I find it difficult to say whether 2011 was an unusually strong or unusually weak year for films. As in any year, there were pleasant surprises and disappointments alike. If I had to pinpoint the one thing my favorites tend to have in common, though, it’s a sense that each of them were made with great love by people who cared desperately about them.
I don’t think there’s anything anyone can say at the start of a top 10 list to totally deflect the disgruntled comments from readers who incensed to see that X made my top 10 when Y didn’t, etc., but I’m still going to throw out the usual caveats. There are certainly deserving films that were left off just because I forgot about them, or because I missed the theatrical run, or because I couldn’t fully appreciate them due to my own biases, or what have you. I also want to acknowledge that there is no fair way to compare, say, Bridesmaids against Tree of Life, but that by ranking these movies I’ve done so anyway.
Finally, and most importantly, I’d like to stress that this is not intended as an objective list of the ten best movies of the year, but as a totally subjective look back at my personal favorites of 2011. Read my list and leave your thoughts after the jump.
10. Tree of Life — I didn’t love every minute of this movie, and there are parts of it that I just didn’t get at all. What I do understand, though, is that it’s gorgeously shot, impressively acted, intensely personal, and above all, staggeringly ambitious. How often do you see a film that attempts to weave together the Big Bang, dinosaurs, the Bible, the afterlife, and a tense family drama into a single film? Perhaps Terrence Malick failed to unlock all the secrets of the life and the universe in one fell swoop — he’s only human, after all. But what a treat to watch him try.
9. Weekend — It’s not really inaccurate to call Weekend a “gay Before Sunrise,” but it does sell this tender little movie short. For one thing, it’s so much more than a cheap knockoff. For another, while it revolves around two gay men and touches upon specifically gay issues, its overarching themes of love, sex, and friendship are universal. Tom Cullen and Chris New have a sexy, naturalistic chemistry as pair of Brits whose one-night stand expands into something more significant and more poignant, while director Andrew Haigh follows along at an unhurried pace that adds to the film’s irresistibly lived-in feel. “Clear-eyed” and “romantic” don’t often go hand-in-hand in movieland, but Weekend is a welcome exception to that rule.
8. Attack the Block — 2011 had a few truly kickass action films, including Fast Five and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, but none packed more fun per minute than Joe Cornish‘s scrappy alien flick. In fact, Attack the Block‘s zippy blend of sci-fi, action, and comedy is so easy to enjoy, I almost forgot to notice that it’s also unusually nuanced about issues of class, race, and good and bad. Its central heroes aren’t the typical team of blandly likable leading-man types, but glowering Moses (John Boyega) and his inner-city teenage street gang, who happen to be mugging a defenseless nurse (Jodie Whittaker) when the invaders arrive. That’s ballsy.
7. Midnight in Paris — Some have criticized Woody Allen‘s biggest hit to date for being too lightweight, for not saying anything terribly new, for making such obvious literary references. So what? I can’t think of another movie that put a bigger smile on my face this year than this charming little fantasy. You don’t have to be an English major to understand Gil’s (Owen Wilson) aching desire to be among his idols, or his unrestrained glee once he finds himself there. Among a remarkable cast, Corey Stoll steals every one of his scenes as a boisterous, larger-than-life Ernest Hemingway.
6. Bridesmaids — Bridesmaids got a ton of attention this year for “proving” that women could lead comedies, but the reason it’s on this list has nothing to do with that. It’s simply the funniest, most heartfelt thing to come out of producer Judd Apatow‘s comedy-making machine since his television days, or at least since 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Sharp writing by Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo and a willingness to get down and dirty make it endlessly quotable; believable friendships and a uniformly strong, up-for-anything cast make it memorable.
5. Rango — With nods to Chinatown, High Noon, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and countless other classics, Gore Verbinski‘s weird, ambling animated adventure centers around a sheltered chameleon (Johnny Depp) who’s less like a typical kids’ movie hero and more like, well, a Johnny Depp character. Rango also happens to be one of the most stunning CGI movies I’ve ever seen, with impeccably rendered Western landscapes and textures so real you can practically smell the dust.
4. Young Adult — Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody turn the romcom on its head in this abrasive, frequently hilarious character study of Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), an ex-prom queen who returns to her hometown to win back her now-married high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson). Meanwhile, Patton Oswalt gives one of the finest performances of the year as Mavis’ former schoolmate and newfound confidant, a sardonic geek who’s smart enough to know he’s better than this piece of shit town — and, for that matter, this deluded, horrifically nasty woman crying on his shoulder — but can’t quite bring himself to move on.
3. Melancholia — The plot of Lars von Trier‘s latest has to do with a planet on the verge of crashing into and obliterating Earth, but as the title suggests, its true subject is depression. Indeed, it’s one of the truest onscreen portrayals of the condition I’ve seen recently, especially during the first half in which afflicted bride Justine (an exceptional Kirsten Dunst) struggles mightily and fails spectacularly to hide her bottomless despair. Special attention must also be paid to the cinematography by Manuel Alberto Claro. The super-slow-motion prologue that opens the film serves up some of the most striking images of the year.
2. Hugo — This is the only 3D movie I’ve ever seen that made me actively regret the fact that when I eventually buy the Blu-ray, it’ll be in two measly dimensions. Hugo‘s use of the technology is really and truly that good. Thankfully, I suspect the enormous beating heart at the center of this film will translate just fine even without that extra dimension. Martin Scorsese‘s been making films for decades, but the joyful energy on display here show he’s never lost his enthusiasm for the accomplishments and possibilities of the medium.
1. The Future — It probably says nothing good about me that I completely and utterly recognized myself in the leads (writer/director Miranda July and Hamish Linklater) of The Future, even as I was exasperated by their aimlessness and self-absorption. Oh well. July’s follow-up to Me and You and Everyone We Know is heavy on magical realism and touches of whimsy, but it works because it’s not simply preciousness for its own sake. Instead, she uses those devices to get across some bitter truths about disappointment and growing up.