Was 2011 a good year for movies? For me, there are to ways to answer this question. The short answer is I don’t know yet. As always, the expected Oscar contenders mostly have not premiered in Norway yet, and assuming that at least some of them (Hugo, maybe, or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, or The Descendants) will be worth waiting for, the following list of favorite movies of 2011 should be considered little more than a working draft. The other side of that coin, however, is that 2011 gave me a more complete view of the glorious movie year that was 2010. If my 2011 list feels even more stale and safe than unusual it is probably due to the fact that it contains several great movies which premiered in the US a long time ago. It may also say something about a more meager harvest from the festival crop than in recent years.
As usual, my lift follows the Norwegian release schedule, which means that any movie that was released to theaters, DVD or had a festival or first-run television screening between January 1 and December 31, 2011, was eligible for inclusion. While I have seen quite a lot of movies this year, availability issues, time concerns and mere personal preferences dictates that there are of course a well of great movies I have not seen yet. In addition to the aforementioned Oscar contenders, I wouldn’t consider this working draft anywhere near finished until I have caught up with, among others:, A Separation, Take Shelter, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Live, The Arbor, The Artist, The Future, We Need To Talk About Kevin, The Skin I Live In, 50/50, Le Havre, The Kid With A Bike, We Were Here, and Play. I’m sure there are others. As always, I reserve the right to amend the ranking at any time, likely returning with a list of honorable mentions later this month.
The second, more complicated answer is that that which may go some way toward deeming 2011 a less-than-stellar year for movies at the same time is one of the reasons that I loved so many of the films that are included on my list. I love them because of their imperfections, not in spite of them. Having had to wrestle with not only with whether I loved them, but also how much, in what ways and why, I kept thinking about several of them for much of the year. Whether it was the possibly problematic mythologizing (if that’s a word) of the Ozarks in Winter’s Bone, the gusto vs. unevenness quotient in Easy A, the potential dark undertones of the perfect couple at the heart of Another Year or the wild overambition present in The Tree of Life, those qualities in and of themselves secured a place in my heart for each of those films. And there were many more like them. In that sense, 2011 was a truly fascinating year for movies.
Before we dive into my best cinematic experiences of 2011 for real, however, let me just reveal that the five most atrocious movies I saw last year were The Smurfs, Green Lantern, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Larry Crowne and Hysteria. If you want to know more about my deeply felt hatred for these movies, fire away in the comments section. But be warned, I might not even be able to articulate my disdain. The mere thought of any of them usually reduces me to a fuming, rambling mess.
On a cheerier note, then, my top ten favorite movies of 2011:
- Never Let Me Go (Directed by Mark Romanek)
I respect that there may be different views on the merits of this movie, but as a huge fan, it still stings that it didn’t even get a theatrical release in Norway. It was first scheduled for an April 2011 premiere, but it kept getting pushed back, until it disappeared entirely. By that time, it had already gone several months since I first saw it, and I physically ached to see it again, and to show it to my friends. That’s what this movie does to me, every time. An eerie fable of the dehumanizing potential of biotechnology coupled with a emotionally resonant love story, Never Let Me Go confirms Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan and even Keira Knightley as three of the absolute best actors of their generation. It was not the only movie I saw this year that tried to deal with human replacement of some kind (Benedek Fliegauf’s fascinating failure Womb explored the cloning issue, whereas Dogtooth director Giorgios Lanthimos tackled human substitutes in the chilly Alps), but Never Let Me Go had the warmth that both of those movies lacked. In my opinion, it’s the best movie of its kind since A.I. (2001).
2. The Tree of Life (Dir: Terrence Malick)
Never really a fan of Malick’s previous movies (I respected but didn’t love Badlands and The Thin Red Line, was left unconvinced by Days of Heaven and actively detested The New World), and periodically annoyed by his grandiosity and aura of critical invincibility, I was nevertheless intrigued by the sheer ambition of his Palme d’Or winner. One of the least perfect movies I saw in 2011 (Darren Aronofsky’s mesmerizing yet messy Black Swan certainly gave it a run for its money), I was eventually sucked in by the fact that this movie had even been made. For all their differences, I can’t find a better comparison than Paul Thomas Anderson’s monumental There Will Be Blood. Although either movie is just a little over two hours long, they crammed so much of history, so much of what ambition and being a good and successful person means into those two hours, that it felt like I’d been watching the characters for a lifetime. The Tree of Life may be heavy-handed in it’s symbolism, Sean Penn’s character may be completely wasted, the metaphysical feel-good ending may tick you off, but again, to me it came down to a breathless “wow, this movie actually exists!“. At it’s best, The Tree of Life will leave you wanting to go back to 2001: A Space Odyssey (for the “history of the earth” sequence) or to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (for a more cynical take on the man vs. nature thing), but even so, it is completely its own, a unique work of art. And having said all this, I have to underline that the movie is even better when it centers on the family dynamics at its core. Brad Pitt has never been better, and I prematurely lament that Hunter McCracken will not be up for an Oscar as the young Sean Penn. I’m rambling in a Tree of Life-like way, but the bottom line is this: You need to see this movie.
3. Another Year (Directed by Mike Leigh)
Another 2010 movie, Mike Leigh’s comedy/drama probably was the most humane piece of filmmaking I saw all year. Another Year took my by surprise from the first scene. What at first looked like a dreary social realist drama immediately turned itself around, into a warm and funny portrayal of a middle-aged married couple (Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent) who opened their home to a host of charmingly flawed characters (first among not-quite-equals an exquisite Leslie Manville). The humor and wisdom will have to be seen to be properly experienced, but what fascinated me the most was how Sheen and Broadbent’s characters were never reduced to be being simply good and well-meaning. There’s always a nerve there, a whiff of potential condescension, when well-adjusted people are exposed to other people’s problems and sorrows. This doesn’t mean that Leigh lacks compassion for his characters, only that he allows them to be more complex than what you’d expect at first. It may be what every filmmaker aspires to do, but it’s so hard that when anyone succeeds it sticks with you. In Another Year, Mike Leigh succeeds.
4. Beginners (Dir: Mike Mills)
Beginners is yet another movie that’s actually improved by the friction caused by its inherent imbalances. I invested much more in the relationship between the adult son (Ewan McGregor) and his deceased father (a magnificent Christopher Plummer), than I did in his attempt to strike a relationship with an insecure actress (Melanie Laurent). For large chunks of the movie I found the latter relationship, though meticulously etched in brief moments, to be a little too cute, but in the end I think their shared romantic passivity provided a nice contrast to the father-son relationship. That said, the core of the film has to be how McGregor’s character has to more or less reconceptualize his whole upbringing in the light of the revelation that his father came out to him five years before he died. It informs how we understand some wonderful scenes between him and his mother, and it brings emotional nuance to the father’s trajectory and his need to not let his deteriorating health get in the way of him finally living the life he had always wanted for himself. The thought that someone so obviously liberated by the thought of coming would then get only five years to realize that dream; it just crushed me. I never cry at the movies, but Christopher Plummer’s performance and the poignance of his character’s plight had me tearing up, repeatedly. I love this film.
5. Blue Valentine (Dir: Derek Cianfrance)
The most admirable thing about this very accomplished directorial debut is that it doesn’t shy away from anything. The unraveling of Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling’s marriage is portrayed with such naked honesty it’s positively painful. The genius lies in how the movie gives us the insecure courtship, only to then skip to six years later, when things are starting to come apart. In a way it reminded me of Francois Ozon’s 5×2 (2004), but this movie is even braver in how it doesn’t tell its story backwards. I also have to give a shout out to the set designer; the futuristic motel might just be the most unpleasant location I saw at the movies this year. And please, please stay for the exquisitely beautiful end credits, coming at the heels of an emotionally riveting finale. Oh, and Michelle Williams was way better in this movie than the overacting Natale Portman was in Black Swan. Just to put it out there.
6. Winter’s Bone (Dir: Debra Granik)
With Winter’s Bone, we return to the theme of imperfection. There was a moment late in this movie, when Ree (a fantastic Jennifer Lawrence) learns the true fate of her father, that it took a turn for the grotesque so decisive I was starting to wonder if Debra Granik had completely lost sympathy with her characters. And wasn’t the portrayal of the Ozarks just a tad too broad and cliched? My answer is no on both. I learned from an interview about writing the movie where Granik was coming from when she wrote it, and it made me realize that it was just right. And more importantly, I felt like I was invited into a part of the American experience that I knew absolutely nothing about. Is it nuanced enough? Probably not. Does that lack of nuance make up for itself in emotional investment? Most definitely. And if you’re looking for a scene to sell you on this movie once and for all, just watch the scene where Ree tries to enlist in the military, in order to pay of her father’s debt. Yes, I cried.
7. Catfish (Dir: Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost)
In the end, does it matter is a documentary is one-hundred percent true? Catfish convinced the answer is no. The story of how two brattish college kids connected with this girl who turned out to be somebody completely different, may not have have happened exactly the way we seen in the movie, but its recreations are so convincing and suspenseful that I don’t really care about how genuine it is in the end. More than anything, Catfish made me think of last year’s The Social Network, and how in the end, I ended up not really caring whether the movie presented an accurate portrait of Mark Zuckerberg. The portrait that was there on screen was so compelling and so moving, that the question took second billing. Not only does Catfish have the suspense of a Hitchcockian thriller, it also has a twist so deftly handled as to be downright moving.
8. Senna (Dir: Asif Kapadia)
The tragic story of racecar driver Ayrton Senna is a story so special you can’t make it up. Sure, one can hardly ask for more interesting rivals than the socially conscious Senna and the arrogant but brilliant Frenchman Alain Prost, or for that matter the villain of the piece, Formula 1 director Jean-Marie Ballestre, but the movie doesn’t direct itself. Kapadia’s adept use of archival footage creates a truly suspenseful narrative, even if you already know Senna’s destiny beforehand. The movie is interesting for the way it provides a glimpse into the politics of Formula 1, in much the same way the excellent ESPN doc The Two Escobars gave us a look into the cultural significance of soccer player Andres Escobar and drug lord Pablo Escobar.
9. Easy A (Dir: Will Gluck)
The only comedy on the list is carried very much on the strength of Emma Stone’s performance. A modern day Scarlet Letter reminiscent of 1999’s reworking of Twelfth Night into 10 Things I Hate About You, it stars an A-list cast of Stone, Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, Lisa Kudrow and Thomas Haden Church. First-time director Will Gluck (who later went on to make the much blander Friends With Benefits) shows a knack for rapid-fire dialogue in the vein of Aaron Sorkin, although the movie does drag on a little in the middle section. If I were to recommend one segment in particular, I’d advise you to be on the look-out for the scene with Tucci and his son. I haven’t laughed this hard at the movies for a long time.
10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II (Dir: David Yates)
David Yates made it. That’s the most important achievement of the second Deathly Hallows segment. It’s not the better Potter by far (I’d rank both Deathly Hallows part I, The Half-Blood Prince, The Order of the Phoenix and The Prison of Azkaban ahead of this one), but it still is a satisfying end to one of the best movie franchises of recent years. Perhaps the most satisfying thing about the whole thing is how the three main leads have grown to leading person potential. Daniel Radcliffe used to drag the franchise down, but now he’s a draw by himself. If I have any frustrations, I must be that this is the last time I get to see Alan Rickman do Severus Snape. I’ll miss his threatening mix of coldnesss and good-natured self-parody.