2011 was not a good year for movies. I didn’t really even notice it at the time. Only now, putting together this list, do I realize how very little we were given. Every single movie listed has something wrong with it. And it’s not as if ten perfect movies come along every year, but this feels like a list you would only be happy with in June, knowing so much more was to come. But there is no more to come. 2011 is long since over.
0. A Separation – This late entry makes all the above a lie. A Separation is perfect. I don’t like putting things in here after the fact (even if I wasn’t as late seeing it as I am recognizing it) but it seems imprudent to move on to 2012 without truly finishing 2011.
From the opening moments, this Iranian drama (that has nothing to do with Iran but couldn’t take place anywhere else) has the kind of tension our movies only seem to dream of. They are only arguing about a divorce neither one of them truly wants, but every word is a trap and will continue to be so. Events unfold naturally, you might say slowly, though you can’t possibly notice since every scene is so saturated with emotion you will wonder how you are enduring it.
Like a Rashomon where you never see anyone’s point of view, the central events are never really shown and could have transpired any number of ways. It is all in how characters strain to defend themselves under the watchful eye of the government and God (which might as well be one in the same) that A Separation‘s genius lies. Everyone has a reason to lie and an impervious will to be the one to tell the truth. It all builds to a climax that would sound so trite to read, but is among the most gut wrenching turns you’ve ever seen. Payman Maadi relates an almost imperceptible complexity as the selflessly tortured husband and father, who doesn’t know if he’s right, but knows he has to seem as if he is or lose everything. Sarina Farhadi is a wobbly mess that will steal sympathy you didn’t know you had. And Shahad Hosseini is the scariest villain to come along since Anton Chigurh. Not physically imposing, but just such a nutcase, you have no idea what he might do next. And worse yet, he thinks he’s in the right. And really, you won’t be sure he isn’t. For as much as no one in A Separation seems guilty, it is clear no one is innocent either.
1. The Future – The same way making your number one movie of the year something so universally accepted as The Social Network seems boring and nearly pointless (even within the arena of accepted pointlessness that is having a top ten list), so it seems is making it something no one saw or wanted to. I am in the idiotic position of defending something that can’t really be defended nor needs to be.
Sometimes, a movie can strike you in a way that feels singular, despite the knowledge that it is not (even when that something fails in theaters and even makes Time magazine’s worst list.) Writer/Director/Star Miranda July is a weirdo who is rarely going to not be interesting in some way. But The Future made it seem as though she had a month or so of clarity and it just happened to coincide with making this movie. The premise (a couple frets about their decision to do something in a month – specifically adopt a cat) is ridiculous but treated with complete reverence. And so everything that leads to (and from) it (including the cat itself – who narrates) is totally natural (and realistic when it isn’t overtly fantastical) even at its most bizarre.
To accurately capture the thoughts and feelings of two characters while they flail through the end (of the beginning) of their relationship shouldn’t be such a remarkable experience. So perhaps The Future’s success is really just a symptom of others’ stunning lack of success. It would be awful if that were somehow revealed to be the truth, but even if it were to be, The Future would still belong at the top of this list. The defense rests its pointless case.
2. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes / X-Men First Class – Ties are stupid. They are stupid in sports, they are stupid in elections and they are stupid in lists. You really can’t decide which is the better movie? Which you liked more? There can barely ever be a true objective tie. There should never be a subjective one. But here we are.
Not really though. It isn’t that I can’t decide which of these is better than the other. It is that I can’t stop deciding. More importantly, it is more convenient (and interesting?) to write about these two movies together.
Both represent the origins of stories with which we are very familiar. And while both have iconic roots, neither has provided anything recently that would be difficult to live up to. And perhaps more importantly, while both these movies are obviously big budget summer releases, neither was particularly heralded. They seemed like afterthoughts in a year when so many other like-minded projects came to the fore.
X-Men First Class was able to assimilate the well-traveled history of the Cuban Missle Crisis with the complex established interpersonal relationships and philosophies of a rich fictional universe. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was able to make relative real world sense out of long-standing science-fiction absurdity. While both are ultimately popular fare designed to prey on both those with attachments to their predecessors and those without, they unobtrusively transcend that foreground purpose to become something much more than they ever had to be.
It is significant, perhaps, that these can be placed so high on this list however. As impressive as they are, it isn’t immediately obvious that they should be so near the top. I thought this as well, as the months passed and they were not bumped further down. So I tested them both against repeated viewings, including one each under the scrutiny of The Benson Interruption. Comedian Doug Benson shows a movie and talks over it with his comedian friends. He has established such a history of doing this to bad movies that it is assumed that is all he will ever show. But sometimes he is just showing newer releases he hasn’t seen yet. The implication remains, of course. But neither crowd nor panel of interrupters could point out any more than a passing flaw. In fact, except for Jen Kirkman’s constant cries of not understanding the fairly straight-forward X-Men First Class and Sarah Silverman’s self-flagelation over feeling sympathy for computer-generated apes, there was barely anything to be said. The comedians just wound up getting entranced by two shockingly well-made movies about things that seemed ridiculous beforehand, but by the end transformed into something marvelous.
4. Attack The Block – Best first effort. Best low budget action. Best performances by unknown actors.
As is the idea that this is some sort of throwback to the good old days. That it is somehow an amazing mash up of The Goonies and Critters. Attack The Block is a product of now. These are not kids with whom many of us are going to identify. There is a brutality in them, and in the movie as a whole, that is glaringly non-existent in either of the aforementioned movies and any other like-minded product of that era we have collectively decided was the best simply because it was ours.
Attack The Block used its limitations to its advantage. Its limited space and simplistic story were economic necessities, but woven through a wide array of characters made for some of the best interpersonal relationships of the year. Making its creatures invisible at night kept effects costs down but it also made them some of the scariest opponents in a long while. Attack The Block doesn’t need your qualified advocacy. It can stand up against anything. And accepts responsibility for all of it.
5. Contagion – Both the critics and the supporters of Contagion seem to say the same thing. They say it is like watching a documentary of a fictional event. They say it is realistic and scary. They say Gwenyth Paltrow is in it for a few minutes.
By its inclusion on this list, you see where I stand. But I do question myself. I fear as if I might be a Steven Soderbergh apologist. Bubble, Full Frontal, The Limey… all have made this same list in their respective years of release. None have been very well received. Contagion was certainly more widely seen though, and there was not any movie more widely felt than this one. While Jaws made people afraid of the water and The Blair Witch Project made them afraid of staring at the wall, Contagion made people afraid of everything. And this without anything remotely supernatural or aggressively violent.
There hasn’t been a movie that so effectively captured a mood (never mind one that hasn’t existed in nearly a millennium) in a very long time. This shouldn’t be able to make up for a lack of plot, but it does. It replaces the need for it. Not that there’s nothing going on in Contagion, but it is more the dread of what it all means and the helplessness that comes with it that matters most. Under any other circumstance, the final sequence showing from where the disease originates would be joke. But because the rest of everything feels so real and terrifying, it’s simplicity makes it seem not only very easily possible, but horrifically inevitable.
6. Young Adult – Young Adult does everything wrong. The main character is a writer with a deadline. Compounding that almost-always-terrible idea is the overt parallel drawn between her inability to grow past adolescence and that what she writes doesn’t either. Then there’s the fact that there isn’t anyone to root for. They are either awful people you would never want to meet or passive pawns you wouldn’t notice if you did. And worst of all, it ends with that deadline being met with a thinly-veiled version of the events we just watched.
But somehow, all of this gets turned into some of the movie’s greatest assets. Charlize Theron so wholly inhabits this wretched helpless person, that you have to stay loyal to her throughout her awful behavior, no matter how you feel about it. When in the end she all but refuses to learn from any of it, you’re happy with that, and not just because it seems more realistic than anything else.
The people around her are slowly revealed to be much more than the clichés they initially represent. Their responses to Mavis are just enough to show us her pull on people, without going so far as to rob them of their own lives that have been going on before her arrival and will continue long after she leaves.
Even the writing part of it is plied into the only window we have to Mavis’ progression. Rather than simply recounting the events of the movie we just watched as so many have before, it conceals everything in the plodding language of the young adult novel it takes the form of, giving us only the glimpse of Mavis’ thoughts the format will allow.
Young Adult is funny without forcing its way past the story and the characters. It’s frustrating and sad and maybe even a little difficult to watch without ever creating a distance. And director Jason Reitman’s ambiguous conclusions are fast becoming the most untraditionally satisfying way to end a movie.
7. Kung Fu Panda 2 / Puss In Boots – I really don’t like ties. I swear.
These are both DreamWorks animated sequels, and as such they share a certain aesthetic that makes them feel somewhat similar, but really, these two movies have very little in common.
One wisely emulated its predecessor and rivals its comedic presence even if it fails to quite live up to the action standards the first one set. The other, also wisely, distanced itself from its origins to the point where you forget they ever happened.
Kung Fu Panda 2 had a lot to live up to. And I don’t just mean because it was a fantastically funny and shockingly impressive action movie the first time. It made a lot of money. And, as we saw just this year (The Hangover II), it is easy to send out a carbon copy of a success and hope for the best. It is probably the preferred route. But rather than rest on these boring and predictable laurels, Kung Fu Panda 2 set out on a new path, without sacrificing any of what made it a success in the first place.
Puss In Boots had a much rougher road. Shrek has been bad lately. Even the last one, which was a vast improvement over the one before did not seem like something anyone needed to see more of. And so by lifting one of the few consistent bright spots of the series and putting him in a reality all his own, we effectively weren’t seeing more Shrek. There’s barely a reference. More than that, it doesn’t even look nor sound nor feel like a Shrek movie. Like Kung Fu Panda, it has some of the best action in any movie of the year and might be funnier than any of them too. Even a cat dance off sequence is done so well it can’t possibly annoy you.
9. Win Win – Some movies are difficult to categorize. This is not always the compliment it is made out to be. It can mean a lot of things, but in the end, Netflix will make up some laborious hyphenated description to house anything that might not so easily fall under a traditional genre. But unlike most things that avert easy description by trying to be too many things at once, Tom McCarthy gives us nothing to go on. His movies are so devoid of everything traditional, they don’t even seem like movies anymore.
But they are, of course. They couldn’t be anything else. You may want to point to Terrence Malick or Gaspar Noé as the prominent filmic artists of today, but that is singling out the visual aspect and ignoring everything else. Tom McCarthy can do everything else. He can get a jarringly realistic performance from an actual teenager, make you care about a sport you otherwise do not, care about a mother you shouldn’t, root for a manipulative selfish lout and laugh all along the way.
A lot of critics, while praising Win Win, couldn’t help but point out that it was “not great.” And for that you can’t fault them. You might find yourself in the same position. The end will come and you will feel great about what you just saw, but you will ask yourself, “But what was the point?” Not realizing feeling great about what you just saw is plenty point enough.
10. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – Sort of the opposite of The Future, this does not speak to me in any way. Nor is it trying to. I do not understand how this story has captured the world’s attention. And I don’t mean because of the brutality involved. But because it is just a trumped up episode of Criminal Minds.
And the characters, supposedly so unique and rich, seem pretty standard as well. Mikael Blomkvist is a fairly hapless detective (Daniel Craig) for being the center of the most obvious convolution in Swedish history. And Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is seen as some kind of hilarious hero when she doesn’t say hello to people. When I do that, I’m an asshole.
And there’s absolutely no reason it had to take place in Sweden. If we’re remaking something, and making everyone speak English in varying accents (or not bothering with an accent at all), we might as well (re)make it ours.
But none of this matters. David Fincher has made such a perfect movie out of imperfect parts you might not even notice them. It’s as if he wanted to challenge himself. Like a master chef who decides he can make something gourmet out of whatever gross stuff you’ve got in your cupboard right now. And he succeeded. Easily. Just don’t think about what it is you are eating for too long.
Crazy Stupid Love – Why can’t we have one of these every year instead of Garry Marshall’s Annual Holiday Extravaganza? Oh, I know. You don’t go see these.
Warrior – A host of amazing performances elevates this obvious and overt mixed martial arts movie way above its regular standing.
Like Crazy – So real sometimes it comes off as annoying. A forced pursuit of a relationship almost no one besides its participants (including the viewer) wants to work out. A central problem so easily avoidable you can’t help but go along with it. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it, but this movie really knows what it’s doing.
Shame – An unresolved creepshow shouldn’t be as engrossing. But then, neither should staring at Carey Mulligan sing the entirety of a really slow version of “New York, New York.” But these things happen.
The Help – If you can manage to not bring larger historical questions into it, The Help can be everything everyone wants me to believe Bridesmaids is.