Yesterday, the former Screengrab commenter par excellence Iris Steensma (a.k.a. Amy Jeglinski-Osborne) posted her Top Ten Movies of 2011, and Nerve recently published a Top 15 featuring contributions from myself and fellow Exiler Phil Nugent. But for my own personal assessment of the Best of 2011…read on!
2010 was an all-star movie year, packed with instantly iconic big gun water-cooler movies I still think about like Inception, Toy Story 3, and The Social Network (as well as smaller but equally impressive gems like Tiny Furniture and the totally Oscar-robbed documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work).
2011, meanwhile, was mostly a year of good but not great – but there was nevertheless a whole LOT of good, with something relatively worthwhile to see most weeks, with very few cinematic dry spots on the calendar…all of which made the following rankings even closer (and more subjective) than usual (so pay special attention to this year’s Honorable Mention, any of which – especially Cedar Rapids, The Innkeepers, Better This World, Our Idiot Brother, Moneyball and The Guard – might have wound up in the Top Ten if I’d written my list in a different mood on a different day)!
WILD CARDS: (potentially list-worthy movies unseen by moi in 2010): Bellflower, A Dangerous Method, The Artist, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
And now, for the best of what I did see…
1. THE TRIP
I can only imagine how unbearable this plotless Steve Coogan lark must be for people who can’t stand plotless films, Steve Coogan and/or endless Michael Caine impressions. But for me (a fan of all three), the largely improvised comedy about a mordant, Coogan-y actor on a gastronomic road trip with a cheerful, Rob Brydon-y friend/rival (cheerfully played by British comic Rob Brydon) was a non-stop delight. Edited down from a six-episode British series that simultaneously mocks and celebrates “foodie” culture, The Trip is both hilarious and shrewd about the discrete charm of the bourgeoisie, their annoying self-absorption, the ways clever banter can often substitute for actual intimacy (and how sometimes that’s just fine).
2. CONAN O’BRIEN CAN’T STOP
There’s plenty of razzle-dazzle entertainment value in this backstage chronicle of Team Coco’s 2010 “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on TV” tour (the live, multi-city comedy/music juggernaut which spanned the downtime between Conan’s ouster from The Tonight Show and his re-emergence as the face of TBS late night). But O’Brien’s spiky, live-wire persona (and his willingness to reveal his nastier, needier side) makes the film more than just a supersize, empty calorie episode of the ginger’s nightly talk show – and that honesty transforms what could’ve been a pop culture puff piece into a fascinating rumination on the non-stop drive separating the guy on stage from the audience laughing in the dark.
3. YOUNG ADULT
The great thing about this second collaboration between Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody (following 2007’s Juno) is the way it both respects and scorns the humble pleasures of suburban tranquility. Representing the former perspective are former high school jock, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), and his sweet mom-rockin’ wife (Elizabeth Reaser). On the other side of the white picket fence is Charlize Theron’s overgrown queen bee, Mavis, who winds up bonding with a nerd she barely noticed in high school (Patton Oswalt) thanks to their shared love of home-brewed bourbon and the twists of fate that have pushed them both into lives less ordinary. Like Wicked, Young Adult presents a familiar story from the “villain’s” perspective, as Theron’s defiantly unlikeable character fights to get her mean girl mojo back. But Oswalt steals the movie with, among other things, a nude scene WAY braver than Shame’s Michael Fassbender at his most NC-17.
Drive didn’t reinvent the crime movie wheel, yet its throwback ‘80s style and ‘70s silences were a refreshing break from the hyperkinetic ADD pacing and CGI excess of the contemporary cinematic landscape. The film’s cooler-than-thou, silently judging loner antihero is right in Ryan Gosling’s wheelhouse, Bryan Cranston is predictably great and it’s fun to see Christina Hendricks skank it up in…um…a startling cameo. But the real draw is comedian Albert Brooks cutting loose (and slicing arteries) as a surprisingly believable yet oddly sympathetic West Coast mobster.
5. THE FUTURE
Oddball indie auteur Miranda July’s feature debut Me and You and Everyone You Know was a charming, offbeat ensemble dramedy with a darker, weirder edge than your average Sundance Institute concoction. But things got even more surreal and thought-provoking in July’s sophomore effort as an otherworldly cat derails the relationship of two aging slackers afraid to face the film’s titular concept, while Hamish Linklater (in one of the year’s most memorable scenes and performances) literally stops time in an effort to stave off the couple’s inevitable break-up.
6. PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES
Andrew Rossi’s timely documentary frames traditional journalism’s struggle for survival as a clash of cultures rather than technologies. On one side is Tribune Company chairman Sam Zell, depicted in the villain role as a pure capitalist who apparently sees no value in news that doesn’t turn a profit. In the good guy role is the hardboiled old school reporter David Carr, representing the Fourth Estate’s importance to the health and integrity of culture in general and America in particular. But issues like the impact of WikiLeaks and the future of media are far from black and white in the film’s lively depiction of the Gray Lady’s ever-shifting fortunes.
7. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
For a die-hard Woody Allen fan like myself, the biggest box office hit of the director’s career is more than just a clever, charming fable about the perils of nostalgia. What makes this wistful time-travel tale extra special is how the film itself embodies its own theme about not living in the past, with a reminder that even artists who’ve jumped the shark (more than once!) can sometimes find a way to jump back. (Plus, Adrien Brody is a goddamn hoot in his all-too-brief cameo as Salvador Dali.)
Even before Lars von Trier put both feet in his mouth at the Cannes premiere of Melancholia, I was never exactly a fan of the scandal-baiting, misery-loving director. Yet the opening and closing minutes of his latest apocalyptic vision are breathtaking, and the story between those bookends (about a doomed bride embodied by an Oscar-worthy Kristen Dunst) works both as a chilling end-of-the-world drama and a haunting symbolic depiction of clinical depression. (Sounds fun, right? But don’t worry…it’s nowhere near as dreary as that description makes it sound.)
Can we officially retire that whole tiresome “chicks aren’t funny” debate now? And can we all stop pretending it’s a surprise when movies with female characters and a female perspective do well at the box office? (Yeah, Hollywood…I’m talking to you.) While we’re at it, can we please have more movies like Bridesmaids where the women seem like smart, complicated, raunchy versions of actual people and not just shrill romantic comedy stereotypes? Thanks. (Oh, and very nice to meet you, Melissa McCarthy! Sorry I haven’t gotten around to watching Mike & Molly yet, but I’m sure I will…one of these days…)
Writer/director Andrew Haigh doesn’t shy away from the gay sex (or the unique challenges faced by same-sex couples in a generally homophobic society) in this bittersweet tale of a weekend-long one night stand. Yet the gender of this microbudget British indie’s central couple (portrayed in star-making turns by Tom Cullen and Chris New) is secondary to the film’s universally relatable depiction of giddy first attraction intensified by its own potential brevity.
Honorable Mention: Cedar Rapids, The Innkeepers, Better This World, Self-Made, Tabloid, Life In A Day, The Tree of Life, Crazy Stupid Love, The Guard, Our Idiot Brother, Apollo 18, Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, Moneyball, The Rum Diary, Tower Heist, The Descendants, The Skin I Live In
Memorable Moments/Performances of 2011: “The pants poopingly scary” final minutes of The Innkeepers (to paraphrase fellow Exiler Scott Von D), the moral quandaries and teeth gnashing central twist of Better This World, Alex Shaffer’s breakthrough debut in Win Win, the kids (especially the little pyro) of Super 8, the Christopher Plummer scenes in Beginners, Brendan Gleason in The Guard, my astonishment at learning the Parker Posey role in Our Idiot Brother was actually played by Elizabeth Banks, the Blair Witch on the Moon cinematography of Apollo 18, the powerful Jonah Hill/Brad Pitt/Phillip Seymour Hoffman trifecta (and Fenway Park cameo) in Moneyball, the Eddie Murphy/Gabby Sidibe flirtations in Tower Heist
WORST MOVIE I DIDN’T SEE: I MELT WITH YOU
Jack & Jill seems like such a parody of a terrible Adam Sandler movie that it might actually be some kind of meta Andy Kaufman-esque performance art. But it’s obvious from the achingly humorless, pretentious, embarrassingly navel-gazing trailer for I Melt With You that the rich douchebags who made it really, really think they’ve made a masterpiece about the existential pain of being rich douchebags.
WORST MOVIE I ACTUALLY SAW: KUMARÉ
The worst film I actually saw in 2011 was this Morgan Spurlock-style stunt documentary about a young American filmmaker masquerading as an Indian Guru. While the film was actually relatively interesting, it’s hard to root for a director who arrogantly dupes his vulnerable real world subjects for months, hoping his improvised pop-psych homilies will lead to a feel-good ending (instead of just humiliation or worse for the poor suckers who fell for his self-aggrandizing publicity stunt).
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: BEGINNERS
The final Harry Potter movie didn’t jazz me nearly as much as I was hoping and I’m not sure why, so it’s only the runner-up in this category. On the other hand, it’s easy to assign blame when it comes to Beginners. The premise of an elderly family man finally coming out of the closet is fascinating (and Christopher Plummer’s scenes were the best part of the movie, along with the flashbacks involving Mary Page Keller as his eccentric, long-suffering “beard” of a wife), but writer/director Mike Mills’ inexplicably chose to focus most of the film’s running time on the dull, twee romance of yet another good-looking heterosexual couple (Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent).
MOST OVERRATED: HUGO
Yes, it had some charming moments, but seriously: if this overlong CGI explosion had been directed by, say, Chris Columbus instead of Martin Scorsese (and Ben Kingsley had just been a cranky old toymaker instead of a walking film school thesis), I doubt Hugo would have landed on quite so many Top Ten lists. On the other hand, if Scorsese had dropped the saucer-eyed kids and the Sacha Baron Cohen schtick and devoted the whole film to Georges Méliès, his muse (Helen McCrory) and the other inhabitants of the Cinemagician’s wondrous glass studio, it might have made for some true movie magic.
BETTER THAN THEY HAD TO BE: SOURCE CODE & THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU
It’s easy to pick on films that serve up a little metaphysical food-for-thought alongside the usual genre thrills and chills. And, sure, it’s a lot cooler to be cynical and nihilistic than hopeful and optimistic. But the similar existential themes of these two films about rewriting destiny in a universe that’s not as bleak and pointless as it seems (combined with unusual plot devices like The Adjustment Bureau’s supernatural life maps and Source Code’s eight-minute Groundhog Day time loops) made for intriguing, unpredictable entertainment.
That’s all for now…but stay tuned for the Best TV of 2012!