A tad late, sure. But I've spent the last two months holed up, catching up, with just about any film anybody said was worth your time in 2011. I've even started a film journal -- extra geeky, but it will come in handy next year. With minutes until this year's Oscars, there are a number of films I have yet to see like Melancholia (which would probably make this list) and the Artist (probably too precious, which is why it will win mucho trophy tonight), or fully digest, like Tree of Life. I actually think, though this will be one of the weakest Oscars in years, there was a lot to dig through and appreciate -- which is why I'll have a Special Consideration post in the coming days. All of the following films from 2011 are highly recommended viewings, but don't take my word for it. Click on the titles to see the trailers. Enjoy.
Herzog's first foray into three dimensions seems pretty obvious once you actually get into the caves. This is a film that is not for the meek. His choice to use 3-D throughout this entire documentary is daunting, as helmet cams and rough terrain do not translate well into this realm -- headaches and vertigo may consume 20 minutes into it. But once the space opens up, and long, long, long, shots of the cave walls take over, it's somewhat magical and meditative. Herzog knew this, that's probably why the torture takes place throughout the beginning -- to challenge you before seeing this ancient spectacle and convince you this is first example of modern art (and in his theory the first example of film) and the intelligence of man. As far as cinema goes, this, like my favorite film of the year, uses three dimensions as a ultimatum to make you go back to the theaters.
dir. Woody Allen
The first time through Midnight in Paris, I dismissed it as Woody Allen using a bit too much imagination. I hated all of the overblown, and very literal, performances in Owen Wilson's hallucination of 1920's Paris. Of course Wilson is made for the Allen protagonist -- but it seemed he was bumbling through a wax museum and his whimsy was too much to accept. Then I watched it again, with a better mood, and decided to play along. Even if it wants to indulge the viewer in history and deep thought, this is truly Woody Allen's best use of location since Radio Days and Manhattan -- Paris is the protagonist, dealing with an identity crisis, but beautiful and mysterious nonetheless. It's Allen's wanderlust swallowing the city and weaving these "easy" characters through it, which makes this "easy" viewing, perhaps that's why it was his highest grossing movie ever. He deserves the Oscar for direction, but his snubs will likely rule him out.
dir. T. Sean Durkin
The debut from both director T. Sean Durkin and actress Elizabeth Olsen is this year's Winter's Bone in my estimation. It's also the year's best psychological drama. I prefer to not give away much of what's being done here. Another example of thoughtful duality in the mind of the main character (see Take Shelter), and the blurred lines between reality and dreams. Plus you get John Hawkes as the cretin commune alpha (a performance that demanded at least a nomination), wielding an acoustic guitar and toying Manson-esque with the will of his people. Just as scary as any horror film released in the last five years, sans the horror.
dir. James Bobin
If you told me to buy in on a Muppets re-boot this year, I'd say don't ruin my childhood psyche. Thankfully, and faithfully, Jason Segel and director James Bobin included everything that would make a great Muppet re-boot and then some, using humor (not a toilet joke in the bunch, if you don't count Fozzie's fart shoes) that embraces the simplicity of the earliest Muppets shows with an expert update -- which also cements that this version won't soon become outdated. Seeing Kermit lonely in a mansion with his '80s robot, convinced me this was no ordinary song and dance. And the jokes, and excellent obscuro Muppet references, keep coming throughout. The music, my least favorite element of Muppet movies, is perhaps the best the franchise has seen. Extremely well done. It's hard to be critical of a movie this joyous.
dir. Asif Kapadia
Whether you know a single thing about Formula 1 racing -- this is the most intriguing documentary in a stellar year of documentaries. Aryton Senna is a saint in his native Brazil -- where the sport is second only to futbol. -- and again, the duality of the terrestrial and the supernatural exist in this detailed portrait of Senna's life. His is a very complex story, with villains and angry mobs, a whole country singing at his feet, and a tragedy as dramatic as any Shakespearean play.
dir. Lee Chang-Dong
From Korea, and originally released there in 2010, Poetry is as simple as it's title suggests. This is something Terrence Malik should sit down with before entertaining the notions of boring audiences to sleep with extended scenes of nature and the creation of the universe. Chang-Dong shows it in slight observations of the world surrounding the unnamed, octogenarian at the film's center. We don't learn much about her, other than she's in the pre-stages of dementia, she's searching for her poetic inspiration, and she's faced with a very serious decision concerning her lethargic grandson (of whom she is the guardian). But there is so much life in Yun Junghee's performance, that you feel her every emotion, her every thought, and want nothing more than for her victory over the immeasurable odds which she must face. It may reek of art house boredom in the early going, but unravels into a story that's hard to stop immersing yourself in.
dir. Jeff Nichols
First, if you haven't seen Nichols' debut, Shotgun Stories, start there. Then you'll be fully aware of Nichols' deliberately tense pacing in his sophomore effort, Take Shelter. The film is yet another glimpse into the myths and beliefs of rural American life -- where somewhere in the middle of nowhere Ohio, Micheal Shannon's idyllic small-town family plan is thwarted by the oncoming apocalypse. Is it real or all in his head? Again, another film where this duality that confronts the audience. Who do we side with? This could have easily starred Nicholas Cage, and be made with a mega-budget, and then tanked -- but instead it's earnest, and slow, and mostly free of special effects (they are needed when they show up.....). Shannon, completely snubbed for this studied role, is an enigma of a character, never really in need of approval or dissecting -- you either believe him or you don't.
dir. Ashgar Farhadi
The Iranian A Separation, shows quotidian tales of he said/she said are universal no matter what context or culture you drop them into. Here, though there are very strict rules regarding the male and the female in marriage, there is a divorce (a very modern concept) in making as the rising action of the plot takes place. A Separation is another chamber-drama that leaves a lot to the imagination and perceptions of it's audience -- and ends in some stunning revelations which can't be revealed here.
dir. Nicholas Winding Refn
As slick and cool as Drive exhales onto the screen, it's also methodical and complex behind the scenes in exposing Ryan Gosling's character as one that isn't as hollow and expendable as he's portrayed. His stunt-driver, who goes unnamed, is the year's best anti-hero, in a year where there a lot of these types, and though he's just as gnarly and unkempt morally as the people who sponsor him, you're rooting for him to prevail. Combining a highly stylized soundtrack with the backdrop of a neon-noir Los Angeles at dusk, it's a Grand Theft Auto video-game played pitch-perfect and transformed into cinematic high-art.
dir. Martin Scorsese
While the Artist is stealing all the thunder, continually heralded as this year's grand tribute to silent film and the sole reason audiences should return to the theater to consume their movies, Hugo, unfortunately, lags behind as an afterthought (my theory is the public is confusing it with Tin Tin?). Nothing is further from the truth. Though I can't speak for the Artist (again, looks too precious, but I'll get around to it), Hugo should stand as a landmark of cinema, a turning point for 3-D, and among one of Scrorsese's myraid masterstrokes. The entire experience is all about the experience -- piecing back together a lost automaton, re-discovering the wonder of film (via Georges Milies, here wonderfully played by Ben Kingsley), the labyrinthine train station overlooking picturesque Paris, the expertly choreographed humor from Sacha Baron Cohen -- and not seeing this in all three glorious three dimensions, displayed upon a widescreen theater is doing Hugo a huge-o disservice. It's been a while since I've felt like a kid in my seat, constantly in awe of what I was watching -- though it will delight both curious adult and the anxious child in all of us. This will be an film we'll be taking future generation to witness.