Sunday, January 1, 2012

Dance on our Graves: Duncan's Top 20 Films of 2011

I have said, and will continue to say for some time, I'm certain, that I was not too happy in 2011. Of course the fact that I could not make a proper list of just ten films this year seems to dispute that, and there were even some films that I felt pretty good about that nonetheless got shoved off by the time I finalized it. So why the persistent attitude? It's mostly that I had my eye set on presents that I did not get, even though what I received was more than fine. Of course when we get around to Oscar time, it's more likely than not that nobody will notice the best there is to notice. There are precious few on this list that will gain such attention.

As per usual, the first several months of the year were as despairing as you'd expect them to be. It was a poor reminder of how little most people care about cinema, and it's a pathetic dropoff from where we left off at the end of the year. The only real comfort was the mild entertainments of films like "Source Code" and "Hanna", as well as the festival films from the previous year beginning to trickle out. And it's a just portrait of the times that when we did get to the summer, so much of what we found was as unsavory as could be predicted, for me anyway. For some reason, I just didn't get the excitement people felt behind "Super 8", "Harry Potter", and "X-Men: First Class".

Even "The Tree of Life", a recurring figure in the top ten lists of this year, left me cold outside of the performances of Hunter McCracken and Brad Pitt. Truth is, most of the films out this year were good, but few really reached the potential that they had set for themselves, and that's a lot of where I came off ill. The year didn't really kick in until the last trimester, as it usually does. But I'm obviously not speaking of most of the Oscar heavyweights this year. Films like "The Help" and "Moneyball", while not terrible, were severely lacking in spark or spunk. I fail to see the passion invested behind "Hugo", a soulless automaton in itself. And I could so easily live without ever seeing "The Descendants" and "War Horse", though I'm inevitably doomed to sit down to them eventually.

There were plenty of films that I really enjoyed quite a bit, but not emphatically, like "Beginners", "Friends with Benefits", and even "Jane Eyre" has grown on me a bit. Not enough for me to consider any of them for this list, but they're worth mentioning nonetheless. Many of the films that made the cut this year were undoubtedly much better than most of the films that made my relatively dishonest list last year. In formatting this, I was constantly rearranging because of how I came to realize which films I loved more than the others. You do owe something to the films on your list, which is really the actual purpose of these lists. It's telling the people who made these films, "You mattered to me this year". In truth, this year was ambiguous at best, allowing for any desired interpretation. This is my own.


Paul Feig may quite possibly be the worst director mentioned here, and it shows by his indecisiveness in this film. It doesn't bring down Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumulo's wonderful screenplay, or Wiig's quirky and textured lead performance.

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"
Say what you will against David Fincher's follow-up to "The Social Network", but this is a damn sexy, sticky, fantastically mind-raping kind of film that you end up loving in spite of its flaws, though not because of them. Rooney Mara and Trent Reznor are the stars of this show.

"The Guard"
John Michael McDonaugh's debut isn't nearly as fun as his brothers' "In Bruges", but the common denominator of Brendan Gleeson pulls things across with humor and deep emotion.

"The Ides of March"
Clooney's going for Oscar here, which didn't quite pan out, but maybe because this is a competently constructed film, as well as a mesmerizing Roman political tale set in the modern day.

"Kung Fu Panda 2"
Predictable once-over of the same story, be it with some fantastically colorful action sequences, and Gary Oldman's second greatest performance of the year as an evil peacock.

Seriously! Guilty pleasure that it is, this one had me consistently entertained through most of its ridiculous shenanigans. Need further proof? "These lemon squares taste like ass!" Nuff said.

"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"
Guy Ritchie's charms are falling apart, for certain, but he brings across enough stylistic action in a few scenes, and if he didn't, we'd still have the pleasure of Jared Harris' extreme scenery chewing.

"Take Shelter"
Typical construction of typical psychological thriller, I said to myself well before it ended, but Jessica Chastain inflects such passion and fragility into the cracks of this film. This is the film she should be remembered for this year, and sadly won't be.

"Young Adult"
A departure for Jason Reitman in a way I certainly didn't expect, the affrontation of mooring us with such a warped mindset also pays off in strokes deeper than Diablo Cody's writing allows.

"Breaking Bad: Season 4"

I'd just feel filthy if I didn't get just a second to talk about this season of "Breaking Bad" in a list of the best cinema had to offer in 2011. The show has managed to be one of the most intensely structured and creatively constructed extended films on television. This season showed a dark turn for our characters. In the way of penultimate seasons, this one did exactly what it was meant to do. It tightened the noose around our lead's neck to the point where it absolutely has to snap come next season. Along with that, it concluded one of the most thrilling arcs with purpose, furious anger, and sinister chemistry. If only there were a way for them to give out Emmys to Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Giancarlo Esposito, and Johnathan Banks, because they all just killed it. (Finale Review)

TOP 20 (Don't Knock it Till You Try It)

Directed by Gore Verbinski

Who could have possibly guessed that this is what Gore Verbinski had in store for us once he had finished up his term on the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise? Keeping all the insanity of his previous work with none of the glut, "Rango" was not a film I warmed up to overnight. In fact, I never had faith in this film, but only because I was a self-absorbed idiot. Revisiting at the close of the year, all the stinging irony and the absolutely non-PC one-liners finally registered. Verbinski finds the perfect avenue between lunatic and purposeful, as you could only expect somebody with his penchant to. It's a loving tribute to what came before it, and a fusion of oh so many genres of cinema. Verbinski doesn't drown the western genre in pastiche. He flies gently along it, pissing all the way home. (Full Review/ Revised Statement)

Directed by Brad Bird

If you asked me when I posted this list, I would have told you that "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" was my #20. But times change, and this was the only decision on this list that didn't sit well with me later on. How could you waltz out of Brad Bird's fourth film and not feel so completely enthralled from head to toe. You're not going to watch this film and feel that your life has completely changed as much as it did after you saw films like "Ratatouille" or "The Iron Giant", but you're never going to get as gleefully comic action in a truly live action universe as you do here. And hell, each ensemble cast members plays as not only important, but a scene-stealer in their own right. You can't take your eyes away from the screen, and not a moment leaves you even months after you see it. And trust me when I say that they have the makings of one of the greatest screen romances in Jeremy Renner and Tom Cruise. I don't joke. If that's not the next film, I'll be disappointed. (Full Review)

Directed by Woody Allen

I had all but forgot about Woody Allen's widely praised comedy until I saw it again two nights ago. Allen's frequent astonishment of the beauty of Europe brings us back around to Paris, the universally agreed beauty of the world. There's no real depth on display here, or at least nothing too implicit, and it leaves absolutely nothing up to the imagination. But honestly, who cares when the candy's so good? Bringing us from gut-busting situation to situation; from Corey Stoll's confidently uproarious Hemingway, to Alison Pill's ditzy desirable Zelda Fitzgerald, to Adrien Brody's Rhinoceros emphatic Dali! The film keeps you rollicking back and forth to the point in which you're just fine with the overt sentimentality of the ending. How could you not be after a time like that? How could you not love Paris in the 20s? (Full Review)

Directed by Paddy Considine

Though this is far from the quality of its competition, it's miraculous that "Tyrannosaur" took home the British Independent Film Award this year, if only because of its humble origins. With actors about as ugly as the creatures from "Rango", Paddy Considine's film seemed so against the grain that it felt the need to remedy it with evident music carrying us over into its increasingly depressive world. Considine doesn't treat any of his subjects as anything more than dogs, scrounging against each other at their masters' will. The purpose for their given abuse is as relevant as the purpose of human nature. It's irrelevant to the interpersonal, which Considine deals with harshly, lighting up the orifices of Joseph and Hannah's lives with cracks and bruises. (Full Review)

Directed by Asif Kapadia

It's been an interesting year for documentaries, though not quite as strong and evident as last year was. Amongst the few that left their mark was Asif Kapadia's piecing together of the career of Ayrton Senna, a formula 1 racer. What makes him special is something that you deserve to learn from the film, which is one of the few times I'd caution spoilers on real life events. If I were to compare it to anything, it would be the gangster films of Martin Scorsese, oddly enough. So rarely does spirituality have a place in the sport or the medium of documentaries, and it never once comes off as pandering. It isn't drowned in the weight of its own jargon. It's the narrative approach to the subject that makes it so clean and meaningful, as if the man himself had just as much purpose as the iconic figures he seems based around or inspired by. (Full Review)

 Directed by James Bobin

This year has turned me against anything mainstream, commercial, or even happy, as is evident in my "Worst of 2011" piece. And of course the one film to finally lift me up out of my funk was one that embraced all of those qualities, rather than falling into them by happenstance. The big screen return of The Muppets was predictable, overt, obvious, self-reciprocating, in-your-face, glossy, and milking every ounce of nostalgia it possible could. You wouldn't think that would translate into the joyous celebration it became. Writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller didn't even attempt to run away from those pits, instead opting to dive right into them with glee. I expected, with sadness, that this would disappoint me. By the end, I was in utter tears. The Muppets reminded me that I have a heart and a soul, and they did with all the tools that I've come to despise. They pretty much took their entire plot from the song "We Built This City", and I'm absolutely fine with that. (Full Review)

Directed by Michel Hazanavicius

There was no other film this year that the world seemed to be gearing me towards hating more than this. I typically hate the inevitable winner of the Best Picture race, but in spite of myself, I found myself given entirely to "The Artist". Not merely a half-hearted homage to the era of silent film, but a film with a purpose for being silent. It's a depiction of a time, a place, a period of change, the directorial hubris, and the world that we live in now. In an age when the worst films won't just shut up for a second, "The Artist" gives us moments of delicate silence to breathe within. Sight and sound form context a lot more than words do. This isn't silent for the heck of it. Hazanavicius proves himself a devoted storyteller, down to how he tells his stories. And it helps to have a film packed to the brim with hilarious gags, many of them delivered by such a cute dog! Uggie-haters best back off!

 Directed Lars von Trier

If anybody's bracing for the end of the earth to happen, it's not Lars. Both the fulfillment of his lifelong struggle against the world and an antidote to the delirium of what will clearly never happen. The end of the world is not a global event in "Melancholia". Everything that we see, from beginning to end, has to do solely with Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsborough. Both railing against and romantically clinging to the imminent apocalypse, they work as metaphors for our own obsession with destruction. Lars never shows the slightest bit of sympathy for his characters, leaving that to us more feeble-minded people. It's his greatest desire that we fall into his trap, feel for the characters, and then blow them entirely away. To quote Taylor Swift, "It's a love story. Baby, just say 'yes'." (Full Review)

 Directed by Aaron Katz

You can count the amount of major plot movements in "Cold Weather", Aaron Katz's mumblecore thriller, on your hand. The title is only relevant as a setting of scenery, which the entire film seems to support a sense of. These character are not extraordinary by any strain of the imagination. They are the people you'd expect to find in a town such as that. The film's mystery plot, while giving an unexpected sense of tension that defies actual logic, is rather secondhand and irrelevant to the small and minute interactions between this tight-knit group. It's sweet, funny, and daffy, and made all the more so by the incredulous, yet cute way that they even think they know what they're doing. (Full Review)

Directed by Tomas Alfredson

The lot in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" aren't nearly as bumbling as the group from "Cold Weather". The plot is both dire on an international scale, but even more on a personal scale. The cold and seething characters in this film are all operating on layers of distrust and manipulation, each trying to scramble ahead of the others to keep their seat in the changing world. Only one or two of these people are working off of unselfish means with nothing to gain. It's a much better story of sacrifice of one's friends and relationships for status than "The Ides of March" was. It's a revenge story, about an unassuming man who is utterly disregarded by his colleagues, and how he breaks each of them individually. It's the ultimate spy story, and if Gary Oldman just fades into his exteriors, he gnaws open our cheeks when he reemerges. The reveal of who the spy is doesn't even change our view of the characters. There's not a hair out of place in this immense cast. Even Mark Strong is good, which is a radical change for the better.

Directed by Asghar Farhadi 

I don't begrudge anybody who didn't get the chance to get this one in under the wire, as it only hit American theaters this past Friday. Chronicling the time in between the declaration of divorce and the actual separation of an Iranian couple, it doesn't saddle itself up with too much baggage. Just enough so that the characters feel the weight of it. The removal of "Nader and Simin" from the title adds a strong layer of ambiguity to its purpose. Whether referring to the initial separation, or the separation of an introduced family from their unborn child, this is a situation for which there is no positive outcome. Families end up broken, and faiths shaken. In dealing with the politics of the personal, Farhadi brings you in on all sides of the debate, and makes you just as indecisive as them. 

Directed by Sean Durkin

I saw this film two months ago, and have been helpless to articulate my own thoughts on it ever since. That is the general way that it leaves you, gasping for breathe with not a clue where to go next. Throwing you for a dizzying loop as it does for Martha (Marcy May (Marlene)), the film's all but blends together as the character itself does. Elizabeth Olsen offers an anchor to the shifts in perspective, but a light one, skipping infrequently as Durkin shifts the currents at his will. Olsen doesn't overdo the chaotic, bringing across an almost sense of indifference to the constant destruction of her self, all while the noose quietly sears around our throats as to whether or not the members of her cult are coming to reclaim her from her captor/sister, played by Sarah Paulson who goes toe-to-toe inspiring with Olsen at times. If this is even a mild debut for director Sean Durkin, then I quake in anticipatory fear of what he does to us next.

Directed by Celine Sciamma

The sweet little film that swept me off my feet unexpectedly on a cold Boston afternoon, the french film about a girl who pretends to be a boy took what could be a very typical American film, and inflects it with remarkable humanity and hospitality. There aren't any scenes of Laure and her sister sneaking sneakily behind their mothers' back. Laure is simply trying to make this period of acceptance in her life last as long as it will, with an aching pit coming from the fact that it won't last. The sweeter the scenes are, the more unbearable that sinking feeling becomes, which is nearly excruciating when Laure and her crush Lisa are dancing together to a manic pop tune. It's that manic sense of delightful giddiness that throws this film up in the air, yet it still feels like it's flying. (Longer Review)

Directed by Lynne Ramsay

This isn't a one-time-out horror show as I had worried it would become. Sure, after seeing it the first time, I was shaken and timid in increasing loneliness of my life, but would the film be able to hold onto that in the future? As it turns out, yes. The post-massacre world Tilda Swinton's frigid character lives in isn't one of acceptance, but one of endurance. The world's stinging irony, between happy kids and country music, is an affront to her humanity, as is the ordeal with Kevin that we see play out across the film. It's never a case of either "some kids are just evil" or "she should've been a better mother". The moments of abuse are the moments when she most cares about Kevin. Her enduring love for Kevin, against all that he does to her and all that she does to hate him, is what sets this film on fire. (Full Review)

Directed by Steve McQueen

I've come to almost have a half-appreciation of ending scenes as actually existing, with "Shame" being the key film when it comes to disregarding the last scene of a film. And the only reason it really bothered me at all was because what came before was so ambiguously trying and delirium inducing, that such an overt ending seemed just a bit disingenuous. That still doesn't change the fact that the ninety minutes of what came before dragged you along the gutter with such nerve and focused intent so as to spend some time analyzing where you rank in all of this, and then quaking with the crudeness of your own irredeemable soul. The trio of Steve McQueen, Carey Mulligan, and Michael Fassbender do such disgusting departures as to render you with back-to-the-ground with astonishment for their own fragility. I think it's safe to say that this McQueen guy is one to keep an eye on. (Full Review)

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

The sole outstanding piece of cinema in the bitter early months of this year, Abbas Kiarostami's psuedo-romance was one of the only films that took on a complete double meaning this year. It works as both a film about two strangers who pretend to be a couple, and as a film about a couple who pretend to be strangers, but it blurs the two of them together across the midsection that no matter how many times you've seen it, you're still left wondering and trying to figure it out. Kiarostami leaves subtle character details to offer credence to either opinion, but what really soars and makes this film so relevant in either case is the performances by William Shimmel, and even more so from Juliette Binoche. A turn as meticulous, beautiful, shaking, subtle, and just plain lovely as this is a case for somebody to be given the rights to immortality. No other performance this year, or in nearly any other year, could hold a candle to it. (Full Review)

Directed by Julia Leigh

It's been such an outstanding year for debut filmmakers, and an increasingly salient example of such is Julia Leigh's "Sleeping Beauty". It opened to a mild sense of controversy at the Cannes Film Festival this year, and many were blinded by the sexual use of its subjects to see anything deeper or finer than that. Of course, that never washed with me, certainly not after seeing it. This would be a fitting double feature with "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", as both are about the desperate aversion, yet more passionate longing for pain. Emily Browning holds true to her character's ambiguity, but doesn't make her an empty shell. She is desperately looking to be touched, even if it means shattering herself. It's a stronger film about personal meaning than "The Tree of Life" could ever hope to be. (Full Review)

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

And how could I possibly make it through this list without bringing up the common denominator in nearly every great list I've come across. "Drive" is amongst the few films that I've ever honestly described as "truly fucking awesome", which is no overstatement in the slightest. Nicolas Winding Refn constructs such a cool and smooth operation that doesn't lock us down into deeper meaning. It's that open sense that makes it such a strong watch to repeat. On each re-visitation, the film unearths different interpretations, feelings, moods, impulses, and it still works for whatever mood you're in. It offers impossibly iconic and cool performances from the entire cast, with a sense of longing that comes across through to the film's end. Do not go out with anybody who doesn't fucking love this movie. (Full Review)

Directed by Andrew Haigh

The top two films on my list are two that could swap with one another on any day given the mood, and that's saying a great deal seeing as I only got around to this one barely three days ago. Being gay isn't a choice that this film makes. It's an utter necessity that the film would not possibly work as well without. This is quite easily the most brilliant written film this year, as it never once paints itself as being self-important, and that makes it all the more important to see. The film revolves around two central performances by Tom Cullen and Chris New, neither of which hogs the spotlight, and both of which are oozing with emotion, nervousness, and such controlled passion. It never takes the detour of conventional plotting, and if it ever does, it doesn't disregard it. The "Notting Hill" moment at the end just brought me to tears, as these two people found something reciprocal from one another that they couldn't find without getting hurt. 

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Incredulously labeled as the trademark boring movie of this year, I can't see Kelly Reichardt's western adventure as anything but epic. I know I'm crazy, but I don't really care. "Meek's Cutoff" reaches the point of no return after the very beginning of the film. Well on their way towards the west on the Oregon trail, their situation becomes more and more dire as the film goes on until they reach a precipice, at which point they lose their footing, and stumble down in hopes of aid when they finally reach the bottom. The stakes have never been higher, because they're made so deeply personal. Each interpersonal connection sings, and each fall is felt with devastation and disaster. The wagon wreck may not last more than a minute, and there may not be any explosions, but for my money it's more effective than any action sequence this year. Anybody who is calling for Michele Williams to win Best Actress for "My Week with Marilyn" is clearly looking in the wrong place. By the end, inevitability is the god these characters are relying on. Not the trust of any man, but the knowledge that things will run their course. That is the law of the land. (Full Review)

That is my list. Take it or leave it, but know that it's not meant for you. Here's looking forward to a great 2012, whenever it is that it actually gets here. I imagine that won't be a while from now. Feel free to leave your thoughts on my list below, as well as your own lists! The floor is yours!

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