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The Top Ten Movies of 2011

by Ethan Alter December 28, 2011 5:50 pm
The Top Ten Movies of 2011

For me at least, the year in film started with a bang in the form of Gregg Araki's crazysexycool apocalyptic collegiate comedy Kaboom and ended with the whimper that was Stephen Daldry's flat, feeble 9/11 drama Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. In between those two bookends, 2011 proved a pretty great year for movies, particularly if you thought outside the Hollywood box. After lumbering through a mostly fallow winter, spring and summer, the big movie studios rebounded with a strong fall slate of releases that included the bold new works from veteran filmmakers (Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh among them), star vehicles that actually emphasized brains over brawn (Moneyball, The Descendants) and even a few above-average franchise entries (Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol, Paranormal Activity 3). And when Hollywood faltered, the independent and international film industries picked up the slack. If you lived nearby an art house or had access to a video-on-demand service, every month brought a steady stream of terrific titles that ran the gamut of genres, from ultraviolent samurai tales (Takeshi Miike's 13 Assassins) to moody Westerns (Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff) to stories of young love in bloom (Andrew Haigh's Weekend). Some years, I struggle to decide which films absolutely deserve a place on my Top Ten list. This year, I struggled to decide which ones I could leave off without too much regret. (That explains, by the way, why my list of Honorable Mentions includes another twenty-odd movies I couldn't bear not to single out.) So without further ado, in one of the best years for movies in some time, here are the best of the best.

10. Source Code
I still wish Duncan Jones's sophomore feature ended ten minutes before it actually does, as the movie's concluding moments come dangerously close to completely undermining its already tenuous internal logic. But the rest of this crackerjack science-fiction adventure is such a witty, clever ride, I'm willing to literally look the other way during those final scenes. One of the things I appreciate most about the film is that Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley essentially made an Alfred Hitchcock thriller with a Twilight Zone twist. And, much like Hitch and Rod Serling, they wisely avoid letting the narrative get bogged down in exposition and technobabble, dropping the viewer into the central scenario and outlining the rules of this sci-fi world through the characters' actions rather than momentum-killing monologues. Another key to the movie's success is Jake Gyllenhaal -- an actor I've never had much use for -- who delivers a remarkably assured and charismatic performance as the stranger-on-a-train hero. Hands down the year's most enjoyable piece of popcorn entertainment, Source Code is the kind of movie I know I'll get sucked into watching over and over again whenever I stumble across it on cable.

9. Conan O'Brien Can't Stop
There were a number of great documentaries about weighty social issues released during 2011, but the non-fiction feature I keep coming back to is Rodman Flender's vivid, vibrant portrait of dethroned late night king Conan O'Brien. Flender started filming the red-headed comic mere weeks after he lost The Tonight Show gig in humiliatingly public fashion and subsequently embarked on an exhausting cross-country tour with a live music-and-comedy show he quickly built from the ground up. What could have been a self-serving vanity project is actually a provocative film about the perks and perils of contemporary celebrity, as well as the way an artist's passion for his craft can drive him to produce great work, while also blinding him to the way his behavior can negatively impact the people around him. As with D.A. Pennebaker's pioneering on-the-road with Bob Dylan documentary Don't Look Back -- to which this film is very much a present-day counterpart -- Conan O'Brien Can't Stop embraces its subject's contradictions rather than trying to explain them away and emerges as a richer film for it.

8. Rango
It was a mostly disappointing year for animated features, as the Big Three (Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks) focused their energies on a series of underwhelming remakes, sequels and offshoots of existing franchises -- Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Winnie the Pooh, Puss in Boots etc. etc. Fortunately, the Hawaiian-shirt wearing chameleon cowboy star of Rango rode to our rescue, saving us from this state of cartoon mediocrity. Director Gore Verbinski, screenwriter John Logan and lead vocal actor Johnny Depp cleverly mashed up Golden Age oaters, spaghetti westerns, surrealistic frontier tales and Roman Polanski's Chinatown to spin an Old West yarn with a distinctly modern edge. Visually, Rango was an endless delight, containing some of the year's most beautiful big-screen images (animation or live-action). It also never preached at or talked down to the audience, trusting that viewers both young and old would appreciate and enjoy it's story of an unlikely hero who nevertheless responds with courage when greatness is thrust upon him. Even if the rest of 2011's animated slate had been stronger, Rango would still have stood tall in the saddle.

7. A Separation
If I were a studio marketing type, I'd probably refer to Asghar Farhadi's fifth feature as Law & Order: Iran in the hopes that it would drive American moviegoers to seek out this superb Iranian drama. It's not an entirely inaccurate description, as the bulk of the movie revolves around a legal case that pits an estranged middle-class couple against a poorer family, with both sides demanding justice from Iran's civil courts for perceived wrongs. But A Separation is so much more than a great procedural -- it's a fascinating window into a country and a culture that is all too often denounced and demonized out of ignorance and/or fear. That said, Farhadi is also no propagandist whose characters faithfully regurgitate the state-sponsored party line. The men and women in this film (particularly the women) are forced to navigate around challenging social conventions and pressures that aren't necessarily part of life in the West. On the other hand, however, audiences around the world can relate to the emotions and thoughts that they freely express in private, as well as their simple, basic desire to live good, honorable lives. While A Separation may take place in Iran, the story it tells is universal.

6. Drive
Drive opens with a fifteen-minute sequence that's the closest thing to pure cinematic bliss I experienced all year. Perhaps inevitably, the rest of the movie can't live up to this exceptional prologue, but it's still addictive viewing, with plenty of visual style to burn (courtesy of director Nicholas Winding Refn), a killer soundtrack (I'm listening to "A Real Hero" RIGHT NOW), and a murderer's row of great actors (Bryan Cranston! Albert Brooks! Ron Perlman! Carey Mulligan! And, of course, Ryan Gosling!) feasting on this pulpy material as if it were a fancy three-course meal. Just as Quentin Tarantino distilled every martial arts movie ever made into his Kill Bill saga, Refn fills up Drive's tank with a steady stream of L.A.-set crime pictures, from William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. to the Michael Mann double-bill of Heat and Collateral. But the movie isn't straightforward pastiche -- instead it hums smoothly along its own road towards a final scene that lifts the movie from its grungy, earthbound origins into the realm of myth and legend.

5. Hugo
Paramount's accountants may not agree, but I'm thrilled that the studio went all-in on Martin Scorsese's beautiful adaptation of Brian Selznick's best-selling children's novel, awarding the veteran director one of the biggest budgets of his career to make arguably his most technically ambitious -- and yet, at the same time, most highly personal -- films to date. From the first frame, Scorsese conjures up a storybook atmosphere that perfectly complements the story's flights of fancy, as well as its loving recreation of old-fashioned movie magic. Many of Hugo's early reviews fretted needlessly over whether the film was enough of a "kids movie" to reach that all-important family market. Quite frankly, who cares? Hugo is a movie for anyone of any age who feels that familiar tingle of excitement when the cinema lights go down, the projector whirrs and that giant screen flickers to life.

4. Certified Copy
Two strangers, a man and a woman (William Shimell and Juliette Binoche), meet for an afternoon tour of Tuscany and the surrounding countryside and discuss life and love. Hold on, strike that. A man and a woman that may have met before, meet for an afternoon tour of Tuscany and the surrounding countryside and discuss life and love. No wait, let's try that one more time. A married couple meet for an afternoon tour of Tuscany and discuss life and love. Which of these scenarios most accurately describes the exact nature of their relationship? All of them. Or maybe none of them. The brilliance of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's utterly unique cinematic puzzle lies in the way redefines its own reality from scene to scene, without violating the natural laws of time and space. Watching the film is like peering down an endless hall of mirrors where each reflection could hold the answer or, more likely, another question.

3. Shame
No question about it: Steve McQueen loves to make Michael Fassbender suffer. Fortunately for us, he does it so damn well. The duo first collaborated on McQueen's promising feature filmmaking debut Hunger and reunited for this superior sophomore effort, a wrenching account of one man being consumed by his own addictions -- specifically sex addiction. Much ink has been spilled about the movie's risqué content and NC-17 rating (for, among other things, difficult subject matter, graphic sexual encounters and Fassbender's frequently exposed penis), but those elements aren't Shame's primary subject. Instead, much like Mad Men, this is a character study of a man who has been faking his way through the life he's been told he wants -- largely by cutting himself from deep emotional attachments -- only to discover that's no longer enough to keep his demons at bay.

2. The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick's mesmerizing, virtually unsummarizable movie takes place on a grand, cosmic scale, depicting life, death, heaven (or a version of it anyway) and the origins of the universe itself. Yet the moments that stick with me the most are the small, everyday scenes: a father looking at his baby's face for the first time, a warm breeze rustling a curtain, children playing in their front yard late into an endless Texas summer night. The notoriously reclusive director will probably never confirm this, but these scenes feel taken from his own life, as if he found a way to download his memories directly onto the screen. The Tree of Life is a movie that demands the viewer's constant attention and engagement, refusing to tell you what to think or how to feel about its jumble of images, moods and ideas. Like all challenging works of art, it rewards what you choose to bring to it. If you see a chaotic mess, it'll be a chaotic mess. But if you approach it with an open mind and a curious eye, you may come away profoundly moved.

1. Take Shelter
If future historians want to understand the state of the American psyche circa 2011, they need only sit down for a viewing of Jeff Nichols's brilliant Take Shelter, which explores the mixture of uncertainty and dread reflected in the national headlines through the prism of one family's attempt to weather difficult times. Michael Shannon delivers the year's finest performance as the troubled husband and father who foresees the coming literal (and metaphorical) storm and his onscreen wife Jessica Chastain matches him scene for scene in power and intensity. Behind the camera, Nichols deftly juggles the movie's domestic drama with such seemingly disparate elements as nightmarish visions, suspenseful set-pieces and biblical allusions (after all, the movie is, in many ways, a modern-day telling of the Noah's Ark parable). And while the final scene may initially feel like a misstep, upon further reflection, it introduces a much-needed feeling of hope into the characters' lives, without providing any definitive answers about what will happen to them next. It's an entirely appropriate ending to a truly remarkable film.

Honorable Mentions (In Mostly Alphabetical Order)
Steven Spielberg got back into his Raiders of the Lost Ark groove with The Adventures of Tintin, a spirited, visually dazzling motion-capture romp starring the European comics icon. (Spielberg's other 2011 release, War Horse, is pretty grand as well, though its mile-wide sentimental streak inspires the occasional eye-roll.) Now that it's the Oscar frontrunner, The Artist is starting to take some hard knocks from its dissenters, but I was still thoroughly charmed by Michel Hazanvicius's sweet, if slight homage to silent cinema, thanks mostly to Jean Dujardin's marvelous star turn. Made for a fraction of the cost of Super 8 and Cowboys & Aliens, Joe Cornish's Attack the Block was nevertheless 2011's best alien invasion picture, offering a great young cast, memorable set-pieces and extraterrestrials that were actually menacing. The first (and funniest) R-rated studio comedy out of the gate this summer, Bridesmaids made me a big believer in Kristen Wiig again after her increasingly annoying presence on Saturday Night Live. (I also thought she was quite good opposite Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the sadly underrated sci-fi comedy Paul. Any chance Lorne Michaels might release her from her SNL contract early?) Ever since seeing Steven Soderbergh's wonderfully cerebral virus thriller Contagion, I've been trying to remind myself not to touch my face so damn much. As bad a year as it was for animation, it was even worse for horror movies. The one bright spot? The elegantly spooky Guillermo Del Toro-produced, Troy Nixey-directed haunted house tale Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. (Actually, Paranormal Activity 3 proved to be surprisingly scary fun as well, particularly the climactic scene in which one of the characters is pursued through a strange house by a coven of witches.) Of the two documentaries Werner Herzog released this year, I preferred Into the Abyss, a compelling true crime story that also tackles the difficult subject of the death penalty head-on. (I should note that the other Herzog doc Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a perfectly good film in its own right.) With its David Lynch-by-way-of-John Waters vibe, Gregg Araki's aforementioned apocalyptic comedy Kaboom was a great way to kick off 2011. The Italian film Le Quattro Volte beautifully chronicled the four seasons through a series of small, but well-observed vignettes. I was completely caught off guard (in a good way) by Like Crazy, a thoughtful film about a pair of young idiots in love that only gradually realize what their infatuation is costing them. The film's melancholic open ending can't help but bring to mind the final scene of The Graduate. (Speaking of melancholic, while I wasn't as enraptured with Lars von Trier's Melancholia as some, it deserves a mention for that stunning end-of-the-world opening credits sequence alone.) I have a feeling that Kenneth Lonergan's fascinating -- and, at times, frustrating -- second film Margaret will only grow richer with time. Here's hoping we get to see his director's cut someday. Sean Durkin's assured debut Martha Marcy May Marlene effectively captured a young woman's fractured state of mind after escaping from a cult. Kelly Reichardt vividly recreated pioneer life on the Oregon Trail in her atmospheric Western Meek's Cutoff. On the surface, Midnight in Paris seemed like one of Woody Allen's lighter, more inconsequential works, but the movie actually snuck in a pointed, timely message about the dangers of romanticizing a vanished past. While not my favorite entry in the franchise, I had to make room for Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol simply because it featured my favorite action sequence of the year: Tom Cruise's ascent up the side of Dubai's towering Burj Khalifa. Pedro Almodovar once again proved himself the master of the plot twist with The Skin I Live In , a seemingly straightforward thriller that, halfway through, transformed itself into something much more dramatic and dark. After Bridesmaids, the two R-rated studio comedies that made me laugh the hardest were Ruben Fleischer's '80s buddy movie throwback 30 Minutes or Less and the 3D-enhanced stoner holiday-themed adventure A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. I don't follow MMA, but that didn't stop me from almost leaping to my feet in excitement after every bruising bout in Gavin O'Connor's rousing fight movie Warrior. Perhaps the movie I most regret leaving out of the Top Ten is Young Adult, a wickedly dark comedy that's easily the best thing director Jason Reitman, screenwriter Diablo Cody and star Charlize Theron have ever made. Consider that my pick for the 10.5 slot.

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