My top 10 in ‘11: Films, plays + books

Time to throw my top 10 lists into the bottomless pit of lists (apologies). As in 2010, I’ve focused on films, plays and books. These works surprised, informed and entertained me. Most importantly, they have peaked my curiosity enough to engage with them and just maybe discover something new.

Off we go, in no particular order – my top picks of 2011.

thecuriousg top picks of 2011, top 10 films in 2011, top 10 plays in 2011, top 10 books in 2011,


Films :: (Note: Films that I’ve seen this year, not necessarily released in 2011.)

1 :: Meek’s Cutoff > Kelly Reichardt’s spare and mesmerizing adventure of 19th-century settlers traveling through Oregon. The film gorgeously reveals the tedium, tenacity, and sometimes terror, as three pioneer families forge their way through a vast and uncertain landscape. Surrender to the film’s pace and you’ll be rewarded. Brava Michelle Williams, I would have nommed your performance in this film.

2 :: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy > An exquisitely understated film based on John LeCarré’s Cold War drama about the search for a mole within MI6. It’s quiet, but ruthless with a sense of doom looming just below the proper English surface. Gary Oldman’s restrained performance is a wonder to behold, as is the excellent ensemble including Colin Firth and Mark Strong.

3 :: The Descendants > A not-so-pretty view of a dysfunctional American family set against the so pretty state of Hawaii. Comedy, tragedy, and redemption alternate on center stage as George Clooney’s Matt King, the imperfect father, tries to make up for lost time with his two daughters. Chalk up another fine film from Alexander Payne.

4 :: The Artist > Film geeks like me love this stuff – a film about the magic of movies. Bias alert: director Michel Hazanavicius and his two leads also brought us one of my all time favorite comedies, so I was sold on this sentimental gem about an ingenue on the rise, and a legend on the descent in the advent of talkies. No dialogue, but lots of emoting. Pure pleasure.

5 :: Moneyball > I love baseball movies. And while this film isn’t really about baseball, it doesn’t hurt that it functions as its backdrop. Moneyball is based on a true story about Oakland As general manager Billy Beane and his need to revamp his losing team on a shoestring budget. Inventiveness butts tradition, with some balks along the way. Home run Brad and team!

6 :: Submarine > While the subject matter isn’t new, this inventive, quirky coming-of-age tale is well-conceived and directed by comedian Richard Ayoade as his debut feature. As our hero struggles with puberty and his social standing, we tag along and remember that excruciating time in our lives when we were so confused and forever misunderstood. Wonderful performances from Sally Hawkins and Paddy Considine.

7 :: The Trip > With observations about men of a certain age, this comedy hinges on director Michael Winterbottom’s dextrous skill and Steve Coogan’s and Rob Brydon’s​ improvisational agility (portraying a version of themselves). And it succeeds brilliantly. It’s a funny, poignant tale watching attempted male-bonding and one-upsmanship over food and life on a road trip across the northern English countryside.

8 :: Rango > If your raison d’être is to blend in, what can really you aspire to? Rango is a chameleon with one nasty identity crisis. He accidentally winds up in the gun-slinging town of Dirt – a lawless outpost populated by all sorts of wily critters. Rango is Dirt’s last hope for salvation. Voiced by Johnny Depp – naturally it’s surreal and weird. And wonderful just the same.

9 :: Le Quattro Volte > An idyllic village in southern Italy is the stage for this exquisitely filmed take on the cycles of life. Structured in four parts, it opens with a shepherd tending his goats, then moves through three related stories ­– illustrating life, its interconnectedness, and our place within it. The film is mystical, and poetic, and very satisfying especially the sound of the film, which is its key character.

10 :: Cave of Forgotten Dreams > Werner Herzog and his team follow an expedition into Chauvet Cave in southern France, which houses the most ancient visual art created by man (over 30,000 years ago). It’s an unforgettable, fully-immersive cinematic experience as told by one of our most idiosyncratic filmmakers. Kudos to Ernst Reijseger’s rapturous score.

Honorable mentions: Tucker and Dale vs Evil (so clever and simply hilarious); The Guard (a darkly funny buddy flick written and directed by the other McDonagh, brother John Michael); Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (they sucked me into Hogwarts and got me in the end).

Plays

1 :: The School for Lies by David Ives > Just the absolute perfect canapé (if you saw the play, that makes perfect sense)! Loosely based on Molière’s The Misanthrope and written entirely in verse, I was thinking in rhyming couplets as I giggled all the way home. Led by a stellar cast including Hamish Linklater and Mamie Gummer, the play scored in direction, costume and production design. A fluffy soufflé about French society in love, and at play.

2 :: Go Back to Where You Are by David Greenspan > A chorus boy from Ancient Greece stuck in a lonely purgatory for 2000 years is sent back to earth on a mission from God. He meets a family in the Hamptons where he is shaken up by his ability to re-experience love. Greenspan wrote and starred in this odd, affecting, wistful, melancholy, and ultimately funny piece about second chances. One of the more original works I’ve seen this year.

3 :: Fragments by Samuel Beckett > Peter Brook’s and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s spare and elegant (both in production and in interpretation) direction serves as a perfect means for delivery of five Beckett shorts. So spare, in fact, that every glance and gesture of the three terrific actors speaks volumes. I particularly liked the wonderful, raspy-voiced Kathryn Hunter in Rockaby playing a lonely woman as she contemplates her life’s end. Who doesn’t love an evening of existential angst and bittersweet comedy when they’re conceived as beautifully as this.

4 ::  Neighbourhood Watch by Alan Ayckbourn > The prolific Mr Ayckbourn delivers his 75th play. Perhaps not on par with The Norman Conquests (how many could be?), but a stinger just the same. It succeeds on keenly observed human failings and bitingly funny humor (particularly the penultimate scene). The play follows the actions of a brother/sister pair of do-gooders who take the law into their own hands. They rally the neighbors and turn the community into a fascist state. Until it all goes terribly, terribly wrong.

5 :: The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer > The most moving, human production of this play that I’ve encountered. The cast, led by the passionate Joe Mantello as Ned, were superb in this minimalist production. The difference for me: It felt more raw than the previous two I’d seen many years ago when the crisis was in its infancy. Unlike the previous Neds, Mantello didn’t play him to alienate the world in delivering his message, but to inform and fire up.

6 :: Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire > How do good, ordinary people behave when their entire world is collapsing? Francis McDormand expertly shows us, as Margie (appropriately pronounced with a hard “g”), a lifelong Boston Southie with a disabled daughter who has just lost her cashier job. A funny, often caustic examination of how we manage class differences, or often choose to ignore that they exist. This timely play strikes a chord in an ever-growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

7 :: Misterman by Enda Walsh > Thomas Magill, played by the terrific Cillian Murphy, inhabits the role of a self-proclaimed messenger from God, hiding in an abandoned warehouse where he meticulously recreates the day he fled his rural village of Inishfree. Housed with recorded conversations, Thomas plays out recent past events in an effort to understand his failings to convert his flock. We watch a descent into madness. No balm for the soul here. This is the third Enda Walsh piece I’ve seen at St Ann’s Warehouse – they just keep getting better.

8 :: Seminar by Theresa Rebeck > Repeating my bias alert from last year: Alan Rickman stars (ergo I’m seeing it) with a terrific ensemble, including Hamish Linklater [see The School for Lies above] and Lily Rabe playing neurotic, aspiring writers to Rickman’s egotistical and prickly teacher. I’m not convinced of the script’s success, but the performances here are the thing – with Rickman leading the way as a world-class writer giving a masterclass while lobbing punishing words at his students. Who survives and who flounders were almost irrelevant. It’s the exchanges, particularly between Rickman and Linklater that make the evening worthwhile.

9 :: The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco > Disclosure: this is my first encounter with this play. The Smiths and their neighbors, the Martins, live an unremarkable life in a world where time is out of joint, language and meaning are out of sync, and identity itself is questionable. Are the two couples acting in a play-within-a-play? Is the play about the banality or futility of communication? Is it an absurd bit of experimental theater? I don’t know. I do know that the Pearl Theatre’s production kept me thoroughly entertained and provoked (in a good way) throughout.

10 :: Kin by Bathsheba Doran > A portrait of one of the most unromantic couplings you’ll ever see, but the surrounding relationships that the couple form become the catalyst for keeping them together. We can’t choose our family, as the saying goes, but we can choose the people we want to provide companionship and comfort throughout our life’s journey. A great ensemble cast delivered truly memorable performances in this atmospheric and very moving play about getting out of your own way to live your life.

Books :: (Note: Books that I’ve read this year, not necessarily published in 2011.)

1 :: In the Sea There Are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda > This serendipitous find while browsing the library proved to be my favorite read of the year. Termed “fiction” by its author, 10ish year-old Enaiatollah Akbari (Enaiat) and Geda collaborate to reconstruct the boy’s memories. When abandoned by his mother during the Taliban takeover in 2000, Enaiat must fend for himself to cross into Pakistan and beyond, traveling for years to ultimately find asylum and a home in Italy. Brilliantly told with humor and a childlike perspective, Geda captures the heroic story of Enaiat’s eternal hope and survival.

2 :: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson > The author of one of my favorite books, The Devil in the White City, explores 1930s Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power. Larson guides us through the appointment of William E. Dodd as American Ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, and his family’s move to Berlin. It takes a while for Dodd to see that all is not as it seems. The book is a superb, atmospheric read of the accounts unfolding and Dodd’s relationships with the likes of Göring, Goebbels and other high-ranking officials in the regime. It’s still seems unbelievable that the world could not grasp the imminent threat until it was too late.

3 :: The Convert by Deborah Baker > Why would a young Jewish woman from Westchester, NY leave the comfort of her middle class life, move to Pakistan, and convert to Islam in 1962? Via an archive of letters, the author explores the hows and whys of Margaret Marcus’s (Maryam Jameelah’s) conversion and exile, and her possible reasons for becoming Islam’s most fervent critic of the West. It’s an unsettling, often contradictory tale of a woman whose radical behavior may have played a role in the fundamentalist Islamic revival.

4 :: The War for Late Night by Bill Carter > I have no great interest in late night TV or who inhabits which chair at what time, but what a wonderful surprise of a read! Media reporter Bill Carter is the perfect storyteller for the late-night “tectonic shift” that failed not just miserably, but spectacularly. Barbs and backstabbing reared throughout the entire lineup of hosts and it looked as though Leno was the loser again. But like a phoenix rising from the ashes… Soap opera plot, anyone?

5 :: Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter by Lady Antonia Fraser > As a big, and sometimes mystified, fan of Pinter, I thought reading this book might shed some light on his work. It didn’t really, but Fraser’s memoir did reveal that life with Harold was sometimes strange, rarefied, and frequently hilarious. Much like his work. Having started a scandalous affair later in their lives, the pair shared what seems to be a super-full life for 33 years until Pinter’s death in 2008. Fraser lovingly captures the challenges in living with the difficult writer, and sadly defines the void his death leaves for her.

6 :: Patience & Fortitude by Nicholas Basbanes > I’ve read his Among the Gently Mad so I had to read this one too. Basbanes simply makes you love books and book collections, and I don’t need much of a nudge there. In this epic journey, Basbanes takes us to the great libraries of the world, past and present – from Alexandria to elite universities. Along the way, he recounts fantastic stories of collectors and collections. Yummy! And the book title itself pays homage to one of my favorite libraries.

7 :: A Month in the Country by J L Carr > A poetic tale about a veteran of the Great War, Tom Birkin, who suffers from a stammer and nightmares as a result of his service. Birkin’s summer is spent in a small, northern English village restoring a medieval mural. In the midst of the gorgeous countryside unlocking the mystery of the painting, and with the company of locals, Birkin finds himself consoled at all that he’s lost. I revisit this book every few years – it’s a beautiful read.

8 :: Seasons in Basilicata: A Year in a Southern Italian Hill Village written and illustrated by David Yeadon > A year in the village of Aliano, rich with local characters and strange, pagan customs, Yeadon explores the unusual, mountainous “lost world” of Basilicata. I was drawn to this book because my maternal grandparents emigrated from here. Yeadon’s captures Aliano’s tapestry of people, traditions and endless festivals with respect and humor – especially entertaining is his entry to the region and his encounter with a goat.

9 :: Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer > It seemed only right that since I’d singled out Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea last year, that I had to read Jon Krakauer’s case for CAI’s impropriety. Here’s my take: You can want to do all the good in the world. But if a charity is legally created – be clear about what its mission is, and disclose in detail how the money accepted from individual donors, foundations etc., is being used. Otherwise become a missionary or a Peace Corp volunteer, and do good in other ways.

10 :: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino > One of my favorite books of all time by one of my favorite authors and master storyteller. The imaginary conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan conjure up magical cities. Every time I read this book, the visuals take on new form, and the possibilities of their reality seem limitless. So rich in detail – cities of all places, ages, shapes and peculiarities represent wonderful journeys of what might have been, or what can be.

What tops your lists for 2011?

6 Responses to “My top 10 in ‘11: Films, plays + books”

  1. lg Says:

    Always look forward to your end-of-year listings. For me, the top films (also not necessarily 2011 releases) were (in no special order):
    – The Artist
    – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
    – The Descendants
    – Of Gods and Men
    – Beginners
    – The Trip
    – The Hedgehog
    – The Illusionist
    – Somewhere
    – Cave of Forgotten Dreams
    Shout-outs to: The Guard, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2, Miral, The Company Men, Sarah’s Key and Midnight in Paris

  2. Janet Giampietro Says:

    I’d forgotten about The Illusionist – good one.

    Thanks!

  3. Brian_filmfan Says:

    I liked your list. I’m surprised that Drive wasn’t among your choices.

    Here are my top films for 2011.

    The Tree of Life
    Drive
    The Artist
    The Descendants
    A Separation
    Melancholia
    Submarine
    Rango
    Meek’s Cutoff
    Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

  4. Janet Giampietro Says:

    Hi Brian_filmfan:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Drive: hmmm – liked the opening scene, and then got kind of bored. I’m always impressed with Ryan Gosling. It was worth seeing.

    Uncle Boonmee: A definite original.

    Still to see: The Tree of Life, A Separation and Melancholia.

    Cheers,
    janetg

  5. Lola-B Says:

    I’ve been looking at as many top film lists as possible. Yours caught my eye because of Le Quattro Volte. I love that film too!

    I would add:

    A Separation
    Win, Win
    50/50
    Attack the Block

    Since I don’t live in New York, I could not see the plays that you saw. Most of them are unknown to me, but you sure make them sound great.

  6. Janet Giampietro Says:

    Thanks much for your comments Lola-B.

    I want to see A Separation and 50/50. I liked Win, Win as well. Attack the Block, interesting – I didn’t enjoy it as many as some, but the aliens were inventive.

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