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Best of Year Pt 2: Sweet 16 from Primordial Ooze to YA Novels

Part One: I Am Thirty Two Flavors 
Other pictures from 2011 that The Film Experience's year wouldn't have been complete without.

Part Two: Honorable Mentions
The year's best movies stretched all the way from the creation to the apocalypse and everywhen in between; time hardly seemed linear in 2011 but immeasurably flexible instead. The year's best films also twisted and shape-shifted in scale and meaning, wrapping big themes around human-sized packages.

THE TREE OF LIFE (Terrence Malick)
Fox Searchlight. May 27th. 
I really didn't know that our Burning Questions columnist Michael C felt so similarly about Terrence Malick's latest so two somewhat agnostic appreciations back-to-back were not intended here at The Film Experience. I greatly admire The Tree of Life's grandiose reach (the creation segment being my favorite chunk) and breathtaking physical beauty but often I felt like I was visiting an impenetrably random museum installation. Still... it's hard to shake the imagery and in a few key sequences -- children playing in poison clouds, brothers crying in tall grass, and especially in the different ways that Mrs O Brien (an ethereal Jessica Chastain) and Mr O'Brien (Brad Pitt's second great performance of the year... can we please give him an Oscar now, people?) touched and taught and looked at their children, the movie was fiercely moving.

Sony Pictures Classics. June 10th.
Let's not call it a comeback. Woody Allen has never gone away and his filmography runs the gamut between masterful and mediocre -- sometimes within the very same movie! What sets Midnight in Paris apart from the pack is a conceit so clever and insightful that it works both within the famed auteur's current limitations and as charming cover for them. It's okay that the present feels so tired and one note when hack screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson) feels exactly this way about the life he's leading. It's definitely okay that the nostalgic past feels shallow and cartoony since nostalgia is fantasy, a very specific escapist (rear) projection. Quibbling is easy -- it's no Purple Rose of Cairo (an Allen masterwork treading somewhat similar ground) -- but why quibble when Corey Stoll is so funny as Hemingway, Adrien Brody is so amusing as Dali "Rhi-no-ce-ros" and Marion Cotillard's muse complicates the movie so beautifully by rejecting its message entirely and exiting the picture with so little fuss.

IFC. January 21st. 
This erotic melodrama, a remake of a Korean classic (which I have yet to see), is either the year's most elegantly trashy soap opera or its most biting political metaphor for the carnivorous and consequence-free behavior of the super wealthy and the impotent dramatics of the working poor. Maybe both. Either way it's uncomfortably steamy, beautifully filmed, and superly acted (South Korea is where it's at for actresses these days. Period.) It's also unusually entertaining once the bad behavior and catfights begin. I watched it twice in one week when I first saw it and if my schedule weren't so tight, I'd do so again right now.

PARIAH (Dee Rees)
Focus Features. December 28th. 
Two important new voices emerged in queer cinema this year, writer/directors Dee Rees and Andrew Haigh (his Weekend up later in the countdown). Both filmmakers previously directed one documentary-style feature so they weren't in the discussions of "best debuts" but what debuts these narrative features were! Coming out stories are a staple of gay cinema but few of them have carved out as much emotional nuance from raw feeling. Pariah has so much feeling for its characters that it occassional gets distracted with tangential subplots but better too much genuine feeling than not enough of it or the poorly manufactured variety. This story of a shy closeted lesbian high school student (Adepere Oduye, just wonderful) in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood just aches with emotion and, best of all, future possibility. You find yourself wondering about Alike's journey after the movie ends. The best characters, gay or otherwise, live beyond the end credits [Best LGBT characters of 2011]

SHAME (Steve McQueen)
Fox Searchlight. December 2nd. 
Brandon only has room for one thing in his life. His apartment and office are as barren as his emotional life. Michael Fassbender enters the picture on a naked loop as he travels from bed to phone to bathroom, one day being any day and every day empty but for bodily functions and the pursuit of the next fix. It's the first of many smart decisions that Steve McQueen, one of the most exciting new cinematic voices to emerge in the past decade (see also: Hunger), makes in this visually spare but daringly operatic take on addiction. Shame isn't perfect -- for every "New York New York" segment -- a telepathic conversation? a sung monologue? --  there's another moment that's too on the nose. The best thing about Shame is McQueen's voyeuristic addiction to the contact high of great actors. His camera stalks them ceaselessly but wisely never gets in their way, freezing in place to watch them work their inimitable magic.

YOUNG ADULT (Jason Reitman)
Paramount. December 9th
The first painful chortle of recognition I experienced watching Young Adult was the ease at which YA writer Mavis Gary (a brilliant Charlize Theron) became distracted from her work. A sentence or two, tops, was all she could manage before she was on to more pressing things like e-mail, Diet Coke, pet care (of sorts), and other absent-minded rituals. Sigh. I know the feeling on all counts. It was the first chortle of many. Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, who previously made Juno together, make another compelling case for continued partnership here in this diamond sharp perfectly condensed comedy about prolongued adolescence, untreated mental illness, and terrible cultural values (note how Mavis isn't the only one who worships her skin-deep beauty or encourages her self delusions). 

P.S. It took me half an hour to write that paragraph and it's not even a good one! Thankfully I did not hatch any plan as spectacularly ill conceived as "return to hometown. steal ex-boyfriend away from wife and infant daughter" during the fitful pauses. 

and now... the top ten.

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    Best of Year Pt 2: Sweet 16 from Primordial Ooze to YA Novels - Blog - The Film Experience

Reader Comments (17)

Kind of a side-note question, I guess, but in your Young Adult paragraph you refer to "untreated mental illness." Do you think that describes Mavis? I saw her as alcoholic (she says so herself), and I suppose addiction is a sort of mental illness, but do you think something else is going on with that character? I'm just curious...

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertimothy

I thought that was a lovely paragraph about Young Adult. It was a movie with a host of small flaws, but despite them, Cody wrote an excrutiatingly identifiable character. Watching the film made me loathe all the ways I'm similar to Mavis—my own vices, narcissisms, hangups, etc. It's rare that I feel challenged to look at those through such a comedic and girly prism.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W

timothy -- well i think she clearly has manic depression and she's also kind of sociopathic all told. I think a great key to her character and one of my favorite scenes in the movie is her confusion about the posters used to teach kids about emotion. "what if you just feel... neutral?"

ugh. now i want to put the movie in my top ten list.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Yeah. That totally makes sense. It's a credit to the movie and the performance that such behavior came across to me as recognizable (not necessarily in myself, but ...) and sympathetic. And also, if she is all those things, she also comes across to me as redeemable, worth caring about. Damn. Now you make me want to put the movie in MY top ten :-)

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertimothy

Yes, Hayden and timothy! I always joke about how I can relate to Mavis because no one does except for me. One friend even feel schadenfreude whenever something bad happens to her. But I don't. I'm 100% there with her, especially at that one big scene.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

The Housemaid - what a bizarre movie. I saw it at Toronto in 2010. When (spoiler) the maid hung herself and burst into flames at the end, the camera froze in the projector and melted. All around arguments broke out over whether that was the actual end of the movie or a technical malfunction. Finally a festival volunteer came in and told us what had happened.

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Paolo: yeah, I was there with her too...not that I wanted her to break up the relationship, but there was something about the movie that allowed me to see things her way. I have been thinking about the line when the husband/boyfriend tells Mavis:"You're better than this." I was really struck by that. I mean, is she better than that, or is that exactly who she is? The way the movie allows for both possibilities is what made it compelling to me.

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertimothy

I LOVED Yoon Yeo-jeong in "The Housemaid" and I'm the BIGGEST fan of Jeon Do-yeon (have seen everything she ever did) but I was greatly disappointed by the film, especially Eun-yi & Hoon's characterizations. I like your point about "the impotent dramatics of the working poor" but don't think the script really showed any real insight and depth about that. I recommend this chinese film called "Lost in Beijing" on Instant which is a much more complex and edgy melodrama about "the super wealthy & the working poor".

BTW, Jeon Do-yeon's "Untold Scandal" is also available on Instant which is the Korean version of "Dangerous Liaisons". I'm curious about your opinion since she plays La Pfeiffer's part in it.

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterButtercup

I love both of these last two updates, with your 32 flavors and (the beginning of) your Sweet 16. They are totally worth giving my entire midnight-hour window of web-surfing to them, in a week when I'm being really anorexic about the web. All six of these write-ups make me intensely eager to re-see all six movies, and they really make me feel generous even to the movies I was hard on... even The Housemaid, maybe, possibly, even though I reacted to it the same way Buttercup did.

Anyway: these are great paragraphs, and even if I didn't know you, the sense of your idiosyncratic tastes and your buffet-line excitement about so many different types of movies comes through so wonderfully in the 32 Flavors entry, especially. I love that we share the same sensibility about taking what we love from a movie even when we're forced to admit what doesn't work, and not throwing (almost) anything out completely. The Heartbeats/Margaret pairing is especially unexpected and especially brill. Looking forward to the big finish! Even though I think I already know what's #1....

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

Midnight in Paris not being in the top 10 confirms once and for all what a drooling, cretinous little vermin you are. Begone, twerp.

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFielding

Young Adult is a movie that really sneaked up on me. When I first saw it I thought it was good but as the time has passed it's amazed me how much I've thought about it and how palpable Mavis' issues were. It might be a dark horse for my own top 10 now and your paragraph has definitely highlighted it's strengths. I wish it was in your top 10! Here's hoping Charlize makes your Film Bitch best actress!

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSeeking Amy

Echoing what Seeking Amy said: Jason Reitman's entire career is sneaking up on me...

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertimothy

I'd say Mavis definitely has some untreated mental illnesses. The Trichotillomania scenes are a good indication of that. Hair pulling like its shown in this film is a compulsive disorder. It can be associated with a number of better understood illnesses, such as depression or anxiety disorders. Alcoholism explains some of her behavior, but I think it's a mask she wears so she doesn't have to sort out her feelings.

And to go further, your paragraph on Young Adult hits at a few of the reasons why it's number 1 on my Top 10 list. Every time I read someone else's writing about the film, the whole thing opens up a little more. I know there are strong arguments for other films being better in 2011. None hit me as hard, made me laugh, or got me thinking as effectively as Young Adult. Plus, it introduces the term "KenTacoHut," which is amazing.

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

The great thing about these lists, Nat, and the comments about them, is that they make me want to see films I haven't given much thought to. Now I definitely need to see YA (if/when it never comes to my area, damn it.)

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

The sad part about seeing Young Adult were the two people next to me who whispered "That was horrible!" to each other after it was over. I've heard other people experienced the same.'s SO good.

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbia

I'm loving your list so far. Can't wait for the top ten.

The only title here that I disagree with is The Housemaid. I saw the film at TIFF last year. I liked it all the way to the end but the ending was totally bonkers and not in a good way. I don't think even the director knew where he was going with that ending (as was evident in his Q&A). It's so expertly made and it's totally worth watching for the glossy look and the steam and catfights, I just think a different ending would have served the film well.
I have yet to see Young Adult but your write-up makes me want to watch it even more now.

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

Delightful film. Congrats for achieving all those goals. Regard.

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBest Film Schools
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