The dog days of February are not quite over; with the Oscars quickly approaching and a historically weak month for theatrical releases, it’s a good time to catch up on some movies from last year.
I watched about 60 movies from 2011. Although they were an embarrassment of riches, such excellent movies as “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2,” “50/50” and “Beginners” simply could not make the cut. Instead, I have chosen to write about my nine favorites, those I would have given an A+. Since it’s really impossible to compare movies that differ so radically, there is no ranking. The movies are all judged based on ambition, and how creatively and successfully that ambition was filled technically and thematically.
“The Artist” directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last year, “The Artist” has been a topic of conversation in the film world. Now with 10 Oscar nominations, a favorite for Best Picture and 15 Best Picture awards from various critics’ groups, it has firmly established itself as one of the most acclaimed movies of 2011. It tells the story of George Valentin (played by a charming Jean Dujardin), a silent movie star who faces irrelevance in the face of the emergence of sound pictures, and the young starlet Peppy Miller (played by a sparkly Bérénice Bejo), who performs in sound pictures. Most famously, the movie is a fastidious recreation of the silent movie style — black-and-white photography, vintage costumes and title cards — the whole works. And it still manages to tell the story of the evolution of the medium.
“Hugo” directed by Martin Scorsese
Much like “The Artist,” “Hugo” delves into the past to explore the evolution and wonders of the cinematic medium. However, “Hugo” does away with the old movie-making style and goes with cutting-edge, 3D digital photography for its story — an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” Scorsese lends his talents to a children’s film and ends up with something thoroughly magical and fun; a Dickensian tale of an orphan who lives in a train station, makes friends and goes on an adventure. Hugo and company use their childish innocence to restore wonder in the life of George Méliès where World War I has removed it, and to show him that his life’s work is worthy of time and attention.
“The Future” directed by Miranda July
Miranda July burst onto the film scene with her Sundance hit “Me and You and Everyone We Know.” Six years later, she returned to the movies with “The Future,” a less innocent but no less quirky magical realist testament to life, love and success. The conclusions that her characters come to are entirely unexpected given the traditional destinies of similar characters in other movies. And it’s the filmmaker’s sincerity in her material that packs its emotional punch. July sets herself apart from most independent filmmakers because “The Future” excels in the emotional authenticity that most independent movies strive for but rarely achieve.
“Life in a Day” directed by Kevin Macdonald
“Life in a Day,” a melange of pieces of life from people around the globe, is a triumph in the documentary genre. It is a collection of clips culled from tens of thousands of submissions from the lives of YouTube users and edited into a river of video that represents humankind in a fascinating way. Macdonald and his team of editors transformed 4,500 hours of video into a 95-minute movie with some clips minutes long and others fleeting seconds. Nonetheless, it’s a small representation of the awesome breadth of mankind.
“Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” directed by Brad Bird
No animation filmmaker has ever made a critical and financial successful transition to live-action. Then came along Brad Bird. After helping invent the “Rugrats” and do animation work on “The Simpsons,” he consecutively made three animation masterpieces — “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.” “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” is Bird’s latest hit, the best action movie to grace the silver screen in years and easily the best in the series. The story, simple enough to be easily followed and clever enough to be engaging, is carried out by a thoroughly engrossing cast, led by a more-affable-than-usual Tom Cruise.
“A Separation” directed by Asghar Farhadi
Farhadi’s careful screenplay, “A Separation,” regards a domestic and legal drama between several people, giving each person and situation careful examination and letting the audience judge each character’s decision. His script shows us that the root of harm in life is not necessarily because of evil people, but because of the intricate design of circumstance that humans cannot control. The movie is about a divorce between two parents, their child and the husband’s father, who is dying of Alzheimer’s. The husband employs a housekeeper to help out with his father, but when the housekeeper leaves the elderly man to his own devices for a couple of hours, things go wrong and a tense drama, exploring the class and religious rifts of contemporary Iranian society, unfolds. Naturally, the authoritarian Iranian government has condemned the film, making it all the more worth seeking out.
“The Sunset Limited” directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Tommy Lee Jones may be best-known as a legendary actor, but he’s directed before — most prominently the underrated Revisionist Western “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” in 2005. “The Sunset Limited” is much smaller in scale as an adaptation of the play of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy (“Blood Meridian,” “The Road”), who tweaked the script to better fit the screen. The movie only has two characters, unnamed in the movie but referred to in the script as “Black” and “White.” They are played by Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson, both in top form, showcasing their acting skills in extensive ways while discussing the inherently dramatic topics of life, suicide and meaning.
“The Tree of Life” directed by Terrence Malick
I avoided ranking this list, but if anything were to be at #1, it would be Terrence Malick’s magnificent “The Tree of Life.” It tells the story of the history of the universe and of a small family in 1950’s Texas. Hunter McCracken gives an incredible debut performance as Jack (played fleetingly as an adult by Sean Penn) with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain playing his father and mother, respectively. Malick’s narrative style will surely turn away some viewers, but it best suits the visually stunning images and its magnificent themes. The movie’s ideas are multitudinous, but the main one is to establish the justification of existence within the grand world we inhabit not through pragmatism, but by emotional acceptance (shades of Heidegger, who Malick once translated into English). We cannot justify ourselves in space and time as important people in the grand, cosmic passage of history, but we can still feel emotionally anchored to reality and feel a sense of belonging in the world through religion, spirituality or some other method. If my words do not do justice to this idea, then Malick’s images do.
“Winnie the Pooh” directed by Stephen Anderson & Don Hall
Though short, last year’s gentle “Winnie the Pooh” adaptation is something of a standout. An anachronism in the hyper-paced 3D CGI animated movies that normally dominate the multiplexes, “Winnie the Pooh” leisurely fills its minutes with a good spirit of playfulness. What’s most striking about the movie is the sequences that recall A.A. Milne’s original books, where the words appear on screen and the characters interact with them as the narrator reads them. This self-awareness works because it’s done with sincerity instead of bluntness, just as it was done in “The Muppet Movie.”