Five Must-See Films of 2011

On the eve of Hollywood’s biggest night, Academy voters and everyday moviegoers alike are obliged to assess a
year’s worth of movies and decide which are worthy of recognition.
Whether you are a professional critic or
just a self-proclaimed movie buff, you are likely to acknowledge a
relatively thin field in 2011. The year in cinema provided no film that
achieved both critical and box office success—like 1994’s
Forrest Gump or 1972’s
The Godfather
—nor any film that could be said to define our generation—like 2010’s
The Social Network or 1989’s
Do the Right Thing 
(Strangely, the film that comes closest to achieving each of these feats may be the newest adaptation in the
Harry Potter franchise.).

Still, a handful of films stand out as ones that
belong in our generation’s collective memory. Either in their
singularity, their authenticity or their thought-provoking nature,
these works distinguished themselves as the five must-see
films of the year. 

5. Midnight in Paris: The new
generation of writer/directors who are now entering their prime is
certainly indebted to the definitive screenwriter of the
generation past: Woody Allen. For almost 50 years, Allen has
translated his neurotic eccentricity into comedies that exhibit a
profundity usually absent from the genre. Moreover, in
2011’s Midnight in Paris, he is able to avoid his usual
mistake: casting himself. Owen Wilson’s embodiment of Allen’s zaniness
works to perfection in the film, which transports his character to 1920s Paris. In showing the convolution of that idealized time and in
emphasizing the majesty and beauty of our own world, Allen urges us not to get caught up in the past but to live for the present. His unusual
take on
carpe diem resonates in the film’s originality, which, when paired with a clever screenplay, makes
Midnight in Paris Allen’s best in years.   

4. The Trip: Michael Winterbottom’s
newest film was a breath of fresh air amid the stale crop of comedies
released in 2011. A semi-improvised look at the
somewhat embellished lives of comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon,
The Trip
is a comic romp through the nooks and crannies of Northern
Europe. The chemistry between the leads is authentic, with their
effortless back-and-forth ranging from a series of celebrity impressions
to heartfelt chats about old age and solitude. That’s
what echoes about this film: after all the immature antics, the
hysteria must ultimately yield to the humanity.

3. Melancholia: Snubbed by the Academy after insensitive remarks made by its director,
Melancholia may be, in its unbridled romanticism, the most truly
sublime film of the past decade. At every turn, director Lars von
Trier has the audience in awe of the sheer magnitude of his work, moved
and terrified by its physical scope and emotional weight. The viewer
bears
a heavy burden throughout (though impending cosmic collision is perhaps
a clichéd materialization of anxiety) but is rewarded for it with a
visual treat and a refreshing look at human connectivity. Von Trier’s
often-excessive overture is girded and nuanced
by bravura performances from leading ladies Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte
Gainsbourg, who give their characters emotional veracity unseen in any
other film this year. 

2. The Artist: An early favorite for the Academy’s Best Picture award,
The Artist would become the first French film to ever bring home
the golden statuette if all goes according to plan, and it would be
nothing if not deserved. Michael Hazanavicius transformed his dream of
making a silent
film into a buoyant monument to the genre. The two leads, Hollywood
unknowns Jean Dujardin and

Bérénice Bejo, captivate the audience with their expressive faces—it is
nearly impossible not to surrender to their charisma. But the euphoria
created by this film belies its director’s cunning. Hazanavicius
cleverly drags us along his emotional sinusoid with
his cinematographic bag of tricks, even playing with sound in what is
supposed to be a silent film. This last bit of trickery reflects the
film’s ultimate lesson: you must not deny the changes that come or be a
stick in the mud. Instead, Adapt! Persist! And Continue to do what you love! 

1. The Tree of Life: To categorize Terrence Malick’s latest project as a “film” seems unfair.
The Tree of Life is a masterwork that transcends genre, bouncing
back and forth between media to explore the intersection of themes
modern and prehistoric. If there is one descriptor that seems adequate
for Malick’s
work, it is “beautiful.” The aesthetics themselves
are gorgeous: the rolling green landscapes, lush yards and crystalline
waters, the effervescence of the two leads, Brad Pitt and Jessica
Chastain, the carefree
innocence of the child actors, the ethereal surrealism with which
Malick paints memories of the past, images bent through the golden sheen
of a sprinkler or the white wisps of curtain and the director’s
depiction of the beginning of the universe. Each visual
is marked by such fragility and sophistication that it may stand alone
as artwork. Each image also carries
with it pathos. The film’s microcosmic human narrative focuses on a
family’s loss of a child, but in sweeping scenes that portray everything
from the origin of that matter to the beginning
of life, Malick contextualizes this human loss. He juxtaposes it with a
scene in which one dinosaur watches another struggle for life. The
dinosaur pauses and seems to empathize momentarily, but he ultimately
continues on. Malick here ponders the humanness
inherent in grief, the uniqueness in our multifaceted despair and the
intrinsic connection this gives us with humankind at large.

In its unusual narrative and macrocosmic scope,
The Tree of Life is not a film to be seen and immediately
understood. It is a work to be grappled with. One must wrestle with the
film’s every aspect to tease out what Malick is trying to convey. Thus,
The Tree of Life is not the best film of the year, but the best
experience of the year. 

Please note: the above films are limited to
English-language films. There are too many foreign films that I have not
had opportunity to view.

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