Like a lot of film students and critics, I have mixed feelings about ranking movies. For people who write about films for a living, an interesting film – even one of dubious quality – is infinitely preferable to a great one that isn’t particularly attention-grabbing. Art is inherently subjective, so there seems to be little point in coldly comparing two works of art based only on the nebulous criteria of personal preference.
Here’s my defense of why of why I’m doing it anyway. If you’ve read my article about film consumption and cultural currency, you know that I love lists. Aside from the benefits of lists that I explore in that article (mostly based around the status of films as an indicator of social status), I also just happen to really like movies a lot. I’m passionate about them. They dominate my thoughts a goodly portion of the day. As a result of this, I frequently compare movies in my mind: how does the theme of this one compare with that one? Are there commonalities in how they’re shot, or do they look completely different? Why does this one feel like a punch in the gut while that one was like a cool breeze? When I rank movies, I don’t do it from a place of meanness or a desire to see certain films elevated over others – I do it out of a love of the cinema.
Let me put it another way. What’s my favorite thing in the world to do? Watch movies. What’s my second favorite thing to do? Argue about movies. And there’s nothing like a list to get people arguing.
With that said, let’s get to some lists.
First, a few introductory notes. The contents of these lists are my personal opinion only. In general, I think that they represent some sort of composite of my responses to the dual questions of “which movie is your favorite?” and “which movie is objectively the best?”, which are two very different things. I encourage people to disagree with them, because they’re really just for fun anyway.
The lists – especially the Top 10 list – are generally inspired by the practice of movie critics publishing their annual Top 10 list each year around New Year’s. Since I don’t have access to critics’ screenings or studio screeners, it’s taken me a couple of extra months to see most of the major films, and I figured that Oscars week would be a good time to do this anyway.
These lists are limited to films that were released in 2011, so if by some strange happenstance I had seen Man on a Ledge last week and decided that it just HAD to be in my Top 10, it wouldn’t have been eligible. Lists are presented countdown style for maximum anticipation – because if you’ve read anything I’ve written about the TV show Revenge, you know that I love me some contrived drama.
Okay, enough stalling. On to the first list.
5 Documentaries Worth Seeing
I love documentary films. Here are the five best ones I’ve seen this year.
5) If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
This one’s nominated for the Best Documentary award at the Oscars, though it stands little chance of winning. It follows the story of a man convicted on terrorism charges after taking part in several arsons that targeted companies that were perceived by the ELF to be contributing to the destruction of the environment. While it’s not a particularly interesting movie on a technical or stylistic level, its strength lies in its exploration of the definition of terrorism, to wit: is it justified for someone to be branded a terrorist if their actions don’t actually lead to any human death or physical injury? The opinion of the filmmakers seems to be that it isn’t, but the American legal system disagrees. No matter which side of the discussion you come down on, it’s a question worth asking.
This seems way too low, but I just couldn’t find a film in the top three that I was willing to move down. Senna is the story of Ayrton Senna, the beloved F1 auto racing champion who was tragically killed in a crash on the San Marino circuit in 1994. It’s a beautiful portrait that’s told through both the voices of the people who knew him and the voice of Seena himself, by way of archival television footage. The theme of faith is a strong current that runs through the film, as it explores a driver whose devout religious beliefs perhaps allowed him to take the kinds of risks that made him the most successful racecar driver in the world but may also have contributed to his untimely death.
3) Project Nim
If you watch this movie right after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it’ll blow your mind. It follows the life of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was one of the first to be taught sign language. You’d think that an ape with half-decent communications skills would be the most fascinating aspect of a film like this, but it’s not; the various people who take care of him throughout the course of his life are the real story. Their questionable antics and quirky personalities prove that we’re perhaps not as far removed from our animalistic instincts as we’d like to think.
Tabloid is the latest film from documentarian Errol Morris, director of such classics as The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War and one of my favorite filmmakers in the world. With this movie, he goes back to the type of film that defined the early part of his career: an examination of the life and views of someone who is borderline batshit insane. This time the subject is Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming who was a central figure in the infamous “Mormon sex in chains” scandal in the U.K. in the 70s. (Just read about it on Wikipedia… I couldn’t possibly do it justice.) Later in life, McKinney returned to the headlines when she had her dead dog cloned in South Korea. You can’t make this stuff up. Morris skillfully uses his trademark Interrotron teleprompter/camera set-up to get everything he can out of Ms. McKinney, and he throws in a bunch of laugh-out-loud, tabloid headline-inspired graphical pop-ups to boot. It’s less serious than many of his recent films and doesn’t stack up to his very best work, but Tabloid will certainly keep you entertained.
1) This is Not a Film
I don’t know if it’s even accurate to call this a proper documentary, but it’s unquestionably the most important non-fiction film I’ve seen this year. Jafar Panahi is a widely respect Iranian filmmaker who in December 2010 was sentenced to 6 years in jail and a 20-year ban from filmmaking for “propaganda against the regime”. The charges against him were obviously political in nature, owing to his support for Iran’s pro-democracy Green Movement. While being held under house arrest at his apartment pending legal appeal, Panahi started going stir crazy and decided to pull out a home movie camera and document his day-to-day life. He speaks to his lawyer on the speaker-phone, and we see the anguish is his face as it becomes clear that his appeals are going to be denied. He invites a friend over, documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, and they film each other. He talks about the film he was planning on making before he was arrested and struggles to grapple with the fact that telling someone about a movie can never be as powerful as actually showing it to them. There are plenty of moments of levity, too; he takes care of a pet iguana that has a habit of climbing onto the couch, and he chats extensively with a confused deliveryman. The film is at once cathartic, humorous, and heart-breaking, and it’s something that everyone who loves films – and everyone who values the freedom of speech we so often take for granted in the West – should go out of their way to see.
Honorable mentions: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (it’ll probably win the Oscar on Sunday, and I wrote more about it here); Page One: Inside the New York Times (a fascinating look inside the rapidly-evolving world of journalism).
The Over-Rated 5
Five movies that got way more acclaim than they deserved.
I actually quite like this movie, but the hype got a little ridiculous. (For a second there, people thought it might actually get nominated for Best Picture.) Among Judd Apatow-directed or produced films, I wouldn’t put it ahead of Knocked Up, Superbad, or Forgetting Sarah Marshall; that being said, the fact that it was written by and stars women is a nice counter-point to those other movies, all of which are vaguely sexist, male-oriented romantic comedies. Melissa McCarthy is awesome in general, but her role in this film is too small and one-note to be worthy of all of the attention paid to it. Watch her on SNL instead.
This is probably the one I’ll get the most flack for. Sorry… I just don’t get all of the praise. It tries a little too hard to be 80s retro, and while the performances are uniformly terrific, the story and characters and both a little light. Love how they kill off Christina Hendricks, though.
3) The Ides of March
We get it: politicians are dishonest sons of bitches. Ryan Gosling is great (again), but I still have some faith in the intelligence of the viewing audience and we don’t need a series of sexual affairs and a prospective abortion to inform us of something we already know. If you want to watch a political thriller, seek out All the President’s Men instead; the stakes are even higher, and it has the added benefit of both being a true story and having fewer contrived plot twists.
It’s Rocky in a cage and without the great music or likeable main character. Tom Hardy is fine and Nick Nolte is excellent, but that’s just about it for the positives. Any MMA movie that features a pro wrestler (Kurt Angle, playing the token Russian villain) using a pro wrestling move (a power bomb) to win a supposedly realistic fight pretty much loses me right there. The only good news is that by that point I was already gone. That’s what happens when you’ve already seen this story a thousand times.
1) War Horse
Wake me up when it’s over. If hating this corny, melodramatic mess makes me cold-hearted, I’ll wear it as a badge of honor. The best part of the movie was when the horse got caught in barbed wire and almost died. Not even kidding.
The ‘Nice Try’ Award (Tie): The Tree of Life and The Turin Horse
This is inspired by a similar section that Quentin Tarantino included in his Top 10 list. I’m using it to acknowledge films that are kind of problematic but nonetheless really, really interesting. These are both the kind of movie that I’d rather write a paper about than watch again for fun (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).
Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year and is nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. I couldn’t summarize the plot of the movie even if I tried, but it’s certainly got a lot going for it: it’s one of the most visually stunning movies I’ve ever seen, the acting performances are excellent (though there isn’t a whole lot of dialogue), and it grapples with some truly massive and universal themes. To my mind, though, The Tree of Life suffers from the same problem that drags down a lot of movies that deal with such broad concepts: when you try to make a movie about everything, it frequently winds up being about nothing. The strongest parts of the movie involve the father and son relationship between Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and his son Jack (played by Hunter McCracken when he’s young and Sean Penn when he’s older). Where dinosaurs fit into that dynamic is anyone’s guess, but it’s certainly a conversation-starter.
The Turin Horse is based upon an anecdote from Friedrich Nietzsche’s life; supposedly he once saw a man brutally whipping his horse and it distressed Nietzsche so much that it slowly drove him insane. The film won a Jury prize at last year’s Berlin Film Festival and will supposedly be the last film by famed Hungarian director Béla Tarr. It follows the man and his horse after the whipping incident and tries to explore the psychology of why a man would do such a thing. It’s clear from the start that the man and his daughter, with whom he lives, lead extremely meager existences – they only have boiled potatoes to eat, the old man suffers from a variety of physical ailments, and the work around their small country house is back-breaking. The film is about two-and-a-half hours long and features extremely long takes that draw out the suffering of these two individuals. After a while, the point is clear: their lives suck, and you can’t really blame the man for reaching his breaking point. But even after that much is evident, the film keeps going. And going. And going. There are at least three or four instances when it appears that the film will end only for it to continue unabated. When the end of the film finally DOES arrive, it comes as a merciful relief to viewers. The Turin Horse is about as slow a movie as I’ve ever seen, but the results are fascinating: Tarr forces the audience to suffer through the film in the same way that the man and his daughter suffer through their lives. It’s not exactly a fun experience, but it sure makes you think.
The Top 10 of 2011
And we arrive at the main event.
Honorable mentions (in no particular order):
- Moneyball: About the best baseball movie I’ve ever seen, and just a great movie period. I love that someone had the balls to make a baseball movie that is mostly about statistics and where the heroes lose to the Minnesota Twins in the first round of the playoffs.
- The Help: I’ve already written an article about it, though that article doesn’t include much in the way of my personal thoughts about the film. Generally I felt it was strong – a bit sentimental, but it’s a marked improvement over the condescending movies that Hollywood usually makes about the Jim Crow south. And Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are glorious.
- The Kid with a Bike: A Dardenne brothers joint – it’s like The 400 Blows but with a bike thrown in for good measure. I was lukewarm about the film when I first saw it, but to its great credit I haven’t stopped thinking about it since then. I definitely like it more than L’Enfant, which won the Palme d’Or for the Dardennes in 2005.
- Footnote: A lesser-known Israeli film that is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. It’s one of the funniest movies I’ve seen all year, and has some great father/son interaction as well.
- Martha Marcy May Marlene: As I wrote on Twitter, this is one messed up movie (in a good way). And who knew that a member of the Olsen family would turn into a good actress?
- Melancholia: As usual, Lars von Trier makes a wholly inaccessible film, but we’re captivated by it anyway. Kirsten Dunst is amazing in it, and I’m definitely into films that combine genre movie conventions with an art house sensibility (see #4 on the list below).
- The Muppets: Don’t laugh – this shit was awesome for a guy who grew up watching The Muppet Show and has seen The Muppets Take Manhattan about a million times.
On to the main list:
10) Super 8
In a movie landscape dominated by Battleship, G.I. Joe, and apparently unlimited Transformers sequels, J.J. Abrams goes out and makes an old school, 70s-style sci-fi movie. I don’t know if any movie since Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind has built up an extraterrestrial mystery as well as this one, and while things get a little predictable and CGI-happy towards the end, I give the last half-hour a bit of a pass because of the fact that it’s damn near impossible to live up to the lofty expectations the film creates for itself. They’re obviously very different types of sci-fi movies, but I’d be really happy if J.J. brought some of this kind of suspense to the next Star Trek film (and got rid of some of the excessive lens flares while he’s at it).
9) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
I guess I’m just a sucker for post-Fight Club Fincher. While some found the crazy opening title sequence to be too over-the-top and indulgent, I look at it in the same way as the regatta sequence in The Social Network and the ‘building of the Transamerica Pyramid’ montage in Zodiac: they’re Fincher’s own little cameo in the film. (Some of the actors from The Social Network make this excellent point on that movie’s DVD commentary.) And seriously, I think that Fincher knew that he had Daniel Craig in his movie and just decided that he was going to do the best damn James Bond opening in history.
Title sequence aside, the movie does a good job of balancing the more sensationalistic aspects of Larsson’s story with its slightly subdued style and slower pacing. Rooney Mara is a force of nature in the film (as I’ve written about here), and Reznor’s soundtrack is outstanding. Once again, Fincher proves that he’s the master of the serial killer movie – and none of his three such films (Seven, Zodiac, and this one) are even remotely similar.
8) The Artist
How can you not love this movie? It’s almost certainly going to win Best Picture on Sunday, and it’s hard to argue against it. Under normal circumstances, I’m happy to rail against sappy, sentimental pictures that tug at the heart strings of Academy voters, but there’s one major caveat with this one: IT’S A FREAKING SILENT MOVIE! Think about that for a moment: director Michel Hazanavicius actually had the gall to make a Chaplin-style throwback film AND expect audiences to love it. And they did! It’s a remarkable story, and a reminder that gutsy artistic choices can sometimes be rewarded. (Take note, Michael Bay.)
7) Midnight in Paris
I don’t know if any other film this year gave me as much sheer pleasure as Midnight in Paris. As with all great Woody Allen films, the dialogue is hilarious and insightful, the protagonist is neurotic and confused, and the setting imbues the film with a sense of grandeur and wonder. Owen Wilson isn’t exactly an obvious choice for the lead in a Woody Allen movie – Allen often chooses actors that are more clearly stand-ins for the writer/director himself, like Larry David in Whatever Works – but he brings a charm, exuberance, and bewilderment to the role that is perfectly fitting with Allen’s comedic sensibility. If this winds up being Woody’s last great movie, it’s mighty impressive… but given the quality of Allen’s movies over the last few years, I wouldn’t count the old man out just yet.
As someone who lived through the death of a parent from cancer, I’m extremely sensitive about the portrayal of people struggling with the disease in movies and on TV. I have absolutely no reservations about this movie, though; 50/50 totally nails it. Aside from being an indication of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character’s chances of survival, the film’s title also serves as an indication of the yin-and-yang nature of life-threatening illness: there are times that are unfathomably hard, but there are also times when individuals are able to appreciate what they have and take pleasure from the simple things in life. (Incidentally, the HBO show The Big C also nails it for the same exact reason.) People with cancer still laugh with their friends, fight with their parents, and forge new relationships, and major kudos to writer/actor Seth Rogen and director Jonathan Levine for instilling the film with both grace and good humor.
5) Young Adult
You might be surprised to see this movie so high up on the list, but I have a confession to make: I’m a Diablo Cody fanatic. The Academy Award-winning writer of Juno never fails to bring the funny with her witty, stylized dialogue, but I don’t think she gets enough credit for her well-rounded characters and knack for story development and structure. Young Adult is a remarkable achievement: it’s somehow able to turn self-indulgent, egotistical, and drop-dead gorgeous Mavis (Charlize Theron) into an underdog worth rooting for, while at the same time developing physically disabled and homely-looking Matt (Patton Oswalt) into a hero worthy of Mavis’ love. Director Jason Reitman handles everything with his usual combination of sympathy and wit, and Theron and Oswalt couldn’t be a more fantastic (or more unlikely) leading duo.
4) The Skin I Live In
I wrote a fair bit about this film in last week’s edition of Weekly Roundup. To quote from that article:
If I were to simply describe the basics of the movie’s plot, the film would sound like typical torture porn. But that’s not it at all. All of the themes that Almodovar likes to explore in his other films are there – gender, sexuality, family – but they’re wrapped up in this horror movie package that I found to be completely enthralling. It’s a huge risk for someone like Almodovar to take, and I love that he had the cojones to do it. Throw in one of the best plot twists I’ve ever seen in a movie – I’m happy to admit that I didn’t see it coming – and you’ve got one of my favorite movies of the year.
That pretty much sums it up. Kudos to Almodovar for trying something different while maintaining his usual level of quality – it’s not an easy thing to do.
3) A Separation
I feel pretty silly having this movie on the list at all, especially if it’s not #1 – it just seems like the kind of film that is too great for the minor squabbles associated with this kind of ranking system. But here we are anyway.
To quote from my Weekly Roundup of two weeks ago:
I’ll say this up front: the film wasn’t anything like I expected. As the title would suggest, the film explores Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), a married couple that is going through a separation and potential divorce. We’ve seen this kind of film before: there are a few scenes of the couples fighting, we wonder how it’s all affecting the couple’s young daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter), and so on. For about the first half hour of the film, everything played out as I expected it to, and I began to question what it was that had prompted all of the hype. But then something unexpected occurs: an event, partially taking place off-screen, which dominates the rest of the film and forces viewers to confront our own preconceptions, misconceptions, and the entire concept of subjective perspective. It slowly dawned on me that I was actually watching a modern-day, realist/minimalist version of Rashômon; that’s the only other film I can think of that so expertly foregrounds the subjectivity of truth. (I was so damn proud when I realized the Rashômon thing, until I found out that Roger Ebert had already made a similar comparison in his annual Top 10 list article. Oh well.)
Aside from Rashômon, A Separation reminds me most strongly of some of Michael Haneke’s films, like Caché and The White Ribbon, not only stylistically but also in the way that Haneke’s films tend to never be about what you think they’re going to be about. Caché depicts a middle-class French family that is being spied on by some unknown party. While this seems like a pretty standard plot for a thriller film, what the movie is really interested in is the decline of the French bourgeoisie, France’s history of colonialism, and other similarly complex issues. The marital separation in Farhadi’s film is interesting in its own right, but its real purpose is to serve as a window through which we are invited to explore the far more universal and complicated issues at stake.
On top of everything else, there’s also the issue of how Farhadi was even able to the make the film in the first place. Right now, the Iranian government is in the midst of an unprecedented crackdown on filmmakers and artists, and many assumed that a film of this quality would never be made again (or at least not until there was some kind of major regime change in Tehran). Somehow, though, Farhadi was able to satisfy his government minders adequately without blatantly sucking up to the regime or sacrificing even an ounce of artistic value. A truly impressive accomplishment.
If there’s one more thing to add about the film, it’s this: I’m fairly certain that this film, along with possibly The Tree of Life, will be the films from 2011 that they’ll be showing in film schools 50 years from now.
I already wrote a fairly extensive article on my feelings about Hugo; you can read it here. I feel the same way about it now as I did then: I’m stunned and amazed that Scorsese has made a movie that ensures that an entire generation of little kids is going to grow up knowing who Georges Méliès is. Throw in the fact that he made the best use of 3D technology since Avatar and eased spectacular performances out of a pair of young actors and you’ve got an astounding accomplishment that will leave both film historians and general audiences grinning with delight.
1) The Descendants
My favorite movie of the year, by an inch. Unsurprisingly, I’ve also written about this film at length in a previous article. From “Life as a Descendant” (ahoy, spoilers be ahead):
The Descendants is nominally a star vehicle for George Clooney, but I doubt anyone who sees the film will view it in that light. It’s the story of a man named Matt King (Clooney) whose wife is in a coma following a horrific boating accident. The film’s idyllic Hawaiian setting is expertly juxtaposed with the harsh realities of Matt’s life: he is struggling to raise his two daughters, ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and rebellious teenager Alex (Shailene Woodley, in what should be a star-making performance if there’s any justice in the world), his wife was cheating on him, and, as he ultimately finds out, the injuries from his wife’s accident are too grave and she’s going to die once they unplug her from life support (which the hospital is legally required to do under the terms of her will).
For me, this story hits straight at the heart; I lived through the death of my own mother when I was ten years old, just like Scottie in the film. As a result of that experience, I tend to be very sensitive to film or TV portrayals of kids who lose a parent, because I know exactly what it feels like. I’m a huge Star Trek fan, but to this day my least favorite episode of any Star Trek series is an episode of The Next Generation called “Hero Worship,” in which a boy’s parents are killed in an accident and he expresses his grief by suppressing his memories and pretending to be just like the emotionless android Data (Brent Spiner), even to the point of changing his appearance and refraining from using contractions (which Data’s programming prevents him from using). It’s a bizarre reaction that is so far outside my own experience that I reject it out of hand. Thankfully, The Descendants suffers from no such irreality.
[Films like The Descendants] make me relive some of the emotions I felt when I was the grieving ten-year-old, but they also do something fantastic: they help me to work through my feelings in a productive way. They introduce me to new ways of looking at things, and they remind me that there’s a commonality to human experience even if the circumstances of our own personal tragedies are different. Above all, they’re cathartic, and what are we looking for in cinema if not catharsis?
That’s The Descendants for you: it forces me to confront my inner demons, but it also uplifts me and gets me waxing philosophical about life and the human condition. If that doesn’t sound like the #1 movie of the year, I don’t know what does.
A brief post-script: as a result of either lack of time or lack of availability, there are a bunch of movies from this past year that I haven’t seen yet and thus couldn’t include in any of the above lists. Here are some of the more noteworthy ones:
- Shame (this is the one I’m looking forward to the most)
- Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
- Another Earth
- The Flowers of War
- Take Shelter
- Monsieur Lazhar
- In Darkness
- The Interrupters
- Le Havre