Best Films of 2011: My Top Ten

Although it is Febuary here is my list of the best films of 2011, in my humble opinion….

10. Drive

Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive is my favorite romantic film of the year. For those who have seen the movie this might sound strange, but the dialogue- less chemistry, the fleeting moments, and hidden glances give this hyper violent fairy tale and its existential hero a heart and soul. With nail biting intensity, an awesome soundtrack, and just the right amount of ambiguity Drive is a great art house action film.

9. Pina

Pina is Wm Wenders full-length 3-d dance film. A documentary dedicated to the gifted Pina Bausch, whose unique coaching and dancing inspired and changed many lives. It truly is the definition of a bittersweet film. There is much sorrow and sadness embedded in the DNA of the film, yet the celebration of beauty is also ever present through out. Wim Wenders and Pina’s dance company shot the film shortly after the sudden death of Pina from a brain tumor so everyone is still in mourning. The film itself feels like a funeral of sorts. It can be seen as a catharsis for those who deeply loved her and as a celebration of an artist who was supremely gifted. Needless to say Pina is quite a unique movie. The audience is not only privy to creative energy-filled dance, but to real fresh mourning of a lost friend. The result is a beautiful, haunting, and utterly unique cinematic experience.

8. I Saw the Devil

Asian cinema is known for its plethora of bloody films in the revenge genre. Perhaps even the word exhausted comes to mind; too much blood too little story. Then Ji-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil comes along. This is one intense, bloody, unsettling, and smart film about revenge. With great performances from both the demented serial killer and the obsessed detective hunting him down I Saw the Devil connects on both a visceral and emotional level. This well constructed genre piece takes the viewer on a non-stop psychological journey through the horrors of humanity and the utter destruction caused by both heroes and villains.

7. A Separation

This Iranian film is important for Americans to see. Why? A Separation drops its audience right down in the midst of everyday Iranian culture and conflict. So much of what one sees about Iran in the news is about either terrorists or government, what A Separation does is remind one of the universality of being human no matter where one is born. It is a tragic and intense drama of two families, one upper secular upper class the other religious lower class, pitied against each other where the line between right and wrong has been severely blurred. A Separation is such a great realist drama. Miraculously there is not one ounce of melodrama to be found, only nuanced reality. Mistakes are made by characters, they do hurtful things, but there are no villains or caricatures only human beings striving to do the best they can out of love.

6. Meeks Cutoff

Kelley Reichardt’s third feature film is a prime example of difficult, brilliant, and excellent visual storytelling. Similar to Sophia Coopla’s Somewhere, Meeks Cutoff tells its story, develops its characters, and heightens the tension through images instead of dialogue. Also like Austria-auteur Michael Haneke Reichardt decides what to show us and what to keep hidden, leaving the point and meaning behind it all ambiguous. Forcing the audience to decipher the events that have taken place for themselves. By taking the simple premise of a group of pioneers on the Oregon Trail, Reichardt has formed a bleak existentialist tale loaded with complexities and honed-in performances.

5. Hugo

When I first saw the trailer for this gem I foolishily dismissed Scorsese and this movie.  Fortunately I was wrong. Hugo is the best 3-d film I’ve seen because of both its wonderful story and Martin Scorsese’s rich understanding of the cinematic medium. Hugo is a celebration of love and life, but most of all it is a celebration of cinema itself. A love letter to George Meirelles and the history of film in the form of an intelligent touching children’s film, Hugo is another great accomplishment from the director who only a couple of years ago won an Oscar for The Departed. Now no one can say Scorsese has no range.

4. Certified Copy

Where does one even begin? It is difficult to put this film into words.  Certified Copy is a mesmerizing thought-provoking import from France about the nature of time, originals, perception, and marriage. The film itself is certainly not a copy, but wholly an original as it twists the audience’s perception of what one believes the story is really about ever so slightly at every turn. What starts off as an afternoon get together between an art critic and a gallery owner slowly transforms into a movie that is able to grasp the subtlety of human glances, words, and touch. It is a mind trip that guarantees plenty of discussion long after the final image.

3. Shame

Shame is visual artist Steve McQueen’s second film following the draining Hunger. Shame is just as devastating and although a bit more conventional, just as good. Michael Fasbender gives the best performance of the year as Brandon, a sex addict forced to come to terms with his buried pain when his estranged sister (Carrey Mulligan in what may be her personal best performance thus far) moves into his apartment. The film is a harrowing cinematic tour de force that unabashedly follows Brandon’s downward spiral. Yet unlike work from someone like Gaspar Noe, Shame is never exploitative, never unintentional, and always human. It may be graphic but McQueen’s film is one about desperate broken people longing for salvation from their darkness. It is brave, unafraid, and most importantly true.

2. Melancholia

Although often referred to as the nihilistic antithesis to The Tree of Life Melancholia is simply much more complex than that. True it raises many of the same questions such as the purpose of existence in such a vast universe. And while The Tree of Life begins with the creation of the world  Melancholia opens with the destruction of the world in an ironically beautiful prologue set to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolede.  Yet other than that it is very much its own work of art. Due to master filmmaker Lars von Trier’s own struggles with deep depression Melancholia portrays and understands depression better than any other film I’ve seen. It knows the pain of both those who suffer from depression and the ones who love them. It is about death as well, how one responds to it and how that shapes ones outlook on life. The film creeps under ones skin and it doesn’t leave for days. Full of fantastic performances, magnificent cinematography, and the Danish auteurs skilled directing Melancholia demonstrates that Lars von Trier is a serious, provocative artist making serious, powerful art.

1. The Tree of Life

For me The Tree of Life is not only the best film of 2011, but also the best film of the past couple years. It is a vast, complex, ground breaking, moving, and spiritual epic that actually gets better on repeated viewings. This is a film that needs to be seen and no matter what one believes about God or existence it will provoke and challenge ones beliefs. The Tree of Life chronicles the beginning of the universe, then tells the story an American family in the 1950’s, and finally reveals that restoration is possible: humans have hope. There is always the question floating around whether all that can be done in cinema has been done. With The Tree of Life Terrence Malick and his fantastically talented crew have proven that there is new ground to be broken, new places to explore. Cinema is not a closed casket just yet.

What were your top films of 2011?



  1. ANDYYY. I watched the first 30 minutes of Tree of Life (I was with Marcus and his brother and they got bored and wanted to change it)… but truthfully I wasn’t really catching on either. It just seemed like cinematography and nothing else. It seemed weird to have such great actors and just have shots of them and not much dialogue. I need to watch the whole thing so I can have a fair opinion..but did it progress into something more as the film went on?

  2. Katie! You need to finish the rest of the film, it is so much more than just beautiful cinematography, and while it may never move into what one could call a traditional narrative there is a story. And the first thirty minutes are all very important within the context of the rest (I mean he shows us the creation of the universe for a reason). Think of this quote from the subversive art of film, and you have a picture of what ToL is doing.

    “From Kafka to Beckett, from Joyce to Burroughs, from Proust to Robbe-Grillet, there is an unbroken evolution towards vertical rather than horizontal explorations — investigations of atmosphere and states of being rather than the unfolding of fabricated plots. In an interview with
    L’Express , (2) Ionesco referred to a play as a structure of states of conciousness and added that there was no longer a story, but rather “a progression by a kind of progressive condensation of states of mind, of a feeling, a situation, an anxiety.”This may be another way of saying that — through modern science and philosophy –art once again returns to poetry and the significance of poetic truth.”

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