Sunday, February 26, 2012

Best of 2011: Performances

These are the actors in 2011 who showed us how it is done. They are listed here more or less in the order in which they knocked my socks off.

Michael Fassbender in Shame
Actor, Male
  1. Michael Fassbender, Shame
  2. Joseph Gordon Levitt, 50/50
  3. Peyman Moadi, A Separation
  4. Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
  5. Damian Bechir, A Better Life
  6. George Clooney, The Descendants

Tilda Swinton and Jasper Newell in
 We Need to Talk About Kevin
Actor, Female
  1. Tilda Swinton, We Need To Talk About Kevin 
  2. Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy
  3. Jessica Chastain, The Debt
  4. Elizabeth Olson, Martha Marcy May Marlene
  5. Viola Davis, The Help
  6. Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids
  7. Charlize Theron, Young Adult
  8. Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia
  9. Charlotte Gainsbourgh, Melancholia

Brad Pitt and Tye Sheridan in
The Tree Of Life
    Supporting Actor, Male
    1. Brad Pitt, The Tree Of Life
    2. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Ides Of March
    3. Paul Giamatti, The Ides Of March
    4. John Hawkes, Martha Marcy May Marlene
    5. Nick Nolte, The Warrior
    6. Hunter McCracken, The Tree Of Life

    Carey Mulligan in Shame
    Supporting Actor, Female
    1. Carey Mulligan, Shame
    2. Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter 
    3. Octavia Spencer, The Help
    4. Marisa Tomei, The Ides Of March
    5. Judy Greer, The Descendants
    6. Jessica Chastain, The Help
    7. Amara Miller, The Descendants
    8. Sarah Paulson, Martha Marcy May Marlene

    Best of 2011: Movies

    Movies can be many things. And few years in recent memory have brought a crop of films with as diverse an affect as 2011. In the past twelve months there were movies that were gleefully, unapologetically high octane entertainment (Fast Five, Mission Impossible Four: Ghost Protocol). Movies that were determinedly cerebral (A Dangerous Method). Movies that became Rubic's cubes embedded in my brain, demanding that I keep turning keys exhaustingly until I had them solved (Melancholia, Certified Copy, Martha Marcy May Marlene). Movies that were drunk on movies (Hugo, The Artist). Movies that were mercury in the palm of your hand: ungraspable, unsolvable, meditative, denying resolution (The Tree Of Life). Movies that raised the bar for what it means to be uncompromising (Shame, Take Shelter, We Need To Talk About Kevin). Movies that sang loud their anthem of individuality (Drive, Hanna). Movies that had no business being as good as they were (The Lincoln Lawyer, The Big Year). And movies that just did their job so bracingly, charmingly well (Midnight in Paris, Harry Potter and the Deathly Gallows).

    How then to come up with best of the year? Even after acknowledging that these lists are uniquely personal and that it would be a foolish pursuit to expect such a list to dovetail exactly with anyone else's, how to define the basis for picking the best? As in past years, I went with the simple tenet that a movie simply should have moved me to be on this list. All of the movies below turned on a switch and tripped some circuit within me.

    1. 50/50 - Sure, I could have picked something highbrow and irreducible for the top of the list, but I had to be honest. You feel what you feel. No film this year had an effect on me like 50/50; it washed over me like a tidal wave. This is the story of a young man informed suddenly that he has cancer and the people in his life who react to this news. This movie takes this harshest of settings to generate genuine comedy. Why does every scene, every situation in this film feel genuine? Because the script is autobiographical, sure. But also because the movie features an uncelebrated, understated performance from Joseph Gordon Levitt in the lead role. The film walks a tightrope and gets just the right tone, not maudlin, not seeped in fake sentimentality, not indulgent and never wallowing in self pity. Many brushed this movie aside as overly familiar, but this is a pulsing, breathing film of considerable authenticity.
      2. Hugo - I watched this film in a constant state of delight, grateful that someone still knows to make films of undiluted joy. Who knew that while Martin Scorcese was making ostensibly a children's film that he would also create his most personal movie to date. A movie about movies! If you are a lover of films, there is no other movie from the past year that you need to see more. Notice how Scorcese tethers this story with emotionality that is never forced, but organic. Notice the sheer beauty of a Paris  - as it has perhaps never existed - that at once sates and agitates the heart. To see the first ten minutes of Hugo is to have unquestionable proof that here is the best use of 3D ever employed in film. This is a triumph that will remind you of the time when you were a child and enjoyed the classics with wide-eyed wonder. 

        3. The Descendants - This film may seem deceptively simple, and I suspect many will find it unremarkable. But like the best films, it reflects the universe through the experience of a single person. Here is the story of a man trying to grapple with the sudden news of his wife's infidelity as she lies hospitalized in a coma after an accident. The need thrust upon him to become a better parent to his two teenaged daughters is put to the test as the rest of his extended family, descendants of the original settlers of Hawaaii, start to pressure him to sell the last remaining piece of family-owned pristine island property. Like 50/50, this movie accomplishes the improbable task of being funny when dealing with subject matter that is altogether grim. Clooney isn't his usual smug charmer here, and he forsakes vanity to play a worn, dog-eared character that is believable precisely because of everything he does that leading men in movies seldom do. The film also features the single most devastating scene I saw all year, involving the divulgence of a certain piece of news to Clooney's younger daughter, played with uncannily perfect pitch by the young Amara Miller. There is no yelling in this film, no melodrama - but that makes it no less intense. God bless Alexander Payne who continues to make small films that have some mighty big things to say.

        4. Buck - there were more accomplished films, more amazing films, and more entertaining films released in 2011, but only one that made me question the kind of person I am.  I would never have guessed that Buck, a documentary about the life and ways of Buck Brannaman, a horse-trainer, would make its way into this list.  A film about a trainer who rejects the long-established norm of 'breaking' horses when dealing with even the most unruly animals, and who espouses understanding and respect instead of force and fear, may sound a bit touchy-feely. But the movie suddenly resonates, and with unexpected power, when you start to consider the possibility of expanding this man's philosophy - about the relationship between man and horse - to man and any other: family, neighbor, church, nation. A film that brings dignity to the old-fashioned virtues of the hard American frontier life, while being so brave as to declare that we can do better with how we interact with long-considered enemies - is fine by me. This is one of wisest films I have seen. And one that earns the right to use the one adjective that so often eludes movies, even the best ones: inspiring.

        5. Midnight In Paris - Nothing about this film should work. The story - about an American writer visiting Paris who, at the stroke of midnight, is able to cross over into the past and meet all of the 1920s artists that he so idolizes - should collapse under its own labored weight. Woody Allen does Back To The Future? But not only does the movie work, but it comes off light, wistful, romantic and idealistic.  And the movie's central message that deconstructs nostalgia is a true insight. Midnight in Paris betters Allen's more recently acknowledged successes such as Match Point and Vicki Cristina Barcelona. You will be delighted with this film, of this I am sure. But how much additional pleasure you will get from the sly depictions of historical characters that parade through the film will depend on your own familiarity with them. I smile every time I think of this film.

        6. The Adjustment Bureau - You settle down to watch this film (and I strongly recommend that you do) and you realize that you have signed up for a goofy-cool sci-fi thriller. You realize that the urban Chicago setting has seldom yielded this much retro chic as you watch bad men in 1950s suits go about enforcing a pre-determined fate on our increasingly bewildered hero. And as this thriller progresses, it morphs - right there in front of your eyes - into the unlikeliest of things: an unabashedly romantic film. An intelligent action film that dares to be equal parts smart and swoon is something to celebrate.

        7. Bridesmaids - Much has been made about the funny women in Bridesmaids elbowing their way into the raunchy, gross-out movie genre, a space previously (over)populated with males stuck in adolescence. Am I the only one then to find that Bridesmaids is actually a rather dark film. Underneath all the loud hilarity is a central character with surprisingly realistic despair. And the sputter and stop relationship between the lead and her unlikely love interest is real and deftly rendered. This film is so much more than the funny chick flick genre it is being pigeonholed into.

        8. A Separation - This little Iranian film came out of nowhere and spring-vaulted to the top of many year-end movie lists. I can see why. It is the most human film I have seen in a long time. There are no fancy shots here, no playing with chronology, no artful pretension, no gimmicks. But you do not need any of those things when you have a filmmaker who so acutely understands human behavior, and who has this much genuine respect for every character, no matter how flawed. The film makes the case that we judge our interactions with others based on the limited information we are privy to. By definition we seldom know the whole truth. But if we did, the film argues, the actions of others that we find perplexing, reprehensible even, would suddenly make more sense. This film may seem slight upon first watch. But let it simmer in your mind and you will start to marvel at what it has to say. 

        9. Delhi Belly - The coming of age of Indian cinema is continuing with reassuring and confident steps forward, such as those made by this little film. This unapologetically rude movie makes its assertion loudly: it can do irreverent, randy comedies like the best of them. There are no vestigial traits here that would associate it with Indian cinema save for the (occasional) use of the spoken Hindi. It is jolly good fun though, this movie, as it repeatedly scratches the itch to roil in both the absurd and the perverse. In not caring to be everything for everybody (which is what ails most Indian films) it lends a distinctive voice to independent urban cinema from the country. 

        10. The Help - There is a scene late in The Help, where Octavia Spencer's character Minny, who plays a black maid in the 1950s South, comes to the home of her employers to do the usual cleaning and house work. However that day, her employers, husband and wife, take her by the hand, sit her down at their dining table, and start putting food on her plate. The maid gets served by her employer. This simple reversal of roles broke me down. The Help has been accused of many things: being manipulative, playing to the galleys, and oversimplifying the complex issue of race in America. But I have no interest in that. Simply put, the movie provides one example after another of Roger Ebert's contention that what moves us most in films is not the terribly tragic, but it is people doing good in spite of their circumstances. 

        11. Melancholia - This is an End of Days film with a defiantly unique vantage; Armageddon for the art-house set, if you will. To see the first ten minutes of this film is to realize that it is made by someone approaching masterfulness. Accuse him of what you want (and I suspect he is playing his audience like puppets in most of his films), but Lars Von Triers' films get funded, made, watched and passionately debated precisely because he has such a singularity of vision. Who else can make a film that is about deep, debilitating depression and also about the End Of The World. Featuring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourgh as sisters trying to deal with personal troubles, and then, a very big universal one, this movie also has the most visually stunning end-frame of any in 2011. 

        12. Shame - This movie is the definition of uncompromising. It reminded me that this too is what cinema can be. That films can be introspective, plotless, excessive, unbearably real, transformative. Where most films stop when a character closes the door, this movie walks inside after the door is closed and goes with the character to all the dark places. A filmmaker couldn't possibly ask for more from an actor than where Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan go - hand in hand - with this director. Who knew that a film about sex addiction could come close to something approximating grace. 

        13. Martha Marcy May Marlene - Here is a film that has no desire in judging its central character - a fragile girl (called, at different times, by all of the names in the movie title) who is gloriously failing at trying to reinsert herself into her old world after leaving behind her experiences at a cult. To its credit the movie never tries to make her likable, or even her behavior understandable. Played with ferocious intelligence by Elizabeth Olsen in a star-making performance, here is an individual too splintered to tell reality from memory. Or from the imagined. Or to tell past from present. Featuring the tightest editing I have seen all year, an adroit use of background music, and an eye for composition that is truly unique, first time director Sean Durkin brings the confidence of an accomplished filmmaker to his debut. This is the sort of film that movie lovers like to talk over for hours. 

        14. Kung Fu Panda 2 - When it comes to sequels, sophomore efforts have so much going against them that it is frankly amazing when the second installment of a movie matches or even betters the original. Case in point, Kung Fu Panda 2. This sequel has been made with heart to spare. When I was not being wowed by the amazing choreography of the action in this animated movie, I was moved by the simple morals that the film espouses with crystalline focus. Folks at Pixar need to start having some serious discussions; for a second year in a row, they have been bested by a non-Pixar film.

        15. Hanna - A most unlikely offering from the maker of tony period British adaptations (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement), Joe Wright strikes out with a movie of unquestionable originality. I just have not seen anything quite like this all year. Slightly overcooked (particularly toward the end) yes, but what frankly ambitious work this is. The story of a teenaged girl conditioned almost since birth to be a one-person army designed to exact revenge from the individual who destroyed her family, the film is one long stretch of amazing set pieces, that gallop to the inevitable showdown between young warrior and seasoned villian. This movie is at once modern and iconic.
          There are fifteen films already on this list and yet there were so many others that could have easily taken a spot here: A Better Life, Certified Copy, The Debt, Fast Five, The Guard, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Part 2, The Ides Of March, The Lincoln LawyerTake Shelter and We Need To Talk About Kevin.