Feature Article, List

This was another year filled with fantastic cinema coming from all around the world. As with most lists, it is very difficult to narrow them down without including many more that deserve attention. I should also mention that many of these films were released in foreign territories in 2010 but did not have American screenings until 2011. Without further ado, here are the best films of 2011, all of which deserve to be seen by you. Yes, YOU!

Elizabeth Olsen makes her first big splash in the movie scene with this film, written and directed by fellow first-timer Sean Durkin. What unfolds is the deciphering of a cult led by an enigmatic leader with Elizabeth’s character leaving and trying to come to grips with real life.

The result is a very moody piece that questions morals and shows the slow process of a normal person’s head becoming twisted, each turn of the screw displayed in painstaking detail. The present and the past bleed together like a dream to the point where you don’t know when things are exactly taking place. And that is part of the aim, to show that these experiences can happen to any one of us and that it isn’t something that just ends. Events like this stay with us and are hard to shake when they are ingrained within our daily lives.

By slowly dipping you into the water head first, you become an unwilling participant in the games that are being played, some of which are completely vague to us. All in all, it’s an experience that showcases the power of film in the modern age.

Another horror film surprised me this year in the form of “Kidnapped”. This film is another in the sub-genre of “home invasion” horror titles but throws in a few unexpected twists, the main one being that it all unfolds in one long, uninterrupted take, adding a very realistic feeling to it with all of the events unfolding in real time.

Who the criminals are and why they decided to raid this home isn’t even important: what is important is how the criminals behave and ultimately, how the victims behave. Human urges play a huge part in this film, both sexual and feeling the need to protect your family. It subverts the genre at several points along the way, which I can’t go into without spoiling the surprises. The result is a tightly-wound, fierce piece of cinema that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t stop until the end credits roll, by which time you have probably suffocated. And that’s the way great horror films should be.

Lars von Trier has never been known for being an “audience pleaser”, most notably with the debut of his last film, “Antichrist”, which was a tale focusing on grief, evil and what happens when sexuality has TOO much power over an individual. So of course, you can’t go into “Melancholia” expecting roses and sunshine.

The story focuses on two sisters, one battling manic depression and one battling anxiety. All of this is set against the backdrop of a planet called Melancholia that may or may not be on schedule to collide with Earth, ending us all. Many parts of the story are vague but one thing is clear: this is one powerful movie. Many questions are posed, such as “What types of people will be most capable of dealing with the end of the world?” along with the purpose of traditions and the purpose of…well, anything really.

On top of that, Lars provides his trademark visuals that are breathtaking set to a very-appropriate operatic score. It is mind bending while maintaining a balance of light and heavy emotions, feelings, and diving into the deep end of a pool that is either panic-inducing or cathartic depending on the type of personality that you have.

For more on “Melancholia”, listen to the “What I’ve Learned From Film” podcast episode I conducted by clicking here.

07.) Drive

Here is a film that was a lot better than it should have been, mostly thanks to the vision employed by director Nicolas Winding Refn. On paper, this movie doesn’t sound a whole lot different than most Hollywod B-movie schlock (see this weekend’s “Contraband” for an example of what I mean) with a story revolving around a Hollywood stunt-man who moonlights as a getaway driver who asks no questions as long as you pay him. He starts to fall for a woman who is his neighbor which, of course, makes him question what he’s doing.

But this isn’t “Contraband” or “Fast Five”. No, instead, Nicolas Winding Refn opted for something else, something much more than what this material deserved. It’s a slow, patient movie that spaces out the moments of action brilliantly. The hyper-stylization gels with the pulpy subject matter thoroughly and turns the screen into a showcase for modern crime-noir storytelling. And although the story itself is not concerned with plot points, you get the story through the faces of Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan along with their interactions with everyone around them.

Written and directed by Mike Mills, “Beginners” is a sweet story about a man in his mid-30’s grappling with his father not only coming out of the closet but also being diagnosed with a fatal form of cancer. It uses flashbacks in a very intuitive way, with the main character (played by Ewan McGregor) describing the times that he lived in along with the times his mother and father grew up with.

It paints a portrait of life throughout the decades, showing how similar and dissimilar love has been in different eras. Ewan’s character, Oliver, also meets a woman who only wants to have a fling with him, willing to meet him exclusively at hotel rooms which he is fine with at first but becomes more complicated than he expected.

Thanks to Mike’s imagination, the film transcends the normal mid-life crisis theme to show a creative, honest portrait of a person who is uncertain of many things in life. There are some fantastic directorial touches that keep the film feeling fresh without being overly-quirky and the back-and-forth pace between the present and the past flows smooth like butter. Overall, it’s the relationships depicted in the film that carry the bulk of the weight and by the end, show how we, as humans, are infants at all stages of life.

Terrence Malick returns with a film that has had a long history and finally sees the light of day. Did it live up to the hype? Yes, quite so I believe. As with many cerebral films, this one can be very divisive for those who do not know what to expect when going into it. It is not a “story” film in the sense that general audiences may think of.

Numerous people go into movies expecting a plot-based story to play out, with Point A going to Point B until the story reaches its conclusion. However, not all films aspire to tell stories in this manner, “Tree of Life” being a prime example. The main portion of the film does focus however on a 1950’s family in Texas led by a dominating Brad Pitt as the father and a kind, gentle mother in the form of Jessica Chastain. You, as the viewer, get completely thrown into this world, sometimes in an almost 1st person point of view, which makes you feel as if you are a part of the family.

But it then goes beyond that, correlating the 1950’s with the present and then going all the way back to the creation of the universe. The scope is awe-inspiring, although perhaps a bit confusing for some. It shows that what we feel and experience in life is both but a teeny tiny dot in the universe and the grandest event on the most epic of scales.

04.) Rubber

With “Rubber”, musician/filmmaker Quentin Dupieux (also known as Mr. Oizo) directs a movie that completely breaks the 4th wall for the entire running time. This adds an incredible sense of fun to what you’re watching because it’s so ridiculous but involving at the same time.

The movie centers on a rubber tire that becomes sentient and somehow gains the power to make things explode. It’s a far-fetched concept for sure but that’s the point: its non-sense, which pops up more in our lives than we want to admit. The tone is set straight from the beginning when a local sheriff explains how things happen for no reason at all (in fact, Quentin himself described this film as “no-reason filmmaking” in interviews).

“Rubber” is a midnight movie at it’s finest. It’s hilarious, insane, and involves you as an audience member in a quite literal way. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it after seeing it myself because no matter how crazy the story is, it is a remarkably well-done film with a very well crafted screenplay that takes us on a roller coaster ride. Simply put, it is pure cinema.

Master filmmaker Jee-woon Kim, known for “A Tale of Two Sisters” and “The Good, the Bad, the Weird”, comes with a smartly scripted horror film that takes the concept of “evil” and injected some moral questions into the equation.

A cop’s fiance is murdered by a serial killer (played by Min-sik Choi of “Oldboy” fame) who is then determined to track him down. What starts out as a normal murder mystery thriller takes some sharp left turns when the cop catches the criminal early on in the film, tortures him…and then lets him go. Suddenly, twisted concepts of revenge and pain enter the picture. When is revenge justified and how much pain can you cause the criminal before you become an evil person as well? On top of that, how much pain are you causing others around you when you cling to ideals of revenge?

By posing these questions, the film breaks from its genre trappings and transforms into something more. Black comedy, drama, and horror all have their chance to shine and ultimately, results in a film that is hard to look away from, no matter how grisly it gets while also crawling inside your mind like the best psychological horror films do.

Many viewers are familiar with director Takashi Miike’s work thanks to his cult films “Audition”, “Ichi the Killer” and “Three Extremes”. So it’s safe to say that he’s known for violent, cerebral cinema. It was quite a surprise to see “13 Assassins” because even though their are violent scenes for sure, there is a lot of time spent developing the story, which actually turns out to be this film’s strong point.

In this ode to the classic “Seven Samurai” from Akira Kurosawa, the story revolves around a lord who has gone drunk with power, violently killing many innocent countrymen just for his sheer entertainment. Slowly, a collective group of assassins begin to turn against this lord and come together, plotting a grand plan to take him down.

The best thing about this film is the structure. For the entire first hour, you have gradual story-telling and character buildup. You slowly understand what makes this lord so hated, what each of the 13 assassins have against him and also how each of their personalities work with one another. You see everything built from the ground up so that in the second half of the film, you get to enjoy the fruits of this labor..and those fruits happen to be one giant chaotic action scene.

This scene is one of the biggest payoffs I’ve ever seen in a movie, action or otherwise. It’s a long scene that never gets boring and has enough twists in it to remain fresh. Explosions, crazy swordplay, leaping from building to building all have a place as you watch these assassins take on an entire army of individuals. It is beautiful in its own way and when it’s all finally over, a big smile will rest on your face.

I was lucky enough to catch this film on the big screen at a local film festival here in Nashville, Tennessee back in April of last year. I had heard a little bit about it, mostly that Alex Turner was doing the original music for the film (Alex is the lead singer/songwriter from Arctic Monkeys, my favorite band). I also knew that it was a coming-of-age film, which didn’t exactly fill me with much hope since this seems to be the go-to genre for first time independent directors and follows way too many cliches: shy, nervous outcast kid with quirks, a quest to find a mate, slightly odd parents, I could go on.

And this is indeed the first narrative film from Richard Ayoade (he previously directed the Arctic Monkeys excellent concert film “Live at the Apollo”) and you know what? It does include the previously mentioned cliches. The good news is, however, that they are spun so freshly that it feels natural and honest. There isn’t quirk for quirk’s-sake and there is nothing boring or mundane to be found.

Instead, what we get is a supremely intelligent story told in a varied, interesting manner. This film is clearly influenced by the French new wave film movement and is all the better for it. Nothing is predictable here as we get treated to imaginary documentaries as imagined by the lead character, daydreams of death,  and color-coded segments woven in between. Overall though, the story is about a high schooler struggling with his new girlfriend coupled with the impending separation that his parents are experiencing. The result is a sweet, honest story that flies by in minutes and is the one film of 2011 that has made the most impact on me.

Honorable Mentions:

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