Now that we've given out the Fuckos, it's time to get serious and unveil the top 11 movies of the year. SERIOUS. This was a pretty good movie year, as it shook out, a far cry from the dread at the beginning of the year about there being more sequels/remakes/reboots this year than any other year in history. Problem is, a lot of the better pictures weren't as widely seen, including at least two—both of which discussed below—tragically under-seen movies that are virtually certain to become a lot of people's all-time favorites once they hit DVD. Such is the way of the world, though.
Before we get to the list proper, I want to mention a couple also-rans that didn't make the final cut but that are good and things you should watch. These are pictures that had been in my top 11 before I caught up on all the year-end releases, and would have stayed there if the year-end stuff hadn't been so good (which it was.) Without any further ado, let us salute . . .
Source Code (dir. Duncan Jones)
A very solid SF thriller, with Jake Gyllenhaal puttin' in solid work as a guy who gradually realizes the reason he was the perfect candidate for the military's SF-nal goings-on is for kind of not-so-good reasons (put it this way, his previous career as an Air Force pilot is pretty much toast.) Michelle Monaghan continues her career as one of the most quietly solid leading ladies in the business, Vera Farmiga gets to wear a military uniform and be emotionally repressed (meeeoowwww . . .) and Jeffrey Wright smokes a pipe and wears bow-ties and stuff and was part of one of 2011's more interesting trends: Evil White Guys In Suits who are either not white or not guys (someone find Aisha Tyler and cast her in something as the main sinister executive in something so we can have our first EWGIS who is neither white nor male), which I think is an affirmation of the American way. Someday anyone, regardless of race, gender, or anything else will be able to put on a suit and be evil.
Anyway, Source Code's tight. Don't let anyone tell you the ending's stupid, it's awesome. It just leans on the fiction half of “science fiction” a bit. Duncan Jones is David Bowie's kid. He's SF royalty from birth. He gets to make the endings of his pictures as weird as he fucking likes.
Midnight In Paris (dir. Woody Allen)
I thoroughly enjoyed this. It was a wonderful experience. Everything about it was perfect except for Rachel McAdams being such a psychopath, and even that wasn't exactly a deal-breaker, it just meant this fell out of the top 11. I really love that Woody took the whole over-romanticized Left Bank Paris 20s thing and made it look and sound as awesome as he possibly could . . . but still remind us that it wasn't real. Owen Wilson was better than he'd been in forever, and his balance of wide-eyed innocence and enthusiasm with intelligence and believability as a screenwriter (since, if you'll remember the early Wes Anderson days, he was). And all the “real” people were awesome, with Hemingway leading the pack as he should, though my favorite scene in the whole picture is when Owen Wilson sits down with Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel, and Man Ray and tells them he's a time traveler and they're all like “Absolutely” like it ain't no thing, like he told them he was an apothecary. Surrealists are good like that.
Warrior (dir. Gavin O'Connor)
An engrossing blend of old-fashioned sports movie and character study, it's got great performances top to bottom and outstanding fight scenes, with Tom Hardy particularly convincing as an MMA savant. It's a little long, though it doesn't feel particularly long, and it's so well done it's kind of a shock that it did such godawful business. Only kind of, because Tom Hardy isn't a star (yet), and Joel Edgerton isn't a star (yet), and the way the picture was marketed was like, “Come see Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton!” and civilians were like, “Who?” This is all about to change, though. Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton will be stars, they just made this movie five years too early. And once that happens, it sets up this conversation:
Civilian A: Holy shit, did you know Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton did a movie together before they were famous?This is how Warrior is going to become a lot of people's favorite movie soon. By 2014, Bill Simmons will have written a column about this picture and lots of people like him who love Rocky and The Karate Kid and pictures like that are going to see this and be like “Wow, this is like that except the acting is better!” This only very recently fell out of my top 11, and I very well may start pretending that it didn't in a couple years once it develops its huge civilian cult following.
Civilian B: Really? What's it about?
Civilian A: Mixed martial arts. They beat the shit out of guys!
Civilian B: Whoa, fuck, how have I never heard of this? Let's watch it!
Hugo (dir. Martin Scorsese)
Almost. This one is almost one for the ages. If only it wasn't for that goddamn script . . . I mean, everything else is there, all the visual razzle-dazzle money can buy, Martin Scorsese directing his heart out, and by his heart I mean his whole heart, and yet . . . it's just short. And it's all the writing's fault. Literally everything else you can possibly ask for is all right there. Sigh.
Since cinema isn't just things screened in movie theaters, a couple other things warrant mentioning. HBO's Game of Thrones overcame a rocky start establishing tone and so forth to become a terrifically entertaining potboiler with a great cliffhanger ending. Very much looking forward to season 2. The long-awaited L.A. Noire was a little shaky, but I've played through the main story three times now, so clearly there's some there there. And then there was Sucker Punch, which although a movie wasn't really a movie, more like some strange and imperfect entity with its foot caught in the door between cinema and gaming, a tragically misunderstood attempt by Zack Snyder to make a pro-feminist statement, but whose ambition slightly exceeded his grasp as an artist, and whose good intentions were not helped by the feverish, hallucinatory action sequences. It deserved a bit more credit than most critics gave it, though I'll freely admit my initial review of the picture graded it on the curve for ambition.
Enough for the also-rans. Let's get to the list itself. The top 11 movies of 2011, as determined by the crack staff of one crackhead (rhetorical, not literal variety) here at Movies By Bowes™ are . . .
11—Rise of the Planet of the Apes: dir. Rupert Wyatt
Some of the above-listed also-rans were works of greater artistry than this, which had the distinction of being the best movie of the genus summer blockbuster this year. And there are certainly problems here and there: Freida Pinto's character is a bit flat (and not done any favors by Ms. Pinto's limited thesping skills) and Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton is kind of ridiculous (though it's immensely satisfying when he gets owned.) But let's look at the last word in that parenthetical aside (parenthetical asides are a big part of what we do here at Movies By Bowes™): “owned.” This is a word I realize I've been throwing around a lot of late, and lest anyone get the idea that I'm just humping Zodiac Motherfucker's leg, the reason I conjugate the verb “to own” to describe decisive and violent victories physical, aesthetic, and moral is because the word has both a visually and aurally morphological perfection in describing what I'm trying to get at. The opening vowel rolls right into the consonant cluster quickly and smoothly, and the field of study, “ownage” has that extra soft crunch at the end that has a similar perfection of form. (Ed. Note: told y'all motherfuckers I was a serious intellectual. AND WHAT?)
That bit of unnecessary justification aside, the reason we're kicking this discussion off with this picture right here is that Rise was emblematic in a lot of ways of the year in cinema: a lot better than you thought it was going to be, and balancing thought-provoking content with wildly entertaining form. And if you've been following these pages since the summer, you know how I feel about Caesar, the leader of the revolution and the great fictional hero of the American Left. They should award Caesar a special Oscar and spend forty-five minutes of the fucking telecast having Cornel West interview Naomi Klein about how fucking rad Caesar is and have Rachel Maddow present the fucking thing in a bespoke tux. I'm serious.
10—Drive: dir. Nicolas (The Long And) Winding Refn
While we're on the subject of ownage in cinema, Drive was the year's most traditional contribution to the genre. I have very fond memories of the experience of seeing this, as this was the very movie that motivated me to figure out how to get invitations to press screenings (turned out they were delighted to have such a garrulously erudite gentleman such as my good self, but ya never know til ya try), and enabled me, hilariously, to pretend to be all cool and get the Self-Styled Siren in (she was very polite about my being such a n00b at the film writing game). I'll probably remember the screening longer than I will the movie, honestly.
That's not to say Drive isn't good. It's on this list, after all. The first hour and thirty five minutes of this picture contain some of the finest ownage yet lensed. The Long And Winding Refn knows how to direct a fucking movie, beyond any measure of doubt, and Baby Goose is goddamn tremendous in this. Christina Hendricks' ass stops clocks. Carey Mulligan was even good, even though her character doesn't have much to do, as her character is the archetypal noir “good girl in a bad situation” just like the rest of the movie, on paper, is boilerplate noir given life by the robust talents of the director, crew, and cast (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman as mobster brothers? Genius, especially Brooks).
But, as you may recall if you saw it, the movie isn't an hour thirty-five. It's an hour forty. The ending of the picture is kind of a problem, in that it doesn't have one. That doesn't make the rest of the picture any less awesome. The Long And Winding Refn may value style over substance, but right up til the last couple minutes kind of fart Drive is proof that something that's been done before can be great if done really, really well. Style being good enough negates substantive shortcomings round these parts.
9—Moneyball: dir: Bennett Miller
Another example of an exercise in a well-worn genre—the sports movie—made great by terrific execution and the occasional novel twist. Michael Lewis' book about the 2002 Oakland A's pissed off every boring old fuck in Major League Baseball, as all revolutions do: it revealed that objective statistical analysis of what was actually going on in baseball games made all those boring old fucks look really, really dumb.
Of course, being right isn't enough. Being right with Brad Pitt playing the main character and giving one of the two best performances of his career (more on which in a bit), on the other hand, is. Jonah Hill is great as Brad Pitt's nerd-de-camp (peace to Neal Stephenson in Cryptonomicon), playing a composite of a couple guys who crunched a bunch of numbers and figured out that the most important determinants of a batter's success weren't what the old dudes thought. Armed with that knowledge (and, something the book and movie both obscure, three of the best starting pitchers in the league that year) the A's end up doing way better than everyone who wrote them off after losing two stars to richer teams ever dreamed.
But for real, though? It's a cool story and everything but the thing that really makes it fly is how awesome both Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill are. That, and the fact that Bennett Miller's attention to detail keeps any alienating lapses in verisimilitude from fucking things up. Oh, and the way the usual second-act home-run montage in baseball movies is now a huge dramatic thing about David Justice drawing a walk is fucking hilarious for baseball fans. But Brad Pitt's star power and the truly magnificent supporting performance Jonah Hill delivers make this a picture even non-fans can get down with, as evidenced by the hundreds of people I've heard say “I don't even like baseball and I fuckin' loved that.”
8—The Artist: dir. Michel Hazanavicius
Some people are turning against it because it's going to sweep the Oscars this year (Ed. Note: it's going to), but fuck that. The Artist is great. It's a classic “you'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll laugh again, you'll cheer, and then you'll cry tears of joy at the beautifully sad ending” picture. Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo (especially the latter) are enchanting, and even though Hazanavicius whiffs by about a decade and a half on the recreation of silent-era movies (it'd be a bulls-eye 1946) he still gets the feel right, and that's the important thing. This is a picture that's meant to be felt, and even though I'm very much up in my head experientially, maybe it's knowing intellectually that I was supposed to feel it made me rationally decide to feel it or something. Who fucking knows. Who fucking cares, more on point. All I know is I really liked this one and all of you people being hipsters about The Artist being sappy can eat a dick. You can also go back and dig up old reviews of Mary Pickford movies and look at all the old shitheads sniffing about how she was less than perfect, and be advised that those very shitheads who were wrong about Mary Pickford look an awful lot like you all do now. Just saying.
7—A Dangerous Method: dir. David Cronenberg
I've covered this one fairly extensively already, with a lot attention to its immaculate design and historical relevance, as well as the performance Keira Knightley turns in. One thing I haven't really talked about is how awesome Viggo is as Sigmund Freud. He disappears behind the beard and the cigar, transforming himself, managing to convey not only the intelligence but the eccentricity and (most impressively) insecurity of Freud. Weirdly, this movie seems to have slipped through the awards season cracks, which is really unfortunate, but the four of us who saw it all know how good it was. This is one, when the Blu-Ray comes out, you're going to want to get up on it quick, but make sure no one's around who's going to judge you for drooling over the cinematography and design.
6—Shame: dir. Steve McQueen
More Fassbender. A whole lot more Fassbender. Another one that I don't have much to add to what I've already written about it except to say I think the fine folks at the MPAA overreacted a bit giving this an NC-17. Sure, we see Fassbender's Penis, enough to both establish Fassbender's Penis as the new standard-bearer now that Ewan McGregor's Penis is retired. But all kidding aside, there have been R-rated movies with more dick shots. The female nudity is well within the territory of the R rating. The one scene where you might have a case for the NC-17 is the one where, after the impotence scene, Fassbender has that hooker up against the window. Maybe he had too many thrusts or something, but that scene's hardly meant to titillate; if anything, you feel bad for Fassbender that he has to frantically reassure himself that his many splendored penis still works. Especially the way the hooker is just like, “You sad bastard” afterward. Though, if it transpires that the reason it got the NC-17 is That One Bit Where Gay Stuff Happens I'm going to use curse words, because that would be really stupid.
In any case, the NC-17 was probably the best thing that could have happened to this picture, because if it had gone out as an R it would have just been this thought-provoking little art picture about sexuality, empathy, and self-reflection. And it still would have been this good, except this bit here would be about how obscure the picture was, because you all wouldn't know it as the Michael Fassbender's Penis picture. I mean, yes, that is a silly way to refer to this picture, but it is big.
5—Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: dir. Tomas Alfredson
This was awesome. There's a lot of movie here, but if you pay attention it all makes sense; after about the fourth time they mention “Karla” you know who they're talking about, and that fucking great monologue Gary Oldman has about Karla clarifies things nicely. The cast is great. Benedict Cumberbatch deals with being the least-famous person in the movie the way the least-famous person in the movie is supposed to, by being really good. This has two of my favorite shots of the year, the Gary Oldman/David Dencik plane-taxiing-to-a-halt-behind-them shot and that tremendous Julio Iglesias-scored one at the end, pushing in on the one English guy who comes out of the whole mess on top (identity redacted cuz it's a bit of a spoiler), timed perfectly with the applause from the recording. The latter is a bit more stylized than the rest of the picture, but it's so good I don't care.
4—A Separation: dir. Asghar Farhadi
Say you mention a movie to someone (not always a civilian, though it will be most of the time) and they go “Oh, what's it about?” Some times you can describe it, with the odd interpolation of such and such an element being really cool, maybe a mention of a particularly memorable sequence, and the person you're talking to will be like “Oh, that sounds good, I'll check that out.” A Separation is the kind of picture you have to tell them “Just see it” because if you describe it it ends up sounding like one of those movies: it's almost all dialogue, which means it's almost all subtitles, and it's about the debilitating effects of totalitarianism on the family unit. I know, I can hear an orchestra of civilians snoring. That's why “Just see it” is the only way with this, because it's a knock-you-on-your-ass awesome movie with one of the most perfectly structured screenplays ever filmed and acting that's almost overwhelming it's so good (the director even managed to pull off nepotistic casting and get the best performance in the picture out of his own daughter, who plays the couple's daughter in the movie.)
Yeah, just see it.
3—The Descendants: dir. Alexander Payne
While we're talkin' about good screenplays, hooooooooly shit this one's good. I mean, the directing, acting, cinematography, and music are all great too but man there's some good writing in this picture. George Clooney's already been plenty good but this is the best performance of his career, playing a guy who's not cool, who's overwhelmed by the demands of suddenly being the only parent—in his own words, he was the “backup parent” to his now-comatose wife—as well as having the entire state of Hawaii waiting with bated breath on a decision he has to make about what's to be done with this massive bit of real estate his family owns and have a limited time to sell. The picture confronts a lot of difficult topics—mortality, race, family, masculinity—and doesn't take the easy way out with any of them. Just like this is Clooney's best performance, this might be Alexander Payne's best picture, and he's never directed a bad one.
2—The Tree of Life: dir. Terrence Malick
I still distrust a lot of people who toss Terrence Malick's named around, because there are a lot of people out there who want to seem smart, cultured, and serious, so they toss names of directors around when the topic of cinema comes up, and boom, mission accomplished. (On a related note, if I hear one more gratuitous reference to Rainer Werner Fassbinder I'm going to Hulk out and stomp a motherfucker.) As with most name-drop abuse, there's the unfortunate side effect of letting the frustration mislead one into forgetting that the reason why, when this game of name-drop telephone began, Terrence Malick's name was dropped so often is because he's a great filmmaker. The Tree of Life is a good reminder of that.
It's about the entire existence of everything everywhere, from the Big Bang, to the formation of the Earth to existentially-concerned dinosaurs who stare off pensively into the distance (I fucking love that even the dinosaurs stare pensively into the distance in this picture) to the lives of one Midwestern family in the 1950s, to apocalypse, to the Afterlife. It puts just about every other picture described as “ambitious” to shame. And it realizes those ambitions as much as any picture directed by a mortal filmmaker can.
The thing I like the most about The Tree of Life is that, for all its breathtaking ambition and exquisite artistry, the characters of the family still resonate as fully realized human beings. This is rare in experimental filmmaking, where the star is the director and it's all about whatever statement the director is making. A lesser filmmaker would have rendered Brad Pitt's character as Stern One-Dimensional 50's Guy, Malick shows how that sternness is motivated by insecurity, fear, and the regretful acquiescence to perceived obligation. The kid character, loosely based on Malick himself, is no polished, burnished angel hero character; he's kind of a prick. That recognition of the complexity of life makes this picture a really special achievement. It also really moves, for such a complicated, unconventional Film (and it certainly is a “film”; if all “films” were this good I wouldn't be as uneasy with that word.)
And yes, that means that my number one for the year is . . .
1—Attack The Block: dir. Joe Cornish
“Whagwan, fam? Is you fucking mad?” Well, sure, I'm nuts. I know putting this ahead of Tree Of Life and all the other stuff on this list looks like a troll move, and I certainly know a lot of people think people like me are over-hyping Attack The Block to the point of undercutting the advocacy. But listen. I'm not that guy pulling that “there's something wrong with you if you don't like this” bullshit that makes people hate film critics. I realize that ultimately one person's awe-inspiring exercise in genre multiplicity/simultaneity, dialogue stylized to the point of musicality, and wonderfully fresh variation on the classic hero's journey is another person's “I don't get it.” Such is the way of the world.
But holy fuck I love this movie. I love the warmth of the colors, the way the kids go from criminals to heroes, the music, “dem tings,” Nick Frost as the local weed dealer, Pest, Jodie Whittaker, the girls, Hi-Hatz's terrible fucking rap song, and Moses. Moses saved the planet. He's a hero. And he's why, if you ask me what the likelihood of Attack The Block becoming a cult classic in the years to come and making everyone forget no one went to see it when it first came out, the only possible response is “Allow it.”
That's my best of 2011. See y'all in 2012, my lovelies.