As promised. I cheated a little this year and thought I should do a Top 11 since it was for 2011, mainly because a much larger gap in quality came between #11 and #12 than #10 and #11, if that makes sense. In this post, I will reveal numbers 11 through 2, and because I ended up writing a lot more for my number 1 film, that film getting its own post, coming tomorrow. Hope you enjoy, and I hope you will try and see some of these films if you haven’t already. Feel free to comment with your own thoughts and top films of the year.
#11: Jane Eyre (Cary Fukanaga)
I don’t usually go all in for the British period pieces the way that others might, and in many cases I will admit that they tend to bore me and run together. Maybe that’s why Jane Eyre surprised me so much this year. The classic Bronte novel has been put to screen many times, but this was the first rendition that I had ever seen. The sweeping cinematography, beautiful musical score consisting of harrowing strings, and production design all added up to create a perfect atmosphere for the story. But the anchor is Mia Wasikowska’s incredibly underrated performance at the title character, and I'm very excited to see her career progress from this point forward.
#10: A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
This was one of the last films on my “to see” list, and I couldn’t be happier that I waited to see it before making my Top 10 list. It tells the story of an Iranian couple going through a divorce. Their daughter, and eleven year old, must make the decision of who she wants to live with. After her father is accused of murder, the story turns into an ingenious whodunit, where small bits of the mystery unfold and lies are exposed. This is all weaved flawlessly into the divorce narrative, and the result is an amazingly acted and directed window into Iranian culture, showing how their lives are not so much different than ours.
#9: Beginners (Mike Mills)
Written about already on this blog, Beginners, to me, is like the perfect specimen of the “indie” film. It features every indie trait: it’s about people all seeking to find out who they are, with really quirky things like subtitles for a dog’s thoughts, and the main characters are all involved with art in their profession. Obviously these are all aspects that will attract me to any movie, but Beginners does it with such poise and vulnerability that it really invites you into the characters' situations and makes you feel for them.
#8: Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
Steven Soderbergh is one of my favorite current directors, and part of the reason for this is that he just does stuff. He doesn’t seem to care about accolades, awards, etc., as much as just making movies that he wants to make. Contagion is definitely a product of this mindset. No, it wasn’t the most original story ever put on screen. But the execution of it is why it is on this list. From beginning to end, it has a captivating pace, is marvelously directed and edited, and features what I think is the best musical score of the year. It really makes you feel like if something as terrible as an outbreak like this were to happen in real life, this is how it would happen.
#7: Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
I tweeted after I watched it a second time that this is going to be the type of film that comes on TNT on Sunday afternoons all the time a la The Shawshank Redemption, and I’m going to have to sit down and watch it every time it’s on. I don’t hesitate to call this Brad Pitt’s finest performance. He has his “movie-star” moments, but overall I would call it a very controlled performance from the veteran actor. Bennett Miller’s directing is also great (this is only his second film, and both were nominated for Best Picture). He does so many little things that bring you into Billy Beane's world and let you experience the situations exactly like he does. If only all sports movies could be so great and as cheese-free as this film.
#6: 50/50 (Will Reiser)
This portrayal of a twenty-something’s struggle with cancer was all aces. The thing that I enjoyed so much about 50/50 is how enthralled I was with the film all the way from beginning to end. There were plenty of laughs all the way through, mixed in with well-executed dramatic moments. In my book, Joseph Gordon-Levitt should have been Oscar-nominated for his work here, and the supporting cast members, from Seth Rogen to Angelica Huston, were all great as well. This is one that I plan on watching many times in the future.
#5: The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
Don’t miss this year’s eventual Best Picture winner. Just don’t. Yes, it’s a silent black and white film. But it could not be further from boring. In fact, my wife used the adjective “magical,” and I tend to agree. Never mind the fact that it’s well acted all around, and features maybe the best performance ever from a dog, the best thing about this film is that is tells a universal story about what it’s like to become marginalized, and how sometimes we need others to pick us up when we fall. I hate to become redundant, but this bears repeating: Don’t. Miss. This. Film.
#4: Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
When I wrote about it back in October, I was fairly certain that Jeff Nichols’ amazing thriller Take Shelter would remain near the top of my list this year. Michael Shannon’s brilliant performance as Curtis, a man experiencing haunting visions about the future is really the heartbeat of the film, but no less crucial is Jessica Chastain’s supporting turn as Curtis’s wife. I film’s major theme of the human need to take care of and protect one’s family is a universal one, and it resonated deeply within me.
#3: Young Adult (Jason Reitman)
This is Jason Reitman’s most cynical film so far, and it’s also my favorite of his. While I’m speaking in superlatives, I’ll also mention that Charlize Theron gave my favorite female performance of the year as Mavis Gary, an alcoholic teen fiction author who goes to her hometown to break up the marriage of her high school sweetheart. The film is a little depraved, and those looking for a traditional character arc will have to find it elsewhere. But it is very funny, and Patton Oswalt (who also gives a great performance here) provides the necessary voice of reason and touch of humanity that the film needed to make it a great one.
#2: The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
This film is well-covered territory from me. Since my initial review of it back in June, I have had two chances to rewatch it on the small screen, and the visual poetry that Malick created in this film has no less an impact in that format. Malick uses the medium of film differently than just about any of his contemporaries. He not only tells his story, but also elicits a feeling that is unique to each individual who watches it. I certainly would not want every film I watched to be like this, but it is a welcome change of pace when it comes along.
Check back tomorrow for my #1 film of 2011, plus a few that just missed the cut.