10 Best Films of 2011

For the year 2010, I did not create a list of my Top 10 films until midway through the following year. I rationalized this decision by saying that, as a part-time film critic, I hadn’t had the opportunity to see all of the films that had been on offer when December was coming to a close. I thought that by the middle of the next year, I would have utilized the extra time to catch up – but alas, there were still titles I’d foregone by June and so I had to slap together the best list I could manage. I’m older now, wiser, and I realize that Top 10 lists are more likely to be exciting in the heat of the moment rather than several months down the line. So although there are a ton of movies I’ve yet to see from 2011 – including The Artist, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, War Horse, The Descendants and Shame, just to name a few – I’m putting together my list now. These may not be the ten best films that were released in 2011, but they’re the ten best I’ve seen to date.

Enough jibber-jabber, let’s get on with it. In a carefully constructed, cross-referenced, thoroughly planned and – dare I say? – shockingly specific order, here are the 10 Best films I’ve seen from the year 2011.

#10 – Melancholia

I’ve seen five of director Lars Von Trier’s films now, and as I told my wife after viewing his latest, the man’s work is usually something I admire more than I like. I can’t say that that is any different with this outing, but it’s still something kind of incredible. After a breathtaking and dream-like opening montage – the kind that immediately tells you whether or not you’re likely to enjoy the rest of the film – we see a chaotic wedding party for the severely depressed Justine (Dunst). Von Trier captures her crippling depression in a remarkably realistic way, and when the film turns to a low-key science fiction nightmare later on, the transition is seamless. With some gorgeous cinematography, a tight sense of developing dread, and a climax that will leave viewers gripping the armrests, Melancholia is Von Trier at his best. After the absurdist cackling of his last outing, Antichrist, it’s good to see the director rein in his vision toward something more palatable. It’s a tale that meshes out-sized end-of-the-world machinations with the simple human struggles faced by all of us, and whether you interpret Melancholia (a planet that was “hiding behind the sun”) as a legitimate threat or largely metaphor, the weight of the final act is not lessened. Though it’s ostensibly about depression, knowing films like this can still be made and released is a great pleasure.

#9 – The Perfect Host

Let’s not labor under false pretense – The Perfect Host exists for little reason other than to mix up a bunch of wild twists and see what comes out. While some see that freewheeling feeling as a miss on the movie’s part, I see the freedom of not caring what happens next as a grin-inducing joy. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the film is anchored by David Hyde Pierce (of “Frasier” fame), in a deliriously wacky role that makes a strong case for him being given lead roles like this more often. With gleeful abandon, Pierce throws himself into the role of a psychotic man who tortures the bank robber who accidentally shows up at his door. The torture is largely just a matter of being part of Pierce’s increasingly elaborate dinner party. But the less you know about the film, the better. Just know that there is only one word that can be used to adequately summarize its style: weird. It’s a film which revels in being absurd, though it manages to retain a tinge of the horror genre that a simpler plot synopsis might tend to draw focus toward. It’s a movie with a sugar-rush of energy. Even if it doesn’t go anywhere, or sails off of the cliff of reason early on, it’s that go-for-broke energy that saves it. If the movie wasn’t so excited about its unlimited possibilities, it would be hard for the viewer to be.

#8 – The Arbor

I love documentaries.

My first draft included four of them in my Top 10 (but I narrowed it down to three). There’s so much that you can do in the genre that it’s becoming almost unfair to throw them all under the same label. Take Clio Barnard’s thrilling look at the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar and her family, for instance. Barnard takes the audio of her interview subjects and uses paid actors lip-synching to the words for a distinctive effect. When the subjects talk about a bar where Dunbar used to spend her free time, the actor can be in the bar, decades in the past, watching the writer drinking her sorrows away. A stunning scene early in the film has Dunbar’s two daughters describing a time when they were locked in a bedroom while a fire grew on their mattress. The actresses stand perfectly still, eyes locked on the camera, alternating descriptions of the memory as flames rise behind them. Years ago, documentary purists claimed that Errol Morris’ recreations in The Thin Blue Line were diluting the genre. In actuality, it opened the door for increasingly experimental and beautifully artistic works such as this. There are no rules to this game anymore; there is only life.

#7 – Immortals

I don’t deny that Immortals is the weakest of director Tarsem Singh’s three directorial efforts to date (the trailers for his upcoming Mirror, Mirror seem to suggest that it won’t be for long). But even the weakest of Singh’s work is head and shoulders above the competition. As we’ve rightly come to expect after the utterly mind-blowing imagery of The Cell and the fluid magic of The Fall, Singh has an eye for incredible images even when his tendency toward the fantastical is reigned in by a studio that is insistent on selling the finished work as an unofficial sequel to 300. This film isn’t even in the same league as 300. There are countless scenes here which seem lifted straight from Michelangelo’s paintbrush, and even simpler shots are composed with an eye toward contrasting textures and color. One-upping the now cliche “slow-motion turning quickly to fast-motion” effect of the movie it apes, Immortals has gods moving at incredible speed until they are felled, at which point their lifeless bodies move within the confines of the laws of physics. It makes for some incredible battle sequences, and even though the story could use a lot of work there are some unforgettable visions to behold here. Tarsem will never match his debut masterpiece, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun watching him try.

#6 – Tabloid

Did I mention how much I love documentaries?

The blame for that can almost entirely be placed on the shoulders of Errol Morris, whose brilliant meditation on life, the universe and everything in Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control showed me that honest, unedited perspective from human beings aided by thoughtful editing from a great filmmaker can make for something extraordinary. While Tabloid doesn’t reach those same highs, Morris is nevertheless still at the top of his game here. Telling the story of Joyce McKinney, accused of kidnapping and raping her Mormon boyfriend in the late ’70s, Morris usurps his subject’s concept of how her story should be told in order to focus on an idea that’s been his pet project for years now: the truth of photographs, the fallacy of individual perspective. Of course, Morris accentuates this with kinetic editing that flashes tabloid headlines on the screen at the most opportune times – making for a film that is not only thought-provoking, but also very funny and with a twist that would be shocking even in a fiction film. Like Tarsem, even a “lesser” work from Morris (if there even is such a thing) is an amazing experience.

#5 – Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is one of the director’s most accessible works, a strange thing to say about a film which chronicles the history of the Earth from its conception and ends with its characters stumbling through a strange, mostly silent sand-strewn afterlife. For taking on such immense themes, the film is shockingly personal. A great length of time in the movie involves a typical American couple as they play with their children, and then watches those children grow up and experience the happiness and pain and embarrassment and fear that life is full of. Even with great performances from Brad Pitt and new-comer Jessica Chastain, there’s no question that the film can feel stuck in neutral at times. But that lazy paddle through time and memories is exactly what the film is trying to capture, and it does it well. Though life is punctuated by explosions and arguments, most of time is spent breathing, sleeping, flames flickering. It’s a movie about the brevity of life and the expanse of the universe. It’s a movie which builds endlessly, forming into a shimmering image that the viewer is left to interpret. Does that sound pretentious? Maybe it is, but if it touches you in the way it’s meant to, don’t be surprised if you have to remind yourself to breathe.

#4 – Rise of the Planet of the Apes

One of the best surprises of the summer came in the form of a prequel to The Planet of the Apes, directed by a relatively unknown filmmaker (Rupert Wyatt) yet positioned as an action-packed blockbuster. It is an action-packed thrill ride, but there’s a stunning emotional depth to the plot as well, as we follow a chimp named Caesar who gains and eventually surpasses his human captors in intelligence. Where others might take this story and turn it into a simple tale of revolt, Wyatt’s film recognizes how much drama is packed into this massive shift in an animal’s demeanor. The free-for-all that caps the film is a captivating sight, certainly, but smaller moments such as when an embittered Caesar refuses to leave his “prison” after being left there by a man he thought of previously as his friend, those are where the real magic lies. And because we get a sense of who Caesar is as a character, it makes his eventual uprising not the stuff of monster movies but instead something that we the audience can really rally behind. He’s a hero. We empathize with his troubles, perhaps even more than we did when Charlton Heston was in almost the exact same place. With nothing from Christopher Nolan this summer, it’s wonderful to see someone else taking up the mantle of the summer blockbuster that has a brain.

#3 – The Interrupters

Steve James’ Hoop Dreams is widely considered one of the best documentaries ever made. He had a lot to live up to with The Interrupters and largely manages to meet those expectations. If you’ll permit me to quote myself, I wrote this in my review: “Once again, the movie feels perfect.” James has a much more traditional bent to his work, chronicling the lives of his subjects by following them around and listening to their stories. He hunkers down on the front lines (here, the deadly streets of Chicago) with his subjects so he can really see what it’s like to walk in their shoes, and gets incredible footage because of it. Over the course of a year, he shows the hardships and struggles that violence interrupters – people who attempt to talk others out of committing violent crimes – carry with them all of the time. You have to really dedicate yourself to the job, you have to dedicate yourself to the people you’re trying to save; sometimes it results in life-affirming transformations, but other times there’s little left but to gather yourself up and move on with the knowledge that you’ve tried your best. The Interrupters doesn’t whitewash any of it the pain, however, and he manages to glean profundities out of his subjects’ thoughts and actions with seeming ease. It’s a moving, perfectly constructed work of genius.

#2 – Take Shelter

I was so taken by director Jeff Nichols’ debut feature Shotgun Stories that my excitement for his follow-up was mixed with nervous reservations. After the sharp decline in quality that the work of Nichols’ mentor David Gordon Green has taken, it would be easy to imagine his debut as a fluke. Instead, Take Shelter is equally masterful – if not more so. Led by another amazing performance by Michael Shannon, it’s the story of a man who is slowly losing his mind and knows it, doing what he can to brace himself and his family for the inevitable. His wife (Jessica Chastain) is unlike most cinematic wives in that she sticks close to him even as things grow worse. No, especially as things get worse. Their incredible bond gives deeper meaning to the title, but the film is aided by a hauntingly beautiful score that blends spectacularly with the images on-screen, stupendous cinematography, tasteful and appropriate use of special effects, and striking choices in the editing bay. It’s the film equivalent of a fist pounding down on a table with determination, declaring Jeff Nichols as a true artist. He was one of the filmmakers I was most excited to see more from, now he’s become firmly cemented as one of my favorite directors. How much longer must I wait to see his third film, Mud? Whatever the answer, it’s far too long.

#1 – Rubber

The most engrossing film of the year, to me, was director Quentin Dupieux’s twisted Rubber. The trailer pitches the film as a B-movie about a killer tire. To be honest, it kind of is, but it’s so much more than that. When introduced to the tire (named Robert), we watch it being born. The camera watches with a loving gentleness as the tire slowly shudders its way out of the sand, rising up and rolling along a little before falling down again. The tire is learning to move. As a character says later in the film, “Amazing. This is the first time I’ve identified with a tire.”

If that weren’t enough, the story is housed in a confusingly self-referential shell, wherein a group of “viewers” watch the movie with binoculars from out in the desert; but then they begin interacting with the story proper and the “actors” grow increasingly tired of appearing in a movie that they all see as absurd, yet as long as the viewers continue to tune in they have little choice but to continue. It’s an often hilarious movie, as when one actor pulls his lines out of his pocket, exhaustedly stating, “Oh my god. The killer is a tire.” This is not the way it’s supposed to go down. Dupieux’s filmmaking reminds me of a far more cheery Gaspar Noe (a great compliment, coming from a Noe enthusiast such as myself) and the score by Mr. Oizo is almost worth the cost of admission on its own. It’s a hyper-intelligent guilty pleasure, remarkable in so many different ways. It plays with the very fabric of existence, in that way eclipsing all of the other films on this list. Rubber is the only film from 2011 for which I’ve awarded five stars and I don’t regret that for an instant.

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