miscellaneous commentary

Favorite films of 2011

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As in 2010, I saw several great movies last year, and a lot of good ones. The films listed below are the ones I unequivocally recommend to anyone. Rather than make a top ten list, I thought I’d mimic Jim Emerson’s “moments out of time” and share a thought or two about each film, a shot or a scene or a piece of dialogue that made these movies stand out for me. Presented in the order in which I first saw them…..

Rango: The scene near the beginning when Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) barely survived a perilous road trip stuck inside a glass tank; the townsfolk engaged in a bizarre “water spell” dance maneuver; and Bill Nighy providing the voice of Rattlesnake Jake.

The opening scene of “Midnight in Paris” – a lovely montage of daily life in Paris (clip) – and Corey Stoll’s scene-stealing role as Ernest Hemingway.

The Tree of Life: My favorite film of 2011. When I saw it in Denver CO last August, I wrote it was “a magnificent, beautiful, raw film about the creation of the universe, the birth of life on Earth, life, grace, guilt, families, pain, growing up in the 50s, faith, God, death.” It is a film as ambitious in scale as “2001: A Space Odyssey”, a movie it is often compared to. Of all the beautiful images that captivated me, what I remember first is the upside-down shot of children’s shadows dancing on a street.

To quote Ebert:

Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer “to” anyone or anything, but prayer “about” everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.

What Malick does in “The Tree of Life” is create the span of lives. Of birth, childhood, the flush of triumph, the anger of belittlement, the poison of resentment, the warmth of forgiving. And he shows that he feels what I feel, that it was all most real when we were first setting out, and that it will never be real in that way again. In the face of Hunter McCracken, who plays Jack as a boy, we see the face of Sean Penn, who plays him as a man. We see fierceness and pain. We see that he hates his father and loves him. When his father has a talk with him and says, “I was a little hard on you sometimes,” he says, “It’s your house. You can do what you want to.” And we realize how those are not words of anger but actually words of forgiveness. Someday he will be the father. It will not be so easy.

The scene in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” when Caesar duels with Draco Malfoy in the playpen at the animal control center; Draco’s insult (a nod to the 1968 original) and Caesar’s “response”. Really, every scene with Caesar is a reminder of how talented Andy Serkis is with manipulating his body movements. Please give this guy an Oscar.

Drive: just about every detail in the opening car chase scene – the editing and pacing, the tension outside the gates, the speed and agility with which the Driver (Ryan Gosling) controls his vehicle, how he anticipates every move of nearby patrol cars, and how his eyes do the talking while his face remains stone cold. Also, Albert Brooks as the gangster who could give Hans Landa from “Inglourious Basterds” a run for his money. Driver: “My hands are a little dirty.” Brooks: “So are mine.” Also, that silver satin scorpion jacket he wears stands out in my mind.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: every scene — every shot — within the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave in southern France that showed the primitive artwork shrouded in a sea of forgotten darkness. When I saw the movie two months ago I said the best one-word description of it was “haunting” and I stand by that assessment. It reminded me of the creepy title sequence to Herzog’s “Nosferatu”.

We Need to Talk About Kevin: WOW. This is a dark, dark movie. Tilda Swinton is one of my favorite actresses and she gives a great performance in this film as the mother of a truly wicked child. The most chilling scene is Swinton cleaning her younger daughter’s eye socket after “accidentally” ingesting cleaning products. Just thinking about it makes me cringe.

Another Earth: the vague yet pointed manner in which the lead actress reveals her deeper connection to the man she has been helping throughout the movie, as well as the closing shot of the movie. The entire film reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 low-budget indie film “Pi”.

Matt King (George Clooney) going for a gloomy morning jog on an almost-deserted Hawaiian beach in “The Descendants”, and the pivotal tidbit of information he receives totally by coincidence from his cousin (Beau Bridges) later in the day.

I’m still waiting to see “The Artist”, “Melancholia”, “Take Shelter”, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, “Into the Abyss” and “A Separation”, all of which have received positive reviews.

Other images/scenes that stood out from 2011 movies: Kiera Knightley’s teeth-gnashing performance in “A Dangerous Method”, Cameron Diaz in “Bad Teacher” (“I want to sit on his face.”), the scenes of societal breakdown and the Big Reveal at the end of “Contagion”, the desolate landscapes of “Meek’s Cutoff”, Brad Pitt hastily spitting popcorn out of his mouth during a session of fast-paced wheeling & dealing in “Moneyball”, the pivotal train wreck in “Super 8” and the end-credit amateur film worthy of the Franciscans, Joey trying to escape the tank within the trenches in “War Horse” (and eventually charging it head-on) and, later, becoming hopelessly entangled in barbed wire in No Man’s Land.

I also liked and recommend “Albert Nobbs”, “Beginners”, “Bill Cunningham New York”, “Bridesmaids”, “Captain America”, “Carnage”, “Cold Weather”, “Forks Over Knives”, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, “Harry Potter Part 7.2”, “The Help”, “Immortals”, “In Time”, “Margin Call”, “Martha Marcy May Marlene”, “The Mill and the Cross”, “Our Idiot Brother”, “Source Code”, “Terri”, “Win Win” and “Young Adult”.


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