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The Best Films of 2011

Written by on December 30, 2011 

Kristy Puchko’s Top 10 of 2011

It’s been an absolutely exhilarating year in cinema. Sundance stunned with breakthrough debuts (Brit Marling in Another Earth, Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene) and charming docs (Being Elmo, Project Nim). The summer brought a bevvy of superhero tales for better (Thor) or worse (Green Lantern), and dealt a powerful blow to the idea that men dominate comedy with Bridemaids dominating the box office, ultimately outgrossing such R-rated guy gross-outs as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Wedding Crashers. Then came the fall and the New York Film Festival, which exhibited a wide array of breathtaking films from all over the world, including Melancholia, Pina, The Skin I Live In and The Artist. And now as I prep to endure the chilly air to regularly trek to Spirit Award screenings, I’ve been asked to look back and pick the best of a batch of unforgettable films.

It’s been an embarrassment of riches for film critics and movie buffs, which makes picking only 10 incredibly difficult. But after much thought and an incredible amount of waffling, I have chosen my top 10. For me, it wasn’t so much about which films best realized their goals, but rather which movie best captured my imagination, and refused to let go. Each of the titles below stuck with me for weeks, getting tangled in my thoughts as I rode the train, invading conversations – often exceedingly tangentially — and even popping up in my dreams. The films below did not just intrigue me in the theater, they made themselves a part of me in that way that truly extraordinary cinema does. For better or worse…

Honorable Mentions:

The Muppets               TrollHunter          Lovers of Hate               Hanna                Win Win     

10. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)

Sean Durkin’s directorial debut has drawn praise for a number of reasons. There’s the poignant yet subtly told tale of two sisters separated by years of distrust. There’s Durkin’s deft narrative style that explores a story of cult dynamics without falling into exploitative or bombastic dramatics. And, of course, there’s newcomer Elizabeth Olsen’s riveting breakthrough performance, alongside oft-menacing but always mesmerizing character actor John Hawkes enthralling follow-up to his Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone (one of my favorites of last year.) But what’s made this harrowing drama a lock for my top 10 is its haunting sense of unease. You know that strange space between being fully asleep and being awake and alert? That space where you’re not yet sure where you are and what’s real? This is the world in which Durkin and Olsen plant their heroine as she struggles to adjust to life with her affluent sister and brother-in-law after escaping from the lurid grasp of Hawke’s cult leader. It fills the theater with an unshakeable and unsettling atmosphere that overwhelms its audience and lingers, refusing to let you forget what you’ve seen and fear. [My full review.]

9. Happy Happy (Anne Sewitsky)

This blistering but sweet comedy out of Norway – with its contemporary setting and low-frills production – draws inspiration from the minimalistic and low-budget aesthetic of the stern Dogme movement. But writer-director Anne Sewitsky rejects Dogme’s more austere elements, instead embracing a vibrant and wild sense of humor that’s grounded in the first world problems of two sets of neighbors plagued by bubbling marital resentment. Sewitsky deftly balances dark subject matter (infidelity, sexual rejection, parental neglect) with cheeky humor that includes cutaways to a sort of modernized Greek chorus made up of four well-dressed white men performing bubbly renditions of old gospel songs. The result is a comedy that is fearlessly irreverent, incredibly funny, weirdly charming and surprisingly insightful. [My full review.]

8. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (Rodman Flender)

When Conan O’Brien left The Tonight Show, he unexpectedly became an inspiration to hordes of Americans who also felt bullied and victimized by their jobs and saw O’Brien’s resignation as a satisfyingly rebellious and cathartic action. But what does a TV talk show host do after he’s walked away from his dream job and is contractually banned from appearing on television? He goes on tour. In Flender’s dynamic doc, he chases the wild-limbed and bearded comedian from tour dates to press ops to production meetings. And it ain’t always pretty. It’s a revealing look at O’Brien’s complicated relationship with his craft, revealing not only the soaring highs of being before an audience but also the crushing lows of second-guessing every performance. It’s an insight into showbiz we’re rarely granted in such a raw and honest form. It’s one of the best showbiz docs you’ll see, fully encompassing the creative process in a demystified and gripping way. O’Brien is shown close to meltdown, making this oft-hilarious doc hard to watch at points. Yet it’s ultimately inspiring as all of O’Brien’s tireless efforts finally land him back on television, where he belongs.

7. Pariah (Dee Rees)

This edgy indie out of Brooklyn tells the tale of a girl coming out to her parents in a way rarely seen – without tearjerker theatrics and shame. Alike (Adepero Oduye), the heroine of this drama, knows she’s gay and her quest is less about getting her parents to accept her than it is figuring out who she is besides her sexuality. First, she mirrors the urban style of her out and proud butch best friend (Pernell Walker), donning shiny ball caps and oversized tees. Later, she mimicks the Afro-pop infused style of her girly-girl crush, a cute and charismatic classmate (Aasha Davis). Identity evolution is common among teen girls, yet rarely is it so relateable onscreen. Oduye nails this arc, deftly maneuvering through Alike’s journey from closeted Daddy’s girl to an independent and fearless young woman. It is a coming-of-age tale told with grace and integrity. Bolstered by raw and naturalistic performances, Pariah will feel familiar no matter where you grew up.

6. Project Nim (James Marsh)

Documentarian James Marsh dazzled audiences in 2008 with his invigorating adventure Man on Wire, which blended heist movie theatrics with playful interviews to tell the bizarre but true tale of the man who walked a tight rope between the World Trade Center’s towers. With his documentary follow-up, Marsh once again takes on a whimsical subject and plumbs its depths to reveal a darker truth about human nature. In this case, the tale is one of a chimp called Nim who was made more than an animal when he was taught sign-language, but treated as less than human once interest in the project ebbed. With a mix of sharp humor, saturated archival footage, macabre re-enactments and curious interviews with Nim’s various handlers/friends, Marsh weaves the bittersweet tale of this poor chimp in a way that draws focus to our own self-centric motivations. Each subject describes Nim on different terms (a child, a test subject, a friend, a fiend), ultimately revealing a sickening truth about mankind’s reckless and capricious ambitions.

5. I Saw the Devil (Jee-Woon Kim)

Kim’s Korean revenge thriller took this twisted subgenre to new heights and all-new lows with a tale so full of blood, gore and brutality that it’s sure to sicken even the most hardcore horror fan. And that’s exactly the point. While critics, academics and pop culture commentators bicker about the impact of violence in cinema, Kim presents his own commentary here by paralleling two brands of movie violence. The first, enacted by the feature’s villain (Oldboy star Min-sik Choi), is executed upon defenseless women through misogynistic mutilation and is resoundingly repulsive to the audience. The second form of violence is committed by the film’s vengeance-seeking hero (Byung-hun Lee) who aims to make this horrid murderer pay in an eye-for-an-eye method of retribution. At first, audiences rally around this seemingly righteous violence, but then things begin to shift leaving our “hero” at arc-end in an amoral realm that is disconcertingly similar to his victim. While an excellent choice for a horrifying feature, there’s a lot more to ponder in I Saw the Devil. (My full review.)

4. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)

You may have heard that writer-director Lynne Ramsay’s third feature is about a woman trying to cope in the aftermath of the gruesome school massacre her teenage son committed. And yes, that is the plot of We Need to Talk About Kevin, but it’s not really what the film is about. Instead Ramsay, with the help of her incredible and capable leading lady Tilda Swinton, crafts a gut-wrenching study of maternal failing. As ever, Swinton is brilliant and fearless in her portrayal of a potentially loathsome character, in this case Eva Khatchadourian, a mother who does not bond or even like her young son. The time before the massacre is revealed through Eva’s subjective and moody memories informed by her guilt and a desperate need to make sense of the slaughter. A murky and disturbing showdown between Eva and her spiteful little doppelganger begins to surface, all informed by Eva’s grief and guilt. It’s a tale of the dark side of motherhood that is shudder-inducing, heartbreaking and potentially ovary-shriveling. Or maybe that’s just me.

3. The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar)

During NYFF, I wrote, “The Skin I Live In may well be Almodóvar’s masterpiece,” as it’s an absolute marvel of genre-blending cinematic spectacle. Flush with lush costume design, luxurious sets and lurid shot compositions, Pedro Almodóvar created a world of radiant color that warns of unspeakable dangers. The plot is likewise better left unspoken, as its deeply shocking turns are a large part of the film’s wow factor. Suffice to say that Almodóvar blends the low brow elements of melodrama and horror to create a thoroughly gripping thriller. His stars, Elena Anaya and Antonio Banderas, share an electric onscreen chemistry and masterfully maneuver through this complicated narrative’s jaw-dropping twists to create one of the most bizarre yet beautiful tales of perseverance and self-discovery ever made. (My full, spoiler-free review.)

2. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)

No film this year has filled me with as much sheer joy as The Artist. Despite being a black and white, silent film with American actors in only supporting roles, Michel Hazanavicius’ lush and witty romance has been popping up on plenty of top 10 lists. And for those of you assuming it’s of some snooty critic’s preference for high-minded cinema, let me assure you that while there’s plenty of craftsmanship to admire in The Artist — from its heavily allusive art design and score to its striking cinematography and pitch-perfect performances — the main reason so many critics are singing the praises of this silent film is because it succeeds so well on a purely visual level. French comedian Jean Dujardin stars as a stubborn silent film star who refuses to acknowledge the coming of sound. Without the aid of dialogue, Dujardin gamely carries his performance solely on his mesmerizing countenance. With his captivating confidence, sweet yet sexy appeal and charismatic smile, Dujardin is like a magnificent combination of iconic leading men Gene Kelly and Douglas Fairbanks. It’s a performance that should win him the Oscar, hands down.

1. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)

When I first saw Asghar Farhadi’s stirring drama A Separation, I felt compelled to tweet, “The best film of the year may be Iranian.”  Since that day, this thoroughly engrossing narrative became the film to which all others of 2011 were compared. Focusing on the tangled interactions of two families in modern day Iran, Farhadi made a film completely specific to his culture, yet universal in its themes. He crafted a tale full of conflict but free of villains that’s performed with a raw energy and penetrating poignancy by its cast. It’s a film of he-said she-said that forces the audience to engage and make of its obscured actions what they will. In the end, who is to blame and the ending itself is all in the eye of the beholder, which is sure to make A Separation a movie people will revisit and talk about for decades. (My full, spoiler-free review.)

The Film Stage’s Best Films of 2011

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

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

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