I am going to regret this. In fact I am forcing myself to write this; if I had my druthers you wouldn't even be seeing this list for a couple of weeks. 2011 was a film year that refused to knock me on my ass; I liked a lot of movies, but there were few that I ravingly loved, and as I sat down to make my top ten list I realized it would be filled with films that are super good, but probably not for the ages.
That's the nature of these things anyway - a look back at previous top tens (top fifteens back when I was at CHUD) reveal a lot of movies I kind of forgot even existed. Tying the Knot, anyone? But this year I feel a real incompleteness about this list. Part of it is that I didn't get to see as many of those fake 2011 movies - you know, the ones that open for one week in LA and NY to qualify for the Oscars but then open everywhere else in February - and so I didn't end up having opinions on films like Pina and Miss Bala and A Separation, which are filling many other top ten lists. But also because the bottom five of this list feels slightly arbitrary; I think I could list any of those five in any order and feel satisfied.
Is it me? Have I lost touch with the magic of cinema? Or was 2011 a very good year for movies and just not a truly GREAT one? Or have I slipped so far up my own butthole that rather than think about what movies I really liked this year I'm far too concerned with looking back at this list from the post-apocalyptic vantage of 2016?
Of course I have a top ten that contains eleven films, so maybe I'm just being a whiny bitch.
One last note: I have stuck with films that were commercially available to viewers in 2011, which means I left off films that only played festivals or that I saw early.
10. Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I went back and forth on this one A LOT. I've always been an enormous Apes fan, and I was a cheerleader for this movie from very, very early on. Me having it on my list is almost cliche. And I'm not unaware that the film has huge problems, mostly in terms of the humans. But I believe that the ape stuff is so good, so special and so transcendent that it overcomes the handicap of James Franco and Slumdog Millionairess. The FX are astonishing and in the service of real character and storytelling, not just spectacle. What really brings Rise to the level of a top ten film is the ending - despite being obvious from the title of the film and despite having been largely spoiled by Fox in advertising, the final ape uprising is still thrilling. It's some of the most rousing filmmaking of the year.
9. War Horse. I get why some people hate this film. It's so completely old fashioned in its storytelling and its tone that it almost feels alien. Steven Spielberg embraced a broader, more earnest and more nakedly emotional era of filmmaking here and I think he created something amazing as a result. It is truly beyond me how any member of the audience isn’t in tears by the end of War Horse, but even if the film’s masterful manipulations don’t move you, you must admit that this is some of the best technical filmmaking on display in 2011. It is assured, masterful work from a man who is probably the best mainstream filmmaker in history. So set aside your coolness and let down your guard and find it in you to enjoy an undeniably beautifully made, unrepentantly sappy film.
8. Drive. I feel like listing War Horse and Drive back to back is a gimmick. Where Spielberg threw back to the films of the 40s for his movie, Nicolas Winding Refn threw back to the 60s and 70s for Drive, looking to a time when cool was uncalculated and natural for the great filmmakers and actors. Where Spielberg goes right for the heart, Refn goes right for the corner of the lip where James Dean’s cigarette dangled. Spare, smart and cooler than a thousand hipsters in a walk-in freezer, Drive is so good it made me rethink my general distaste for Mouseketeer Ryan Gosling. That’s saying something.
7. We Need To Talk About Kevin. I have two films on this list that wouldn’t be considered horror movies by most purists - ie, I don’t think that Brian Collins could count them in his Horror-Movie-A-Day viewings - but that are scarier than any horror film of the last decade. The first is Kevin, Lynne Ramsay’s movie about a woman who raises a sociopath. When Kevin was over I was literally nauseous because my stomach had tightened into such a knot. Ramsay lays it on thick - there isn’t a shot without prominent blood red coloring - but Tilda Swinton’s performance, one part frayed, one part numb, brings much-needed subtlety. There are a lot of terrors in Kevin - maternal terrors, modern terrors, but most effectively existential terrors at the presence of evil right inside of us.
6. Tie: Tree of Life/Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Hey look, it’s the cop out tied spot. I think these films work together right here because they’re both largely mood pieces; while Tinker Tailor does have a riveting story and great characters (two things that a second viewing helps make clearer), what stands out most about it is the incredible sense of time, place and atmosphere that Tomas Alfredson manages to evoke in every frame. The same can be said for Terence Malick’s paean to his boyhood, which almost feels more like a memory than a movie. I might be short changing Tinker Tailor by sharing its spot - I think that the chilly exterior melts the more time you spend with it, and Alfredson has made a deeply emotional movie, if a deeply reserved one - but I do think that Tree of Life’s bookends are so useless as to massively flaw an otherwise incredible film.
5. Project Nim. There’s always this thing where people walk out of really good documentaries and want to make narrative features out of them. Like his last doc, Man on Wire, James Marsh’s Project Nim would be no better served in narrative format (and besides, the narrative version is already on this top ten list, coming in at number ten). This documentary uses a wealth of archive footage and shockingly candid interviews to tell a heartbreaking story of how humans can be pretty beastly when dealing with animals. What makes Nim so successful is the way that it shows us, without any doubt, that apes are sentient beings capable of higher function. Whether or not they can put together a sentence in sign language they can feel and process things just as much as we can. The fact that we put them in zoos and use them in laboratories is one of the eternal black marks against humanity.
4. Melancholia. I read a tweet to the effect of ‘I envy people who don’t like Melancholia because they can’t identify with it.’ Lars von Trier’s latest is emotionally harrowing in the way it realistically and unsentimentally depicts the pains and impacts of depression and anxiety. It also pretty awesomely depicts the end of the world when it collides with a bigger planet. That planet, Melancholia, is a pretty obvious metaphor for the stuff that von Trier is talking about rather explicitly in the rest of the film, but it never feels redundant. Part of that comes from the sheer beauty of the film, and part of that comes from the unbelievably brave, open and raw performances of Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. But perhaps most amazing of all is that Melancholia isn’t a sad movie - I found the end of the film to be exhilarating and even kind of uplifting. Surely this is the first end-of-the-world-as-metaphor-for-crippling-mental-illness movie to be weirdly upbeat?
3. Martha Marcy May Marlene. Here’s the second scary non-horror film. I think Sean Durkin’s film about a woman who escapes from a cult is simply incredible. Many people hate the ending, but I think it’s perfect. I love every moment of this film, from the way that it looks to the brilliant transitions between the present day and flashback to the stunning lead performances. Elizabeth Olsen is so very much the goods here, and John Hawkes continues to cement his status as THE leading character actor of the day. If it weren’t for the director of my #1 movie I would say that Durkin is the most exciting new talent of the year, but he comes in a very, very close second.
2. Hugo. What’s the shelf life for filmmakers? Many filmmakers seem to have about a good decade, and then they either devolve into water-treading boredom or just go off the rails. It’s rare for a filmmaker to have multiple decades of greatness, yet here is Martin Scorsese beginning his FIFTH. The key comes from his desire to continue reinventing himself and to continue exploring new avenues; back when Goodfellas came out the idea of Scorsese making a 3D kid film would have been a subject for a Saturday Night Live skit. In 2011 it led to one of the year’s best movies, a movie that is not only filled with the love of movies, but also a 3D film that finally made a strong argument for why 3D should exist. Hugo only gets better and more magical on repeat viewings, each of its carefully placed watch-like gears becoming clearer. It’s not just a film about why movies matter, it’s a movie about why we all matter to each other.
1. Attack the Block. No other movie of the last few years hit me as close to home as this one did. Joe Cornish’s debut is perfect from its script to its pacing to its monster design to its incredible political conscience. It’s the ultimate movie for people raised on the GOOD 80s cinema, like that of John Carpenter. But it’s not a movie that is simply imitating its influences, like the unimaginative Super 8 - Attack the Block is a movie very much of the moment, a film that reflects 2011 in a big way. Coming before the London riots and the Occupy movement, Attack the Block is about the people at the bottom of the 99%... and how they fight aliens. I know that my obsession with the film’s politics makes it sound dour, but it’s actually fun and funny and exciting and a complete blast. Attack the Block works on every single level I want a movie to work: viscerally, emotionally and intellectually. This is the film I’ve watched the most in 2011, and just writing about it makes me want to put in the Blu-ray immediately. In 20 years fans are going to be astounded to find out that this movie wasn’t a huge hit, because it will be a dominating force in the genre landscape.