Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Best of 2011: The 15 Best Films of the Year

Friday, January 20, 2012

Best of 2011: The 15 Best Films of the Year

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)


Dan Heaton said...

Good list. A lot of my favorites ended up in your honorable mentions, but it's probably because I haven't seen all the big 2011 films yet. I enjoyed Certified Copy, though it didn't grab me in the same way as many. I do think that Binoche was great, and the topic of authenticity is intriguing, especially in our current age. I don't agree that Drive is overrated, but I can see how it could be looked at that way.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Awesome list, I would have included a lot of these on my best of list, had I seen them! Many of these look so interesting! I'm going to write them down so I dont forget, interesting to see so many art house films on this list, your list was a refreshing change from your typical "Top Films of 2011" lists out there, including mine.

tom hyland said...

Tony: Excellent list- yes, we did agree on many of these films for our lists.

I have heard wonderful things about "Certified Copy" and will have to see that. I did see "A Separation" just a few days ago and thought it was extremely well done- a story about real people in an everyday crisis that is more honest than 90% of what comes out of Hollywood.

Glad that you loved "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" so much; it's number 3 on my list. This film reveals so much more with further viewings, doesn't it?

Finally, I agree that "Martha Marcy May Marlene" was incredibly overrated.

Tony Dayoub said...

Dan, I would love to hear your thoughts on DRIVE. You can find mine by clicking through on the hyperlink I included to my original review.

Tony Dayoub said...

Film Connoisseur, can you post a link to your list in this thread so that I (and other readers) can check it out?

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks for stopping by, Tom. As you can see from our respective lists, we're pretty simpatico on 2011 films.

Jason Bellamy said...

Several of my favorites are on here, and I'm delighted to see you give love to Warrior, which is somewhere in my top 5, a beautiful movie that, like Tinker Tailor, draws me completely into its world and holds me there.

I very much need to see Take Shelter again. When I first saw it, it was certainly one of the best films I'd seen all year. But I was busy and didn't get a chance to write it up, and while I still remember it fairly well, I want to go back to it to see how it works a second time, and if it's as great as I first thought.

Matt said...

Good list. Agreed with many here. I have a quibble about 'overrated'. Martha Marcy May... only has a 76% on Metacritic. That's not really overrated territory. I think a good many people would agree it is flawed but still likable. Drive, yes, but if you saw it before the hype you would agree it is pretty good. Hype kills more movies than it helps.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Heres the link to my "Top 15 Films of 2011", thanks!

Jason Hedrick said...

Really enjoy your blog, and this list. "Tinker Tailor" is still rattling around in my brain, and I haven't quite come to terms with how I fell about it yet, but I think it's a bold choice for number 1 in a great year of films. I am also glad to see "Pina" make a list, as it was pretty much my favorite film of the year. As a fairly new blogger, I would love it if you would check out my list/blog and let me know what you think, and possibly post a link to ECSTATIC on your site -- thanks!

FilmMaster said...

Great list, but The Artist should have made it on. I seen you didnt catch 50/50. You should definitely watch it sometime. Perfect blend of natural humour and drama.

Kevyn Knox said...

Good strong list. I still do not get all the hoopla (if one can call it hoopla) over Tinker Tailor. A good film, but best of the year!? Ah well, different strokes I suppose. Since I place Drive quite high on my own list ( I suppose we are different folks. Still though, some agreeably great films hangin' high in there - especially Certified Copy (definitely not on enough lists - at least not on many of the more mainstreamy lists).

Tony Dayoub said...

Kevyn, TINKER TAILOR is a deceptively simple film. But I love how Tomas Afredson avoids what Godard called "tyranny of sight." His wide-angle shots contain so much information integral to the plot, that it's easy to understand how audiences more attuned to receive their information aurally might get confused by this perhaps overcompressed story. But Alfredson never directs the viewer's line of sight towards any specific clue. Instead, he lets his audience investigate the frame for themselves.

An over-estimation of the viewer's intelligence? Maybe, but it's a mistake I can live with.

Sam Juliano said...

Terrific list, even if I admit I'm no fan of your #1. Still, I recognize and respect it has received excellent reviews for the most part and you defend it exceedingtly well here. Nice to see the love for CERTIFIED COPY, HUGO, MELANCHOLIA, PINA, TREE OF LIFE, SHAME and THE ARTIST. Completely agreed on the use of 3D in PINA.

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks, for stopping by, Sam. PINA is very exciting, and I'm glad you enjoyed it, too.