Well, today is the first day of summer, more or less the midpoint of the year, and looking back over the the first six months of 2011, it’s definitely been a bit more of a scattershot movie year compared to the arthouse heavy start of 2010. We'll be honest, compiling this list wasn't exactly easy, the year has been uneven so far, but that said, it's certainly not without highlights: Terrence Malick finally delivered his long awaited film, Woody Allen flexed some of the old magic we love him for, and Michael Winterbottom found life and heart from a familiar comic pairing, while Joe Wright moved completely in a new, exciting direction. Over at the multiplex, big summer entertainment has already made that overpriced, greasy bag of popcorn worth the price with J.J. Abrams proving that genre thrills don't have to be empty, while one of the year’s best efforts unfolded beautifully on the small screen.
So with the year more or less halfway done, here’s the best of what we’ve seen so far. And please note: we're being pedantic about it, films that have only played festivals thus far have been left of the list. Again, we stress the emphasis on the best films of the year so far. We'd love to see 2011 by years end get substantially better. That said, here's where we stand:
“The Tree of Life” — You already knew that this would be on here, so let’s get it out the way first. Terrence Malick’s long-awaited film has become one of the major talking points of the movie year so far. “The Tree of Life” came out of Cannes smelling like a rose with a Palme d’Or under its arm. But recently, there has been a minor, but vocal backlash of sorts with a handful of folks dismissing the film outright. But to label "The Tree of Life" simply as “good” or “bad” is engaging with Terrence Malick’s effort on the most superficial of levels. Brilliant, confounding, moving, overreaching, lyrical and heavy-handed, “The Tree of Life” may not be an unparalleled masterpiece but is anything but forgettable. Tracking the personal heartache that tortures the soul and seeing how that ripples out to the universe at large over time, from before we were born to long after we’ll pass, “The Tree of Life” is ambitious far beyond anything else likely to hit screens this year or next. With a scope and aesthetic uniquely his own, Malick’s film sticks with you days and even weeks after you’ve seen it– demanding another viewing to unlock and uncover the layers and mysteries within “The Tree of Life.”
“Jane Eyre” — When it was announced that “Sin Nombre” director Cary Fukunaga was going to be adapting a dusty Charlotte Bronte novel that was already been made for both the big and small screen multiple times we were both excited and nervous. Would it be another fussy period movie or would Fukunaga make good on the promise of his feature film debut? Well, with Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska leading the way, Fukunaga’s film is deliriously sensual, with an electric current running through the unlikely tale of romance unlike any of its previous incarnations. Fassbender and Wasikowska make it look too easy, and let’s hope the spring release date doesn’t mean it's forgotten when the end of the year rolls round.
"Beginners" — We’ve been waiting and waiting for years for another great Ewan McGregor performance, but after being burned time after time with disappointments, we had pretty much given up. So while we were looking the other way, McGregor perhaps found a soul mate (or at least we hope so) in director Mike Mills (“Thumbsucker”) who helped guide the actor to his best performance in over a decade. A bittersweet look at life, love and loss, Mills’ thoughtful dramedy charts McGregor reeling from the death of his dad (Christopher Plummer), who only recently came out of the closet, strengthening their relationship with a new-found openness and communication and grappling with his fears about a blossoming relationship with a French actress (Melanie Laurent). Sensitively attuned to the aching heartbeat of human condition, “Beginners” makes one swoon, cry, laugh and grieve in equal measure. This year’s “The Kids Are All Right” of the awards season circuit? We hope so.
"Meek’s Cutoff" — The defining reaction to Kelly Reichardt’s meditative Western, shot in good ol’ 4:3 aspect ratio like in the old days (square, not widescreen), might be best articulated in a recent debate by The New York Times magazine vs. The New York Times movie critics. Former Vulture writer Dan Kois took to the NYT mag to write a sort of apology of sorts for finding slow, meditative art films, well, boring; vegetables you should eat, rather than want to eat. The Grey Lady’s estimable critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis then wrote a piece which was titled, “In Defense of Slow & Boring.” Who was right? Well, both of them. Kois is correct in assessing that the slow-moving experience of “Meek’s Cutoff” can be soporific to a certain viewer, but perhaps what he’s missing, which Dargis and Scott so eloquently articulate, is the resonance and value the picture has; a haunting and spellbounding quality that lingers in the mind, far, far long after the picture is gone; a bewitching quality most films don’t possess these days (which makes the "this is dull" assessment a little unimaginative and lazy). So while it’s easy to be short-sighted and write off “Meek’s Cutoff” — Reichardt’s 4th micro-minimalist excursion, this one about an ill-fated journey through the Oregon Trail in 1845 starring Michelle Williams, Zoe Kazan, Bruce Greenwood and Paul Dano — as a lethargic, formalist exercise, this cultural vegetable is not only beautiful and austere, it’s dreamy and oblique like, say, the early films of Alain Resnais. And while that may not be for everyone, we still think you’re definitely missing out.
“Bridesmaids” — Sold as a raunchy female version of “The Hangover,” the real surprise of “Bridesmaids” was not that it was riotously funny (it was, though it should be noted, it bears no resemblance to that Wolfpack movie) but that the film had the biggest heart and deepest thematic roots of any Judd Apatow produced movie to date. Directed by Paul Feig, the surface of the story centers on the single Annie (Kristen Wiig) tasked with organizing her best friend Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) wedding. And while plenty of laughs are wrung out of that situation, these aren’t just characters ping-ponging around a sitcom setup. Instead, the film builds real characters with Annie’s desperation at her singlehood, age and economic status played as much for drama as it is for chuckles. Melissa McCarthy handily walks away as the Zach Galifianakis breakout star of the film, with Jon Hamm running in a close second as a sleazebag fuckbuddy and if anything, you will never look at a Jordan almond the same way again.
So, the above were our top choices, and the films we think could still linger in our Top Ten at the end of the year. Below, are the runners up — by no means bad or unworthy films, these also made going to the movies in the first half of 2011 enjoyable and memorable, and while they may not slot into our final list in December, they stood out from the pack and deserve to be tracked down.
“Hanna” — We have to admit, we were worried. The early footage didn’t wow us, nor did the trailers, and coming off last year’s attempt at little-girl-kills-adults in the tepid “Kick-Ass” we hoped it wouldn’t be more of the same. But Joe Wright showed everyone how it's done, with his stylish, slick and Chemical Brothers powered “Hanna.” Steely-eyed Saoirse Ronan takes her role as the heartless titular assassin with an unnerving ease, while Eric Bana as the on-the-run father left us wondering why Hollywood isn’t courting the man for smart, adult action movies — the subway sequence where he squares off against three men in one breathless, fluidly shot ballet of ass-kicking will likely be one of the best set pieces all year. No, it doesn’t all work — Hanna’s sudden internet/computer hacking abilities in the last third are silly and nonsensical — but it all comes together in one wiry, wicked package that is wildly entertaining.
“I Saw the Devil” — At what point does justice turn to revenge? And when does that revenge mutate into something even more sinister? These are the questions asked by director Kim Jee-woon in his epic, violent, ugly and bleakly funny “I Saw the Devil,” yet another astounding entry from a South Korean cinematic scene that is producing some of the most breathtaking genre films these days. When a police officer’s (Lee Byung-hun) pregnant fiance becomes the latest victim of a vicious serial killer (Choi Min-sik from “Oldboy” in a memorably deranged performance), his pursuit to bring him in turns into a battle of wills that leaves a trail of bodies and blood in its wake. Running nearly two-and-a-half hours long, director Kim Jee-woon (“The Good the Bad and the Weird”) not only allows his film to simmer into a searing boil, he unfolds a story that with each moment unveils a new unexpected twist or surprise turn that feels utterly organic in the universe for his characters, whose notions of good and bad are not just tested, but tossed out the window completely. “I Saw the Devil” doesn’t just present evil, it makes the disturbing case that, one can easily slip into madness themselves when a confronted the darkest, most horrific depths of depraved humanity. Graphic but not gratuitous, Kim makes every drop of blood count and while those moments will make your stomach churn and skin crawl, it's the ramifications of violence and vengeance that offers up the biggest scares of them all.
“Win Win” — In the unofficial list of greatest American filmmakers currently working today, one name is frequently left off and forgotten: Tom McCarthy. The writer, director and sometimes actor first made a big wave behind the camera with “The Station Agent” a film with a quirky premise — a little person takes up residence in an old train station in rural New Jersey — that found a lovely, relatable core of humanity and heart. For this next effort, McCarthy waded towards an “issues film” with “The Visitor” but once again defied expectations, allowing the richness of cultural diversity play out on screen between Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman to quietly underscore that importance that the immigrant experience has on everyone in this country. And McCarthy scores once again with “Win Win,” a highly original story that finds him returning to a familiar theme about the rewards of reaching out to someone who needs a helping hand. In this case the unlikely hero is Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a not-so-honest lawyer who winds up taking care of a client’s runaway grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer). Facing financial and professional difficulties, Mike is reluctant to take on yet another responsibility but as more of Kyle’s story comes to the fore, he teams with his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) to give the kid an opportunity at a life he never knew he could have. Heartwarming, real and absolutely hilarious, McCarthy’s film is a character driven story in the vein of Alexander Payne, with the thematic and social reach of Mike Leigh. “Win Win” lives up to its title.
“Bill Cunningham New York” — Even though everyone is ready their books and newspapers on their iPads or Kindles, the ritual of the Sunday New York Times — the biggest edition of the week that demands to be read over breakfast with sections scattered over the table — is something that can’t be replicated digitally. And one of the staples of the Sunday Times is Bill Cunningham’s “On The Street” section, a document of the week in fashion in one of the most fashionable cities in the country in all its creative, outrageous, refined and glamorous glory. Lovingly directed by Richard Press, “Bill Cunningham New York” is a love letter to a New York institution whose keen eye for fashion often sets or precedes the trends that later appear in the pages of Vogue or other highly influential magazines. Yet, despite working for one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world in an industry that could certainly allow him to live a life of luxury, it’s Cunningham’s humble attitude, spartan lifestyle and dedication to everyday people instead of the glitterati that makes for a fascinating and at times, surprisingly moving documentary. One of the last residents of the famed Carnegie Hall apartments — living in apartment not much bigger than a closet — Cunningham offers a window into a New York that is essentially gone, but it's his dedication to what the average person is wearing that makes his work so unique, treasured and relevant. A flip through his decades long work with the New York Times is essentially a history lesson and time capsule but also a remarkable social document. Through his frequent subjects, admirers of work and colleagues, “Bill Cunningham New York” paints a lovely portrait of a man, slavishly dedicated to his job, highly protective of his subjects, who keeps his private life to himself and prefers to let his work do the talking for him. However, his acceptance speech in 2008 when receiving a special award from the French Ministry of Culture says all you need to know about the man, and it will leave in you tears.
"Submarine" — It is apparently stated in someone’s contract somewhere that a conversation about Richard Ayoade’s winning coming-of-age dramedy “Submarine” cannot take place without some sort of major mention of Wes Anderson films. And yes, while the film does have similarities to Anderson’s “Rushmore” because the story also features a prototypical misfit teenager cut from the Holden Caulfield dreamer mold (though far less assured and the angst is more melancholy), to draw further derivative conclusions is reductive and missing the point. While Ayoade’s film also pops with style and music, it is cut from a distinctly different cloth, taking its cues from the electrical cinema of Lindsay Anderson and Jean-Luc Godard and to a lesser extent Hal Ashby. More important than all the comparisons are the fact that “Submarine” pops and careens forth with an electrical energy we haven’t seen on screen in sometime. You know how some first time filmmakers’ debut work just bursts with a romantic drunkeness of ideas and exuberance? “Submarine” is that film and while it tilts into a rainy-day serio-sadness a little too far in its second half, it’s still an exciting and bold debut that knocked us off our feet.
“Super 8” — Shrouded in secrecy, with the monster and even much of the plot kept tightly under wraps, all that we knew of J.J. Abrams' film before it hit theaters was that it was going to be a summer blockbuster that played as an homage to Steven Spielberg’s Amblin films of yore. Well, this wasn’t just a slavish imitation. Falling somewhere between “The Sandlot,” “Goonies,” “E.T.” but more importantly, something uniquely from the mind of Abrams, “Super 8” was a big dose of nostalgia with the goods to back it up. While, yes, the plot is driven by a monster that escapes from a hideous train wreck and kids who team to stop it, many frustrated by Abrams (seeming) lack of investment in his own creature were missing the point. Easily the writer/director’s most mature film to date, Abrams was much more concerned with capturing the torrent of feelings that kids ride through on the cusp of adolescence. Those intangible emotions of young love, parental loss and the terror of facing the world at times without your friends or family to catch you, are winningly captured by Abrams in his highly entertaining film about a town under siege. And don’t listen to the naysayers. When it’s time for the monster to appear to cause havoc, Abrams doesn’t shy from the fireworks. The train crash nearly blew out our eardrums in IMAX and the climatic sequence delivers some best blockbuster bang for your buck so far this summer. Both tender and explosive, low-key drama and wide-screen epic — and highlighted by a truly astonishing turn by Elle Fanning and an Oscar worthy, superb score by Michael Giacchino — “Super 8” is a fresh, large-hearted, big summer spectacle just like they used to make.
“Midnight In Paris” — Continuing his Euro flavored adventures, Paris seems to have brought Woody Allen to life in one of this best efforts in years. Opening with sweeping shots of Paris from morning to night set to jazz that immediately brings to mind “Manhattan” the latest from Allen almost seems spun from his own dreams and inspirations. Owen Wilson plays the surrogate Allen, Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter who laments never putting his efforts toward writing a truly great novel (sound like anyone you know?). However, in Paris with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) he feels suddenly inspired and thanks to a midnight walk through the streets and quick bit of magical realism, he’s soon transported back to the ‘20s where he’s hanging out with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and watching Josephine Baker and Cole Porter perform. Yes, it's a trifle that still doesn’t rank among Allen’s great works, but there are few directors we’d rather see work out their own hesitations and reservations about their life’s works than Woody Allen. And if means traveling to 1920s Paris for a whimsical adventure through literature, art and music, we’re happy to take that journey.
“The Trip” — If you’re not familiar with the pleasantly curmudgeonly dynamic between Brit comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brdyon, “The Trip” is as good a place as any to start. Directed by Michael Winterbottom — who previously brought the pair together in “Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story” — the film finds the duo playing fictional, bickering versions of themselves. A self-absorbed Coogan invites Brydon on an assignment to review high end restaurants in northern England mostly because he can’t find anybody else to go with him. As the two tour, eat and talk, we are treated to endless, hilarious celebrity impressions (Brydon emphasizes that his take on folks like Michael Caine, Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins have been described as “stunningly accurate”) and blisteringly funny, casual asides. But underneath the constant quipping is an aching melancholy heart, as Coogan escapes time and again to call his girlfriend now auditioning in Los Angeles, with the distance and disconnection palpably felt over the dodgy transatlantic cell phone signal. Though edited down from a much longer six part series that aired on British television, “The Trip” doesn’t miss one beat. Hilarious, heartfelt and hugely enjoyable, if you can’t get away on vacation this summer, a detour with Coogan and Brydon instead, is a winning substitute.
Oops, as one of our readers points out, we forgot this excellent Abbas Kiarostami film. Probably because most of us saw it at Cannes 2010 and or the NYFF 2010, over a year ago for many of us, but that doesn't negate it's wonderfully enigmatic and evocative powers. Juliette Binoche is particularly luminous in the picture and William Shimell plays an excellent adversary in this opaque story of romance where reality and truth tend to bend a little around the edges.
Special Mention: "Mildred Pierce" — One of the finest, most accomplished cinematic events of the year didn’t even make it to theaters, but is still one of the must see movies of the year. Todd Haynes' five part adaptation of James M. Cain’s “Mildred Pierce” is a swing-for-the-fences melodrama that hits on every level. The film centers on the titular Mildred (Kate Winslet in top form) who separates from her husband and decides to open a restaurant in order to support her children, an ambitious notion particularly in 1930s, Great Depression-era American. But her ambition is undercut by her vulnerability, as she tries to forever please her coiled snake of a daughter Veda (Evan Rachel Wood) — who places all value on social standing — while entering a torrid affair with the rakish gadabout Monty Beragon (a devilish Guy Pearce), a failing fruit magnate. Spread over five hours, director Todd Haynes gamely avoids any possibilities of the material stretching into camp and instead constructs a tragic character study with all the sweep of an opera. Anchored by some of the best turns of Winslet and Pearce’s careers, with strong supporting work from Melissa Leo, James LeGros and Mare Winningham, and with an Oscar worthy attention to detail, not only has Haynes made of the best movies of his career, HBO has staked themselves as the premiere outlet for the kind of material and movies traditional Hollywood studios refuse to make.
Around The Corner: Having hit Sundance, SXSW and Cannes this year, we’ve gotten a sneak peek at what's coming in the next six months and it’s very exciting, so here are some films to keep on your radar, with many likely to appear on our year end lists:
Nicolas Winding Refn’s intense, unique and unforgettable “Drive” is easily one of the most talked about films of the year so far; “Attack The Block” is slaying audiences in advance screenings and the distinctively British alien attack film could be a sleeper smash; Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” is big, beautiful valentine to silent movies; the stunning psychological drama “Take Shelter” will definitely leave audiences talking and scratching their heads; Lynne Ramsay’s return “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is devastating and beautiful in equal measure; the violent, indescribable “Kill List” will leave you gasping for air; Miranda July’s “The Future” reveals she’s not just a one trick pony with her latest surreal and winningly precious film, the eerie cult drama “Martha Marcy May Marlene” marks a breakout turn by Elizabeth Olsen and the Dardennes deliver again with “The Kid With A Bike.” In a few weeks that A Tribe Called Quest documentary, "Beats, Rhymes & Life" will likely be blowing your hair back too.