Love may not be obvious to the critics in my picks from 2011, a great year for film, but it’s the key to “getting” what makes each of these flicks great.
This list is in alphabetical order because a number has no meaning when love is the answer.
Each entry gets a love-key and a trailer.* (Don’t miss the footnote.)
The Artist: Hollywood, 1927: Silent movie matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, charismatic star of OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies) is the reigning silent screen idol. He’s got the elegant mansion, the elegant wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), and the devoted chauffeur, Clifton (James Cromwell). Young, adorable extra Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a dancer set for a big break, enters, and we’ve got conflict.
This movie bears the touch of brilliance and risk that has become the Weinstein brothers’ signature (Did you see I’m Not There? Great Dylan flick. The Weinstein brothers financed that one, too.) For The Artist, they took a chance on writer/director/editor Michel Hazanavicius.
Love-key: This film was best seen in the theater because it’s in black and white and is virtually silent. But rent it anyway. The Artist proves why we watch film: For the love of narrative, for the love of the group experience and the big screen when seen in the theater — or with others on your wide-screen TV.
Beginners: Beginners’ subject is love: Mike Mills wrote, directed and based this moving, funny screenplay on his own father’s coming out at age 75. Oliver (Ewan McGregor) tells the story. He meets actress and elusive persona Anna (Mélanie Laurent of Inglorious Bastards) after his father Hal Fields (Christopher Plummer) has passed away.
Love-key: This flick’s screenplay stunned me and I wrote about it, along with another movie you should see that won’t make many others’ lists: “The Debt.” Read about both here: “Find LOVE: The Butterfly Effect.”
Oliver’s parents’ flawed marriage circles back and forth in his memory of childhood as we watch him care for the dying and paradoxically vibrant-living, loving father. But Oliver can’t seem to find love. He’s overcome by grief when he meets Anna. The movie’s circles of love are transformative.
A Dangerous Method: This flick tackles the relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and both analysts’ relationship with Sabina Spierein (Keira Knightley). David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence, Crash) directed from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton (Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons), who adapted his stage play The Talking Cure.
Love-key: This flick unconventionally explores the intimacy between therapist and client that the talking-cure must straddle to be effective. Jung crosses a boundary that Freud protects. Both therapists understand that the client must love the therapist to find the love of self that frees.
The Descendants: Alexander Payne (Sideways) directed and helped write the screenplay adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Matt King (George Clooney), inattentive, work-obsessed husband and father of two girls (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) goes on a journey of self-discovery when his wife falls into a coma after a boating accident, and he learns she’s been having an affair. His journey explores betrayal in a Hawaii not usually brought to the screen. We are not in paradise. We are in a real world.
Love-key: Watch the blanket that covers the unfaithful wife Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) as she lies unmoving. This blanket reappears at the close of the movie and it reveals the complexities of love and betrayal. Her survivors live and love under her mantle where goodness will continue to unfold, flawed and human.
Drive: Ryan Gossling gives a startling performance that includes an opening in which he doesn’t speak for five minutes. He plays a stunt driver, auto mechanic by day and getaway driver by night. The movie is stylishly directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Albert Brooks, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Oscar Isaac all shine.
Love-key: This violent, tense film is held by Gosling. His scenes with Carey Mulligan and with her son infuse a tightly driven, often bloody film with humanity. Love drives this driver and the violence becomes part and parcel of salvation. Hard to believe? You gotta see it to believe it.
Margin Call: Written and directed by J.C. Chandler, this thriller, in a jam-packed 24 hours, takes on the banking debacle that fueled the U.S. financial crisis. Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci and Kevin Spacey hold the film’s core to the extent that the humane is given space inside this frame, while Jeremy Irons defines the unscrupulous.
Love-key: I wrote about both Moneyball and Margin Call here. The key in Margin Call is that love is missing. We discover a vacant and soulless world. Watch for the cigarette smoked in the early morning and Peter’s (Quinto) inquiry about Sam’s (Spacey) son, a tender moment that defines what is missing.
Midnight in Paris: Written and directed by Woody Allen, this film takes us on a literary and romantic tour of Paris, where Gil, Owen Wilson in the best-ever imitation of Woody, finds Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein at the stroke of midnight with a step into a Cinderella-like coach.
Love-key: The Woody we love made his comeback in this flick and in the 2008 Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The irony that underlies Midnight in Paris and Woody’s take on literary idols and superficial intellectualism give this film legs. You can’t help but leave with a smile and believe that you’ve just seen a romantic comedy unlike any other – except perhaps Manhattan.
Moneyball: Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, real-life general manager of the Oakland A’s. Beane hires brainy, Yale-educated Peter Brand, played with unabashed vulnerability by Jonah Hill, who does statistical analyses of players’ strengths and weaknesses.
Love-key: The relationship and ultimately unspoken love between Beane and Brand drive the film. Watch for the moment when the statistician Brande shows the discouraged Beane a film clip of a player doing what no one thought he could do. The viewer soon sees that the narrative arc is less about money, less about statistical reasoning and more about what can be done against all odds. That’s love.
My Week With Marilyn: It’s 1956. Marilyn Monroe, played in an Oscar-nominated performance by Michelle Williams, has gone to London, invited by Sir Laurence Olivier to play opposite him in The Prince and the Showgirl. The film purports to be the story of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), based on his real-life diary. But Marilyn and Michelle Williams are the story here.
Love-key:Without trying to look like Marilyn, Williams embodies her, heart and soul. The complexities of being loved by the world, overwhelmed by crowds, and never really known hold the conflict. Michelle Williams brings to the screen the Marilyn we loved. To be so loved and to never have found love is the heartbreaking key.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Tomas Alfredson directed with the author John le Carré close at hand. It’s 1973 and we are in Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), a.k.a. MI6 and code-named the Circus. The complicated, often hard-to-follow search for a mole, the spy among them, seems to be the film’s core.
Love-key: The key is that the plot doesn’t really matter. Love does. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Tom Hardy all play characters who choose for love. While the movie sends us on the complex search for the spy in their midst, we learn that the Circus requires that all agents forgo love. But these characters, arguably and with duplicity, are driven by it.
The Tree of Life: Terrence Malick’s masterpiece relies on modules and fragments that knit together by film’s end. The story defies synopsis. Brad Pitt stuns. Sean Penn resonates. Jessica Chastain is ethereal.
Love-key: Follow Sean Penn’s struggle as Jack. Follow the young Jack played by Hunter McCracken and you will follow the struggle to forgive our parents’ flaws and find our own humanity in the face of loss.
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