Premature Retrospection: My Favorite Films in 2011 (So Far)

I realize that in a few months time, I’ll be cobbling together a top ten list for 2011 as I’ve done for the past two years that A Constant Visual Feast has been up and running. But 2011 has been a good year cinematically, for me specifically and for film in general; I’ve seen more current release at this point in the season than I had last year, and I’ve been more inspired in my writing of late thanks to some unexpectedly great movies that made it onto my “seen” list. Granted, there are still plenty among the number of 2011’s most talked-about offerings that I haven’t seen, either because I missed them in theaters (Tree of Life, Attack the Block, X-Men: First Class) or because they haven’t been released yet (Melancholia, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). So with the long weekend on us (some of us, leastways) and with the year slowly dwindling down to its end, it seems a fine idea to look back at what’s impressed me and moved me the most in 2011:

I Saw the Devil (Ji-woon Kim): With I Saw the Devil, Ji-woon Kim has taken his signature composed, detailed, and precise style and applied it to a gruesomely magnetic story of revenge, further solidifying Korea as a force in revenge cinema. Here he transforms his antagonist and makes him more of a deuteragonist as Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) finds himself serving as the prey in a game of cat-and-mouse orchestrated by Soo-hyun (Byung-hun Lee), the fiance of one of his most recent victims who by chance happens to be a Korean special agent. Bad luck, old boy. Choi and Lee are both electrifying leading men and Kim is clearly firing on all cylinders in this vengeance thriller; Choi somehow makes Kyung-chul, though thoroughly horrid, into a nearly sympathetic and whole person, while Lee yields an emotion-infused take on the same cold and focused killing machine routine he brought to Kim’s A Bittersweet Life. It’s Kim’s triumph, though, that I Saw the Devil is so totally watchable; it’s an ugly film that will repulse you, but Kim’s eye is so keen that the beauty inherent to the mayhem makes it impossible to turn away.

50/50 (Jonathan Levine): Levine has shown his talent as a director before with 2008’s coming-of-age flick The Wackness, and he clearly displays it again with 50/50 by making a story about cancer into a genuinely moving and non-manipulative human comedy. Maybe Levine has an unfair advantage; it’s hard to build a movie around the charisma of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and not come out with at least some redeeming value in the end, but Levine also knows how to earn his emotionally cathartic moments without forcing them or treating his audience like children. This is a movie that’s genuinely, organically moving and touching; you’ll never once feel like a sap for choking up at any point. Most of all, you’ll laugh, and hard, at how the film confronts Adam’s (Gordon-Levitt) sudden and rare cancer diagnosis with a brazen and unapologetic sense of humor. (And Seth Rogen turns out his best work in years as Adam’s best friend.)

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen): A great film about the pitfalls of nostalgia and how raw passion triumphs over cold intellectualism any day of the week. It’s also a Woody Allen film. Scratch that– a good Woody Allen film. And going further, it’s probably the best movie Allen has made in close to a decade, a gorgeous and wonderfully acted love note to Paris and a cautionary tale on the dangers of glamorizing times long past (and which you never personally experienced). It’s not just a touchdown for Allen, but also for Owen Wilson, who proves to be an absolutely knockout Allen surrogate as his Hollywood screenwriter Gil strives for self-improvement and artistic integrity on a trip to Paris with his wretched fiancee (Rachel McAdams). The type of person who can get drunk on art, Gil wants to be a bona fide novelist instead of a money-making hack, and he gets the chance to hear some constructive criticism when he stumbles on a cab that sends him back to the 1920s and allows him to schmooze with the likes of Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pil), and Hemingway (Corey Stoller)– and romance the beautiful Adriana (Marion Cotillard). It’s light, it’s fun, it’s romantic, and it’s replete with layers of depth beneath its airy veneer.

Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt): With Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt tries her hand at the western and ultimately establishes her own place in the genre. She’s excised the gun fights and the mercurial pacing for something much more ponderous and grounded, focusing on the perils of trailblazing life and existence on the forefront of the new frontier. The film is alleged to be based on historical events, but the doomed expedition the real Stephen Meek led suffered casualties that far outweigh the cast Reichardt has assembled, so it’s more accurate to say that history inspired Meek’s Cutoff instead. This is the sort of picture that takes its time and in doing so fosters an ever-escalating sense of dread and tension and anxiety as its characters’ circumstances become less and less tenable; it’s not slow or plodding but measured and purposeful. Topping it off are two great central performances by Bruce Greenwood and Michelle Williams, the former as the titular Stephen Meek and the latter as Emily Tetherow, Meek’s most outspoken opponent among the small group of settlers he seems to be leading to certain death.

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn): I’ll keep this short since I’ve said enough about this film already, and very recently to boot. Maybe I haven’t said that it’s the best movie I’ve seen in 2011 (though the margin is slim), but I know that by now it’s clear that I kinda like it somewhat a bit sorta and that I think people should see it perhaps if they so choose and if they like good movies. Click it here for my recently Freshly Pressed review and here for my subsequent character analysis; if you haven’t sought Drive out in theaters yet (and if it’s still out in release near you), do. Odds are good you won’t be disappointed.

There’s still plenty of time left to fill out my list, of course, and there’s always the chance that some of these won’t show up on my final top 10– so don’t hold me to these titles just yet! How about everyone else? What movies have tickled you the most in 2011?

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16 thoughts on “Premature Retrospection: My Favorite Films in 2011 (So Far)

  1. I’m so very excited for 50/50. I read the script 2 years ago when it was called I’m With Cancer and have been waiting for it to come out ever since. I’ve been curious about I Saw the Devil but didn’t know if I was going to watch it or not because generally these Asia extreme movies don’t appeal to me but I think I’ll give this one a try. When placed side by side with Oldboy how does it compare?

    • I wouldn’t necessarily put I Saw the Devil against Oldboy simply because Oldboy is the best in its league and very, very hard to compete against, but Kim’s movie does come close. It’s really great, though I’d mark under the “grim and ugly” column rather than the “so graphic it’s stomach-churning” column. The violence is disturbing but it’s never so honed-in on that you want to lose your lunch at any point.

      Basically, if you can endure the violence of Oldboy you can handle I Saw the Devil.

      50/50 won’t let you down. I wasn’t even that jazzed up to see it, but I managed to snag a couple of free passes and checked it out with my wife more than a month ago and we loved it. It’s feel-good material that isn’t guilty pleasure grade.

  2. I still need to see Midnight in Paris and Meek’s Cutoff. ARGH!!! Drive, 50/50, and I Saw the Devil are actually my top 3. So, obviously: GREAT PICKS!

  3. Nice retrospective on the year’s best so far. I Saw the Devil certainly was quite excellent and will most likely be in my top 10 of the year when it’s all said and done. 50/50 was also a solid flick, honest and boasting a nice mix of poignancy and comic relief. As for Drive and Midnight in Paris… easily my two favorite films of the year at this point.

    • Blain– thanks! Obviously you’ve made some great picks too!

      Castor– thank you. I think Devil will probably remain in my total top ten as well; I can’t get the taxi scene out of my head, or the ending moment with Soo-hyun. As far as Drive and Midnight in Paris, yeah, they’re the picks that constitute my “top two”. Love ’em both.

  4. It feels like I haven’t seen any films this year, even when I’ve seen loads! Drive is definitely on my list, and probably going to be number one unless something awesome pops up in the next two months.

    I need to catch up on some features that I’ve missed because even just on this list I haven’t seen I saw the devil, nor 50/50, nor Meek’s. TBF they have not been out here yet!

    MIP was such a lovely film.

    • Yeah, I know what you mean. Still, I’m at a place where I’ve seen more movies this year than the last, and I hope I can improve on that next year and the year after that.

      There are, of course, quite a few movies I’ve missed this year, as I mention in my opening paragraph, but I think I’ve done pretty well despite missing things like Bridesmaids and Attack the Block and so on. Hopefully I can catch those few films that I really must catch (Shame, Melancholia, The Muppets, Tin Tin…) before the year is out.

  5. Nice post. I have yet to see Meek’s Cutoff but plan to do so soon. I didn’t care much for Midnight In Paris (of which I definitely seem to be in the minority), but I love your other three selections. I would also include Moneyball and 13 Assassins.

    • 13 Assassins might still make my top ten, but for Asian fare Devil wins if only for the taxi cab scene. It’s revolting in its brutality and viciousness and yet totally mesmerizing.

      Moneyball‘s a “skip ’til DVD” for me. I don’t know why but nothing about it makes me think “I must see this in theaters right now”.

  6. I’ve heard about I Saw the Devil, and I don’t think I’ll be seeing it. It’s just not my type of movie. I’m waiting for the rest of them to come out on DVD or Amazon Instant because either I missed them or they weren’t showing in my town. Interesting post, though!

  7. I’m not a fan of Woody Allen per se but I adore Midnight in Paris! I’m glad I went to see it blindly and was pleasantly surprised by the ‘twist’ of the film. Enchanting is the word I’d use to describe it.

    • It’s an apt word indeed. I love Allen myself, but I think Midnight is the kind of movie that should speak to anybody whether they love his work, loathe his work, or lack familiarity with his work. There’s a lot of universal appeal here. Thanks for stopping in!

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