Don’s Best (and worst) Films of 2011

The Best:

The Artist (France, Michael Hazanavicius)
This nearly totally silent, black-and- white film is a sizzling masterwork that celebrates not just the silent film but the film medium in general–both as a whole and as two very distinct halves separated by the breakthrough of sound. Simultaneously amusingly and poignantly, it portrays the emotional turmoil suffered by a silent era star (Jean Dujardin, Best Actor winner at Cannes) once Hollywood rather quickly transitioned to talkies in the late 1920’s. If you decide to skip it based on either its silent or black-and-white characteristics, you’ll be doing yourself a major disservice.

Incendies (Canada, Denis Villeneuve)
A brilliant saga about a Middle Eastern- born woman’s heroic response to privation and adversity amidst a Civil War reminiscent of Lebanon’s in the 1980’s, Incendies is as draining as it is perceptive. Starring Luban Azabalas as Nawal, cool as a Nazy seal, who repeatedly out-stares insurmountable risk after insurmountable risk, the film maintains a tight-as-a-knot sense of suspense. Tragedies fueled by hatred and war, while sorrowfully limitless in ways often unimaginable, can only be overcome by a relentless resistance to resignation.

Melancholia (Denmark, Lars Von Trier)
In a year when multiple new films tackled mental illness, the end of the world, or both, visual poet Lars Von Trier tied the two subjects together with an uncanny verve and a vision, which, while pitch-dark, contains a shred of hope. A superb cast and Von Trier’s stunning craftsmanship (his use of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” is a thing of beauty) enhance this frightening yet cathartic allegory of life and death. The film’s ending is one of the most moving finales imaginable.

Double Hour (Italy, Giuseppe Captondi)
First-time director Captondi mixes robust character development with Hitchcockian suspense elements and not a little horror genre sprinklings. He also uses a device you’re better off not knowing going in since we’re basically talking The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game level of “stunt.” Will have you on the edge of your seat from the jump.

Midnight in Paris (U. S., Woody Allen)
While concluding the cultural spotlight of a bygone era (here Paris in the legendary Roaring 20’s) can unnerve present-day sensibilities, Woody Allen both celebrates and exposes droll, charming nostalgia in his most effective fantasy since The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Drive (U. S., Nicholas Winding Refn)
Ryan Gosling achieves a stunning minimalism that is at once terrifically appealing and, over the course of the film, increasingly frightening. He’s a walking teapot ready to boil with all the rage and angst of the best screen action/noir/heist heroes. The contrast Refn achieves with a tone of utter quietness setting up some of the most exaggerated violence is the key to this film’s uniqueness.

A Dangerous Method (Canada, David Cronenberg)
The essential argument in this film that superbly articulates conceptual differences is that Jung’s vision to move past Freud’s achievements were met by a stone wall by the movement’s founder. Freud’s insistence that every human behavior is rooted in sexuality drew a rift between the two men, as did Jung’s notion of the relevance of the supernatural, which Freud regarded as useless “mysticism.” Of course what also tore the men (Michael Fassbender and Vigo Mortensen) apart after an initial harmony was the young woman, Sabrina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who Cronenberg etches with a remarkable complexity.

Source Code (U. S., David Jones)
Back to the future? As a plot device here it’s a surefire stimulant. Jake Gyllenhall has to save the world in eight minutes, and has to do it over until he gets it right. Flopped back and forth between the 8- minute train ride adventures and rest periods in a mysterious and confining pod, he comes to wonder, How did I get in another person’s body, and what the hell am I doing here? Like an old Twilight Zone episode on steroids, Source Code pulls off feeling grounded, not in some forsaken and fantastic future, but in an all-too-real, eerie present.

The Descendants (U. S., Alexander Payne)
Payne goes after life’s little details with an uncanny casualness. His contagious confidence in his characters seems to arise out of an all-knowing perceptiveness regarding their often offbeat reactions. Pulling the comedic out of the serious and vice-versa is no easy task. We like to think our often absurd daily lives have a rich poignancy despite their utter messiness. In Payne’s films our best wishes are persuasively confirmed.

Poetry (South Korea, Lee Chang-dong)
Yun Jung-hee plays a woman who works as a maid, raises an ungrateful slacker 16-year-old grandson, and at the film’s outset, is diagnosed with dementia. She enrolls in a poetry class and with sheer grace moves through a series of decisions regarding a moral dilemma involving her son. Her performance is so riveting and resonating it will haunt you and Lee Chang-dong (check out Oasis) is one of the masters of world cinema.

Ten Honorable Mention Films:
The Skin I Live In
Of Gods and Men
Another Year
Margin Call
Le Havre
Take Shelter
Point Blank
Young Adult

Best Performance By An Actress:
Charlize Theron, Young Adult
Anna Paquin, Margaret
Yun Jung-hee, Poetry
Lubua Azabel, Incendies
Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy
Rooney Mara, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Michele Williams, My Week With Marilyn

Best Performance By An Actor:
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
Brad Pitt, Moneyball
Ryan Gosling, Drive
Demian Bicher, A Better Life
George Clooney, The Descendants

Best Performance/Supporting Actress:
Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method
Charlotter Gainsbourg, Melancholia
Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter
Berenice Bejo, The Artist
Anne Heche, Cedar Rapids

Best Performance/Supporting Actor:
Jeremy Irons, Margin Call
Michael Lansdale, Of Gods and Men
Albert Brooks, Drive
Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method
Jonah Hill, Moneyball

Best Unreleased Films:
The Kid With A Bike, Miss Bala

Best Documentaries:
Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Tabloid

Best First Films:
Double Hour, Margin Call, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Submarine

Most Entertaining Film Hardly Anybody Saw:
Attack The Block

Most Overrated:
Hugo, Like Crazy

Worst Trend: Glut of “2011”
Films That Won’t Be Released Anywhere except NY and L.A. Until 2012: A Separation, The Iron Lady, Corialanus, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Flowers of War, Albert Nobbs, Pariah, etc.

Worst Films:
The Beaver, No Strings Attached, New Year’s Eve, I Don’t Know How She Does It.

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