I often wonder if I’ve seen enough movies to make a top 10 list at the end of the year. Even though I saw nearly 60 new releases in 2011, probably more than most people, I feel that my habit of largely seeing critical favorites results in an incredibly predictable list. But this is an honest reflection of what I saw and liked this year, and that means something (I think). And indeed, the fact that I put The Tree of Life over Certified Copy, the only two serious choices for best movie of the year in my mind, might be simple common sense to someone but confounding to another. And the fact that I excluded favorites including Melancholia and Moneyball altogether will upset others. Maybe there are a few surprises to be had after all.
As I’ve already made clear, I haven’t seen everything worth seeing, so I felt it necessary to disclose my most serious “blind spots,” made up of Slant favorites, significant award season contenders and the latest from serious filmmakers I haven’t seen yet. I also had to include 10 honorable mentions because there will inevitably be days I would rather watch the joyous Arthur Christmas or the underrated Source Code over The Tree of Life.
Combining the episodic stream-of-consciousness of William Faulkner and the eternity-spanning existentialism of Arthur C. Clarke, the latest from the infamously shy Terrence Malick proves to be the director’s fifth consecutive masterpiece (in a career of five films). Hunter McCracken offers one of the most thoughtful performances ever by a child actor as Jack, a young boy in mid-20th century Texas who, at one point, prays for his father to die. The mixture of these brutal insights about familial dynamics with a kaleidoscopic view of the earth’s natural beauty makes The Tree of Life a rare movie that attempts to capture the totality of the human experience. Although it inevitably falls short of this goal, Malick’s intensely personal vision manages to be one of the greatest films ever made about life and everything that comes before and after.
2. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami) [Available for streaming via Netflix]
Are Juliette Binoche and William Shimell strangers acting like a long-married couple? Or are they longtime lovers pretending to meet for the first time? The premise of Abbas Kiarostami’s film is deceptively simple: a man and a woman have a series of conversations one day in Tuscany, and a provocatively playful twist halfway through turns everything on its head. The ambiguity of the story is far from a flaw but perhaps the film’s greatest strength. The formal and narrative uncertainty keeps the audience engaged while also lending a great deal of complexity to the characters’ questions about authenticity, truth and beauty in both life and art. The cameo of screenwriter and former Luis Bunuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere alludes to the surrealism in this film’s DNA, and indeed, this masterpiece is one the helmer of That Obscure Object of Desire would have been proud to claim as his own.
3. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Every decade needs a Los Angeles masterpiece, a film that redefines our view of the living and breathing simulacrum I call home. There has been Chinatown, Blade Runner, The Player, Mulholland Dr. and now Drive. Although Nicolas Winding Refn’s slow-burn descent into madness is admittedly not nearly as good as the other films I just mentioned, it similarly presents a vision of this city that is at once incredibly progressive but also undeniably nostalgic. With 80s pop and gloss running through its veins, this fairy tale-turned-nightmare feels like a true product of the digital age. In part motivated by his love for Irene (Carey Mulligan), an unnamed driver (a stoic Ryan Gosling) steers off the deep end as he protects her and her family from gangsters. Albert Brooks has received critical praise for his turn as the villain Bernie Rose, and while some cynically attribute this response to casting rather than acting, I think it’s possibly the best supporting turn of the year. The character’s no-nonsense directness terrifies in the moment yet haunts you long after the film is over.
4. Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois)
Religion is often mocked or undermined in serious art, so a poetic film that takes the Christian faith of Trappist monks seriously without resorting to condescension feels like a true accomplishment. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this film, an early 2011 U.S. release after its second-place finish at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, yet its attention to detail and its ability to build dramatic tension with such a subdued approach remains vivid in my mind. Instead of perpetuating the myth of Christians and Muslims as irreconcilable enemies, the film sensitively recognizes how followers of the two faiths can be driven to accept each other because of, not in spite of, their core beliefs.
5. The Interrupters (Steve James)
As a journalist, I understand the difficulty of crafting coherent stories from a seemingly endless supply of reportage. Filmmaker Steve James makes it look effortless. This masterful documentary interweaves the stories of several Chicago “interrupters,” former convicts who, through one-on-one interventions, attempt to halt the cycle of violence in which they once took part. Condensing the yearlong journeys of different individuals to two hours, this doc refuses to provide easy answers and instead presents compelling stories of human beings looking to pave the way for a brighter future for themselves and the community. The result is a rich tapestry of characters trying to redeem themselves, often stumbling but ultimately reaching for the glimmers of hope.
6. Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)
Ostensibly about capital punishment, Werner Herzog’s latest documentary is not simply political propaganda meant to bring about change in the American justice system. Instead, it’s a thorough look at all the perspectives of a particular case: the families of the victims, the families of the convicted murderers, the locals affected by the crimes and, perhaps most chillingly, a young man sentenced to die. If part of film’s mystery is its ability to animate that which once lived, this film is an absolute enigma, sensitive to the individuals involved but also a constant reminder of the threat of death that hangs over our heads. The two most powerful conversations involve a pastor who offers comfort to death row convicts in their final moments and a former state executioner who wrestles with the guilt of his past work.
7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson) [Currently in theaters]
Deliberate pacing is rarely as viscerally effective as it is in Tinker Tailor Solder Spy. This Cold War spy thriller from the director of Let the Right One In dishes out a great deal of story information along the way, but as you try to keep up with the connections and histories at play, you realize how slyly this film has sunk under your skin. Tomas Alfredson helms the complex story with such a command of atmosphere, wielding a cool style that impresses without ever distracting from the material. The ensemble is a “who’s who” of British cinema (or a reunion of the Harry Potter and Batman casts) with Colin Firth, Tom Hardy and John Hurt being just a few of the highlights. But at the center of it all is the chillingly stoic yet quietly expressive Gary Oldman, a spy approaching his task of finding a Soviet mole with the utmost professionalism but carrying the weight of the past on his shoulders. The original score by Alberto Iglesias is my favorite in any movie this year.
8. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) [Available for streaming via Netflix]
If this film was just the masterful exercise in composition and sound design it is, it would deserve a spot on any 2011 list. The fact that it is also an incredibly sophisticated reflection on death and time, marked by a disarming formal and narrative sense of humor, makes it one for the ages. As Uncle Boonmee suffers a fatal illness, he begins to recollect his past lives, some of them posited as flashbacks, others integrated into his present-day consciousness. Having only seen this film once, I have yet to explore the many layers of this film. Few films have the boundless imagination of this film: a catfish making love to a human woman, a long-lost son returning as a large monkey, ghosts appearing with minimal shock from the living.
9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi) [Currently in theaters]
Most American filmmakers couldn’t craft a sophisticated melodrama that explores religion, divorce, depression, economic distress, class, old age and adolescence among other weighty topics without preaching or patting themselves on the back. Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi manages to humbly deal with all of these issues while sweeping you in a small-scale drama so engaging you don’t realize the way it’s challenging you emotionally and intellectually until it’s all over. Simin has left her husband Nader, who now lives alone with his elderly father, in need of constant care, and a teenage daughter. After an accident caused by a caretaker’s negligence, a complex story of desperation propels forward with breathtaking effortlessness. With the Iranian bureaucracy underlining much of the proceedings, the film manages to care for its characters even as they make horrific decisions, much like Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s A Screaming Man. As characters brush others aside to protect their pride, there is often a glimpse of regret in their eyes as they realize what they’re doing.
10. 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike) [Available for streaming via Netflix]
The first half of this film features 13 men banding together and preparing to assassinate a sadistic feudal lord bound for more political power. The second half is relentless carnage. An homage to the likes of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, this remake of a 1963 film makes up for what it lacks in substance with the catharsis of relentless, operatic bloodshed. The brilliantly directed set pieces of the film’s final showdown, pitting the 13 men against more than 200 guards, can be best described by the words of the villainous target’s limbless sex slave: TOTAL MASSACRE.
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg), Arthur Christmas (Sarah Smith), Carnage (Roman Polanski), Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog), The Descendants (Alexander Payne), Hugo (Martin Scorsese), Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt), Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen), A Screaming Man (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun), Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
Blind Spots (in alphabetical order): Extraordinary Stories (Mariano Llinas), El Sicario, Room 164 (Gianfranco Rosi), Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard), In the Family (Patrick Wang), Leap Year (Michael Rowe), Le Havre (Aki Kaurismaki), Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan), Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz), Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman), Poetry (Chang-dong Lee), The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar), The Time That Remains (Elia Suleiman), Tomboy (Celine Sciamma), Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean)
Updated: February 10, 2013
See Also: Top 10 Movies of 1951, Top 10 Movies of 1953, Top 10 Movies of 1957, Top 10 Movies of 1959, Top 10 Movies of 1962, Top 10 Movies of 1966, Top 10 Movies of 1972, Top 10 Movies of 1975, Top 10 Movies of 1984, Top 10 Movies of 1986, Top 10 Movies of 1989, Top 10 Movies of 1992, Top 10 Movies of 1999, Top 10 Movies of 2002, Top 10 Movies of 2003, Top 10 Movies of 2004, Top 10 Movies of 2005, Top 10 Movies of 2007, Top 10 Movies of 2008, Top 10 Movies of 2009, Top 10 Movies of 2010, Top 10 Movies of 2012