The Best Films of 2011

1. DRIVE
We go to movies for the seductive thrill of entering a world that, no matter how relatable, exists apart from reality–after all, even the most cinema verite documentaries are ultimately just versions of the truth. DRIVE not only creates a world that could only exist in a movie but proudly, blatantly references other films to a degree that would shame even Quentin Tarantino. And yet, even as one plays spot-the-allusion, the film never seems derivative or empty because it’s so gleefully, compellingly drunk on its own allure. With Ryan Gosling (perfect as a cipher who reveals a little too much when his mask slips) in the driver’s seat and director Nicolas Winding Refn meticulously mapping his way,  they craft a Los Angeles tableau full of gripping chase sequences, brutal (but rarely gratuitous) violence and magnetic, minimalist cool.

2. WEEKEND
Proving that contemporary gay cinema doesn’t have to solely consist of frothy rom-coms barely good enough to air on Logo, Andrew Haigh’s intelligent, poignant film is a small wonder. Eschewing a high-concept plot, it’s simply about two guys who hook up at a bar and spend 48 hours fucking, chatting, ingesting copious substances and walking all over town, trying to make sense of their newfound connection and what comes next. With an incisive screenplay and strong performances from both Tom Cullen and Chris New, WEEKEND thoughtfully explores how messy, startling and beautiful it is when two people seek and find a certain intimacy with each other.

3. ANOTHER YEAR
As dependable as Loach or Ozu, Mike Leigh’s latest portrait of working-class Brits dealing with personal and familial issues centers on a happily-married couple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, both solid as always) surrounded by miserable sods—in particular, Mary (the astounding Lesley Manville), a walking encyclopedia of patented Leigh ticks and embarrassing behavior. Fortunately, this time Leigh steps out of his (dis)comfort zone with more compassion for (if no less criticism of) his characters. Even Mary shows signs of redemption by the film’s end, but the risky place in which Leigh ends the film suggests he’s refined rather than softened his edge.

4. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES
In this playfully lyrical rumination on death, the titular character recounts past “vessels for his soul” to his family as additional long deceased or disappeared relatives return (one in the guise of a “monkey ghost”) to guide him towards his next rite of passage. With his usual wry, mystical bent, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul blends fantasy and reality together so fluidly that both become interchangeable and otherworldly—particularly in the final scene where he throws in a monkey wrench of sorts that perplexes but also disarmingly engages in its offhanded whimsy and suddenness.

5. THE ARBOR
A sensation at age 18 and dead at 29, British playwright Andrea Dunbar wrote what she knew: in her work, set in the tough council estate she lived in (which gave both her first play and this film its title), she explicitly drew from her surroundings and own experiences to the point where her art and life became indistinguishable. Clio Bernard’s documentary takes this initiative a step further as she interviews Dunbar’s neighbors, children and other relatives, but does not show them onscreen, instead casting actors to lip-synch their words. The result is philosophically profound, exploring layer upon layer of Dunbar’s life, impact and legacy, and also surprisingly cathartic.

6. THE ARTIST
A tribute to silent cinema in the way director Michel Hazanavicius’ OSS 117 films (also featuring gifted comic actor Jean Dujardin) were to 1960s spy flicks, but with one crucial difference: whereas those films slyly lampooned while remaining true to their predecessors’ spirit, THE ARTIST is more affectionate and even a little earnest towards its subject. Referencing everything from A STAR IS BORN to CITIZEN KANE and beyond, the film is less notable (but no less impressive) for its wow factor (a black-and-white silent film made in the 21th century!) than it is as a lovingly assembled, first-rate, old-fashioned melodrama.

7. POETRY
Between this and SECRET SUNSHINE (which recently, finally came out on domestic DVD), Korean director Lee Chang-Dong emerged as one of my favorite filmmakers this year. Quieter (and less genre-focused) than fellow Korean Bong Joon-Ho, his tone and scope are more in line with other Asian auteurs like Hirokazu Kore-ada or Hou Hsiao-Hsien. As a woman edging towards the early stages of Alzheimer’s, Yun Joeng-Hie gives a complex, subtle performance as her life vacillates between a moral quandary brought on by her grandson and both the frustration and enlightenment she finds within an introductory poetry class.

8. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
Everyone associated with this John le Carré adaptation is at the top of their game here: Gary Oldman, who puts his own masterfully inward spin on what was an iconic role for Alec Guinness in the 1979 BBC miniseries; the solid supporting cast (all good, from a delightfully caddish Colin Firth to a delicately shattered Mark Strong); Maria Djurkovic, whose production design painstakingly recreates a dreary era that’s fascinating in its ugliness; and most of all, director Tomas Alfredson, who proves that LET THE RIGHT ONE IN wasn’t a fluke and that is he game for anything.

9. MEEK’S CUTOFF
Increasingly, when formulating annual best-of lists, I find myself returning to films that genuinely challenged me a little. This is Kelly Reichardt’s third great film in a row, and I wrestled with it more than anything else this year (except for maybe DRIVE). Her “western” movie is as revisionist as MCCABE & MS. MILLER (while miles apart from it) in what it asks of its audience: not only to rethink what a western is but also what a non-traditional narrative can do. It’s a film where every step taken carries more weight than the final destination, or even the idea that one exists.

10. BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK
Richard Press’ unassuming yet perceptive profile of veteran New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham gracefully stood out in a year full of too many overstuffed, underdeveloped documentaries. As we see this octogenarian nimbly ride around Manhattan on his modest bicycle, taking candid shots of pedestrians who interest him or covering celebrity-heavy events with a fly-on-the-wall unobtrusiveness, we learn he’s both a fantastic artist (name another person you’ve seen this devoted to a profession) and a heck of a nice guy. He’s also a little eccentric, which Press handles beautifully—particularly, the astonishing scene where he gets Cunningham to divulge his feelings on sex and religion.

11. TABLOID
Joyce McKinney’s an immensely likable nutjob, so who better than Errol Morris to tell her tale? This sharp, entertaining “Looney Tunes Rashomon” (as dubbed by its producer) includes manacled Mormons, dueling British gossip mags, cloned canines and much, much more.

12. THE DESCENDANTS
I think I still prefer Alexander Payne as the razor-sharp satirist who made ELECTION to the tasteful dramatist/ethnographer he is here, but I can’t deny he’s made a rich, refreshingly understated work–good as he is, if George Clooney wasn’t involved, elitist critics and indie snobs would probably like it as much as A SEPARATION*.

13. THE SKIN I LIVE IN
An exceptionally twisted narrative and, perhaps, Antonio Banderas’ return brings out the best in Almodovar, who hasn’t made a film this creepy and oddly comforting in some time. If that’s not enough for lapsed Pedro acolytes, well, a man dressed in a tiger suit from head to toe also figures into the narrative.

14. HUGO
It’s possibly Scorsese’s best since GOODFELLAS, and it really shouldn’t have worked–Marty employing 3D, adapting a graphic novel for kids, pushing his film preservation agenda–so how come he seems so much more at ease here than with a potboiler like SHUTTER ISLAND or a stuffy biopic such as THE AVIATOR?

15. THE ILLUSIONIST
Sylvain Chomet follows up his delectable TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE at last, adapting a Jacques Tati story set mostly in Scotland and showing he can temper all of his amusing, absurd grotesques with real feeling and melancholy: the film is a requiem thankfully not weighed down by nostalgia.

16. JANE EYRE
I have a friend obsessed with the novel who claims this is one of its best adaptations yet, and it’s certainly the earthiest, most idiosyncratic adaptation of a classic novel I’ve seen since Terence Davies’ THE HOUSE OF MIRTH–perhaps also the most cinematic.

17. LITTLEROCK
Mike Ott’s impressive, underseen microindie examines how people in a small, isolated town outside L.A. talk incessantly but rarely comprehend each other (whether they speak the same language or not); it also explores with considerable depth what it means to be a foreigner in modern America.

18. BEGINNERS
With its smart, non-chronological sequencing and out-of-time soundtrack, you’d be forgiven for thinking Mike Mills’ deeply personal second film was just a tad reminiscent of ANNIE HALL, but no other contemporary effort has come so close to Woody Allen’s bittersweet, warts-and-all essay on the little things that make a life whole.

19. TAKE SHELTER
Ideally, Michael Shannon would be up there with Clooney for the Oscar–he’s tremendous as a troubled soul grappling with apocalyptic visions; director Jeff Nichols also places him in a carefully constructed environment so ordinary one could easily overlook how vividly real and lived-in it is.

20. SUBMARINE
Dismissed by too many as a Wes Anderson knockoff, Richard Ayoade’s debut film weds a distinct, somewhat warped sensibility to that hoariest of narrative perennials, the coming-of-age tale. I found a lot to love in it: finely drawn characters, a keen sense of place, Alex Turner’s shimmering score, Paddy Considine decked out in a mullet wig.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

ANOTHER EARTH
BARNEY’S VERSION
BRIDESMAIDS
CERTIFIED COPY
A DANGEROUS METHOD
THE FUTURE
GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE
LE HAVRE
HEARTBEATS
HIGHER GROUND
KABOOM
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
MELANCHOLIA
PARIAH
POTICHE
PROJECT NIM
LE QUATTRO VOLTE
TERRI
3
THE TREE OF LIFE
TRIGGER

(*I haven’t seen A SEPARATION yet: it opens in Boston Jan. 27.)

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