2011 IN REVIEW: Justin’s Top Ten

As I read a lot of year-end write-ups, and as folks are working to define what the films of 2011 meant to them, I am noticing a great deal being being said of nostalgia, and how it strikes many as the most prominent and most recurring sensibility the cinema offered this year. Like many have already said, I agree 2011 has been a great year for movies; the best year of the past fifteen, in fact. But with one arguable exception, I would not use the word “nostalgia” to classify a single one of the films ranked on my personal list of the year’s best films.

The movies that resonated with me the most strongly almost uniformly looked forward, seldom looking back fondly on time past. Many are marked with urgency, either in the messages they convey or in the boundaries of filmmaking they test. Some are sentimental, others are bittersweet. I really hope that the constitution of my list doesn’t paint me as a cynic or as a contrarian; I liked many of the “nostalgic” films I’ve seen on countless other top ten lists, yet I genuinely love  the movies in my personal top ten. I believe that they (and many of my runners-up) have more to say about film as a medium, about the times we inhabit and where we might be heading. Hopefully, many of you will agree with my picks.

Films I Did Not See

  • The Arbor
  • Carnage
  • The Iron Lady
  • Margaret
  • Mysteries of Lisbon
  • Pariah
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  • Tyrannosaur
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin

Honorable Mention

The Artist – Giving The Muppets a real run for its money as the year’s most joyous ode to nostalgia, Michel Hazanavicius’ Oscar front-runner supports Norma Desmond’s assertion that, though the pictures have gotten smaller, those great faces will always stay big.

Bellflower – Magnificently shot and deliriously frenetic. Many have docked it points for its intense violence and perceived misogyny, but I found Evan Glodell’s debut feature to be a far more introspective, intimately critical deconstruction of male insecurity. The first half is as romantic as anything I’ve seen this year.

Cold Weather – Another intimate deconstruction of personal insecurity, Aaron Katz’s mumblecore mystery is more subdued than Bellflower, but just as lovingly constructed and deeply personal.

Hugo – Meatier in its love for what beautifies the essence of cinema than The Artist, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the Brian Selznick novel is admittedly uneven – the Sacha Baron Cohen subplot particularly so – but is nonetheless terribly sincere in its love for the most popular artform of the 20th century.

I Saw the Devil – As challenging as it is grotesque, as horrifying as it is entertaining, Jee-woon Kim’s violent revenge opus is yet another great addition to the long list of stellar films coming from South Korea.

The Interrupters – An impressive and deeply felt movie from Steve James, this story of a group of Chicagoans setting out to quell as much inner-city violence as humanly possible is more explicit in its message than the director’s masterpiece Hoop Dreams, but it remains a powerful and crucial social doc that should be seen by all.

Margin Call – Alex took this film to task a few days ago for failing to sufficiently criticize the culprits behind the 2008 financial meltdown, but for me, its resolve not to point fingers protects J.C. Chandor’s debut from the indulgence of smug, hindsight-laden editorializing. In showing how much literally can change overnight, Margin Call reveals the true fragility of financial “security.”

Martha Marcy May Marlene – Enough has been said about Elizabeth Olsen’s magnetic performance. Not enough has been said about the rest of the film, a gorgeously muddy, slowly burning film with one of the year’s bravest, most under-appreciated final scenes.

Shame – The best Fassbender performance in a year teeming with them, this exploration of sexual addiction from Hunger director Steve McQueen derails itself due to its protagonist’s ludicrous third-act choices, but it remains a stunningly wrought character study nonetheless.

Tomboy – An underseen, deceptively simple French film about a young female who passes as a boy in her new neighborhood. Céline Sciamma tells a wrenching story of a child struggling to understand their identity, at the same time shedding some truthful light on how the politics of gender are perceived and militantly defended.

Justin’s Top 10 Films of 2011

10) Into the Abyss

In a year that included Tabloid, Project Nim and that other, more popular 2011 Herzog flick Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Abyss stands out as the year’s most potent documentary because, despite having its roots firmly planted in nonfiction, it also ranks among the year’s most successful acts of world-building. While a less observant filmmaker would simply have framed this story of a 2001 triple-homicide and the lives it affected as a thesis on the moral integrity of Texas’ arguably draconian criminal punishment system, Herzog goes a step further to frame his narrative against the backdrop of a society obsessed with, and subsequently defined by, the destructive cycle of this legally sanctioned form of justice. As a result, the Grizzly Man director poses a question infinitely more complicated than we are used to asking: he asks what happens to a society when a culture of death implicates and entraps each of its actors, both major and minor.

9) 13 Assassins

Not since at least Tarantino’s Death Proof has a movie demonstrated so much build-up for such worthwhile payoff. Directed by gonzo director Takashi Miike, this story of a bakers’ dozen of trained warriors setting out to murder a sinister, well-protected overlord starts out as a reverent aping of Kurosawa’s most seminal work (including even a Toshirô Mifune doppelganger). The movie carves out its own trajectory in its certifiably bonkers final act, though, when the assassins’ elaborate plan involving hundreds of guards, archers, hidden gates and flaming boars – seriously, dude, flaming boars!! – comes to fruition. The results onscreen are nothing short of delirious, and will have you bellowing guffaws of bewilderment even as you find yourself anxiously clutching the arm either of your seat or the loved one sitting next to you.

8) The Skin I Live In

I can understand both this film’s unenthused Cannes reception and the grim, unsettled demeanor of many who left the theater upon seeing what is undoubtedly Pedro Almodóvar’s coldest, most disturbing work of the past decade. Having said that, I am a bit nervous about what it says about me when I say I left The Skin I Live In feeling complete and utter giddiness. Imbuing each frame with his trademark love for cinema while injecting a homonormative approach to body politics and taboos that never quite made it into his previous work Broken Embraces, what Almodóvar has to say about how our identities are shaped both by ourselves and by others had my mind racing throughout the film’s entire running time, and for some time after as well.

7) A Separation

The year’s most uncannily constructed screenplay by far, Asghar Farhadi’s Golden Bear winner seamlessly blends a multitude of issues in a way that feels tremendously easy, yet impossible to replicate. Ostensibly, the film operates as a domestic drama between warring families. But that drama is predicated on countless other factors: social conventions, laws both legal and religious, and economic realities specific to the people at the story’s core. Farhadi succeeds in telling the kind of story lesser films like In a Better World and Biutiful aspired to tell, yet failed miserably. A Separation is the current frontrunner for this year’s Foreign Film Oscar, and it probably deserves to win.

6) Drive

Featuring a career-high performance by Ryan Gosling, the most unequivocally awesome soundtrack of the year and an opening sequence that seriously earns comparisons to the car chases of The French Connection and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the best film in Nicholas Winding Refn’s post-Pusher filmography works not merely because of its brutal violence or its distinctive coolness. It works because a true sense of heart is found in each moment of the film. Drive comes off as too cool for school but, just like its unnamed protagonist, a fierce air of sentimentality and romanticism manages to pierce its tough outer shell. The film makes you want to hug every character you meet, even as they are literally stomping their enemies’ faces in.

5) Bridesmaids

It always frustrates me to hear people argue that the most important function comedy serves is to make us laugh, as it frequently undercuts what makes a truly great comedy manage to resonate in the time following said laughs. Yes, Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids made me laugh more voraciously than any comedy in years. But the source of its laughs – and therefore, its greatness – stems from the characters written for the screen by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, who rank among the most genuine, relatable and flawed individuals to come from the Judd Apatow brand. This is the highest-grossing pick on my top ten list by a mile, and I am thrilled the movie has found the success it has.

4) The Tree of Life

A film whose discussion requires hyperbole, let alone invites its usage, I liken my first beguiling experience with Terrence Malick’s magnum opus to what it must have felt like to see 2001 for the first time four decades ago. Like that Kubrick film, Malick’s is a work of unbridled ambition that cares less about coherence and the clarity of its meaning than it does about challenging the oppressive nature of what modern storytelling is expected to deliver. The film is among the most frustrating visions presented on the screen this year, fueled by the indulgent ego of its maker. What’s more, the film is insistent that those who give it the time of day work to find a uniquely personalized interpretation. I mean this as a compliment. If you hated The Tree of Life, you may not necessarily be wrong, but do know that this film will surely linger, even as the relentless march of time takes us each away one by one.

3) Poetry

Most of South Korea’s recent films have been defined so overwhelmingly by explorations of brutal violence and the pitch-black darkess humanity is capable of, that I worry the comparatively longer, quieter, and more subdued Poetry will strike many as lugubrious – perhaps even a little boring. Being firmly of the opinion that stands as the pinnacle of this truly electrifying wave of Korean exports, Chang-dong Lee’s story of an Alzheimer-stricken woman who finds respite from her life’s tribulations in a poetry class she attends is as essential as its more popular contemporaries Oldboy and Mother. Featuring a performance by Jeong-hie Yun – among the year’s most riveting – Poetry is a shattering ode to the kind of permanence language is capable of affording us when so much else in life seems fleeting.

2) Weekend

The reason why so many “gay romance” movies fail on a very fundamental level (like Miles Swain’s 2002 film The Trip or the truly terrible 2008 film Breakfast with Scot) is that you get a sense that deep down, all that is really being recounted is a straight people’s romance with the love interests getting swapped out for members of the same sex; nothing about the generic formula, or the essence of the romance, feels suited specifically to a same-sex couple or the sexual politics implicitly linked to their identities.

The reason why Andrew Haigh’s Weekend works so terrifically is because the two lovers at its center read like actual gay men: people who have spent their lives having to come to terms with a dissident sexual identity in a way relatively few straight people have to worry about. As a result of this approach, romantic interests Glen and Russell are far more human, and it is much easier to buy in to the specificity of their romance. And since that specificity rings true, it is much easier for anybody who has ever had a romantic or sexual relationship – gay, straight or otherwise – to identify with the story being told.

1) Certified Copy

Certified Copy, among the very first films I saw in 2011, does not inspire hyperbole like other films on my list. It doesn’t boast the magnetic style of Drive, nor does it share The Tree of Life’s confounding ambition. It is not as searing in its romance as Weekend nor is it as sentimentally meta-textual as future Best Picture winner The Artist. Yet I knew throughout the whole year, even as I was watching all those films (and dozens more), how little chance they had of toppling Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece as my very favorite of the bunch. Quiet and calculated in its structure yet insightful on levels movies so rarely are capable of conveying, no other 2011 film so stimulated both my intellect and my deeply jaded heart.

Certified Copy starts off as a wryly enjoyable polemic on the function and legitimacy of art, following two intellectuals (the great William Shimmell and the incredible Juliette Binoche) on the Tuscany countryside as they debate their ideas and assertions. Following a critical moment in the film’s middle, however, their discussion takes a turn, and the nature of their relationship begins to meld indistinguishably with the primary discussion at hand. Our sense of what is and isn’t real wavers as a result.

If you look for an answer to the riddle proposed at the center of Certified Copy, you risk losing focus of the film’s true emotional core, which frankly lies within the riddle itself. Yes, the movie is about art. But it is also about our relationship with art, the role art plays in influencing our perceptions of truth in this world and the role that very same truth plays in defining the relationships that surround us. Certified Copy is more than a high-concept experiment. It is instead about the vitality of expression, the urgency of relationships, and the attempt to capture the essence of the countless emotions life is capable of evoking. No single hyperbole, not even “Best Movie of the Year,” will ever be able to encapsulate all of that.

The Film Misery staff will be posting their individual choices for their favorite films of 2011 throughout the next few days. What are your favorite films of the 2011? What did Justin get right, and what did he get wrong?

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  • Fantastic list Justin, though I expected there’d be more of an overlap in our lists. You are one ahead of Davin, but there’s as much overlap as in Alex’s list. I will say that you’re view does skew closer to mine. I understand all the love behind “The Tree of Life”, but the more I think it over, the more hollow the film seems to me, but it does elicit different responses from everyone who sees it.

    I liked “Bridesmaids” a great deal, the screenplay from Wiig and Mumolo, and the performances specifically from Kristen Wiig and Chris O’Dowd”. However, the film falters deeply in its direction by Paul Feig. You wouldn’t think a film like it would need a great director, but this one really needed a facelift. The sheer number of meaningless musical cues and the rampant glut of the material (2 HOURS?) just weighs it down in my eyes. Still really good though.

    But overall, it was a really interesting read, and a pretty great writeup.

  • Haven’t been commenting on these top tens since I haven’t really seen enough films from 2011 yet, but I will say that I’m pleased to see “Poetry” so high on this one. What a terrific film. “13 Assassins” is another interesting pick. I liked the film, but didn’t find either the build-up or the payoff quite as good as you did.

    Very interesting list. Can’t say I agree with all of it, but that of course almost never happens. And I’m with Duncan… great writing. Nicely done.

  • This is a fantastic list Justin, i feel so unfortunate to have not seen many movies of the year unlike 2010 but nevertheless happy that your Top 10 includes Certified Copy, A Separation and The Tree Of Life. Overall a perfect list and looking forward to watch all those awards contenders :)

  • YAY! THE SKIN I LIVE IN!

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