Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Top Ten Films of 2011 - Watch the Video Countdown!

For the first time ever, I have created a Video Top Ten List, and you can watch it right here on the site through the YouTube embed above!  It features me narrating over clips and music from all of the selected films, and if I do say so myself, is an entertaining little trek through the year in film. 

You can also read the written, expanded version of the list after the jump.  This is technically the second-half of my Top Twenty List, the first half of which I posted earlier today.  I would recommend reading that article before watching the video or reading this list, or at some point in the future, as it discusses many films I really, truly love that there simply wasn’t enough room for on this countdown. 

As I said in the earlier post, this has been an amazing year for film.  Filmmakers worldwide produced many of the greatest films I’ve ever seen in 2011, many of them exploring dark topics about fractured human psyches and emotional damage, but big blockbuster entertainment was also very strong throughout the year.  I loved so many movies this year that a simple Top Ten List was impossible, thus the Top Twenty, but even then, I’ve had to cheat and include a tie somewhere on this list, making this more of a Top Eleven countdown.  

This article marks the end of a really fantastic first year here at www.jonathanlack.com.  I hope you’ve all enjoyed this journey through a great year in film with me, and in a couple of days, January will arrive and we’ll start this whole crazy process over again.  If you’re looking for some more year-end roundups, you can also read my Top Ten TV Shows of 2011 and Worst Ten Films of 2011.

Without further ado, continue reading after the jump for my Top Ten Films of 2011.  Enjoy…

NOTE: Click on the title of any movie to read my original review of the film.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” might be the longest sustained emotional rush in cinematic history; from the moment Harry, Ron, and Hermione arrive in Hogsmeade to when the credits roll, “Hallows” lodges wallop after wallop at our hearts, each one connecting more forcibly than the last.  I will never forget watching the film for the first time at the midnight screening, surrounded by hundreds of fans, laughing, cheering, and sobbing in equal measure for two straight hours.  It was an overwhelmingly emotional experience, and even on repeat viewings, I find that no moment of the film is anything less than powerful and profound.  The story magnificently ties off many years of storytelling, but we’ve known that for years thanks to the book. 

What makes the film special is the incredible care and precision with which the filmmakers brought the story to the big screen.  Fourth-time “Potter” director David Yates definitively proved what a God-send he was to this franchise, deftly balancing action, emotion, narrative, and most importantly, character into one seamless package, with some stellar help by screenwriter Steve Kloves.  Eduardo Serra’s cinematography is extraordinary, Alexandre Desplat’s score is a marvelous masterpiece, and destroying all of the most iconic “Potter” sets proved to be a fitting tribute to the spectacular mise-en-scene production designer Stuart Craig has created for ten years.  The cast, one of the most awe-inspiring sets of performers ever assembled, all do their jobs flawlessly, but special recognition should go out to Daniel Radcliffe, Ralph Fiennes, and Alan Rickman.

Most importantly of all, “Hallows 2” is the end of an era, a summation of one of the greatest gifts a generation of readers and filmgoers have ever been given.  It would be an understatement to say that Harry Potter changed my life; the novels have been a constant presence for me since I was six; they turned me into a writer, while the films ignited my love of cinema.  This site and every review I’ve ever written wouldn’t exist without Harry Potter.  That’s only part of the impact the series has had on me.  After so many years of having Harry and his friends around to comfort and to guide me, it’s very hard to say goodbye.  But he went out on the strongest note possible, leaving a lasting impression on literature, cinema, and pop culture that nobody will ever forget.  “Deathly Hallows Part 2” is the ultimate testament to Harry’s lasting legacy, and one of the best films of 2011.   

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Though the advertisements would have you believe that Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult” is a comedy, nothing could be further from the truth.  This remarkably mature drama by writer Diablo Cody takes an uncompromisingly harsh look at arrested adolescence, as young adult novelist Mavis Gary returns to her hometown to convince an old flame, now married, to run away with her.  It is a wildly accomplished character study, and through Mavis, Cody paints a wide thematic canvas with truly piercing messages about emotional damage and where such scars come from.  Charlize Theron, fully committing to Mavis’ dark side, delivers one of the rawest, most piercing performances of 2011, and Patton Oswalt is every bit her equal as an equally damaged, if better adjusted, former classmate.  Though we’d rather not admit it, there’s a little bit of these characters in all of us, and that universality makes “Young Adult” as powerful as it is uncomfortable.  

Young Adult is now playing in theatres everywhere.

Earlier this year, Mike Mills’ “Beginners” took me completely by surprise.  Through the story of a man trying to find himself after the death of his father, who came out as gay shortly before he died, Mills explores the various obstacles people encounter in their search for happiness, and the experience is as emotionally draining as it is uplifting.  “Beginners” is masterfully written and directed, and features mesmerizing turns from Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent, and especially Christopher Plummer, whose beautifully honest performance is completely deserving of his early Oscar attention.  But honesty permeates every frame of this film, and the theme that spoke most strongly to me is that sorrow and catharsis are not separate processes, but two halves of a constant, ever-evolving progression we call life.

Beginners is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is a real treat for anyone interested in British Cold War spy culture.  Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of the classic John le Carre novel is a dense, meticulously paced mystery that simply gets better and more engaging with each passing minute, but as strong as the story is, it’s the vast and three-dimensional cast of characters that make this a film worth revisiting time and time again.  It’s possible that Gary Oldman has never been better than he is here as career spy George Smiley, and he’s matched by incredible turns from Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Mark Strong, and many, many others.  The film’s technical merits are second-to-none, and with its gorgeous cinematography and awe-inspiring production design, no film in 2011 displayed a greater mastery of mise-en-scene.  

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is now playing in limited release in select theatres nationwide, including the Landmark Chez Artiste in Denver.

Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” may not be the deepest or most complex film of 2011, but it is an experience I love with all my heart.  Made in the style of early Hollywood silent films, complete with a grand symphonic score by Ludovic Bource, “The Artist” proves that you don’t need dialogue, quick edits, explosions or special effects as long as you have a good story and lots and lots of heart.  From start to finish, “The Artist” excels on both counts.  As played by Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, George Valentin and Peppy Miller are two of my favorite characters to grace the silver screen in 2011, and in those moments when “The Artist” didn’t keep a wide smile on my face, it had me empathizing intently for the successes and failures of these extraordinary characters. 

The Artist is now playing in limited release in select theatres nationwide, including the Landmark Chez Artiste in Denver.

In “Drive,” director Nicholas Winding Refn displays such total mastery of the cinematic medium that the film would be a highlight of 2011 even if I didn’t love the story and characters.  The cinematography is marvelous, the sound design precise and effective, the editing measured and the pacing so thoroughly controlled that Refn can pull endless tension seemingly out of thin air.  What makes “Drive” great, though, is that I do love the story and characters.  Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Pearlman, Christina Hendricks, and a wickedly creepy Albert Brooks inhabit these characters so completely that we become strongly invested in all of them, and the Driver’s journey towards crafting a better, happier life for himself and the family next door is never anything less than compelling.  Refn has crafted a true masterpiece whose style is matched only by its substance. 

Drive is no longer playing in theatres, but will arrive on DVD and Blu-ray on January 31st.

With Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” we have a tie for the fourth-best film of 2011, both so I can cheat and have eleven films on this top ten list, but also because the two are such perfect thematic complements that it feels right to recognize them as a pair.  “Melancholia” opens with a depiction of the end of the world, and an early sequence in “The Tree of Life” depicts the creation of the universe, from the Big Bang through to the origin of life on Earth.  From there, each film explores the meaning of life in relation to the end or beginning of all things, and each frame the action through the eyes of a single family. 

“Melancholia” features a two-act structure.  The first half focuses the main character, Justine, during her disastrous wedding reception, and the second on her sister Claire dealing with the destruction of Earth, and though that may seem like an odd structure at first, watching with an interpretive mind reveals that each half is really the same story, a harrowing portrait of clinical depression.  The wedding is where Justine fully succumbs to her depression, illustrating the destruction of her internal world.  The second half merely puts the subtext into the text, literally showcasing the end of the Earth, and making the audience feel the kind of horrible, gripping fear and pain caused by depression.  There’s so much more to discuss about “Melancholia,” but suffice to say, it is an absolutely rapturous, consuming experience, brought to life with brave, piercing performances from Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsborough, smart, well-observed writing and directing from Von Trier, and a blindingly artistic visual palette. 

“Melancholia’s” vantage point gives it a very bleak outlook on humanity, while “The Tree of Life,” is a celebration of mankind’s inherent goodness, through good times and bad, viewed through the prism of a 1950s Midwestern American family.  Through a non-linear, stream-of-consciousness style, Malick aims to stir up memories in this film; by watching this fictional family, we should think of our own, ponder our lives, our successes and failures, where we came from and who we are today.  I can’t tell you what it will make you think about, but “Tree of Life” will make you think, and if your reaction was as strong as mine, it will be a beautifully powerful experience.  In addition to beautifully ethereal performances from Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, and newcomer Hunter McCracken, the film features the best cinematography I have ever seen in a motion picture.  The endlessly gorgeous images Emmanuel Lubezki captured here will be studied and exalted for as long as filmmaking remains an art form.  The film is so monumentally ambitious that it is, admittedly, messy at times, but while I feel “Melancholia” is a more accomplished and fully realized piece of filmmaking, “The Tree of Life’s” celebratory perspective of humanity is closer to my own and, therefore, closer to my own heart.

Melancholia is now playing in limited release in select theatres nationwide, including the Landmark Mayan in Denver, and is available to rent from Video-on-Demand services.  It will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on March 13thThe Tree of Life is now available on Blu-Ray.

Absolutely the year’s biggest and most pleasant surprise, “Midnight in Paris” finds Woody Allen at his most creative, crafting a rich time travel narrative that is spellbindingly entertaining, light and amiable and unashamedly enthusiastic in ways only Allen could deliver.  Paris has never looked so gorgeous or inviting and the vast, talented ensemble is second to none, but why “Midnight in Paris” is one of the year’s best films is because it’s so much more than empty entertainment.  It speaks to anyone who has ever found themselves at a crossroad due to their own creativity, and it does so in profound ways.  Creativity is an ongoing process.  How we create, where we draw inspiration from, and who we must surround ourselves with to foster invention are Allen’s topics here, and each resonated very strongly with me.  As much as “Paris” made me laugh and smile, it made me think even more, inspiring me to keep writing a priority as I considered my plans for College.  Profundity and entertainment don’t always go hand in hand, but “Midnight in Paris” is the masterful exception.

Midnight in Paris is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

At number two is “The Muppets,” which takes the spot for making me feel happier and more fulfilled than any film in 2011, or, for that matter, any film in recent memory.  There’s no set of fictional characters I love more than the Muppets, and that passion is clearly shared by writer Jason Segel and the rest of an enthusiastic creative team, all of whom understand the Muppets intimately, using each and every character perfectly and populating the film with sidesplitting humor and wonderful musical numbers.  But what this film accomplishes is so much more than an effective resurrection of Kermit and friends.  By setting the story in a world that’s very clearly our own – full of cynicism and doubt – the film proves that the Muppets’ unique brand of optimism, ideals, and compassion are more relevant than ever before, values we could all use more of in our daily lives.  The film is a searing commentary on our times, a potent message that the things we thought lost can always be found again, and that everyone has a place in this crazy world of ours, because life’s a happy song, when there’s someone by our side to sing along.   

The Muppets is now playing in theatres everywhere. 

And the best film of 2011 is….

To my mind, Steve McQueen’s “Shame” isn’t just the grand filmmaking achievement of 2011, but the most powerful character study I have ever seen.  Many of the best films this year dealt with emotional or mental damage, but no cinematic character was more broken or fell further than Michael Fassbender’s Brandon, a corporate drone deep in the throws of an unmanageable sex addiction.  Fassbender is terrific, as is Carey Mulligan as his equally damaged younger sister.  Both give performances that are brave, piercing, engaging, and complete, and other screen pairing this year made me laugh and cry in such equal measure. 

Rather than fashion an explicit and artificial narrative, McQueen uses his precise and controlled command of cinematography, editing, long takes, and music to open a window into these siblings’ lives, and as mere observers, so much can be interpreted and discussed about the things we see.  Only two things are for sure: that Brandon’s addiction holds an uncompromising mirror to our own lives and the destructive drives we use to get ourselves through the day, and that Mulligan’s blues performance of “New York New York” is the best scene of the year, conveying volumes through three simple shots and two beautiful pieces of acting.  Riveting, tear-jerking, heart-wrenching, meaningful, uplifting, devastating…there simply aren’t enough descriptors to summarize the power of that scene, or, indeed, the film as a whole.  “Shame” gripped and moved me more than any other film in 2011, and I feel it is the masterpiece that defines the power of this incredible year in cinema. 

Shame is now playing in limited release in select theatres nationwide, including the Landmark Mayan in Denver. 

Once again, the video version of the list:

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  1. Really the Muppet Movie #2????????? You would put that above thoughtful, interesting movies like "Sara's Key"...the best movie so far this year....or "The Help", "The Guard", "Money Ball" or"Margin Call"...
    all of which were better than half the movies on your list. OK...I realize it's a personal choice...but really The Muppets? I would also like to find out what critics thought was "remarkably mature" about "Young
    Adult". Charlize Theron basically walked thru this role, the script was disappointing...and watching an alcohlic go further downhill is NOT "remarkablly mature" but rather a sad scene to watch. The only
    reason to see that movie was supporting actor Patton Oswalt...who played a sympathic, compelling character. I did not disagree with some of your choices like "The Artist", "Beginners" "Tinker, Tailor" or "Midnight in Paris"....although all good movies not all would make MY top 10. And I have yet to see Shame..but it's on the list.

    Just another viewpoint....radioted

  2. A top ten list is a personal thing. Never a definitive one. My list reflects only my taste in film and which movies hit me the hardest. "The Muppets" hit me harder than everything below it. I felt it was more effective in telling its story, producing emotions, and engaging me, the viewer, than the films below it. You call other films "Thoughtful" and "interesting," but I have seen the movies you mentioned, and I firmly believe "The Muppets" was more thoughtful and more interesting than those movies. If you are further confused about this choice, please read my statement about "The Muppets" in this article or read my original review. I believe I explain myself rather clearly in that regard.

    I enjoyed "Moneyball," "The Help," "The Guard," etc., but they did not have the same impact on me as these ten movies. "The Guard" had structural issues, "The Help" is, I believe, a mediocre story bolstered by some very strong performances, and "Moneyball," while a fantastic movie, is not, to my mind, quite as strong as these films. You can find my reviews on this side for further clarification. Again, it is a matter of preference.

    And finally, on "Young Adult," two points: 1) if you would like to know why critics felt it was mature, you can read my review, or you can read other reviews. I explain myself quite clearly. 2) movies are subjective, like all art, and just because it would not be one of your top ten films doesn't mean it's not one of mine. As I said, these lists are not definitive. They reflect my tastes, standards, and viewpoint on cinema. "Young Adult" spoke to me. It's as simple as that. It may not have spoken to you because you and I are different people, with different experiences, and we therefore would approach this movie from different angles.

    There's no such thing as a definitive opinion on a subjective art form, not can there be a definitive list of art, nor even an objectively accurate one, because every film speaks differently depending on the viewer.