December 24, 2011 2:13pm PT by Scott Feinberg
THR Awards Analyst Scott Feinberg's Top 10 Films of 2011
The following list and remarks reflect my personal opinions and do/will not in any way impact my projections or analysis on this site, wherein I strive above all else to correctly forecast what will happen, not what I believe should happen.
My demonstrated ability to do that over the years is what has led most of you to my coverage, and any failure to do that will undoubtedly lead you away from it, so you can rest assured that I mean it when I say that one has/will have no bearing on the other.
Top 10 Films of 2011:
10. Like Crazy (Paramount, 10/28, PG-13, trailer)
From 28-year-old filmmaker Drake Doremus comes one of the most engrossing and affecting films about young love in years: a semi-autobiographical drama about an American boy (Anton Yelchin) and a British girl (Felicity Jones) who meet in college; fall in love; are torn apart by forces beyond their control; fight to get back together again; and, along the way, begin to question if the struggle is worth the pain it causes both of them. Doremus and his best friend/writing partner Ben York Jones presented the actors not with a traditional script to be followed line-by-line, but rather with a bunch of scenarios that they wanted the actors to follow wherever they led them. They turned on their lightweight digital cameras just one week after Yelchin and Jones first met (remarkable considering how much chemistry exists between the two), and rarely turned them off over the course of the next month, during which the actors remained in-character and constructed a relationship of their own. (The chair at the center of the film was constructed by a professional chair-maker, but the vast majority of the letters, photos, and other mementos are the work of the actors themselves.) The film premiered last January at Sundance, where the film was awarded the Grand Jury Prize, Jones was voted a Special Jury Prize for her performance, and Paramount won a bidding war for its domestic distribution rights. It hasn't made a fortune at the box-office since its release, which seems particularly unjust when one considers how many people swooned and cried over, say, The Notebook (2004), which this film exceeds in every respect. Indeed, like all of the best films about young love -- from Wuthering Heights (1939) to Love Story (1970) to Blue Valentine (2010) -- it offers an unvarnished look at its good, bad, and ugly sides, and leaves you rooting for the two people at its center to find a way to work things out.
* * *
9. Pariah (Focus Features, 12/28, R, trailer)
Movies are rarely made about people of color, and when they are they tend to features characters who are one-dimensional stereotypes, not fully fleshed-out individuals with both good and bad attributes. This film is a noteworthy exception. Adepero Oduye, an American actress of Nigerian descent, gives the breakthrough performance of the year as Alike (pronounced ah-LEE-kay), a young black lesbian coming to terms with her sexuality in a community and family rife with homophobia. It is a story very familiar to the film's writer/director Dee Rees, who wrote it while going through her own "coming-out process," jotting it down on napkins during lunch breaks on the set of her NYU film school mentor Spike Lee's 2006 film Inside Man, on which she served as an intern. She completed a 140-page script, but then needed to turn in a one-act senior thesis for NYU, so she took its first 30 pages and used it as the basis for a short, for which Oduye auditioned wearing her brother's clothes and blew Rees away. The short went to Sundance in 2006, where it was very well-received, and after which Rees and her partner/producer Nekisa Cooper resolved to turn Rees' script into a feature. For the next five years, they fought tirelessly to finance a film that would include the same principal cast (along with Kim Wayans, who people tend to associate with comedy, but who is fantastic in the very serious part of Alike's neglected and intolerant mother), going so far as to sell their home in order to finance an 18-day shoot. Their efforts were rewarded with an invitation to return to Sundance this past January, where the film played like gangbusters, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, and was picked up for distribution by Focus Features for an end-of-the-year release. For that we should all be grateful, as this is a film that will change outlooks and save lives.
* * *
8. The Skin I Live In (Sony Pictures Classics, 10/14, R, trailer)
Like all of the Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar's best movies, this one -- which unfolds like a Douglas Sirk remake of Frankenstein (1931), and which may be my personal favorite of the lot -- is alternately serious and campy; visually beautiful; features a great Alberto Iglesias score; and centers around his favorite themes and topics: gender, sexuality, identity, obsession, and revenge. The film revolves around a mad scientist (Antonio Banderas, in his first collaboration with Almodovar since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! 21 years ago) and a patient he holds captive in his house (stunning Elena Anaya, who follows Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz as the director's latest muse). He likes watching her, she likes being watched, and both seem to like each other quite a lot, which seems very strange at first, and only stranger as the film, jumping between the past and present, begins to reveal the origins of their association. In some ways, it reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), in that the male protagonist in both films is a grieving man trying to mold one person into the image of another he previously loved and lost, and that, in both cases, the big reveal about the true identity of the second woman is a real jaw-dropper. I have no idea why Spain opted not to submit this film -- which premiered at Cannes, garnered very strong reviews, and has won a number of important critics awards -- as its entry for Oscar consideration as the year's best foreign language film.
Scott Feinberg's Interviews: Almodovar (10/5/11)
* * *
7. The Whistleblower (Samuel Goldwyn Films, 8/5, R, trailer)
People who pine for quality films built around female characters and directed by female directors: where were you for this one? Canadian filmmaker Larysa Kondracki's first-rate political-drama premiered at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, where I first saw and loved it; its domestic distribution rights picked up a year later by Samuel Goldwyn Films; but it basically tanked at the box-office and has been entirely ignored this awards season -- which is not fair. Oscar winner Rachel Weisz gives the performance of her career as Kathryn Bolkovac, an American policewoman in the mid-1990s whose attachment to her work cost her two marriages and now the custody of her young daughter, to whom she yearns to live closer. In order to finance a move, she accepts a temporary job with the United Nations peacekeeping force in Bosnia that will pay her $100,000 for just six months of work. What she finds there, though, is a global sex trafficking operation in which members of her own organization are active participants and enablers, prompting her -- at a great risk to her own life -- to fight relentlessly to help the victims and prosecute the perpetrators. Weisz is one of our few big-name actresses who exudes the intelligence and fortitude that this part demands, and if I had a best actress Oscar vote she would be its recipient this year. David Strathairn, Vanessa Redgrave, and a bunch of lesser-known actors also do fine work in the film, which asks us to ponder -- and recently convinced the U.N. Secretary General to ponder -- whether or not U.N. is, in a number of significant ways, failing to carry out its original mission, and is, in some parts of the world, actually exacerbating the problems that it was created to help solve.
* * *
6. Shame (Fox Searchlight, 12/2, NC-17, trailer)
The British director Steve McQueen is an eccentric guy whose mind leads him to unusual places, and the Irish actor Michael Fassbender is a true-believer who seems willing to follow him wherever it goes: for their last collaboration, Hunger (2008), Fassbender dropped nearly 40 pounds to play a hunger striker, and for this one, an NC-17 drama about a sex addict, he spends much of the film fully naked and engaged in a wide variety of sexual activities. During a recent interview, McQueen told me that he and Abi Morgan penned the script after discovering how widely prevalent sex addiction is -- he likened it to AIDS in the eighties, in the sense that it is a real affliction that is all around us but that few of us are aware of or choose to acknowledge -- with the goal of enlightening others about it, as well. The film, which was shot over just 25 days in New York on a budget of only $5.5 million, chronicles the lives of and relationship between Brandon (Fassbender), a single, handsome, successful 30-something New Yorker who is secretly a sex addict, and Sissy (Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan), his emotionally-unstable younger sister who moves in with him when she has nowhere else to go. Brandon, we soon learn, constantly pursues orgasms from any and every available source -- magazines, websites, and online chatrooms; women and men; coworkers, strangers, prostitutes, and maybe, it is hinted, even his sister -- but seems to derive no pleasure from them at all. Instead, like the Orthodox man at the end of Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience (2009) who orgasms from merely being touched, he is just desperately seeking a connection, but, tragically, can't stop himself from pushing away anyone who offers him one. The film's ending is haunting.
* * *
5. The Ides of March (Sony, 10/14, R, trailer)
Many films have been made about American politics, but few have presented as thorough or gripping a look at it as this one, which -- like the best of the lot, The Candidate (1972) -- focuses on the struggle between idealism and pragmatism that inevitably occurs for candidates and their operatives over the course of a campaign. Adapted from the play Farragut North by the Oscar-nominated writing team of George Clooney and Grant Heslov (Good Night and Good Luck), and skillfully directed by Clooney, it focuses on the journey of a young but experienced political operative (Ryan Gosling) who believes he has finally found a candidate (Clooney) who embodies his highest ideals, and devotes himself entirely to the cause of helping him win the Democratic primary in order to compete in the general election. During a fling with a campaign intern (Evan Rachel Wood in a career-best performance), however, he learns that the candidate who seemed so unimpeachable (think Barack Obama) has, in fact, been keeping a dark secret (think Bill Clinton), which leads him to question -- if only for a brief but irrevocable moment -- his allegiance to the campaign. Consequently, he becomes caught between two dueling and deliciously Machiavellian campaign managers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti); must decide whether to stand by the candidate who betrayed his principles or to betray his own; and is, by the film's end, effectively transformed into an automaton (which, ironically, may be the only sort of person who actually can pass our political smell test in this day and age). The film would have been a bigger critical and commercial success had it premiered not in Venice, where its scandal pales in comparison to real ones, but rather stateside, where lingering puritanism causes us to still take such matters seriously.
* * *
4. Margin Call (Roadside Attractions, 10/21, R, trailer)
How was J.C. Chandor, who had never before written or directed a feature film, able to assemble an all-star cast -- Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Penn Badgely, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, and Mary McDonnell -- for this, his first? By penning a gripping, moving, and timely script with a dozen memorable parts (think Glengarry Glen Ross shifted from a real estate office to Wall Street) and then winning the confidence and backing of Quinto and his production company. The film -- which was shot for just $3.5 million over 17 days in New York City, picked up at Sundance by Roadside and Lionsgate, and became a phenomenal hit on VOD -- focuses on the response of senior executives at a large Lehman Brothers-like investment bank to a grave discovery made by junior analysts: that excessive leverage of mortgage-backed securities, combined with uprecedented market volatility, will, in just hours, cause the firm to suffer losses greater than its market capitalization, bringing down the too-big-to-fail company and the rest of the market, too. Through the deliberations about how to respond to the crisis, we come to learn about the company's hierarchy (people use and abuse each other all the way up the food chain), the widely-varying concerns of its employees (from survival to maintaining appearances to behaving ethically to pure greed), and the way that each of them justifies his or her actions ("I warned you," "Everything is cyclical," "If we don't do it someone else will," etc.). Everyone is given a fair hearing, and we are reminded (through a magnificent monologue delivered by Tucci) that perhaps it's time to get back to focusing on things that are tactile and help people instead of the opposite.
Scott Feinberg's Interviews: Irons (12/15/11)
* * *
3. Moneyball (Columbia, 9/23, PG-13, trailer)
Bennett Miller's big screen adaptation of Michael Lewis' best-selling book is less about baseball than creative-thinking, which is probably why it has been so warmly received by fans and agnostics of both genders. The film recounts the story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), a once-promising player who flamed out on the field but worked his way up in the Oakland A's front office to the position of general manager, where he -- along with a younger assistant (Jonah Hill) whom he recruited from another franchise -- employed an unprecedented numbers-based approach to his job that changed the game forever. Moreover, it shows how Beane -- a smart, soft-spoken, single father like To Kill a Mockingbird's Atticus Finch, of whom he reminds me -- teaches his offspring to do the right and noble thing by conducting himself honorably and with an even-keel during moments of triumphant success and heartbreaking failure. Most films that experience as must production turbulence as this one -- two years ago, its original director, Steven Soderbergh, left the production over creative differences just days before shooting was to commence, and Aaron Sorkin was brought on to re-work Steven Zaillian's script -- don't turn out that well. But thanks to a great story well told and the most endearing performance of Pitt's career, this one, like its protagonist, proves that there are exceptions to every rule.
Scott Feinberg's Interviews: Hill (11/20/11)
* * *
2. War Horse (Disney, 12/25, PG-13, trailer)
This adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's best-selling novel-turned-hit West End/Broadway play of the same title is Steven Spielberg's most impressive film in 13 years and reaffirms the fact that nobody better juxtaposes epic and intimate stories than he. This story World War I -- like his earlier war-set films Empire of the Sun (1987), Schindler's List (1993), and Saving Private Ryan (1998) -- masterfully captures the massive scale of the conflict while never losing sight of the individuals at its center, and is ultimately less about the grievances of the opposing parties than the desires of those individuals to reunite with their fractured families (and, in this case, equine best friend). The real star of this film is Joey, the horse, whose journey serves as the spine of the film, and through whom we come to meet an impressive ensemble of international actors -- none especially showy or amazing, but all well cast -- who intermittently serve as his guardian, including 21-year-old Englishman Jeremy Irvine, 21-year-old German David Kross, and 15-year-old Frenchwoman Celine Buckens. John Ford-esque in its look (as shot by the great Janusz Kaminski), sound (with an omnipresent booming score by John Williams), and unabashed corniness (a feisty goose, a single teardrop, an ever-present ribbon, a family embrace in silhouette), this is old-fashioned filmmaking in the best sense of the phrase.
Scott Feinberg's Interviews: Spielberg's Closest Collaborators (12/3/11)
* * *
1. The Artist (The Weinstein Company, 11/23, PG-13, trailer)
It's hard to believe that a black-and-white silent movie was even made in 2011; that it also turned out to be the best film of the year is simply amazing. The French-financed, Harvey Weinstein-distributed production reunites the team behind the 007-parodying OSS franchise -- writer/director Michel Hazanavicius and actors Jean Dujardin (France's George Clooney) and Berenice Bejo (Hazanavicius' wife) -- in a dramedy about a pair of star-crossed lovers in late-1920s/early-1930s Hollywood: a silent-era matinee idol whose career crashes to a halt after the advent of talkies and a young woman whom he literally bumped into and took under his wing whose career simultaneously explodes. A loving ode to film history which I described in September as "visually beautiful, deeply engaging, and irresistably charming," it ends on a high reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and has managed to win over even the most reluctant of moviegoers while playing virtually every stop on the festival circuit since Cannes (where Dujardin was named best actor), picking up audience awards all along the way (including the Hamptons, San Sebastian, St. Louis, Chicago, and Austin film fests'). Ironically, it captures the current zeitgeist even more than most films set in the present by showing how technological advances coupled with an economic downturn can upend anyone, but that -- with drive, determination, and a little help from one’s friends (and animals) -- a comeback is always possible.
Scott Feinberg's Interviews: Hazanavicius (9/12/11), Dujardin (9/12/11)
* * *
NOTE: For point of reference — yours and mine — here is an alphabetical listing of the 97 Oscar-eligible films from 2011 (films that played in New York and Los Angeles for at least a week this year) that I have seen as of this writing, many more than once: 30 Minutes or Less, 50/50, The Adventures of Tintin, Albert Nobbs, Another Happy Day, Arthur, Bad Teacher, Battle for Brooklyn, The Beaver, Beginners, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, A Better Life, Better This World, Bill Cunningham New York, Blackthorn, Bridesmaids, Brighton Rock, Buck, Butter, Captain America: The Last Avenger, Carnage, Contagion, Coriolanus, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, Cowboys & Aliens, Crazy Stupid Love, A Dangerous Method, The Debt, The Descendants, The Devil’s Double, Drive, Everything Must Go, Exporting Raymond, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Guard, The Hangover Part II, Hanna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Hell and Back Again, The Help, Higher Ground, Horrible Bosses, Hot Coffee, Hugo, If a Tree Falls, Immortals, In the Land of Blood and Honey, Into the Abyss, The Iron Lady, J. Edgar, Jane Eyre, Jane’s Journey, The Kid with a Bike, Koran by Heart, The Lady, Limitless, The Loving Story, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Meek’s Cutoff, Meet Monica Velour, Melancholia, Midnight in Paris, Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol, My Week with Marilyn, Our Idiot Brother, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Pearl Jam Twenty, Pina, Project Nim, Puncture, Rampart, Rango, Rebirth, Restless, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Rum Diary, Semper Fi: Always Faithful, Senna, A Separation, Sing Your Song, Source Code, Straw Dogs, Super 8, Take Shelter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tower Heist, The Tree of Life, Under Fire: Journalists in Combat, W.E, Warrior, The Way, We Need to Talk About Kevin, We Were Here, Win Win, and Young Adult.