Top 10 Lists are arbitrary. While a consensus might be reached amongst those that make such lists, they are hardly conclusive. Dances with Wolves beat Goodfellas for Best Picture and Kevin Costner usurped Martin Scorsese as Best Director at the 1990 Oscars. Clearly, time tells a different truth.
So you can tell I don't like making these lists? This is my third. For all I know the new Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy might be the best film of the year. The same for Spielberg's War Horse, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives or even critical darling, The Artist -- which my own Critics Circle voted as their Best Picture.
But I didn't see those.
These films are the best and worst of what I did witness in 2011 -- a surprisingly strong, even groundbreaking year for American film. The biggest shock? The best ones mostly came out in the summer.
10. Moneyball -- Not originally on my list. But the more I thought about the performances of Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, the script--which miraculously renders the minutiae of major league baseball scouting and the fine art of "sabermetrics" in a way that is richly entertaining and often funny--the more I realized Moneyball's worth. Thanks to screenwriting heavyweights Steve Zallian and Aaron Sorkin adapting the source novel and the directorial finesse of Bennett Miller (Capote), Moneyball is easily the best sports movie of the year.
9. Martha Marcy May Marlene -- Also a latecomer to this list, writer/director Sean Durkin's feature debut is a haunting, enigmatic character drama that follows Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, yes that Olsen) as she moves in with her well-to-do East Coast sister after living in a cult headed by a Manson-esque patriarch (the typically great John Hawkes). Sublime performances and the lucidity of Durkin's auteur vision make for an unforgettable slice of indie cinema. Hawkes seems to be making a career out of stealing great films as a supporting actor.
8. Beginners -- Writer/director Mike Mills' real life account of his elderly, widower father (a regal Christopher Plummer) coming out as gay in his mid-70s is the feel-good movie of the year about death. An effortless elegy that finds Ewan McGregor (and his hopeful love interest Mélanie Laurent) in great form, Beginners' slightly hipster/emo roots is elevated by its poignancy, mirth and obviously genuine need to immortalize Mills' heartfelt respect for the man who literally made his life possible.
7. The Tree of Life -- Is it pretentious, long and often confounding? Yes. But it's also a gorgeous, near ethereal meditation on those golden, near hagiographic moments that comprise the beauty of life when we are faced with its sublime totality and ultimate end (i.e. this is not the feel good movie of the year about death). Writer/director Terrance Malick captures a personal, philosophical grandeur with this epic--one recalling a warmer version of Kubrick -- that is the cinematic proton to Melancholia's electron. If you missed it in a theater (and you did) I hope you have a 100-inch television and a Blu-Ray player.
6. Cave of Forgotten Dreams -- I've railed against 3-D often in the past as a gimmick which adds next to nothing to the enjoyment or relevance of a film. The inclusion of two films on this list that utilize the gimmick in ways that actually do add to the viewing experience should not be taken to mean that I don't still think it's a gimmick. But Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the first reason for me to take pause in that stance. Werner Herzog uses the technology to bring audiences tangibly closer to the oldest cave paintings known to humanity and not only crafts a humbling documentary, but also one that renders the proto-cinematic techniques and primordial work of the ancient cave artists in a meta-layer of modern tangibility that they could never have dreamed of.
5. Hugo -- And this is reason No. 2 for being blown away by an old master's use of 3-D. Martin Scorsese broke two barriers here. He made his first children's film (though in such a way as to make movie aficionados swoon) and he made it in 3-D (though in such a way as to prove its artistic strengths). He approaches the technique with the maturity of one who is steeped in the wonder of film history, and uses it as much as a wonder of the modern age as the Lumière Bros. used the first motion picture camera to capture the arrival of a passenger train, to the audience's terror and amazement. That's a huge theme within the film as Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who lives in a Parisian subway station, discovers that the toymaker he's been pilfering from (Sir Ben Kingsley) may be a long forgotten master film director who influenced his own dead father's dreams. It's easily the most visually sumptuous movie this year. Scorsese only seems to get better with age.
4. We Need To Talk About Kevin -- The gut punch of this incredible first feature from Scottish writer/director Lynne Ramsay is the scathing critique of parenthood and family that lies just under the surface of this very American story. Ezra Miller portrays Kevin, who due to his creepy, sociopathic nature does some really awful things for which his mother (Tilda Swinton) still pays a price. Ramsay unfolds the narrative with a flowing, non-linear elegance that builds the tension and eerie tone to a pitch perfect level before delivering an uppercut that would drop a prize fighter. This has yet to open in Tulsa, but keep an eye out.
3. Shame -- With Shame I felt as though I were seeing Cronenberg during his psycho-sexual phase (one that never really stopped) re-imagined. The cold, dystopian voraciousness of Michael Fassbender's Brandon, a sex addict of the worst sort crashes into his humanity when his equally-if-not-more fucked up sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan sharing bravery points with Fassbender) comes to stay with him. Her need for his brotherhood and his utter detachment make for disastrous bedfellows. Director Steve McQueen draws out two performances from Fassbender and Mulligan that are not to be missed.
2. Drive -- This critical darling left audiences cold and there was probably no other movie this year that set the two camps apart more, except perhaps The Tree of Life. But people actually seemed interested in seeing Drive. And they probably expected to see Ryan Gosling burning up the pavement in an action blockbuster. What they got was a wonderfully atmospheric and moody genre love-letter to the '80s stylings of Michael Mann and arty sensibilities of Alejandro Jodorowsky . Carey Mulligan once again plays a woman in trouble who finds her helpful neighbor (Gosling), a stunt driver who moonlights with criminals, getting her into even deeper misfortune. Near perfection from director Nicholas Winding Refn, loaded with Euro-arthouse class and an amazing score Drive barely missed the number one spot with the Oklahoma Film Critic's Circle.
1. Melancholia -- Love him or hate him Lars Von Trier's tendency to work out his personal issues on film and through his actors always makes for interesting, soul crushing and sometimes shocking cinema. With Melancholia though, Von Trier seems to be looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. True to form, that light comes in the shape of a strange, new planet that is on a collision course with Earth while Kirsten Dunst (in the performance of her career) works through her depression issues with sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) during the aftermath of her disastrous wedding night. She discovers her depression has strengthened her in ways that make dealing with the end possible where others break. Stunning work that stuck with me for days afterwards, Von Trier should have won at Cannes with Melancholia. Too bad he opened his mouth about Nazis.
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