The Year in Film 2011 – Staff Top Ten Lists

Drew Morton – Top Ten Films of 2011

10.  The Artist

9.  A Dangerous Method

8.  Shame

7. The Future

JORDAN: I’m really glad, as well as a bit surprised, that quirk queen Miranda July’s sophomore effort made both of our lists.  I think it’s safe to say that existential comedies are a rare commodity in today’s Hollywood, but ones that also feature drifting lovers, time suspension and narrating cats?  There’s only a handful, tops.  


6.  A Separation 

5.  Rango

When I initially saw the marketing materials for Gore Verbinski’s Rango (2011), I wanted to stay away from it.  Thanks to an animation-obsessed wife, I was dragged to the film and came out awed by its audaciousness.  Despite appearances, Rango – like Hugo – is probably not a particularly appealing children’s film.  It’s a self-reflexive Spaghetti Western, a surrealist animated mixture of Sergio Leone, Chinatown (1974) and Looney Tunes that works best for movie lovers.  Screenwriter John Logan, who also adapted Hugo, keeps the homages coming like a Quentin Tarantino understudy, be it in the form of a nod to Terry Gilliam’s cult classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), in which star Johnny Depp also appears, or an action sequence taken straight out of Star Wars (1977).  Moreover, the beautiful animation by special effects giant Industrial Light and Magic (their first animated feature) is an inspired mix of Salvador Dalí and photorealism.  The film is currently available for purchase and rental on DVD and Blu-Ray.

JORDAN: This was really a tremendous film, and so much richer than the advertisements led us to believe.  In truth, Rango is a compelling story about cultural mimicry and identity crisis, with enough motion-capture innovation to stun the most reluctant viewer.  The one point 0n which I disagree with you concerns your admiration for the copious number of references to (mostly Johnny Depp) movies.  By using these pop icons in such large volumes, I felt that the insecure filmmakers were trying to trick us into becoming endeared to their movie instead of relying entirely on the creativity and fun of their own story, which at times tainted the overall experience.  Still, as the first family-oriented acid western, it was a gem. 

 4.  Senna

Before watching Asif Kapadia’s documentary chronicling the life of Formula 1 racer Ayrton Senna, I knew nothing about the sport or the man.  Despite this personal ignorance, I was taken aback by Senna (2011), which covers the rise and fall of the man in his own words (this is no small feat, considering that Senna passed away in a tragic racing accident in 1994).  What we are left with is a tale from beyond the grave about a passionate Brazilian Catholic who was both an aggressive practitioner of motorsports – sometimes to his own detriment – and a man who used racing as a means of transcending day to day existence in search of a higher power.  Senna, like its subject, is memorable, exhilarating, and heartbreaking.  The film is currently available on Netflix Watch Instantly.

3.  We Need to Talk about Kevin

Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011), a film that focuses on the relationship between a mother (Tilda Swinton) and her murderous sociopathic son Kevin (Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, and Rocky Duer who play him at various ages during his life), is not going to be a widely accepted film.  It asks deep questions about identity and comes up with some difficult-to-swallow, morally-complex answers about a murderer, all realized through a grotesque and rigorous embodiment of subjectivity.  Yet, compared to The Tree of Life (2011), Kevin is far less superficial when asking large questions and providing the answers.  Instead of a New Age Calvin Klein commercial that attempts to answer all life’s questions with tracking shots and whispering, Ramsay gives Kevin a concrete answer, even if it remains a temporary and elusive one.  Please read my longer review here.

JORDAN: I admire Lynne Ramsay’s previous works like Morvern Callar, but I thought this film was utter dreck.  While addressing a parental nightmare of living with a child that threatens your safety and sanity, the film left me without an ounce of tension.  In addition, for a picture that deals with such a taboo issue like school killings, I felt a complete lack of maturity and objectivity in dealing with the subject.  Kevin offered little new insight into the ways that psychotic children are produced, and, instead, depicted pathology in one-dimensional terms of innate evil, which is not only misguided but an entirely counterproductive entry into the social conversation.

With its emphasis on an undermined mother whose pleas for help are unheeded by her support systems, Kevin plays like a realistic interpretation of Rosemary’s Baby.  Unfortunately, though, the filmmakers don’t have the teeth to deal bravely with the weighty subjects with which they engage.   The film has little to say about life, youth, or mental illness and instead leaves us with a ham-fisted glorification of maternal suffering.  At best, I’d say Kevin was a really well-made Lifetime movie.

2.  Drive

In Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), mobster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) tells his newly hired stunt and getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) that he used to produce B-movie genre films that the critics called “European…  I called them trash.”  That description fits the abyss that Drive attempts to jump, Dukes of Hazard/General Lee-style, between trash (the heist-thriller genre) and art cinema (particularly the existentially infused crime films of Jean-Pierre Melville).  Taking on a mode of filmmaking similar to both Michael Mann and Jean-Luc Godard, whose films cross-pollinate pulp narratives with a cool exploration of film form, Refn sticks the landing without the danger of a catastrophic rollover, taking viewers on a ride beyond their wildest imaginations.  The film will be released on DVD at the end of the month.

JORDAN: I think you’re dead on with the Michael Mann comparison, but I would add that Refn imbues Drive with an ethereal quality that separates it entirely from being simple pastiche.  Aided by a pitch-perfect dream-pop soundtrack and flawlessly deliberate pacing, Drive brings us back to the world of intimate filmmaking.  Despite a heavy-handed hero theme, laughable villains (one can only wonder what deal Albert Brooks made with the devil to get award recognition for a performance that was essentially a conflation of every B-Movie mob boss into one), and a derailed ending (seriously, why the hell is Gosling wearing a mask), the film was an overall success for me.

1.  Hugo 

I cannot express my love of Martin Scorsese’s valentine to cinema history strongly enough.  Watching Scorsese honor Georges Méliès both in content and in the exploration of a new form of moving images (3D) for two hours is like watching a master magician conjure up variations on established tricks.  Hugo (2011) is a magical film about the magical beginnings of the cinema of attractions.  Please read my longer review here.

JORDAN: Drew, how can I be expected to have an intelligent debate with you when you have obviously gone crazy? While I had high hopes for Hugo (not just because I primarily studied silent film in school), I was disappointed to find the end product was nothing more than a poorly executed retrospective for a pioneer of early cinema, offering little in its own right.  Scorsese, blinded by his love, completely forgot to develop an emotional pull for any of his characters, especially between Hugo and his father (Jude Law), which proves to be the motivating relationship of the film.  As a result, the audience is left watching a woefully untouching, unfunny (thanks mostly to Sacha Baron Cohen), and incongruous mixture of history and fantasy.  The only film genius in Hugo is the one depicted by Ben Kingsley – and not behind the camera.  

Worst Critically Acclaimed Movie of the Year:  The Tree of Life  

Best Popcorn Flicks of 2011:  [TIE]  X-Men: First Class and Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Films That I Wish I Would’ve Seen:  Moneyball, Midnight in Paris


Jordan Poast – Top Ten Films of 2011

10. The Future

DREW:  I just want to take a moment and say how surprised I was to enjoy Miranda July’s The Future (2011).  I hate quirk for the sake of quirkiness and yet July was able to explore the consequences of living a quirky life. 

9.  A Separation

8.  Drive

7.  Rango

6.  Bridesmaids

DREW:  I thought 2011 gave us two pretty damn great comedies in Bridesmaids (2011) and Cedar Rapids (2011).  It’s nice to see that Judd Apatow is an equal opportunity offender, but I still think he needs an editor.  Just like his previous productions, Bridesmaids goes on too long and by the time we get to Wilson Phillips I felt like the film had gone of the temporal deep end. 

5.  Warrior

It’s now become old hat to have at least one movie each award season center on blue collar, struggling athletes rising in their professions despite the overwhelming odds against them (2008’s The Wrestler and 2010’s The Fighter being the most recent examples).  While Warrior does more to adhere to this formula than depart from it, the surprise film of 2011 carves its own name with gritty storytelling and a stark rejection of melodrama.

A massive tournament for the burgeoning sport of Mixed Martial Arts attracts two unlikely competitors, estranged brothers Tommy (Tom Hardy), a war hero, and Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a struggling teacher.  With a five million dollar purse at stake, the brothers fight through a cavalcade of cartoony opponents (who are only ridiculous until one realizes how close they are to some of MMA’s most colorful characters), crescendoing to the championship bout, in which the two are pitted against one another, bringing the siblings’ scars to the surface.  With devastating performances and expert direction, Warrior is more aptly categorized as cathartic domestic drama than sports film, with most of the damaged inflicted outside of the ring.  By the end, after becoming invested in each fighter’s plight, you won’t even know which underdog to root for.

4.  The Ides of March

As much a podium for director George Clooney to express his political philosophies as a tight rumination on the dark nature of presidential campaigns, The Ides of March strikes the viewer with vigor unseen in most political dramas.  Succinct and incredibly articulate, Clooney and co-writers Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon’s adaptation of Willimon’s play, Farragut North (2008), tells the story of a young, idealistic campaign manager (Ryan Gosling) as he works for a presidential candidate (Clooney).  During the course of the campaign, his life and values are thrown into disarray when he has a seemingly innocent visit with a rival manager (Paul Giamatti).  While maneuvering through a web of lies and manipulations, Gosling’s protagonist discovers the dirty truths of modern politics. Unlike other political dramas, The Ides of March refuses to fall into the trap of becoming so convoluted that it loses its audience in the process.  Boasting sharp acting and biting dialogue, this is a film that confirms every American’s fear of political corruption and egotism in uncompromising fashion.

3.  Midnight in Paris

It seems like every time the critical world begins to announce Woody Allen’s renaissance, the veteran director follows up with a series of letdowns and disasters.  With trepidation, then, I have to declare that Midnight in Paris marks Allen’s return to form.  Revisiting an interest in magical realism that helped produce such masterpieces as The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Allen’s time-travel yarn focuses on the modern city of Paris, which depending on with whom you speak, is either a historical wonderland or touristy dump.  Gil (Owen Wilson), a screenwriter and aspiring novelist, loves Paris, and upon entering the City of Light finds himself transported to the 1920s, where he hobnobs with a myriad of visionaries, including Gertrud Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Salvador Dalí (indelibly played by Adrien Brody).  While oscillating between idolizing and poking fun at these iconic figures, Allen’s tightly written narrative repeatedly surprises by not being a mere gushing reflection of a golden age but instead examines the fetish of nostalgia and the (often misguided) rosy idealization of the past.

2.  Moneyball

I hate baseball, this nation’s most unbearable pastime, which makes Moneyball’s number two spot a minor miracle in itself.  Taking a cue from Jerry Maguire (1996), the engrossing drama gives the viewer a behind-the-curtain look at the most exciting yet unenviable position in sports, the general manager.  Central to the film is real life GM of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), who in 2002, despite meager resources, assembled a division-winning team despite losing three superstars to the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and St. Louis Cardinals, three of the richest organizations in professional baseball.  Adapting to stay alive, Beane made a revolutionary change to the MLB, eschewing 150 years of scouting traditions in favor of mathematical algorithms that allowed him to find value in discarded players.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, riding the success of last year’s overly smug The Social Network (2010), proves with Moneyball to be a king of razor-sharp dialogue, as his intricately crafted scenes of phone-conducted player trades are as exhilarating as his chronicling of the Athletics’ unbelievable record streak of twenty victories.  Bringing Sorkin’s words to life in superstar fashion, Pitt mesmerizes as Beane, whose cavalier demeanor veils a long history of failure and insecurity.

DREW:  Leave it to you to pick four films I have not seen to fill out your top five!  I have a feeling this is all a well-conceived attempt to dodge our dialogue (or, at least in the case of the second film, an indication that you are obsessed with Brad Pitt).  All kidding aside however, I feel awful about not checking out Moneyball and Midnight in ParisI missed Moneyball because of procrastination, whereas I avoided Midnight in Paris because I fizzled out on Woody Allen’s work of the past decade.  Sometimes I worry that Allen, by being so prolific, leads to more misses that retread the same territory than unique hits but given what I’ve been told about Midnight in Paris, my prejudice is perhaps unwarranted. 

1.  The Tree of Life

After the death of his brother, Jack (Sean Penn) reflects on his childhood in 1950s’ Waco, Texas and the way that the conflicting influences of his authoritarian father (Brad Pitt) and his free-spirited mother (Jessica Chastain) shaped his identity.  Like his previous masterpieces, which include The Thin Red Line (1998), director Terrence Malick weaves into his domestic tale a lyrical and philosophical exploration of the nature of morality and the hypocrisy of God.  As the veteran filmmaker’s magnum opus, The Tree of Life (2011) combines unrivaled imagery and poetry into a dense meditation that’s both devastating and affirmative.  Like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Malick’s work leaps between millennia to study comprehensively the unfathomable worlds of nature and culture.  To facilitate such a weighty endeavor, Malick employs a masterful collage form of storytelling, providing only fragmentary snapshots of scenes strung together like pearls on a necklace, which in their succinctness resonate more powerfully than entire films worth of content.  To say that The Tree of Life isn’t for everyone is more an indictment on the viewers than the on the film itself.  While the echoes of Midwestern mothers using the dreaded “artsy fartsy” term will no doubt follow this film, it is an immersive film experience that cascades over its viewer long after the credits roll.

DREW:  I can understand the praise for The Tree of Life from a technical and formal aspect.  It’s probably the most beautifully shot, thoughtfully composed, and masterfully edited film of the year.  I admire Malick’s audaciousness in giving himself an impossible assignment to complete, casting Brad Pitt and Sean Penn in what is essentially an experimental film that allows neither actor to showcase his usual strengths.  However, Jordan, you are completely out of line calling it a “dense meditation.”  The Tree of Life is a vague philosophical investigation of the obvious.  So people inherently embody a binary between nature and grace?  We’ve been having this debate culturally for a hundred years now, and Tree has predecessors in cinema as well.  Despite its technical mastery, I’d much rather watch Trading Places (1983) or 2001.  What I find even more frustrating about Malick’s film are his attempts to render the cliché as extraordinary, making the whole film ring false.  So God is a flash of light?  Heaven is a beach located on the back lot of a designer perfume ad?  Malick is a talented filmmaker and is capable of greatness (Days of Heaven (1978) and Badlands (1973) are masterpieces) and I expected more from him.  Moreover, why are we asked to feel the terror of the unknown when Papa Pitt loses his job and the family is forced to relocate?  We already know how it is going to play out: the family moves into the Eames House and loses a son.  I think The Tree of Life resonates with some people because Malick is vague, allowing viewers to project whatever they want onto his New Age Rorschach test.  It’s not a fully realized film but the rough draft of a celluloid sketch. 

Worst Critically Acclaimed Movie of the Year:  Hugo 

Best Popcorn Flick of 2011:  The Adventures of Tintin

Films That I Wish I Would’ve Seen:  The Artist, The Descendants

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