Jonathan's Top Ten 2011
Jonathan shares some thoughts on his favourite films of the past twelve months
I love a good top ten list. Our own Marcus Doidge does a wonderful job of putting together one at the end of each year, and after getting his permission to shamelessly steal his neat format, I've thrown together one of my own. 2011 has had its fair share of disappointments with irrelevant sequels like Hangover Part II, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and Cars 2. There were some lackluster blockbusters ( Cowboys and Aliens, Transformers: Dark of the Moon) and complete wastes of valuable intellectual property (what happened Green Lantern?).
While Hollywood was busy making loud sequels, cashing in on comic book franchises, and putting as many unnecessary 3D releases out as possible, independent filmmakers stepped up to tell fascinating stories and explore deep characterizations. Their films were the ones that really caught my attention in 2011. In the tradition of a top ten list, I have ranked the following titles, but you should know that there isn't much of a gap between my love for the #1 spot and the #10 spot. Let's get started, shall we?
Director Steve McQueen delivered an impressive directorial debut with 2008's Hunger; a film following Irish republican Bobby Sands who led the 1981 IRA Hunger Strike. It wasn't a perfect example of storytelling or character exploration, but it was virtually flawless on a technical level with it's precise cinematography and long takes that allowed his actor's raw performances to simmer. McQueen demonstrated that he wasn't afraid to show the ugliest aspects of the conflict with unflinching detail. The same things could be said for Shame, which re-teams McQueen with actor Michael Fassbender, but this time focusing on sex addiction. Fassbender plays Brandon, a bachelor who spends his free time at home (and as we learn, at work) indulging in sexual encounters with strangers and finding other means of sexual release. His lifestyle is threatened when his estranged sister, Cissy (Carey Mulligan), moves into his apartment against his wishes.
The plot could fit a teenage sex comedy: "A guy is trying to hook up with women, but then his sister shows up to live with him and shenanigans ensue!", but Shame couldn't be further from a comedy. Despite a few choice instances of dark humour, this film feels closer in tone to something like Requiem for a Dream. It's clear from the start that Brandon, despite engaging in physical pleasures constantly, is incredibly unhappy. He does this to fill a void in his soul, running from normal relationships and sociable behavior. With the wrong approach and a less talented actor, this movie could've easily been a joke, but Fassbender is wholly convincing. I truly felt like I was watching a self-destructive man that could not control himself and was a complete slave to his urges. McQueen continues to show that he is a director worth watching.
The screenplay takes some detours that I feel didn't contribute much to the harrowing depiction at hand, and sometimes the score is way too cumbersome; leading to scenes that feel overwrought. But don't let that stop you from seeing Shame. The talent on display from Fassbender and McQueen deserves to be seen and appreciated for its raw power.
Shame is in theaters now.
I really don't care about baseball. Despite having played on many teams as a child, watching it just doesn't interest me in the slightest, so I was hesitant to go out and watch Moneyball. I was eventually pulled in by the glowing reviews, and felt silly for ever doubting Bennett Miller's ( Capote) directing and a collaborative screenplay from Steve Zaillian (who also wrote this years The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and Aaron Sorkin ( The Social Network).
The story follows Oakland A'a general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt). He's a man who has every reason in the world to doubt the effectiveness of scouts work, and he teams up with a young man (Jonah Hill) who believes that the entire drafting process for baseball should involve statistical analysis, while ignoring the player's image. They put together a team of undervalued players, getting as many statistical "runs" as they can for their meager budget.
The screenplay isn't interested in showing us extended footage of baseball games. Most of the baseball footage is taken straight from the actual games. The focus is very much on the off-field business of the sport, and although the plot follows this team throughout their fascinating season, the movie really belongs to Billy Beane as a character. This is a very heartfelt exploration of what drove Billy Beane to make some of the risky decisions that he did, and thanks to great writing and a memorable performance from Brad Pitt, I found myself rooting this character on.
You can find news on the upcoming US DVD/Blu-ray releases of Moneyball here.
Tomas Alfredson's take on Let the Right One In was easily one of 2008's best films. This time, working from an adaptation of a John le Carré novel, he tackles the spy thriller genre with an impossibly slick cast of British players. With Gary Oldman at the lead, and company like Mark Strong, John Hurt, Ciarán Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth, this movie was pretty much guaranteed my affection from the start. Luckily the film doesn't rest solely on their talents and also functions as a tense, paranoid investigative drama.
Those going into Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy should know it isn't the easiest movie to follow. Though everything eventually makes sense in the end, the screenplay seems to take delight in keeping details murky or taking roundabout methods to reveal information. As a result, the plot's payoff left me feeling a bit unsatisfied. But that's really the only qualm I have with it, and I feel like it will dissipate with repeated viewings. Alfredson's direction is absolutely brilliant. If you didn't know better, it'd be easy to assume this movie was lifted straight out of the 70's. It's drenched in the decade's aesthetics, in terms of both production and style. Colour is desaturated to help give it a bleak and aged appearance. From the impossibly pale faces of the "Circus" members to the foggy looking sets, every detail works to sustain an ominous tone, drenched in fear, that permeates throughout each scene and never lets up. In a business where screwing up means death, these characters are all looking out for themselves, and it's impossible to trust a single one of them. Even the lead, Mr.Smiley, whose very name sounds deceitful.
I have yet to read the John le Carré novel or watch the original television series of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I imagine it had much more time to spend on character development. The film never feels rushed, but I'm sure some character details were lost from the runtime restriction. It's not a story of great emotional depth or shocking twists, but it's hard to beat the sustained atmosphere of dread and insane attention to details. There's also a very inspired use of Julio Iglesisas' 'La Mer' that I feel in love with. I have a good feeling this one is going to grow on me more and more with each viewing.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is in theaters now.
You'd be hard-pressed to find an actor working today better than George Clooney. He's proved himself time and again, and now he finds himself paired with Alexander Payne; the master of biting satire and mixing touching personal stories with awkwardly realistic humour. The two of them working together makes too much sense. I'm not sure why I hadn't imagined it before.
The Descendants follows a difficult chapter in the life of Matt King (Clooney). His wife, Elizabeth, has always been around to take care of their kids, but after a recent boating accident she is left in a coma. Suddenly he is having to step up and learn to be a parent to his troubled children in their time of need, and in the process he learns that his wife was having an affair with a real estate agent. They decide to travel around to tell relatives the news about Elizabeth while making a stop in Kauai to confront her secret lover.
Part of what makes Alexander Payne's films work so well is his willingness to revel in the awkward moments of life. The Descendants has plenty of those, and he approaches each one with startling humour and grace. He owes much of the success to Clooney, who arguably gives the best performance of his career (though I feel like I say that every time he stars in a drama). And he's not alone. Shailene Woodley, who plays his daughter Alexandra, is terrific. This was the first I'd ever seen of her, and she has the looks and the acting chops to be a star. Hopefully she'll continue to work with great storytellers. Payne doesn't fill the movie with the same razor sharp satire that is present in some of his other films, but the story of The Descendants doesn't call for that approach. His dark sense of humour is completely intact. There is a subplot involving Hawaiian heritage and legacy that never perfectly gels into the personal story at the foreground, but most of the story progresses in a very entertaining and involving way. I found my emotional responses ranging from debilitating laughter to fighting back tears. It's an impressive balancing act that Payne navigates with expertise.
The Descendants is in theaters now.
With Submarine, British funnyman Richard Ayoade makes his directorial debut, and the result left me praying it's not his last film. Set in a gloomy Wales, the story follows the precocious Oliver Tate, a young boy on the passage to adulthood who is trying to salvage his parent's flailing marriage while also maintaining a relationship of his own. Much like Wes Anderson, Ayoade pulls a lot of stylistic inspiration from the French New Wave era. The film is fueled by abundant charm and a very distinct sense of humour that knows how to be quirky and witty without being too precious.
You can read my full review of Submarine's US Blu-ray release here, or check out Marcus' take on the UK disc on this page.
There were a lot of great films in 2011 that didn't quite make my list, but are more than deserving of attention. Take Shelter was a great demonstration of Michael Shannon's acting talent. Martha Marcy May Marlene put Elisabeth Olsen on the map and may just get her an Oscar nomination, while Christopher Plummer is guaranteed a nomination for his performance in Mike Mill's sophomore film Beginners. Both Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Thor proved to be much better than their initial trailers suggested. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II was a great finale to a franchise my generation grew up with. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen proved to be a hilarious and heartwarming duo in 50/50. Kristen Wiig finally got a leading role that she deserved with Bridesmaids, and nailed it. Thomas McCarthy's third film, Win Win was a simple but well-told story with realized characters. Joe Wright created a strange and potent technical thriller with Hanna, and Attack the Block was a promising film debut from writer/television-director Joe Cornish.
Kim Jee-woon thrilled and disgusted me with the intense I Saw the Devil. Takashi Miike showed audiences that he can make an awesome samurai action movie with 13 Assassins (Marcus' UK DVD Review, Chris' UK Blu-ray Review). Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and Scorsese's Hugo (both on my list at one point) are must-sees for lovers of art. While Pixar released their first critical flop, Rango (UK review), The Muppets, and Winnie the Pooh stepped up as the best family films of the year. James Gunn's low budget hero comedy Super (UK review) checked all the boxes for a great dark comedy, as did John Michael McDonagh's hilariously irreverent directorial debut, The Guard (UK release details). Cronenberg set aside extreme violence to tell a dialogue-driven story with great subtlety and finesse in A Dangerous Method, and Lars von Trier made an interesting exploration of the nature of depression and its destructive force in Melancholia. Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt gave wonderful performances in surprisingly mature and involving screenplay from Diablo Cody in Jason Reitman's Young Adult. The Help was way more enjoyable than I imagined, and Crazy, Stupid, Love turned me into a shameless sap and even made me laugh a good amount.
I have a feeling The Ides of March and maybe Warrior would get a mention too, but I slacked off and have not seen them yet. Back to the list!
Tree of Life is Terrance Malick's ambitious film that tackles broad subjects from the creation of the universe all the way to a personal story of a young boy and his relationship with his demanding father. It is most certainly not for everyone and sure to be hated by many, but fans of Malick's previous work will likely eat it up, as he uses the same meditative approach to the storytelling that populates his other films. If it's your cup of tea, this could be the film equivalent of nirvana.
You can read my full review of the film and check out the quality of Fox's Blu-ray release here.
Sometimes it's hard to talk your friends into watching an old black and white movie. It's even harder to get them into a silent movie. The Artist is a movie made earlier this year that fits both bills. It's a full-framed love letter to a bygone era of film making that's all too appealing in this time of high definition and 3D. I went in feeling a bit cynical, thinking this would just be a gimmicky movie that panders to the artful crowd and people who love old fashioned movies. On the surface I suppose that's what it is, but The Artist has a wealth of universal appeal that transcends the medium entirely. The soundtrack is also delightful and appropriately old fashioned.
The plot follows George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a star of the silent movie era who begins to feel increasingly irrelevant with the arrival of talking pictures. In one of his last movies he works with Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a young woman who is bound for stardom. The two share a connection, but drift apart as her career blossoms and he spirals into depression. Bejo and Dujardin are absolutely flawless in this film. They carry the charisma and magnetism of the stars from the portrayed era. Since the movie features no dialogue, it relies heavily on expressions and exaggerated gestures to tell its story, and the two leads are completely up to the task. I really can't say enough about what a joy they are to watch. We'll be hearing a lot about this one with award season arriving. The Artist also features Uggie, the coolest dog of the year (a most prestigious accolade).
The Artist is in theaters now.
When David Fincher announced that he was directing an American version of Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, many fans of the book and the original Swedish film declared it an unnecessary remake. While I would echo their sentiments in many scenarios (take Let Me In for example), this was just too perfect of a marriage between a director and the material. I couldn't wait to see it, and the results did not disappoint.
Though the original plot line of the book is far from perfect, Fincher milks the story for all it's worth. This is a prime example of an average story being elevated by pitch-perfect direction. I had my doubts about Rooney Mara as Fincher's choice for Lisbeth Salander, but she proved to be equally as compelling as Noomi Rapace, while still unique in her own right. Fincher's gloomy, atmospheric visual style proved (as expected) to be a major asset to the story, while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross strike gold once again with an original soundtrack.
Did I mention the incredibly awesome opening title sequence? A dark collage of oily, abstract images to the tune of Trent Reznor and Karen-O's take on Led Zeppelin's 'Immigrant Song'. It almost felt like a cyberpunk Bond movie opening drenched in gothic angst. Make no mistake about it: whether you think it is necessary or not, this is the definitive version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I envy people experiencing this story for the first time through Fincher's vision and remarkable craftsmanship.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is in theaters now.
Though technically made in 2010, Poetry didn't see any type of normal distribution in the United States until February of this year, so I've decided to include it. Korean director Lee Chang-dong is a craftsman of the highest order. His characters face challenging existences where there are no easy answers and tidy solutions. Poetry is no exception to this.
Yun Jeong-hie gives a heartbreaking performance as Mija, a woman in her 60's who discovers that she is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. To help her keep her mind focused and sharp, she enrolls in a poetry class. Meanwhile, she discovers that the grandson who lives with her is involved in a terrible crime. It sounds like a recipe for a miserable viewing experience filled with melodrama, but it isn't. Chang-dong maintains a steady grip on how the drama unfolds; treating his characters with dignity and respect. This is a quiet and confidently told story about the depths of human empathy and learning to find beauty in the most mundane places, even when faced with dreadful circumstances.
I'd love to elaborate more, but it would be impossible without giving away some major plot developments. What I will say is that this film really got to me. I get goosebumps just thinking about it right now. Jeong-hie's gives what may be one of the best performances of any year, and the result shook me to my core without ever being emotionally manipulative.
Poetry is available on DVD/Blu-ray from Kino in the US and from Arrow in the UK.
There is something seriously infectious about Drive that I find difficult to place my finger on. Every component of the film works to create an irresistible vibe, so much that I returned to the theater four more times to revisit the feeling; bringing new friends along and feeling eager to hear their thoughts on it. The restrained yet confident direction from European art house filmmaker, Nicolas Winding Refn, makes for a potent mixture with a deliciously 80's-inspired soundtrack filled with addictive synth.
Ryan Gosling's silent but intense lead character is an interesting beast. He reminded me very much of Lee Byung-hun's leading man in the Korean film A Bittersweet Life. Aside from being outrageously cool both men never open up about themselves for a second or carry on a conversation for more than a couple languid exchanges, and both men get involved in simple relationships with young women that become the center of their entire existence. Many have criticized the leisurely pace of the dialogue between the driver and Irene (Carey Mulligan), but to have them open up to each other so readily would be a complete contradiction to the characters. Their relationship isn't about conversation or getting to know every detail about one another. They see each other as a ticket to a simple, comfortable existence. That comfort is threatened when Irene's husband returns home and the driver becomes involved with a group of criminals. One such criminal is Bernie Rose, played by Albert Brooks in an unusual role for him. He is scary good, and deserves every bit of the Oscar buzz surrounding him. After a deal goes bad and the driver ends up with money that doesn't belong to him, things really get intense.
Drive appears to be a very polarizing experience among audience members, and with good reason. If you boil the plot and script down to its basic elements, you don't anything particularly interesting or new. It thrives on nuance and meticulous attention to detail. This is a director's film, and Refn can either pull you into the vortex of this violent world or put you to sleep his vision. Personally, I'm still trapped in it. And the experience has proved to be just as electrifying with every subsequent viewing.
You can find news on the upcoming US DVD/Blu-ray release of Drive here.
So that's where I'm at for 2011 as of right now. My opinions on movies tend to fluctuate over time, and there are still a few promising titles from this year I haven't seen yet ( Tintin, A Separation, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and Carnage all look promising), so who knows how I will rank all of these a week from now. If you made it this far, thanks for reading! Please feel free to share your thoughts and post your own top 10 lists. Let me know if there's a good one I missed. I hope you are all having a wonderful holiday season and get a lot of new titles for the home collections!
Editorial by Jonathan Hogberg
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