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