Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Top 10 of 2011

Another year has come and gone. One way I always put the year to bed is a Top 10 list. Ten movies that, in my opinion, were the best this particular year had to offer. In 2011 I watched 492 movies, 268 of those movies seen were for the first time and 146 of those first time watches were titles that had a theatrical release in the U.S. within 2011. This year was a really good year for a lot of really good movies. As I narrowed down my list of movies watched I had close to 60 titles, all of which were memorable films I would recommend and champion from here on out. Needless to say it took some work for me to definitively say these are my Top 10 in 2011 but after much deliberation, I've done it. Some titles were much easier to include while others had been pulled, re-positioned, and replaced a number of times before finally reaching their official spot in the Top 10.

We all have our own rules or qualifications for a year end list and mine are pretty simple, a film must have had a limited release in New York and Los Angeles for consideration. This qualification leaves out films that only had runs at film festivals or foreign titles that have yet to find U.S. distribution within the calendar year of 2011.

There are a few titles I did miss seeing in 2011 that I will probably regret. Films that have either dawned a number of other lists of people I respect or just films I wanted to see but didn't get a chance. That list includes: A Separation, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, My Week with Marilyn, We Bought a Zoo, Carnage, The Future, A Dangerous Method, Melancholia, and Certified Copy.

One big trend I noticed to my Top 10 is the human element or realism. The movies I connect most with have real, raw human emotions on display and this year like no other each and every title has some prevailing human element that shined through the story. Another big arc I noticed was fatherhood or a protector role. Knowing you have the well being of others in your hands and the emotions that responsibility can stir is powerful and a number of films in my Top 10 shined executing that. One last trend I noticed was love or romance. Generally, I am not a big romance fan, but this year I saw a number of romantic tales told in a way that really won me over. Alright enough set up, let's get to it!

Honorable Mentions: 50/50, Warrior, Ceremony, Project Nim, and Attack the Block

10. Moneyball
Never expected this movie to make my list, hell it wasn't even in my most anticipated list for 2011. It surely was a movie I was aware of but not something I was really itching to see. I knew the story from when it happened, mainly because an Los Angeles Angels fan and the Oakland Athletics are a rival team to my Halos, so of course I know about Billy Beane and his moneyball scheme up in Oakland. If you watch MLB there's no way you don't know who he is, he changed the face of the game but Moneyball isn't entirely about baseball. It has a much larger profound message within it that really crept over me and left me in awe. I fell in love with Moneyball and the resolve Billy Beane displayed amidst his failures. It is a feel good movie. Now that said, the film will alienate audiences with all the baseball nuts and bolts. It is a technical baseball movie on the surface that is drenched in baseball, but if you can get past all that, you just might find the revelation like I did.

9. I Saw the Devil
Imagine the love of your life was murdered and you had the ability to catch and punish the person who did it. Would you do it?  In I Saw the Devil the answer was yes and then some. This horror is absolutely brutal and I loved every last lengthy minute of it. Director Kim Jee-woon is a natural talent and once again he pushes the confines of the genre he is playing in. I can't recommend this enough, just an all out horrific ride that never lets up. (Full Review)

8. The Last Circus
When I first heard about this flick all I knew was it revolved around clowns and was making its US premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas in 2010. The first few images I saw from it looked magical and horrifying immediately drawing me further into a web of desire to see it. Thankfully, the film found US distribution this year and I was able to not only see it, but purchase it on Blu-Ray to have and to hold for the rest of my days.  The Last Circus is by all means a tragedy. It is a horrific love triangle about three people who work for a circus in Spain. Their love, hatred, and need for each other. The cast is superb, the delivery of the tragedy is pitch perfect and the film continued to stay with me after the fact. I couldn't get the story of the sad clown out of my head. The emotions, the drama, the anguish, and also the rage. The Last Circus is like nothing I've seen before yet it houses so many themes that we can all connect with; love, hate, sorrow, fear, shame, and revenge to pinpoint a few. It is a romantic, it is over-the-top, and it is a thing of beauty.

7. Take Shelter
Uneasy and uncomfortable are generally not two words I use describe movies I love, but in the case of Take Shelter they are. This thriller directed by Jeff Nichols is a chilling through and through. Following a husband and father who believes an apocalypse is approaching, he begins to plan for its inevitable arrival. His planning however, begins to crumble every aspect of his life around him. His job, his friends, even his family begin to lose faith in him. Michael Shannon delivers one of the most unnerving performances of the year. He is spellbinding as the husband and father who is allowing his visions to get the best of him. Much of the film feels like a nightmare with an eerie calm slowly erupting. Where the story will erupt or if it will erupt are part of the mystery that Jeff Nichols creates so precisely. There is also a shade of ambiguity to the film that I really enjoyed. It helped to keep the uneasy tension building throughout. (Full Review)

6. The Skin I Live In
Maintaining an compelling, edge of your seat story is no easy task but filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar does it in incredible fashion with The Skin I Live In. This thriller is the most elaborate revenge tale I have ever seen to date, one that kept dropping my jaw to the floor with its bewitching twists and turns. Oddly enough it is also one of the happiest revenge tales I have ever seen. Generally you think revenge, you don't think happy, but somehow Almodóvar found a way to achieve it without seeming to neat and tidy. One aspect to the film that helped to keep the contorting thriller captivating is Alberto Iglesias's score. Iglesias pushes you through each twist with a fabulous use of string sectioned orchestra. In particular one violin riff that returns repeatedly to ignite a energy within me very few scores did this year. As you'd expect with any film making a Top 10 list, the performances are spot-on, but there is nothing stand out here. This film relies on the story, the performances definitely play a hand but it is Almodóvar's writing that really land this film its high praise. Unique, alarming and seducing, The Skin I Live In is not to be missed.

5. Meek's Cutoff
This is the one movie on my list I feel like needs to include a disclaimer, it is also the one movie on my list I feel like I have to explain the nature of it to everyone. Meek's Cutoff is a portrait of what it was like to be a 19th century settler pushing west in America. This is actually a horrible movie at explaining what you are witnessing. There is no narration, no set up, it just is the experience. By all accounts this film is hard to watch and it is suppose to be that way. This isn't a movie to sweep you up with emotions and make you feel good, it is again, here to show you what the emigration experience was like. How hard and grueling it was. How unnerving it must have been to walk day in and day out alongside a squeaky wagon wheel. It intends to show the audience how much paranoia and fear could be raised when the length of your trek is unknown. When you are unclear if savage Native Americans could be in the area or where the next source of water is. The film is meant to induce panic, tension, fear, uncertainty and it does so in a most tremendous fashion. I feel for the cast, who all deliver phenomenal portrayals, what they must have went through making this film. You can see from the film, these actors lived the experience. Lastly, Meek's has a heaping serving of ambiguity to it that I truly appreciated. It is a risky call because the decision will divide a portion of the audience just simply because they don't get it. In actuality it is a bold and hard move to leave the audience in the same place as the settlers. It is the final piece to this window of the emigration experience settlers faced during the early 1800s in America's western territories. Meek's Cutoff is a arduous experience, one that I recommend you endure to see just how hard the emigration push was. (Full Review)

4. Drive
When you buy the soundtrack to a movie and are upset that the tracks are out of sequence with the movie, so you re-order those tracks sequentially with the film just so you can re-experience that film on some level outside of the theater, that is a sure sign you're hooked. Drive is a movie I was obsessed with since hearing director Nicolas Winding Refn wanted to direct a movie adaption of James Sallis short novel The Driver and film it in Los Angeles. One year later the movie came out and it was everything I could have hoped for. Drive captures Los Angeles like no other movie in 2011. Refn made a throwback to the quiet thrillers of the 70's and a slap in the face to big budget Hollywood action movies. He powerfully demonstrated how reserved and steady a action film can be while still being flashy and laced with brutality and high octane. Lastly, how long has it been since we had a nameless hero? It was a breath of fresh air to have a hero without a backstory or a name, yet he is still the definition of what we know as good. A protector that goes against his better judgement for the sake of saving someone else. Drive captures a classic tale and projects it under the grime and crime of Los Angeles in expert fashion. (Full Review)

3. Hanna
Biggest surprise of the year for me. Friends of mine had this one on their anticipated list in 2011 and I never even took notice. One big reason is director Joe Wright, prior to making Hanna he'd made nothing but stuffy romantic period films that I'd turned my nose to. Stupidly I thought, he can't make a good assassin action-thriller. Boy was I ever wrong, Joe Wright made the best action movie this year hands down. Part of why I consider this the best action movie is the usual tropes he broke. He didn't use fast cars, big explosions, gigantic robots, aliens or any other form of fantasy elements but instead used a little girl. Not even a dolled up womanized female, but a plain girl who by appearance, wouldn't hurt a fly. Hanna broke the mold when it came to a feminine action movies and deserves mounds of acclaim for doing so. Outside of breaking the typical cliched female action movies mold, Hanna is a enthralling thriller with twists and turns filled with exceptional characters and performances. Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hollander and Eric Bana are absolutely electric in each of their portrayals. Hollander's whistle has stuck with me all year long much to be credited to The Chemical Brothers for their intoxicating score. Another score that is a perfect companion to the already stellar film. (Full Review)

2. The Descendants
Alexander Payne is probably the best director out there telling really sad stories in a delightfully comical way and The Descendants is another triumph by him. Set in the paradise of Hawaii, this dramedy reminds us that life in Hawaii isn't always paradise. That people who live in Hawaii go through just as much pain and suffering as anybody else in America. The film beautifully sets in and tells us a story that feels like something you'd hear a close friend tell you over dinner. Matt King's wife is in a coma after a dangerous boating accident and she isn't going to wake up, now Matt must face raising his two daughters on his own. Rounding out the story and providing a clever relief to the mourning aspect, Matt is negotiating a huge land sale in Kauai that will make his family a substantial amount of money. George Clooney once again provides a seasoned portrayal as Matt King and our narrator to the emotional tale. Clooney in my opinion, deserves the Best Actor for his portrayal here, it is the most subdued, comedic, and emotional I've seen him hit. Despite centering on such painful topic, Alexander Payne finds all the right moments to lighten the blow with comedic relief. None of this ever feels forced either, but instead natural. It is the basic human characteristics that make us laugh, things that people would do or say in normal situations that Payne's film is so effortless at displaying. The mood throughout The Descendants is set by a tremendous soundtrack of traditional slack key guitar Hawaiian songs, each of which emit this seemingly piece of paradise. It is an incredible balance the music creates, you have this peace that settles over you, meanwhile you watch a story play out filled with heartache and trimmed with laughter.

1. The Myth of the American Sleepover
No other film remained with me like The Myth of the American Sleepover in 2011, it is a daydream of what it was like to fall for someone for the first time. It is like looking through a View Finder to our teenage years of confusion, frustration, and passion. Those feelings, those rushes, and those urges we all got when someone of the opposite sex grabbed our attention. Myth captures the simple act of talking about someone you liked with friends. The nerves we got when that person looked our way or talked to us. Director David Robert Mitchell captures the innocence and emotions without error. He takes a bold leap making a film that feels outside the traditional teen coming of age films, both in film-making and storytelling, but wisely centers the content on universal emotions that audiences can all connect with. Told in a simple day in the life format, Myth follows four different narrators as they move through the last weekend of summer in Michigan. Myth is a timeless piece of film that really could have come from any point in the last forty years. Lastly, it is a new beloved favorite, one that easily topped 2011 in my mind. ( Full Review)

So that's my definitive Top 10 of 2011, I'm sure there are titles you don't agree with and that is okay, just as long as you are seeing movies and supporting the medium that deserves your patronage. Until next time...