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?