@ the Movies, 2011 :: Jake Mulligan’s picks
EDGE critic Jake Mulligan's picks for the best and worse films of the year:
Christopher Plummer shines in director Mike Mill’s achingly personal love story. Ewan McGregor’s recollections of his father intrude upon every moment of his courtship with the ravishing Melanie Laurent. This allows Mill’s to do some incredible editing work in layering one story inside another through memories, constantly forcing us to consider the symbolism of one tale while watching the other. In fact, this whole movie is about visual storytelling and symbolic representations: McGregor plays an artist whose most honest moments never leave the page, Laurent spends much of the film with laryngitis and has to write her dialogue on a pad of paper, and even the dog speaks through subtitles. Godardian interludes, a brilliantly fractured structure, and some of the most personal and heartfelt storytelling of the year makes "Beginners" a film that’s impossible to forget.
9. Attack the Block
This class warfare allegory was without question the best film from a debut filmmaker I saw all year; with Joe Cornish’s upstart energy pulsating through every single frame. He shoots his main characters (all 15-year-old British hoods, for what it’s worth, led by breakout star John Boyega) with pure youthful energy every step of the way; making a chase down the stairs more energetic than most filmmakers can make their climactic scenes. This alien-invasion film stood out among this summers disappointing extraterrestrial dreck ("Battle: Los Angeles", "Cowboys & Aliens") as a truly thought-provoking genre flick; evocative of John Carpenter in its gleeful mix of social commentary and fast paced thrills.
Michael Fassbender turns in one of the performances of the year in Steve McQueen’s second film, a cold and calculated look at how one man’s sex addiction reverberates to destroy his work, his family, his relationships, and his life. "Shame" may have gotten into the news cycle for its NC-17 rating, but the real story here is Fassbender, who punctures every single moment of the film with his character’s hopeless, insatiable desire. How a sexually exploitive potboiler like "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" can get an R-rating and financial success while this languishes in X-Rated obscurity is beyond me; but luckily the bravura leading performance (not to mention an outstanding supporting performance by Carey Mulligan and an indescribably confident visual style from McQueen) has gotten "Shame" its due in the American press. Most of this year’s acclaimed films (too many to count, really) turned their cameras back upon celebrations of the past, but this is a disturbingly real look at our present.
Kenneth Lonergan’s second film was a long time coming, but this psychotically unhinged story of a Manhattan teen’s (Anna Paquin) coming of age was perhaps the most daring film of the year. Cut by force by the studio down to a far-too-short running time of 150 minutes, "Margaret" somehow still works as an overarching portrait of a post-9/11 NYC looking for answers and comfort that will never come (the way Lonergan leaves every character but Paquin’s Lisa on a moment of disquiet or depressed introspection suggests a film about characters who will never find their "peace.") We can only hope the Scorsese-approved director’s cut, ditched by Fox for length, will resurface on DVD; allowing us to judge this film the way it was intended to be seen.
6. The Tree of Life
Is there a better cinematographer on the planet right now than Emmanuel Lubezki? Every single second of Terrence Malick’s latest film is worthy of display on a museum wall thanks to his indescribable camerawork, which glides around the fields and yards of 1950’s Texas with the wonder of a small child. Every acting performance here is note-perfect (specifically Brad Pitt, who in this role displays a depth and understanding of character I’m not sure was equally evident in "Moneyball") but the real story is the look of the film itself - it’s elliptical editing and free-flowing camera. Malick is unlike any other filmmaker working today; his incredibly specific memories pervade through the film and call to mind the works of Andrei Tarkovsky. Orson Welles said that a camera needs to be the "eye in the head of a poet", and never has that been more true than here.
Roman Polanski is back! His latest film harkens back to his immaculate ’Apartment Trilogy’, as once again he crafts a movie that never leaves the confines of his characters home (and, as if he needed to include yet another flourish, this place it takes place in real time.) A seemingly conventional meeting between two sets of parents to settle a playground dispute devolves into drunken anarchy and passive-aggressive posturing after a few glasses of scotch, as cell phone reception and disagreements about hamsters constantly prevent the offended parties from leaving. A dissertation on the impossibility of reasoned discussion and rhetoric disguised as a vitriolic comedy of manners, "Carnage" recalls Bunuel in its setup and classic Polanski in its execution. The funniest film of the year.
4. 13 Assassins
Iconoclast director Takashi Miike gave us a gift with this, one of his more traditional works but also perhaps his best. Taking the honor-based samurai genre and giving it the structure of American action films like "The Dirty Dozen" or "The Wild Bunch," Miike sets us up with 80 minutes of character work then floors the audience with a 45-minute battle sequence that makes use of every trick in his cinematic toolbox. Shocking violence intermixes with intricate shot composition as the extended character work allows us to watch the action with an added layer of appreciation - for once we care about the people experiencing such horrors (I love Miike, but character development often falls short behind cinematic style on his to-do list.) A classic ’guy-movie’ through and through, "13 Assassins" had me cheering in the seats even when I returned for repeat viewings.
I didn’t think I’d ever be sold on 3-D, but I should not have doubted the master Martin Scorsese. Using the early days of cinema as his playground, Scorsese connects his use of the 3rd dimension to the way silent filmmakers would use depth and color tinting to shock audiences. And much like the Lumiere brothers train would leave viewers awestruck early in the 1900s, Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson’s use of digital cinematography allows them to string together physically impossibly long shots that left me floored and lost for words. So much more than a children’s film, "Hugo" is Scorsese’s tribute to the medium itself, and all the wonder it can impart on an impressionable young mind.
Lars Von Trier has finally made a movie big enough to dwarf his own personality. Try as he might to overshadow his romantic and operatic fable about the effects of depression on the human psyche, no amount of jokes about Nazi culture could make me forget about his Wagner-laced tale of the end of the world. Featuring standout acting in every corner, from Kirsten Dunst’s revelatory star turn to perfect supporting roles from Stellan Skarsgard, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, and Charlotte Gainsbourgh (among others), Lar’s latest is a truly devastating work of cinema aimed at uncovering just how close we all are to debilitating melancholy (and the many different ways in which we would react to such an affliction.) The approaching planet is a symbolic flourish, but the destructive mood he’s investigating (and, surely, suffering from) is as real as can be.
What can I say that hasn’t already been said about Nicolas Winding Refn’s masterpiece? Working within the tradition of lone wolf assassin films (and yes, it does live up to "Le Samurai," "The Killer," and "Ghost Dog"), Refn’s film sets up Ryan Gosling as Driver, a stuntman by day and protector of the innocent by night (clad, of course, in his too-cool scorpion jacket.) "Drive" plays with the audience every step of the way, intermingling contemplative moments of romantic courtship with outbursts of violence so primal they manage to shock the most battle hardened audience, even in this day of never-ending "Saw" sequels. But its most brilliant flourish is the way Refn edits the film, always returning us to his master shot, Gosling gliding into the night in his car the same way Eastwood rode off into the sunset 50 years ago. Like a jigsaw puzzle with every tiny piece in place, "Drive" is a perfect film.
And for the worst:
The year’s worst, in no particular order:
The Human Centipede II
Jack and Jill
Hobo with a Shotgun
Answers to Nothing