Wednesday, February 1st, 2012 at 11:15 am
Cinema in 2011 saw the strikingly bold creation of the universe, as well as an artistic rendering of the universe coming to its bleak annihilation. Audiences were strung along decimated battlefields torn apart because of war, just as they were strung along corridors and offices only to encounter a few decimated souls of Wall Street executives emotionally torn thanks to the realization of a looming stock-market debacle. Trying to escape reality, whether it was by taking cover in an underground tornado shelter, a trip to a Hawaiian resort or engaging in a cult that promises enduring happiness, proved to be an impossible task. Individuals even went to such a distance where they would lock themselves in an octagon cage, attempting to beat the senses out of one another in order to become numb to reality. Reality imperceptibly arrives at our doorstep thousands of times faster than a Formula 1 racecar. Running from it is futile. We have to be fearless and self-sufficient, like Cistercian monks or a taciturn driver with an unruffled spirit.
The strongest films of 2011 found strength in depicting humanity versus forces outside of humanity’s own control. Unbearable situations plagued individuals, families, companies, and even animals. But each film found it necessary to keenly chart the attempts, no matter how futile they may have seemed, made by individuals to alleviate their exceedingly painful and confusing situations. My 10 best films perceived that faintest of hope, perseverance, and tenacity that is forever dwelling within the insides of anything that is breathing, infinitely ready to be summoned to the surface when impending calamity strikes close to home.
Here’s my picks for The Top 30 Films Of 2011.
30. Source Code- Directed by Duncan Jones
29. City of Life and Death- Directed by Chan Lu
28. In a Better World- Directed by Susanne Bier
27. Trust- Directed by David Schwimmer
26. Point Blank- Directed by Fred Cavaye
25. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol- Directed by Brad Bird
24. Certified Copy- Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
23. The Trip- Directed by Michael Winterbottom
22. Cedar Rapids- Directed by Miguel Arteta
21. Uncle Boonmee the Man who can Recall His Past Lives- Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
20. 13 Assassins- Directed by Takashi Miike
19. The Ides of March- Directed by George Clooney
18. Hugo- Directed by Martin Scorsese
17. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo- Directed by David Fincher
16. Princess of Montpensier- Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
15. The Artist- Michel Hazanavicius
14. A Dangerous Method- Directed by David Cronenberg
13. Melancholia- Directed by Lars von Trier
12. Midnight in Paris- Directed by Woody Allen
11. We Need to Talk About Kevin- Directed by Lynne Ramsay
10. Warrior Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Warrior is a convincing look at a father and his two sons drowning in innumerable personal grief and universal issues, which result in each of them finding out who they truly are and were. Here is a film about the exploration of our true selves disguised as a mixed martial arts (MMA) movie. It is a visceral and blunt exploration into the anatomy of the alpha male. The subjects are the Conlons, from a working-class Pennsylvania town, who attempt to attain through any means necessary an anchor in which they can cling to when the emergence of reality becomes so widespread and ruthless. Warrior discharges a heap of emotion and enormous amounts of vigor.
9. Senna Directed by Asif Kapadia
The year’s best documentary contains an unbroken sense of harmony. It is a documentary that ignores any “˜talking heads.’ Its intentions are strictly dedicated to a narrative-like depiction of Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna and his ups and downs. Senna’s universal success came after he won three championships in a row during the late 80s and early 90s. A jealous competitor would interrupt his success, as well as the hypocrisy found in the upper echelons of Formula 1. But where the documentary cuts deepest is when it gets Senna to appreciate his first encounters with racing. We see a purely sensual pleasure wash across his face when he discusses go-kart racing: a time when his passion wasn’t mingling with corruption or hypocrisy.
8. Take Shelter Directed by Jeff Nichols
Masculine anxiety has perpetually pervaded Jeff Nichols’ first two films as director. In his first feature, the sense of honor and it being desecrated made the men in Shotgun Stories pulsate with vengeance. In Take Shelter Michael Shannon finds it imperative to protect his wife (Jessica Chastain) and their hearing-impaired daughter (Tova Stewart). Shannon’s Curtis is haunted by difficult dreams. These dreams, along with apocalyptic images he experiences, lead him to live an anomalous existence as he slowly begins to lose his grip on reality. He is sure that these dreams and visions of apocalyptic clouds, multitudes of birds and zombie figures, are omens of what is to come. He then begins to extend his underground storm shelter to his wife’s dismay. Shannon is hypnotizing as a man that has heaped heavily upon him psychological defects. He is at once menacing and worthy of much lamentation. But it is Nichols’ direction that envelops us in a terrifying atmosphere and leads us to question whether or not Curtis is truly insane.
7. Martha Marcy May Marlene Directed by Sean Durkin
First time director Sean Durkin has crafted a film of such power that long after one has seen it its ramifications still remain inextinguishable. Elizabeth Olsen is disarming as Martha, a lonely soul longing for emotional comfort and support. She turns to a cult led by a mesmerizing John Hawkes and gets accepted, oblivious to what the consequences will be. Her escape from it leads her to her sister’s home, where the consequences only heighten. Durkin’s film shows how difficult it can be to leave the past and the impossibility of regaining a normal existence when one has willingly thrown a previous one away.
6. Of Gods and Men Directed by Xavier Beauvois
Oddly enough, amid diffused elegance, elation remains rather vague in director Xavier Beauvois’ new film. But we are nevertheless moved to tears of joy by such an articulate and poignant portrait of the devastation that threatens a monastery in the mountains of Northern Africa in Algeria in 1996. Of Gods and Men may be the most profound declaration of courage under fire seen in the last decade of cinema. The amount of importance Beauvois imbues his film with is impressive and necessary, allowing no permission of a superfluous scene because his meditation on his subject matter is unerring and mystical. Of Gods and Men is evidence of his surgical precision as filmmaker and we cannot help but be immensely moved by it. What haunts is Beauvois meticulous approach to the time before the encroachment of danger. With startling clarity he observes with precision the every day routines and rituals of these eight monks, all of whom are dedicated to their Lord Jesus Christ. When these men of god face an imminent doom, an impending war that can lead to their annihilation, the film focuses sternly on their every actions, words and gestures that are influenced by potential death.
5. Margin Call Directed by J.C. Chandor
An imminent disaster is slated to take Wall Street by surprise. In his debut feature J.C. Chandor engages in massive amounts of tumult as his film focuses on the 36-hours before everything becomes boisterous and leads to the financial crisis of 2008. Margin Call is taught and immersive, an intimate representation of the mighty billionaires (Jeremy Irons) and those who work under him at a large investment bank (Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley and Stanley Tucci) on the verge of collapsing. Sure there is a lot of esoteric banking language being tossed around, but don’t let that discourage. Brilliance can be discovered in the films depiction of the extraordinary means men will go through in order preserve complacency. The final scene is haunting.
4. War Horse Directed by Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg is one of the great American directors who effortlessly shows us in his best films the delicacy and coarseness of humanity. In War Horse he comprehends the perils of war by focusing on an English family that has recently purchased a horse to plow their fields. But instead of seeing the family through World War 1, Spielberg devours every moment possible of the horse’s experience in the war. And the results are jarring. In need of money the family sells the horse to the military. What ensues is a touching and vicious depiction of war and we encounter the touching and vicious people who partake in it. The horse encounters various situations and people, some that threaten his life and others that offer hope, and to see war through the eyes of an innocent horse leaves one extraordinarily grief-stricken.
3. The Descendants Directed by Alexander Payne
The amount of observation of human behavior is profound in The Descendants, achieving in the proves a slice of reality, a slice of truth so vivid that viewers constantly have to remind themselves that we aren’t inhabitants of Payne’s created atmosphere. Impulsively he thrusts us into his world where the cards are already on the table. All that we need to know is exposed to us rather quickly: Matt King’s (George Clooney) wife (Patricia Hastle) is dying. He now has to take care of his two daughters (an amazing Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller). In the process, he finds out that his wife has been cheating on him. In The Descendants disorder settles even in the most lavish of places. The orderly and healthful world of Hawaii collapses. No longer does it resemble a tropical resort for the wealthy and complacent. From real estate squabble, to teenage angst, to coping with an imminent death and to unfaithful romances, The Descendants accomplishes many difficult and different feelings in precise detail and with unhesitating authority.
2. Drive Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Drive is an elegantly polished thriller by the artistically gifted Refn and stars Ryan Gosling as an unnamed driver for hire who is seemingly externally stoic yet internally cultivating emotions that probably have been gnawing away persistently at his soul for some time now. Helplessly he is thrust into a world of insane car chases, heists gone wrong and men with the sole intention of killing. Drive is all about a lost man who is trying to attain, and hopefully preserve, a fleeting moment of bliss in a city that has already descended into a ghastly abyss populated by criminals (Albert Brooks and Ron Pearlman). And when the movie unexpectedly erupts into a beautiful medley of brutality (reminiscent of A History of Violence), it switches to another gear that guarantees its distinction from most films out today. Incomprehensible is the way Refn manipulates violence into resembling beauty. Scenes that would normally induce squeamishness and loathsomeness are magically rendered marvelous. His direction elevates particular scenes of blatant, chaotic violence to such an elevation where they attain, paradoxically, a status that is operatic. His conduction of chaos and carnage is done with such a sure hand, knowing exactly how he is going to transform blood into beautiful artistry.
1. The Tree of Life Directed by Terrence Malick
“Some day we’ll fall down and weep, and we’ll understand it all, all things”¦”
Terrence Malick attempts to fathom the universe and does so sufficiently with an exquisite arrangement of classical music, lyrical camera movements and indelible images. In The Tree of Life he taps into our primal and cosmic mysteries with hopes of attaining some form of truth and timelessness. A film that has lofty aspirations is welcomed into other forms of art (poems, symphonies, art and novels) that have similar aspirations. Rarely have we seen films demonstrate such tendencies but Malick saturates his film with the inimitable: conversations with God, rendering the universe and cinematography that is visual poetry. It is impossible to be inclined to undervalue the film’s power – which is illimitable. The way Malick infuses his film with boundless creativity is beyond anything anybody has done in cinema the last 30 years. With a penetrating ferocity in his filmmaking, Malick assures us that his main aspiration is to a magnificence so high that it seems almost unrealizable in the cinematic realm. But his brazenness as director asserts itself so audaciously that we become emotionally devastated and awestruck by what he accomplishes. The film’s achievements are profound. It succeeds at rendering the universe, investigating the minutest of tendencies of an American family in the 1950s and capturing what the ramifications are for a perplexed adult who tries to contemplate his childhood and the different paths (nature and grace) he was taught by his parents to live by. After the depiction of the creation of the universe (from the birth of light to encountering dinosaurs), the film engages its audience in one of cinema’s most intense forays into the intimacy of a family that lives in Waco, Texas. It is arresting in its splendor and evocation, allowing us to partake in their existence, deeply embedded in their home to witness them grow, fight, laugh, love and grieve the death of a child. It is a patriarchal family. Brad Pitt is commanding as a father who only wants the best for his three boys. He is married to Jessica Chastain, the mother whose poetic and graceful teachings regarding life conflicts with Pitt’s authoritative, Old Testament style of teaching. Sean Penn plays one of the sons who is grown and wandering aimlessly in contemporary times due to his lack of understanding his childhood. Malick has created a meditative film that questions what does our life arise? Out of what does our consciousness arise? Why are we here? Where is here? The Tree of Life is a masterpiece.