21 February 2012
  my top 10 of 2011

it really seems that good film years and bad film years alternate annually, and this has definitely been one of the latter, in my opinion. i have been disappointed by highly anticipated films far more this year than i have been wowed by them. i could make a top 10 list in and of itself of films that i should have liked but just didn't. that might actually have been easier than trying to come up with a list of the year's ten best, honestly.

i think it really says something that a great many of critics' top ten lists this year are overpopulated with indie arthouse fare that is really only yet available in new york, la and on the festival circuit. and since many of us here in tucson haven't had the luxury of seeing films like we need to talk about kevin and wuthering heights, i can't include these on my list.

with that being said, there were five movies this year that i truly loved and at least a handful more that i found remarkable in at least some way. although admittedly not all truly exceptional, my top 10 films of 2011 include:

10. meek's cutoff. . . i don't know if "sparse" is a good enough word to describe the incredibly frugal filmmaking style of kelly reichardt. as in her debut work, the haunting wendy and lucy, meek's cutoff is a film that chooses to show rather than tell. deeply introspective, this isn't so much a narrative film as it is a voyeuristic gaze upon these characters. reichardt rarely seems to make her actors perform on camera. the cameras always just seem to be out of the actors' sight, simply watching as the action unfolds, unperturbed. the result is an imperfect but deeply beautiful work of art.

9. j. edgar. . .for the third time in a row, clint eastwood has made a film that is simply not being given credit for being as good as it truly is. not that there aren't problems. yes, the makeup simply isn't very good, and i was distracted by it. but if you can get beyond that, what you are left with is a really interesting, complicated look at an interesting, complicated historical figure. in a lot of ways, i think critics would have been happier if eastwood had taken sides and made a more straightfoward biopic (think other far inferior, but critically lauded works like ray, walk the line, milk) but eastwood chose to go another way, in short to eschew conclusions. and this decision really elevated the work.

8. weekend. . . the field of queer cinema is so bereft of much of anything of quality, that to say that weekend is one of the best queer films i've ever seen is really to downplay its accomplishment. strangely, many critics of the film seem to downplay its queerness, arguing that this is really a broader film about love and human interconnectedness. no. this is a film about how these heteronormative concepts are confronted by queer communities. that is not to say that weekend was made solely for a gay audience. i think that anyone watching it, gay or straight, would be affected by its revelations.

7. beginners. . . the sad thing for me about beginners is that nearly all of the film's praise has been heaped on christopher plummer, who only really appears in it for a matter of minutes. although he is good in a very small (albeit central to the plot) role, there is so much more to like about this movie. every year, we are given at least a dozen romantic comedies that are either snarky, nasty, cliched or some combination of the above. and, if lucky, we are given one or two that are clever, genuine or at least somehow original. this was the film that filled that quota for 2011.

6. shame. . . this is a hard film to love. its characters are hopelessly despicable. the sex is painfully unerotic. and as a viewer, i was often left feeling like an unwanted voyeur watching something i simply wasn't meant to see. that being said, it takes a sort of expert filmmaker to elicit this sort of uncomfortable feeling from an audience. shame is definitely a film that stays with you long after you've seen it. and i give director steve mcqueen special credit for crafting a final scene that does anything but provide closure. my favorite film ending of the year.

5. the ides of march. . . i found george clooney's first directorial success good night and good luck to be a sanctimonious diatribe, and it stands as one of my all time least favorite films. so i wasn't really all that hopeful about his most recent work. but i was surprised. much like good night, ides is a work deeply guided by a social message. however, rather than bludgeoning the viewer over the head with this message, clooney rather chose to create an incredibly entertaining narrative that really stands on its own. probably my favorite political thriller since 2000's the contender.

4. drive. . . this is just one of those movies that was destined to be iconic from its inception. the costumes, the music, the art direction, even the title font, all will go down in film history as essentially, originally, iconically drive. it probably isn't much of a surprise that the conservative academy didn't see fit to much acknowledge this exceptionally violent work, but i almost think that it is such a cool film, that a best picture nomination might actually have damaged the work's inevitable cult film status.

3. the help. . . simultaneously the most dominating and undervalued film of 2011. why is it that hollywood studios repeatedly refuse to market non-romantic movies featuring female leads? hopefully the immense success of the help will change this, but it is unlikely. even so, and despite a best picture nomination and sag ensemble prize, many still argue that help is sort of bland and average. overall, the help is probably the most entertaining film i saw all year and is likely to be the one i rewatch the most in the future. and it is punctuated by strong performances, excellent direction and a strong screenplay. it's remarkable that the help isn't in competition as a best picture frontrunner.

2. the tree of life. . . although 2011 may not have been an overall banner year for cinema, the year's two best works nearly make up for this larger film recession. i went into the tree of life fully expected to hate what was sure to be an intentionally weird non-narrative film experiment. but i was almost immediately enraptured. yes it is weird. yes it is non-narrative. but it is a beautiful, insanely intelligent work that plumbs the very questions that root humanity to this planet. how any filmmaker could have ever thought it possible to successfully make a film about the origin of life on earth is beyond me? how malick was able to successfully envision and create this work is truly remarkable.

1. melancholia. . . in my opinion, perhaps a career best achievement by the greatest living filmmaker working today. in melancholia, von trier really seems to be stretching himself an auteur, using cinematography in a way he has never done before, at times expressing himself through images alone. inspired by the paintings of french artist jean genet, melancholia serves as a sort of visual artistic spectacle in and of itself. but that isn't to say von trier hasn't also given us a profoundly moving screenplay as well. in sum, an elegant, moving meditation on the meaning of life at the end of the world.
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