Eyes & Ears 2011: Part 1

The Academy Award nominations were announced yesterday morning.  I thought this was as good a time as any to post the Eyes portion of my annual Eyes & Ears lists.  The following are the ten films I held most dearly from 2011.

Contagion – Steven Soderbergh’s thriller teaches us that a director who cares about craft can play our emotions like a fiddle.  That’s all Soderbergh has ever cared about – craft.  And this expertly crafted pandemic film is effective in all its goals.  From the raw performances to the razor-sharp cinematography, “Contagion” is that rare Hollywood thriller that dares to get under its audience members’ skin.  It’s a compelling portrayal of fear and the lengths humans will go to survive.  Notable here are Jennifer Ehle as a selfless scientist intent on discovering a cure, and Jude Law as a blogger activist.

Terri – This bizarre little gem won me over when I finally realized it had not succumbed to the phoniness of its countless indie counterparts.  “Terri” is filled to the brim with moments of jaw-dropping honesty. The film’s fine performers – most notably its lead, Jacob Wysocki – never spell out how we should feel or think.  We’re left, as in real life, to make judgments on the characters as their behavior unfolds.  I think alumni from rural high schools will watch this movie with warmness, admiring its portrait of outsiders and concluding it all feels real.

Hanna – From Joe Wright, the director of “Atonement” and “Pride and Prejudice”, comes this unlikely action film, which I have difficulty comparing to any other conventional action films.  There is a smoothness to the on-screen action and camerawork that remind me of “Munich”, as well as moments of bizarre beauty that evoke “A Clockwork Orange”.  Confused?  Good.  Watch the film with open arms and discover a unique and risky genre-bender.

The Descendants – Let’s be honest, sometimes George Clooney plays the same suave, silver fox he’s played in a dozen movies.  But here, director Alexander Payne puts his lead in one impossible situation after another.  “The Descendants” is a surprisingly plot-driven drama-comedy in which Clooney’s Matt King has to reconcile familial transgressions while his wife lies comatose and his ancestors’ priceless land is sized up for sale.  But this all works; the characters are given dimension with each new plot turn.  I admire Payne’s decisions directorially.  What is ultimately a very sad movie is also very funny, often simultaneously, and this is largely because all melodrama is cut off at its zenith.  Watch closely: just as a character is about to spill his soul totally – tears and snot and all – the hand of Payne sweeps in to ruin the moment.  I can see viewers leaving the film feeling unresolved.  I felt free to choose what to feel.

Midnight in Paris – I think Woody Allen – for all his accolades as a writer – is as skilled a director who has ever lived.  He surely has some clunkers under his belt, but when he succeeds, he seriously succeeds.  “Midnight in Paris” is the latest in his European film collection and it is as romantic about its city as “Manhattan” was to its city, and an even better film altogether.  Here, we see Owen Wilson in one of his finest performances (playing the role of Woody Allen to neurotic perfection) and a cast indulging in the material.  This is a movie filled with charm and beauty, and from it we clearly sense Allen’s love of literature.  For years, his movies have alluded to this (all his characters are astonishingly well-read) but in “Midnight in Paris” we see Allen the Romantic trumping Allen the Cynic in full close-up.  It’s a wonderful experience.

Trust – To watch David Schwimmer on “Friends” with his outlandish facial expression and comic overreactions, it’s hard to believe he could direct such a subtle and devastating film.  “Trust”, Schwimmer’s second feature film as a director, centers on the rape of a teenage girl named Annie (which is not shown in full detail).  Annie and her family struggles to cope with the consequences, and during this process Schwimmer creates a sense of longing that does not find fulfillment by the movie’s end.  And so, with Annie, we also long for acceptance, and fatherly protection, and perfect love.  Those are good things to long for, and the movie rightly concludes they’ll never be fulfilled in this world.

Melancholia – If not for the strange comedic undertones, “Melancholia” would be almost too much to bear.  I’m thinking back on several scenes and laughing about them, which was not my first reaction.  This is a bold and brilliant film about the end of all things, and its director Lars von Trier is wise to fill the palette with impossibly beautiful images.  Surely von Trier is playing with us every step of the way (how else could we laugh at such nihilism?) but none of it is mean-spirited, like his previous film “Antichrist”.  If you leave dumbfounded, don’t fret; even the characters are dumbfounded!  At the heart of the film’s mystery is a career-shaping performance by Kirsten Dunst, whose character Justine suffers from paralyzing depression.  The portrayal is harrowing and funny, depending on the context, and it helps us understand that “Melancholia” is about needing to resolve the irresolvable.  From prematurely ended scenes to a soundtrack littered with Wagner’s un-resolving “Tristan” theme*, von Trier builds and builds to an inevitable finale.

Hugo – An orphan boy lives and works within the walls of a train station in Paris.  His purpose is to keep the clocks running.  All the axles and wheels – they all have a purpose too, but someone has to make them move.  The boy is Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and his hostile relationship with an old toymaker is the centerpiece of this uproariously charming children’s fable from Martin Scorsese.  “Hugo” should be celebrated for its cinematography and score, for its intricate production design, for its blissful editing, even for its 3D.  Yes, all those things are superlative.  But I cherish “Hugo” for its message of purpose.  “If the whole world is a machine,” Hugo says, “there couldn’t be extra parts, which means I have to be here for a reason.”  This is a movie rooted in love – love for the characters and the time period, even love for cinema itself.  Indeed, the night I saw “Hugo” was the night I fell in love too.

Drive – Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish director of “Drive”, showcases a directorial command we usually see in directors 15 years his senior.  “Drive” is a masterpiece of tone and mood.  Even with a lead character that speaks barely a paragraph of dialogue the entire film, “Drive” is a clincher.  It quietly moves at a slow pace most of the time, which only heightens the shock of its more violent sequences.   I’m telling you, Refn is a true talent and this film is one of the finest action thrillers ever made – strange, atmospheric, risky, and filled with one amazing performance after another.

The Tree of Life – For charm and nostalgia, for warmth and beauty, for mystery and profundity, for grace and truth, for frustration and ambiguity, for beginnings and ends, look no further than Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”.  This polarizing film from an elusive and legendary director is as ambitious as the most grandiose movies that came before it.  It’s also desperately personal, more so than the most raw of film dramas.  “The Tree of Life” is about the loss of innocence, about guilt and forgiveness.  It’s about suffering needlessly.  It compares the woes and awes of its characters to those of Job, who was tempted to curse God and die.  Indeed Jack (Hunter McCracken), the young central character of the film is also tempted to curse God, and he comes very close to doing it.  “The Tree of Life” attempts to show us what God did before we were ever here and what he’s still doing now even though we can’t see him, and the intense and sometimes cold emotions that follow make the film one of the wonders of modern cinema.

My Own Private Award Ceremony:

Stellar Teenage Performance Award: Jacob Wysocki – “Terri”; Shailene Woodley – “The Descendants”; Liana Liberato – “Trust”

Awkward Wedding Reception Award: “Melancholia” (which was purposely awkward) & “Breaking Dawn Part 1” (which was accidentally awkward)

Award for Slapstick Actors in Dramas with Outcast Teenagers: Will Ferrell – “Everything Must Go” & John C. Reilly – “Terri”

Movies About Movies Award: “Hugo” & “The Artist”

Eschatological Award: “Melancholia”, “The Tree of Life”, “The Future” & “Another Earth”

Did your favorites from 2011 appear on my list?  What did I leave out?

*Thanks to Ricky Hutton for explaining the “Tristan” theme to me.  His insights helped me understand another layer of von Trier’s madness.

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About Collin Damon Welch
Collin worked in the film/TV industry for a while. Now he's pursuing ministry. He and his incomparably beautiful wife Nicole live in Chicago.

2 Responses to Eyes & Ears 2011: Part 1

  1. philipmoser says:

    You left out “Rising of the Planet of the Apes” and “The Muppets” entirely! Caesar from “Rise” for best actor, and “Muppets” for best original score ever. C’mon Big C!

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