Monday, January 02, 2012

The Best Films of 2011

I saw more films in a theater this year and any since I've kept track. All told in 2011 I saw 114 films in a theater, but a large number of them were repertory screenings. Below are some of the ones that were not. They are not ranked, and are listed alphabetically. As ridiculous and arbitrary as the list is, it seems even more ridiculous and arbitrary to put them in a ranked order. So there you are, there may be additions as I see some of the films that I didn't have a chance to during the year.

The Best Films of 2011
This exceedingly brilliant film by Athina Rachel Tsangari builds on the detached style last year's Dogtooth (whose directer appears in this film), and spins off into a strange kind of love story. Absurd at every turn, filled front to back with striking, original images, you could very well call the film relentlessly idle. Scenes of great emotion are played out in long takes, where actors act like animals, grab their crotches and walk down the street, or discuss the band Suicide. It's one of the most original films of the year, and one of the best by far.
Mike Mills' story of love and loss, in several forms, is strikingly personal not just in autobiographical details, but in the intimate way he explores characters' relationships, those between a gay, dying father and his young, depressed son, a man and a dog, a man and woman who doesn't speak. I largely admired Mills' first film Thumbsucker, but this is huge leap forward. The film often breaks so its lead character can narrate a brief history, familial or otherwise, and ends up having more to say about gay rights, dying in America, and art than most films have to say about anything.

Richard Press' incredible documentary about The New York Times street photographer and semi-unwitting fashion taste maker Bill Cunningham is fascinating and hilarious, and also serves as a kind of portrait of life in New York for an artist and the loud, lavish, eccentric people he's photographed and known over the past fifty years. Part portrait, part elegy for a dying New York, it's the finest non-fiction film I saw all year.

A frightening, realistic portrait of infection from one of the best, most process-obsessed filmmakers working today. Steven Soderbergh, working as his own Cinematographer, exploits the limitations of the RED camera it was shot on, using the flatness of the image to draw focus to surfaces, bringing into consciousness the germ-phobic, nagging ideas of the film. Seeing the film in a theater made the experience even more palpable, as every cough was a reminder that if it were to happen, this is how it would happen. 

Miranda July's second film is a searching, at some times dark, but endlessly inventive film about unhappiness. There are hallmarks here that detractors could point to as "the problems with her work," the film is narrated by a cat, a man can stop time, and there's a sentient t-shirt, but none of that feels artificial in the film. It's a better film than her debut, which I was enormously fond of, and July and co-star Hamish Linklater effectively create two distinct sides of the same person in their characters. If, when one makes a movie, every single character has a bit of its maker, then this is the most direct representation of that. A man and a woman with the same haircut, ambition, and ultimately desires explode off one another. A scene in the film where July reunites with the aforementioned t-shirt, set to a Beach House song, is one the very best pieces of film I saw all year.

A stylish, engrossing mystery that, while interesting in and of itself, is second to the fascinating investigation and the two characters who carry it out. So interesting are the two leads (Rooney Mara's performance is my favorite in any film this year) that you can't help but be anxious throughout the first half of the film for the moment when their stories merge. David Fincher handles brutal scenes with such tact and yet also allows them to be as upsetting as they should be. That he achieves this without ever exploiting the performers and that the film isn't a tough watch is a credit to Fincher's skills as a director. It's clever, quick and completely entertaining.

Joe Wright's fourth film is a return to form, but also an expansion of talents. Having previously made one of my favorite films from a few years ago, Atonement, Wright had seemed to settle into a comfortable spot of making Oscar-baity type fare and filling it with his own personal style. That trend ends here. Although film retains Wright's panache with the camera, music (the film has a great score by The Chemical Brothers), use of color and editing, it drops any of the "this is important" pretense from the proceedings. It spirals off into weird digressions, but it's also singularly focused on its title character's forward motion. It's a fantastic film, and one that gets away with more modern-day fairytale nonsense than just about any other.

An expensive, 3D family film about the death and rebirth of film by one of the world's greatest living directors. That proposition alone is enough to make exciting, but actually seeing the film and particularly its stunning last third is one of the most pure, enjoyable moments I had in a movie theater all year. Martin Scrosese's recreations of Melies films are astounding, in 3D or otherwise. The film's message about preservation is obviously one close to Scorsese's heart, and it impossible to imagine anyone else making a film so enamored with the magic and history of the movies.

Kenneth Lonergan's long in the making opus is an imperfect masterpiece. A  movie that at 2 1/2 hours feels truncated, it's a thrilling, original work. Calling it a coming of age story seems reductive given its massive scope and nuanced exploration of guilt, but it is nonetheless one of the most complex portraits of young personhood I've ever seen. It's a stunning film that, though it was shot six years ago, feels vital and fresh.

This bare, quiet, understated Western is only Kelly Reichardt's fourth feature film, and that fact is a testament to her artistic reach and ambition. After two brilliant, observational films set in contemporary Oregon, Reichardt and writer Jon Raymond dip back into history, while bringing the same penchant for small moments and sharply observed (sparse) dialogue. It's one of the most beautiful movies of the year, and one of the most affecting.

Like Lars von Trier's last film, Antichrist, this one is focused on the depression of a young woman. It's massive, odd, and ultimately great. If it's not as emotionally piercing as some of von Trier's best work, it is one of his most gorgeous, accessible films. What von Trier is asking you to engage in and accept (the end of the world) is tough, but he rewards you by making that horrible, anxiety causing thing a gorgeous piece of art that wears its allusions and hopelessness on its sleeve.

Woody Allen's fine comedy of time-travel and wish fulfillment is among his best. Shot gorgeously in the title city, filled with a great American and French cast, it's one of the lightest films Allen has made, unabashedly Romantic. It's pure pleasure.

This expansive film by Todd Haynes is the second to be made from James M. Cain's novel, and it's far and away the best. Part feminist exploration of the life of a woman in the 1940s, part tawdry sexual psychodrama, Haynes finds a unique tone, one where melodrama and naturalism are side by side. Aided by Kate Winslet's great performance, Ed Lachman's Saul Leiter-influenced cinematography, Carter Burwell's plaintive score, and Haynes' and Jon Raymond's script, Haynes has made the most endlessly watchable six hour film of the year.

After months of praise, garnering acclaim from every awards body and critic in the Western world, any film would be forgiven for not living up to the hype. Asghar Farhadi's film does just that and more. Few films have ever held me in such suspense, or in such a meaningful way. Every piece of praise heaped on the film is correct, and it's one of the few films I'd recommend to everyone. It's a deeply human film, and one that deserves recognition far after the awards are handed out.

Steve Mcqueen's drama of sex addiction, sibling frustration and the emptiness of the modern world is aesthetically bold and uncompromisingly dark. It is wise both about its characters, but also about addiction, attraction, and the ways in which various forms of abuse can affect both the abused and abuser.

The second film by Jeff Nichols is a striking portrait of mania, centered on a committed performance by Michael Shannon. It's unpredictable and absolutely enthralling, stunningly well acted and crafted.

A strange collective unconscious masterwork where nothing makes sense and doesn't have to. Tomas Alfredson's film is an intensely idiosyncratic spy film that  puts aside the need for narrative cohesion in favor of constant striking scenes filled with metaphor. Filled with some of the greatest actors working, it's gorgeously conceived and executed. Possible the most quietly radical, strangest studio release of the year.
In what is perhaps Terrence Malick's least-narrative driven film, Malick attempts to encompass the totality of human life into one meandering, nostalgic, emotional film. It may be Malick's least accessible film, but I think it portrays childhood, and the feeling of growing up and the changes that occur internally better than any other film I've seen, and the scenes of family and death and creation and destruction are relatable to anyone. It's gorgeous and moving and truly epic and the best film of the year.

Bela Tarr's dazzling, allegorical, rough film is the first of his I've seen. I'm still in awe months after I've seen it. It's such a masterwork, such an unclassifiable, indescribable piece of filmmaking that it seems inappropriate to take it on any other terms buts its own. Every element of the film from the score, to the sound, to the movement of the camera, to the light in the spaces, to the actors who don't seem like actors, to the few words spoken all fit together so soundly that to emphasize one element over another seems anathema to the whole creation of this brilliant, unique film.

Unseen: Mysteries of Lisbon, House of Pleasures, The Adventures of Tintin, A Separation, Immortals, Carnage.

Special consideration to: Spike Jonze's Scenes From The Suburbs and Mourir Auprès de Toi, Josh and Benny Safdie's John's Gone, and Louis Garrel's Petit Tailleur, all wonderful shorts.

Secondary Subset of The Best:

Aurora - A startling, intense film from Cristi Puiu, who also stars in a great performance. 

Belle Épine - A quietly stunning debut film from Rebecca Zlotowski, single-mindedly following the travails of a young girl who has recently lost her mother. With shades of Maurice Pialat, albeit a more feminine, complex take. The film is anchored by a subdued performance by Léa Seydoux, who is just as hurt and impulsive as she was in the great La Bell Personne, but conveys it in such a different way.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams - Werner Herzog's meditative 3D exploration of the Chauvet Caves, playful and thoughtful in turn, one of the best uses of the format thus far. 

Cold Weather - Aaron Katz's immensely likeable detective story bucks the trend of so many low-budget films and actually gives a damn about the way it looks, feels and sounds.

A Dangerous Method - David Cronenberg's film about Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and a difficult patient. It's reserved, especially for Cronenberg, but it's a well acted piece of drama.

The Descendants - My favorite of Alexander Payne's films thus far, not as cynical as his past work, and even more emotionally dense.

Film Socialisme - A maddening film from Godard to be sure, but also one exhiliratingly free from any obligation towards the audience. If all Godard is offering is images, then I'll take the film at that.

Goodbye First Love - Mia Hansen-Løve's delicate, sensitive, beautiful film about young love. Plumbs the depths of despair that such a story can conjure, while also emphasizing the sweetness that accompanies it.

The Guard - John Michael McDonagh's debut is charming and hilarious, featuring a great performance from Brendan Gleeson.

Le Havre - Aki Kaurismaki's comedy fantasy that embraces Hollywood conventions while taking serious very real social issues. Hard not to love.

J. Edgar - Strong biopic of an obsessive, paranoid, closeted figure. If it embellishes a little it can be forgiven for making the portrait a compelling one.

Martha Marcy May Marlene - A very strong debut film from Sean Durkin, unexpected in the way it reveals things about its lead character.

Moneyball - A fine drama from Bennet Miller, has little to do with baseball and more to do with the willingness to try new things with the determination that they're going to work out.

Rampart - Oren Moverman's follow-up to The Messenger, his excellent film with Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson. Harrelson stars this time, and it's such an aesthetically bold, deeply dark film. With the cast Moverman's assembled and the subject matter, you'd assume a bigger distributor would pick it up, but seeing the film it's easy to understand why that didn't happen. It's almost a Claire Denis-esque tackling of the corrupt cop film, and that's not just because Dickon Hinchliffe scored it. It's weird, internal, formally challenging and great.

The Skin I Live In - A wild, lurid melodrama from one of the masters.

Tabloid - Errol Morris' funny, provocative documentary, his best in years.

Urbanized - The third in Gary Hustwit's design trilogy tackles nothing less than the way we live our lives. Like Hustwit's previous two films, it's one that actually makes you change the way you look at the world.

We Need To Talk About Kevin - Lynne Ramsay returns to filmmaking and makes one of the most interior, strange films I've seen. Not coincidentally a hard film to talk about, it's experience that's worth having.

Weekend - Andrew Haigh's lovely day long romance between two men is finely observed and exceptional.

The Worst of the Year

Drive - An empty, formless, violent endorsement of everything that's wrong with movie-fan culture. Everything about the film is contemptible.

Certified Copy - I've never responded to Kiarostami before and this film is no different. Endlessly circling around dull conversation and a bullshit secret. I don't care about his characters enough to care who they are to one another, and his basic disregard for language of cinema infuriates.

The Hangover: Part II - It seems impossible to make a movie full of funny people and not have a single laugh in it, but alas...

The Debt - It seems impossible to make a movie full of great actors and not have a single good scene in it, but alas...

Your Highness - A massive disappointment.

Other favorites included: Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin, Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist, Joe Cornish's Attack The Block, Paul Fieg's Bridesmaids, Miguel Arteta's comedy Cedar Rapids, Rodman Flender's Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, Jonathan Levine's 50/50, Vera Farmiga's Higher Ground, Claude Chabrol's Inspector Bellamy, Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre, Brad Bird's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, James Bobin's The Muppets, Lee Chang-dong's moving Poetry, Francois Ozon's Potiche, James Marsh's Project Nim, Gore Verbinski's Rango, David Gordon Green's The Sitter, James Gunn's Super, JJ Abrams' Super 8, the quality musician documentary The Swell Season, Azazel Jacobs' Terri, the wonderful A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas, and Todd McCarthy's Win Win.


  1. Anonymous1:53 AM

    You're wrong about Drive.
    I thought Hugo was the best film of the year and I loved Midnight in Paris, so I suppose I'll have to forgive you.
    Also, where's The Artist?

  2. I didn't really want to write anything negative about it, but I didn't think it merited inclusion elsewhere.