NATHANIEL'S TOP TEN OF 2011
And so we reach the top ten list about which I endured my usual personal angst until I finally gave up the flip flopping, the future hindsight worrying and all the old ways and accepted the new sabremetrics of the game since I had accidentally shoved 11 films in. I ran out of time outs and it was either hit publish or forfeit my chance to play this beloved listing game.
MONEYBALL (Bennett Miller)
Columbia Pictures. September 23rd.
Who knew that a film about sports strategies and mathematic calculations -- two things I personally find enormously difficult to understand and care about even less -- could be so stirring? Thank the typically sharp writing of Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian, the assured unfussy direction from Bennett Miller who really knows his way around these sharply focused biographies (see also Capote) and an intensely pleasurable star turn from a perfectly cast Brad Pitt as a former golden boy trying to up his own game before his time runs out.
CERTIFIED COPY (Abbas Kiarostami)
IFC. March 11th.
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, than so to is the worth of any piece of art, whether it's a bonafide original or a copy. The worth of Kiarostami's dizzying intellectual game of a movie will vary greatly from viewer to viewer depending on whether they think the movie transcends its intellectual exercize. It's worth may even vary from screening to screening. For example, the first time I saw it I was riveted by the dialogue and Binoche's face though I thought it outstayed its welcome but the second time I was slightly annoyed with its archly comic tonal shift late in the film but also more impressed with its visual intricacies. Certified Copy spends a day in Tuscany with a weary antique shop owner (the exquisite Juliette Binoche as "She" --her character is never named) and an author by the name of James Miller (opera star William Schimmel). They are ostensibly strangers and their conversation about originals and copies (the subject of Miller's book) gives way to an increasingly complicated sense that the two of them are either play-acting at being lovers or are actually estranged spouses whose current union is a disappointingly inferior fascimile of its original form.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (Sean Durkin)
Fox Searchlight. October 21st
Martha Marcy May Marlene
With Lizzie, John Hawkes, Durkin's Team
A Perfectly Titled Time Machine
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Incantation. Puzzle. Dream.
[Review, Interview, Comic Strip]
BRIDESMAIDS (Paul Feig) Universal. May 13th
MELANCHOLIA (Lars von Trier) Magnolia. November 11th
You're invited to a wedding. Don't start throwing rice yet. They're meant to be happy events but god do they try the patience. Especially when the bride or maid of honor is enormously depressed -- apocalyptically depressed even!
I was amused and annoyed recently when Dan Kois at the New York Times paired these two movies in a write up beating me to the punch as I'd already planned to do so. Only to then suggest that they were incomparable?! I object. I've been comparing them constantly for months in conversations with myself.
They're both maddening films on occassion, at least 20 minutes too long and either artless in presentation while entertaining (Bridesmaids) or only artful in presentation while refusing to entertain (Melancholia). Bridesmaids is shapeless but for the memorable shapes of its hard-working women. Melancholia frontloads with all of its best sequences and images and then spins its wheels in repetition and fussy inconsequential details that go nowhere just as oblivion should be hurtling towards us. ("Auntie Steelbreaker"?, the whole ad campaign storyline...though I love that the models in the ad look like a pile of dead people.) And yet... And yet...
Together they define 2011 better than any other picture for me. I have struggled quite a lot in the past and particularly this year with depression. Fused together, I think of these two films as the most insightful movie ever made about the condition. Bridesmaid's "Annie" is lost in her own self pitying rut and to the movies immense credit the jokes are spun organically from this pain rather than shoving it to the side for easier less-character specific laughs. "Help me. I'm pooooor" and that great sequence when Melissa McCarthy literalizes Annie's self-abuse for her as just two examples. Meanwhile that comic imp Lars von Trier literalizes the size of depression (it always feels gargantuan, unstoppable) until its planet-sized and then calls it for what it is. Depression can be rough on those in the orbit of the suffering. Self destruction isn't enough for Justine; she's taking the whole world down with her. Von Trier may be a true genius but he's never been a subtle one.
POETRY (Lee Chang dong)
Kino International. February 11th.
I fear that I won't be able to do this beautifully judged work justice in a year end report for I saw it well over a year ago. Maybe it belongs at #9, maybe at #4? Sadly, it's the only film in the top ten list that I haven't seen twice. Yet for all the spotty details of my memory -- thankfully not as spotty as Mjia's (LAFCA Best Actress Winner Yun Jung-Hee) in the early stages of Alzheimers -- I distinctly remember the feelings it gave off. I felt so much admiration and worry for this old confused woman venturing into unfamiliar territory, fully aware that her curiousity about life could be both a blessing and curse. Poetry begins, as so many movies do, with the discovery of a dead body, in this case a young girl is found floating in the water, but Chang-dong's movie is so filled with humanism that it's more concerned with the girl who once lived than her remains. Seek out the movie. Then read my full review.
WEEKEND (Andrew Haigh)
Sundance Selects. September 23rd
The first electric moments in romance, whether lusty or laced with spiritual recognition of another person, are a tricky thing to capture on film. You need the perfect chemistry of sympatico actors, sensitive direction that knows when to investigate a small detail and when to back away, and screenwriting that can sharply delineate characters without shoving them into generic shorthand corners of Type of Boy and Type of Girl That Go Together or in this case Type of Boy and Type of Boy. The thrill of discovery between moviegoer and movie can be a bit like that, too. It's an elusive increasingly rare thrill in a movie culture that's big on hype and short on timely supply (who can discover anything for themselves when movie culture moves with furious speed while distribution is still 1990s slow?) I saw this modest but perfectly realized gem, both sexy and smart, moving but unsentimental, long before everyone knew it to be awesome and was pleased to be on the jury that gave it what I believe was its second "Best Film" prize. (SXSW was first). It's only grown in my estimation with repeat viewings and time. Neither Russell nor Glenn (superbly played by Tom Cullen and Chris New) expect all that much from the relationship when they meet but sometimes you get far more than you counted on. Movies are like that, too.
BEGINNERS (Mike Mills)
Focus Features. June 3rd.
When I think of Beginners, as I often do, I think of Arthur the dog. In several beautifully acted scenes Oliver (Ewan McGregor) educates Arthur on matters of history, behavior, and domestic arrangements. Arthur needs no schooling on loneliness, though Oliver lectures him on that too, as they're both clearly grieving for daddy Hal (future Oscar winner Christopher Plummer). Arthur perks up in sync with Oliver when Anna (Melanie Laurent) arrives and all you ever want is for everyone to connect and heal in this memorably idiosyncratic, generous meditation on living through loneliness and loving again. "I hope this feeling lasts." [Interview]
DRIVE (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Film District. September 16th.
For a movie that's both exquisitely controlled by its director (hitting the gas pedal on his career) and super controlling both visually and verbally ("you don't need to know the route"), Drive feels oddly ready to be steered by any viewer willing to reach for the keys. Doesn't it already feel like it totally belongs to audiences, a communal vehicle to take where you will in mashups, fan art and pop culture referencing. My favorite thing about it today (this changes at least weekly) is the way it keeps pleading with you to accept the authenticity of its protagonist "a real human being... and a real hero" even though the Driver is no more tangible than a shadow by film's end.
THE ARTIST (Michel Hazanavicius)
Weinstein Co. November 23rd.
This crowd-pleasing Hollywood throwback (via France) is clever counterprogramming for a noisy movie culture with too little to say. The Artist wisely keeps its mouth shut as it dances through excessively familiar classic tropes on the way to an exuberant finale that sends you back into the speaking world recharged. Even silent, it's as witty as many verbally dextrous comedies. Better yet it fully embraces its desperate showman's neurosis. It's practically Garland & Rooney-like in its eagerness to put on a show. If it's not mugging away to keep you smiling, it's tugging on your leg eagerly to save you from gloom. When it's not dazzling you with beauty, it's busy building elaborate joke structures just to heighten already perfect punchlines. If The Artist were weaker pastiche it could leave you with only melancholy longing for a lost artform but this film rarely settles. Hazanavicius Old Hollywood tribute is too nimble to stay locked in nostalgic regret. In that blissful redemptive finale, it opens its doors wide to the giddy rush of the next great movie form.
A SEPARATION (Asghar Farhadi)
Sony Pictures Classics. December 30th.
I've already begun to worry that A Separation is going to ruin a whole slew of future movies for me. To watch it, to slowly realize how much it's doing is to awaken to the realization that 90% of the movies you enjoy are only functioning well on one or two levels... if that. A Separation is the film embodiment of an overachieving multi-tasker. The year's most wrenching marital drama also happens to be the decade's best legal thriller. Meanwhile it's not so casually outdoing a whole multitude of recent pictures suggesting the interconnectedness of everything. And while it's doing all of those things, any one of which would be enough of an achievement to heartily recommend it, it's painting a richly evocative portrait of modern day Iran. I don't think it's much of a stretch to suggest, though I've noticed precious few people choosing to, that this specific picture tells a fairly universal truth about our modern world -- make that worlds -- in which the secular and the religious physically co-exist but seem to be living on entirely different planets. Though A Separation is a handful of great movies at once, it never forgets that it began as one, a simple tough story about a crumbling marriage. Farhadi brings it all back home with the most perfectly intuitive resolution imaginable for a movie that never once loses sight of the ripple effect.
Feel free to talk back or share your own lists in the comments. How many of these have you seen and do you feel similarly about them?
And while we're on this topic check out the first completed page of the Film Bitch Awards:
Picture, Director and Screenplays are up!