Lists, Top 10 Movies — January 21, 2012 at 3:00 am

BRIAN’S TOP TEN OF 2011

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This is an exciting moment for me. I decided to start doing this whole movie-blogger/critic thing in late 2010, and as such 2011 stands as my first full year of movie-watching from a critical/analytical standpoint. (At least in an official capacity) So imagine my joy when, sometime in September, I realized I’d have to make a Top 10 list.

I think the joy comes from the recollection of everything I’ve seen, from having to look back on a year of films and try to rank everything I’d see. There’s a special kind of clarity in numbering things. It makes you feel powerful. In control.

Anyway, that’s a long-winded way of saying that this is the moment where I feel like I become a real critic – the moment I’m forced by some arbitrary social construct into making an empirical list of something that is otherwise completely incorporeal and personal. So here it is, my personal Top 10 films of this year.

I’ve included links to my full reviews from either Man, I Love Films or my personal site, in case anyone wants to read more of my fawning.

#10 – Certified Copy

This is a film that didn’t get around much, and I can’t even seem to find it on a standard definition DVD. Still, in due to its interesting narrative, expert craftsmanship, and mind boggling narrative acrobatics, this film is worth seeking out. The manner in which this story handles the concept of replication, facsimile, and the inherent differences between an original and its pretenders is engaging and innovative. Every actor is pitch perfect, and while it strays close to foreign-arthouse-movie-parody from time to time, it still easily makes this list.

#9 – Beginners

Part social statement, part romantic comedy, and part indie plum, this film easily could have dissolved into the standard goo of sacchraine nonsense. Luckily, thanks to the writing, direction, and strong performances from a stellar ensamble cast, it becomes one of the best of the year. Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer have a touching chemistry as father and son, each trying to understand their own wants and desires at the outset of a new stage in their lives. Also, no matter what anyone says about The Artist, this film has the best animal actor in a film this past year.

#8 – 50/50

The idea of a comedy about cancer at first feels a bit like a shot at some controversy. To the contrary, though, this film becomes a thoughtful and meaningful examination of the ways in which people deal with the concept of mortality long before anyone thought they would have to. Seth Rogan plays his usual affable self, but ends up becoming one of the more emotionally effecting parts of this film. Of course Joseph Gordon-Levitt does fine work as the cancer-afflicted lead, but Anna Kendrick is the real highlight here as a training grief counselor who is just as powerless to help Gordon-Levitt as anyone else. Also, yes, it is very funny.

#7 – Melancholia

Lars von Trier is a provocateur and a master of the cinematic craft. In this film he finds a balance between his usual histrionics and his detailed visual artistry. The story is personal and yet massive, and every aspect of its production is executed by people working at the top of their game. Even better than the film is the discussions it will inspire once the credits have rolled. In fact, if you missed it, you can listen to an entire LAMBcast that mainly consists of me singing this film’s praises against a tide of contrary opinion.

#6 – Hanna

Style and craftsmanship can go a long way. Despite how my tastes my seem to skew, not every film needs to be a cerebral trip into the depths of the human experience. Sometimes all a movie has to do is be one of the best action films in recent memory. In a film like Hanna, for instance, music gets elevated to the status of character, and characters perform feats of physical prowess in the real world with actual intensity and dexterity. This commitment to reality goes a long way toward this film’s value, as does the outstanding camerawork. If you missed this one and claim to like action films, you are a liar.

#5 – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Spy thrillers rarely focus on the emotional toll of the spy trade. More often than not films today go for spectacle and fantastical technology as a means of stirring the spirit. This is the rare film that trades out lavish technology for hard work, emotional investment, and ultimately the cost of a human soul. Add to that emotional acuity the technological accomplishments of director Tomas Alfredson and you’ve got all you need for a gripping, beautiful film. It also should go without saying that Gary Oldman is masterful, as is the star-making turn by Benedict Cumberbatch.

#4 – Take Shelter

Rare is the film in which all eventualities lead to doom and yet the characters remain worth rooting for. This is a wrenching, painful film with top-notch performances and outstanding writing. Every scene is dripping with tension and foreboding. The horror here comes from our investment in the characters, the innate fear of impotence in the face of great danger to our loved ones. A small, existentially terrifying film.

#3 – Drive

Stylish, brooding, and filled with some of the most majestic and bracing scenes of violence put to film in recent memory, this is a movie that burns slow and ends white-hot. The characters and plot move and interact like clockwork, each cog turning and linking and bringing us ever closer to the explosive and inevitable finish. That purposefulness, that rigid and measured march toward mayhem, is a masterful accomplishment. On a more casual note, I’m still trying to figure out how many times a man can listen to “A Real Hero” by College without going insane.

#2 – Shame

This is one that will stick with you. One of the most completely realized characters in modern film is set on a collision course with his own addiction. The concept of sex addiction usual draws snickers and tired jokes about just “being a guy,” but after this film the real pain of this or any addiction is made all too real. The tale told is complex, humane, and utterly without the cliche trappings that usually attach themselves to such a tale. As seen through the unflinching lens of director Steve McQueens delicate camera this story is harrowing, moving, and worth visiting again and again.

#1 – The Tree of Life

Ambition can be a poison to success. To that end, nothing could be more ambitious than trying to find and justify the existence of God by contextualizing personal tragedy in the grand scheme of the miracle of life. Terrence Malick, never one to stray from a fight, takes on this seemingly insurmountable task with grace and fierce will. That he comes out on top is nothing short of a miracle. Of course there are those who see this film (like Melancholia) as an exercise in pure pretension and arty-excess. Then again, some people also think that Transformers: The Dark of the Moon was a staggering work of genius. Film is an intensely personal medium, as all art is, and to me this movie is as close to rapturous perfection as I can imagine seeing.

Honorable Mention:

Battle: Los Angeles – Yea, you know what, this movie is awesome. From a pure standpoint of rewatchability this movie is great.

Rango – I have a soft spot for reptiles.

Another Earth – A small, effective sci-fi drama that really does make the most of its concept.

Attack the Block – Trust.

Warrior – What right did this movie have to be completely affecting?

Submarine – An amazing little indie that seemingly no one saw. Fix that.

13 Comments

  • Nice list. Next year, remember that some of the best movies come from the non-English speaking world, too.

    • Certified Copy is a non-English movie. Not to mention that Drive and Melancholia were directed by a Danish filmmakers. You’re right, though, this year’s list in uncharacteristically lacking in foreign features. Sadly, I never got a chance to see A Separation, either.

  • Nice list. It’s cool to see Hanna up so high; it was a great and stylish thriller. I also enjoyed Drive, Beginners, and Certified Copy, and the Tree of Life is a stunning movie. It’s also good to see Attack the Block and Submarine in the honorable mentions. I can’t wait to see Tinker Tailor and Take Shelter.

  • Ah! We both agree on The Tree of Life as our #1 🙂 I haven’t seen some of these but I’m surprised you liked Battle Los Angeles enough to have it among your honorable mentions.

    • Brian just stuck all the commercial fare in his honorable mentions so I’d stop calling him an art film snob. 😉

      • I thought that 50/50, Hanna, and to a lesser extent Drive were “commercial.” They all got wide releases. Also, Attack the Block and Submarine were not commercial, though Attack the Block totally should have been.

        And I wear the “art film snob” badge with pride.

        • I think Richard Ayoade is hilarious on The IT Crowd… but I could not get behind Submarine. The tone was too all-over-the-place, and it was trying to be uber-quirky just for the sake of being uber-quirky. I can understand why some people would like it, I honestly do (and to a degree, I kinda liked it), but I really don’t understand all these people putting it on the Top 10 of the year.

  • Pure, audacious ambition is probably the key reason why I respect films like TTOL and Melancholia as much as I do. They might not have been the cinematic revelations for me that they were for others, but you have to give it up for filmmakers who dream big and just fucking go for it, and Malick and Von Trier certainly did.

    Three of your 10 are my top three that I missed this year (50/50, Beginners and Take Shelter), and we agree on a fair amount of others – you’ll be seeing some of them on my list as well.

    If you were forced to compare 2011 relative to recent years, where would it stack up?

    • Well this was my first year where I was really keeping a close critical eye on everything and keeping a list. Off the top of my head I have to say that I think 2011 did pretty alright in the art house circuit, but was a little lacking in the big-budget realm. Thor didn’t inspire much in me, though Captain America was great fun. There were a lot of mainstream films I liked, but none I really loved. Look at it now, actually, I think that 2012 has the ability to eclipse 2011. The Dark Knight Rises, The Grey, The Avengers, and The Wettest County are all worth being excited over, and those are just off the top of my head.

      • I think I’d agree with that – this year, or at least the last six months or so, have felt dominated by art house films in terms of buzz, if not box office. Part of the reason for that seems to be that two fo the biggest box office films of the year are Potter and Twilight, and while at least Potter has loads of mainstream fans, both series have hardcore, insulated fans that need no external hype for them to get psyched. In other words, they both seem quiet for being massive hits. The rest of the box office is comic book flicks and kids movies, pretty much, and none of them took off critically akin to The Dark Knight, so yeah, mainstream films might not have all been bad, but I just don’t know how memorable they’ll be in 5-10 years. Meanwhile, I feel like I’ve heard nothing but Tree of Life, Melancholia, Drive, Shame and The Artist for the last half-year, which is funny when you consider that they’ll combine for less than $200 million total, if not $100.

        In other words, Hugo is our only hope! 😀

  • Shame to see 3 of my faves in the just missing out and hanging out in the honourable mentions (ATB, Submarine and Rango) but great to see 50/50 and Hanna on here. Cool list!

  • I’m happy to say that zero of your 10 are on my list but I like the eclectic picks.
    I liked Melancholia more than Tree of Life (which I feel is severely overrated) but neither blew me away. I feel like both have a good movie within them but took things too far.

    • I’m with Dylan on this one, which is to say I like the lengths to which they pushed their pieces. I love that ambition, that wild artistic passion. The fact that I think they succeeded marvelously doesn’t hurt either.

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