In terms of depth, the cinematic year of 2011 may have been somewhat slim — indeed, I noticed myself stretching just a bit when thinking of ten worthy honorable mentions — but, at the tip of the iceberg, it managed to offer more than a handful of films that seriously flirt with the sphere of greatness. There were certainly more of these than I can recall from 2010, which, beyond a few choice titles (The Social Network, Biutiful, Another Year), was a twelve-month span characterized by hoards of films that fell short of truly significant achievement.
At the moment, 2011 is more specifically defined in my mind by Brad Pitt. It was a landmark year for the two-time Oscar nominee, who I’ve always admired for his steadfast desire to creatively expand movie-star boundaries. He’s been a consistent presence in great films throughout his career, and judging by the magnificence of his 2011 output, that prolific hunger is far from gone. Fox Searchlight, meanwhile, with titles like Win Win, The Tree of Life, Margaret, Shame, The Descendants, and Martha Marcy May Marlene, offered one of the most pristine studio lineups in years.
3-D, I suppose, was another talking point of the year, as Martin Scorsese, one of the longtime American greats, wandered into the field with his adored Hugo. Wim Wenders also constructed a breathtaking visual landscape with his 3-D documentary Pina. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, there were things like Tarsem Singh’s Immortals that just made me cringe at the thought of the technology.
I’ll let my top ten do the rest of the talking, in addition to the ten honorable mentions listed below (in alphabetical order). And stay tuned over the coming days and weeks for more year-in-review tributes. I’ll be highlighting the best performances of the year, both lead and supporting, as well as any other recapping madness I can come up with. For now, here are the best films of 2011.
Certified Copy — The presence of Juliette Binoche virtually guarantees a must-see these days, and the pleasure of this Abbas Kiarostami mixed-message reflection on marriage and companionship is that it is also so much more. Co-lead William Shimell strikes lightning with his big-screen debut.
Contagion — Brisk, chilly, frightening, and technically immaculate. Matt Damon provides the heart, Jude Law the zeal, and Laurence Fishburne the steady backbone. Ends with a punishing bang.
The Guard — Unexpectedly touching rapport between Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle headlines this fresh, profanity-heavy, nastily funny debut from John Michael McDonagh.
Hanna — Joe Wright’s endlessly exciting foray into action-genre filmmaking, filled with the formal boldness he displayed during Atonement‘s iconic five-minute tracker. The Chemical Brothers, buzzing with electronic intensity, offer one of the year’s most memorable scores.
Martha Marcy May Marlene — A shrewd, cunning psychological-thriller debut from Sean Durkin. Elizabeth Olsen disappears into a star-making performance. John Hawkes as good as ever. [Review]
Midnight in Paris — Charming Woody Allen script bolstered by what is surely a career-best turn from Owen Wilson. As soothing as the afternoon rain.
Rampart — Oren Moverman’s second film, boasting an inferno of a performance from Woody Harrelson, does everything in its power to present a character on the path of a bottomless downfall. That’s why I like it. [Review]
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — A first-class seminar in every craft category imaginable. Tomas Alfredson directs with frigid control. Gary Oldman placidly oversees one of the year’s most exquisite ensembles. [Review]
Weekend — Andrew Haigh’s talky, meditative presentation of a short-lived gay romance (consummately performed by Tom Cullen and Chris New) works wonders with its transcendant delicacy. Stays with you longer than you’d think.
Win Win — As heartfelt as they come, and featuring yet another outstanding performance from Paul Giamatti, who was nomination-worthy in last year’s Barney’s Version. Amy Ryan provides lovely supporting work.
Alexander Payne travels to Hawaii in his first film in seven years and gives George Clooney, who is the film’s outstanding, stripped-down core every step of the way, the most down-to-earth role of his career. Payne’s script, aided by co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, fuses comedy and drama in a way that makes the majority of something like 50/50, a solid film in its own right, look like child’s play. The performances, though, will always be the prime talking point here, from Clooney’s intimate linchpin to Shailene Woodley’s straight-arrow troubled teen. A pitch-perfect Judy Greer and an appropriately sour Robert Forster bring ace supporting work to the party. Each scene is filled with surprises. [Review]
Werner Herzog’s startlingly penetrative look at a senseless triple homicide that took place in Conroe, Texas in 2001, and the death-penalty repercussions that have developed since the crime was committed. Herzog skillfully projects an objective perspective while, at the same time, never straying from his pro-life stance on the issue of capital punishment. The father of Jason Burkett, one of the two murderers currently in the midst of a life sentence, gives a series of testimonies that just about tore me to pieces with their cruel, devastating honesty. He defines the crux of the film’s smacking impact — the off-camera Herzog trying to represent hope while everything he’s filming is ruined by monumental sadness and despair. [Review]
An outstanding sophomore excursion for Jeff Nichols, anchored by a Michael Shannon performance of powerhouse proportions. Nichols’ film would be good enough if it were simply an unsolvable, angst-ridden portrait of psychological obsession, but that it adds a scarring message regarding generational ties during its searing climax lifts it to legitimate heights. Other people will probably take away different interpretations from the film, which is completely acceptable by design, but what I personally gathered from that storm-shelter apex will stick with me like a splinter. [Review]
Nicolas Winding Refn’s luxuriously mounted neo-noir is a significant directorial accomplishment, one that takes a so-so screenplay from Hossein Amini and somehow comes out on the other end with a deliriously savvy, inexplicably moving piece of filmmaking. That such a seemingly lightweight story could be transformed into a bull-headed rush of charged emotion remains one of the year’s great mysteries, as well as one of its miracles. Ryan Gosling is in full-throttle movie-star mode, saying little but emoting boatloads. That’s also, in a nutshell, the film’s idiosyncratic impact. [Review]
Steve McQueen’s threatening examination of a New York sex addict, played with remarkable force and intensity by Michael Fassbender. Carey Mulligan is every bit his equal as the bruised, apartment-hopping sister. This is daring subject matter that would ultimately be only that if McQueen’s direction wasn’t so sure-handed and powerful. Abi Morgan’s screenplay, co-written with McQueen, is an achievement for its character-arc subtlety and the quiet twists it pulls on the addiction genre. Harry Escott riffs together an evocative score that plays over a bravura opening sequence. I was hooked and never released. [Review]
Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret has endured a winding, convoluted route to the big screen — it was a filmed over a half-decade ago — but it has at last arrived in theaters, courtesy of a rare mishandling by the folks at Fox Searchlight, who understandably tried to dump the film away with a week-long limited release. Those who have seen the film, however, have voiced their appreciation, and a year-end resurgence is brewing for the inspired, 150-minute gem. Anna Paquin, who’s gained popularity by now as a result of HBO’s True Blood (which I haven’t watched), gives a tour-de-force leading performance here, one that should be sweeping up best actress awards with absolute ease. Lonergan’s vision is a firehouse of dense, lofty implications, and not all of it flows together seamlessly, but it’s bolstered by a determined ensemble and a closing shot that is easily among the year’s finest compositions.
Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s best-seller is a minefield of brazen directorial decisions, from the amplified sound design — a sprinkler has never meant so much — to the offbeat soundtrack choices and the deft, potent merging of past and present timelines. Tilda Swinton offers a fragile, perceptive performance that, like the film, haunts with its confusion and ambiguity. Ezra Miller, meanwhile, in the title role, is spookily effective in slicing together one of the more deranged, compelling characters of the year. The film is ultimately a shattering piece of storytelling, but the spellbinding nature of Ramsay’s approach will leave you oddly exhilarated, even while the most grim of imaginable events are presented. [Review]
Asghar Farhadi’s acclaimed film from Iran is so many things wrapped up in a single piece of moviemaking — a dazzlingly layered mystery, a piercing depiction of divorce, an observation of the justice system, a slicing challenge of the trust that a daughter has for her father. The staggering Farhadi screenplay is given fiery weight by a uniformly brilliant ensemble packed with rich, humane characters. Above all, it’s simply a benchmark of top-notch storytelling — masterfully plotted and thematically realized.
After 2010′s The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin is once again responsible for the year’s best adapted screenplay. This time around he’s co-writing with Steven Zaillian, and together they weave a story that percolates vibrantly with ideas and emotion. Director Bennett Miller, previously of Capote fame, takes themes that could’ve been filmed with chilly reserve — numbers versus intuition, spreadsheets versus hand-drawn scorecards, professional obsession — and gives them a unique, poignant humanity. Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill are in peak form, playing characters that have too many dimensions to count. [Review]
The fifth feature-length outing for the preeminently gifted Terrence Malick, and certainly one of the most ambitious directorial efforts of the past quarter century. I was completely swept up by the unparalleled scale of the film, in addition to the towering beauty of Emmanuel Lubezki’s year-best cinematography. The incongruous inclusion of Sean Penn and the Douglas Trumbull-designed cosmos sequence are the places where The Tree of Life will divide viewers, but almost everyone can agree than the intimacy of Malick’s depiction of 1950s family life in Waco, Texas — beautifully acted by Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, youngster Hunter McCracken, and others — leaves a lasting, meaningful stamp. I cherish every minute of the picture, flaws and all, and eagerly await any extended cuts that may come our way.
There’s 2011. Feel free to leave your thoughts and choices below. Onward we go.