Living in Omaha means having a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to compiling a year-end, best of films list. A number of the titles that appear on lists compiled in LA or NY are limited releases, which means that those of us who aren’t living on one of the coasts won’t get to see those titles until sometime during the first quarter of 2012. Or, chances are, we won’t get to see them at all. Say what you want about Netflix, but I’ve been very thankful to the company for broadening my access to film. (Many of the rarer titles appearing on NY and LA lists can be found on Instant Watch.)
I recently found a list that someone had compiled on IMDB of films that were released in 2011. On that list were about 200 titles; so far, I’ve seen 94 of them. Narrowing these titles down to what represented, for me, the Best of the Best has been a challenge. Sometimes, after I see a film, I will think it’s the greatest thing ever. A few months later, I’ll rethink my initial reaction, and the film will either lose or gain points. I’ve done a lot of thinking about my list this year. A LOT. And I’ve tried to see as many films as I could so that I wasn’t missing any masterpieces. I hope I haven’t. ***
My list is ranked, pretty much, in order of my love for these films. It includes some popular titles, and I make no apologies for this. I like what I like. After all, I’m not trying to show how sophisticated or intellectual I am. This list is very personal to me, and the films on it were ones that made an impression on me. Some of these I saw several times in the cinema. Many, I now own on Blu-ray.
- Warrior – Co-written and directed by Gavin O’Connor, this sports drama had the bad luck of being promoted as a mixed martial arts rock ‘em, sock ‘em, when it’s primarily an incredibly moving tale about a family of fighters torn apart by alcoholism and abuse. You won’t find a bad performance in this film. Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, and Nick Nolte all deserve awards for their brilliant portrayals. I really wish that more people would give this phenomenal film a chance. Better than Rocky. Better than The Fighter. My favorite film of the year.
- Martha Marcy May Marlene – Written and directed by Sean Durkin, this psychological drama is so accurate in its portrayal of a cult that it could be a documentary. It’s Charlie Manson and his family to a T. Elizabeth Olsen is the stand out as the titular Martha. John Hawkes is seductively sinister as the cult leader. Can’t wait to own this. The only drawback is the abrupt ending, which left many in the cinema saying “what?” This is one of those films that you have to see more than once.
- Beginners – Written and directed by Mike Mills, this romantic drama centers on a young man who finds out that his elderly father has terminal cancer and that he’s gay. For personal reasons, this film really touched me, and the acting is perfection. Christopher Plummer delivered a one-two knockout punch with performances this year in Beginners and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Kudos to the director for casting the cutest dog in the history of cinema and then really maximizing that dog’s screen time. Ewan McGregor, as always, is wonderful in this.
- Rise of the Planet of the Apes – This sci-fi/action/drama has a very relatable, human story at its core – a scientist is trying to cure his father of Alzheimer’s – and it also offers powerful commentary on how animals are used for “scientific” purposes. John Lithgow is fantastic, but the real star is Andy Serkis, who helped to bring Caesar to life. Rise of the Planet of the Apes took me on a real emotional rollercoaster ride. This is big budget, summer blockbuster fare at its finest.
- Drive – Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, this crime/drama/thriller wasn’t promoted properly, so audiences expecting Fast Five with Ryan Gosling got pretty angry. This is a slow film. There is no doubt about that. But it’s also a fascinating morality story about how a leopard can’t change its spots. The violence is pretty unsettling. Great, subtle, performances by Gosling, Albert Brooks, and Bryan Cranston. I can’t wait for this to come out on DVD. Great soundtrack, by the way.
- 13 Assassins – Directed by Takashi Miike, this action/adventure/drama is essentially the very popular 47 Ronin but with fewer samurai. That said, of all the samurai/revenge films that I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a TON, this one is the best. Koji Yakusho is fabulous. Very tragic story, but man is it amazing. I paid $9.99 to see this on Amazon, and then immediately bought it on Blu-ray.
- The Way – Adapted and directed by Emilio Estevez, this adventure/comedy/drama is about a father who, after his estranged son dies, decides to undergo the “El Camino de Santiago” pilgrimage in his son’s place. Along the way, he meets up with three very different traveling companions. Martin Sheen has never been better. This is a very touching story about human connection. Made me want to take the pilgrimage myself.
- Melancholia – Written and directed by Lars von Trier, this sci-fi drama is breathtakingly beautiful, and will have you thinking about it long after you’ve seen it. Although you could say it’s “slow,” I would prefer to use the word contemplative/reflective. If your life has been touched by mental illness, this film will make sense to you on a level that it won’t for others. The best von Trier film to date, and Kirsten Dunst is amazing.
- A Year in Mooring – Written by Peter Vanderwall and directed by Chris Eyre, this indie drama centers on a man who copes with a tragedy by spending a year on a boat docked in a harbor. I know that sounds pretty uninteresting, but it’s anything but. It’s emotionally raw but very relatable. Contemplative/reflective also apply to this wonderful film. Josh Lucas, and his blue eyes, is why this story works so well. Here’s to this film finally getting a wider release. (I saw it at a Native American film festival.)
- The Thing – This prequel, helmed by Matthijs van Heigningen Jr., is frightening, claustrophobic, unnerving, and a delight. I didn’t think it could happen, but it enhanced my already heart-bursting love for John Carpenter’s 1981 The Thing. Another great film that died a horrible death at the box office. It comes out at the end of January for rental. Do yourself a favor, and see this. If you like horror sci-fi, this is a must-see.
- Poetry – Written and directed by Chang-dong Lee, this Korean drama centers on a 65-year-old woman who is raising her grandson. When she isn’t cooking for this teen-aged disrespectful brat, she is taking care of a disabled man. Usually carefree, she is emotionally shaken when she learns of a horrible crime perpetrated by a family member. And then she learns of an impending personal health crisis. In the midst of all this chaos, she finds some comfort in poetry. Poetry is a bit “lighter” in tone than Joon-ho Bong’s 2009 film Mother, but the films are very similar. I found myself very engaged in this woman’s life/situation. The lead actress Jeong-hie Yun is a wonder.
- Another Earth – Co-written and directed by Mike Cahill, this subtle sci-fi drama centers on a young woman who gets into a fatal accident with a university professor and his family on the night that a duplicate planet is discovered. Another Earth is primarily about guilt, redemption, forgiveness, and hope. And yet it also raises some basic philosophical questions. People who enjoy the TV series Fringe will probably appreciate this film. I really liked the main character played by Brit Marling, a lovely actress who shares screenwriting credits, and I found the ideas raised by the film to be worth contemplating. The ending is open to interpretation. I found it to be a bit unsettling.
- The Trip – I rarely watch or like comedies, but this is a notable exception. Steve Coogan, playing an exaggerated version of himself, reluctantly takes his friend Rob Brydon, also playing an exaggeration of himself, on a road trip through England to review some of the country’s best restaurants. The scenery is breath-taking, and the chemistry between the two leads was electric. They try to one-up each other all the time by doing impressions of famous people; I found it hilarious. I was actually a bit sad when the film ended after 107 minutes. I think I would have watched a three hour film about these two guys.
- Skin I Live In – A film by Pedro Almodovar, this drama/thriller was a bit slow to get going, but once it ended I couldn’t stop thinking about it. In fact, I’m still trying to figure out what Almodovar was trying to say with it. (It’s like the riddle of the sphinx.) The film centers on a brilliant, but clearly insane, plastic surgeon, who after suffering the death of his wife and the suicide of his daughter, throws himself into his questionable “work.” What is his “work”? It involves transgenesis and a mysterious woman that he keeps locked up in his home. It is a bit like Eyes Without a Face, but 10 times more disturbing/twisted.
- Limitless – Directed by Neil Burger, this sci-fi thriller is about what happens when an author suffering from “writer’s block” begins taking an experimental drug that allows him access to his entire brain. Bradley Cooper amazed me with his performance. I think I liked this so much because this guy is living my fantasy. Who wouldn’t want to be able to learn a language in minutes? Be able to write a brilliant novel in a day? I’ve already seen this film three times, and it never diminishes in quality.
- Source Code – After Moon, I couldn’t wait to see what else director Duncan Jones had up his sleeve. This is the answer, and it is pretty brilliant. In this action/sci-fi/mystery, an “agent” keeps getting sent back in time so that he can solve the mystery of who bombed a Chicago commuter train. Jake Gyllenhaal is wonderful as is Michelle Monaghan, who plays his eventual love interest.
- X-Men: First Class – I’m an enormous X-Men fan. I’ve seen all of the films in the cinema and have bought all of the DVDs. (I even like X-Men Origins: Wolverine.) If it were up to me, the franchise would never end. Naturally, I was chuffed beyond belief when I heard that they were making an origins film for Magneto. Not only is his story in here, but you also get the back story on Charles Xavier and some of the first Mutants. I found it all rather fascinating. Michael Fassbender is truly amazing as the young, vengeful and dangerous Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto. What I really like about X-Men is that it offers you two very different approaches/worldviews to the same situation. Xavier sees good in humanity and wants to build bridges; Erik, who has seen the darkest side of humanity, is convinced that no one can be trusted. I have to admit, I’m in accordance with Magneto. Kevin Bacon is also very good in a small role as Magneto’s role model.
- Kill the Irishman – Co-written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, this biography/crime/thriller is based on the true story of Danny Greene, an Irish-American “Robin Hood” who just couldn’t be killed. Ray Stevenson delivers an award-winning performance as Greene, and Christopher Walken and Vincent D’Onofrio offer great support. This movie really needs to be seen by more people. I recommended it to my parents, and they both loved it.
- The Wave – Co-written and directed by Dennis Gansel, this German drama is loosely based on a social experiment that was carried out by an American high school teacher. In this film, the teacher wants to demonstrate to his class how totalitarianism could occur in modern (1980s) Germany. And the results are disturbing. This is a 2008 film but only became available on DVD this year in the U.S. I watched this with curiosity, fascination, and a bit of fear. I would really like to see more of actor Jurgen Vogel’s films. He’s great! It reminded me a bit of the exceptional 2001 film, Das Experiment.
- Contagion – Directed by Steven Soderbergh, this drama/thriller feels like a documentary, because it begins with someone getting sick and then follows the CDC as it tries to find a cure before the situation turns into a devastating pandemic. (Too late.) I’m a fan of outbreak films, and this one is the most clinical available. Some might see that as a problem. I saw it as fresh. My husband is already clamoring for the two-disc Blu-ray. He liked it even more than I did. Jude Law delivers the stand-out performance. He’s reason enough to see this film. Actually, Kate Winslet is also very good.
- The Beaver – I don’t usually like Jodie Foster when she goes behind the camera, but this is an exception. This is a great, very moving, drama about a husband/father/executive who cracks, and then can only communicate through a beaver hand puppet. It sounds stranger than it actually is. Mel Gibson is tremendous in this, and if this film had been made 10 years ago, he would be up for an Oscar and this film would have killed at the box office. Sadly, people stayed away in droves, and it died one of the most horrible cinematic deaths imaginable. I just hope that now that his negative press is coming to an end, people will give this film a shot. I really loved it.
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – I’m still not the biggest fan of Stieg Larsson’s crime/drama/mystery, but director David Fincher, with the assistance of writer Steven Zaillian, really improved on the Swedish original. They made something that I had already seen, and dismissed, riveting and intense. Those 158 minutes flew right by. Rooney Mara becomes Lisbeth Salander in an eerie and frightening way. She’s a star in the making. This version is also more atmospheric and a hell of lot less confusing. I’ll buy it on Blu-ray when it comes out.
- Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol – Tom Cruise is the man. That’s all I need to say. Just check out his stunts in this fourth installment of a franchise that I hope never ends. Director Brad Bird has a very promising career in live action. See this film in IMAX and 3D to get the full effect.
- Sucker Punch – I love Zach Snyder, and although this isn’t his best film, it’s still very stunning. It’s stylish and has more depth to it than people realize. I bought it on Blu-ray and watched the extended version, which includes a different ending sequence. (It was deemed too controversial or some nonsense so it was excised.) I liked how Snyder reworked various movie genres and then fashioned them together to create something completely new.
- Thor – I’m a superhero fan, so I’m totally psyched about all of the upcoming releases that have “interlocking” storylines. Thor introduces us to this Asgardian hero, a god who is exiled to Earth after disobeying his father, Odin. Chris Hemsworth is a real find, and I’m looking forward to seeing him in, well, anything he chooses to do. The inclusion of Anthony Hopkins is always a cinematic highpoint, and he’s pretty good as “All-father.” I was surprised to find that this story actually conforms, more or less, to Norse mythology. And Kenneth Branagh tackles his first big budget, summer blockbuster with ease. I can’t wait for The Avengers.
*** Films that might have made my list are: Albert Nobbs, The Iron Lady, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Guard, Project Nim, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Hugo, Carnage, Shame, A Dangerous Method, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Coriolanus, Margaret, and Tyrannosaur. None of these, as of yet, have opened in my hometown.
Movies that everyone seemed to love but me apparently include The Descendants, The Artist, and Tree of Life. The first was ho-hum/nothing special; the second had its moments, mostly when the dog was involved, but was just OK; and the third, too, had some beautiful imagery but was too religious, long, and jumbled for my taste. I’ve never really liked films directed by Alexander Payne or Terrence Malick, so I had a feeling that these wouldn’t suddenly transform me into a fan. I was correct.
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