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My Best of 2011: True Grit & The Art of Modesty…

It’s that time of the year. To celebrate 2011, and the countdown to 2012, I’m going to count down my own twelve favourite films of the year, one a day until New Year’s Eve. I’m also going to talk a bit about how or why I chose them, and perhaps what makes this list “my” best of 2011, rather than any list claiming to be objective.

True Grit is number eight. Check out my original review here.

Collective consensus is a funny thing. It pops up quite quickly and quietly, in the strangest sorts of places and the strangest sort of way. The Coen Brothers are respected filmmakers, to say the least. Even when a project of their doesn’t quite come off as smoothly as one might expect, it’s still compelling viewing. However, as with any other directors, there are greater films and there are lesser films. And there are those that sit in the middle. True Grit, for most critics, seems to sit firmly in the middle.

But not for me.

Of course, with the Coen Brothers, “the middle” is not a bad place to be. Most directors would struggle to produce a film that ranks with “the middle” Coen Brothers films. Still, it makes the most sense to measure the filmmakers by the standard they themselves have set, and it happens that not every film is as impressive as their best. I think that you’ll find a consensus forming around which Coen Brothers films deserve that sort of “best” categorisation, with movies like Raising Arizona and No Country For Old Men sure to make the grade.

However, while I like most of their output, I tend to veer a little bit towards the unconventional. I would rather watch Burn After Reading than sit through A Serious Man, for example. In fact, I consider Burn After Reading to be the perfect counterpart to No Country For Old Men, much like the Coens themselves did – they alternated writing duties on the two films. Sure, I like The Big Lebowski as much as most, but I have a strong dislike of O Brother Where Art Thou? It’s a funny thing, something that leads me to suspect that my “Coen Brothers appreciation” skill, one mandated for any and all internet film buffs, must be off slightly.

And so we come to True Grit. It’s a good film. It’s enjoyable. Most people would concede that without too much protest. Does it deserve to be measured against something like Fargo? That’s a more controversial point, to be sure. Some people might have been surprised when True Grit made the Best Picture nominations this year, but there were audible gasps when the pair received a Best Director nomination. Many people suggest that the two “took” the place that was clearly meant for Christopher Nolan after his work on Inception. Incidentally, at the risk of going off on another tangent, I’d disagree with that synopsis of events. I think that Tom Hooper took Nolan’s spot, coasting in for a film that was well-written, but directed in a workman-like fashion. Then again, he has the Oscar and I don’t, so what do I know?

Anyway, I actually really like True Grit, as if that’s confirmed that my ability to judge quality in a Coen Brothers’ movie has somehow been damaged beyond repair. Maybe my mother dropped me as a child, that must be it. If you ask me to explain why I liked the film so much that I would rank it ahead of The King’s Speech or Hanna or any of the other deserving entires in this year’s film canon, I’d probably offer a pretty lame defense. I admire the modesty of the project.

It feels like a sin to utter such words. What does “modesty” have to do in the world of cinema? Surely cinema must be “great” and “vast” and “important”? What is the point of holding up an example of cinema that isn’t “ambitious”? How the hell could a film which I admire for its own uncomplicated and unpretentious nature end up ranking above so many carefully-constructed and insightful pieces of cinema? Whether I’m comparing it the best of the year or the best of the Coen canon, those questions deserve to be asked.

And I should clarify my statement a bit. I say “modesty”, but it doesn’t denote that the film was made without skill or technique or intelligence. The Coen Brothers would have to try very hard to make a film that didn’t possess those three attributes in spades. When I say “modesty”, I mean that the film doesn’t presume to be weighty or any more worthy of my attention than any other. It isn’t a heartless machine engineered to make vast sums of money, or to consume countless international awards. It doesn’t seem to have any agenda pushing it on, or to be written with a particular end goal in mind, save to be made. It feels like a film produced because all the people involved wanted to make a film, rather than wanting any of the ends that might come from making a film, if that makes sense.

Jeff Bridges earned an Oscar nomination for his work here, but it’s not a typical Oscar performance. Bridges spends most of the movie borderline inaudible in a drunken stupor, with most of the content of his speech sounding like something from Kenny in South Park. Matt Damon looks like he “got into character” by watching a whole weekend of Westerns and buying a spittoon to practice with. The Coen Brothers wrote a script that doesn’t conform to audience expectations of a Western in so many ways, right down to the use of proper old-fashioned diction, despite the fact it might alienate or scare off viewers.

More than that though, the directors gave the lead role to fourteen-year-old girl who had never had a role like this before. They ended up offering Hailee Steinfeld one of the most wonderful debuts for a child actor in recent memory. Steinfeld is incredible. I don’t mean to short-change her co-stars who both give great turns, but Steinfeld owns the movie. Given that it’s a movie co-starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, that’s quite an accomplishment, and one well-deserved. I hope the rest of her career lives up to this first film.

True Grit is pure fun, but not fun in a silly watered-down “Summer Blockbuster” sort of way. It demonstrates that dichotomy between brain-dead big-budget adventure movies and cold pretentious Oscar-bait is entirely false. It’s possible for a movie to be smart and crowd-pleasing, to offer action and adventure with character development and intelligence. My better half has never been a Western fan, and she loved that film. I can’t wait to show it to my gran over Christmas.

True Grit isn’t an “important” Coen Brothers film. I doubt that many academics and film-writers be talking about it in the next ten years, but I suspect that’s part of the reason why it’s so fascinating and exciting to me. It’s a film that seems to have been crafted out of a genuine sense of fun and excitement, with a lighter touch than most Coen Brothers films. While I adore the “heavier” stuff, sometimes the light stuff is just what the doctor ordered.

I’m counting down my top twelve films of 2011, one a day. Here’s the list so far:

12.) Rango

11.) The Guard

10.) Super 8

09.) The Adjustment Bureau

08.) True Grit

07.) Rise of the Planet of the Apes

06.) Black Swan

05.) Thor

04.) Midnight in Paris

03.) The Artist

02.) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

01.) Drive

You might also like our other end/start-of-year pieces:

3 Responses

  1. Thank you: you’ve done a good job of explaining why I, too, really liked this movie. In fact, it’s my favorite Coen Bros. film, and I think my reasons boil down to what you say here: there’s a nice modesty to it, a belief in the goodness of good storytelling for its own sake, perhaps. I guess I can’t argue that it was the best movie of the 2011 Oscar season (mostly because I haven’t seen the majority of the other contenders), but it was my favorite movie seen in theaters in a long time.

    Watching the John Wayne version on TV again, I was struck by how the two movies follow each other so closely on paper, yet produce entirely different experiences. Most of the dialogue and events are exactly the same, or nearly, yet the style of each is so radically unique, and so excellent, that there’s no feeling of repetition or superfluity. I could probably watch them one after the other and not feel I was watching the same story (hmm, I should try that sometime).

    But then my second favorite Coen Bros. film is O Brother, Where Art Thou?, so what do I know? +)

  2. I really loved it too. It’s great to see that someone more than me considers True Grit a 2011 film and not a 2010 film.
    It’s a bit troublesome to make a top list of the films of 2011 since many film bloggers are American and they have a completely different opinion on what should count as a 2011 movie.

    • Yep, one helpful commentator stopped by my Black Swan review to “correct” me that it was a 2010 movie. If we can’t see Young Adult or Carnage over here until January or February, surely they count as 2012 movies?

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