Perhaps I’m biased (see my #1 pick and the entire month of May in my blog archive), but 2011 was a banner year for cinema. The Tree of Life is one thing, but there was a lot more going on this year to make a cinephile like me excited. There was a lot of artful doomsday (Melancholia, Take Shelter, Tree of Life, Another Earth), some great homages to early, classic and Spielbergian cinema (Hugo, The Artist, War Horse, Super 8), and some truly exceptional films about faith (Of Gods and Men, Higher Ground, The Way, The Mill & the Cross, Tree of Life). There was so much good cinema that my “best of” list actually includes three different top tens: the best 10, the second best 10, and then 10 honorable mentions. Many of them are available now on Netflix Instant, while a few of them have yet to release in most parts of the country. However you can, I hope you get a chance to see them!
10) Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene (T. Sean Durkin): An astonishing, accomplished debut from director T. Sean Durkin, Martha gives the audience more respect than any other film this year. There are a lot of gaps we, the audience, must fill in. But far from a head-scratching frustration, this subtle insinuation and refusal to spoon-feed is one the film’s most thrilling qualities.
9) We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay): By far the scariest film of the year. Not jump-in-your-seat type scary, but horribly unsettling dread and tension scary. Tilda Swinton plays a mother in a worst-nightmare-for-any-parent scenario, as she deals with an evil teenage son, Kevin, who commits a massacre at his high school. But the scariest parts of the film are the things we don’t see and the questions that go unanswered: where does the evil of a kid like Kevin come from? What do parents do wrong to lead to this?
8) Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt): One of the most original and haunting westerns I’ve ever seen. Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist, observational style (see Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy) is perfectly suited to this period costume drama set in the 1840s on the Oregon Trail. And Michelle Williams is mesmerizing as the centerpiece heroine. Like Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, this film is intentionally ambiguous and invites the interpretations of an active audience, which is something I always applaud.
7) Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols): A jittery, tense, unsettled film for the unsettled world in which we live, Take Shelter is about the fears and anxieties of a modern-day working class man who simply wants to protect his wife and daughter from all manner of peril. Featuring stunning performances by Michael Shannon as a good-at-heart man (possibly) losing his mind and Jessica Chastain as his longsuffering wife, Shelter builds and builds to a finale that will leave you speechless.
6) The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius): One would have reason to approach this film skeptically. A silent film? Really? But what at first glance appears to just be a stunt or gimmick is quickly found to be something remarkably beautiful, charming, nostalgic and yet new. It’s an homage to Hollywood, to storytelling within the bounds of technological limitations; but it’s also about pride, love, adaptation, and the fickleness of fame. Go see it. You won’t find a more pleasant surprise at the movies this year.
5) Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami): Certified Copy is essentially Before Sunset in Italy, which is good because Sunset is one of my all time favorite films. Filmed in glorious Tuscany, featuring the sublime Juliette Binoche, and riffing on notions of originality, inspiration, and cinema itself, Copy is a wonderfully complex modernist experiment in the style of Alain Resnais, and yet it flows breezily and romantically, never too pushy with its philosophical or theoretical notions. Academics should watch this film and take note: academic inquiry doesn’t have to be convoluted, dry and inert. It can be as simple and beautiful as walking and talking in lovely Italian sunlight.
4) Poetry (Lee Chang-dong): It’s a tragedy that only about 30 people saw this masterpiece when it opened in theaters early in 2011. From the masterful Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine), Poetry is a film befitting its title if ever a film was. It’s about poetry literally, in that the protagonist–an elderly woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease (Jeong-hie Yun)–is taking poetry classes; but the film itself is poetry: a delicate, quietly observant film that is unsentimental and yet profoundly moving, especially after it’s sat with you for a bit.
3) Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois): A true story about monks in North Africa who risk it all in pursuit of their mission, Gods is one of the most inspiring films about faith, sacrifice, and community that I’ve ever seen. A quiet, austere, but utterly transcendent film, Gods paints a picture of what it means to be faithfully present as Christ’s ambassadors in a world that is beautiful, dynamic, and frequently hostile. At once entirely timely (it deals with terrorism and Christian-Muslim relations) and timeless, Gods is a film I’ll come back to in years to come–for inspiration, encouragement, and instruction for my own journey of faith.
2) Melancholia (Lars von Trier): Though often, and rightly, contrasted with Tree of Life (both films juxtapose the cosmic and intimate, and depict earth’s demise), Melancholia stands on its own two feet as one of the year’s most masterful films. More than just the antithesis of Tree of Life, Lars von Trier’s gorgeous apocalyptic vision contains some of the most striking imagery and sequences you’ll see this year. It may be bleak, nihilistic, and (insert depressing synonym here), but Melancholia is above all authentic. It’s Lars von Trier speaking his auteurist mind and bombarding us with sound (Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde), image (a planet colliding with earth, Kirsten Dunst unhappy in a wedding dress), and mood (sadness, dread) to astonishingly powerful effect.
1) The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick): What can I say about this film that I haven’t already said? It met and exceeded all my expectations and instantly took a place on my list of all time favorites. Critics are right to be universally heralding this as the best film of 2011. It’s one of the best films of all time. It’s a film with the kind of scope, ambition and excellence that we just don’t see anymore. It’s a film that goes after big questions (the biggest) and attempts to be all-encompassing (God, life, death, sin, redemption, creation, apocalypse, everything else in between), but does so as much or more through the inherent strengths of the cinematic form as through traditional narrative exposition. It’s a film that shows us the world in a grain of sand, so to speak. It blows open the possibilities of the medium, or rather–at times–perfects the medium to such an extent that it looks foreign to us, like something altogether new. Malick achieves something with Life that can rarely be claimed by a filmmaker or artist of any kind: He’s given us something that we’ve truly never seen before, and yet something that will undoubtedly endure.
The Next Ten: 11) Hugo 12) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives 13) Midnight in Paris 14) The Way 15) The Descendants 16) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy 17) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo 18) Bellflower 19) Another Earth 20) Warrior
Honorable Mention: Coriolanus, The Mill and the Cross, Contagion, Moneyball, The Trip, Hanna, Drive, War Horse, Higher Ground, Margin Call