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Top 10 Films of the Year

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DECEMBER 12, 2011

10. “Jane Eyre”

A girl stumbles across the wild and stormy moors, gasping for breath. This is pretty much a requisite scene in all adaptations of “Jane Eyre,” but rarely are we thrown into it in the first few minutes of film, as in this latest interpretation from Cary Fukunaga.

Fukunaga takes great liberties in adapting the classic novel for film. One of the most adapted novels of all time, “Jane Eyre” has never been this manipulated. Throwing chronology to the wind, it begins with a fully grown Jane at the height of despair, with occasional flashbacks to situate us in the narrative. Key characters are done away with, and others are given larger roles, but all with good reason. After all, any movie with more screen time for Judi Dench (who plays the venerable Mrs. Fairfax) is a better one.

Dench’s isn’t the only great performance offered. Mia Wasikowska’s take on Jane is definitely the best yet, capturing the essence of the heroine’s trembling defiance in just a sideways glance. It’s also a wonder how they were able to pull off the “plain and little” look on a usually stunning Wasikowska, but with her small frame and precise features, it worked.

— Michelle Ma

9. “Contagion”

Think again before touching that doorknob or napkin handed to you by a sniffling co-worker. The mumps outbreak in Berkeley earlier this year coincided the release of “Contagion,” heightening the film’s already frightening hypochondriac paranoia. As Steven Sodherberg’s slickest feature in years, technical expertise and a star-studded cast make this disaster-thriller both accessible and surprisingly intellectual. The all-too-credible scenario involves a highly infectious virus (think H1N1 meets SARS) and our increasingly connected modern world, with humans and germs alike packed onto international flights and school buses.

“Contagion” could have easily gone for apocalyptic horror, in the vein of zombie flicks. However, Sodherberg’s strictly scientific approach observes disease-ravaged families and public health officials worldwide with a cool gaze. The body count is high, but strong performances like Matt Damon’s grieving father and Jennifer Ehle’s steady vaccine scientist reveal compassion. The film’s rapidly-spreading pandemic holds chilling plausibility today. Our globalized society is tightly bonded — and all the more vulnerable to collapse.

— Deanne Chen

8. “Certified Copy”

The premise of “Certified Copy” is fairly simple at first glance. Iranian writer and director Abbas Kiarostami introduces us to two main characters, a middle-aged man and woman played by William Shimell and veteran French actress Juliette Binoche. The man is an academic who writes about art and authenticity. The woman attends his lecture. They have a long drive and a long conversation. On the surface, “Certified Copy” seems derivative itself, a copy of those great walk-and-talk classics, “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” But something happens.

One comment is made, the scene shifts, the truths we thought we knew of these characters are turned upside down and reality is made uncertain. They still walk and talk, but with an air of familiarity previously unseen. It’s a testament to Kiarostami’s gradual pace, long takes and exquisite casting that “Certified Copy” achieves so much with so little. With only two actors, Kiarostami’s philosophical mindfuck provokes and perplexes with a delicacy so subtle, you can hardly detect the authentic from the fake.

— Jessica Pena

7. “Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest”

Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest” provides unrivalled insight into the complex partnership between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, two of hip-hop’s most influential figures.
The film chronicles everything from their childhood friendship to their subsequent thunderous stumble into the world of East Coast rap. What sets the film apart from an ordinary biographical depiction is its success in invading the drama that currently divides the group in almost voyeuristic fashion.
Some have called Q-Tip the McCartney of the group and Phife Dawg-the Lennon. The film adequately illustrates the disagreements that have kept the beloved group apart for so long in a way that does not judge their actions but also does not conceal its often petty and dramatic nature.
Toward the film’s third act the portrayal of Phife Dawg’s deteriorating health expresses a sincere sense of urgency for peace. There is a moment where Phife and Q-Tip acknowledge love for each other during separate interviews. Phife Dawg is in the hospital and receives a warm text from his friend Q-Tip. In a prideful world, there is always hope.

Carlos Monterrey

6. “Midnight in Paris”

It’s a fine gift. It’s rare.” These words come from Corey Stoll, the actor who gives a hilarious performance in the fantastical romantic-comedy “Midnight in Paris” as Ernest Hemingway. Though Hemingway speaks of the writing abilities of his contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), one cannot help but think of the film’s writer/director, Woody Allen.

For roughly ninety minutes, Allen deftly guides us through Paris with his comforting and familiar brand of humor. We follow successful Hollywood screenwriter and fledgling novelist Gil (Owen Wilson) as he lives out his fantasy of partying and receiving career advice from his 1920s literary idols. Though at times the portrayal of these artists borders on caricature, Allen knows, as we all do, that we will forever identify them outside of their work by their easily identifiable idiosyncrasies.

While not Allen’s best film, “Midnight in Paris” might be one of 2011’s most enjoyable, for it reminds us why we create — to inspire future generations, as those greats we prominently feature on our bookshelves and in museums have inspired us. It appears that inspiration, to inspire and to continue to be inspired, is still Allen’s rare and fine gift.

— James Bell

5. “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”

After four years away from the film scene, Apichatpong Weerasethakul returned with a film bursting with dreamlike imagery that could have only come from the mind of a truly original filmmaker. “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” highlights the impact of memories as an integral tool of the filmmaking process, as the director pays homage to the Thai television serials and films that inform his own work.

The film centers on Boonmee, a landowner in the Thai countryside bordering Laos coming to terms with his own mortality. The film takes a supernatural turn when Boonmee encounters the ghost of his dead wife, prompting the reappearance of his long lost son, now transformed into a red-eyed monkey-man.

Weerasethakul blurs the line between fantasy and reality, as he avoids the conventions of narrative. His choices create an intimately personal film that forces audiences to engage with the material.

“Uncle Boonmee” finds the director at a juncture in his career. Once seen as a divisive figure, Weeraskethakul’s name is now synonymous with the state of art house films, with “Uncle Boonmee” marking a achievement in a career that will surely continue to offer originality.

Jawad Qadir

4. “13 Assassins”

Call it a requiem for the Age of the Samurai — Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins” opens with a public act of seppuku in the face of bureaucratic injustice and ends with a lone samurai walking off-screen in the aftermath of a violent showdown, navigating his way through an irreversible swath of ruin.

Set in the turbulent years of 1840s Japan, the film begins by dividing its time between two narratives: We witness firsthand the repulsive sadism of Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) and his ruthless determination to hold onto power in the waning years of the shogunate government, and then follow veteran samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) as he assembles a team of courageous men on a mission to assassinate Naritsugu.

The parties converge in the form of a bravura battle sequence sustained over the film’s final 45 minutes, in which the samurai — relentless guardians of a dying way of life — clash in breathtaking fashion with Naritsugu’s corrupt legions. In its exquisite recreation of a lost world, Miike’s strongest picture to date attains poignant, timeless dimensions.

— David Liu

3. “Meek’s Cutoff”

For a film dwelling in a uniquely American subject (the perilous pursuit of manifest destiny along the Oregon Trail), made by a very American director (Kelly Reichardt), “Meek’s Cutoff” is surprisingly European in flavor. Shot in good ole 4:3 aspect ratio, this postmodern western is a bleary mystery, a languorous exercise in mood and tone. Here, the desert is as bone-dry as the weary souls within it, played by such fine young actors as Michelle Williams, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan. Along the way, a shady guide called Stephen Meek, who’s as lost as they are, leads the troupe astray. Amid a movie year soaked in genre experiments, no film turned such a thing on its head more subversively than “Meek’s,” spinning a travel narrative into an authentic portrayal of life on the frontier, and it’s nothing like that pixely platform game you played as a kid. Instead of dysentery, you’re more likely to contract existential despair. In one scene, Williams, always a game player of ordinary people, loads and fires a rifle out into the great nothing. This is among 2011’s most thrilling moments of cinematic violence: not a cry for help, but a cry of desperation heard by no one.

— Ryan Lattanzio

2. “Melancholia”

Lars von Trier makes films about women seeking aesthetic experience. Selma of “Dancer in the Dark” wants sight, Bess in “Breaking the Waves” wants flesh and Justine in the Danish director’s latest and greatest wants something more than the dull light of everyday life. In a mighty performance, Kirsten Dunst is Justine, a bride who grows weary of the marriage plot, dumps her husband on their wedding night and descends into catatonic depression. Opposite her is sister Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose psychic distress is triggered by the imminent collision of a rogue planet called Melancholia with Earth. Already aware that “the Earth is evil, we don’t need to grieve for it,” Justine is cavalier about the whole thing. In this film, it already feels like the end of the world, so it damn well should be. Von Trier’s sublime, overflowingly open visual style is heaven to behold, and the work of Dunst and Gainsbourg is something out of this solar system. A director always ready to wear his bombast proudly, von Trier brings it all together in an operatic final sequence set to the cosmos-shaking sounds of Wagner. It’s better than ice cream.

— Ryan Lattanzio

1. “Drive”

“Drive” is a film that brings back the car as the object of American cinematic obsession. Behind the wheel of a 1973 Chevy Malibu, which probably deserved a spot in the credits itself, is our soft-spoken and reclusive driver with no name (Ryan Gosling) who sports a white jacket with a scorpion on his back.

He’s the archetypal film-noir protagonist and is emblematic of the rest of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s narrative-style, using reductive characters and 80’s-neon vignettes.

“Drive” oozes with neo-noir style and is coupled with a retro aesthetic that leaves you dreaming in an ocean of blue pastel tones contrasted with burnt orange hues. With backdrops ranging from dramatic sunsets to the Los Angeles skyline, Refn creates a scenic atmosphere that can be breathed in between the sparse Bogartian dialogue.

The film’s standout scene takes place in a dramatically lit elevator where our tense driver stands between the film’s femme fatale (Carey Mulligan) and a hitman, climaxing in the movie’s most romantic and deadliest scene. Refn restarts the engine of the neo-noir genre by making a film with looks that could (and actually do) kill.

— Daniel Means

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DECEMBER 12, 2011