If there's any sort of unifying theme between much of my Top 10 this year, it's the notion of taking something familiar, and twisting it into your own. On the surface, Terri is pretty simple to peg down. It's a High School movie, seen through the lens of Mumble Core, all pasted together on a shoe-string budget. At its core, however, the film is much savvier, much more observant than all of that, almost playing out as a sort of Anti-John Hughes flick, reinforcing the social rules of high school rather than tearing them down, asking its protagonist to travel a different road to enlightenment. Jacob Wysocki, in his feature acting debut, stars as the titular teen, a grossly overweight misfit who has resigned to wearing pajamas to school every day. Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), the school's social stress-inducing Assistant Principal, places himself in a sort of guardian angel role with the youth, a relationship that proves heartening and strained in equal parts.
If Terri weren't such a defiant little movie, a number of things would line up and fall into place. His relationship with Fitzgerald would be a lot more easy-going, and would evolve into some sort of deep-seeded bond. Terri's home life would likely improve, and the way-too-cute girl that he falls for at school (Olivia Crocicchia) would be replaced by an appropriately less-attractive mate by the end credits. But Director Azazel Jacobs isn't one to take the easy way out. He instead fills his movie with deft observations, symbolism, and hard lessons. The comedy in it is so underplayed that many of its jokes took me until the next day to laugh, but the humor is stinging, and always true. Wysocki has an unnerving nobility about him, and Reilly, who's characters often come from a place of lonely desperation, adds another name to his growing collection of captivating misfits. Terri is more social commentary than High School pick-me-up-er, but its perceptive eye catches things that have always been hiding within that genre, just waiting for someone to unearth them.
After two period pieces, and a based-on-a-true-story tale of a failed violinist, it was easy to think that Director Joe Wright might always be the type to prefer somewhat stuffy material. The man has had a knack for handsome visuals from the start, but the kind of energy and movement that's needed to pull off an action movie is completely absent from his first three films. Hanna sees him break loose from those shackles, crafting his own entry into the vast, ever-growing canon of, 'Super-Spy gone rogue,' movies, pulsating with the sort of Euro/Electro energy that sets Run, Lola, Run apart from the Bourne movies. The wronged assassin? A pale-white Cherub of a young teen named Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), who lives in a vast frozen tundra, with only her father (Eric Bana) for company. The two train together with merciless intensity, all with sights set on the day that Hanna will finally meet a mysterious government agent named Marisa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett).
Hanna's hunt leads her across the world, from grey, anonymous government buildings, to searing, orange deserts, to abandoned theme parks overgrown with lush, eye-popping green. Cinematographer Alwin Küchler paints it all in bold, striking colors, and when he isn't gazing off into some beautiful distance, he's capturing some of the best action sequences of the year, many rendered in glorious long takes. It's a very distinct brand of movie, done ridiculously well, but what really sets Wright's movie apart is the way that it melds this aforementioned framework to Fairy Tale mythology and imagery. Hanna discovers the world around her step by step, the same way that Ariel, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and just about every other princess of lore was thrown out of a life of ignorant solitude, right into the center of a narrative. The coming-of-age story that unfolds, the manner in which she creates a character for herself as the movie goes along, is compelling to witness, and makes the moments where she goes back to cracking skulls that much more exciting. Hanna is action done right, bringing the mayhem and style, without skimping on the characters and drama.
8. Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen's name has always operated as a sort of synonym for cynicism. His more morose side has now been the prominent feature of a bundle of his films, a heavy concentration of them released in the recent years, and even his comedies always come from a place of lingering insecurity, and self-doubt. And while Gil Pender, the Allen stand-in played by Owen Wilson who serves as protagonist in Midnight in Paris, may largely share this nihilistic out-look, there's no doubt that he stands at the center of one of the warmest, funniest, and most charming movies of 2011. A Hollywood hack on a getaway to Paris with his bride-to-be, Pender revels in the graces and beauties of the city, lamenting that he couldn't have lived there during the Roaring 20's, until a strange and magical occurrence offers him a peak into the era of his dreams.
Midnight in Paris is a film constructed with the primary goal to delight, and it does this almost every waking second. Allen has always been obsessed with capturing the essence of whichever city his film is located, and his Paris positively drips with beauty and nostalgia, all the buildings and streets in ravishing gold, the gorgeous faces of his actors all lit-up and stunning. It's also consistently funny, running the gambit of standard Allen topics, from high art, to intellectual snobbery, to crippling fear of death. These aren't usually laughing matters, but that hasn't stopped Allen in the past, and it certainly doesn't stop him here. Midnight in Paris is a romantic indulgence, like a box full of smooth, dark chocolate, but it also comes packaged with a small but personal little moral at the end, about living your life to the fullest, and not letting the lust for years past get in your way. I smiled until my mouth hurt.
From one of the most jovial, delicious movies of the year, to one that wants nothing more than to see you writhe in agony... give it up for Melancholia! No need to avoid the truth; The latest from Insane Dane Lars Von Trier is a pretty damn bitter pill to swallow, but it's harrowing out-look proves miraculously empathetic and insightful. When we meet her, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is getting married, giggling with the groom in the back of a gaudy stretch Limo. All her friends and family are there, all putting on shows of good faith until the fissures within the group start to reveal themselves, sending Depression-riddled Justine into a dire state. This tumultuous night takes up the entire first half of the film, and when it's finally over, a new, decidedly more daunting problem arises; A previously undiscovered planet named Melancholia is declared to be on a crash course for the Earth, threatening destruction for all.
While these two disparate halves might sound too distinct to properly mesh together, Von Trier uses them in perfect harmony with one another, each reflecting upon and revealing hidden treasures within the other. This thematic duality is also taken up by camera man Manuel Alberto Claro, who alternates between the sweeping, glorious slow-motion that is featured so hauntingly in the film's unforgettable opening, to the sort of jumpy, hand-held style mastered by Von Trier in his Dogma days. The Writer/Director has made his struggles with depression no secret over the years, and while many of his film's seem to grapple with his sense of unending devastation, Melancholia is his movie that finally makes us understand, thanks in no small part to Kirsten Dunst's mesmerizing performance. Her isolation from the world around her is palpable, and when end times appear to be on the way, her steady defiance dominates the screen with the power of certitude. Melancholia is unlike any apocalypse movie you'll ever see, taking you inside the mindset of depression, revealing just where it comes from, why it stays, and, miraculously, how it feels. When it's characters declare that the end is nigh, you'll believe them.
6. Young Adult
There are a million movies out there with stories just like Young Adult, where a beautiful but terrible woman is unleashed on a world of primarily good people. The template was even used earlier in 2011 with Bad Teacher, some of its stock characters appearing again in Bridesmaids, What's Your Number?, and Larry Crowne. Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is just such an anti-heroine, a ghost writer of Young Adult fiction who's life consists of late nights, and painful hangovers. Gary's booze-soaked existence is given a jolt one day when she learns that her high school sweetheart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), has just fathered a baby boy. Fueled by distorted romantic memories of their past together, Gary sets out from Minneapolis to return to her hometown of Mercury MN, to take back the heart that rightfully belongs to her.
Familiar trappings, yes, but the ways in which Director Jason Reitman and Screenwriter Diablo Cody flip every last element on its head is a rush to watch. Mavis may be a terrible person, but she's a perfect conduit for the social climber in all of us, unable to properly see herself outside of favorable comparisons to others, only truly letting her guard down while alone, or surrounded by who she sees as lesser beings. The film's depictions of desperation, alcoholism, and impenetrable vanity all sting with the unrelenting clarity of truth, and the performances of Theron and Patton Oswalt bring them all the way home. Somehow, the movie also registers on the comedy scale, the joyful kick of being bad slathered on every frame, many of the film's societal critics played out in perfectly cringe-inducing scenes of social discomfort. That whole linage of movies that I listed in the first paragraph all has one thing in common; All of their narratives served the purpose of teaching an unruly woman how to behave. Young Adult has no interest in such corny and regressive notions: It holds up the most twisted, ugly mirror that suburban American culture has seen on screen for years, discussing how people are ranked, filed, and judged, daring you to disagree. As they say: No guts, no glory.
5. Attack the Block
The Alien Invasion Epic. The Stoner Comedy. The Blaxploitation Action Flick. The B-Movie. Attack the Block takes its cinematic cues from a variety of hyper-specific genre classifications, but there's one distinction that proves more important than the rest: It's the most pure, unadulterated fun that I had at the movies in all of 2011, twice over. The film follows a band of five South London teen hood rats on a wild night that starts with the simple snatching of a purse, before elevating into all-out extra-terrestrial invasion. Determined to defend their housing unit (known as, 'The Block'), the gang scrounges up whatever make-shift weaponry they can find, and heads in to battle.
While Attack the Block makes no quips about the inherent silliness of its story, first time Writer/Director Joe Cornish plays his movie with a much straighter face than, say, Edgar Wright's parodies like Shaun of the Dead, or Hot Fuzz. Where those film's used a wink-wink, nudge-nudge mentality to playfully take you out of the movie from time to time, Attack is more self-contained, and its action sequences are much, much better for it. The five unknowns that serve as the movie's leads deserve a place in Rag-Tag Movie Gang lore, their dialogue both free-flowing, and side-splitting, their sense of chemistry and shared history mind-bogglingly natural. Attack the Block is a tight hour and a half long, and there's not a single frame in the thing that doesn't rock. The monster moments make your pulse pound, the visual and audio bad-ass-ery is almost too cool to believe, and the funny bits will send Coke shooting out your nose. It's cinematic nirvana, silly, foolhardy bliss for 90 straight minutes.
It's a marvel to me that some people can stay motivated. Martin Scorsese, viewed by just about everyone as one of the very greatest living directors, has nothing to prove to anyone, having lit up the screen time and time again over his long, storied career, and yet Hugo sees him absolutely swinging for the fence. The child of the film's title, played by wise youngster Asa Butterfield, is an orphan living alone in a 1930's Parisian train station, manning the clocks all by his lonesome. This isolated existence meets its end when an item of great importance (a book filled with mysterious drawings and instructions) is commandeered by a Toy Store-running grump (Ben Kingsley), sending Hugo on an unpredictable adventure to get it back.
No one asked Scorsese to reinvent himself for a family audience, but the maestro did it anyways, and the results are staggering. The man best known for gritty gangster movies is a magician when it comes to conjuring up a feeling of child-like wonder, and his use of 3-D, all immersive and tactile, is the most impressive that the medium has seen since its sudden late 2000's resurgence, Avatar notwithstanding. This might sound like a gimmick, and, in truth, 3-D always is, but when the film reveals itself as an homage to Georges Méliès, the father of all cinematic trickery, it all starts to make sense. Movie magic is movie magic, and each generation makes their own, wether it be Méliès' giant props and signature editing style, or Scorsese's spell-binding rendition of olden-times Paris, all ticked-out with CGI wizardry and exhilarating, rushing tracking shots. On the surface, Hugo is a lovely story of a lost boy who comes to find a purpose, but it's also more than that. It operates as a sort of fantasy biography for Scorsese, every fleeting moment expressing the man's deep, unwavering, life-long love for the medium. The whole thing is nothing short of enchanting.
Many of 2011's best movies were among its most personal, Hugo, Melancholia, and my Number One pick among them, but only Beginners featured the particular kind of bravery that its takes to translate literal chapters of your life up onto the big screen. Writer/Director Mike Mills, in only his second movie since his promising but flawed debut Thumbsucker, has crafted a film that is at once cutesy, romantic, and impossibly sincere. Ewan McGregor stars as Mills stand-in Oliver, a pessimistic graphic artist who's life has been upended over the past few months. In the present tense, he's seeing a beautiful, non-committal actress named Anna (Mélanie Laurent), but his hopes and reservations about their relationship have more to do with his recent history, as revealed to us via flashback. Following the death of his mother, Oliver's mid-70's father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), announces that he's gay, and will be living an openly homosexual life for the rest of his days. This span of time is soon cut short by cancer, but the way that Hal positively blooms into a brighter, happier soul in his last days places Oliver's life of fear in a completely different context.
Mills, who had the very same experience with his father a few short years before the release of the film, adds little dashes of endearing surrealism through-out the film, such as a dog that speaks through subtitles, and a meet-cute for the ages between McGregor and Laurent. None of these potentially artificial moments would play so well if it weren't for the film's steadfast commitment to real emotion, the father-son relationship nestled right at the center of its enormous heart. Beginners is a beautiful movie, from the gorgeous original music, to the rosy lensing by Kasper Tuxen, to the small bits of conversation that are played to perfection. It's a film about acceptance, love, commitment, and bravery in the face of the unknown, and it feels like the warm embrace of a long-time friend.
2. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Sean Durkin. Whatever you do, don't forget that name, because it's going to be up in lights some day. Martha Marcy May Marlene represents a lot of things, but first and foremost, it is the bold, blaring announcement of a brand new voice in American cinema. Durkin makes his feature debut as a fully-formed entity, displaying a mastery over all things technical, delivering his story, from the screenplay he wrote, with the steady-hand of an aging veteran. The woman to whom the title refers to, or all three, rather, is played by Elizabeth Olsen, a girl in her early twenties who suddenly reappears into the life of her yuppie older sister (Sarah Paulson), refusing to explain her multi-year absence. Though Martha keeps these secrets from her sibling, we watch as she flashes back to her life on what appears to be a Manson-style commune, lead by the charismatic, devilish Patrick (John Hawkes).
Durkin gets it all right. The performance that he prompts from Olsen is top shelf stuff, and he surrounds her with a strong supporting cast, ever pulling her in opposite directions. The film's score and soundtrack ratchet up tension to positively cruel degrees, all as cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes films the proceedings in an almost hypnotic manner, long takes, curious angles, and distinctive filters glueing your eyes to the screen, making it impossible to look away. The central juxtaposition, between the fundamental hiccups of both cult and privileged lives, is uncannily noted, but what really sticks with you about Martha Marcy May Marlene is the sheer brute force of its foreboding atmosphere. Durkin turns the screws as if he's done it a thousand times before, and if a more impressive directorial debut has come out in the last five years, I've yet to see it. I'm still catching my breath from this one.
And Hype Starts Here's Number One Movie of 2011 is...
1. The Tree of Life
Love it or hate it, you've never seen anything quite like The Tree of Life. It's a movie that takes all norms of convention and rhetoric, be they cinematic, narrative, or otherwise, and throws them in the trash can. Some, like me, will praise it until the day they die for its endless ambition, and commitment to being true to what it wants to be. Others will look back on it as an insufferable test of patience, taste, and logic. I've had the pleasure of seeing the film a number of times now, and one of the many things that makes it such a bewitching experience is how easily I can understand the way that my treasure could be another person's trash. It's an undeniably pretentious movie, possibly the first one I've ever seen that could be described as being about everything, the polarizing strength of its constantly strong decisions forcing each viewer to make of it what they will. It was the most audacious, must-talk-about movie of 2011, the most singular entry into the annual canon, proving so challenging to both the expectations and iterations of art itself that even if I didn't think it was the best of the year (and I do), its standing as 'The Movie of the Year,' is pretty hard to deny.
So, what is The Tree of Life about, you ask? Well, it's about a young boy (Hunter McCracken) growing up in an Eden-like Waco, TX in the mid-50's, struggling to reconcile the tough-love shown to him by his father (Brad Pitt) with the doting, permissive parenting of his mother (Jessica Chastain). But it's also about the present-day schism between technology and natural wonder, as well as the creation of the universe, and how its sentient inhabitance came to choose between the diverging paths of Nature and Grace. Yes, some heavy stuff, made even more so by the non-linear presentation afforded it by Writer/Director Terrence Malick. The reclusive story-teller, who famously won't discuss his movies, knows that themes as eternal and etherial as the ones he's exploring here can't be communicated through simple plot mechanics. Instead, he weaves the picture together in a fashion that replicates the movements of the human mind, running through snippets of memory, lingering on particular moments, zooming in and out of space and eons of time to arrive at a sort of internal peace and understanding. It's a beautiful movie, propped up by brilliant performances, absorbing camera work, and rushes of emotion that come from deep down in your chest. The Tree of Life might not be the perfect movie, but it possesses the grace, oddity, mystery, and expansiveness of the universe itself, and if you can open yourself up to it, you might just be able to see the world change around you.
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