With best-of lists having trickled in since the start of the month, I've seen more than one critic alleging this year to be a particularly weak one for film. A great deal of this list contains films I watched after reading such statements, and I still couldn't believe the lunacy of those proclamations. I have known since September that I wouldn't be able to limit my selections to a mere 10 or even 15 picks, and the intervening months have given me such an embarrassment of riches that to even make a selection of 25 films feel constricting. Indeed, there are more than 10 other features that I shuffled around for days, more than willing to give them a spot on this list but unable to remove others. Admittedly, much of the Oscar bait fell flat, or succeeded in much smaller, human ways than the insipid, spoon-fed Academy crowd likes to honor. And yet, 2011 also featured more grand artistic statements than any year in recent history, sporting two films that potentially redefine the possibilities of the artform itself (and maybe even three, if, unlike me, you managed to see This Is Not a Film). And heck, one of the best of the year's films, Certified Copy, isn't even on my list, because I saw it last year and put it on that year-end round-up.
More than that, this year has been fun too. Oh, not with the summer blockbusters, which, with the exception of the surprisingly fine Captain America, were lifeless and dull. But this has been a great year to simply see great directors play in the sandbox, whether it was Gore Verbinski and Steven Spielberg playing around with animation to beautiful effect or David Fincher making something of a career summary out of an unnecessary remake or Martin Scorsese making a family film that reveled in the timeless ability of cinema to make us all kids. In fact, Scorsese actually made the best Spielberg film in a year where that director made two movies of his own! And no one made a movie half as playful as Raúl Ruiz, whose final release (but not final completed work, the prolific bugger) before his death sent him out in glorious style. Any way you slice it, 2011 ruled, and I can only feel pity for anyone who can't find at least a few items to love among these 25 excellent works of film.
25. Warrior (dir. Gavin O’Connor)
This unexpected triumph won me over instantly, and it’s only grown in my estimation since. Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton are heartbreaking as damaged, viciously estranged brothers each fighting in an MMA tournament for a cash prize that they each want for equally sympathetic reasons. This forces the viewer to actually appraise these characters, studying their flaws and their redeeming facets, rather than focusing simply on who wins. But more wrenching than either brother is the father who drove them to this state and now wants forgiveness more than both of them. Nick Nolte gives one of his best performances as a man trying to go straight and baffled to learn that, sometimes, that’s just not good enough. Nolte’s gravelly voice and lumbering frame has always made him imposing, and indeed he is still intimidating even when set against his muscle-hardened sons, but here he is devastating, a broken man who has placed himself beyond reconciliation. At times, Warrior generates such soul-emptying sorrow that one understands why these men would need to beat someone else to a pulp just to feel anything at all.
24. Rango (dir. Gore Verbinski)
Entire sequences of this film—see: the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene—work only as deflated pastiche, but Gore Verbinski’s Rango is a rousing liberation for a talented director who let things get out of hand on the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels but finds his groove again with even less attention to physics. Gorgeously animated with some surrealist touches scattered among the Western homages, Rango is also the best showcase Johnny Depp has had in a while, free to ham it up while finding more nuanced expression through a CGI chameleon’s face than, lately, his own. It might go over kids’ heads, what with its so-detailed-as-to-be-frightening character design and a plot ripped, of all things, from Chinatown, but Rango is so full of invention that it is better marketed to those who enjoyed the ambition of the Pirates films but wanted a more coherent story to go with them.
23. Attack the Block (dir. Joe Cornish)
Cornish’s feature debut isn’t quite so clever as it thinks it is, but its premise was one of the higher concepts of the year: aliens only ever seem to crash in Manhattan or, as Bill Hicks used to say, out in the middle of nowhere, but what if they landed in the ghetto? Well-shot and paced to be perhaps the most jot-inducing film since Sam Raimi went hog-wild with Drag Me to Hell, Attack the Block rarely moves through a scene without a jump scare, a laugh, or both. Even in the shots where everything grinds to a halt to deliver The Message are so corny as to seem deliberately hokey, though that might be the affection talking. Cornish’s film features fantastic performances from a cast of mostly unknown kids, and there are more stand-up-and-cheer moments in any one act than there are in any of the blockbusters that received a proper release this year.
22. Young Adult (dir. Jason Reitman)
Being anti-narrative doesn’t inherently make one clever, but the sheer savagery of Diablo Cody’s and Jason Reitman’s second collaboration is balanced out by its unmistakable recognition of humanity’s all-too-real inhumanity. More sociopathic and emotionally maladjusted than Lisbeth Salander, Charlize Theron’s Mavis unsuccessfully remakes the present into the past and will not see reason when her flimsy world collapses. Neither will Patton Oswalt’s daringly unsympathetic Matt, who further complicates the already confrontational decision to make a woman a rom-com anti-heroine and offers an equally unlikable (kind of) hate crime victim. Cody takes post-Office discomfort to its zenith, which you could be forgiven for mistaking for its nadir. Reitman wisely stays out of her way, perhaps out of fear. Who can blame him?
21. Drive (dir. Nicholas Winding Refn)
A throwback to early Michael Mann with the flecks of Mann’s later maturation sprinkled throughout, Refn’s Drive cites countless other films yet is never truly defined by its references. Boiling down the existentialist driver so much that even the existentialism evaporates, the film leaves a series of perfectly shot vignettes of emotional isolation and indentured servitude, where every character must constantly atone for someone else’s actions, or at least settle them. Calculated to the nth degree and occasionally held for so many beats that I wondered if the hard drive might have frozen, Drive nevertheless set me on edge more than nearly any modern thriller. Heck, I might have been even more stressed out with subsequent viewings. Drive makes for the perfect continuation of Valhalla Rising’s unsettling questions of man’s preternatural need for violence even as, by way of embracing the beauty of L.A. with the bad, moves beyond such fixations.
20. The Arbor (dir. Clio Barnard)
An unorthodox documentary that cuts the waffle of talking heads and reenactments by combining the two, The Arbor instantly transcends its gimmick to present a gorgeously shot rumination on a troubled artist’s life and the ripples of abuse and hardship emanating from it. Despite its florid, perfect cinematography (it could easily be mistaken for an Angela Arnold film), The Arbor makes for a more harrowing kitchen-sink drama than Paddy Considine’s more explicitly graphic Tyrannosaur. The most pessimistic, yet honest and necessary, documentary about art not always being enough to save the gifted but tormented since Crumb analyzed its subjects insane brothers.
19. A Dangerous Method (dir. David Cronenberg)
Cronenberg at last reverse engineers his gory body horror back to its purely psychoanalytic roots, making a film about Freud and Jung themselves as they meet and eventually fall out over the theories rising from a special case. A surprisingly talky picture for a Cronenberg film, A Dangerous Method nevertheless uses its classical form to probe around the characters and their inner demons, be it the wracking sexual desires of Sabina, the Jewish insecurity of Freud or the Oedipal aspirations of Jung to unseat the "father." Bright light fills the screen, reminding us that the world that looks so sunny and normal is populated with people struggling with their subconscious urges at all times. That's as true, if not more so, of the doctors engaging in this early form of mental treatment as their patients. As Jung said, in the film and in real life, only the wounded physician heals.
18. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (dir. David Fincher)
To some extent, all of David Fincher’s films are about alienation and isolation, going back to Ripley being left friendless in a religiously zealous, all-male prison colony in Alien 3 (another film about a strong but vulnerable woman forced to contend with misogyny and sexual abuse). The Girl With the Dragon is perhaps his most alienated yet, set on a frozen, secluded island and steeped in Mikael Blomkvist’s obsolescence (the film employs a more current distrust of all journalists than could be seen in the book) and Lisbeth Salander’s social incompetence. This is the second film in a row Fincher has toyed with the effects of a digital world, wherein an unprecedented level of connection only serves to separate us more than ever. And speaking of The Social Network, by the end of his detached layering of information, Fincher reveals Harriet Vanger herself to be just another legend, real but abstracted into an apocryphal cultural memory used to scare local children into behaving, not all that unlike the creation myths at work in "the Facebook movie." Fincher cannot overcome certain fundamental flaws, but the fact that he turns an author's ludicrous wish-fulfillment fantasy into something of a creative summary of his own work makes The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a marvel even beyond the level of its unexpected playfulness.
17. Poetry (dir. Lee Chang-dong)
Even if one didn’t know Lee Chang-dong was an author, the word “novelistic” would spring to mind for his elegant, wrenching movies. Poetry embodies its titular subject with a visual grace of composition that foregrounds the complex issues its protagonist must overcome while always rooting these stomach-turning situations in a world of calming beauty. Its finale, like poetry itself, alters reality by honoring it, by absorbing it until one passes through to the other side of limitless possibility where agony and ecstasy co-mingle. Even at its most troubling, Poetry is still affirming, powered by a low-key but profound performance by its lead and a mature evaluation of art as a means of escaping reality without simply ignoring it.
16. Take Shelter (dir. Jeff Nichols)
A character drama wrapped in psychological horror, Take Shelter is by turns frightening and devastating, driven by Michael Shannon’s agonized performance as a man aware of his madness but unable to control its effects on him. Nichols’ stark direction leaves gulfs of space around Shannon but makes everything feel small, as if all that area around the actor were just a solipsistic projection. I’m still thinking about the enigmatic coda, but it’s the climax, inside Curtis’ fortified shelter with his family, that stands as the most disturbing and wrenching scene of the year, an extended play of suspense, despair and crippling fear so wracking and claustrophobic that it cannot be walked off when exiting the theater.
15. The Descendants (dir. Alexander Payne)
If you can get past that tedious opening narration, which barely lasts a few minutes but feels like an hour’s worth of exposition, The Descendants undergoes a fast chrysalis into a beautiful, internal film that makes for one of America’s most subtly written and acted films about family, of dealing with the dead and dying as well as the living. Even when the characters dip back into expositional speech, they leave details unsaid that speak volumes, with George Clooney giving a beautifully old-school performance that restricts his pain to a few open expressions but leaves that overwhelming pain in his eyes for the audience to see on their own. Blessed with a dynamic supporting cast, Payne’s film occasionally falters but always regains its footing with the addition of a new voice or the closure of an old one.
14. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (dir. Tomas Alfredson)
Alfredson paints a huge canvas of proscenium-lined sets and big stakes, but nothing summarizes the film’s true tone like seeing the confining, secretive pods that house each spy within the gargantuan, spacious warehouses. These people work in a vast world but compartmentalize their tasks and, ultimately, themselves. Alfredson blends sex and politics, using strained, secretive relationships to capture the intense loneliness of this isolated life. Cold and reserved with a dense plot, Alfredson’s film nevertheless emerges the unlikeliest tearjerker of the year, its muted pains of personal and national betrayal mixed until an attack on the Crown becomes indistinguishable from a lover's unfaithfulness.
13. The Adventures of Tintin (dir. Steven Spielberg)
According to Hitchcock, Spielberg was the first director not to see the proscenium arch. Yet it takes a film like Tintin to show even the limitations of the filmmaker’s previous works. Physically impossible (and yet, logically sound, in an unexpected way), Tintin, like Rango and Fantastic Mr. Fox, demonstrates what happens with gifted live-action filmmakers turn to a format that offers them infinite possibilities. Action sequences unfold in epic scale and length, with the camera always moving in and out of various focal points as the frame collapses and reforms without cuts. The witty script by British heavyweights Wright, Moffat and Cornish is cheeky fun, but it takes a backseat to watching a great filmmaker simply having the time of his life. The exuberance is so infectious that all is forgiven for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
12. Another Year (dir. Mike Leigh)
Mike Leigh’s latest is one of his best, a character drama that strikes a human balance between his more miserable depictions of British life and the desperate joy of Happy-Go-Lucky. The married couple at the center of everything are so in love that their chemistry feels developed over decades, their unflappable kindness persevering even at the most stressful times. Then there’s Leslie Manville’s whirlwind performance as Mary, the alcoholic burnout who’s subconsciously given up on happiness and seeks to tear everyone else down to her level. It’s a terrifying, acutely real performance (we all know someone like Mary, and if you don’t, it’s because you’re that person) that impresses as much as the shifting photography that brings wildly different moods with each change of season.
11. Le Havre (dir. Aki Kaurismäki)
Kaurismäki’s tale of an old man helping an African immigrant on his way to London is hardly a stylistic change for the director, who continues to employ dry, even dehydrating wit and muted but precise visual schemes to match. But its tone is certainly far more optimistic than the usual fare, with Kaurismäki clearly looking at his scripted interactions not as his usual surreal scenario but as a model for proper, ethical human behavior in a global community. It’s still funny as hell and, as ever, there’s time for some rock ‘n roll, but Le Havre is an unexpectedly graceful film from one of the great comic writer-directors of our time.
10. The Strange Case of Angelica (dir. Manoel de Oliveira)
Protuguese maestro de Oliveira has lived so long that his own life doubles as an oral history of political and artistic evolution of the 20th century, and The Strange Case of Angelica makes for a summary for the now 103-year-old. Returning to his home region, the director fears for the passing of the ways of life he remembers and the rising of new issues, be they global warming or mere industrialization. His hope for escape comes in the form of a young, dead aristocrat, who visits the young but old-fashioned protagonist in reveries that seem to have come from silent film. Every shot is its own tableau vivant, enshrining the people of the film with an immortality the director thinks will outlive us all.
9. Hugo (dir. Martin Scorsese)
Derided by some as nothing more than a $150-million advertisement for Scorsese’s various film preservation projects, Hugo instead presents a love of art (literature is mentioned as often as movies) as a redeeming force for broken, lonely people. Tying 3D to the cinema’s beginnings as a kitschy curiosity limited only by its makers’ imaginations, Hugo finds a balance between old and new that makes both more exciting, tangible and affecting. The unfortunate use of blue/teal color schemes aside, the cinematography is crisp and meticulously calculated to explore both the advantages and drawbacks of 3D, and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing gets to be more playful than usual, her unfailing abilities used here to create wonder and giddiness rather than tension. This project is so unlike Scorsese’s usual stuff, yet few of his films more wholly capture who he is as a filmmaker and a person.
8. A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi)
The best-written film of the year by a mile, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation explores the stubbornness, the deflected responsibilities, and the weighty lies people tell to maintain a sense of comfort and order that speak to universal human behavior. No one is evil in this film, but everyone is guilty, and they all know it too. That’s why no one will apologize for anything; it would be a sign of weakness for the rest, all ready to pounce on the first to turn his or her back on the pride. Even the film’s denying last shot constitutes an act of selfishness on behalf of the one character who previously had shown none. If this sounds like a cynical film, it isn’t, but its view of the lies we tell ourselves and others to feel superior is nevertheless unsparing.
7. The Skin I Live In (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
Almodóvar has played with Hitchcockian ideas and shots before, but The Skin I Live In strikes me as perhaps the boldest step forward with gender identity and brutalized norms in film since Vertigo. Both films are, in essence, about a madman’s attempt to remake the living into a facsimile of a dead lover, but Almodóvar’s twist takes the gender commentary even further, and it proves one of the most shocking touches in a career largely defined by unabashed effrontery. It’s also a perfectly constructed film, so fluid it never becomes clear you’re watching a horror-thriller until some new revelation creates a sinking feeling in the stomach.
6. Melancholia (dir. Lars von Trier)
Lord knows how, but Lars von Trier made his most honest movie out of his most self-aggrandizing. Split into two distinct halves, one a Dogme-esque beourgeois satire, the other an epic acceptance of the apocalypse in response to such stultifying life, Melancholia holds together by the power of Kirsten Dunst’s performance. The endothermic core to every tortured woman in von Trier’s filmography, Dunst’s Justine is not the put-upon sufferer but the void of suffering itself, so vast and dense that she can draw a hidden planet to Earth with her own gravitational pull. Both she and von Trier present one of the most accurate, recognizable portraits of introverted depression put on screen, even as they work on a massive canvas.
5. Meek’s Cutoff (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
The un-ending will infuriate many, but I continue to hold Meek’s Cutoff as the finest anti-Western since Dead Man, and the purgatorial wandering to that film’s pure hell. The wandering souls move across parched Northern plains and rocks in an increasingly desperate search for food and water, and the native they capture may well be leading them to their doom as vengeance. Reichardt’s intimate neorealist/quasi-mumblecore trappings proved the perfect background for an unromantic period piece, the weathered cinematography and agonizingly long takes having the look of being coated in dust. A taxing film, but also one from which I could never avert my eyes.
4. Mysteries of Lisbon (dir. Raúl Ruiz)
Ruiz’s penultimate film is a triumph of directing qua direction, with the camera utterly uninhibited as it elegantly, but puckishly, passes through various tales that subvert its narrative bildungsroman further and further with each new tangent. At four-and-a-half hours, it feels a third the length, with Ruiz’s chiaroscuro tableaux and his ever-wry camera placement such a visual feast that the hours whizz by. But even for all the self-aware artiness of it all, Mysteries of Lisbon gently, empathetically tackles weighty themes of inherited sin, doomed romance, a lack of filial and national identity, and more. The prolific Ruiz managed to complete one film after this and start on a second, but even to a neophyte, Mysteries feels like a grand, gorgeous summary.
3. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul has topped himself so many times now that I cannot even bring myself to call this film his masterpiece in spite of its supreme aesthetic grace and its rich thematic commentary. A Buddhist rite of passage for film stock to Inglourious Basterds’ Viking funeral, Uncle Boonmee uses its protagonist’s lives as an excuse to pay tribute to Thai film history, as well as to look ahead to the unknown, scary but potentially rewarding digital frontier. The film also expands the boundaries Joe previously set for himself in nearly every respect, from thematic ambition to structural experimentation. Joe looks upon the death of film, as of Boonmee, with somber regret, but in the film’s enigmatic but mystifying coda, he looks forward to the next stage, tacitly accepting digital as but the next incarnation of cinema.
2. Film Socialisme (dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
Jean-Luc Godard’s latest is surely one of the most divisive releases of the last few years, its fragmentary “narrative” and even aesthetic sure to piss off more people than it attracts. But even as someone who still has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to Godard, I was fascinated by the film, even when I was frustrated with it. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her showed Godard trying to find a socialist aesthetic, one that did not privilege any one narrative or shot pattern, and Film Socialisme seems its endpoint, where the film itself is given to everyone. An unexpected companion piece to David Fincher’s mainstream remake of a bestseller, the film digs into Godard’s long-running desire to make a path for cinema to unite the world by despairing that the increased ubiquity of methods of recording and documentation have only further distanced people. But that only makes Godard try harder to find a new kind of film, and his experimentation here is as poetically resonant as it is challenging. Indeed, for all the intellectualism of the obscure references (what narrative there is depends on an apocryphal myth told to the director by Jacques Tati) and challenging construction, the film is deeply, almost painfully beautiful at times, with the civil war between a shot’s image and sound as vicious, radical, forging, and hopelessly sad as the conflicts Godard routinely references. At 80 years old, Godard can still push the boundaries of possibility, not just of his own craft but cinema as a whole.
1. The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick)
Malick’s magnum opus collects the pieces of a sparse but rich 40-year career into a summarizing collage of autobiography and cosmology. Yet the grandeur of its images and the minutely remembered suburban, postwar Texas only serve to make the director’s vision more tactile and intimate, and I can think of no film ever to make me feel as if I were watching my own memories when nothing in it comes close to my time period. Malick’s Joycean construction eschews clarity of speech, action and thought, yet few films are as lucid and instantly understandable, even if the meaning drawn from its direct appeal is different for each viewer. No film has ever affected me as strongly, or in so deeply personal a way.
Other films I loved (no order): The Interrupters (Steve James), Somewhere (Sofia Coppola), Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson), The Woman (Lucky McKee), 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike), The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (David Yates), Hanna (Joe Wright), Beginners (Mike Mills), Weekend (Andrew Haigh), Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Mundean), Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
Update: To see a ranked list of all the films I saw this year, check out this post I made at MUBI.