Thursday, January 5, 2012

Wilde.Dash's 17 Best of 2011

My dark little heart fell in love at the movies this year.  Not for the first time, but for a span that will leave a mark. While it was in love, it marveled over everything.  There were questions of the cosmos, yes, there are always those, but there were other small movements, minute plays of light, and fleeting instances revealing something just below the surface.  Three dimensional dust motes over Paris, a late night drink with Dali, suburban bike rides at twilight, the star-crossed love of a misunderstood wizard, slow motion movements in the glow of a passing planet.  We gaped at everything, my heart and I, even the cracks and flaws became beautiful.  There was an artistry to these small apocalypses, these tearful depressions, and massacres.  The highs were high, the lows were low, but so many hit upon something almost sublime.  Though every poetry professor would flinch upon reading that word (the sublime is too impossible to achieve), there was something in so many films this year that pushed towards a greatness outside of the conventional.  Is that an overstatement?  I don't think so. 

Love & Squalor has been alive long enough for me to have gone through this listing process twice prior, and in both cases I've always had to reach to add the last couple.  This year, I narrowed the top 15 down from a starter list of over 30 worthy titles...not an easy task.  So many of the 30 from 2011 could have easily bumped out over half of my best of 2010 list, and because of that crazy stat, I decided that a 'good year' called for a small expansion of the top 15.  Here you will find my own subjective picks for the best 17 of 2011.

Certified Copy is a film about a relationship.  Whether that relationship is real or invented, however, is another story entirely.  Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry) crosses language barriers and oceans with this tale of love and all its trappings.  Juliette Binoche puts in a solid, stripped down performance as a woman who we see attend a lecture by a renowned art historian (William Shimell), and who begins an interaction with him that is purposefully ambiguous.  The nuances of the emotions, the way the characters interact and unfold make for fascinating viewing. By the end we wonder whether what we saw was love or just an approximation (of course, the question can be further complicated by considering the fact these are actors playing characters acting), yet we find that the difference between authenticity and imitation might not matter after all.  

I opted to be a stickler and not include Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture on this list because of its 2010 theatrical release date.  By those standards...maybe The Trip shouldn't be on here either.  It's a film that's really an edited down version of an entire British series that aired in 2010, but since we aren't in the UK and The Trip did indeed get released in theaters stateside: I'M COUNTING IT, DAMMIT.  There's almost nothing to Michael Winterbottom's film.  It's a largely improvised series of restaurant touring interactions between Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan acting as versions of themselves, which is exactly what makes it pure comedic gold.  This is Tristram Shandy pt. II without literary pretensions.  Everything about it feels worn in, comfortable, and though it runs bittersweet, I find myself laughing hysterically.  In fact...I have it on again right now.  

It took a long time for me to get around to seeing this movie. Honestly: the screenings were just never timed in my favor.  I held off this list just long enough to fit it in, though, and I'm very glad I did.  The Skin I Live In surprised me tremendously.  This is Pedro Almodovar at his most restrained and austere.  Almodovar is an auteur whose films teeter on the brink of melodramas.  They're stories that feel ripped from soap operas and raised to the level of high art; pushing the typical to terrain that becomes twisted, sexually charged, and pitch black dressed up in vibrant primary colors.  With The Skin I Live In, Almodovar strips the glossy veneer from the wall and leaves us with something cold, meticulous, and, well, surgically precise.  It's a revenge drama with unclear motives, Cronenbergian body horror, and a labyrinthine set-up.  Who do we root for?  How deep does it go?  When we find out, well, it's place on this list becomes without question.  

The Descendants is equal parts coming of age and coming to terms, splitting its focus amongst the members of the King family.   The pieces are the stuff of melodrama and prime time soap operas: dying mother, single father, troubled teen, extramarital affairs, a sneaky dose of hidden wealth.  Yet, in Alexander Payne’s hands, they seem anything but.  The situation unfolds in unexpected ways. Father and eldest daughter team up, slowly becoming closer and closer in a colluded effort to close up Elizabeth’s unfinished business.  They embark on a quest, of sorts, for something intangible which only they know the motives behind.  On one day it’s revenge.  On another,  redemption.  Sometimes it’s selfless closure, other times it’s selfish rage.  Shailene Woodley is impressive here, tapping into a depth of uncertain angst and that perfectly complements George Clooney’s flailing eagerness to please.  Together they mark just one set of the film’s emotional contradictions, and the way the characters interact and intertwine with each other separates the film from dozens of others in its vein.  

The joy of Hanna is derived from a very base, guilty pleasure place.  A place where it doesn't matter whether the story holds up if the body count keeps rising, the jokes are well timed, and the adrenaline never ceases its flow.  Is Hanna a guilty pleasure?  In some ways.  But, you might never notice. Hanna is that a relentless, sparkling bit of entertainment.  It speeds by, ending seemingly before it's even begun, never drawing out its affairs or keeping its ADD viewers in one place for too long.  Here's the rare wall to wall action flick that never feels repetitive, is stocked with competent actors in odd little character roles, and which manages to give us not one, but two ladies who would be worthy foes for Kick-Ass's Hit Girl.    So, yeah, some might say it's a guilty pleasure.  I can see how it could fall into that categorization.  Sure. But you know what?  Fuck that noise.  Hanna is more than a damn cool, bass-pulsing flick about folks with guns.   It's a morally ambiguous Bourne for girls who are sick of watching movies with muscular action figure prototypes for leads and buxom, irrationally leather-clad chicks for heroines. 

Myth of the American Sleepover is the rare teen movie that really gets it right.  Set at the end of a suburban summer it’s a crisscrossing, gentle, collective narrative that strings together the last rites of best friends and social cliques.  It’s a quiet film without the bottle smashing revelry and fits of hormonal hypersexuality we’ve come to expect from Hollywood’s take on high school.  What it captures instead is something surprisingly beautiful.  Myth dismantles notions of kids growing up too soon and instead reminds us of our own purity, how wonderful it was to ride a bike through a subdivision with a best friend at our side, to pedal at twilight, to travel in packs, to wander past a crush’s house hoping that they’ll be outside.  It’s the sort of melancholy you can’t help but smile at, even if something about it breaks your heart.  Everything feels important and urgent, as if somehow these kids (unknowns all) are aware that this is the end, that these days are coming to a close and that soon the time for Ouija boards and ghost stories will be over.

A crazy good debut for director T. Sean Durkin and star Elizabeth Olsen.  Martha Marcy May Marlene is an unnerving, haunting film.  In certain respects, it’s very much a ghost story.  Here, though, instead of literal specters, we have the shadows of a too recent post-traumatic past.  Martha is haunted by her memories in a way we can’t quite understand and are only shown in increasingly disturbing bits and pieces.  There's a palpable anxiety that winds the film further and further up until it reaches a point where we don't know what it is we want from it.  The happy ending?  The sad one?  We feel the way that Martha must: without any sense of where we should go from here.   

Deathly Hallows: Part II is a dark dream, a coming-of-age that's violent and unyielding for the characters involved, but dazzlingly beautiful for us.  David Yates has presented it as a contradiction, and somehow this feels right.  There are flaws, yes.  Little differences between book and film, little places where those not enamored may observe problems with pacing or wish were presented differently.  Mostly, though, Yates captures the pandemonium with a slow motion romanticism, a vision somewhere between our own perspective and Harry's. We want to spend time in this world, and Harry wants to prolong his stay.  Harry walks towards his sacrifices.  He quests like a knight errant.  Hogwarts is destroyed.  People die.  Countless people.  Child soldiers.  Yet, these things do not register.  We cannot see the destruction as folly because we're too closely aligned with Harry's point of view.  This is what must be done and, though Harry fights, in truth he resigned himself long ago. 

9. SHAME   
Shame is fueled by moments of frenzied angst.  It's deliberately over-the-top in quiet, unhappy ways that seem familiar.  Yet, while aspects of the film may seem to damn it to some sort categorization as a sensationalized tale of alienation and addiction, Michael Fassbender is fantastic here and capable of single-handedly elevating everything to another level.  The physicality of the performance is matched by an almost frightening ability to tap into the emotional depth of this damaged character.  As we watch Brandon, we find ourselves caring about him though he seems incapable of caring about himself.  We know that he should be repellent, that he is cold, distant, and partially inhuman.  Yet, Brandon is predatory in an odd way.  Fassbender takes what could be an empty shell and transforms him into a sympathetic man.  He is vulnerable, childlike, and awkward when he finds himself in the presence of someone he does care about. The sex acts themselves are shrouded in pain. 

I loved Midnight in Paris.  I loved it the way one loves a dessert that's just rich enough, a novel you find yourself tearing through in hours, or a dream so good you think about it through lunch time.  As a comedy it's an absolute delight, as a fantasy it's every literary nerd or Francophile's secret wish.  The dialogue, the interactions, the experience and bubbling excitement is so perfectly formed, so sparklingly clear that we identify with Gil (Owen Wilson) almost immediately whether we share his convictions or not. We're in awe, and we love what we're seeing as much as he does. Woody Allen is on his game here, stuffing each minute on screen with enough breezy charm and exacting wit that the result is something positively effortless. 

7. RANGO   
Rango makes me super happy.  I expected nothing from it and somehow wound up receiving a boatload of like, all the best things in the world.  Rango is an animated film that's nothing like your average storybook.  It's an animated film that doesn't bother with candy colored confections, 3D gimmicks, or the infantilization of the adult half of its audience.  It's wonderfully gutsy, gloriously verbose, supremely oddball, and never bothers playing down to the ten and unders.  You'd never know it from the cloying advertisements, but Rango is more than just talking animals in cowboy hats.  Much more.  It's a damn good revisionist Western just as much as it's a smart, surprisingly mature comedy.  

This film should really be higher on the list.  Unfortunately, I'm guilty of what the Academy will likely also be guilty of: downgrading it a little bit in favor of movies with, well, beating hearts.  We Need to Talk About Kevin is truly horrific.  Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (with Lynne Ramsay close by) has managed what should be a textbook example of how to achieve a character study through visuals.  Between McGarvey and Ramsay, food becomes a horrible fixation.  Consumption, disposability, and the gnashing of teeth are all conceived as violent acts.  The film is stained with crimson in every incarnation:  a gleeful food fight becomes the site of a symbolic martyrdom, paint and lipstick become unsettling objects, spilled wine is no less than creepy.   Everything works in a dirty synchronicity.  The actors themselves - Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, and the two other boys who play Kevin in his younger years (Jasper Newell and Rock Duer)- are stark canvases in high contrast black and white; pale, cool, each with their own devilish allure and reptilian gaze. 

Part art house, part grindhouse, all awesome. Drive is at once complicated and simplistically taut, bloodthirsty and beautiful, smart and mindless, slow even as it rapidly spirals out of control.  It's a contradiction and, in this cinematic landscape, an enigma: the ruthless actioner that does not resort to CGI, does not pander to the lowest common denominator, and which relies on our patience.  Ryan Gosling gives a great performance that speaks volumes without language, he's a 21st century man with no name, hero and villain both, and a cult figure for this generation.

An indie gem that somehow manages to take everything I might hold against it and transform it into something that makes me completely fall in love with all of the characters.  All that's too twee is rounded out by the echoes left by our own families, the marks made by depressed friends, and some smart performances by a trio of talented actors.  Beginners transcends its genetic makeup to become a film not solely for those post-ironic hipsters and adolescents in love with being in love, but for humans struggling to maintain that love and find themselves worthy of it. Beginners is essentially about the constant renewal of life, about it never being too late, but also about the impressions made on us by our families and our societies.  Oh, and Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor are really just great here...

What I love about Scorsese --and I mean love in a way that makes me really, really honestly thankful he's around --is his unbridled enthusiasm for film. He is a man clearly in love with his job, who has followed his own dreams and yet remains remarkably untouched by the fact that he is a vital part of the art form he's so fascinated by.  Scorsese is a true film fan and a certifiable movie scholar.  His enthusiasm is infectious, and he has the power to make us marvel, the storytelling ability to persuade us towards his way of seeing.  Hugo is an intricately imagined, exuberant incarnation of one man's passion told via another.  It celebrates the innovations of the past, the limitless imaginations of those bold pioneers, while simultaneously writing film's future in a gilded script that fills volume after persuasive volume with the case for film as pure vision.  Scorsese is a great filmmaker, and while Hugo may not be his greatest film dramatically, in raw feeling it is one of his best, and surely one of the closest to him.  Hugo is bound to inspire a whole new generation of creators who will seek out, eagerly, the material uncovered by the young protagonists here

This was the year of the universe.  Melancholia is planet and girl.   Where we begin with a shattering glimpse inside Justine (Kirsten Dunst), we find her crashing into the other life forms in her orbit,  eventually offering us a dark, profound treatise on the human condition.  We are fragile creatures, all of us, bound by powers far outside of our own control.  What makes us so frustrated with Justine is what makes Justine so frustrated with herself.  We feel for her, we know she cannot change willingly, that she’s locked inside and prisoner to the strength of her emotions.  Yet, we also feel for all of the characters, know that the same fate awaits each of them.   Justine changes, over the course of the film, from volatile presence to a sort of zen-prophet.   As the imagery expands in scope and scale, the intimacy, the peace of Justine and her family inches closer and closer.  The result is simply gorgeous, with frame after frame of imagery that weighs heavy with a meditative depth unlike anything we've seen from Lars Von Trier to this point. 

I'm not a religious person.  Like... at all.  Yet, when I watch The Tree of Life it unfolds as a viewing experience that feels rather like what the devout must must feel in church: they are small, existence is much larger.  Call me pretentious, call me elitist, but in my opinion, The Tree of Life is an incredibly important, remarkable cinematic achievement in any year. It's a class of its own, a hybrid less film than a poised, beautifully photographed attempt to capture the ways that our individual lives and deaths feel so big to us and yet are so infinitesimally small.  As we watch it we must forget traditional narrative, Tree of Life has no time for storytelling conventions.  Chronology does not matter in the spirit or the memory, and our understanding of the world is wrapped up with our knowledge of our personal histories.  Tree of Life attempts an experimental fiction, a cut-up method with sources pulled from religion, nature, individuality, and Americana. It's a million other cinematic moments, a gallery of photographs, a museum full of paintings, an anthology of poetry, a great work of literature, a symphony played by a full orchestra;  The Tree of Life is to be felt, not concretely understood.  

Honorable Mentions:  Another Earth, Attack the Block, Bridesmaids, Jane Eyre, Mildred Pierce (the HBO miniseries), Super 8, Tiny Furniture (not on the main list because its theatrical release was in 2010), Young Adult


  1. Didn't expect to see Rango here, love that!
    I've seen many of these, and I like all of them. The Tree of Life is my personal favorite too :)

  2. Glad I could surprise you! I really feel that it's one of the best animated films in recent memory. Hope they don't dare ruin it with sequels...

  3. Oh man, I feel terrible for missing 'The Trip' during its brief stay in theatres where I live. It looks great.

    I really like your site by the way. It's really hip.

  4. Love your site...great look, distinctive vibe, good writing. Found the "top 17" thought provoking. My one beef is "Beginners" at #4. Didn't love it myself. Might be more inclined to have something along the lines of "Cedar Rapids" or "Ides of March" on my list. But that's half the fun of year-end lists- the arguments that ensue.

  5. @Edgar - not sure where you're at, but it's on DVD (and Netflix instant) these days. Worth checking out. And thanks!

    @Marakovitz - Thank you, thank you, thank you. And, you might be unhappy to learn that Beginners almost ranked higher. Almost completely forgot about Cedar Rapids, didn't leave much of an impression on me...

  6. The Myth of the American Sleepover is a film that I had heard nothing about until the last few weeks where it seems to be popping up on a lot of list. I will have to seek this film out. Nice list overall.

  7. I'm kind of ambivalent towards your top 5, but GOSH DO I WANT TO SEE "WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN!" Like, SO badly. Stupid "Oscar qualifying runs."


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