So here, in no particular order, are the ten films that have gained some kind of consensus as the best of 2011. (Editor’s note: Follow the links to read the full FSM reviews, excluding “The Artist” and “50/50”)
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” – “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” may not be a heartwarming film for this time of year, but it tackles the difficult subject of violence against women in a strong and resonant fashion. Director David Fincher’s strength has always been to keep the rough edges of real world horrors, and “Dragon Tattoo” is no exception. Led by a convincing performance from Rooney Mara as anti-hero Lisbeth Salander, the procedural film glorifies the mundane world of investigation. Salander’s unwillingness to accept victimization while reeling from the effects of her torturous past makes for an intriguing character and makes “Dragon Tattoo” a worthwhile entry into the year’s best.
“Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2” – How do you possibly wrap up the most successful franchise in film history? Like this. “Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2” was visually stunning, emotionally satisfying, and simply a great time. Diehards and newbies alike flocked to the conclusion of this epic tale, and left with a greater understanding of the power of love and sacrifice. As so many studios attempt to milk lesser stories (ahem, “Twilight”) for all they’re worth, it’s exciting to see that Hollywood can still create larger than life films that honor their source material, while also managing to elevate the genre. Thanks, Harry. It was quite a ride.
“The Descendants” – “The Descendants,” from Alexander Payne, is the quintessential “slice of life” film. It presents an intimate and comprehensive look at a few weeks in the life of Matt King (George Clooney) as he wrestles with the complications and legacy of his comatose wife’s affair, relationships with his daughters, and a real estate deal which would sell 26,000 acres of pristine land on Kauai entrusted to the descendants (of which King is one) of a marriage between Hawaiian royalty and American missionaries. Yes, it is a particularly dramatic and trying few weeks but there is nothing neat about this package and that is what lingers with the audience. The questions are not easily answered in this stunningly shot film. No matter how raw the emotion, relationships are not resolved.
“Drive” – At the top of my list is the completely unexpected, weird, gory, and stylized “Drive,” starring Ryan Gosling. The trailer left most expecting a car chase flick, leading one woman to even try and sue over her expectations of another “Fast and Furious” type film. Instead, movie-goers were given much more. At first, “Drive” is subtle and slim on dialogue until a switch is flipped and the film turns into an over-exaggerated blood soaked revenge plot. The car chases are much more focused on skill and thought rather than how many cars can be destroyed. Gosling, as the unnamed stunt driver, is supported by excellent performances from Carey Mulligan and Bryan Cranston. From the hot pink script opening titles to the synth heavy soundtrack, “Drive” brings along the 1980s feel but leaves all the cheese out. Director Nicolas Winding Refn and screenplay writer Hoseein Amini take James Sallis’ book of the same name and create something much more intriguing, much more mysterious. “Drive” is a haunting, violent, noir film that delivers beyond all expectations.
“The Tree of Life” – Quite frankly, Director Terrence Malick is a visionary filmmaker and “The Tree of Life” is the most ambitious achievement of his illustrious career. The film spans the breadth of the full life-cycle spectrum–creation, birth, life, death and the afterlife. He does this through a combination of both spectacular images of creation of life on earth (from primordial ooze to the age of the dinosaurs) along with a slice of 1950s Americana featuring a down-trodden family of five living through tough times in Waco, Texas. The depiction of life for this family in the 1950s is just as powerful as the incredible cinematography (by Emmanuel Lubezki) of the creation sequence. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are the 1950s parents — both giving career-defining and highly believable performances. The eldest of their three sons, played by newcomer Hunter McCracken, is also depicted in the film by actor Sean Penn who plays his current day self as he battles through life and eventually, the afterlife. A wondrous film to watch.
“Midnight in Paris” – One of the most satisfying Woody Allen movies in years, “Midnight in Paris” has Owen Wilson channeling his inner Allen as Gil, a successful Hollywood screenwriter (but struggling with his first novel) who takes a trip to Paris with his overbearing and much less romantically inclined fiancée and her rich, conservative parents. Gil falls in love with the City of Light, but it is when he is transported back in time and meets the spirits of 1920s literary and artistic figures such as Gertrude Stein, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Pablo Picasso, leaving his present day life behind, that he begins to find meaning in his work and questions his feelings for his fiancée. Allen deftly plays with two eras; and Gil’s desire to live in Paris (and the past) leads to some important revelations about his life.
“Melancholia” – Lars von Trier’s meditation on sadness works on every single level: as a sci-fi, end-of-the-world yarn, as a stark exploration of emotional imprisonment, as a work of art and a relatable character piece. Every actor in “Melancholia” is at the top of their game, as is the director, who has given the audience his most accessible film yet. If any filmmaker alive is holding aloft the banner for Stanley Kubrick, it is von Trier. All cinema lovers should mark their calendars for his next offering.
“The Artist” – Beyond a period piece, beyond an homage to “the good old days” of the silent film era, “The Artist,” from Michel Hazanavicius, is an astonishing blend of golden age Hollywood sentiment and modern technology against the backdrop of love, a fear of “progress,” and the power that images and sound have held over us since the dawn of the cinematic era. Silent era star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), accompanied by his canine sidekick, feels that he is up against the clock when he is told that sound in motion pictures will soon be all the rage. As his career and life spiral downwards, it was the chance meeting with fan Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) years before that may offer the chance for both personal and professional redemption. While the modern movie audience has become overly accustomed to shaky cameras, ear splitting soundtracks and dump truck editing, “The Artist” proves that a black and white, mostly silent (apart from the appropriate silent film soundtrack) movie can still be powerful in the 21st century.
“Hugo” – Of all the nostalgic odes to cinema that were released this year, Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” was easily my favorite because it is so much more than just that. It is also a moving film about second chances and broken people trying to fix one another. “Hugo” is truly magical filmmaking from one of our finest directors working with his talented collaborators all maximizing their abilities.
“50/50” – It is hard to make a movie about cancer and do it right. With the exception of “Terms of Endearment,” most films dealing with this subject matter are either too schmaltzy or just plain insincere in their depiction of this tragic disease. “50/50” does get it just right. When Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds out he has a rare–and most likely inoperable, form of cancer–he is forced to deal with his own mortality at the young age of 28. His support network includes his stoner buddy (Seth Rogen, typecast) somewhat frigid girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard in another hateful character role), and an overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston). Where other filmmakers might have turned all of these characters into stereotypes, “50/50” director Jonathan Levine (with a script from Will Reiser, based on his own experiences) doesn’t. All of the performances are deeply layered and the drama is mixed with enough light moments to keep the film from being a total downer. You will leave this film feeling good and that is a compliment to the actors who make it real.