Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Best Films of 2011 (plus two for 2012)

Assembling a list of the Top Ten Films of the Year was a delight this time around, as 2011 was a marvelous year at the movies. A quick glimpse of the films that I finally decided on will tell you a great deal about the variety and quality of cinema 2011-wise.

At first I was going to simply list the films in alphabetical order, but given that people want to know the opinions of various writers and critics as to exactly what their number one film is, I will be listing the films in order. Still, it seems a bit silly to talk about the difference between my sixth and seventh favorite film of the year. But, hey... there's no perfect method here, so this is what I'll go with in this post.

Before I list my Top 10 of 2011, I do want to mention two films that I saw at the Chicago International Film Festival back in October that would have made my list if they had been given a normal theatrical release. They are Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan of Turkey and Miss Bala, directed by Mexican filmmaker Gerardo Naranjo. The former is a haunting study of a murder investigation that takes place over the course of one evening and part of the next day. It's brilliantly directed and photographed and I think it is a masterwork.

Miss Bala is a damning look at the drug wars that are currently tearing apart families in Mexico. Narnajo gives us a story of a young woman who only wants to compete in a local beauty pageant, but is kidnapped and forced to work with a drug trafficking gang. It's first-rate entertainment and an argument against the insanity of this criminal behavior and it's a memorable film.

However, since both Miss Bala and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia are technically going to be considered as 2012 films, I will have to wait until next year's list. I am quite confident both will be on that list in one year's time.

So on to the list... The Best Films of 2011

1) Melancholia (Director, Lars Von Trier) - The apocalypse, at least according to Von Trier. This is a film that challenges you and stays with you for a long time. How would we react if we knew that the world would end in a matter of hours, especially if we knew the violent manner in which it would happen? The prologue, set to the strains of the Wagner's overture to Tristan und Isolde, is a stunning sequence, filled with unsettling images, while the ending is both memorable and awe-inspiring. Kirsten Dunst gives a beautiful, multi-layered performance as the woman who maintains a calm amidst the madness surrounding her.

2) Hugo (Martin Scorsese) - Who would have thought that the director of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver would have had this enchanting film inside of him? This is both a dazzling visual display as well as a fond memory of early cinema; it's also a call from Scorsese for film preservation. All of the director's colleagues perform brilliantly in this fantasy aimed at children and adults; especially noteworthy are the production design from Dante Ferretti, the costumes of Sandy Powell, the photography of Robert Richardson and the editing of Thelma Schoonmaker. Scorsese clearly had the time of his life making this film and it shows in his accomplished, effortless direction.

3) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson) - A marvelous adaptation of John Le Carré's classic spy novel set in the Cold War era of 1974, this movie looks like it could have been made in 1974, given the emphasis on old-fashioned story telling. The excellent script along with Alfredson's classical direction combine to give the viewer a treat for the ears and eyes. Beautiful performances by the entire ensemble, especially from Toby Jones and Tom Hardy, while Gary Oldman is quietly brilliant in the lead role of Smiley. It's been some time since we've seen a spy film this good.

4) Moneyball (Bennett Miller) - I liked this film very much the first time I saw it; I loved it the second time around. Based on Michael Lewis' book about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's attempt to radically change how a major league baseball team would be assembled, the movie was a nice balance between the actual games of the A's 2002 season along with Beane's inner doubts. Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian wrote a brilliant adapted screenplay, finding a human story amidst the mountain of baseball statistics. Brad Pitt turned in his most complete performance to date and Jonah Hill as Beane's assistant was charismatic and quite funny.

5) Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog) - Herzog's chilling look at the effects of a triple murder on several individuals, from the families and friends of the victims to the killers themselves. Herzog gracefully conducts interviews just off camera, asking each person a few questions about their feelings, all the time respecting their viewpoints. Herzog himself is against the death penalty, but this is not a film that rides this argument, rather it gives us great insight into the human condition, especially when it involves grief. At times moving, at times unsettling, but always absorbing.

6) We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay) - A beautiful film about an ugly subject- mass murder. Kevin is the son of Eva and Franklin; the young boy seems to hate his mother, while greatly admiring his father. Eva, brilliantly portrayed by Tilda Swinton with great inner strength and fierce pride, struggles with her son's behavior, yet still embraces him after his horrific deed. Ramsay is a director fascinated with the power of images; this along with her approach of presenting this story as a puzzle that moves back and forth in time makes this an unforgettable experience.

7) The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) - A sometimes serious, sometimes enchanting film about an 11-year old by who has been abandoned by his father and whose bike has been sold. Mad at the world, he refuses all attempts at love and friendship until a local hairdresser in her 30s agrees to take him in on weekends, altering both his and her perspective on life. This is one of the most mature studies of teen-age troubles that I have ever seen. Both leads- Thomas Doret as the young boy and Cécile de France as the hairdresser - are naturally gifted performers and it's the ease with their characters that help this film become the charmer it truly is.

8) The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius) - A black-and-white silent film in 2011? Who would ever think this would be a success? Well it's been an unmitigated one, thanks to the vision of Hazanavicius who gives us a film that respects audiences' love for both silent films and for human stories. This is funny, sweet and charming all rolled into one, yet it has its moments of pathos as well. Great performance by Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, the silent film star and a fine score by Ludovic Bource that recalls Chaplin's early work.

9) Le Havre (Ari Kaurismaki) - A film about the simple dignity of the everyday man, as Kaurismaki gives us a story of a humble middle-aged shoe shine in the port town of Le Havre who discovers a young refugee from Africa and plots to protect him and ultimately reunite him with his family. It's funny in a droll, offbeat way and it gives you pause to think as well. Just lovely!

10) A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg) - The true story of Freud, Jung and Sabina Spielrein, one of their patients. The film deals with hidden desires and urges and what happens when we act on them. The thinking of these famous doctors may be rational, but ironically their actions are not always so. Marvelous performances, especially by Viggo Mortensen as Freud and how nice to see Cronenberg tell a story without having to resort to violence.

Other films from 2011 I admired include Margin CallWar Horse; The Skin I Live InThe DescendantsThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Last Rites of Joe May.


  1. You and I overlap on quite a lot of these, Tom. My list should be up tomorrow.

    1. Thanks, Tony. Looking forward to seeing your list.

  2. Great choices, Tom -- 2011 was a strong year.