If there was one thing on the mind of movies in 2011, it was nostalgia. The cinema took every chance it could this past year to dive into the past like a Skynet Robot frantically trying to kill a member of the Connor family. There was a silent film, a look at the very invention of cinema itself, a time travel back to 1920s Paris, a greatest hits package of vintage pulp fiction formulas, a love letter to 70s-80s Spielberg hits, and Spielberg himself even paid glorious tribute to a comic book hero of yesteryear. Hell, one film even showed us the very dawn of creation. Hows that for a flashback?
With an America divided against itself, struggling to repair a broken economy and government, it made all the sense in the world that today’s audiences were yearning to revel in the comfort of earlier, golden times. But whats inspiring is that all this time traveling wasn’t just comfort food for comfort’s sake. Each film contained hidden ideals about how all this nostalgia can help us feel hopeful for the future. With 1920s Paris suggesting that no other time is as glorious as right now and a silent movie reminding us that the future can bring about wonderful creations, the past sure got us pumped to face the present.
The ultimate irony is that these giant reaches towards yesterday sure did a lot more to nail what we’re dealing with nowadays than a bunch of pretentious misfires that proclaimed to say profound things about our current state of affairs (i.e. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Shame). So here are ten films that soared above the rest this year, giving our eyes, minds, and hearts quite the workout:
Armed with subtle candy colors, beautifully synthesized music, and one of the coolest jackets in film history, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a pitch-perfect L.A. noir. A dangerously cool and inward Ryan Gosling takes us on a hypnotic and chaotic ride as an enigmatic wheelman out to protect his lady love (Carey Mulligan) from scary gangsters (led by Albert Brooks, doing an expertly sinister spin on his screen persona). Not only does the film dish out some of the most jazzed-up pulp we’ve ever been served, but it shrewdly comments on the World We Live In Now the way action films of the 60s and 70s used to. Whether its highlighting muted loneliness, aching romantic yearnings, or a world haunted by brutal violence, Drive is a unique pop cruise that strikes the bruised heart in all of us.
Who knew that when Martin Scorsese decided to make a 3D family film based on a children’s book, he would make his most blatantly autobiographical movie since Mean Streets? On the surface, the story of a Parisian orphan named Hugo (Asa Butterfield, looking a tad like a young Scorsese, yet with majestic blue eyes all his own) unraveling the mystery of a sad toymaker named Georges (Ben Kingsley) is a whimsical adventure wonderful in its own right. Yet any cinephile can spot the delightful allusions to Scorsese’s own life: the isolated boy peaking out at the world from a tiny home, a love of the cinema, a world haunted by death and danger, an obsession with a mechanical invention, the complexities of dealing with a tough-minded female (the always-excellent Chloe Grace Moretz). Its only when the toymaker reveals himself to be Georges Melies, the pioneer of early cinema, that the film’s true subject comes in to play and Scorsese reveals his heart like never before. As the film tells the story of the invention of cinema through Meiles’ eyes, Scorsese puts his love of cinema on full display and the result is truly magical. Film restoration is one of the great passions of Scorsese’s life and career, and by finally finding a movie that makes that its centerpiece, Scorsese is able to make a film thats as wildly romantic about movies as he is.
3) The Artist
At a time when new screen technologies are rearing their head and movie theaters themselves are in threat of becoming endangered, it made a certain kind of sense that a silent film revealed itself this year to show us the ups and downs of progressive innovation. In telling the story of a silent film star (the delightful Jean Dujardin) and an up-and-coming sound starlet (the striking Berenice Bejo), The Artist fully commits to the technical formalities of the silent era and miraculously treats audiences to the magic of pure cinema in one of its most primitive forms. Its stroke of brilliance is the way director Michel Hazanavicius depicts the slow rise of the “sound era” from the viewpoint of the silent aesthetic. In doing so, we’re able to contemplate how change can be a very scary thing to deal with, but is absolutely necessary if more beautiful things are to manifest in this world. Its rare to see a love letter to art so nostalgic for the past yet so optimistic of the future.
4) Midnight in Paris
Some people have dismissed this film as just one of Woody Allen’s silly day dreams, but it sure is a fun daydream to get lost in. Allen imagines a hack Hollywood screenwriter (pitch-perfect Allen avatar Owen Wilson) visiting Paris and slipping through a time warp that allows him to visit the 1920s Golden Age, in which writers and artists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein indulged in art, ideas, and partying. Allen’s Paris of yesteryear may be a highly-romanticized one, but it captures everything we love and admire about the characters of that era and probably isn’t too terribly off from how we’d hope our own time travel to that very place would be. The real beauty comes in Allen’s realization is that no one living in a golden age ever realizes its a golden age, so perhaps the present is far more splendid that we realize.
5) The Tree of Life
If I were to tell you that the Meaning of Life could be captured in a single film, you’d probably scoff and tell me that such a thing couldn’t happen. Yet Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life damn near proves it can. The film follows the story of a 1950 Texas youth (a terrifically alert Hunter McCracken) who grows into a disillusioned modern man (a melancholy Sean Penn) haunted by the imprints of his graceful mother (a radiant Jessica Chastain) and harsh father (a pitch-perfect Brad Pitt in one of his very best performances). Malick brings a stunning vividness to the peculiar beauty of everyday life while his bold depictions of Earth’s prehistoric creations to its afterlife end prove to be transcendently magnificent. Malick is a cinematic poet who ponders the enormity of nature and the uncertainty of the universe, and this is undoubtedly his masterpiece.
6) The Skin I Live In
With his usual tastes for ambiguous kinkiness and the blurring lines dividing sexual identity, Spanish legend Pedro Almodovar pushes his themes to their absolute breaking point, and the result is shockingly spellbinding. In telling the story of a mad plastic surgeon (a superbly creepy Antonio Banderas) conducting scientific and sexual experiments on a captured human subject (the beautifully mysterious Elena Anaya), Almodovar has made his Vertigo, only he goes to outrageously perverse depths that Hitchcock wouldn’t even dream of visiting. I’ve seen some crazy twist endings in my day, but this one has one of the most jaw-droppingly disturbing ones I’ve ever seen. But since Almodovar is an expert on making the twisted seem poetic, he makes this mad science shocker seem brilliantly philosophical.
7) J. Edgar
Here was one of the trickiest subject matters for a modern day film with one of the most demanding roles for an unlikely actor, and it was pulled off with expert ease so seamless, you can almost miss the grandness of it all. In exploring his usual idea of conservative values growing hip to outside ideals, director Clint Eastwood was able to see controversial FBI pioneer J. Edgar Hoover in a light that both deconstructed his flaws and humanized his ambitions. Leonardo DiCaprio is perhaps not the first actor you’d think of to portray such a pudgy bulldog of a man, but the performance is one of his most convincing chameleon jobs to date. Whats most surprising, and most endearing, about the film is how it turns out to be one of the best love stories of the year. The script, another triumph of history and heart from Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, suggests that the close relationship between Hoover and his live-in confidant Clyde Tolson (an outstanding Armie Hammer) was every bit romantic as most people suspected it was. The result is astoundingly touching. Hoover’s old-age confession to Tolson about how much he always needed him is one of the most blindsided jabs to the heart I experienced at the movies in this, or any, year.
Director Gavin O’Connor likes to explore masculine archetypes through the device of old-fashioned melodrama, and with Warrior he’s crafted his most complete and exciting work yet. O’Connor’s bruising and painful tale of estranged brothers forced to do battle in a Mixed-Martial-Arts match was greatly assisted by true grit performances from Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as the toughie brothers and Nick Nolte as their wistful, recovering-alcoholic father. As one brother fights to atone his actions in war and the other fights to save his home from the effects of the Great Recession, O’Connor comments on today’s America in shrewd ways the Hollywood of yesteryear used to favor. What that leaves us with is a sports film with the crowd-pleasing draw of a Rocky picture, yet with deep, unrelenting wounds that makes this an East of Eden with fists.
9) Super 8
J.J. Abrams makes no secret about the influence that Steven Spielberg has had on all of his work, and here he sets out to honor the popcorn thrills and childlike wonder of his idol’s earlier works. The result is an uncanny resemblance to the late 70s-early 80s Spielberg thrill-rides, with an exhilarating zippiness and sneaky heart that is all Abrams. Abrams exudes a giddy, autobiographical joy as he depicts a group of adolescent cinephiles who try to make their own homemade zombie flick and accidentally stumble upon a real-life monster the government is racing to keep under wraps. Abrams shows impressive control as he fuses alien wonder, monster movie horror, and jolly childhood exuberance into his Spielberg Greatest-Hits package, yet the real surprise is the way the ending reconciles adolescent pain and supernatural wonder in a way that, yes, outdoes Spielberg himself.
10) The Adventures of Tintin
Speaking of old-fashioned Spielberg, he also decided to get in touch with his old-school-self by treating us to one of his adventurous roller-coasters basked in the latest 3D, motion-capture technology. Inspired by his longtime love of the inspiration comic, Spielberg brings the candy colors and elaborate dangers of Herge’s classic comic to eye-popping life with an animated performance-capture zest thats honestly more fun to look at than anything in Avatar. Spielberg gets back in touch with his inner-Indiana Jones as his camera whooshes through irresistible cartoon landscapes with the reckless abandon of a classic B-movie. The actors tear through their animated disguises with breathless glee, the camera circles frantically and doesn’t let up for one minute, and the film’s centerpiece chase scene, a frantic race through a Bagghar town, is one of the most thrilling chase scenes I’ve ever witnessed on the big screen. Some have dismissed Tintin’s big screen outing as nothing more than a big screen comic book, but most of the time, comic books can mean more to us than pretentious Oscar bait, and there is simply no denying that the child inside me was thrilled out of his mind.
This is usually the part where I highlight the “Honorable Mentions,” exceptional films that almost made my Top 10 list. Yet looking over the films of 2011, I couldn’t help but notice that there were an abundance of films in which the key performances were better than the actual films themselves. So I’ve instead decided to pay tribute to those knockout performances that shined ever so brightly this past year. For these gifted actors reminded us that you should never underestimate the power of movie star wattage:
Michael Fassbender, X-Men: First Class
Ryan Gosling, Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Justin Timberlake & Mila Kunis, Friends with Benefits
Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn