Sunday, January 22, 2012

The best movies of 2011

I should mention that I haven't seen one of the frontrunners in this year's Oscar race, the acclaimed silent comedy The Artist. Other movies I'm still looking forward to seeing: Coriolanus, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Shame, A Dangerous Method and Margaret. If you'd like to read longer write-ups on some of the films mentioned here, please click on the words in blue.

1. The Tree of Life

More than 30 years in the making, Terrence Malick’s 140-minute marvel is a one-of-a-kind mix of the epic and the intimate. The opening 40 minutes are as mind-blowing as anything in a Michael Bay disaster movie, showing us the formation of the universe, the Paleolithic Era and a meteor hurtling toward the earth. The remaining 100 minutes are as vivid as anything in the childhood memoirs of Tobias Wolff and A.E. Hotchner, telling the simple story of a postwar American family, the O’Briens. It's a movie of staggering ambition and strangeness. An angel hovers around the action, just barely visible in the frame. A chair moves of its own accord. Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) flies around the yard at one point, and later we see her encased in a glass coffin in the woods, like Snow White. The camera pauses to notice things other movies wouldn’t, like a boy’s shadow dancing on the front doorstep. Big Questions are posed. (Chief among them: Why do bad things happen to good people?) Many viewers seemed perplexed as to what Malick was doing here, mingling the finite with the infinite. My take: By showing us man’s place in the cosmos, he reveals nothing less than the miracle of being alive.

2. Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen's first bona fide hit in ages invites the viewer on a magical mystery tour, as an American screenwriter named Gil (Owen Wilson) is whisked back in time to the Jazz Age. Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody and Corey Stoll give giggle-inducing performances as some of the famous artists Gil meets. A sly and very funny celebration of la vie boheme, Midnight in Paris is pure wish fulfillment.

3. War Horse

I was less than enamored by Tintin, the first Steven Spielberg movie since Amistad to make me fall asleep. In contrast, War Horse is among the director's finest achievements, a stirring homage to the sweeping Technicolor vistas and unabashed sentimentality of filmmaker John Ford. I once saw Ford's How Green Was My Valley in glorious 35mm. This rivaled that experience.

4. 13 Assassins

It's John Wayne meets John Wayne Gacy as 13 samurai are forced to confront the sadistic Lord Matsudaira. The final 45-minute battle is pretty much the coolest thing I've seen since "Showdown at House of Blue Leaves."

5. Drive / Hanna

Exhilarating, over-the-top, ultra-violent thrillers by Joe Wright (Hanna) and Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive). Hanna is a dark urban fairy tale like Running Scared (2006). Drive is a pastiche of American crime films from the '70s and early '80s, with formidable performances by Ryan Gosling and Albert Brooks.

6. Rango

Just like Fantastic Mr. Fox gave a creative boost to Wes Anderson, director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) seems to have been reinvigorated by switching from live-action to animation. The nonstop references to everything from The Wizard of Oz to Chinatown to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone are a movie lover's dream.

7. Crazy, Stupid, Love.

I just couldn't stop smiling. The silly backyard brawl didn't quite work for me, but almost everything else did: the Mr. Miyagi scenes between Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell, the wry teenager who's determined to show his babysitter that she's the one, the hilarious reenactment of the scene in Dirty Dancing where Patrick Swayze catches Jennifer Grey. If he weren't up against Woody Allen, I'd say Dan Fogelman had written the year's most charming screenplay. An unoriginal but sparkling romantic comedy, with the perfect final shot.

8. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy / Warrior

Tom Hardy, an actor with the looks and charisma of Dean and the ferocity of a young De Niro, gives a standout performance in both of these films. Tinker is a wintry, exceptionally smart adaptation of John Le Carre's classic spy novel. Warrior is a meat-headed UFC movie that builds to an overwhelming emotional climax. Like Hardy himself, they're an ideal mix of coolness and warmth, brains and brawn.

9. Young Adult

Imagine a love story told entirely from the perspective of a home-wrecking hussy. That's the risky proposition put forth by director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, the creative team that brought us Juno. This biting comedy skews so heavily towards the POV of a grown-up mean girl that you might not realize what kind of person she is until halfway through the movie, when one of her former classmates refers to her as a "psycho prom queen bitch." Wearing that crown with an admirable lack of vanity, Charlize Theron once again makes the most of a meaty, unflattering role. A wonderfully cast Patton Oswalt matches her scene for scene as an endearing uber-nerd who, like the movie's alcoholic anti-heroine, has never quite gotten over high school.

10. Poetry

I considered saving this spot for I Saw the Devil, directed by Jee-woon Kim, who seems to be trying to outdo Chan-wook Park (Oldboy) in the depravity department. But I have to go with my heart and profess my love for Poetry, a far subtler but very dark South Korean drama from Chang-dong Lee, the acclaimed director of Secret Sunshine. It's about a sixty-something woman who, while in the early stages of Alzheimer's, discovers her grandson is guilty of raping a classmate and, in effect, causing the girl to take her own life. The ending is an absolute knockout – a glimpse at what the film adaptation of The Lovely Bones could have been.

Honorable mentions

I Saw the Devil
The Myth of the American Sleepover
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The Rum Diary
Take Shelter

Guilty pleasures

Chillerama (segment "Wadzilla") 
Fright Night
Tucker and Dale vs Evil