Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Best of 2011

Like every year, I've been asked by a magazine I write movie reviews for to hand in my picks for the best movies for the year. And not just that, also the top 10 in the best actors, actresses, screenplays, directors and Straight-to-DVD releases. These are of course restricted by what premiered in Finland during 2011. Because I want to be open and to do lists that I myself can defend, I will publish these lists here.

These lists initially seemed simple, but in fact were a lot harder than I anticipated once I read a list of films that actually premiered this year. It was a good year for film, and there are a lot of good things that these small lists won't cover. I also can't claim to have seen all, since I'm just a freelancer and not a professional critic. Here's a top 10 of the critically acclaimed films I didn't get a chance to see:

Biutiful, Bridesmaids, Contagion, Even the Rain, The Last Circus, Moneyball, Of Gods And Men, Polisse, Rango, Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Best Actors:

This was a year for the manly men. Whether they were talkative (The Fighter) or almost silent (Drive), the best actors of the year inhabited roles that got the jobs that needed to be done, done. They could be good fathers (The Tree of Life), or horny assholes (The Guard). But what has stuck is how convincing all of these roles are. Some are by major movie stars, but while watching their film, one only thinks of them as their character, not as a celebrity.

Christian Bale / The Fighter.

10. James Franco, 127 hours
9. Jim Broadbent, Another Year
8. Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
7. Albert Brooks, Drive
6. Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech
5. Frank Hvam, Clown
4. Jeff Bridges, True Grit
3. Brendan Gleeson, The Guard
2. Christian Bale, The Fighter
1. Ryan Gosling, Drive

Best Actresses:

Last year I struggled to find enough good female performances in films. This was not the case this year, because there were almost more good female roles than male ones. Strong, vunerable, crazy, sane, criminal, straight, happy, depressed. Many of them determined and goal-oriented. The good female performance didn't even look for age, because the teenaged Hailee Stanfield also delivered a memorable performance.

Natalie Portman / Black Swan.

10. Charlotte Gainsbourg, The Tree
9. Leila Hatami, A Separation: Nader and Simin
8. Hailee Steinfield, True Grit
7. Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
6. Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom
5. Outi Mäenpää, Beyond
4. Rooney Mara, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
3. Lesley Manville, Another Year
2. Natalie Portman, Black Swan
1. Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia

Best Screenplays:

Now, best screenplays are hard to judge, because I haven't actually read any. But I've seen the consequtive films, according to which to judge how the scripts treat characters, whether they have holes in their events, and overall, how original the voice of the writer is. Based on this, I've cooked up the following list:

Lars von Trier (c) Zentropa Europe

10. Casper Christensen, Frank Hvam, Clown
9. David Seidler, The King's Speech
8. Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, The Fighter
7. Mark Heyman, Anders Heinz, John J. McLaughlin, Black Swan
6. John Michael McDonagh, The Guard
5. Lars von Trier, Melancholia
4. Jacques Tati, The Illusionist
3. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, True Grit
2. Hossein Amini, Drive
1. Mike Leigh, Another Year

Best Directors:

Altough I know next to nothing about actual directing, judging directors is almost as much fun as judging actual movies. I favour a strongly independent, artistic views on making cinema. You can say I'm auteuristic. Making this list, I tried to consider how hard it may have been for the director to make the source material come to life and how good the end result was.

Aki Kaurismäki (c) Sputnik Oy / Marja-Leena Hukkanen
10. Pedro Almodovar, The Skin I Live In
9. Aki Kaurismäki, Le Havre
8. Duncan Jones, Source Code
7. Lisa Aschan, She Monkeys
6. Lars von Trier, Melancholia
5. David Fincher, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
4. Mike Leigh, Another Year
3. Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
2. Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
1. Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive

All right, now we're up for the Main Event. Since the year was 2011, a top 10 list wouldn't just suffice. Instead, I cooked up a Top 11 list – and still plenty of films that would've made the list any other year missed out. Another thing that is hard is to put numerical value on the film experiences that I had. That's why I planned to put places 5-11 in alphabetical order. But wouldn't you know, that order makes sense anyhow! I favor the sort of films that made me feel something. Now, becuase of my magazine's rules that the films had to have their premiere in Finland in 2011, I had Black Swan and The Illusionist on the list I sent there (on places 3 and 4, respectively). But since I actually saw both of those films in 2010, I omitted them here to make space for more recent experiences. That's why I also have so many films that missed the list – you can make your own top 20 if you count them with the 11 and those two.

Bubbling Under:
Arrietty – A beautifully detail-based Ghibli film, that has a leisure pace, but is at the same time a bit melancholic and about a race on the verge of extinction.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – David Fincher has some of his old furiousness back. The rhythm of the film is relentless and the mystery is made interesting. The The worst parts of the book (the beginning and the end) fly by frantically, while he good ones (the research process) is lingered on just right. Long overdue for a review here.

The Guard – A hilarious buddy cop film set on the coast of Ireland. Like it's main character, it's a smarter film that it would initially seem.

The King's Speech – A worthy Best Picture Oscar winner if only by its great performances. The true story may be a bit conventional, but you can't help but to be sucked in the world of pronounciation.

The Skin I Live in – Pedro Almodovar also has his mojo back, having another movie about the thin borders of sexuality and perversion, and a mother turning a blind eye to a crime of passion. A one-joke movie, perhaps, but it is such a twisted idea, it can be forgiven.

Source Code – Cleverly done techno-thriller that sells its ridiculous concept by confident direction by Duncan Jones. The ending is a bit too much, though.

True Grit – The Coen brothers deliver a great adaptation of Charles Portis' western novel, and deliver an almost traditional western that has surprisingly few postmodern tricks up its sleeve. Jeff Bridges owns the movie.

And, ladies and gentlemen: Here comes actual list: 

11. Clown: the Movie (Klovn: The Movie)
Director: Mikkel Nørgaard

This danish comedy, based on a Danish TV series inspired by Curb Your Enthusiasm, takes the torch of gross-out comedy from deck such as Hangover, Part II, and takes it to a whole another level. Below-the-navel humour can also be made intelligently and the hilarious canoeing trip of the middle-aged friends Frank and Casper through the rivers of Denmark is loads more embarrasing than just re-hashing Hangover I in Thailand. The horny Casper wants to cheat on his wife and to go to the finest brothel in all of Europe on the trip. The meeker Frank, however, decides to send a message to his girfriend that he's good with kids, and subsequently kidnaps her 12-year-old nephew Bo. Neither of the leads can be said to be good guys, but they make such a string of bad decisions that one can't help but to love the two idiots. The film takes a hearty laugh at, among other things, bullying, paedophilia, infidelity, sexual perversions, and closeted homosexuality.

10. The Fighter
Director: David O. Russell

There has been so many boxing films that it's become a cliché whether the protagonist wins or loses his big fight. So, in order to do a good film about a boxer, one needs to take the focus in other things. The Fighter initially seems to be about a pair of brothers, one sparring the other up for greatness. But just scratching the surface it becomes clear that this is a film about both a dysfunctional family and the need for a local hero for a community to come together. As the film initially seems to follow a bunch of sleazebags, they are just as much underdogs in pulling themselves together than in the boxing ring. But the terrific performances manage to pull this off, from Christian Bale's manic, bragging drug-addict to Melissa Leo's feisty matriarch, it's all good here. Even Mark Wahlberg can do a good straight man when he's in the middle of a vivid ensemble. The film took home two Oscars for its acting talents and with good reason.

9. Mama Africa
Director: Mika Kaurismäki

While Aki Kaurismäki got most of the attention in Finland with his new movie, Le Havre, it was his brother Mika who actually made the better movie this year. The work on this documentary about the South African singer / civil rights activist Miriam Makeba was started before Makeba passed away in 2008. The original idea was for Makeba to cook on camera while telling her life stories like a collective grandmother to the audience. Sadly, Kaurismäki did not even have time to meet her in person (they spoke on the phone). So, he was forced to do a pretty straight-forward biography with his film. But even the conventional approach works wonders when the subject matter is so unconventional. Makeba was the first one to make traditional African music popular in the western world in the 60's. Her career was laced with melancholia, as her fight against apartheid made her a refugee from her own country, and her first born child died in infancy. Yet Kaurismäki's film doesn't dwell on the sadness of the past, but makes a convincing portrait of a woman who always gt up when faced with difficulties, and thus worked as an inspiration for millions. And made some pretty groovy music, too.

8. Melancholia 
Director: Lars von Trier

Leave it to von Trier to make a film even I wasn't initially sure how to feel about. I'm used to his films being shocking and surprising, so it was a small disappointment when Melancholia was pretty much just what I expected. But the key here is that no one else but Trier would make a film like this. It's a catastrophy movie about the end of the world which intercuts with the ongoing depression suffered by the protagonist Justine (Kirsten Dunst). The glooming doom should not come as a surprise to anyone, as Trier starts off his movie by doing a quick recap of what we're about to see by replicating 18th century art as truly stunning slow-motion images. The film itself is a story of two halves: the first is the onset of Melancholia as Justine becomes severely depressed on her wedding day, and says what's on her mind to just about everyone she knows. In the second half it becomes clear to the characters that the planet Melancholia (no sublety here) is on a crash course with Earth, wiping out all life when it hits. Justine's depression becomes the key of learning how to cope with this threat. Trier has clearly had some rough times, yet his film is not angry (like for instance Antichrist), or sad (like Dancer in the Dark). It has all the dignified acceptance of the blue feelings and thus a quite comforting experience for anyone who has experienced melancholia him or herself. The superb visuals and wonderful actors just seal the deal.

7. A Separation: Nader and Simin (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)
Director: Asghar Farhadi

This was the year I discovered Iranian cinema. While being a totalitaritan conservative muslim country, a number of great directors have risen from there, willing to question the authorities with very strong cinematic views. While Asghar Farhadi's divorce drama won't overthrow the Ajatollah, it has deserved the praise flowing for it through doors and windows ever since it won the Berlin International Film Festival. To be precise, it is a film about a lot more than just the initial divorce, but it is the act that sets the ball moving and casts a shadow on all the consequtive actions in the film. Nader and Simin don't really want to divorce, but feel that they have to, since Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to move from the oppressing country and Nader (Peyman Maadi) wants to stay home to take care of his senile father. Caught in between is their daughter Termeh.

The thing where the film excels is making the characters three-dimensional. They mostly work on a morally grey area, and not all of their actions are acceptable. But they all have good reasons for doing the things that they do. Every one in the film feels like they've been trapped into a box outside which they can't work. The difficult divorce procedings eventually develop into a whodunit mystery, as tensions between Nader trying to keep his family together, and his maid Razieh (Sareh Bayat) with her husband get out of hand. The difficulty of human interaction is intercut with the ridiculous bureaucracy and red tape that the events cause for the iranese government. Between the lines, the film criticises much about how Iran is being led, but also recognizes that people are different and by no means disregards the Islam faith. But it showcases that in an oppressive system, it is harder and harder for different kinds of people to function together.

6. She Monkeys (Apflickorna)
Director: Lisa Aschan

A documantary-styled distant look at the sexual awakenings of two young Swedish girls. It's a whole different beast than it sounds, with it taking a look at the mood swings, hissy fits, alluring and female friendships, all the while intercutting it all with the strong physicality of circus gymnastics. As I recently wrote,

"She Monkeys isn't afraid to surprise or even shock. For a debut director, Lisa Aschan has astonishingly good sense of cropping the image and allowing us to read things on almost still faces. The film also has a strong sound design, with breathing and other small sounds turning out to be vital for the storytelling. The film is cut surprisingly short and when it ends, the viewer is left wanting for more. "

5. The Tree of Life
Director: Terrence Malick

Like Enter the Void last year, The Tree of Life has a share of faults, most of which include it trying to sell a certain religious viewpoint to the viewer all too hard. But it can be easily avoided and enjoy a jaw-droppingly unique vision of cinema by a true auteur. Malick, who has also spent years in perfecting his cinematc visions, appear to be taking a look back at his childhood. He is trying to find reasons for past tragedies through religion and a poetic approach on the Earth's development. Malick's vision of the development of life on Earth has no equal this year, or probably ever. The only film that even approaches the same kind of scope is Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, yet that is missing the human element that comes here in spades. The nostalgia-filled scenes of a childhood in the early 60's are warm, affectionate, and also as multi-layered as everything else on offer here.

4. Alamar – To The Sea
Director: Pedro González-Rubio

This year, I hadn't time to travel around the world or really for a vacation at all. But I feel like I had one, because I saw Alamar in a movie theatre. This minimalistic docu-drama is about an estranged mexican father being reunited with his young son, and the pair spending their days in the Mexican coast fishing and admiring the wildlife. There isn't much of a story, but the film opens up a childlike bedazzlement of the wonders of nature. The film's pace is peacheful and soothing. There's also subtext about the things we lose by urbanization, separations, and the loss of traditions. The film encourages to seize good moments and to protect the environment for our children, but is never preachy about it, or forces these things upon a viewer. A warm film, that can be reccommended by anyone feeling stressed by the daily grind but not having time to travel around.

3. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
Director: Steven Spielberg

Putting a cheesy Hollywood 3D extravaganza so high on my list should by all means raise some anger. Yet Tintin is on this spot for one simple reason: Watching the film made me happy. Being a life-long fan of Hergé's Tintin albums I know the albums wouldn't work as straight translations for film. They are heavy with exposition, and the actual adventures aren't really that action-filled by today's standards. Spielberg's way of making the film into a motion-capture animation raised a lot of disbelief in the project, but the results should speak for itself. While the world seems a bit cartoonish and exaggerated, there's a sense of everything actually happening, and thus the dangers our heroes face feel more threatening. The slapstic humour also works well in this canvas. Of course they all are upstaged by the huge action scenes are stunningly awesome, from the nightly escape from a tanker to the wonderful pirate battles, and the incredibly creative single-camera shot of the chase in Bagghar. But the main thing to nail from Hergé's source material is the characters and their dynamic. Tintin is as clever, resourceful and straight as in the comics, while the Dupondts and Milou provide good comic relief. But the real star, protagonist and hero of the film is Captain Haddock, the old sea-dog who also gets a real character arc from developing from a pitiful old drunk into a heroic swashbuckler like his ancestors. Yet he's still rough around the edges to be lovable and also a suitable foil for Tintin's best intentions. Andy Serkis's performance fits the film like a hand in glove. So, it's an Indiana Jones adventure for children, that sees The Bearded One feel a lot more comfrotable with the whole ordeal, than with the CGI-filled last Indiana Jones film.

2. Another Year
Director: Mike Leigh

To me, Another Year is the biggest masterpiece of Mike Leigh's career. The master of British kitchen-sink drama brings us a strong film that ponders about happiness in the autumn years of people's lives. The unrelated prologues sees an old woman refusing to do anything that would improve her life. So it is in this film that we ourselves are the biggest obstacles on the way of our happiness. The film takes place during one year, and we peek at the main characters once every season. The garden house of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) is a refuge centre for their firends and colleagues, particularly her broken-hearted work friend Mary (the superb Lesley Manville). Mary drinks too much and occasionally says the wrong things. She is also utterly unhappy about her life, but even with the support of her friends, can't get it going to the directions she wants. Mary also makes the poor decision of getting her eye on Tom and Gerri's son, Joe.

As always, Leigh's films are done with close collaboration with the actors, which explains why they do their roles so heart-breakingly realistic and believably. The characters are lovable, altough their bad sides are showing, too. Even the virtuous Tom and Gerri are pretty helpless to deal with the problems of others, and remain as onlookers, and perhaps a little presumptuous towards others. The end scene brings the whole thing around. This has just been Another Year, full of ups and downs, happiness and sadness, and problems and solutions. Leigh remains optimistic that everyone has a right to be happy, but also reminds us that it's usually only through hard work that we achieve this.

1. Drive
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

I know it isn't actually breaking ground to choose this as the film of the year. But, Drive is a film that works for many filmwatchers on multiple levels. Well, if you're not expecting to see Fast Five because of the film's trailer, that is. Drive is a smooth, visual film for the acquired modern cinephiliac taste, with a great electronic 80's soundtrack. It's a pastiche film for fans of the car chase films of yesteryear.  It's an exciting and gritty thriller for those seeking suspense. And it also has other layers wherein it comments on the emptiness of the lives and the isolation and loneliness of certain types of professionals. When you aim to be perfect in what you do, it leaves little room for human affections. Once you isolate and go too far, and then attempt to build emotions, everything goes to hell quick.

Drive is an adaptation of James Sallis' novel of the same name. It is also a masterclass on how a succesful movie adaptation of a good book should be made. Whereas Drive the novel is broken-chronology pulp fiction book that's playing with the genre's conventions from the start, Drive the film approaches the viewer more slyly. For instance, while in the novel it's clear from the get-go that the protagonist, known only as Driver, is a violent sociopath, the film tricks us to symphatize with the lonely, shy-seeming man (played by the puppy-dog-eyed Ryan Gosling) first before revealing this. Drive works so well aside from its source material, it's no wonder that Sallis' excellent book is mostly forgotten to be mentioned from the film's reviews.

No matter how many times Brett Easton Ellis keeps saying the same thing on Twitter, I really don't see any fault in the film's superb casting. Gosling can carry a stone-faced main role seemingly easy. Cult favorite Ron Perlman has never been better and more intimidating. The film's women, Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks manage to pull off their deer-in-headlight eyes without feeling like objects, but like women that happened to make poor choices or got in the stream of things going wrong. Bryan Cranston has the necessary niceness and a dark side as well, to pull off the role of Driver's only friend and employer. And the coldness behind the facade of legendary actor Albert Brooks' performance as a matey pizza-chain owner/ mafia boss should win him a host of various awards.

Winding Refn has madethe sort of film that Quentin Tarantino could be making if he had kept out of his comfort zone and developed as a filmmaker since Jackie Brown. The film feels familiar enough, and references old classics, but never loses its own voice. Winding Refn had a bumpy career thus far, but he seems to have finally stumbled back to the gritty streamlined aesthetics that made his Pusher trilogy such a hoot. I hope he will continue to have a fruitful career in Hollywood.

Okay, I hope you enjoyed this list. I'd love to hear your own picks for the year's best films, so make sure to comment or send me links to blog posts. I try to do another post tomorrow that would have some more favorites from 2011, this time from festivals and DVD releases of the year.

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