It's now the front end of 2012 so it's time to look back at what was a pretty solid year at movies and arbitrarily pick from the ones I've seen and try to tell you why my opinion is righter than anyone elses. Thankfully this is one of those dead-end intellectual exercises I absolutely love, so what you're about to get is an end of year list given far more thought and zeal than it probably deserves.
As always, I haven't seen everything so if one of your favorites isn't on here then there's a very real possibility that I haven't seen it. If you'd like to check for yourself, I do have a conveniently available list of everything I've seen this year available for perusal, because I'm OCD that way. I've even conveniently sorted the 2011 movies to the top for the next week or so for ease of reading. It's a big list, I know.
I also decided while assembling this to stick rigidly to the format of 10 films. I know that it's easy to break out of that, and include some others that I do really like and have a lot to say about, but focusing the list into 10 allowed me to really question what I felt was meaningful and what I felt could go. Some of the things that got cut genuinely surprised me, and some of the things that survived I wouldn't have called even a week ago as I was assembling this list in my head.
A short list of also-rans that probably would have made a top 15 or top 20 include: Hugo, The Muppets, Submarine, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Another Earth, Fast Five, The Adjustment Bureau, Drive, Super, A Horrible Way to Die, and Final Destination 5 of all things.
And as always, this is an unnumbered list. If you made me put them into some sort of order I probably could, but I think that's a bad way to do movies. Give me a group of things I really like, don't make me arbitrarily rank comedies next to dramas next to action films. That's ridiculous, and it's where I always put my foot down. Besides, this is my list. Opinions are, as always, subjective. As I'm sure you'll all tell me when you disagree with my list. Just remember that subjectivity is nice and all, but I'm still always right.
And with that, I present to you, the official, one-and-only, kid-tested-mother-approved...
I know the credits say Jason Reitman first and foremost, but this movie is Diablo Cody through and through. Abandoning much of the stylism that has made her a name, Young Adult is a painfully honest and pointedly specific look at arrested adulthood and the insanity of internal narrative run amok. Maybe it's because I sympathize with Charlize Theron's Mavis, or maybe it's because she reminds me so much of people in my life, but the story of a burnt out YA writer with dreams of recapturing her 'glory days' of high school is easily the smallest, most human, most affecting thing I've seen this year.
The genius of Young Adult is firmly in how confident it is to not be funny, bravely striding the line between painful, hard-to-watch comedy and heartbreaking honesty and hostility. It's an angry movie filled with angry, broken people, seemingly incapable of feeling the contentment they see around them as they try desperately to make sense of this world where everyone seems to be settling into the patterns that will dominate their lives.
It's that honesty that drives the movie into greatness, helmed by Theron and Patton Oswalt being supremely confident despite having thankless roles defined mostly by being shitty, broken people. It's powerful stuff, not immediately stand-out but intense and relatable in a way I wasn't expecting. Theron in particular goes all out, with desperate contempt and a manic sense of hope about the most ridiculous things. Of everyone on this list, she plays the most impressive role, a character I found myself loving even as I cringed at the things she said and did.
There's been a lot of talk especially early on this year about how Bridesmaids was the rare movie that treated women honestly as characters. And while I'd agree with that, to a point, it takes a movie like Young Adult to show just how cartoonish every character in Bridesmaids is and how desperate we all are for meaningful female roles in film when that is what we're championing. Young Adult is a movie fallen out of a world where this isn't a problem, where actresses can take roles as brave and complex as men without worrying about how 'unlikable' they are. This isn't the kind of movie that gets people nominations, but maybe it should be.
Nestled into the middle ground of dark absurdist comedy between In Bruges and Hot Fuzz is this obscure little number. The story of a remote Irish policeman (Brendan Gleeson) who stumbles across the drug trade as it makes a stop in his sleepy little town, The Guard quickly ascends to ridiculous heights when an FBI agent played by Don Cheadle shows up and quickly butts heads with Gleeson. It's a story not of friendship, but of two people who fucking hate each other who end up tossed together with similar goals. I feel this is the often-neglected key to great buddy cop cinema, and in The Guard it is straight up fireworks the whole time.
What makes The Guard special is hard to quite articulate, with it's strange fish-out-of-water story of Cheadle stumbling around a town that pretends to not even speak English when he starts asking questions and Gleeson's amazing role as a racist, whoring, drug-using monster of a crooked cop who still manages to be the only decent police officer in that quiet corner of the world. It's a gleefully profane movie, careening from offensive jokes to absurdist crime-movie beats with a sense of abandon the genre really hasn't seen since the two movies I opened this piece putting it next to. The buddy cop film seems incredibly played out these days, but movies like The Guard turn the whole thing on its ear and make it feel not only relevant, but surprising and immediate.
Special mention needs to go to the amazing soundtrack by Calexico, which manages to channel the vastness of a Morricone spaghetti western score interpreted through the veil of the absurd jangly carnival atmosphere of the theme from Curb Your Enthusiasm. It manages to be quietly hilarious at the same time it pumps me up, and it is easily among my favorite scores for the year.
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of The Unicorn
Once upon a time a little known filmmaker made a throwback to the adventure serials of his youth. That filmmaker was Steven Spielberg and that movie was Raiders of the Lost Ark, easily one of the greatest movies of all time. He made several more, but they were more or less cast heavily in the shadow of that first movie. It seemed to be lightning in a bottle, never to be quite recaptured. Until now.
I'm not going to say Tintin is better than Raiders because that's A) stupid and B) something for history to sort out. But in terms of pure adventure fun, Spielberg's mo-cap attempt to capture the runaway joy and wonder of Hergé's classic comics is a small miracle of filmmaking. It's become distressingly truer and truer that the more money and old talent you throw at big films the worst the result, but Tintin flies in the face of that by pairing one of the most famous old-guard directors with one of the biggest new-guard (Peter Jackson produced and is the 2nd unit director), with a script that is as sharp and tightly wound as one could ever hope for (written by the star-studded dream team of Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim, Hot Fuzz, et al), and Steven Moffat (Dr. Who)) and with a cavalcade of stars disappearing behind the genius CG work of Weta Digital.
There's a lot to love about Tintin, but it is the freedom Spielberg relishes in when unleashed from real cameras and sets that takes center stage. The CG was heavily criticized as being Zemeckisesque heading up to release, but in reality the stylized look of the characters manages to put it in its own not-quite-real world. A beautiful world, heavy with rich noir lighting and big action set pieces with a camera that bravely explores the freedom of unreality without dissolving into the chaotic pirouettes so common with CG films. In fact, there are some amazing scene transitions that are breathtaking in their ease and beauty, with the kind of matching that simple isn't possible on that scale with real locations/sets.
And all this is wrapped around a movie that embraces adventure in its purest form. It's about the curiosity of a mystery, the joy of discovery and the blending of history and breathless present action, set across the world in a colorful array of locations that reminds you that the world is vast and full of wonder. Each beat of the script unfolds our characters into a place that builds upon what came before, jokes and gags following action in a way that feels a bit like music when it all works. It is Spielberg in the rarest of forms, opening up a world to us that's how we'd like it to be more than how it is.
It's also the kind of movie that doesn't get made anymore, with adventure films basically being mistaken for action films set in more than one place. And with that timelessness comes all the humor and thrills of the best of the genre, creating a movie that stands apart as something instantly classic but pushing the boundaries of what that cast and that crew can do. It also has a whole lot of Andy Serkis, who you should probably know more from...
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
If ever a movie deserved to be terrible, this was it. A prequel to a franchise that had already suffered a failed reboot, the Apes movies seemed destined to be cast into the dim recesses of cultural memory. Which is a shame, because as I pointed out as I watched them earlier this year leading up to this movie, they're really goddamn great. But even with all that sudden apes love, I went into Rise of the Planet of the Apes half-convinced I was going to be walking into a train wreck. It wasn't, and you know why it wasn't?
A lot is going to be said about how Serkis pushed forward the boundaries of what we consider acting, and how technology is going to augment the worlds we see on screen, and this is the same argument we've been having since Serkis knocked everyone over with his standout performance as Gollum in Lord of the Rings almost a decade ago. But I feel what so readily gets lost in this argument is that he isn't performing some arcane alchemy. He's just a really good actor putting that talent in a place where most people don't. And it can carry films into magical places because of it.
Serkis' Caesar has almost no lines but dominates an entire epic of a movie devoted to charting his life. It's ambitious even for a series that has historically reached beyond what could be expected of it. Part science-run-amok fairy tale, part prison film, part revolutionary war picture, Caesar gets a life story told on film that would rival any character in cinema. So much is put on the shoulders of one man playing one ape, and it carries what so many people were ready to write off into the small circle of truly great modern sci-fi movies.
And certainly there's a lot of criticisms to be levied against the film. Every human character not named John Lithgow is pretty terrible and one-note, and I feel like the movie cops out of what would otherwise be a perfect ending (and it's been revealed that it did originally have the darker ending I would have preferred) but so many moments are so perfect. From the quietly and increasingly tense moments in the ape house, to the incredibly powerful montage of Caeser aging as he climbs a giant California redwood, to the equal parts badass and terrifying image of apes on the tops of buildings wielding cast iron bars as spears, to the awe-inspiring power of a single, meaningful "No." So much of this movie is so good that all of its flaws stop mattering looking back on it. Rise belongs to the series more than Burton's awful reboot ever did, a smart and dark mirror of humanity as good as the originals.
The Tree of Life
I've already written so many words about The Tree of Life it's hard to know quite what else there is to say. It was always the one guaranteed film on this list, and I knew when the time came I'd try to put my feelings into some sort of final summation, but how can you summarize something that so closely mirrors your own feelings on life and the universe?
I've seen plenty of eye-rolling and lack of connection with The Tree of Life, and while my initial reaction is to call you all unrepentant, tasteless assholes I think it's fitting that such a movie engenders such a strong negative response. It seems content to be as earnest and personal as possible, oblivious to what people expect out of narrative and tone and approachability. I haven't seen a film since The Fountain, or even more appropriately the movies of Jodorowsky, that seem so deeply uninterested in what the viewer is going to make of what's on the screen.
But for all of the difficulties of engagement, what I continue to be struck by is just how well The Tree of Life works at telling what is an incredibly simple story. Memories and meditations on life, childhood, and mor(t)ality are often the ground of conventional coming-of-age stories, but what we're given in The Tree of Life is a movie of small moments and honest beats of life provided with a breathless lack of context. I feel like what you get out of The Tree of Life depends entirely on what you pour into it, but for me it is a story of a man desperately trying to find context and meaning of life itself.
This could be meandering, pretentious stuff, but what Tree of Life offers is instead so earthy and straightforward and stripped of obfuscation that its earnestness seems to have completely missed people who saw its forthright meaning as some sort of hidden, secret subterfuge of ultimate navel-gazing. I have nothing to offer those people other than pity, as I see in The Tree of Life my own childhood and the childhoods of my parents as told to me by them, the childhoods of many of my friends, and the kind of thoughts that keep me and many people I know up late at night. Rarely does a film so intently try to present the conflicted, difficult inner life, of quiet personal soul-searching, and The Tree of Life manages to make it clear and beautiful in a way I feel few other filmmakers could ever achieve.
Attack the Block
I'm not going to bullshit you: of all the movies on this list, the one everyone should see is Attack the Block. I don't care who you are, what kind of movies you like, you need to see it. Attack the Block is an instant classic that will go down in the same breath as movies like Tremors or Gremlins as the kind of genre picture that appeals to literally everyone. Believe, bruv!
There's a certain trend in British cinema to cast every youth as a blighted, damned soul lost in the wastes of underprivileged suffering. Everybody's a hooligan, either the tragic figure of a culture that has failed them or a monster ready to stab respectable (read: white and middle class) folk. Which is part of what makes Attack the Block so great. It opens with a group of those kids, robbing a woman and generally being shitty, until they witness an alien land practically in their backyard. They quickly kill it when it attacks them, but it is the first of many, and soon their council estate is overrun with them.
As the kids band together and deal with the various drug dealers and the woman they originally robbed to fend off this alien threat, what develops is one of the greatest ensemble adventure/genre films ever made. It seems hyperbolic, but it's true. Every character has a setup and payoff, from the neighborhood stoner to the little kids who try to act tough that everyone writes off.
But it's John Boyega's role as the lead kid Moses that really stands out. Moses is one of the ultimate unlikely heroes, the lead thug of a gang of kids destined to end up dead or in jail, being groomed by the local drug dealer, and generally being a hopeless cause. But when everything goes to hell and his friends start dying, he steps up to become a true action hero, his innate nature being revealed as something much more noble. It's a difficult role to sell, someone who goes from despicable to folk hero in the course of a 90 minute movie, but Boyega knocks it out of the park. I cannot wait to see what kind of movies he does in the future.
And for all this talk about perfect subversion of stereotypes, it's the incredible script and the amazing effects (all or at least most of them practical) that really sell the film. From the crazy evil muppet aliens that are all glowing teeth and indistinct black fur to the gags revolving using baseball bats and decorative swords and super soakers to fight off an alien menace. Attack the Block is smart in the way classic popcorn movies should be but so rarely are, and it's criminal how under-the-radar it was in the US. I feel much of this list is heavy on 'important' films, but of all of them, you really need to see Attack the Block. Discover what everyone is going to be talking about in ten years now.
Melancholia is, from its outset, a jarring movie. The 'plot', at least the one that you'll find in most summaries of the movie, doesn't bother showing up until halfway through the movie. But from the first breathtaking, apocalyptic tableaux the movie opens with we are taken away into the nightmarish world of Melancholia's main characters to a place ruled by emotion and depression. Which makes me telling you the first half of the movie is probably the funniest movie of the year a little baffling, I'm sure.
Melancholia is bifurcated neatly down the middle into two separate stories about sisters. The first story is about Kirsten Dunst's Justine on the day of her wedding to an oblivious, well-meaning but seemingly dopey fellow. It starts as almost a typical class comedy, with Justine's separated family, half from money and half not, butt heads and engage in long-standing strife even as they all put on airs to try to make today special for Justine. The lone exception is Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsborough, Justine's sister and wedding planner, who offers us the first insight that something is deeply wrong. Over the first half of the film we watch as the stresses of this night start to unravel Claire, who starts with smiles and ends up in tears, showing us a deeply depressed woman who finally snaps over the course of a single night and undoes her entire life in one reactionary sweep. It's spellbinding, hard to watch but endearing in the way the best British class comedies often are, put through the lens of Lars von Trier's amazing visual sense and small, absurdist human touches.
But it is the 2nd half of the film that really puts it all in perspective. Several weeks after Justine's self-destruction, she comes to live with Claire, being looked after now that her depression has made her near-catatonic. But when she overhears the threat of a rogue planet approaching near to Earth, she seems to come alive and the rest of the film plays out as a sci-fi take on an existentialist horror film, as Claire and Justine end up enemies on a philosophical line, with Justine actively wishing for the destruction of all life on earth with the scary, quiet peacefulness of the suicidal and Claire horrified by the very threat, engaged with her life and her family and seemingly the much more healthy of the two.
That's a lot of setup for what's supposed to be a post about why I love this movie, but it's those dichotomies that really make the movie for me. What's so special about Melancholia is how deeply it cares about these characters and the opinions about life they represent, and how beautifully the metaphor of nihilism versus appreciation for life plays out and unravels both women in different ways over the course of the film. And all this is played out in grand operatic style, a country manor quickly becoming a dreamlike, theatrical stage as the nighttime sky is lit up by the eponymous planet as it drifts ever nearer in its near-catastrophic path towards Earth.
For all the grandeur of its imagery, it is that sense of impending dread and of the soul laid bare to its deepest demons and core potential for nastiness that drove this film into my head where it's festered since I've seen it. For all the things von Trier is known for, both good and bad, it is his ability to cause me genuine heart-pumping, hyperventilating dread without doing anything much at all on screen that continues to make his films important and meaningful to me. It's terrifying and beautiful all in the same breath, and I've never seen anything quite like it.
I've never seen an Alexander Payne movie. So maybe that's why The Descendantssurprised the hell out of me. I'd seen plenty of trailers for it, as he's a hometown director. In fact I had seen trailers attached to every movie for months until I was sick of looking at the movie and sure that I was going to skip it, only to find myself sitting in a theater surrounded by old people mostly due to the amazing word of mouth I'd been hearing on twitter. George Clooney's continued evolution into this generation's Cary Grant certainly doesn't hurt.
What impressed me most about The Descendants (outside of its lush cinematography, which is maybe outside the scope of why it's on this list but was greatly appreciated for this type of film) was how deftly a film about a dying relative and the process of dealing with that sidestepped a lot of the obvious points of sentiment in favor of burying those revelations in the truth that even in these moments of crisis, people will continue to be people. The big speechmaking is often hamfisted and ridiculous, and the points when people bond are in the quiet moments spent focused on something else.
In this case, it was Clooney's character's quest to find the man his wife had been cheating on before her coma with his daughter, played by Shailene Woodley who I don't think I had ever seen in a movie before but practically steals the show away from Clooney, who is certainly in pretty great form (better by a long shot than his decent but perfunctory appearance in his own Ides of March). It makes up the bulk of the middle of the movie, something of a haphazard mystery played out in the most baldly human way. The secrets people keep are rarely particularly hard to unearth, and it is the ease with which the two characters can stumble through the hidden parts of another person's life that brings them into a sense of understanding with each other that feels right for how people actually are.
For a movie about death, The Descendants is much more concerned with the small reminders of living and life, without the easy grabs at preaching. You get the sense that these characters, as much as they go through, more discover the things they knew and forgot rather than learned anything significant. And I feel that's a quiet truth that most family dramedies miss so readily. People don't always start out awful, and don't always end up fixed. It is just shades of understanding as people drift closer together or apart.
I'm still not entirely sure if Bellflower is one of the smartest movies of the year or the dumbest by far. It certainly doesn't offer much in the way of easy answers, its story drenched in unreliably narration and stylistic distraction to the point, at times, of incomprehensibility. But if we're going to count that my reaction to a film has validity outside of directorial intent, then it happily sits upon this list with pride. If not, and I just 'got it wrong', well, then we can fight about the nature of art in the comments, I guess.
Bellflower is a trainwreck from start to finish. Every character is a monster, the most broken and unlikable person played with almost a deliberate lack of nuance. The story goes from the kind of meandering slice of life stuff that is the hallmark of bad first-time indie films everywhere to the pulse-pounding chaos of a movie dissolving into anarchy in a way I don't think I've seen done quite as fearlessly since Requiem for a Dream. This film isn't that, not by a long shot, but for its tale of male machismo and the hipster dream and the death of modern relationships what struck me is that whoever wrote this story wants to make you hate everything it presents.
Bellflower, to me, is a heavily obscured critique of the modern male. From the outward 'nice guy' attitude to the private dudebro celebration of immaturity and posturing to the endless male fixation on the virgin-whore dichotomy. From the obsession with nihilistic pop culture to the utter lack of drive to do anything remotely resembling work. It's a movie that represents the apocalypse of 20-something malehood in our culture, a landscape that celebrates laziness and passive-aggressive misogyny and the ravenous consumption of culture for no other sake than a dim sense of entitlement. It is the mirror of our directionless, self-obsessed pace. It's like watching a natural disaster in slow motion--so awful, but I can't turn away. I can't remember ever seeing a movie that reminded me so much of my peers and made me hate them so utterly, but Bellflower was a little like a fever dream of catharsis on some primal level.
The linchpin of whether this movie is awful or genius (to me) rides entirely on whether the entirety of this critique is intentional or just what I took from the movie's many abstractions and fantasies and mush of layers. Certainly it has some of these themes in there, but are they being celebrated or lampooned? The problem with Bellflower is it seems pathologically unable to climb off the fence between earnestness and winking sarcasm. Which is, in its own ultimately meta way, just another problem of my generation. By the time the film dissolves into the (metaphorical? actual? who can tell?) nuclear Armageddon so wished for by its characters, I couldn't help but be glad. Wash it all away. If this is what men have come to, the whole thing deserves to burn.
(Also, it has what is undoubtedly my favorite trailer of 2011. Even with all the pull quotes, maybe my least favorite part of indie films today. )
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Paranoia is a hard thing to get right in films, in part because it hinges so deeply on the unknown. Comparatively, dread is relatively easy, the right suggestions and the absence of a payoff will bring the tension up enough to hit dread soon enough. But paranoia relies upon a lack of suggestion, maybe (if you'll permit the absurdity) the suggestion of a suggestion, a vague threat that even the person we watch suffer paranoia can't even clearly articulate.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a movie drenched in paranoia. From its opening shot of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, in what's easily the best newcomer roll this year) escaping the cult where she's lived for several years to the final ambiguous shots of an unknown future to everything in between, what this movie has going for it even more than its many nuanced performances is that sense of unease. Of a protagonist on the edge of escape or final, ultimate corruption, a knife's edge of fear and uncertainty that makes every scene arresting in a fundamental, character-driven way.
It's the slow unravelling of the truth, of Martha in the present trying to adapt to 'real life' when her loudly suffering sister takes her in. Martha seems incapable of relating her experience with the cult, the manipulations she suffered under the deceptively warm, ultimately terrifying leadership of John Hawkes (also delivering a role that should deserve supporting actor nominations), only able to provide the same justifications and lies that she used while she was with the cult. But as she interacts with this normally flawed family, the memories of her time with this cult break out of her memory with the startling free association of someone suffering a deep, unspeakable trauma.
It's the smart construction that makes this story work, the linear normal timeline and the disjointed scenes of her in the past weaved together in such a way that careful attention is paid of time and time again by seeing just how deep the programming goes, how fundamentally changed Martha is by her experiences, and how shockingly easy it seems to be to lose that core of individuality. Martha Marcy May Marlene is almost modestly understated, but it is that relatability, that sense of how mundane and easy it is for such mental and emotional atrocities to take place, that gives it that fear and paranoia. By the time of the brave, near-perfect final scene the audience is as helpless as Martha, brought through her journey to the other side and left holding just as many pieces of what it means to be broken. It's a quietly genius film, as fragile as its heroine and just as nuanced.