I’ll be the first to admit that I’m the ideal candidate to write a year-end list as I watch pretty much everything and I at least try to approach all movies with an open mind. And with that said…
Top 10 Movies of 2011
10. The Catechism Cataclysm : As gloriously absurd as independent cinema gets; completely pointless yet strangely worthwhile. The most uncomfortable of rafting trips gives way to an obvious (and admitted) ripoff of Japan’s glorious Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005) and yet there is so much going on that a derivative climax is easily forgivable. Hopefully both writer/director Todd Rohal and the young filmmakers who watch this film will understand that such a blatant defiance of the rules of cinema cannot be pursued further, otherwise we’ll enter an era of masturbatory low-budget movies that will simply parallel the very mainstream Hollywood blockbusters that this film rebels against. Enjoy it while you can.
9. The Trip : A 172 minute BBC series cut down to a 107 minute film that maintains its humor and themes while remarkably strengthening its impact. British comedy heavyweights Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (who previously starred together in 2002’s TV movie Cruise of the Gods, look it up, it’s well worth your time) play slightly exaggerated versions of themselves as they go on a tour of countryside eateries. It’s actually rather impossible to differentiate their real-life personas from those portrayed in the film, which makes their return home that much more affecting. Director Michael Winterbottom’s finest work in ages.
8. TrollHunter : The “genre film” has officially become a modern marketing term that embraces pretty much anything that flirts with the fringes of cinema. It’s a term that I no longer feel comfortable using (related question: can a tribute to the “genre” genre actually be representative of said genre? See the abysmal Hobo with a Shotgun), but it’s ultimately an easy topic to ignore. Norway’s TrollHunter is one of the rare modern faux-documentaries that actually sustains the interest of fun-loving filmgoers for its entire 103 minute running time. A film crew follows the titular government agent as he provides a tour through the hidden corners of troll-dom. The trolls get bigger, uglier, and more threatening as the film progresses towards its logical and easily forgivable cop out of an ending. Glorious fun.
7. The Tree of Life : I, like most of you, could go on forever about the success-to-failure ratio of the endless concepts that director Terrence Malick packs into this examination of science, religion, and memory. The endless amount of talking points that Tree provides is more than enough justification for its inclusion on anyone’s Top 10 list and is further proof that it was one of the most interesting films released in 2011.
6. Margaret : I admit that I was late to Margaret, intentionally skipping the press screening of the second film from the writer/director of 2000’s You Can Count on Me that had sat on a shelf since 2007. My interest (along with the interest of four other attendees) was luckily peaked just prior to the close of its two week Philadelphia run and I’m honestly still trying to wrap my head around this joyously messy yet endlessly rewarding drama of guilt, class, responsibility…I’m overwhelmed just thinking about it.
5. Tyrannosaur : A brutal and heart-wrenching tale of redemption from actor-turned-writer/director Paddy Considine. A film that’s impossible to shake thanks to a brilliant cast (Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, Eddie Marsan) and an over-the-top sensibility that’s not necessarily true to life, but is definitely true to the lives in the film.
4. Le Havre : Maybe I’m ranking this one a bit high, but my continued admiration for Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismaki goes way back to my high school days (the fact that this film is a sort-of continuation of 1992’s The Bohemian Life certainly makes me love it that much more). There are few directors that have the ability to say so much by doing so little; there’s just something about characters looking up at the sky that really gets to me.
3. Shame : It was a big year for the talented Michael Fassbender and the fact that he delivered what is possibly the year’s most memorable performance as Shame‘s sex addicted corporate drone mere months after playing mutant baddie Magneto in X-Men: First Class makes me respect him all the more. And while he takes center stage in Shame, there’s plenty more to love in this completely immersive film that portrays the Big Apple as Philadelphians want to see it.
2. We Need to Talk About Kevin : Describing the plot for the third film from writer/director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) will inevitably detract from its impact. You’re better off sitting on the edge of your seat as Ramsay effortlessly traverses through time and location with an endless series of disturbing vignettes that will have any parent questioning their child rearing techniques.
1. The Descendants : I’ve tried but I just can’t find anything wrong with this film. Multiple endings? Fine with me, especially when the final shot is one of the most fitting I’ve ever seen. The stoner kid? I found him off-putting at first, but he’s ultimately an integral part of this corner of Payne’s universe. Granted, I have a degree of personal attachment to the film’s content, but that’s how favorite films are born. Fingers crossed for Oscar season.
Wonderfully over-the-top performances, exploitative undertones, and an undeniable atmosphere of class characterized David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method; I’m not ashamed to admit that Fast Five was some of the most fun I had in the theater this year (not that it’s good, I’m afraid to actually revisit it, same goes for Hanna, which I found to be a pleasant surprise at the time); House of Tolerance/Pleasures was the most interesting film I’ve ever seen that took place in a turn of the century brothel though I cared little for its ultimate message; Israeli director Eran Riklis delivered the droll-yet-moving Kaurismaki-like The Human Resources Manager, which you probably won’t find another mention of, but this quirky tale of a corpse delivery stayed with me; Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff was the most atypical of westerns (is that a fair categorization?) with Bruce Greenwood in one of the year’s most memorable performances; my beloved Nick Broomfield returned to what he does best with the oddball documentary Sarah Palin: You Betcha; Shunji Iwai, one of my Japanese favorites, made his English-language debut with the memorably atmospheric and deeply affecting (if you’re willing) Vampire.
Bottom 5 Movies of 2011
5. Nicolas Cage – I’m always the first to defend the man who I consider to be one of modern Hollywood’s most interesting actors, but Cage’s weirdo charms wore as thin as his hairline this year between the forgettable medieval Crusader fantasy Season of the Witch, the orgy of trash that was Drive Angry, and the home invasion bore that was Joel Schumacher’s Trespass. But never fear, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is right around the corner and…oh, never mind.
4. David Gordon Green – George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow…Green was once poised to be the savior of modern cinema. This year he delivered two of the least memorable “comedies” you’ll ever see: Your Highness and The Sitter. Speaking of which…
3. Comedy – The only time I recall laughing in a theater this year was during Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules. Bridesmaids, Paul, 30 Minutes or Less, Our Idiot Brother, Something Borrowed, The Hangover Part II, Take Me Home Tonight, Jack and Jill, Hall Pass, Cedar Rapids…Hollywood really needs to get a sense of humor.
2. Creature – To quote my review: “An incestuous love affair between two siblings comes to an abrupt end when an albino alligator devours the pregnant sister. Her brother hunts, kills, and eats the alligator along with the remains of its other human victims and then inexplicably mutates into a half-alligator monstrosity that stalks the hillbilly-populated swamps of Louisiana.” It may sound awesome, but trust me, it’s one of the worst horror films of modern times.
1. Cost of a Soul – I barely remember the film itself, but I vividly recall struggling through it. I always go easy on locally produced films (and boy did I see some memorably terrible ones this year), but this one really rubbed me the wrong way. Read my review here.
ODDITY OF THE YEAR
The Last Godfather – New York, 1950s: The beautiful young daughter of an Italian-American crime family headed by Jon Polito falls for the son of a rival family led by Harvey Keitel. The son is played by the film’s barely bilingual writer/director, 58-year-old Korean comedian Hyung-rae Shim (writer/director of 2007’s Dragon Wars), who dresses and acts like he’s from the silent era. Jason Mewes appears as the villain. For all we know, this severely unfunny South Korea/US co-production could actually be a scathing commentary on the American gangster film (it was released in its star’s home country as The Dumb Mafia). Judge for yourself on DVD since you obviously didn’t catch it during its one week run at the Riverview earlier this year. “Capice?” “Quiche!”
In other news…I walked out of only one film this year, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, and I attended multiple screenings of only three films: The Descendants (completely by choice), Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (once to review, the other as host of a discussion group), and The Muppets (once to review, the other alongside my mother). The only film that literally put me to sleep in 2011 was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
And I watched a total of 415 feature films this year.