Friday, December 23, 2011

The Top 20 Films of 2011

PREFACE: This is not a complete list. At the time of its publication, I haven’t seen a great deal of films I wish I had seen, like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or A Separation. This is, however, the culmination of seeing over 70 films from this year. It should be viewed as a time capsule of taste on this particular day at this particular moment. Were I given another week to mull this over or see more films, it might change drastically. I’m happy with how it looks, and so for the sake of my own sanity will let it stand in this form.

I’ve become more aware, having seen so many films, of my own biases. There are, I think, too many American films on this list, but that simply comes from my position as an American who studies chiefly American films. That’s not to detract from, for instance, The Kid With a Bike, which is marvelous in its own ways. My own biases also allow for choices that are deeply personal, and might make you balk unless you know the kinds of films I love. That’s one reason I’m happy with this list as it is.

I’m often asked if my lists are “Best” lists or “Favorite” lists. Well, they’re both. It’s a confetti of two sides modulated by a very precise equation. To put it another way, these are films that mean something to me. Some have emotional meanings, others intellectual. Some dazzle, some confound. Yet they are all on this list because they meant something. Sure, you can bicker about placement all you want. I invite you to. Debate these choices. They are what they are, but I feel they adequately represent the highs of my cinematic memory in 2011.

On 2011: Falling in love again

In many ways, 2011 was the most tumultuous year of my life. I wrote a thesis, graduated college, moved to Los Angeles, started working on a Masters, got my writing accepted into an anthology, left my friends and family on one coast, and started working on building a new one on a brand-new coast.

It was eventful. And in between all those events, I saw over 70 movies from 2011. Yep, 70+. How did I do it? I have no idea. I mostly chalk it up to where I live now, because I was able to see many movies that I'd have to wait a year to see either in their slow expansion across the U.S. or eventual DVD release. Take AFI Fest, for example. At the Film Institute's free, week-long festival in the first week of November I saw 11 movies in one week -- including two world premieres, a North American premiere, and almost all great movies. Take also UCLA's nearly non-stop lineup of sneak preview or L.A. premiere screenings, and I was actually able to keep up with the conversations critics are/were having about the "best of the year" for the first time in, well, ever.

I realize this may sound childish, or nostalgic, or hopelessly sentimental, but in many ways 2011 was about falling back in love with movies for me. Not in a sense of the medium itself, but of how I was able to experience it. I've always seen as many movies as I can (afford) in a theater, but with so many opportunities to either see things for free, or see them as soon as they're released, I became a kid in a candy store in Los Angeles. I'd wager that since moving there in August, I've seen at least one movie in a theater every week (oftentimes more, just because of the accessibility). It's not that my life is just that empty, it's that I've chosen to make time to do that. Even apart from seeing these independent or foreign movies, I've been able to see, for instance, restorations of "Gone With the Wind" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" on the big screen.

And yet while the screen is certainly thrilling, and certainly the way we're supposed to be watching film (although I'll gladly take Netflix on a 15-inch laptop screen in a heartbeat), there is a kind of romantic allure that surrounds it now. Because our screens are so multiple, our experience of the cinema so vast and so different, the idea of people actually congregating to watch something in a fixed time frame seems increasingly outdated. If anything, L.A. has allowed me to recapture the grandeur of watching movies with people. That's something I had forgotten about, in my rather cynical "wait for DVD or see it during the cheapest matinee" philosophy of the last four years.

And while I don't mean this as a crack on my time as a film critic, when I was working for "The Daily Gamecock" I often had to watch what was coming out, versus what I might want to see. So while I hear many people rightfully claiming how bored they were by Hollywood's output this year, I can't share their feelings. I've been nothing but exhilarated by movies in 2011.

It might be hard for Billy Beane to not be romantic about baseball, but it's hard for me to not be romantic about the movies.

And in that spirit, 2011 was the perfect year for me to have this nostalgic rediscovery of "the cinema." So many movies were about remembering the past. From "Midnight in Paris," which puts the perils of nostalgia front and center, to "The Artist" -- a gimmicky reconstruction of silent-era aesthetics -- the movies everyone talks about this year are almost explicitly about memory or nostalgia. Apart from those two examples, just think of "The Tree of Life," "Hugo," "Beginners," "X-men: First Class," "Captain America," "The Muppets," "Super 8," "Martha Marcy May Marlene," "The Descendants," "J. Edgar," "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," "Dirty Girl," "The Adventures of Tintin" -- these are all, to some degree, either about the past, about memory, or how we remember the past.

Not only that, some of these are movies about movies. "The Artist" -- silent movies. "Hugo" -- the birth of movies. "The Muppets" -- the muppet movies/TV show. "Rango" -- Westerns."Super 8" -- Spielberg.

And to get academic for a moment. It seems that as the academic community more and more talks about how mediated history represents a remembered history, or perpetuates the ideas that get remembered, so too do the media themselves start explicating their devices as specifically memory-geared.

 In many ways, this was the hardest year ever to assemble a Top 10 list. So I did a Top 20, just to make room for some more films I really loved. Not only did I see so many movies, but I had so many different reactions. How best to measure the deep love for some things versus the intellectual stimulation of others? As always, it's a balancing act, and one that only speaks to how I feel on this given day. It's a time capsule. Stay tuned.

Sealed in ice - 'Dragon Tattoo' review

It's hard to imagine a better adaptation of Stieg Larsson's international best-seller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo existing (and that most certainly includes the well-acted but sloppily consolidated Swedish version).

It's hard to imagine any other director than David Fincher possibly tackling the material. While it might lack the raw shock and awe of his absolute best, that has more to do with my knowing the novel than it does any of the beautifully cold sequences he strings together in the most breakneck 160 minutes of the year. Dragon Tattoo fits Fincher like a glove, and its basic plot might as well be a "greatest hits" sampling of his best movies: a serial killer replete with Biblical allusions? Sounds like Se7en to me. A gigantic waterfall of information as investigative reporters try to piece together the events of old murders? Seems a lot like Zodiac. Tech-savvy outcasts bending the Internet to their will? Shades of The Social Network. There's even a sense that Jodie Foster's mom-turned-badass in Panic Room is a banal precursor to the rage he finds in the iconic Lisbeth Salander.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

'Shame' and the aesthetic of suppression

Director Steve McQueen's "Shame" is not a movie to enjoy.

Hell, it's not even a movie to really like.

But beneath its finely honed superficial pleasures, between the edits, and underneath all the empty stares of its deadlocked characters, "Shame" is a provocative, devastating journey into the bowels of one man's personal hell. In Michael Fassbender, McQueen has undoubtedly found some sort of muse, an actor he works so harmoniously with, and one who's willing to push himself as deep as he can get (all the puns about "laying himself bare" notwithstanding). Together, the two have made a movie about addiction that offers only the slightest and most oblique chances of getting under its surface and hoping for any kind of personal redemption. It may not even be so much about addiction as it is about the almost self-flagellating shame its protagonist feels, and his battle to feel any kind of release from that dark cloud.