The Best Films of 2011 #10-1

As the number of films I watch has grown so has the number of films I rank among my best of the year. Essentially what matters to me is not so much the number of films included amogst the best of the year but rather the proportion. When I started these picks as a teenager I’d pretty much only be guaranteed a Saturday matinee at the local UA so that amounted to about 52 films a year. Meaning the five Best Picture nominees were equivalent to the top 10%. It’s not a bad rule of thumb. Granted only picking 10 Best Picture nominees of about 222 films deemed eligible equals about 4.5% of the total films I viewed. Therefore it’s not much of a stretch to take my Best List which goes beyond just the nominees from 15 to 25. In fact, I just had to pick the first few that came to mind. Some that wouldn’t show up on another list I did because 30 would be easily achievable.

You can find the beginning of the list here.

Top 10 introduction

It was an interesting year in terms of cinematic themes. The truth of themes is they happen by accident when it comes to a list such as this. I never expected going into the year that it’d be a year for glorifying the halcyon days of moviemaking while also celebrating the art and pushing it forward. Yet it was also done mostly in films that aren’t exactly about filmmaking.

At the top of this list you’ll find two films that are kind of about filmmaking but they’re also about life, friendship, dealing with loss and falling in love. They use movies and aliens as devices. They speak brilliantly about the power of the form and exude it but they also both feature train crashes but aren’t about them.

Waxing poetic about the marvel of cinema alone isn’t enough. It’s interesting to note but not a guaranteed formula.

By now you may have guessed that Super 8 and Hugo are on this list. I will speak more specifically of their merits below. In common terms though it’s wonderful that to different extents they revere the process and glorify the form but that is only a small part of why they work and symptomatic of the fact that we want films to debate, discuss and become enamored with; films that encourage the kinds of behaviors and practices that we want both the industry and audiences.

It’s not something I’d expect to pop up as a theme annually but as I’ve said about these awards that I want them in essence to be a snapshot. Time is a factor on all works of cinema and feelings evolve, however, there seems to be sentiment prevailing amongst filmmakers wherein the need to express the importance, history and majesty of be art which I, of course, support but these sentiments are also nested in fantastic stories- a true win-win proposition.

10. War Horse

Jeremy Irvine in War Horse (DreamWorks/Disney)

I noticed a lot of lukewarm sentiments towards Spielberg’s two 2011 offerings. While at face value I wasn’t as amped for these two as other pairings these are two Spielberg movies, which makes them automatically more interesting and exciting than two movies by anyone else on the face of the Earth. I thought the trailers undermined the likely quality of both projects and I was right. I also thought after becoming absolutely enamored with Tintin after I saw it that it’d be the better of the two and I was wrong. Even coming in with raised expectations and some knowledge of what the movie was and would be like I didn’t expect War Horse to be as good as it is. There’s the grandiosity and scope of old time filmmaking as well as the heart and earnestness of them but unlike a lot of the masters Spielberg just has my number and knows how to get to me. I’ve never been as moved by what’s essentially a boy and his horse movie or more aptly put a horse and his boy movie. There’s also that hearkening to yesteryear in as much as the film doesn’t fear traveling and shifting human protagonists or at the very least adding different perspectives. The cinematography is brilliant and captivating. I expected to really like both of his offerings and prefer the first one. I loved them both but Spielberg knows how to surprise us still and I love this one more.

9. Terri

Bridger Zadina, Jacob Wysocki and John C. Reilly in Terri (ATO Pictures)

Terri is one of those really great indie discoveries that you have to make an effort to make. I try and find a few of them annually. To tell you the truth I’m not even sure I remember how I first heard of it. All I recall was I’d heard little about it before it came out but then I read the synopsis and that was enough for me. As my review indicates there’s much in it I loved and practically none of it was expected. The summer, for whatever reason, seems to yield the most indies I enjoy so by all means check out the event films, the tentpoles if you will, that intrigue you but look around some really great films are lurking where and when you’d never think to look.

8. In a Better World

Markus Rygaard and William Jøhnk Nielsen in In A Better World (Sony Pictures Classics)

Another hallmark of 2011 was films being awarded big prizes and after having seen them I agreed wholeheartedly. This is a rarity for me. It was my disagreeing with consensus on a lot of occasions that inspired the BAM Awards when I was 15. My knee-jerk uninformed opinion was this film won awards for kowtowing to American sensibilities. It doesn’t, not in the least. It deals with very idealistic questions of non-violence, morality and integrity but does so in a very smart, artful and thoughtful way and all while being a great drama too.

7. The Tree of Life

Brad Pitt and Laramie Eppler in The Tree of Life (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Basically, what I’ve said about this film in the review and in the BAM Winners is most of what needs saying except for the fact that this was the one film all year that screamed to be re-screened. I haven’t gotten that chance because I need to find someone else to go with if it’s theatrical and also the DVD/Blu-Ray bundle is one of the most uninspired for an acclaimed film I’ve seen in a long time. Aside from that it is overdue for a second look and interpretation as it’s so fun to try and tackle it.

6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (Warner Bros.)

All good things come to those who wait it is said. I discussed a little bit in my review about the difficulties I had in seeing the last Harry Potter movie. I knew what dates I planned to go to Brazil for a family function and later I realized Potter’s worldwide release fell right in the middle, I could not and would not wait. So I had a few attempts that failed. Once it seemed a website almost sold me tickets to a show that didn’t exist. We gave up on the site because I couldn’t use my card and found out there was no midnight show on a Sunday night. Anyway, after a few aborted attempts, and a few trips to the mall where the theatre was (so close, yet so far), I saw Harry Potter. Albeit delayed things worked out perfectly. My cousin picked the seats in the automated system because he knew the incline of the stadium seats made my preferred front row undesirable and we got a subtitled screening as we all wanted. The subtitles is something I dealt with before but actually proved a great litmus test. I had to focus twice as hard to watch it because I wanted to follow, analyze and digest the story and technical elements yet there’s writing on the screen I comprehend yet don’t need. It’s a weird position to be in. Anyway, the litmus test is I would’ve been that glued to the screen whether I needed the extra focus or not it was and is an enrapturing experience and with it being the first theatrical film in about 10 years wherein I was dealing with superfluous (to me) subtitles I eventually got into a comfort zone but the focus remained due to the film itself.

5. Winter in Wartime

Martijn Lakemeier in Winter in Wartime (Sony Pictures Classics)

In my writing on The Worst Film of 2011 I talk about how some of my favorite films of the year are ones I don’t expect to see and I remember the experience of it whether the film was good or not. I was in New York and I had a couple of viewing options I had thought of but was running off schedule and I was debating what to watch before hopping on a train and heading home. Potiche was an option, which I later Netflixed and it was OK, but I passed. I can’t even tell you what my number one option which was no longer viable was. Then I happened upon the Quad Theatre I saw they were playing Winter in Wartime, which I wanted to see anyway. So my choice was made. I forgot how great a little movie house it is. I even took some pictures on my phone on the inside before the film and after to mark the occasion. I probably only saw a trailer for the film once if that. I was a pretty blank slate. As soon as it ended my initial reaction was “Wow, wow, wow, that was great” I tweeted something to that extent. It is and was a great movie but it was also a great experience and one I didn’t expect and one of the best case studies I have for being a blank slate.

4. The First Beautiful Thing

Aurora Frasca, Micaela Ramazzotti and Giacomo Bibbiani in The First Beautiful Thing (Palisades Tartan)

Life, death, family, love, secrets, lies, forgiveness, redemption are just a few of the things this movie is about. In short, everything as Ingmar Bergman might’ve said. Similarly, it takes place equally in the past and the present because a lot of what it’s about it getting over past issues and struggles. The photo you see above features two of the main characters, a brother and sister, when they were very young and very different. It’s their scenes when they’re older (the kids go through three phases) that really stick with me just as their mother’s younger scenes stick with me. It’s an intricate thing to synopsize but as convoluded as it sounds its seamless and logical in watching the film. It’s funny, shocking and moving too and a great film.

3. Toast

Victoria Hamilton and Oliver Kennedy in Toast (W2 Media)

Toast is another case of a movie just finding you. I mentioned it in the review and a few other places. I frequent a local arthouse which is actually a non-profit and they participated in a film series called From Britain with Love which showcased many British independent films. I believe I saw three and all shows featured a Q & A with the director afterward via satellite. All the screenings were memorable because of it but clearly the films weren’t all on equal footing. I just wish I got to see all of them at the time but the scheduling didn’t work due to my aforementioned trip to Brazil. I hardly heard of Toast before or after so I’m so glad it was in this program and I got to see it. All its wonders are detailed in my review but do see it. It’s Lee Hall taking his skill to an adaptation and S.J. Clarkson elevating it with great direction and cinematography and a perfectly selected cast.

2. Super 8

Gabriel Basso, Ryan Lee, Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths in Super 8 (Paramount)

With the top couple of movies it really does become an exercise in repetition because I have written about them so much. What does need saying flat out is that I try and take films for what they are and what they are trying to accomplish therefore there’s no ceiling to me for a certain kind of film in my list. Similarly, it’s usually right around the top 3 that you really see the class of the year and this year has a pretty strong top I think with some pretty special achievements. I always think it’s dangerous and difficult to play “Grade the Year” there’s always good, bad and ugly. My allusion to 1987 in Foreign Films category was to all the great films in that year’s Oscar field and so on, as a whole any year has its peaks and valleys some higher than others I think these three are about as good a vanguard as one could ask for.

1. Hugo

Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz in Hugo (Paramount)

There’ve been years where I had no idea what I was going to pick as my Best Picture, 2005 seems to fit that bill. There have been years were I wanted to make sure something got in under the wire, it did and then blew me away like in 2003 or where a favorite at mid-year went pretty much unchallenged like in 2010. I expected Super 8 to repeat the feat Inception did of being a summer favorite and although many would assail it none would touch it. Then Hugo came along and I know I talked about anticipating it but I didn’t expect these heights. I didn’t expect to know during first viewing, and to re-affirm it upon second and third, that it was my favorite film of the year as much I didn’t expect anything to top The White Ribbon the early favorite in 2010. However, the good that comes from singling out a few films through the year is that it sets a bar (hopefully a high one) and there are those two or three films, usually three, a year that really do something amazing and the third is usually the most surprising it seems. In any case you make a list because you like enough films to want to call attention to them and I make a point here of saying these top three, hell, my whole top 25 made all the difficult ones bearable but the upper-crust, those in this section, are why we keep going back to the movies. Regardless of what films you put in your top 10, or five, or however many you pick, cherish these; know that they’re rare and that’s what you seek as a moviegoer or moviemaker and that if you try, you shall find them.

Review- In a Better World

Markus Rygaard and William Jøhnk Nielsen in In A Better World (Sony Pictures Classics)

In a Better World is a Danish film which won Best Foreign Language Film at the most recent Academy Awards and that is a moniker which can carry a stigma for many. The two that come foremost to mind are that either it’s an inaccessible by the masses art film or that it’s essentially an American film transplanted and taking place overseas. None of these notions apply to this film at all.

However, this film did vaguely bring to mind the Best Picture winner The King’s Speech in as much as its accessibility and relatability are part of its appeal. However, there is still an artistry and at times poetry in the way the simple subject of this film is handled that makes it excel just beyond being something passable and there’s still that European sensibility to it that’s just a little more deft even when handling things in a very straightforward manner.

This film is really telling two stories most of the time: it tells of Elias’s struggle to deal with bullying (which is quite relevant to the current climate) and his father Anton’s struggle as a doctor working in Africa who has to treat a malicious man who has sent many women to his hospital tent clinging to life and the locals beg him not to. These narratives only truly intersect once, otherwise the film shifts, as Anton does, from location to location.

The third factor, one who starts on his own but becomes involved in Elias’s story and dominates that, is Christian. After the initial images of Africa grace the screen, Christian is heard reciting a poem in English (this is one of the longest L-Cuts I’ve ever seen). As the film frequently does it conveys information visually showing us he is at his mother’s funeral. Following her death he moves from London back to Denmark and meets Elias. He has a very different, more confrontational way of dealing with bullies and sticks up for Elias who gets picked on about his teeth and anything else they can think of. Eventually Christian’s way of seeing the world catches on with Elias and his father Anton struggles to show both of them otherwise.

This is the kind of narrative that could get quite preachy and pedantic but it doesn’t do so. It does take the opportunity and has the narrative to serve as a teachable moment but the characters never talk at us but to each other and each of them throughout prove themselves to be far too imperfect to be self-righteous. In the past employing children in meaty dramatic roles had been the sole purview of the foreign film, specifically those from Europe, while there are are now more opportunities here there’s still something a bit more genuine in the portrayal of the positive and negative aspects of youths overseas.

With the themes and plots that this film has it makes doubly sure to make all of its characters engaging, interesting and human and yet also makes most of them likable as well. In doing so these simple struggles which balloon to massive issues with each decision carry more and more weight due to the investment we’ve made in each of them and their well-being. While dealing in the philosophical it still has that emotional pull we need.

This identification made all the more easy by the cast which is nothing short of superb. The kids, of course, deserve first mention. Between the two of them they shoulder a lot of the burden of bringing this tale to life and each one of them has their own journey, and aside from one hiccup which I’ll attribute to willful misdirection, they make nary a misstep. What that misstep is doesn’t bear mentioning beyond the above. The bottom line is both Markus Rygaard as Elias and William Jøhnk Nielsen as Christian are fabulous in it and I was not surprised to learn that the latter was nominated as Best Actor in Denmark’s national film award (Zulu) and may factor greatly in mine (BAMs).

Furthermore, you have supporting them the very talented actors who play Elias’ parents: Mikael Persbrandt, whose own moral dilemma occupies much of our time and he shows the great range to be both tremendously sensitive and caring and extremely enraged and Trine Dyrholm whose despair drives this movie into your core and makes you feel it if you haven’t already.

The only thing I thought was consistently off was one theme from the score, which played quite frequently and seemed the most discordant of all the pieces. This is a shame because many sections were quite effective but are rendered less memorable by the repetition of the most unpleasant section.

In a Better World is certainly the kind of film which could improve with a second viewing and was most definitely worth not only of its awards but of your viewership.