Our Favorite Movies of 2011

1. The Tree of Life– Terrence Malick’s epic tone poem weaves in and out of the life of a typical American family in 1950s Texas, zig-zagging between the creation of the universe and the afterlife in the process.  By placing the location of his own childhood at the center of these celestial events, he puts a very personal spin on his warring perceptions of creation; the way of nature and the way of grace.  As his camera weaves in and out of the O’Brien family’s lives (a three son household run by Brad Pitt’s nature and Jessica Chastain’s grace), the element of visual improvisation makes their everyday life and afterlife beautiful.  Even if you hated it, you’ll never forget it. Read our review.

2. Certified Copy- Unexpected in every way, the romance film by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami follows two strangers as they meet up in Tuscany one afternoon and divulge into their passionate opinions on art, originality, philosophy and love. Over the course of a single afternoon, their relationship takes twists and turns, leaving the audience in awe of the puzzle laid out before them and clinging to the aesthetic beauty of its settings and characters to reveal clues. Sophisticated filmmaking technique brilliantly interlaces heavy academic, multilingual conversation with a flowing narrative to sculpt this as one of the most unique and thought-provoking films of the year. Read our review.

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REVIEW: Margin Call

Margin Call
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Written by: J.C. Chandor (screenplay)
Starring: Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and Paul Bettany

Margin Call, along with Melancholia, are two movies that are helping reshape the distribution model of otherwise-limited release films.  With the help of outlets like Amazon, iTunes and other VOD (Video On Demand, get used to it) services, they are reaching audiences that arguably would never have seen them otherwise.

Of course, it helps that both of these films are exceptionally well done.  Margin Call is about the beginning of the financial crisis, examining the movers and shakers responsible for kick-starting it.  Its keen examination of this world driven purely by gambling is shot in smooth, sophisticated darkness.  Every board room is glossed over, though every frame conveys a sense of dread and impending doom (The same can be said of Melancholia).

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REVIEW: J. Edgar

J. Edgar
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Dustin Lance Black (screenplay)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench and Naomi Watts

Two men are fighting over a woman.  One declares that he may in fact be ready for a wife, while the other, in a fuming rage, declares that he cannot marry that woman.  He smashes some glasses and throws the first punch.  Not to be outdone, the other man fights back with all his strength, but to no avail.  The other man has him pinned to the ground.  And then they kiss.

That is the climax of J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial endeavor and the sliest genre subversion since his masterful acting/directing one-two punch in 2008’s Gran Torino.  He is of course filming the illusive FBI titan J. Edgar Hoover, who here is embodied by Leonardo DiCaprio in his finest screen performance.

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REVIEW: The Trip

The Trip
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
Written by: N/A
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan and Margo Stilley

The Trip blends the line of fiction and reality so seamlessly that by the end you’re left uncertain of what you’ve seen.  As it unfolds it is clear that you’re watching a movie, but there’s something different about it.  It could be that there was no actual shooting script and that the actors are playing themselves (in a Curb Your Enthusiasm kind of way), but it’s not just that.

What Michael Winterbottom’s film does so brilliantly is comment on reality with a very close fictional version.  Its comedy is born out of deep personal truth.  This undertaking requires tremendous efforts from the two lead performers, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.  Steve is asked by The Observer to travel around the UK and try the finest restaurants.  His semi-girlfriend backs out, so he asks Rob, who is happily married.

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REVIEW: Drive

Drive
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by: Hossein Amini (screenplay), James Sallis (book)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks

Violence comes and goes with Ryan Gosling’s unnamed driver.  Like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, there’s no indication where he came from or where he’s going.  However, you get the feeling he’s been traveling place to place causing the same kind of chaos.

Drive doesn’t initially appear to be a movie of such violence.  The almost serene first half is stylistic perfection, with director Nicolas Renf tracking the driver from behind the wheel of a suspenseful, sneaky heist escape (in a Chevy Impala), to a movie set where he flips a car and to his initial meeting with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son.  He stumbles on the mob second hand, when Irene’s unfortunately named husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) needs to pull off a robbery to get some thugs off his back.

From that heist on, Renf holds no prisoners with the blood-letting.  It wouldn’t work if Gosling approached it with the same semi-charmed apathy he gives the character in the first half.  He trembles as the body count stacks up.

What makes Drive a film to remember at the end of 2011 is the moody, gorgeous cinematography and the first-rate score.  The brooding visuals mesh together with the electronic beat of Cliff Martinez’s music to create a neo-noir with an 80s synth rhythm.  Even when Renf and screenwriter Hossein Amini hack and slash these characters to bits, it never feels out of place.

There is a scene fairly early on in the movie where the driver sits with Irene’s son and watches a cartoon about sharks.  He asks the boy how he knows the shark is bad, and the boy says “Because he looks bad.”  This scene is important to understanding not just Gosling’s driver, but the principle villain as well.  While Ron Perlman is all-too at home in the campy role of a crime boss, Albert Brooks seems a little off-beat as a mob kingpin.  He delights in the role, though, going over the top without losing sight of the consequences of all the killing.

Drive is also unique as a noir in that it doesn’t let either of the attractive female characters (Mulligan or Christina Hendricks) expand into a femme fatale or even really expand much at all.  Irene is accustomed to tacking on a smile for her son, and Mulligan is perfect at conveying happiness and sadness with contrasting expressions in her smile and deep, dark eyes.

At the end, though, this is ultimately a man-made world of corruption and violence, and the driver is left to eliminate it to keep Irene and her son safe.  He works as a car repairman for a schmuck with a limp (a terrific Bryan Cranston).  Brooks’ Bernie Ross puts up the money to have the driver race a car for him.  He and Perlman’s Nino are so opposite that their scenes together in the garage and in their front of a pizzaria are one of the few things that detract from the movie’s mood.

You could split Drive down the middle for its nearly bloodless first half and its gory second act, but it also fits together as a convincing whole.  This is because Renf never loses sight of his characters.  Though the villains are undeniably evil, the hero isn’t all that good.  We’re left to root for him because we see him from all angles and see that his heart is ultimately in the right place.  He’s the good shark.

Grade: B+