Sunday, February 12, 2012

Top Ten Films of 2011

Back when I started writing about movies, making these lists was my favorite part of the job. Now, all these years and so so many films later, they’re a pain. What do they prove? And, with so many people writing them all at the same time of the year, which ones do we read and which ones do we ignore? This thus, isn’t a list of the 10 best movies of the year but a list of the 10 movies I enjoyed most in 2011. That’s what every list is despite what the author would lilke to believe. No one knows the 10 best movies in a year because no one has seen every movie made in a given year. Anyone who tells you otherwise probably wrote a list for the ignore pile.

So what stands out about 2011? It’s a year in which Hollywood went a little old school. They started reaching back into the past and pulling out old trends: action movies gave us character over explosions; romance gave us love over gimmickry; sci-fi gave us ideas over spectacle and homage became the new reboot. It’s just the start. There’s still a lot of work to do (Hollywood still doesn’t fully trust movies based on original ideas or that are aimed strictly at an adult audience), but we’re getting there and at the end of the day, my ten favourite films this year are more memorable, have more longevity and will probably be more likely to be rediscovered in the years to come than in the past several years.

Without any further adieu, the Honourable Mentions in no particular order:
Public Speaking, Winnebago Man, The Adjustment Bureau, My Dog Tulip, Source Code, Water for Elephants, Fast Five, Best Worst Movie, Buried, The Switch, Bridesmaids, Nowhere Boy, Flipped, Mesrine (both parts), Monsters, Catfish, Jack Goes Boating, Book of Eli, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Date Night, Made in Dagenham, Tangled, Fair Game, Looking for Eric, Biutiful, 50/50, Tron: Legacy, Essential Killing, The Rite, Disgrace, The Artist, Carlos, Hanna, Cyrus, Fish Tank, Horrible Bosses, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Pina

10. The Muppets – Both a tribute to the classic format of the Muppets variety show and a new entry into the Muppet movie series, The Muppets, for the first time in a long time, gets exactly right what made Jim Henson’s creations so special in the first place: personality. The Muppets rose above being simply felt and plastic because they possess qualities that the audience could see in themselves. Not much for plot (the Muppet movies never were) the movie is uproariously funny, exciting and is the rare family movie that will appeal as much to the kids discovering these characters for the first time as the parents who grew up with them the first time around.

9. Blue Valentine – An honest and unflinching look at a couple who got together young, didn’t know what to do for one another because they never matured into knowing what to do for themselves and now are married, unhappily, and going through the motions one day at a time. A film that is unstylzed and uncluttered, it’s success hinges on the performances of its two leads and in Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling finds actors who are willing to put their scars on full display.

8. Take Shelter - We live in fear every day. That’s just the way life goes whether you realize it or not. We live in fear of disease, plagues, crimes, war, death, God, the realization that one day nature will probably destroy us all, that is, of course, if the earth doesn’t crash into the sun or another planet first. That’s how Curtis (Michael Shannon) lives his life in Jeff Nichols’ eerie and affecting drama Take Shelter. This is a film for our current times and yet is also quite, reflective and, in it’s own special way, biblical, leading up to a challenging conclusion that isn’t afraid to leave audiences with something to ponder on their way out.

7. Beginners – Not quite a drama and not quite a comedy, Mike Mills’ Beginners shies away from every opportunity to become no more than simply a quirky indie dramadey by alternating evenly between two time periods: one of joy and discovery and one of death and self-analysis. The movie encompasses a lot of what one could consider “themes” and yet never burdens itself with becoming about one of them. It’s the story of its characters, living their lives, on their own terms, the best way they can. Christopher Plummer, will win an Oscar for his performance here.

6. Midnight in Paris – Here is a film that proves it is okay to make something for a select audience and let it find them over time. Woody Allen writes and directs three separate love letters here: one to Paris, one to writing and one to the 1920s. It’s a smart and literate film for smart and literate people. It doesn’t belittle it’s subjects in order to appeal to a mass audience but respects them and pays tribute to them, all the while wrapping this up in a story that is warm and funny and, like Paris itself, eternal.

5. The Descendants – Alexander Payne has made a career out of making small movies on large canvasses. The Descendants is a quite and reflective film, so much so that it will take a while to sneak up on you and reveal its true impact. It’s a film about family and history and persevering that in the best way we know how. And Payne, known often as a satirist from his early work, has matured into one of America’s most generous humanists, allowing all of his character the depth and understanding they deserve while never passing judgement. Hawaii has never, in turns, looked so beautiful and yet so common on film.

4. Shame – A brutal film on a brutal subject. Michael Fassbender is fearless in his performance as an upper class New York sex addict. Director Steve McQueen is merciless in his unblinking honesty, never turning the camera away from the truth of the subject, following this character, not to his demise, but to his rock bottom, making the film even more intense and powerful in return.

3. Le Havre – Finnish master Aki Kaurismaki is at his warmest and most deadpan in Le Havre, a quite, offbeat and strangely funny look at two people who come into each other's lives and help each other for the better. Simple descriptions do nothing to speak to the brilliance and uniqueness of Kaurismaki and his artistic voice. You haven’t seen another movie like this unless, of course, you’ve seen another Aki Kaurismaki movie, to take a line from Roger Ebert.

2. Hugo – Martin Scorsese makes what could very well be his most personal film. It is a grand family adventure unlike any Scorsese has made before that slowly and poignantly morphs into a love letter to the cinema and touches on the value of preserving its past without any of the heavy-handedness that such a description could imply. No single film made me happier this year with its boundless wonder and joy than this one. A testament to the power that movies once held and the power of what they can still be.

1. Tree of Life – Some filmmakers used to set out to make masterpieces. Not anymore. Tree of Life is a rare jewel to be savoured and treasured as we explore it’s every nook and cranny and revel in the unravelling of its deepest mysteries. A film epic in scope and yet intimate in execution, it aims to do no less than tell the story of the creation of the universe revolving around the trials and tribulations of one southern family. But this is not just a film, it is a poem, a prayer, a spiritual experience that reaches for profound highs and touches them all. A film to be ranked, in ambition and scope, among America’s greatest epic masterpieces: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mulholland Drive, Magnolia and so many more. There may never be another movie like this. Cherish it while it is here.


  1. Like you said Mike, there are so many annual top tens out there. It is indeed impossible to see everything. One must rank the films by own appreciations.
    Nice top ten! I'm so glad you didn't included Bridesmaids or The Help two films getting overly too much praise!

  2. What, is Tree of Life about to go away? ;-)

    I agree in general with your thoughts on best vs. favorite. Which is why on my list, I gave higher rankings to some lowbrow movies that hit my funny bone more than some highbrow movies hit my brain. What is a top ten list if you are just parroting the critical consensus for the most praised films of the year?

    But as much as I aspire to be looser in my own interpretation of "the rules" than I am, the one area I can't go is including movies from previous years. Come on man, a good half of your honorable mentions came out in 2010! ;-)

    Of your actual top ten, the choices I agree with most are Shame and Take Shelter.

    Nice post.

  3. Michael - It continually seems to me that the quality of most movies over the past couple of years has been so poor that critics are simply just looking for anything to praise and when they find it they over praise it. Such is the case with Bridesmaids (a funny comedy but not revolutionary) and The Help (a servicable old-fashioned tale), but also Drive and The Artist which are fine, I guess, but also feel more like empty homage to better periods in film history than something new and unique.

    Vance - I never got a rule book saying all year end lists needed to be regulated to the same standard or else by blogger rights will be revoked ;)

    My lists are about giving recognition to movies I feel deserve it. It's not about the ordering of the numbers, or making sure all of them are from a certain year. I saw most of those films in 2011 and probably haven't commented on them in writing or given them a nod of appreciation in any other sort of way. I'm at the service of the films, not the list and I won't have it any other way.

  4. I think it's the difference between being anal and not being anal. I am in the former category, for better or worse.