And so we come to the final week of the Best of 2011 series wherein we cover Animated Feature, Documentary Feature, and Foreign Language Film. At the moment, I have seen 145 films that went into consideration for this year's Froggy Awards. Unfortunately, there are still ten films on my 2011 viewing list that I have yet to see. Even less fortunate, most of them would have factored into today's awards.
Still unseen as of this date: Brighton Rock
A Cat in Paris (which is Animated)
Flowers of War (Foreign Language)
Gun Hill Road
Monsieur Lazhar (Foreign Language)
Oranges and Sunshine
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Documentary)
Volcano (Foreign Language)
Having cited those possibly worthy omissions, I feel pretty confident that I've seen almost all of this year's best films. If you have missed any of the previous posts in this series, you can check them out now: Prelude, The Techs, The Performances Part One, The Performances Part 2, Writers and Directors, Best (and Worst) Picture, and Best Picture (concluded). If you've seen a ton of movies this year, I'm sure I'll incite fervent agreement or disdain. If not, these posts provide an excellent opportunity to discover some of this year's lesser known gems (only three of my top ten were Best Picture nominees at the Oscars this year). As always, film titles that appear as links will take you directly to my review of said film. So, let's wrap 2011 up (it's only mid-August of 2012, after all)...
Best Animated Film
I would love to have more than five films on this list. Unfortunately, this was a REALLY weak year for animation. Most of the other animated films (that I bothered watching, sorry Cars 2) were mediocre at best. I wish I had seen A Cat In Paris, but alas, it still has no DVD release date that I'm aware of, and I don't think it even played an Atlanta venue in theatrical release, so I'll have to give myself a break on that one.
5. Chico and Rita - This was a really fun little romp through vintage Cuba's Golden Age of Jazz. It is also the only film on this list that is definitely made for adults. There is sex, nudity, swearing, and violence, although none of it is TOO explicit. The music is wonderful, the story is heartfelt, and the characters are vibrant. The animation is hand drawn 2D and it too, is beautiful.
4. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr.Morris Lessmore - Yes, I had to dip into the shorts just to get five. This particular short, however, won an Oscar back in February, and quite deservedly so. It is an enchanting little children's fable, beautifully rendered in hand drawn (or painted?) impressionist 2D. It's a magical little film, appropriate for even the youngest children.
3. The Adventures of Tin Tin: The Secret of the Unicorn - This (his first animated) film is Steven Spielberg's redemption for Part Four of the Indiana Jones saga. It is everything Crystal Skull should have been and is one film that should be lots of fun for the WHOLE family (except maybe 13-year-olds, they are really cynical). It was excluded from the Animated Feature nominees this year, probably because of the animated branch's aversion to regarding Motion Capture as true animation. The animation IS both beautiful and a little creepy, but Belle and Sirkus's characterizations sort of ease this feeling pretty quickly.
2. Arthur Christmas - This little holiday treat didn't get enough credit during the Awards Season this year. It was lots of fun, perfectly kid appropriate without being condescending. In a year populated mostly with sequels to franchises showing diminishing returns in quality, it told a clever, highly original story involving some iconic character ideas. It had fantastic stop motion animation. It had a FANTASTIC voice over cast including James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Joan Cusack, Jane Horrocks (someone PLEASE give her a follow up role on the scale of Little Voice, PLEASE), and Andy Serkis. And then there's Byrony the wrapping elf (Ashley Jensen), one of the best written and performed animated characters of the year.
1. Rango - Yeah, I know I'm really going with the grain here, but rightfully so. Great script. Great lead voice over performance by Johnny Depp. Striking animation. Funny. Surprising. Cute without being cutesy. My favorite narrators since the evil mice in Babe. Another FANTASTIC collection of voice talent: Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Oliphant, and Ray Winstone. Gore Verbinski ably directing. In a weak Pixar year, what's NOT to like?
Tin Toadstool: Rio
In a year of truly insipid, childish animated films, this stood out to me as worst in show but, like I said, I never saw Cars 2.
Best Documentary Feature
2010 was the YEAR of the documentary and the Academy gave us the most impressive list of nominees maybe ever. 2011 seemed a bit lackluster in this genre by comparison, and the Academy just REALLY got it wrong. I haven't seen Purgatory or Undefeated yet, but of the three nominees that I have seen, only one can hold a candle to any of the previous slate. But I'm bitching, there WERE some real quality documentaries this year that I thoroughly enjoyed watching.
10. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
While not Morgan Spurlock's most penetrating (or self mutilating) investigation of all time, this film is still an interesting experiment from a film maker who is always pushing himself to experiment. It left me wondering how much its use of sponsorship in a film meant to investigate marketing in America muddied its results, but maybe that sort of reinforces the point. Spurlock is witty and engaging as ever.
9. Hell and Back Again
This was sort of like the reality show version of The Hurt Locker, but much better than that sounds now that I reread it. Still...young, attractive, injured GI, anxious to return to the field of battle because he doesn't know anything else. Despite the fact that he has a family back here. The film stays pretty objective, and its subject comes off as both admirable in his courage and perhaps a bit hasty in his decisions, especially considering his injuries.
8. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Easily my favorite of the two Herzog documentaries I saw this year (the other being Into the Abyss), it seemed to suit his narration much better. This movie lagged a bit in some of the interviews with the scientists, who mostly do not seem too groomed for public speaking, but the actual exploration of the caves will take your breath away. It's like literally travelling thousands of years into the past.
I had two really great surprises on this documentary list, films that I did not expect to love, but did despite myself. Senna was the first. I have no great interest in Formula 1 racing, but the character of Senna the man was captivating. What really got me, though, was the footage of his races from inside the car. These sequences were filled with more real tension than I got out of any suspense thriller I saw this year. They really grabbed hold of you and took you along for the ride.
6. Sons of Perdition
This documentary followed the lives of several escapees from a polygamist cult and illustrated a lot of the less savory elements of human nature in the process. The film really made you root for its subjects but was not afraid to cast them in the most realistic light possible. As a result, it left you with more hope and disappointment, in equal measure, than almost anything else I watched in 2011.
5. Nostalgia For The Light
This film was about astronomy, families searching for the remains of their loved ones, the nation of Chile, and the nature of the universe. It sounds like a big jumbled stew of a film, and it is...brilliantly. I have never seen a documentary deal so much in abstraction (well, OK, maybe Exit Through the Gift Shop), but somehow it all makes a cohesive whole by the time it is done. A unique and interesting viewing experience.
My other great unexpected joy of this year's documentary crop was Buck. Whereas Senna scooped you up and dragged you along for the ride, Buck lulled you into a state of trust, and then you willingly followed. Watching this master trainer at work is mesmerizing, almost hypnotic, and his love for the animals is palpable and endearing. It's hard not to love Buck.
3. We Were Here
This was an absolutely heart wrenching film that perfectly captured a unique time in US history, or at least U.S. history in the last fifty years. A significant subset of the population experienced a true plague, and the U.S. government did...nothing...for much longer than seems possible in retrospect. We Were Here is the story of the people who lived in the most ravaged city, San Francisco. Parts of this film made my chest literally ache to watch it.
2. Project Nim
Just as heart wrenching, in its way, was this film. But it was also joyous and wondrous in parts. This of course, made it all the more difficult to watch things go wrong. I don't know if I've ever seen a movie really demonstrated the range of emotions among intelligent animals, not with real footage. This one did. It also made me think long and hard about the meaning of the word "humanity", and the nature of communication, and why it is so vital to everything in my life. It is a crime this film did not get a nomination.
I have already expounded the virtues of this film in many other categories. It sort of transcends the documentary category, like Exit Through the Gift Shop, but in its own unique way. If you appreciate interpretive dance at all, please do yourself a favor and watch it. Oh, and it makes brilliant use of 3D.
Foreign Language Film
I feel pretty well prepared to do this category. I do wish I'd seen Academy Award nominee Monsieur Lazhar, but, you can't have everything...storage alone would be a nightmare. I almost posted a top twenty, but after I made the list, I felt much more enthusiastic with just the top fifteen. These films were all really good to absolutely great, so unless subtitles killed your family and you can't even look at them, you might want to check these films out.
15. City of Life and Death
This primarily Mandarin language film from Chinese writer/director Chuan Lu, is almost Altmanesque with its myriad and diverse cast of characters moving in and out and around each other's lives during the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanjing. It is not a subtle film, nor is it one that looks away from brutality. It is one of the strongest war themed films of the year.
14. 13 Assassins
I am not a huge fan of balls out martial arts features in general, but this Japanese language film from director Takashi Miike was something special. Despite a bit of less than inspired humor (and some that was actually kind of cute) it kept me entertained throughout, achieved a bit of characterization here and there and had the most amazing, hour long, brilliantly choreographed, 100 man fight sequence that I have ever witnessed for its finale.. Seriously,almost the whole second half of the film!
13. Chico and Rita
The only animated film on this list was a great (for adults) love story told through music and across continents. It is a great, old fashioned story of doomed lovers, and yet it is a wholly original movie which might just make you fall in love with a Cuba of days long gone.
12. La Havre
Ok, I haven't published my review of this one yet, and I don't want to use my best lines, but it is a very innocent story, if not a simple one. Pushes the edges of the fine line between charm and cheese very skillfully, in much the same way that The Artist did. Review forthcoming.
German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run and the upcoming English Language feature Cloud Atlas) is good with tension, and the tension kept what could have been too contrived of a romance on point. Strong ensemble cast, and it IS kinda hot it places. Not the first story of a three-way romance, but one of the better ones.
10. Miss Bala
I really enjoyed this, my first exposure to the work of Mexican film maker Gerardo Naranjo. Definitely one of my favorite action flicks of the year. The acting was mostly excellent, the camera work was striking and interesting,and the plot moved along at a great pace. Totally believable and frightening for being so.
Oh..my review of this one is still pending, but it's witty, very well written and performed. Very wry Hebrew language dramedy nominated by the Academy.
South Korean actress Jeong-hie Yun is brilliant in this character study of a woman who finds out that she is going to lose her mind, and her desperate search to both use it in ways she never has while she's still got it, and to settle her responsibilities before it is gone. Takes one through quite an emotional spectrum.
7. Nostalgia For The Light
Almost like an anthology of short documentaries that share a vague geography except that somehow it all comes together...sort of. My first exposure to the work of Chilean documentary film maker Patricio Guzman, but I must say that he takes a very creative approach to non fiction storytelling, and has a very interesting voice.
6. Certified Copy
Acclaimed international director Abbas Kiasrostami's mostly French language, slightly surreal drama starring the great Juliette Binoche and William Shimell is a simple movie, mostly told in conversation between two people, but it not without surprises. It is no surprise that Ms. Binoche is fantastic and Mr. Shimell is quite impressive himself and the two keep the film moving....and moving.
As impressive a debut as this is for writer/director Michael R. Roskam, what really blew me away about this film was the star making performance by Matthias Schoenaerts. I think all men, if they are really honest with themselves, have felt insecure about their masculinity at some point in their lives. Jacky, Bullhead's central character, has built his whole identity around fighting that feeling.
4. The Housemaid
So soapy, and campy, and over the top, but wonderfully so. This Korean melodrama from director Sang Soo-Im has a flawless ensemble cast, mostly female, who aren't afraid to just GO FOR IT, and I think they got it. Also, a movie with many intricate flourishes, particularly the recurring background use of flame images. This one took me by surprise.
3. The Skin I Live In
Internationally beloved Spanish director Pedro Almodovar is at his best when telling stories that seem to exist somewhere just to the left of reality. This little psycho-horror-drama is his zaniest film in some time, and has a top notch cast, including Antonio Banderas, who Almodovar originally discovered. Speaking of Mr. Banderas, it is one of his best roles ever.
2. A Separation
I have already written a lot about this film in this series, and its all true. Writer/director Asghar Farhadi is well poised to become the next breakout internationally recognized auteur. On my absolute top tier of movies this year.
Although much of Pina is told in a wordless and universal dialect, those who shared in the choreographer's work speak of her in German, French, English, Spanish, Croatian, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Korean. Almost like the artists of the WHOLE world had gathered to pay her tribute. Very touching. Very moving film.
And that...was 2011. Thank you to everyone who has come along for this series. You have helped to make it my most popular ever. Please continue to read The Movie Frog. Besides regular reviews, I WILL finally be launching the Classic Cinema Series next weekend, and will be updating my predictions for this coming awards season in September, and I will continue to come up with other ideas to keep this swamp hopping.
Until next we meet,