2011 was a great year for movies. It won’t be a good year for Oscars (the two are more than likely related), but it was the best year for movies since at least 2007. I’m actually hard-pressed to think of a better year for movies since 1975 (my personally favorite year). From the greatest living directors (Scorsese, Godard, Kioristami) to filmmakers who’ve just started to make a name for themselves (Farhadi, Refn, McQueen), 2011 saw an awful lot of great artists at the absolute top of their games. I’ve listed the 30 best movies released in 2011 that I’ve seen, and written about the top 15. This was, to say the least, difficult. Any of my top 7 could have been my number 1, and any of my top 20 could have fit in with my top 10, easily. But I think, after putting considerable time into thinking about the order, I got it right. There’s a few well-reviewed movies I’ve missed out on, from House of Pleasures to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, so the list is, at best, transitional. But I don’t think there will be too many changes going forward with masterpieces like this. Without further ado:
The Top 15
1. A Separation – In a year when Abbas Kioristami left the country and Jafar Parahdi began his imprisonment and forced hiatus from filmmaking, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation made an excellent case that he is the next great filmmaker to come out of Iran. With one of the best scripts in years and subtle, gorgeous performances, what could have easily been an interesting chamber drama about a husband refusing to leave Iran with his wife or grant her a divorce takes a turn to become a masterful, nearly perfect analysis of justice in a situation where no one is guilty and no one is innocent.
2. Drive – After the dust of the well-deserved hype and the inevitable and in some ways just as deserved backlash has cleared, it’s interesting to look back on Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive with more objective eyes. I thought maybe I’d like it less when I looked back on it soberly, but to be honest, if anything, I love it more now that I’ve had time to think about it. On the surface, Drive is the ultimate “cool” movie: strong, silent hero, car chases, ultra-realistic violence, and a soundtrack that sounds like it was lifted from an episode of Miami Vice. But these elements are also what separate it from a run-of-the-mill but intelligent, cool-in-quotation-marks thriller. Underneath all the sheen, it’s a movie about stunted adolescence crossing the line into delusion. Ryan Gosling’s Driver is an emotionally stunted teenager surrounded by people who play right into his fantasies, and when he runs into Albert Brooks’s Bernie Rose, the only adult in the movie, the results are as violent and explosive as any movie I’ve seen.
3. Meek’s Cutoff – Kelly Reichart takes the revisionist western to its logical extreme in a movie with none of the hallmarks of the genre, just a small group of pioneers crossing a rocky, arid desert. They’re led by a man named Meek and an Indian they’ve captured, neither of whom they trust. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it is a rewarding one. Reichart makes innovative use of her mise-en-scène and sound design to craft a gorgeous film that makes deft points women in a world with no respect for them and the equalizing power of desperation.
4. Tree of Life – With 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick presented science in religious terms. All the awe and beauty once reserved for Biblical epics, Kubrick used to create the greatest science fiction film of all time. With Tree of Life, Terrence Malick presents religion in scientific terms. It’s a movie very much about God and mortality, told from the perspective of Sean Penn’s Jack, who tries, in the film’s most nascently famous scene, to imagine the scope of a truly supreme being who existed before the dawn of time. Between the bookends of this truly awesome scene and an ending that includes an image of heaven and the end of the world, Malick creates cinema’s greatest Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness.
5. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – I’m not completely sure what to say about Uncle Boonmee. To be honest, I don’t know what you can say. No blurb could explain the plot, no description could explain its techniques, and no words could do it justice. So I’ll simply say this: I wouldn’t recommend Uncle Boonmee to most people, even most people who love movies. That said, it’s a gorgeous, meditative film about rebirth, death, and the quality of the life that takes place in between. It’s a weird movie, but at its core, it’s a universal one.
6. Certified Copy – In Certified Copy, Juliette Binoche gives not only the best performance of the year, but also the best performance of her already formidable career. It’s never clear exactly what’s going in this movie. Sometimes, it feels like we’re watching an intellectual exercise, sometimes, a budding love affair, sometimes, a dying marriage. While for some movies, this confusion would be messy, it actually helps Certified Copy. The audience intrinsically knows the emotions on the screen are not real, but what we see is that an imitation of a emotion is sometimes just as valuable as the real thing. Abbas Kioristami has created a true masterpiece in the vein of Before Sunset and Voyage in Italy.
7. The Interrupters – My girlfriend and I were lucky enough to see The Interrupters followed by an Q&A with Steve James (who also directed another one of my favorite documentaries, Hoop Dreams), the founders of CeaseFire, several other people involved in both the production and the program it documents, and, best of all, Ameena Matthews. Once you’ve seen this movie (and this may be the one movie in my top 10 I’d unequivocally recommend to everyone), you will never forget Ameena. The Interrupters is not just a portrait of a community plagued by a disease, but also a real-life superhero movie about people like Matthews who are amazing enough to make a dent, no matter how small, in the violence that’s destroying a city.
8. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – One of the big debates I had with myself while organizing this list was whether to put Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or 13 Assassins at 8. It probably came down to the fact that I saw TTSS a couple of weeks ago, and haven’t seen 13 Assassins in a few months. Both are excellent genre films that, instead of redefining their respective genres, look backwards, TTSS to pre-James Bond Cold War spy films like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and 13 Assassins to Kurosawa’s great samurai action movies. Neither is particularly original, but both make an excellent case for virtuosity over originality.
9. 13 Assassins – TOTAL MASSACRE. Nuff said.
10. Tabloid – For the second year in a row, following Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop, the most purely entertaining movie of the year has been a documentary, this time by one the medium’s greatest provocateurs, Errol Morris. I’ve been reading Morris’s Believing Is Seeing, about the difference between what we see in photographs and reality. One of his central points is that doctored or posed photos often tell a more accurate, complete story than the photos we think of as authentic. The story of Joyce McKinney and her battle against the British tabloids is a perfect example of how true this can be. The tabloids manufacture stories about McKinney, but in the end, even the masters of the insane supermarket schlock can’t keep up with the truth.
11. Shame – Michael Fassbender had a very good year, and he capped it with his best performance yet. He plays a sex addict whose life is interrupted by not only his sister coming to live with him, but his own attempts to break free of the cycle of one night stands and anonymous sex. Steve McQueen’s stunning camera work capturing a nearly flawless performance from Fassbender solidifies this relationship as one of the most exciting to watch in film right now.
12. Weekend – Finally, a movie that’s more about homosexual love than homophobia. In its own quiet, lackadaisical way, Weekend is as radical as any movie that deals with homosexuality from a more political angle, because it shows a relationship between two men not as socially transgressive, but as touching a love story as there is.
13. Poetry – There are films as lovely and simple, but movies like Poetry are rarely this compelling. The less you know about this movie, the better, but I can tell you that Chang-dong Lee’s melodrama may sound staid from a quick DVD blurb, but it is simply one of the most unflinching, elegiac films I’ve seen in a very long time.
14. The Skin I Live In – As much as I’ve liked his last few movies, it’s great to see Pedro Almodovar back to being Pedro Almodovar with his best movie since Talk to Her. It’s refreshing to see a movie so full of bizarre twists bordering on the surreal that can use those same twists to explore gender, ethics, love and identity in such a clear and straightforward way. It’s sort of a horror movie, sort of a science fiction movie, and sort of a melodrama, in a way that only an Almodovar movie can be any of those things.
15. Hugo – Anyone who knows my taste in movies knows I am a big Martin Scorsese fan (I routinely list Raging Bull as my favorite movie) and I love Georges Méliès almost as much. Even so, I was more than a little nervous about the concept of Scorsese making a 3D children’s movie. When you think of Scorsese, orphans living in train stations, automatons, and magicians aren’t the first things to come to mind. But Hugo proves that Scorsese can still, after almost 40 years, surprise you. Scorsese borrows not just from the great Méliès films he recreates in the movie’s second half, but also later silent comedies and movies from the French poetic realist era, and the resulting cocktail makes a charming, beautiful case for film preservation. There are plenty of times it lacks subtlety, but sometimes subtlety is overrated.
16 through 30:
16. Martha Marcy May Marlene
18. Silent Souls
21. Take Shelter
22. The Arbor
23. Le Quattro Volte
24. Attack the Block
26. Film Socialisme
27. The Trip
28. Super 8
29. The Artist
30. The Myth of the American Sleepover