The fact that Fast & Furious 5 came pretty darn close to cracking my top 10 list definitely says something about the state of motion pictures (or maybe just my state of mind) in 2011.
What exactly, though?
Was the bar set so low that the fifth instalment in a seemingly played-out franchise won acclaim simply by being a competent crowd-pleaser with some ludicrously fun elements?
Or was the reverse the case? Had the overall standard of cinema been lifted to such a degree that even a Fast & Furious movie had a legitimate shot at glory?
(By the way, this is the section where you pause to laugh hysterically at the idea of a spot on my top 10 list being considered in any way glorious.)
Of course, it could be neither of those things. It could be just a random accident that a Vin Diesel movie provided more excitement and enjoyment than many other big-ticket big-screen items this past year.
Or it could just be an indication of my ever-dubious taste. You make the call. (Hey, at least I’m not making a case for the quality of Transformers: Dark of the Moon!)
Either way, here are 10 movies – listed in alphabetical order – that I appreciated and admired over the last 12 months. Read on as I try valiantly to explain myself.
Danny Boyle’s best movies put you smack-bang in the midst of the story’s environment or, even better, in the heart, mind and skin of the central character. His telling of the true-life ordeal of daredevil outdoorsman Aron Ralston, forced to make a do-or-die decision when trapped beneath a boulder in the desert, does both with astonishing vividness and clarity, and the filmmaker is aided immeasurably by James Franco, whose antic energy and underlying soulfulness has never been more effective.
Making a heightened psychosexual melodrama about artistic expression and personal identity and coming this close to absolute hysteria without quite toppling over the edge…well, that’s not as easy as it looks, you know. Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman, both appropriately going all-out in their pursuit of excellence, pulled it off with this edgy, elevated dance with the dark side.
Blow for blow, this comedy about a woman trying to make her best friend’s wedding perfect but constantly stymied by her own insecurities and the passive-aggressive efforts of the bride’s new BFF was the funniest of the year. But Bridesmaids’ big heart, evident in the tentative romance between heartbroken Kristen Wiig and nice-guy cop Chris O’Dowd, gave this rude, raucous romp sweetness and soul that was unexpected but wholly welcome.
Confidence is a key trait in a filmmaker, confidence that their approach and their artistic decisions, however unusual, will result in something special, something unique. Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn has it in spades, along with a distinctive voice that helps transform his projects into works of pop-art par excellence. With a boldly blank and enigmatic Ryan Gosling behind the wheel of this moody, brutal getaway-driver thriller, Drive was his most accessible and most exhilarating to date.
HOW DO YOU KNOW
A romantic comedy-drama that’s both wisecracking and wise…well, that’s an increasingly rare sighting in mainstream cinema these days, especially when most rom-coms seem to offer little more than shallow platitudes or a self-impressed sense of humour. James L. Brooks’ film about two people who meet on the worst day of their respective lives and gradually, hesitantly fall for one another was uneven, sure, but when it got it right, it was clever, eloquent and touching.
Even someone as
lazy resistant to activism as myself can’t help but be frustrated by the way the modern economic system seems hell-bent on widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. For a primer into what has helped create and expand this chasm, may I recommend Charles Ferguson’s documentary, which provides an articulate and clear-eyed look at how the deck was stacked in favour of those already holding a winning hand. (By the way, you might also want to check out Ferguson’s No End in Sight, an Iraq War documentary that acts as an interesting companion piece.)
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
“I’m having an insight,” declared Gil (Owen Wilson, great), the Woody Allen stand-in in Allen’s latest film, quickly adding “it’s a minor one”. Minor or not, it doesn’t matter – Allen’s scintillating soufflé about a modern-day novelist rubbing shoulders with the legends of art and literature in ‘20s Paris was his finest comedy in years, and it had some surprisingly wise things to say about nostalgia as sweet relief, addictive narcotic and great inspiration.
I’m hard-pressed to think what tickled me more – this trippy, eccentric animated western with beautiful visuals, a genuinely oddball sense of humour and a plot lifted from Chinatown (of all things!) or that star Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski used their Pirates of the Caribbean clout to smuggle it through the Hollywood system. Maybe the latter, although I really dug the movie.
THE TREE OF LIFE
For mine, the films of Terrence Malick – few and far between as they are – feel more like memories than motion pictures. When I see them, it’s as if the images flickering on the screen were drawn directly from my mind, even though what they depict couldn’t be further from my own experiences. Malick has a way of expressing the collective consciousness unlike any other filmmaker I know, and the ideas and imagery of the sprawling but sharply defined Tree of Life take up residence in the heart and the mind.
With the brothers Coen behind the camera and the likes of Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon in front of it, it was unlikely that this second adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel (the first is best remembered for John Wayne’s iconic performance) was ever going to miss the target. What was so happily surprising was how deftly it combined a rousing tale of childhood adventure and a tough, sophisticated morality play in a funny, exciting crowd-pleaser of a western. And how, in the central role, marvellous newcomer Hailee Steinfeld outshone her co-stars.
What if they made a magnificent mainstream male weepie and no one showed up? That seemed to be the case with Warrior, a story of two generations of men ripped apart by their family’s legacy of violence…and how, ironically enough, that violence just might be the thing that reunites them. There was emotion and emotional complexity to spare here, expertly handled by director Gavin O’Connor and brought to life by a sturdy Joel Edgerton, a simmering Tom Hardy and a brilliant Nick Nolte, bringing such a palpable air of pain and regret to his performance it was at times hard to watch. Of course, if that sounds awfully namby-pamby, it did have dudes beating the hell out of one another. A lot.