Sunday, January 08, 2012

Favorites of 2011

Another year, another list. My twenty favorites of the year:

20. Black Death- A big fan of direct to video auteur Christopher Smith ("Creep", "Severance", "Triangle") and "Black Death" may be his best film yet as traveling knights led by Sean Bean confront a town possibly controlled by a witch during the black plague. It looks amazing, stars this one guy that's a dead ringer for a young Klaus Kinski, and controls its atmosphere well.

19. The Robber- A chase film for the cool intellect. A man (Andreas Lust) is released from prison and immediately begins robbing banks again. In his spare time, he runs marathons, becomes involved with an old flame (Franziska Weisz) and stashes his money. The second half of the film is austere and quiet... a characteristic even more remarkable because it deals with a breath taking run/escape from the police. Watch this with "Drive" for a neat double feature. Heisenberg is a major talent to watch.

18. Carancho- Pablo Trapero has the potential to be huge. Like the next Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu huge... if that makes any sense. "Carancho" is an angry, violent film about insurance fraud, budding love and the general state of malaise present in Argentina. Darin and Grusman (who has starred in several Trapero films, notably in his terrific "Lion's Den" as an imprisoned woman) crash into each other figuratively and fall in and out love as Darin plans insurance scams while she works all night first as a paramedic and then in a hospital where fistfights routinely break out because patients housed in the same ER room were fighting before they were admitted. "Carancho" is a bold movie.... and the more I reflect on it the better it becomes. Trapero has serious chops as a filmmaker- just watch the way he deftly handles complicated long takes such as the final shootout or the steamy sexual tension that builds between Grusman and Darin as they dance together.

17. Buck- Cindy Meehl's documentary on the real life horse whisperer, Buck Brannaman, is a gentle thing of beauty. Picking up with Buck as he currently criss-crossses the country, teaching horse classes 9 months out of the year, we slowly learn of his tragic childhood past and the things that keep him living today (namely his wife and daughter). Brannaman himself would have been a singular idea for a documentary with his childhood fame and descent into familial terror, but "Buck" concentrates on the good that emerged from those dark times, namely a serene ability to understand and calm troubled horses. We know its coming the whole movie and when the twenty minute scene where Buck 'talks' to an aggressive colt, it's a shattering moment that only the best documentaries enable.

16. Insidious- Dissonant piano chords, a bleached out, flat visual style and a title card that literally jumps off the screen with aggression… James Wan’s “Insidious” starts out as a slow burn horror movie and evolves into something pretty disturbing. The moments early on- involving the ominous use of a baby monitor and the horrific sounding voice it picks up- more than make “Insidious” an enjoyable haunted house story for people wanting to jump a bit. And then, when Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell begin to explore ideas of astral projection, demon channeling and dream walks into hell in the second half, “Insidious” becomes something altogether terrifying. I give the filmmakers credit for not playing it safe. This is not the usual horror movie and (thankfully) a huge departure for Wan and Wannell with their “Saw” franchise, completely devoid of blood and gore. In the final 30 minutes, “Insidious” travels to some insane places and I found it genuinely unsettling. The most overlooked horror film in years??

15. Senna- The best type of documentary- one that introduces me to a subject or person and exhilarates through image, sound, knowledge and unbiased exploration. Asif Kapadia’s film of Formula One racing legend Ayrton Senna did just that in straightforward, moving fashion.

14. Hugo- Martin Scorsese’s family film is a wonder to behold, both visually and emotionally. Feeling like his most personal work since the documentaries about his mother and father, “Hugo” tells the tale of an orphaned boy (Asa Butterowrth) introduced to the hardships of life by his father’s death and a solitary lifestyle in a Paris train station. From there, Scorsese adapts the story and turns it into fantastical adventure that comments on his own love for the movies, the nature of film preservation and the enduring romance of cinema itself. Ben Kingsley, Chloe Grace Moritz, Sacha Baron Cohen and Christopher Lee (!) lend supporting performances that never tug at the heart, but produce hugely affecting characters. The auteur theory is alive and well.

13. Myth of the American Sleepover- In David Robert Mitchell’s micro-indie “The Myth of the American Sleepover”, the aimlessness of youth and awkwardness of teenage love are given seamless examination. Taking as its starting off point one long summer night on the precipice of beginning high school, it wouldn’t be unfair to mention it in the same breath alongside “Dazed and Confused” or “The Last Picture Show”… films that manage to encapsulate a certain time and mood of expiring childhood. The film follows a handful of teenagers, both male and female, as their various parties and sleepovers migrate and fold across each other. Featuring a host of amateur faces, not only does writer-director Mitchell elicit sweet, honest performances from everyone involved, but the film avoids hard plot contrivances and simply exists. The scene of a boy and girl breaking up through a bedroom window or the visual of a dream girl fading away when a boy sees several phone numbers scribbled on her arm are only the hallmarks of a film that takes its title seriously. “The Myth of the American Sleepover” also provides us with great memories of our moments at this age, checkered by inexperience and a na├»ve outlook, but ones that we constantly try to re-live as we grow older.

12. House of Tolerance- Bertrand Bonello’s woozy portrait of a brothel in Paris circa 1900 weaves a dreamy spell right from the start and never lets go. Following a dozen or so women throughout their daily routines and their seductive nights with clients could seem like a challenge, but the film’s anachronistic use of soul and rock tunes and the brave performances create a compelling and brooding effect that’s never salacious. Like the best films of Hou Hisao Hsien or Edward Yang, Bonello’s film simply observes in hazy long takes and subtle editing, presenting the changing of an era with grace. And just when one thinks Bonello can’t top himself from the scene of the women dancing to “Nights In White Satin”, the final images are blistering and open up a complex new perception about the entire thing.

11. The Ides of March- The actor Clooney is quickly becoming a cerebral director with this taut political tale that pushes into the foreground the three-card-monty act that enshrines the gamesmanship behind every political campaign. While assuming the role of Governor Mike Morris, a seemingly wholesome figure in a tight Ohio Democratic primary, Clooney is good, but "The Ides of March" has the gusto to create a film not about him, but the various campaign directors and interns that tirelessly work behind the scene. Bottom line, if one goes to see Clooney, than they may be sorely disappointed. In another terrific performance, Ryan Gosling is the real star, bouncing off legendary character actors like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Jeffrey Wright as the election becomes embroiled in sexual innuendo, territorial back-stabbing and the leering press. Through it all, Clooney maintains a steadfast classicism that has become his (early) directorial earmark. It came and went with a whimper, but it deserves to be ranked with stellar, low-key political films such as “The Candidate”.

10. Rapt- Lucas Belvaux’s icy-blooded, austere tale of a kidnapping (which is “rapt” in French) of a French capitalist exhaustively examines the ordeal from every possible angle. Dialogue takes precedence over action, and “Rapt” becomes an enormous chess game between family, corporate employers and the kidnappers themselves as money is haggled over back and forth. Then, the film becomes a procedural as the police carefully try to catch the kidnappers, featuring a stunning sequence as a money drop is tailed from the ground and the sky. Finally, “Rapt” settles into a moral tale of ambiguity as Graf (Yvan Attal) is released and he desperately tries to put the pieces of his now tabloid-fodder life back into place. “Rapt” is a hugely overlooked French gem that staggers through the gamut of great storytelling with poise and conviction.

9. 50/50- Joseph Levine's "50/50" is a fair representation of the Apatow brand- films that confront adult themes with a very childish sense of humor- and then about 30 minutes in it, "50/50" changes into something completely unexpected and overwhelming and smashes that brand to pieces. It's that good of a movie, led by a stunning, genuine performance by Joseph Gordon Levitt who deserves a nomination for his work here. Writer Will Reiser and director Levin know exactly how to frame a story around real emotions, allowing the Seth Rogen style of humor to compliment the touchy prospect of a cancer-ridden comedy while maintaining its austerity to life and survival. Strong supporting performances, especially from Anna Kendrick and Angelica Huston, only heighten the comedy-drama and ground the more romantic elements of the film. With a film so encumbered by the air of death, its a completely life-affirming revelation of a young man's wide open future with a final scene that leaves one gasping for breath.

8. Stake Land- Jim Mickle’s “Stake Land” features some surprisingly tender moments for a film that deals with a post-apocalyptic landscape teeming with feral vampire cannibals. Part horror film and part white-trash western, “Stake Land” exceeds all expectations by creating full bodied characters that we care about, wonderfully timed cinematography that never forgets about the human element in its carnage, and a soundtrack that evokes the coming-of-age duplicity in “Badlands”.Starring Nick Damici (who also co-wrote the film) as Mister, the hard as nails vampire hunter traveling to supposed safe haven up north in a land called New Eden, he encounters teenager Martin (Connor Paolo) and the two form a family of sorts as they trek across the land fighting off the infected and Bible thumping fanatics at the same time. As a genre effort, the film is good, but it’s the attention to humanity and glimmers of hope that propel “Stake Land” above its genre intentions. Just watch the little exchange between Mister and Belle as he carries her when she’s unable to walk…. Or the moments of sweetness that emerge as the group finds a temporary respite in a town circled off from the plague. “Stake Land” will throttle the nerves and supply the obligatory scares, but it also firmly implants a sense of emotional connectivity that far outlasts the horror.

7. Road To Nowhere- Monte Hellman’s complex return to directing after over a decade is insular from the start, with its film-within-a-film concept swerving in and out of reality as a film director stages a recreation of an actual murder case involving a woman (Shannyn Sossamon) who may be the real woman involved in the murder. Honestly, “Road To Nowhere” is less about plot and more about mood, genre and filmmaking as life. Like a David Lynch movie, its reflexive, at times confusing, and wholly mesmerizing from start to finish as if Hellman was breathing this story all his life.

6. Contagion- Soderbergh has always eschewed flagrant emotion in his films, and even one dealing with the very close annihilation of the world as we know it through a deadly virus gets the clinical treatment. Starring a host of big names, “Contagion” expertly tracks the desperate journey of doctors, scientists and military personnel to identify and contain a viral outbreak. Ultimately, the story centers on Matt Damon and his daughter as they experience the daily tribulations, but it’s the cumulative effect of the film that leaves a stunning effect. From its percussive, beating score by Cliff Martinez to Soderbergh’s cheeky visual palette (now a customary and welcome aesthetic tendency), “Contagion” didn’t nearly get the recognition it deserves as a visionary work. And that final scene is a gut-punch.

5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy- Compressing John le Carre’s mammoth spy novel (and subsequent 5 hour BBC mini series) into a tidy 130 minutes is no easy task, but director Tomas Alfredson and crew did just that, maintaining the novel’s intricate narrative while heightening the emotional collapse for several key characters which, after all, was really the point of the novel in the first place. Cinematically and intellectually riveting, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is just my kind of spy movie-starring a lead character (Gary Oldman) whose performance is interior, giving clues only in his cheek reflexes and eyes and refusing to deliver the easy answer and working itself out with only 2 or 3 gunshots. Just brilliant filmmaking…. And one that continues to grow in my mind day after day with its direct opposition to modern slam-bam cinema.

4. Take Shelter- Jeff Nichols delivers another slow-burn thriller about a family coming to shreds in the outskirts of no-where America. As a man plagued by deeply unsettling visions, Michael Shannon gives what is probably his best performance in a long line of them…. And Jessica Chastian (surely the hardest working woman in show biz this year!) as his wife trying to deal with the mental onslaught is terrific. It’s hard to shake the energy of this psychological thriller, especially towards the final 30 minutes which builds to a tension that was palpable during my showing. In 20 years, I get the feeling this will be the film anyone remembers most from this year.

3. Martha Marcy May Marlene- The first of two staggering films this year to brilliantly deconstruct the splintered state of mind of its protagonist (see “Take Shelter”, next), “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is also the year’s best debut. Director Sean Durkin and lead actress Elizabeth Olson (in a tremendous performance) create a haunting portrait about a young woman trying to deal with regular life after she’s been controlled by a family cult of sorts. Slithering back and forth in time with no warning or precedent, the viewer is just as confused at times as it characters, which makes for compelling and intellectually attuned viewing. At times, it’s echoes of Ingmar Bergman-like psychological inspection are stirring, especially since the dynamic between sisters remains elusive. The first four films on this list could be interchanged on any given day… and all justly deserve the masterpiece logo.

2. Shame- Steve McQueen’s oblique character study is a haunting, provocative thing. Michael Fassbender- who for my money along with Jessica Chastain gets the award for hardest working person in showbiz this year- is magnificent as the simmering sex addict whose life of ugly, unfulfilling sex is interrupted by his equally unhappy sister (Carey Mulligan). Directed within an inch of its life with breath-taking opening and closing montages, McQueen’s film doesn’t say much outright, instead expressing its psychology through spellbinding long takes and subtle lens focus. I sat stunned through the entire film, partly ready to justify the acclaim of McQueen since his debut “Hunger” but mostly because “Shame” is a brave, harrowing experience.

1. Drive- From the European sensibility of a provocative filmmaker comes the year’s most sublime American film noir in years. With a soundtrack full of 80’s chill wave retros, Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan enact out a quiet friendship among the fluorescent violence of downtown Los Angeles. Strong supporting performances by Albert Brooks, Ron Pearlman and Bryan Cranston round out a film that’s unique, moving and ultimately thrilling via its abstract beauty and less-is-more narrative. An absolute masterpiece.


Bob Turnbull said...

Nice to see Black Death on your list. I really liked it when I saw it at a genre film fest a few years ago, but there weren't many others who were overly thrilled with it. I guess that dampened my enthusiasm a bit, but as more people have seen it this year, I've seen some high praise. I wonder if some of the religious aspects (and anti-religious aspects) of it prevented a wider embrace...

I've heard some good stuff about The Robber, so I'm getting excited to see it. You have me keen to see Buck now as well - it's on NetFlix in Canada, so I may give it a watch tonight (since I can't see Senna yet as I missed my chance at last year's Hot Docs - I need to see it on DVD).

I liked Insidious, but I think they kept going back to the standard formula a bit too much. They would change things up and then fall back and I found that made it a bit messy overall. I have to say I'm curious to see it again as it's been over a year now.

I didn't quite get to where you got with Road To Nowhere. I appreciated its layers and it kept me guessing, but it never completely pulled me in. I seem to remember feeling quite engaged early on, but something threw me off about 30-40 minutes in. I can' recall what it was though...

The way you describe Drive certainly makes it sound like a masterpiece, but that's not quite the film I wound up with. I loved many of its parts, but it never coalesced into a whole for me. Again, I really do think I need to see it again - not just because I feel a bit out of step with so many people on it, but because I feel like I approached it wrong. Still, I am a bit baffled by the amount of true love it has received.

Joe Baker said...

Bob, I definitely see the opposition to "Drive"- i.e. all style and no substance- but I just loved it. As for "Road To Nowhere", its hard to explain. I've seen it twice now and still don't quite understand all the plot mechanisms, but I'm a total fool for "meta films" like that and the mood of it just excites me.

Yes, I wish more people appreciated the DTV films of Christopher Smith. "Black Death" was so overlooked.