can do to convince another person that their reception to a film is wrong. It's pure stimuli with the most vestigial narrative possible, and a person is free to respond to stimuli in whichever way they please. Nothing can change that.

I loved it. Others hated it. Maybe my mind will change if I watch it again ten years down the line, or maybe theirs will. Regardless, it is pure, uncalculated art, with only one purpose - to be judged.

Near Misses: Sleeping Beauty, Super 8, Higher Ground, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Insidious, Harry Potter 7.2, Moneyball
Regretfully Unseen: A Separation, Margaret, The Interrupters, The Guard, 50/50, Mission Impossible 4, A Dangerous Method, Poetry, basically most of the shit that got nominated for Best Picture this year

Disappointments of 2011 to follow shortly! We all know that bitching about things is a lot more fun than praising them.

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