Despite the handful of films that I want to see before I compile my Top Ten list for 2011’s films, I feel it’s time to reconcile the year and send it off into history. Hopefully, if all goes well and I’m not feeling lazy, I’ll have the first half of my list chastised and masturbated over by tomorrow night. The second part will likely follow suit on Tuesday. Initially, I was thinking of just doing a Top Ten list, but I figured I’d do a token “awards” post for the year as well. Doing a post like this hopefully shines more light on ancillary facets of film and worthwhile performances. Don’t worry, I contacted all the award winners and informed them of this prestigious honor. They’ll likely take my invisible and meaningless award to heart, thus propelling them to new artistic and professional heights.
Best Screenplay: Moneyball
This was a hard group to digest because there are many screenplays that are worth gushing over. After going back and watching a few films again, there is one that stood out in particular: Moneyball. Based off the book of the same name, the screenplay for Moneyball takes its source material’s analytical nature and pumps it full of heart by extrapolating a revolution lead by an assortment of underdogs. Written by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, the script features nine innings worth of crisp dialogue and a narrative that doesn’t play to the expectations of sports films. Through emotional resonance, full-figured characters and a narrative structure that brilliantly captures a baseball revolution without showing a lot of on field moments, Moneyball is a film that is as fresh as the grass on opening day.
Honorable Mentions: Hugo, Midnight in Paris, The Descendants, and Jane Eyre
Best Cinematography: The Tree of Life
There really shouldn’t be a debate about this category. Emmanuel Lubezki’s work in The Tree of Life is beyond gorgeous. And let me tell you, Lubezki’s lush imagery allows us to get behind Terrence Malick’s polarizing impressionism. Where Malick’s musings about life are stifling, Lubezki’s lensing of the world at large is stirring as it evokes a multitude of emotions from the viewer. Whether it’s the creation of the universe or a shot of a 1950’s Texas suburb on a fall evening, Lubezki gives us a gut reaction to the splendor and wonder of Malick’s elusive themes. Even if one can’t decipher the film as a whole, The Tree of Life is worth a watch if only to let Lubezki’s images wash over you.
Honorable Mentions: Drive, Hugo, The Artist, Jane Eyre
Best Score: Moneyball
When searching for a score to consider the best, I have a few guidelines that narrow my search: (1) It must not overpower a film, (2) It must feature pieces of music that build off one another, (3) The score amplifies the film’s emotional resonance, and (4) When listened to, each piece of music resurrects the images of the scenes it’s married to. Honestly, there was only one score that met the above requirements: Mychael Danna’s score for Moneyball. Subtle, poignant and mentally irrevocable, Danna’s work undeservedly goes unheralded. The theme is so simple, but as it continuously builds, it delivers a punch that will likely bruise your soul. Outside of his terrific arrangements, Danna makes great use of an epic piece of instrumental music from the band This Will Destroy You. The piece, titled “The Mighty Rio Grande”, has quaint moments peppered within the film, but once Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s reach their perceived pinnacle in a rousing scene, the song helps deliver a joyous outburst that lifts our characters. We can’t help but celebrate as well.
Honorable Mentions: Hugo, The Artist, Drive, Jane Eyre, Super 8
Best Special Effects: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
This category is in the same boat as cinematography because I have only one frontrunner. If you’re a summer movie maven, you’d likely agree that Rise of the Planet of the Apes had the best special effects this year. Sure, Transformers was nifty and Hugo beautifully realized 1930’s Paris, but Rise of… not only generated a sanctuary (and bridge) full of pissed off apes, but it crafted a tangible, venerable ape that the film rest its laurels on. The king of apes is Caeser, and through state of the art motion capture, he’s played by Andy Serkis, the unofficial king of motion capture performances. In films that build their characters from CGI, the emotion and depth get suffocated by stiff technology. In the case of Caeser, not only was his character design top-notch (the hair and face are tremendous), but the emotions of Serkis as a performer are intact. Serkis’ facial contortions easily bleed through, giving us a character that’s complex, relatable and every bit as human as you and I.
Honorable Mention: Transformers 3, Hugo, The Tree of Life
Best Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life)
The sheer angelic beauty of Jessica Chastain is worth the price of admission alone, but the performance she gives in The Tree of Life is phenomenal. Serving as one of the film’s main philosophical musings, Chastain concocts a character that is undeniably representative of the ideal mother. Sweet, supportive and accepting of the life that’s afforded her, Chastain’s hypnotic grace is a welcomed counterpoint to Brad Pitt’s hard-nosed father. The most telling aspect of Chastain’s performance is the transformation of her character’s religious demeanor. Watching her mutate from a religiously devout believer into a woman doubting her faith is heartbreaking.
Honorable Mention: Octavia Spencer (The Help), Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), Bérénice Bejo (The Artist)
Best Supporting Actor: Albert Brooks (Drive)
Somehow Oscar voters fucked up and failed to recognize Albert Brooks. I recognize this blog won’t rectify that grave injustice, but this guy deserves recognition for his presence in Drive. Brooks is often seen as a comedic virtuoso, but here he plays against type. He easily slips into the skin of Bernie Rose, an upper-class gangster with money and retribution on the mind. Bernie isn’t your prototypical villain. He’s merely a violent guy forced into a corner. Sure, his actions are indicative of a bad man, but the cause of his behavior stems from actions that force him into fight or flight mode. What’s even more impressive about Brooks’ performance? His ability to create a character that can convincingly justify his actions.
Honorable Mentions: Patton Oswalt (Young Adult), Christopher Plummer (Beginners), John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Jonah Hill (Moneyball)
Best Actor: Michael Fassbender (Shame)
This is undeniably a banner year for Fassbender. Not only did he support his indie cred, but he proved his mettle for the masses by starring in a summer blockbuster. Not too shabby for an actor who was relatively unknown going into the year. Although I’m rewarding Fassbender for his work across the board, his best performance hails from Steve McQueen’s repressed film (Shame) about a sex addict’s downward spiral. In Shame Fassbender delivers an emotionally reserved performance that features bouts of loneliness and despair, as his need for sexual release reaches heights of depravity. In the film’s graphic sex scenes, not only does Fassbender show his conviction for the role and McQueen’s vision through frontal nudity, but his raw disposition and carnal desperation cut any chance of eroticism. His presence leaves us with an unflinching look at a man who can’t help himself.
Honorable Mentions: George Clooney (The Descendants), Brad Pitt (Moneyball), Jean Dujardin (The Artist)
Best Actress: Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
It’s kind of amazing to see Mara’s transformation from Zuckerberg’s girlfriend in The Social Network to her performance as the Goth pixie known as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Mara demonstrated a great deal of strength and moxie in her Social Network role, but I truly didn’t know she could deliver a character as captivating and dangerous as Salander. Featuring an ever evolving hair style, multiple piercings and an attitude that is empowering, Salander is a force that is hard to deny. There is nothing classically sexy about her, but Mara injects Salander with a great deal of sexual curiosity that makes it hard not to fall in love with an enigma. She is strangely seductive. Much like Fassbender in Shame, Mara isn’t afraid to release herself from the inhibitions that hold other actors back. Through nudity and a demonstrative rape scene, Mara daringly puts herself through the ringer in the name of her craft.
Honorable Mentions: Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Viola Davis (The Help), Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia)
Best Director: Alexander Payne (The Descendants)
Alexander Payne left movies behind for too long. His lack of presence was gravely felt. Very few directors can capture an equilibrium between drama and comedy quite like Payne. Despite being out of the game for many years, Payne picks up right where he left off in The Descendants. Featuring a sterling cast of terrific performers, Payne injects The Descendants with enough uproarious humor to offset the film’s depressing premise. Achieving this balance from scene to scene is a high wire act without a safety net, but Payne’s assured vision comes through without any blemishes. What is most significant about Payne’s films, and The Descendants in particular, is that each character is fully represented. We have every reason to hate a select group of characters, but Payne forces us (as well as his characters) to understand even the most unscrupulous of people. This is why Payne is a terrific director. He makes his characters more than one note. Stemming from this is a brutal honesty that makes The Descendants funny, heartfelt and unforgettable.
Honorable Mentions: Martin Scorsese (Hugo), Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), Bennett Miller (Moneyball)