My Top 10 Movies of 2011
In my late twenties I got corrective lenses for the first time, for near-sightedness, and I remember how they not only clarified my vision but polarized the world. The muddy middle disappeared. Both beauty and ugly became sharper: the former's perfections, previously half-hidden, now dazzled, while the latter's imperfections, also half-hidden, were now sadly revealed. The glasses seemed unfair. Part of me felt the world would be a kinder place if we all walked around with a bit of myopia.
Writing about movies is in some sense like putting on corrective lenses. It clarifies my vision but it also also polarizes my feelings. The good becomes very, very good; the bad godawful. The muddy middle disappears.
I think this explains why I'm always a little surprised when end-of-the-year pronouncements are made and the recent year in movies is found lacking. People said 2009 was a bad year for movies and I thought, “Really? With 'Summer Hours' and 'Up' and 'A Serious Man' and 'Seraphine' and 'Avatar'?” People said 2010 was a bad year for movies and I thought, “Really? With 'Un Prophete' and 'Restrepo' and 'True Grit' and 'The Social Network' and 'A Film Unfinished' and 'Inception' and 'Toy Story 3'?”
Now people say it of 2011 and my reaction is just as strong. Really? Because I can't squeeze all I want to into my top 10. I think, “Surely I have room for 'Hugo' or 'Midnight in Paris' or 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,'” and I look back at what I already have and I think maybe this, or maybe that, or should I substitute the other? For what it's worth, my top six were decided early. It's the last four that caused hand-wringing.
I love the many connections between the choices below: the ominous, near silent moods of 9, 8 and 7. (“Tinker Tailor” would've fit in well there.) The stubborn, sad persistence of character in 8 and 3. The everyday transcendance of 5 and 4. The search for safety and God in 2 and 1.
Lacking? No, 2011 was a great year for movies. Here is my very, very late top 10.
10. “Bridesmaids”: When I came home from viewing this opening night and Patricia asked me how it was, I said, “It's the funniest movie of the year.” I paused. “And not just so far. I'm saying it'll be the funniest movie I see all year.” That prediction was really only threatened by one film, “Young Adult” (see below). Much of the movie is actually conventional. When her best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), gets engaged, Annie (Kristen Wiig) tries to be happy for her but can’t help compare where she and Lillian are both heading. Annie's life is in the crapper but she's her own worst enemy. She keeps going back to the wrong guy (Jon Hamm), keeps ignoring the right guy, (Chris O’Dowd), is forced to move home with her mother (Jill Clayburgh, the original unmarried woman). We’ve seen this kind of thing before yet it feels different here. It’s funnier, yes, but it also feels truer. The way people try to talk Annie out of her downward spiral and the way she doesn’t listen. There’s a scene where, after Rhodes encourages her to bake again, she does, she bakes a glorious cupcake, topped with all kinds of candied configurations. Then she stares at it on the counter, unhappily. Then she eats it, unhappily. Not because she wants the cupcake but because she doesn’t want to make the cupcake. Because baking isn’t satisfying what it used to satisfy.
9. “Drive”: Driver (Ryan Goslling) is so laconic he makes Clint Eastwood’s characters seem like blabbermouths. Initially this annoyed me. Initially I felt there was too much atmosphere and not enough substance. I’m not a fan of cool, or profess to be such, since cool is silent and distant, and the most interesting people I’ve encountered in life are the ones who are most engaged. Who talk. I’m a word man. Driver is not. He’s most definitely cool, with his toothpick in his mouth or tucked behind his ear, and so silent, a man of so few words, that I began to wonder, a half-hour in, if there wasn’t something wrong with him mentally. Was he autistic? And yet, despite all this, by the end of the movie I had absorbed him, or he me. I could feel it as I put on my yellow biking jacket, so similar to his silver racing jacket, and my biking gloves, so similar to his driving gloves, and walked out of the theater immersed in the dreamlike silence of the movie. I imagined I was tough and cool and hard-to-read instead of what I am: a tired 48-year-old in need of a shave and a beer. Holden was right. The goddamn movies.
8. “Shame”: “Shame” is a snapshot from a life because there’s no real resolution. There’s just need and heartache and awful need again. Sissy (Carrey Mulligan) tries to kill herself but she’s tried to kill herself before. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) binges on sex but no doubt he’s binged before. It leaves him exhausted and crying but the thing inside him won’t come out. Sexaholism used to be a punchline to me—who isn’t addicted to sex?—but writer-director Steve McQueen shows us the difference as well as the similarity. The difference is in volume and the similarity is in almost everything else. The similarity is in trying to get this thing out of us. The similarity is in the lack of resolution or resurrection. In the end, Brandon is back on the subway, and there’s that girl again, and now she’s ready; and the hunger is always ready.
7. “Margin Call”: J.C. Chandor's debut film is our best dramatization of the global financial meltdown and should be seen on a double bill with “Inside Job” and maybe several “Frontline” episodes, including the ones on Brooksley Born and the demise of the Glass-Steagall Act. It's an ominous, moody, sometimes silent film with a great cast and a kill-or-be-killed message that the film doesn't celebrate but doesn't exactly condemn, either. It's about knowingly selling toxic assets so they infect some other schmuck. It's about how to SURVIVE, as CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) tells the 3 a.m. board meeting. I love how the characters surprise in small ways. Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) immediately comes off slick and fierce but that doesn’t mean he’s disingenuous or doesn’t have a moral code of his own. Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) is appalled by what he’s asked to do but that doesn’t mean he can’t rally the troops to do that very thing. What kind of world is Wall Street? The kind where Kevin Spacey plays the moral pillar. Be very afraid.
6. “The Artist”: I think both fans and detractors have gotten this one wrong. They think it's a bit of lightweight nostalgia, a throwback not only to the silent era but to the next generation of filmmakers, which made great films about the silent era (“Singin' in the Rain,” “Sunset Blvd.,” etc.). But to me there are few films more relevant to the United States in 2011 than this silent, black-and-white, French film. For all its charms and zip and melodrama, it's ultimately about a man made irrelevant by new technology. It's about a man made silent by new technology. And in 2011, after 15 years of entire professions being decimated by the digital revolution, that describes too many of us.
5. “The Descendants”: Everyone says that comedy is tragedy plus time, but in “The Descendants” writer-director Alexander Payne removes time from the equation. A woman—a mother, wife and daughter—is dying in a hospital bed, having spent the last year of her life cheating on her husband, Matt (George Clooney), and we find ourselves laughing out loud. Payne creates comedy out of tragedy as it’s happening. The movie's main characters, Matt and his two daughters—plus all of their cousins, including Beau Briddges' own version of The Dude—are the descendants of the title. They’ve been entrusted with this great wealth and the question is what they do with it. But the dynamic and the dilemma filters through to us in the audience. All of us are descendants. All of us are entrusted with this great wealth. And the question is what we do with it.
4. “Moneyball”: The feeling captured in the opening sentence of my review, written in September, hasn't gone away: I had trouble with the falsehoods but was won over by the poignancy. Slowly I'm forgetting the falsehoods, however, the reduction of the career to one year, and I keep returning to the poignancy: the close-up of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) as he listens to his daughter singing on her homemade CD with words that fit him. Throughout the movie he wants to be the uberman. He wants to change baseball, and he does, but not the way he envisions, through ultimate victory. He changes it because he hits a mammoth homerun in a losing cause, but the mammoth homerun draws attention. Others steal his stance, his style, and in that way the game changes. In this moment, though, he's not the uberman but the everyman. He's us. Most of us are stuck in the middle; most of us don't know when we hit homeruns, or, if we suspect it, the homeruns go unnoticed and unmentioned. They're before the sparsest of crowds. Most felt “Moneyball” couldn't be filmed because it's about baseball stats, and who beside geeks like me care about baseball stats? But I knew it could be filmed because it's really about underdogs who band together to beat the big boys, the corporation, the evil empire, and that's most of our movies. I just didn't know how they would do the ending. The underdog A's under Billy Beane never won it all; they never even went to the World Series. I thought it was the story's great weakness. In the end, screenwriters Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and director Bennett Miller make it the film's great strength.
3. “Young Adult”: Mavis Gary is one of the most original characters American cinema has produced in years and Charlize Theron totally embodies her. So why didn't it get out there more? It was written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, the team who gave us “Juno” back in 2007, but this one isn't so traditionally feel-good. Mavis is an awful person (no empathy or tact), involved in an awful enterprise (winning back her high-school boyfriend at the age of 37), and in the end she doesn't change. She stays on the less-righteous, all-American path of perpetual consumerism and loneliness. Most people won't find it touching or amusing but I thought it was both. I found Mavis sympathetic in her situation and entertaining in her response to her situation. When Paige, Patricia and I saw it in a small, downtown theater with maybe a dozen other people in attendance, we were about the only people laughing; but we were roaring. It's that kind of movie. Its ending is so cynical, I felt something like pure joy wash over me. Most feel-good movies make me feel bad because they aren't any good. “Young Adult,” with its awful characters, made me feel great.
2. “Des hommes et des dieux”: “Of Gods and Men” is a monastic movie. It’s filmed as unaffectedly as the Cistercian monks lived their lives in Tibhirine, Algeria, in 1996. It documents their modest activities in a modest manner. We see them carry firewood and clean floors. They pack honey, miel de l’Atlas, and sell it at the local market. They farm, tend to the sick, help procure visas. They study—both St. Augustine and the Koran. They pray and sing hymns and psalms. Mostly they are caught, trapped, between a growing Islamic fundamentalism and an authoritarian military government. They are trapped between the need for safety elsewhere and the need to do good here. What to do? What to do? At one point, the Islamic revolutionary, Fayattia, tells Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), a tall, bespectacled man who likes to walk in the woods and feel the bark of trees, that he doesn't have a choice in the matter they're discussing. “Vous n'avez pas le choix,” he says. Brother Christian replies:“Si, j'ai le choix.” (Yes, I have a choice.) “Of Gods and Men” is all about the awful, potentially transcendant weight of “J'ai le choix.”
1. “The Tree of Life”: Was there any doubt? It's not only one of the more evocative films about childhood (ball, butterfly, blocks, baby brother arriving and cramping your style); it's not only one of the more honest depictions of coming of age (from fighting father to wishing him dead to becoming him in his absence); it keeps in mind the existential. It doesn't allow us a cultural memory of 10 or 15 or 100 years; it goes back to the beginning of time. It blends religion and science, Job and the dinosaurs. How can bad things happen in Waco, Texas in the 1950s? Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations? Where were you when I allowed entire species to go extinct? The vast background puts the life, and the questions, in perspective. The fundamental dilemma of the movie, and of life (the movie suggests), is between the way of nature and the way of grace. The short cultural memory, the one presented in most of our products, certainly most of our movies, leads to the way of nature: the “I” standing in this spot and pronouncing dominion over this spot. The long cultural memory, blending science and religion, in which the “I” dissolves against the vastness of time and space stretching behind us and ahead of us, leads, not to despair, but to the way of grace. When the world is shining around us. And love is smiling through all things.