Best of 2011 Movies / Video

Best Movies of 2011
Here’s my take on the best movies that I saw in theaters this year. No special order. Well, that’s not true—they’re in the order of my excitement to write about them. There are a lot of year-end movies I haven’t seen yet… if any of them strike me, I’ll add to this list.

13 Assassins
For many months, in fact until the recent year-end Oscar hopeful films, this movie enjoyed the top spot of “Best thing I’ve seen in 2011.” Takashi Miike's take on the Kurosawa-style samurai film has a nice slow set-up in which it lays out character details and sets up arcs that will pay off over the rest of the film. Then it lets rip with a massive, drawn-out final battle, during which everything set up earlier is resolved or comes to a head in incredibly satisfying ways. I also can’t remember the last time I’ve just been staring wide-eyed at the screen, riveted to what might come next.

The Tree of Life
Any Terrence Malick movie is wonderful, so I appreciated even more that he went a step beyond his typical genius narrative stories into something off the map. On the surface an archetypal view of childhood growing pains with a gruff father and caring mother—with a few birth of the universes and dinosaurs in there for good measure—my theory is that the story is deliberately bare-bones in order to allow YOU to project your life onto it, which then becomes the act of creation the movie is talking about.

This movie about an extended hook-up between two guys earned a special place for including a lot of uniquely gay everyday situations—like standing silently on the bus while some teenagers nearby are mocking gays—and then following through with excellent writing that defines characters, then develops them, and has a lot of those little touches, dropped in earlier, pay off unexpectedly moving dividends late in the movie. Free from the Important Lessons many gay movies are burdened with, this movie just creates a beautiful love story and lets some lessons slip in on their own, as it should be.

Super-fun speculative science fiction with real-world resonance! When a loser writer takes a pill that unlocks the potential of his brain and lets him remember everything he encounters, he is able to shoot out that novel, make millions in the stock market, and win back his girlfriend, but of course there are side-effects, dangerous thugs who want their hands on it as well, and the little problem that he will probably become a vegetable if he ever quits. The movie has ideas, is fun and hypnotically propulsive, Bradley Cooper is ideal in the role, and it finds very clever ways to twist its central situation. So what if it pulls a huge cop-out at the end? That’s just par for the genre—and the current releasing market.

Lars Von Trier’s film about despair and depression is a gorgeous, beautiful wallow in sadness. It would seem that a planet is going to hit and destroy the earth in a matter of days. We have an insanely gorgeous slow-motion prologue, then a long section in which Kirsten Dunst tries to make it through her wedding despite debilitating depression. But soon we start to see what she’s so depressed about, which is NOT necessarily related to the end of the world. The second half takes up with her sister’s attempts to cope with the impending disaster. Overall, the whole thing is just a wonderful descent into serious despair, something we can all use every once in a while.

Project Nim
This documentary about a team trying to teach a chimp sign language does my favorite thing about good documentaries, which is become much larger than its ostensible subject to include a whole time period and gossipy details about the private lives of the people involved. Not only do you get the heartbreaking story of this poor chimp given intense mothering, then abandoned over and over, but you also get a personal glimpse of toxic narcissist Herbert Terrace, for whom meddling in the lives of others, then dropping them when he loses interest, is apparently a way of life.

X-Men: First Class / Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Both of these movies give popcorn entertainment a good name by being super-fun and packed with action and spectacle, but without the insult to your intelligence or the queasy afterward feeling that you’ve been suckered in once again. X-Men tells a story of how Magneto and Professor X first came together, and ultimately went separate ways, woven into a story that had actual characters, made sense, and had a legitimate, giant climax. Planet of the Apes also wasn’t stupid, had intelligent characters and smart, consistent rising of action toward its climax, and channeled most of its special effects budget into having a CGI ape convey complex and recognizable emotions.

Cold Weather
This smart, unassuming little indie mystery succeeds by dialing everything way down, which results in allowing several of its very small subsequent touches to have oversized effect. Pacific Northwest slacker Doug’s former girlfriend shows up for a short time—then vanishes. His efforts to find her start to involve mysterious disappearances and adult magazines. Do we have a mystery on our hands? It seems we do, and there are a few good, unexpected twists and low-key thrills in store, as well numerous details about a very true-to-life and funny relationship between Doug and his sister.

Hugo / Drive
Both of these movies are, in their way, impeccable recreations of cinema past. Hugo in a super-sentimental film [in the best way] that provides a big, sprawling, Paris-centered story with numerous secondary characters, that all ends up revolving around restoring one of cimema’s earliest inventors to the greatness he deserves. You can expect to be crying from the midpoint on, and for the first time you have a real artist using 3D. Drive is an evocation of those 80s L.A.-based thrillers with the neon pink credits and the soundtracks by Tangerine Dream. It alternates slow, impeccably-composed character scenes with sudden, explosive action.

The Skin I Live In
Almodovar’s latest isn’t that easy to love—the story is vaguely unpleasant, there’s very few good feelings, and it unfolds with an hour-long flashback in the middle. When I walked out of it I wasn’t all that impressed, but the more I thought about it, connected all its little themes and how it put them all together, the more I came to like it. He’s messing around with gender and identity again, but creating something that doesn’t necessarily end with a strong statement, just a fascinating look at an interesting case. And of course it’s all impeccably shot and gorgeous to look at.

Best Videos of 2011
Here are the best movies, of any year, that I watched on video during 2011:

Andrei Rublev
Okay, I realize that a nearly four-hour film about a 15th-Century Russian icon painter is probably not going to be the first thing you’ll rush out to watch, but what if I told you it is truly unlike any other film you’ve ever seen? What if I said that every shot is breathtakingly beautiful? What if you knew that Tarkovsky is the rare director that uses the reality of time passing as the film unfolds in a conscious, intelligent way? And that the film ends with an incredibly moving parable about faith, then a spectacular viewing of Rublev’s artwork? Even if you only watch an hour of it, you’ll have gained immeasurably.

The Last Wave
After seeing so much acclaim for the fairly lame Take Shelter, it occurred to me that the exact same movie had been made, better, 30 years earlier. Peter Weir’s film is an early global warming mystery, with an Australian man beset by visions of an impending catastrophe—but are they real, or just visions? Also involved are a group of Aborigines, who may or may not be practicing old tribal rites that have been outlawed by the European settlers, and whose displacement mirrors the moving away from nature and to urbanization that may be causing the weather problems. Mysterious, spooky and involving.

The Vanishing (1988)
A woman vanishes from a gas station while on vacation. Her boyfriend becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her. Meanwhile, we meet and get to know the man who abducted her, and what’s going on in his head. It all twists brilliantly, until finally the two men come together and we start learning what happened. The story all builds up to a shocking, but entirely sensible and prepared-for ending that throws the entire thing into sharp relief. If you don’t know what it is—protect yourself! Do not under any circumstances watch the American remake.

Twin Peaks: The Pilot
You’re safe watching the entire first season of Twin Peaks, but if you see nothing else, the pilot makes a wonderful, evocative little film in itself, which is somehow even more intriguing for being open-ended. The pilot covers the first day in the small town of Twin Peaks after the body of a beloved teenager is discovered. Several intriguing characters are introduced and secrets opened up through unexpectedly funny writing and intensely evocative images. Along the way we are introduced to two unusually compelling characters: the smart, morally upright Dale Cooper, and the enchantingly magnetic dead girl, Laura Palmer.

Night and the City
This classic noir isn’t a detective story, but about a shiftless lower who always has a new, sure-fire plan to make it, one that is certain to work out this time. He comes close, but then, in an explosive, unforeseen mid-film shake-up, all his plans shatter and he is left scrambling. Also present are a half-dozen characters, all clearly delineated and with perfectly interlocking, understandable arcs of their own. They really just don’t make them like this anymore. Makes an excellent double-feature with another excellent noir starring Richard Widmark, Pickup on South Street.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation / Motel Hell
Horror-comedy: it’s not that easy to do! But both of these movies managed to hit the nail on the head, being both hilariously funny and scary. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: TNG has a reputation of being one of the worst movies ever, but this is only because the numerous idiots out there don’t understand that it is SUPPOSED to be funny, and rather than being a pathetic cash-in, is a brilliant attempt to recreate the heady mix of macabre humor and extreme terror the original was known for. Motel Hell is less brilliant, but funnier, with Rory Calhoun and the delightful Nancy Parsons playing cracked-up rural redneck farmers who use accident victims as the secret ingredient in their meat products.

Michael Caine, at his most ludicrously cool, reunites with his Get Carter writer-director Mike Hodges for this brilliant meta-thriller that both sends up pulp writing and IS pulp writing. Caine is hired by a mysterious client to ghost-write his memoirs, an assignment that also includes being drawn into a murder plot. The script is clever and funny, Mickey Rooney comes close to stealing the show as a megalomaniac star, and Caine, just when you think he wouldn’t possibly be any cooler—well, he does it again.

Nine Queens
Really well-made fluff. It’s twists and turns galore in this Argentinian heist movie, where two criminals hook up to sell a sheet of forged stamps. Complications arise from their families, friends who appear out of the woodwork, sudden thefts by complete strangers, suspicious marks, and more. It keeps you guessing and keeps you entertained—banking on your inability to go back and add it all up until it’s done. Good thing, because it all collapses upon the slightest reflection, but by the time it gets to the end, you won’t care.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
This tender love story from Rainer Werner Fassbinder concerns an unlikely affair between an older grandmother and a Moroccan man living in Germany. They are both instantly outcast, she for supposedly being a sex-obsessed harlot, he for being a dirty foreign brute and probable terrorist. The strength of the film is the way Fassbinder writes and directs so that we can understand why the two of them would be together, then lets his typical moral harshness and dim view of human nature take the rest of the picture.