Again, this list only consists of the films I have seen. At the time of this writing, I have not seen A Dangerous Method, The Descendants, Carnage, or My Week with Marilyn due to the fact that they have not been released in any theaters near me. I also did not see Moneyball, The Ides of March, or J Edgar while they were in theaters. Hopefully these lapses will be corrected by the time the Oscar ceremony rolls around.
First, my pick for the best film of the year:
The Tree of Life-This was the film that presented the most honest account of a man’s relationships and his developments throughout his life. The film is very fractured in its presentation, but that actually helps emphasize what the film is about. The Tree of Life is not about God’s view of man, but rather a recently deceased man trying to find the meaning of his (sometimes difficult) existence. The performances (particularly Brad Pitt’s) do help the material. But it is the philosophical aspects of the film that make it the best of the year. It is the best film of the year, because it will challenge all viewers to not only reflect on the film, but to reflect on their own lives.
The best films have always given audiences something to think about. The Tree of Life is the smartest film of the year, but never forgets that some aspects of human life can never be explained logically.
The rest of my list is presented alphabetically
13 Assassins – I am technically cheating by including this film. It was released throughout the world in 2010. However, it did not get a wide release into the U.S. until 2011. Besides, it is such a coup for Takeshi Miike that it needs to be mentioned. The film is the greatest Akira Kurosawa tribute ever crafted; it is a film that would fit right alongside a western action film, but is knowledgeable and respectful of Japanese history. Additionally, the film tries to move beyond the usual historical epic format and create the sort of Greek myth that has lasted for thousands of years with its personification of abstract beings and its black and white sense of good vs evil. Not to suggest that Miike has accomplished this feat, but it demonstrates the level of ambition he had over his usual B-grade gore films.
The Artist– I will post a more extensive review in the future, but know that this film is one that must be seen by everyone who claims that they like film. Not only is it a revealing portrait of the most tumultuous time in Hollywood history, it is a wonderful love letter to a format that has not only been forgotten by audiences, but is treated with downright scorn. Yes, it is a silent film (save for a few lines of dialogue at the end) but this is actually helps the film in many ways. Of course, this gimmick is not enough to recommend the film. Luckily, The Artist also has one of the most knowledgeable screenplays of the year as well as a great performance by lead actor Jean Dujardin. If I were ranking my films, The Artist would probably be my number two pick.
Drive- Drive is amongst the greatest French New Wave gangster films ever crafted, despite the fact that it features an American cast and was directed by a man from Denmark. Drive features an unnamed main character who may believe he is living inside of his own action film. He is violent and is driven only by an action hero sense of chivalry. Even the Hollywood style happy ending may be nothing more than a fantasy of the driver. Gosling, with his Steve McQueen-esque mystique, makes the film work. He is well on his way to becoming one of the greatest working actors today. At least one lady sued because this film was not “Hollywood” enough. They are missing the point; the film is a deconstruction of those people who have grown up on genre crap and want to be heroes themselves, no matter who they hurt in the process.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo- This is not as good as The Social Network, but this is still one of the best studio thrillers in quite some time. Rooney Mara (who deserves an Oscar for her portrayal of the mysterious Lisbeth Salander), Daniel Craig, and David Fincher manage to still surprise with a story that has become very well-known throughout the world. Indeed, David Fincher’s style actually acts as a commentary on the phenomenon; it makes snide jokes about the story and the fact that another foreign film is being remade for American audiences. Of course, it does not get bogged down with its joke. It is still as visceral as the novel and still as cruel in its examination of the sadistic men who exist solely to abuse women. But still, Fincher demonstrates the need for this remake to exist and how natural a pick he was to translate it to an American audience.
Hugo– A 3D children’s movie directed by Martin Scorsese seems like the set up to a lame joke. This film is not a joke. It is one of the most poignant reflections on Scorsese’s love for early cinema. Scorsese even manages to frame it from the sense of wonder the main characters have. This is correct – the making of a film should be seen as a magical event, especially at that young of an age. Hugo even manages to be more of a teaching aide than a simple entertaining yarn. I hope some kids will be inspired to seek out George Melies (cleverly played in this film by Ben Kingsley), or even read about the history of silent films, after seeing this work. And yes, the 3D is probably some of the best I have seen. In fact, the format actually helps the story be told. If only more filmmakers were willing to treat 3D as a serious tool rather than a way to inflate ticket prices.
Melancholia-Some will complain about the snail’s pace of the film and the seemingly unrelated halves of the film. But it is also the most meditative work on the nature of human existence outside of The Tree of Life. But rather than one that examines the past, Melancholia looks at the present and actually makes the end of the world seem like a worthwhile action. Dunst’s performance of a woman who welcomes the apocalypse is seemingly a natural reaction to the modern life. Even a seemingly happy moment (her wedding) is one that is fraught with clichés and falsehoods to the point where screwing a man on the 14th hole of the golf course seems like a completely natural reaction. The looming threat of the planet is one that reflects on our Director Lars Von Trier is slowly growing on me; he has completed two great films within the past three years. Hopefully he will only continue to get better.
Midnight in Paris-The delightful premise of the film is enough to be included in any best of list. What if a man could go back in time and meet some of his literary and artistic heroes? But Woody Allen does not fall into the trap others would have – simply pointing out the people and expecting audiences to be slack-jawed at the ride. Allen instead makes the journey seem almost familiar by the lead’s actions and the historical figures seem like elderly aunts and uncles rather than stuffy talkers who would quickly bore listeners. The film is expertly cast, and thankfully Allen keeps out of it – showing that his exquisite screenplays were the best things about his films. This is Allen’s best film since Bullets Over Broadway, and maybe his best one in a filmography that goes back almost fifty years.
The Skin I Live In-This is another film that I saw, but did not have the time to write the review. No matter; I am making up for that lapse here. The film is a very controversial, with a bizarre look at sex appeal and the depths of human trauma. The film is about a surgeon who, after his daughter is raped, performs a sex change operation on the rapist and makes him look like his dead wife…and starts a relationship with his patient. The film works partly because it is uncompromising – it is not subtle about the relationship between doctor and patient nor is it willing to shy away from the “squishier” details. It also works because of its psychological obsession with its characters. Although the situation is unique, it is not unheard of to hear about kidnap victims developing such a relationship with the men who torture them. The Skin I Live In is more honest about the human condition than it may seem at first glance.
Source Code- This film has almost been forgotten by most people when crafting their lists. I am not sure why. It is the best pure science fiction film of the year – a lofty philosophical work crafted as a B-grade thriller. In other words, it is exactly the sort of thing Phillip K Dick used to write.