PREFACE: This is not a complete list. At the time of its publication, I haven’t seen a great deal of films I wish I had seen, like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or A Separation. This is, however, the culmination of seeing over 70 films from this year. It should be viewed as a time capsule of taste on this particular day at this particular moment. Were I given another week to mull this over or see more films, it might change drastically. I’m happy with how it looks, and so for the sake of my own sanity will let it stand in this form.
I’ve become more aware, having seen so many films, of my own biases. There are, I think, too many American films on this list, but that simply comes from my position as an American who studies chiefly American films. That’s not to detract from, for instance, The Kid With a Bike, which is marvelous in its own ways. My own biases also allow for choices that are deeply personal, and might make you balk unless you know the kinds of films I love. That’s one reason I’m happy with this list as it is.
I’m often asked if my lists are “Best” lists or “Favorite” lists. Well, they’re both. It’s a confetti of two sides modulated by a very precise equation. To put it another way, these are films that mean something to me. Some have emotional meanings, others intellectual. Some dazzle, some confound. Yet they are all on this list because they meant something. Sure, you can bicker about placement all you want. I invite you to. Debate these choices. They are what they are, but I feel they adequately represent the highs of my cinematic memory in 2011.
20. Bellflower (Evan Glodell)
A whole new kind of apocalypse movie. The team behind Bellflower made one of the most riveting aesthetic exercises of the year, engineering tricked-out cars and home-made movie cameras to capture a wild character study of two friends preparing for the apocalypse while dealing with a hellish and hallucinatory romantic/social spiral.
19. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)
Herzog photographs and comments on early cave paintings with the somewhat stream-of-consciousness verve that his documentaries are known for, but there is something grandiose and profound in his desire to connect our shared experiences of the world, and how we record those experiences. A study of early man’s mediation through a current method of inscribing ourselves.
18. The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
A fractured man tries to hold his immediate family together as they face a traumatic loss, while reconciling with his much larger place in a geographic and historical family. Each moment earns its pathos, its laughs, and its disarming vulnerability. Payne demonstrates his ability to hit each note, each moment with sublime precision.
17. Shame (Steve McQueen)
Not merely an erotic addiction movie, McQueen and Fassbender have created a canvas of compulsive behavior that boils to such devastating lows while the camera never loses its intense and unglamorous eye. A polarizing, perhaps misunderstood, but incredibly demanding effort.
16. Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)
Is it a religious film? A philosophical film? A visual poem? A semi-nature documentary? Some kind of bizarre cocktail combination of all these? If it’s all of the above or none, Frammartino’s film would still stand as one of the year’s most unique and mesmerizing films. Nearly wordless, its beautiful rendering of rural Italy and its metaphysical ruminations on existence transcend language, time, and culture: this is an art film that digs into our universal souls.
15. The Muppets (James Bobin)
There may be a great deal of nostalgia in my unashamed love of this film, but every moment brims with a joy and sincerity you simply won’t find in any other movie this year. It may be paying tribute to the Muppets of yore, but it feels so much like its own creation, pulsing with its own huge heartbeat. The humor is subversive without being condescending, warm without being sappy, childish without being kiddy, and effortlessly walks an ever-increasing number of tight lines between solid belly laughs and going over-the-top. Not to mention it earns a fair share of misty eyes if you had any kind of love for the Muppets as a kid.
14. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
The space of this film is both highly formalized and remarkably lived-in, thanks in large part to Elizabeth Olsen’s amazing performance—one of the best in a year of great character studies. Durkin doesn’t just rely on her in this infiltration of personality cults, trauma, memory, and paranoia—he lets every cinematic mechanism he can summon aid in our doubt and distress. As far as first features go, you can't ask for much more.
13. X-men: First Class (Matthew Vaugn)
Vaugn is not appreciated enough for the intelligent genre filmmaker he is. There are so many moments in First Class that feature smart filmmaking choices, a deep understanding of how the genre and the franchise work, and more importantly of what we expect from the genre. Burying it in a moment of ideological warfare and flying the historical revisionism flag lets First Class go places the superhero genre hasn’t—and simultaneously sets a new kind of standard.
12. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
It’s not a film that you’ll fall in love with easily, despite all its superficial pleasures. Unless, I guess, you’re a genre scholar. While Reichardt’s previous film, Wendy & Lucy, was one of the most effortless and heartbreaking of the recent independent cinema’s strive for a new kind of naturalism, she finally finds in Cutoff a way to expand her naturalist, feminist point of view to an epic, historical canvas.
11. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
When I first came out of Anatolia at the AFI Film Festival, I was horribly underwhelmed by the final hour (the film is nearly 160 minutes, and very slow). In the days and weeks after, Ceylan’s brooding testament to how we record and communicate history, how we tell stories, and the violence that hides beneath our facades became increasingly complex and haunting. It demands total attention beyond what its painterly visuals show, and asks us to look at their increasing disjunction.
10. Beginners (Mike Mills)
There are moments in Beginners that feel almost miraculous in their honesty, their organic view on relationships, and the creativity with which they’re filmed. Always sidestepping the trappings of quirky independent movies (even though he manages to work in a talking dog), Mills uses autobiographical material to forge a surprisingly complex treatise on communicating, relationships, memory, and time. Not to mention all the phenomenal ink penned about Christopher Plummer is absolutely true.
9. Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
I’ve called it “The Lars von Trier Movie for People Who Hate Lars von Trier Movies,” and I still think that fits pretty well. It is alternately rapturously beautiful and horrifically ugly, totally captivating and repulsive. It’s about the disintegration of the family as seen through the end of the world, and even maybe the potential for love as a means of redemption. It’s the most coherent, most affecting film von Trier has made in a decade, and though it’s stuffed with his tough looks on gender and sexuality, it never feels alienating or unnecessarily provocative.
8. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
Of all the movies-about-movies this year (and there were, let’s face it, a lot), Hugo was undoubtedly my favorite. Scorsese allows himself to be wonderfully experimental and disarmingly personal, rendering the world of 1930 Paris in lavish details aided by extraordinary uses of 3D. While the biographical details of Georges Melies and the beginnings of cinema are most certainly retrofitted to the aims of the film, it is nevertheless a beautiful ode to where the technology came from, and the medium’s power to hold us rapt.
7. Super (James Gunn)
I don’t know if it’s just because no one saw it or no one understood it, but Super might be the most overlooked film of the year. It’s the best of the “alternative superhero” (or heroes without powers) movies, simply because Gunn understands what the genre is doing, and he’s willing to push his content into darker, more violent places than Matthew Vaugn dared go in Kick Ass. With Rainn Wilson perfectly straddling layers of mental instability, it’s a perfect declaration of war on the sanitary representation of one of American cinema’s most important 21st century genres.
6. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)
It’s tempting to call Kevin a horror movie, especially as its creepy-kid first half morphs into a this-kid-is-going-to-actually-kill-someone second half, but Ramsay and Tilda Swinton make it something more terrifying and more captivating than retreating into the banal space that genre usually inhabits. Kevin is more about memory than trauma—the need for a mother to assess herself in the face of sheer disaster, not to overcome the horrors she’s experienced, but to try however vainly to understand them. It’s this intermingling of devastation and terror that truly makes the film disturbing and unforgettable.
5. Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
As much as I like to think of myself as a detached, somewhat cynical critic who’s only judging a film on its construction and its arguments, I love a movie all the more for catching me off-guard and nailing those increasingly rare moments where I get completely wrapped up in the film. Moneyball is romantic, rousing, and incisive—a sports movie that’s just as much about ideas as it is about people. Bennett Miller makes so many smart choices in framing, editing, details of the space, uses of sound, and Brad Pitt backs him up in one of his most realized and accessible performances.
4. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
Admittedly, there might be something a little snobbish about Midnight in Paris, at least in so far as it makes me feel good to be the only person laughing hysterically about a Luis Bunuel joke in a crowded movie theater. There are two sides to Woody Allen’s great, great film: The side that’s spilling over with amazing impersonations and jokes about the great literary and artistic figures of the 1920s; and a quite adept look at how nostalgia functions and why it’s so harmful. It’s about self-discovery as much as reliving the past, and performs both with simply beauty.
3. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
It’s hard to imagine a better adaptation to the blockbuster pulp novel. Fincher brings his trademark obsessiveness, his grime, and his finely attuned eyes and ears to reveal all the repellant properties of Steig Larsson’s work, while he and the utterly captivating Rooney Mara work painfully into evoking the full icy terror of this tapestry of a society trying to cover up or come to terms with its festering wounds. The most stunning thing is how effortless it feels, how it trades big pulp detective work and serious traumatic sexual issues almost at whim without ever losing its balance. Every moment is masterful.
2. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
On merely the level of craft and aesthetic, Drive has almost no equal: every shot, every movement, every longing glance, every gun blast and burst of blood is stunning because it feels so perfectly realized. Its powerful, blunt shifts from romance to graphic violence are intense, honed juxtapositions that could actually make you gasp. Onto the sparse screenplay, Refn has molded an epic of antihero swagger and an intense meditation on heroism. That, and his foreign eyes capture something remarkably beautiful about Los Angeles, something that certainly inspired more than one late night drive down the surface streets blasting “A Real Hero.”
1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
The story of movies for me this year was really “The Tree of Life…and everything else.” It’s rare to feel like you’re actually part of a significant piece of art, that you simply know the film you’re watching is going to be debated, discussed, and heralded as important for years to come. Not only did I feel that with Tree of Life—when was the last time a major art house film was a huge part of the summer movie discourse?—but I too had something of a religious experience watching the film. Malick’s treatise on man’s place in the universe, enhanced so much through the prologue and epilogue that elevates the film into the cosmic, felt so real, as if he had captured life itself and morphed it through the cinema. The elliptical, canted view of childhood and memory are some of the most profound, purely human filmmaking I’ve ever had the privilege to watch. I understand why people (sometimes positively and sometimes negatively) compare it to 2001: A Space Odyssey—the long shots of space and the birth of mankind certainly share some structural similarities—but I think the comparison makes sense in a much deeper way. Like 2001, The Tree of Life is about exploring our space in the universe, but it also begs us to explore it on our own for the sake of our own meaning. This is the stuff great cinema—and great art—is made of.