CKep’s Top Films of 2011

Before I reveal the picks for what I believe to be the finest films of the year, I find it appropriate to mention a few I simply missed. I particularly regret not catching Take Shelter in theaters, or not taking the trouble to hop over to a Redbox and pick up Beginners. I’ve also not had a chance to revisit my childhood with The Muppets, or been lucky enough to be located near a theater where A Seperation is playing, which has been considered by many critics to be the best film of the year. Oh well, I’ll see them all eventually. But a new year has begun, and I must therefore shift my focus to the latest arrivals. Maybe I will continue to post reviews of films from 2011, especially those released on video. After all, I’ll be back at Virginia Tech, so it will be far easier to catch films I’ve missed than to drag myself out to the theater. And if properly indicated by the movies I have chosen to be on this list, it was a fairly exceptional year that does indeed deserve a closer look.

 I hope you agree with many of my selections, and if you don’t, that’s fine too. But please comment and tell me why your opinions differed, and if you find something that intrigues you, don’t be afraid to seek it out! With each film I have indicated where it is/will become available. At the bottom of the list, I have also given a few more examples of films I have yet to see.  Contrary to the belief of several reviewers, I truly enjoyed this year at the movies, and will be quite intrigued to see which of 2011’s wonders are rewarded within the next few months. There’s a lot of good stuff out there, but hopefully this will help narrow it down.

It has only been four months since I started this blog, and I would only be so lucky for the following list to paint a picture of the great viewing experiences I have had throughout the entire year. If this is your first time checking out my film criticism, feel free to browse through the 40 or so reviews I have posted, which account for all the current releases I have seen in 2011. If you’re up for it, also take a look at my two examples of film analysis, my “about” page, and the “favorite films” list I vow to complete in 2012! I have had a great time blogging over the past several months, and hopefully, the following year will provide a list just as rich and diverse as this one.


1. The Tree of Life

People who criticize filmmaker Terrence Malick often complain that his abstract style takes precedent over story and character, two elements that many consider the visual medium’s most essential. These are not the folks who should be watching Malick films. In The Tree of Life, every shot tells a story. And through these stories, we are not only able to contemplate the lives of an entire ensemble of characters, but also apply their methods of living to understand our own place in the universe. In the midst of it all, we have an astonishing “creation” sequence reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a touching story of a 1950s Texas family, a powerhouse performance by Brad Pitt, and explorations of memory, regret, loss, forgiveness, and love.

One can’t deny the themes and structure of each Malick film are remarkably similar, but when exploring a topic as ambitious as the meaning of life, one film may never be enough. But The Tree of Life makes a convincing case that it can, arguably what Malick has been working toward in his near 40 years as a director. It is not only the film of the year, but a shining example of why films must exist.

Now Available – Blu-ray, DVD (Rental & Blu-ray Combo Only), Download

2. Hugo

Sure, 3D can be drag.  A majority of the time, this revitalization of the 50s “gimmick” drains picture quality and often provides no supplemental entertainment, especially when applied in post-production.  But wow, does Martin Scorsese shut up the haters with Hugo.  The great American director visually cues our eyes to every minute detail, enveloping us in the majestic locale of 1930s Paris.  He also takes us on a ride through a playground of a train station, domineered by a lonely, parentless boy whose love of fixing things leads him to find a place in the world.  And how does it happen?  Through the movies, of course.

Featuring Ben Kingsley in a performance as influential silent-film director, Georges Melies, Scorsese takes a children’s novel by Brian Selznick and not only crafts it into a perfect family film, but also an elaborate plea for the importance of film preservation. As young Hugo, played by Asa Butterfield, discovers what dreams are truly made of, it is hard not to imagine Scorsese as that child.  It is equally easy to think of ourselves, and the films we first fell in love with.  But Hugo can draw tears from a non-movie lover just as well, and for that, it remains a tribute to the impact storytelling can have on us all.

Now in theaters.

3. Bellflower

This is creativity in the truest form possible.  That is, complete lack of restraint from everything that destroys great films these days – studio intervention, lack of passion, and an incessant drive to appeal to certain audiences.  Using a homemade camera and several other self-created gadgets, debut filmmaker Evan Glodell wrote, directed, and starred in a film made by a broke team of misfits who wanted nothing more than to create movies for a living.  Thanks to the miracle of Sundance, they now have that opportunity, and as evidenced by Bellflower, a film that even Glodell self-labels as “weird-ass,” movies that are personal to their makers are far from extinct.

 

Glodell, in a fictionalized version of himself, plays Woodrow, a young man lazing it up in California with his best friend Adrien (Jessie Wiseman). Inspired by Mad Max, the two spend their time building flamethrowers and a fire-spewing muscle car named Medusa, so that when the apocalypse comes, they will assure themselves as the dudes in charge. Little does Woodrow know that the metaphoric apocalypse will soon arrive, as he quickly falls in love and is hammered with the destruction of that same relationship.

Bellflower is a film with a singular look and feel, so pulsating with life that it often resembles a living organism (albeit one on lots of drugs). It works because Glodell knows that for some poor guy out there, the world is ending right this instant. The fact that he could so accurately transport that feeling into cinema is surely the year’s greatest success story. His film, meanwhile, is one of the most wholly original in quite some time.

Now Available – Blu-ray, DVD, Download

 

4. Drive

I’ve always wanted to call a film “bloody fantastic,” and with Drive, I think I’ve found the appropriate title to fit that pun.  Maybe because the phrase buys so perfectly into the persona of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest picture, which is unconventional enough to warrant crappy film criticism as sarcasm.

What could’ve been made as an average, action blockbuster is instead channeled into an enthralling character study, helmed by a chill-as-ice Ryan Gosling.  It plays like an L.A. version of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, as the stunt driver turned vigilante takes down the scum with which he has been accidentally intertwined, the head bad guy played by none other than funnyman Albert Brooks.

There is nothing too complex about the plot of Drive, but the mood and tension Refn creates is so unexpectedly captivating, and the violence it turns into breathtakingly artful.  But style is equaled with substance, as Drive also explores themes of loneliness, humanity, commitment, and purpose. Did I mention Refn’s film also features one of the year’s most intriguing love stories? Just tack on that hip, electronic score, and you’ve got yourself a masterpiece.

January 31 – Blu-ray, DVD, Download

 

5. The Artist

Nothing quite evokes simple, human emotion than silent cinema, especially when it has been out of practice for nearly 80 years.  Leave it to a crafty group of French filmmakers to remind us by making one, and in doing so, present us with a film that seems startlingly new.

The Artist tracks the fall of fictional, silent-era film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), as his love interest, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), gains fame within the era of “talkies.”  Director Michel Hazanavicius so perfectly replicates the distinct style and techniques of silent cinema, as well as manipulates them for thematic effect.  The result reflects the universality that film has always had.  You will laugh, cry, and maybe even learn something.

The film belongs to its two leads, whose performances reflect not only the different methods of acting that are required between cinematic mediums, but also the importance of change in both movies and life.  Who knows what’s next for the film industry?  It’s anyone’s guess.  But The Artist is titled so for a reason.  Technology rules the movie business, and despite the amount of CGI-heavy crap that’s constantly thrown at us, somehow, the artistry within cinema will always survive.  Take Hugo, for example.  But The Artist doesn’t use 3D to prove its ideas (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Instead, it uses the past to show us that hope is not lost for the future.

Now in theaters.

 

6. The Descendants

Alexander Payne is a true maestro of “real” comedy. His films apply laughter in the most hopeless of situations, arousing emotion like only “real” life can. It then comes as no surprise that in The Descendants, he conducts what may be one of George Clooney’s greatest performances.

Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer with a disloyal wife in a coma, two daughters in his lap, and acre-upon-acre of fresh, tropical land that his native family may finally have to sell.  It is a sad movie that never overwhelms with emotion, instead sprinkled with humor in the unlikeliest of places.

The Descendants also conveys the necessity of reflection and forgiveness, doing so by displaying a man who must face life when presented with the epitome of human devastation.  This may be paradise, but as King assures us, the people who live there are just like you and me.  And at times, life calls for us to bring out the best in ourselves.  In the case of Clooney, it has also brought out the best performance of the year.

Now in theaters.

7. War Horse

Leave it to Steven Spielberg, arguably the most well-known filmmaker in America, to adapt a play that thrived upon the magic of puppeteering and insert his own brand of magic, the kind with which he has blessed the industry for over 35 years.  In doing so, he crafts an epic yarn with a horse as a metaphor for hope, in addition to the humanity that exists across all borders.

There is something in War Horse for every audience, and the emotion it arouses couldn’t be more genuine.  Only in John Ford has a sunset looked quite like this.  Whether young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is riding his noble creature through the English countryside, or attempting to simply stay alive as he climbs out of the home trench, the cinematography by Janusz Kaminski provides some of the year’s most astonishing imagery.

This is old-fashioned cinema in its purest form, continuing to prove that great filmmaking is always more necessary than original storytelling.  War Horse is one we have all heard before, but if I were still a child, it would be one I’d want to hear every evening before bedtime.  Spielberg can truly make anything new, and by doing so, he never ceases to guide home the human spirit.

Now in theaters.

 

8. Moneyball

Moneyball, the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, would seem like the least likely material to inspire a crowd-pleasing sports flick.  Thus said, Bennett Miller’s film is far more than your run-of-the-mill Cinderella story.  In a book filled with statistics and a singular appeal to baseball fans, an ingenious screenplay by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin has transformed a hybrid of sports and business jargon into a film about weighing one’s values in every game we play, including the big dance – life itself.

Brad Pitt gives another superb performance as Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics manager who with the inspiration of a young, Yale economics graduate, Peter Brand (played spectacularly by Jonah Hill), changes baseball forever as he selects players almost exclusively for their on-base percentage, allowing a broke franchise to pioneer a winning team.  This may be the story of that 2002 season, but it is more accurate to describe it as a testament to one man’s faith and intuition, in addition to the decisions he must make to find happiness and redemption.  Punch that into a calculator.

Now Available – Blu-ray, DVD, Download

 

9. Midnight in Paris

It’s no secret that New York is the official kingdom of Woody Allen, so a love-letter to Paris by the quirky 76-year-old couldn’t be more of a pleasant surprise, especially when the hilariously neurotic director writes and directs nearly one film per year.  Allen came up with the title Midnight in Paris before he even knew what the film would be about, and the passion he injected into those three words is apparent in every beautiful, warm-colored frame of his best movie in years.  It is also the most commercially successful he has ever had.

Owen Wilson is perfect as Gil, a screenwriter working on his first novel, who soon finds himself face-to-face with caricatures of his favorite literary and artistic idols of the 1920s, including Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Picasso, and Gertrude Stein.  His misunderstanding fiancée, played by Rachael McAdams, has no clue that throughout their stay in Paris, Gil is making a magical time jump each night.  But she also does not understand the love her partner has for this city, and how magical things can happen for anyone who dispels the fear and illusion that cloud each of our lives.

Gil may find true romance in the past, but ultimately, the best time is always the present.  Woody Allen is sure living in the now, and he channels Owen Wilson for a role that requires not just an actor, but a real person, too.  Midnight in Paris is pure hilarity, but not without the grace and wisdom of a true American auteur.

Now Available – Blu-ray, DVD,  Download

 

10. Melancholia

With the creation of the world filling in my number one spot (if that is what we actually witness), it is only fitting that my top ten conclude with the end (which is definitely what happens).  The second Danish director with a film on this list, Lars von Trier, utilizes many influences in his beautiful symphony of destruction, including opera and German romanticism.  But the biggest influence of all is von Trier’s own bizarre sensibility.

Kirsten Dunst gives a terrific, psychologically dense performance as Justine, a woman who gets married upon the eve of the world’s anhillation.  Melancholia first arouses interest as we wonder what the characters may or may not know about the rogue planet that will soon crash into Earth, and becomes even more captivating as the bride’s depression allows her to partially infiltrate the fathom of our universe.  Meanwhile, her sister, Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), obtains the initial anxiety that Justine had upon her wedding day, and the trading of feelings between the two women becomes a story of its own.

There are many images in Melancholia that are hard to shake.  But von Trier’s biggest success lies in the fact that he can make a film about the human psyche that is so devoid of hope, yet seduces you with a sensory and emotional experience that is both completely unique, as well as immensely satisfying.   The apocalypse has been rendered onscreen several times before, but rarely can we feel it in our very soul.

Now Available – Amazon Instant

March 13 – Blu-ray, DVD, Download

 

11. Martha Marcy May Marlene

Elizabeth Olson, sibling of Mary-Kate and Ashley, gives a quite hypnotic, debut performance as a young woman who becomes partitioned from reality, escaping a cult only to find herself unable to adjust to normal society.  Her identity dissociated between two lives, and being unable to communally accept either, she begins to suffer from intense fear that the cult is following her, haunted by the image of their leader, played chillingly by John Hawkes.

The first film by writer and director Sean Durkin is a perfect example of a thriller that prefers silence over action in order to draw the necessary suspense.  In essence, this is a simple story, but the cinematic technique (especially the editing by Zachary Stewart-Pontier) is as intelligent as it comes.  Martha Marcy May Marlene successfully weaves between past, present, and hallucination with seamless execution, not only firmly planting us inside the mind of its protagonist, but also forcing us to walk away with paranoia equal to her own.

February 21 – Blu-ray, DVD, Download

 

12. The Trip

What could be funnier than dueling Michael Caine impersonations?  Probably a lot of things, but throughout the entire duration of The Trip, it is hard to remember the last time laughter was so effortlessly drawn.  British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves in this film version of the BBC miniseries, as the two tour fancy restaurants in northern England for an article Coogan has been hired to write for The Observer.  The friends/rivals try to one-up each other constantly, in nothing other than an attempt to avoid all the problems typical of adulthood (and semi-celebrity).

The Trip is a film about how much acting means to those who are blessed with such talent, as well as the hold it has over what one wants out of this mysterious life.  Funny and sad in equal measure, this is a comedy that truly captures the pain behind what it takes to make people laugh.

Now Available – DVD, Netflix Instant

 

13. 13 Assassins

Needless to say, number thirteen was a quite obvious choice.  Cult director Takashi Miike takes story elements from one of the classic films of Japanese cinema, Seven Samurai, in addition to the 1963 film of the same title, and formulates his own bloody epic.  But of course, this culminates in one of the most spectacularly staged battle sequences in years, topping out at nearly 45 minutes.

With cinematography by Nobuyasa Kita, and a sensational performance by Koji Yakusho, 13 Assassins is as emotionally involving as it is a completely immersive thrill ride.  But before the film descends into limb-slicing nirvana, we become introduced to an entire palette of characters, in addition to a gradual immersion in the themes that battle will accentuate.  Yet at the heart of this grandiose action film lies a beautiful story about the horrors of war.  What makes 13 Assassins great is that amidst the elaborate destruction, it provides the hope that this society may soon move beyond it.

Now Available – Blu-ray, DVD, Download, Netflix Instant

Here we are, almost at the bottom.  For the two remaining entries, I have actually discussed a duo of films for each, all being movies I gave a 4/5 rating in my initial reviews (those above consist of every film I have given a 4.5 or 5).  I thought this would be a nifty way to conclude the list, rather than typing up a slew of honorable mentions.  I like most of the films I trouble to see, so naturally, I don’t want my end of the year list to include almost every flick I’ve reviewed in 2011.  Nonetheless, I thought the following four deserved recognition.

 

14. A Dangerous Method & 50/50*

The formation of psychoanalysis is a fascinating topic, and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, starring Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, is a terrifically acted, strangely distant story about the emergence of modern thought.  Keira Knightley, in an over-the-top, yet unfairly criticized performance, plays the woman who affects them both, spawning a series of events that causes each man to view these new theories of the mind in quite different ways.  It is a very poetic film, never playing to any emotional expectation, but instead, asking for psychoanalytical interpretations of its own.

50/50, meanwhile, is also about the relationship between two men, but in a quite different fashion.  Screenwriter Will Reiser, who scribes a comedic drama of his own life-changing experience, was diagnosed with cancer in his late 20s.  But luckily, he had a pal to help him through. Who? Foul-mouthed actor Seth Rogan, of course.  So naturally, Rogan portrays the best friend of a protagonist played with convincing sweetness by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who upon learning that he has developed a rare form of cancer with a 50/50 rate of fatality, must weigh his fears and desires against what he has yet to experience in life.  Also featuring great performances by Bryce Dallas Howard as Levitt’s indecisive girlfriend and Anna Kendrick as a lovely, young therapist, 50/50 mixes uproarious laughs with the inevitable sadness of mortality.

* I never formally reviewed 50/50, but considering I wanted to post this list in a timely manner, I did not find that to be a bother.  After all, I didn’t see the film in theaters (I caught it online a few days ago) and would have likely written a short capsule review at this late stage in the year.

A Dangerous Method – Now in theaters.

50/50 – January 21 – Blu-ray, DVD, Download

 

15. Bridesmaids & The Help

2011 was lucky enough to feature two superb, female-driven ensemble films.  The first, Bridesmaids, proved the gleefully raunchy humor that mass-produces so many awful male comedies is appealing to most young adults with the ability to laugh, regardless of gender.  In addition, we are given a compelling story with intelligence, wit, and a genuine understanding for why people think, feel, and behave the way they do.  Kristen Wiig, who also co-wrote, gives a star-making performance as a single woman who tries to understand her feelings about the soon-approaching wedding of her best friend, played by Maya Rudolph.  Stealing every scene, however, is the hilarious Melissa McCarthy, solidifying Bridesmaids as the year’s funniest mainstream comedy.

The Help, a moving drama based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett, is adapted with necessary humor and gentleness by writer/director Tate Taylor.  Emma Stone, gorgeous as ever, is turning into quite the actress, and as the writer who touches upon Civil Rights in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, she gives a shining performance.  And as two African-American servants who have raised the children of rich whites, only for them to become clones of their parents, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer do nothing short of inspire.  One of the year’s most uplifting, this is a fine film to end the list of a great year at the movies.  Let’s hope 2012 has more to offer than doomsday prophecy.

 

CKep still needs to see…

The Adventures of Tintin, Another Earth, Attack the Block, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Guard, The Ides of March, J. Edgar, Life in a Day, Meek’s Cutoff, Margin Call, My Week with Marilyn, Rango, Shame, The Skin I Live In, Submarine, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Warrior, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Young Adult … and several others!

 

Thanks for reading! Keep in touch this year … and as always, happy viewing!

Corey Koepper (CKep)

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2 Comments

  1. “Bridesmaids” and “The Help” are also now available on Blu-ray / DVD, and for download.

  2. Nicely compiled list, good sir


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