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The Darkness of Mere Being

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Jody Lee Lipes/Fox Searchlight Pictures

A year full of darkness in and out of the theater — I’m not talking about full-fledged apocalypses, but rather broken worlds that our heroes and villains must navigate for survival. Escape was probably the most popular theme among the movies in my top 10: escape from death, marriage, heartbreak and even economic collapse. By going to see these films, I was able to escape writing papers and completing problems sets in the Tufts University computer labs. Without further ado, I gladly share these with you:

Jordan Teicher’s Top Movies of 2011

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE Elizabeth Olsen gave my favorite performance of the year as a troubled girl who escapes a cult and struggles to assimilate back into a normal life with her sister. It always came down to the central character: rookie writer-director Sean Durkin gave Ms. Olsen a fully fleshed protagonist; and she utterly lost herself in the role. The grainy aesthetic saturated the colors on-screen and twisted this indie fare into a nightmare that was marvelous to watch.

THE TREE OF LIFE Pretend Sean Penn isn’t really in this movie for three minutes to truly appreciate the artistry of Terrence Malick. This was half movie, half art gallery; and Mr. Malick’s curation delved so deep into the human psyche that there was no way anyone can understand all that occured on-screen. Maybe a few insoluble kernels dealing with the abstract should be left as is. Brad Pitt cast an unrelenting shadow over the rest of his Texas family. There is something majestic about “The Tree of Life” — a majesty that stumped the Kenneth Turans and the Rex Reeds of the world — but this one is a screen savor rather than a bunch of screensavers.

THE DESCENDANTS Alexander Payne is a surgical director; and he controls pace better than almost anyone out there. Mr. Payne and George Clooney made a nice tandem: Think of Scorsese-De Niro for affluent yuppies. “The Descendants” set up a potent contrast between the blackness of death and the façade of happiness that should come with Hawaii beaches. There were some dark themes here that had the potential to erupt at any moment; and they created persistent tension. Lastly, watch out for Shailene Woodley: She’s like Anna Kendrick, only prettier and angrier.

MARGIN CALL My father has worked in the financial world for four decades. I had an internship at an investment firm three years ago. From what I’ve seen firsthand, rookie director J. C. Chandor nailed the office politics in a way that deliciously risks turning characters into caricatures. The cast ran eight-deep with talent, none more impressive than Paul Bettany — whose portrayal of a senior trader serves as the film’s connective tissue, bridging together the action and the characters. Mr. Chandor smartly made money the real villain, so the office folk came across as addicts instead of stereotypical bad guys.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO Many reviewers criticized the typical whodunit plot conventions from the source material, but the beauty of “Dragon Tattoo” was how David Fincher transcended common detective lore with his eye for darkness. All of the cruelty and torture never turned into sensationalism. Rooney Mara slipped into a tough role and managed not to make it the least bit campy. The 20-minute epilogue should have been cut out entirely, but it still gave the viewer a little more time to listen to the best soundtrack of the year courtesy of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS All Woody Allen had to do to get his mojo back was replace himself with Owen Wilson. This film was a little too good-natured, but it remained self-aware and squeezed every ounce of charm out of Paris. Mr. Wilson’s sharp protagonist was well-written and well-acted, and emerged as a convincing counterpoint to all of the Hemingways and Dalís. Mr. Allen’s time-bending creation was ambitious and crazy, but he brought it together with his signature brand of neurotic expertise — also, bonus points for turning Rachel McAdams into an unlikeable character.

LIKE CRAZY Wonderfully raw and honest; Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones had the kind of palpable chemistry that was perfect for conveying the strains of a long-distance relationship. The short-story style of filmmaking used by Drake Doremus effectively blurred time and location as we moved seamlessly between Los Angeles and London. These star-crossed lovers proved that chick flicks can be sentimental without being sappy. The ending shower scene topped it all off, weaving music and montage into an impressive crescendo that shattered in the final frame.

THE IDES OF MARCH The Oscar pedigree of the cast had three wins and 10 nominations; and they backed it up. Ryan Gosling showed why he is the best actor of his generation. I’ve had a serious man crush on the guy since “Half Nelson”; but as the junior campaign manager for a presidential candidate, he showed a level of polish we haven’t seen before. “The Ides of March” probably would’ve jumped up a few spots on the list if not for the cheap thriller-like ending.

DRIVE A stylistic triumph anchored by Mr. Gosling’s minimalist performance; the gore was off-putting and a little sloppy, but this was a smart thriller with a steady pulse. Nicolas Winding Refn doled out the action sequences in powerful bursts instead of a constant stream. And after seeing “Thor,” “Battle: Los Angeles,” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” this was the action movie we needed in 2011.

HUGO Martin Scorsese took an ordinary children’s movie and turned it into a worthwhile appreciation of old-school cinema. The first act detracted from the creativity found in the rest of the plot; but technically, this film struck an impressive balance between simplicity and flash. “Hugo” might be the easiest movie to digest from my list, but a few supporting stars — Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen and Michael Stuhlbarg — added diverse color and skill to the cast. Who knew that Borat and Mr. Scorsese would mesh so well?

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