Mark Reviews Movies

The 10 Best Films of 2011

BeginnersDriveHugoThe InterruptersMeek's CutoffMelancholiaMoneyballSource CodeThe Tree of LifeWar Horse


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Article by Mark Dujsik | December 26, 2011

Here are the ten best films of 2011:

10. War Horse
Subtlety does not fit into the equation of War Horse, a big film about big themes, nor should it. This is a bleak film about heroism, innocence, and humankind's capability to continually find new, crueler ways to destroy those virtues and itself. It follows a horse, which helps a boy (Jeremy Irvine) and his family out of financial difficulties only to find itself in the fields and trenches of World War I for its troubles. The episodic narrative reveals various people—from two young brothers (David Kross and Leonard Carow), whose promise to their mother conflicts with their duty as soldiers, to a young girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup), who strive for normalcy as the war rages around them—trying to survive. Director Steven Spielberg accomplishes an intimate portrayal within a grand scope with staggering technical prowess. While the sentiment behind the story might seem undemanding, it is an intricately woven tapestry of emotions and ideas. Spielberg believes that an equine can symbolize an angel of our better natures, and the film is all the better for it.

9. Moneyball
An underdog sports film for those of us who have grown tired of the underdog sports movie formula, Moneyball observes the business side of the game of baseball. Billy Beane (Brad Pitt, in a refined slow burn of a performance that is always on the edge of igniting)—himself a former, failed professional baseball player—attempts to reinvigorate the lowest budgeted team in Major League Baseball by using empirical data to choose the best possible team in a sport where the fans, the news media, and those in charge have come to expect home runs and star power. No one—save for his new, numbers-minded assistant (played by Jonah Hill)—believes it will work, and Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin's screenplay examines the prejudiced rationale for those folks' insistence that things be done the way they always have been: Because that's the way things have always been done. Director Bennett Miller reduces the complex system Beane adopts, instead focusing on the power struggles behind the scenes and Beane's burning desire to finally make something out of what he believes is a wasted life.

8. Drive
Every so often during Nicolas Winding Refn's relatively quiet, reflective study of a man with a very specific array of rules, violence erupts in the form of a car chase or a brutal, bloody murder. Even then, Drive is still a vibrant character study, and those pulpy and pulsing action sequences are illustrative extensions of the unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling) and the gallery of rogues surrounding him. The opening sequence, a cat-and-mouse pursuit through the streets of a gloriously seedy L.A. that is a virtuoso piece of a form, informs us of everything we need to know about this enigmatic man and his way of life. The prospect for variation arrives when he meets an essentially single mother named Irene (Carey Mulligan)—a woman for whom he's willing to break his rules—and gets caught up in her husband's (Oscar Isaac) effort to escape a criminal life. Hossein Amini's screenplay (based on a novel by James Sallis) is surprisingly empathetic; even the antagonistic characters (including one played by an uncharacteristically villainous Albert Brooks) have at least one defining scene to make their motivations understandable.

7. Meek's Cutoff
Meek's Cutoff shatters whatever romantic notions we might have of pioneers blazing the trails of the American West during the middle part of the 19th century. Based on a historical event, the film follows three families that have separated from the main wagon train and become lost on a shortcut suggested by their guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Chris Blauvelt's naturalistic cinematography is a major part of the storytelling. Darkness is crushing. The inescapable box of the Academy ratio presents an endless wasteland towering above and descending below the characters. Jonathan Raymond's screenplay presents clearly drawn dichotomies (the roles of men and women, choices based in reason and on emotion, and, most important of all, life and death—epitomized by the climactic image of a tree that is either growing or dying), and the distinction between good and evil is the entire question. Director Kelly Reichardt manages fine performances from the cast, especially Michelle Williams and Ron Rondeaux as "the Indian," who could mean the group's salvation or ruin. This is a thoughtful film that turns the archetypical structure and character of the traditional Western on its head.

6. Beginners
Despite the simplicity suggested by the title, there is nothing simple in the way Oliver (Ewan McGregor) sees the world or the way writer/director Mike Mills presents that outlook. Both Beginners and its central character are adept at compartmentalizing complex emotions, which Mills represents through an assortment of visual gags and montages of general objects or people and specific, defining moments in Oliver's life. At 38, Oliver meets an actress (Mélanie Laurent), starts dating her, and learns that their relationship might be over before it even really begins. At 75, His father Hal (an excellent Christopher Plummer) came out of the closet, got a boyfriend, and learned he had a fatal form of cancer. Past, present, and Oliver's imaginative introspection of both come together, as a single gesture from one person brings to mind a summation of his relationship with another and the emotions of Hal's death to flood back with the view of the back of man's head. There's inevitable devastation here, but there's also a sense of sincere appreciation at the recollection of lives lived with a purpose—joy in the places we're accustomed to misery.

5. The Interrupters
Steve James' harrowing documentary serves as a record of a year in the city of Chicago during which it became national news that the total count of murders in the city outnumbered the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq over the same period of time. In the summer of that same year, the number was almost double. The Interrupters is in the trenches with CeaseFire, an anti-violence non-profit organization that did not receive any of the national media attention that the cause of their mission did. While politicians and activists hold press conferences in the background about the epidemic of violence, CeaseFire and its volunteer "interrupters"—intermediaries within local communities who arrive at the scenes of crimes to cool down the useless desire for revenge, speak at funerals, and visit with families who are suffering from the loss of a murdered loved one or who want to help a family member before it comes to that—actually do something about it. The film accompanies three of these interrupters, all of whom have a past criminal life and have arrived at the conclusion that their experiences can improve the lives of others, and it is a testament to the possibility of redemption for the individual and society as a whole.

4. Source Code
A gripping amalgamation of a race-against-the-clock thriller and mind-bending science-fiction, Source Code is the sort of intelligent, succinct, and inventive film of which Hollywood should be making more. The gimmick of Ben Ripley's screenplay is a doozy. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, has eight minutes to find a bomb on a commuter train outside of Chicago to stop another, more destructive attack within the city, and through a miracle of quantum physics, he has a seemingly limitless number of the eight-minute blocks. There's a dual mystery beneath this cunning scenario: the identity of the bomber and the nature of Colter's existence. On the train, he has a personification of kindness and decency in Christina (Michelle Monaghan) to simultaneously keep him focused on his goal and haunt him with the realization that, no matter what he does, a group of people has died; in his other reality, he has a sympathetic military contact (Vera Farmiga) who knows all but cannot say. Director Duncan Jones has crafted an old-fashioned thriller with an existentially mournful through line. On this phantom train are lives cut short, and between the tiers of reality lies a beating heart that recognizes the human cost of it all.

3. Hugo
Martin Scorsese, the great director and advocate of film preservation, has made a delightful fable that also functions as activism with Hugo. It tells the story of a young orphan named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who lives in a train station in Paris during the early 1930s, maintaining the clocks throughout the station after the deaths of his mother and father (Jude Law) and being abandoned by his uncle (Ray Winstone). The boy is working to repair an automaton—that and a notebook are the only things his dad left him—in his spare time in the hopes that it will reveal a message from his dead father. Also involved are an irritable toy maker (Ben Kingsley), his literate goddaughter and ward (Chloë Grace Moretz), an orphan-hating station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), and a film historian (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is convinced Hugo might have a key to resolving the sad story of Georges Méliès, the filmmaker who brought joy to Hugo's father with a "dream in the middle of the day." The film is full of visual spectacle (Robert Richardson's cinematography offers perhaps the best use of 3-D to date) and cinematic allusions. It's a valentine to cinema by one of its modern masters—a project of passion that lives and breathes with an unshakeable adoration of the medium and of the power of narrative itself.

2. Melancholia
We see the Earth destroyed twice in Melancholia. The first time, it is almost romantic—slow motion, idyllic tableaux of harbingers of doom, metaphors of inner turmoil, and a majestic wide shot of a massive rogue planet crashing into Earth and sending rubble rocketing into space. The second, it is intimate and horrifying. In between the prologue and the deafening cacophony of the final shot, the lives of two women are devastated. They are sisters named Justine (Kirsten Dunst, hypnotizing in a performance of chilly, calculated vocal inflection and dead eyes that perfectly captures the nature of depression) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, traversing the emotionally draining terrain of imminent mortality in the performance of the year). They are lovers of chaos and order respectively, and the contrast between them is both fascinating and a way to accentuate their own unique personalities. Divided into two parts, the film begins in earnest on Justine's wedding day, as she falls apart against the organization of her posh wedding reception. The second chapter observes Claire as she comes to realize that the giant planet approaching Earth will inevitably destroy her and everyone she loves; Justine, meanwhile, thrives in knowledge.

Writer/director Lars von Trier pokes and prods at a primal nerve, and as discomforting as the subject of Melancholia is, the script's complex characterizations and the film's single-minded focus are also exhilarating. This is a fearless film with the power to shake one to the core.

1. The Tree of Life
This is, quite simply, a triumphant piece of filmmaking, at once befuddlingly personal (Some images, like a clown in an attic, perplex) and intensely universal (figuratively and, given a breathtaking sequence that explores the origins of the universe and life on Earth, literally); it is the best film of the year. The Tree of Life encompasses the myriad realms that its title suggests—science (The aforementioned sequence also details the evolution of life on Earth), religion (Characters whisper to an unseen "you," and during that montage of evolution, there is a single shot of a single tree growing in a lush, green plain that suggests Eden), and philosophy (Of course, everything within the film is connected by its fluctuating form). In between its gorgeous interlude of creation and its equally enigmatic valediction at the end of all things is the story of an everyday family in Texas in the 1950s, as remembered by a man named Jack (Sean Penn). Young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is torn between his parents, his father (Brad Pitt), whom the boy says represents "nature," and his mother (Jessica Chastain), whom he says represents "grace."

The consensus, from the piecemeal biography some have assembled for him, is that writer/director Terrence Malick grew up in this place and time. Of course the film is autobiographical, and, at the same time, it doesn't matter. Reality and metaphor exist as peers—as do life and death—as the film's collective voice cries out for some recognition of the meaning in it all. The Tree of Life is an astounding mediation on that most communal of human experiences: At one time, we were innocent and untroubled, and then we were not.

Honorable Mention:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Incendies, Trust

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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