A truly great year.
Tier 1: 1-3
Tier 2: 4-12
Tier 3: 13-16
Tier 4: 17-25
Tier 5: 26-41
Tier 6: 42-45
NOTE: I saw Carnage after writing up my official list.
15. Mildred Pierce (dir. Todd Haynes)
This is technically a mini-series, but it deserves to be included. Todd Haynes has spent his career exploring gay culture, celebrity culture, and suburban culture. And in Mildred Pierce he has returned to the suburban territory of two of his films that I love Safe and Far from Heaven to tell a story about betrayal and unwarranted forgiveness. Long movies tend to use their runtime for complex plots, but it’s always nice when a film uses these hours instead to deepen our understanding and connection to its characters. Kate Winslet does a spectacular job at creating a strong and endlessly watchable protagonist that is deeply human and tragically vulnerable. The best kind of strong characters are those that maintain their humanity, because it allows their strength to feel legitimate. The way Mildred is manipulated by her lover wonderfully played by Guy Pearce and her daughter perfectly played by Evan Rachel Wood is heart breaking and always feels true. I loved every minute of the five and a half hours spent with these characters and that is a true testament to the masterful directing and acting.
14. Sleeping Beauty (dir. Julia Leigh)
I wasn’t expecting to like this even half as much as I did. I’d heard from a lot of people that it was provocative, but empty. However, I found a lot of substance to it. The film is a statement on the constant objectification of women in our culture and how this has resulted in many women complying to masochistic behavior. So little is shown and as a viewer it almost becomes frustrating. Every time she offers sex to someone the film then immediately cuts away. Maybe I’m perverse but it always left me feeling unsatisfied as awful as that is to say. Then when we eventually do see a bit of something it’s so depraved that we want it to stop as soon as possible. In the end, we are the disgusting old men being portrayed in the film and when that moment of realization occurs the film hits hardest both emotionally and thematically. It’s important to not forget the title is that of a fairy tale and that’s kind of how I saw the film. It’s a surreal and extreme expression of two very common occurrences: men objectifying women and women taking control of this objectification by making it worse. This is certainly not an easy film to watch, but I think it’s worth the struggle.
13. Contagion (dir. Steven Soderbergh)
When the trailer for this first came out I realized how much faith I had in Steven Soderbergh. Somehow despite the cliché plot his name made me very excited to see this movie. And I was not let down in the slightest. While this movie does do a good job at explaining the science and logistics of the virus, its true realism comes in the portrayal of the characters. The virus acts as a tool to strip away all masks and bring the raw humanity out in all of them. This doesn’t necessarily mean everyone devolves to their animalistic instincts (though this does happen), because compassion and love and morality are also inherent qualities in most of us. I found each story compelling in its own right and was constantly delighted by the level of acting. This film got under my skin and deeply affected me not because I was worried about getting sick, but because it is emotionally draining to see who we all are as human beings.
12. Hanna (dir. Joe Wright)
I’ve often talked about my love of fairy tales and my desire to see them translated more often to the screen. Well here’s another fairy tale movie this year that takes the fairy tale concept and flips it on its head. Instead of having the protagonist move from a life of normality to a world of the bizarre, the protagonist moves from a life of the bizarre to a world of normality… which to her is bizarre. I felt like all of the action was not only extremely well done but also greatly advanced the plot or tone (something so very rare in action movies these days). And while the violence Hanna faces in the real world is hardly normal I found the film’s greatest strength to be in this celebration of the fantastical within the normal. The feeling of confusion and wonderment is captured so perfectly both in Ronan’s performance and in the visuals. I was completely engrossed in this movie due to its impeccable style and thematic complexity.
11. Melancholia (dir. Lars von Trier)
Lars von Trier has been very open about his struggle with depression (what isn’t he open about?), and claimed that Antichrist was a product of this depression. It seems as if that depression is continuing, and while I don’t mean to be insensitive, if films like Antichrist and Melancholia are the product of this state of mind it’s hard to wish him well. If the later movie was a product of depression then this film is confronting it head on. This science fiction tale about a bride and her sister is as devastating and uncomfortable as one would expect from Mr. von Trier, but it is also a complete portrait of depression that could only be made by someone who has experienced it personally, and for that it is comforting. Films that capture honesty, even if this honesty is on a negative topic, bring a certain level of joy. I’ve struggled with depression. I know many people who have struggled with depression. And to see it portrayed on the screen in such a truthful manner is startling and overpowering. Dunst and Gainsbourg are as amazing as everyone says, and von Trier’s visuals continue to impress. The final shot of this movie is something very special.
10. Young Adult (dir. Jason Reitman)
I think it’s funny that one of the best movies about high school that I’ve ever seen is about thirty year olds. The unstoppable hierarchy of high school culture and its devastating and often permanent effects are shown so powerfully in this film. The protagonist is so despicable, but in a way that is very familiar, and in a way that gains frustrated sympathy. The movie explores the vicious cycle of the way we are treated by others impacting how we view and treat ourselves. Mavis and Matt have imprisoned themselves due to their own actions, but these actions were started and are continued by the people around them. In two scenes Mavis admits her misgivings and expresses an attempt to change and each time she is either laughed off or discouraged through “positive” reassurance. For these characters high school lives on and there’s no sign of it dying. While this film is as dark as everyone says it is also hysterically funny. Diablo Cody resists the urge to write silly dialogue, Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt deliver brilliantly layered performances, and Jason Reitman proves his genius once again.
9. A Dangerous Method (dir. David Cronenberg)
I tend to enjoy films about real people more when they focus on a specific time in their life instead of taking the biopic approach. I just feel like it allows for a deeper connection with the “characters” as human beings as opposed to historical figures. This movie is a perfect example of just that. Similar to The Social Network last year, themes such as ambition and friendship are expressed using a historical event instead of it just being a movie about a historical event. And since this is a Cronenberg movie an additional theme is that of sexual temptation. This is a movie filled with dialogue but the expertise of the writing and directing and the incredible performances of Fassbender, Mortensen, Knightly, and Cassel make this film completely engrossing and exciting. When you find yourself relating to Carl Jung I think it’s safe to say the movie is pretty impressive.
8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (dir. David Fincher)
It’s a little hard to assess this film since I’m such a big fan of the books, but I will say that this adaptation is close to perfect. I strongly dislike the Swedish adaptation because I feel like it keeps the plot while losing the soul, so I was interested to see if a master like Fincher could succeed where the previous film failed. And boy could he! Blomkvist and Salander are allowed to breathe so much more as characters by including simple things like Blomkvist’s daughter or Salander’s love for her former caregiver. Little scenes and touches make this film go beyond its thriller-status. It is as expected brilliantly crafted. Fincher is so self-assured and as far as filmmaking technique goes this movie is perfect. Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth is so much more human than Rapace’s. Rapace was great, but she wasn’t playing the complex Salander of the books. Here Lisbeth doesn’t lose her tough exterior but her humanity is allowed to shine through much more. I love these characters and I loved seeing them rightfully on screen. Let’s hope they make the sequels!
7. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (dir. Tomas Alfredson)
Throughout a good portion of this film I had a little idea what was going on. And if I had thrown my arms up in the air and given up I would have been missing out on an incredible film. This is a spy film that removes glamour and chooses instead realism. The movie does not take a break to explain terminology or what is going on, but just lets the story unfold. This respect for the intelligence of the audience is something very rare and greatly enhances the film. Eventually everything comes together and it makes perfect sense. Even when the plot is unclear the movie never fails to excite. Certain sequences had my heart beating a mile a minute and I was always very intrigued. The direction is so self-assured and once the film comes to an end reflecting on the brilliant filmmaking is a euphoric experience. The cast led by Gary Oldman all give wonderfully subtle performances that drive the film throughout. Be patient with this movie and the rewards are great.
6. The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick)
I only got around to seeing this film once in theatres and I’ve yet to watch my recently purchased Blu-Ray and for that reason it doesn’t feel right to try and write about this film. Anyway I’ve always felt like Malick films are more films one feels and absorbs than talks about. His films are experiences. Each one is a special gift of beauty. I can’t wait to experience this film again and I’m so happy Malick has begun to make films at such a rapid pace.
5. Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen)
I’m a Francophile who dreams about the 20s and is obsessed with Woody Allen, so to say I love this film is an understatement. It just makes me so happy. Its wonderfully funny and so much fun for anyone familiar with the characters portrayed. I see a lot of myself in Gil, because I too am obsessed with the past and fantasize about what life used to be like. In the end it seems the message is that it doesn’t matter what time period you’re in as long as you’re in Paris. Or did I miss the point?
4. Drive (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
And here we are at the third film in the awesome 2011 revisionist fairy tale trilogy, or at least that’s what the director says. Personally, I see the film less as a fairy tale and more as a character created fictional story. What I mean by that is the fictional nature of the film is felt as deeply as if it was a fairy tale, but that this “fiction” is created by Driver’s own fascination with movies, specifically action movies from the 70s and 80s. Driver does what I tend to do except he is a lot cooler about it. He lives in fiction and as a result his life begins to copy the universe he has been hoping to inhabit. His special jacket, his toothpicks, his gloves, his cars. He is very self-aware in his desire to be a lone hero. Everything in this movie is very stylized from the music (ahhh the music!) to the plot to the insane amount of violence. This movie is a movie. Driver makes sure of it. Ryan Gosling is amazing as always managing to embody Driver’s charm, awkwardness, and partial insanity. And the supporting cast is flawless. This movie isn’t for everyone but I think it’s a wonderful homage to 70s/80s action movies and a tribute to the people that love them.
3. Beginners (dir. Mike Mills)
I was certain a few months ago that this would be my favorite film of the year and now look here it is at number three. Beginners is that rare film that has all of the quirk and charm of the movies that piss people off, but instead uses these flourishes to enhance a very human story instead of masking clichés. This is a story about looking for love, true love, and the fear that what you’re encountering is not truly what you have been looking for. This film is very autobiographical and that honesty is very well translated to the screen. You feel the truth to the story. Even if Mills is not nearly as handsome as Ewan McGregor and the way he met his wife was probably not nearly as cinematic as the meeting in this movie, the ideas and feelings are 100% truthful. I think we all have scars based on our experiences and our parents that impact our beliefs on love and relationships as well as our misgivings on these topics. I have mine. And Oliver has his. And while they differ the film is about all of us. McGregor, Plummer, Laurent, and the entire supporting cast are great. We feel such a deep love for every character even if they just appear on screen for a couple minutes. That’s how good the acting and writing is. For me the film is summed up by this exchange between Hal and Oliver. Hal: Well, let’s say that since you were little, you always dreamed of getting a lion. And you wait, and you wait, and you wait, and you wait but the lion doesn’t come. And along comes a giraffe. You can be alone, or you can be with the giraffe. Oliver: I’d wait for the lion. Hal: That’s why I worry about you. For anyone who would wait for the lion. This movie is for you.
2. Hugo (dir. Martin Scorsese)
Silly, silly me. How dare I doubt Martin Scorsese? Well I did. When the first trailer for this came out and a crappy song was used and the word “adventure” was repeated ten times I started to think that maybe he’d finally slipped up. Well I was very, very wrong. This is a movie celebrating the power of cinema to comfort. This is a movie celebrating the importance of storytelling. This is a movie celebrating the magic of fiction. Oh and this is a movie celebrating silent films. There have been moments in my life where movies have helped me get through tough times. And phrasing it that way is trivializing something extremely important. When Hugo takes Isabelle to see Safety Last! the joy in their faces was something I’ve experienced many times. And then Hugo explains that seeing movies made the death of his mom much easier for he and his dad. My mind jumped back to his happy face in the theatre and I began to cry. It’s not that I view film as escapism, but that I simply understand that the depth of cinema and fiction in general can provide a comfort, not an escape but a comfort, to deal with life. While this film is about stories in general it specifically focuses on silent films, since at its center is the great Georges Meilles. I loved how throughout the film there were mini silent films placed in the train station. The inspector and the flower girl. The two people with their dogs. All of these silent film archetypes come to life and show in the flesh what the film’s focus is all about. This film is magical and I’m surprised to say some of that is credited to the use of 3D. I’ve been pretty anti-3D since Avatar let me down, and I’ve never seen it as having any purpose in the world of cinema. And then I saw this film. It is the perfect combination of subtlety and purpose and is used as yet another tool that can enhance cinema. I love that a film about silent films single-handedly convinced me of the worth of the latest technology. Martin Scorsese is a cinephile. And it is his cinephelia that spread to me at a young age and enhanced my already present love for movies. His work as a film preservationist has been enormously impactful and has given me yet another reason to call him one of my heroes. Here he has made a film for people like he and I. People who have been that lost boy staring up at a screen and for a few moments realizing the meaning of the world.
1. Shame (dir. Steve McQueen)
I had considered writing “No Comment” since this is such a tough film for me to write about, but then I figured you’d all think I’m a sex addict (which I am certainly not) so I’m going to try my best to write a little something. I’ll start with the craft of the film. This film flows with such beauty. A large portion of the film is made up operatic vignettes in Brandon’s life and each one hits with its own unique power and importance. The combination of images and sounds absorb you into the film and his mind. The acting here is absolute perfection. Carey Mulligan plays out of type so well as Brandon’s reckless sister offering the perfect balance between pathetic, maddening, sympathetic, and loving. And then there’s Michael Fassbender. His portrayal of Brandon Sullivan is my favorite performance of the year. In portraying Brandon he needs to switch between charm and depravity so quickly and he does just that and more. He shows raw emotion that rivals the best performances I’ve ever seen. He’s brilliant in this movie, the pinnacle of a year that he owned. And now moving on… I guess what I’ll just say is that Brandon has serious sexual problems and yet next to his boss he looks like a perfect gentleman. Brandon clearly struggles with depression and suffers from whatever happened to him and his sister and yet next to her he looks relatively stable. Brandon is dying inside and yet he hides all of this and is tormented by those around him who remind him of the worst parts of his internal self. See, this movie isn’t about sex addiction. It’s about many things that are much deeper than that. Rarely have I left a film with such a clear memory of every single scene and image. The film was ingrained in my head. And because of this I felt the deep need to see it again. I saw it twice in less than two weeks, and already I want to see it again. It’s a devastating film, but it captures so much painful honesty and is told in such an incredible way that it is more than worth the emotional pain. See it and talk to me and I’ll be able to do a much better job expressing why I love this film so dearly.Read less