The 2011 LowRes Movie Awards: 25 Amazing Moments / Best Trailers / Best Techs (Visual) / Best Techs (Audio) / Screenplays / Supporting Actor + Actress / Lead Actor + Actress / Breakthrough + Cameo + Ensemble / Top 10 Films
Runners-Up: #15: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; #14: Shame; #13: Weekend; #12: Meek's Cutoff; #11: A Separation
THE TOP TEN FILMS OF THE YEAR
#10 -- Rampart: The genre of Bad Cop Movies is generally not a favorite of mine. They either get caught up in the will-he-get-away-with-it plot mechanics or else they fall in love with the manly badness of the main character. Neither one of those things is an issue with Oren Moverman's Rampart, which takes a deep dive into the swirling murkiness of "Date Rape" Dave Brown without maintaining any illusions about him. Even better, every single character in Dave's life -- ex-wives, daughters, the brass at work, an informant, a lawyer who takes an interest in him -- brings a new dimension to the story. Of course, they all play a part in the grand paranoia of Dave's poisoned brain -- each one out to bring him down -- but Moverman doesn't make the mistake of leaving them flat. There's some chewy character drama in pretty much every scene, making for an awfully satisfying meal.
#9 -- Contagion: I know Contagion was supposed to be Soderbergh's designated popcorn movie this year -- a deadly disease flick filled with slumming A-listers and advertised with the horrifying/hilarious sight of Gwyneth's death mask. But the chilly, clinical style with which Soderbergh's handled this story of an apocalyptic plague has stuck with me for months, and in a weird way it's grown more and more thrilling in my memory. The luxury of being Steven Soderbergh, besides the fact that every actor working in Hollywood is lining up to work with you just because, is that you've amassed enough credit to be able to stick to your guns in the face of whatever the hell studios do to movies like this. Thus, Contagion got to be about how our institutions fail us for what boils down to the most human of reasons; about the mercilessness of nature and the fragility of man and how terrifying the clash of those things can be.
#8 -- War Horse: I've been kind of a wuss about liking this movie lately, and I'm realizing how silly that is. In a year when people are falling out over The Artist and Hugo and The Descendants, ain't no one got a leg to stand on when it comes to embracing naked sentimentality at the movies this year. And since this is my blog I'll go further to say that MY preferred naked sentimentality was the one that felt least like a crutch and the most in control of its own message. While The Artist had Uggie scampering all over town, with all the humanized agency of Lassie, wrenching "awwww"s of approval from an audience that has overidentified with the little creature, Spielberg had the discipline to make a movie ABOUT how humans write their stories onto these creatures, without actually committing to the dishonesty that the horse is doing anything but trying to stay alive. So much of this movie shouldn't work, but Spielberg has made a career out of it, so why are we surprised at the effectiveness of the pure fantasy of a no-man's-land meeting of English and German soldiers in order to cut the horse free from an unholy tangle of barbed wire? I also really appreciated his depiction of World War I, which has been slammed left and right for not being bloody enough. While I don't think Spielberg for one second lost sight of the brutality of the trenches, I really appreciated how -- after the merciless inhumanity of the battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan -- he decided to show us war through a different prism, this time through the faces of men who couldn't possibly be prepared for the horrors that lay just out of sight (in tall grass, on the other side of a quiet country hill, over the top of a trench). It's why I love that windmill shot so much. It's the hand of a sad parent giving you one extra second of preserved humanity before the horror gets in.
#7 -- Margaret: I suppose I understand why this movie took five years from completion to distribution, but I'm not sure I 100% side with Kenneth Lonergan on the issue. Watching the movie with knowledge of the battles that raged behind the scenes of edits and final cut, it's almost impossible not to find scenes and subplots, even whole characters (sorry, Jean Reno and Matt Damon) who could have been cut. A resulting leaner cut of the film would have been tighter, more palatable, an easier sell for audiences. Probably a better movie for having a tighter focus. But it wouldn't have been THIS movie, with all its tangents and jagged edges and big ideas. And that's definitely what makes Margaret special. Of course, there are dozens of messy, jagged movies out there, and this one wouldn't work without something compelling at the center, and Lonergan certainly provides that: one of the year's most challenging characters, played brilliantly by Anna Paquin and given a series of thorny relationships; plus an inciting event that was unrivaled this year in terms of unbearable immediacy. There are few avenues the film doesn't explore.
#6 -- Drive: This movie walked a very thin tightrope pretty much the whole way through, and the fact that it never fell off makes me love it immensely. Had Refn lost his nerve, or the final scenes fell flat, or Gosling took a wrong step, it would have crashed hard, but somehow, even with weaknesses like a weak Carey Mulligan character, it delivered exactly what it was promising. Unless you thought it was promising lots of car chases, I guess.
#5 -- Martha Marcy May Marlene: The twin debuts of Sean Durkin and Elizabeth Olsen were the story this season -- or they SHOULD have been if the movie had gotten any love during awards season. It's a bummer, because these are two serious talents. There's no better way to get me enthused about your movie than to wrap me up in tension so tightly I start to get neck pain. The movie fuzzes out at the edges until you're not sure what you're seeing, then snaps tightly into focus to show you something awful. Brilliant manipulation at work.
#4 -- Young Adult: I've always been on Diablo Cody's side, from Juno to Jennifer's Body to United States of Tara; she didn't have anything to prove to me. Jason Reitman, on the other hand, had some ground to make up. He mostly just stays out of the way of Cody and Charlize Theron here, but I have to give him credit for some improvements from Juno (the music is decidedly not intrusive; he gave a great sense of place without making the audience feel loaded down with tchotchkes). The Cody/Theron combo, however, is what made this so special. Without any concerns for cutesiness or redeeming qualities, they put out a frighteningly relatable story about going home again that hisses with vicious comedy.
#3 -- Higher Ground: Vera Farmiga's directorial debut does something great with a story about a born-again woman who wants SO much to truly feel her rebirth but who grows more and more certain of the absence of the divine in her life. This could have easy become something snide or preachy or -- on the other end of the spectrum -- toothless and weak. Instead, Farmiga asked some hard questions about faith in ways that were respectful, compelling, and most importantly entertaining. The deep roster of character actors give such a rich picture of this world, full of funny, honest, caring people whose beliefs clash and befuddle each other but ultimately we get a picture of intellectual curiosity and faith in a constant struggle for compatibility.
#2 -- Hanna: SO MUCH FUN, you guys. I had the best time watching this movie, remembering this movie, talking about this movie, watching it again. I've been a big fan of Joe Wright's movies, but who knew he had something this lurid and exciting in him? Perfect casting, from Saoirse Ronan's otherwordly, frightening child killer, to Cate Blanchett's otherwordly, frightening government hunter, to Tom Hollander's otherworldly, frightening Eurotrash odd-jobsman, to Olivia Williams's worldly, comforting hippie mom (curveball!). The bold visual style, snappy action scenes, and a fierce determination to pay attention to Hanna's humanity all add up to something thrilling and satisfying.
#1 -- Certified Copy: This movie is actually also so much fun, though it couldn't be more different than Hanna, obviously. But I am such a sucker for an intellectual exercise that layers itself with realistic, warm characters whose lives you've invested in. I could roll around in it for days. The are-they-or-aren't-they nature of the central relationship isn't beside the point -- digging into the conversations, the posturing, the way they're looking at each other is half the fun of the movie. Are these two married? Role-playing? Some kind of spontaneous exercise in committing to an improv bit? The questions of authenticity and the value found in copies are compelling but only because the characters flesh them out. The other half is the movie that's happening within those conversations, whether they're a put on or not. Juliette Binoche tells a billion stories with her face alone (and a hundred more with her bra straps), and whether there's a marriage or not, the story she's playing out is realer than real. In a year when Hollywood felt overly desperate to think warmly about the ways of the past, here's a movie that really asks us to engage with the stories we've been telling ourselves for decades. We become the stories we're telling.