Top Ten Best of 2011

10. The Muppets

Jim Henson's lovable felt creations made a triumphant return to the big screen in 2011, proving that the magic of the Muppets is alive and well. Passionate Muppet fans Jason Segal, Nicholas Stoller, and James Bobin teamed up to resurrect the languishing property and their efforts are imaginatively ambitious. They borrow heavily from the original 1979 big screen Muppet outing, but still manage to ditch the safety net and make the bold move of inventing their own Muppet. It's a gutsy gamble, since it means stealing screen time from the recognizable stars (you know Miss Piggy wouldn't approve) in favour of a potentially unnecessary addition (it's not like the Muppets are a small group to begin with). But it pays off wonderfully when new Muppet Walter becomes the heart of the picture and Segal, Stoller, and Bobin wisely align his arc with that of the other Muppets in an effective tale of acceptance. We accept Walter, as the onscreen world reaccepts Kermit and co. Throw in a villain whose plan goes beyond Muppet domination to reveal a smartly satirical jab at modern cynical entertainment and you have a Muppet picture that marks an entirely embraceable homecoming.

 

9. Weekend

One of the more touching love stories of the year, this authentic little treasure tells of a brief romance between two very different gay men. There's Russell (Tom Cullen), who lives his life carefully and with fear cradled deep inside. He's not one to flaunt his sexual orientation and he has no plans to upset his regular routine. And then along comes Glen (Chris New), an extroverted firecracker of a young man who fears nothing and no one. He lives his life quickly and without regret. They meet and find solace in each other. Russell takes comfort in Glen's bravery, while Glen is enchanted by Russell's charm and innocence. The movie's title suggests a limited courtship and so Weekend is really about capturing that lightning in a bottle that is fresh romance. Writer/director Andrew Haigh leaves the cinematic space open for Cullen and New to explore their characters and their budding relationship. The result is extraordinarily honest and realistic, with the two actors delivering incredibly nuanced performances that make this a Weekend to remember.

 

 

8. Winnie the Pooh

Playing with language is a beautiful thing and this heartfelt and hilarious update of the classic A.A. Milne characters decides to embrace that playfulness with a wide open imagination. Living within the confines of a storybook that comes complete with a knowing narrator, that lovable Pooh bear occasionally takes some time to interact with words. Literally. He climbs and trips over and falls down the actual letters on the page. The great black objects become obstacles that Pooh is forced to interact with, much to his occasional dismay (he'd probably call them a "bother"). These moments provide whimsical wordplay unlike anything I encountered this year, but it doesn't stop there. The main conflict in this pint-sized gem (it's barely over an hour long) stems from a misreading of text. The ridiculous complications and confusions that follow are incredibly inspired and richly refreshing. The delightful old-fashioned animation is a welcome wonder as well. Quite surprisingly, it all adds up to a fascinating little portrait of stupidity, both gentle and harmful. Well, as harmful as a tumble from words can be.

 

7. Drive

This unique, bloody blend of classy Euro thriller and muscular car flick moves at its own pace. Glacially slow at different points throughout, the movie occasionally makes a pit stop to engage in ultra-violence. The explosion of extremely raucous mayhem punctuates this tale of an unnamed stunt driver (Ryan Gosling, oozing his own brand of charismatic cool) who moonlights as a getaway driver. Director Nicolas Winding Refn finds a beautiful balance between slow burn and scorching acceleration, turning his movie into an effectively engaging vehicle that never ceases to surprise. The tight turns of the narrative give Gosling and his costars lots to work with and plenty of reasons for Refn to rev his engine, sometimes quietly, other times ferociously. Powered by its synth-pop soundtrack and controlled by sharp editing, Drive is a stylized stunner that lets us experience its distinctive thrills from the passenger seat.

 

6. The Skin I Live In

Deliciously demented, brilliantly bonkers, and satisfyingly shocking, this imaginatively assembled chiller from the usually less creepy Pedro Almodovar is a fascinatingly grim portrait of madness. It helps that the movie is a bit mad itself. Antonio Banderas gives a morosely monstrous performance as a disturbing doctor who completes a trifecta of craziness with one deeply disturbing plan. Banderas keeps his character's intentions murky, while Almodovar carefully peels back the layers of the movie's mystery, only fully surrendering the truth when all of the pieces have been expertly aligned. The Skin I Live In tells a harrowing horror story on its own terms and its cold heart beats uniquely. Exquisite production design and overwhelmingly gripping photography (clean overhead angles create a sensation, both slimy and sensual, of clinical beauty) add to the extremely exciting visual experience. Almodovar's eerie tone matches the images and The Skin I Live In digs deep inside to tickle the dark recesses of human imagination.

 

5. Martha Marcy May Marlene

Expertly ambiguous and eerily effective, this paranoid thriller marks a massively promising debut for writer/director Sean Durkin. That it introduces us to budding star Elizabeth Olsen is another delight. These two combine to create an experience that is so sharp and well-defined that it feels like we must be watching veterans at work. Debuts are rarely as accomplished as this. They usually don't even come close. I am in awe of what Durkin achieves here.  The tale of a damaged young woman who sacrifices her identity in exchange for what she perceives is the love and care she requires, Martha Marcy May Marlene is richly layered and completely fascinating. The puzzle pieces fall slowly into place, but Durkin decides to steer clear of the big, complete picture. It's an ingenious move, because this isn't a tale of quelled fears, but rather a plunge into darkness, where escape is uncertain and paranoia haunts from all angles.

 

4. Certified Copy

Part tender travelogue, part bitter romantic game, Certified Copy offers a strange, wonderful, moving opportunity to voyeuristically witness what is either the most awkward first date ever or a very odd attempt by a struggling married couple to rekindle their love. Director Abbas Kiarostami wants to keep us guessing, but part of Certified Copy's charm is that either interpretation brings great rewards and fits whimsically into the movie's playful world. Juliette Binoche delivers one of the best performances I saw all year as a woman whose attempts to make a connection with her date/husband (William Shimell) are constantly thwarted. Binoche brings such honest emotion, such raw realism to the role that she seems to simply exist within the confines of Kiarostami's frame. The line between actor and character is brilliantly blurred, deepening the movie's mysterious dramatic impact. Shimell is also excellent in an often quiet role that matches Binoche's performance in a way that further muddies our potential interpretation. These characters are just as believable as good role players as they are an established couple. Kiarostami isn't interested in revealing an answer, but rather providing a window through which we can view love, either blossoming or wilting, in all its glorious mystery.

 

3. Of Gods and Men

One of the most profoundly moving religious dramas I've seen in a very long time. Quiet, calm, and carefully orchestrated, Of Gods and Men chronicles the real (and relatively recent, dating back to 1996) experiences of nine French Trappist monks, whose residence at an Algerian monastery was threatened by Islamic fundamentalists wrapped up in the Algerian Civil War. When the threat becomes apparent, the monks have to choose whether they will flee for safety or peacefully stand their ground. It's a truly life or death decision, but as the discussion continues, the monks begin to see that it is a faith-based decision above all else. Director Xavier Beauvois so eloquently immerses us in the daily routines of the monks and so commandingly captures the implications of their dilemma that I found the movie to be potently powerful and completely convincing in its poignant depiction of life-altering faith.

 

2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Red-eyed ape people, slowly materializing ghosts, an interspecies romance involving a catfish and a princess… uh, yeah, there's nothing quite like Uncle Boonmee. This Thai masterpiece from director Apichatpong Weerasethakul confounds in all the right ways, pulling us into its fantasy and giving us time and space to explore its vibrantly imaginative landscape. Uncle Boonmee is dying in his jungle hut and so his sister-in-law and nephew decide to visit him to make his final days more comfortable. Upon their arrival, they (and we, as an extension) become privy to the magic of Boonmee's passing. His dead wife comes to guide him to the afterlife and his son, now a hairy jungle spirit, also drops by to say hello. It's a hypnotically captivating depiction of love and loss and the hole that opens wide when it's time to say goodbye. In Weerasethakul's utterly unforgettable cinematic celebration, there is room for magic and magnificent memories. Well, that and ape people, too.

 

1. Meek's Cutoff

As close to cinematic perfection as I have seen in several years. An absolute, flat-out, undisputed, never-to-be-forgotten, always-to-be-treasured masterpiece, this towering work of art from daring director Kelly Reichardt provides one of my favourite types of movie experiences: the long, slow journey that we watch at ground level, so close to the characters that the viewing experience becomes nearly interactive. The story concerns a wagon train that is currently lost in the wide expanse of Oregon nothingness. The misplaced group of travellers is following Stephen Meek (a shaggy Bruce Greenwood), a proud guide who has apparently gotten everyone into this mess. The situation becomes more dismal with each step forward and as hope begins to dwindle, tensions rise and various conflicts boil to the surface. Reichardt puts us in the worn shoes of the travellers and essentially makes us honorary members of the doomed group. It's a long, slow march into a worsening situation and I found myself entirely enthralled with the extremely precise detail that permeates the picture. Reichardt masterfully pulls us back in time with such determined directorial control that watching Meek's Cutoff is to almost be transported via time machine. I imagine H.G.Wells would be proud. This would all be enough to make me love this movie forever, but it is how Reichardt positions her story from the perspective of the often maligned minorities of the western genre (women and aboriginals) and then hands them the power that sends this movie through the cinematic stratosphere for me. It's so damn brave and beautiful and brilliant that I'm now willing to follow Kelly Reichardt anywhere.