I am perhaps the last film lover to release a top 10 list for 2011.
Of course, that’s because I insist that the best be saved for last.
Or it could be the fact that I live in a rural hub of the Midwest, where many of the year’s best films don’t begin to roll out until late December or January.
That being said, 2011 was a banner year for film. I could have easily substituted a totally different list of films in my top 10 and been perfectly happy with the quality on display.
I just hope you got to a theater outside of Yankton or subscribe to Netflix, because only one of these films, “Drive,” played here. It’s hardly breaking news that many of the best movies never play outside the largest metropolitan areas. A point of light is that streaming services are making these smaller films more accessible than ever to people who don’t happen to live in Chicago, Los Angeles or New York.
It’s a bit strange to include this film, because, as I watched it, I was fully aware of what I felt were flaws. The main character, played by director Evan Glodell, is a bit annoying, for example. On more than one occasion, I wanted to slap him for being kind of a doofus. But I loved the creative vision behind the film and the lore behind the making of it. “Bellflower” imagines the end of a relationship in apocalyptic terms, complete with a flamethrower and a car out of a “Mad Max” movie. Every scene has an oppressive yellow haze that makes the viewer imagine it must be hot and greasy in the California town where these characters reside. I’m very excited to see what Glodell does next, as this first effort was a major, uncompromising achievement.
9. Putty Hill
One thing I’ve always loved about films is that it is a cheap way to travel. You can see things and experience cultures in the comfort of a theater or your home, even if you can’t necessarily travel as much as you’d like. “Putty Hill” takes the viewer to a place we would probably never think to visit — a working class area of Baltimore. A young man, Cody, has just died of an overdose, and Matthew Porterfield’s film explores the reactions of those who knew him in the days leading up to his wake. Sometimes the camera simply observes the characters going about their lives, drawing a tattoo, going for a swim or visiting with family. In other instances, a voice off-camera will ask a character if they knew Cody and what they thought of him. This world is fully-realized, but the film still has a dream-like quality. You suspect many of the characters try not to focus too hard on life because the lives they lead are full of a lot of pain.
8. Certified Copy
What is real and what is a copy? And if you can’t distinguish a copy from the original, is the original really any better? This film by Abbas Kiarostami starts off posing those questions about art. But as Elle (Juliette Binoche) and James (William Shimell) spend an afternoon together, we soon begin questioning the same about their relationship. Are they a couple? Or are they simply acting the part? Can we tell the difference, and does it matter? It’s hard to believe that a film that consists mostly of two people talking while driving, sitting or strolling could be so invigorating, but it is. Chances are, you’ll want to start watching the movie again right away to try to figure out what you just saw.
7. Margin Call
Is this really how the financial collapse happened? Was it because a bunch of people making lots of money had no idea what they were really doing? From what I’ve read and also heard from a friend who worked on Wall Street, that is precisely what occurred in some cases. “Margin Call” manages to keep a tight grip on its audience from beginning to end as the employees of a Wall Street firm realize that the gravy train has come to an end. Personalities begin to clash as decisions are made on what to do next. I loved the characters (particularly the conflicted Sam Rogers, played by Kevin Spacey). Considering 2011 was the Year of the Protester, this film couldn’t have been more perfectly timed to coincide with the criticisms of capitalism offered by Occupy Wall Street and its spin-offs.
Mija is a study in quiet struggle. In the opening moments of “Poetry,” she is informed that she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. She then goes on caring for her grandson, because her daughter lives in another city for reasons that are never clear. Soon, she learns that her grandson was involved with a group of boys in sexually assaulting a teenage girl who recently committed suicide. She is under pressure from school officials and other parents to find money to pay off the girl’s family to avoid a police investigation. Through all of this, Mija struggles to write a poem for her poetry class. She finds it nearly impossible. But when she does produce a poem, it is devastating in more ways than one. Next to “Tree of Life,” “Poetry” had the most profound impact on me in 2011.
5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Gary Oldman has been one of my favorite actors since I first saw him in movies like “Immortal Beloved” and “The Professional.” I was thrilled to once again see him with a major role in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” But where he used to play things loud and eccentric, he is quiet and calculating as the ironically-named spy George Smiley. This movie expects its audience to become engaged from the very beginning and does not tolerate attention lapses. I like that kind of challenge. It’s made all the more enjoyable by including a cast of England’s most brilliant actors.
4. Hugo/Midnight in Paris
Paris. It’s not just any ordinary city. It’s the City of Light. The City of Love. It has an air of magic. And that sense of its unnatural qualities made its way into two great films this year.
“Hugo” is director Martin Scorsese’s first foray into storytelling for a younger audience. However, I found it just as fascinating as an adult. I was taken up by the mystery at the heart of the movie, but also was elated by its celebration of film as an artistic medium. It’s a wonderful thing to watch as the character of French filmmaker Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) embraces his artistic past after years of miserable denial.
It’s not unusual to romanticize the past, and director Woody Allen explores the pitfalls of that habit in “Midnight in Paris.” Protagonist Gil (Owen Wilson) actually manages to travel into the past and meet the literary characters and artists he so admires. He is in love with Paris, and the audience can’t help but fall in love with Paris, too. The film is smart and charming. No wonder it was a big hit for Allen.
I’m not the first person to compare “Drive” to a type of euphoric drug for serious film lovers, but that’s exactly what it was for me. The soundtrack, style and atmosphere reminded me of my favorite Michael Mann movies with a twist. Director Nicolas Winding Refn has been on my radar since watching “Bronson” and “Valhalla Rising” last year. Ryan Gosling as “The Driver” is as iconic as a character comes, helped by the scorpion jacket inspired by Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising.” The other players — Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks among them — also play things perfectly.
2. The Descendants
Alexander Payne is one of my favorite directors, and it’s not just because he is from my home state of Nebraska. He always manages to find the comedy in the saddest of moments. Or the sadness in the happiest of moments. For me, he always seems to find the right balance. “The Descendants” was thrilling from beginning to end as it followed the King family through the prolonged death of wife and mother Elizabeth, and the sale of some prized family property. During more than one moment, I was struck by the diverse reactions of the crowd. In some cases I heard laughter where I could sense some in the audience were on the verge of tears. This is life. It’s a mess, and we all react to it differently.
1. Tree Of Life
What is “The Tree of Life?” It is a song. A prayer. A meditation. It is director Terrence Malick’s vision of birth, life and death. I understand why, for some people, it does not work. It is a grand journey, and if you don’t like the guide, you won’t be interested in coming along. But for me, the film captures the grandeur of life’s small moments and demonstrates they are bigger than we might think. “The Tree of Life” resonated with me emotionally and intellectually, and it was not weakened upon second viewing.
As a bonus, here are my top 10 documentaries of 2011:
10. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
9. American: The Bill Hicks Story
8. If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
5. Better This World
4. Bill Cunningham New York/Page One: Inside the New York Times
2. The Arbor
1. Nostalgia for the Light
And, finally, these are probably major contenders for my narrative film list had I been able to see them prior to compiling a top 10: “Shame,” “The Artist,” “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” “Take Shelter” and “A Separation.”
P.S. I just can’t stop. This is a random list of other films I really enjoyed watching this past year that I think are worth your time: Melancholia, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Rampart, Beginners, Moneyball, Uncle Boonmee who Can Recall his Past Lives, The Help, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 50/50, The Skin I Live In, Win Win, Warrior, Hanna, The Trip, Contagion, I Saw The Devil, Source Code, Submarine, Cold Weather, Terri, Troll Hunter, Cedar Rapids, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, The Myth of the American Sleepover, N.E.D.S., Point Blank and Arthur Christmas.
P.P.S. I really considered putting “Love Exposure” in my top 10. It is four hours of madness. And genius. And just about any other descriptor you can dream up.