Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Best Movies of 2011 (Part I)

What a year.

Formerly an annual vehicle devoted exclusively to analyzing the Oscars, the Manifesto has now been running in blog format since 2008, meaning this marks the fourth time I've dedicated a specific post to the best films of a particular year. On each prior occasion, my tone in those would-be celebratory posts was vaguely alarmist; even as I trumpeted a handful of great movies and exhorted readers to see them, I lamented that the vast majority of that year's films failed to excite me. Such involuntary pessimism annoyed me, because the last thing I want is to come off as one of those stodgy, the-cinematic-sky-is-falling critics who constantly grouses that movies aren't what they used to be. Still, I couldn't escape the gnawing sensation that, as much as I enjoyed going to the movies and always would, cinema as a whole was settling into a state of pleasant, disposable entertainment rather than reinforcing its stature as a vital medium for energizing the public.

Not in 2011. As of today's date, I've seen 166 movies released during 2011 (77 in theatres, plus another 88 on Netflix and one original HBO production). If you include the honorable-mention selections, the forthcoming three posts will highlight a whopping 34 of these films, good for over 20%. Admittedly, not all of these movies are masterpieces – rather, they've ranged from "flawed but intriguing" to "pretty damn good" to "fucking great" – but they are all worth watching. And that's worth celebrating.

On to the list. Here are the Manifesto's Top 25 Movies of 2011:

Honorable mention: The Adventures of Tintin, Cracks, 50/50, Friends with Benefits, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Source Code, Super 8, Too Big to Fail, Young Adult.

25. We Need to Talk About Kevin. From The Omen to Orphan, demonic children have long been a staple of the horror genre, but Lynne Ramsay's chilling, grotesquely watchable portrait of teenage evil steers far afield from cheap exploitation territory. That's because, although Ramsay refuses to shy away from her eponym's merciless cruelty, her movie is really about Kevin's mother, played by Tilda Swinton with a riveting excellence that has become frighteningly typical. In a devastating performance of mingled revulsion and self-loathing, Swinton portrays a woman simultaneously horrified by her progeny's misdeeds and also anguished by a nauseating sense of complicity. As Kevin's transgressions escalate in severity, Swinton confronts the film's true terror: As the woman who bore Kevin, is she herself not responsible for his sins? In the end, a sliver of optimism invades the grim, grey world of We Need to Talk About Kevin and affords her an answer, but it's an answer achieved at an insufferable cost.

24. Incendies. A generation-spanning melodrama awash in brutality and genocide, Incendies bears the hallmarks of a screeching morality tale, a scolding dissertation whose anger deprives it of pleasure. But Denis Villeneuve's warm regard for his characters transforms his movie from a dour dose of miserabilism into a moving meditation on the role of the family in society. The film's time-jumping structure is necessarily jagged, but its editing is crucially nimble, and its knotted screenplay uncoils itself with meticulous patience and precision. An astonishing sequence on a bus encapsulates the movie's raw power – and also marks Villeneuve as a director to watch – but it's the surprising, earnest tenderness of Incendies that lingers.

23. The Guard. With his burly frame and flinty eyes, the Irish actor Brendan Gleeson has long been defined by his consummate nastiness – if you're casting a villain, there's nary a better choice for stealthy malevolence. So Gleeson's work with the McDonagh Brothers has been downright revelatory. He pilfered Martin's In Bruges from Colin Farrell with his turn as a laid-back hit man; now working with John Michael, he effortlessly dominates The Guard as a casually racist sergeant. Part genius detective, part irascible old coot, Gleeson saunters through the movie with inveterate ease, an ease that only exaggerates the hilarity of his rapport with a perpetually perplexed Don Cheadle. McDonagh's screenplay shines as well – as a storyteller, he's both shifty and economical – and he wrings strong supporting work from Liam Cunningham and Mark Strong, the latter of whom may be Gleeson's heir apparent for sly villainy. Plot-wise, The Guard may be steeped in murder and drug lore, but as a viewing experience, it's pure pleasure.

22. The Skin I Live In. Gender identity has always fascinated Pedro Almodóvar, but that fascination hasn't always bled through to his audience. The magnetically perverse The Skin I Live In, however, playfully toys with the concept of sexual obsession without crumbling under the weight of its auteur's reflexive navel-gazing. It's a spiky, efficient picture whose brisk storytelling and vibrant flourishes help mask its underlying brutality. Besides, in Almodóvar's hands, brutality can be beautiful and bracing, and even as the film's characters sink deeper into depravity, its narrative remains suspenseful and compelling. Buoyed by a restrained, cannily unsympathetic performance from Antonio Banderas, The Skin I Live In – with its kidnappings, throat-slashings, and multiple rapes – relishes peeling off humanity's veneer of civilization to expose the rot underneath, but what's startling is just how much fun watching such filth can be.

21. The Muppets. Call it insubstantial fluff if you must – I haven't found myself smiling this broadly upon leaving the theatre since Wall-E. The Muppets is a movie whose entire reason for existence is to dispense joy. The songs spark with rhythm and ingenuity, the caricatures are playful without being tiresome, the humor finds the perfect blend of broad parody and aw-shucks sincerity, and the winking post-modern gags never fail to induce a chuckle ("That was an expensive-looking explosion!"). And while the film may lack depth, it nevertheless serves as a vital reminder that as cinema continuously evolves, the spirit of childhood never dies.

20. The Artist. Would it be preposterous to suggest that The Muppets and The Artist have a lot in common? O.K., so the latter is a black-and-white Oscar-winning homage to the silent era, whereas the former stars Kermit the Frog, but both are pure crowd-pleasers, and not just because they feature snappy, applause-worthy musical numbers. On a broader level, what makes Michel Hazanavicius' movie so delightful is its unabashed eagerness to entertain. Yes, it's shot in black-and-white, and yes, it's predominantly silent (unless you count Ludovic Bource's spot-on score), but despite its obvious affection for the movies of yesteryear, this isn't one of those reproachful, eat-your-vegetables films. Rather, it's a pleasingly familiar tale that mines age-old cinematic tropes of hubris, loss, love, and ultimate redemption. And the acting elevates the movie to another level – Jean Dujardin's ebullient expressions gradually give way to painful pathos, while Bérénice Bejo charms regardless of her pose. Old-fashioned but not staid, heartfelt but not sappy, The Artist is the best kind of throwback, a winking reminder that the old movies were great, and the new ones can be even better.

19. Margin Call. No matter the magnitude, the mechanics of a financial meltdown – glowering computer screens, reams of data, incomprehensible equations – are virtually antithetical to the accepted notions of cinematic excitement. The marvel of J.C. Chandor's debut is that it suffuses its midnight meetings of Wall Street's aristocracy with dread and despair, spinning its information-laden narrative into a powerful morality tale of corporate hubris. Margin Call takes place almost exclusively within an antiseptic, Lehman-esque office skyscraper, but its story is one of messy, frantic humanity, and it communicates the terrifying real-world consequences of market catastrophe without succumbing to either tiresome exposition or superior scolding. Standout acting from a first-rate cast – most notably Paul Bettany as a cynical underling and Jeremy Irons as a ruthlessly pragmatic bigwig – invigorate the facially talky proceedings; for such a dialogue-heavy film, Margin Call moves with the quicksilver pace of an action thriller. "It's just money, it's made up," Irons says sagely, but the tragedy of Margin Call is real, and it derives its catharsis from the simple, shattering recognition that its victims are its viewers, whether they can afford a movie ticket or not.

18. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Niels Arden Oplev's 2010 adaptation of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was such a smashing success on its own terms – if you doubt its virtue, I'll simply point out that it cracked the Manifesto's top 10 last year – that it hardly cried out for a remake. Still, it's easy to see how the possibility appealed to David Fincher, one of American cinema's most established auteurs, as an opportunity to return to the grubby genre thrills that made him a sensation in the '90s with Se7en and Fight Club. Which makes the resultant product here so shocking. True, Fincher pays obligatory tribute to Larsson's pulp excesses – aided by the ice-blue digital photography of Jeff Cronenweth and the eerily ambient score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, he generates an atmosphere of extreme chill – but the movie's lasting impression is one of warmth and intimacy. That's because, as the titular hero, Rooney Mara delivers a stunning performance, equal parts fragility and lethality. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo may feature sickening scenes of rape and torture, but it's Mara's bottomless yearning for companionship – an unrequited need that Fincher encapsulates in a devastating final image – that provides a true jolt of pain.

17. Moneyball. Michael Lewis' Moneyball had no right being turned into a movie at all, much less one as engaging as Bennett Miller's sharp, spry adaptation. A dense, information-packed tome of old white men grumbling in board rooms, Lewis' book – revered among geeky statheads (such as this writer) despite its insufferable air of condescension – features none of the characterization or shading inherent to a good motion picture. Yet working from a lightning-quick screenplay from Steven Zaillian and the venerable Aaron Sorkin, Miller fashions a Sisyphean story of a visionary trying desperately to liberate himself from the shackles of institutional convention. In a pair of superb performances, Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill fluidly slip into the rapid rhythms of Sorkin's and Zaillian's dialogue, transforming intrinsically banal material into something thrilling; a scene of Pitt effortlessly manipulating fellow general managers during the trade deadline is so invigorating, it's easy to forget that, in substance, it simply involves a man talking on the phone. That scene embodies Moneyball's genius as a whole, namely how elegant writing and accomplished acting combine to turn Lewis' dogmatic prose into compelling drama. At the movies, it seems, even a number-crunching baseball executive can double as a tortured artist.

16. Love Crime. Screenwriters have audiences at their mercy – they can tell us as much or as little about their story as they want. The chief pleasure of Love Crime, Alain Corneau's deliciously twisty tale of sex, scorn, and murder (to the surprise of no one, Brian De Palma swiftly created an English-language doppelganger called Passion, starring Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace), is that it withholds crucial pieces of information before revealing them at precisely the appropriate moment. So as we watch the timid Isabelle (a fantastic Ludivine Sagnier) stealthily plot her revenge against the haughty Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas, cold and steely as ever), we have no real idea what she's doing, resulting in a tantalizing sensation of sheer cluelessness. It's a daring device that requires patience but generates tremendous suspense, and the ultimate payoff is deeply satisfying. Co-written with Natalie Carter, Corneau's screenplay rations its plot points shrewdly, but the real key is Sagnier's note-perfect portrayal of duplicitous cunning. Isabelle may be small and shy, but under Sagnier's direction, she's also a fiercely committed adversary who achieves a towering posture of absolute control, even as her audience is left sitting in the dark.

Check back soon for Part II.

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