by Jaime Grijalba.
Well, here we are, it’s time to be outraged, whine and scream as I mention my 20 favorite movies of 2011, the year that just went about three weeks ago. I usually do my list around this time of year, because it gives me time to catch up with the late releases, when supposedly the good stuff comes out, as well as a personal task to come up with a list after the Oscar nominees are announced (as this past tuesday showed us how surprising they can be, for better or worse). Why after the nominations? Well, the thing is that where I live, Chile, there are certain festivals at the start of the year (first two weeks of january), and they show a lot of films that haven’t had their premiere in Chile as of date. As years have gone by, these festivals have diminished in their overall quality, and they have become more and more expensive, which is a bitch for a film student as myself, who barely can finance his own short film. So, yeah, out of a whim, I used to do this even before I started to comment in this amazing house of bloggers/writers, I did it when my blog was the number one stop of my friends when they needed a film recommendation, and now is just a barren wasteland, filled with new content, but voided of comments, the thing I love the most about having a blog: the conversation. So now I have the opportunity, at a bigger venue, a wider audience, a better time and more universally understandable language: english. Now I’m just making a mess of myself, so why don’t we just go ahead and move along, onto the movies?
Well, I think it’s time for me to say how good or bad was 2011 for movies in general, before going into the list in particular… it wasn’t good for me. I mean, there are some great movies, but even if I thought movies weren’t that good in 2010 (and in that year I had four ***** movies), this one is even worse, with just one movie getting the highest mark from my end of the spectrum. How sad is that? I mean, I’ve seen 108 movies from 2011, I’ve seen most of the most rewarded and critically acclaimed films from the year (and with that I mean, the pure year, actual releases from 2011, no commercial releases after festival runs in 2010, or foreign films that never got distribution but now have, which seems to be the way of American critics, and I can’t blame them– except for that one last thing I said… I mean, really? A Yang film?) and still I found myself not moved by most of them. It must be one of the most boring years in what I think is what I like in movies, and what I think movies should do with people: make them feel something. And in that regard, the 2011 movies I saw left me cold, except a few ones, these I’m going to mention here, but besides that, even these 20 are stretching the term of giving me an emotional response (and I don’t mean crying, when I cry for the first time in a movie, I’ll call it the best movie ever made, but that hasn’t happened yet). So, do my eyes deceive me or I’m just turning a new leaf? These 20 movies, I’d say, are the most impressive of the year, and I could live in a world where the rest of the 88 films I saw didn’t exist (not that I actually want that, but it’s pretty narrow the margin of good movies coming out these days, specially since 2010, weirdly). Nevertheless there were certain films that I had an interest in that either weren’t available or just didn’t have the time to see them properly: ‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’, ‘The Adventures of Tintin’, Hugo’, ‘Mientras Duermes’, ‘Kotoko’, ‘Killer Joe’, ‘Ichimei’ and while I just came back from the avant premiere of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, the film was seen out of time given by myself to see these films. Now, prepare yourself, because I’ve been told many times that my list contains ‘shit’ and that is ‘weird’. I don’t really care, I can tell for sure this thing: from the oscar nominees for best picture, only one of the 9 is in my top 20. Which one is it? Take a look for you to see…
20. ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ (George Nolfi)
Here we have the debut in the directing chair of the action screenwriter George Nolfi, and this time drinking from the waters of the science fiction master that is Phillip K. Dick, and even reteaming with the actor of his earlier screenwriting credit ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ (2007), the star and great actor Matt Damon, that with every year that passes demonstrates once more that he is much more than a pretty face and young girls appeal, even if it is that what makes his movies a success at the box office. And in this movie, they work perfectly together, telling us a story that goes to the source of one of the most important questions in the human existence: fate. Does fate exist? Is it something that is predetermined or something that changes along with you? Who manipulates fate? Is there a God? Even if the movie ends up giving you the answers to all these questions, I felt completely attracted to the premise itself as well as the mythology and the figures and the whole visual work that was displayed in the film itself. This film tells the story of a young politician played by Matt Damon who runs for the senate, but ends up loosing due to the circumstances of the race. It is in that fateful night that she meets what may be the love of his life, a girl called Elise (Emily Blunt) who gives him a kiss. It is four years later that she meets her again, when he’s gearing up for a new campaign for the senate… but he wasn’t supposed to meet her again. Here comes the bureau, a group of non-humans, that look exactly like humans from the 50′s, who take care of the fate of all the people from the world, fixing heads and even changing the rules of the game, just as the chairman (the g-word present) seems convenient. The movie becomes action-thriller-romance and even a sci-fi film, but not just another sci-fi movie, but one that is lo-sci-fi, one with little yet important elements (in this case, the fate books are incredible dispositives that seem like they come from the future), and some of my favorite movies are lo-sci-fi, so there you go.
19. ‘Thor’ (Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon)
The best of the Marvel movies to come out leading out to the big event that will be ‘The Avengers’ (2012) in the next year, directed by the talented and geek-favorite Joss Whedon, famous for writing comics and creating two of the most fan-loved series of all time, ‘Buffy’ and ‘Firefly’. Yes, I think it’s better than ‘Iron Man’ (2008), which seems to be the standard and ground for many comic book movies, specially those of the Marvel universe, but I never quite liked Tony Stark as a character nor Robert Downey Jr. as an actor in a role that would glorify the conduct he (supposedly) stopped having when he took this and other roles, as if it were some kind of comeback from the rehab. It’s good to see that Downey Jr. has left the shadow of Downey Sr., but I don’t think that makes him a great actor, just a good one. Anyway, let’s talk about this one, which is actually good (not that ‘Iron Man’ (2008) is bad, but…), not because of the action scenes, not because of the memorable characters that we always wanted to see reincarnated in the screen (as well as ‘Green Lantern’ (2011), no one really cared about seeing a movie on the subject of the norse god/superhero Thor), but because it’s a definitive and great mixture of the holy and the prophane, the art and the pop, a visual treat for those who are really looking, and not just dismissing it as pure popcorn entertainment. Kenneth Branagh was the needed addition to the world of Marvel, as he inflicted his own shakespearian ways into the plot and the acting of the characters, as well as the whole solemnity and the importance of the family tribulations in a royal group, but filled with characters with silly costumes. Then comes the whole way the film looks: bright, yellowy, specially the scenes in the plane of the gods… it is quite beautiful, even if its computer generated, but still there’s some beauty in it, and an akin eye to match those scenes with the murky and really not as good-looking planeth earth. A real document for art as commerce.
18. Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
This is the only movie nominated for best picture that has a feature spot on this personal top 10 list. It doesn’t usually happen like this, I mean, last year I had four of the ten nominees in the top 20 (and 3 of them in the top 10), so I don’t know what has happened this year to me, or to the movies the Academy seemed to like this year. Anyway, I’m not an Oscar nut, I’ve hardly been on the same ground with them in the last few years (the last time was when ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2008) won best picture, and yes, I loved the film). But this film, as if it were some kind of miracle, clicked with me, and it’s quite surprising to me that it worked on a gut level, filling me with joy and even with content as I saw it develop before my eyes. It’s a great real story, and I usually hate those films… it was a sport film, not with much sport, but all the talk was about baseball, and I don’t like either sport movies (box seems to be the exception) nor baseball (hell, I’m not even sure how baseball even works, so that’s that)… it had Jonah Hill, an actor I’ve never cared about, but suddenly he made the most worthwhile performance in his career, and the best of the film after the turn of Brad Pitt in this spectacular fest. Now, I knew I was in for something good when I saw that Bennett Miller was the director, after all, he directed ‘Capote’ (2005), one of my favorite films about the process of writing and what it actually means to investigate and suffer for the things you write, as well as a great performance from the best living working actor: Phillip Seymour Hoffman (I usually change that with Paul Giammatti, but then I remember he made ‘Sideways’ (2004) and I get so angry that I want to punch him), who also acts in this movie in a small role as the coach of the baseball team. The film itself is great because it mixes a simple enough story about the fall and rise of a baseball team that failed to maintain its best players, and how with the aid of the inventive, statistics and just sheer luck (at some points) made them the best team of the year, winning 20 consecutive games, a record at that year. The editing and the score are perfect, this one is the movie I root for at the Oscars… too bad it won’t win a thing.
17. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)
You either love or hate this movie, and I can easily think why I would love or hate this, but I ended up in neither of those spectres, but that doesn’t leave me in the middle of it, but leaning more to the positive, but not being completely blinded by its genius. This is the ocassion where the film itself connects with me in a professional way, and I mean that I don’t see every movie with the critical eye of the process of filmmaking, because I really find that seeing movies with a scalpel and mask is boring, it takes the fun out of the joy that is to me watch films. After all, my approach to the art of the film buff is that the film itself must be ‘entertaining’, but not in the sense of funny or thrilling or anything like that, I find myself entertained in various ways, and whenever I think that a film is eliciting an emotion in me, or having me inmmersed into the plot, I feel entertained in the way that I don’t think about what my present situation is, not as in a way of escapism, but that the film can take me to another reality, real or not, but if you manage to make me believe that what I’m seeing is possible inside the rules of its own world, I feel entertained and so I aproove of your film. While I found this film thrilling and tense, it was also entertaining for me, but it also was possible for me to see it technically, and I’m talking about what has been the beef of many when they oppose this great movie: it’s ‘style over substance’ method. I’d like to think that when people say ‘style over substance’ are wrong, as this movie is more like ‘style is substance, substance is style’, as every shot of the film is filled with imagery that combines with what is happening plot-wise, expanding and even showing you the metaphors explicitly in a way that could only be akin to what I was doing at the moment: I was filming a (failed) short film, and in every shot I was trying to do the same thing, telling the story visually as well as through the dialogue. Now, of course, THAT didn’t work, but this movie does, and deliciously.
16. La Piel que Habito (Pedro Almodóvar)
The Skin I Live In is one of the most shocking and director friendly movies of the year, meaning that it is here that we can find that the auteur (Almodóvar) can surpass a story that it’s completely different from what we are used to see from his continuos spanish output. Here we have a story that is more akin to the world of horror and the science fiction (lo-sci-fi again) more than the usual melodramas that he makes, even if they are filled with mystery or comedy, they are all after a while, melodramas. And even if this film is a genre exercise (genre in more than one sense), Almodóvar shows up in the whole extension of the film in different ways, even more than you would think: always talking about the issue of gender, the figure of the woman as a genre, the body itself as a way of communication (personal) to the other, homosexuality, and at the end of it all: family and melodrama, it all comes down to that issue with the films he makes, and he has made a name of himself out of the tragic issues of the human people, elevated to the highest of the emotions the human being can express, and even in this film, a clear genre excercise, you can see how his true spirit dominates the themes present in all the plot points of the film. The movie has been made important due to one twist that seems obvious starting the middle of the film, but I’ve seen it twice, and even if I knew the twist, the film itself becomes another thing completely different: a tale of obsession and love, of looking for things past, of the importance of the family and the fact of ‘being at home’ as the ultimate goal for everything, that can be seen in the detail that Almodóvar and his collaborators go to humanize the dehumanized ambients in which the characters move, giving each place that seems cold or forgettable, and that, in the world of medicine, it is hard to find the warmth of the maternal womb that the house that you can call yours has.
15. The Umbrella Man (Errol Morris)
Errol Morris knows how to direct documentaries, but I guess it was my first time seeing him tackling the short form and make still one of the best and most worthwhile documentaries of the year. Initially released at the New York Times website, this 7 minute short film goes to one of the most important sources regarding the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Josiah ‘Tink’ Thompson, author of the book ’6 Seconds in Dallas’, regarding the same subject, and talking about one thing: the umbrella man, one of the most famous conspiracies and theories regarding that still mysterious death, one that has been the subject of many takes, including fiction, and that’s besides the three books per year that go out trying to solve the problem, involving, as time goes by, even more and more absurd implications. The short film is a summarization on one short film of a 6-hour conversation using the always incredible Errol Morris approach to documentary, essentially conversation/interview based. The short film makes many claims and states the fact that sorround the presence of the man with the umbrella. Josiah is a joy to watch and hear, as well as the whole morale of the story: a cautionary tale of a day where all was alright in the neighbourhood. You can see the short film if you click the name of this short, right beside its number placing. Errol Morris still has the touch and he still makes great documentaries. Be prepared, this is a test reel for a documentary on JFK’s assasination, and if this kind of stories we are going to have, we may have a masterpiece in our hands.
14. Mildred Pierce (Todd Haynes)
Now, you know that I put many things in my list, as you can see, I put a short film only available online just before this, and now I put a TV miniseries… a great TV miniseries I’d have to add. This one is a great piece of period drama that advances into time and with a great art direction, great acting, great editing, great direction from Todd Haynes and just a classic story. The film is about how Mildred Pierce, an almost modern woman becomes a modern woman, her growth and her raise (as well as her fall) as an owner of one of the most delicious and succesful restaurants. When she knows that his husband is cheating on her, he abandons her and leaves her with her two childs, having to find herself a job as a waitress, where she starts becoming famous for her bakings and becomes known with the usual clients at the diner, so she can come up with funding for the start of her restaurant and family dining place. In the meanwhile, her daughter Veda becomes evil, as she despises the work that her mother does, just because she is working and he shouldn’t (let’s remind ourselves this is, I think, before the economic crash of 1929 or during that, so women in such an elevated figure as businessman, as we see her later in her career, was rare), and then she dissapears, just to be found as an impressive singer of opera. The miniseries takes its time, after all, it is 5 episodes long and a total runtime of 363 minutes, and makes its revelations slowly, and not rushing anything that will come back, because in this TV effort everything comes back to what it was in the past, and that is the fact that this miniseries tries to put across, there are certain moments, certain characters and situations, even dialogues, that communicate with each other as reiterations across time, and that is what makes the seeing of this effort important. To see and remember, as weeks went by on HBO, that everything that was will more likely come alive again than be forgotten, and that even what we want to see dissapear, is always there, looking at us, and that feeling is not creepy, but more heartwarming, as you will never, ever be alone with the forgetfulness of the man (or woman in this case) that feels that has lost everything.
13. Win Win (Thomas McCarthy)
Paul Giammatti is in this film and it’s maybe the only thing I can say to proove why I liked it. Well, there’s also the thing that the film is beautifully shot, incredibly well directed (no performance is a waste here, and all the young kids act wonderfully, each one of them is a discovery for the art) and of course, the most important of all, the script is a marvel in itself, which shouldn’t be a surprise for those who follow the career of screenwriter turned director Thomas McCarthy. Even if this film was incredibly well received when it opened early last year (after a great Sundance run), it was mostly forgotten in all the lists I can think of, and that I find dissapointing. Bob Clark, last week, mentioned how people tend to forget the movies released early and just consider the screeners they get when the prizes are getting near and at hand, and it is true, this little marvel was universally ignored, even by Sam, one of the people that championed the films for the same reasons I’m giving, and yet it was missing from his list, and I don’t remember seeing it in his also-rans. Now, I’m not questioning the practice of making lists, as people usually tend to forget what they say and what they think, or even forget if they saw this or that film, but what I’m trying to say is that the ‘considered best movies’ shouldn’t be released all at once at the end of the year, it makes one confused and just anxious to see everything, and in that craze you just forget that little gem you saw at the start of the year and that was completely put away because you just saw a bunch of ‘good’ films at the end… Oscars aren’t good to that, and that’s because some movies that had Oscar chance and were released at the end, got the shit end of the stick and where ignored, just because they had one-week qualifying runs and just nobody knew they existed and just wanted to be there, oscarbaiting. Anyway, I spent way too much time talking about other stuff that is not the film itself, because… well, I’m forgetful and I remember most of the film, but not details to really get into it. I remember that the newcomer is a great actor, and the fighting scenes where worthwhile. The whole mix of the strangeness of the characters, the exhasperated situation in which the Giammatti character is at the moment, make this one film to treasure just because of the characters it sports and how good it looks: that will keep it in your memory.
12. Le gamin au vélo (Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne)
The Dardenne Brothers take a naturalistic approach to filmmaking, trying to be as close to human life as possible, following the sight and attention of the people they portray, and making films about the common people, the people who work, the people that don’t have an easy life, people who struggle every day to have something to live for, and in that they have become the common man’s champion, and with that comes The Kid with a Bike, where they not only continue with their stupendous portrayals of the (let’s say it) poor and less fortunate people, but give us the best male performance of the year as well. Thomas Doret plays Cyril Catoul, a kid that desesperately, at the start of the film, wants his bike, but people from all around try to prevent him from entering the building where he thinks it is, and that’s because his father has left him and hasn’t come back, and has left an empty apartment and sold everything he had. The kid now lives at a orphanage, which he hates, and just wants to be free and have his bike again. In one of his escaping travellings to find his bike, he comes across Samantha, a woman who helps him and fosters him during the weekends, in a tale of love of the most pure kind, where the characters feel an inmediate attraction for the other, but they don’t treat each other equally, as he is more interested in the liberty that he has to leave the place that he hates more than that he wants to be with her, but that’s just assumed. The film itself is perfect in its filmmaking inclinations, it is a Dardenne film, which gives natural inclinations to the movement of the camera, giving us the perfect Image-Time, even if it seems more akin with Image-Movement, that we are looking for in modern and even post-modern cinema. Nevertheless, the Dardennes are starting to free themselves from the usual restraints that they usually put in their films, as it is their first co-directed movie where scored music comes in, in certain spots where we see the face of Cyril, we hear a piece of classical music, and that, even if it breaks the famous name they’ve made for themselves, it is quite perfect for the moments they chose. An achievement that, if continues, will give us more room to breath and a change of pace for these amazing directing brothers.
11. Rango (Gore Verbinski)
This animated movie was at the top of my list for more than three months, making it clear how much I liked this film. Here we have the first experience of the animated kind in which instead motion-capture, the technique that many 3D films (animated or not) are using right now to capture performances from famous actors and cover them with a different skin or just making them something not human, there was the use of emotion-capture. Every actor that was on the film, instead of being called alone to record their lines in a booth, they were called all together, to film the movie in a green screen with some props and a lot of recording devices, so to capture every sound and movement they make, and transport them to the animated film. The result? Maybe the most important time in which actual stars have done the voice of an animated character, as their acting and personality is actually there for you to see, even if you don’t actually “see” the actor behind all the animation. Of course I’m talking specifically about the protagonist of the film, Rango, an iguana voiced by Johnny Depp (coming with his fourth collaboration with Verbinski after the three Pirate of the Caribbean films), where you can practically see the attitude and the usual quirks that make every Depp character memorable for us, and the film itself is great, with a pastiche on the western genre, with self-aware references to the movies of the most classic canon, and a dream sequence to be remembered as one of the best in film history. The film is just a joy to watch, and it’s not even close to being just another kids film, it is quite extraordinary in the way it plays around with the usual tropes, and at the same time gets a whole trippy atmosphere to it, due to the state of the main character and the whole aspect of the dessert in the middle of the day. It is a fun rise and my pick for the best animated film of the year.
Now here where I trick you (again), so you can visit my site. If you want to know the top 10 of the year, you need to follow the link here. So, that’s all here, thanks for having me and reading me, and comment accordingly in both places, if you want to.