The Top 10 Films of 2011

The Top 10 Films of 2011. By Simon Miraudo.

That’s all she wrote. The end is nigh. And despite what Lenny Kravitz might sing, it is indeed over. 2011 is rapidly coming to a close, and after having sat through almost 250 films, I have selected a top ten (plus 20 honourable mentions) to put forward as recommended viewing. It’s a near impossible task, and the final product will be something I am sure to disagree with almost as soon as I hit ‘Publish’. But isn’t that half the fun? We compile our favourite movies of the past twelve months, and they act as a lovely little time capsule of the motion pictures that made the biggest impression on us during this highly-specific period. Even if history ends up being unkind to these films, what’s most important is that we thought they were good ‘now’. These lists act as a document of the movies we loved during the crazy year in which dictators were overthrown, Osama Bin Laden was killed, Wall Street was occupied, Italy undid the EU, and Rebecca Black unleashed ‘Friday’ on an unprepared universe. It was a weird year. Here are the films I felt defined it.

Honourable Mentions: Beginners, Bridesmaids, Certified Copy, Contagion, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Guard, How to Die in Oregon, Hugo, Incendies, Jane Eyre, The Kid with a Bike, Kill List, Moneyball, The Muppets, Rango, Senna, Super 8, Tabloid, The Trip, Young Adult.

10. Warrior

Honestly, any of those honourable mentions could have slid into this number ten spot (especially Young Adult and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, though I may have seen them too recently to judge with proper distance). I laboured over it, got emotional, and then remembered that lists are mostly arbitrary and fleeting and we should probably all chill out about them. So, I thought a) Which of these pictures would I like to rewatch right now? and b) Which one isn’t getting the end-of-year love it truly deserves? The answer to both of those questions is Gavin O’Connor‘s Warrior, a classic sports drama about MMA-fighting brothers (Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy) who compete for a much needed, multi-million dollar purse. Ain’t nothing exceptional about the story, but the execution is supreme, and it proved to be the most emotionally-satisfying crowd-pleaser that unfairly didn’t find a crowd to please. Here’s hoping people discover it sooner rather than later.

9. Midnight in Paris

This seemed to be the year for filmmakers to get all nostalgic about the legends of the past, with such celebrations of cinema and showmanship as Hugo, The Muppets (kinda), and The Artist (unseen) hitting screens. Woody Allen‘s Midnight in Paris saw a wannabe-writer (Owen Wilson) transported to the roaring 20s, where he was offered the dream-like opportunity to rub shoulders with iconic authors, poets, directors, models and more. But Allen also had the good sense to be a little critical of those who look back only with rose-tinted glasses – including himself! – and delivered one of his sweetest, most effervescent, and affecting films in the process.

8. Meek’s Cutoff

Kelly Reichardt‘s Meek’s Cutoff tells of a group of settlers on the Oregon Trail blindly walking towards a supposed ‘promised land’, led by an unwavering but ultimately untrustworthy tracker (Bruce Greenwood). When the picture opens, the pioneers – including Michelle Williams and Will Patton – are considering killing their “leader” for delivering them to certain death. As the film progresses, their situation only gets worse, culminating in the best ‘lump-in-your-throat’ finale of the year. A truly upsetting parable about the dangers of religious zealotry.

7. Martha Marcy May Marlene

Speaking of religious zealotry… Martha Marcy May Marlene continued 2011’s trend of films about sex cults and depraved fanaticism (keep ’em coming, I say!). Elizabeth Olsen stars as Martha, Marcy May, and Marlene; three sides to the one fractured girl, who is seduced by a creepy cult and their charismatic leader (John Hawkes). A startling thriller that ratchets up the dread-level incrementally, until you feel as if you’re about to suffer a nervous breakdown like M herself. (Martha Marcy May Marlene opens in Australian cinemas January 19, 2012. It played at the Melbourne International Film Festival and Sydney Film Festival.)

6. Win Win

One of the warmest ensemble comedies of late, and what proved to have one of the most lasting effects on me as the year wore on. Paul Giamatti stars as a struggling lawyer who takes in a troubled youth and trains him to fight on the high school wrestling team he coaches. The set-up may sound clichéd, but the gentle guiding hand of writer-director Thomas McCarthy, and the talents of its priceless players (including Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, and Alex Shaffer) made this beautiful movie hilarious, humane, and just gosh-darn-lovable.

5. Drive

On first watch, Nicolas Winding Refn‘s ice-cold Drive is an expertly composed thriller about a getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) who finds himself in over his head with some gangsters while trying to protect the women he loves (Carey Mulligan). On the second, it’s a deeply thoughtful character piece about a conscientious psychopath whose mask of sanity slips when confronted with the concept of real human connection. I can’t wait to see what the third viewing unveils. Either way, Drive provided a memorable movie-watching experience. Sharing that elevator scene (you’ll know it when you see it) with an audience was a truly delightful and horrifically gory gift.

4. Submarine

There’s no film I watched more this year than Submarine. It’s a dark coming-of-age comedy about a teenager who thinks he understands the world far better than he actually does, and must first suffer clumsy sexual advances, schoolyard beatings, rebuffed proclamations of love, the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, and even flirtations with death before he can even grasp what this whole ‘life’ thing is really about. Director Richard Ayoade‘s (Moss from The I.T. Crowd!) feature debut is affectation-heavy, but undeniably unique. Feels like a future cult classic.

3. A Separation

Asghar Farhadi‘s divorce drama A Separation has perhaps the most heartbreaking finale of any picture on this list, which is saying something (especially when you see what #2 is). Married couple Nader and Simin love each other, but simply can’t stay together because of the complications of everyday life. She can’t bear to live in Iran any further, and he can’t abandon his Alzheimer’s-ridden father. Caught in the middle is their young daughter, and eventually, the family of their housekeeper, who is struck by tragedy half-way through the picture. A Separation is about decent, well-meaning people whose little white lies have disastrous results. It could have just as easily been my number one, if it hadn’t been trumped by the following sensory cinematic experiences. (A Separation opens in Australian cinemas early 2012. It played at the Melbourne International Film Festival and Sydney Film Festival.)

2. Melancholia

Oh, Lars. 2011 belonged to you for so many reasons, not all of them good. If any other filmmaker had jokingly uttered the phrase ‘I’m a Nazi’ at a press conference, they would have a hard time reminding people to focus on their movie and not their silly, misguided declarations. But Melancholia is hard to overshadow. Kirsten Dunst stars as a deeply depressed bride who endures a seemingly endless wedding-from-hell, only to be offered a hint of relief when she discovers the world is going to end via collision with rogue planet Melancholia. Charlotte Gainsbourg – as her loving, frustrated, terrified sister – prays the giant blue ball won’t actually hit Earth, but will instead pass right by, no doubt just like the hereditary mental disorder that afflicts both her sister and their mother. A devastating drama about mental illness with a closing shot for the ages.

1. The Tree of Life

Perhaps the most divisive flick of the year, and unquestionably the most ambitious, Terrence Malick‘s The Tree of Life captured the essence of existence and the power of the pictures in one bite-sized 138-minute package (hey, it’s shorter than Transformers: Dark of the Moon!). No written synopsis could do it justice, but it’s – basically – about the history of the universe told from the perspective of God (that old chestnut). We briefly stop and spend some time with a family in the 1950s, headed by an ethereal mother (Jessica Chastain) and an oppressive father (Brad Pitt), who jointly represent the two ways of living: The Way of Grace, and The Way of Nature. Even that distillation of events feels inaccurate. The Tree of Life is the experience of watching The Tree of Life, whatever that might mean to different viewers. It could easily be read as a movie that seeks to prove the presence of a higher power in the world, or as a movie that flatly denies anything but the random chaos of evolution as our steering force. That Malick’s movie could raise and explore these questions thoughtfully in its relatively miniscule running time is impressive. That it could, to my eyes, provide answers is a miracle.

Previously:

The 10 worst films of 2011

The 10 best female performances of 2011

The 10 best male performances of 2011

The 10 best Australian films of 2011

Discuss: OK, what did we miss?

8 Responses to “The Top 10 Films of 2011”

  1. Lovely list until number 1…god why each critic follows every other critic to jump on the bandwagon of TREE OF LIFE is a mystery. Afraid to disagree and say the movie is a major piece of beautiful confusion? It’s awe inspiring and beautiful and then deeply boring and slow, it’s an interesting film but god it goes to excesses and ends up with it’s cranium up its own posterior.
    No way a best film of the year!

    • I can tell you A.J. that I am genuine in my love for THE TREE OF LIFE, and if I was concerned about jumping on ‘critical bandwagons’ then I wouldn’t make it my life’s mission to get people to appreciate late-era Nicolas Cage films 🙂

      • I’ve got to say.. I’ve always hated Nicolas cage but lately whenever I catch a recent movie with him in it, I end up enjoying it. Eventually I guess I have to admit he’s matured.

        Nah.

        I did love him in Adaptation though.. But then, that movie is perfect. Maybe not as a movie but just as.. It is.

  2. Now i get your 10 Worst movies for 2011. merry xmas and happy new year but i still think you got a lot of your 2 list mixed up so if you combine both lists, there is something there for everyone

  3. Hey, no fair. Some of these films haven’t come out in Oz yet. 🙂 However, I am sure that Fincher’s Girl with a Dragon Tattoo and the Muppets are gonna be great films.

  4. The Tree of Life, WTF? worst movie ever

  5. The Tree of Life was my favorite film of the year too. I don’t know if it can win Best Picture, but it should.

  6. Great job, Simon. I absolutely love WARRIOR (for many reasons) and it will be high on my list. Like some of your readers, I’m not a fan of THE TREE OF LIFE. I love parts of it, and I admire Malick’s intentions, but by the time they hit the beach, holy lord, get me out of here…

    Have a great New Year…

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