My Abbreviated Top Films of 2011

02/27/2012

Some time in the distant future, I will release an actual list of my favorite films of 2011. And there will be much rejoicing. Until then, enjoy this pithy placeholder. I made it as a sort of topical counter-point to the Oscars, hoping to stir up some discussion (and pass the time during a slow work night). But don’t be confused. The real list with real writeups is still on its way. I’ve just decided to wait until I’ve seen absolutely everything, which might sound extreme but any list that excludes films from Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Pedro Almodovar, and David Cronenberg, not to mention three of the most discussed films of the year (A Separation, Margaret, and We Need to Talk About Kevin) probably should wait to develop a little bit more. I swear it’s not my fault. I just happen to live in Iowa, where arthouse films are illegal.

But for the time being, I have seen 8 of the 9 Best Picture nominees (and from what I’m told, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close doesn’t even count) so by the Academy’s standard I’m more than qualified to enter the discussion. Anyway, enjoy.

WHAT I’VE SEEN

50/50

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn

The Arbor

The Artist

Attack the Block

Beginners

Bridesmaids

Bellflower

Captain America: The First Avenger

Cars 2

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cedar Rapids

Certified Copy

Contagion

Courageous

The Descendants

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Drive

Fast Five

Film Socialisme

Gnomeo and Juliet

The Guard

Hanna

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II

The Help

Hesher

Horrible Bosses

Hugo

The Ides of March

Incendies

The Interrupters

Kung Fu Panda 2

Larry Crowne

Le Havre

Le Quattro Volte

Margin Call

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Meek’s Cutoff

Melancholia

Midnight in Paris

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Moneyball

The Muppets

Myth of the American Sleepover

Nostalgia for the Light

Of Gods and Men

Paul

Poetry

Project Nim

Rango

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Senna

Shame

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows

The Smurfs

Source Code

Submarine

Super 8

Tabloid

Take Shelter

Terri

Thor

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Tree of Life

The Trip

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Warhorse

Warrior

Water for Elephants

Winnie the Pooh

Win Win

X-Men: First Class

Young Adult

20. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Tomas Alfredson

Yes, it’s every bit as dense as you’ve been led to believe, but in a good way! At first glance Alfredson’s structural mazes bear little resemblance to the moral mirk of his vampire drama Let the Right One In, but the spirit behind them is quite similar. He’s a filmmaker who really knows how to capture the feeling of being lost in an honest and compelling way.

19. Melancholia – Lars VonTrier

Very, very dark, but on the other hand, very, very pretty. Plus no scissors hanging around where they don’t belong. Lars Von Trier’s melodrama is one of the most accurate depictions of depression I’ve ever seen, anchored by a career-best performance from Kirsten Dunst. It’s a film where Melancholia literally destroys the world, which isn’t quite a spoiler because it happens right at the beginning.

18. Submarine – Richard Ayoade

Forget this film’s many dramatic virtues, it’s on this list because I flat out laughed at it more than any other movie this year — which makes sense, because it’s directed by a standup comedian. Alright, there’s a lot more to the film than lolz. Ayoade uses eccentric style, much maligned in the days of Wes Anderson backlash, as a powerful tool for contrasting dissonant elements of teenage life: the vicious politics of school and the awkward intimacy of home, the illusion of self-awareness and the impossibility of control. It feels really honest, BUT it’s still all really funny.

17. Le Quattro Volte – Michaelangleo Frammartino

If you’re not into the whole “visual poem” thing, then this might not be your list, because I include several. This one takes a location — a nearly unchanged medieval town inhabited in the modern day — and milks it for everything it’s worth. For less patient viewers, this will be the movie that had a tree as its protagonist for 20 minutes. For the those more attuned to cinema’s simple pleasures, it’s an offbeat, ironic, occasionally hilarious exploration of what it means to be alive.

16. Warrior – Gavin O’Connor

Equal parts Black Swan, Raging Bull, and Rocky 4, it’s amazing to think a sports movie this entertaining could tank in an era when We Are Marshall is box office gold. A lot of that was probably the trailer. It highlighted all the ways this is a generic sports drama (typically a winning strategy), but if that really was the case, nobody told Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, and Nick Nolte. Each turned in an Oscar-worthy performance as a family of fighters torn apart by betrayal and abuse. Also it’s not generic. There are familiar elements, sure, but they’re part of an unpredictable fever dream built out of sports movie complexes that ultimately celebrates fighting as an art form. Plus there’s classical music, references to Greek mythology, literary parallels, and a song from The National. So it’s also, like, classy.

15. Drive – Nicholas Winding Refn

Thanks to innovative filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Melville (whose Le Samourai is a major inspiration for Drive) it takes a lot for a standard neo-noir to distinguish itself these days. Nicholas Winding Refn responds to the challenge by stripping back the veneer of realism from this gritty tale until he finds its emotional, even mythical core. One moment it’s a sugary romance painted against city lights and wistful 80’s pop. The next it’s a shockingly violent, occasionally terrifying meditation of self-betrayal and the elusive search for redemption. Wrought with symbolism and inhabited by an indie dream cast of Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, and Brian Cranston, it’s one of the most evocatively stylish crime movies ever made.

14. Terri – Azazel Jacobs

Terri is like a comedy version of Precious made for white people. The young protagonist is grossly overweight, mercilessly bullied at school, and not altogether sympathetic to even the audience. But that’s what grants the movie its power. Jacobs realizes most of his audience doesn’t hate people like Terri, but they simply have no idea how to deal with them in real life. Enter Principal Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), a shining example and one of my favorite characters in any movie this year. Fitzgerald wears himself down trying to help every kid he sees getting lost in the shuffle. He’s cheesy, and his health and marriage seem to be crumbling as he spreads himself too thin, but he keeps fighting because he sees the battle for kids like Terry as nothing less than a matter life and death. Likewise, the movie doesn’t sugarcoat Terri to make him likable. It does, however, insist that its audience relate to him in every aspect of his life — even sexually. The result is a surprisingly observed, humane film which should be getting more recognition.

13. Meek’s Cutoff – Kelly Reichardt

Many critics have been quick to point out big political and religious metaphors that underscore Meek’s Cutoff, but what first won me over to this low budget pioneer western was its atmosphere. Kelly Reichardt makes a lot of unconventional decisions, like a 3:4 aspect ratio, sound that emphasizes the environment over the dialog, and naturalistic lighting that renders night shots almost pitch black. They’re gambles, but they all pay off. The combined effect immerses the viewer in the world of these lost pioneers, where every day gone by is another day off of the trail and away from food and water. It’s a slow burn, but when it explodes you realize just how powerful it really is.

12. The Interrupters – Steve James

This sprawling epic of a documentary from the director of Hoop Dreams (which I haven’t seen yet. I KNOW!) reminded me what a noble enterprise documentary filmmaking can be. It explores the idea that violence should be treated like a disease, by following the exploits of the Violence Interrupters. That group is comprised of former gang members from downtown Chicago who try to mediate potentially violent situations without the use of the police. On the one hand, the results are surprisingly successful. On the other, the process is still frustratingly slow. James’ best quality is the way he observes his characters. He gathered footage for over 14 months, and every shot feels like incisive evidence for his theory. Ultimately there aren’t easy answers for crime and poverty; just people, and The Interrupters captures those people and shows that they can change, and then they can make a difference to help others and stop the disease.

11. The Trip – Michael Winterbottom

A touch of melancholy underscores every chuckle in this road trip comedy from Michael Winterbottom. British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon each play exaggerated versions of themselves on a five day journey reviewing restaurants in Northern Britain. Brydon’s half of the odd couple is a lighthearted, affable married chap who has settled into his age and speaks almost exclusively in the voices of celebrities he’s impersonated over the years. Coogan plays the uptight, self-obsessed career man who laments losing his big leading roles to Michael Sheen and whose most recent relationship is heading south fast. By steering clear of the overtly bromantic undertones most similar films take for granted, The Trip becomes a whimsical, occasionally sobering look at men in their forties. But even that definition fails to fully realize the film’s accomplishment. By refusing the declare itself, the understated docu-comedy sort of attaches to whatever is nearby, taking long, indulgent gazes at the English countryside, the preparation of food, the fascinating back and forth between two comedy legends, roads, historical landmarks, poetry, and oddest of all, human interaction. Ultimately The Trip is about how all those things add up to life, and it raises questions of what it all means and what its all worth; an existential masterpiece that is so amicable and funny its audience will hardly notice.

10. The Arbor – Clio Barnard

The Arbor is one of the most fascinating documentaries I’ve ever seen. It challenges the very definition of what a documentary can be by combining elements of live theater and television with its interviews and b-roll. The subjects, playwright Andrea Dunbar, her children, and the low-rent neighborhood in England where she grew up, are explored from every possible angle. Actors lip synch over the interview dialog, her plays are performed live in a vacant lot across the street from her old house, other writers and directors discuss Dunbar’s work, and slowly the movie reveals that it’s not merely a self-contained entity — it’s the next chapter in an ongoing artistic tradition. The Arbor draws parallels between the evolution of Dunbar’s art form and the evolution of her family, as well as the evolution of an entire community and the way cyclical cycles of abuse subtly embed themselves. I’ve never seen a movie break down poverty in a more tangible way.

9. Film Socialisme – Jean-Luc Godard

Intentionally frustrating, thick as quicksand, and more than a touch mean-spirited, Film Socialisme is everything one would expect from a polarizing filmmaker like Godard. This is intellectual cinema at its coldest and most opaque. But true to its filmmaker’s legacy, it grows in memory and its seemingly impenetrable veneer gives way to something that resembles legitimate revelation. Possibly the least enjoyable movie I ever loved. Actually, I won’t say I loved it, because what is love really? But if I didn’t hate it so much it would probably be #1.

8. Attack the Block – Joe Cornish

Joe Cornish takes a big first step with his debut feature. Big enough, perhaps, to escape the shadow of his friend and colleague, cinematic wunderkind Edgar Wright. Like Wright, Cornish’s aesthetic is all about genre blending. He combines violent horror, science fiction mystery, urban gang drama, and especially 80’s Spielberg. But also like Wright, he uses his story tricks as a window into character. The gang in Attack the Block isn’t all that different from the gang in Super 8 or the kids in ET. They’re just poorer and have a slightly different skin tone, and when ET lands they beat him to death with a baseball bat. The point is partially that the Amblin spirit can be found in everyone, but let’s not get carried away. This is primarily a midnight B movie, and will primarily be loved as a freakishly exciting adventure that will be a cult classic for years to come.

7. Poetry – Chang-dong Lee

Speaking of genre blends, here’s a quirky human comedy mixed up with a dark film noir. Chang-dong Lee tells his story in mostly muted tones, but like his forefathers Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, his interests run much deeper than would appear on the surface. At first Poetry feels like a basic defense of, well, poetry. But then it moves further to explore art at its core, which is empathy, and how a society without empathy can bring on all kinds of unspeakable evil. I’m halfway convinced I’m underselling this film and will one day refer to it as an all time classic. It’s a piece of Japanese cinema as beautiful as if it were from Ozu and Kurosawa.

6. Hugo – Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese wasn’t the only director who wrote a love letter to cinema last year, but he was the most eloquent. He frames this film like a collage made from bits and pieces of the films of his childhood — like Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes and Renoir’s La Bete Humaine. The specific references will of course be lost on kids who, in theory, are the target audience. But I imagine the children who enjoy it most will be the ones, like Hugo, Francois Truffaut (whose story figures into the drama quite a bit), and a younger Scorsese himself, who haven’t become too desensitized to relish the dream. For adults, the joy of seeing a brilliant visual poet let loose in such a sprawling and confectionary way should go without saying. But I also suspect this movie will be revered even more when audiences have time to reflect on it.

5. Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen

Sweet, sugary, frothy, bubbly, magical, delightful — shutter — these are words you will rarely here me use to describe a film I enjoyed. And yet I was completely enchanted by this romance from Woody Allen, which incoporates just about all of them. It registered with those same indulgent neurons that usually trigger my nausea, but it also appealed to my adult sensibilities with its wit and intelligence. I’ve been calling it a trip to intellectual Disney World, and to avoid spoilers I won’t carry that metaphor further. But you really need to check it out. It’s one of the most enjoyable, sweet, sugary, frothy (you get the picture) films Allen has ever made.

4. Of Gods and Men – Xavier Beauvois

In 1996, twelve French monks serving in Algeria refused to leave their monastery when terrorists threatened the region. Xavier Beauvois’ film captures their plight with meditative subtlety. On the surface it’s an ambitious discussion on contemporary religion and violence, and one that handles the discussion with uncommon intelligence. But beneath that surface lies a deceptively touching story of fear and brotherhood. Seeing these characters face death together is more touching than any overarching themes.

3. Moneyball – Bennet Miller

Aaron Sorkin’s had a long love affair with the 70’s. His films and TV shows are littered with references to M*A*S*H, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, and Network, right down to his fascinatingly quixotic love letter to Paddy Chayefesky called Studio 60. But even more substantively, his thematic interests seem to ignore the questions of his day for the problems of an edgier, more intellectually-minded age — his modern characters operating a few degrees outside their society, at conflict with a less sophisticated, post-intellectual conservative America. With 2010‘s The Social Network and now Moneyball, the world’s most famous screenwriter has broken through the wall of homage into his own stratosphere, not just yearning for a more enlightened era of screenwriting but actually defining one. Also, this movie feels like a very accurate representation of its time and place. Retrofitted from a book released in 2003, Moneyball became the story of disappointment and pessimism, and the kind of change that can maybe restore hope in the future.

2. Project Nim – James Marsh

I’m not as familiar with documentary filmmaking as I am with its narrative cousin, but I was absolutely blown away by this chimpanzee documentary. It’s story runs parallel to King Kong, Frankenstein, and other cautionary tales about the dangers of man messing with nature and science. Yet I’m even more inclined to compare it to Citizen Kane. After all, Nim was torn from his mother at a young age and moved from family to family in an attempt to teach him sign language (or become THE MOST INTELLIGENT CHIMP EVER!). The scientific implications of a chimp learning human communication are astounding. But nobody gave any consideration to the human implications, and so we heartbreakingly endure tragedy after tragedy as characters adopt Nim and then discard him when they realize that a chimpanzee in a human world is more trouble than they bargained for. I half expected someone to burn his old toy sled at the end. But the movie isn’t all familiar, and the surprises along the way are vital to its success. Yes, the world is awfully cold to young Nim, but Nim’s response to his trials (and their human, and not so human implications) are really what grant the film its power.

1. Tree of Life – Terrence Malick

Tree of Life is meant to be appreciated in the same way as the classical pieces of music that accompany its images. Like Smetana’s Ma Vlast, Malick strives to capture the spirit and feeling of his homeland, be that the entire universe, the Earth, or one house from his early childhood. It’s ambitious, that’s for sure. The enigmatic filmmaker might not completely nail down the meaning of life, but he definitely proves he’s got as good a grasp on the feel of it as anyone working today. True, natural beauty is such a tough thing to capture in this cynical age. Malick does it with the same devotion and craft that guided his artistic forefathers, not just film directors but great artists from all of history.

ADDITIONAL AWARDS
Best Actor
1. Tom Hardy – Warrior
2. Michael Shannon – Take Shelter
3. Michael Fassbender – Shame
4. Andy Serkis – Rise of the Planet of the Apes
5. Brendan Gleeson – The GuardBest Supporting Actor
1. John C. Reilly – Terri
2. Christopher Plummer – Beginners
3. John Hawkes – Martha Marcy May Marlene
4. Nick Nolte – Warrior
5. Joel Edgerton – Warrior

Best Actress
1. Vera Farmiga – Higher Ground
2. Elizabeth Olsen – Martha Marcy May Marlene
3. Kirsten Dunst – Melancholia
4. Viola Davis – The Help
5. Kristen Wiig – Bridesmaids

Best Supporting Actress
1. Carey Mulligan – Shame
2. Jessica Chastain – The Help
3. Jessica Chastain – Take Shelter
4. Jessica Chastain – Tree of Life
5. Sally Hawkins – Submarine

Best Original Screenplay
1. Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen
2. Terri – Patrick DeWitt, Azazel Jacobs
3. Attack the Block – Joe Cornish
4. Of Gods and Men – Xavier Beauvois
5. Poetry – Chang-dong Lee

Best Adapted Screenplay
1. Moneyball – Aaron Sorkin
2. Submarine – Richard Ayoade
3. Higher Ground – Carolyn S. Briggs, Tim Metcalfe
4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straugen
5. The Descendants – Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

Best Director
1. Terrence Malick – Tree of Life
2. Martin Scorsese – Hugo
3. Nicholas Winding Refn – Drive
4. Woody Allen – Midnight in Paris
5. TIE: Kelly Reichardt – Meek’s Cutoff / Lars VonTrier – Melancholia

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