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Top 10 Movies of 2011

10. Contagion [wr. Scott Z. Burns, dir. Steven Soderberg]
Contagion might not stand the test of time, but it’s the best high-quality, high-budget thriller of the year.  The film is great because it answers the simple question What would happen if a deadly pandemic actually struck the world? without devolving into the disgusting or the ridiculous.  The disease, Meningoencephalitis Virus One, takes its victims quietly without zombie-like symptoms or disgusting face lesions, and its silence is what makes it so effectively terrifying.  Contagion examines every facet of the outbreak—from the CDC and US government response with Kate Winslet to the third-world repercussions with Marion Cotillard, from the conspiracy bloggers with Jude Law to the implications for a middle class family with Matt Damon—with precision and intelligence.  The cast is star-studded (my comment every 30 seconds: “Oh wow, s/he’s in this too?!”) but full of excellent actors that add gravitas without sensationalizing.  In terms of Hollywood blockbusters, Contagion is definitely a winner.  [Sam]

9.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 [wr. Steve Kloves, J.K. Rowling (Book), dir. David Yates]
Whereas I heralded The Muppets for its lack of CGI, the  Harry Potter series pretty much justifies its existence.  As somebody with very little investment in a story to which he already knows the ending - and one who prefers Harry Potter when he’s in school, winning and losing points for his house and attending dances, as opposed to embarking on yet another epic fantasy quest - the visuals inherit a lot of responsibility.  And I gotta say, Emma Watson delivers, albeit less so than in the topless kissing scene of Part 1...  I semi-jest, but seriously:  These are kids’ movies?  Well I guess, because as my 8-year old friend Billy told me:  “At the very least, this film was a fitting, populist swansong for some of Britain’s greatest thespians.  Kudos, Maggie Smith.”  Billy’s a square. [DoktorPeace]

8. Martha Marcy May Marlene [wr. & dir. Sean Durkin]
Martha Marcy May Marlene is, for one, a genre flick, a creepy psychological thriller about a woman who is struggling with her sanity after a traumatic stint in a cult. But, it's also a lot more than that. It's also about how women can be victimized by the patriarchy, regardless of whether it's in a culty cult cult or in "mainstream" society. And it's also about the dangers of our society wholly rejecting any standard way of living outside of the accepted form of living. It's about all of these things, and it's hauntingly shot in bright, 35mm-style colors. While the overall "maybe our normal society can be bad like cults are bad" message is occasionally a bit too on-the-nose for my taste, the overall method of delivery is a truly creepy, frightening, get-under-your-skin powerhouse. And who knew Elizabeth Olson, younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, could act? She is a powerhouse, as is John Hawkes (as usual), the magnetic and truly bad cult leader. [Qualler]

7. Midnight in Paris [wr. & dir. Woody Allen]
Midnight in Paris is enchanting in every way you'd never expect a Woody Allen film to be enchanting. For months and months I'd heard and read about people being left dizzy with the magical comedic aspect of this movie and while I didn't dismiss the notion, I thought it would be mildly pleasant at best and nauseatingly precious at worst. But I was wowed with the rest of 'em, convinced that Owen Wilson is a better Woody Allen than Woody Allen is (his anxious charm is more effervescent and effortless than his author's to the nth degree), convinced that Paris was photographed more vividly and joyously here than in nearly any other movie save for maybe Before Sunset, and convinced that the nostalgic ride through literary and cultural figures of the early 1900s was not only sweet nerdy fun but also downright brilliant. This wasn't the forced esoteric Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure that I was half-expecting at all. And despite all this general warm fuzziness that I felt throughout the film, it was the meaty center of it all that most and best surprised me. The commentary about the nature of the creative mind and nostalgia is one most near and dear to my heart, especially in this period of growing older and further away from "the good ol' days" (which I guess is something that could be applied to everyone), and certainly made me wonder and question my own pop desires as much as it allowed me to revel in them. [Chris]

6. Melancholia [wr. & dir. Lars von Trier]
"Life is only on Earth...and not for long." Melancholia is the latest disaster/melodrama/character piece/sci-fi film from writer/director Lars von Trier, and it is also the first movie I've been to see three times in the theater since Titanic.  Like Titanic, we all know the ending before the story begins: the world will end when hit by a rogue planet, and life on Earth is going to end.  Don't worry about the physics of how that would work, that's beside the point.  There's no trying to stop the planet from hitting ours, just like there's no hope of steering that ship around the ice burg.  When a disaster movie doesn't center on heroes figuring out how to save the day we're left with our heroes (or anti heroes? it's always hard to tell with Von Trier) will cope with the knowledge that their lives are about to end, and there's nothing they can do to stop that.  The story is told in three parts, a prologue, which is a beautifully filmed sequence of slow moving images set to glorious music, reminiscent of the prologue to von Trier's last film, Antichrist.  The second part (Part One: Justine) tells the story of a melancholic bride (Kirsten Dunst) on her wedding night.  She has to deal with a sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Keifer Sutherland) who just want her to "be happy."  She also deals with pressures from her boss (Stellan Skarsgard) who I think represents American greed--cause you know how von Trier feels about American--and maybe even petty preoccupation with concerns that quickly become insignificant when the end of the world is neigh.  Even groom (Alexander Skarsgard) seems at first to really love her, but is really only concerned with his own needs.  The wedding falls apart bit by bit, ending in the groom and his parents leaving while he tells Justine that "thinks could have been different."  Lines like this one underline the theme of free will versus destiny and even while absorbed in the story of the doomed wedding we remember that planet...the last part is titled Part Two: Claire and it takes place some span of time after the wedding and involves only Justine, Claire, and John (Dunst, Gainsbourg, and Sutherland) and young Leo in their secluded estate while we all wait for that planet to hit.  Von Trier shows us how difference character types deal with the end of the world, and as much as I enjoyed part one, I think it was in part two that I really fell in love with this film.  The slow realization that there's nothing to be done leads Sutherland (whom I think von Trier also uses as metaphor for patriarchal blind faith in "science" and "reason", maybe another dig on American ideals?) to suicide, Gainsbourg to panic and attempted flight, and on Dunst, who couldn't handle "regular" things like a marriage, to become the strong, calm leader and to look out for Leo.  The entire thing is beautifully shot and set to a grand, moving score.  I could talk about it for hours, but I also recall people leaving the theater half way through, so again if nothing else Von Trier is giving us something that creates controversy and it's worth experiencing it and forming your own opinion.  And of course ask yourself: how would you cope with the end of the world?  Or maybe Von Trier would have us ask: how ARE you coping with the end of the world? [Brigitte]

5. The Muppets [wr. Jason Segal, Nicholas Stoller, dir. James Bobin] 
The only Judd Apatow movie I’ve enjoyed is Forgetting Sarah Marshall, so I had no qualms about Jason Segel helming this Muppets revival.  What did worry me was that this franchise I enjoyed so much as a child would be smothered by modern metasociety.  True, playing off popular culture has always been a Muppet touchstone, with classic skits like "Pigs in Space" reliant on the then sci-fi fad, but it’s the pork puns that truly make it timeless.  Aside from a blah rap sequence and a somewhat-misplaced chicken cover of Cee Lo’s “F*** You,” The Muppets pretty expertly cherishes the innocence of its own nostalgia, with purposely vanilla human characters and simple story (aptly focused on nostalgia preservation) emphasizing the uniqueness of Kermit and the gang.   Celebrities like Jack Black are featured to be sure, but the story is never about the celebrity.  It’s about life being a happier song with talking frogs and pigs that are by no means computer-generated in it. [DoktorPeace]

4. Drive [wr. Hossein Amini, James Sallis (Book), dir. Nicolas Winding Refn]
Drive begins as the most wonderful Sofia-Coppola-esque portrait of the nameless Driver (Ryan Gosling), the calmest, dopiest, and hottest getaway driver, and Irene (Carey Mulligan), a hardworking mother whose husband is in prison.  It’s beautiful, plodding, suspenseful, and ambiguously romantic, portraying its characters and setting (Los Angeles) with gritty, tragic emotionalism.  That is until the film rips that all out from under us in the second half, dissolving into stylized and graphic violence that disrupts the complacency of the film as much as it upsets the characters’ lives as the world of Los Angeles organized crime begins to destroy its victims.  The violence is shocking but not illogical, and the film’s escalation from one type of stylization into the next is not a mark of inconsistency, but the intentional breaking-down of the character’s overly-romanticized world.  I’ll admit that the violence is sometimes off-putting and possibly too sensational, but the soundtrack, the acting, and the stylization makes this the one of the best films of 2011. [Sam]

3. Meek's Cutoff [wr. Jonathan Raymond, dir. Kelly Reichardt]
Do you like slow-moving old clothes movies that seemingly don't have much of a plot and that ultimately leave you hanging?  I do.  And if you do, too, then you'll love Meek's Cutoff, starring my personal favorite, Michelle Williams, and directed by Kelly Reichardt (director of 2008's Wendy and Lucy, also starring Williams).  In similar narrative style to Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff features little dialogue but plenty of intriguing (in)action and character development as we follow three families traveling west on the Oregon trail in 1845.  The film takes its name from character Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) whom the families hire to lead them through the Cascade Mountains.  Of course, he knows a special route, and of course, they become lost and end up wandering through seemingly endless desert, getting into minor adventures along the way.  Sort of a spin on the exodus narrative, the families run into one trouble after another and seem to become more and more lost and become more and more hopeless as their journey to nowhere progresses.  The film ends abruptly and we are left to wonder whether they ever reach their destination, and are also reminded that the story was never about reaching the destination.  It's more about how individuals develop trust or overcome mistrust and how they manage to maintain relationships when survival is at stake. [Brigitte]

2. Moneyball [wr. Steven Zallian, Aaron Sorkin, Stan Chervin, Michael Lewis (Book), dir. Bennett Miller]
Moneyball holds the esteemed distinction of being a sports movie that doesn't just eschew sports movie cliches but also manages to be very much about the sport in question, and not just a sports movie only in name. And all of this is coming from someone that has never been able to become a sports fan. The beauty of the film, apart from the obvious things like Bennett Miller's austere yet always glistening direction or Aaron Sorkin's quippy bon mots (which don't come a mile a minute like your usual Sorkin fare, thus giving each more space to breathe, which is a welcome change of pace ), is that it's a character piece in which baseball is the end-all be-all of that character. Brad Pitt plays Billy Bean with an odd kind of steely diffidence, which makes his obsession with the game that much more magnetic, like we're constantly trying to both figure him out and figure his team out along with him for the whole ride. It's a quiet yet involving journey and potentially the most curious film of 2011. [Chris]

1. The Tree of Life [wr. & dir. Terrence Malick]
For as much of a big deal that was made about Malick's masterpiece to end all masterpieces being narratively impenetrable, The Tree of Life is actually a remarkably simple film with a simple thesis, beautifully depicted in the poetic, meditative opening sequence. As delivered by Jessica Chastain's character: "The nuns taught us there are two ways through life. The way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow... They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end." Actually, the entire film is extremely meditative, which makes sense given Malick's overall approach to filmmaking. He wrote the script in a nontraditional way, reportedly with words, sketches, and pictures included. And, he told his cast that they were his "co-directors" (ha!) so as to make the completed film a truly cohesive, collaborative piece of work. Okay, so the film is a brilliantly dense, (sometimes somewhat) impenetrable quasi-narrative that reveals itself best over multiple re-viewings and over coffee with a group of friends. But, that is what I believe Malick is getting at - our Earthly problems, miracles, joys, and sorrows are just a microcosm of the vastness of the entire universe. What happens to us when we are born, when we die, and how we exist within that framework is an enormous, mind-bending question that cannot be answered, but if we live a life following grace, we cannot come to a bad end. That this overall thesis is presented over some of the most gorgeous cinematography, music scoring, directing, and acting of the year is a fantastic bonus. [Qualler]

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  1. Blogger Mark Waller | 11:05 AM |  

    So many good movies this year that I have yet to see! I have my own reservations about Moneyball (I sorta reject the notion that Billy Beane had anything to do with the Oakland A's being good in 2002 when he also had 3 ace-like starting pitchers in his starting rotation) but still wanna see it.

  2. Blogger chris | 3:17 PM |  

    I remember you making that point when I first asked you about it and it does seem like a glaring omission from the film. But ultimately what I think saves it is Beane's obsession, handed down from Jonah Hill's character, on the batters, and how that ultimately blows up in his face. (I don't think that requires a spoiler alert, right?)

    I really wanna see Martha Marcy May Marlene.

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