Oh - one more thing. As opposed to most of the lists you'll be seeing I don't waste time trying to figure out which year the film came out. If I saw it in something that looked like a theater in 2011 then it's eligible for my list. In practice it means a lot of things may not have hit theaters yet - and may never in the US. Oh, and in case you wonder when you not its absence, I have seen Attack the Block. Actually I've seen Attack the Block twice, because after the first time at SXSW I thought maybe I'd missed something huge given the incredible things I heard about it. I think it's a perfectly fine movie - but like The Artist I just didn't fall as in love. Though that's totally not fair - compared to The Artist I did fall head over heals for Attack the Block. At least the former is definitely worth seeing. The other one, err - was sort of boring if you ask me, sorry...
Alright, alright - enough stalling - here we go. These are in alphabetical order. I am not ranking them against each other. I've seen most of the big Oscar contenders you'll see in other lists. They're mostly fine films - these are just the ones I personally enjoyed the most. Doesn't hurt to be different, except in some very specific cases, of which I don't believe this is one.
Without further delay, my favorites of 2011. As
- Boy and His Samurai (Japan) - Cramming in genre elements of time travel, samurai lore, and offbeat romantic comedy this one's got something for everyone. The story revolves around single mom Yusa, a modern woman in Tokyo who struggles in her job due to also having to care for her son Tomoya (the boy of the title). Good at her job Yusa can't help but be frustrated when her commitment to it is questioned in the office by the men without child care responsibilities who can stay later. One day she runs into a fellow dressed in traditional samurai garb (haircut included) and carrying a large sword. Kajima is clearly lost, afraid of ringing telephones and speaks in a bizarrely formal manner. Long story short he was praying to a Buddha statue and got sucked forward in time. Could happen to anyone. Really enjoyed this and am rapidly becoming a fan of the director, Yoshihiro Nakamura. His first film Fish Story about the Japanese punk rock song which saves the world is also kicking. I haven't seen his middle picture Golden Slumber but as soon as it's available I'm going to check it out.
- Drive (USA) - Turns out I don't always get around to writing something about a film even if I'm quite taken with it. That's the case with Drive, a slow burner of a picture that far too few people saw. Ryan Gosling plays "the Driver" a man who can do what you need with a car, whether it's an on-set movie stunt or a well choreographed getaway as a wheelman for hire. When he's taken with neighbor Carey Mulligan his emerging humanity gets him into a mess that's hard to get out of. With a measured style, a properly pulsing soundtrack and visual style to spare this slow thriller really delivers. It's not an action movie, and it's not intended to be - bits of violent violent violence notwithstanding. It's a real movie experience that deserves to be seen on a big screen. After you've seen it you can also enjoy the ridiculous controversy around a woman who sued because the trailer didn't depict the film accurately and her lawyer who claims the film is anti-semetic.
- Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (Brazil) - One of my top films from Fantastic Fest 2011 and Brazil's submission this year for the Foreign Language Oscar category. I really dug this one. Smart, intense and a view of Brazil only hinted at in Fast Five. I liked the earlier Elite Squad too - but maybe this one more. The action/thriller aspect of it was top notch. And the real world political underpinnings of it were fascinating. Not to mention scary as heck. I heard folks after comparing it to The Wire. The two do feel very different to me (outside of corruption) but I think the quality and realism made the same connection for me at some stages of the film. Do ... not ... miss ... it!
- Headhunters (Norway) - This story of a corporate headhunter with height based self esteem issues and a side gig as a high end art thief ... rocked. It looks great and takes a turn from caper to revenge picture without missing a beat. The lead actor does a terrific transition through some key milestones making it a pleasure to watch from start to end. Keep an eye out for it and pray you can get to it before Summit who just bought the English language rights does heaven knows what to the film. Maybe adding teen vampires and Eddie Murphy for all I know.
- Midnight in Paris (USA) - sometimes when your parents call you and say you really need a see a film they couldn't be more right. Woody Allen hits one out of the park, perhaps the easy way - showing Paris every chance he gets. This time traveling romantic comedy in which Owen Wilson gets sucked back each night into 1920's Paris does the unthinkable. It makes me not want to punch Owen Wilson in the nose. At least not the entire run of the film. It's really a beautiful work whose romance subject is more a city, and artistic inspiration than an actual person. There are at least two other films this awards season that are fine, but in my view are getting over the top accolades because they appeal so strongly to reviewers love of the movies (The Artist and Hugo). Maybe Midnight in Paris is getting a pass from me because I think the city it's named after is one of the most gorgeous things going. But I think it's mainly because this is a great film. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Again, forced to mention Hugo is way better than The Artist in my estimation.
- Pariah (USA) - a 17 year old high school senior in Brooklyn is a lesbian. It's an open secret except within her household. This coming of age story deals with how the family deals with it and how the main character grows. It's a familiar sounding story, even if it's less often told within a mainly African-American community. But the filmmakers and extremely talented actors involve make every moment feel fresh, and undeniably real. For what I expect was a low budget production the look is great - every visual choice seems to pay off. Right down to what appears to be handholding during static shots that introduces a gentle feel of motion that's adds a subtle dynamism throughout. Also noteworthy is how they came from an angle that she knows she's a lesbian, but as a young woman struggles with the confidence for her first sexual encounters. It's hard to overstate how well put together the actors are here. I really, really liked this film.
- Por El Camino (Brazil) - Was one of my top picks of SIFF 2011. An uber-watchable road movie that meanders through absolutely breathtaking parts of Uruguay. The most dangerous thing about the film is that you're going to want to book a ticket as soon as the credits role. Like many road movies it also involves a guy and a girl. Santiago is a former investment banker who is in the process of making changes in his life and en route to check out some property left to him after his parent's death. Juliette is on her way to pickup a romance that started in Costa Rica. In addition to presenting one of the least douchey investment bankers in the history of cinema the film takes us along on a relaxed and romantic trip. The chemistry between the pair is great, the other characters are interesting, and there's always something interesting to watch. Even the music doesn't suck. It's a very enjoyable way to spend 84 minutes is what I think I'm trying to say.
- Rabies (Israel) - One heck of a darkly funny folks stuck in the woods and bad shit happens story. Ostensibly the first Israeli slasher film made. If true they've caught up in a BIG way. Works as a well plotted, beautifully shot, clever and slightly subversive take on the genre. Then there are the preternaturally gorgeous female members of the cast. And for the trifecta Rabies provides an opportunity to
arguediscuss post-viewing whether there's a socio-political subtext to the whole affair. The fact that I don't even like slasher films should make folks sit up and take notice. Seriously - if I could I'd stop writing this post right now and watch it again. For reals.
- Sound of My Voice (USA) - Peter and Lorna are a couple whose work on a documentary about cults has them seeking to infiltrate one. Specifically one worshipful of the eerily compelling Maggie (Brit Marling). They earn enough trust to be brought to meet Maggie in an undisclosed basement location. She never leaves this basement where cult members grow her food, donate blood to her and listen to her lessons about the upcoming crisis about to beset the earth. I'd strongly suggest not reading anything else about this film and just making sure you see it first opportunity. If I haven't sold you already then let me add that it features both the creepiest use of patty-cakes in a motion picture and the best use of a Cranberries song ever. 'nuff said.
- Viva Riva! (Democratic Republic of Congo) - A dark film, full of not very nice characters in film that blends exploitation film elements with class noir. Making a very watchable film - as long as you're not looking for a picture about nice people. Riva is a player, both in business and love. Back home with a large cache of fuel - a commodity that is in short supply in the capital he's poised to make a financial killing. Chased by the people he appropriated the gasoline from, the gangster whose woman he's seeking to bed and some others for good measure. No one is innocent and it's not looking as though anyone is getting out alive. I may be a cynical bastard of the highest order - but Viva Riva! was a fine piece of entertainment.
- Young Adult (USA) - Charlize Theron is absolutely fearless in her portrayal of Mavis Gary a woman described partway through film as a "psychotic ex-prom-queen bitch." Like everyone else she's gotten older since high school, but she hasn't fully grown up. Making her living writing young adult books about teenage dufus royalty she's numb to the world. When a birth announcement from her high-school boyfriend Buddy arrives out of the blue it serves as a kick in the head. Rather that taking stock and becoming a better person she decides to take action - heading back to small-town Minnesota to get Buddy back. It's a break from reality, except it's not altogether clear that Mavis has ever functioned fully within the confines of reality. A tightly crafted black comedy from the pen of Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman it's a very interesting experience. You won't like Mavis or necessarily any of the "friends" she re-acquaints herself with. But I'd be surprised if you want to look away either. OK, I liked Mavis just a bit at times. Sue me.
- Another Earth (USA) - One of those fine films that uses a science-fiction premise to tell a story mainly about the human experience. How would we feel if we learned there was a second life-sustaining planet in our universe? What if it was in our own solar system, rotating just out of sight, always blocked from our view by the sun? Well, of course like the people in the film we'd probably name it Earth 2 in a show of extreme geo-centrism. But if and when that day comes be sure to pull over while driving before staring at the new planet (suddenly visible due to a gravitational shift) in the night sky. Because if you don't you may cause a catastrophic accident that results in the death of someone's wife and child. Brit Marling plays a student who on the eve of her college career makes that mistake, killing a man's family. Years later she goes to apologize and ends up more deeply involved than intended. In the backdrop of this looms slowly revealed "reality" of Earth 2, which at least for a while has been a literal mirror image of our own. What opportunities does it pose for those who have lost, for those who want to speak with another version of themselves? Big issues such as these are explored implicitly in what other than the fantastical device is truly a small, very personal story. An extremely well executed one. If you can catch a double feature of this and Womb I think you'd be investing time on some of the best low budget dramas with sci-fi themes in a while.
- Bull Head (Belgium) - isn't an entirely easy film to describe. Set amongst farming communities of Belgium it's a character study of bovine related criminal activity, testosterone fueled violence, and a family tragedy buried for years. When a young boy suffers horrific violence at the hands of a son of a local organized crime figure there's not much to be done for him. With his sense of manhood deeply (and quite literally) crushed his overcompensation and emotional betrayal is palpable onscreen. He's a brute of a man, mostly quiet, but one senses with a tremendous and powerful rage simmering just below the surface. In an agricultural world awash with illegal drug use (mostly on the cows) there's a lot that can go wrong. And this dark character study takes us through it. It's not a fun watch, but it's a fascinating one - well organized and viewable on several levels. Though all of them are likely to keep you sticking to certified organic milk. Absolutely dynamite performance from both the adult lead actor and the boy who plays the same character as a child.
- Cave of Forgotten Dreams - Werner Herzog takes viewers deep into the Chauvet caves which house the oldest known drawings in the world. Located in Southern France and unavailable previously to all but scientists with a need to be there Herzog captures some amazing footage. To which he adds his signature narration style. Probably the only movie I've ever seen that truly needs to have been made in 3D. The drawings are on a cave wall and the pictorials use the natural dimensions of the surfaces to tell their stories - shot in 2D they'd be fascinating but missing something. The film is beautiful to look at, though clearly a Herzog piece. He even manages to find a way to stick in albino alligators at the end. ;-)
- Confessions (Japan) - beautiful, dark and suspenseful - and crazy as all heck. I wrote a bunch about it while trying to avoid all the plot points I could. Just see it when you get a chance if horror/suspense with teens in serious jeopardy doesn't turn you off too much.
- Dog Sweat (Iran) - With a feel that reminded me of No One Knows About Persian Cats this film from Iran really worked for me. Following a loosely interwoven set of young people just trying to do what young people do. Make music, date, love the gender of their choice, smooch, drink and play with their friend's dog. None of which is really on the agenda for good kids in Iran. No artistic, interpret it yourself, lone child wandering through a village without shoes Iranian filmmaking here. With the look of a US indy shot in Tehran it's easy to like the characters and feel their pain as they chafe against societal restrictions. Hard to see how that's going to hold up there long term - but in the meantime the filmmaker took a lot of risks to make this strong film. The opening scene showing three male friends joke around and argue about the different categories of Johnnie Walker was just great.
- Even the Rain (Spain) - A group of Spanish filmmakers produce an updated Christopher Columbus tale intended to be sensitive to imperialistic exploitation of less fortunate peoples. So of course they travel to Bolivia to get the best bargain they can on local labor. Which they do coincidentally during the water crisis there where the government sells off the right to all water (even the rain) to private concerns who plan to charge more than the poor can pay. That based on actual events twist takes things up a notch. But also makes for an official festival description that I thought could signal a horrible film. Either too earnest, too trivial - a lot of ways for it to go wrong. Instead we get a finely calibrated piece that works as a movie about filmmaking, relationships, and the exploitation issues of water and labor - threading the needle along the "just right" path.
- Le Havre (Finland) - sometimes a minimalist film feels like it needs more. But when done right it has just enough and not a drop more. Le Havre is solidly in the latter category. The main character Marcel Max shines shoes for small amounts of dough which he brings back each night to his wife Arletty. It's clear things haven't always been this good (and it ain't great) for him - but thanks to his wife they manage on the edges of society, in a neighborhood where as Arletty bluntly puts it, miracles don't happen. Into his life stumble an illegal immigrant boy who's just trying to reach his mother in London. Marcel is drawn in, Arletty deals with her issues - and it's just an engrossing and sweet ride.
- Littlerock (USA) - brother and sister from Japan are traveling across California when their car breaks down. Stranded for a couple of days they begin to hang out with some of the small town's locals. He speaks some English, she none. The reasons for their trip aren't immediately clear though we learn their father was opposed to it for reasons that only surface in the last act. While waiting for a new rental car siblings explore the alien landscape. Both seem to find something positive, though more so the sister who is rather rapidly won over by the town. In part through the other kid's willingness to show them around - and it seems in no small measure due to a physical attraction to one of the boys. Their guides have their own issues to deal with, and it's easy to spend a lot of your viewing time what's going on below the surface. This deeper level may or may not be entirely clear to the visitors due to the language and cultural gap. It's hard to say if everyone will have the same reaction, but I just fell in love with the feel of the film early on. The multi-angled sets of perceptions whirling around and the refusal of the film to tell you how to interpret them results in a fascinating universe. All within a dusty little town. I there's a sense of tension throughout - though the film is laced with enough fish out of water humor to keep things mostly light. It's a voyage of discovery for the characters, and I for one was glad to come along for the ride. I'd highly recommend keeping an eye out for an opportunity to catch this one.
- Moneyball (USA) - I'm a big fan of the books of Michael Lewis from Liar's Poker to The Big Short. In part because he's able to induce fascination in topics I generally couldn't care less about. Moneyball, his book ostensibly about baseball was one I couldn't put down. Which is really saying something as I'm probably one of the only people who (on the rare occasions I've been dragged there) has brought a book. You know - so I would have something interesting to do during the game. It's in part due to the talents of Mr. Lewis that I so much liked Moneyball - but it probably didn't hurt that it's only tangentially (in my view) about baseball and more about what can happen when quantitative thinking runs smack into truthiness. Even if you're not as
personally obsessed withnerdy about that sort of thing as I, who doesn't like to watch the little guy get the edge on the big fat cats? And that's one of the several aspects of the non-fiction book by Lewis that transfers effectively to the big screen. Oh, and director Bennet Miller actually makes a visually rich piece out of what could easily have been a strictly dialog based endeavor. So yeah - I think this is one worth seeing.
- Poetry (South Korea) - I really cannot dispute the description on IMDB for Poetry. As described, the plot is indeed about "a sixty-something woman, faced with the discovery of a heinous family crime and in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, finds strength and purpose when she enrolls in a poetry class." In fact, that description doesn't really do justice to all the crappy things going on in the main character Mija's (Jeong-hie Yun) life. But something about her quiet strength and search for beauty in simple things makes the serious drama taking place more than palatable. There's a lot of elements at work making it a feast for those who love dissecting the themes of a film. One of which to my eyes was a rather scathing indictment of some goings on in Korean society. Most importantly it's a film that shows you what is going on and rarely if ever tells the viewer something directly. All the while without having the actors so much as look directly at the camera for more than brief periods giving the viewer a fly on the wall experience that felt well matched to the material. Overall it's the sort of great achievement by writer/director Chang-dong Lee that makes one want to go back and watch everything he's made.
- Poupoupidou (Nobody Else But You) (France) - Well, I'm getting a bit lazy. So I'm going to just quote my friend Amie who recently added this picture to her best of 2011 list. "This movie sounds like it would suck: a local cheese queen who bears an uncanny resemblance to Marilyn Monroe is murdered, and a writer investigates her story after falling in love with her - post-mortem. But this one still sticks to me - I can't stop thinking about how clever it was. Just a really solid little mystery." - I concur!
- Rise of Planet of the Apes (USA) - never would I have thought the onscreen depiction of the end of our species be as entertaining to behold. Even James Franco couldn't make me get too cynical about this one. Knowing that all the apes were computer generated just makes it all the more interesting to behold (because I really would not have guessed that during the film).
- The Sandman (Switzerland) - Bright, beautiful, romantic, and incredible bizarre The Sandman is a must see film. Benno is an ultra-uptight neat freak who works in a stamp shop. When he's not ripping off the gullible he obsesses about his weight each morning, provides brutally critical feedback to friends about their life's work and gives untold grief to a young woman who works in the coffee shop below his apartment. All in all a real mensch - or perhaps not. Then out of nowhere he develops and unusual affliction. He begins to leak sand. And nor just regular sand but magical instantaneous sleep inducing sand. Which similar to normal sand tastes horrible in pasta. This explosion of essentially dirt doesn't really fit in with his other lifestyle choices. Especially when it causes his hot girlfriend to think he's bedding the coffee shop girl (it makes perfect sense in context). Even his earnest protest that it can't be true that he's hooking up with the presumably frumpier woman because "looks are important to me" fails to mollify her. Oh, almost forgot. In the meantime he's also beginning to share a recurring dream with the waitress he professes to hate. This is a strange film - in a very colorful visual way that reminds me of a Michel Gondry creation, though more fun for me than his recent work. If you're not sold by now there's nothing I'm going to be able to help you with...
- Somewhere (USA) - Sofia Coppola has made some beautiful and complex films. With Somewhere she makes a film in which nothing much happens, the camera is fixed in position and the main cast is one man. Yet somehow it caught me from the opening scene. It starts with that man driving literally in circles for minutes at a time yet kept me intrigued and engaged. Maybe there's some kind of evil hypnotism at work. But if there is I wish Coppola would teach more filmmakers the secret. I know this technically opened most places in 2010 - at least in "official critic circles." But I saw it this year - so I'm putting it on ones of my lists. It's my blog and I'll make up the rules if I want to.
- Womb (Germany) - is really well done, a solid execution of marvelously fucked up premise. Girl meets a boy by the shore - they hang out and grow close until the girl has to move away with her Mom to Tokyo. Years later she comes back and the soulmates pickup - this time with a physical relationship. Then he dies. So she clones him - giving birth to her former lover herself. Yep, as you would imagine everything goes totally fine. No, not exactly... Set in the near future where this sort of thing goes on, with dramatic seaside backdrops and limited dialog this film pulled me into its world. Most positive additional thing I can think to add is that this is a model of showing vs. telling - no musical cues, no big exposition. The film just ensures you know what's going on when you need to without smashing your face into things.