Culture / Movie Reviews / Movies

The Best Films of 2011

From the Wayback Machine, this is an article from the original incarnation of this site that I thought would be worth keeping around:

I’m going to take a break from politics this week to opine on another subject of equal importance… movies. The 84th annual Academy Awards show premieres this Sunday.

And just to show they have their finger on the pulse of the American pop-culture zeitgeist, the Academy has chosen Billy Crystal to host once again — because apparently it’s still 1985. Hey, maybe he’ll say, “You look mahvelous,”and do one of those elaborate dance numbers, eh? Fingers crossed.

Seriously, is there anything more vapid, inane and utterly horrid than the back-slapping pageantry of award shows? The Emmys, the Oscars and –gasp– the Grammys have become the most absurd, irrelevant, overindulgent, self-aggrandizing spectacles this side of a Kim Jong-Il coronation ceremony.

But even for the magazines, websites and indie blogs counting down the best albums and movies of the preceding year, is there really any point to any of it?

Sure, some works of art are certainly better than others, but is there any objective way to ascertain whether the pick for seventh best film of the year is really just a hair better than the pick for the eighth best?

Is there any metric used to obtain these figures at all? Of course not. It’s entirely subjective, completely unscientific, and in the end, total bullshit. We all know this, but we tend to enjoy these arbitrary award shows and lists anyway for some reason.

So, having said that, in honor of the upcoming Oscars, let’s move on to my picks for the best films of last year, shall we?

The only criterion I used in the selection process is that the film must have actually come out in 2011. That may sound strange, but you often find a lot of foreign and independent films ending up on critics’ lists that actually came out in 2010.

Best Male Performance: Michael Shannon — “Take Shelter”

Never before has the slow spiral into insanity been both so fun and difficult to watch as Shannon’s harrowing turn as a father obsessed with his nightmarish visions of the end times.

Runner-Up: Sean Penn — “This Must Be the Place”

Best Female Performance: Elizabeth Olsen — “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

Who would have thought one of the Olsen sisters could act? Mark Kate and Ashley’s younger sister delivers a mesmerizing performance as a woman whose brain has been scrambled by a Mason family-like cult.

Runner-Up: Leila Hatami — “A Separation”

Most Overrated Film: “The Artist”

Michel Hazanavicius’s quaint homage to the Hollywood silent era was all style and little substance. If you’re going to make a gimmicky tribute to silent films, then you better have something interesting to say (pardon the pun). However, I predict this film will take home the “Best Picture” Oscar.

Runner-Up: “Hugo”

Best Eye Candy: “Hugo”

This award for most beautiful cinematography and art direction goes to Martin Scorsese’s stunningly gorgeous 3D spectacle. It may have featured some clunky dialogue and kitschy plot devices, but there was no denying its beauty.

Runner-Up: “The Mill and the Cross”

Best Documentary: “Project Nim”

James Marsh’s follow-up to the brilliant “Man on Wire” felt like the real life counterpart to the story of Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” in this tragic story of a chimpanzee that was raised like a human in a scientific experiment only to grow smarter and more dangerous.

Runner-Up: “The Interrupters”

Top Ten Films of 2011

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

10. “Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below”

While this Japanese animated film by Makoto Shinkai (who also did the excellent “5 Centimeters Per Second”) definitely apes the work of master of animation Hayao Miyazaki and feels a bit like a poor man’s “Spirited Away,” the film still managed to provide a wildly creative and fantastical journey into a hidden world.

9. “Midnight in Paris”

Francophile Woody Allen brought his A-game with a beautifully silly, nostalgic ode to the culture, literature and real life characters that populated the Paris of the 1920s in this time-traveling romantic comedy.

8. “Melancholia”

Controversial-but-always-interesting director Lars Von Trier offered a beautiful nihilistic tale of Earth’s final days as a mysterious planet comes hurdling toward our own in this bizarre and bleak character drama.

7. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

This adaptation of John le Carre’s classic spy novel by Tomas Alfredson was a pitch-perfect Cold War thriller with an ensemble cast that brilliantly captured the tense paranoia and suspense of a by-gone political era.

6. “Drive”

Nicolas Winding Refn’s brutal revenge-thriller about a Hollywood stunt driver was an innovative throwback to ‘80s B-movie nostalgia that featured a captivatingly subdued performance by the always-great Ryan Gosling and one of the best soundtracks of the year.

5. “Beginners”

Director Mike Mills’ long-awaited follow-up to 2005’s “Thumbsucker,” this dark-comedy/drama featured amazing performances from Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Mélanie Laurent and handled the serious subjects of homosexuality, a dying father and heartbreak with a sense of lightness and grace.

4. “Once upon a Time in Anatolia”

Based on a true story, acclaimed Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan weaves a stark tale of policemen searching for a dead body. The film feels a bit like “Waiting for Godot,” in that the story is mainly told through powerful conversations and landscapes of existential rumination.

3. “Take Shelter”

This second film by newcomer Jeff Nichols was a tour de force exploration of a man’s descent into madness whose apocalyptic visions may or may not have some bearing in reality.

2. “A Separation”

A masterpiece in character drama by Asghar Farhadi, this film featured a heartbreaking and ultra-realistic portrayal of a family plagued by the struggles of divorce in modern-day Iran. Hollywood only wishes it could handle such topics this well.

1. “The Tree of Life”

This was Terrence Malick’s fifth film in a career than has spanned over 40 years, and like the rest of Malick’s work, “The Tree of Life” was an achingly gorgeous, slow-paced meditation on the human condition that suffered from pretension and an incoherent plot structure. But in the numerous moments when the film worked, it pushed the art of filmmaking into unexplored realms of mesmerizing proportions — a monumental accomplishment in cinema that cannot be ignored.


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