Lists of this kind are really only useful for generating arguments. I've labeled this post "The Best Films of 2011," and I'm fairly arrogant in my opinions, but even I recognize that an arbitrary list of films, assembled according to criteria I would not be able to fully explain, is not definitive.
For one thing, I haven't seen everything. Every year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science generates an official "reminder list" of productions that are eligible for consideration in the main categories at the Oscars: there are 262 films on this year's list, and that doesn't even include documentaries. I managed to see just over 60 of those films, and have reviewed fewer than 30 since I began this site in April. (What can I say? I slacked off on my day job as much as I dared.)
I am perfectly comfortable with most of the unchecked boxes on my list—I don't feel a burning need to catch up with Transformers: Dark of the Moon or Mr. Popper's Penguins any time soon—but there are others I'm dying to see (A Separation) or kicking myself for missing when they played here (Take Shelter). One of my favorite critics, Mark Kermode, recently named We Need to Talk About Kevin as his film of the year, and—except for two screenings at the Chicago International Film Festival in October—that hasn't even opened here. I suspect a few items would shift if I were to compile this list a month from now.
And since I expect to take some flack for the selections (and their order), let me also add that I tend to judge every movie based on two things: 1) whether it achieves what it sets out to do; and 2) whether it moves me, transports me, or otherwise provides a powerful filmgoing experience. It's a truth universally acknowledged that a treacly pop song may speak to you more than a symphony, and the same is true with movies: an efficient low-budget horror movie, or a well-executed popcorn thriller, may achieve its goals better than a "worthier" art-house picture. (For example, using two films that aren't on my list—I would argue that the silly but surprisingly fun Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a better picture than the more serious—and more seriously flawed—Shame.)
So let's agree to call this list what it is: a highly subjective, necessarily limited, soon-to-be-revised list of what have been, to date, my 15 best film experiences of 2011.
15. The Artist
I suspect people will be surprised to see The Artist finishing so low on my list, but—to be completely honest—I feel a little like I'm bowing to peer pressure by putting it on the list at all. It's a charming, entertaining, well-made movie, but its charms lie almost entirely in its format, not its substance. My guess is that a lot of the people who are embracing The Artist in such large numbers have never really watched a silent movie before, and so have been startled and moved by the active emotional engagement such a film evokes. Compared against other great silent films, The Artist is not a masterpiece: director Michel Hazanavicius understands the cinematic language of the form, but neither the story nor the visuals are anywhere near as imaginative—or as effective—as the great films of the era it evokes. Likewise, star Jean Dujardin acquits himself well, but lacks the coiled energy and inventiveness of a Douglas Fairbanks (the character's closest approximation).
So why is it on my list? Because it is a fun, clever movie, and an audacious, largely successful experiment. (Ludovic Bource's score—and music obviously does so much of the narrative work in a silent movie—is marvelous.) The Artist is ultimately a novelty item, but it's a good one. Hazanavicius reminds us that movies were once a whole different art-form, one that was neither primitive nor inferior but knew tricks and offered pleasures that we've largely forgotten.
14. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
As a stand-alone movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 inherited all the same problems of J.K. Rowling's novel, including too much last-minute exposition and a seemingly endless series of big fight scenes that don't allow for the small emotional moments that make the entire story worthwhile. But as the surprisingly satisfying final chapter to the most successful film franchise in history, HP7.2 got just about everything right: it was a genuinely epic climax that stayed faithful to the books, delivered on eight films worth of stakes, and gave nearly all the characters their due. If you think about how hard that is to do—and how badly it's been done elsewhere—this starts to seem like a truly remarkable accomplishment by director David Yates. (Let me put it another way: imagine if the franchise's original director—über-hack Chris Columbus—had directed all eight installments. Now how good does Yates's film look?) And yes—though tent-pole movies like this seldom get any acting awards—Alan Rickman deserves a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Read my full review here.
"It's hard not to be romantic about baseball," says Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the central character of Bennett Miller's Moneyball. Visually and narratively lyrical, steeped in mythology and superstition, and a perfect balance between individual heroics and team effort, it is certainly true that no sport translates so well to the romance of the movies. However, to make an effective film from some of the least romantic aspects of the game—statistics and payrolls, for example—requires real brains and heart, and Moneyball has both. Though necessarily oversimplifying (and taking some dramatic license with) Michael Lewis's 2003 non-fiction bestseller, Moneyball manages to deal with the cynical realities of baseball—like the grossly uneven financial playing field—without ever forgetting that it's still a game of underdogs and dreamers, reliant on luck and faith as much as math and money. Boasting a crisp, intelligent screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, and featuring a strong, understated lead performance from Brad Pitt, Moneyball is a smart movie about business, a fascinating character study, and, yes, one of the best baseball movies of all time.
12. Meek's Cutoff
Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff is an unremittingly realistic Western that still, somehow, feels like a nightmarish hallucination. Three largely taciturn families are crossing the Oregon Trail in 1840s, led by a bombastic guide named Stephen Meeks (an excellent Bruce Greenwood) whom the settlers are increasingly convinced is either incompetent, or evil, or both. Reichardt (sadly the only female director on my list) largely tells the story through the eyes and experiences of the women, who do most of the work but are removed from decision-making, and must watch stoically as the men ride off to danger and make disastrous choices that affect them all. (As the strongest of the women, Michelle Williams gives the first—and better—of her two Oscar-worthy performances this year.) But the real beauty of the film is in its aesthetics: Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt box the wide-open expanses into a claustrophobic 4:3 ratio, and shoot the sun-scorched landscape in a washed-out color palette that gives it the feel of a threatening alien planet. Reichardt's subtle, patient direction builds the mounting tension through quiet character moments, and the result is a slow, ambiguous, beautiful film in which the relentless air of menace and hopelessness becomes almost overpowering.
In a year chock-full of movies about movies, Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is possibly the most subtle—and disturbingly effective—commentary on the dark side of the Hollywood myth. Ryan Gosling is brilliant as The Driver, a movie stunt-driver who lives his life like he's in a movie, moonlighting as a getaway driver for heists. Without Refn or Gosling offering us even a hint of background, we understand that he's a troubled man who has consciously created this identity for himself as a nameless, stoic action hero. When he becomes entangled in a Chandleresque plot involving a beautiful damsel in distress (Carey Mulligan), her armed-robber husband (Oscar Isaac), and a mobster named Bernie Rose (a fabulous Albert Brooks), Gosling's character gets to finally play out his noir Hollywood dreams. Drive straddles the line between being a retro '80s crime drama and being a dark commentary on the same, but it straddles that line beautifully: it's a stylized fantasy that serves up seedy reality, and a fairy-tale romance that takes a hammer to our romantic ideals. With a smart, minimalist screenplay by Hossein Amini, and a pitch-perfect soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, Drive is a deceptively simple thriller that is at turns exhilarating, lyrical, and horrifying. Read my full review here.
10. Super 8
If you're a kid who loves monster movies—or if you ever were a kid who loved monster movies—there was no better ride this year than Super 8. Fittingly a collaboration between one of the hot young talents (writer/director J.J. Abrams) and one of the legendary old hands (executive producer Steven Spielberg), Super 8 is both another entry in, and a fabulous tribute to, the long, unbroken legacy of big summer popcorn movies. Though it drags a little in its action-heavy second half, Super 8's first half is sheer delight, as Abrams takes real care and sensitivity in developing his young, movie-making protagonists (notably Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, and Riley Griffiths), before throwing them headlong into the kind of movie they could only dream of making. Super 8 plays (quite deliberately, and quite effectively) like a long-lost Spielberg film from the late seventies or early eighties, but it is also a throwback to the pictures of Spielberg's childhood, which was the golden age of alien invasion and monster movies like The Blob, The Thing from Another World, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. In wearing these influences quite brazenly on their sleeves, Abrams and Spielberg avoid being painfully meta, and instead offer a film that openly celebrates the sheer joy of filmmaking, and the way we never really grow out of the movies—and the movie makers—that we loved as children. Read my full review here.
9. The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick's deeply personal, richly beautiful, incredibly frustrating The Tree of Life is a film that I admired and hated in almost equal measures, but there's no question it's one of most ambitious and provocative films of the year. On its most literal (and more successful) level, it is the story of Jack (extraordinary newcomer Hunter McCracken), a young boy growing up with his brothers in middle America under the eyes of their stern father (Brad Pitt) and saintly mother (Jessica Chastain). Sharply observed, subtly acted, and presented with an emotional realism and specificity that achieve almost painful authenticity, these segments alone would qualify The Tree of Life as one of the greatest coming of age movies ever made.
Around and in-between this achingly real film, however, Malick interjects overblown imagery of god, dreams, dinosaurs, and the beginning of the world, interweaving them with his trademark whispery narration and some vague, uninspired philosophical and religious hooey. (Malick also includes an unnecessary and distracting framing sequence with Sean Penn as the adult Jack, which—famously—Sean Penn didn't even understand, telling France's La Figaro that "Frankly, I'm still trying to figure out what I'm doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context.") Penn also said that "a clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact," and I agree: the precision and pain Malick brings to the story of this family makes the film universal enough without trying to tie it in with the creation of the universe itself. The Tree of Life is 40 minutes of pretty, superfluous balderdash tacked on to 90 minutes of near perfection.
8. Bill Cunningham New York
One of the things movies do for us is introduce us to people we'd otherwise never know, and there was no character—real or fictional—whose company I enjoyed this year more than Bill Cunningham's. The humble, joyful subject of Richard Press's brisk and vibrant documentary Bill Cunningham New York is an 82-year-old photographer who has never lost his childlike sense of delight in people and what they wear. A fashion photographer for the New York Times, Bill zips all over the city on his bicycle, moving effortlessly and without conscious transition between the common people on the street and the high-society crowd (while he himself lives an ascetic, eccentric life in a one-room apartment in Carnegie Hall). Bill Cunningham New York is not really about fashion: it's a fascinating, delightful character study of a man who loves his work to the exclusion of everything else in life, an obsession that gives him the beatific, untouchable contentment of a secular saint. Whether you care about fashion or not, you can expect to walk out of Bill Cunningham New York wishing you had such a calling in your life, that you could so wholeheartedly embrace such a passion, and that you could take such playful, unmitigated pleasure in your work. Read my full review here.
7. Attack the Block
An unexpected gem from first-time director Joe Cornish, Attack the Block moves the '80s-style alien invasion movie out of the Spielbergean suburbs and into the projects. By dropping its monsters down in a South London council estate, and by finding its unlikely heroes in a multi-racial group of teen-age delinquents, Attack the Block achieves something remarkable: it makes what could have been a formulaic, low-budget monster movie feel like a story we've never seen before. Featuring an organically funny screenplay by Cornish, and strong, believable performances from a largely unknown cast of kids, Attack the Block harkens back to the early films of John Carpenter, but finds a funny, modern sensibility that is all its own. Deceptively modest in scale, but ambitiously precise in execution, Joe Cornish has taken stock ingredients and created something smart, fun, and wholly unique. Read my full review here.
6. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Like its characters, Tomas Alfredson's masterful Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy plays its cards close to its chest, and has a lot more on its mind than what it says out loud. Though structured around the hunt for a mole in the highest ranks of a British intelligence agency known as "the Circus," Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is really about an empire on the brink of irrelevancy, and about the kind of men for whom lies, betrayal, and manipulation are second nature: the quiet men, the outsiders, the watchers. I've seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy twice now, and it got even better on second viewing, when I was less worried about the labyrinthine turns of the plot and better able to appreciate the fantastic period details and the subtle, incredibly precise emotional work from actors playing character for whom emotion is a potentially fatal weakness. It is a film without a false note, filled with superb British actors, young (Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy) and older (Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth) alike. Head and shoulders above the rest, however, is Gary Oldman, who with a single sigh is able to convey worlds of emotion his character George Smiley would never reveal. Oldman creates a fascinating, mesmerizing, fully-rounded character almost entirely through subtext: it's the perfect marriage of actor and role, and the best male performance of the year. Read my full review here.
5. War Horse
Another film that's as much about movies as it is anything else, Steven Spielberg's War Horse was one of my most pleasant surprises of the year: an old-fashioned wartime epic of a boy and his horse that has real Hollywood grandeur. War Horse shamelessly uses every heartstring-tugging trick in the book, and gets away with it through sheer sincerity and grace. Presenting the horrific scope and scale of the First World War through the eyes of a courageous horse, Spielberg perfectly balances simplicity and sentimentality with chaos and inhumanity; he also proves, once again, that his greatest gift as a director may be his ability to combine state-of-the-art technique with old style storytelling. War Horse is a children's picture made by adults, and a 21st century film that feels, from the first frame, like a beloved classic from our childhoods. Read my full review here.
4. Martha Marcy May Marlene
The promising debut feature of director Sean Durkin, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a quiet, dreamlike movie that casts an odd, almost inexplicably haunting spell. Showcasing a stunning, career-making performance by Elizabeth Olsen (the younger—and, on this evidence—more talented sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley), Martha Marcy May Marlene is an intimate, harrowing profile of a damaged woman who has physically left a cult but who may never really escape. As the title indicates, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a movie about the quest for identity and belonging, and how that quest can go terribly wrong. Durkin's clean, detached direction, and his powerfully spare screenplay, create an atmosphere of quiet dread, and Olsen is extraordinary as the strong but fragmented woman who can neither return to nor escape the very different lives she's lived. The result is a chilling, beautifully unsettling film that lingers in the mind long after its ambiguous final scene has faded.
3. Of Gods and Men
I could shuffle the order of my top three picks at random and still be satisfied with the result. I justified placing Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux) as third among equals only because of its relative technical simplicity, but Xavier Beauvois's tense, taut meditation on faith, conviction, and courage might just be one of my favorite films of all time. Of Gods and Men is not flashy filmmaking, but Beauvois finds incredible beauty and drama in this simple story, and discovers more genuine emotional depth in the faces of his extraordinary cast (led by Lambert Wilson and Michel Lonsdale) than in a dozen showier films.
Based on a real incident, Beauvois, working from his own screenplay, imagines the final months of a small community of French Trappists facing the growing dangers of the Algerian Civil War. The eight men—who believe they have, literally, given their lives to Christ to do with as He will—must decide whether to stay where He has called them, and continue doing His work, even if it means their own lives are forfeit. Blessedly free of beatific imagery and pompous sermonizing, Of Gods and Men is the rare film that understands faith not as mindless conviction or theological abstraction, but as a difficult and constant struggle relevant to everyday lives. Beauvois does not shy away from showing us the monks' fears and conflicted feelings, but demonstrates how intelligent, remarkably humane men can find the courage to live—and, if necessary, die—according to a set of beliefs. The monks are neither saints nor martyrs, but in choosing not to abandon their faith, their community, or each other, they become the quietest, humblest, and most unusual of heroes. Read my full review here.
For an overpowering combination of deeply personal drama and dreamlike cosmic imagery, I'll take Lars von Trier's Melancholia over Terrance Malick's The Tree of Life any day of the week. A romantic, elegiac film that works both as a metaphor for personal depression and as a lovely, lyrical fable about the end of the world, Melancholia is a gorgeous, devastating, perversely uplifting work of art. Split into two acts, Melancholia follows two sisters (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, both incredible here) through two major events: a wedding night, and the day the world ends. In the first, Dunst's young bride Justine tries to smile her way falsely through the increasingly bitter farce of her wedding reception, while fighting the crippling depression that makes everything—her husband, her sister, her bickering family, and her controlling boss—seem trivial and meaningless. In the second act, we see that everything is trivial, for we see Justine's dread made manifest in the form of an approaching planet that threatens to destroy the Earth. As her sister Claire (Gainsbourg) becomes more and more afraid, Justine becomes more and more serene: by the time it comes, the end of the world is a beautiful, welcome, symphonic climax of relief and release. Filled with breathtaking imagery, painfully strong performances, and a visual and emotional exuberance that achieves operatic grandeur while still somehow maintaining a meditative grace, Melancholia is a masterpiece. Read my full review here.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a review of Hugo that doesn't call it Martin Scorsese's "love letter to the movies," but that phrase—while certainly accurate—is dismissive and reductive, and better suited to a charming pastiche like The Artist. Hugo is a triumph of filmmaking, a master craftsman at the height of his powers putting all of his love and talent into a glorious, exhilarating piece of pure magic. A simple fable about an orphan boy living in a Paris train station in the early '30s, Hugo blossoms into a joyous celebration of everything we love about cinema. From the early, makeshift wonder of silent films through to the startling beauty Scorsese himself achieves here with cutting-edge CGI and 3-D effects, Hugo bridges the gap between past and future to both explore and exemplify the wonderful smoke and mirrors of movies. "If you've ever wondered where your dreams come from," one character says, "look around: this is where they're made."
If I picked apart the film, as some less enthusiastic critics have, I could find fault with it, but for me the overall experience was so much larger than the sum of its parts. Both times I've seen it, Hugo succeeded completely in shutting off the cynical and critical parts of my brain, and transported me as few movies have to that transcendent, awestruck place that's only accessible when the curtain goes up, and the lights go down, and a single beam of light emerges from the darkness behind you. It's not a place of logic and realism, but a place of coincidence and fate. It's not a place where things happen as they really would, but a place where the story proceeds as it must, and everything resolves exactly the way it should.
It's not real life, but it's something better: it's the movies. Read my full review here.