Topping my list of 2011’s #1stworldproblems was making a top 10 list. Such is the difficult life of having to see movies for free and then attempting to express something insightful about them. I have the same issue every year: I feel zero motivation to write a top 10 list and then of course, I write up almost 20 films – #contradictoryfail. And honestly, I can’t promise many new insights here. Perhaps the problem was that Gabe, Chris, Drew, Kevin and Oli all made eloquent lists that expressed all that really needed to be said about 2011’s films, but regardless, here I am with my belated round-up.
To regurgitate the sentiment I always bracket this kind of thing with: a top 10 list is never fully complete. It's a snapshot time capsule of the immediate here and now; a frozen picture of a fluid, living, breathing organism; it is simply impossible to express how one’s taste can evolve and grow. Perhaps that’s the reason for my dislike: it feels like this list is a tablet written in stone, and that it can never account for the fact that our relationship to art is (hopefully) always going to change.
I'll be the first to admit I missed out on plenty of films from 2011 due to life, work and the work of trying to keep up with movies (ironic it's so time consuming it keeps you away from the pictures occasionally), but it turns out the films I missed appeared on many of our personal worst lists, so maybe I chose wisely.
Well, for better or worse, here’s what connected with me and made an impact in the arbitrary period of the year 2011. I mean, it’s no worse than Armond White’s nonsensical, bizzaro-world belated top films list, right? Unlike my colleagues, I didn’t cheat with 2012 picks ;), and no, I don't, at this point in the year (or ever, really) expect you to care hugely either way.
16. “The Interrupters”
From the director of “Hoop Dreams” comes another striking and stirring documentary about a year in the life of a city grappling with urban violence, and the “violence interrupters” who put their lives on the line to defuse every volatile situation they can. Sobering, raw and intimate, while still hands-off, Steve James’ doc is unsparing, but hopeful in a manner neither cynical nor cloying. That this one didn’t make the Oscar docs shortlist is a crime.
In the tradition of “Before Sunrise” and other one-night-together relationship movies, comes an absorbing U.K. film with the same conceit, only this time centered on a gay male couple. Although it follows that genre’s playbook quite closely, the intimacy of the performances – and the fact that we don’t really see gay stories like this on screen – makes it feel especially unique and engrossing. It doesn't hurt that, sexuality and excellent, ever-watchable leads aside, director Andrew Haigh's raw, observational eye instantly transforms him into a filmmaker worth watching.
14. “The Artist”
You’ve likely heard enough about this one, so I’ll be brief (though the backlash rebounding off the constant plaudits is juvenile). A silent, black-and-white film that is a tribute to silent, black-and-white film, “The Artist” is joyous, engaging and utterly entertaining – not something a modern 2011 audience might think about a modern-day silent movie. Believe the hype because this film is worth every penny, and there’s a reason why it’s likely going to take the Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year. Jean Dujardin is a revelation, co-star Bérénice Bejo has charm to spare, and Ludovic Bource’s grand, homage-laden score is a wonderfully nostalgic nod to golden-age filmmaking. A total treat.
13. “The Arbor”
Ostensibly labeled as a documentary portrayal of the late Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, one cannot be prepared for how much deeper and farther this film delves beyond that. From the slums of Bradford, Yorkshire in Northern England, the precocious teen wrote her first play, “The Arbor,” at the age of 15 and was destitute and dead by 29. However, the film “The Arbor,” which uses the haunting conceit of hiring actors to lip-synch to interviews with Dunbar and her family (and to act out vituperative and verbally abusive scenarios) is no hagiography or tragic tale of the playwright's life chronicle. Instead, the doc is a fallout story centering on her three children (all fathered by different men), in particular, her eldest daughter Lorraine, now a deeply troubled heroin addict. You’re never quite sure where “The Arbor” is going to go, and when it finally settles on the tragic life of the half-white, half-Pakistani Lorraine, the film coalesces into an arresting cautionary tale about the roots of neglect and violence and the vicious-cycle effects these have on children.
Yes, another film you’ve heard a lot about. If top 10 lists were based on how “cool” a film is, this and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” would be on every 20-something white male’s top 10. That predictability aside, there’s a reason Nicolas Winding Refn’s taciturn and economic L.A.-noir fairytale is hitting everyone’s list: it is akin to cinematic porn. The impeccable shots, the throbbing electronic score, the taut, anxiety-soaked editing and sound design, the understated acting – this is all top-notch stuff. Refn’s real mastery throughout – he’s undoubtedly an auteur in the making and his big win at Cannes was deserved – is sustaining that quivering tension for 90 minutes while peppering it with genuinely romantic diversions and operatic violence that is just stunning. American audiences are finally catching up, and I'm sure it’s the first of many great films to come from the Danish filmmaker.
11. “The Guard”
Don Cheadle + Brendan Gleeson + a jaunty Spaghetti Western-like score by Calexico + a screenplay written by John Michael McDonagh = a hilarious, sardonic buddy story and crime tale. Wait, who’s McDonagh? Well, he's the brother of Martin McDonagh, the hysterically mordant Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker who directed “In Bruges.” There must be something in that family’s blood, because their biting and caustic humor is devilishly wry. Glesson plays an unconventional, confrontational and deeply politically incorrect Irish policeman who gets teamed up with an uptight FBI agent, played by Cheadle, to investigate an international drug-smuggling ring fronted by a terrific supporting cast of Mark Strong and Liam Cunningham. The odd couple leads have chemistry (and arch banter) for ages, and the sharp script and clever direction is just a wicked little treat to sit through. Also file this under most criminally overlooked film of the year. The fact that I saw it way last minute and almost no one told me how good it was makes me want to slap everyone in the face.
10. “The Ides of March”
As a picture I’ve been boosting all year that was met with pretty meh reviews at the time (even though its Rotten Tomatoes score has now settled at 86%), I’ve gotta say I feel a bit of redemptive satisfaction now that “The Ides of March” is hitting its stride in the award season. Set in the world of democratic politics, as a tragic morality tale about compromise and the sad ease with which ideals can be crushed and corrupted, George Clooney’s ‘March’ doesn’t re-invent the wheel. It hews closely to the narrative of most Greek tragedies, but damn if it isn’t absorbing, intense and told with mature intelligence. The shot of Ryan Gosling at the end, the ghost of his former, better self, trying to put on the good face, is as distressing as anything else I saw on screen in 2011.
9. “Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest”
Fan and actor-turned-filmmaker Michael Rapaport attempts to document a 2008 reunion from seminal ‘90s hip-hop legends A Tribe Called Quest, and unexpectedly parachutes into the eye of a hurricane as years of tensions boil over. But this is just one facet of 'Tribe,' and this documentary goes way beyond your average Vh1 Behind The Music drama. Instead Rapaport uncovers a rousing portrait of friendship, music, brotherhood and, yes, sometimes raw-nerve acrimony between the band's members. What ‘Beats Rhymes & Life’ brilliantly accomplishes, beyond unapologetically documenting the painful, hard-to-watch broken bonds of brotherhood, is creating a captivating context for A Tribe Called Quest’s musical legacy – a troubled group internally, but one that finally gets its day in the sun.
What if Brad Pitt, Sony and the director of “Capote” made a $70 million movie about sabermetrics in baseball and produced it as if it was made for Robert Redford in the middle of the 1970s? Unequivocally, this film is about much more than baseball and winning, it’s about the hard-fought, very human process of getting there. A surprisingly soulful and mature film with an awesome slow-burn patience that pays off in spades, “Moneyball” is a confluence of many great things: an unhurried, unfussy, captivating performance by Brad Pitt, arguably his best ever, expertly observational and effective direction by Bennett Miller, and a fantastic script by Steve Zaillian. This is a winner all around.
7. “A Separation”
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s tale of ugly truths, sweet lies and good intentions gone wrong is an absorbing, wrenching portrait of people at their worst trying to do what’s best. A married couple separate due to their irreconcilable divisions, including the choice of whether to stay in Iran with the husband’s sick, Alzheimer's-ridden father, or leave with their daughter for a better life. And when a pregnant maid comes to work for the family, these deep-seated divides only sink deeper into a morass of poor decisions. Operating on social, political, emotional and spiritual levels, Farhadi’s engaging film is ultimately tragic, heartbreaking and utterly human. Featuring one of the most devastating endings of the year, the picture challenges notions and perceptions of truth and class while illustrating, yet never underlining, some deeply universal troubling iniquities.
6. “The Skin I Live In”
Pedro Almodóvar’s recent riffs on the ‘40s film noir genre, each of course with his inimitable stamp on them, have been a delicious little career diversion. “The Skin I Live In” is not so different. It’s pulpy, it’s a little ridiculous, it’s melodramatic, only this time it comes with gloriously transgressive and twisted themes of possession, identity and sexuality. While touted as a horror of sorts, what I felt many were missing -- and maybe this is a lost in translation thing -- is just how funny the picture is, at times hysterically funny in a perverse manner; there’s a lot of unseen wit to it all. And yes, it pops with Almodovar’s trademark sumptuous use of color and photography. Somehow, yet again, he turns what could just be a tawdry, cheap novella (albeit a very fucked-up one) into something much more striking, moving and distinctly his.
5. “Certified Copy”
A man and a woman meet in a little Italian town. They meet (but not meet cute), converse, and soon we realize there’s a game being played here -- one of the heart, that’s not always fair, even-handed or helpful. Part half-remembered dream, part tapestry, Abbas Kiarostami’s tale of romance via the intellectual concepts of authenticity is a little opaque in its relationship between love and art, but wonderfully enigmatic and evocative nonetheless. Juliette Binoche is particularly luminous in the picture, and William Shimell plays an excellent adversary in this sometimes slightly oblique story of romance where reality and truth tend to bend a little around the edges.
4. “Like Crazy”
Forget that “Like Crazy” is a familiar story about 20-something love. If it were just that, it wouldn’t be memorable. But it’s more than just lasting, it’s a striking, all-too-genuine and distinctly real portrait of the youthful, punch-drunk love we’ve all, hopefully, felt. Felicity Jones, in one of the most indelible breakthrough performances of the year, is terrific, and Anton Yelchin does some of his finest and yet most understated work. Perhaps the MVP is director Drake Doremus, now instantly one to watch, who takes a deceptively simple story of longing and love and turns it into a raw-nerve snapshot of the kind of passion and amour that can be debilitating if torn asunder. If you’ve ever been madly in love, “Like Crazy” can easily break your heart all over again, sometimes cruelly, but never dishonestly.
Mike Mills has a deep affinity with and understanding of the human condition when it comes to sadness. Arguably it’s his bread and butter, but only two films into his feature-length filmmaking career, the director really hits his stride with “Beginners,” which also finally rescues Ewan McGregor from the black hole of his recent so-so performances in largely mediocre films. Told in sequences that are like reflective memory cues, the drama centers, in a wonderfully non-linear way, on a 30-something designer grappling with death and intimacy. Oliver (McGregor) not only attempts to come to terms with his dad’s death as he struggles to love Anna (Mélanie Laurent), but he lives in the moment when his dad (played terrifically by Christopher Plummer in a sure-to-be Oscar-winning role) comes out of the closet at the age of 75 and starts anew. It’s a story about love and loss, but richly told, with wonderful performances and a gentle tenor that tries to make sense of the world we live in while we’re living in it. It’s also touching and sweet in the best sense possible and earns every single emotion it elicits.
Oren Moverman is quickly becoming one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. After writing some excellent films – "Jesus' Son" and "I'm Not There" to name two – he’s gone on to become a feature-length filmmaker with an affinity for alpha males (“The Messenger” is his piercing debut). So superficially, “Rampart” is about the L.A.P.D. scandals from the late ‘90s, but that’s just the context. This picture is about the male id, threatening to take over, poisoning the soul with its ugly narcissism and its myopic, militant and shortsighted point of view. It’s about a man drowning in slow motion as manifested in a smoldering and toxic performance by Woody Harrelson, playing a self-destructive police officer starving for love, and only subsisting on a steady diet of cigarettes, pills, sex and booze. Arguably, it’s about America, too sick to see that it's eating away at itself like a cancer. It’s rancorous stuff, hard to watch and unforgettable.
Like “Rampart,” English filmmaker Steve McQueen’s sophomore effort “Shame” is a raw, hard-to-watch portrait of a man in free-fall. At first glance, it’s a movie about sex addiction, but that’s just how the main character’s inner turmoil is manifested. As portrayed by Michael Fassbender in an intense, simmering and introspective performance, Brandon, the lead, is a man who is deeply lost and deeply lonely. There are two haunting scenes, among many fantastic ones, that get this point across: Brandon’s impotence during his inability to connect through intimacy and the observational four-way between Fassbender, the camera and two hookers. Give it all the NC-17 rating you want, this isn’t sexy at all (neither is any of the nudity); it’s painful and sad, and features a character who has never been more empty in his life. Time and time again, Fassbender and McQueen evince raw, damaged emotion with nary a word said. An arresting piece of cinema.
Films I also truly enjoyed include Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” – having seen it twice, I feel like those who easily dismiss it should experience it again and those who call it majestic without parallel should maybe recognize how it’s beautiful, but still uneven. I wish Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” had cracked my top 15 – it’s ravishing, impeccably crafted, certainly the best 3D film made so far and its last act is magical. But at over two hours, and sometimes sluggish at that, there are enough pacing issues for me to exclude it. Todd Haynes’ five-part “Mildred Pierce,” which I almost included in my top 10 even though it’s technically not a feature film, is still one of the most engrossing narrative pieces I experienced all year. Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult” wasn’t as caustic as I had hoped, but still might be my favorite movie of his. And Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” wasn't as epic as I'd hoped, but was intense and riveting nonetheless. I thought Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” kind of shit the bed in its shrill second half – A.O. Scott put it eloquently when he said, “to watch the long, painful last hour of this movie is to watch all of his good ideas and smart impulses collapse into a heap of half-written, awkwardly acted, increasingly frantic scenes” – but it's an undeniably valuable filmgoing experience and one that I ultimately recommend, even if the potential for frustration is high. While it’s all relative, it sure beats giving Michael Bay your money (and I say that as a half-admirer of the third "Transformers" film, the pure visual half). Other pictures I thought were valuable and worthwhile include Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist Western “Meek’s Cutoff,” the quiet and introverted “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (featuring an excellent Gary Oldman performance), and Cary Fukunaga’s "Jane Eyre" featuring two rich performances by Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska (who is the greatest and I hope is a huge star one day).
I also wish I could include Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” somewhere in my proper list. The prologue is stunning and beautiful, the first act is wickedly hysterical, the funniest scenes from von Trier in ages, evincing some of those wonderful impish qualities he hasn’t demonstrated in years. The finale is pretty damn striking too, but while, yes, it’s meant to be depressed, that second act can be a bit of a laborious slog. Kirsten Dunst is excellent in the film though and deserved her Cannes awards. If anything, it’s the sign of greater things to come from Lars (provided he keeps his mouth shut). Oh, I almost forgot and have added this after the fact: "Another Happy Day." A stellar performance by Ellen Barkin and a wonderful debut from Sam Levinson. This is ugly, hard-to-watch family dysfunction at its finest and I would argue he outdid Noah Baumbach's last effort with this similar mien and all the while, making the picture and style uniquely his own. And big ups to "Attack The Block" too.
Rod Lurie’s deeply mentally challenged version of “Straw Dogs” is up there; as is Gela Babluani’s excruciating remake of his own work (“13” which was based on the foreign-language version “13 Tzameti”); Dito Montiel’s pretty god-awful, “Son Of No One” gets a mention here too; as does “Passion Play” – absolutely horrible and abortive (that’s two Mickey Rourke trainwrecks in a row; the comeback honeymoon is officially over). But as mentioned – and judging by most people’s worst lists – it seems like I dodged bullets all year round by missing movies like Adam Sandler's double offering of "Just Go With It" and "Jack And Jill," Kevin James’ own two-fer of “The Dilemma” and “The Zookeeper,” "Atlas Shrugged: Part 1," “Beastly,” “Valentine’s Day” and more. Will I eventually catch up with these to feel informed? Likely not, life’s too short. Other hall-of-shame 2011 films for me include the turgid and loud “Battle: Los Angeles,” the utterly banal “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Green Lantern,” the aggressively lazy “The Hangover Part II,” the unfunny and painful "The Green Hornet," and the mostly dreadful “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.” Also, “No Strings Attached” is one of the vilest and most poorly written romantic comedies I have ever seen. I kind of wish I could put things like “Conan the Barbarian,” and “Abduction” on this list, but I didn't see them and every review and 2011 recap pretty much suggests I never should. Keeping in mind that I missed a number of truly bad movies this year (add things like “Shark Night 3D” and “Apollo 18” to that list), I also kind of deeply disliked Tarsem’s “Immortals” and Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” and “Tintin,” but I suppose neither of the latter two deserve to be on a worst list. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” was definitely up there with the dullest movies of the year that I paid to see.
You can see some of my picks reflected here. I thought the auto-racing doc “Senna” was fine, but I didn’t get the fuss that was made over it in certain quarters. I’ve gotta say outside of a few brief moments (like the endearing opening song) I was deeply disappointed with “The Muppets” and was surprised at how lazy the writing felt and how underwhelming the third act was. I still contend that “My Week with Marilyn” is a Lifetime movie with a decent performance from Michelle Williams, but the film equivalent of a Hallmark Card nonetheless. “A Better Life” was an uneven picture, but still pretty good, and Demián Bichir was excellent once again. Also “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is a nice surprise considering the lead is a CGI monkey and not really James Franco, and it’s far more emotionally rich than you’d expect, especially in a season that includes Michael Bay and Ryan Reynolds films. One of, if not the most engaging event films of the year.
You’ve hopefully already read our Best Soundtracks and Scores piece, most of those picks of which I wholeheartedly endorse, but one that we sort of forgot – or perhaps one that just I truly love, is the soundtrack and score to Mike Mills’ “Beginners.” Featuring a simple, but effective score by musicians Roger Neill, Dave Palmer & Brian Reitzell (some of whom work with the Coppola clan, Sofia and Roman) that's alternately dreamy, melancholy or jaunty tack piano-y, the "Beginners" soundtrack also employs a sweet/sad mix of old-timey piano blues, vaudevillian jazz, Tin Pan Alley Pop and scratchy, thick vinyl American Dixieland by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton, Mamie Smith and Hoagy Carmichael. For a wistful film about longing, letting the past go and learning to live and love in the here and now, the choice of music is inspired, and the use of it is tender and thoughtful, much like the picture itself and its characters.
And while we did include it in our Soundtracks and Scores piece, but I'd be remiss if I didn't extra-mention the score and soundtrack to "Like Crazy." The plaintive, introspective and pensive piano compositions by Dustin O'Halloran perfectly capture the film's expressive and bittersweet tone, and the soundtrack – a collection of blissful songs by Paul Simon, Asobi Seksu, Figurine, M83, Stars and more – equally matches the woozy, jubilant moments of giddy ardor. Sometimes I think a film is only as good as its soundtrack, and at the very least, these two pictures feature some impressively complementary music that advances mood and story, just like music should.
You can’t always be completely comprehensive (or maybe you can and we’re just human, lazy and forgetful). Again, you’ve hopefully already read our Best Moments Of The Year piece, and aside from missing, say, everything that came out of Melissa McCarthy’s mouth in “Bridesmaids,” the mostly silent and super tension-filled opening of “Drive,” the ambiguous and haunting ending of “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” and the player trade scene in “Moneyball,” you get the gist of what we felt (and scene by scene it’s all a little subjective anyhow), but there are two scenes we didn’t include that I loved and wanted to give a little shine to here.
The first would be the ugly crescendo and hilarious anti-denouement of “Young Adult.” Charlize Theron is fantastic in her vile, hard-to-watch meltdown sequence, but then the next morning when she’s talking to actress Collette Wolf… Well, I don’t really want to spoil it, but Wolf steals the scene with a sucker punch to the gut that leaves you breathless. And it’s not like she’s shouting or emotionally over-the-top. Suffice to say, she essentially enables everything that’s sad and despicable in Theron’s character and it is a stunner of an acting sequence and a tragically side-splitting anti-ending.
The second scene would be from Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip,” a six-part BBC series that was condensed into an 80-minute comedy for the U.S. market starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon: a hilarious film about friendship, with some serious undertones about growing old and possibly lonely. OK, if you’re aware of this movie at all, you’re very aware of the “This is how Michael Caine speaks” scene, arguably the best scene in the movie. If you’re not familiar with the film, well, you oughta be. This scene was on repeat all year for me.