This was the first in many years where I made a conscious effort to see new releases in the theater. In some cases, it worked like gangbusters (Take Shelter, Drive) while other films have continued to elude me (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Shame, Melancholia). I decided to take a break from grad school and not updating the Fist of B-List blog to share some thoughts with the GGtMC community on my favorite ten films of 2011, in reverse order.
Attack the Block
Everything a popcorn flick should be: fast, funny, and slick as all hell. John Boyega looks like a star in the making and the movie contains the latest and greatest in visually iconic screen creatures. Somewhere in there, the filmmakers also managed to include some actual character development. What a concept!
Midnight in Paris
In his return to magic realist territory, Woody Allen achieves a funny and charming cinematic meditation on nostalgia, art, and relationships. Owen Wilson is cast perfectly as Allen's artistic "man out of time," an aspiring novelist in a modern era which values the book far less than it values his current trade (hackneyed Hollywood film scripts). It features terrific performances from Michael Sheen, Rachel McAdams, Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway, and the always enchanting Marion Cotillard. The present is boring because we're stuck here, the future is hopeful because we're going there, and the past is alluring because we can't ever go back.
Great documentary films take any subject, no matter how unfamiliar to the audience, and find ways to make it engaging and fulfilling. In weaving archival footage of the life and times of Formula One racer, Ayrton Senna, director Asif Kapadia has made the finest documentary film of the year, and one of the best sports films in recent memory. The doc touches on all the elements which make sports narratives so compelling: rivalries, comebacks, organizational bureaucracy, transcendent greatness, and sadly, unfulfilled potential.
Underdog sports stories are nothing new. Alcoholic mentors have been done to death. In 2011, however, well-acted films about estranged brothers beating the piss out of each other joined wrestler retirement speeches and dog/soldier reunions as manly things that make me weepy. Nick Nolte's performance is incredible. The end.
Little known fact about the guy who covers Billy Blanks and Art Camacho movies: I'm a total sucker for romances and tearjerkers alike. Beginners hits all the right beats for me with respect to technically sound filmmaking and authenticity of emotion, and it shifts between sadness, sweetness, and hilarity without feeling forced or twee. Performance-wise, Christopher Plummer is getting all the press, and Ewan McGregor is typically solid, but Mélanie Laurent is armed to the gills with 1,001 ways to steal your heart. If you like your stories about beautiful people falling in love backed by some frequently bittersweet notes, Beginners is eminently qualified.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
The talent and beauty of star Elizabeth Olsen can't be overstated, but the deliberate pace and jarring narrative jumps in Martha Marcy May Marlene made this a more complete film than most performance-oriented criticisms might have led you to believe. I felt the film's stinging notes of unsettling paranoia in the central character nicely echoed 1971's Let's Scare Jessica to Death, which also featured a damaged woman cracking up before our eyes as she attempts to rejoin the normative societal fray. Throw in a gaunt John Hawkes playing folksy backwoods menace to a T, and you've got a fantastic debut feature film from director Sean Durkin.
The Skin I Live In
Two decades following Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Antonio Banderas and Pedro Almodóvar reunited for this total gem of a psychological thriller. Fantastic performances, a deliciously sick premise, and a solid score combine for one of the best cinematic punches to the dick in years.
A Night in Nude: Salvation
Gonin director Takashi Ishii's fantastic return to the noir-tinged universe of 1993's A Night in Nude was underseen on account of its one-night U.S. showing at the 2011 New York Asian Film Festival back in July. Have no fear though, you needn't see the original to appreciate this follow-up because it works just fine as a stand-alone film. Naoto Takenaka and former model Hiroko Sato deliver the dramatic goods and Ishii's attention to shot composition in this world of beating rain and Tokyo neon is admirable. Add in Joe Shishido achieving a level of sleaze somewhere between Noah Cross and Frank Booth, and you've got a finely twisted piece of Japanese cinema that will stick in your craw for days on end.
Other writers have already sung the praises of Nicolas Winding Refn's entry for Coolest Cinematic Shit of the Year better than I could hope to do. This film was a well-polished marriage of sound, image, pace, and mood, while providing the moments of violence and action plenty of room to breathe. We'll look back on Gosling's character as one of the most iconic of its time. I still want that jacket.
Stellar direction, a potent allegory, and fantastic performances from Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain combined for my favorite film of the year. Shannon joins a short list of contemporary actors who can act circles around most of his peers with his face alone. Jeff Nichols has the potential to be one of the finest directors of his generation. I'll stop there and take this tumble down the hyperbolic wormhole offline.