2011 marked a solid year in cinema, at least from what I was able to get to. Sadly, I’m no longer able to watch 100-120 movies a year; life has gotten in the way. But I’ve seen enough to cobble together a respectable list. Without further adieu:
Best Lead Performance [Male]: Ralph Fiennes, Coriolanus. Runners-up: Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life (and Moneyball); Jean Dujardin, The Artist; Peyman Moadi, A Separation; Ryan Gosling, Drive; Michael Fassbender, Shame.
Best Lead Performance [Female]: Anna Paquin, Margaret. Runners-up: Kirsten Dunst & Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melancholia; Leila Hatami, A Separation; Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy; Adepero Oduye, Pariah; Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs.
Best Editing: Drive, The Tree of Life, Contagion, Margaret, Melancholia.
Best Cinematography: The Tree of Life, Hugo, Melancholia, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Meek’s Cutoff.
Best TV Series: Game of Thrones. Runners-up: Breaking Bad, Dexter, Luther, Hell on Wheels.
Feel free to inquire about other categories. Now, onto the list…
15. The Artist (Michael Hazanavicius)
The subject of extreme backlash, The Artist definitely has its warts (an occasionally sloppy lack of attention to detail; some awkward stretches), but the positives easily outweigh the negatives for me. It’s a loving tribute to cinema, and not just the silent era…this is a melting pot of homages, including to such visionaries as Fred Astaire. Jean Dujardin deserves all the accolades heaped upon him. It could have been much better—dare I say award-worthy?—but as is, it’s still quite good. Oh, and the dog rocks. Best pooch onscreen since The Thin Man.
14. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
A second viewing would probably have vaulted this one up into the top 10: alas, time didn’t allow for it, so here it stays. As a mood piece, Drive is exquisite, blending a hypnotic soundtrack with beautiful cinematography and editing. It’s a clear, and sizable, step up for the previously hyper-but-disorganized Refn, whose Bronson and Valhalla Rising had flashes of brilliance mixed with big problems. Drive felt a bit too style-over-substance to me after my initial look, but its sat very well on a much richer level (hence my first sentence)…but its technical mastery and superb acting earn it a spot on the list for now anyway.
13. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (David Yates)
A few overly cloying moments (particularly the postscript, essential in the book but superfluous here) keep Part 2 a small step behind Part 1, but make no mistake: the Harry Potter franchise closes extremely strongly with this dark, tonally astute conclusion to J.K. Rowling’s masterful series. Featuring excellent set & costume designs, along with a continued emphasis on telling its story without words, The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 should thrill both admirers of the books and casual fans alike. The acting, which has never really gotten its due since things kicked off in 2001, wraps things up with a bang,
12 [tie]. Senna (Asif Kapadia)
I have absolutely no interest in auto racing, so Senna’s powerful impact on me came as a surprise. It’s not about racing at all, but about culture, faith, and passion. Kapadia juggles all these sensitive items with grace and skill, and while there are a few aspects I wish had been fleshed out a bit better, Senna is an extremely impressive documentary, boasting strong editing and excellent use of archival footage. And the story itself is powerful stuff. Criminally under-the-radar, this should be a must-see for movie lovers.
11 [tie]. Project Nim (James Marsh)
James Marsh is rapidly establishing himself as a must-see documentary filmmaker: Project Nim isn’t quite on the level of his exceptional Man on Wire, but it’s not too far off. Once again, Marsh takes a subject matter that could have been presented blandly and matter-of-factly, and imbues it with life, love, and passion. It’s an even-handed, and often emotional, take on a topic that could have been completely skewed.
10. Melancholia (Lars Von Trier)
Like Drive, I expect to see this one shoot up on my list after a future revisit. For now, I’ll say this: Melancholia boasts tremendous acting (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst are magnificent), haunting cinematography, and a knock-you-flat finale that’s legitimately unforgettable. A sudden shift in perspective midway through is a bit jarring, and should flow more smoothly once I know what to expect. Unlike Von Trier’s previous work, I found Melancholia strangely unemotional, which was surprising, but not a flaw in and of itself. Not for everyone, but full of a jarring, unsettling power.
09. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
Certainly worthy of the extreme hype…this is a quietly powerful picture, taking us deep into the world of Iran’s cultural expectations and restrictions. Above all, though, this is a universally human drama, carefully crafted and buoyed by pitch-perfect performances across the spectrum. A Separation takes a bit of time to establish its rhythm (though it’s always interesting), but once it does, it’s masterfully constructed, evoking legitimate empathy for all parties. The ending refuses to wrap things up in a tidy package, leaving us to ponder what’s right and what isn’t.
08. Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
I love baseball. I love statistics. And I’ve always loved the concept behind Billy Beane’s philosophy. So it’s no surprise that I was a big fan of Bennett Miller’s adaptation of Moneyball. Miller chooses a somewhat surprisingly stylized approach, but it works: without adding a bit of pizzazz, it would have been difficult to make poring over numbers an interesting two hours of cinema. Brad Pitt wouldn’t have popped into my mind as the right actor for Beane, but he makes the character his own. A must for baseball geeks, and a should for all others.
07. 50/50 (Jonathan Levine)
Has a bit of that Rushmore magic—the ability to effortlessly make its viewer laugh one moment and cry the next. 50/50 isn’t at that level, but it’s an endearing, supremely touching movie that tackles a VERY difficult subject with just the right touch. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is excellent in the lead, but it’s Seth Rogen’s multi-dimensional performance that really hit me hard; a sequence near the end involving some bathroom reading is overwhelmingly moving. This is a movie that should not be dismissed. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year for me, and a film I’d happily revisit over the years.
06. A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
This one’s been seemingly and surprisingly ignored, perhaps because it’s much talkier and less reliant on atmosphere than Cronenberg’s previous work. For me, though, it worked exceedingly well, and gets bonus points for focusing on a psychological subject that I find very, very interesting. Michael Fassbender and the scene-stealing Viggo Mortensen have excellent chemistry, and even Keira Knightley, who I tend to actively dislike, mostly turns in a strong performance. Unlike a few others on this list, I could see A Dangerous Method dropping a bit over time, but for now, it stays in the top 10.
05. The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
Slowly builds to a moving, symphonic crescendo: Payne’s poignant take on bitterness, frustration, and loneliness gets off to a slightly slow start, but quickly picks up momentum, and by the end, it’s a classic example of the sum being better than its individual parts. All of the interactions and emotional developments feel astonishingly real, particularly given the “superficial” setting of Hawaii. Clooney is quite good (though I wouldn’t call it a dazzling performance), but the supporting cast is excellent across the board. Sneakily deep and substantive, The Descendants is Payne’s best and most fulsome work to date.
04. Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below (Makoto Shinkai)
Technically unreleased in the USA as of now, but it’s my list, so I’ll do as I please. Anyway, Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below isn’t quite at the level of Shinkai’s masterpiece 5 Centimeters Per Second, but this aching tale of the search for purpose and meaning is both a coming-of-age tale and a beautiful look at how the heart challenges people of all ages and places in life. The imagery is predictably mesmerizing—Shinkai has gifts that have not been sufficiently appreciated in America. Suffice to say, watch it if you can get your hands on it. Particularly if you have a fondness for the work of Hayao Miyazaki. And if you like gorgeous animation without the hokum.
03. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
If you’d told me before its release that Hugo would instantly become one of my favorite Scorsese films, I would have thought you’d lost your mind. I shouldn’t have doubted someone with such a deep appreciation for his craft, though. Hugo, for the lack of a better phrase, overflows with pure magic; a glorious love poem to cinema. The gorgeous cinematography and colors fully pull us into the world, an emotional place full of discovery, wonder, growth, and artistic rebirth. Georges Méliès is also a splendid choice to get a serious boost in exposure behind cinema geeks like myself: he was a real pioneer, and the wild imagination of his work shines through here. Hugo is also the rare picture that actually benefits from 3D. See it, love it, lose yourself in it.
02. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)
Tied up for years in legal battles over the control of editing, Margaret is worth the wait: it’s a messy, sprawling, balls-to-the-wall masterpieces that oozes ambition from every corner. Endlessly pulses with unease, as it runs the gamut of emotion and self-discovery. The evolution of Lisa’s state of mind and understanding of the world (a marvelous Anna Paquin at her absolute finest) is a wonder to behold. Margaret is the sort of picture I could watch over and over again, gleaning new insights into its world each time, and along with You Can Count on Me, helps establish director Kenneth Lonergan as a truly elite cinematic mind. One can only hope he picks up the pace of his filmic output…
01. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
…like Mr. Malick appears to be doing as he approaches his later years—if reports are to believed, we may be treated to four of his films in the next two years. Would that we would be so lucky. Watching Malick spin his craft is like watching an absolute master school the rest of the world at what his art form is about, and The Tree of Life is the crown jewel of a spread-out career that’s produced multiple masterpieces already. Malick’s narrative-eschewing approach will turn off many viewers, but for those who respond to his vision and style, he achieves an artistic transcendence that mere mortal directors can only dream of. He’s a poet of the highest order. Put aside the spellbinding imagery, the entrancing music, the universally superb performances: The Tree of Life is perhaps the most accurate portrayal of the human condition that I’ve seen onscreen. There are no preconceived notions, no stereotypes that can’t be torn down. He tenderly shows us the power of new parenthood with all cooing turned off, and shows us the complexities of reconciling ones own flaws with how to properly raise a child. Malick goes from humanity to the world. The scope is breathtaking, the resonance unforgettable. Rarely do I leave a theater hardly able to speak, but I felt nearly catatonic when The Tree of Life came to a close; shaken to my very core. This will be a mainstay in my all-time favorites list for the rest of my life, and one day, I’ll put together a much more comprehensive analysis than this capsule. Or maybe I won’t. A few rare works of art are best left to their own devices, to make sure the magic is never lessened by words. This just might be one of those times.