As we leave 2011 and enter the much hyped 'plague year' (hello Mayan calendar), I've given myself a chance to sit back and ruminate over the films that I enjoyed most throughout the past year. I'll admit, my list will look a fair bit different from others - we can't all think in a hive mind, now can we? - but it's truthful! Here's hoping 2012 brings our fair share of enjoyable films and some diamonds in the rough.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
The third chapter in directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's long-running chronicle on the trials and tribulations of the "West Memphis Three," young teenagers accused of raping and murdering three adolescents in an alleged satanic ritual, Purgatory is as urgent as it is captivating. After nearly 20 years in prison, Damien Echols still sits on death row as his 'accomplices' Jason Baldwin and Jessie Miskelly serve life sentences. New leads and revealing evidence further muddy the waters of their questionable incarceration and ultimately makes the soundest justification for their innocence since the document of their trial in 1996. Fast-paced, well shot, and completely riveting, the third entry into this ongoing case might just be the best example of entertaining investigative journalism since Errol Morris's ground-breaking Thin Blue Line.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World last year), and a wonderful cast of notable actors (it's a great year for Andy Serkis), Tintin plays out like the fourth Indiana Jones should have. More than just a nod to the comics and serials past, Tintin is an immersive 'wish you were here' without the wishing. It's a light, fun, and engaging picture that had me pulling for my breath - something I feel not enough movies do these days.
Hunger, Steve McQueen's Shame is a grower. A cold, empty experience in which a sex addicted Michael Fassbender must come to terms with his own demons as well as his sister, the film contemplates existentialism, technological invasion, and even urban expansion without the flair that defined McQueen's earlier benchmark work. A demanding film carried by the strengths of its actors, Shame will likely find the recognition it deserves well after its time in the theaters.
Welcome the plague year. A taut psychological drama melding deeply personal mental illness with a widespread anxiety of a potential Armageddon, Jeff Nichols raises his stakes by casting the perfect actor for the job. Much has been said about Michael Shannon's performance, but you really can't understand how convincing he is until you see it for yourself. A low-budget picture with high-budget results, Take Shelter might be the crossover the American underground needed.
Election but building upon the saddened idiosyncrasies that failed to launch in About Schmidt, The Descendants is the director's most complete film to date. When it's funny it's funny, and when it's sentimental it doesn't try to have you cry - it simply succeeds. The film breezily flows like its picturesque Hawaiian setting, allowing a particularly strong George Clooney (and even a left-fielded great performance from Miramax mainstay Matthew Lillard) to deal with a number of difficult life choices in a heartfelt and endearing way.
Dragon Tattoo elevates its pulpy material to an A-level thriller much like Fincher did years ago with Panic Room.
The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life
A fine attempt from Terrence Malick to create a feature length lyrical film, The Tree of Life is as beautiful as it is frustrating. Referencing the former, its free floating camera and incredibly rendered CGI-sequences (the Big Bang, the life cycle of cells, the formation and birth of a child) work to create an awe-inspiring experience. As to the latter, it tests its audience by waxing philosophic in epic proportions. Certainly the bravest picture of the year, Malick's grandest work is also his masterpiece: a misunderstood odyssey that will no doubt be regarded next to Kubrick in a short time.
It wasn't 2 Fast 2 Furious, and it certainly wasn't content in maintaining a particular tone. Part love story, part heist film, part neo-noir, and part Bullitt, Nicolas Winding Refn's stylish ode to the blackened edges of the 80s produced by Michael Mann and William Friedkin was as unexpected as it was restrained. An ultra-violent, beautifully choreographed genre hybrid, Drive was a little film that was unfortunately marketed big. Perhaps destined to cult status, this dapper little gem was the best flop to happen to the cinema since Scott Pilgrim failed to recoup its budget last year.
I'd been waiting for something new from Mike Mills since I saw his adaptation of Thumbsucker on a whim in my first year of high school. That film was marketed as something strange and ironic, something along the lines of Wes Anderson, a younger Richard Linklater or, to a lesser extent, David O. Russell. But it wasn't. There was a kind of bittersweet charm to its eccentricity, a notion that there was a lot of heart underneath its hip indie veneer. Six years later (after a small documentary in the interim), Beginners perfectly synthesizes and expands upon every bit of potential that Thumbsucker showed in a film about loving, living, and dying. It's simultaneously epic and claustrophobic. It's quirky and it's heartfelt. It runs the emotional gamut, but never feels forced. Its actors are perfect. There wasn't a thing I disliked about the film, except for the fact that I won't ever get to meet these characters. Poignant and inspiring, I can't help but drool all over this film in the hopes that it will touch someone as profoundly as it touched me. It's such a beautiful and assured piece. Beginners is so seamless, it doesn't even feel like the director is trying. Everything works. It breaks my heart to think that this film might not get the recognition it deserves, but it really is the best picture, and will surely be one of the most overlooked, of 2011.