Friday, January 27, 2012

LeapBackBlog 2011 Film Awards – Part 5: Films

Film in 2011 saw many very good films. Deciding what made the lists and what did not was very difficult this year, and there are more than a few great films, performances and technical achievements that I had to leave off. The LeapBackBlog Film Awards are comprised of what I think were the best and most interesting films, the strongest performances (taking into consideration who the actor is and what else they have done, and 2011 again features a lot of amazing breakthrough performances), the narrative style that drew me in (best directing), and exquisite craftsmanship (best technical achievements). But really, these are lists of my favorites from the year.


Beginners is both humorously quirky and very sad (maybe even a little melancholy at times), sometimes within the same scene. It is the story of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a man who has never had a meaningful relationship in his life. But after his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), dies, he meets a girl, Anna (Melanie Laurent), who might change all that if he is willing to let her in. Mike Mills crafts the film to be split between just before and just after Hal’s death. Mills also addresses social themes that resonate powerfully today, giving the film a meaningful subtext. Beginners is a treat of a film highlighted by some of the year’s best performances, a brilliant script and an indie sensibility.

Featuring some of 2011’s best performances and a fantastic script, The Descendants is about Matt King (George Clooney), a father who has to take sole responsibility for raising his two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) for the first time, after his wife is gravely injured, while also having a lot of pressure put on him as he makes a huge decision affecting his whole extended family. It takes place in Hawaii and writer-director Alexander Payne incorporates the state and nature heavily into the narrative. The Descendants is quite funny, but it is the deeper dramatic moments and character relationships that make it special (much like Payne’s other great film Sideways).

Nicolas Winding Refn reinvents the action crime drama with Drive, a film about a stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who moonlights as a wheelman. He makes a connection with a girl, Irene (Carey Mulligan). But when he tries to help her out, taking her husband’s place in a heist, he finds that a gangster (Albert Brooks) has put a contract on his head when the heist goes wrong. Aesthetically speaking, this is a cool film, with stylized ultraviolent beats, interesting photography and marvelous found and scored music. Drive is unlike any crime drama released this year, let alone any other film. It is an engaging (maybe even haunting) visceral experience.

Hanna is a fairytale told in the gritty action thriller genre, but also works as a coming-of-age story. Joe Wright’s film is about a 16-year-old Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) who is raised in solitude and trained to be an assassin by her father (Eric Bana) to keep her safe from a brutal intelligence agent Marissa (Cate Blanchett) who wants her for herself (dead or alive). Once Hanna is ready, her father sends her out into the world to find and kill Marissa. But, Hanna she is not prepared for the relationships she encounters. The film is a lustrous display of incredible aesthetics and performances. The score, production design, cinematography, and directing all help to present Hanna as the entertaining and artistic piece it is.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) have come to the end of their journey in the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. They face bleak odds as they prepare for the final battle with Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). David Yates has done a masterful job framing the last four films in the series, but the Deathly Hallows (Part 1 and 2) is his crowning achievement. Part 2 features beautiful, heroic and tragic performances, wondrous aesthetics and most importantly a completely satisfying ending this beloved saga. With all the urgency and despair that surrounds the narrative, Yates has an exceptional knack of infusing humor and moments of quiet, getting the tone just right.

The Help is about Skeeter (Emma Stone), an inspiring writer who returns home to Jackson, Mississippi, to find she no longer fits into the societal construct, headed by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), made up of children raised by African-American maids who grow up to think of them as second-class citizens. Skeeter decides to write a book from the maids’ perspective enlisting the help of two such maids: Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer). Tate Taylor’s film is tremendous because it addresses the social issues raised without the heavy-handed preachy delivery usually abundant, and the characters are fully fleshed out, relatable and real. The Help (along with Beginners) is not only good, but also a socially important film.

A mystery along the lines of films like Oldboy and Memento, Incendies has a dynamic and shocking story, which completely engrosses its viewer. Denis Villeneuve’s unflinching tale is about twins (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette) living in Canada who travel to the Middle East to uncover a secret regarding their family, fulfilling their mother’s, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), last wishes. Nawal’s story is incredible and takes on many genres, but primarily that of a thriller. Villeneuve’s film also tackles the issue of how futile and meaningless it is to hate another solely based on religion. Incendies is relevant and stunning, but best of all it has a fantastic journey for its viewer.

Charlotte Bronte’s gothic romance has been adapted for cinema many times (one of my favorites being the 1943 version with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine), but Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre still feels fresh and new. His Jane (Mia Wasikowska) is a strong feminist character, quick with wit and strong willed, wanting a better life for herself. Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender) is very charismatic yet with an internal secret tearing him apart. Fukunaga captures the tone and atmosphere of the novel and characters wonderfully, and the film is beautiful aesthetically to behold with brilliant cinematography, production design and especially its score.

As far as cinematic nostalgia goes, 2011 was full of it – from The Artist and Hugo remembering cinema’s early years to J.J. Abrams fondly reminding many of us of our childhoods with his Spielberg-like sci-fi adventure Super 8. It is about a group of kids, headed by Joe (Joel Courtney), who set out to make a zombie film only to witness a terrible train crash, which unleashes a government secret. Much like Abrams’s other work, Super 8 is fast-paced, full of action and has important character moments – it may be the most entertaining film of the year. It also features a wonderful young cast that even rivals The Goonies. For fans of the genre, this is a very welcome addition.

Writer-director Matthew Vaughn dropped out as director of X-Men: The Last Stand a few weeks into production, but he made amends returning to direct and co-write this prequel/reboot. X-Men: First Class is by far the best in the series and is really the X-Men film fans have been waiting to see. It is about the rise of the X-Men through the friendship that forms between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) while fighting a common enemy Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Setting the film in the 1960’s works fantastically as aesthetically the film is marvelous, especially its production design. I cannot wait to see the next installment with these actors and filmmakers.

Honorable Mentions:

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