About a half hour into Weekend, Glen (Chris New), a gay, 20-something artist, explains his latest project, after which Russell (Tom Cullen) exclaims that he'd love to come. Glen, however, hardly even registers the remark, claiming that no one will come, detailing the fashion in which straight folks would avoid it because it has nothing to do with them, and gay men might/would only attend for all the wrong reasons. He couldn't have summed up Weekend's chances of finding a real audience any better if he tried. The tale of two british hipsters who share a meaningful affair over the coarse of a few days is completely transcendent of any, 'gay,' or, 'straight,' label that you might want to put on it, but that probably doesn't matter too much to the masses who would never see it on principle. It's their loss. Cullen and New share a riveting free-flowing chemistry, their discussions ranging from deep moments of introspection, to flirtatious teasing, and whispered small-talk, just the way that real lovers converse. Writer/Director Andrew Haigh catches it all with a perceptive eye, never forcing anything, letting his small story play out with finely scaled naturalism. Possibly the best romance of 2011.
Perhaps no single 2011 release provoked a more audible audience reaction upon the arrival of its closing credits than Meek's Cutoff, Oregon-Native Kelly Reichardt's Minimalist/Existentialist/Feminist western. Her film follows a band of travelers along the Oregon trail who have entrusted their navigation to mountain man Bill Meek (a wholly unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood), a decision that is looking more foolhardy by the moment. Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), one of the wives in the group, sees right through their guide, subverting his direction where she can until an unforeseeable alternative presents itself. Meek's is an aesthetic wonder, the dusty trails and parched tongues proving vivid and tangible, but it also presents itself as a microcosmic example of the changes that were/are afoot in the western world. It's not exactly a joyous time at the flicks, but I can't imagine hiking that trail was either. Say what you will about the ending (and I say it's among the best of the year), the final images and sentiments of Meek's Cutoff force you to reevaluate the entire meaning of the film, re-framing the journey for all those with the patience and open mindedness to dig a little deeper.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat)***
What, exactly, is Uncle Boonmee about? We may never know. Where Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life took an abstract look at the nature and being of life itself, Taiwanese filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Try saying that five times fast... or at all) focuses his film on death, and the way in which one transitions out of life, and into the beyond. As if the Ghosts and Monkey Spirits that appear in the dominating narrative weren't strange enough, the film cuts away for vignettes involving people and creatures who might be our protagonist (an old-ish middle-aged man dying of cancer) in a past life. Like Malick's film, it's a slow-moving, surreal experiment of a movie that will likely prove absolutely poisonous to some viewers. I for one, find it kind of magical, defying any and all expectations, giving my Americanized mind a fascinating window a decidedly non-western take on the afterlife. At times beautiful, at times haunting, and at times just hilariously weird, Uncle Boonmee is a defiant movie, one that moves to the stayed rhythms of the forest where it lays its scene, telling the exact story it wants to for all who will listen.
Certified Copy (Copie conforme)***
It's not often that a romance film can stir up the kind of, 'what does it all mean?' debate usually reserved for Christopher Nolan flicks, but that's just the type of trickery that's at play here in Certified Copy. Feature Film rookie William Shimell stars as a writer promoting his new book in Tuscany. There he meets an antique store owner named Elle (Juliette Binoche), and the two share a single afternoon that might mean a whole lot more, or a whole lot less than meets the eye, depending on your perception. The central ambiguity of the relationship between the two works for a number of reasons, from savvy direction, to careful screenwriting, but owes most of its success to the lead performers on hand. No one, and I mean no one, would guess Shimell as a novice on this evidence, his purring voice a perfect fit for the silver screen. Binoche is even better, her expressive face, beautifully captured by cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, registering emotions both big and small with heartbreaking aplomb. What exactly these two mean to one another will likely always remain a mystery, but their conversations about love, family, art, and responsibility ensure that there's a whole lot more here than a simple mystery to solve.
This year's all-but-guarenteed Best Picture winner came out of nowhere, adhering to what could have easily been an insufferably stuffy or cloying rhetoric, and finding something special inside. Yes, The Artist is a (mostly) silent film, shot in Black and White, and presented in that boxy, old-school aspect ratio that only takes up about two thirds of a modern day screen, but viewing it as a simple recreation of past glories would be a mistake. Jean Dujardin stars as George Valentin, a mega-star of the silent film era who watches his career fall apart at the dawn of talkies, just as his sprightly protégé (Bérénice Bejo) sees her star soar. But The Artist isn't really about the story that's being presented on screen. Instead of replicating its father-films down to the tee, Writer/Director Michel Hazanavicius discovers surprising ways to take you on a tour through the history of the silver screen, all blown up with glamour and melodramatic romance. It's a love letter to movies, and not just silent ones, but the art of film itself, how it's changed over the years, and where it may yet be heading.
It's been a big year for Michael Fassbender, almost coming out of nowhere here in the states to play towering idols from the worlds of Philosophy (Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method), Literature (Rochester in Jane Eyre) and Pop Culture (Magneto in X-Men: First Class). With Shame, he adds to his incredible 2011 resume what I personally have settled on as the performance of the year. He plays Brandon, an eligible bachelor on the New York scene with one big problem: He's hopelessly addicted to sex, and seeks increasingly dangerous outlets for his habit by the day. Steve McQueen, who's previous movie, Hunger, also starred a riveting Fassbender, has a true knack for finding beauty in the darkest of places. He portrays Brandon as an animal, a victim, and a human on alternating occasions, an array that would have likely sunk the movie in the hands of a less talented actor. Throw in Carey Mulligan's stunningly raw turn as Brandon's equally lost little sister, and you've got a pair of the year's best performances, telling one of 2011's most unique, unforgettable stories.
The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)
Twist endings have, by and large, lost their edge over the recent years. An occasional one, such as last year's Inception, still breaks through, but for the most part, all post-Sixth Sense American releases are subject to far too much attention and internet discussion to keep their secrets safe. But foreign films with a gotcha? Largely in the clear, which is why The Skin I Live In represents only one of three imported entries in my top 20 to feature an absolutely mind-blowing turn of events. Dr. Robert (Antonio Banderas) could only rightfully be described as a mad scientist, a man with the ambition to design a new type of skin, far more durable than that flimsy stuff that we're wearing now. He lives in an isolated estate, and keeps a beautiful guinea pig named Vera (Elena Anaya) to experiment on. If that all sounds a bit strange, brother, you don't know the half of it. Stylish and sexy, the film plays along somewhat nicely through about an hour, at which point all things hidden in plain sight are finally revealed, and I was left with my head in my hands. As always with Spanish master Pedro Almodóvar, Skin serves as a discourse on themes such as identity and gender, and you'll leave with plenty to talk about in those terms, but it's the bait and switch here that really left me reeling, the film lingering in my mind for weeks thereafter.
A proud finalist for 2011's 'Rip-My-Heart-Out-And-Stomp-On-It,' award, Poetry probably isn't the best movie to watch while in a fragile state, but those with the bravery to face its sadness will be handsomely rewarded. Jeong-hie Yun, a former star of Korean cinema who ended almost 20 years of retirement to act in the film, stars as Mija, an optimistic grandmother who decides to enroll in a poetry class right as her life begins to fall apart at the seams. Director Chang-dong Lee trades in a distinct brand of minimalism, where images gain beauty, meaning, and power from the simplicity and duration of their presentation. His script keeps the viewer guessing up until the very end without ever once slipping into contrivance. I wish I could discuss it more at length, but to give away the nature of Mija's trials would be to spoil the heart of the film. Suffice to say, she takes them on with bravery and humility, and Yun, who's face can alternate between blindingly bright, to dead behind the eyes, brings her to life with one of the finest performances of the year.
The Double Hour (La doppia ora)
Perhaps more so than any other 2011 release, it's nearly impossible to say anything about The Double Hour without completely spoiling it. As the film opens, a strong, silent type named Guido (Filippo Timi) meets a woman (Kseniya Rappoport) at a speed dating event, and the two fall for each other immediately. That is, until... damn it, this is hard. I'll put it this way; You might think you know what's going on in this movie for a good fifteen minutes, but after that, solid footing is literally impossible to come by. First time Director Giuseppe Capotondi has an incredible ability to show you just as much as you need to know at a given time, and nothing more, his film keeping you in a delicious state of disorientation from start to finish. Timi and Rappoport are heroic in the leads, their subtle communications full of meaning, the film twisting and writhing under their longing eyes. This one might prove difficult to find: The Italian import hit screens in other parts of the globe way back in 2009, and Netflix doesn't even have it available by DVD. Best of luck to you, because if you can locate a copy of this unrelenting, mysterious thriller, you're in for quite a treat.
Many a film has been build out of the simple premise, 'Girls Suck,' but I doubt any of them were quite like Bellflower. The movie is the definition of a passion project, Star Evan Glodell also serving as Director, Writer, Co-Producer, Co-Editor and... wait for it... creator of the singular camera manufactured to give the film its distinct washed-out, nostalgic feel. He plays Woodrow, a twenty-something California kid who spends his free time building Mad Max-style flamethrowers with his best friend Aiden (Tyler Dawson). Into this gleefully juvenile and carefree existence enters (what else?) a woman (Jessie Wiseman), throwing Woodrow into delusionary bouts of Love, Madness, Passion, and Rage. I can't help but worry about how Glodell's film might negatively effect his chances with women in the future, but there's no doubt that his debut feature certifies him as one to watch. Bellflower represents the emergence of a strong, exciting young voice in American cinema, one who isn't afraid to follow his muse wherever it takes him, even if it's headed to some awfully dark places. A break-up movie like nothing you've ever seen before.
The Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Raise your hand if you expected this movie to be among the best of 2011. That's what I thought. As far as mega-budget, thoroughly-advertized Blockbusters are concerned, this one arrived as under-the-radar as they come, revisiting, for the Sixth time (That's right, there are Seven (?!??!) Planet of the Apes movies), what was already a goofy concept for a movie upon its initial arrival in 1968. What is it exactly that makes this movie not only passable, but the very best Blockbuster of the Summer? A variety of things. Director Rupert Wyatt has a sleek, ultra-clean aesthetic that perfectly befits the quiet before a coming apocalypse, and he's nervy enough to take Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver's terrific script just as seriously as it deserves. The film is also ultra savvy in selecting its protagonist, the largely unspeaking chimp known as Caesar, brilliantly portrayed through motion-capture technology by Andy Serkis. Watching Caesar discover the world step by step, its beauties, functions, and injustices, is an unapologetically Shakespearian experience, his rise to power utterly captivating. When he finally leads his kind into battle, there's little question who you'll be rooting for... it's the CGI Monkey who, just a mere two hours ago, you thought was too goofy to carry a narrative.
A warning to the weak of heart: Incendies will not coddle you, not even for a moment. The war-crime-drenched potboiler is set in motion when Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) are read the will of their recently deceased mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal). Her last wish is that the two deliver a pair of sealed envelopes, one addressed to their deceased father, the other to a brother who doesn't exist. Simon sees this as a sign of their mother's disintegrating mental state, but Jeanne takes it as a call to action, traveling to an unspecified Middle East local, and digging up a family history shrouded in secrecy and horror. The fact that Incendies is adapted from a play named Scorched is no coincidence: The film absolutely rages with heat, radiating it as we witness jaw-dropping atrocities, all filmed with surreal saturation by camera wiz André Turpin. It's a film full of meaning, but unlike many movies that fit such a description, it also works as pure, engaging, captivating storytelling. The central mystery keeps you guessing until the end, and when it finally revealed itself, I felt like the wind had just been knocked out of me. Incendies was actually nominated for Best Foreign Feature at the Oscars last year, but us poor Portlanders didn't get a peak until mid-April. 2010 or 2011, who cares? This is a stirring, towering piece of cinema, and I wasn't about to let it go unrecognized.
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
How many movies from 2011 made you laugh until you doubled over? How many made you feel something in your gut so strong that you thought you might cry? How many made you really pour over the events in your life, and re-evaluate things? The honest answer for me, after having seen 115 narrative features over the course of 2011 is, actually, kind of a lot. A plethora of films tried to coax big, dramatic emotions out of me, and a variety of them succeeded. There was, however, only one movie that served to remind me that, yes, I too can get that testosterone rush at the hands of an action movie, can be coerced into gripping my armrests with sweaty palms, can be made to feel like a kid again in the face of pure and true movie magic. It's name, should you choose to accept it, is Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Plot here is irrelevant, and, truth be told, so are such stand-bys of good filmmaking as character development, narrative cohesion, and simple logic, but it their place is something that left me with my mouth agape for north of two hours. Pixar genius Brad Bird, here making his live action feature debut, perfectly translates his unteachable knack for kinetic motion to tangible set pieces. The way that he and patron saint of cinematography Robert Elswit construct these sequences is, in truth, beautiful art at a very, very high level, replacing cold, sterile CGI mania with something positively majestic in its orchestration. At least nine of this year's top ten action sequences are contained within this one movie, Bird and company absolutely mopping the floor with every other 2011 feature that dared to call itself a blockbuster spectacle. I could go on and on about how exciting and fun this flick is, but I'll leave it like this: Mission: Impossible took a genre I honestly didn't know that I even liked anymore, one that was on life support, and filled with with surging, palpable electricity. I can't wait to see what Bird does next.
For a movie with such buzzy ingredients (Disaster Epidemic! Directed by Soderberg! Starring Everyone!), Contagion didn't exactly catch on (pun intended), and while the reasons are a bit disheartening, they're certainly understandable. The trailers seemed to promise an epic end-of-days type scenario, filled with motion and suspense, harkening back to the likes of 28 Days Later, or I Am Legend. What's going on here, however, is much smaller, more subtle, and, to my mind, much more terrifying. When an unknown fatal illness starts to take the lives of people across the globe, the world scrambles to prevent/inadvertently cause a complete societal meltdown, from the CDC Director (Laurence Fishburne), to a muck-raking blogger (Jude Law), to a newly single father (Matt Damon). Where those aforementioned films were about a break-out of some sort, Contagion is about how people would react to such an occurrence, and how simple human weakness could be far more damaging than any wide-reaching virus. Steven Soderberg, here directing his millionth movie since announcing his imminent retirement, weaves through time and space with a virtuoso's touch, navigating north of 20 named characters, managing to prevent any of them from feeling shoehorned in. It's slick filmmaking, captured in a lovely golden pallet, edited to swift-moving perfection, but Contagion is about much more than technical expertise. It's a horror film without a jump scare to its name, one that holds up a mirror to the world as it rests today, explaining, examining, and expanding upon just how quickly and easily it could all come crumbling down. Almost more essay than movie, but one of the most fascinating essays I've stumbled upon in quite some time.
Bridesmaids was, without question, the unexpected break-out movie of the Summer. It now stands as Producer Judd Apatow's highest grossing feature ever, surpassing the likes of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad, and it even managed to nab two Oscar nominations, both in major categories (Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Screenplay). And, oh yeah, it stars almost exclusively women. Much has been made out of what Bridesmaids means for ladies in the world of comedy, wether they can handle raunchy humor the way men can, and how progressive a movie can really be when (spoiler alert) the girl still waltzes off with a cute, sweet, understanding guy at the end. To all of that, I ask this one, simple question: What was the last comedy that you saw with an essentially all female cast that was funny... like, at all? My personal answer is Mean Girls, a movie that hit the screen a whole seven years earlier. That's way, way, way too long of a drought, seeing as women do, in truth, have much different comic sensibilities than men, and the fact that Hollywood has left that differential almost completely untaped is frankly embarrassing. Of course, none of this would matter if the story of Annie's (Kristen Wiig) repeated failures as a Maid of Honor weren't so gut-bustingly funny, so honest in its senses of jealousy, insecurity, and spite. It's a comedy that prioritizes characters over set-ups, prefers awkward scenes painted in painful familiarity to mawkish ones, and boasts of a star-is-born performance by Wiig, who can be hilarious, nasty, sexy, and self-depreciating, all within a span of seconds. Bridesmaids became a big deal because it featured women trying to be funny; Bridesmaids remains a big deal because it features women who made us laugh until it hurt.
***Available via Netflix Instant Watch as of the writing of this Article
Hype Starts Here's Top 40 Movies of 2011:
Coming Oscar Week:
The Second Annual Elwyns (If Hype Starts Here was in charge of the Oscars)
Final Oscar Predictions (Coming 2-24-2012)
Oscar Recap (Coming 2-27-2012)
A Few Notes: All highlighted titles contain links to full reviews, or earlier mentions on the site. Also, no Documentaries were considered for this list, as I view them as a completely different art form altogether, and thereby impossible to adequately compare to narrative features.