I thought this would be a nice reprieve (for me, at least) from the absolute clusterfuck of the Oscar nominations. Let’s all agree to talk/read/think about the best movies of the year, shall we? Instead of the “best movies of the year,” oh man.
Disclaimer: The following falls somewhere between a “best of the year” list and “my favorite films of the year” list. It’s impossible to entirely disassociate the two. I have also not actually seen every notable movie that was released this year (yet); ineligible for this list, then, were: Midnight in Paris, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Young Adult, Take Shelter, Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Patrol, every single biopic, most of the foreign films and documentaries that got a US release, Albert Nobbs, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and The Ides of March.
Runners-Up: Bridesmaids, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Margaret, Melancholia, The Tree of Life.
Special Citation: Into the Abyss, dir. Werner Herzog
I only saw this movie last week; it was the only documentary I saw this year, and I couldn’t decide whether it would be appropriate to include it in a list otherwise comprised entirely of fiction films. I’m placing it outside of the competition, as it were, but if I had decided to include it with the others it would have been in the top five. It is extraordinary. Herzog picks one needlessly, pointlessly violent crime that resulted in the deaths of several innocents and breaks every part of the story apart. We get the perspectives not only of the victims’ families but also those of the perpetrators, their family members, and finally of men who are or were involved in the carrying out of capital punishment. Without attempting to excuse or even mediate the horror of the murders for which the two guilty men have been convicted, Herzog makes a compelling case for the inherent inhumanity of the death penalty. There is seemingly no rhyme or reason tot he fact that one of the convicts will live out his life in prison while the other will be executed. The fact that we still feel entitled as a society to carry out these executions is sickening, but Herzog does not pontificate. He simply lets the testimony of the men and women he interviews speak for itself.
#10. A Dangerous Method, dir. David Cronenberg
This is probably the most obvious example of prioritizing a “favorite” film over one that could more reasonably be considered “best,” but it’s my list and I can do what I want with it. This is a flawed film, to be sure: its protagonist - Michael Fassbender’s Carl Jung - is emotionally oblique and very difficult to care about, and the script really falls apart in its last act. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t enjoy myself at this movie considerably more than at most other movies I watched this year. Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, and Vincent Cassel almost make up for Fassbender’s disappointing central performance (a fault of the script more than the actor, I would argue), and Cronenberg’s direction is consistently engaging and aesthetically pleasing without ever becoming ostentatious. Then there’s the simple fact that the subject matter is just so damn interesting. Yes, the three principles spend most of their screentime having long conversations with each other, but they are all so intelligent and interesting (even, in his better moments, Jung) that it’s hard to care. I think of this movie much more fondly - and more often - than most of the year’s other releases, which is enough to warrant a spot on this list, as far as I’m concerned. (I would also encourage anybody interested in this movie to read the biography on which it is based, John Kerr’s superb A Most Dangerous Method.)
#9. 50/50, dir. Jonathan Levine
A large part of this movie’s incredibly winsome appeal is that it is both modest and deeply self-assured. It is not an artistic game-changer, no, and I was not outraged when it was unsurprisingly left off of many critics’ top ten lists. But it succeeds at what it sets out to do spectacularly well: it realistically and movingly depicts a young man’s struggle with cancer in a way that is appropriately serious when the situation calls for it and wildly funny at times when most people would be laughing. Life is rarely all one thing or the other, no matter how unfortunate the circumstances, and the balance between comedy and drama in 50/50 never feels strained but simply like the pace of life. Although the screenplay does a great disservice to Bryce Dallas Howard’s bitchy girlfriend who leaves Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the lurch, its sensitive rendering of Seth Rogen’s not-especially-sensitive best friend, Anjelica Huston’s worrying mother, and most of all Gordon-Levitt’s terrified protagonist are worthy of accolades. The acting is similarly accomplished, from Gordon-Levitt in particular. Though he never misses a comedic beat, it is several of the film’s most dramatic moments that come late in the movie that are its peak and that stick with the viewer long after the credits have rolled.
Previously: Cinematic PSA: GO SEE 50/50 THIS WEEKEND
#8. Martha Marcy May Marlene, dir. Sean Durkin
I was easily more terrified, and more disoriented, while watching Martha Marcy May Marlene than I was during any other film released this year. This is appropriate: Martha herself (or is it Marcy May?) spends much of the film in varying states of terror and disorientation. Having recently run away from a cult in upstate New York, she is profoundly ill-equipped to deal with the reality of typical American society once more, and becomes convinced that members of the cult are looking for her. Whether or not this is true is left entirely up to the audience. The film cycles hazily, deliriously back and forth in time, in and out of Martha’s perception of things, to the point where the question of what’s real and what’s fake is not only impossible to answer but almost irrelevant. Elizabeth Olsen is astounding as the fractured, unsettlingly empty title character, as are John Hawkes as the cult leader and Sarah Paulson as Martha’s straight-laced sister who doesn’t know what to do with her upon her return from the wild. It’s an unsettling little film in which much remains unspoken, and which you can’t quite get out from under your skin. You’ll be fine, it seems to say - just don’t look behind you.
#7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, dir. Tomas Alfredson
This is probably the closest thing to a guilty pleasure on this list. With the exception of one very memorable scene that comes courtesy of Benedict Cumberbatch, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is unlikely to inspire any kind of sentimental feeling in its audience. It is ruthlessly cerebral even in its depictions of marriages, of love affairs, of old friendships. There is, of course, a kind of brutal logic to this: in the business of intelligence, where so much must remain unspoken, except to the right people - and who, exactly, are those people? - feelings get in the way. We see repeatedly that the characters who do allow themselves to become emotionally compromised damage either themselves or the people they care for by virtue of their affection. Gary Oldman’s George Smiley is the perfect spy, then, because he appears to feel nothing at all. He, like the rest of them, is not a particularly good person. He is, however, a man who has been given a task, and so that task is what he sets out to do. Oldman is predictably marvelous in the role, so despite Smiley’s coolness and subdued demeanor he is never, never boring to watch.
Despite the reasoning behind the unflinchingly cold tone of the movie, had it delved a little deeper occasionally it probably would have been a better film. That said, it’s the highest-caliber entertainment for the intellectual set, and the movie does have a beating heart, if one that is firmly locked away, in the form of Cumberbatch’s Peter Guillam, who is perhaps the only character who qualifies as good. He’s not much, but he’s something, and frankly part of the fun of the film is that it doesn’t require you to feel much - just to think. It’s also worth mentioning that, in spite of the film’s coldness, there is nevertheless a kind of sensual pleasure to be gotten from its extraordinary visual rendering of the deadened England of the 1970s. From the outstanding (and, alas, Oscar-snubbed) production design to the unflattering costumes and haircuts, to the exact photography capturing them all, it’s a visual triumph.
#6. The Artist, dir. Michel Hazanavicius
It is a testament to the year in film that this gem is only sixth on my list. I had the privilege and pleasure of seeing it at a screening at the MoMA with both Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin present, and I can say honestly that I literally do not remember the last time I was a part of an audience that was so universally delighted by what was happening on the screen in front of us. The Artist has its moments of deep pathos but it is first and foremost a joy to watch. Everything about it - from its lowest moments to its most euphoric peaks - is infectious. Hazanavicius’ engagement with film history and the silent form are consistently clever and engaging, but most of all this is just a very good idea executed very, very well. It really doesn’t miss a beat. Aside from being a technical marvel, it boasts two superb performances: Dujardin is an absolute force as silent film star George Valentin and Bérenice Béjo, playing up-and-comer Peppy Miller, is right there with him at every turn. Then, of course, there is the irrepressible Uggie, whose presence on the red carpet has been cause for both delight and disdain all season. (I, personally, fall into the former camp.) Although I tend to favor bleaker pieces, there is certainly something to be said for a feel-good film that really does make you feel good. And oh, how that dancing number at the end seals the deal.
#5. Jane Eyre, dir. Cary Fukunaga
No matter how impartial one tries to be, at a certain point personal taste will out. That is certainly how I feel about the most recent adaptation of Jane Eyre, which is: a) based on a book I love, b) set in a locale I love and during an era I find fascinating, c) featuring a fantastic performance from a man who is quite possibly my favorite actor working today, and d) featuring a equally fantastic leading actress in the kind of unconventional female performance for which I have a definite soft spot. Add to that a superb screenplay and beautiful cinematography, the two elements of a film after great acting that are most likely to get me really excited, and you wind up with an extremely predictable situation: of course I was going to love this movie. It really could not have gone wrong, and, indeed, it did not. But even going beyond personal taste, this is a great film. Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender really are superb, and Fukunaga makes such good, productive use of every frame that the movie becomes imbued with a sense of purpose and vision that is truly remarkable.
Previously: FYC: JANE EYRE, in all categories
#4. A Separation, dir. Asghar Farhadi
This movie is only barely available to be seen in the U.S., but when it does make its eventual path to a DVD release and availability on Netflix, you really have no excuse to deny yourself the privilege of watching it. I wouldn’t call it a pleasure, exactly - if I was freaked out watching Martha Marcy, I just felt kind of ill during much of this film, and I mean that in a good way. I don’t want to say much about the plot, because I went in almost entirely blind and really believe it was the best way to see it. Suffice to say that every single character in this extraordinarily well-written movie is far more complicated than we might imagine from the outset, that every situation those characters find themselves in is more complicated than we and they might initially believe, and that by the end the question of morality has become so realistically, understandably corrupted that we can neither condemn nor endorse any character in the film with, again, one possible exception. You might get angry at characters who do what we want to label the “wrong” thing, but there’s really no way of knowing that you wouldn’t do exactly the same thing. Underlying the small-scale interpersonal conflicts is a profoundly worrying statement about the socio-political state of Iran today. I am no expert on Iran - I know, frankly, very little about daily life or the broader political situation there - but you need not know much to be able to see how the religious, class, and gender divisions and inequalities work poisonously on all of the characters. Farhadi doesn’t make a big point of any of these issues, but it’s not by chance that both of the children in the film are bright, promising girls. It’s not pleasant to imagine what the future might hold for them.
#3. Weekend, dir. Andrew Haigh
Oh, Weekend. Once again, matters of taste intrude here: is this a better film than A Separation? Jane Eyre? The Artist? I don’t know, and frankly don’t care. I loved everything about it. It made me laugh, it made me cry, I still think about it, I’m dying to watch it again. This is what art is supposed to do to us. I’m not going to write too much about this one because I’ve already said most of what I have to about it, but on some level it really does come to how much a film can reach out, grab your heart, and refuse to let go. This is precisely the reason why films like War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close get nominated for Oscars, but where they trade in overly simplistic schlock, Weekend is the real deal. It refuses to make anything simple, but that’s precisely why it’s so moving. It presents the kind of sentiment we’re likely to actually encounter in real life.
Previously: 2011 in Film: FYC: WEEKEND, in all categories
#2. Drive, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
Drive was, without any question (and that includes the fierce competition of The Artist), the most fun I have at the movies this year. Its pleasures are visceral, violent, base, and also, simultaneously, highly aestheticized. Refn presents you with the most brutal kind of violence, allows you to revel in it in an almost craven way, and then pulls back a little and forces you to ask yourself why, exactly, you are enjoying yourself with quite so much fervor. Ryan Gosling’s Driver is in much the same position - as a friend of mine recently, perceptively, pointed out, he gets much more into it than he really needs to before realizing what he’s doing, or what he’s done. It’s the operatic quality to the violence that makes the story, ultimately, work: though on some level it’s a simple man-saves-damsel-in-distress story (a narrative of which I am generally not a fan), the lengths to which the Driver goes to save his princess (in the form of Carey Mulligan) are not strictly necessary. Did he have to bash that guy’s skull in with quite so much intensity? No. Was that a horrifying thing to watch? Yes. Did I enjoy it? Yeah, okay, maybe a little.
In order to pull this off, the movie had to be a stylistic marvel, and it is: from the production design to the lighting to the sound design to the cinematography and frankly brilliant use of music, it hits every technical high and then some. Although the story is simple it never feels lacking. Credit must go, also, to Gosling, who manages to imbue an essentially two-dimensional character with hints of a deeply damaged psychology. He is broken: on some fundamental level he does not understand how people work or how society works, and by extension how he works or how he is supposed to function in society. But the film doesn’t let you get too bogged down in that, either, nor does it make you feel guilty about your enjoyment of its sadistic pleasures. Refn, really, just wants you to admit that you find head-smashing and the like fun. And, you know, I do. So sue me.
#1. Shame, dir. Steve McQueen
Both Drive and Shame are portraits of deeply damaged men; if Drive is all about the audience guiltlessly embracing the ramifications of that damage, then Shame is its polar opposite. There is no pleasure at all to be found in Shame. Michael Fassbender’s Brandon is just about the highest-functioning totally non-functional person you’re likely to see on screen: despite his cushy job, good looks, and swank (if cold) apartment, he is miserable on a level that challenges even the (literally) world-ending depression of Melancholia's Justine (played so well by Kirsten Dunst). His compulsive addiction to sex mediates every element of his life; it is something he literally cannot escape, no matter where he goes, what he does, or with whom he interacts. He is as much living in a prison as a jailed convict.
Much has been said about McQueen’s refusal to give us information about Brandon and his sister Sissy’s background (Sissy, played brilliantly by Carey Mulligan, is just as damaged as Brandon, albeit in markedly different ways), but it’s precisely this choice that gives Shame so much of its power. For one thing, there cannot be one simple explanation to Brandon’s problem: his condition is far too complex for any potential facile solution. But going beyond that is the fact that we shouldn’t need to know why the character is this way to find him sympathetic. McQueen is not asking you to like Brandon. He is impossible to like: there is not enough of him to put together into any kind of coherent personality, but that is not a fault of the movie’s - it is its very point. Brandon’s addiction has supplanted his personality, and because he hates his addiction, he therefore hates himself. The audience is not supposed to like Brandon: it is supposed to feel for him. He is systematically destroying his life, and contributing to his sister’s similar quest to destroy hers, and he knows it, and he cannot stop. This narrative strategy could have failed in the hands of a lesser actor, but fortunately Fassbender’s performance as Brandon is easily the best of any actor this year, to my mind at least. I would venture to call it, in fact, the best performance in a new movie I have seen since Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. There are really no adequate words to describe what he does with this role. I am not sure that those words exist.
I saw Shame twice, first at the New York Film Festival and then at a special screening at MoMA. I was preoccupied by it for days after seeing it the first time. I was profoundly sad about it in a way that I did not feel about any other movie that came out this year. So many movies I saw this year moved me and/or were memorable in some way. It has, truly, been a fantastic year for cinema. But this was the one that literally stopped my life for a few days, and it is the movie I have thought about the most since. I feel humbled to have been able to see it at all.