Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Top Ten Movies of 2011

Strains, Lanes and Automatons 

      Not quite the year of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, 2011 distinguished itself as the year, which demonstrated Hollywood's recidivist tendencies (bad habits), driven, unsurprisingly, by a strong capitalistic urge to promote superheroes, comic book characters, and any other potentially robust profit stream; I guess the ancillary benefits associated with excessive merchandising are too potent a force (sadly Luke Skywalker would pose no threat to the gross infiltration of Hollywood executives, after all, his franchise helped establish the model). Indeed, 2011 was the year of the superhero. But these monetarily-inspired incarnations, while neither transcendent nor groundbreaking, were quite commendable (X-Men: First Class, Thor, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2), revealing an advantageous benefit of superhero hysteria: Successful blending of art-house and commercial fare.
      Objectivity is an underused currency in the world of film criticism. It is not by accident. Subjectivity, on the contrary, rules the day. With the formulation of this list, I posit neither grand allusions of purpose nor propagation. Arguing passionately for or against the inclusion or omission of a particular film, is, without assistance from the writers of Moneyball, an inexact science. Too many of the films on which we comment evince grim mediocrity, and too many of the people who make them betray a disheartening weariness. Therefore, as this is not intended as an objective list, but merely a subjective rendering of my strongest likes, I encourage healthy discourse.
      Many of my selections are, I would contend, standard fare. I have not succeeded in my one New Year's Resolution, which was, no hyperbole: Watch every film made in 2011. Complicating temporal matters is the fact that I've devoted considerable time scrutinizing film history, expending many an hour watching films from all eras: Classic American Cinema, French New Wave, German Expressionism, Italian Neorealism, Hong Kong New Wave, and other essential foreign movements. My knowledge of cinema, beyond an obvious aesthetic maturation, has grown appreciably to the degree: If I were to construct a list of the Top Ten Films I've seen NOT MADE in this calendar year, it would look VASTLY different. That's not to say that 2011 was a bad year; it just means there were very few films that struck a response as visceral as witnessing the brilliance of filmmakers such as Jean-Pierre Melville, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, Robert Bresson, Wong Kar-wai, etc., etc. So, without further ado, I give you my Top Ten of 2011:

      10).  Rise of the Planet of the Apes
             Look, up in the sky...it's a bird, it's a plane, it's....another Hollywood reboot. Cue the exasperated chorus of boos upon which the disgruntled faces of anti-big budget, Hollywood curmudgeons' reside. These boos, quite frankly, accompany virtually every derivative, major franchise reboot. And they are deserved. But then, after reaching a crescendo, suddenly, in the wake of a metamorphosis as if touched by the hand of Scorsese, and drowned out by a rising tide of enthusiasm, the cacophony of boos disappears: A whisper of excitement, a nod of approval. And abruptly, without warning, a raucous thundering of applause. By George, I think I've got it, and by it, I'm referring to the cheat sheet for helming a successful big-budget blockbuster, which one could bypass by immediately hiring Andy Serkis, who voiced Caeser. This cheat sheet must encompass all that is wonderful about Rise of the Planet of the Apes and anathema to the glutton of big-budget fare: Humanize the protagonists, sublimate the special effects with authentic visuals, which, if housed in an immersive, visually inspiring world, point to a self-contained reality, a reality built upon a holistic framework, augmented by commendable ensemble cast, shrewd, stylish direction, and an emotive score. That does not sound like too much, now does it? After following this blueprint and incorporating your own storytelling niche, and unique stylistic flourish, you can successfully stake claim to engineering a meaningful big-budget blockbuster. Not just any hundred million dollar extravaganza, but a movie that simultaneously captures the hearts and minds of discerning moviegoers, whose refined, artistic sensibilities often go overlooked, and causal, I'm-On-A-First-Date-With-This-Girl audience members, who likewise get overshadowed by the one indispensable strata: the multiplicity of kids and, specifically, that holy grail of demographics known as the teenage male, whose importance to studio marketers peaks at about the age of 26. Though I hew closer towards the "refined, artistic" bend, many of my friends, not as serious about film, represent the latter demographic.
      Needless to say, a film succeeding on both commercial and critical fronts is a rare phenomenon. Generally, a high-grossing film, like Hangover 1 All Over Again and Transformers: A How To Guide On Maximizing Michael Bay's Profits, fail miserably in the eyes of austere critics. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, on the other hand, boasts a Worldwide Box Office Gross of $481,234.439 and an all-important (but not really) RT Score of 83%, which is a feat, I defy anyone to suggest otherwise, is remarkable. For these two reasons, and the very fact that I absolutely loved it, Rise of the Planet of the Apes earns the competitive tenth slot in my favorites of 2011 compendium.

      9). The Guard
      Seldom does a film come along with a trenchant awareness of cross-genre filmmaking—in this case, black comedy meets crime—and from this biting awareness arises a multivalent examination. The Guard, from little-known director John Michael McDonagh, stars two of the great circumspect talents of today, Don Cheadle and Brendan Gleeson. What seems meandering, in a world of drugs, cops, gangs, and prostitutes, is actually a rough-and-tumble orchestra of deliberate movement; a focused blend of action and comedy, which intimidates and inspires. Cheadle is his usual, captivating self, imbuing a straitlaced FBI agent, who operates by a rigid code of ethics, with uncanny sincerity. And Brendan Gleeson simply lives up to the legendary esteem of his famous surname (though spelled differently, it sounds just like Gleason, Jackie Gleason). Mr. Gleeson inhabits a sinister world of criminal mafia types, and, emboldened by his penal badge of honor, operates within a harrowing dualistic framework of good and evil. The end result highlights a certain secular brilliance: The idea that man is neither absolutely good nor evil, but a sort of personally acquired amalgam of the two. Together, Cheadle and Gleeson perform sensationally, highlighting a synergy that is often undervalued in modern films. Their onscreen chemistry underscores, without doubt, the single best quality of The Guard: A black man and an Irishman walk into a bar. What follows is the stuff of movie legend.
      Black humor, social decay, gangster hysteria, and moral intrigue spearhead McDonagh's screenplay, and while the trajectory, which encompasses the peripheral edges of Ireland's bucolic mean streets, is tragic, the core focus is one of eternal optimism. Ultimately, McDonagh's taut, underground staple of black comedy earns ninth placement in my list, which, in a moment of self-criticism, is unbecoming the most successful independent Irish film of all time (in terms of Irish box-office receipts) because a film with that homegrown resume ought to be number one.

      8). 50/50
            Embedded in Will Reiser's autobiographical script, which springs to life from the jovial stewardship of Jonathan Levine (The Wackness), is an axiom of humanity that I, myself, learned from an Eastern Philosophies class after being subjected to a quaint little film, Patch Adams. This axiom, transplanting space and time, consists of a core human function: Compassion. While Patch treats this universal philosophy blithely, almost in a reductive course, the message still resonates. A philosophy of compassion, exemplified in the treatment of patients through humor and humility, is one I suspect Reiser identifies with most closely. 
      Ultimately, what distinguishes 50/50 from films like the moribund Patch Adams is a tacit subsumption of comedy and honesty. The best comedies function as either overt caricatures of real life or brutally irreverent depictions of life's ironies. 50/50 satisfies neither condition yet it produces some of the best laughs of 2011. The reason, which is also a commonality of great comedy, is chemistry. If the actors delineate an honest reality—in the case of 50/50, with delicate strides of levity and buoyancy—then moviegoers, who require an investment in the characters' well-being, are able to accept the occasional absurdity of the proceedings. Mr. Director: Tread delicately along the path of incongruous detours. 
      The exceptional and delightful ensemble cast solidifies this genial approach. Seth Rogen combats the myriad accusations of He-Just-Can't-Act by delivering, arguably, the most complete and engaging performance of his career. And one of the leading men of my If-I-Were-Gay bandwagons (incidentally, I'm not, not that there's anything wrong with that), Mr. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, burrows deeper into his performance canvas, illuminating a cerebral dynamism the likes of which most modern actors dare only dream (yep, I may have overstated his talent just a tad). Complementing JGL, the lovely Anna Kendrick who, every time I see her, I'm further convinced of, what I'll term, her subtle, subtextual sophistication: Timely character decisions that elicit an eloquence of both action and tone.  It is difficult to embody, with any measured authenticity, the melancholy of cancer, and yet, perhaps from the recesses of Reiser's own macabre encounter, are Levine, JGL, Rogen, Kendrick and company able to, with dramatic and comedic effectuation, capture its human impact.

      7). Cave of Forgotten Dreams
      Werner Herzog, an enigmatic visionary in an obsessive search for truth and meaning, has been responsible for some of the most provocative, ambitious, and enrapturing documentaries/films in cinema's history: Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man, and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser represent some of his finest work. His latest documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, could have been a painstaking dissection detailing the history of crayons. I would have been captivated. But Forgotten Dreams, fleeing the doldrums of industry, actually documents something extraordinary: Mysteries of France's Chauvet Cave, a clandestine site that houses the oldest-known paintings in the world. 
      Accompanied by paleontologists, archeologists, and art historians, the intrepid Herzog, narrating in his usual, sanguine fashion and employing an arsenal of 3-D cameras, guides us through Chauvet's cavernous expanse, unearthing beautiful images, which date back some 20,000 years, and reminding us all of a basic tenet of humanity: Beauty constantly surrounds us. The claustrophobic setting provides a magnificent, condensed arena from which the resourceful Herzog is able to capture the intricate artwork in its naked, unspoiled state; his studied, deliberate 3-D exploration underscores the natural contours of the walls, providing a glimpse into this rare world of distinct artifacts. 
      Fulfilling the requirements for what seems like a Lifetime Achievement Award, the prolific Herzog, perhaps emboldened by the limited access he received to the historic site, constructs his documentary as a celebration of nature's ethereal beauty, specifically, to serve as a reminder of mankind's innate connection to her. Francois Truffaut, a pivotal founder of the French New Wave, hailed Herzog "the most important film director alive." Cave of Forgotten Dreams makes Truffaut's bold claim seem prescient. There is no debate: Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the best documentary of 2011.

      6). Warrior
      "Warriors, come out to pla-i-ay." From one cult film with the connotation of a man devoted to war to what surely is destined to be another, Warrior is a sterling exhibition, and most important, a heartfelt example of a film that embraces multidimensional composition. Guilty of an inopportune release date (after the enormous bounty of praise given to The Wrestler and The Fighter) Warrior establishes its champion custodian of direction, Mr. Gavin O'Connor as a vital resource in American cinema; a director whose chief talents insinuate a very basic understanding of humanity. O'Connor weaves gut-wrenching emotion into a gripping, embattled tapestry of duality, pieced together by men, equal part martial artist and pugilist, whose primal pursuit in life involves barbaric bouts of manhood. O'Connor's weighty suggestions of dual purpose—mythical vs. reality, hardship vs. romance, style vs. substance, home vs. away—underscore his film's greatest triumph: An uncompromising awareness of the human condition, revealing, unsuspectingly, a fragile dichotomy.
      Warrior is an impulsive drama bolstered by thunderous action sequences and, most striking, an agile tonal resolve; moments of intimacy intersect epic engagements, silence supersedes bluster. An undercurrent of desperation reverberates discriminately. Some viewers, I suspect, may find such routine anguish unbearable. I, for one, found it riveting. For Warrior never disassociates from its bleak atmosphere. A "Who Is The Toughest Kid On The Block" Greek-themed tournament distinguishes the third act precisely in this vein: One grief-stricken veteran of war wanders amok while another primary combatant moves with steady, self-assured focus. Echoing this conflicting emotional affectation is Mark Isham's score. Film emphasizes the temporal potency of music and Isham's score, acknowledging this creed, conveys emotional depth with distinct rigor.
      Ultimately, Warrior is triumphant because the fighter's soul drives the action; not the scorecards. Bound by instinct and resolve and motivated by a greater good, courageous, conscientious men, with negligible imperfections, walk among us everyday. Warrior emphasizes this truism with inspiring, exciting gusto. Cliched moments occasionally surface, but never to insult our intelligence. Handled with delicate precision and affixed with firm pacing, O'Connor's sports-drama succeeds because of adroit attention to detail. Nurturing a moral message, mobilized by bleak and brutal circumstance, O'Connor's Warrior intimates one essential universal insight: Morality is besieged, on an intemperate basis, by an opposing struggle between innocence and corruption.

      5). Midnight In Paris
      Woody Allen is an accomplished director, inspiring some critics to anoint him "the Greatest"—incidentally I'm not one of them. His work, prolific across generations, encompasses an eclectic swath of subjects. But his treatment of these subjects, in the last decade-plus, has been, in a manner not dissimilar from the phonetic spelling of his name, wooden. Midnight in Paris emphatically changes all that. 
      The mediocre Woody I've grown up with (Cassandra's Dream, Whatever Works, Melinda and Melinda, among myriad others), a shell of his former virtuoso self (think of his classics such as Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters), is nowhere to be found in his latest picture. Autobiographical elements, an Allen trademark, abound with feverish gusto, as Midnight centers around the romantic interludes (literary and otherwise) of our central protagonist Gil, a middling screenwriter played to perfection and with stunning grace by Owen "I Should Disown My Brother Luke" Wilson. Gil, struggling to finish his first novel, is yearning desperately for a burst of inspiration. Resigned to the plentiful Parisian culture via an opportune vacation, he discovers a portal, how fortuitous it seems, which leads to remarkable encounters with the effulgent minds of The Lost Generation: Literary luminaries such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein as well as artistic progenitors like Picasso, Dali, and Luis Bunuel. Transported to the Roaring Twenties (personally my favorite historical era), Gil has miraculously infiltrated the very source of his wistful inspiration. And his muse is merely an antique car ride away.
      Modeled somewhat as an antithesis to Martin Scorsese's Hugo, Midnight In Paris derives inspiration, not from cinema per se, but from animate, living and breathing phenomena. Simultaneously a love letter to a forgotten generation and presently a thriving one—Paris, still a beautifully quaint city, which roars to life one magically whimsical nightAllen's cinematic epistolary reverberates absolute revelry. And it dramatizes, with an intimate, deft touch, an essential but oft-forgotten lesson: While born from sincere inspiration, nostalgia, comforting in its sweet disposition, is ultimately an unfulfilling, regressive force, degenerating our present preoccupations, and distancing us from the vital reality of the present. Woody Allen is a sage storyteller and Midnight In Paris, deeply romantic without being sentimental, is his best story in over a decade. It is, without reproach, the very definition of a film that demands an immediate second viewing.

      4). Attack The Block
      Who is Joe Cornish and why is he responsible for the best science-fiction film of 2011? I had no answer to either of these questions for most of the year. The very mention of such a thought, preposterous and foreign to me those many months ago, would elicit a blank stare rivaling most Keanu Reeves. But this all changed as I was coaxed into a late-night showing of Attack The Block. And what an auspicious stroke of luck it proved to be. Not only do I know that Cornish insinuates a widely grown, usually tall cereal grass, but most important, I can corroborate the assertion that his seminal film, Attack The Block, qualifies as the best sci-fi flick of 2011.
      Jolten Joe Cornish engineered a refreshingly original spin on the hackneyed alien invasion premise. He accomplished this at the outset by upending the traditionally rigid structure of character-building, portraying his motley band of protagonists, not as peerless arbiters of good, but callous thugs with nary a redeemable quality. Cornish slowly but effectively nurses the audiences' appraisal of these delinquent lads by cultivating (you know, Corn-ISH) an authentic affectation, commensurate with their upbringing, their surroundings, their sensibilities. It is unequivocally a daring approach, but it's their block and we're merely spectators. The best protagonists necessitate empathy, but never at the expense of an honest portrayal. Thankfully, not-your-average Joe Cornish, heeded this message.
      The young cast, soldiering the brunt of Cornish' emotive responsibility, performs exceptionally well. The film's lead aptly named Moses (John Boyega), is charged with the bulk of the emotional overhaul, or in this case, metamorphosis. Moses espouses universal characteristics of strength found in any great hero: Resourcefulness, restraint, and resolute composure. Boyega rises to the challenge of his biblical archetype, delivering an authentic performance that both excites and terrifies.
      Reminiscent of Producer Edgar Wright's oeuvre (director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), Attack The Block, unperturbed by its low budget, offers an adventurous, uncompromisingly bold thrill ride, fueled by an indispensable distillation of pathos, passion and provocation. Joe Cornish, I know who you are: You're that guy who made the best sci-fi film last year.


      3). Hugo
      You can find my earlier review by clicking here. Since I've already sung the innumerable praises of Martin Scorsese's love letter to film, I'm simply going to underscore the other mesmerizing quality of Hugo: It is a beautiful tribute to the power of perseverance and beauty of expression. 
      The film's star, Asa Butterfield, is desperately seeking an answer to his purpose in life; more specifically, what creative niche, innate in us all, represents his true calling in life. 
      Hugo, an orphan, passes the days in a Paris railway station, undaunted by the bizarre, labyrinthine world surrounding him. Scorsese, with an adroit, delicate touch, ensures that he discovers his purpose. And, mirroring the inexorable search of the inventive orphan, Georges-Jean Melies, one of cinema's formative filmmakers, burdened by the duties of an antique toy shop, is anticipating a life-affirming revelation: His past work, encompassing the lion's share of his professional life, is not forgotten. With a sprinkle of magic and a stamp of passion and prejudice, redemption binds the crisscrossing adventures of Hugo and Georges.  
      Scorsese's 3-D footage is pristine, accentuating the wondrous atmospheric tone, which accompanies Hugo's and Melies' personal journeys. An unqualified master of any camera he tinkers with, Martin Scorsese demonstrates that we can, with propitious results, celebrate the past while also, perhaps most important, look bravely towards the future.
      3-D can be a cumbersome experience. More often than not, I find it deplorable; even worse for  my stomach, nauseating. But Scorsese is a technical maestro, a relentless photographer and ingenious manipulator of movement. Consequently, his 3-D exploration, much like Herzog's flawless application in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is robust and resplendent; never a distraction, always a treat.
      Hugo is a fantastical journey, guiding us beautifully through the impetuous history of cinema. Some consider the personal filigree a bit incestuous and overwhelming. I found it exemplary; in fact, one should harbor no skepticism in Hugo's appointment as the Next Great Wonder of the World.

      2). Tree of Life
      Terrence Malick's sprawling meditation of life is as ambitious a film as Stanley Kubrick's piece de resistance, 2001: A Space Odyssey. A technical achievement unsurpassed stylistically by every film this year, Tree of Life combines temporal extravagance with uncanny ambrosial awareness. Employing visual, narrative devices anathema to Hollywood, Malick exhibits, through ellipsis, elaborate visual exploration, and aggressive spacial arrangement, a rare fusion of style and technique. Astounding one's senses like the lyrical, transcendental rhymes of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Tree of Life is the undisputed cinematic equivalent of prodigious poetry. 
      Tree of Life examines, with a sharp dualistic lens, the various relationships of a Texas family during the 1950's. The father, Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) is a masculine force, a stern disciplinarian, a pillar of justice while the mother, Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain), an archetype of contrast, is a feminine force, a compassionate caregiver, a pillar of mercy. Malick dutifully dissects these polar relationships, heeding particular attention to the sibling affairs of young Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his younger brother, R.L. Malick employs these dichotomies to illuminate the antagonistic reality of growing up. Relying primarily on adult Jack's (Sean Penn) point of view, Malick's miraculous third act underscores the fraternal bonds of brotherhood, lingering on temptations of danger and pleas for forgiveness. 
      Malick, a philosophical filmmaker, designs Tree of Life as a robust synthesis between nature and grace, father and son, brother and sibling, husband and wife. From a portrait juxtaposing the creation of universe with the creation of family life, Malick espouses the belief that man, a primal arbiter of good, is fallible. Mr. O'Brien is, in a way, God of his family; his experiences, through the reminiscences of his son, Jack, parallel the creation of the world. A fundamental theme of Malick's oeuvre is the idea that man has lost his way and, cultivated by circumstance and deep-rooted motivation, strives to rediscover paradise. But, as life teaches us, you cannot. Everyone loses their innocence. The problem, Malick asserts, is you cannot regain it. Young Jack wants to please his dad so desperately, but, after an arresting scene at the family dinner table, realizes the futility of his ambitions; his father is fallible. It is one of the most powerful displays of the volatile human condition. Through a disciplined visual composition, and shrewd, deliberate direction, Malick reveals years of emotion in a few frames. Ultimately, from a narrative assessment, Malick's ambitious tale ends on an optimistic note, as Jack, now an adult comes to peace with his family and his struggles.
      Malick illuminates, what I consider, a career-defining performance from Brad Pitt. He is the de facto family patriarch, struggling to raise his three boys in a manner diametric to his wife's nurturing presence. Pitt's performance, consequently, hits on two pivotal notes: As the strict family patriarch and, with greater emotive difficulty, as a man oppressed by the allure of the American dream, scorned by a materialistic world. O'Brien's (Pitt) resentment, mobilized by fits of rage, complicates his corrosive relationship with his eldest son, Jack. From a journey spanning adolescence and adulthood, and harboring dualistic themes, Pitt's dynamic performance provides insight into Sean Penn's "mysterious" character, which, despite remembering his father as a brutal disciplinarian, is able to find solace in the realization of his father's virtuous intentions.
       The film is messy in some areas, but Malick's innovative strokes, encompassing his use of visual language, and his broad stylistic flourishes, which devastate emotionally, are magnificent. Yes, Tree of Life is pretentious, but in an "If You Could Do What I Could Do With A Camera Then You Would Not Complain" kind of way. Malick's technical proficiency and cerebral approach has never been put to better use. And virtually every aspect of Tree of Life, from dialogue, imagery, and tone, coheres seamlessly. 
     Tree of Life is one of the most breathtaking, ambitious home movies ever designed, employing jump-cuts, deft camera movements, and bold proclamations. Every single-shot has weight and significance. The camera is constantly moving, seeking something ethereal, something I would contend, that mirrors the motivations of this pastoral Texas family, because unsurprisingly, Tree of Life is explicitly Christian. But Malick, through a mise-en-scène both honest and compassionate, never proselytizes. His religious undertones supply thematic cohesion; they are not religious recruitment tactics. 
      I am aware many a man found it terribly boring; from what I gather, many disgusted cinemagoers walked out of the theater altogether. But I suspect these people, without being reductive or disingenuous, came in expecting a Brad Pitt film, or Malick supporters, who reside on the fringe of fandom, were expecting a reconstitution of Badlands or The Thin Red Line. Or, most detractors, I presume, came in expecting another Hollywood family story. Of course, Tree of Life is none of these things. Not even close.
      There is incredible hostility, cataclysmic in tone, towards it. Most moviegoers, as I addressed above, were probably expecting a conventional family drama headed by Brad Pitt. But what they walked into, unbeknownst to their film appetite, was the most ambitious, narratively bizarre film they've ever seen...maybe, I posit, since they suffered through Kubricks' 2001. Yes, that film: Only the greatest science-fiction film of All-Time. So, maybe, just maybe, the intense vitriol surrounding Malick's Tree of Life will, with time, dissipate and wane. Revisionist history, I predict confidently, will shine the most glorious light of adoration on Malick's meditation of life. With an economy of dialogue and exposition, antithetical to most modern films, Malick created an unrivaled visual composition, a synergistic ballad of style and atmosphere, a studied culmination of his upbringing.

      1). Drive
      You can read my paroxysm of praise here. Euphoria is the only word that can singularly encapsulate my appreciation of Nicolas Winding Refn's existential exploration about a Driver who drives for hire. From a gripping opening sequence, immediately transporting us into the enchanting lifestyle of Refn's existential hero, to operatic moments of violence and romance, Drive is the closest to cinematic perfection, in my opinion, of any film from 2011.  
      I cannot shake the visceral totality of Drive. Refn's exploration of male savagery, from the point of a view of a reluctant hero whose actions dictate his awareness, is a marveling tower of achievement. The gifted composer, Cliff Martinez, constructs an ingenious score, integrating synthesized europop with retro 80's music. The musical arrangement substitutes exposition, functioning as a kind of dictator of dialogue. Carefully framed shots illustrate the Driver's manic make-up, revealing a proficient penchant for committing grotesque, but necessary acts of violence. Ryan Gosling, as he probes these brutal depths, is an agonizing force both terrifying and captivating. Stylistic and tonal similarities materialize, calling into memory the peerless provocateur, Mr. Gary Oldman, whose exceptional performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy mirrors the Driver's subtle dynamism. And Albert Brooks, as a sort of Don Corleone operating on the fringes of Hollywood, illustrates a knack for exaction; his manifestation of bad guy violence, calm and understated, is frightening. 
      Drive's style is superb. The ambiance, an underbelly of crime and corruption, is pieced together by stark minimalism, which pays homage to the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, and specifically, Yates' Bullitt and Schlesinger's Day of the Locust. An unrivaled genre stylist, Refn's footage, seductively photographed, undresses the cars and characters in an almost pornographic manner. Crisp images color a landscape dominated by sleazy music. The moody atmosphere, highlighted by violent chases and rich vistas, combine to deliver, unquestionably, a punch so palpable and forceful, a young Mike Tyson would cower in fear.
      There is a moral at the end of the story. Refn shows us what happens when people stop being polite, and start getting real when a guy finds himself way over his head, and is forced to confront amorality. What Gosling does in terms of economy, ellipses, and subtle expression is remarkable. There are no incidents of static energy, or wasted shots, or beleaguered stunts. Quite the contrary, there is a real sense of order and command, as if General MacArthur, firm on the warpath, is commanding his men through the sinewy fields of the Philippines.
      My contention is that silence and economic colloquy emphasize Refn's massive confidence as a director. He does not undermine our intelligence with excess exposition nor does he color moments of silence and action with feckless words and banter. Ultimately, Drinking and Driveing is not against the law. I promise. Drive is an intoxication of pure, unadulterated ecstasy; the cinematic libation to end all cinematic libations.

     Honorable Mentions: Margin Call, Too Big To Fail, 13 Assassins, War Horse, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Bridesmaids, Contagion, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, Fast Five, Moneyball, The Ides of March, Super 8, Thor, Tucker & Dale Vs Evil, The Lincoln Lawyer, Limitless, The Adjustment Bureau, Rango, and X-Men: First Class.

   Deplorable Duds: Just Go With It (Never!), Priest (More like Executioner), Something Borrowed (Followed by Something Burned), Red Riding Hood (Code word for street gang, Bloods), Season of the Witch (Last Season), Abduction (Then Castration), New Year's Eve (YUCK: Cinematic STD), The Roommate (From Hell), Bucky Larson (Larceny is punishable by guillotine), Jack and Jill (Went up a hill, then vanished without a trace)....Surely there are more disastrous duds, but even reminding myself they exist by writing their titles is infuriating; absolute exercise in futility. No mas! Finito!

      Movies I Have Not Seen (Yet) But Have Top 10 Potential: A Dangerous Method, The Artist, The Descendants, The Mill and the Cross, A Separation, Shame, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Certified Copy, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Take Shelter, Melancholia, The Help, The Interrupters, Young Adult, and The Adventures of Tintin

      Ultimately, I found it extraordinarily difficult to declare 2011 either an unusually strong or unusually weak year for films. As in any year, there were pleasant surprises and dreadful disappointments alike. But, gun to my head, if I had to pinpoint one quality commensurate with each of my favorites, it's a sense of genuine creative affectation: The belief that each one of these films was made from a reservoir of genuine inspiration, with an earnest degree of love, and an eye for curiosity.

      That last paragraph concludes what is surely my longesttttttttttttttttttttttttttt post EVER!!!! FYI: My fingers are tired and my eyes are strained. Enjoy! 

      P.S. I cannot wait to see what 2012 offers us. Maybe my "Ten Most Anticipated Films of 2012" post can be arranged :)


  1. Diverse and interesting list, but then I expected nothing less as you are such a student of film. I agree absolutely with 50/50 and I am now convinced to see Rise. The others look quite interesting and I have added them to my list of must watches. I loved your Honorable Mentions and cracked up at your Deplorable Duds.

  2. I haven't seen everything on your Top Ten list but I intend to, especially since it has received praise from you. I of course LOVED Drive, Tree of Life, Midnight in Paris and now Rise of the Planet of the Apes. That one was a pleasant surprise. I forgot about Attack the Block. I have been meaning to see that as well.

    Nice collection of deplorable duds!! haha-What the hell was Sandler thinking with Jack and Jill, seriously.

  3. Wow, I'm sorely out of the loop on movies these days. (I blame my 6-month-old. Actually, that seems harsh. I'll blame my wife instead.) Of your top 10, I've only seen one so far -- Midnight in Paris, just last week -- with 5 others sitting on my Netflix list. But since your taste in movies is excellent (i.e. it mirrors my own), I shall add another 3 to my list (or maybe all 4, if I change my mind about seeing Tree of Life).

    At least, all is not lost. I did see 8 of your honorable mentions. And I also caught a fantastic play based on a movie (Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, which was turned into a farce for the stage.) Anyway, thanks for keeping me abreast of the cinematic landscape. I look forward to seeing your most anticipated list in the near future.

  4. I wouldn't call ROTPOTA a reboot, because it didn't have anything to do with the other Ape films. The just used the title as a gimmick. My opinion though. :) Oh, and I would have put it higher on the list. First Class deserved to be on that list as well.

    And what's with "Drive"? It's on the No.1 spot on everyone's list. By the way my dad watches it at the moment. Yes, it's a great movie, but I don't think it's necessarily exceptional. It's a personal list, I know.

  5. I still haven't seen Attack of the Block, but it's on my list. While Drive wasn't my favorite, it was definitely one of the best movies last year.

  6. Excellent list : DRIVE, HUGO, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, 50/50 all great films. ATTACK THE BLOCK was hugely enjoyable. SUPER 8 was equally so for me. JJ Abrams' tribute to ET, considering the executive producer no surprise. Roland

  7. @ Melissa

    Thank you for the sweet appraisal. I very much consider myself a "student of film," purely in the autonomous sense, which, I would argue, is the best way possible to absorb cinema.

    Russ and I have been pestering you about Rise for a month now. I'm glad you've succumbed to the intense pressure. HAHA!

    I enjoyed highlighting other worthwhile films. It was a very solid year for film after all. And Deplorable Duds warrant my deepest scorn. No further need to elaborate. LOL.

    @ Nicole

    Aww, thank you very much! Your kindness is most gracious. I'm honored to associate with you in the blogosphere. You're one of the sweetest ladies around :)

    Glad we agreed almost identically on our Top 5. We both deserve bonus points—or cool points—for placing Drive in the #1 slot where it so rightfully belongs!

    Thanks! I'm sheepish about even admitting to having seen seen those duds.

  8. @ Nate

    Congratulations on the newborn! I'm a little late acknowledging your good fortune, but there's no such thing as a shortage of well-wishes when it comes to the birth of a child. I wish you the best of luck in your parenthood!

    I would not worry about being, as you contend, out of the loop. The one thing about movies is they can be enjoyed at any moment in time. Case in point: I just watched a movie made during World War I.

    Good to see you've caught MIP. It was Allan's best film in a LONG time. And thanks for heeding my advice. It's good to know these lists actually account for something.

    That play must have been fantastic. Good for you. And you're welcome. You've got a lot of great cinema to digest...of course, being a parent, even I would argue, trumps that!

  9. @ Nebular

    Actually, Rise encapsulates the very essence of a "reboot." In making my point, I submit the ubiquity of facts we call Wikipedia:

    The verb reboot, in media dealing with serial fiction, means to discard much or even all previous continuity in the series and start anew with fresh ideas.[1] Effectively, the writer(s) declare all established fictive history to be irrelevant to the new storyline, and start the series over as if brand-new.[1]

    Rise qualifies exactly as reboot. I rest my case.

    I watched Rise twice and I must admit a mildly unfortunate revelation, which is my enjoyment diminished. That was not true of any other film in my Top 10. For that reason alone, I could not place it higher.

    Drive was indubitably the epitome of everything I love about film. It was a celebration of style, nuance, action, beauty, music, art, and so much more. Refn is a remarkable visual talent and, I suspect, his adoration will rise exponentially as his career and familiarity with broader audiences continues to rise. In my view, Drive is the absolute embodiment of "exceptional." But I respect your opinion, so you may disagree till eternity and I'll be cool with it!

    Thanks for honest critique :)

  10. @ Alex

    Thanks, man! I think Attack of the Block is right up your wheelhouse. You're going to thoroughly enjoy it. Such a fresh, exciting experience.

    @ Roland

    Thanks for commenting and following! Much appreciated. I always encourage new voices and personalities. Dialogue is my middle name!

    Also, thanks for validating my picks. I respect the fact that you've seen all of these great titles. That makes you infinitely cool in my book.

  11. Matty - a great list - one I will use as a To See guide for the ones I missed. Well played, sir.

  12. Thanks, Craig! There's a lot of goodness to digest :)