Best of lists invariably say more about the critic than they do about the year in movies, so I’ll preface my final roundup of my favorite films of 2011 with only a few caveats. First off, I haven’t seen everything. Two films, in fact, which may be glaringly absent from my list which I haven’t been able to see yet are Wim Wender’s Pina and Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. No worries, we’ll get those in wide release in 2012 anyway. Also, I compiled my list according to which films hit Dallas theaters this year.
There are plenty of other movies that came out this year that are not worth missing — Midnight in Paris, The Trip, Margaret, The Interrupters, Carnage, Drive, The Descendants, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Shame, Jane Eyre, Moneyball, Melancholia — I could go on. These are merely the 10 that have most resonated with me.
Those disclaimers aside, here’s my top 10 for 2011, followed by the usual categories for best actor, actress, cinematography, etc. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am in the comments.
1. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Dir. Werner Herzog)
I know Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an eccentric choice as best film of the year, a slot that is often reserved for narrative drama and not the documentaries of a German filmmaker whose cerebral, meandering reflection films can verge on self parody. But, if the purpose of movies — like all art — is to help make sense of our humanity, our relations, and our history, then nothing that came out this year (not even Terrence Malick’s monumental effort, The Tree of Life) comes close to Cave of Forgotten Dreams in the way it made the greatest mysteries of existence so intimately available.
What is a human being? Why are we driven to create? What do our creations mean? These are some of the initial questions that arise in Herzog’s inquiry into the caves in France that contain the most ancient wall paintings ever discovered. What these questions lead to, however, is an exploration of the nature of time, and the film manages to elicit from the viewer a very subtle awareness of time’s expansive abyss and our intrinsic relationship with that great, unknowable volume. Even the film’s off-beat ending, Herzog’s musings about an albino crocodile’s interpretation of our art, which could be easily be brushed off as a particularly goofy example of the director’s babbling, is a deceivingly brilliant observation. Has our evolution through time and history been merely physiological and sociological, or has humanity evolved ontologically? That is, has the intrinsic nature of humanity — our blended spiritual, corporal, carnal, dreaming selves — changed over these past 20,000 years? Are we as unlike ancient man as the crocodile is unlike us?
Herzog achieves all of this with a film that is not only visually beautiful, but employs 3D technology in its most elegant and appropriate use to date, an optimistic strike of technical brilliance that draws attention to creative expression’s ability to be ever-new, despite its ancient pursuits. The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a movie that raises questions worth pondering for many lifetimes. We can only hope that there are more filmmakers who can continue to add marks to the image that Herzog has begun to etch.
2. The Tree of Life (Dir. Terrence Malick)
There are plenty of Tree of Life haters out there, and even those who aren’t turned off by Terrence Malick’s symphonic montage, which placed his nostalgia-tinged story of fathers and sons in the context of the history of everything, scoff at the apparent sentimentality of The Tree of Life’s concluding sequence. But The Tree of Life is a work of oceanic scale and ambition, taking as its subjects not only life itself, but also the origins of nature, the foundations of the universe, the weight of time, and placing in its heart a story of death and generation. Its central drama, featuring a wonderful performance by Brad Pitt, is impeccable. Be patient with it, take it on its own terms, and what you will find is something equal parts beautiful, moving, and fascinating.
3. Of Gods and Men (Dir. Xavier Beauvois)
Perhaps the ensemble performance of the year, Of Gods and Men achieves sublime insight into the nature of violence and nonviolence by shedding any trace of didacticism. Beauvois drags his all too human characters, a cloister of French monks in Algeria, through a progression of moral, ethical, spiritual, and ultimately physical trials. What is remarkable is that a film this acutely focused can have such bearing on the fundamental social and political conflicts affecting the wider world.
4. Poetry (Dir Chang-dong Lee)
A wrenching movie about the suicide of a teenager, a shameless effort to protect her tormentors, and a mother at the beginning of a battle with Alzheimer’s, Poetry, as the title suggests, is a story about seeing and feeling, and it is executed with an exquisite touch.
5. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Eerie, baffling, mesmerizing, and sublime, Uncle Boonmee is a film about life and death that takes place somewhere in between the now and the afterlife. Set in a remounted Thai village where mysterious monsters and spirits haunt a family, Boonmee’s vision of reality is elusive, which makes a film that is engulfing, perplexing, and unforgettable.
6. Hell and Back Again (Dir. Danfung Dennis)
The power of Dennis’ film is that it makes no delineation between the arena of war and the struggles of its young soldier protagonist back home. Montage can manipulate our perceptions of reality, but in War and Back Again, it accentuates it, deepening and layering our experience of the movie’s character with an almost novelistic psychological subtly. With his documentary, Dennis tries to make the war film that hasn’t yet been made: the film that is lost, like our soldiers, somewhere between war and peace.
7. Take Shelter (Dir. Jeff Nichols)
Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is a war film about the everyday, featuring a stand-out performance by Michael Shannon. It takes us on a psychological roller coaster ride that is both frightening and revealing, showing the kind of mammoth courage that it takes to survive our little, normal lives.
8. Certified Copy (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
The Iranian director’s deceivingly simple story of a day shared in an Italian country town between a successful English writer and his French fan wraps a moving love tale of love, loneliness, and longing around a fascinating look at the nature of art as representation. The man and woman begin role playing, which soon subverts the movie’s own narrative sense, and we lose our sense of distinction between the real and acted. Kiarostami’s deft dramatic game provides both self-reflective art and an absorbing emotional struggle.
9. The Artist (Dir. Michel Hazanavicius)
How does Michel Hazanavicius get away with making a silent film in 2011? The Artist cleverly works its silence into its central theme, playing with multiple layers of representation — films within films — to use its voiceless drama as part of a comedic gag. Hazanavicius teases us at times, moments when the “real” sounds pop through, but these moments only punctuate his joke: the cinema is an illusion of sound and sense. This is a movie about a Hollywood star, but in the best Hollywood way, it is also a movie about the everyman, how we all trend towards becoming victims of ourselves and our own expectations, tormented by a volatile mix of hubris and talent.
10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Dir Tomas Alfredson)
We all have our biases; mine is my love of spy films. And when it comes to the genre, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a silent monster. Entirely engrossing even after multiple viewings, to watch Gary Oldman float through the film’s thick, muddy tension is like listening to Avro Pärt in the midst of a guerrilla firefight. Just stunning. I only hope director Tomas Alfredson decides to adapt more of novelist John le Carré’s work.
Nicolas Refn (Drive): Masterful tonal balance, incredible style, and an epic, albeit quiet car chase.
Terence Malick (Tree of Life)
Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy)
Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret)
Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene)
Michael Shannon (Take Shelter): It was his film, and he infused it with the perfect mix of empathy and dread.
Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus)
Michael Fassbinder (Shame)
Ryan Gosling (Drive)
Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Solider Spy)
Jeong-hie Yun (Poetry): A stunning, quiet performance that extracted such a depth of loving affection.
Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene)
Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs)
Tilda Swinton (We Need To Talk About Kevin)
Rooney Mara (The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo)
Best Supporting Actor
Christopher Plummer (Beginners): Wonderful buoyancy. Playing against McGregor’s deer-in-headlights, Plummer provides nearly all of Beginners sweet warmth.
Michael Lonsdale (Of God and Men)
Brad Pitt (Tree of Life)
Christopher Waltz (Carnage)
Rob Brydon (The Trip)
Best Supporting Actress
Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs): This was a tough category with no clear standouts. But McTeer does disappear into her role, providing the right counterpointal dynamism to Glenn Close’s own statuesque achievement.
Jody Foster (Carnage)
Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life)
Charlotte Gainsbourg (Melancholia)
Jeannie Berlin (Margaret)
Best Foreign Language Film
Of Gods and Men
The Skin I Live In
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Hell and Back Again
Where Soldiers Come From
Carnage: Yasmina Reza and Roman Polanski’s screenplay manages to cram a world of dramatic twists and turns into that little room in Brooklyn.
Midnight in Paris
The Skin I Live In
The Mill and the Cross: A film about images that shifts in and out of the painted and natural world, Lech Majewski and Adam Sikora’s photography is what The Mill and the Cross is about, and it is extraordinary.
The Tree of Life
The Skin I Live In