By Dwight Brown NNPA Film Critic
In 2011 there were highlights and low points. Let’s forget the latter and celebrate the best efforts in film from a year of gems. African heritage films, black actors in general release movies, black filmmakers creating their voice or establishing reputations. Foreign films, documentaries and first films too. The top ten movies are diverse and worth a view on the big screen, IMAX, DVD or VOD.
The Ten Best Films of 2011
A Better Life (***) Ever wonder what life is like for undocumented workers in the U.S. who try to scratch out a living and give their familes the things they never had? That’s the case in this very touching, portrait of Carlos Galindo, a diligent L.A. gardener (wonderfully played by Demián Bichir) who dotes on his teenage son, Luis (José Julián), who shows his dad disdain. Simple, urban storytelling (from Roger L. Simon) complex issues regarding family, racism, poverty, gang life… This film puts a face to millions of immigrants who face deportation every day.
City of Life and Death (****) It’s like watching a Chinese version of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. This gripping, historical drama chronicles the 1937 massacre of tens of thousands of Chinese in the city of Nanking by the Imperial Japanese Army during the second Sino-Japanese war. The brutalities of war are on view: murder, rape, and subjugation. Filmed in haunting black and white, this film reveals one of the most devastating tragedies ever committed on this earth. Perfectly directed by gifted filmmaker Chuan Lu with a strong cast (Ye Liu, Wei Fan, Hideo Nakaizumi) and superb cinematography (Yu Cao).
The Descendants (***1/2) As his wife lies in a coma, the result of a boating accident, the husband’s (George Clooney) life hits low point after low point. He’s estranged from his daughter and his spouse was hiding a secret. This thoughtful family drama is perfectly written and directed by Alexander Payne who set the story in wondrous Hawaii. Nothing comes easy in this tale of woe, which produces awkward drama and touching comic moments. This is Oscar gold.
Life, Above All (***1/2) Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), a young girl, lives in Elandsdoorn, a township in South Africa. Her hands are full. Her mother is dying, her stepfather is a drunk, her little stepbrother and sister are unruly and neighbors gossip endlessly about her family. Based on the novel Chanda’s Secrets, this gripping allegory about pride, secrets and shame touches the heart in all the right places. Credit the gifted child actress, a strong screen adaptation, evocative cinematography and expert, intuitive direction by Oliver Schmitz for this emotionally satisfying and cleansing experience.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (***1/2) The best MI chapter in the franchise. The year’s best action film. IMF agents Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), tech wizard Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), super feisty and sexy Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and the very enigmatic William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), go rogue to capture an evil man who wants to kick start a nuclear war. Clear and unpredictable plotting. Spectacular stunts. Oscar-winning animation director Brad Bird (“The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille”) turns this series, which had been written off, into a year-end blockbuster. See it in an IMAX theater.
Moneyball (***13/) Pity Brad Pitt’s celebrity overshadows his career. He’s a solid actor and displays his prowess in this inspiring, fact-based baseball movie about Oakland A’s General Manager Billie Beane who hires players, against conventional wisdom, based on statistics and not their star power. Beane and his assistant, egghead GM (Jonah Hill) are branded heretics for using math, sabermetrics, to propel the team of misfits to a record-breaking wining spree. Heartwarming, funny, astute dialogue hits a homerun: “We’re the last dog at the bowl.” You know how it is…”
Pariah (***) “Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs.” Such is the case with the teenage black lesbian protagonist Alike (Adepero Oduye) who fights for her identity in the gay world, her school and at home. Nothing comes easy. Her mom (Kim Wayans) hates her masculine traits. Her dad (Charles Parnell) turns a blind eye. Her Brooklyn streets are mean, yet she finds a way to express her genius in English class. Filmmaker Dee Rees examines a part of American culture that has never been explored, with three-dimensional, imperfect characters that stumble and hope to find a ways to stand tall.
Rejoice and Shout (***1/2) “Gospel music has kept us afloat. It’s very important to black people,” says Mavis Staples. She’s so right. Gospel music has evolved along with the African American experience for over 100 years and scholars like Anthony Heilbut and Bill Carpenter recall the genesis of the art form using facts, figures, photos and anecdotes. Thomas A Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, the Edwin Hawkins Singers – legendary gospel singers get credit for helping the genre develop. The most definitive and uplifting film ever made about the art form.
Separation (****) Seconds into this compelling ode to discordant marriages and family strife, an emotionally drained Iranian couple confronts separation, abandonment and a culture clash. The pitched conflict reverberates. Empathetic characters, touching performances and divisive issues pique interest. A string of incidents, escalating into frantic moments, cements attention. Though “A Separation” is set in Iran, the dire family dynamics feel universal, like they’re happening to the neighbors down the street. Filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has written and directed this year’s best foreign film.
Shame (****) In New York an office worker, Brandon (Michael Fassbender), has a secret. He’s a sexual addict. Prostitutes. One-night hook-ups. His only aversion to women is a real relationship, which he can’t navigate when he goes on date with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie, “American Violet”). Complications grow deeper when his long lost sister (Carey Mulligan), a dope addict, comes to room with him. British director Steve McQueen is an artist. The set design, art direction and cinematography are superb. His direction is exquisite, as he gives his cast room to explore raw emotions and hurt feelings. An African heritage man has directed the most challenging, controversial and arguably the best film of the year.
Good Films Hanging Off the Top Ten: Warrior, Drive, Hugo, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Colombiana, Point Blank, Bridesmaids, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, The Tree of Life, 50/50, Jumping the Broom, The Artist, Horrible Bosses, The Iron Lady, My Week With Marilyn, Fast Five, The Devil’s Double, J. Edgar, Attack the Block, Win Win, Albert Nobbs, The Conspirator, Jane Eyre, Margin Call, Biutiful, Senna, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, The First Grader.
Disappointing, Misguided Films That Couldn’t Find A Groove or Were Just Plain Awful!: The Help, The Hangover Part II, Melancholia, Killer Elite, The Skin I Live In, The Guard, Jack and Jill, Rampart.
May this be a happy and healthy 2012 for us all!