Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Top 10 Movies of 2011: #2-#10

Below, not in order of ranking, are my choices for the #2-#10 films of 2011.

The funniest movie of the first half of 2011 was "Bridesmaids"; of the second half, "Carnage." I've written extensively about both elsewhere in my year-end review. "Bridesmaids" was the most uproarious mainstream American comedy in years and made a star of Kristen Wiig. Roman Polanski's "Carnage" was side-splittingly, gut-bustingly funny, deep, rich laughs, and waves of them. Polanski and Yasmina Reza (adapting her play "God of Carnage") crafted a razor-sharp, leanly economical screenplay crackling with intelligence and wit, and the fabulous ensemble cast brought the ever-increasing hilarity to a fare-thee-well.

The most stylish movie of the year was also the most badass: Nicolas Winding Refn's L.A. story "Drive," with its myriad evocations of William Friedkin's "To Live and Die in L.A." (one of my all-time top-ten). Ryan Gosling's near-silent, iconic getaway driver navigates the sprawling city to the strains of a distrait, New Wave soundtrack as the credits roll - in 80s hot pink. The movie is evocative not only on a visual and aural level but that of mood and of soul; it elicits subconscious, dreamlike connections. "Hanna," too, rates high on the badass/stylish meter, a latter-day "Run Lola Run," with director Joe Wright matching Tom Tykwer's hyperkinetic energy and visual wit, and a pulse-pounding Chemical Brothers soundtrack.

Two directorial debuts amazed me this year with their sensitivity and keen perception: Vera Farmiga's "Higher Ground" and David Robert Mitchell's "The Myth of the American Sleepover." In "Higher Ground," Farmiga grappled with the search for spiritual fulfillment as honestly, painfully and meaningfully as has been seen in film. As a director, she showed a veteran professional's confidence in allowing scenes to run their course and people to talk as they really do - even if it's sometimes embarrassing. In a just world, the young cast of "Sleepover" would win the award for best ensemble. Theirs is the best teen movie since "say anything..." - and bears all the hallmarks of Cameron Crowe's finest work: abiding empathy, relentless truthfulness, and sweet, soulful understatement. It's a treasure.

I wrote earlier this week of Dee Rees' equally auspicious directorial debut, the black lesbian teenager movie "Pariah," with Adepero Oduye in a career-making performance as a young woman trying on pieces of identity and seeing which fit. Rees' film pops with freshness, ferocity and frank sexuality; it's sharp and real, funny and sad, remorseful and confident, and up to the minute. A girl's search for self-definition also forms the basis of another great 2011 film, the lovely and quiet French import "Tomboy," which depicts one summer in a ten-year-old girl's development with sensitivity, naturalness and grace. Director Celine Sciamma sets a tone of careful, unobtrusive observation, of children at play, of the interactions between sisters, of the way parents and children talk to one another. There's nothing loud or phony about "Tomboy," which sets it apart in a marketplace of boisterous movies that ooze falsity.

Finally, the 2011 film that defies categorization (let alone discussion in the same paragraph with any other): Andrei Ujica's uniquity "The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu," a three-hour compilation of previously undiscovered (and often astonishing in its very existence) archival footage of the Ceausescus' public appearances. Even after decades in power, Nicolae always looks ill at ease, with his squinched-up face, unintentionally dismissive little parade wave, awkward way of applauding. While never commenting on the material, Ujica demonstrates a wry, unmistakably Eastern European sense of humor. His title is brilliant: the Ceausescus lived their lives as photo ops, so it's perfectly apt to think of this material as autobiography. I've never seen a film quite like this one; maybe nobody has.

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