by Tony Dayoub
2011 was a fantastic year for cinema. But try as one might, it's very difficult to see every film out there. Still, I did better than in most other years (notable movies I didn't get to see: 50/50, Bellflower, A Better Life, Buck, The Guard, I Saw the Devil, In the Land of Blood and Honey, Le Havre, Margaret, Pariah, Passione, Point Blank, Rampart, Road to Nowhere, Weekend and most regrettably, A Separation). So as usual, my one disclaimer: if I don't address a film you expected to see listed, it likely means I just didn't see it. But I just wanted to put this list out ahead of Tuesday's Oscar nominations announcement. Feel free to leave a comment if you disagree with any of my selections or to propose some of your own.
1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, dir. Tomas Alfredson - Review here. I saw this movie almost 6 weeks ago. If you had asked me then whether it would top my list of 2011's best films, I would have probably said the movie just missed being listed. But here we are in January and Tinker (and, specifically, the enigmatic character Gary Oldman so superbly plays, George Smiley) has become a personal obsession. I've gone back to John le Carré's original novels, stocked up on Smiley's previous appearances on TV and film, all in an effort to study a subject I plan on getting fairly evangelical about in upcoming weeks: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the standout movie of 2011, and you should see it.
2. Certified Copy (Copie conforme), director Abbas Kiarostami - Review here. Kiarostami's film demonstrates how even a quiet, meandering conversation can exemplify cinema.
3. Melancholia, dir. Lars von Trier - Review here. The full effect of this apocalyptic movie is lost if you don't see it on a large screen with audio of the highest fidelity. A stunning opening and finale bookend a collection of fantastic scenes and no bad ones... didn't someone once say that was the very definition of a good movie?
4. Pina, dir. Wim Wenders - Review here. One of two films listed here that argue for the vibrancy of 3D as something more than a gimmick (especially when entrusted to the right artist), Pina is a visceral, joyous celebration of modern dance.
5. We Need to Talk About Kevin, dir. Lynne Ramsay - Review here. Despite trafficking in traditional horror tropes, Kevin can still be interpreted as a disturbing cautionary tale, especially for anyone who is a parent.
6. Take Shelter, dir. Jeff Nichols - Review here. Another creepy end-of-days thriller, Take Shelter is made all the more so because of its understated, intimate atmosphere, a sharp contrast to the bombastic Melancholia and globe-spanning Contagion.
7. The Tree of Life, dir. Terrence Malick - Review here. The anti-Melancholia, Malick's film is a celebration of life which has unfortunately experienced a backlash because it doesn't shy away from its righteousness. Like all of his films, the passage of time will only enhance its reputation.
8. Hugo, dir. Martin Scorsese - Review here. Hugo is the second 3D film listed which one can proudly hold up in defense of the "gimmicky" visual effect. Though adapted from a children's book, it still somehow manages to be one of Scorsese's most personal films.
9. (tie) The Interrupters, dir. Steve James and Tabloid, dir. Errol Morris - I never got a chance to write up either documentary, but they are tied because each represents the extremes of what nonfiction film is capable of. Steve James's The Interrupters calls for social change and documents its subject of former violent offenders who have become violence "interrupters" in Chicago with little editorializing from the Hoop Dreams director. On the other hand, Tabloid looks skeptically at only one woman whose dramatic, and maybe exaggerated, life story is simply too outlandish not to comment on. So director Errol Morris freely injects his own reactions into the film with great comedic frequency.
11. Aurora, dir. Cristi Puiu - Review here. Just as eerily nihilistic as the nonlinear We Need to Talk About Kevin, only here, unspooling chronologically, the almost monotonous events of its first third set up and amplify the only seemingly random horror of the rest of the film. Rewarding to the patient viewer.
12. We Are What We Are (Somos lo que hay), dir. Jorge Michel Grau - Review here. Frightening and elliptical enough that it demands a sequel delving into its backstory, this cannibal movie has been largely ignored in the U.S. but is worth seeking out.
13. Shame, dir. Steve McQueen - Review here. Is it about sex addiction? Is that even a real condition? Much of the debate hovering around this film has centered on those points. Who cares? Addiction or just plain neurosis, the fact is that in Shame, director McQueen and Michael Fassbender (and Carey Mulligan, surprisingly) explore the limits of using sexual gratification to shield oneself from deeply entrenched trauma in a way that is both eloquent and aesthetically gorgeous.
14. Warrior, dir. Gavin O'Connor - Review here. A sports movie that turns the expectations associated with its conventional plot on its ear by having viewers equally invest their emotions in TWO competitors destined to face each other. This simple innovation creates a suspense rarely seen in traditional fight movies where one usually roots for only the solitary underdog.
Honorable Mention: 13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku), The Artist, Beginners, Captain America: The First Avenger, Carnage, Contagion, The Descendants, George Harrison: Living in the Material World (HBO), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Into the Abyss, Margin Call, Meek's Cutoff, Midnight in Paris, Mildred Pierce (HBO), Mission: Impossible 4 - Ghost Protocol, Moneyball, Rango, Rise of the Planet Apes, The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito), Uncle Boonmee Who Recalls His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat), War Horse, Winnie the Pooh, Young Adult
Most Overrated: Drive, The Help, Martha Marcy May Marlene
Most Underrated: War Horse, Young Adult
Best Unreleased Film of 2011: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (which was just released last week)
Breakthrough Actor of the Year: Michael Fassbender (A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre, Shame, X-Men: First Class)
Breakthrough Actress of the Year: Jessica Chastain (Coriolanus, The Debt, The Help, Take Shelter, Texas Killing Fields, The Tree of Life)