Maybe that’s a little harsh. But I was pretty unimpressed with the theatrical offerings this year, for reasons which Darren and I will get into soon (a BCMH manifesto for the new year, if you will). So, my list:
10. Contagion (Steven Soderbergh) and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
Two of my favorite contemporary directors (Soderbergh, don’t leave us!) brought it this year. Contagion is a study in paradoxes: a brisk yet grim, star-studded movie about the end of the world where most of the stars die. It definitely made me wary of human contact for a while, particularly in a place as often disgusting as New York. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is Fincher at his iciest, figuratively and visually; the characters never seem to not be freezing cold, and Fincher’s trademark distance works really well here (although it makes the characters hard to care about other than archetypes). Rooney Mara is animalistic and surprisingly empathetic as Lisbeth – it’s one of my favorite performances of the year. Plus, the cyberpunk opening credits are worth the price of admission alone.
9. Tabloid (Errol Morris)
Tabloid starts entertaining, gets crazy, and then proceeds to get crazier. Morris tells the story of Joyce McKinney, former beauty queen who kidnapped her Mormon boyfriend in England, and became a brief celebrity because of it. Joyce is amazingly open about the whole thing, revealing details that seem, well, crazy, but she is so forthright and earnest that you almost believe her side of things. Almost. Morris continues his run as one of the finest documentarians out there, as he tells this story without judgement.
8. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
Maybe it was that we saw it on Thanksgiving, so I was predisposed to feeling super-sentimental, but I absolutely loved Hugo. What starts as a cute story about a Parisian orphan in a turn of the century train station turns into an out-and-out love letter to the cinema, with the sprightly orphan (re)discovering Georges Melies, of all people. The best scenes are those that recreate the utter magic that Melies created with his early films; Marty gets a nice little cameo, and we get to see the explosions, mermaids, and dragons that Melies brought to life so ingeniously. There’s a sweet love story in there, too, and great performances all around. Plus, it uses 3D (a technology that threatens, through mediocre overuse, to become a mere gimmick) in brilliant, eye-popping ways. See it in the theater!
7. Hanna (Joe Wright)
2011 was the year that I discovered how profoundly inspired and enchanted by fairy tales I am; Hanna was the best modern interpretation of a fairy tale I’ve seen in some time. It’s sparse and then visually overwhelming, sweet and then devastating, moral and then amoral. Saoirse Ronan is an absolutely beautiful creature in the film, all blonde hair and blue eyes and naiveté about the world (as she kills guys, of course). This mixture of blood and innocence is pure catnip to me. I’m making Darren watch this one soon.
6. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
If I were to offer up a brief list of things I really like in a movie, it would include the following: great car chases, long periods of (badass) silence, blood, a nameless main character, Albert Brooks, a lot of blood, a protagonist who seems like a good guy but who is actually at best simply amoral, and tons of blood. Drive has all these things, and more.
5. Bridesmaids (Paul Feig)
While I definitely wasn’t enamored with the “Finally! Women are funny!” press that came along with this movie, it took two of my favorite comedians (Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph) and gave them something to do other than wacky sidekick. Sure, it’s achingly (as in gut-busting and awkwardly) hilarious; sure, it’s as gross as any fratty movie could hope to be (street diarrhea!); but most of all, it’s one of the most relatable movies I’ve ever seen. Every woman I’ve spoken to about the movie has related to at least one of the characters, and not in a Sex and the City way. It portrays the modern female friendship in a way I’ve never seen on screen, as well as the uncertainty of the postmodern, college-educated female. I mean, if I’m not a fuckup who moves back in with her Midwestern parents in about ten years, I’ll be shocked. It’s a hilarious movie with a real core, two things that are rare on their own, and near-impossible to find together. Plus, Jon Hamm is the best.
4. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
There were a lot of apocalypse films this year; this is one that did it best. Nichols, working with Michael Shannon again, balances the world-ending (or is it?) elements with the intensely personal story of a family being torn apart by its patriarch’s visions. Is he crazy? Is he right? I don’t think it really matters (although there is that issue of the film’s ending, the only part of it I didn’t completely love). Shannon gives another amazing performance; he really has the market on “quiet, insane men” roles. Jessica Chastain is also near-perfect as his wife, who is dealing with a deaf child and her husband’s instability, which threatens more than their marriage. She’s having a great year, and I’m rooting for her to be a huge star.
3. Incendies (Denis Villeneuve)
Part historio-social drama, part family quest, part Greek myth, Incendies is the most underrated film of the year. The gorgeous photography spans intimate moments and huge desert fires, bomb sites and military prisons, all with the same precise eye. It often feels operatic in its scope, but still intensely personal. I can get a little antsy at movies, but I was engrossed for Incendies‘ entire 130 minutes, and left the theater feeling like I had been punched in the gut. Highly recommended – it’s on DVD and an assuredly beautiful Blu-Ray now.
2. House of Tolerance (Bertrand Bonello)
One of the main themes I recognized in film this year was a tendency for a director to ask the audience to look at a film, rather than experience it. House of Tolerance, on the surface, seems like one of these films that I generally wasn’t impressed with; but it got under my skin and stayed there. I was definitely predisposed to loving the film; I like Bonello’s other work (which always expertly bridge that strange gap between impenetrable and empathetic), and I’m absolutely fascinated with turn-of-the-century prostitutes and isolated communities of women. If you’ve read anything about the film at all, it’s probably about the semen tears, or the use of The Moody Blues in a film set in 1900. Those things are the standouts of the movie, for sure, but it’s so much more than the idiosyncratic parts suggest. The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” is used perfectly in a funeral scene, and the semen tears the main character cries ties the film together. There is intense violence, but we see it in pieces, long after we see the results of said violence, which makes it more devastating. The women are a true ensemble cast, giving and taking to one another as you assume the characters do. It’s confounding, absolutely gorgeous and lush, and experimental in an almost mainstream way. I loved it.
1. Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
The obvious choice! But I really don’t think there’s any other choice to be made. Everything about this movie is damn near perfect: the performances are amazing – Jessica Chastain and her awesome year again, and especially Brad Pitt as the Malick-stand-in’s rough yet oddly sentimental father, – the visuals are (predictably) amazing, and I didn’t even hate the 20 minute “history of the world” section. The audience in my theater was getting a little restless, which I understand, but I was totally hypnotized; the flowing, erupting lava is a breath-taking stand-in for the human experience. I don’t think anything I could say would convince someone to like or dislike it, but it most certainly was the must-see film of the year. Tree of Life is both an experience, and a journey inside the viewer. That’s not something many films can say anymore.
Things that almost made the cut: The Skin I Live In, Cedar Rapids, Into the Abyss/Cave of Forgotten Dreams, I Saw the Devil, Submarine
Things that I still haven’t seen that might have made the list: The Artist, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Mysteries of Lisbon, The Turin Horse, Meek’s Cutoff, Certified Copy, The Muppets, A Separation, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Attack the Block, Margaret, Insidious (I guess I missed a lot of stuff after all…)
Things I was not impressed with; or, not as impressed as most other people seem to be: A Dangerous Method (natch), Melancholia, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Shame
Things I am excited about in the coming months: Haywire, The Divide, Miss Bala, Rampart, The Innkeepers, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, Silent House, and Casa de Mi Padre