Taking into account that I have not yet seen the following: Somewhere, Blue Valentine, The Rabbit Hole, Winter's Bone, or that one movie about the old British couples, this is what I think happened to be the best of 2011-- not a particularly great year for movies, though it did pick up there towards the end, mostly due to some fine writing (but do the screenwriters get noticed? still no! Sorkin is only a mild exception).
1. The Social Network
The brilliance of this movie begins to dawn on you the viewer somewhere around the middle, however the first five minutes are the best, most vicious part. Sorkin, one of the almost-household-names in screenwriting, writes a two-person dialogue that just lays into the characters and sets the tone for the movie. David Fincher (Fight Club) has pulled all together with such PRECISION, making scenes in which characters argue and type(for crying out loud) as exciting as cops and robbers. The atmosphere is also very suitable, the film looks fantastic and dark and cold, much like the cyber world seems. The dialogue is some of the best that I've ever heard (so. sharp.), Sorkin really is an amazing writer that I think all of us screenwriters should pay close attention to. Furthermore, Jesse Eisenberg is absolutely phenomenal, he NAILS this role in one of my favorite performances of the year. All that is very well and good, but the really interesting thing about this movie is the perspective that snuck up on me. At first I expected it to be pretty stupid (the facebook movie? what?), then I anticipatd a droll almost-courtroom drama about a startup business, as its structure suggests. And of course the film does follow the timeline of the facebook evolution, but that is not what it's about. It's not about facebook-- it's about WHY facebook is facebook. Why it is significant, and what it says about us. Sorkin and Fincher merely use Zuckerberg to illustrate their point, just like Orson Welles used Hearst. Zuckerberg wants to use facebook to be somebody, but everything that it brings him pushes further away from The Genuine. The irony of a friend request-- the very emptiness and lack of significance of a facebook page is its own significance. I read somewhere that this movie defines our times and I scoffed a little bit, but the more I think about it, the less off-base that summation seems.
2. True Grit
Social Network might be the best film this year, but True Grit was my favorite.
3. The King's Speech
It's odd to say, but this movie was even better than I had expected it to be. It was much less straight-forward than I had anticipated, and very funny. Colin Firth is really a fine actor, and I found him very moving. I enjoyed the fact that this film paraded the tightly-wound, image-obsessed and repressed daily function of British Royalty (and my perception of the Brits in general), making their propriety a bit amusing (especially when contrasted with Geoffrey Rush as the free-wheeling Australian therapist), but never mocking them. George and his wife are as real and sweet as the common people are, as evidenced in the PRECIOUS scene in which George tells his two little girls a bedtime story about a penguin. I love films that explore relationships, and ultimately that is what this film was. In screenwriting we were repeatedly told to ask the WHY, and it seems as though that question must have been asked a million times during the construction of this piece. Every bit of it is so satisfying. And moving.
I especially liked the scene in which the king goes to visit Geoffrey Rush after George's father has died, and Rush urges him to sing-song when he has trouble saying something. It's a long scene (bliss!) as the king finally talks revealingly about himself and his life, resisting Rush's insistence that he sing, and trying not to take shame in own anguish. A really beautiful scene.
I will write more about this movie, but I think what makes me love this movie so much is that it has balls. It has the balls to make its main character (and many other characters) unlikable. Greenberg is a sod, no bones about it, and once you accept that about him, you begin to see the complexity of a human being, and what it's like to feel empty and lost.
The thing about Greenberg is that he's got nothing due to the fact that he's an ass. He's brought everything bad upon himself. What so many people can't seem to understand about this film is that THAT describes everyone. We bring our own pain upon ourselves, usually. But that doesn't make us non-humans or undeserving of love or at least hope.
I've nit-picked about this one already, so I will just say again that I did not feel that it met its potential. However I did spend the entire theatre experience shaking my head and marveling at how amazing the spectacle was. Visually it is incredibly beautiful, and the complexity of the world that the Nolans created is insane. The story is not what it could be, however it does play out like a mystery meets a heist film, and I know I was on edge at every turn. DiCaprio, Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page and Cillian Murphy are some of my most favorite actors working right now, and they all did an impressive job with what they were given. Above all, I loved the much-discussed final moments-- Cobb's top falters a bit as it spins, but the important thing is that Cobb has walked away. The message of the film is really important, and I was impressed at Nolan's ability to prompt his audience to consider the ethical choices of his characters. Again (see: The Prestige, Memento). I definitely think he is masterful, and this film will be added to the canon of great American Blockbusters. Somehow I doubt it will ever touch The Matrix, however.
This is a strange movie that has stuck with me. I think about it quite a bit, and was both horrified and saddened while watching it. The trailers play it up as a thriller-- it's not. But it IS a fascinating character study. If this were a scripted drama, everything within it would be explained away, played up to great effect, but here it can't be. There are moments that feel inauthentic (on the side of the boys), as if the boys are doing all that they can to milk the situation, and the lead fellow (whatever his name is) gets on one's nerves. However I liked that he was constantly in view-- his frequent, painful smiles, like the tics of many people I know, have prompted many a viewer to suspect that he was pulling the strings more than he reveals in the film, but I don't really think so. His smiling throughout awkward and difficult moments seemed to me more of a tic, a guarded thing, a defense mechanism that I think many guys have. By the end of the movie it becomes a familiar sight. Anyway, I do suspect that perhaps the beginning of the film was shot after the second half of it and therefore is more of a re-enactment of the goings-on, but I do not doubt the validity of the film. The personality revealed at the end is very sad, and I can see why some critics call "exploitation!" but... I disagree. It is far more of a commentary (perhaps an accidental one) about loneliness and how vast it can be, and how our present culture may only serve to further it in its attempts to make our pain less severe.Irritating at times, but hits all the right notes.
7. Black Swan
An exploration of identity and passion, Black Swan is very artfully done and kept me involved throughout. All in all, it was one movie this year that turned out to be almost exactly what I expected it to be, an elegant exploration of madness.
8. Kick Ass
On the other end of the spectrum, Kick-Ass was completely surprising to me. I went in expecting a violent action flick and got instead something very convicting and conflicting. On the one hand, it is an action-comedy flick with highly stylized sequences and amusing dialogue and weird characters. The fight scenes are pumped with pounding music and amazing choreography, and are often fun to watch. On the OTHER HAND... the movie turns on you and itself, inquiring exactly why one should find violence to be such fun. Watching a teenager and a little girl engage in hardcore to-the-death fighting (not versus each other) is jarring. The little girl's existence in this world is unsettling, and once the baddies have the gall to actually fight back, the sight before you is just plain wrong. The film is a representation of its main character-- a boy who thinks the whole hero thing is cool and all, but who continues to fight because violence is sometimes the only way to combat violence against the helpless (which he very eloquently says in one scene). The film is a celebration of action, but only because sometimes the only way to combat a serious issue is to display it. I'm not sure if that makes it right, but it's a very interesting idea. Anyway, aside from all of that, this film has some crazy odd-ball flair and snappy dialogue that I enjoyed very much, not to mention some really fine performances by the lead and Chloe Moretz, as the young super heros, and Nic Cage doing what he does best: weirdness. This is a movie that I found entirely unpredictable (rare!) yet left me feeling very satisfied by the end credits. Pity it was released so early in the year, no one seems to remember it now.
9. Toy Story 3
The thing about TS3 that makes it so great is exactly what makes Casablanca so great. Although each is a fine film and completely worthy of admiration, it is what the public has projected onto these movies that give them an almost mythic status. Casablanca was an American response to a world gone mad- a tough-guy, dialogue-rich, romantic-heroic themed story involving self-sacrifice set during our most trying time. We ate it up. TS3 is the American Generation Y (I think that's us) response to growing up. Everyone my age has grown up watching the Toy Story films and identifying with Andy, mainly because we all owned toys and so did he (it doesn't take much when you're a kid). I myself have a very strong connection to the original Toy Story, I very vividly remember going to see it in theatres about 3 days before we moved out of state (from California back to Texas). I was already weird about my toys, so you can imagine how upsetting that movie was (I obsessively tried to arrange my toys so that each might have a moving buddy), and that I identified with Andy all the more. And now I'm grown-up. And so is Andy. And the Toy Story toys become like the Toy Story movies-- a symbol of a childhood that is slowly fading away. When Andy finally relinquishes his toys, especially that last, decided--mutual-- look he gives Woody, I collapsed into a pile of tears because I saw myself saying goodbye, too. I might have felt that way without the previous two films, but the interweaving of Buzz and Woody throughout my life created a huge emotional response in me, and I think in most of us. If it wasn't young people my age, then it was our parents who held back tears just as Andy's mom does as she surveys his empty room. We just grow up so fast.
I also liked the prison-movie theme they had going on here, and the addition of Michael Keaton's Ken was hilarious. The Pixar writers are so in-tune with every day life, so observational. I suppose that's what I've always liked about them.
10. The Ghost Writer
Roman Polanski may be a tortured soul, but he sure can create an atmosphere. I think he's Hitchcockian in that way, actually. He builds more than suspense-- it's more like the sense of utter doom that can be found in his finest films, like this one, Chinatown, and Rosemary's Baby. Things happen, but the FEAR of things happening is much more unsettling than any action that really occurs. In fact, the most shocking actions are even downplayed, adding to the viewer's discombobulation. I love this subtlety that Polanski has. I also thought this was a nice, tidy thriller story. I suspected the reveal at the end, however I had forgotten my suspicions by the time it occured. The story rewards the viewer with a second viewing, however unlike other political thrillers it is not hard to follow nor is it dull or unrelated to character (IE the political intrigue directly affects everyone). Ewan McGreggor is very likable here, and does the talking-to-himself thing pretty well. It's hard to be the regular-guy that is forced to be a detective (and in this case, the rather complacent writer who can't even write for himself-- oooh character commentary-- being prompted to unravel a dangerous truth), one has to act as though they are understanding, and I reckon that's difficult. However, Pierce Brosnan and Olivia whats-her-face are phenomenal as the utterly sharp-edged former prime minister and wife. You never know what either of them are up to, and each have moments of sympathy and villainy. Also, I think I just like seeing Brosnan as a sketchy man. He's had an interesting career post-Bond, which is nice to see, and I think he's generally a good and very underrated actor (Mama Mia, which he nearly ruined with his god-awful singing, aside).
The best part of the film? The last five seconds. Best reveal of any film in recent memory, and the final cap on the very sense of growing doom which, for a moment, we thought we had escaped. "This is how the world ends..."
11. The Fighter
The only reason why I elevate this above The Town is because of the female performances. Christian Bale is, as everyone agrees, so engrossing as the smack-addict brother who is trying to live vicariously though his fighter brother, but I thought Melissa Lao as the matriarch and Amy Adams as the refreshing yet at times equally controlling, ballsy girlfriend of the fighter were incredibly impressive. The film is told with a nice style that allows its viewer to be a part of the community and the fighter's family, which really makes the film work, because in the end Mickey the fighter is really fighting for his identity and himself against all of the people in this community that he happens to love but who project their dreams upon him. The finale is thankfully pleasant and cathartic-- everyone finally throws their support behind Mickey-- not themselves, but Mickey-- and he does not need to carry them all on his shoulders. I especially liked the believable presentation of family dynamics, and Amy Adams as the girlfriend who sticks up for her man when she notices he's overrun by his family. She sees his need and fills it for him, however she begins to see that her role is valuable and she begins to abuse it almost as Mickey's family did, until she is confronted with the ultimate abuser-- Mickey's brother, reminding her that really love should not be selfish in nature.
My favorite scene of the film was when Dicky, the heroin-addict loser brother, is retrieved from his smack-den by his bossy "bawston" ma. Dicky has obviously been her pride for most of his life, but seeing him ravaged by the damage he has done to himself crushes her. They sit in the car while she fights tears until Dicky starts singing a song they both seem to have a history with. Finally, she starts to sing along until she feels she can drive the car away. Such is the dilemma of a family member.
12. The Town
Ben Affleck can direct. I didn't think this movie was rich in substance, though it's not empty-headed by any means, however I did think it was probably the most exciting and well-done thriller of the year. Inception was a sight to behold, but The Town completely tops it for action. The chase scene with the nun costumes was one of the best-filmed car chases I've ever seen. The acting was also very intense, and I especially liked Jeremy Remmer and Jon Hamm in their respective roles. Remmer because he plays violent thug oh-so-well, all while giving us a glimpse of insight and motivation into this tightly-wound criminal (who remains a violent criminal to the last). Hamm because his police man was intelligent and insightful, hot on the trail of the protagonist but also highly sympathetic, unlike many cop characters in other films who pursue criminal protagonists-- the screenwriter seems to think that in order to like the anti-hero, his pursuer, the man on the "good" side must actually appear to be an antagonist. Thankfully, this character is not written as such and Jon Hamm does not play him as such. Pete pete postlethwaite, in what I think was his last performance, is solid gold as always. I am continually impressed by him, and I thought he was completely terrifying here. Also, surprisingly, Blake Lively turned in a very authentic, emotional performance as Affleck's overlooked ex, a trashy girl who seems sadly aware of her own predicament even though she's not sure of what else the world could possibly offer her. Ben Affleck is still not a stellar actor, but I'll forgive him that-- he can certainly direct worth a damn.
13. Tangled & Despicable Me
Both surprising movies with emotional truths. And darn cute.
The film I think I was most disappointed in was The Kids Are All Right. The lamest movie I probably saw was The Tourist. Man. What an idiotic movie. Points for Paul Bettany, however. Eat Pray Love, as I have afore ranted, certainly didn't get much love from me, either.