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Top Films 2011

2012.08.27

Better late than never, right? This list’s belated appearance is due to a number of factors I won’t bore anyone with, but hopefully it’s early enough in the year that you can catch up on the great films of 2011 you may have missed before 2012’s Oscar season launches full-force.

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5—Take Shelter
Michael Shannon, in the year’s best male performance, plays Curtis, an Ohio construction worker plagued by vivid apocalyptic visions. Though his mother (Kathy Baker) is a schizophrenic, Curtis is convinced these nightmares are actually prognostications, and begins preparing his home and family for the worst, to the consternation of his sensible wife (Jessica Chastain, in one of her many great performances given last year), friends, and colleagues. Director Jeff Nichols builds the suspense so expertly that by the end the tension is almost unbearable. The film also has the distinction of having my favorite ending of 2011 by far.

 

4—Melancholia
The basic premise of this film—a depressive greets the end of the world with her largely insufferable family—would not seem to endear itself to a wide audience. And given how grim and bleak Lars von Trier’s recent films have been, I can’t say I was especially looking forward to watching Melancholia; I was intrigued mainly by Kirsten Dunst’s Best Actress win at the Cannes Film Festival. I was pleased to discover that von Trier’s feature-length metaphor for clinical depression is light on the doom-and-gloom and actually quite funny and sublime in places. Kirsten Dunst holds her own amidst a cast that includes Keifer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Stellan Skarsgard. The complete annihilation of the earth and mankind has never looked so beautiful.

 

3—Drive
By day, Ryan Gosling is an affable mechanic and stunt driver; but by night he mans getaway cars for criminals, using his skills to outrun (and outmaneuver) the police. Unlike most action films nowadays, Drive doesn’t play fast and loose with the rules of physics, or feature endless, pointless shoot-outs and gratuitous violence. There is no CGI-fueled havoc, gunfire slaughtering characters by the dozen with countless props, and sets gettin’ blowed up real good. Each act of violence is grave, and the car chases are thrilling because they seem to take place in the real-world. I didn’t see a better action film all year.

 

2—A Separation
The only thing I knew about A Separation before I saw it was that it was a domestic drama from Iran. So I was expecting a slowly-paced slice-of-life film, something arty that would probably win many European awards. What I was definitely not expecting to see was a lightning-quick, emotionally-charged thriller, which utterly transfixed me and glued me to my seat with the skill of a great novel. Some passages were so suspenseful I realized I hadn’t been breathing during them. Ashgar Farhadi’s screenplay was up for an Oscar this year—and in a just world, would easily have won. Not to be missed.

 

1—The Tree of Life
If you really want to know why The Tree of Life is the best of 2011, read my previous blog post about it. To quickly summarize that post: I’d try to describe the plot, but that would make it sound like a conventional, nostalgic coming-of-age story, which it sort of is—but that makes up maybe less than half of what you see. I’d try describing it as a piece of poetry, but that would end up making it sound like some hopeless, impenetrable art film—which it definitely is not. So I’ll simply been talking about how The Tree of Life made me feel. It produced within me a deep reverence and awe. I felt a profound spiritual awareness; the kind I imagine religious people experience in church or deep in prayer. Such emotions are difficult for a director to evoke at all, let alone sustain for two and a half hours, but Terrence Malick’s lovely and enigmatic film does just that, especially upon repeated viewings. And there are dinosaurs! It’s not a difficult choice: The Tree of Life is the best film of 2011. (Do not see this movie on a small screen!)


 

And there were several worthy honorable mentions.

The Next Best (in alphabetical order):

Artist, The

You already know about The Artist—don’t you? It’s that black and white, ‘silent’ film that won Best Picture at the Oscars. The backlash for it had begun long before Oscar night, with countless critics calling it ‘slight,’ ‘unserious,’ ‘conventional,’ and the like. To be honest, I kind of understand what those critics are saying. I think general audiences tend to overrate the film simply due to the novelty of seeing a mostly silent, black and white, non-widescreen, old-school movie. On the other hand, it is clear that the sole ambition of its director, Michel Hazanavicius, is to entertain his audience as completely as possible, with no pretense otherwise. I think that’s a noble enterprise, exactly Gene Kelley and Stanley Donen’s ambition for Singin’ in the Rain. The film is extremely entertaining from beginning to end, and its star Jean Dujardin is the best French import since Marion Cotillard. My only hope is that it leads people to the best of real silent film—Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau… to name a few.

 

Certified Copy

Another Iranian director takes a top spot on my list. A British writer visits Tuscany to give a lecture on his latest book, dealing with the business of art and art reproduction. He meets up with an antiques dealer (played by Juliette Binoche, in the year’s best female performance) interested in his viewpoint, and together they drive through the Italian countryside discussing their philosophies on the subject. They meander around a bit, before entering a café… and then the film takes an complete left-turn, calling into question everything we have seen up until that point, including the true relationship between the two main characters. To reveal more would be criminal. Never has a film consisting largely of dialogue between two characters been more dynamic, enigmatic, or electrifying—My Dinner with Andre, eat your heart out. Juliette Binoche won the Best Actress award at Cannes for this film, which was banned by Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

 

Descendants, The

Most family dramas to come out of Hollywood follow such generic and predictable trajectories that it’s rarely necessary to watch more than twenty minutes without knowing exactly how the next 100 will play out. So watching a film as unpredictable, mature, and emotionally genuine as The Descendants is a real treat. The plot seems simple enough: George Clooney plays a successful lawyer living in Hawaii who is so focused on work he has alienated his wife and two daughters. But after his wife is mortally wounded in a boating accident, his role in the family has to change. This plot could well be fodder for some Lifetime movie, but Alexander Payne and his actors never sidestep into melodrama or banality. And the film is not as simple as my too-brief synopsis would suggest; Payne packs so much nuance plot is beside the point, because this film is actually about complex, intertwining relationships.

 

Martha Marcy May Marlene

The movie that introduced the world to a previously unknown Olsen sister—one that can act, no less! This intense, elliptical film follows Martha after escaping from an abusive cult, and trying to re-integrate herself back into normal society. It’s not quite as simple as all that of course; through flashbacks, we see the spell the charismatic cult leader (John Hawkes) cast upon her. The trauma of her past life bleeds into the present and we begin to wonder if Martha has been irrevocably altered. This is a very strong first film from writer/director Sean Durkin, and Elizabeth Olsen is a revelation. She has the unenviable task of indicating volumes of information with only her face and body language, and does so with a haunting effectiveness.

 

Moneyball

In this account of the Oakland Athletic’s 2002 baseball season, Brad Pitt gives his all-time best performance as Billy Beane, the perpetually unsuccessful team’s beleaguered general manager. Desperate for anything resembling a winning season, he enlists the help of young Yale economics grad Peter Brand (an unusually low-key Jonah Hill). Implementing Brand’s radical, unconventional approach to drafting prospective players angers Beane’s long-time scouting leaders, and calls into question Beane’s future on the team. What’s really interesting about Moneyball is the relative lack of baseball play we see; the screenplay (by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin) focusses almost exclusively on the business side of the sport, and director Bennett Miller (Capote) isn’t interested in mythologizing the national pasttime à la The Natural or Field of Dreams. But the crackling dialogue and especially Pitt’s forceful yet restrained performance make this a riveting film.

 

Of Gods and Men

Though Sunday School was usually quite uneventful, I remember one week a spirited discussion of martyrdom breaking out. One always hears Christian martyrs, such as St Stephen, spoken of with such reverence—their resolute and outspoken faith in the face of certain annihilation. But during this discussion, my Sunday School teacher said “You know, if someone walked in here right now with a gun, pointed it at your face, and said ‘Do you believe in Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior,’ with the intent of killing you if you said yes… you know, I think God would be okay with you saying ‘No.’ Just to keep you alive. I think he’d find that reasonable.”
This scenario was simply an intellectual (or spiritual, for some) exercise for those of us in the Sunday School room, but for the characters in Of Gods and Men, it is all too real. The film recounts the true story of nine Trappist monks, living in peace and cooperation with the Muslim population of their village in Algeria in the days before the Algerian Civil War. Islamic fundamentalists rising against the Algerian government threaten the social harmony of the monks, and they must make a decision: stand up to the rebels, or leave quietly to avoid likely assassination. Are their ideals worth dying for, or worth living for? This pivotal question hangs over this powerful and unique film, which will appeal to religious and secular audiences alike.

 

Shame

I had to show my ID four times before being let into the theatre showing Shame: once at the ticket counter, again at the ticket taker, then at the entrance to the cinema wing, and yet again at the entrance to the specific theatre showing the film. Security was so tight, you’d almost think you were trying to enter Gaza from the Israeli border. This level of scrutiny was solely based upon the film’s NC-17 rating. Anyone going to the film hoping for rampant, unbridled decadence is likely to be disappointed; in reality, Shame is a low-key, thoughtful character study of two lonely souls, psychologically compelled into self-destruction. Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan give shattering performances here—performances which deserve a wider audience than the film’s rating would allow. In all honesty, the NC-17 rating is bullshit; nudity is brief and the sex scenes are clinical and unerotic. The violence in Drive—explosive, graphic, and bloody—is far more disturbing. But what can you expect from the dumbasses who gave The King’s Speech an ‘R’ rating for a few brief naughty words?

 

The Skin I Live In

Summarizing a Pedro Almodóvar film is useless. There are too many layers, too many detours, too much on the screen to encapsulate in a few words. If you’ve seen any of his previous films (Talk to Her, All About My Mother, Bad Education) you know what I’m talking about. So here’s what I can say about The Skin I Live In: it is the first collaboration between Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas in 21 years. Consequently, Banderas has his best role in about that long, and if you’re a fan of his you won’t want to miss it. Also, The Skin I Live In provided the biggest out-of-nowhere you’ll-never-see-it-coming plot twist of any movie in 2011.

 

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

What a strange little film this is. In the last days of a degenerative illness, titular Boonmee is visited by the ghost of his dead first wife, and by his long-lost son, who has returned in non-human form. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film gets more playful and dreamlike as it goes along, building to a mysterious and elliptical finale. One of the most beautiful films released in 2011—and definitely the only one to feature catfish-on-princess sex! Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

 

We Need to Talk About Kevin

I made the unfortunate mistake of reading film-festival reviews of this movie before its American release date, so I knew the ending going in. I think it’s meant to be a surprise, though it makes perfect sense given everything we’ve seen up to that point. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a variation on The Bad Seed, but instead of lingering on the evil of the child, dissects the psychology of the mother (played by Tilda Swinton, her latest in a string of astonishing, powerful performances). From Kevin’s birth onward he continually rejects his mother’s attempts at affection, and a growing hostility between them mounts as he ages. Some of director Lynne Ramsey’s cinematic flourishes go a bit over the top (one of the first scenes is Eva washing blood-red graffiti off her house, in one of many instances of perhaps too-obvious symbolism), but because of the strict focus on Swinton and her emotional state, they come off as forgivably expressionistic rather than absurd. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a great film, but be warned: it is unremittingly bleak and hopeless.

And here are the next ten films—films I greatly admired, but just didn’t quite make it to the shortlist:

50/50
Hugo
The Ides of March
The Interrupters
Midnight in Paris
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
Poetry
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
War Horse
Warrior

Excellent. Now that we’re all caught up, onward to 2012!

 

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