In my head, people regard me as a bitter contrarian who can’t like the things that everybody else does; maybe this is not so, but every time I spit out a disgusted 5/10 for the like of The Descendants or Young Adult (both of which, incidentally, I truly did expect to like), I can’t help but feel like I’m being mean just for the sake of it.
Which makes this next bit kind of absurd, but I think I might have liked the cinema of 2011 a whole lot more than it deserves. On paper, despite a significant uptick in the big summer blockbusters, it follows right down the line of 2009 and 2010, years in which the vast majority of everything was bland and safe in the most offensive possible way. Especially the anointed year-end prestige pictures. And yet the number of things I actively loved was higher than it has been since at least 2007. This says less, I fear, about myself than about the movies of the year. I think it was just a matter of a whole lot of films that pushed my very specific buttons in all the right ways. Viz: a pair of very different riffs on the Western genre (Rango and Meek’s Cutoff); films by auteurs I’m already in the bag for stretching outside of their comfort zone (Certified Copy, Kiarostami in France; Hugo, Scorsese making a 3-D kids’ movie; We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ramsay’s psychological horror flick); films that exist for almost no other reason than to praise silent movies for being so much better than anything else (The Artist and Hugo again); adaptations of books I love that only had to not suck for me to be on board (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Winnie the Pooh); popcorn movies which do a lot of their storytelling through production design (Captain America: The First Avenger and Rise of the Planet of the Apes); and the arrival, at long last, of 3-D as a proper artistic tool (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Pina, and Hugo a third time – it is fair to say, in fact, that Hugo played to more of my weaknesses than any other film of 2011).
In looking for a narrative that connects all the movies of the year, as one will do, the only one I have been able to find is that 2011 featured a lot of films that fascinated and delighted me for, often, no damn good reason. And so, if my top 10 feels sort of like a disordered grab bag, it’s only because I moved through the year like a cinephilic magpie, darting for all the things that caught my attention. Perversely, the result is one of my favorite lists of the last decade, and I suspect one of the most revealing, even if it is uncharacteristically on-consensus (three likely Oscar BP noms in my top 10? for shame) and embarassingly focused on English-language projects.
(Because I am an American, and a dull one at that, this list follows Oscar eligibility rules: played in New York/Los Angeles in a commercial theater between January 1 and December 31).
The 10 Best Films of 2011
1. The Tree of Life
2. Certified Copy
3. A Separation
5. Tuesday, After Christmas
6. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
7. We Need to Talk About Kevin
8. Winnie the Pooh
10. The Artist
1. The Tree of Life
(Terrence Malick, USA)
I have long since run out of objectivity towards Malick’s fifth and best oh-yes-I-did-go-there film in a 38-year career. I’ve now seen it more than any other 2011 release, and every single time it’s a brand new experience: now I am floored by the sublimity of Emmanuel Lubezki’s dusky cinematography, now by the thematic density, now by the blazing use of music, now by the spectacle of the creation sequence, now by Brad Pitt’s severity tempered with Jessica Chastain’s porcelain gentleness. I wonder if the Sean Penn material is a bit inexplicable, but saying that this wrecks the film is like arguing that the Sistine Chapel ceiling is inherently bad because looking at it hurts your neck. Not merely the best film of 2011; I have to go back at least as far as Inland Empire to find something that devastated me so completely, so many times in a row.
2. Certified Copy
(Abbas Kiarostami, France / Italy / Belgium)
Dismissed in some circles as “minor Kiarostami”; this is a) untrue, and b) irrelevant. It could be minor Kiarostami, or major Shawn Levy, and it would still be the same movie: an ingenious study of what “authenticity” and “truth” mean, delivering its message as an insoluble puzzle about the nature of the relationship between two characters whose professions involve ferreting out what is real from what is fake. Blessed with two great actors (including Juliette Binoche giving one of the best performances of her career) and delectable location cinematography that is beautiful as a picture postcard even while it adds a layer of complexity to the film’s already deceptively stuffed visuals. Befitting a film whose theme could be summed up as “reality is ambiguous”, the film doesn’t so much as imply that it has a “solution”, but its questions are so invigorating and beautifully expressed that it doesn’t need one.
3. A Separation
(Asghar Fardahi, Iran)
Complex in ways that one viewing can’t even begin to reveal, but we backwards Yanks just have to suck it up that one of the most universally-praised works of world cinema in 2011 was hustled into theaters for an awards-qualifying run at the ass-end of the year. That’s still enough time to be absolutely flattened by its multi-layered sociology, which uses a story of casual misogyny to comment on repressive religiosity, unless it’s the other way around, and there’s also the bits about authoritarian governments and class issues. And just when you get your head around that, you have to confront how breathtakingly exciting it all is to watch, given how easily Farhadi turns his political fable into a nail-biting legal thriller. At that point, four of the best performances of the year are just lagniappe: insurance against the thing somehow failing, after that, to be a shattering human drama.
(Martin Scorsese, USA)
I would love to be disciplined enough to feel slightly less ecstatic love for this gimmicky, spectacle-heavy tribute to the gimmicky, spectacle-heavy Cinema of Attractions of the early 1900s; I am not. The overriding artificiality of Scorsese’s execution of the brashly sentimental tale about how a broken little boy and a broken old man are mended by cinephilia and grandiose production design has its detractors, not unreasonably; but there’s such continuity of vision in the creation of this world, and it is so shamelessly immersive – the opening ten minutes are the definitive argument for why 3-D needs to exist – that a few narrative contrivances here or there strike me as all in good fun. Or to put it another way: I had such a good time staring at and being surrounded by the excessive style, I didn’t always care whether there were legitimate human beings involved or not.
5. Tuesday, After Christmas
(Radu Muntean, Romania)
Modern Romanian cinema is like McDonald’s, if McDonald’s were one of the best restaurants in the world: part of the appeal is that you know exactly what you’re getting into from the start (marathon-length takes, somewhat unpleasant characters, a symbolic representation of the painful post-Communist phase of that country’s development), and it’s going to be great. Even so, Muntean’s first movie that English speakers have gotten much chance to see is special: one of the rawest studies of the emotional effect of adultery in recent years, anchored by three basically flawless performances, it is a wee bit savage and a wee bit programmatic, and a whole lot of devastating in all of the right ways. It mercilessly and at times hilariously examines the cost of lust and selfishness with terrific insight and focus, culminating in a terse final scene whose subtlety and icy honesty are as gripping as cinema gets.
6. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
(Thomas Alfredson, UK / France / Germany)
There’s little emotion to be found in the mechanical precision of this wonderful adaptation’s narrative march, which is exactly the point. In any medium, TTSS is about the layers of defensive lies that people put on and never take back off, which in this iteration finds physical expression in the indelibly precise Cold War era sets and costumes that double as a prison for the characters and expression of what’s left of their innermost selves. The centerpiece of this chilly, broken world is Gary Oldman’s career-best performance as the retired George Smiley, a man denied a place in two worlds, whose quest for the truth takes on a harder edge than Alec Guinness managed in the iconic miniseries, because Guinness just wanted to prove that he still deserved to exist; Oldman, pushed harder and faster by the condensation of the story, needs to prove that he still exists at all.
7. We Need to Talk About Kevin
(Lynne Ramsay, UK)
Two people whom I trust very much, doubly so about Ramsay and Tilda Swinton,* are both rather cool towards this collaboration between the two artists, and knowing this caused me considerable self-doubt; eventually, I gave up trying to find fault with anything beyond the ineffective casting of a very game John C. Reilly. There are just too many things I love here all being mixed together: a top-shelf Swinton performance; maddeningly elliptical storytelling that’s grounded more in the effect it produces than any resemblance to reality; bombastic visuals that feel purposeful even at their most outrageous. Best of all is its fearless combination of psychological insight with psychological grotesqueness, and of course, around these parts, we are altogether in favor of movies that combine genre elements with arthouse pretension. When I call We Need to Talk About Kevin the best, nastiest horror film of 2011, I am not speaking figuratively.
8. Winnie the Pooh
(Stephen J. Anderson & Don Hall, USA)
Depressingly, it has spots of horribly regrettable character animation – not just in reference to the 1977 masterpiece that it follows, but by any standard in Disney history. I otherwise have absolutely no complaints about this exaggeratedly slight exercise in naïveté and the glacial slowness of an afternoon when you are a child & have absolutely nothing to do & take your sweet time about not doing it; in fact, I liked it more upon second viewing than before, which hardly seems possible. Partially, it’s the unmitigated joy of a children’s film with so much wordplay and metatextual gamesmanship beyond even the weirdly postmodern original; partially, it’s how the filmmakers replicate the aesthetic of a classic they obviously revere while still pushing in enough new directions to make this its own thing. In a year thick with nostalgia, this was, to me, the most quietly satisfying blast from the past.
(Gore Verbinski, USA)
A parody of Western movies bursting at the seams with a fanatic’s love for the Western even at its most ripe and ridiculous; a cartoon applying some of the best photo-realistic animation ever achieved to the brutally absurd physical illogic of the Looney Tunes at their most anarchic; Johnny Depp’s best performance in years as a CGI lizard twisted around like a Ralph Steadman drawing. Such are the exquisite contradictions of what I have come to suspect is Verbinski’s best film, an exercise in gorgeous impossibilities that lets him indulge in all of the manic creativity that live-action only allowed him to hint at. It’s funny as hell and perilously overstuffed with allusions to everything from ’20s Surrealism to Chinatown, but what sticks is the giddiness of the charmingly grotesque world that Verbinski and Co. have created: a world that’s a little bit like ours, only so much goddamn weirder.
10. The Artist
(Michel Hazanavicius, France / Belgium)
I find it curious that almost everyone who doesn’t like the film and/or is turned off by the awards season hosannas it’s receiving has made the damning argument that it is totally insubstantial; that happens to be exactly what I love about it. For all the gorgeously complex artisan cuisine in the world, sometimes a body wants a piece of sickly-sweet, insanely rich chocolate, and that holds true for cinematic nourishment as well. On second viewing, the aesthetic conceit doesn’t hold up as well as I’d hoped – it looks more like a film from the early-’40s than the late-’20s when you really consider the camerawork and editing choices – but the cutesey comic melodrama which remains kind of silly even at its most serious, and the shameless mugging, and that adorable fucking dog all add up to a film that treats the business of frivolity with the utmost gravity.
Best Movie Unreleased in the US, and Likely to Remain That Way
Visually and structurally audacious, this pitch black fairy tale is assuredly not for all tastes – it’s willfully obscure and tremendously slow – but the precision of each and every shot, and of the inordinately stylised performances that the off-kilter script requires, are like nothing else I’ve seen in ages. It’s the kind of art-house masterpiece that gives pretension a good name, and a one-film argument for a better pipeline for South American cinema to reach the rest of the world.
10. Beastly (Daniel Barnz)
Yes, Virginia, there are paranormal teen romances worse than Twilight – here, a disastrous hybrid of teen soaps and Beauty and the Beast that boasts a character who announces his self-centered dickishness like the protagonist of a Victorian melodrama, played by the shockingly unlikable prettyboy Alex Pettyfer, and a “be nice to ugly people” moral that cannot begin to survive its celebration of model-gorgeous actors, including the emotionally blank Vanessa Hudgens as the “plain” girl.
9. Shark Night 3D (David R. Ellis)
It sounds like a can’t-miss explosion of the most extravagantly cheesy excess one film could hold: sharks! killer rednecks! tacky 3-D! Except that in their inexplicable drive for a PG-13, the filmmakers dialed down all of the crude flourishes that were the project’s sole reason to exist, and turned it into a toothless slasher with abysmal CGI sharks standing in for the masked psychopath. It’s as stupid as modern horror gets, and that’s damn stupid.
8. Just Go with It (Dennis Dugan)
The corpse of classic farce lies dead and twitching at the feet of Adam Sandler, who headlines a cast of uniformly awful people lying and bullying their way into romance. There is a place for misanthropic comedy, but that requires something resembling a sense of humor; as it is, only a phenomenally misplaced Nicole Kidman, who apparently did not get the memo, avoids the resentful sourness that has saturated every other inch of the picture.
7. Priest (Scott Stewart)
Incoherent action sequences and convoluted mythology that often doesn’t hold together for the length of a scene are merely the most obvious flaws in what might well be the worst big-budget vampire movie ever, a slapdash mixture of horror, Westerns, and Blade Runner. A light, unserious tone could have redeemed it, except that Stewart insistently treats it with the gravity of a religious text, which might explain the crosses stuffed in damn near every frame.
6. Atlas Shrugged: Part I (Paul Johansson)
Honestly, I feel sorry for the filmmakers: obviously hoping to tap into an underserved market and change the way people think with their gushing love-letter to Ayn Rand, they instead made what looks like an unusually cheap and unfocused student project. Headlined by two of the most uncharismatic leads to ever stare glassy-eyed off to the side of a camera, the film is a howling vortex from which nothing resembling a human emotion can escape.
5. New Year’s Eve (Garry Marshall)
A romantic comedy that suggests that we, as a species, are too far gone for either romance or comedy to ever bother with us again. It’s not the script contrivances, nor the dubious “all-star” cast of dead-eyed teenyboppers, a visibly despairing Michelle Pfeiffer or an incomprehensibly over-qualified Robert De Niro; it’s the grinding lack of joy or any other affect with which Marshall deposits these elements in front of us, that make it so hateful.
4. I Melt with You (Mark Pellington)
Four unbelievably awful, entitled douchebags spend a week buried in drugs while feeling sorry for themselves because their overwhelming success has gotten in the way of the puddle-deep punk ethos they lived by in college. So they kill themselves to keep it real. The film wants us to think that this is tragic and honest; the only tragedy I see is that they didn’t do it faster and save two precious hours of my life.
3. Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder)
A nauseating demonstration of how much words don’t actually mean things nowadays: Snyder actually thought he could get away with calling this slurry of the most retrograde sexist fantasies “feminist”, on the grounds that his fetish-clad heroines were- I don’t even know, actually, what the fuck Snyder thought, any more than I can make heads or tails of the warped three-tiered script that he uses an excuse to blend video game logic with warmed-over Tarantinoisms.
2. Hop (Tim Hill)
No, really, did I actually give this 3/10 when it came out? Good Christ. That is far too much generosity towards a film that manages to insult the dignity of childhood, Easter, rabbits, candy, and happiness in 95 horrible minutes of hip and sassy animals parading through a horrendously busy world of rancid ideas and cinematic illiteracy; a film whose chief contribution to society is the idea that the Easter Bunny’s son can crap jellybeans.
1. The Roommate (Christian E. Christiansen)
When I declared in February that this would be the worst film of 2011, I wasn’t necessarily expecting to be right, but I find it oddly satisfying that I didn’t end up seeing anything that would outdo this uniquely heinous combination of dreadful acting by airbrushed young white people, direction that telegraphs every moment of even the slightest tension, and a script that understands absolutely nothing of how humans work. Agonising, insipid, and intensely boring.
A Dangerous Method
Completely ignored in the awards season rush of prestige films with literary backgrounds, and dismissed as insufficiently weird for Cronenberg; but it is, I maintain, simply a different kind of weird, and a pretty damned effective kind at that. It’s very intelligent filmmaking that sees no need to flaunt its intelligence, anchored by a trio of carefully-calibrated and pointedly discordant performances.
I’faith, most of the films that I’d ordinarily expect to plug in here don’t really seem to have excited all that much enthusiasm, and so can hardly be called “overrated”, though I wish the sluggish, casually elitist The Descendants hadn’t won so many awards. I will also concede that I am mystified by the number of undeniably intelligent and absolutely respectable people who are taken with the Sundance 101 drama Martha Marcy May Marlene.
“From the makers of Saw” is one of the very worst things you could ever say about a horror film, and yet James Wan and Leigh Whannell still managed to sneak out what might be, if not the “best” horror picture of the year, arguably the most pleasurable: a terrifically creepy ghost story with old-fashioned sensibility and new-fangled technique, and a third act that’s sufficiently hokey to give it a fun, goofing-around-the-campfire tone.
It’s not the movie’s fault that it was so easy to expect more than it was ever going to be capable of delivering; nor is it Steve Whitmire’s fault that Jim Henson is dead, or Eric Jacobson’s that Frank Oz has retired. None of which change how frequently this feels nothing like an actual Muppet movie, how often it fails to cohere as a motion picture per se, and worst of all, how quickly it evaporated from memory.
Best Popcorn Movie
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Killer setpieces, great chemistry between every pole of its pretty celebrity cast, a witty screenplay that doesn’t pull focus from the action, and it exploits the giant scale of IMAX as well as a movie could ever hope to do; this is what every blockbuster film should be, smart and fun to watch and made by rock solid professionals who don’t feel the need to look down on the material.
Since it just barely failed to hit the top 20, I also wanted to give a little shout-out to my boy Captain America, for remembering that, wait a minute, superhero movies are supposed to be fun to watch.
A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas
It sets new lows for outright stupidity in a franchise that actually was smarter than you’d think to start; and its biggest draw is the intense tackiness of almost everything from the pothead Santa to its forthright depiction of CGI semen in three dimensions. But in a year when The Hangover, Part II, among others, reminded us of how ghastly crass humor can be, it was nice to have proof that it can be playful and endearing, too.
Film That Will Least Deserve My Positive Review a Decade Hence
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
I will confess an intellectual dishonesty: feeling trapped by my rating for the original, written when the story was new to me and its salacious machinations diverting enough to keep me entertained, I dug in and found whatever I could to support a muted, but encouraging review for the remake. Just over a week later, I can recall nothing actively positive about the experience of watching it beyond the editing and the score, and the energy which David Fincher spends in trying to turn the material into a nihilistic epic seems even more wasted and frustrating. So by, “a decade hence”, I really mean “right this very minute”.
Film That Will Least Deserve My Negative Review a Decade Hence
Actually, that’s not true: it will always deserve a negative review, because it is a bad movie. On the other hand, it is a far more ingenious and joyful bad movie than I would have ever given it credit for at the time, and while it’s too long – the great sin of all modern filmmaking, I sometimes think – the parts that work are cherce. After all this time, I am stunned by how much some of the imagery, and William Fichtner’s exuberant performance as a bureaucrat from Hell, have lingered in my head after a great many less sleazy and obnoxious movies have slid unnoticed into the memory hole.
Film I’m Most Eager to Re-Visit
I would like to be a full-throated member of Team Margaret, but it’s a little too shaggy of a dog for me to feel completely comfortable with that kind of commitment. On the other hand, its sloppiness is an indivisible part of what makes it such a magnetic viewing experience, the sloppiness of a living, breathing humanity that captivates Kenneth Lonergan too much for him to be objective and disciplined about it. The version we’ve seen is going to be a release-date Blu-Ray purchase for me, assuming Fox is sufficiently ashamed to even grant the thing a video release; meanwhile, I am slavering for any smally hint that we might ever have a chance to see Lonergan’s own cut.
In The Artist, when eager ingenue Peppy Miller sneaks into the dressing room of her celebrity crush, George Valentin, and finding his dinner jacket hanging on a coatrack, slides her arm through it and caresses herself with his sleeve. It’s a damn near perfect collision of silliness, tenderness, and the kind of restrained (and therefore even smokier) eroticism of a for-real 1920s movie, and it’s about as indelible an image as they come.
The first time that a human being in The Smurfs tries to interact with the title characters, and you realise that you have over an hour and a half more of this to go.
The other candidate would be the shit joke in Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. I have, admittedly, not seen Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. But I know it’s there.
Best Worst Moment
Of course, the birth scene in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 was going to fall beneath our expectations – PG-13, you know – but it was still pretty damn tasteless and stupid and delightfully awful. Blood smoothies 4-eva!
Adrien Brody zipping into Midnight in Paris and right back as a rhinoceros-addled Salvador Dalí, leaving in his wake the funniest scene in a Woody Allen picture in decades.
Buzz Aldrin lending his gravitas to Transformers: Dark of the Moon, a picture that might as well have been called Fuck NASA: The Movie.
Worst Overuse of Orange and Teal
A film whose considerable joys lie primarily in its sense of visual creativity should not, I think, bathe that selfsame creativity in the most hackneyed visual shortcut known to contemporary cinema.
At first, its emptiness seems cryptic, but the longer you think about it, the more it starts to reveal about the person who just rumpled those sheets, particular with the tiny and unassuming but extremely prominent positioning of the title. I somewhat wonder if it doesn’t capture the idea of loneliness and self-created misery better than the film itself manages to, in point of fact.
Best Teaser Poster
The Dark Knight Rises
Nolan’s final Batman film is about as pre-sold as they come, so really just about any image would have worked. But the series has enjoyed some of the finest print advertising in modern blockbuster history, and this is as good as anything they’ve done yet: a simple concept executed sparely, with a bleached color palette and vaguely apocalyptic spirit of destruction that both promise in the most unfussy way possible that the bleakest chapter in the franchise is yet to come.
The Adjustment Bureau
Holy fuck, that is some Photoshopping going on there. Stylisation is one thing, but not when you start violating the rules of Euclidean space – I get at least at least three entirely incompatible perspective lines going on here, and Matt Damon personally involves two of them.
Most Honest Poster
When Star Trek came out, I complained that its poster was a deliberately misleading us by failing to show how overladen with lens flares that film was. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Super 8 poster.
Worst Execution of a Good Poster Idea
The Ides of March
It’s so damn obvious where they wanted to go with it, and it would have been so cool if they’d gotten there. But the magazine seems to exist in a different space-time continuum than Ryan Gosling’s head and I don’t know whose hand that is, and the airbrushing makes it all look too waxy to take any of it seriously.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Teaser
So pounding! So intense! So dark and brooding! So much more atmospheric and thrilling than the movie it’s advertising, and the worst thing is how easy it was to guess that even while you were watching the trailer, and yet you still wanted to go see it.
The Muppets – “Green with Envy”
One joke, but it’s a hell of a joke, and the narrator’s incredibly confused line-readings are perfection.
Trailer Most Superior to the Film It Advertises
One of those two, I haven’t decided which yet.
Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Best Title Translated to English
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Worst Degredation of a Title
From The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which evokes a sense of mystery and possibility, to Hugo Cabret, solid and sensible as a pair of dress shoes, to Hugo, which sounds like a comedy about a fat kid who wants to be a tennis star.
Title with the Most Distracting Missing Word
Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon
Most Optimistic Title
Atlas Shrugged: Part I
Most Ominous Title
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1
Best Film I Saw for the First Time in 2011
Honestly, it’s probably The Tree of Life. But in the interests of spreading the wealth, I shall rocket us back to the silent era, to one of the all-time great stylists, Josef von Sternberg, and his breathtakingly misty, Expressionist melodrama The Docks of New York.