Sunday, January 22, 2012

Best of 2011

(Updated 1/22/12)

Was the year so bad? It had its moments. Film availability was so erratic you never knew what would be suddenly available, or what needed a wait of weeks or months. Foreign and Filipino films continued to be hard to obtain and slow in coming, and for the first time I found myself going online regularly to watch what I needed to see. Frustrating and fascinating, sometimes both at the same time; at least a few heroes (O'Hara, Hellman, Carpenter) managed to work. 

Some 2010 titles I include because most people saw them much later, usually on DVD (and they deserve to be seen).

Some interesting runner-ups (in alphabetical order):

The Adventures of Tintin - Steven Spielberg's gaudy Christmas ornament of a picture, a breathlessly paced action-adventure that can barely afford the time to pause and regard itself, much less generate human interest. Easily one of Spielberg's most kinetically complex works, if not exactly his most involving. 

Anatomiya ng Korupsyon (Anatomy of Corruption) - Dennis Marasigan's beautifully understated adaptation of Malou Jacob's play captures the atmosphere and dynamics of a Filipino white-collar workplace better than any filmmaker I can think of since Ishmael Bernal (Working Girls, 1984), down to the secretary operating a cigarettes-and-candy store literally under the table. In Maricar Reyes' fresh new lawyer we see the near-fanatic idealism of the truly innocent, the strength that allows them to defy pressure for so long, that makes their eventual descent such  compelling drama. With Sid Lucero, terrific as Reyes' kindly, reasonable, fully implicated immediate superior.

Animal Kingdom - Would be a disservice to call David Michod's gangster picture an Outback The Godfather; it's more interesting than that, a crime noir with a strong sense of place and family dynamics, a bleak spirit appropriate to the bleak desert setting.

Cars 2 - Now this is more Pixar's speed: action and comedy served up with few pretenses (leave 'heart' to people who actually know something about it like, say, Studio Ghibli). Larry the Cable Guy is inoffensive as the voice of the movie's putative hero; Michael Caine steals the show playing an Aston Martin too cool to be a fool. My vote for Pixar's best feature to date--which isn't saying much, but there you are.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money - Alex Gibney's documentary doesn't have interviews of the man  to work on, and Gibney himself isn't enough like Michael Moore to give the picture the larger-than-life clown protagonist it needs to laugh with (or at), but the eponymous subject (superlobbyist Jack Abramoff) is so compellingly bizarre you keep watching anyway.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams - As beautiful a documentary as anything Herzog has done, with the cave's contours (and Herzog's gliding handheld lamps) bringing the thirty thousand year old artworks back to eerie, startling life. Did not see the 3D version, unfortunately, which is said to go a long way towards justifying the use of the gimmick.

Contagion - Outbreak for the intelligent. Steven Soderbergh directs his always smart sensibility at the disaster movie and produces (with help from experts) the most persuasive and scientifically accurate depiction of a deadly plague--and a government's reasonably swift response to it--yet made (we're talking best-case scenario here, though). Don't cough while watching with others: the sense of paranoia generated can be catching.

The Debt - No handheld shots; no chop-suey editing. John Madden's thriller, about three Israeli intelligence operatives who capture an infamous Nazi officer--is so old-fashioned it's refreshing. Of course the Nazi steals the show with the slyest, funniest performance in the picture.

The Descendants - Alexander Payne doing a novel by Kaui Hart Hemming. The plot is secondary--something about a man discovering his wife is unfaithful--to the opportunity to know a family, its fairly dysfunctional dynamics, and the weird way they warp and bend to the stresses imposed the novel's plot. Wonderfully performed, subtly told.

Drive - Nicolas Refn's first American feature has an embarrassingly awkward love story written into the heart of it and both Cary Mulligan and Ron Perlman are criminally underused, but Albert Brooks is a hoot as an amiable sociopathic gangster, and Refns in the various chase and action sequences proves himself to be a more skillful filmmaker than Quentin Tarantino (not saying much again, I know).

Exit Through The Gift Shop - Artistic terrorist Banksy's debut film is partially a hoax, not as elaborate as Welles' F is for Fake, but elaborate enough to impress. As a small bonus the film is also a brief survey of the best and most striking contemporary street art, circa 2010. 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Noomi Rapace is sorely missed as the eponymous girl (Rooney Mara is a far softer alternative), but otherwise David Fincher successfully evokes with a visual style all his own the obsessive determination of a pair of sleuths hunting down a serial killer. 

The Green Hornet - Not a big fan of the original show (other than Bruce Lee); not a fan of Seth Rogen's whiny self-centered schtick; not a fan of Michel Gondry's non-Charles Kaufman work--but I am a (somewhat surprised, somewhat reluctant, somewhat stunned) fan of this. A deconstruction of the superhero movie flick that leaves no headstone unturned, no latex underwear unstained.

Hall Pass - Bob and Peter Farelly's take on the need for the overgrown male child to "just grow up and get on with it" isn't quite like Judd Apatow's--and thank God for that. Not their best--that would be the scathingly funny Kingpin--but not bad, for an overgrown male child comedy.

Happy Feet 2 - George Miller's sequel to his epic penguin movie is, like the original, a touch too wholesome. But one senses something visionary about the whole enterprise, and the sight of community action on both a grand and plankton scale is inspiring indeed.

The Illusionist - Sylvain Chomet's realization of Jacques Tati's unproduced script doesn't have the wit or grace or timing of Tati, but it does have the gorgeous colors and Gallic despair of a Chomet animated feature (a lesser thing, true, but not negligible).

Immortals - Tarsem Singh's retelling of Theseus' myth should have been yet another Clash of the Titans ripoff; instead I found a stylish (if severely underwritten) adventure epic ingeniously staged, intensely shot and edited.

J. Edgar - Clint Eastwood's Hoover biopic is a skillfully rendered production, written by Dustin Lance Black (Milk, 2008) as an unacknowledged love story between Hoover and his longtime companion Clyde Tolson. Well done for what it is, but one has to question if Hoover deserves this kind of treatment, or if Eastwood should have put the man's career in a broader, clearer context (in short: one of the most terrorizing, corrupting influences in 20th century American politics).

Meek's Cutoff - Kelly Reichardt's fascinatingly elliptical drama takes a historically true event (a guide named Stephen Meek did lead a group of settlers off of the Oregon Trail, and they did meet a Native American) and turns it into an allegorical / metaphysical drama on the uncertainty of life, the inscrutability of others (or Others).

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol - Brad Bird's first live-action feature is fun, more fun in fact than Steven Spielberg's first foray into animated feature filmmaking (see above). Spielberg is the incomparably more talented filmmaker (his fight and chase sequences are lucid and beautifully staged, while Bird's are a handheld mess), but Bird does seem to possess the funnier, more inventive script (despite Spielberg having Dr. Who head writer Steven Moffat on his side), the funnier, more inventive cast (Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg).

Moneyball - Bennett Miller's true-life drama is easily the best sports movie I've seen in years, mainly because of what it is and what it isn't. It isn't an underdog-team-makes-good story; it isn't a low comedy about players' hi-jinks; it is the story of a statistical tactic that somehow upends all thinking about the game of baseball. Any time smarts trumps sports jocks, I'm so there. 

My Paranormal Romance - Victor Villanueva's supernatural rom-com is a delight, though not effortlessly so. It's the story of a girl who inherits the ability to see dead people and the various men who desire her abilities, her self, her whatever. Too long by about twenty minutes, but it has energy and imagination to spare (perhaps too much so), not to mention evidence of a warmly beating heart.

Never Let Me Go - Mark Romanek's adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel is understated to the point of somnolence--at least that's how some people might take this little drama; for others it's an oblique trip into heartbreak. With excellent performances by Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan.

Rango - Johnny Depp proves to be as nimble verbally as he is physically; the tone, a mix of mildly bizarre humor and American frontier tall-tale telling, is sustained for the length of the picture--not an easy feat. Undoubtedly Gore Verbinski's masterpiece which, yet again, isn't saying much.

Road to Nowhere - Monte Hellman's first feature in twenty years, about a film production doing the story of a fraud and possible double-suicide crime case, is as metaphysically slippery as anything anyone's ever done. The film eventually gathers hypnotic force and drama, but not before leading you through a mirror maze of misleading imagery and narrative ambiguities (Is the lead actress involved in the actual case? Who died and who's still alive? Which scenes are of the movie production and which of the real-life case?).

13 Assassins - Takashi Miike's take on the jidai-geki genre features one of the most baroquely memorable villains this side of Richard Widmark, and a massive climax staged and executed with what-the-fuck flair. Not quite the clarity and complexity of Seven Samurai, but it'll do till something better comes along.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - Tomas Alfredson moves away from vampires towards something far more sinister: espionage agents wading through the murk of '70s geopolitics. The production doesn't have the room to let John le Carre's classic spy thriller breathe properly, and Gary Oldman at best captures an echo of Alec Guinness' definitive interpretation of George Smiley (the master spy brought out of retirement to uncover a mole). But Alfredson does give the picture a beautiful stone-and-iron color palette, and at certain moments achieves the kind of airless silence that goes a long way towards enhancing the film's sense of paranoia.

War Horse - Spielberg again, this time galloping in the opposite direction with the more leisurely told, more emotionally direct story of a horse wandering through the battlefields of World War I. The material is sticky enough without the director trying to whack us over the head with the poignancy of it all; one is moved, but eventually, after a struggle. Think what Carroll Ballard could have done with this.

The Ward - John Carpenter's supposed feature comeback wasn't what everyone hoped for, but it wasn't total garbage either--mostly a master of modern American horror playing the postmodern game his way, with a tiny budget and even less pretensions.

You Don't Know Jack - A hushed look at Jack Kevorkian (a.k.a. Dr. Death, outspoken champion of assisted suicides). The film presents Kevorkian's many facets: the honesty, the stubbornness, even the hubris that eventually brought him down. Easily both Al Pacino and Barry Levinson's best work in years.

Zombadings 1: Patayin sa shokot si Remington (Rough translation: Scare Remington to death) - Director Jade Castro and screenwriter-producer Michiko Yamamoto's horror parody takes its inspiration from Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, and does it one better: instead of Eternal Damnation we're threatened with Eternal Pansification, and it's the film's conceit that This May Not Be an Entirely Bad Thing. Like My Paranormal Romance it suffers from one idea too many, and the narrative line can at times be obscured by the punchline, but personally I prefer this surfeit (of ideas, of gags, of energy) to its opposite...

Plus six titles that I thought were especially fine (in ascending order):

Tree of Life - Easily one of the most ambitious, most breathlessly beautiful films this year, in parts. The creation sequence has sweep and grandeur; the brief dinosaur sequence mystery and an elusive poignancy. The family sequences are intensely felt drama--one suspects Malick brought a lot of his personal life into these scenes. I feel the two halves belong in entirely different films, however; Malick hasn't even halfway bothered to integrate them. Then there's that beach scene, which plays like Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, only without the rueful irony (you suspect Malick for all his talent is missing a few key hues on his palette). Ultimately a failure, but what a failure!

Hugo - To paraphrase what film critic David Ehrenstein said, Mean Streets and Goodfellas was what Scorsese saw around him when he was young; Hugo was what he felt inside. An intricate clockwork of a movie that spins and shudders, chimes and chatters, striking a brassy bell for the cult of cinephilia. Martin Scorsese's film is possibly one of the most exuberant, most charming pictures of the year, and arguably the best use of digital 3D I've seen to date.

Ka Oryang - Sari Lluch Dalena's harrowing work presents in full what Lino Brocka, Mike De Leon, Mario O'Hara could only deal with tangentially in their films: the incarceration, interrogation, and torture of women during the Marcos era. Only Dalena tells the story through her inimitable experimental filmmaker's sensibility, with brief forays into surrealism and the occasional striking image.

Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay - And I thought Hugo was the most spirited, most exuberant, most cinephilic film of the year! Antoinette Jadaone's mockumentary follows veteran character actress Lilia Cuntapay (star of such Filipino horror classics as Aswang (Vampire); Shake, Rattle and Roll Part III; Shake, Rattle and Roll Part IV; Shake, Rattle and Roll Part V, and Pangarap ng Puso (Demons)) as she immerses herself Methodically in her bit parts and polishes endlessly her acceptance speech for the first-ever acting award nomination in her long and varied career. Pathos and hilarity ensue.

Certified Copy - Abbas Kiarostami's latest feature--his first to be shot outside of Iran--is a perfectly mysterious little gem, about a man and a woman wandering through the streets of Tuscany. Are they newly met acquaintances? Long-separated husband and wife? Acquaintances who have suddenly assumed the role of husband and wife? One hurries after them, trying to puzzle both the film and their relationship out while Kiarostami sits back and keeps the entire bewildering affair whirring on the palm of his confident hand. 

Poetry - Lee Chang Dong's film follows a grandmother as she attempts to belatedly learn how to write poetry, and as she attempts to deal with a possible rape conviction for her grandson. Lee's achievement is to make both storylines not just complementary, but compelling; as with the very best poetry, every detail carries more than its own weight in meaning. One of the best films not just of the year, but of several years.

Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother) - My vote for best of the year goes not to a movie but to a TV mini-series; not just any mini-series but a teleserye--a TV soap. Mario O'Hara and Jon Red's take on Philippine politics of the last thirty or so years is by turns hilarious, thrilling, shameless, and sad; in effect, exactly like Philippine politics of the last thirty years. With an understated yet ultimately monumental turn from Nora Aunor, the literal face of Philippine cinema.




Wonderful, brod Noel, especially your vote of confidence for "Sa Ngalan ng Ina" and Ms. Nora Aunor! Bravo!

Noel Vera said...


thinkandimagine said...

I agree in some parts.

I hate Cars 2. It just doesn't suit the first film's "emotion". I definitely love Contagion, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Tree of Life and Never Let Me Go. Best films I've watched last year. :)

Noel Vera said...

See, I don't like Pixar, and I didn't like the first Cars. If Cars 2 is Pixar at its most commercial and atypical, that's prolly why I liked it...


noel, maraming salamat sa patuloy mong pagsuporta at paniniwala.

Jugs said...

I agree with most of the choices but very surprised to see the widely panned Cars 2 and The Green Hornet included in your list. The DVDs remain unwatched at home. Maybe it's about time I gave both a spin.

Noel Vera said...

You know me, sometimes I just don't listen to critics.

Not promising anything--you will probably think I'm crazy. But I've had long held notions on Seth Rogen and Pixar, and I like them because they broke my preconceived notions about em...

Noel Vera said...

Ka Oryang, for example, has had plenty of negative reviews. Fact is, I can't seem to find a single positive one...maybe I'm googling wrong...

Jugs said...

Actually, you have a few more savagely-reviewed films in the list: Immortals, Happy Feet 2 and J. Edgar. Since I have not seen all three and the other two, I'm curious to see what you saw that others didn't. Will definitely check them out.

Noel Vera said...

Heh. Like I said...not really interested in fashion trends...

jayclops said...

Yey! The Debt, The Green Hornet and Never Let Me Go!

Njord said...

"...leave 'heart' to people who actually know something about it like, say, Studio Ghibli."
I can imagine that comment presented with a snort and upturned nose. If that's their best feature, then Earthsea is Ghibli's best. P.S. "Better than Tarantino" also not "saying much"? Really?

Noel Vera said...

I like Earthsea; it's more intelligent than anything Pixar's ever done, and it's gorgeously animated (if dramatically inert). An interesting failure.



Noel Vera said...

Dennis, I can't believe I never thanked you for the kind words!