Best of 2011 – Film

Like I said before, not my fault this took so long.

The Artist – At the onset of the talkie era, a silent film star finds himself rapidly being forgotten, while a young actress’ career takes off. The Lament of the Obsolete Man is hardly a new tale, but The Artist’s funny, sweet and poignant treatment of the trope keeps you too enchanted to care. It is itself a silent film, and I’ve seen others label that a gimmick – no. It’s a genuine novelty. The difference? Novelties augment, gimmicks distract; novelties are organic, gimmicks are artificial. A small miracle of a film that deserves all the hype and praise it’s gotten.

War Horse – Pic follows a horse (Joey) from birth through a series of vignettes as he encounters various characters that paint a wide-ranging panorama of the first World War. At various turns exhilarating and horrifying (a scene where Joey runs through the no man’s land between trenches in the middle of a firefight, only to end up tangled in barbed wire is both) and heartwarming (a German and British solider put aside their sides for a moment to free him), but always utterly Spielbergian. The Beard marries an old fashioned presentation with new school sensibilities, his manipulation done with a gentle, guiding hand, and not the insistent, yanking fist a lesser director would employ. Good to have you back, Steve. I’ll forget about Crystal Skull if you will.

J. Edgar – I want to say I don’t understand the vehemence that greeted this biopic of Hoover on its release, but I understand it perfectly: it’s obvious Oscar bait, the old man makeup is laughably bad, and the long term shameless fellating of Clint Eastwood had ripened him up for a backlash. So I get it; I just don’t agree with it. I found this treatment of the odious FBI stalwart to be humanizing without being apologetic, and sufficiently wide-ranging without the superfluity of a History’s Greatest Hits collection of events and figures. J. Edgar may not be Nixon, but I don’t feel queasy about putting them in the same sentence, either. This is a well-realized portrait of a small man who did big things, and my interest rarely wavered.

Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen’s latest, a nouveau fairy tale following several nights in the life of a young writer who longs to experience 1920s Paris and finds himself able to do just that on a nightly basis, mixing it up with the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Dali. When I first heard of this film I rolled my eyes, sensing imminent disaster, a pretentious and gauche exercise in wish fulfillment by a past-his-prime writer. I was mistaken, completely and utterly (in fairness, though, look at this poster; can you blame me?) This isn’t francophillic porn, but a charming and witty reminder that everyone, everywhere, at every time in history has pined for the greener grass supposedly trod by their forebears.

Margin Call – Spans twenty-four hours inside Lehman Brothers a nameless brokerage firm where a young analyst stumbles onto numbers in a model that just don’t add up – thus kicks off the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The big boss is helicoptered in at 4 AM, managers are quarantined in their offices, and the race is on to dump the near-worthless sub-prime mortgages on unsuspecting buyers before the word gets out. This is a remarkably assured and cogent production, tense, terse and at times even emotional. That last isn’t something you’d expect from a movie detailing the depredations of the people who brought on a calamity we’ve still yet to recover from, but Margin Call has the courage to not reduce its characters to caricatures. Some are legit assholes, some show compassion, some are just plain scared; all are human, and so were the real people who did this. To forget that, to take the facile way out and just call them monsters, rather than trying to explain them, would be short-sighted, ultimately teaching us nothing.

50/50 – It’s almost trite to praise Joseph Gordon-Levitt these days, except the guy just keeps hitting them out of the park. In 50-50 he plays a vibrant young man who’s suddenly given a cancer diagnosis, with the movie’s title being his odds of survival. Predictably, his performance hits every right note, running the gamut between self-effacement and anger – the movie itself does the same, and though I’ve never contended with a potentially deadly disease myself, 50/50’s treatment of it comes off as utterly authentic. It’d have been easy for this film to turn into a weepy, and I’m sure it would’ve worked as one, in a schmaltzy Philadelphia way. But its ambitions are higher and all the better for it, resulting in final product that’s as purely entertaining as it is poignant, and understanding that humor is our first, and best defense mechanism. It’s certainly mine.

A Boy and His Samurai – A single mother and her young son stumble across a man dressed in full samurai garb, sword at his hip. He claims to have been transported through time. Naturally, the mother allows this obviously mentally unstable man to take up temporary residence with her and her child. The “samurai” proves adept at filling the father figure role for her son, while also taking on the household chores while she’s at work, eventually discovering a latent talent for cooking. …yeah, it’s a pretty out-there premise at first glance, but it’s really just a creative riff on the “loner figure completes unwhole family” trope, and a damn great one. Samurai is playful, heartfelt and incisive all at once, that last coming from its clever subversion of gender roles. I cared about these three characters as much as for any I saw on screen this year, and when it was all over, I’m not gonna deny that my eyes got a little wet. This is the best family movie since Up, and one that will stay with me for a long, long time. I can think of no better compliment to pay a film.

X-Men: First Class – This retcon that inserts a team of rookie X-Men into the heart of the Cuban Missile crisis may just be the best superhero movie ever made. Check my earlier writeup for the reasons why.

I usually try to get to 11 with these lists, but I just can’t. Melancholia’s hauntingly brilliant second half is marred by its interminable first. Moneyball is hamstrung by the maudlin additions Aaron Sorkin brought with his rewrite (it’s really a pity, the original script was just so much better than what ended up onscreen). Carnage is a lot of fun but even at only 80 minutes wears out its welcome too quickly. I’d still recommend them all as worthwhile watches, along with Captain America, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Puss in Boots, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Footloose, Real Steel and Project Nim.

And to close things out, because Oscar did such a shitty job with their acting noms, here’s ten truly great performances from last year:

Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin
Ryô Nishikido, A Boy and His Samurai
Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia
Michael Fassbender, X-Men: First Class
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 50/50
Kevin Spacey, Margin Call
Andy Serkis and Caesar’s character animators, Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Corey Stoll, Midnight in Paris
Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method