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The Best Films of 2011

Written by on December 30, 2011 

Nick Newman’s Top 10 of 2011

No matter what some will incessantly argue, every year is a good one for films. 2011 was still special, though, with a glut of offerings from both the art house and multiplex world that were worthy of time, money, and consideration. My list might skew a bit more toward that former side, but a twelve-month span that allows millions to see Source Code or Rise of the Planet of the Apes is worth saluting.

That being said, I have to provide my typical heads up: It must be established that, if the selections seem a little thin, this is only due to the unfortunate fact that many (reportedly) great films were out of my reach. It’s not that I didn’t want to see A Separation, Take Shelter, Tyrannosaur, The Guard, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Skin I Live In, or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, among others — they simply eluded me.

Honorable mentions:

10. Shame (Steve McQueen)

What better way to start off a list than sexual frustration and suffocating feelings of despair? Though Steve McQueen‘s follow-up to Hunger carries neither the thematic weight or emotional punch equal to his debut, shifting from the confined spaces of a prison cell to the freedom of a sprawling metropolis doesn’t sacrifice his immense formal skill. And if you can show me a performance in cinema this year that’s more layered or impacting than Michael Fassbender – wait, don’t bother. Harry Escott‘s devastating score and an unexpectedly funny script from McQueen and Abi Morgan both spice up the grim proceedings, all as Carey Mulligan delivers her best work by leaps and bounds.

9. The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg)

The finest piece of entertainment from 2011. Motion capture animation is often breeding ground for soulless action fare that’s high on budget but low on passion, but The Adventures of Tintin is Spielberg at his most controlled and, almost-but-not-quite paradoxically, unrestrained in years. The technology here is stunning in how it translates Hergé‘s beloved comics for the big screen, while a mix of humorous dialogue and visual gags are perfect breathers from dazzling action sequences. And, what’s more, the plot isn’t boneheaded. Consider it the film equivalent of candy that doesn’t leave you with a cavity.

8. The Arbor (Clio Barnard)

I’ll admit it upfront: Using a narrative-like form to cover a documentary, then throwing in elements of theater, is a method I don’t fully “get,” but the content of the subject and the piercing emotions warrant such an approach. Despite this impressive feat, The Arbor isn’t begging for your sympathy or attention; it simply lays a cold, hard reality bare. I won’t say much more, only because I’d like to preserve any surprises for those who will (and should) seek this out.

7. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)

My immediate – and, by “immediate,” I mean “seconds-after” – reaction to Certified Copy was slightly confused. Not at its mechanics, per se, just how I should process the whole experience. But the passing of time has left me increasingly enamored with Kiarostami‘s deconstruction of human interaction and its relation to art, in addition to the knockout turns by Juliette Binoche and William Shimell. Most could simply enjoy this as a romantic treatise with a lovely background; those digging further will be greatly rewarded.

6. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)

Drive is a film of surfaces. The roof of a car. The heel of a boot. The Los Angeles skyline. Ryan Gosling‘s face. It’s what’s under these and, in at least one case, what goes under these that propels it into a major work. You could make the argument that it wouldn’t at all function without the guiding hand of Nicolas Winding Refn, but that would discount an incredible collection of pre-existing music that puts us in the character’s mindset, as well as perfect editing from Mat Newman. Add in colorful supporting turns by the likes of Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac, Bryan Cranston and, above all else, Albert Brooks, and you’ve got a deluxe experience.

5. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)

I’m almost pre-inclined to enjoy anything from Scorsese, but I found my filmic sensibilities responding to Hugo more strongly than even I could’ve imagined. Seeing one of my favorite filmmakers handle new technology like a young man is enough of an exhilaration; wrapping this around a touching story about the importance of cinema is almost too good to be true. But it isn’t. The magic literally pops off the screen, enveloping you into worlds both beautiful and hazardous. So impressive, as a matter of fact, that it’s easy to forget that Ben Kingsley gives one of the 2011’s best performances, playing someone those reading this owe a great deal to, no less.

4. Submarine (Richard Ayoade)

There’s a temptation to describe this as the best tale of teenage British love Jean-Luc Godard never made, but that’s pigeonholing the film far more than I’d care to. We’ve all seen stories of young people falling in love and getting over their heads; it’s the flavor provided by Richard Ayoade – only in his debut skin, amazingly – which makes it stand apart from so much faux indie fare. The chemistry between Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige is just as crucial to this movie’s resonance; they feel like people we know and, at certain points, are. Alex Turner‘s original soundtrack is a perfect fit for the ever-so-slight gloom that hangs over every scene.

3. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)

I knew Meek’s Cutoff was something special as it played. It marinated in my brain during a calming drive home on an early summer’s night – and the film has stayed there since. The quiet tone and somber manner through which ideas are communicated will leave many bored – and I honestly don’t begrudge them this feeling – but, for reasons I’m not fully able to pinpoint, so many barren shots of sparsely-populated fields captivated me to no end. Reichardt depicts the West in a trance-like way, capturing the time and place as an interminable purgatory. There’s also the rich, stimulating allegory for the workings of the United States’ inner self, but that discussion is best saved for another time. Taken as a whole piece, Meek’s Cutoff is one of the most complete films of our currently-short decade.

2. Scenes from the Suburbs (Spike Jonze)

It’s only 28 minutes long? It only showed up at festivals? None of that matters; Suburbs left a bigger imprint on me- in about a quarter of the time – than almost any of the films vying for arbitrary awards at the end of this year. Look: One of my most-beloved bands working with a great director on a project based around an album I hold dearer than words can express is bound to leave a mark. But for it to hit when it did, and for it to have so many mirrors to my own life… that was unprecedented. The feelings that arose during one viewing were so overpowering that, though I love it to pieces, Scenes from the Suburbs is the only film on this list I may never watch again.

1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

I don’t even know where to start with The Tree of Life. This blindingly ambitious look at parental influence, the nature of existence, the creation of the universe itself, and almost everything else under the sun is almost too much to put into words; yet, somehow, Malick never stumbled. Even if he didn’t hit every mark, stunning imagery, bruising performances and the soundtrack’s overwhelming force would make it something special. But Malick did, and he made a masterpiece. The best film of 2011.

The Film Stage’s Best Films of 2011

[Jordan Raup] [Dan Mecca] [Nick Newman] [Kristy Puchko]

[Jack Giroux] [Raffi Asdourian] [Danny King] [Jared Mobarak]

Follow: Our 2011 Year-End Features

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