The Best Films of 2011

Anders's Top 10:

1. The Tree of Life

Written and directed by Terrence Malick; starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, and Sean Penn.

My favourite film of 2011 might seem to be a no brainer to those that know me, but the early reports about this ambitiously grand, yet intensely personal work had me wondering if Malick would be able to pull it off.  In The Tree of Life, he does so, offering a meditation on one's place in society, family, and the cosmos. The oneiric and mnemonic qualities of the film place it firmly in the tradition of Proust or films such as Tarkovsky's Mirror (1975), while managing to be grounded in the particularity of its own time and place: specifically an exploration of American, Christian, twentieth-century life. Too many people have uncritically accepted the nature/grace dichotomy that the film seems to propose, which I see the film as complicating, and ultimately rejecting as the various voice-overs (prayers?) play off of and against the visuals. Not as difficult as some have made it out to be, The Tree of Life's many pleasures include moments that verge on experimental (the images of microscopic life come to mind) and a performance from Brad Pitt that in my mind ranks among the very best of his career.

I'll be presenting a paper on my reading of The Tree of Life, entitled "Focalization, Voice-over, and the Cinematic Memory Image in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life" at this year's SCMS Annual Conference in Boston, MA March 20-25, 2012.

2. Hugo

Directed by Martin Scorsese; screenplay by John Logan based on the book by Brian Selznick; starring Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Jude Law, Helen McCrory, and Christopher Lee.

I've already written about my love for Martin Scorsese's Hugo on this website here. My appreciation for  this film is grounded in two aspects: Scorsese's command of the cinematic form, and his obvious love for it as well. Ben Kingsley gives one of his best performances in years, heading up a fantastic cast (just look at that list!). But the key reason that Hugo remains one of my most treasured cinema goings is the way that it expresses its key themes so thoroughly cinematically, reminding us of the origins of cinema through embracing the very latest tools of the trade. Hugo fondly remembers the past, while looking forward to the future.

3. Certified Copy (Copie conforme)

Written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami; starring Juliette Binoche and William Shimell.

Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy is a remarkable film, managing to enact a philosophical exploration about the nature of originality and authenticity in this story about a couple meeting in Tuscany. The film's formal structure asks us to question part way through the story what we thought we knew, but it's not just a cold exercise in theory or a banal "conversation" movie. Kiarostami manages to both challenge our expectations as film goers and move us as his characters grapple with their situation.

4. Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux)

Directed by Xavier Beauvois; written by Xavier Beauvois and Etienne Comar; starring Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, and Olivier Rabourdin.

Of Gods and Men gives us an insightful look into the lives of a group of Trappist monks living in Algeria who are challenged with the decision of whether or not to abandon their home under the threat of Islamic fundamentalists. The film explores the very question of "home" and "calling" and challenges the way most people view the relationship between Muslims and Christians. Understated cinematography and stirring characterization on the part of the actors add up to one of the most interesting films of the year.

5. Drive

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; screenplay by Hossein Amini based on the book by James Sallis; starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Christina Hendricks, and Ron Perlman.*

On the surface Drive would see to be a pastiche, combining the aloof nature of 1960s French crime films, such as Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourauï (1967), with the neon Los Angeles of Michael Mann. But it manages to take the sum of its influences and create one of the most captivating films of the year. Full of suspense and small character moments, Drive is one of the most strangely entertaining films of the year.

6. Melancholia

Written and directed by Lars von Trier; starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier, and Kiefer Sutherland.

I saw von Trier's Melancholia at TIFF 2011, and it was the highlight of my brief time at the festival. The film manages to take on the tricky material of depression (a topic close to von Trier and star Dunst) through the end of the world as an appropriate metaphor. Rich with cinematic allusions to post-war European art films, Melancholia is interested in ideas and relationships rather than plot or plausibility. Most impressive is the opening sequence of the film that uses a series of extreme slow-motion effects to show both the inescapability of depression (or the Earth's destruction at the hands of the rogue planet) and to explore cinema's ability to capture movement. Melancholia is a hard film to enjoy, but not hard to admire as it is one of von Trier's finest films.

7. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Directed by David Fincher; screenplay by Steven Zaillian from the novel by Stieg Larsson; starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, and Stellan Skarsgård.

I wasn't expecting this film to land on my top 10, but Fincher's detailed characterization of an investigation into the Vanger family's sordid past managed to exceed my expectations despite having no previous experience of the Millennium Trilogy in either book or film form. Rooney Mara's Lisbeth Salander continues Fincher's exploration of 21st century alienation, offering a interesting comparison to the Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network (2010). Salander embodies a character who wears her scars as openly as her tattoos, showing a disdain for the veneer of middle-brow respectability (which nearly always hides frightening monstrosity). While the film strays into dark territory (even given the nature of serial killer film), it is impeccably shot and consistently compelling.

8. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Directed by David Yates; screenplay by Steve Kloves based on the novel by J.K. Rowling; starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Gambon, and Ralph Fiennes.

The Harry Potter saga is now complete, and I can't imagine too many Potter fans are seriously disappointed. The conclusion to the saga marks a significant accomplishment in adaptation, as well as providing a rousing and energetic conclusion to Part 1's more muted (though no less competent) instalment. The film concludes the series while continuing to present, and perhaps in many aspects increasing, a vision of quality fantasy filmmaking.

9. A Dangerous Method

Directed by David Cronenberg; screenplay by Christopher Hampton based on his play; starring Keira Knightley, Michael Fasssbender, Viggo Mortensen, and Vincent Cassel.

This fascinating portrait of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung's career and relationship is framed around Jung's affair with his patient, Sabina Spielrein. The film manages to keep a tight focus rather than take on too much. Some have suggested that Canadian master Cronenberg's film is too limited, but instead it is perfectly in tune with his sensibilities, presenting Freud and Jung's psychoanalysis as merely another way to approach the damaged humans he usually deals with. Keira Knightley's performance as the woman at the centre of the film is particularly daring and intense.

10. The Adventures of Tintin

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish based on the comic book series by Hergé; starring Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, and Toby Jones.*

As a huge Tintin fan going back to my childhood I greatly enjoyed seeing Tintin brought to life in this exciting film that pays respect both to Hergé's stories and director Spielberg's adventure films. Steven Spielberg's wonderful two-film combination of War Horse and Tintin shows that he has the ability to both play with a modern technology such as motion capture 3D animation in one film and present a throwback to classic Hollywood filmmaking in the same year. While my childhood love of Tintin and the characters has it win out for me in the end, consider this duo of Spielberg films a tie for my tenth favourite film of 2012.

Honourable Mentions:

Attack the Block (dir. Joe Cornish), Captain America: The First Avenger (dir. Joe Johnston), Cave of Forgotten Dreams (dir. Werner Herzog), Contagion (dir. Steven Soderbergh), Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen), Source Code (dir. Duncan Jones), War Horse  (dir. Steven Spielberg),Win Win(dir. Thomas McCarthy)


Aren's Top 10:

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Directed by David Yates; written by Steve Kloves based on the novel by J.K. Rowling; starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, and Ralph Fiennes.

The most bafflingly overlooked and underappreciated film of the year awards-wise, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is the conclusion the staggeringly popular, astoundingly consistent Harry Potter series deserved. The overwhelming atmosphere of dread; the fantastic production values from special effects to costumes to set design; the cast of the best and brightest of British actors; Deathly Hallows: Part 2 boasts everything a blockbuster film can muster and soars as an epic, emotionally draining conclusion full of cinematic wizardry. Never presume to pass this film off as simple populist fare. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is a complex work of fantastical genius, exploring the notions of friendship, sacrifice, and heroism and transporting audiences one last time to this timeless world spawned from J.K. Rowling’s imagination.

2. Certified Copy

Written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami; starring Juliette Binoche and William Shimell.

Going into Certified Copy I knew little to nothing about the film or the director. I left entranced and six months later, I’m still pondering the profound questions it provoked. Gorgeously shot and containing poignant and honest performances by Juliette Binoche and William Shimell, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is a film exploring philosophy through the most vital of human relationships. It makes us think about the nature of authenticity, but beyond that, it makes us feel for the characters pondering it for themselves.

3. The Tree of Life

Written and directed by Terrence Malick; starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Sean Penn.

Terrence Malick is an enigma and The Tree of Life is our best window into the mind of this mysterious director. A deeply personal film, The Tree of Life is overwhelming in its explorations of family, childhood, and the universe. Malick weaves all these elements together, pondering the importance of an individual’s existence in the context of the enormity of space and time. He has crafted a film that’s disparate narrative echoes the form of human memory. It is a transcendent experience.

4. The Interrupters

Directed by Steve James.

Documentarian extraordinaire Steve James lets the cameras roll for one year in the inner city of Chicago, exploring how gang violence in our modern society and how it can be combated. James never offers easy answers or shys away from showing the broken state of human existence. Perhaps James’s greatest strength as a documentarian is that he never sees social problems as less than the sum of their parts. He refuses to paint even the most depraved and damaged individual as anything less than a fully formed human being.

5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Directed by David Fincher; written by Steve Zaillian based on the novel by Stieg Larsson; starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer and Stellan Skarsgard.

A dark, uncompromising look at the evils that lurk beneath the respectability of modern society, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is David Fincher at his best. With icy cinematography, dedicated performances, and chilling uses of sound design, music and location, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo improves upon compelling source material and succeeds as an atmospherically overwhelming thriller and an indictment of the modern world.

6. Hugo

Directed by Martin Scorsese; written by John Logan based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick; starring Asa Butterfield, Chloe Moretz, Ben Kingsley, and Sacha Baron Cohen.

Hugo is Martin Scorsese’s impassioned ode to the cinema and the creation of art. Through its wonderful spatial design, use of 3D, charming characters, and classical story, Hugo transports you to a magical Parisian train station, allowing you into the Dickensian lives of its many inhabitants, particularly the sad boy without a father and the bitter old man who lost his art.

7. Shame

Directed by Steve McQueen; written by Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen; starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, and James Badge Dale.

Shame is an emotional, meticulous and visually stunning exploration of sex addiction containing the year’s most fearless performance. Michael Fassbender bears everything as Brandon, both emotionally and physically. The film leaves the viewer emotionally and viscerally drained, and hopefully with a better understanding of the crippling emotional and addictive handicaps that the superficially successful people of this world can suffer from.

8. Super 8

Written and directed by J.J. Abrams; starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, and Kyle Chandler.

Another passionate ode to filmmaking, J.J. Abram’s Super 8 explores childhood friendship, family, and loss, all with the trappings of a classic Spielberg sci-fi movie. The science fiction elements are thrilling and the action astounds, but it’s Super 8’s keen understanding of childhood innocence and wonder that leaves the viewer in awe of the fantastic possibilities that cinema can capture.

9. Captain America: The First Avenger

Directed by Joe Johnston; written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely based on the comic books by Marvel; starring Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, and Hugo Weaving.

Capturing the tone of the iconic comic book character perfectly, Captain America: The First Avenger is a top-tier superhero movie about a genuine hero. Not to be dismissed as nationalistic tripe, Captain America has exciting action, well-drawn characters and celebrates true virtues. It’s a film with a hero you can really root for. For pure adventure entertainment, nothing gets better than this.

10. Take Shelter

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols; starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.

Take Shelter is the year’s most lastingly disturbing and unconventional horror movie. Both a nuanced portrait of mental illness and apocalyptic prophecy, it explores the tolls that both take on the mental and physical well being of a man, a marriage, and a family. Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain simply astound.

Honourable Mentions:

The Adventures of Tintin (dir. Steven Spielberg); Cave of Forgotten Dreams (dir. Werner Herzog); Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn); Into the Abyss (dir. Werner Herzog); Melancholia (dir. Lars von Trier); Mission Impossible — Ghost Protocol (dir. Brad Bird); Moneyball (dir. Bennett Miller); Rango (dir. Gore Verbinski); War Horse (dir. Steven Spielberg); Winnie the Pooh (dir. Don Hall and Stephen Anderson)