Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Best Movies of 2011, Part 2

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5. Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. A personal triumph for Tom Cruise the producer, if not the actor: when he isn’t hanging off the side of the Burj Khalifa, his presence onscreen is strangely detached, and much less interesting than that of Paula Patton, the movie’s real human star. Yet there’s no doubt that Cruise himself willed this movie into existence, assembling a creative team, headed by director Brad Bird, that delivered a film that comes close to the ideal modern blockbuster: sleek, totally impersonal, but so expertly crafted that it brushes our objections aside. The year’s most purely satisfying entertainment, and the ultimate advertising reel for IMAX.

4. The Descendants. Watching this film makes me wish all the more that Alexander Payne had been making an annual movie for the past ten years: this is a beguiling family drama, shot through with moments of high and low comedy, and blessed with great local color and a sly supporting cast. As usual, Payne gives us characters who seem like caricatures and then edges them back toward humanity, but his touch has rarely been more assured than it is here, and he coaxes fine work from George Clooney (in his most moving performance), Shailene Woodley, and Judy Greer, whose expression of surprise at a crucial moment is one of my favorite movie memories of the year.

3. The Tree of Life. One of the strangest movies ever made, and certainly one of the most ambitious, The Tree of Life isn’t a complete success, but it’s hard to imagine how it could have done more: it’s one of those rare films whose reach exceeds its grasp only because of the grandeur of a great director’s dreams. Terrence Malick wants nothing less than to present us with a symphonic essay on man’s place in the universe, as seen through the lens of one family’s experience—and while the sequences in outer space, as conceived by the legendary Douglas Trumbull, are stunning, it’s in the evocation of a Texas childhood, anchored by Brad Pitt’s forbidding father, that the movie finally achieves the poetry it works so urgently to create.

2. Moneyball. A thrilling baseball movie with hardly any baseball, a heroic presentation of statistical analysis, and a great film starring Jonah Hill: the wonder isn’t so much that Moneyball achieves the impossible, but that it makes it look so easy. I wasn’t a fan of Bennett Miller’s Capote, which was so subdued that it almost faded from the screen as you watched it, but he emerges here as a director of considerable wit and intelligence, with a more relaxed and engaging way with actors and story, aided immeasurably by the work of Michael Lewis and screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. At the center, again, is Brad Pitt, this time with his stardom on full display: more than any actor in the world right now, he’s playing a grown man’s game.

1. Certified Copy. It’s beautiful and infuriating, frustrating and seductive, and although it initially looks like a more cerebral version of Before Sunrise, it’s really a work of stealth science fiction. The more I think about it, the more I doubt that there’s any one “solution” to the puzzle it presents, and I no longer care whether the characters played by William Shimell and Juliette Binoche are strangers, married, estranged, or living out one or more possibilities in converging timelines: all I know is that I like spending time with them in Tuscany, and that the problem that Abbas Kiarostami poses to us is less important than the picture of a marriage it creates. A modest, but hugely important, reminder of film’s possibilities.

Honorable Mention: Among the other films I wrote about at length this year, I also enjoyed Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Tabloid; Cave of Forgotten Dreams; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; and parts of Hugo, Bridesmaids, Midnight in Paris, Source Code, and Captain America, although my most memorable experience at the movies, as well as the longest, was the twenty-fifth anniversary release of Shoah.

Written by nevalalee

February 24, 2012 at 10:01 am

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