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.