The Best Films of 2011 Part 1: 30 – 21

January 3, 2012

There was an exceptional episode of South Park this year where Stan turned ten years old and suddenly everything he loved previously started to literally look and sound like shit.  He had suddenly hit an age where cynicism had kicked in, and things that formerly looked awesome to him no longer looked appealing in the slightest.  There is a fantastic scene when he attends a film, and in the various trailers he sees, including one for Jack and Jill, every character turns into fecal matter and the narrator sporadically tells the audience, “fuck you!”  I felt that way for a while this year, as the summer movie event season was particularly poor in that it produced only 3 or 4 films I even partially enjoyed.  I always prided myself on seeing the joys of mainstream Hollywood, even when it was mostly producing rubbish, but this year I felt like I had cracked.  As the end of the year approached, however, I realized that actually it had been pretty brilliant for film.  This list started as a more traditional “top 20”, but it soon ballooned into 25 before finally hitting the incredibly self-indulgent Top 30 you see before you.

If you want to read the general rules of this list, please refer to the introduction to last year’s.  The differences this year is that I’ve made a conscious decision to cut myself off on December 31st, so every film considered was seen by me for the first time in 2011.  I’ve still retained the rule that it had to be theatrically released (festivals do not count) during the calendar year.  As I don’t live in Los Angeles or New York, nor am I rich beyond my wildest dreams and can afford to see everything, this leaves me with a number of notable omissions due to not having seen them.  The heavy hitters include Mysteries of Lisbon, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Le Havre, and Shame.  I was also ill for quite a bit of the year, and though I’ve tried my hardest to see as much as I can, there was always going to be a limit.  Anyways, here they are, my top 30 films of 2011.


30.  13 Assassins

Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins is, to some extent, a sub-Kurosawa samurai actioner that never comes close to creating characters as vivid or developing themes as intricate and human as the Master.  However, It would be entirely unfair to criticize a film for not being The Seven Samurai.  What 13 Assassins happens to be is an entirely enjoyable and engaging samurai romp with some distinct characters, and utterly dastardly villain, and some of the best action sequences of the year.  The final hour is more or less taken up with The Big Showdown in a village of immaculate production design.  The fighting is fierce and spectacularly gory, but it’s also elegantly structured and full of breathtaking clarity.  In an age of, to borrow Matthias Stork’s term, “Chaos Cinema”, it’s refreshing to watch an action film with an understanding of spatial relations and how important that really is to the enjoyment of a certain type of sequence.  It’s spectacular genre fare.



29.  Midnight in Paris/The Artist

It’s usually knives out for middlebrow light entertainment for me – I’ve never liked how overly praised such films can be just because they appeal to an older, more moneyed demographic – but in the cases of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, there are genuine, genial pleasures to be found in classical forms of filmmaking.  Both are also fittingly steeped in a sense of nostalgia, one explicitly and the other in style.  For me, Midnight is the best ‘return to form’ for Allen since Sweet and Lowdown.  He finds his best avatar in Owen Wilson, who has a handle on the neurotic, Allen character dialogue but can make it his own by infusing it with his likeable, easygoing charm.   For the first time in Allen’s non-New York work, his tourists-eye view of foreign cities is fitting instead of distracting as the whole film rests upon the titular city being as romantically fantastical as possible.  As the film moves on into Gil’s adventures in his fantasy world, it increasingly becomes a critique of itself and its wild, romantic notions about the ‘hey-day’ periods and the inability to deal with the present.  It’s also one of the genuinely funniest films of the year, with a particular shout-out to the Hemingway caricature of masculinity and Adrien Brody’s Salvador Dali.  Another film about a man out of step with the present, The Artist uses the classical methods of silent film to tell its story of an actor (Jean Dujardin) unable to transition into the sound era.  Dujardin carries the film and is in almost every scene, exuding old-fashioned hoofing charm and the kind of vaudevillian talents that were the name of the game in that time.  Hazanavicius manages to bypass the gimmickiness of the silent format and marry it organically into the film’s themes.  It’s a trifle, to be sure, but when they are as well executed as this they deserve to be singled out for accomplishing what they set out to do with grace and intelligence.



28.  Putty Hill

Matthew Porterfield’s Putty Hill concerns a group of friends and relatives returning to their low-income neighbourhoods and homes around Baltimore for the funeral of a young man who has died of an overdose.  Mixing a documentary-style (the characters are asked questions and address the camera directly) with more traditional narrative filmmaking, Porterfield explores a community and its youths in all of their aimless, wandering rhythms.  The approach is fittingly detached and observant as we see minor flare-ups between a daughter and her estranged father, or a group of friends swimming in a river, or the goings-on at a skate park near a railroad track.  Though it culminates in a wake scene, and then ends with a relative investigating the young man’s former residence, there’s little narrative build.  It’s strictly about observing, and Porterfield has an uncanny sense of the community and the spaces within which they live.  The wake itself, which takes place in a tragic local restaurant, features and absurd DJ and a motley group of people who are clearly accustomed to this kind of tragedy in their lives.  Putty Hill manages to be quietly powerful and resonant; it is a portrait of youth who have no innocence to lose.



27.  Contagion

Steven Soderbergh’s made one of the finest (and perhaps one of the only) adult disaster films with Contagion, a clinical thriller about world-threatening global pandemic.  Not interested in moralizing about the human condition or following a ragtag group of survivors just trying to make it through one set piece after another, Soderbergh and his writers opted to treat the scenario as seriously as possible by focusing on a number of characters who serve as a microcosm of the larger experience, including beleaguered government agents, field workers, a dad trying to protect his daughter, and a paranoid internet vulture.  Driven forward by Cliff Martinez’s brilliant electronic score, Contagion is concerned with the practical hardships of something so devastating the personal experience is subsumed by the need to treat everyone as a statistic.  I was a little colder on its tone in my original write-up than I should have been, because thinking back I realize the power of that final scene with Damon’s character, his daughter, the camera, the dance, and the (yes, I know) U2 song.  When the crisis is over, you can finally be a human again.  When you’re no longer a statistic, and you can start behaving like a person.



26.   Hanna

In the first week of April, Hollywood awoke from its early-year slumber to finally throw out a decent bit of popcorn action fantasy with Joe Wright’s Hanna.  I didn’t realize at the time how dire the action film output of the industry would be over the remaining eight months, but even at the time it felt like a stylish bit of flotsam to cling onto in the bleak, dark sea of big budget bilge.  Director Joe Wright gave up on award grubbing for a little while to make a widescreen Technicolor extravaganza about a little girl learning to love and kill Cate Blanchett (as hammy as can be).  Saoirse Ronan gave a solid central performance around which everyone else could let go.  Tom Hollander was especially absurd in his turn as a violent, shellsuit-wearing psychopath.  Helped along by its pulsing Chemical Brothers score, Wright digs deep into his colourful bag of trips to create delirious sequences like the prison-escape rave and the dilapidated demented circus ending.  There wasn’t much substance, but it was one of the most pop-art filmic pieces of the year, at times recalling the French New Wave and Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter.  It was an exceptional and surprising bit of entertainment.



25. Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids shouldn’t be notable for being a successful film by women about women in this day and age, but unfortunately the situation we’re in leads to a dearth of smart, engaging, and genuinely funny films for the female audience.  It is not, I should add, successful because it is an Apatow production that skews towards the cruder, more awkward side of humour that is generally believed to appeal more to the male audience.  Rather, it deals with women in a very authentic manner as far as my perspective can tell.  The film isn’t about envy over your friend getting married, it’s about a feeling of disappointment in a life unfulfilled.  Kirsten Wiig’s Annie is not just an awkward, jealous fool; she’s a kind-hearted friend whose failures to live up to societal (and economic) expectations have finally taken their toll.  Indeed, it’s one of the rare American comedies that manages to successfully understand the differences in the middle class strata, and the subtle ways those feelings of inadequacy at being on the wrong end of it can cause so much self-loathing.  The film thrives because of its outstanding cast, not only Wiig but the deservedly-praised Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne (who manages to give her character more depth than just the ‘rich bitch rival’), and Maya Rudolph, who’s run-walk-crouch across the street in the bridal gown might be the best bit of physical comedy all year.  There’s some flab that should be excised, but it’s smart, engaging, and it has a genuine understanding of comedic set pieces.  The famous bridal shop scene isn’t funny so much for its scatological bathroom antics as it is for Wiig’s face during the standoff with her bridesmaid rival over an almond.  It’s a terrific Hollywood comedy in its own right, but it’s ability to show everyone that whatever Heigl or Jessica Parker treacle the industry wants to force feed to the women of America is just not good enough gives it an extra special quality that should be celebrated.



24.  The Princess of Montpensier

French veteran Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier delivers the kind of grounded, entertaining melodrama that feels so rare these days it should be treasured.  A relatively simple story about a love triangle during the French Wars of Religion, it basks in the sumptuous costumes and sets without ever turning into an exercise of art direction pageantry.  The story is given complexities and heft by an excellent cast, including Melanie Thierry as the young, beautiful princess and especially Lambert Wilson as the duty-bound, love-struck Count de Chabannes.  The brief scenes of swordplay are exhilaratingly crisp but never showy as Tavernier clearly favours a more classical approach to the material.  It is, as I said, a melodrama, but it’s one that’s soapy elements are offset by the way family, duty, religion, and patriotism become intertwined in events and decisions.  There are no caricatures here; simply heightened human beings caught in extraordinary circumstances that transcend their genre familiarity.  It never veers into gory, gritty modernism, nor does it descend into a campy bodice-ripper.  It’s measured and intelligent, and even on occasion evokes Bresson’s Arthurian masterwork Lancelot du Lac.  Rarely is high medieval court romance this engaging and entertaining.



23.  Crazy, Stupid, Love.

My love for Hollywood rom-coms means that I’ve overlooked Crazy, Stupid, Love’s many problems because it is generally (and specifically) so effective.  This might seem unfair, but as a beleaguered fan of a genre that continues to punish me with cruelly insipid and often-offensive vehicles for simple-minded consumerist wish fulfillment, I’ll take what I can get and raise it up as an example.  Not as problematic as last year’s hopeful contender for best rom-com of the year, James Brooks’ deeply flawed How Do You Know?, Crazy, Stupid, Love manages to hold itself together quite wonderfully despite itself.  The script is severely lacking in a number of cases, but the core cast of actors (Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Annaleigh Tipton, Jonah Bobo) manages to pull mediocrity out of the muck and breathe genuine warmth and life into it.  Carell and Moore’s chemistry is so easy-going and lived-in that it’s always believable they’ve been together for over twenty years and still have a spark.  Stone is magnificent as always in what could have been a thankless role, and Gosling proves himself adept to the challenges of comedy, especially in the (what should have been dreary) shopping sequence.  Even the lovestruck teenager and the even more lovestruck son lend a believability to their plights, especially when in their position simply not being annoying would have sufficed.  It’s sweet and charming, though not without its problems.  Still, it works remarkably well on the whole.  It also, and this is quite crucial, features an absolutely magnificent moment of farce that Hollywood rarely pulls off anymore.  It’s a brilliant and surprising sequence that requires a number of pieces to move together in just the right way, and it pulls it off without having ever drawn attention to the fact that it was coming.  It seems like such a little thing, but the value of that scene cannot be understated.  It was surprising the first time, but just as delightful on subsequent viewings.  If more films can emulate it’s humor, easygoing charm, and general sweetness, we rom-com fans wouldn’t feel quite so despondent.



22.  Of Gods and Men

Based on a real incident, Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men tells the story of a group of Trappist monks in Algeria in 1996 being confronted with a civil war and the onset of a new breed of Islamic extremism.  It isn’t, thankfully, a simplistic depiction of honourable white Christians standing up to the malevolent forces of The Other, but rather a moving and intimate drama about devoted men questioning the lengths of which they are required to go for their faith.  Their position in the community is more about charity and medical relief than it is about preaching and indoctrination.  The film explores the governmental failures of protection that leads them to their predicament, as well as the changing tides of social and religious feelings amongst the population.  The heart of the piece, however, is in the monks and their discussions about fleeing or staying, and where the real honour lies.  Is it more fanatic than religious to face certain death?  The question is never truly answered, as the film doesn’t seem to pick sides.  It does treat the men with dignity, as they themselves can’t quite come to grips with what they’re supposed to do.  Trappist monks feel anachronistic in the modern world already, and though they have exceptional worth to the impoverished community, there’s a genuine evenness to the treatment of the monks who want to flee and those who believe their duty is to stay.  It’s balance is its real treasure, as everyone is treated with due respect and understanding.  Lambert Wilson (having a very good year, it seems) as the leader Christian gives a remarkable performance as he presides over the uncertainties of the situation.  It’s a timely film that is nonetheless subtle and fair to all.



21.  Hugo

I am going to be incredibly biased to Martin Scorsese’s first foray into family films, Hugo, because I am obviously a fan of film and passionate believer in the importance of film preservation.  It is, to a considerable degree, a message picture that on any other subject I might found to be a pinch cloying.  As it is a film about its own medium’s history, I am happy to grant it a fair amount of leeway, especially as it is delightful in its own right from start to finish.  It is the story of young Hugo Cabret, who is effectively orphaned when his father (Jude Law) is killed in a fire and now runs the clocks of a Paris train station, and his search to understand a clockwork automaton his father brought home from a museum.  The film is beautiful and sweet in just the right amount, incorporating a proper degree of wonder into the mix.  It reminded me of the fantastic children’s film of my youth, A Little Princess, in its more considered approach to the genre.  There is very little pandering to the audience in terms of tone, and the scenes of slapstick feel right given the subject matter.  Ben Kingsley gives his best performance in years as the toyshop owner in the station that becomes the subject of the central mystery.  In the end, however, the film becomes a love letter to the cinema itself, and it in that respect it is incredibly successful and, for an amateur cinephile like myself, particularly moving.  Hugo is imaginative and entertaining, and though its larger message might appeal to a select few, it shouldn’t put anyone else off.  It is also worth noting that this film has, by quite some distance, the best use of 3-D yet seen.  To make such an awful gimmick actually worthwhile and enjoyable is an achievement in and of itself.


2 Responses to “The Best Films of 2011 Part 1: 30 – 21”

  1. drush76 Says:

    I’ve never seen “THE ARTIST”. But I have seen “MIDNIGHT IN PARIS”. I hate to say this, but I found the Woody Allen movie to be an example of overrated mediocrity, bordering on the bad.

    • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

      That’s fair. I’ve read dozens of very good reviews and essays about both it and THE ARTIST about how bad they are. I was, for the record, actively rooting against both of them at the Oscars. Still, I found both very enjoyable (though neither in an earth shattering way). I included them here as a sort of representative of decent middlebrow films that were wholly enjoyable in the way that a Transporter film might be.

      I will say that your “overrated” adjective is crucial to my inclusion, because despite this being the kind of fodder that seems custom-designed for a certain type of moviegoer that I have very little respect for, I thought both of them still worked. People go crazy for them, and when others didn’t like them as much but can identify their particular tastes, they create a backlash.

      I still found MIDNIGHT to be sweet and silly and even laugh-out-loud on a couple of occasions (Hemingway slays me, not because I think it accurately portrays the man, but because like all of the other historical figure, it portrays an exaggerated cliche of them that I found funny). I do like its slight, but honest, theme of a misplaced nostalgia.

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