Monday, January 16, 2012

The Best of 2011 - Part 1 [Runners-Up]

It's been quite the year in movies, and with awards season in full-stride, I figured it was time to officially consider my favorites from last year (because I totally wasn't keeping lists this whole time *cough cough*). Inspired by my friend Patrick's list (visit his blog HERE; he's got one hell of a top 10), I've decided the time has come to do my own, albeit more drawn-out and pretentious, set of favorites from the year in film. This will consist of three parts:

1. The Runners-Up (this post): Just outside of the top 5 or 10
2. The Favorites: AKA my "nominees" were I in charge of my own awards show.
3. The Best: The "winners" (speeches will be limited to 1 minute before the exit music starts).

So, with that set aside, here's a look at the close-but-no-cigar entries in some of the major categories. 2011 has proven to be an exceptionally diverse and strong year for movies, and the more I look back, the more I feel like it would be wrong to ignore the following achievements, even if they didn't quite make it.


Best Picture

Martha Marcy May Marlene
An enigmatic and engrossing thriller bolstered by stellar work from Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson that works on multiple levels. Sean Durkin's debut feature drifts among dream, memory, and reality with an effortless sense of time and place that makes it feel like the work of an old pro. Not only does it stand out in a strong year, but it's also worth a look because it's been so criminally ignored over the course of awards season (really, what was up with that?).

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Though it still bears some of the flaws of Stieg Larrson's lumpy plotting, David Fincher and Steve Zaillian's stab at the icy crime tale is infinitely superior to the Swedish adaptation. Though the movie benefits from better casting and better performances, the real stars are Fincher and his technical collaborators. The director is in his element here, and he brings masterfully meticulous touches to a story that is, ultimately, beneath him. Throw in stellar editing, scoring, and vastly improved writing, and you're left with a film that deserves to become known as the definitive cinematic version of the story.

It may not be heavy on substance, and feature an iffy script, but Joe Wright's teen assassin tale rises above its pedestrian origins on the page thanks to rich and eccentric execution. Featuring effective (albeit somewhat one-dimensional) performances, including a scenery-chewing Cate Blanchett and a cold-as-steel Saoirse Ronan, the film is another case of talented people elevating subpar material. Lush visuals from DP Alwin Kuchler and a thumping electronic score from The Chemical Brothers only add to this strange, fairy-tale influenced gem.

Best Director

Michel Hazanvicius - The Artist

He makes a silent film effortlessly engaging from its opening frames, even in a day and age where it's all about the sound(s). One of the liveliest, most joyful films of the year, and it owes more than a little to his direction.

Asghar Farhadi - A Separation
As much as his film is built on its writing and acting, it could have been a mess were it not for his incredible sense of storytelling. An eye-opening and unpleasant story wonderfully told.

David Fincher - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
It may not live up to some of his other films, but Fincher's take on Larsson's story reaches new highs thanks to his fluid sense of pacing that helps offset the story's uneven sense of structure.

Best Actor/Supporting Actor

Tom Cullen & Chris New - Weekend
One of the year's best acting duos. The entire film rests on their ability to generate some sense of chemistry out of almost nothing, and from their first spoken words, the spark is there.

George Clooney - The Descendants
Proving that he's still better in front of the camera than behind it, Clooney delivers one of his strongest performances to date as a conflicted father struck by tragedy and stunned by secrets.

Peter Mullan - Tyrannosaur
Along with co-star Olivia Colman, he helped elevate Paddy Considine's solid directorial debut above its somewhat pedestrian script. A fierce and committed turn if ever there was one.

Ryan Gosling - Drive
Stoic and distant, yet also mesmerizing and filled with presence. What could have come across as lazy and empty feels worthwhile thanks to his work.

Christoph Waltz - Water for Elephants
The film around him was less than spectacular, to say the least, but Waltz conveys an excellent sense of charm and menace without ever feeling like he's reprising his Inglorious Basterds role.

Best Actress/Supporting Actress

Charlize Theron - Young Adult
Despite a screenplay that doesn't give her enough to work with early on, Theron makes her mark as THE caustic, volatile bitch of the year.

Kristen Dunst & Charlotte Gainsbourg - Melancholia
A second viewing upped my opinion on von Trier's latest considerably, though it still has some issues. The performances, however, remain first rate. Dunst's portrayal of despair and Gainsbourg's depiction of desperation rank among the year's finest.

Jessica Chastain - The Tree of Life
Just one of many strong turns in a dazzling break-out year, her gazes of hope, love, and hurt register beautifully. To quote one blurb online recently, she "did young Liv Ullmann proud."

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