Well here we are, a new year, a vast array of possibilities in the realm of film. Indeed, 2012 seems to be one of the biggest years in Hollywood cinema in recent history. What with films like The Hobbit, The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, Django Unchained, The Avengers, Looper, Gravity, Rock of Ages, The Grey, Skyfall, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Brave, and Cloud Atlas to look forward to. But for now, we look back at the ten films that defined cinema in 2011.
Before we get to the top ten list for the best films of 2011, here’s a short list of films that we were not able to catch before compiling this article, but were highly reviewed enough to deserve mention:
I Saw the Devil, Hugo, Shame, Pariah, A Separation, The Skin I Live In, Into the Abyss ,Martha Mercy May Marlene, Le Havre, Chico & Rita.
And now, without further ado, the top ten films of 2011 (according to the genius duo that is Tarek and Zaid):
10 – Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen):
One of three romantic comedies on our list. A very surreal wish fulfillment film for Woody Allen and any other “creative.” Owen Wilson is a writer engaged to Rachel McAdams who doesn’t really understand him. He takes midnight walks that take him to the golden age of paris in the 1920’s where he falls for Marion Cotillard, a muse for Hemingway, Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and other titans of literature that he meets. Fantasy setting juxtaposed against Woody Allen’s frank exposed dialogue.
*Spoiler* (highlight to read): After confessing his time traveling exploits to Cotillard, Owen Wilson makes it up to her by taking her with him further back in time to her favorite era where she decides its better to permanently escape to the past. That is something Wilson just can’t do.
9 – The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick):
Ambitious, spectacular, and moving… these words can define any Terrence Malick film that graces the screen, but in terms of Ambition, none of his films comes close to this Macro/Micro portrayal of life. Although one of his weaker films in my opinion, a weak Terrence Malick film will always beat a strong film by most other filmmakers; he’s that good. Taking us through the creation of the universe and life itself before shifting into the story of a family in Texas suburbia, the Tree of Life is equal parts family drama, philosophical theory, human study, poetry, and oddly enough, a film Roger Ebert describes as “a prayer”. With all these elements working for it, the strongest aspect of the film is the realism and extraordinary performances on display. One of the strongest meditations on family dynamics in cinema from one of its greatest filmmakers.
A 15 minute sequence in silence witnessing the big bang and following through to the creation of the earth, the existence of life, and ending with the birth of the film’s protagonist. One of the most striking cinematic sequences since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
8 – Margin Call (dir. J.C. Chandor):
An ensemble cast featuring Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany and Zachary Quinto et al. By far the best dramatization of the financial collapse of 2008. Feels like a David Mamet play thats is focused on the personalities, the office politics and the humanity or sacrifice of humanity at a nebulous financial firm far removed from the rest of us.
*Spoiler* (highlight to read): Kevin Spacey’s resolve finally wavers and he agrees to burn his and his beloved trading teams reputations by selling assets they know to be toxic. Despite being against the idea from the start he rallies his men around him in a speech that almost convinces us to start rooting for him.
7 – Submarine (dir. Richard Ayoade):
A wonderful mix of the hilarious, the dramatic, and the droll, Submarine is one of those films you’ll find yourself revisiting constantly. The film itself is a simple joy to behold, exciting you with each new scene of wonderful characters and visual flair, you’ll never want it to end. Director Ayoade takes a page from the Wes Anderson school of filmmaking then evolves it into his own unique vision. The comedic aspects are top-notch, and more importantly, the film doesn’t shy away from delving into the darker areas within the characters. It boasts one of the best scripts of the year, challenging all cliches found in most romantic comedies, including the breaking of the fourth wall by commenting on the director’s use of zooms and tracking shots. Oh, and it also carries the most delectable dialogue to savor in any film this year.
Jordana, the girl Oliver’s been madly in love with, kisses him while photographing the moment with a polaroid instant camera in order to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. To call the kiss a moment of visceral cinema with medium challenging edits, cuts, freezes, pans, and sound effects would be an understatement. It’s the moment you knew you were watching something special.
6 – Waste Land (dir. Lucy Walker):
One of two spectacular documentaries on this list, Waste Land is a film that will change the way you think. Documentarian Lucy Walker follows NYC-based Brazilian photographic artist Vic Muniz as he visits his hometown on the outskirts of Rio, which houses the world’s largest landfill. In an attempt to find the beauty within the garbage, Muniz connects with the people who work at the landfill as garbage pickers, and goes on a journey of human discovery and artistic creation as he decides to turn their lives into works of art to auction off, with all proceeds going to the very people the work was based on. One of the few multi-layered documentaries in cinema, Waste Land is about Humanity, Society, Poverty, the Art scene, the Political climate, Racism, Photography, and Creation. There have been very few films that highlight the beauty in its characters as much as this. Essential viewing.
In a film filled with special moments, for me it was the scene that garbage picker Tiao quotes from a soggy copy of Machiavelli that he picked and dried before choosing his portrait style and posing for the film’s iconic artwork. This was the moment that the audience was forced to dispose of prejudices and listen to the intelligent and vibrant people we’ve underestimated.
5 – The Descendants (dir. Alexander Payne):
Slow boiling family dramedy about death, inheritance, parenting, Hawaii and tying up loose ends. George Clooney is one of the last descendants of Hawaiian royalty and it falls to him to make a decision about the sale of the last pristine coastline in Hawaii. At the same time his wife suffers an accident that puts her into a life threatening coma, forcing him to deal with his two distant daughters full time.
*Spoiler* (highlight to read): Clooney surprises and confronts the man his comatose wife has been having an affair with and has an excruciating exchange as he asks questions he wishes didn’t need asking.
4 – Hanna (dir. Joe Wright):
It doesn’t get more badass then a little girl super assassin (Saoirse Ronan) efficiently beating the crap and or outsmarting everyone around her on her life defining quest for vengeance. Raised alone in a woodland shack by her ex-CIA (Eric Bana) super agent father her only exposure to the outside world is an encyclopedia she has memorized and some fairy tales she has reread. The movie is artfully layered as an empowered retelling of the red riding hood fable. Instead of the red riding hood being hunted she seeks the big bad wolf (Cate Blanchett)… all the better to kill them my dear!!!
A long single take tracking shot of Eric Bana entering a subway where he gets jumped by four agents fights them all as the camera follows the choreography circling 360 degrees. Impressive on every level.
3 – Drive (dir. Nicholas Winding Refn):
Probably the film that 2011 will be remembered for amongst cinephiles, Drive is one of the most original films of the year, despite it being a throwback to many films in the past. A modern day retelling of the classic western legend, made famous by the iconic film Shane, where a stranger gets mixed up in the problems of a community and takes it upon himself to make things right, Drive follows stunt-driver Ryan Gosling as he’s swept up into the underground crime scene of the city he operates in. Gosling shines in my favorite performance of his to date, as a man with no name that can only be referred to as “Driver”. Keeping you on the edge of your seat as he switches between doe-eyed boy next door and calm and collected bad-ass, he excites in both his ultra-violent exploits and his softer, more romantic moments. The rest of the casting is immaculate, with the standout being a shockingly villainous performance from Albert Brooks (Oscar should take note). But the star of the show is director Refn who, after giving us the excellent Bronson and the jaw-dropping Valhalla Rising, delivers an outstanding and viscerally stylized action/thriller that is gorgeously shot and carries one of the best soundtracks of the year. Magnificent.
Very few will disagree that the defining moment of the film lies at the very beginning, where Driver is working as a getaway driver for some rookie thieves. The camera never leaves the car as we are forced to face the same level of adrenaline and fear as the characters on screen. The claustrophobic shots, silence, and precision editing are a testament to Refn’s directorial skills, and Gosling’s wordless performance is a testament to his skills as an actor. As only the best composed scenes can do, it tells you all you need to know about the protagonist and the film to come… Your eyes will remain glued to the screen from then on.
2- Beginners (dir. Mike Mills):
Incredibly disarming and modern romantic comedy which adds ammunition to my theory that the most effective romantic comedies have the male as the emotional vehicle. Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent make for an incredibly compelling couple that is innocent without being sappy, sexy without being cheap. Christopher Plummer’s role as Oliver’s dad who comes out of the closet at the age of 75 steals the movie despite fierce competition. Plummer, Who is also terminally ill with cancer, faces the beginning of his life and his imminent death with enviable grace, charm and humor. You want to be everyone in this despite them being just as tortured as we are.
Oliver (McGregor) meets Anna (Laurent) at a costume party where they are dressed as Freud and Chaplin respectively. Anna has laryngitis and Oliver is depressed yet they have an instant and believable chemistry and pick each other out of party when neither of them should be able to make any connections.
1 – Senna (dir. Asif Kapadia):
Who would’ve thought that the best film of the year, as agreed upon wholeheartedly by Zaid and myself, would be a documentary on Formula One racing, a sport neither of us ever cared to watch. Not only is this documentary the best film of the year, it is, in my humble opinion, one of the best sports films of all time. made up entirely of existing footage and soundbites, it truly is a testament to director Kapadia that he was able to construct a film without a single new interview or a single piece of recorded narration, and still deliver pure storytelling at its finest. The film follows the life and career of one of the sport’s most popular drivers Ayrton Senna, who changed the game and moved the hearts of millions. Although the film is a documentary, it is told in the same way as the best of narrative films, complete with a grass-roots hero climbing to the top, facing an affluent villain, and eventually the entire system. To call the film moving would be underplaying the emotional impact it will have on its audience. In fact, most will find it very hard to keep their eyes dry by the film’s end. A testament to documentary filmmaking and cinema in general. Simply put, a masterpiece.
In the middle of a world championship race in his country of Brazil, Senna’s car begins to falter, forcing him to quit the race. Instead, he chooses to push forward, driving on only one gear, and holding onto the steering wheel with all his might, before finishing in first. As he’s given his trophy, he finds it near impossible to carry it due to the strain the drive left on his arms… but with one strong push he raises it above his head for less then a second. You had not choice but to fall in love with him and the film itself.
And there it is, another year, another list of great films. However, these ten films weren’t the only ones worth watching, but rather the ones that Zaid and Myself were able to agree on being the best ten. Here is the short list of excellent films that did not make the top ten due to just falling short:
50/50, The Muppets, Horrible Bosses, Bridesmaids, Another Earth, Moneyball, WinWin, Attack the Block, The Artist, A Dangerous Method, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (US), The Trip, Cinema Verite, The Adventures of Tin Tin, Incendies, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
And as an added bonus:
The Best Soundtracks of the Year (in no particular order)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Game of Thrones
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Attack the Block