By Ezra Stead
Well, it’s that time once again, and as always, I didn’t get around to a lot of the films I would have liked to see – as I write this, a DVD of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris sits on my desk, glaring at me – but there comes a time when every movie lover has to call it a year. I have somewhat arbitrarily picked today as that time, so here now are my top 10 favorite films of 2011:
# 10) MELANCHOLIA – anyone with whom I talk movies already knows how much I love Lars von Trier, and though this is definitely not my favorite of his films (2003’s Dogville still takes that honor), it is nonetheless a striking and powerful depiction of the nature of depression, as well as a highly unusual and compelling look at what the impending apocalypse might feel like. The stunning opening and closing sequences alone make this film impossible to ignore, or to forget.
# 9) THE ARTIST – likely to become the first silent film in over 80 years to win a Best Picture Oscar, this is the crowd-pleaser of the year, a relentlessly entertaining love letter to silent film and cinema in general. Jean Dujardin is fantastic in the lead role as silent film star George Valentin, and Berenice Bejo is the strongest leading lady crush I’ve had since Audrey Tautou in Amelie (2001) as Peppy Miller, the new star who rises to take his place in the era of the talkies. The story has strong shades of All About Eve (1950) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), but writer-director Michel Hazanavicius brings his own flair to the material with the help off all-around great performances from his cast (including the delightful Uggie the dog) and gorgeous black and white cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman. Great fun at the movies.
# 8) 13 ASSASSINS – speaking of great fun at the movies, this one has that in spades, provided you don’t mind a little blood (okay, a lot of blood). The amazing and prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike has crafted a samurai epic of which the old master Akira Kurosawa could be proud, and managed one of the great cinematic feats of the year: staging a forty minute fight scene that never gets boring or repetitive. This is essential viewing for any action movie fan.
# 7) MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE – one of the most unsettling movies of the year, this debut feature from writer-director Sean Durkin is a fascinating exploration of life in a cult, and the highly problematic transition back into normal life. With echoes of Jonestown and the Manson family, the film’s portrayal of cult life is eerie and haunting, strongly aided by a stellar performance from John Hawkes as the group’s creepy but charismatic leader. Relative newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (formerly best known as the other Olsen sister – you know, the one who’s not a twin) is also excellent, and the film’s stream of consciousness narrative style is very effective at keeping the audience consistently on its toes.
# 6) LIFE IN A DAY – I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about this one, as I consider it one of the very best documentaries of the year (and certainly my favorite). Director Kevin McDonald (Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland) assembled footage shot by people all over the world documenting a single day in their lives: July 24, 2010. This is obviously an intriguing premise, similar in spirit to the famous Up series (in which filmmaker Michael Apted interviews the same British schoolchildren every seven years to see how they’ve changed over time – they’re 56 years old now, and the series continues), but the results are nonetheless surprising. Ranging from large-scale events like a massive riot at a festival to small, ordinary ones like a man struggling to eat a huge slice of watermelon, this is one of the most emotional and life-affirming films I saw all year. It is a remarkable pastiche of human experience that transcends narrative to provide a truly resonant experience for the viewer.
# 5) MEEK’S CUTOFF – detractors of this gorgeous, subtle film from director Kelly Reichardt complain that “nothing happens” in it, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Though it is defiantly slow-paced and stubbornly refuses to indulge in artificial plot contrivances, there is a lot going on in the slow, painful struggle across the nineteenth-century American frontier that the film depicts, and even more going on under the strained surfaces of its characters. Following a group of settlers on the Oregon trail in 1845, under the dubious guidance of one Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood in one of the best performances of the year), Reichardt’s film is one of the most authentic-feeling period pieces ever made, and it didn’t require an orgy of money (I’m thinking of the CG elephants in Martin Scorsese’s vastly inferior Gangs of New York) to do it. Instead, Reichardt eschews artificial lighting and declines to translate the speech of the Indian (Rod Rondeaux) with subtitles, placing the viewer under the same uncertain conditions of her characters. In addition, with the help of the always reliable Michelle Williams in the lead role, Reichardt has effectively introduced a new sub-genre – the feminist Western – without being preachy or obvious about it. This is easily the best Western film I’ve seen since 2007, when No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford unexpectedly made the revisionist Western a viable genre for 21st century filmmaking.
# 4) A SEPARATION – this one is damn near perfect, a wonderfully humane and often harrowing story of two Iranian families who come into violent conflict with each other largely as a result of the more restrained conflict within themselves. The story begins simply, with Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) unsuccessfully filing for divorce and instead opting for a trial separation, then grows more complex as a series of small incidents build into an intense drama with the family of Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a working class woman Nader hires to care for his elderly father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi). What follows is a relentlessly fascinating look at the tricky nature of truth and deception, the ties that bind families together, and the disagreements that can tear them apart, all meticulously and flawlessly crafted by Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi. It is an emotionally devastating film in many ways, but there are moments of great tenderness and gentle humor as well, and it wisely never falls back on lazy “good guy” versus “bad guy” conflict, opting instead for characters who are all too human and real.
# 3) DRIVE – some say this film is all style over substance, and that is not entirely inaccurate – the story is a fairly familiar one and the well-trodden crime movie tropes are plentiful and easy to spot – but the style is incredible. Director Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising) has created one of the most distinctly American films of the year, despite himself being of Danish descent (much like Lars von Trier has been known to do, though in a vastly different way), and the performances are uniformly excellent, from Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman and especially Albert Brooks, right down to the smaller roles inhabited by actors best known for their television work, such as Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and Christina Hendricks (Mad Men). What it really comes down to, though, is the style; this movie is aggressively cool from start to finish, a series of striking visual moments coalescing into an incredibly bad-ass whole. Easily my favorite genre film of the year.
# 2) CERTIFIED COPY – it is exceedingly difficult for me to write extensively about this after only one viewing, as it is, more than any other movie on this list, a film that cries out for multiple viewings to peel back its many subtle layers of subtext and hidden meaning. Deceptively simple, it presents a day in the ambiguous relationship of Elle (Juliette Binoche) and James Miller (William Shimell) as they simultaneously discuss and personify writer-director Abbas Kiarostami’s themes of the nature of reality and illusion, as approached through the milieu of the question of authenticity in art. This is extremely heady stuff, and highly intellectual, but it never becomes dry or alienating. Instead, it is an endlessly engrossing and beautifully shot look at the subtleties of human relationships that manages the astonishing feat of showing us over a decade in the lives of these two characters all in one day, as encapsulated in a 106 minute film. To me at least, this is probably the most perfect, flawless film of the year.
# 1) THE TREE OF LIFE – on the other hand, this is a very flawed film that is nonetheless my personal favorite of 2011. In fact, I love it more because of its flaws than in spite of them, which is fitting for a film that, above all else, strives to explore all of creation, from the origins of the universe down to the simplicity of children breaking windows for the sheer joy of destruction. All of earthly life – especially the sad, beautiful, wonderful, terrible thing that is human life – is profoundly flawed in its own right, and writer-director Terrence Malick courageously approaches this wildly ambitious subject matter with his own flawed and subjective viewpoint, as filtered through the eyes of young Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken) as he grows up in 1950s Texas under the stern hand of his father (Brad Pitt) and the more gentle and forgiving guidance of his mother (Jessica Chastain). This is a film that is simultaneously intimate and overwhelmingly huge, highly personal yet universal; I spent most of my formative years in 1990s Minnesota, which is relatively far from 1950s Texas, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that more perfectly evoked the feeling of my childhood. This is a very divisive film that simply will not reach every viewer in the strong, very deep way that it reached me, but I think its execution manages to mostly meet its ambition, which is so far-reaching that that in itself is amazing, however flawed it remains. I adore this movie.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.