Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Best Movies of 2011 (Part III)

And finally, the Manifesto completes its countdown of the Top 25 Movies of 2011. If you missed the earlier installments, here's Part I, and here's Part II.

5. The Adjustment Bureau. The skeleton of The Adjustment Bureau – an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story about omnipotent beings with the power to shape the course of human history – hardly sounds like the blueprint for a stirring romance. Yet while George Nolfi's movie engages on numerous levels – as crackerjack thriller, as soft-spoken political commentary, as metaphysical mind-bender – it works strongest as a pure love story. As a charismatic politician and his elusive soul mate, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt exhibit a rare chemistry that is both electric and soothing. Nolfi's screenplay toys with a number of legitimately fascinating ideas, particularly the Promethean notion that humanity is destined to destroy itself absent divine intervention, but at its core, it's about two people's desperate efforts to be together, even as otherworldly forces conspire to keep them apart. To that end, the success of The Adjustment Bureau hinges entirely on its ability to illustrate that its two heroes were literally made for one another, and when we see Damon and Blunt on screen together – when we witness the ease of their laughs, the softness of their smiles, the longing in their eyes – there's simply no doubt. Another entry in the canon of cinematic romance might suggest that their problems don't amount to a hill of beans, but The Adjustment Bureau proffers a different theory: that in this dystopian universe of sinister angels and teleporting doors, love is the most powerful force in the world.

4. War Horse. "It's a movie about a horse," a friend of mine derisively scoffed when I implored him to see War Horse. It's a statement that's entirely accurate but also disappointingly narrow. Yes, War Horse's protagonist is equine, but it's as much a movie about a horse as Animal Farm was a book about a pig. Rather, it's the most lyrical film of Steven Spielberg's career, a soaring tribute both to the classical storytelling of yesteryear (the final image could have been lifted directly from a John Ford picture) and, more crucially, to the soldiers who waded deep into the muck. Episodic in form, War Horse follows the stallion Joey through a series of harrowing encounters in World War I, with each installment growing more fraught with peril (and, paradoxically, more suffused with beauty). But the movie is far more than a collection of vignettes; it's no less than a solemn, heartfelt paean to the endurance of the human spirit. The triumph of War Horse is that that spirit just happens to be personified by a horse. Ever since E.T., Spielberg has proven himself an inveterate master in evoking emotion from alien creatures, and Joey – whether through a hitch in his gait or a flicker of his eyes – communicates undeniably human traits of pride, tenacity, sorrow, and (most of all) fear. That is Spielberg's true achievement, for in his hands, a movie camera can peer into the eyes of a stallion and reflect the heroism – and the sacrifice – of a generation.

3. Drive. Given that its core involves little more than a nameless man who drives around Los Angeles, Drive could easily be deemed thematically shallow. It isn't – it's just that its depth is entirely visible, right up there on the screen for us to see and, oddly, touch. Nicolas Winding Refn's heart-stopping thriller is a uniquely tactile experience. The slow-motion camera movements, the gauzy soundtrack, the purring sound design – they all lend the movie a sense of physical presence, an exhilarating immediacy that makes you want to reach out and caress that black Mustang as it thunders past. This is not to suggest that Drive is narratively lean; Hossein Amini's screenplay is taut but hard-charging, and it sketches a number of colorful characters, most memorably Albert Brooks' hypnotically ruthless mobster. But while the hard-boiled story traffics in lurid violence and spasmodic brutality, Refn lovingly renders each detail, creating an atmosphere of purity amidst the decadence. The result is that even as Drive lowers its characters down into the grisliness of the underworld, it elevates its audience to a state of ecstasy. It's an astonishing feat of directorial juxtaposition, as well as a bold illustration of the transportive power of cinema. For all its pulp and playfulness, Drive serves as a bracing reminder of an important point: that the act of watching movies can and should be savored.

2. The Descendants. The story of a grieving, wounded man – a husband coping with the imminent death of his wife, a father flailing to connect with his two unknowable daughters, a lost soul searching for his own identity – The Descendants has all the ingredients of an exceedingly dour affair. And Alexander Payne's intricately textured character study does feature moments of deep, aching sadness. Its predominant hues, however, are those of warmth, humor, and generosity. Rather than descend into miserabilism, The Descendants uses its protagonist's crisis as an opportunity to explore his relationships with his family, and there's an inherent gentleness to Payne's screenplay (co-written with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) that belies the potentially somber plot. That gentleness extends both to the film's gorgeous Hawaiian setting and to its characters, who invariably come off as flawed, confused, and angry, which is another way of saying that they seem honest, sympathetic, and real. The uniformly strong performances (particularly from George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, and Judy Greer) only deepen the characters' abiding sincerity, while simultaneously enhancing the movie's overall spirit of nobility. In the end, The Descendants is decidedly a life-affirming experience, one that wrings laughter and smiles from its audience along with sorrow and tears. In Payne's world, it seems, even death affords the opportunity for joy.

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. "It's very impressive, isn't it?" Luna Lovegood asks rhetorically while gazing at the web of spell-work stretching across the night sky outside Hogwarts Castle, her voice full of ethereal, baffled wonderment. She's not wrong. The culmination of more than a decade of rigorous world-building (not to mention several billion dollars' worth of budget), David Yates' stunning, spellbinding picture is a towering, monumental achievement of epic filmmaking. The production design is immaculate, the special effects are flawlessly integrated without ever upstaging the action, and the grave, shadowy cinematography lends visual gravitas to the sheer weight of the characters' plight. Yet for all its blockbuster enormity, the movie is replete with a bevy of whimsical, small-scale pleasures, from the wry humor of the dialogue to the quiet resolve of young wizards steeling themselves for battle to the quavering sadness of Hermione's heartbreaking line, "I'll go with you". It's a film as intimate as it is spectacular.

But more than anything else, the singular triumph of Yates' adaptation is not that it brings J.K. Rowling's novel to rushing, vigorous life but that it can stand entirely on its own. His movie may exceed the imagination of the book's wildest fans, but it's still a movie, and it moves and breathes in the inimitable language of cinema. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is a testament to the unique power of the movies, a crowning example of the medium's ability to sweep audiences from their seats in the theatre and carry them to a faraway world, a world alight with color and shadow, with sadism and heroism, with terror and magic.

So Luna Lovegood is right – it's very impressive. Indeed, it's a historic conclusion to cinema's greatest, grandest franchise. But it's also a lesson to aspiring filmmakers that this is how it's done, and in that respect, it serves as a magnificent final document of an incomparable legacy.

And for those who are especially lazy, here's the full list of the Manifesto's Best Movies of 2011:

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
2. The Descendants
3. Drive
4. War Horse
5. The Adjustment Bureau
6. Martha Marcy May Marlene
7. Hanna
8. Warrior
9. The Ides of March
10. A Separation
11. Contagion
12. Mysteries of Lisbon
13. Midnight in Paris
14. Rango
15. Crazy, Stupid, Love.
16. Love Crime
17. Moneyball
18. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
19. Margin Call
20. The Artist
21. The Muppets
22. The Skin I Live In
23. The Guard
24. Incendies
25. We Need to Talk About Kevin

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Best Movies of 2011 (Part II)

The Manifesto is counting down its Top 25 Movies of 2011. If you missed Part I, check it out here.

15. Crazy, Stupid, Love. A happy mess of a movie, Crazy, Stupid, Love. skates nimbly across the surface of a number of genres, from coming-of-age story to midlife-crisis mania to the lothario with the heart of gold. But underlying all of these stories is a core of genuine sweetness, and it's that sincerity that elevates the film from a disposable pleasure to a singular snapshot of contemporary romance. Dan Fogelman's screenplay, which features its share of legitimate surprises, has a warm regard for its characters, and the inordinately talented cast (Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling co-headline as sap and stud, respectively, with Julianne Moore and Emma Stone providing superlative support as shrew and sex kitten) imbue their parts with undeniable humanity. Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa put the players through their humiliating paces – most memorably in a hilarious slice of farce – but they also undergird the playfulness with real pathos that only rarely stumbles into sanctimony. In the end, the film is a winning reminder that, while love may indeed be crazy and stupid, movies about it can be smart and true.

14. Rango. With its timeless appeal of hardened heroes, louche lawlessness, and the yawning immensity of the frontier, the western is one of cinema's sturdiest archetypes. And Rango pays tribute to that enduring tradition, concocting a landscape of dusty saloons and oppressive sunlight that evokes past classics such as High Noon and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Of course, the protagonist of Gore Verbinski's sly, sharply funny film is a gangly, garrulous lizard, so it doesn't play entirely straight. But Rango is less concerned with sending up the western than telling its own story of self-discovery with verve and visual wit. Rango himself is a fantastically original creation, with his bulging eyes and jagged limbs aptly complementing his tendency for angular, off-kilter commentary (it helps that Johnny Depp delivers screenwriter John Logan's wacky non sequiturs with his customary gusto). And Verbinski – whose Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy continues to be tragically underrated – remains a maestro of smoothly choreographed mayhem, while Hans Zimmer (a maestro in his own right) supplies the most purely enjoyable score of his illustrious career. Near its end, Rango explicitly references The Man With No Name, and it's an earned comparison; in this green-skinned, silver-tongued reptile, Clint Eastwood's storybook avenger could hardly have found a more worthy successor.

13. Midnight in Paris. Nostalgia isn't a virtue in itself, and in some cases, directors' waxing poetic about the past only serves to highlight their own inadequacies in the present. Woody Allen's delightful fantasy evades that trap, transporting viewers to a bygone era of wistful enchantment while also gently reminding us that contemporary culture isn't half-bad. Guided by a good-natured, easily appealing Owen Wilson (who is in turn fleeing a wonderfully prickly Rachel McAdams), Midnight in Paris takes rapture in eavesdropping on countless legendary artists of the 1920s (and other golden ages), and the experience of simply spending time with such luminaries proves to be durably charming. But Allen is interested in more than just naïve hero-worship, and his surrogate's self-described "minor insight" – namely, that the temptation to aggressively romanticize the past is hardly unique to his own generation – carries major thematic force. It's a point made all the more compelling by canny editing and a cadre of capable actors, most notably Corey Stoll as an appropriately blunt Hemingway and Michael Sheen as a hilariously pretentious oenophile. Taken in conjunction with its maker's inconsistent but storied career, Midnight in Paris documents a crucial truth: that every time period, throughout history, bears witness to the birth of great artists.

12. Mysteries of Lisbon. At four-and-a-half hours long, Mysteries of Lisbon might initially appear to be a chore, one of those self-flattering behemoths that bludgeons its viewers into submission. And watching Raúl Ruiz's sumptuous epic is indeed a bit draining, but that's only because its virtuoso technique stimulates lovers of cinema into a state of perpetual astonishment. There's so much to savor here – the intricate period wardrobe, the startlingly evocative cinematography, the ravishing production design – that continually consuming all of the film's marvels for 270 minutes proves to be somewhat exhausting. There's also the matter of parsing the time-shifting narrative, an operatic tale of headlong love and familial betrayal that spans multiple generations. Yet Ruiz shepherds us through his exquisite labyrinth with a gentle, dreamlike grace, and as the story glides in and out of time, it proves to envelop its audience rather than taunt it. Perhaps such generosity should only be expected from a movie that, with its luxurious imagery and painstaking craftsmanship, never stops giving.

11. Contagion. For someone who's prone to making flabby, self-indulgent movies like Che and The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh can be a ruthlessly efficient filmmaker when he wants to be. Contagion is about the rapid spread of disease, so it's only appropriate that it moves with uncompromising speed, hurtling across continents in a desperate attempt to keep pace with its titular pathogen. The body count swiftly rises, and with it an omnipresent sense of dread, but what's truly terrifying about Contagion is its chillingly plausible depiction of community in chaos. With our backs against the wall, it appears, humanity's basest instincts win out, and Soderbergh mercilessly peels back the fabric of society to expose the rot underneath. Yet he also reveals the resolute determination of a species reluctant to yield, and if the movie's dominant worldview is bleak, it nevertheless offers a persuasive portrait of science, a pragmatic discipline in which brawny heroism gives way to keen intelligence and astute decision-making. Those same virtues exemplify Contagion, a film in which clipped editing, sharp screenwriting, and uniformly excellent acting (most memorably from a heartbreaking Kate Winslet and a self-assured Jennifer Ehle) combine into an invigorating concoction. On-screen death has rarely felt this lively.

10. A Separation. From its hypnotic opening scene – a simple static two-shot in which a husband and wife bicker about their pending divorce – A Separation establishes that it isn't playing by ordinary rules. Academically, Asghar Farhadi's drama is a worthy treatise on the culture of contemporary Iran: the clashing of classes, the tension between traditional religion and modern mores, the machinations of a troubled but well-intentioned justice system. Yet evaluating Farhadi's film as a thematic think piece discredits its intimacy. Here is a movie about two people, as deeply flawed as they are empathetic, whose marriage is riven by forces both beyond and within their control. Extraordinary twin performances from Payman Maadi and Leila Hatami demonstrate how even the strongest bonds of matrimony can ultimately break, while Sarina Farhadi (the director's daughter) delivers a devastating turn as a child grappling with a decidedly adult dilemma. As A Separation accelerates toward its crippling finale, it achieves grand emotional stakes, but it never undercuts the nuanced dimensionality of its characters. It's a stirring, exceptionally well-told tale of two parents who love their daughter, and of how that love tears her apart.

9. The Ides of March. It's hardly a newsflash that politics is a blood sport rife with backstabbing, double-crossing, and generally unscrupulous behavior. Given that foreknowledge, George Clooney's riveting political thriller breaks little new thematic ground. What it does do is present one man's harrowing journey from noble idealism into an abyss fraught with moral complications and excruciating choices. As the campaign manager of a charismatic presidential candidate (played by Clooney himself, naturally), Ryan Gosling navigates his character's ethical collapse one minute sacrifice at a time; he never oversells his tumble into oblivion but instead lets small gestures accumulate, right up to the film's final shot, when he practically levels the camera with a thousand-yard stare. Clooney's screenplay (co-written with longtime producing partner Grant Heslov and playwright Beau Willimon) ratchets up the suspense without ever lapsing into melodrama, while the preposterously talented cast essay their roles with intensity and feeling, particularly Evan Rachel Wood as an initially playful intern who suddenly finds herself lost at sea. And so, while the brutality of political warfare may be old hat, The Ides of March stands entirely on its own, a haunting portrait of love, lies, and the insufferable costs of victory.

8. Warrior. It's a cruel irony that Warrior – a moving, magnificent movie that chronicles the improbable ascent of a pair of down-on-their-luck brothers – never stood a chance at the box office. With a talented but relatively unknown cast and a rote marketing campaign that didn't even attempt to distinguish it from The Fighter (its enjoyable but inferior 2010 doppelganger), Gavin O'Connor's beautifully textured tale grossed a measly $13.7 million at the box office. That meant that audiences missed out not just on Tom Hardy's transcendent turn as a perpetually sullen, sporadically ferocious MMA combatant but also on the film itself, a piercing portrait of two men wrestling with the demons of their family's tortured past. In its broad strokes, O'Connor's script (co-written with two others) abides dutifully (if pleasingly) by the sports-movie rulebook, but it also creates characters of legitimate depth and tackles decidedly real-world problems. This is not to deny that Warrior is an earnest crowd-pleaser – the fight scenes are well-orchestrated and energetic, and the predictable final act manages to be inspiring but not maudlin – but the movie's lasting merit is the sensitive manner in which it honors the worthy virtues of perseverance and loyalty. Warrior may have slipped silently from the box-office landscape, but those fortunate few who saw it were able to savor a true taste of triumph.

7. Hanna. With the staggering one-two punch of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, Joe Wright announced himself as one of the great directors of contemporary cinema. That still didn't prepare me for the sheer audacity of Hanna, a hyper-kinetic, frequently batty thriller that marries the bombastic action of the multiplex with the lyrical formalism that characterized Wright's art-house efforts. And for someone who cut his teeth on a pair of period pieces, Wright has great fun making a distinctly modern movie, with his camera rushing heedlessly as though racing to keep up with the Chemical Brothers' undulating electronic score. Narratively, though, Hanna plays like a pure fairy tale, with a Little Girl Lost (the consistently hypnotic Saorise Ronan, she of the ice-blue eyes and porcelain face) trying to outfox a Big Bad Wolf (a snarling, scenery-gnawing Cate Blanchett). Never one for restraint, Wright makes the fairy-tale metaphor stunningly literal, setting one late scene in a twisted funhouse and another under the wicked watch of an enormous wolf's head. It's a daring, stylistically thrilling gambit, and it's that type of directorial impudence that elevates Hanna from a curiosity to a marvel of playful storytelling and bravura technique. Ronan spends virtually her entire time on the dead run, but for such a relentlessly fast-paced film, there are ample opportunities to stop and see the beauty.

6. Martha Marcy May Marlene. With their unconventional family dynamics and their predatory subtext, cults are a natural subject for an exploitation flick. Yet Martha Marcy May Marlene, writer-director Sean Durkin's gripping debut feature, is less an exploration of cult culture than a measured, often disturbing character study of a troubled young woman grasping for some semblance of identity. In a magnetic, star-making performance of maddening diffidence and agonizing confusion, Elizabeth Olsen stars as the title character(s) with an unexplained but obviously clouded past. Those clouds only darken over the course of the film, as Durkin's screenplay lurches back and forth between two major time periods: the recent past, in which Martha fell under the spell of a charismatic Charles Manson clone (a mesmerizing, terrifying John Hawkes) and became Marcy May, and the present, in which she's fled to the uncertain shelter of her protective, perpetually worried older sister (an achingly sympathetic Sarah Paulson). Durkin utilizes a bold editing scheme so that as each scene begins, we're unsure of its setting. The brilliance of the approach is that, even as we're struggling to untangle Martha's story, we realize that the two strands aren't all that different; no matter where she is, Martha exhibits a clumsy inability to comply with social norms, as well as an escalating paranoia that may or may not be justified. As Martha Marcy May Marlene crescendoes toward its fittingly ambiguous conclusion, that paranoia transfers to the audience, and we're left wondering if people can ever truly escape the murky decisions of their past.

Check back soon for the final five.