Film Break: This Year’s Favorites

I have seen fewer movies this year than in any previous year that I can remember. It’s not that I’ve lost interest in film, just that life and work have gotten in the way—plus, in my ever-evolving perception of what this blog is, I’ve tried to put even greater effort into writing thoughtfully and thoroughly about great new records. How shallow has my moviegoing experience been in 2011? Enough that, while many of my colleagues are likely preparing their best-of-the-year lists, I’m not even sure that I’ll be doing one this year, at least not any time soon.

But of course, I can’t resist the urge to write about a few of the pictures that have stuck with me this year. You can consider this a sort of embryonic top ten list if you like; me, I’m just viewing it as a catch-up.

There are two films from 2011 that I’d call my far-and-away favorites, and they couldn’t be more different from one another. If pressed to pick my absolute favorite, right now, I see no choice but to give it to Gore Verbinski’s Rango, the strangest and least kid-friendly kids’ movie I’ve seen in ages. From the opening sequence—ten minutes of existential paranoia, set in an aquarium—through the appearances of a hellbent rattlesnake and a spectral Clint Eastwood, it’s clear that this movie is a slave to its own stoner vision, uncompromising in its demented imagination, and what we get is a brilliantly unbroken stream of cinema philosophizing, movie in-jokes, gross-out gags, brilliant colors flashed against a backdrop of chilling darkness—and, a Johnny Depp voiceover that impresses with how little it sounds like any other character he’s played. Truth be told, I haven’t had this much fun at the movies in years.

I would not, meanwhile, say that I had “fun” at the brilliant and much-talked about Tree of Life, but I did leave two separate viewings of it with tears of joy streaked across my cheeks (metaphorically, anyway). It’s a much more ambitious and less seamless movie than Malick’s The New World, and as a result it strikes me as an even more engrossing and interesting movie. I know the Big Bang/creation/dinosaur scenes are the ones that people talk about, and they are, indeed, the scenes that make this such an explosive piece of cinema, but the heart of the movie, for me, is when it settles into the 1950’s. It’s a movie about grace, about fathers and sons, about mothers and sons, about coping with tragedy, about enduring life’s hardships, about the American dream, about original sin and innocence lost—it is a film, I think, in which we see a lot of the stuff of life. Certainly I see a lot of my life in it, and because of that, the Hubble shots and special effects are just icing on the cake.

And speaking of seeing myself—not, I should admit, in a positive light—I was deeply engrossed with Jeff Nichols’ film Take Shelter, perhaps the best actor’s showcase I’ve yet seen this year, but, more importantly, a great film about what I took at first to be a particularly modern and particularly male form of anxiety. I’ve since read some female perspectives and the movie’s resonance seems universal. Whatever the case, this is one of those truly unsettling horror stories—like There Will Be Blood—where the chills come because of how easily one sees oneself in the main character. Certainly, I can relate to having a sense of gratitude, at one’s home and family and career, that becomes so great it spills over into unease and dread at the prospect of losing those things. I am happy to report that I’ve not yet gotten to the point of building a storm shelter, however. At any rate: The movie is a masterful slow-burn, and Michael Shannon’s explosion in one pivotal scene is surely the most intense and devastating moment I’ve witnessed on the big screen this year.

A couple of other movies entertained and provoked in ways I never dreamed they might. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris has been rightly been heralded as his best in years, but it isn’t only great because of an efficient script and some well-drawn characters, but because of the way it both embraced and critiques a sort of romantic/nostalgic vision of art, and of Woody’s own career. I was moved by it and held in thrall by its sweet spirit. Meanwhile, Errol Morris proved once again, with his fine Tabloid, that a documentary does not have to be didactic or academic or stuffy in the least; this one, in particular, is sexy and scandalous, utterly bizarre and wildly entertaining.

I have already written about my fondness for The Ides of March, and remain impressed by Clooney’s willingness to go so cynical (and tell so much truth in the process, I think).

I’ll mention one more—not a movie destined to become an all-time personal favorite, I don’t think, but certainly one that impressed me a great deal more than expected. I am not particularly interested in superhero movies these days, but Captain America: The First Avenger was a real barnburner, a great time at the movies that struck me as being less similar to modern-day comic book movies and more akin to old-fashioned adventure yarns. I had no idea, going into it, that it was directed by a fellow who worked on Raiders of the Lost Ark, but of course, it all makes perfect sense.

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