With the summer movie season mostly wound down now, it’s easy to look back and the winners and losers among the various huge tentpole projects. For instance, none of you saw Cowboys & Aliens, and this is why we can’t have nice things. It’s important, though, to think back on the moviegoing year and catch up with some stuff you might have overlooked or passed on paying insane movie theater prices for. Today, I’d like to put up five movies that are among the year’s best, or just a lot of fun, and submit them for your approval.
Five 2011 movies you really should catch up on
Easily my favorite film of the year so far, Beginners is as richly colored and deeply felt a movie as Mike Mills’ previous film Thumbsucker was not. Ollie (Ewan McGregor, doing his best work in some time) has been left disassociated from his love life, upon learning that his father Hal (Christopher Plummer), recently deceased, was gay. Though this explains the long-ago internalized tensions in his own love life, Ollie is left to find his own way and forge love with Anna (Melanie Laurent), a French actress who stumbles into Ollie’s life at a house party. This is a subtle movie, built mostly out of glimpses of Ollie’s life when his father came out, during his battle with cancer and after his death. It’s also a real film, a true and emotionally honest portrait of the very roots of love. And if this doesn’t get Christopher Plummer an Oscar, I riot.
2) The Future
I’ve been singing the praises of Miranda July’s deeply strange relationship drama since South By Southwest in March, and it’s held up on repeat viewing. Ostensibly it’s a film about Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater), a pair of semi-aging bohemians living in Los Angeles, who find themselves pulled apart by the pressures of adopting a cat and committing to the inevitable escalating beats of adulthood that culminate in death; as Jason puts it “We’re almost 40. After 40 is 50, and after 50 is just loose change.” The above undersells the bizarre world The Future inhabits though. From a sequence involving two of Sophie’s coworkers aging rapidly that recalls Synecdoche, New York to a time-stop sequence that leads to Jason having a long conversation with the moon, this is a singularly brilliant work. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that their soon-to-be-adopted cat Paw Paw functions as an emotionally wrenching Greek chorus throughout the film.
3) Take Me Home Tonight
Shelved since 2007, Take Me Home Tonight was custom-built to exploit the ’80s nostalgia boom years ago, and was mostly dismissed when it finally arrived, ironically enough, as being late to the party. It’s a shame, because it’s a damn funny film, with magnetic leading turns from Topher Grace and Teresa Palmer and a hysterical one from Dan Fogler, an underrated physical comedian who’s been saddled with an undeserved reputation as a hack. A throwback to single-night party movies of the neon decade, Tonight hits the essential bullet points: guy wants girl, guy lies to girl, guy loses and gains girl and realizes (sort of) what he really wants to do with his life. If anything, the anarchy of Tonight‘s third act is the most modern thing about it, because nobody really learns any kind of lesson, just that an endless party, if observed properly, can be pretty memorable. More than any film from the era it’s aping, I was reminded of Adventureland; that was a far subtler and more resonant film (Tonight is broad beyond broad), but both use the ’80s as a mere jumping point for something more interesting.
4) 13 Assassins
It was a shrewd move on director Takashi Miike’s part to turn down his typical penchant for explicit, sadistic viscera for 13 Assassins, because in defying expectation he was free to make his best film in years. A remake of a 1963 swordplay film, Miike’s version plays like Seven Samurai on a mixture of steroids and amphetamines. Thirteen samurai, left all but useless by an era of peace, are commissioned by the government to kill the bloodthirsty Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) before he joins the Shogun’s council and brings back the “time of war.” Like the chambara films of old, the men are drawn lightly but with just enough story to generate empathy and a concern for their well-being, especially since they openly acknowledge their desire to die nobly while they have the chance. This builds to a 45-minute action sequence in a small village that stands as the single most exciting moment in any movie this year. From flaming cattle to swordplay to even a rock-swinging mountain man, 13 Assassins‘ finale is one for the ages.
5) I Saw The Devil
I Saw The Devil is a truly nihilistic movie, the story of an unrepentant serial killer and the widowed federal agent who turns the former into his quarry in the cruelest game of cat and mouse imaginable. It’s also a haunting meditation on the senseless nature of revenge, and the empty victory it ultimately yields. Min-sik Choi takes a complete 180 from his antihero in Oldboy, playing one of the most terrifying movie murderers in recent memory. The film is not an easy watch, I’ll say that now; there hasn’t been this much body mutilation in a genre film since Cronenberg’s heyday. If you’re ready, though, this is a movie that stays with you, long after the lights go back on.