The Ten Best Films Of 2011
What a great year! All 20 of the following films could easily have placed on a top five list in a lesser year and outside of these 20 there are probably another 20 that rate as great fun films in their own right. Below is a short video I made that counts down my top ten picks. If you have the time I'd love you to sit back and have a watch. I've tried to encapsulate what made me love each of those films so hopefully it gives you a taste of what you haven't seen and maybe a reminder of what you have.
And here is the list!
Many writers struggle with issues of release dates and such when considering what should and shouldn't go onto their lists. I personally don't care. If I saw it in 2011 (and it's a new release) then it is up for contention. After all, this is a personal thing. This list is my experience, my year. There are several entries below that have not had a general release yet so note the titles and keep an eye out. One of the joys I get from reading other top ten lists are discovering films I missed or films I can look forward to. Let's just get down to business shall we...
10: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
One of the more divisive films of the year, Lynne Ramsay's long awaited 3rd feature absolutely devastated me. While many of the film's detractors read it literally and found it monotonously one-note, I experienced KEVIN to be a gloriously sad portrait of how guilt manifests in a form of stilted nostalgia. Tilda Swinton has never been better. Subtlety is overrated and Ramsay's film is a hotbed of glaring symbols and subjectively horrific memories. Calling a film 'a fever-dream' is often a critic cliche but it is at its most apt when discussing this evocatively traumatic film.
I can agree that this is not a brilliantly written film but when all is said and done I totally don't care. The fun I had with HANNA is what I look for in great cinema. Joe Wright seems generally happy doing his period costume films (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, ATONEMENT and the upcoming ANNA KARENINA) but I would love to see him work with genre more. HANNA is a brilliant fusion of spy, action and fairy tale with an excitingly kinetic score by The Chemical Brothers. Also the formalist in me just goes batshit crazy at fancy long tracking shots and this film contains one of the best.
Comprising entirely of stock footage and only sparing use of audio from current interviews this is without a doubt a masterclass in editing. The subject matter may have kept non-fans away but I can assure you that even those with an avid dislike of Formula One racing will come away from this with a tear in their eye. It's simply a magnificently told story of an iconoclastic character who fought to the top of his field while constantly battling those trying to tear him down. Some of the 'bad guys' in the story may be a little thinly drawn but do we really care when it is in service of such a sheerly entertaining film. Very highly recommended to all.
7: TREE OF LIFE
This is the type of quasi-religious, self-indulgent, pretentious trifle that my DNA is wired to hate yet I freely admit to being swept up by this film. Sure the end is potentially a major misstep and the religious overtones to the film are questionable to non-Christians but boy is this an audacious piece of cinema. Malick has spent a lifetime constructing his own film language and with TREE OF LIFE he has given us his most bravura summation yet. Many have disliked the film and that is totally fine with me but anyone with a serious interest in cinema needs to give TREE OF LIFE its due. Love it or hate it this is important, big, ambitious cinema.
6: PROJECT NIM
If I rated films by how much conversation they generated amongst friends then PROJECT NIM would be close to my number one film of 2011. This straightforward documentary tells the story of what happened when a group of researchers in the 70s decided to raise a chimp as if it were a human baby. What could have been a simplistic story that took a generic and predictable 'look at the horrors of scientific research on animals' angle, director James Marsh cleverly plays up all the grey areas in the story leaving you with a multitude of questions to discuss apart from the obvious ones. A really amazing story and a really amazing film. Did I mention it was amazing?
5: KILL LIST
One of those joyous festival discoveries that hit me from nowhere. UK filmmaker Ben Wheatley's second film is a brilliantly subversive genre mash-up that needs to be approached with as little knowledge as possible to enable maximum impact. Disappointingly several reviews have offered up unintentional spoilers simply by way of comparing KILL LIST to this film or that film so take it from me - don't read anything else about this one. Simply the most interesting genre film I have seen all year - this is clever, visceral cinema that should come with a strong shot of whiskey to be consumed over the closing credits. You're gonna need it. The best type of cinematic punch in the face possible.
4: THE YELLOW SEA
Korean cinema has been in a slight rut since its salad days a few years ago when Park Chan-Wook and Bong Joon-Ho were smashing screens all over the globe. Expectations were pretty vanilla going into this despite being very fond of director Na Hong-Jin's first film THE CHASER. THE YELLOW SEA stunned me in every way from the scope of Na's ambition to the glorious way the film tonally morphs it's way from social realist drama to noirish thriller before finally settling on simply insane, stab-stab anarchy. THE YELLOW SEA is flawed, overlong and occasionally visually incoherent yet each of these misgivings simply endear the film to me even more. This is a young filmmaker with grandiose ambitions and despite the film's shortcomings this was one of the most exciting times I had in a cinema all year.
Some people have a love/hate relationship with Lars Von Trier but I generally just have a hate/hate relationship. Not only do I usually dislike his films but their willful immature sense of manipulative shock actually makes me angry. If anything, I love to hate his films so colour me surprised when I not only liked MELANCHOLIA but I actually found it to be a little bit of a masterpiece. It's a simple, unsubtle, grown-up film lacking any of Von Trier's usual low-brow tactics instead concentrating on elucidating its obvious central metaphor in sensationally effective ways. How Von Trier managed to make the best evocation of a depressive state feel so gloriously ecstatic is the film's true gift. 2011: The year I loved a Von Trier film.
The fetish film of the year. If you don't love DRIVE then I don't know who you are. Ryan Gosling makes psychopathy look so sexy and tops off what will forever be known as the year he took over the universe (DRIVE, BLUE VALENTINE, CRAZY STUPID LOVE & THE IDES OF MARCH all showed off his magnetic versatility). DRIVE also finally made the world pay attention to talented Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn who has had a fascinating career of ups and downs so far (track down his PUSHER trilogy if you need your world rocked). DRIVE itself managed to breath life into the noirish crime genre and showed that a film can be simultaneously authentic and referential (Tarantino please take note). A film all about sleek, cool surfaces containing a character who himself is hollow and incapable of meaningful depth - Whoever calls DRIVE 'style over substance' does not understand how style can itself be substance. Simply the most amped up I have been after watching a film all year!
1: MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
My top spot could've easily gone to DRIVE and to be honest the two titles have been jostling for weeks now but ultimately I'm calling MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE my favorite film of 2011 simply because it has haunted me for almost the entire six months since I first saw it. US filmmaker Sean Durkin's debut film tells the story of Martha, who is trying to re-assimilate into normalcy with her sister after living in a cult for several years. Durkin's non-linear structure constantly flits between Martha's time in the cult and her days in the present with her sister but as associations build between the two worlds Durkin destabilizes any sense of comfort in the viewer, not only but constantly shifting our allegiances but making us permanently question what is going on outside of the frames we are viewing. Durkin channels a defiantly unique tone with his first film. It sits somewhere in between the coldness of Haneke and the warmth of Malick but it is wholly his own thing.
In a year of films that had hit and miss endings, MMMM climaxes perfectly. It's an abrupt, open-ended, almost metaphorical ending that upset some but left a satisfying knot in my belly for days. Finally getting an Australian release in January/February please get out there and see it. Durkin is the next generation of great independent US filmmakers.
(AKA: The Back Ten)
In no particular order
COLD FISH/GUILTY OF ROMANCE
Sion Sono immediately became one of my favorite filmmakers after I watched his 2009 epic 4 hour perversion, LOVE EXPOSURE so it was a particular highlight to see the final two parts of his 'Hate' trilogy at MIFF this year. COLD FISH (generally regarded as the stronger of the two films) is a misanthropic masterpiece. A serial killer story that escalates into a film that has nothing positive to say about humanity and actually invites you to laugh at how pathetic we all are. Lars Von Trier could only dream of this level of nihilism.
GUILTY OF ROMANCE actually acts as quite an interesting companion to COLD FISH. Where COLD FISH follows a man's coming of age through serial killing, GUILTY OF ROMANCE offers the same story for a woman through prostitution. A much more niche film than COLD FISH, GUILTY OF ROMANCE contains the best and worst of Sono tendencies – intentionally irrelevant literary references, extreme sex and violence crossed with absurdist comedy, classical music, black as black social commentary, overlong running times. I loved every minute.
ATTACK THE BLOCK
After spending almost all of 2011 hearing about how brilliant ATTACK THE BLOCK was I wondered if the hype had destroyed it by the time our much delayed December release came round.
Nope, it truly is a fantastically fun film. Like a cross between GREMLINS and LOCK, STOCK this film is the type of 80s nostalgic wet dream JJ Abrams failed at with SUPER 8. Writer/Director Joe Cornish not only offers up a fun retro kids vs monsters story but he also manages some honestly interesting character work by humanizing characters that begin the film by mugging an innocent woman. One of the most enjoyable films of 2011.
As evidenced in my review, I had some real problems with SNOWTOWN in its totality but the visceral affect of the film was undeniable. As misguided and solipsistic as it is, there's still a great power in the filmmaking that cannot be ignored. It also featured the best use of Rex Hunt in any film in history.
I first saw TAKE SHELTER back to back with MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE at the Sydney Film Festival and I gotta say it was the most disorientating and discombobulating double feature of the year. Michael Shannon is simply glorious here as a man that is most likely losing his mind. Much like MMMM, TAKE SHELTER has quite the divisive ending. Again, I found it a pitch perfect frightening reminder highlighting the contagious nature of insanity. One of the more vital films of 2011 that curiously didn't resonate as widely as I expected. If it clicked with you though then you are most likely still shaking from the experience.
Many found TABLOID to be Errol Morris-Lite but I think it is a brilliant synthesis of all Morris' obsessions. Sure it isn't serious business like THE THIN BLUE LINE or THE FOG OF WAR or even MR DEATH but it still has a thematic richness that yields plenty (especially on repeat viewings). The interaction and oscillation between subjective truth and performance make TABLOID for me a better Morris film that his 2008 work, STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE. And if Joyce McKinney is reading this please don't sue me. You were acting up a bit for the cameras weren't you?
SHUT UP LITTLE MAN
This documentary hit me from out of the blue and ticked the boxes on many of my own personal obsessions. The story of two men who record the bickering of their neighbors and share the tapes around the San Fran underground in the 80s is not only ridiculously entertaining but also a prescient early example of a form of pop culture sharing that has thrived since the internet exploded. Aussie filmmaker Matthew Bate nailed this story and was lucky enough to contrive a fantastic ending to a fascinating tale.A highly recommended gem that has slipped through the cracks and deserves much more attention.
50 minute battle.
The most perfect action film of 2011.
Hollywood please pay attention. This is how to film coherent, narratively interesting action.
I'm stupidly conflicted about Steve McQueen's second film. The formalist in me loved every minute of SHAME. It is immaculately made, every shot so perfectly framed and constructed that I have no doubt SHAME is exactly the film the director wanted to make but what is so frustrating is that it all ultimately amounts to very little. It looks and feels like a masterpiece but it really is quite hollow. Having said all of that, SHAME is still a brilliant film. As an exercise in style and a showcase for actors Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan it is a truly exceptional piece of work. Definitely recommended (Australian Release early Feb 2012)
I loved THE FUTURE. I saw it twice this year. My partner loved THE FUTURE. Screw the haters. Miranda July's second film turned out to be a truly original and authentic piece of cinema. Expressing a fascinating melancholic tone that few films attempt to approach, THE FUTURE actually told a genuine story expressing a crisis point in modern day thirtysomething relationships. Much like AWAY WE GO, this film could be seen as upper class navel gazing but poo to those who say that. I could relate to this story and it expressed several emotions that were true to me and my experience. Take out the talking cat and it would easily have made my top ten.
Another film that was almost universally disliked (apart from a select few that championed it), I personally found SLEEPING BEAUTY to be an amazing work of art, especially for a debut filmmaker. The mise-en-scene was cold and calculated (almost to a fault) but it perfectly expressed the alienated state of modern youth. SLEEPING BEAUTY is not a perfect film. It is probably too ambiguous and obtuse for its own good but I'm not gonna lie to you - I found it mesmerizing to watch and ultimately quite unsettling. Emily Browning was magnificent too. Not for everyone but unfairly maligned in my opinion.