My Top Ten has already appeared over on Row Three, along with all the other contributors’ lists. It’s a good mix, you should check it out. Or, you could just read mine below, copied essentially verbatim, but with added pictures. Below the top ten are a loosely ordered (favorite to less favorite) assortment of other films from 2011 that I think are worth mentioning. Still to come: A post listing my favorite things I saw in 2011, but weren’t released in 2011.
10. Winnie the Pooh
I hoped against hope that Disney would do right by the beloved Pooh bear, and they surpassed all my expectations. With a simple but charming story pulled together from a few of A.A. Milne’s most beloved entries in the series, lovely hand-drawn animation, and a sense of wonder and childlikeness that’s missing from most overly hip children’s films these days, Winnie the Pooh is like a breath of admittedly nostalgic fresh air. Little bits of cleverness like the integration of physical text and the animation style shift for the Backson song just add to the joy of this unpretentious delight. Full review on Row Three
Joe Wright, of high-quality but relatively staid literary adaptations like Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, is doing an action movie about a teenage assassin? O…kay… But Wright pulls it off in spades, crafting one of the finest genre mashups of the year. With influences from James Bond to La femme nikita and from Run Lola Run to M (okay, it’s a stretch, but it’s there), plus a healthy dose of well-played coming-of-age story, it’s easy to accuse Hanna of not knowing what it wants to be, but on the contrary, it knows exactly what it wants to be – everything. And it manages all that with panache and an exhilarating sense of cinematic space in the action sequences. Great performances, action, editing, music, and immensely entertaining to boot.
8. The Artist
It’s no secret I’m a fan (an emerging one, anyway) of silent cinema, so I’ve been eagerly anticipating 2011′s B&W silent throwback since I heard about it. But films that attempt imitation like this can fail in so many ways, either getting things subtly wrong or failing to capture the thing that made the original so pleasing. Thankfully, The Artist comes through with flying colors (or lack of color, heh), pairing its simple romance and tale of silent cinema’s demise with a charm and vivacity that approximates the joys of silent films quite well. The acting is stylistically believable without feeling forced, the film tone-switches like a pro (as many silent films do), and the bits of gimmickry related to sound end up working better than I feared. It’s ultimately a breezy film, though not without its bits of melodrama, but there hasn’t been as charming a celebration of 1920s Hollywood since Singin’ in the Rain. Scorecard review
7. The Innkeepers
If you want to know what kind of horror hits all my buttons, look no further than Ti West’s supremely enjoyable haunted hotel film. Not only does it succeed with jump and reveal scares as the two ghost-hunting hotel employees spend the inn’s final days investigating the potential presence of the rumored ghost, but it’s just as solid in the more comedic sections of the film, bringing these two characters to life so when shit starts going down, it matters. In addition, West proves a wonderful understanding of cinematic space, using the character and location set-up in the beginning for some fantastic payoffs in the rest of the film. I don’t outright love very many horror films, but I loved this one. Full review on Row Three
6. Attack the Block
By the time I finally saw this, it had been so hyped by bloggers around the country that I was sure I would be in for disappointment. Not this time, though; the hype is pretty much deserved. From the gutsy move of having our heroes be South London thugs who start the film by mugging a young woman to the fantastic creature design of the monsters, Attack the Block succeeds on all levels. The character arcs work, thanks to solid writing and performances from the mostly unknown cast, the social commentary works even when it’s a bit on the nose, the thrills and chills work, and the comic relief works as well, for the most part. Sure to be a staple for genre-lovers for some time to come. Scorecard review
Leave it to Lars von Trier to somehow make a film about depression that is gloomy as hell, but actually NOT that depressing, when it comes right down to it. In a role that finally showcases that talent that she’s shown so fleetingly throughout her career (how’s that for a backhanded compliment!), Kirsten Dunst plays Justine first as flighty and fun, but that’s just a veneer shallowly covering her deep depression, which is soon paralleled (manifested?) in the approaching blue planet dubbed Melancholia. Yet it is she, in the second half, who is far better equipped to deal with the end of the world, an eventuality that formerly stable Charlotte Gainsbourg is unprepared to face. It’s self-consciously arty, but that’s part and parcel of the von Trier experience, and this is probably his most accessible and overwhelming film to date. Scorecard review
One of the most stylish films of the year for sure, and maybe it’s a case of style over substance, but I don’t really care. From the hot pink title lettering to the movie-LA locations to the mishmash of genre film references to the laconic main character himself, I was totally enthralled with this film. Ryan Gosling cements himself as an actor to be reckoned with, doing a lot with a very subtle role, and managing to stand out against a stellar supporting cast of more over the top supporting characters. Already an arthouse favorite thanks to his earlier films, Nicholas Winding Refn delivers a slam-dunk calling card to Hollywood without losing the personal aesthetic that he’s known for. I’ve seen this twice in theatres, and that wasn’t enough. Full review on Row Three
3. Certified Copy
A heady yet emotionally grounded inquiry from Abbas Kiarostami into the nature and value of originals and copies played out in a most unusual way – a couple of strangers (or are they) who have been discussing the ramifications of copies in an academic fashion suddenly begin acting as if they’ve been married for years (and perhaps they have). How does a simulcra of a marriage related to a real marriage, and if the fake becomes real, what is real? The film is thoughtful, cerebral, and academic, yes, like its male protagonist. But it’s also warm, heartfelt, and resonant, like its “Elle” (a wonderful performance from Juliette Binoche) – though these roles are no more set in stone than their relationship. I’ve still only seen it once, but I’ve pondered it perhaps more than any other film I saw in 2011, unable to get it out of my head. Full review on Row Three
2. We Need to Talk About Kevin
My first Lynne Ramsay film, but certainly not my last, and hopefully not hers, either. (One worries when filmmakers take 9-year breaks in between films.) One of the most disturbing and terrifying films of the year, yet with essentially no on-screen violence or gore – Ramsay conveys everything through unsettling sound design, jarring structural juxtapositions as she tells the story out of chronological order yet with a perfect thematic flow, and the wonderful central performance of Tilda Swinton as a woman who embodies the worst fears of parenthood in one tightly wound little ball. The film is assaultive in many ways, and one thing’s for sure – whether the parents who need to talk about Kevin do so or not, audiences certainly are and will be. Scorecard review
1. The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life is an intensely personal film, despite its ambitious scope. It depicts the whole history of the universe, yet affirms the importance of humanity even when faced with the enormity of the cosmos – we are tiny, but an endless summer in small-town Texas can be all-important. The film is clearly a passion project for Terrence Malick (as all his films are, really), and much of its pleasure is in how much it resonates personally with the viewer – it hit me dead-on, to the extent that I drank it all in and couldn’t really process anything else for several hours or even days. It was one of the great cinematic experiences of the year for me (and that’s really what it is, an experience, privileging associative resonance over narrative drive), and that’s why it’s remained at the top of my list all year.
OTHERS WORTH MENTIONING
The idea that only ten films a year are worth mentioning seems pretty ridiculous to me, so even though I go along with it for list posts and such just to conform to some sort of standard, I really feel like end of the year posts should highlight other worthwhile films of the year as well. So this is a non-numbered listing of other films I really really liked this year. Largely ones I like better are toward the top, ones I like less well toward the bottom, but this is pretty much every film from 2011 (or 2010 in a few cases, like Attenberg, which released in Greece in 2010 but still hasn’t hit the US outside of festival screenings) that I really liked/loved. They all deserve recognition.
My first exposure to the current wave of Greek cinema was a very good one, with just enough oddness in its coming-of-age and dealing-with-death story and stunted-growth characters to go along with its stark Czech New Wave stylistics, without falling over the deep end of weirdness. Austere but also quite relatable. Full review on Row Three
Café de Flore
An absolute marvel in terms of using music and editing for maximum emotional impact, the last section of Café de Flore floored me (no pun intended). The French Canadian film parallels two stories of love and potential loss, one of a modern-day Montreal DJ torn between his ex-wife and his new, younger lover, the other of a mother in 1960s Paris raising her Downs Syndrome son. How they come together will make or break the film for you; it totally made it for me. Scorecard review
A tiny film from an indie director out of Mississippi, starring all unknown actors. Checking these types of films out at festivals is always a risky proposition, but this one paid off for me like crazy, with its tender but unsentimental coming of age story balanced by some charming performances from the young actors, not to mention some gorgeous cinematography. Full review on Row Three
Kelly Reichardt’s prickly Western gets across the hellish nature of cross-country pioneering with devastating claustrophobia. Potentially lost, nearing the end of their supplies and sanity, trusting themselves to a guide who may not know anything more than they do – yet no other choices are better. A hard film to get close to, and yet a hard one to get out of your head, with an evocative metaphysical layer as well.
The Adventures of Tintin
I don’t like 3D and I don’t like motion capture. Yet I really, really enjoyed this film. It’s a whiz-bang adventure film in the style of 1930s serials, with a breathlessly gung-ho young hero, his adorable dog, and great comic relief from all the supporting characters. The one-take motorcycle chase at the end is the obvious highlight, but the camerawork is great throughout, as is the use of space within the frame. Scorecard review
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
After loving the Swedish version of this, I was a little wary of this one, but trusted Fincher to come through, and come through he did. A bit edgier, a bit slicker, a bit tighter, and a bit more expansive, his version of Dragon Tattoo stands on its own as a solid and hard-hitting thriller. Scorecard review
On a purely visceral level, this film is one of the best experiences I had all year – a slow-burn opening following a former hitman trying to get back into the game to support his family turns into something much more sinister, with some heart-pumping scenes that’ll keep your heart racing long after the movie is over. There are some large plot holes, but the film is remarkably effective anyway. Scorecard review
Yet another version of Charlotte Bronte’s classic gothic novel? Yes, and one that does a remarkable job of getting those moody gothic elements onscreen. Switching the narrative around a bit works to escalate cinematic tension, and Mia Wasikowska cements the promise she showed in Alice in Wonderland (being in a much better film helped) with a performance that captures both Jane’s willfulness and her reticence.
This is Not a Film
Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been placed under house arrest and banned from making films by the Iranian government. So he calls a friend over to film him talking about the film he was intending to make before the ban. From there we get not only a surprisingly humorous yet desperate documentary about Panahi’s situation, but a treatise on filmmaking itself – what a film is and isn’t, and how artists find ways to express themselves even under suppression. Full review on Row Three
Waking up from an awkward one-night stand, a pair of near-strangers realize that an alien ship has taken up residence above their city. But the threat of her boyfriend finding out about them and the annoyance of a next-door neighbor are more immediate in this hilarious and original film from the writer/director of Timecrimes. Full review on Row Three
One of the most uniquely-designed and entertaining animated films of the year, with a Johnny Depp-voiced chameleon setting himself up as a gunslinger to a thirsty town, but then he’s expected to follow through to save the town. Loads of sly, well-placed references to cinema history just add to the fun.
Midnight in Paris
With lovely Parisian locations and a charming story both playing on and debunking nostalgia, it’s really hard to dislike Midnight in Paris – obviously so, as it’s become Woody Allen’s highest grossing film ever. It doesn’t totally all work for me, especially in the modern-set scenes, but the travels back in time are fantastic.
Both a hilarious caper of an old-school Irish policeman forced to partner with a black American FBI agent to take down a group of drug smugglers, and a sober and insightful character study, and better than both those bald-faced descriptions would suggest. The combination pays off just as well or better here for John Michael McDonagh as it did for his brother Martin McDonagh in In Bruges. Both have the advantage of a terrific Brendan Gleeson. Full review on Row Three
Steven Soderbergh tries a lot of different things, and I don’t always think they’re successful, but this time he takes on an ensemble drama following the spread and attempted treatment of a deadly disease and pulls it off wonderfully – even if the frequent criticism that the film makes it a bit hard to connect emotionally with the many different people involved is probably accurate, as a thriller showing what could be a very real event in a detached way, it works like gangbusters. Full review on Row Three
This is a comedy, though it’s so extremely dry that sometimes it’s hard to tell. It took me a little while to get used to the particular brand of awkward and slow-to-pay off humor, but it was well worth it in this French Canadian dysfunctional family tale. Capsule review on Row Three
Super 8 does an awful lot of things right, especially the casting of the kids, who are all simply fantastic. Getting the sense of nostalgia and childhood wonder right is essential for this kind of film, and it does a great job of it until the very end, when J.J. Abrams can’t resist going a little too bombastic and a little too CGI with the fight against the monster. Still, there are shadows of greatness here.
Miranda July’s films (she’s only made two features, including this one) leave me feeling a bit uneasy, but in this case, I think that’s utterly intentional. A couple faced with their own mortality give up their work-a-day jobs to follow their creative dreams, but that just reveals a lot of their personal insecurities and drives a wedge between them. A bit of a downer, perhaps, but one that certainly speaks to thirty-somethings, especially creatives, who feel like they’re drifting. Full review on Row Three
A tour-de-force for Michael Shannon (though Jessica Chastain holds her own against him) as a loving husband and father tormented by recurring dreams of an impending storm. Real portents of the future, or the sign of a troubled mind? Either way, the lengths he goes to try to protect his family actually threaten to tear it apart. Scorecard review
The Bad Intentions
Ten-year-old Cayetana is firmly convinced that when her announced baby brother is born, she will die, a cynical fantasy she uses to cope with her aloof parents and the raging of terrorist activity surrounding her home in Peru. Perhaps a spiritual cousin to Pan’s Labyrinth – nowhere near as visionary and breathtaking as that film, especially in its overly-meandering third act, but solid and often quite funny. Capsule review on Row Three
Captain America: The First Avenger
I totally wasn’t expecting to enjoy Captain America as much as I did, but maybe that’s why I did. This is the sort of whiz-bang wide-eyed fun I want from a comic book movie, with gorgeous BioShock-infused set design, a hero who’s earnest in all the right ways, and a treatment of alternate history that pleased me very much.
The Adjustment Bureau
This, to me, is what the average Hollywood wide release film should be – not necessarily in story, though I did quite like its combination of thoughtful sci-fi and chemistry-laden romance, but it’s a solid, adult-aimed film that knows how to use its stars (Emily Blunt in particular makes great use of a character that could’ve been really flat), knows how to blend its genres together, and comes out with a satisfying whole that still gives you something to think about when it’s over.
An extremely solid genre thriller with a nice bait-and-switch plot as an art thief ends up embroiled in a corporate plot much bigger than he is, having to overcome his innate cowardice to survive and get his life back. Lots of OMG and WTF moments punctuate a well-written character arc. Scorecard review