The best movies of 2011 

Apes, black birds and dinosaurs rise to the top

click to enlarge MERIE WALLA
  • Merie Walla

This year, the cinema was packed with as many behind-the-scenes narratives as there were on the actual screen: Lars von Trier’s persona non-grata-fication at Cannes, Brett Ratner’s anti-charm offensive and The Help’s maybe-sorta racism were only a few of the hundreds of juicy storylines that made up 2011’s L.A. story. Luckily, there was plenty of drama left for theaters. Here’s the best of it.

1. The Tree of Life Terrence Malick’s God’s-eye view of a rural Texas family in the 1950s was the most innovative move by a director in recent years, not because Malick’s self-assigned omniscience was grand – though, with long, beautifully imagined passages devoted to the Big Bang and dinosaurs, it was also that – but because it was so intimate, so empathetic. The film’s tilted observation actually observes without guiding our eyes or our hearts; it grieves with the aggrieved and delights in a baby’s laugh the way that we all do because, Malick seems to be saying, every force of nature, from cosmic to cosmetic, gas cloud to picket fence, is the same, only clashing at different speeds. I’m not a spiritual man, but Tree of Life surely qualifies as a miracle.

2. The Descendants Shailene Woodley steals the show as the conflicted teenage daughter of George Clooney’s cuckold-in-shock. Note to Ms. Woodley: Please don’t turn into Lindsay Lohan.

3. Circumstance Daring director Maryam Keshavarz’s tender yet pinpoint-honest look at Western-minded, upper-middle-class girls in Iran took my breath away as much for its complex father-daughter drama as for the beauty of its two debut leading actresses, Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy.

4. Hesher Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of our most unpredictable actors, and his performance here as a terrifying force of nature that crashes, then torches, a sweet boy’s coming-of-age grief and the boy’s father’s catatonic self-pity is the kind of unpredictable that leaves you wide-eyed and nervously laughing all at once. Co-writer and director Spencer Susser’s debut feature is calm like a car bomb.

5. Hugo I would love to soak in this 3-D spectacular with my cinephile glasses on – director Martin Scorsese sprinkles his fantasy masterpiece with inside references like Reese’s Pieces left for E.T. – but Hugo is so entertaining that my cynical brain could only register childlike wonder. Scorsese doesn’t wonder at us, either (unlike a certain man-child auteur who was quite active this year); he instead weaves a captivating story, then invites us to join him in the wonderment. So polite.

6. Source Code Duncan Jones’ Moon follow-up felt like the best Twilight Zone episodes (or, more accurately, Quantum Leap): a simple concept delivered with exquisite verve that later reveals itself to be like narrative quicksand – the more I struggled against it, the more it pulled me in.

7. Being Elmo and Buck These two documentaries struck me as similarly flawed and similarly brilliant. Both proved thin in diligent curiosity, opting instead to present a puppeteer and a rugged cowboy as who they are at their best, but maybe not their most honest. In both cases, the subjects’ magical authenticity and humanitarian goodness blasted out a blinding laser beam of heart that didn’t just compensate for the respective directors’ journalistic shortcomings, but may have reaffirmed my belief in people as a whole. This year, that was no small feat.

8. Hanna Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright told the modern-day fairy tale that Tom Tykwer never quite mastered in this lovely film about a girl (the effervescent Saiorse Ronan in one of the year’s best female performances) so disconnected from humanity that her very presence elicits first-contact awe from us mere mortals.

9. 50/50 Once again, Joseph Gordon-Levitt electrifies in a beguiling cancer dramedy so full of landmines that its success lies in its very existence. On paper, a stoner comedy about a young man (Gordon-Levitt, a stand-in for 50/50 writer and cancer survivor Will Reiser) who contracts a rare spinal tumor, forcing him to confront his mortality much earlier than most, should have been an awkward and maudlin affair. But Seth Rogen as Gordon-Levitt’s sidekick and invaluable distraction generator, along with the always welcome Anjelica Huston and a cast of warm, all-too-human treatment vets elevate 50/50 to something wholly surprising.

10. Take Shelter Michael Shannon gives the year’s best male performance as a man extra-cautiously navigating a descent into madness, spurred on by bad genes, a swarm of black birds and a high-stakes (and, in 2011, timely) family life marked by financial tightrope-walking and wavering trust.

Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): Although many other films came close to Top 10 placement, these were the ones that had the toughest row to hoe. From resurrecting an embarrassingly outdated superhero to unflinchingly offering an anti-heroine for the ages, these movies pulled off the near-impossible in some form or fashion.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Crazy, Stupid, Love

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Warrior

Young Adult

CERN, Hollywood, CERN

2011’s celestial cinema couldn’t have come at a better time

by Justin Strout

Every good sci-fi thriller needs a big MacGuffin machine, a doomsday thingamajig of some sort that, if activated, will inevitably lead to unspeakably bad things that only the dashing hero can avoid. It doesn’t have to do anything, exactly; it just needs to loom large, fulfilling its destiny as a reminder of the stakes of the mission. Its very existence means that humanity could or already has crossed a kind of threshold from which there is no return.

As you’re reading this, planet Earth’s real-life MacGuffin machine, the appropriately intimidating-looking Large Hadron Collider, which is buried underground in Switzerland, is smashing particles together to see what comes out. (As of the day of this writing, it has already led to the discovery of a brand new particle, though not quite the one they’re looking for – the Higgs Boson, aka the “God particle.”) This multi-billion-dollar revolutionary device has long been the source of high societal anxiety: Particularly skittish folk have worried that it will create a black hole that will devour us all, while other concerning factors abound, from an alleged terrorist discovered within the ranks of CERN, the international organization in charge of the LHC, to some of the world’s greatest minds, Holger Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya, proposing a couple of years ago that the machine’s work is so “abhorrent” to nature that time-traveling beings from the future may be trying to sabotage the thing now. Even my wife isn’t immune to its gloomy shadow: Via the NASA “Apod” app, she’s sent a new space/science image as wallpaper on her phone every day. Recently, the photo was of the LHC, and she could hardly stand to look at it.

Considering the magnitude of CERN’s mission, along with revolutionary advances in science that seem to pop up every day, like the parallel universe theory or the conscience-altering discoveries of NASA’s Kepler mission and more minor reminders of our species’ fragility (Google “This place is not a place of honor” for a hell of a genuinely weird story about what the Department of Energy is up to), it’s no wonder that mankind’s increasing awareness of its cosmic insignificance has weighed on us heavily in recent times.

It’s only fitting that movies reflect that social unease – in fact, it’s traditional; memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki birthed Godzilla in 1950s Japanese cinema just as the horrors of Vietnam gave rise to the George Romero-led zombie-movie craze in the ’60s and ’70s. In the ’90s, pop millenarianism took root in anxieties over Y2K in the form of disaster movies like Twister, Volcano, Independence Day, Armageddon and countless others. But, as Stephen Keane points out in his book Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe, Hollywood blew its load a bit early, and audience fatigue set in for the pictures well before 1999 was over.

In 2011, the timing worked. Some of the year’s most provocative films – Melancholia, The Tree of Life and Another Earth, to name a few – played like reflective preludes to LHC’s big December moment. And while violent fin de siècle alien cinema was as omnipresent as ever (Super 8, Attack the Block, Cowboys & Aliens, Apollo 18 or Christmas Day latecomer The Darkest Hour), a surprising number of celestially minded films reflected a surprisingly tranquil emotional response.

I believe they represent a more hopeful attitude than previous doomsday eras. When evidence shows that what we once thought was science fiction is science fact, especially when that message is something like, “It’s mathematically impossible that we’re alone in the universe, and we can see where our neighbors might live,” one hardly needs Steven Spielberg or J.J. Abrams’ wide-eyed orb-spotting to instill some awe and wonder back in the populace. All that’s left to do is assess how we are coping with the information – emotionally, spiritually, socially – and who better than Terrence Malick or Lars von Trier to weigh in?

Despite (or perhaps due to) its world-changing implications, the Large Hadron Collider is a force for good and knowledge, and I was grateful that this year, the Ron Howards of the world (Remember Angels and Demons, where the Illuminati used CERN to try to destroy the Vatican? Let’s hope you don’t) stepped aside and innovative filmmakers stepped up to provide context, meaning and emotionally honest appraisals of life in this new universe.

Portrait of the filmmaker as a young man

Directors’ childhood obsessions reared their ugly heads this year

by Rob Boylan

In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson plays Gil, a vacationing screenwriter working on a novel about a man who owns a nostalgia shop. That a screenwriter would have this notion seems about par for the course, as Hollywood has almost completely turned itself into just that: a nostalgia shop. Comic books, toys, cartoons, amusement park rides, old movies and now even board games – it’s all fair game for a cinematic rendering in a way that didn’t exist, or at least not with any real quality, a decade ago.

Gil, of course, magically goes back in time and visits his favorite writers in 1920s Paris, falling in love. For most of today’s directors, it’s not nearly as far a journey. Many just can’t get past how rad the ’80s were, or get over how wizard the ’70s were, when Steven Spielberg made their favorite movies. But in these re-tellings, the memories they are reshaping are too often secondhand themselves, memories that directors like Spielberg, George Lucas, the Bobs (Zemeckis and Gale) or Martin Scorsese originally got from the B-movies, serials and television of their own childhoods. Like the ever-worsening quality of a cassette tape, the further down the generational line you get from the original, the more fuzzy and shapeless things get.

Released under a veil of unwarranted secrecy, J.J. Abrams’ retro monster movie, Super 8, was a case of both the excitement and frustration that comes with the childhood nostalgia picture. Executive produced by Spielberg, Abrams’ childhood idol, Super 8 looked to recreate both the era and the energy of films like E.T., Close Encounters and The Goonies. In the first half, Abrams gives us the story of a troop of pre-teen filmmakers making an 8mm zombie movie. It featured some of the most heartwarming, refreshing sequences of the summer, watching this everyman group of kids take shape through the trauma of death, crushing on the same girl, a failing film and, oh yeah, a giant, starving alien attacking their town. But it “evoke[s] memories of classic summer blockbusters a little too eagerly for some,” according to the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and users are forbidden from even speaking of Super 8’s ubiquitous lens flares on the Something Awful forums. It’s in Abrams’ rendering of a malevolent alien searching for food and parts to fix his ship, though, that he fails to become his idol. Going for easy scares, he forgets that Spielberg’s most enduring and endearing images of aliens were of benevolent envoys, not devourers. E.T., his best-known alien, was a friend to Elliott when few others would be. He was based on the imaginary friend Spielberg had as a child, and he inspired openness and caring, not fear. E.T. was a “he,” not an “it.”

Greg Mottola’s Paul at least gets the alien right in his pastiche of wide-eyed childhood action-adventure. Told through the prism of the biggest bong rip you’ve ever taken, Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) is actually the inspiration behind all of those Spielberg alien movies, and the Man himself even has a vocal cameo. But it’s too much. It’s all nostalgic joke, no nostalgic heart. The story seems to be a vehicle with which to deliver the pop-culture jokes that Mottola, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg and Rogen have been building up over the last 20 years, while setting them in alien-friendly pop-culture locations like Comic-Con, Area 51 and Devil’s Tower. But they don’t actually do anything new with their nostalgic loves, the way Spielberg, Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan did when they spun their memories of cliffhanger shorts and comic books into Raiders of the Lost Ark. The latter’s characters and story bear out all of its inspirations, but with a new cinematic vocabulary. They built something new.

Of course, even Spielberg isn’t immune to criticism when it comes to touching nostalgic favorites. He himself faced the ire of fans in the specter of the “Tintinologists” when his Tintin was released in Europe. According to The Independent, some critics compared it to “witnessing a rape” or said that it was an “airless pastiche” of their beloved Hergé comics. Having felt burned by some of the films that trod on my childhood, I’m sympathetic. But nostalgia is a personal passion. In Midnight in Paris, we learn that pining for lost eras is a fool’s errand – everything and every period seems better than the one people are stuck in … until you get a toothache and realize that Novocain hasn’t yet been invented. This year, many filmmakers could’ve used that piece of wisdom.

Status whoa

The year in film reflected a world in turmoil

by William Goss

It would be easy to correlate the films of any given year with a sweeping generality about characters coping with change, but change is already inherent to drama in any form. What’s often telling about a given period of cinema is how that change manifested itself, whether as a spark for forward progress, cause for survival or – as I saw film in 2011 – the recognition and assessment of tumultuous times, driven less by a sense of “what if?” and more by “what now?”

There was a common refrain for bucking the established norms, whether it was the application of statistics to sports in Moneyball, the arrival of film sound in The Artist, the efforts to disrupt real-life cycles of violence in The Interrupters or the somewhat less credible interspecies power struggle of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. How would the world grapple with having more humans around? Another Earth wondered as much (though with a questionable amount of follow-through). How might society instead manage with people dying off in droves? Contagion offered a chilly hypothesis.

Of course, leave it to that lovable scamp Lars von Trier to opt for full-blown annihilation with his Melancholia, a film in which one young woman’s depression manifests itself as nothing less than a planet-killer. That was also one of several films that subjected their audiences to the increasingly cockeyed perspectives of their protagonists: the delusional journey central to Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, the dispassionate sexual gymnastics of Shame, the fallible memory and moral doubt which defined the little-seen Margaret and the soon-to-open A Separation, the dead-father distress and youthful wonder of both the charming Hugo and the cloying Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Trust also took its toll on our silver-screen surrogates with considerable frequency. Elizabeth Olsen masterfully demonstrated the psychological frailty that would come from embodying the multi-monikered Martha Marcy May Marlene; Ryan Gosling saw his political idealism rot from within during The Ides of March; a once-loved chimpanzee suffered at the hands of irresponsible humans in Project Nim, while suspicion ran rampant through the ranks of both the early settlers of Meek’s Cutoff and the Cold War operatives of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

For better and worse, harsh economic realities came down on the leads of Margin Call, Warrior, Everything Must Go and even that scooter-riding sonuvabitch, Larry Crowne. Financial strain certainly played a part in feeding Michael Shannon’s paranoia in Take Shelter, but it was primarily fueled by parental priorities to provide for and protect one’s own, as also witnessed in The Tree of Life, The Descendants and We Need to Talk About Kevin. Mere lovers weren’t safe from romantic hurdles either, as Like Crazy, Midnight in Paris and Tabloid each demonstrated a unique knack for keeping their central couples apart.

Even our heroes came from unlikely places. Source Code stuck an American soldier in the thick of a terrorist attack on our soil after the fact and still enlisted him to save lives not yet destroyed. The hoodlums and reprobates of Attack the Block and Hobo With a Shotgun were forced to clean up some seriously mean streets themselves. And then there’s the matter of rubber literally meeting the road, as Rubber’s psychotic tire (yes, tire) blew heads while DJ-turned-director Quentin Dupieux blew minds with his wanton disregard for conventional narrative.

But at the end of the day, it came down to normal people coming to grips with uncommon circumstances: 20-somethings coping with terminal illness in 50/50, professionals dealing with a dying industry in Page One: Inside the New York Times, cops and doctors breaking all sorts of rules in the name of justice with I Saw the Devil and The Skin I Live In. When the Hippocratic oath becomes more hypocritical than anything else, that should be indication enough that down is officially up, and while we might go to the movies in order to escape from the woes of the world, this year showed us multitudes of characters desperate to do the same.

More by William Goss

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