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.