2011 Ten Best Movies

Oldman’s Smiley: TTSS

And we wrap up 2011 with another list, this one for the Herald. Read the story here.

The actual lists of best (and worst!) are arranged as a slideshow, so you have to do a lot of clicking. I know – ugh. Sorry! I will shortly post the list here in simple-to-read order.

Update: The link has vanished. Here’s the article.

By Robert Horton

2011: Year of mystery? Sometimes it felt like it at the movies.

            I’m not talking about actual whodunits, or in the case of the brilliant spy picture “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” a whoizzit. No, the best movies of the year were a collection of offbeat mind-benders that challenged the viewer to keep up, in one way or another. Maybe it was an enigmatic hero (how’d that guy in “Drive” get those crazy skills, anyway?). Or a black comedy about depression that abruptly shifted into a meditation on, literally, the end of the world (“Melancholia”). Or you could have that tingly feeling of what-the-heck-am-I-watching-here-exactly, which might be mesmerizing (“Certified Copy”) or finally too navel-gazing for its own good (“The Tree of Life”). Even Woody Allen delved into a surreal world, with his biggest hit in years, “Midnight in Paris.” This tendency was true in bad movies, too; the giant stinker “Sucker Punch,” for instance, did its share of brain-teasing.

            What gives? So many movies offer up simple solutions, but some 2011 filmmakers seemed to be suggesting that things aren’t as easy as they seem. A lot of the movies on my Ten Best list pushed the boundaries of our expectations, and I was grateful for that. The year was supposedly a disappointing one at the box office, and some of the usual powerhouse franchises failed to rack up big numbers of the past. However, certain series were unbeatable: the final “Harry Potter” installment, for instance, and wherever we are (does it matter?) in the “Twilight” saga. I found out I could still be surprised when the third “Transformers” picture, “Dark of the Moon,” turned out to be zany fun. And “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” not only breathed new life into a dormant franchise, but got downright thrilling when the chimps took over in the second half.

            Winners of the movie year included the apocalypse, which figured in many a storyline (pre-2012 jitters, thanks to the Mayan calendar predicting our demise? Discuss), and women in comedy, who will get a chance to prove themselves thanks to the deserved success of “Bridesmaids.” Also “winning,” in the Charlie Sheen sense, were two actors who surely appeared in half the year’s releases, between them. Ryan Gosling hit it big with “Drive,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” and “The Ides of March.” Michael Fassbender arrived with fine work in “Jane Eyre,” “X-Men First Class,” “Shame,” and “A Dangerous Method.” The year’s biggest loser was film. By that I mean 35 mm. film, the format that has provided the vast majority of what we’ve known as the movies for over 100 years. Maybe you haven’t heard, but actual film has quietly disappeared from theaters in the last three years or so, and will be almost entirely gone within another year. Digital rules the day, ushered in by convenience, improved technology, and the needs of 3-D. It’s a change as important as the coming of talking pictures, but unlike the end of the silent-movie era (so charmingly re-created in “The Artist”), almost nobody has really noticed it.

            That shift is more significant than any single film of the year. Nevertheless, it’s time for the year-end cataloguing, and here are the best new movies I saw this year. A box of Professor Freud’s cigars to the following:

  1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” This is what a movie is. Watch it for five minutes and you’ll see. Bone-dry and richly emotional, director Tomas Alfredson’s film hones a John le Carre novel down to its essentials, aided by a superb cast led by Gary Oldman.
  2. Certified Copy.” Two people, played by Juliette Binoche and opera singer William Shimell, roam around Italy for a day, and our understanding of their relationship changes—are they strangers, or a couple, or possibly every couple? This is one of those arthouse tantalizers that manage to be as spellbinding as they are mystifying.
  3. Melancholia.” Kirsten Dunst plays a wayward bride, but this is no screwball comedy—or is it? An approaching planet suggests otherwise, in Lars von Trier’s fascinatingly peculiar end-of-the-world opus.
  4. A Dangerous Method.” The meeting of great minds (and a couple of bodies) provides the spectacle in David Cronenberg’s passionate tale of Freud, Jung, and a gifted patient who came into their psychoanalytic circle. Fassbender was joined by Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightley.
  5. Meek’s Cutoff.” A Western, but perhaps not like any you’ve seen. Portland filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy”) directed this story of a wagon train lost in the scrub country, with Michelle Williams as a pioneer wife generally shunted to the side in such tales. Because of its ending, the movie can be labeled an experimental film, so proceed advisedly.
  6. Drive.” Ryan Gosling is the man at the wheel, in Nicolas Winding Refn’s stripped-down and streamlined crime movie, which might not amount to anything new, but sure does its thing with confident swagger. Great supporting turn by Albert Brooks, too.
  7. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” Another head-scratcher, this time from Thailand, as an ailing man dreams his way through a series of unusual events. This is the kind of trippy experience only movies can provide.
  8. Poetry.” A film from Korea that is about poetry, and many other things: an aging woman, fighting the early stages of Alzheimer’s, determines to write just one single poem, despite the serious challenges in her way.
  9. Into Eternity.” Although Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” was the documentary hit of the year, this film, also about the mysteries of a cave, stayed with me longer. It’s a haunting look at a giant project to bury Finland’s nuclear waste for 100,000 years, and about how long that span of time really is.
  10. The Descendants” and “Le Havre.” No connection between these two except that they offer low-key redemption for a couple of seasoned protagonists. George Clooney gives a great star turn in the former; the latter is Aki Kaurismaki’s droll account of a deadbeat who rises to the moment when an immigrant kid needs help.

            Just missing my list were two raunchy comedies that showed a lot of sneaky heart: “Bridesmaids” and “Cedar Rapids.” Other runners-up include the rather good remake of “Jane Eyre,” the financial-meltdown thriller “Margin Call,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” the overlooked “Rio” (maybe the best animated film of the year), the stirring French film “Of Gods and Men,” the alien-invasion comedy “Attack the Block,” Vera Farmiga’s oddball “Higher Ground,” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In.”

            Before we get to the bad ones, please pause for a special award (or a new agent) for Carla Gugino, a fine actress, who somehow ended up in “Sucker Punch,” “Elektra Luxx,” “I Melt with You,” and “New Year’s Eve,” a truly awful run (and “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” was no great shakes, either).

            Now, the worst of 2011. Let’s secure space in an underground vault in Finland for these radioactive elements:

            “Sucker Punch.” Zack (“300”) Snyder’s overblown video-game fantasy was a nonsensical jaw-dropper, set partly in a mental institution and mostly in la-la land.

            “The Green Lantern.” Ryan Reynolds starred as the DC Comics superhero, in a movie that didn’t have the guts to own its crazy universe.

            “I Am Number Four.” Few things are as lame as a failed attempt to manufacture a franchise, and this movie so very desperately wants to be the next “Twilight” or “Harry Potter.”

            “I Melt with You.” Four old friends gather for an annual blowout, only to find things turning more serious this year—and much, much more pretentious.

            “A Good Old-Fashioned Orgy.” More old friends, this time deciding they’ll get it on with each other in a less-than-credible group grope. Completely charmless, but also coy when it comes down to the nitty gritty.

            ‘The Dilemma.” Vince Vaughn and Kevin James in a bromance directed by Ron Howard, who really goes on auto-pilot here.

            “The Art of Getting By.” This was one coming-of-age film too many, and showed heavy Wes Anderson influence, from the cute dialogue to the jukebox soundtrack.

            “I Don’t Know How She Does It.” Sarah Jessica Parker has it all, which makes me wonder why I should care about how she does any of it.

            “Killer Elite.” Jittery camera, rancid dialogue, macho posturing—yes, this spy picture hit every cliché around, stranding Robert De Niro and Clive Owen in the process.

            “The Hangover Part II.” What’s amazing is not the ramped-up raunch, but the way every plot beat mirrors something from the first movie. The smoking monkey is very good, however.

In the interests of un-asked-for completism, and to gather them all in one post for my Year-by-Year Best Movies category tab, here are other Ten Best tangents:

Video of the Critics Wrap at the Frye Art Museum (Kathleen Murphy, Jim Emerson, Andrew Wright and meself talking about the movies of 2011).

A KUOW “Weekday” session with Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy, and yours truly, on the best of ’11. Hosted by Steve Scher.

My ballot for Indiewire’s poll, and their overall results.

No new reviews for the Herald this week, and no new KUOW session either. In other words, a typical last-week-of-December pause in the onslaught.

At What a Feeling!, catch up on Eighties-ness with vintage reviews of Ken (King Frat) Wiederhorn’s Meatballs Part II, and John G. Avildsen’s Happy New Year. The latter allows a tip of the hat to the late Peter Falk, and some sort of sideways chance to ring in the new year. Thanks for reading The Crop Duster, and I’ll see you in 2012.