I could go on a rambling, ill-tempered rant about the shocking lack of worthwhile films released in 2011. I could easily wallow in righteous indignation, and throw up my hands in disgust and defeat as I impotently curse Hollywood’s artistic bankruptcy and offer my own theories as to why last year saw the worst theater attendance numbers in 16 years. And I’d be right to do it. But this time of year, I prefer to ignore the crazed, rampaging elephant in the room and instead celebrate the few diamonds in the rough that kept me from completely losing my mind over the course of the past 12 months. So let’s get to it:
(Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, U.S.)
Pure cinematic bliss. I knew immediately after seeing it for the first time that this deft deconstruction of character archetypes and genre tropes — disguised as a “Fast and the Furious” clone, much to the apparent confusion of unsuspecting mainstream audiences — would top this list. Yet its placement here is due not primarily to its sophisticated unpacking of genre issues, but rather its sheer, boundless energy. Every shot, every frame, takes on a feeling of immediacy, and Refn (winner of the best director award at Cannes) brings the film to life through an amazing sense of mise-en-scene that renders even the most seemingly ordinary scene undeniably artful. “Drive” engaged me like no other film last year, and single-handedly got me excited about movies again at a time when there wasn’t much to get excited about.
(Dir. Lars von Trier, Denmark)
This marks the fourth time in 12 years that a von Trier film has occupied the No. 2 spot on this list (“Dancer in the Dark,” “Dogville” and “Antichrist” were the other honorees). Now, you can dismiss this phenomenon by calling me crazy and making fun of my obsession with a manifestly insane Danish weirdo. Plenty do. Instead, though, I recommend you dip your toe in von Trier’s crazy pool with this uncharacteristically accessible meditation on depression, fate and the end of the world as seen through the eyes of a prophetic bride (Kirsten Dunst, who picked up the Cannes award as best actress for her quietly devastating performance). It’s just as arduous and cynical as the director’s other works, but tempered with a gentleness and purveying sense of empathy that reveals the softer side of an otherwise hard-edged filmmaker.
3. “Source Code”
(Dir. Duncan Jones, U.S.)
Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are to see a mainstream sci-fi thriller so high on this list, but I’d be lying if I said I had a better “popcorn movie” experience all year. The film — which follows a soldier involved in an experimental military program that allows him to re-live and investigate the eight minutes preceeding a devastating terrorist attack, with his consciousness transplanted into the body of one of the victims — hooked me from its opening scenes, and kept me riveted through the payoff (and trust me, I’m a tough one to rivet). It’s the kind of movie you decide to watch on a whim and end up enthusiastically recommending to anyone who will listen, including strangers on the street. Written by newcomer Ben Ripley, this is old-school sci-fi at its mind-bending best.
(Dir. Gore Verbinski, U.S.)
Another most welcome surprise, this time in the form of an idiosyncratic ode to cinema featuring an animated chameleon, with a plot best described as a Spaghetti Western riff on “Chinatown.” Family-oriented comedies don’t get much headier or more creative than this meta-level tapestry of homage and allusion, following a media-obsessed pet chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) who is separated from his owner and finds himself playing hero to an oppressed, drought-stricken town — essentially living out his own private movie at the expense of the trusting townspeople. A gas from start to finish, and its critical and commercial success should be highly encouraging to those who, like me, reserve a special kind of admiration for great family fare.
5. “I Saw the Devil”
(Dir. Kim Jee-woon, South Korea)
A particularly artful and skillfully assembled entry in the “extreme horror” subgenre that has seen great success in South Korea in recent years, this serial-killer thriller kinda puts the watered-down efforts we usually see stateside in perspective. Although it clocks in at well over two hours, this is one lean, mean machine of a thriller, telling the grisly story of a man who goes to extraordinary lengths to avenge the brutal murder of his pregnant fiancee at the hands of a nihilistic serial killer (“Oldboy’s” Choi Min-Sik, in a tricky performance that is by turns deadpan and intense). This engaging cat-and-mouse exercise (which some mistakenly categorize as torture porn) will keep genre fans on their toes, though it must be noted that if there is one film on this list that should be classified as “not for everybody,” this is it.
6. “13 Assassins”
(Dir. Takashi Miike, Japan)
I’ve now seen about half a dozen films by the amazingly prolific Japanese shock filmmaker Takashi Miike, but I’ve always found his work to be rather self-conscious, as if he’s so concerned with “disturbing” audiences that he puts secondary issues like plot, character and theme on the back-burner. “13 Assassins,” however, is a fully realized film, remarkably well-shot and relentless in its single-minded mission to replicate the badass samurai films of yore in a modern context. The result is one of the most viscerally engaging films of the year, capped with an astounding 45-minute battle sequence that pits our 13 noble heroes against an army of more than 200 royal guards. Again, the level of carnage on display makes this one “not for everybody” as well, but if you’ve a strong constitution and a penchant for samurai-related awesomeness, this one’s a must-see.
7. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”
(Dir. David Fincher, U.S.)
So what if Fincher didn’t unilaterally redefine “cool” with his long-awaited take on late author Stieg Larson’s immensely popular serial-killer thriller? Personally, I think it’s pretty amazing when, “Well, it’s not the best movie I’ve ever seen,” is the most serious criticism one can level against a film. As helmed by Fincher, this “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a decided improvement over the Swedish film released a couple years ago, if for no other reason than the presence of Fincher’s unparalleled filmmaking style. Every scene is perfectly staged and lit to achieve the maximum level of existential dread, and Fincher maintains and even builds upon this oppressive atmosphere throughout the film’s two hour-plus running length. And even if the movie consisted of nothing but the opening credit sequence, set to Trent Reznor’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” played on an endless loop, it would still take this spot. So back off, haters.
8. “Margin Call”
(Dir. J.C. Chandor, U.S.)
Sharply written and packed with bravura turns by actors like Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and Paul Bettany, this morality tale about the fall of Wall Street examines the 2008 financial crisis like no other fictional film has. Chronicling in cold detail “the day the money died,” writer-director Chandor isn’t interested in the devastating effects of corporate greed on the common folks, or the crash’s far-reaching socio-economic impact around the globe. Instead he filters the story through the eyes of the people at its center, the power players and day traders who had prior warning of the impeding disaster and chose to save their own necks at the expense of global stability. It’s an unavoidably judgmental but very balanced look at a thorny issue, and examines the psychology of insatiable greed with style and panache.
9. “The Tree of Life”
(Dir. Terrence Malick, U.S.)
Malick’s intensely personal and highly experimental exercise in New Age spiritualism has positioned itself as the critical favorite of the year, and while I wouldn’t go that far, it’s impossible to deny the power and beauty of Malick’s images. Structured as a series of childhood memories experienced by a middle-aged man (played briefly by Sean Penn in the “present day” scenes that bookend the film) as he tries to make sense of the past and its implications for his present reality, the film takes on the form of a hopeful prayer. Malick spends most of his time probing the troubled relationship between our protagonist and his awkwardly aggressive father (Brad Pitt, who should be an Oscar contender for his work here instead of the over-rated “Moneyball”), but his over-arching subject is nothing less than the meaning of life on earth. Too ambitious? Perhaps, but even when he stumbles, Malick’s efforts are infinitely more interesting than the greatest successes of lesser filmmakers.
(Dir. Martin Scorsese, U.S.)
Proving that he’s at home in any genre, Scorsese gives us his first family-oriented film, an old-fashioned character-driven adventure presented in 3D and filled with the most elaborate computer-generated visual effects I saw all year. For its first hour, “Hugo” (based on the best-selling novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick) stands as a classy, pleasant, visually striking period piece. In the second half, the film takes an unexpected turn by revealing a most intriguing backstory for one of its central characters, and in the process becomes something else entirely: a passionate tribute to the creative history of cinema itself, brought to vivid life by one of the medium’s most ardent advocates. Kids will be bored, but older viewers with an interest in film history will be enraptured by Scorsese’s infectious enthusiasm for his art.
Five films that almost made the cut, listed in order of preference:
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” (Dir. Lynne Ramsay, U.S.)— An extraordinarily difficult film to endure, made cathartic by Tilda Swinton’s brave performance as a woman attempting in vain to “move on” in the wake of a killing spree committed by her teenage son. The film — structured as a series of brief, expressionistic episodes set both before and after the incident — charts our protagonist’s painful mistakes of the past, and earnestly chronicles the daily hardships and casual cruelties suffered as she tries to make sense of the senseless.
“Horrible Bosses” (Dir. Seth Gordon, U.S.)— The year’s best comedy marked the big-screen breakthrough of TV’s Charlie Day, and also heralded Kevin Spacey’s long-awaited return to the realm of quality filmmaking. A farce about three malcontents who plot to murder their overbearing bosses, this film showed that, with a sharp script and committed cast, old-fashioned screwball comedy can still knock ’em dead.
“Tabloid” (Dir. Errol Morris, U.S.)— A stylish documentary about Joyce McKinney, the former beauty queen who became an international sensation following the “manacled Mormon” kidnapping and sex scandal of the 1970s. She’s a fitting subject for Morris, who for decades has delighted in introducing audiences to some of the most genuinely (and perhaps dangerously) quirky individuals you’re ever likely to meet. One that truly must be seen to be believed, and maybe not even then.
“Our Idiot Brother” (Dir. Jesse Peretz, U.S.)— Where was the love for this charming comic sleeper, so keen in its careful observance of human folly that it harkens back to the best work of Woody Allen? It also featured a career-best performance from Paul Rudd, as an aimless stoner shacking up with his estranged sisters as he tries to save enough money to get his own apartment and reunite with his faithful canine companion, Willie Nelson. Think “Hannah and Her Sisters” meets “Umberto D.”, only with more weed.
“Midnight in Paris” (Dir. Woody Allen, U.S.)— Speaking of Woody Allen… I didn’t fall for this one as hard as most others seemed to, but it’s impossible not to give in to the easy charms of his romantic fantasy, which follows a struggling American writer (Owen Wilson) who discovers a portal to 1920s Paris and proceeds to hobnob with the likes of Hemingway, Picasso and Dali. Not nearly as pretentious as you might think.