RetroSpecht.com Top 10 Films of 2011

Following tradition, I have created a list of my favorite films of the year for 2011. I suspect that there will be some films on the list you have never heard of, let alone seen. In that case I highly encourage you to seek these films out, either through NetFlix, imdb.com, or Google. Some are already available on DVD, while others may not have been released yet in your area. The Forgiveness of Blood, for instance is not due to hit theaters until February, but since I saw it at the 2011 AFI Film Festival I am including it on my list for this year. I welcome your comments. In fact, if this list doesn’t inspire some lively discussion I will be very disappointed. So, bring it on!

1) The Girl with the Dragon TattooI never read the book, or saw the original Swedish film adaptation of the highly acclaimed novel (I know, I know). Which I think gave me an unbiased impression of the American production. It was a wonderfully produced thriller/mystery, executed to perfection in every way. I predict the film will be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (which it may actually win), as will Rooney Mara for Best Actress, and Trent Reznor for the music. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend that when you do, just sit back, relax and enjoy. Some fans of the original hesitate to give credence to this remake, but that’s selling short a fine film that deserves praise in its own right.

2) The ArtistAlthough this film is in danger of being over-hyped, I can’t help but join those who have hailed The Artist as one of the best movies of the year. Yes, it’s actually a silent movie, but don’t let that dissuade you. You really won’t notice that much. It’s used to great advantage to tell the story of an artist who suffers through the challenge of Hollywood’s transition to sound. And it’s in black and white, but you won’t really notice that either as both devices only serve to enhance the atmosphere of the story. And if you know anything about the stars of the era, you’re going to absolutely love the last scene in the movie when the only words of the film are spoken.

3) Brighton RockOddly, I haven’t heard anybody talk about this film at all, let alone include it on a top ten list of the year. Did nobody else see this film besides me? It is an absolutely gorgeously shot film in the style of a classic noir, but in rich saturated colors. Sounds like an oxymoron, but in this adaptation of the Graham Greene novel the noir sensibility is represented in execution and atmosphere. A hard-edged Helen Mirren at the top of her game leads the superlative cast in a role that is not to be missed. Let’s just say that Mirren proves that sexy is not an age, but an attitude. And in Brighton Rock, Mirren is loaded with attitude.

4) The DescendantsOnce again, Alexander Payne lives up to his well-deserved reputation. The acclaimed director follows up Election, About Schmidt and Sideways with a delightfully subtle comedy about the difficulties of family, in all its forms. With its popularity it’s likely you’ve discovered the pleasures of this film for yourself. But if you haven’t yet, I recommend it for a New Years outing suitable for the family. After all, it’s always good for people to see the faults in other families in order to accept the oddities of their own. This could be a refreshing way to start the New Year off right.

5) DriveYup, I fell in love with this taught heist film as much as the next popcorn munching moviegoer of 2011. And yes, it lives up to the hype. Reminiscent of the flashy, stylized films of the 70s, Drive is a well-crafted suspense story with a strong plot balanced with just enough action. And just like the films in which it aims to pay homage, when things turn violent, they turn very violent. This film should garner some Oscar attention, particularly a well-deserved nomination for Albert Brooks in a role like you’ve never seen him before.

6) BeginnersAlthough this film came out relatively early in the year, it has remained in the consciousness of many reviews as one of the best of 2011, and for good reason. In addition to being a lovely and touching story about a man coming to terms with his father’s homosexuality, Christopher Plummer gives one of the best performances of the year as that father. If there is any justice in the world, Plummer will finally receive a statue come Oscar time.

7) A Better LifeI’m guessing you’ve never heard of this film, and that’s really too bad. A Better Life is an unusually universal story of family and financial struggles in America, focusing on the very real problems of an immigrant father. I particularly liked the way the teenage son was represented. It was fascinating to see how his Americanization, a thing his father sought, was literally pulling him farther and farther away from his parent and the traditions of family. Truly impressive is Demián Bichir’s performance as the father. It is a loving, and touching representation of a selfless parent unmatched by any other I have ever seen on screen.

8 ) The Forgiveness of BloodThis is another film you haven’t heard of, but I’m betting that by this time next year you will. The Forgiveness of Blood was for me one of the highlights of this year’s AFI Film Festival. Shot entirely in Albania, using local talent, director Joshua Marston once again brings to the screen a story unfamiliar to the lexicon of the average American, but one that will undoubtedly resonate with the viewer long after its inevitable conclusion. I particularly encourage those with teenagers to see this film with their kids, as it will give the parent and child a better appreciation for the simple problems of their own relationship compared to those in this tale.

9) The Tree of LifeI know a lot has been said about The Tree of Life, in praise and otherwise. However, strange dinosaur/evolution footage aside, this is a very good film, and oddly enough another one concerning the complications inherent to family life. Brad Pitt gives his finest performance to date as a complex father full of contradictions. He is wonderfully subtle in his presentation of a man who is just as tenderly loving as he is coldly unapproachable. This is the film of 2011 that will stay with you for a very long time.

10) The Other F Word: Unless you’re a documentary fan it’s likely you missed this gem of a film. All about Punk Rockers and their foray into parenting, the other F word in this case is fatherhood. At times this brilliant exploration into the private world of alternative rock’s iconic front men is as achingly funny as it is tenderly heartbreaking. The Other F Word proves that when it comes to family, the most anti-establishment individual can be just as loving and giving as the average dad down the street. In fact, he just may be the dad down the street, just as active in PTA meetings and daddy/daughter dances as the next guy. He just looks a little different. By far, The Other F Word is one of the best examples of never judging a book by its cover as I have ever seen. Every father, and every one with a father will enjoy this film, and leave with a better understanding of what it means to be a parent.

So there you have it. The RetroSpecht.com Top 10 Films of 2011. As I read through the list once again I see the theme of family returning again and again. Who would have though that in this day and age audiences would still be interested in such a standard theme. Or maybe it’s just me. But I don’t think so, and I am very glad to see the subject used to such wonderful and varied effect.

“A Better Life”: A Better Summer Film if You Like Good Stories

 

A father and son go on a journey in “A Better Life”

“A Better Life” tells the tale of an illegal immigrant father and his American born teenage son. The father is a sincere and honest man who works exhausting hours as a landscaper so his fourteen year old can live a better life than what would have been available to him back in Mexico. Their relationship is a strained one, as the boy is at an age of natural rebellion and is embarrassed by his father’s profession. But the father quietly endures, not minding the subtle indignations as long as his son stays out of trouble and gets an education. He even buys the truck from his retiring employer so he can carry on his work without standing on the corner waiting to be selected as a day laborer. Unfortunately, the truck is stolen, and the father and son go on a near impossible journey to get it back. Through the course of their search together the son gains a better understanding of his dad and learns what it means to be a father, and an American.  

The father sees a beautiful view just before seeing something shocking.

The story of “A Better Life” is a simple one, but don’t let that put you off. As this well executed tale will prove, simple is sweet. The very first thing you notice about “A Better Life” is the stillness and quite beauty of the cinematography and acting. Unlike other summer releases, this one is not loaded down with a bunch of fancy camera tricks or any kind of special effects other than those provided by the subtle and heartfelt performances so lovingly caught on film. And I do mean film, for this production used an old fashioned camera, providing a warm and intimate feel one can only get when shooting with actual film stock. The choice seems poignantly fitting. An old fashioned feel for an old fashioned film that offers something you rarely get from a Hollywood product anymore; a well-constructed story that entertains and satisfies. This rare achievement is particularly impressive considering that Chris Weitz’s first two films as a solo director include the fantasy extravaganza  “The Golden Compass” and the second installment of the Twilight films, “New Moon” (Weitz’s other directing credits are shared with his brother, Paul). That’s a huge swing of the pendulum; one few would expect from someone use to hundred million dollar budgets. Of course the budgets may have been very large, but the decisions were not always his to make. With a smaller budget the director gets to make more of the decisions, and in this case it appears to have paid off. One of the decisions was to shoot on real locations in Los Angeles with a bilingual cast and crew, even though Weitz himself could not speak Spanish before shooting began. It was a choice he made in order to pay honor to the cohesive intent of the film, a conscious nod to the coming together of different worlds. This thematic homage really shows through, lending the film an added depth of authenticity in every single frame.  

Although seemingly impossible, the father must try to find his stolen truck.

I will not spoil the experience of this film by giving away its ending, or even mentioning one of the most thrilling moments of the film that prompted the audience I watched it with to explode in to applause. I will tell you that the film has similarities to the classic film “The Bicycle Thieves”, which is not surprising since Weitz has mentioned watching a lot of Italian neo-realism and De Sica before beginning production. That being said there is no neat, happy ending. The conclusion is a complicated and realistic one that leaves room for possibilities. But I think intelligent audiences will appreciate the opportunity to think for themselves. Better yet, intelligent audiences will appreciate a good film without a bunch of fancy frills and post-production sweetening. Without a doubt, “A Better Life” is the best bang for the buck so far this summer. With filmmaking this clean and simple, how can you go wrong?  

October 2015 update: By the way, I predicted that the lead actor, Demian Bichir would be nominated for an Oscar for his performance.  And even thought this was a small film that almost no one saw, he was.  Unfortunately, it was the same year a s “The Artist” and Bichir lost the Best Actor statuette to Jean Dujardin.  Hopefully, we will see more of Bichir on the big screen soon.