WEDNESDAY APRIL 23, 2014
 
Blog FILM
THE BEST FILMS OF 2011
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2011 was a great year for film, without question. Almost too good: TORO writers Thom Ernst and Jesse Skinner saw untold dozens of titles this year, and still hold lists of as-yet-unseen potential favourites. But since we can't roll out a Best of 2011 list in April of next year, what follows are our current 10 highlights of the year. Read on, and fire up the Netflix queue.

Tell us what your favourite films of 2011 were on twitter @toromagazine #2011faves.

JESSE SKINNER:

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Doug (Cris Lankenau) is a forensic science graduate, smart but aimless. Together with sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and new co-worker Carlos (Raul Castillo) he falls into a genuine mystery, worthy of Holmes: ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) has reappeared in his life then vanished again, leaving a trail of clues. What follows is an ingenious puzzle, a thriller resolved by intelligence and unspoken personal bonds, not violence. As I grow older I grow tired of watching characters perform arbitrary tasks to ends of no importance; I hope more movies like Cold Weather are waiting for me.

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I think few critics (or audience members?) enjoyed Tarsem Singh’s Immortals as much as I did. Many took issue with its confusing plot, thin characters, or its treatment of myth and history. Few argued it was anything but visually spectacular, as if film is not a visual medium. In my opinion it accomplished what Star Wars, Jurassic Park and The Matrix achieved in their own time: the assemblage of new film technology waiting to be perfected, the exploitation of ancestral myths, and confirmation of the potential of popular filmmaking. In some ways it’s an Avatar for adults, and why that film was embraced and Immortals largely shunned I haven’t the slightest idea.

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Ben Rivers’ Slow Action is a hard film to get into, and an even harder one to leave. Rivers assembles four mock-documentaries, parodying Natural Geographic television and science academia, to imagine future societies. In one we are ruled by technology. In another, we live in trash. In another, cities crumble. And finally, a return to the land, where pagan tribes turn household objects into talismans. With disturbing visuals and borderline-incomprehensible narration, Slow Action at first seems too indulgent to understand, but as Rivers' vision becomes clear, as his warnings about the deformation of society sink in, it ends up too powerful to forget.

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Let's face it: Midnight in Paris is Transformers for people who read, a pandering spectacle that doesn’t think much of the average viewer. But if you can have your robot monster movie, I’ll take my nostalgic vision of Paris in the ‘20s, because I sure as hell enjoyed myself while watching it, more than the 50 or so other screenings I sat through this year. Entertainment should count for more than critics usually allow, and sometimes the only qualification for a great movie is how badly you want to dive into it again once the lights come up.

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Shame is a work of profound bravery. Director Steve McQueen and star Michael Fassbender look sex addiction – that punchline of so many late night monologues – dead in the eye, and never blink. They treat it as seriously and thoughtfully as any piece of art could hope to do. Fassbender is Brandon, a New York executive who long ago achieved everything he needed to in life, and now exists merely as a transport vessel for his penis. Newly-arrived sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, giving the performance of her life) is his saviour-in-disguise, his only chance to rejoin humanity. I won’t dare say what resolution he comes to, needless to say it left me shaken from the inside out.

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Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw the Devil is a tug-of-war, not only between its lead characters – a serial killer and the secret agent whose fiancée has become his latest victim – but between visceral entertainment and sheer, unwatchable horror. Brutally violent yet smart about how evil can be hollow and meaningless, it’s the rare film that leaves you at once thrilled, disturbed, disgusted and deeply moved. It’s an epic, 150-minute spiritual successor to Park Chan-wook’s "Vengeance Trilogy" (with Choi Min-sik, the tragic hero of Oldboy, here cast as the sneering villain) that does Park one better.

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Fashion photographer Bill Cunningham has everything we should want: a fulfilling career, the respect of his peers, and a home protected by rent control and landmark status. The only thing lacking is a “life” as defined by social and romantic pursuits. The bittersweet hook of Cunningham’s life, at least according to this powerful documentary about him, is that his passion for work has superseded all other concerns. But in the midst of that work he seems happier than most of us could ever hope to be, and ultimately Bill Cunningham New York is an incredibly warm and uplifting film.

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Woody Harrelson gives the best performance of the year as the fiercely intelligent, borderline-sociopathic LAPD cop Dave “Date Rape” Brown. Brown earned his unfortunate nickname years ago for shooting a perp mid-crime, and now lives in the shadow of false glory and hope. The material surrounding him in Owen Moverman’s second feature is, at the core, standard stuff, with some cliches so blatant I could hardly believe they made it past the first edit (“I don’t need you! I don’t need anyone!” Dave bellows at one point) but Harrelson’s work is close to perfect, and he brings the film to greatness.

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Miranda July’s The Future is a darkly funny parody of indie filmmaking, hipster culture, and the world of amateur urban artists, dismissed by many as the worst example of those things. But anyone who actually watched the film should know July is in on the joke; she knows how a lost internet connection doesn't compare to a real problem, how old shirts, kitschy art and blogging can’t keep reality away forever. For those of a certain generation, The Future is a gentle slap in the face, a film that knows why we feel alone in an overstimulated culture but won’t let us off with self-pity. Salvation, the film says, won’t come in defining our personalities, but in embracing and loving the personalities of others.

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An old saying, paraphrased: In times of great danger we may walk with the devil across the bridge. Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is a recognizable kind of devil. Not evil, but stupid, arrogant, and negligent, far more common and destructive traits in our world. The bridge in this case is the Oregon High Desert, circa 1845. There he leads a hopeless wagon train full of foolish men and ignored women. That’s the setup of Kelly Reichardt’s brilliant, inscrutable Meek’s Cutoff, a Western that cuts the American Dream myth off at its knees, a story that spits in the eye of genre convention. In 2011, when half of America willfully followed those who led them into bankruptcy, economic and moral, no piece of art spoke truer about where we are going and who is taking us there. Mr. Meek may just be competent enough to keep his pioneers alive; I pray the same applies to our real-world devils.

Honourable mentions: Take This Waltz, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, 50/50, Rango, The Artist, Alois Nebel, The Patron Saints, Hobo with a Shotgun, Source Code, Anonymous, Hugo

THOM ERNST:

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Bridesmaids
took audiences by surprise by being funnier, more entertaining and all-around better than it easily could’ve been. We’d have been happy if this “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” comedy gave a few good laughs and some potty humour (which we got), but it went further by adding charm, genuine wit and characters we could actually care about. There are rumours the film may get a Best Picture Oscar nod and as happy as we may be to hear that, it likely won’t walk away with any statues ... unless the scene-stealing Melissa McCarthy grabs Best Supporting Actress.

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Moody, broody and dark, this anti-action action film gives Ryan Gosling the Sergio Leone treatment – here he is man of few words and no name. The movie pushes itself to extremes, mostly to its credit, occasionally to distraction. It’s a comic book gangster fable where the bad guys are old men with nasty streaks of pettiness making the good guys scamper for a way out. It’s arty, it’s hostile and it’s got guts. 

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Imagine a planet identical to ours, synchronized. Everything we know, live, and do on Earth is done there. Now imagine that planet is floating so close above us it seems we might touch its surface, were we to climb the highest tower and stretch ourselves to our limits. Imagine now all this means nothing to you, because you did something so horrible and unforgivable the only thing that matters is righting a wrong on your own Earth. Another Earth is a science fiction story about real human emotion, need and regret. The fantastical exists, but as a back drop to the human drama. But out of these two worlds – that of drama and that of science-fiction – comes one of the most rewarding stories of the year.

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What I know of Woody Allen I’ve learned through his films and the occasional biography, each a source leading me to believe he belongs to another, more fantastical era. With Midnight in Paris he takes us to his most fully-realized world to date –1920s France. Here we find Allen not as the director, but as the idealist, the romantic and in many cases, the wide-eyed fan. Allen’s enthusiasm when introducing us to Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dali, Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds is wonderfully contagious.

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There is much to like about this story of inner-city English kids stopping furry aliens from invading the projects. First-time director Joe Cornish fills that story with little surprises – some of which come with razor sharp teeth. But what really makes this film stand out from say, Cowboys & Aliens, is a switch of perception, transforming street punks into heroes simply through the act of slipping on reading glasses. There is enough action and violence to keep the blood pumping, and still the film effectively dismantles stereotypes of low income kids as brutes and criminals.

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Terrence Malick once again makes a film requiring the kind of audience participation many are just not prepared for. Damn you Malick, why must you insist we think – and while we’re at it – feel, see, ask and wonder…? Inevitably some will think it pretentious while others will sit back untroubled by the idea of finding meaning in every nuance (and Malick redefines nuance with every frame) and seeing movies as miracles. The Tree of Life is Malick’s meditation and his prayer. It is a huge achievement, and it is Art.

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Director Alexander Payne does not (or has yet to) make bad films. The Descendants continues his chronicling of America in an array of portraits. George Clooney is perfectly cast as the intentional outsider who, left as the sole charge of his two daughters, sets off to unravel the mysteries of his own life and that of his seriously injured spouse. The situation is ripe for the kind of comedy that sneaks in from the side, slightly askew and never very noisy. What we learn from The Descendants is the peculiar nature of what it means to be human, and though sometimes its examples are exaggerated, they are never far from the mark.

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Anything you may say about Shame, good, bad or indifferent, is correct. Rarely do films ignite this much diverse passion. Some condemn it as the product of a neurotic society terrified of sexual evolution, one that is already following an equally maligned and suspect sexual revolution. Some see it as a heartbreaking anthem to abuse, neglect, and destruction and above all, an extreme that cannot be ignored, that elusive nondescript injury we call “trauma.”  Even if you find Shame to be boorishly excessive, it does its job: to make you either uncomfortable enough to think, or angry enough to complain.

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This is a love story, and a spiritual odyssey flowing seamlessly from era to era. The strength of the film lies in many aspects, ranging from the music (not surprising, since the film comes from C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) director Jean-Marc Vallée) to the out-of-sequence storytelling, onto the strength of its characters. They include a middle-aged D.J. a disillusioned woman and a child with Downs Syndrome. It is a marvel of filmmaking that pushes its director into a higher echelon of artists.

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Monsieur Lazhar is a stunning film, the story of a school teacher transported from Algeria to Quebec following a devastating personal tragedy. He takes a job at an inner-city Quebecois school, replacing a teacher who committed a shocking act of violence in the classroom. The movie should be, from its subjects of loss, hopelessness and despair, heavy-handed and dark or, by contrast, sentimental schmaltz. Instead it is delightful and, without straining any illusions the word may conjure: magical. Director Philippe Falardeau has created, in the character of Lazhar, a man of unquestionable merit with a capacity to understand grief and trauma without buckling under the pressure of his own demons. The movie celebrates life yet refuses to ignore the horrors. Monsieur Lazhar is not to be missed.

Honourable mentions: Source Code, You’re Next, The Corridor, A Dangerous Method, Margin Call, The Skin I Live In.

1 Comments | Add a Comment
I loved IMMORTALS, it is in my personal top ten for the year as well. Don't understand the backlash, it was easily the best popcorn movie of the year.
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