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.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (Woody Allen)
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.
THE HOUSEMAID (Im Sang-soo)
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.