The Movie Club

Best Movies 2011: Elle Fanning in Super 8, and other favorite 2011 performances.

Lightning round! What were your five favorite cinematic moments of 2011?

Still of Elle Fanning in Super 8
Elle Fanning in Super 8

Francois Duhamel/Paramount Pictures.

Dear fellow clubbers,

We were supposed to stop last week after three go-rounds, but none of us was quite ready. Getting the chance to talk movies unplugged from the ever-pressing demands of the release calendar has been pretty sweet, and I for one have no intention of facing whatever the January movie lineup may hold without one more drink before last call. For this final set of posts, let’s do a lightning round: quick evocations of five moments or performances or details from the past year you won’t soon forget, even if they come from films you otherwise barely remember. Looking back through a list of the year’s releases (a task which makes you realize how long a year really is; doesn’t it seem like another era when Gwyneth Paltrow was corn-poning it up in Country Strong?), here are some things that stay with me:

1) The whole pregnancy plotline in Twilight: Breaking Dawn, from the moment vampire-bride Bella begins greedily noshing on undercooked chicken up till that freakishly gory birth scene (which Stephanie nailed in comparing it to Dario Argento). After three installments that revolved mainly around which of her two supernatural suitors the heroine would choose to sleep chastely next to, the Twilight franchise finally went to town, losing itself in a full-on sex-and-death hallucination that had the audience I saw it with laughing and shrieking at the same time. Birth scenes in big-budget movies tend to be wholesome, life-affirming, and cute: Katherine Heigl huffing and puffing in a hospital gown, a light mist of sweat on her brow. There was a sick satisfaction in seeing what Virginia Heffernan once called “the hideous miracle of life” portrayed as a visceral, life-draining nightmare, complete with an unanesthetized C-section via vampire fangs.

2) Elle Fanning in Super 8, made up as a zombie for her role in a friend’s amateur movie, shambling in comic slow motion toward her lovestruck classmate (played by Joel Courtney) as he, and we, waited to see whether they were headed for a first kiss. The uncanny thespian gifts of Fanning’s character are a recurring thread in Super 8, and all I can say is, J.J. Abrams certainly cast the right actor. As she’s been proving since age 4 (when she memorably played Jeff Bridges’ tiny, grief-stricken daughter in The Door in the Floor), Elle Fanning is one of those rare performers who can find things in the material that even the director might not have known were there.

3) The simple cinematic trick, in Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Paranormal Activity 3, of having a character mount a video camera on the base of an electric fan so that it pans back and forth between two rooms, alternating with agonizing slowness between the unfolding horrors in each one. Each installment in this artisanal demon-hunting franchise gets a little more gimmicky, but there’s still something primally frightening about the Paranormal films’ bare-bones premise: A skeptic sets up a camera to prove there’s no such thing as a haunted house, and the footage collected shows him being proven extravagantly and gorily wrong.

4) The scene in Lee Chang-Dong’s Poetry (Michael’s No. 1 film of the year, which, thanks to him, I finally caught up with last week) in which the 66-year-old heroine, played exquisitely by Jeong-hie Yun, addresses the camera as she tells her fellow students in an adult-education poetry class about her earliest childhood memory—a memory that’s all the more poignant given that she’s just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. There were a lot of films about the beauties and indignities of aging this year—Beginners, J. Edgar, The Iron Ladybut none that approached the sublimity of Poetry, which was at once a lyrical meditation on time’s passage and a suspenseful drama about the aftermath of a violent crime.

5) The brief scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 when Emma Watson’s prim Hermione casts a spell allowing her to inhabit the body of Helena Bonham Carter’s lasciviously nasty Bellatrix Lestrange. Bonham Carter pulled off the richly comic trick of imitating Hermione’s not-quite-right idea of how Bellatrix would act, and for viewers who’ve gotten to know both characters over the course of eight films, the moment was so layered that it had an eerie trompe-l’oeil quality: was that really Bonham Carter onscreen, or Watson in some kind of clever digital makeup?

Before I pass the baton to Stephanie, I want to invite readers to stop by Slate’s Brow Beat blog, where you can vote in a poll for the best movie of last year. It’s my fond hope that, like the clueless homeowners in the Paranormal Activity series, we critics will be proven extravagantly (but please, not too gorily) wrong.