Best Films of 2011
by Adam Mohrbacher
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1. The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick’s metaphysical and seemingly autobiographical cosmology, which juxtaposes the origins of the universe with the physical and emotional development of a young boy growing up in a small Texas community, stands as the greatest cinematic achievement of the year –towering over all other films with its thematic complexity and sublime aesthetics. Containing Brad Pitt’s career best performance and featuring the luminous beauty of 2011’s most omnipresent performer, Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life unforgettably establishes the two distinctive paths that one must choose between as they make their way through life: the way of nature or the way of grace.
In one scene from Beginners, Christopher Plummer’s inimitable Hal desperately pleads with his son Oliver (played by Ewan McGregor) to just share in his happiness with his relationship and not fixate on the potential consequences. This small and emotionally charged sequence (brilliantly acted by McGregor and Plummer) underscores the intense dynamic existing between the father and son pairing at the heart of Beginners’ story. McGregor’s Oliver, with his obsession on how things are supposed to “look like” or “feel like” is a man obsessed with finding some sort of empirical template for the cultivation of a happy life. He is, of course, completely destabilized by his father’s declaration of his authentic sexual identity and the subsequent reinvention of his life. Director Mike Mills sets up this conflict and creatively highlights (through the inclusion of mixed-media inserts to visually solidify Oliver’s neurosis) that the development of a happy life can’t be accomplished by following some sort of predetermined blueprint, it depends on being open to a constant process of ad-libbing and reinvention.
The cries of sacrilege and the accusations of insensitivity were flying as the release date for the publicly dubbed, “cancer comedy,” drew closer. Thankfully, 50/50 proved itself more than capable of transcending all the prejudicial negativity and emerged as a deeply insightful film regarding the painful and isolating feelings provoked through one becoming afflicted with a serious disease. Led by one of the best performances of the year from Joseph Gordon-Levitt (shamefully overlooked during this year’s award season) and featuring superlative worthy supporting work from Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick and Angelica Huston, 50/50 harnesses a deft script from real-life cancer survivor, Will Reiser and epitomizes this immortal mantra from the illustrious Peter Travers: “hilarious and heartfelt.”
4. Martha Marcy May Marlene
With nothing but How the West Was Fun on her filmography there was little to suggest that Elizabeth Olson (the younger sister of the duo who brought television’s favorite 90’s toddler to vivid life) would be capable of inhabiting a role as breathtakingly intense as the titular Martha of Sean Durkin’s feature debut. In Martha Marcy May Marlene Olson simultaneously evokes an upsetting level of social cluelessness and extreme emotional vulnerability. Matched completely by a subtly demonic John Hawkes (who is now, unquestionably, the go-to-guy for portraying rural menace) Olson’s incredible performance fuels Durkin’s film which is highly successful (with its non-linear structure) in depicting the highly damaging implications of a young woman’s involvement with a modern day cult.
With an encyclopedia-like knowledge base and an obviously masterful understanding of the intricacies inherent to the art of film production, who would have been a better choice than Martin Scorsese to bring the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, to life? Similar to the book, Scorsese’s film operates as essentially a celebratation of the film medium and the work of one of its early pioneers, George Melies, in particular. Using one of cinema’s most recent fads (3D) to add additional pop to his adaptation’s beautiful aesthetics (every technical quality of the film is top-notch) Scorsese creates a world that walks a wondrous line between hard reality and whimsical surrealism. All of his actors also bring their A-game –with Sacha Baron Cohen and Sir Ben Kingsley being the obvious standouts. Scorsese’s Hugo, similar to The Artist, is a film obsessed with re-instilling a modern day audience with an appreciation for the medium’s very origins and we are so lucky that both films deliver not only a much needed education but also a blast of terrific entertainment.
6. The Artist
Like Scorsese’s Hugo, The Artist is a celebration of film’s origins. However, while Hugo juxtaposes the latest in cinematic gadgetry with a tale of film’s past, The Artist adopts the exceptionally audacious technique of being a silent film in order to examine a lost era in moviemaking history. Initially, this decision might have been the death-sentence to director Michel Hazanavicius film. However, when you craft a film that is simply so crowd-pleasing and so technically accomplished it is almost impossible that it won’t be strongly embraced. The Artist, with its zippy score and wonderful acting (stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo seem born to play these roles) now seems set to be the front-runner for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. And, in this age of cynicism, where a film (even a silent film) comes along that provides such joyful escapism, this shouldn’t come as a massive surprise.
7. Cedar Rapids
This small comedy, about a feckless innocent attending an insurance conference in the big, bad city (in this case, the big city humorously being Cedar Rapids, Iowa) deserved far more attention than it received earlier this year. In his first leading role, The Office’s Ed Helms strikes the perfect balance between making his character, Tim Lippe, silly and socially stunted but never becoming cartoon-like. His vulnerability and his perpetual anxiety with having to finally confront the larger world feel real and highly poignant. John C. Reilly, as Lippe’s counterpoint, Dean Ziegler, is the catalyst for the general mayhem which engulfs the conference and gives a performance brimming with joy and energy. Finally, Miguel Arteta again proves himself to be enormously capable of providing a sensitive touch to stories regarding small individuals living unglamorous lives.
8. A Dangerous Method
In this intellectual exercise from former splatter-master David Cronenberg we are provided an inside look into the blistering correspondence between two great minds that essentially gave way to the very inception of psychoanalysis. On paper, there seemed to be a high possibility of this film becoming little more than a dry and turgid history lesson. However, in the hands of Cronenberg (whose mastery is evident for anyone who isn’t a complete idiot) this film gains a profound vitality as a series of conversation pieces crackle with energy and allusions to mysticism and sexual repression. The central cast are all excellent (particularly Mortensen, whose Freud is a sardonic and egomaniacal delight) and the distressing sense of foreboding about the impending World Wars leaves a deeply powerful impression on the gravity of these two men’s task - which involved attempting to understand and possibly even heal the psychological wounds of mankind. This was a task that surely became increasingly arduous as Europe plunged itself into war.
As the initial trailers for Warrior began to appear, it seemed as though Gavin O’Conner was attempting to create a carbon-copy of Marky Mark’s passion project, The Fighter. Still, despite the superficial similarities, Warrior manages to powerfully emerge from that previous film’s Oscar-winning shadow and contains a traumatic portrait of family strife that feels far more authentic than The Fighter’s depiction of Micky Ward’s vile (and frankly over-the-top) family. With the viscerally rousing evocation of the brutality intrinsic to the sport of cage-fighting and three totally engrossing performances (Nick Nolte fully inhabits painful regret and Tom Hardy is scarily convincing as the brother whose whole being has been consumed by animalistic rage) Warrior is the latest film to successfully use sports to explore the process of catharsis and potential redemption.
10. Midnight in Paris
With a few choice exceptions (Match Point, Deconstructing Harry) the ol’ jungle cat, Woody Allen, could certainly be accused of having lost a step or two since delivering two watershed films (Husbands and Wives, Crimes and Misdemeanors) over two decades ago. However, with his latest effort, Midnight in Paris, Allen once again pulls out his “best moves” and crafts a slight but completely charming film that could be interpreted as nothing but self-indulgence (the whole film revolves around the valorization of the Lost Generation of artists, who Allen himself adores). However, it is Allen’s razor-sharp observations (which are perhaps directed partially at himself) that past epochs are never able to be viewed objectively and contained problems of their own are spot on and push Midnight into the annals of top-tier Allen -where the film is of course romantic and comedic but also has insightful things to say about how human beings feel and think.
Adam Mohrbacher is a freelance film critic living in Chicago.
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