Top Ten Films of 2011: Melancholy with a slice of hope

This list is accurate as of post-date. So many films and not enough time to see them all—150 features seen is this year’s number—the potential for future change is inevitable, but as of today here are the best …

If anyone tells you 2011 was a bad year for cinema, stop in your tracks, turn around and walk away without ever looking back. They have no idea what they’re talking about. With a wealth of quality films from bonafide auteurs devoid of source material, the sheer amount of original work is astonishing. The trend for remakes will most likely never end, but it’s good to know artists in and out of the Hollywood system are fearlessly treading their own path to make movies exciting again.

And by exciting I of course mean punch-to-the-gut, emotionally depressing. Some of the best performances come in harrowing situations and confused states of being while the world surrounding turns to quicksand in order to consume them whole. Flickers of apocalypse, mass murder, suicide, and self-destruction are on display while slight glimmers of hope appear to offset the bleakness threatening to devour our souls. I love being taken to those dark depths whether or not salvation waits for me on the other side. Oftentimes I hope it doesn’t.

Films not seen yet that have potential of creeping into the top 10:
Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da [Once Upon a Time in Anatolia]; Carnage; A Dangerous Method; Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close; The Future; Le gamin au vélo [The Kid with a Bike]; Hearat Shulayim [Footnote]; Hell and Back Again; Into the Abyss; The Iron Lady; J. Edgar; Margaret; Meek’s Cutoff; My Week with Marilyn; Pariah; Pina; Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Senna; W.E.

Honorable Mention:

Take Shelter, review: Nuanced to the point of being stifled by star Michael Shannon‘s subtlety stoic indifference when not engulfed within his latest nightmare of the coming rapture, writer/director Jeff Nichols captures our attention and refuses to let go. Like all prophetic declarations, the truth often lies in the ramblings of mad men as dream and reality blur when a family man thought lost to insanity may be the only one with eyes open wide enough to see.

Hanna, review: Heady action with a cast of eccentrically complex characters—Joe Wright‘s film is the epitome of what can happen when creativity trumps the bottom-line. A pulse-pounding score from The Chemical Brothers sonically illustrates the discordant lifestyle of its titular heroine as youth hides the ferocious animal beneath. Hauntingly exotic with stunning fight choreography, gunshots and blood splatters have never been so aesthetically pleasing.

The Artist, review: As charming and delightful as everyone says, this love letter to a bygone era of cinematic history is a resounding success at a time when most would wrinkle their nose at the thought of sitting through a silent, black and white film. They’ve come in droves, though, and have loved it almost unanimously. The performances are endearing, the aesthetic a breath of fresh air, and while it may never stand the test of time due to its heavy reliance on a gimmick, at present it truly is a work of unique genius and courage.

Jodaeiye Nader az Simin [A Separation], review: What I may have dismissed too early as a work less important than appearances, further contemplation only caused me to ponder deeper and appreciate its authentic portrayal of humanity. A quartet of good people caught in an impossible situation of clashing familial responsibilities and religious duties, the ramifications of simple arguments and unfortunate events risk to ruin them all. So steeped in Muslim culture, the themes and issues at play are universal as love’s destructive nature through silence sparks a domestic war of half-truths, vindictive anger, and slandered reputations.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, review: Methodical and calculating, John le Carré‘s novel is meticulously shot and constructed with a minimalistic approach in all facets of production. Dialogue is stripped down to the piercing stares of men carrying their nation’s safety on their shoulders and duplicitous actions of spies attempting to turn tables and uncover truths are shrouded in memories of days when friends laughed where traitors now scowl. Spiraling into darkness as trust is rendered moot, subtext screams beneath its ensemble’s unflappable composure to mirror a finale of retribution unfolding with quiet precision.

The Top Ten of 2011:

10. Martha Marcy May Marlene, review: Jumping from a place of suffering and the safe haven unable to be so for the girl shifting between them, the tale of Elizabeth Olsen‘s Martha is one of mystery and sorrow. Seamlessly transitioning between past and present, dream and reality, this young woman is lost amidst the insecurity of living free from the psychological restraints she’s never been without. Olsen is revelatory in her attempts to forget and reassimilate into a place of love, but her prevalent troubles only strain the one relationship that can save her. We may be able to escape the puzzle, but Martha will forever be trapped in the rabbit hole.

9. Beginners, review: Rebirth as comedy, reinvention as drama—Mike Mills does it all as he pulls the curtain on the simplicity of life and its ability to keep going. Authentic whimsy mingled with realistic sadness, the emotional scale is tipped back and forth with every voiceover from Ewan McGregor‘s Oliver. Christopher Plummer steals the show as a larger-than-life model for finding happiness no matter age or circumstance and paired with Cosmo the Jack Russell terrier helps give the film a sense we can all achieve bliss.

8. Midnight in Paris, review: Too charming to be considered slight, this fantasy smorgasbord of literary greats arriving to give Owen Wilson‘s Gil the authentic Parisian experience will delight from front to back. It is art versus commercialism, aristocratic ignorance against the artistic elite’s intelligence and a joy for living that overpowers the materialism of comfortability. Magic is in the air and Woody Allen has captured it to give the biggest crowd-pleaser of the year.

7. Rundskop [Bullhead], review: Centering on the Flemish steroid trade and the farm-owning mob families in control of the supply, this directorial debut is astonishingly assured, intelligent and completely gripping. Matthias Schoenaerts‘ portrayal of antihero Jacky Vanmarsenille is brutally menacing with vulnerability only understood as past secrets are uncovered through fate’s sick humor of reintroducing old friends and acquaintances just as the police tighten their grip. A character piece above all else, it’s a gangster film deserving to be included in the same breath as greats of the genre.

6. 50/50, review: Equal parts devastatingly poignant and charmingly hilarious, Will Reiser‘s tale about his own battle with cancer can’t help but win you over. Chock-full of hope alongside the despair inherent in the unknown, the subjects of coping with loss and death are dealt with in a positive light amidst the chaotic tornado such news spins to destroy. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives one of his best performances—not an easy task considering his stellar career—and Seth Rogen puts aside his boisterousness for an endearing façade of humor covering the tumultuous fear resting underneath.

5. Oslo, 31. August [Oslo, August 31st], review: So many of us move away with the inevitability of returning to our hometown to bask in the familiar and appreciate the memories it bred. In that regard, Joachim Trier‘s newest film is a snapshot glimpse into his own—Oslo, Norway. Rather than make the journey one of joy, however, our entrance into the world onscreen is through a recovered drug addict come home to ask forgiveness and say goodbye. Melancholic from front to back, Anders wants it the empty words to be true, but his attempt at achieving normalcy only makes his inability to do so more glaringly pronounced. Sometimes happiness is too high a cost.

4. We Need to Talk About Kevin, review: The guilt of a parent unable to comprehend why her son would commit a heinous crime not only makes Eva remember the tell-tale signs to such horrors but also the role she played in creating this monster. Always calculating and manipulating, both young Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller portray the cold stillness of a sociopath setting up his game pieces in anticipation of watching them fall. The full scope of what occurs will only crush your optimism in mankind to oblivion.

3. Shame, review: In this masterful vision of compulsion, sexuality and the roughness of emotion, Brandon sleepwalks through his life on a quest to fill an unquenchable void within. Estranged from a sister who needs nothing but the love of family and closed off to any hope of a meaningful relationship due to his incapacity to see humanity as anything but vessels to satisfy his desires, his spiral into despair culminates in the most riveting climactic scene of the year. Fierce, uncompromising, and always honest in its portrayal, Brandon’s shame may never overturn his need to feed.

2. Melancholia, review: The end of the world never looked more attractive. A tome on mankind’s malaise and inability to fight for a future forever ending in death, we all discover we have the time to change. We can patch up broken relationships with family, uncover the brilliance of simplicity and the sumptuous chaos of excess, and turn our never-ceasing pain into joy if only we try. In the end, we’ll all die alone—this is inevitable. But through Lars Von Trier‘s still-moving paintings, the fairy tale wedding of nightmare and the cataclysmic resolve of hubristic lives caught in the headlights of fate’s final crash, we realize how tiny our existence is. We live and die, hoping our journey might leave the smallest of marks on the universe.

1. The Tree of Life, review: There isn’t much that needs to be said. Poetic, mesmerizing, thought-provoking and beautiful. This is all-encompassing cinema from a filmmaker with meticulous style and vision. Wonderful performances from all included highlight a story as micro-specific to 1950s southern living as it is universal to the entire duration of Earth’s existence. Love, loss, family, pain, and sorrow all mix together in accord to play an orchestral masterpiece we listen to with our eyes. As gorgeous a film as you’ll ever see, it’s fearless ability to speak in metaphor and always question proves Terrence Malick an artist to reflect upon and cherish.

Top Ten

Foreign Films:

1. Oslo, 31. August [Oslo, August 31st], review
2. Rundskop [Bullhead], review
3. Jodaeiye Nader az Simin [A Separation], review
4. Patang [The Kite], review
5. La piel que habito [The Skin I Live In], review
6. Lipstikka, review
7. Der Sandmann [The Sandman], review
8. Nevinnost [Innocence], review
9. Roméo Onze [Romeo Eleven], review
10. Miss Bala, review

Top Five


1. The Interrupters, review
2. The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, review
3. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, review
4. Project Nim, review
5. Nickel City Smiler, review

Top Five

Animated Films:

1. The Adventures of Tintin, review
2. Arthur Christmas, review
3. A Monster in Paris, review
4. Puss in Boots, review
5. Rango, review

Top Five


1. Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
2. Steve McQueen, Shame
3. Lars von Trier, Melancholia
4. Tomas Alfredson, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
5. Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

Top Five

Supporting Actresses:

1. Sareh Bayat, Jodaeiye Nader az Simin [A Separation]
2. Bérénice Bejo, The Artist
3. Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life
4. Shailene Woodley, The Descendants
5. Octavia Spencer, The Help

Top Five

Supporting Actors:

1. Christopher Plummer, Beginners
2. Albert Brooks, Drive
3. Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
4. John Hawkes, Martha Marcy May Marlene
5. Ezra Miller, We Need to Talk About Kevin

Top Five

Lead Actresses:

1. Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin
2. Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
3. Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene
4. Viola Davis, The Help
5. Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Top Five

Lead Actors:

1. Jean Dujardin, The Artist
2. Michael Fassbender, Shame
3. Anders Danielsen Lie, Oslo, 31. August [Oslo, August 31st]
4. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 50/50
5. Michael Shannon, Take Shelter

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