Why, I ask, should the Academy have all the fun? Like everyone else, I assume that my taste is just as good as theirs if not better (seriously – the song from motherfucking Rio), and that is why I am proud to present the third annual Antagonist Awards for Excellence in Cinema That Appeals to Me, and To Hell With Y’all. With this, my retrospective of the 2011 movie year is complete, and I can with a clear conscience look ahead to the new horizons of filmmaking c. 2012, such as the 3-D reissues of The Phantom Menace and Titanic.
The Tree of Life
Surprise, surprise, I’m still in the bag for Terrence Malick’s grandiose, visually staggering exercise in the origin of morality and the nature of God, and the painful dynamics of a tight family. The mere fact that I don’t agree with about any of its central conceits about spirituality, gender roles, or history, and it still just ruins me every time, is proof enough that it’s doing a lot of things right.
1st Runner-Up: Certified Copy
A terrifically dense exploration of what signifies “reality”, half experimental film and half character study, anchored by two great performances and Abbas Kiarostami’s well-honed sense of cinema’s own inherent authenticity
Tuesday, After Christmas
Hugo, is, as some of the naysayers have it, spectacle for spectacle’s sake, but when it’s spectacle this complex (bleeding edge technology meets 110-year-old popcorn cinema), I am and will remain quite unapologetically a fan. A Separation is just dumbfounding, a mesmerising concoction of Iranian sociology and personal suffering turned into a legal thriller of the first order. Tuesday is the most aesthetically straighforward of the five, a devastating three-way depiction of how infidelity changes all the people it touches; all the unbelievably convincing, well-written people.
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
When one’s favorite motion picture in five years got to be that way on account of an uncompromising auteur’s 30-year quest to make it exactly how he envisioned it… I mean, you sort of have to, y’know?
1st Runner-Up: Asghar Farhadi, A Separation
Most of what is best – of course, the whole film is a bunch of individual “bests” – but what is best about this film always comes back to the precision with which each beat, each gesture, and each frame is tied into one flawlessly complete whole. If that’s not the sign of great directing, then great directing just plain doesn’t exist.
Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy
Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Gore Verbinski, Rango
Kiarostami’s ability to erase the lines between moments and characters is the key to the film’s challenging, bracing central mysteries. Scorsese’s love of toys hasn’t resulted in so much creativity since the early 1990s; the opening tracking shot is his single finest creative moment since the cocaine bust sequence in Goodfellas. Verbinski’s complete embrace of logic so absurd that even “cartoon” implies more sanity results in as deliriously, engagingly singular a vision as mainstream American animation has ever produced.
Anna Paquin, Margaret
Shelved for five years, Paquin’s now-subtle, now-hysterical, now-cryptic, now-sloppy performance of confused teen identity in the wake of 9/11 is a triumph in every way; the film relies in its entirety on her being an endlessly fascinating (if not always endlessly appealling) central figure, and the actress more than lives up to this requirement.
1st Runner-Up: Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy
One of our greatest actresses, doing as she do; but even by Binoche’s standards, this is miraculous work, finding a solid bedrock for a character so purposefully ambiguous we know neither her name, nor a single reliable fact of her biography. An extraordinary demonstration of how to play an unplayable character
Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter
Mirela Oprişor, Tuesday, After Christmas
Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin
In the Year of Chastain, her most fleshed-out, human performance was as the center of gravity around which her dissolving co-star’s reality hinged; we can debate whether it’s “lead” or “supporting” later. Oprişor has to bubble along as the wronged woman for most of a movie – and she does it well – but her contained explosion in the final scene is the best single moment of acting all year. Swinton is, if not giving her career-best work, at least circling the block of it, as a woman tormented by everything and everyone, but especially her own putrid survivor’s guilt.
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
About as subdued as acting can be before it turns into just sitting there, waiting for the word “action”, but for all that Oldman’s performance consists mostly of doing and saying nothing, the measured, almost invisibly small ways he demonstrates how very active he’s being in his inaction, right up until he springs, is the most intellectual touch in this most intellectual spy film.
1st Runner-Up: Mimi Brănescu, Tuesday, After Christmas
It’s impossible to think of an English-language actor who would have gone so far into creating such a sad, selfish lump of a man as Brănescu does here: without sacrificing humanity or sympathy, he creates a very convincing depiction of a guy who’s the villain in every story but his own, and manages to let us see that inside without ennobling himself.
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Peyman Maadi, A Separation
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
The longer I resisted plugging Dujardin into this list, the more I knew it was because I wanted to be seen having the “right” opinion. To hell with it. He is charming as anything, beautifully capturing the self-obsession but also the magnetism of vapid leading men over 90 years of the movies. Maadi, now he’s the “right” sort of choice, but that’s mostly because his depiction of a man’s descent into self-doubt and repressed guilt is the spine of the most complex character-driven film of the year. Shannon, meanwhile, manages to precisely augment what are the right times to go all out and the right times to hold back so much you can almost see him vibrating with the hurt of it, in a film about a man watching himself go insane.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Leila Hatami, A Separation
She’s in the movie perhaps the shortest time of any of the four principals, but from the opening scene to the final shot, it is hers entirely. Her bright, intense gaze shoots right through the lensand pins you to the seat, and it is impossible to pay attention to anyone or anything else when she’s onscreen; but more than just a natural ability to command the camera, is the unbelievable depth of feeling she brings to her role, as complete a movie character as we’ve seen in years.
1st Runner-Up: Viola Davis, The Help
“Supporting” in that she serves almost entirely as the catalyst to other people’s arcs; but the brilliance of the performance lies in the way that Davis invests her character with all the rich humanity the rest of the movie so sorely lacks, and thus redistributes the entire project so that even if it’s not “about” her, she’s the one we care about with all our heart.
Jeannie Berlin, Margaret
Carey Mulligan, Shame
Maria Popistaşu, Tuesday, After Christmas
Berlin’s spicy, snarly work is so close to parody that it might even cross the line, but her ferociousness is too visceral not to work as the most savage – one might say, strident – contrast to the main character’s confusion. Mulligan is quiet and restrained to the point of almost disappearing, except that her silent misery is so piercing, even next to the enormity of Michael Fassbender’s suffering. Popistaşu plays a most unconventional Other Woman with exceptional bite and personality, giving life to her character’s culpability and victimisation in equal measure, without ever sacrificing a scintilla of inner strength.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
It took three viewings before the depth of the performance really hit me: but did any performer have to suggest so many conflicting states of being as Pitt, the Angry God and Loving Father and Harsh Taskmaster and Emasculated Male of Terrence Malick’s unknowable theology? It is a role kept at too much of a remove from the audience to require our sympathy or our hate, but Pitt finds ways to earn them both, regardless.
1st Runner-Up: Corey Stoll, Midnight in Paris
Utterly intoxicating: a parody of Ernest Hemingway on the one hand, mimicry on the other, but what makes it great is that he’s not using our trite concept of Papa’s absurdly overblown masculinity as an end, but as a means of finding a way inside a man who was so overwhelmingly about exteriors. The most real character in a film rather short on genuine human beings.
Tommy Lee Jones, Captain America: The First Avenger
Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Jones’s frivolous comic turn would seem slight, if it weren’t so welcome: not since Robert Downey, Jr. first put plates of iron on his body has an actor bothered to remember that summertime action movies are supposed to be, first and above all, giddy, silly fun. Mortensen is comic in a much wryer, subtler vein; his robust, cigar-chomping Sigmund Freud is easily the third of a fascinating triangle of actors that has stuck with me the most, both for how it redirects and imbalances Cronenberg’s experiment in period filmmaking. Plummer’s much-heralded turn doesn’t need more praise from me; suffice it to say that his gleeful discovery of joy and self-fulfillment was bittersweet bliss of the highest order, and worthy of a much better project than the dried-up quirk surrounding him.
It’s one thing to assemble that many comic performances and have every single one of them work; and a great thing. But the real genius of the cast lies in their ability to play to the torrid interpersonal conflicts connecting these figures, without stepping all over the jokes in the process.
1st Runner-Up: Super 8
One great child performance is impressive; two is amazing; a whole cast-full is a goddamn miracle. And yet the cadre of pre-teens at the heart of this suburban fantasy are so deft in sketching their characters and interrelationships, it takes barely any time before they stop registering as kids at all.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The heart of Meek’s Cutoff is the divisions between people; the cast are able to rise to this, etching out personal definition while also playing up a precarious anti-chemistry. The impeccably-selected voices of Rango are responsible for, line-for-line, the most inspired comedy of 2011, while also grounding the warped excess of the script in something recognisable. TTSS gets a lot of credit just assembling a Murderers’ Row of British character actors, but rises to the level of masterpiece partially on account of every one of those men is able to tap into the same reservoir of sordid defeat and pessimism that limns the entire feature.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
A Separation, by Asghar Farhadi
Colliding genres and characters, Farhadi creates the year’s most impressive World in Microcosm largely through the precision of every last moment and even the most throwaway lines or gestures; and if that weren’t enough, he also manages to make better use than anyone else this year of carefully controlling what happens outside the plot.
1st Runner-Up: Tuesday, After Christmas, by Alexandru Baciu, Radu Muntean, & Răzvan Rădulescu
No character study – not a single one – this past year bore witness to three more exactingly-described figures than the romantic triangle Muntean and Rădulescu use to explore the identity of post-Communist Romania. A lot of that is the actors’ fault; but could they have done such great work without such a consummate foundation?
Certified Copy, by Abbas Kiarostami
Margaret, by Kenneth Lonergan
Rango, by John Logan and Gore Verbinski and James Ward Byrkit
Kiarostami’s intellectual arcana could become shrill and pretentious, if it weren’t dealt out so carefully; and he switches gears into the mid-film twist so gently it hardly registers until we’re in it. Lonergan’s mad attempt to cram the whole of post-9/11 New York, America, and the world into one story of one confused girl is literate, sloppy, psychologically rich, psychologically ridiculous, and as unique as any voice out there. The Rango boys craft the year’s silliest, wittiest comedy and genre pastiche – “original” is a bad word, but there’s no good word – and create a world that’s just about ready to explode from all the ideas packed inside.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, by Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan
The labyrinth of John Le Carré’s best novel already felt rushed in a six-hour miniseries; the late O’Connor and her husband manage to turn brevity into an asset and the result is the tightest, smartest, most exhilaratingly challenging story of the year. David Bordwell explains it better than I ever could.
1st Runner-Up: Winnie the Pooh, by Stephen J. Anderson & Clio Chiang & Don Dougherty & Don Hall & Brian Kesinger & Nicole Mitchell & Jeremy Spears
I am not interested in your disapprobation. What I am interested in: how a small army of Disney employees made an adaptation of the classically innocent children’s stories, and a sequel to the beautifully naïve original film, that carves out its own identity without sacrificing its ties to its forebears, while indulging in literal and figurative wordplay of the craftiest and most playful sort.
A Dangerous Method, by Christopher Hampton
Jane Eyre, by Moira Buffini
We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lynne Ramsay & Rory Kinnear
Hampton’s take on how a woman got in between Freud and Jung constantly skirts the depths of Costume Drama Hell, and yet always jumps back with sly, intellectual humor, befitting the writer of the magnificent Dangerous Liaisons. Buffini’s dusting-off of Charlotte Brontë’s exceedingly well-worn text breathes far more life and wit and humanity into the material than you’d have ever dared to hope a movie would be able to achieve again. Ramsay & Kinnear turn a pseudo-experimental novel into a pseudo-experimental movie that mixes up genres and performs an incredibly soft-shoe with character interiority – now it’s real, now it’s not – that does an exceptional job of putting the “psychological” into “psychological horror”.
BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FEATURE not nominated in Best Feature
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s fifth feature isn’t as revolutionary in form or content as his best work, but it still provided American theaters with some of the very best individual images of 2011, crafting a thesis on the line between human and nature that remains one of the year’s most challenging and dense narratives
A brilliant genre study that finds a place for traditional jidaigeki in the hyper-violent world of director Takashi Miike. What pushes it over the edge, though, is not its strong sense of cinema, historical and contemporary, but the bite of its satiric screenplay and characterisations.
The Skin I Live In
There’s a significant “one for the fans” feeling going on in Aki Kaurismäki’s latest, but even so, I admire the director’s flawless marriage of his own unblinkingly wry sense of absurdist humor with a traditionally French generic frame. Sergei Loznitsa’s film is a structuralist gem, making the work of decoding one of the year’s most deliberately obscure narratives into more of a game than a chore. The great Pedro Almodóvar continues his peerless experiments with genre fuckery by colliding sudsy melodrama with body horror, and if the results are less humane than in his best films, they’re no less arresting.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
We can talk all we like about modern-day animation that recalls the tones and content of classic old cartoons; but Verbinski actually went out and did something about it. Gorgeous as any Pixar film, with character designs that look like Ralph Steadman made a children’s picture book, it is an absolute triumph of the medium.
Winnie the Pooh
In a resolutely weak year for animation, Aardman’s second CGI feature at least managed to rise above the pack with a spiky, goofy script that follows through on its bent premise with an exceptional sense of humor. Disney’s 51st animated feature, the only American example of traditional cel animation in 2011, does not redefine a form that has long since been given up for the nostalgists, but it does recapture the spirit of Disney’s 1970s output with a clean, bright style that makes a strong argument for why 2-D deserves better than it gets in today’s fully-rendered world.
I remain ambivalent on the categorisation of this film, given that the one thing a documentary is theoretically best-equipped to do – contextualise the subject matter and explain why Pina Bausch is so damned important – is what Pina does worst. On the other hand, since what it does best, from framing the human body to capturing several pieces of great dance choreography in a profoundly cinematic language to reconfiguring those pieces for non-traditional stages, it does so extremely well, I figured, what the hell.
1st Runner-Up: Nostalgia for the Light
The year’s best documentary for those, like myself, whose biggest problem with the genre is that it’s long on content and short on interesting style: Patricio Guzmán uses generous servings of both, in conducting a study of how the history of the universe and the political history of Chile draw together in the wastes of the Atacama Desert.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Into the Abyss
Two Werner Herzog films is too many, right? And I gave serious thought squelching Cave on those grounds, but if the chief purpose of the traditional documentary form is to show the audience things that we have never seen – as I take to be the case – then it’s also possibly the year’s only documentary that truly mattered, using state-of-the-art technique to explore the most ancient and rare form of human culture. Into the Abyss stuck on, meanwhile, for the marvelous quality of the interviews and the wonderfully horrible feeling of human suffering and durability it leaves behind. The Interrupters, for its part, takes a look at a slice of American society that doesn’t get nearly enough attention from a fresh perspective, backed up with so much humanity that it almost vibrates off the screen.
The Tree of Life (Emmanuel Lubezki)
Not as novel as Lubezki’s last all-natural-lighting work with Terrence Malick, The New World; nor as all-around revolutionary as his epochal Children of Men. But being a quarter-step down from the two best works of cinematography in the last 10 years turns out to leave plenty of space for yet another visual masterpiece, in which soft light is molded with an almost holy reverence for the textures and shadows it creates on the film’s sets and costumes and human faces.
1st Runner-Up: Meek’s Cutoff (Christopher Blauvelt)
Using the unconventional, old-fashioned 1.33:1 aspect ratio is the start of what makes this such an extraordinary piece of work, but my weakness for boxy frames aside, the skill with which Blauvelt uses that frame both to tie Meek’s Cutoff in with the long and glorious history of the Western, and to create an undeniably 21st Century vision of what Western landscapes can and should be, are what make it a masterpiece.
Certified Copy (Luca Bigazzi)
Hanna (Alwin H. Küchler)
Melancholia (Manuel Alberto Claro)
Bigazzi’s manages to make a beautiful little Italian town look beautiful – big deal – except he does so using the slow progression of afternoon light to silently but powerfully comment on the film’s anti-directional script. Küchler captures both the industrial edge and fairy tale gloss of Hanna‘s story, making a fable-esque visual background that does not, Bob Richardson, rely on too much orange and teal. Claro is able to make Melancholia almost as goddamn beautiful as Tree of Life, though what sticks in my mind is not the overtly lovely end-of-the-world sequence, but the excellent use of murky yellows in the wedding half of the film’s dual narrative.
The Tree of Life (Hank Corwin/Jay Rabinowitz/Daniel Rezende/Billy Weber/Mark Yoshikawa)
Every Malick film deserves credit for the fact that the editing team was able to shape a mountain of dissociated footage into a feature at all; and, too, the fact that they are obliged to subscribe to such an intuitive, abstract rhythm is impressive. Tree of Life still manages to be the best-cut of all the director’s work, collapsing and expanding time and spatial relationships with the pacing of a remembered dream.
1st Runner-Up: Hanna (Paul Tothill)
Sometimes, one must admit that it’s easy to like the really flashy stuff: a movie pieced together like a music video, dazzling and exhausting. Not that Hanna isn’t smartly-cut, because it is: and indeed, the best part of this breathlessly-paced action picture is how well Tothill keeps us right on edge the whole time.
Melancholia (Molly M. Stensgaard & Morten Højbjerg)
A Separation (Hayedeh Safiyari)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Dino Jonsäter)
It was not, first, the beautiful cinematography that made me aware that Melancholia was the first Lars von Trier feature that I didn’t hate, but the cunningly disorienting editing, which feels discontinuous when it’s not, and implies continuity where there is none: unconventional and perfect and eerily precise. A Separation owes most of its unexpectedly thrilling intensity to the sharp, exact place of cuts, invisibly moving us through scenes to a steady, nervy beat. In TTSS, Jonsäter not only has to keep a warped chronology easy to read, but also has to make scenes of talking and listening exciting enough that we remain alert at every moment.
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Hanna (Sarah Greenwood)
What I said about the cinematography, and double it: if only for the sharp, Expressionist hell of the CIA facility in the first chunk of the movie, and the Grimm-goes-Bergman weirdness of the fairy tale park at the end, this film would be cemented into my top 5; that the whole movie is at that level is all candy. And especially, my kudos for making that shipping yard such a perfect setting for the best chase scene of 2011.
1st Runner-Up: Hugo (Dante Ferretti)
Paris as it never was except in fantasy and storybooks, and as it always should have been, and gets to be now, thanks to Ferretti’s cluttered, obsessed-with-detail, magical realist jewelry box of Art Deco curlicues.
Jane Eyre (Will Hughes-Jones)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Maria Djurkovic)
The Tree of Life (Jack Fisk)
Hughes-Jones completes the all-important costume drama chore of making the place look right, but he also makes it look somewhat to the left of a “realistic” version of 19th Century England, a little clammier and a little more crabbed and secret. Djurkovic’s sets are more important to the film’s story and themes than the characters themselves, creating a believable world of arch-bureaucracy in which the storage and protection of knowledge within and without is more important than having a soul. Fisk turns a straightforward depiction of Texas in the 1950s into a world of shapes and textures that mix specific detail with vague memory in perfect proportion.
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Meek’s Cutoff (Victoria Farrell)
Worn-out, but dignified designs that you can almost feel and smell, providing each character with a chance to define and defend themselves from the landscape; and for that matter, with clothes as the only thing separating people from the unfathomable West, Farrell’s designs are called upon to contribute theme, psychology, and visual interest all at once, and do so in every scene of the whole picture.
1st Runner-Up: A Dangerous Method (Denise Cronenberg)
Working for the umpteenth time with her director brother, Cronenberg’s first Pre-WWII period film lets her show off all of her well-established talents in a new way, making something that looks awfully like the 1900s “should”, but also has enough subtle and odd specificity to tell us an awful lot about the people wearing those clothes from an altogether 2011 perspective.
Immortals (Eiko Ishioka)
Jane Eyre (Michael O’Connor)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Jacqueline Durran)
The final film released during the late Ishioka’s lifetime is not without flaws (the Gods look, frankly, a bit stupid), but there is more imagination in any one costume in that film than in 40 years of Greek mythology movies. O’Connor’s work on Jane Eyre works perfectly with the characters and sets to further the idea of a particularly tangible, but somehow ahistorical version of a literary world. Durran’s suits don’t look especially unusual, and yet they are frequently what stands in for character in a world of surfaces; and indeed, the closer you look, the more that even these anonymous uniforms reveal tiny but stark truths about the wearers and the culture.
The Iron Lady
Not to sound like an Oscar voter, but good Lord, that is some convincing old-age makeup, as good as I have ever seen in any movie ever made, augmenting rather than covering Streep’s performance as Dotty Old Maggie. And without fancy CGI, too!
A Dangerous Method
Making a Sigmund Freud who looks like a cartoon and like a historical figure would aready be quite a trick, but the just-slightly exaggerated work throughout A Dangerous Method adds a nice layer to its unreal heart. The pioneers of Meek’s Cutoff, covered in dust and weariness, emphasise the living hell that pre-modern travel through nowhere must have been, and was never so cinematically exhausting as in this picture.
Rango (Hans Zimmer)
I run cold on Zimmer more than hot, but when’s on fire, he is impossible to beat. And such is the case in this gloriously comic pastiche, sounding like a classic American Western and an edgier Spaghetti Western at the same time, while also showcasing a genius sense of aural humor that has nothing to do with either, but still fits the movie like a glove. Surf rock in a cartoon animal Western? Yes, please, when it works this well.
1st Runner-Up: Contagion (Cliff Martinez)
No composer had a better year – I almost could have, and probably should have, stuck Drive in here somewhere – and after great consideration, I have decided that I am fonder of his brutally driving techno-flavored wall of musical noise, giving Soderbergh’s genre exercise that little extra shove to really put it over as a chew-off-all-your-fingernails thriller.
The Adventures of Tintin (John Williams)
Hanna (The Chemical Brothers)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Johnny Greenwood)
Williams is too often capable of just shitting out charming sentiment, but when he decides to show up and do the kind of jazzy, ’40s meets ’60s meets today playful musical japery of Tintin, it’s easy to see why he was so ubiquitous for so many years. The Chemical Brothers’ Hanna score is a furiously exciting mix of emotional registers and tones, turning a fine thriller into a shatteringly awesome feature-length music video. Greenwood’s tonal experiments pay off the promise of There Will Be Blood and betters it, creating the perfect “what the hell?” atmosphere for the rest of the movie to do its best work.
BEST SOUND MIXING
Not since the opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West has a movie gotten so much mileage out of foregrounding the way the American West sounded: the heavy emphasis of wind, the rustle of clothes, and the nonstop creak, creak, CREAK of wooden wheels makes for a film that’s even more involving for its immersive soundscape than for its pointed visuals.
1st Runner-Up: The Tree of Life
With Rolling Stonesian cheek, the Blu-Ray encourages us that this film should be played loud, and it’s a fair enough request: with its roaring musical choices down to the caressing gentleness of chimes and the low hum of a silent house, the film creates, not a wall of sound but a blanket of sound, smothering and comforting in equal measure.
We Need to Talk About Kevin
The best movie and best-sounding movie in a franchise for people who want to fuck their car, Fast Five strikes a perfect balance of foregrounding the actual stars of the movie while making sure the nominal human stars are still legible, and that the world they’re in sounds credible. Hanna, which uses sound as a plot point, balances music and ambient noise to best create a space for the hectic action to play best. Kevin, like all of Ramsay’s films a study in atmosphere above all else, sounds as terrified and void as the protagonist herself.
BEST SOUND EDITING
“A franchise for people who want to fuck cars”, did I just say? Aye, and the rumbling, purring, shrieking glories of the various cars that buzz back and forth hear makes me understand how somebody could have that impulse.
1st Runner-Up: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Not the sound, precisely, that apes make; but surely the sound that movie apes, who must have distinctly non-animal personalities if we’re going to believe them at all, should make, and it’s impossible to imagine the film working nearly as well if the CGI simian characters weren’t so aurally expressive.
For all its cartoonish excess, the sound of Rango is surprisingly realistic, the one concession that grounds the rest of it and “sells” the weird idea of a rattlesnake with a six-shooter tail, for example. Super 8 wisely hides its alien and much of its plot for nearly all of the running time, and must therefor rely on a truly wonderful array of sounds to make us believe in its reality as much as the characters do. Trollhunter wants us to believe that it’s a documentary about fantastic beings, and that requires an extra dose of plausibility that the inventive but resolutely non-fantastic sound design happily provides.
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
I have, at last, been persuaded by the argument that the textures are a bit off; they don’t look like “real” animals. And now that I’m persuaded, I simply don’t care. Visual storytelling is about more than just realism, and if we’re going to have CGI apes, we can hardly do better than CGI apes with this much weight and personality; CGI apes acted to such a perfect degree. Motion capture has never looked like such a bright future.
1st Runner-Up: Hugo
And again, “realism” is sort of out the window: the film’s storybook fantasy of Paris in the 1930s, all foggy diffusion and impossibly elegant bits of detail, looks “like CGI”, but that just means that it has a certain magical, out-of-time feeling that fits in perfectly with the story it’s telling. And you know what? Georges Méliès’s rocket ship didn’t look very real either, and it’s one of the best visual effects of all time.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
The Tree of Life
But sometimes, you do want realism, and M:I-GP is absolutely tremendous on that front, creating a backdrop for action setpieces that calls no attention to its own artifice (*cough* Transformers) while creating the perfect space for its own sort of movie magic. The legendary Douglas Trumbull and his team created the whole universe in TOL using practical and computer means combined to seamlessly that as you’re watching it, it never registers that you’re not actually seeing space photography; too bad about those godawful dinosaurs. Trollhunter gets in for proving that Americans don’t have a monopoly on using utterly convincing CGI to create imaginative beasts that merge perfectly into real footage.
BEST USE OF 3-D
I thought it might be nice to celebrate the year that 3-D finally started to work as a valid component of the filmmaker’s tookit by introducing a special category to my awards. The first, and maybe last, winner is Scorsese’s demonstration of how exactly one can best use the new technology to increase the audience’s sense of impossible space in a fantasy setting; it is, quite literally, the difference between “Hugo, film I adore and have way up in my Top 10,” and “Hugo, that really cute Scorsese picture with cool sets”. It out-Avatars Avatar.
1st Runner-Up: Pina
Next is Wim Wender’s amazing ballet documentary, in which 3-D is used to draw all of our attention to the human body and the space it occupies. You will never think of the relative position of your limbs the same way again
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas
Werner Herzog’s customarily nutty adventure with primitive man has its flaws, but one of them is certainly not his groundbreaking use of 3-D to remind us that places have shape and texture, and that matters. Tarsem’s exercise in mythology is frustrating in every regard but its creative visuals, which are given added weight and beauaty in 3-D (an early shot of a heavy metal cage, all squares and cubes, is perhaps my favorite 3-D shot of the year). Harold & Kumar serve to remind us that at heart, 3-D is still ultimately a squirrely trick, but one that can be amazingly entertaining when it’s done right.