The Best Films of 2011

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The unusually weak awards season and disappointing Oscar slate overshadow the fact that it was really a pretty good year overall. The big prestige year-end films were almost all disappointing, but there was a period earlier in the fall when it seemed like there were great films being released every week. The top 7 all got 10/10 ratings from me, with the 8th being really really close, and I actually had to leave several 9/10-rated films off the list.

As usual, some of these are technically 2010 films, having premiered in festivals or overseas. But as far as I can tell, they were all commercially released in the US for the first time in 2011.

1. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
Iranian director Kiarostami makes his first European film, set in Tuscany and starring William Shimell and Juliette Binoche as a writer and one of his fans, respectively. The movie seemed to get a reputation as a stuffy art film over the summer, but what struck me the most was how playful it is, with an unsolvable mystery at its core. The relationship between the two leads gets more elusive and unsettling as the film progresses, but I rather enjoyed Kiarostami’s gamesmanship and the thoughtfully oblique way that he approaches the film’s themes. Plus, it’s beautifully shot and wonderfully acted.

2. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi) (review by Jackrabbit Slim)
It’s interesting that my two favorite films this year were both by Iranian directors, although A Separation is actually set in Iran. It’s about an affluent middle-class couple in the process of divorce when the husband finds himself in legal trouble. This is an impeccably written and acted film, and I especially admired how the alliances between the characters in the film are constantly in flux as new facts and dimensions of the case are revealed. This challenges the audience, preventing their sympathies from settling too easily and allowing us to see the case in a much more complex way than we probably would in a more conventional film. It very deservedly won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, probably the highlight of this year’s ceremony as far as I was concerned.

3. The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski)
Probably the most visually unique film I saw this year. Polish director Lech Majewski uses digital effects to bring Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Procession to Calvary to life. Rutger Hauer plays Bruegel, who discusses his design of the painting, while the film imagines the lives of some of the people in the film. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie quite like this, and I found it brilliantly imaginative, both in an artistic and humanistic sense.

4. Bellflower (Evan Glodell)
Evan Glodell’s Bellflower is one of the most fully-realized American debut films in years, set in a modern Los Angeles that’s been given a stifling, post-apocalyptic atmosphere. Glodell and Tyler Dawson star as two twentysomethings mostly preoccupied with building their own flamethrower, so that their gang can dominate after the apocalypse. Glodell is a rare first-time director who has full control of tone, especially impressive because the film ranges from a sweet, slightly dopey romance to full-on doom and violence. What also struck me is how well Glodell knows his characters and sees their narcissistic self-loathing. It’ll be interesting to see where Glodell’s career goes from here, since there’s a definite Richard Kelly vibe being given off here and the risk of getting stuck repeating himself seems very real. But this is a masterpiece, right out of the gate.

5. 3 (Tom Tykwer)
Tykwer is a director that I’ve always admired, but I’ve also often found myself frustrated at his lack of narrative development and cohesion. Here he adopts a different strategy than I’ve seen from him, in this story about a fortyish couple who are both having an affair with the same man. I deeply appreciated how Tykver disregards the usual melodramatic hysterics of the situation, sparing us the jealous arguments and childish recriminations that would be typical of a story like this. I also especially admired the performance by Sophie Ross, although all three lead actors are very good. Most interestingly, Tykwer turns the movie’s narrative into a sort of stream-of-consciousness musing on any number of subjects, including disease, genetics, medical ethics, art, and even current world events and politics. It’s actually a very radical film, not just in its adult approach to relationships and infidelity, but in the way it integrates profound political and cultural debates into everyday life.

6. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols) (review by Jackrabbit Slim)
I’ve been touting Michael Shannon for years, and he’s phenomenal here as Curtis, a man experiencing terrifying apocalyptic dreams. One of the more thoughful aspects of the film is that Curtis is only too aware of his family’s history of mental illness, so he knows that whether the dreams are actual prophecies or not, they’re harbingers of ill fortune for him one way or the other. Writer-director Nichols is able to integrate the dreams into the narrative in a clever and sensitive way; it’s easy to imagine a lesser film where the dreams are played for exploitation purposes, but here they’re a useful window into Curtis’s mental anguish, as he worries about his friends and family abandoning him in the face of his illness. Nichols also made a terrific film several years ago called Shotgun Stories, also starring Shannon, and with this film he solidifies his status as one of America’s best new filmmakers.

7. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin) (review by Jackrabbit Slim)
Like Take Shelter, this film is built around a dominating lead performance, this time by Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, a young woman just escaped from a secretive cult. And like Bellflower, it’s an extremely impressive debut film. Writer-director Durkin structures the film as a series of flashbacks between Martha’s time with the cult and her current stay with her sister and the sister’s fiance. He ingeniously linkes the stimuli at the sister’s house with Martha’s memories with the cult, producing a disorienting effect that emphasizes her confusion as she readjusts to societal norms and her struggle to maintain her identify after years of it being systematically stripped away. This is a terrific psychological thriller and character study.

8. Incendies (Denis Villaneuve)
When their mother dies, two siblings learn to their surprise that not only is their father still alive, they have a brother that they never knew about. That’s the premise of this family drama and political thriller from Canada, which received an Oscar nomination in 2010 for Best Foreign Film. Their journey takes them to the Middle East, where they learn about their mother’s ordeals during a civil war decades ago. This is a genuinely unpredictable film, and structured so that the audience sometimes knows more than the characters do and at other times are in the dark as much as they are. My only complaint is that director Villaneuve occasionally loses sight of his characters in favor of the action, short-changing one minor character especially in a way that I found peculiarly thoughtless. Overall, though, this is a very gripping story and profound statement on the nature of civil war.

9. Beginners (Mike Mills) (review by Jackrabbit Slim)
I admit that this movie looked like potential trouble from its trailer, which showed two emotionally withdrawn characters engaging in a tentative romance and a dog with subtitled thoughts. It ended up being a wonderful surprise, though, and won Christopher Plummer an expected but deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar. The film nicely balances two story threads, the first being the aforementioned emotionally tentative romance between Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent, and the second being Plummer’s revealing himself as gay after living his whole life in the closet. Without calling much attention to itself, the movie is an incisive critique of the way that society’s stigma against gays fractures families and inflicts emotional scars on children that last even into adulthood. At the same time, though, Plummer’s character is able to find happiness and is able to provide an example of a positive relationship for his son late in life. It’s not a didactic film, but it is a quietly and righteously angry one.

10. Another Earth (Mike Cahill)
The third debut feature film on this list, this film also marks the breakout performance by Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the film. It’s about a high-school senior who drinks too much at a graduation party and causes a deadly car wreck; on the same night, a new planet, later discovered to be a parallel version of Earth, appears in the sky. This is primarily a drama about loss, guilt and redemption, given a very poignant and delicate touch by Marling’s sensitive portrayal of Rhoda and William Mapother’s fine performance as the victim of her drunken driving. The shots of the second Earth in the sky appear throughout and are quite striking, and they invite the viewer to wonder along with Rhoda about what’s going on up there and if people are any happier than down here. Despite its sci-fi minimalism, this is a very ambitious film, and one that I felt was unfortunately ill-served by its mid-summer release.

34 responses »

  1. Are these in order of what you liked the best? 1 being your favorite and so on?

  2. Also, I think The Mill and the Cross was put out by Kino on Blu-ray – definitely the way to go if you can track it down.

  3. Another Earth (I think Earth 2 would have been a better title) sounds a lot like, in presentation, that awesome low budget Sleep Dealer. Remember that one?

  4. Another Earth (I think Earth 2 would have been a better title) sounds a lot like, in presentation, that awesome low budget Sleep Dealer.

    Hmmm … not sure exactly what you mean by “presentation”, but I don’t really see any similarities between the two.

    I did see Another Earth and I agree – good movie. Amazing scene with a guy playing a saw – how many movies have that?!

    Hello Michelle – I agree, that’s a terrific scene. Thanks for the link.

  5. That’s one esoteric list.

    I’ve only seen five of them (Certified Copy will be on DVD soon), but i did like four of those five. I haven’t seen near as many new releases as Brian has, but there’s my 10 best, in no particular order:

    Take Shelter
    Midnight in Paris
    Margin Call
    The Tree of Life
    A Separation
    Melancholia
    Hugo
    Drive
    Moneyball
    The Trip

  6. That’s one esoteric list.

    Is it? Huh.

    Two of yours were on my list also, and four more would have been honorable mentions if I’d included them (Melancholia, Hugo, Moneyball, and The Trip, with the middle two being final cuts from the top 10). Three more I liked well enough, and the last one (Margin Call) I didn’t see.

    I think our tastes aligned more this year than they usually do.

  7. Esoteric is not a rap on you, but not one of the films on your list received a wide release. I don’t know if that’s an indication of how down you are on Hollywood or whether it was an abnormally strong year for independent films (and I mean real independent films–the notion that The Artist is an independent film is bogus). Until I see the other five I can’t make a sweeping statement about your list–like I said, of the five I’ve seen, only Martha et. al. was found underwhelming by me.

    I’m putting the films I haven’t seen on my Netflix queue, so I’ll get back to you.

  8. I didn’t mean in presentation…I meant, uh, like the same ‘type’ of movie? Where-in it’s a sci fi low budget and uses its framework and limits very well to tell a minimalist sci fi premise very well. …..no?

  9. Esoteric is not a rap on you…

    Reading my last post, I see how it came across as defensive, which is my bad. But really, there were two separate thoughts there, with my breakdown of your top ten just being a reaction to my surprise that I liked all the movies on your list.

    I guess I can see what you mean by “esoteric”, but it caught me off guard because I wasn’t really thinking of it like that. Six of the ten were released by studio dependents, and Bellflower (released by Oscilloscope) is as accessible as any film on the list even though I’d expect it to be pretty divisive. 3 and Certified Copy are both pretty much art films, I guess, although they’re both by internationally famous directors, with Tykver of course having done mainstream studio work (although not all that successfully). The Mill and the Cross is really the only film on the list that I’d consider esoteric, and even that stars Rutger Hauer.

    But to address your point, I don’t see how one can not be down on Hollywood. We all are, right?

    I didn’t mean in presentation…I meant, uh, like the same ‘type’ of movie? Where-in it’s a sci fi low budget and uses its framework and limits very well to tell a minimalist sci fi premise very well. …..no?

    Sleep Dealer is not a movie that I’d consider ‘minimalist’ in the sense that I mean. It had a low budget so the effects were terrible, but it was still structured like an action movie, with several sequences built around those effects. It had a big-budget mentality that simply ignored its low-budget limitations.

    I think a better comparison for what I mean would be something like Primer.

  10. Ah! Nice…got it. Thanks for explaining.
    I think I’d really like Another Earth…been wanting to see it, now I’d like to see it more.

  11. Only film I’ve seen of Brian’s list was ‘Beginners’, which was my favourite film of 2011. While the central romance had some flaws, for the reasons Brian argued it’s a highly impressive and intelligent film that stays in the memory that I would like to see again.

    I generally agree with Brian’s views on the Oscar slate end of year batch of movies. Most of them I quite liked (Hugo, The Artist, Tinker Tailor) but none of them I would consider A-Grade films.

    There were some pleasant surprises. After not taking to the original, I was pleasantly surprised by the Sherlock Holmes sequel which was better plotted and more interesting. And, believe it or not, I had a pretty good time with the Smurfs movie.

    Overall, I thought it was a reasonably solid year, with a fair few films in the good/very good region, but apart from ‘Beginners’ nothing that was really top-class.

  12. Beginners was one of my favourites too. I need to see quite a few of the others. Looking forward to Martha Marcy May Marlene.

  13. Marco, did you see A Separation? You really can’t gauge anything without the stunning framework of that movie to base anything else on to say nothing else was top class. This had a power to its filmmaking of which I’ve seen very few times.

  14. I’ve seen all ten on Brian’s list and would agree they’re all good to great. The best of the bunch are easily A Separation, Take Shelter, Martha Marcy, and Another Earth.

    Certified Copy and 3 are my two least favorites (from the list) though as I never found myself engaged in the characters or events.

    Others I really loved include The Kid With a Bike, Win Win, Headhunters, Drive, The Yellow Sea and Warrior.

  15. Another underrated film I thought was ‘Friends With Benefits’. Absolutely predictable in its narrative but generally good, breezy fun, especially in the first half, with two appealing central performances by Kunis and Timberlake.

  16. Wanted to acknowledge the Margin Call love, Slim.
    I feel like I pushed you towards that movie and finally got one right.

  17. Marco was right, and I’m shocked Friends With Benefits didn’t get a lot more attention than it did. It’s got a sharp script, great acting and it’s really enjoyable.
    Sure, it’s cliche, but the running Scully joke in the beginning sets the comedy tone nicely and Timberlake’s character’s homosexual undertones create great comedy fodder and Woody Harrelson is great.
    Mila Kunis is perfectly cast, I think.
    Great movie.

  18. I promised I’d look at the films I hadn’t seen on Brian’s list, and I start with 3. I liked it okay, but I wasn’t as awestruck as Brian was. For one thing, it reminded me of the old joke that one of the shortest books in the world was the German Book of Humor, because Tykwer basically takes a plot that is central to a farce and turns it into a musing on the circle of life, at both an artistic and cellular level. Are the Germans capable of making a good comedy? I can’t think of one. Anyway, I found it a bit pretentious, as the film is so overwhelmed with thematic choices that it sinks under its intellectual weight. I also was occasionally bored by it. I give it a B.

  19. For one thing, it reminded me of the old joke that one of the shortest books in the world was the German Book of Humor, because Tykwer basically takes a plot that is central to a farce and turns it into a musing on the circle of life, at both an artistic and cellular level.

    I just saw this comment while I was going through my spam email account. It seems like a weird complaint, in that I suppose it comes pretty close to explaining why I liked it – it took an ambitious, unconventional approach to what could have been a routine plot. But then, my family heritage is overwhelmingly German…

    Anyway, I’m glad and a little surprised that you were able to track it down. I see that Strand has released a DVD but no Blu-ray. Assholes.

  20. It’s in HD on Netflix streaming, though. I found it a little boring/unpleasant myself, but it’s easily Twkyer’s best film since Run Lola Run.

  21. I’d love to see what you thought of Perfume, Slim, and I REALLY need to find 3.

  22. This was my first Tykwer film. I didn’t see Perfume or Run, Lola, Run. You can get 3 from Netflix.

    And don’t get me wrong–I liked 3 overall. this snippet may come across harsher than I meant. My full review is on Go-Go-Rama.

  23. Oh, Slim, wait… Run Lola Run is so well contructed, but The Princess and the Warrior is one of my all-time faves. I’d like to know what you thought of that one, too.

  24. Perfume is the greatest….hands-down GREATEST WTF movie of all time. Even more than Tiptoes.

  25. Okay, I’m with you on Certified Copy, although I’m not sure what I just saw. As you say, there’s an unsolvable mystery at the core here, kind of like Michael Haneke’s Cache (interesting that both star Juliette Binoche). I think anyone who has a problem with his film is because the literal-minded part of the brain, that demands a tidy resolution, battles the part of the brain that allows us to color outside the lines. I’ll have a review up on my own blog about this, but I need several hours to think about it.

  26. Just saw Bellflower–pretty good. Certainly not a masterpiece, but it was fresh and interesting and unpredictable. I did think it was a bit overdirected, and I don’t know what happened at the end.

    Also, I’m a bit annoyed by movies like these about lowlifes who seem to have plenty of money for booze, cars, and drugs, but have no jobs. None of the characters seemed to have them. Could have used a little more verisimilitude.

  27. Glad to see you give it a “pretty good”, after the Another Earth debacle. I confess that I didn’t spend a second thinking about their employment – ever since Knocked Up, I just assume guys like that are living off an insurance settlement or something.

    filmman, have you seen Bellflower yet? Seems like a movie you have to see, whether you end up loving it or hating it.

  28. Okay, finally got to The Mill and the Cross. That’s a real Brian picture–slow moving, contemplative, inscrutable. It is interesting visually, and the best scenes are the ones in which Hauer explains the structure of the painting. But otherwise, I was kind of bored, and my mind kept wandering. I wasn’t sure what was going on–what did the guy do to be executed–he was a heretic, but how? Who was the guy who hung himself? I had trouble keeping everyone straight. And lastly, how did they get a windmill to the top of that rock crag? I guess I’m too literal-minded for stuff like this.

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