The title of this post includes “The Last,” because my list is usually the last (and the least relevant) on the whole internet, because I’m the slowest on the whole internet. Time is the issue. I write and design video games, which means I work in the tech industry, which means I work ridiculous hours. Also, I freelance. Also, I watch movies. The only way for me to find regular time to write about movies is to stop watching them, which is an idea that’s so crazy it just might work, but no, it probably won’t.
Anyway, no more pillow talk. It was a decent year, but not a great one. So far, I’ve seen more great movies this year than I did until November or December of 2011. The only reason I’m bothering to post this at all is because I might need a guide one day to remind me of what I watched. It was that kind of year.
15. A Dangerous Method
14. The Skin I Live In
13. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
10. Attack the Block
I spent a lot of time bumping and rearranging my list to make sure Attack the Block stayed in it, for two big reasons. First, Attack the Block is a movie I’ll probably have in my life for a long, long time, even longer than some of the prestige films at the top of the list. Second, and more importantly, people need to know that it exists.
The premise—“alien monsters land in the inner city; inner city fights back”—doesn’t fully get across what a fun and twisted film writer/director Joe Cornish has made. The latchkey kids of Attack the Block are like a shiv-toting band of Little Rascals, having the time of their lives being bad-asses until the critters turn deadly and the survivors realize the stakes. Think The Goonies if the Fratellis were unstoppable killing machines. The audience I saw it with didn’t know what hit them. Don’t wait for the inevitable American remake—the original is just fine and one of the best action-adventure movies in years. And it’s even in English, because England is where that comes from.
Enough viewers checked in to Bridesmaids last summer to make it a bonafide hit and to kick-start the careers of SNL mainstay Kristen Wiig and the long-unnoticed, but spectacular, Melissa McCarthy (those just now finding her, might I recommend John August’s 2007 oddity The Nines?) But judging by my own ridiculously thorough and scientific research—I asked a BUNCH of personal friends, you guys. Like, a lot—some people still skipped this film because of some understandable, but wrong, assumptions.
Bridesmaids is not a chick flick, whatever the hell that even means anymore, unless your definition of chick flick is “contains many women,” in which case, OK, you got me. But these women are hilarious–raunchy, smart, and fall-over funny all the way through. Beyond all the one-liners and sink-pooping, Bridesmaids also happens to be a pretty great movie about friendship and priorities, giving the movie a heart not often found in other, less awesome comedies. I want to see Bridesmaids again and again just to revisit this group of characters. It’s the Rio Bravo of wedding films.
8. Crazy Stupid Love
I’m pretty sure top ten lists are only supposed to have one movie that can be considered a “romantic comedy,” but I’M A LONE WOLF AND I’M ABOVE YOUR RULES!
The thing is, in the rush to anoint Bridesmaids, this similarly-excellent movie was completely overlooked and kind of forgotten. No more, I say! Remember the first time you saw Lov, Actually? If you’re like most people, you probably saw the DVD lying around at a friend’s house and maybe borrowed it because somebody, somewhere told you it might be good, you think, or maybe they were talking about Notting Hill, and what ever happened to Nicole, anyway? She never calls anymore, and it’s probably her jerk boyfriend’s fault.
Well, Crazy Stupid Love is that kind of thing. Nobody saw it, and a few years from now it’s going to be in the $1 bin at Wal-Mart, but it’s a pretty amazing romantic comedy with excellent performances all around. We’ll talk about Drive in a minute, but if I had an Academy vote, I would have nominated Ryan Gosling for an Oscar for this movie. Gosling plays a womanizer trying to help Steve Carrel get back into the dating pool after a divorce, but the movie is so much more than that. It’s a movie about how people are connected in… well, kind of in a Love Actually sort of way, or that first amazing episode of Modern Family. And it’s like—aw, hell, it was a good enough script to draw Steve Carrel, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, and Kevin Bacon. Its good. Trust me. The DVD will be at my house whenever you want to borrow it.
To be honest with you, Shame left me a little cold. It’s not a movie for the weak-of-stomach or faint-of-heart, even though all the gore and gross-outs are of the emotional variety. Actually, the more I think about it, that pretty much sums it up. Shame is an emotional horror film. But it’s shockingly good and absurdly unique and important.
Michael Fassbender stars as a deeply sex-addicted man living in New York City whose routine of sex with strangers and chronic masturbation is threatened by the arrival of his differently-but-deeply disturbed sister, played by Carey Mulligan. The film got a lot of attention for exposing its stars’ bodies—both actors have one or more full-frontal scenes—but it connects thematically to the way in which the film exposes these people and lays them bare. There’s no explanation of their issues, no doctor that comes in to make a preachy speech about the dangers of their respective lifestyles. The dangers are apparent in the deed. We simply go along with them and act as silent witness for actions they would rather keep buried and hidden. It’s a shockingly stark and brutal character study, and without a doubt one of the most powerful films of the year. Unfortunately, the film feels like both a throwback and ahead of its time. In a year all about feel-good films, a troubling piece like Shame never stood a chance.
6. The Artist
Last year, I felt the need to come to the defense of The King’s Speech in the midst of fan-nerd backlash, because who cares if it won an Oscar it probably (OK, most definitely) didn’t deserve? Awards are meaningless as anything other than context, and the King’s Speech is pretty damn great, if somewhat slight. This year’s backlash-recipient is The Artist, a movie accused of propping up a mediocre story with technical showmanship. In other words, the movie screams “look at me,” then has nothing to show you.
First of all, I think that’s selling the movie short, as it has a few things here and there to say, mostly about the need to embrace the future in an industry that can be ridiculously fetishistic about its past. That’s right, the film pokes at the industry’s obsession with looking backwards, but then harnessed that same nostalgia to an Oscar win because, hey, silent movie. The backlash, however, has always felt counterproductive to me. Must every film be dark and edgy to win favor with movie nerds? Must every film associated with awards season be shooting for the moon with its message? Aren’t we the group who is always begging the industry to take a chance on comedies, on superhero films, on big and exciting sci-fi adventures? Beyond its sneaky agenda, The Artist is content to show up, win some smiles, and have a good time. It’s ridiculously fun, and much more watchable than many silent films anyway, so who cares what awards it won? It’s a technical masterpiece and a hell of a good time. That used to be enough to call a movie “good.”
5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
There’s a scene at the beginning of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that allows Gary Oldman’s character, Smiley, to utter what could be pages of shockingly powerful dialogue with just one barely-noticeable little nod. That’s it. One tiny head gesture, and you know everything you need to know about his character, the situation, and the movie you’re getting into.
If you’re interested in the plot of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, you could always check out the original British miniseries starring Alec Guinness in the part of George Smiley, an aging veteran of the Cold War entrenched in the hunt for a mole within a bureaucratic spy organization that seems a million miles from the thrilling worlds of James Bond. From all accounts, the mini-series is amazing, but the best reason to try this theatrical adaptation is Oldman’s career-best performance in the role, and yes I just said that. Career-best. I’ve literally never seen him better, despite the fact that he probably speaks fewer lines of dialogue than anyone else in the phenomenal cast which, incidentally, includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones, and everyone else who’s awesome. Come for the spy thriller, stay for the brilliant performances and genius-level layering of the film’s meaning, where a nod here, a cigarette lighter there, and a slight adjustment of a pair of oversized glasses can rip you in the gut harder than any bullet.
4. The Descendants
There wasn’t a better example of a “white people’s problems” movie in 2011 than The Descendants, a movie that joins Dog the Bounty Hunter as the only depiction of Hawaii in mass media that doesn’t lean hard on the island paradise angle, but rather the suburban blight part where everything sucks exactly as hard there as anywhere else in America. Unfortunately, despite some great box office and excited reviews, the film seemed to land softly on many audiences, with a frequent complaint being that the main character isn’t so super easy to relate to. George Clooney plays Matt King, a man whose family dates back to Hawaiian royalty AND white imperialists, who has a bunch of millions sitting in a bank somewhere that he won’t let his family touch, and whose most pressing problem (beyond the imminent death of his catatonic wife) is which multi-million dollar offer to accept on his family’s pristine, untouched island paradi—DAMN IT!
What’s so impressive about the film is not the particulars of Matt King’s privileged life, but in how the different threads come together and make him feel so human and real. His interactions with his daughters struck me as honest and real. The story about Clooney’s cheating, dying wife and the story about the land deal are basically the same idea reflected in different directions—is it better to hold on to a perfect illusion, and what does it say about us if we decide to let go? Director Alexander Payne’s last movie was Sideways, a film about the depressingly usual, but I’m perfectly fine with following Clooney’s exceptional if the journey is so worthwhile.
I don’t know what I can say about Drive that you haven’t heard before, because this was the true film nerd’s darling this year, and if you didn’t like it or didn’t see it, you damn well have your reasons by now. Still, there’s something unique and attractive about the film, which combines arthouse aesthetic with a B-movie plot. I mean, Ryan Gosling stars as a stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver for the underworld. That’s the premise of the movie. The usual junk-movie tropes are here—gangsters with a scheme, a kindly mechanic whose in too deep, a working-class mom in need—but the attention here is fully on the style, not the trappings.
Take your pick of pleasures in this movie. Ryan Gosling is memorable as the quiet, possibly slightly deranged hero whose only purpose in life is to drive. Albert Brooks plays against type as a murderous crook alongside Ron Perlman in a track suit. Bryan Cranston exists and is in this movie. Don’t be fooled by the complaints about the lack of actual, you know, driving. I mean, they’re right, there’s not a lot. But there is a shitload of mood, music, and badass, which combines nicely to create the finest genre movie of the year. Those people that skipped Blade Runner when it first flopped in theaters back in the 80s? They regret not paying attention now, don’t they? Of course they do. Don’t be them.
*Note: Drive is not Blade Runner. They’re different. I’m sorry. But you get what I’m saying.
2. War Horse
In a year that’s all about nostalgia, this is like the winner of the Most-Nostalgic award. War Horse the play is a strange creature, featuring puppetry and inventive horse effects to communicate the story. War Horse the movie has no need for stinking puppetry and settles for good ol’ fashioned horses to play the starring roles. The switch tips the film’s hand. Instead of a unique take that thinks outside the box, the film is happy with the painfully sincere, patently uplifting, feel-good stuff perfectly designed for the taking-mom-to-the-movies-at-Christmastime slot.
And I love it. You know what I’m truly nostalgic for? I’m nostalgic for Steven Spielberg, who has seemingly had problems finding his footing with every film since Saving Private Ryan failed to give him his second Oscar all those years ago. With War Horse, the Beard seems to have found that urgency and love of pure cinema that made his early work so refreshing and new.
We’re a cynical bunch these days and we seem to need a curb stomp in every movie to validate its worth (if you don’t believe me, surf any movie forum when a film lands a PG-13 rating instead of R. Hunger Games is an example.) But this is a romantic, lush, well-shot movie about humans as animals (both good and bad), and the things we’re willing to do to one another in desperate times. Apart from the horse, there’s no main character in the film. It’s humanity as a whole that’s examined and explored, united by the things we love, the things we want to protect, and the things we’re willing to kill for. We act as animals but hide behind flags and civility, but it’s the manner that we treat those creatures depending on us that reveal who we truly are. As the horse—Joey—wanders through the ravages of World War I, he sees every side of this human animal, and he carries the scars with him. OK, the ending is implausibly uplifting, but without those manufactured tears, we might very well scream. War Horse is the best Spielberg film in a decade.
1. The Tree of Life
Don’t get me wrong—The Tree of Life is a deeply problematic film. It’s long, abstract, and punctuated by sequences that have unclear purposes. When “Charlie Kaufman” writes his doomed movie back into the age of the dinosaurs in Adaptation, the scene is a joke about desperation and about writers never knowing where to cut. When Malick does it in his movie about—mostly—a suburban father and son, audiences are left to scratch your head. Meanwhile, in our epoch, Sean Penn openly wonders in interviews what the hell he was even doing in the film and viewers—including this one—are inclined to agree.
Still, I’ve never seen anything quite like The Tree of Life, which is constructed from hundreds of new types of images that have never appeared in any film or on any screen. It’s a staggeringly beautiful collage of visuals, time periods, and philosophy. I can’t guarantee that the film adds up to the sum of its parts, but the parts are worth the price of admission, and I think that with time, it’s very likely we’ll look back to The Tree of Life as one of the biggest cinematic events of the decade, the kind of movie that will make us feel special that we were there to see it, that we saw it on a movie screen, and that we made it a part of our shared conversation. If you’re not put off by the concept of film as art, be sure to find and watch this film on the biggest screen you can, with the best possible sound, then come back to me and tell me what you saw. I think it’s likely that there are as many viewing experiences with The Tree of Life as there are viewers.