In the first part of our Best Films of 2011 roundup, regular Criticize This! critic Andrew Parker lists the 25 flicks that blew him away enough to be considered a new favourite.
25. Terri – Director Azazel Jacobs’ coming of age story, about an overweight 15 year old boy (a wonderfully subtle Jacob Wysocki) and his loose canon best friend vying for the affections of a girl on the verge of expulsion for some in class sexual activity, sounds like a tough sell. Thanks to some painfully realistic dialog and purposefully long sequences, Jacobs creates a film that seems slight on the surface, but will stick in viewers minds long after its purposefully awkward and drawn out conclusion. Also of note for a key supporting turn from John C. Reilly as the big hearted, but misguided school principal.
24. Source Code – Duncan Jones improves upon his previous outing (the high minded, but flawed Moon) with the most corking idea for a potential franchise this year. A sci-fi thriller about the nature of moral relativism, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a soldier mysteriously brought into a secret government computer program to identify a terrorist bomber. It’s ground that was previously covered in Tony Scott’s louder and more overblown Déjà Vu, but Jones’ film has a sense of humanity and thoughtfulness that wins out in the end. It’s easy to see why the film is currently slated to be adapted into a television series. Here’s hoping nothing is lost in the transition.
23. Senna – Working from a wealth of never before seen primary footage, Asif Kapadia has created a documentary about the life of late Formula One driver Ayrton Senna that moves like an action film. Filled with real drama both on the track and in the boardrooms of the world’s most powerful motorsports organization, this is the film Days of Thunder always wished it was. (Note: Picking on Tony Scott in two back to back blurbs was completely unintentional.)
22. Monsieur Lahzar – Canada’s official entry for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar (which doesn’t open in English Canada until early 2012) takes a familiar genre and crafts a deeper story about love and loss within the same framework. Writer/director Phillippe Falardeau’s tale of an Algerian refugee applicant posing as a teacher for a group of grade schoolers following the suicide of their former teacher is a sensitive and witty look at the grieving process that doesn’t claim to know all the answers to the situations the characters find themselves in.
21. The Guard – A whip-smart Irish buddy-cop comedy from first time feature director John Michael McDonagh, The Guard is gleeful in its political incorrectness with Brendan Gleeson (who does still have an outside shot at a Best Actor nod for his work here) as a racist, whoring Irish Axel Foley to Don Cheadle’s put upon visiting G-Man as they team up to stop a half billion dollar drug shipment. It’s all fairly standard genre stuff, but even moreso than this year’s similarly lauded Drive, McDonagh shows audiences just how energizing genre fare can be when done right. It’s also neck and neck with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for the best Mark Strong performance of the year.
20. The Trip – If it wasn’t so hopelessly smug Michael Winterbottom’s verite comedy following comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on a tour of out of the way European restaurants might have placed higher on the list. Then again, the smugness of the leads is the entire reason the film (adapted from a longer miniseries for the big screen) exists in the first place. Brydon is winning as the ultimate people pleaser and the ultimate foil for the more refined and wilfully negligent Coogan. The two actors know how arrogant they come across, making for some witty subversivness, but the real attraction here is a surprisingly melancholic conclusion that makes the film all the more interesting on a second watch.
19. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – The problems I had with the original Swedish film and the book aren’t helped in the slightest by director David Fincher. It’s still overlong, needlessly convoluted, and it the plot doesn’t entirely hold up when held under a microscope. None of that changes the fact that Fincher has established himself as one of the best people in the world at what he does. The top notch technical elements of the film elevate the sometimes exploitative subject matter to a level of high art. Pitch perfect performances from Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara in the lead roles doesn’t hurt, either.
18. Good Neighbours – This sly, coal black comedy from Trotsky director Jacob Tierney, involving three less than perfect strangers (Jay Baruchel, Scott Speedman, and Emily Hampshire) with different tangential fears regarding a serial killer terrorizing their Montreal neighbourhood, is about as unremittingly bleak as they come. The twists come suddenly, but not without warning in this smart and genuinely creepy genre exercise that dares to go to the impolite places so few Canadian films dare to go.
17. Beauty Day – Jay Cheel’s look at Niagara Falls’ public access icon Ralph Zavadil (a.k.a. Cap’n Video) is the best feel good documentary of the year. Stylish, full of heart and humour, and made with a steady eye for visuals and themes, this is a film that should be bigger than it really is. I defy anyone to sit through this film without at least cracking an ear to ear grin. It’s light years better than any patently fake and fictional “triumph of the human spirit” stories. Plus, you get to watch a grown man snort eggs out of a pint glass in one of the best Canadian films of the year. So there’s that.
16. Captain America: The First Avenger – In what might be the best big screen outing for a comic book character since Spiderman 2, Rocketeer director Joe Johnston allows the story of Steve Rogers to transcend its cash-in trappings (after all, this is meant to be the formal lead in to The Avengers) and crafts a raucous summer blockbuster that outshines its pulpy contemporaries by actually caring about story and characterization. One of the year’s most pleasant surprises.
15. Margaret – Kenneth Lonnergan’s post 9/11 treatise and character study became the stuff of legends this year for seemingly all the wrong reasons. Released as quietly and unceremoniously as possible following a lengthy legal dispute between the writer/director and Fox Searchlight, the protracted cut of Lonnergan’s more grandiose visions is kind of a mess, but it’s the most interesting and thought provoking mess in years. Featuring a dynamic leading performance by Anna Paquin as a teenager on a search for justice and personal absolution in the wake of a tragic bus accident, Margaret has a staying power in the mind of the viewer larger than almost any other film on this list.
14. Mysteries of Lisbon – Chilean auteur Raoul Ruiz left the world a near masterpiece of storytelling shortly before he passed away with this expansive tale about that starts with the tale of an orphaned boy trying to identify his father and grows into a multi country spanning macrocosm of lost love and deceit. To call it Dickensian would be an understatement, but to call this four and a half hour film (cut down from miniseries length for a theatrical release) overlong would be incorrect. This is a film that’s exactly as long as it needs to be. It’s the filmic equivalent of spending an afternoon with a great book. It’s a shame the world will never see the sequel that Ruiz was planning on creating before his death.
13. A Separation – Utilizing easily one of the best screenplays of the year, Iranian writer and director Asghar Farhadi has crafted the best moral quagmire on screen this year. This tale of a couple amidst divorce caught up in a legal battle with another couple on shaky marital ground can be almost painfully realistic and intimate to watch. It doesn’t quite follow through as well as it should and Farhadi has a little ways to go as a director, but the lead performances of Peyman Moaadi and Leila Hatami and the script make for an intimately queasy experience in all the best ways. (Opens in Canada in early 2012)
12. The Descendants – Despite the film getting off to a rocky start with some unnecessary narration and ending with a far too neatly tied together conclusion that hinges on a kind of useless subplot, Alexander Payne delivers his best film since Election with this gorgeously acted tale of a man (George Clooney) forced into taking care of his daughters following his wife’s lapse into an irreversible coma. The movie works well thanks to an all around wonderful cast lead by Clooney, giving the least charming and most nuanced performance of his career.