Archive for February 23rd, 2012
10. Contagion. Steven Soderbergh’s intimate epic of paranoia, which was inexplicably overlooked throughout the recent awards season, benefits from one of the year’s richest original screenplays, by Scott Z. Burns, and fine contributions from editor Stephen Mirrione and a remarkably restrained cast. As we recently saw in Haywire, Soderbergh can be an erratic storyteller, but here, he delivers a big commercial entertainment that is also, surprisingly, the most effective example to date of the film of global intersection, a genre that includes Babel and Soderbergh’s own Traffic, but finds its most organic expression here, in a movie that demonstrates that we really are all connected, in the least reassuring way possible.
9. The Artist. For a movie that is routinely described as a crowd-pleaser, Michel Hazanavicius’s inspired homage to silent cinema has turned out to be surprisingly divisive, mostly among those who resist its blatant sentimentality and cheerful layers of artifice. It’s shallow, yes, but then, so is Citizen Kane, and Hazanavicius displays some of the same Wellesian willingness to try everything once—an instinct that one finds in all great con artists, parodists, and showmen. I’m still not sure whether its ruthlessly schematic story is intentional or not, but I can’t deny its ingenuity and relentless charm, and I’ll be perfectly happy if it takes home top honors on Sunday night.
8. Kung Fu Panda 2. The year’s best family film is a masterpiece of story and production design, from a franchise that could have gone utterly wrong, in the usual DreamWorks mode of easy gags and pop culture references, but instead gets almost everything right. First-time director Jennifer Yuh Nelson—with able contributions from story consultant Guillermo Del Toro and uncredited script doctor Charlie Kaufman—gracefully walks a fine narrative line, arriving at a tone that gently mocks its own pretensions while still delivering genuine thrills and emotion. The result is a movie that stands on its own as pure storytelling, with nothing that will grow stale over time.
7. Drive. The coolest main titles of the year, and perhaps of the decade, are only the opening salvo from this suspenseful, violent, and strangely tender ode to the great action films of the ’80s. Nicholas Winding Refn delivers the year’s most fanatically designed movie, from Hossein Amini’s spare, almost abstract screenplay to the gorgeous cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel, which sets out to make a pop icon of Ryan Gosling and brilliantly succeeds. The ending doesn’t quite live up to what comes before—as I’ve noted earlier, what it really needs is a closing rhapsody of violence on the level of Michael Mann’s Thief—but for most of its length, it’s a work of almost uncanny assurance, and the best argument imaginable for the complete elimination of backstory.
6. A Separation. The more I think about Asghar Farhadi’s powerful, understated melodrama, the more impressive it becomes: its control, its mastery of tone, its ability to evoke entire lives and relationships with a few perfect details, and its combination of intimacy and social expansiveness would be notable in any country, but are especially extraordinary given the constraints of film production in Iran. Details first seen in passing gradually gain in significance, and situations that initially seem remote feel more and more like our own, until, like all great works of art, it succeeds both as a document of a particular time and place and as a universal story.
Tomorrow: My top five movies of the year.