The idea of a year-end, top 10 list being anything resembling authoritative is a fundamentally silly one—while there are (and always will be) those who beg to differ, it's not that hard to come up with a consensus of the films that are well-made, engaging, entertaining, etc., which is why you see so many of the same movies on so many year-end lists, critics awards press releases, and Oscar nomination prognostications. Where it gets personal, specific, and thus debatable is in what one viewer finds separates certain films from the established pack of "well-made films, " because that's where everything from pre-identified preferences to the movie-goer's mood at the time of viewing to the persistent whispering of some jackass in the seat behind you comes into play. The easiest part of the list that follows was the "honorable mention" section—those are good movies, and there is a fair amount of agreement on that. The titles in the top ten are ones that, for whatever reason, spoke to me more loudly, more urgently, and with greater force. The reasons vary, and I'll do my best to explicate them.
THE TEN BEST FILMS OF 2011
I'm not sure why Steven Soderbergh's all-star killer-virus thriller struck such a chord with me back in September; he modeled it after Irwin Allen movies, for God's sake. But there's a perfection to its cold, clear-eyed view of what, yes, it seems like a global pandemic would look like, and in the way Soderbergh tells the busy story with a fast efficiency that mirrors the infection at is center. It's a hard, frightening movie with little use for sentiment—until the penultimate scene, with a moment of emotion that lands like a punch in the gut, and propels the viewer into a closing sequence that is an absolute jaw-dropper. This is a modest movie; unlike Spielberg slopping up the hoary melodrama of War Horse, or Daldry exploiting our 9/11 memories in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Soderbergh wasn't trying to make the best movie of the year. He just did.
2. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Writer/director Sean Durkin's impressive debut feature uses elegant transitions, knockout photography, and a towering lead performance by Elizabeth Olsen to tell two interlocking stories of a woman being pulled into, and pushing herself away from, a smiling commune that begins to look more and more like a dangerous cult. It's a quiet movie, but an exceedingly unsettling one.
Anxious, convincing, unnerving cinema from director Lars von Trier, who here takes on nothing less than the end of the world. Kirsten Dunst won a richly-deserved Best Actress award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for her peerless performance as a clinically depressed young bride, while co-star Charlotte Gainsbourg beautifully conveys the hopelessness and despair of trying to get through to someone who is, well, filled with hopelessness and despair. Yes, von Trier is a pain in the ass, but he remains a major talent, and Melancholia is his best work in a decade.
Mike Mills's low-key, unassuming comedy/drama transcends its cutesy storyline (and all-but-assured twee underpinnings) and assembles itself, right there in front of us, into something of a movie miracle—a film that's emotional yet genuine, romantic yet realistic, and sweet yet grounded. It's a nimble, charming, funny little movie, and writer/director Mills somehow does everything in it at once, yet makes it all seem absolutely effortless.
5. The Adjustment Bureau
Hollywood clearly can make movies like The Adjustment Bureau, and that's why it's so depressing that they so seldom do. For here is a film that is clever, thoughtful, and intelligent—in addition to being snazzy, sparkly, funny, exciting, and romantic. It is a good old-fashioned entertainment, yet is simultaneously provocative and ambitious. Director George Nolfi (adapting a Philip K. Dick story) takes big risks—this is not a timid picture. But it is a richly rewarding one.
The news that Martin Scorsese was squandering his considerable gifts on a 3-D kiddie movie was disheartening indeed—until one got a look at the utterly delightful final product, which is not only tremendous fun, but pulses with its creator's love for the cinema as none of his non-documentary films have. Like Wes Anderson in The Fantastic Mr. Fox or Spike Jonze in Where the Wild Things Are, Scorsese is not slumming in his "family film," but allowing the engagement with a childlike point of view to push him into new territory as a filmmaker. What a magical movie this is.
7. Young Adult
It is easy to imagine, in lesser hands, what an obvious, cartoonish effort this tale of a queen bee's home-wrecking homecoming could have been; this is the kind of shrill, half-assed comedy that Jennifer Aniston or Katherine Heigl could do in their sleep. But this is not an obvious movie, or an easy one. Director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody see the easy jokes, the pat conflicts and expected payoffs, and decide to bypass them. In doing so, they discover something infinitely more interesting, and convey substantially more truth. Young Adult sounds utterly trite and predictable, but the laughs stick in your throat.
Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn crafts a dark, brutal, wildly unpredictable slab of nihilistic cinema that is filled with homages and echoes yet is its own fierce, savage beast. With the picture's wild tonal shifts and blood-spattered back half, Refn approaches the line of self-parody, but miraculously doesn't cross it. Some audiences (and even some critics) loathed it, but at the end of a long summer of B-level superheroes and 3-D Transformers, its twisted energy and what-the-fuck brilliance was refreshing indeed.
9. A Separation
The opening scene of Asghar Farhadi's A Separation finds Simin (Leila Hatami) and her husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) in front of a judge, asking for him to grant their divorce. The lengthy and difficult dialogue scene is played in one unbroken take, directly into the camera, which is subjectively placed in the position of the third person in the room—the camera as "judge." But what is so remarkable about A Separation is that, for the rest of the film, Farhadi refuses to allow his camera to judge his characters. It just observes, and sees every character with empathy. It's a complicated and challenging picture—yet one that engages the viewer with a fierce urgency seldom seen in today's cinema.
10. The Muppets
Simply put, no film prompted a more heartfelt emotional response from this writer in 2011 than director James Bobin and writers Jason Segal and Nicholas Stoller's revitalization of Jim Henson's beloved Muppets gang. Reunions abound in it—not just of the audience with the characters, but the characters with each other, working up pathos and gooseflesh that quickly pass from Gen-X nostalgia into earned affection. The Muppets understands its titular characters—what they meant to us, what they taught us, and how they made us feel. What's more, it proves that they can still take us to those places; it's an unabashedly happy picture, as sweet and lovable at Kermit and the gang.
And then there are the runners-up—terrific films all, and ones that easily could have made the list above.
HONORABLE MENTION: 50/50, The Descendants, The Future, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Guard, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 2, Margin Call, Meek's Cutoff, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, Pariah, Red State, Shame, Source Code, Submarine, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Trust.
The custom, normally, is to incorporate all films into one's top ten list, lest we start separating out styles and genres and just making a mess of everything. But I honestly feel that 2011 was such a banner year for documentaries, with so many great ones to choose from (and, frankly, so many that I still haven't seen—I'm getting to Senna, I promise!), that it was worth shining an individual spotlight on the film's finest achievements in non-fiction film.
THE TEN BEST DOCUMENTARIES OF 2011
1. Catching Hell
No single entity is producing more great documentaries these days than ESPN Films, and no filmmaker is directing more great documentaries than Alex Gibney, so it should come as no surprise that their collaboration, Catching Hell, is so utterly compelling—a potent stew of everything that is great about both parties. The primary subject is Steve Bartman, the Chicago Cubs fan who became an object of the city's derision when he reached for a foul ball in game six of the 2003 National League championship and screwed up a potential easy out. But the real subject is the psychology of fandom: Why do we get so invested in these teams, in these games? Why do they mean so much? And when those teams fail, what determines where we place the blame? Gibney's thoughtful mediation on those questions is thrilling, eye-opening documentary filmmaking.
2. Project Nim
Man on Wire director James Marsh and producer Simon Chinn reunite to tell the riveting story of Nim the Chimp, one full of stranger-than-fiction twists and colorful characters. Suffice it to say that what happens to Nim is authentically shocking, and it's a testament to the power of the picture that we're so upset, so affected by the events it recounts. Silly as it may be to say, we feel like we actually know this chimp; we feel for him, because we've gone on a journey with him. This is a tricky tale, full of pitfalls and trap doors for lesser filmmakers. Marsh and Chinn bring it off without a hitch.
3. Bombay Beach
Alma Har'el's gentle, fascinating picture mixes documentary naturalism and observation with artful peculiarity and an offhandedly surreal voice. She has a cockeyed way of framing and capturing events that gives them an oddball, almost Lynchian quality; her camera is capturing rather startling poverty, and the camera dances right up to the edge of fetishizing that poverty, but it never takes the plunge. This is an extraordinary film, stylish yet true.
4. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest
In its breathless play-by-play of the inner turmoil of the groundbreaking rap group, director Michael Rapaport has made something akin to a hip-hop Let It Be, but the gossipy Tip-said/Phife-said stuff is far from the film's primary attraction. Rapaport assembles a remarkable group of artists to comment on the Tribe, those they influenced and those who influenced them, discussing with keen insight exactly what it was that made the group so fresh and new. The picture taps into the excitement of their moment in hip-hop music and hip-hop culture; it remembers what it is to crouch near your tape deck ready to hit pause when a good jam comes on. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is a breathlessly entertaining movie; it moves quickly and nimbly, conjuring up a wonderful moment and letting us enjoy it one more time.
5. Corman's World
Few films this year better captured the sheer joy of cinema than Alex Stapleton's motor-revving documentary profile of low-budget legend Roger Corman. Corman wasn't a serious filmmaker, but Corman's World takes him seriously—as an exploiter, and as an artist, and often as both simultaneously. Filled with hilarious clips and marvelous stories from a who's-who of 1970s Hollywood, it's a divine picture, pure pleasure; it makes you want to go out and make movies.
HONORABLE MENTION: Into the Abyss, The Interrupters, Limelight, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Pina, The Swell Season, Tabloid.
THE YEAR'S WORST MOVIE: No film this year was more painful to sit through than Garry Marshall's cliché-ridden all-star clusterfuck New Year's Eve. But don't discount the RUNNERS-UP: Footloose, Restless, Hall Pass, Stay Cool, Sucker Punch, Vanishing on 7th Street, and The Rite.
And mention must be made of at least some of the brilliant acting on screen this year; there were so many spellbinding performances to choose from, and (for once), there were more of them for women than for men. Here's hoping that's a trend that'll last longer than 3D or superhero movies.
GREATISH PERFORMANCES: Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene; Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia; Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; George Clooney and Shailene Woodley, The Descendants; Charlize Theron, Young Adult; Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn; Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller, We Need to Talk About Kevin; Michael Fassbender, Shame and A Dangerous Method; Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus; Albert Brooks, Drive; Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Ides of March and Moneyball; Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, Margin Call.