Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Top Ten Films of 2011

It may have been a dismal year for Hollywood, measured in box office receipts, but 2011 turned out to be a pretty good year for movies. Or, at least, for this moviegoer.

By "pretty good" I mean that I liked, but didn't love, almost everything I saw to at least some degree. I saw quite a lot of well-made, well-acted, engaging films, some of which suffered from the weight of expectations produced by too much advance buzz - a problem I noted last year that's only gotten worse, and is probably at least partly responsible for the large number of B+'s I handed out. Hence one of my minor new year's resolutions is to cut back drastically on reading about movies before I see them - or at least to refrain, once I know enough about a movie to want to see it, from reading anything further about that movie until after I've seen it.

Being spoiled by too much hype did, at least, make me appreciate even more keenly those films that actually exceeded my expectations. And it says something about the strength of this year that there were several such: my entire top five, particularly the top four, which doesn't even include a number of films I badly want to see but either missed in theaters or don't have access to yet (e.g., "Certified Copy," "Meek's Cutoff," "Margaret," "A Separation," "Coriolanus"). But equally tellingly, there's a rather sharp enthusiasm differential between the upper half and lower half of my top ten, and I'm not sure how much of that correlates with actual difference in quality.

With those caveats, here they are:


Very much a love-it-or-hate-it proposition, Terrence Malick's tone poem on the wonder and cruelty of life, the universe, and everything has been labeled incoherent, pretentious, self-indulgent, and absurd. It's all of these things. It's also radiantly beautiful and breathtakingly intimate: you can feel the director's soul in every frame.


Part dreamy Wong Kar Wai-ish mood piece, part ultraviolent sendup of gangster movies, this exquisitely shot little oddity seemed at first like all style and no substance. But Ryan Gosling's eyes, and the last shot of him driving, specter-like, still haunt me.


If you'd told me a year ago that a Lars von Trier film would be in my top ten, I'd have laughed in your face - and this was before his stupid Nazi jokes. Well, here we are, and what can I say: somehow, the director I loved to hate has managed to channel his mental issues into a mesmerizing tableau of depression that's transmuted by, of all things, an apocalypse - a grim joke that, amazingly, works. Special kudos to Kirsten Dunst for her stunning lead performance.


This lean, streamlined adaptation of a densely plotted John Le Carré novel stands out for how skillfully it evokes not just a specific time and place (principally 1970s London) but the general grayness and weariness that blurred the moral boundaries of Cold War espionage. The film also features a superb cast, headed by a wonderfully understated Gary Oldman as the drab but in no way dull hero. Everyone else is terrific, too; the movie's worth seeing for the acting ensemble alone.


You'd never be able to tell that this haunting, opaque film about a girl who joins and then flees a cult is writer-director Sean Durkin's first full-length feature. It has the fluidity and assurance of a far more experienced professional with a distinct artistic vision. Elizabeth Olson (younger sister to Mary Kate and Ashley), too, is a revelation as the troubled protagonist, who escapes one kind of prison only to find herself trapped in another.


Probably the most beautiful and least erotic movie about sex addiction ever made. I still think director Steve McQueen put too much distance between the audience and the main characters, that even wonderful performances by Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan can't quite bridge. But one unforgettable scene - in which Carey Mulligan sings "New York, New York" - makes up for nearly everything.


Rather like its protagonist, Alexander Payne's low-key Hawaiian dramedy is flawed, shambling, a bit clumsy, and takes a while to find its footing - yet has an underlying warmth and sensitivity that shines through. I found its leisurely pace and its focus on father-daughter dynamics refreshing, where others might find it dull or meandering. I liked its quietness. And I loved Shailene Woodley as the prickly yet loyal teenage daughter.


A fraternal twin of "Martha Marcy May Marlene" - this one centered on a troubled man rather than a troubled girl - with apocalyptic overtones that open it up to any number of sociological, psychological, and allegorical interpretations. Even if you don't buy into any of those, it's still a compellingly creepy little piece of modern American Gothic.


Werner Herzog + prehistoric cave art = irreplicable experience. Not Herzog's best work, but still hits all the right Herzogian notes, and uses 3D better than any film I've ever seen. You feel like you can almost reach out and touch those cave paintings, and not in that gimmicky, faintly unreal 3D way.

10. Tie: THE ARTIST and SUPER 8

They both pay homage to far superior films - or, to borrow a comment I read once about "Super 8" that applies equally to "The Artist," they're good movies that remind you of great ones. They're on this list because they did quite well what they sought to do, and, damn it, because they were fun. A little nostalgia goes a long way.


Blogger Alli M. said...

Last night I watched an hour of "Tree of Life" before I started having a physical and almost violent reaction to the self indulgent pretentious psycho babble that Terence Malick peddles as high art. I found your blog while looking for other moviegoer's reaction to this piece of dreck. Having read your list of Top 10, I have to ask, "do you actually go to the movies to be entertained or do you go so you can try to impress other people?!?" Your Top 10 list reads like a how to guide of how to talk like a pretentious movie reviewer who is completely out of touch with what it means to write and bother verbally and visually communicate a good story. You can worship at the alter of Terence Malick and Lars von Trier all you want. I'll be over here recommending my friends stay far, far away from their crap. I'm betting my friends are going to think me smarter for it!
*Oh, and before you chalk this up to me being some naive, under educated popcorn chomping Michael Bay loving imbecile, I thought Avatar was highly overrated, I used to work in Hollywood (and barely stayed awake through Terence Malick's last shartfest "The Thin Red Line") and was a proud art history major who studied the movies of Dali and Bunuel. That said, for my $, I like movies that actually try to entertain me.

9:47 AM  
Blogger lylee2 said...

LOL - considering "Star Wars: A New Hope," "The Empire Strikes Back," "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," "E.T.," and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are among my favorite films of all time, I think I can safely say I like my movies to be entertaining.

But I go to the movies not just to be entertained but to be *moved* - aesthetically and intellectually as well as emotionally - and the films that accomplish this are the ones that tend to make my top ten list. This year that happened to include films by Malick and von Trier - films that I found beautiful and that felt very personal in a way that struck a chord with me (and I might add, in a way that none of their previous films did). I concede they're not conventionally "entertaining," but for me they were better than that: they were riveting.

7:09 PM  

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