Travis “Skip” Leamons’s Favorite Films of 2011

Features, Top Story

We are all about lists. Grocery lists, to-do lists, Top 10s, etc. They help keep order but are in no way finite. For example, grocery shopping can change on a whim; whenever you add something to your basket that’s not already on your list you’ve essentially altered it. I make this preface not to endorse Post-Its, but because lists are always subject to change. So my top ten below is my top ten as of today. Not yesterday or tomorrow, but how I feel today.

Most of you will see this as the moment to scroll all the way down and read, or most likely skim, my list. Staying just long enough to see the film titles and where they placed. However, for those that have decided to stay and continue reading you will be treated to my reflections of the year in film.

This year, the most prevailing theme to me was “everything old is new again.” Two years ago, James Cameron’s Avatar made “game changer” an overused colloquialism and gave Hollywood a means to milk money from audiences with more 3D presentations. So leave it to a relative unknown director in Michel Hazanavicius to make The Artist, a film that defied normal conventions to tell a story of Old Hollywood. Sure, it used a gimmick (applying techniques of cinema’s silent era), but here you had a feature that 1) was not projected in 3D (shocker!), 2) was presented in black-and-white (bigger shocker!), and 3) included no spoken dialogue, only music (extreme shocker!).

The Artist when paired with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo presented a double bill exploring film in its infancy, before it became an enterprise where paint-by-numbers and Mad Libs took the spots reserved for direction and storytelling (for the most part).   

Last year, I bestowed praise to females in Hollywood due largely to the success of director Kathryn Bigelow, newcomers Jennifer Lawrence, Hailee Steinfeld and Chloe Moretz, and Noomi Rapace for her portrayal of Lisbeth Salander in Sweden’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This year belonged to three actors specifically: Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling and Jessica Chastain. All three appeared in at least three films in 2011. It was a breakout year for Chastain, as she’s been getting kudos for her work in The Help and The Tree of Life. Fassbender, on the other hand, has been one of the most consistent actors in Hollywood for the past few years, able to navigate between blockbusters (X-Men: First Class) and art house cinema (Hunger, Fish Tank). His performance in Shame is one of the most emotionally taxing but also one of the year’s best. And then there’s Gosling. Looking like he was Photoshopped in Crazy, Stupid, Love and working on George Clooney’s presidential campaign in The Ides of March, it is his iconic performance in Drive that will resonate in the years to come.

Sticking with the old is new again theme, Alexander Payne delivered his first film in seven years with The Descendants. You could say he was trying to pull a Terrence Malick and release a new film once every decade. Speaking of Malick his film The Tree of Life was met with some dissatisfaction by certain moviegoers. Some were so disappointed that it led the Avon Theatre in Stamford, CT, to post a NO-REFUND policy once you purchase a ticket. Well played. Best to be an informed audience than to decide what movie to see on a whim.   

Having seen over 180 new releases this year – plus another 85 or so catalog titles (both new and old favorites) – I was pleasantly surprised at the vast array of stories told. Some are easily disposable leaving you content or dismayed, while others stick with you for days if not weeks. And then there’s that one film that I wanted to see again right after the credits rolled.

So without further ado, I give you my favorite films of 2011.

10. Hugo
Reviewed theatrically

The best description I can give Hugo is that it is director Martin Scorsese’s love letter to cinema. In a year that also saw J.J. Abrams pay homage to the earlier works of Steven Spielberg, here Scorsese honors one of the early pioneers of cinema. The film is seen through the eyes of the titular character, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who hides himself within the walls and alcoves of a Parisian train station. It is in the train station where he watches characters interact when he isn’t repairing the clocks. Outside of his clock repair duties Hugo works to restore an automaton that his father was tinkering with before his passing. Through happenstance, the automaton has a connection to a crotchety toyshop owner in the station named Georges Méliès. Yes, the legendary French filmmaker.

Hugo‘s brilliance is Scorsese and his ability to give us a family film that presents a story where its characters have importance and value. As their relationship evolves – in the beginning Méliès is disgusted with Hugo’s thievery – both find themselves sharing the same wide-eyed exuberance when it comes to cinema. And it is through this discovery they allow themselves to begin a new act in their lives.

9. I Saw the Devil

Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw the Devil represented the best revenge thriller of the year. For a while there, Devil and Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In were neck and neck on my top 10 list. Both explored the theme of revenge in such distinct ways that it was hard to pick a favorite. Then the more I thought about it, I began to veer away from Almodóvar’s Frankenstein-inspired tale to Ji-woon’s story about a secret agent (Lee Byung-hun) who methodically tracks down the murderer (Oldboy‘s Choi Min-sik) of his pregnant fiancé, only to inflict punishment, release him and punish him again at a later time.

The film’s subject is enough to turn off the squeamish, but for those who keep an open mind, I Saw the Devil illustrates that anyone is capable of becoming a monster. Also working for the film is its beautiful photography and structure.

8. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Reviewed theatrically

Martha Marcy May Marlene, a film about a woman stuck between two worlds, works as well as it does because of actress Elizabeth Olsen and writer-director Sean Durkin. Olsen, the younger sibling of the famed Olsen Twins, plays Martha and her two aliases, Marcy May and Marlene.  Much like Carey Mulligan did two years ago with An Education and Jennifer Lawrence did with Winter’s Bone in 2010, Olsen gives a remarkable breakthrough performance as a woman who returns to her family after escaping a cult in the Catskills.

Normally, this is where the story would end, but Durkin’s debut feature infuses unique edits, taking us from past to present events to incidents that may not even be real at all. The editing is inorganic, almost as if Durkin intended for the audience to be just as maladjusted as Martha, who finds her adjustment to home life quite difficult.

7. The Guard

In a summer full of restricted comedies, here came an import from Ireland that trumped anything Hollywood released this year. Not even Bridesmaids, which I surprisingly liked, could compete with a comedy that puts a new spin on the buddy-cop format by having Brendan Gleeson as the iconoclastic Irish policeman who teams with a bookish FBI agent (Don Cheadle).

The Guard is a damn good action comedy with an inventive score by Calexico and interesting sets and locales. Its reliance on astute black humor to get laughs varies at times, but the comedy is filled with plenty of arcane references that could very well find their way into your arsenal of strange facts. If you find yourself in a room of stiff shirts, don’t fake being smart like Uncle Jesse did in that episode of Full House; just watch this comedy and pick up bits of trivia ranging from Fellini’s 8 ½ to Kris Kristofferson being a Rhodes scholar.

6. Shame

Every few years I’ll see a film that is so great and so gloomy that I don’t know if I could watch it more than once. It happened with Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream and Greg Araki’s Mysterious Skin. You can add Steve McQueen’s Shame to the list. The film is highlighted by Michael Fassbender’s strong performance as Brandon, a man dealing with sex addiction. Obsessed with sex and driven to experience multiple orgasms daily, he takes precautions to ensure his urges are done privately, free of witnesses. Though he may desire sex, pleasure is not a foregone conclusion.

Brandon’s life becomes complicated with the arrival of his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), which sees him venture further into a spiraling inferno of self-abuse. She needs him in her life, while he fears commitment and the need to be his sister’s keeper.

Steve McQueen doesn’t outright explain why Brandon and Sissy act the way they do; he doesn’t have to. It’s obvious it’s an event from their past. What he does accomplish is combine great acting with strong filmmaking, the highlight being a great tracking shot of Brandon running in New York.

5. The Tree of Life

Reviewed theatrically

When I tell people about Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, I usually preface it by saying that you have to be in the right frame of mind while watching it. If you’ve never seen a Malick film, you’re more than likely going to be confused by Life‘s structure and wonder why certain things take precedence over the actors and the central story.

We are presented a story of three boys growing up in the 1950s. But then Malick veers off to explore not just their childhood but our entire existence. This is why he incorporates scenes from the Big Bang all the way through the realm of time. It’s a distraction that’s likely to irk most viewers, but it’s a grandiose vision of how nature and nurture converge to alter a child’s upbringing.

The Tree of Life isn’t the type of film you can throw into the player regularly. It’s a grueling affair to watch and it’s only a little under two and a half hours (note: there’s been talk of releasing a six-hour cut at some point). And even though I’ve only sat through it once, it is Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking cinematography that still lingers. You could literally extract a frame and post it in an art gallery.

4. Take Shelter

Fear of the unknown is a powerful force. And for Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) it is this fear that drives him to make decisions that on the surface may appear erratic but underneath have long-stemming effects. Curtis has a good job and is a loving provider to his family. But when he starts to experience sheet-soaking nightmares and vivid premonitions, Curtis begins to make arrangements for the sinister force about to plague him, his family, maybe even the entire world.

As his sophomore effort to Shotgun Stories, a film critic Roger Ebert praised to the Nth degree, Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter is a suspense thriller that builds to an impressive finale. Led by the often overlooked talent that is Michael Shannon and newcomer Jessica Chastain, the film examines mental illness and schizophrenic in ways that people without much means would most likely deal with the issue. And considering the setting of the story, such symptoms can’t be properly examined by the local doc.

Take Shelter is carefully done as to leave the audience guessing what Curtis’s vivid premonition could be. In the process his actions affect his family’s welfare, as he goes to extreme lengths to ensure that he has the proper material needed to build a storm shelter in the backyard. Such behavior frightens his wife (Chastain) and townsfolk begin to draw their own conclusions about Curtis’s well-being.

When the premonition is finally realized, and you see the shared expressions by husband and wife, that’s when you know writer-director Jeff Nichols has reeled you in completely, having hooked you ninety minutes earlier.

3. We Need to Talk About Kevin

Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel is the horror film of 2011. It doesn’t involve jump scares or a slasher sporting a hockey mask. Instead, the horror is psychological. We Need to Talk About Kevin echoes the events of Columbine, but the film itself is about a mother who is afraid of her own son. The novel in which the film is based is told through a series of letters written by the mother to the father. What Ramsay does is tell the story through a stilted chronological order, beginning first with the anguished mother coping in the aftermath of the brutal slaying before flashing back to its origins.

Tilda Swinton plays the mother, Eva Katchadourian, as a woman who is every bit as complicated as her son. As a travel writer, she had this Bohemian lifestyle that changed the day she gave birth to son Kevin. Motherhood begets responsibility, and try as she might her son is insolent, refusing to stop crying when commanded or be toilet trained. Oh, and he’s also a manipulative little bugger.

A throwaway piece of dialogue could suggest that the father of the child isn’t Eva’s beau (as played by John C. Reilly). But that’s speculation on my part. What is important is the dread that Lynne Ramsay creates by deceiving the audience to think one way only to show that she’s the smartest person in the room and have the film go in a different direction entirely.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is the fourth film in my top 10 to depict a not-so-serene home life. Consider yourself lucky that your family situation isn’t as disturbing.

2. The Artist
Reviewed theatrically

With The Artist I’ll just ask you one question: Who the hell makes a silent film in 2011, anyway? A French director with a bold vision, that’s who. Michel Hazanavicius’ story may not be the most original, but the difficulty factor is what leaves a lasting impression. Here is a guy that shot a silent movie in black and white with two relative unknowns in leading roles.

Jean Dujardin plays a silent movie star who sees his star waning with the advent of talkies. His career is later rejuvenated by the young aspiring actress (Bérénice Bejo) he befriended when his star was still gleaning. With panache Dujardin mugs for the camera as if he was one of the screen actors of yesteryear; a very impressive feat that most of Hollywood’s elite would struggle to recreate.

The Artist more than likely will be the film that’ll introduce many to silent movies. Even if you’re the wee bit apprehensive about seeing a black-and-white feature without dialogue, don’t fret: this is a wonderful film full of comedy and melodrama. It’s a surefire crowd pleaser that will definitely have you talking about silent films.

1. Drive
Reviewed theatrically

And so we’ve reached #1. I caught a lot of grief from friends I recommended this to, but I don’t care. Drive is so damn cool. No other film of 2011 tied together so many elements yet be seen as an original work. Much like Christian Slater and his Elvis obsession in True Romance, I look at Ryan Gosling as the nameless driver and think to myself I’d watch that hillbilly and I’d want to be him so bad. My friends would complain that they couldn’t make an emotional connection to Gosling’s character, thus it was hard to root for him. But Gosling’s character is defined by his behavior, which changes once someone he cares about finds herself in danger.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has taken James Sallis’ short novel and made a brilliant neo-noir that echoes films like To Live and Die in L.A. and Le Samourai among others. Matched with Ryan Gosling’s smoldering screen presence and you have one hell of a combination.

The film is the total package: directing, acting (Gosling is aided by the likes of Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston and Carey Mulligan), cinematography and music. I was sold on the film when the first clip hit the Internet to promote its premiere at Cannes. Then that anticipation increased by reading interviews with Refn and Gosling talking about their approach to the film, referencing the likes of John Hughes movies and Driver being a B-movie superhero of sorts. So when I saw it at an early screening I was glued. By the time it was over I wanted to see it again immediately. No other film of 2011 had such an impact.

When I tell people that movies are the only drugs I need, it’s for movies like Drive. Forget heroin and just inject me with the magical concoction that made something like this possible. I can take it.

Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!

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