2011 IN REVIEW: Alex’s Top Ten

I set a personal record in 2011 by seeing 90 new releases, most of them in theatres. Despite that number, I certainly did miss out in a few crucial genres. I did not see nearly enough documentaries this year and none of those I have seen made it into my top ten. There was also a shortage of quality animated films this year, mostly due to the absence of a good Pixar film. This is the first time in 5 years that there is no animated film in my end of the year top ten.

Overall I would rate 2011 ahead of the last three years in movies and put it on par with 2007 for overall quality of new releases. By that I mean that there is not a single film in my top 10 that I have doubts about. Usually there are always a few films that in the back of my mind I fear a second viewing will dampen my enthusiasm. Not this year. Even my honorable mentions were tough to narrow down as more than 20 films this year seriously impressed me. You can hear a complete rundown of my top ten movies of the year on this week’s edition of the Film Misery Podcast, but for those of you who prefer the written medium, I present my top ten films of 2011:

Films I Missed, But Wanted to See

  • A Dangerous Method
  • A Separation
  • Coriolanus
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
  • Le Havre
  • Poetry
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin
  • Into the Abyss

Honorable Mention

(Alphabetical Order)

50/50 – A sad, but witty look at the loneliness that comes with being diagnosed with a terminal illness. Even with the random Rogen-esque pop culture references, the film still smartly manages to show that even when surrounded by family and friends, one can still feel alone.

Bellflower – Writer/director/actor Evan Glodell is one of the best discoveries of this year in this micro-budget production about love and obsession. It elevates mumblecore to a brand new extreme and presents a twisting narrative that is well-shot and unpredictable.

Bridesmaids – Easily one of the funniest movies of the year with excellent performances from the entire cast. Hopefully this is proof to Hollywood that girls can be funny and that female driven comedies can succeed if the characters are presented with honesty.

Carnage – A marvelous drawing room comedy that shows what happens when the bourgeois face elements that are out of their control, namely their own children. Christoph Waltz is pitch perfect as is the rest of the cast as we get to relish their characters’ descent into madness.

Margin Call – A tightly scripted and perfectly acted ensemble piece about the forces that drove our economic downturn. It does a fantastic job of presenting one company as a microcosm for the entire U.S. and European financial systems (with just as many Brits in the cast as Yanks).

Potiche – A delightful French comedy with much to say about gender and class relations. Smartly directed with great opening and closing shots and featuring wonderful lead performances from Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu that make it is easy to love.

Take Shelter – Amidst the economic and political turmoil of 2011, this film about one man’s paranoia stemming from difficult economic circumstances felt particularly relevant. It features a phenomenal central performance from the always great Michael Shannon and helped establish Jessica Chastain as the It Girl of 2011.

The Descendants – Even minor Alexander Payne is still better than most movies in a given year. Clooney feels purposely out of place in a world that is suddenly unfamiliar after he learns about his wife’s affair while she is on her deathbed. Payne uses his usual helpless male protagonist to comment on hypocrisy and family ties.

The Time That Remains – Visual poetry is an excellent way to describe this mostly silent film from director Elia Suleiman. Some of the best choreographed scenes are played out in a series of long takes that are often both bitterly sad and riotously funny at the same time.

Win Win – Thomas McCarthy creates one of the best sports movies for people who don’t like sports as he uses high school wrestling as a powerful metaphor for responsibility and morality. Giamatti is fantastic along with the many co-stars and the ending scene is particularly heartbreaking.

Alex’s Top 10 Films of 2011

10) Moneyball

It’s hard to miss when screenwriting superstar Aaron Sorkin is writing dialogue for confident leading man Brad Pitt. Add in some restrained direction from Bennett Miller, who sets his camera down and lets it act as a witness to the backstage drama rather than an intruder, and you’ve got a picture. Both Sorkin and director David Fincher continued to explore themes from last year’s The Social Network with their respective films in 2011. In Moneyball, Sorkin and co-writer Steve Zaillian show the clash of old methods versus new and the devastating personal experience that can come when one puts it all on the line. Pitt give his second best performance of his career, second only to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Spike Jonze makes one of the more memorable cameo performances of the year. To paraphrase from the script: “how can you not be romantic about [Moneyball]?”

9) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The biggest complaint directed at Swedish director Tomas Alfredsson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is that the plot is convoluted and hard to follow. That criticism is certainly not unfair, but I feel that the final moments are all the more rewarding as the pieces suddenly come together. It’s like watching somebody wildly fold and cut a piece of paper for an hour and a half only to see them pull it apart and reveal a majestic snowflake at the two hour mark. The performances from top to bottom are pitch perfect with the incredibly restrained Gary Oldman and the “look I can play a good guy, too” Mark Strong as the standouts. The film has a cold look that seeps off the screen and into the bones of the audience and it features an excellent score from Alberto Iglesias (talk about breakout year).

8) Shame

Director Steve McQueen shook me pretty good with his debut film Hunger and he flat out knocked me over with his follow up Shame. He holds the camera on a particular character for a long time; he holds the shot until I’m comfortable with it and keeps holding it until any sense of comfort is gone. This allows Michael Fassbender’s subtle performance to get full attention as we watch him slowly die on the inside. There is a remarkable dynamic between the brother and sister played by Fassbender and Carey Mulligan and we don’t know exactly if there is or ever has been romantic longings between the pair. McQueen leaves most of the decisions up to us, which makes this work of art all the more beautiful and mysterious to behold.

7) The Artist

As the Oscar buzz for The Artist began to get louder and louder after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, I couldn’t get the “G” word out of my head – “gimmick.” It was to my delight that the film transcended any gimmicks and simply employed honest and simple storytelling. Director Michel Hazanavicius resurrects the pure joy of Chaplin’s films for this delightful film about the decline of a movie star when technology changes. The film has absolutely charming lead performances from Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo and amidst the silliness it manages to examine themes like the meaning of loyalty and the danger narcissism. The best thing the film does is simply remind people that comedy was once accomplished without dirty jokes or witty pop culture references, and it still can be done, damn it.

6) Weekend

Justin nailed it in his write-up of Weekend as his second favorite film of the year. The film is more fair to its characters than other gay romances that simply put gay characters into a heterosexual romantic scenario. Russell and Glen have genuine worries and desires that are brilliantly portrayed by the breakout leads Tom Cullen and Chris New. Director Andrew Haigh lets the interactions between the characters play out in long takes, adding to the genuine feel of the film overall.

5) The Skin I Live In

Pedro Almodovar’s brilliantly twisted film raises questions on gender identity, experimental medicine, and torture. Those deep, life affirming themes certainly do not bog the film down, however. The Skin I Live In is dirty fun more than anything else with a twist that is so fantastically creepy that it somehow feels very satisfying. As a crazy surgeon, Antonio Banderas’ character executes one of the most detailed and graphic revenge plots that so consumes him that he comes to forget who the monster he just created really is. It’s B-level horror elevated to Grade-A filmmaking and one of the best of Almodovar’s recent work.

4) The Tree of Life

This visual and narrative opus from one of the greatest working auteurs creates its own greatness. By allowing so many different viewers to walk away with such rich and varying experience, the film allows itself to be whatever the viewer needs it to. It raises enormous questions dealing with old religion versus new religion, creationism, evolution, parenting and loss of innocence, yet it never points the viewer in a particular direction. It’s a film that gets absorbed rather than just watched and has inspired some of the best conversations about movies from this year. Bonus points for having the best presentation of a dinosaur ever put to film.

3) Midnight in Paris

A recurring theme you have no doubt heard on end of the year summaries is that 2011 was a year of nostalgia. If I am to pick a film that best represents nostalgia in 2011, however, it has to be Woody Allen’s magical return to the form that brought us classics like The Purple Rose of Cairo. Allen cleverly references artists and authors that we all learned about in High School English class and hopefully have grown to appreciate as adults. He then propels the protagonist and the viewer forward with a simple ending that suggest the present is the best place to be. If those opening shots of Paris don’t sell you on the beauty of the city than the carriage ride to the Belle Epoque most certainly will.

2) Drive

Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn splashes Los Angeles with neon for this retro and insanely cool film about a getaway driver who gets in over his head. The excellent cinematography brilliantly juxtaposes the thrill of driving a car with mundane every day activities to create a kinetic experience and also making it all the more effective when the camera and characters are completely still. I would even say that Drive is the best super anti-hero movie of the last decade as Ryan Gosling’s unnamed protagonist gets a fantastic origin story about using his power over automobiles for good, by the means of evil. It may be Gosling’s best performance ever and it is certainly further proof that Nicholas Winding Refn is one to watch.

1) Certified Copy

My favorite movie from the first half of the year did not change, and I did not expect it to. Abbas Kiarostami’s deeply layered examination of the authenticity of art and love has more treasures to discover with each successive viewing. It does a better job than any movie I have seen in years at getting to the heart of the question: what is truth? Among the brilliant aspects of the film is the playing out of an entire relationship in one day as we watch our protagonists go from meet-cute to simulated wedding ceremony to being counseled by older couple to becoming counselors for a younger couple to a magnificent and open-ended conclusion that deserves to be discovered on its own. The story never attempts to be a straight-forward narrative and, like The Tree of Life, every experience will be different. As someone who has personally experienced a deep connection with art and love, Certified Copy moved me in more ways than any movie this year and so I whole-heartedly declare it to be the best film of 2011.

There you have it. What do you think of my list compared to other writers at Film Misery? Don’t forget to check out more justification for my picks on the Film Misery Podcast.

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  • mads

    a minor correction: actually, the carriage takes us back to the Jazz Age (Hemingway, Stein, Dali, Fitzgerald). The Belle Epoque is where Wilson and Cotillard go together late in the film (and meet Toulouse-Lautrec etc.). But the implication is the same and it seals the message of the film in a mildly over-written manner…

    • I was talking about the carriage that takes them to the Belle Epoque, not the car that takes them to the Jazz Age.

  • Alex, I’m going to back up your inclusion of ‘Tinker Tailor’ by saying, though I have issues with either the film’s inability or unwillingness (not quite sure which) to flesh out its characters, the movie benefits tremendously from a second viewing. As far as stand-out performances are concerned, I feel Benedict Cumberbatch deserves a shout-out. My favorite performance of the movie is Tom Hardy’s. His entire flashback sequence was just wonderful. And I totally agree about Iglesias’ score.

    Looks like we cross over 5 times with our respective Top 10 lists (my guess is it’d have been 6 if you saw ‘A Separation’). Suddenly my own list feels a lot less inspired.

  • Chris W

    Going home to watch Certified Copy on Netflix instant play ASAP!

    • Great! Let me know how you like it. Hope it lives up to our hype.

      • Chris W

        Just finished. What a beautiful film. Certainly a worthy number 1. There was so much to decipher that I can’t imagine being able to fully appreciate it after just one viewing.

        I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen it yet, but I love that he had to be back by nine, and ends up in room nine. What a perfect little bow on top.

        Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Luiz Angel

    isn’t certified copy from 2010 though?

    • It hit the festival circuit in 2010, and some critics put it on their lists last year as a result. But it made its theatrical premiere in 2011 (March 11, according to boxofficemojo.com), making it available for a lot of folks’ lists this year (including the Academy, who is allowing members to vote for it on their ballots).

    • Yeah, we follow the Academy’s eligibility rules when making top 10 lists. It can be confusing when several sites list the release year differently, but we try to stay consistent.

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