Top 10 Movies of 2011 | Matt Newlin

film melancholiaOne solid indicator of a great film is if you are unable to stop thinking about it long after you’ve left the theater.

 

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1. Melancholia (Magnolia Pictures, R)

One solid indicator of a great film is if you are unable to stop thinking about it long after you’ve left the theater. For me, Melancholia is the one film of 2011 fitting of that description. Since seeing director Lars von Trier’s masterpiece in October, I have been unable to stop thinking about the breathtaking visuals and powerful allusions regarding our world and the role we play. Kirsten Dunst gives the best performance of her career (and one of the best of 2011), but the film’s true impact comes from von Trier’s ability to convey an emotion—the painful experience of depression—through the medium of film. Melancholia is a film that will not soon be forgotten.

2. Drive (FilmDistrict, R)

Few films this year were as intensely suspenseful as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, which hints at violence for nearly an hour before unleashing the most brutal revenge mission since Oldboy. Ryan Gosling gives a master class in acting as Driver, a man who is paid to act as getaway driver for criminals who would likely screw up the job themselves. Reminiscent of a young Marlon Brando, Gosling gives a performance that oozes out of every pore in his body, but his facial expressions tell you everything you need to know. Drive is a film that is better every time you watch it.

3. The Artist (The Weinstein Company, PG-13)

No film was as surprisingly enjoyable as The Artist, a black-and-white musical from French director Michel Hazanavicius. Not only is the film an homage to cinema’s beginnings, it fully embraces the simplicity of those times and the ability of filmmakers to create entertaining pictures without CGI, explosions, or scatological humor. Jean Dujardin gives a magnificent performance that is authentic and brilliant.

4. The Tree of Life (Fox Searchlight, PG-13)

Terrence Malick’s esoteric musings on the universe, family, and faith can easily be written off as pretentious or inaccessible. In truth, The Tree of Life is a story that should speak to every one of us because, though it centers on a Texas family in the 1950s, it’s really about, well, everything. Malick traces the origins of the universe, brings us to the present, and even hints at what might lie beyond death. Anchored by Jessica Chastain’s heartbreaking performance (one of several this year), The Tree of Life is the most visually stunning film since 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it will likely be as unappreciated in its time for the same reasons as Stanley Kubrick’s journey into the cosmos.

5. Shame (Fox Searchlight, NC-17)

We have seen plenty of films about addictions and often devastating consequences that can occur. Director Steve McQueen, however, focuses Shame on possibly the last taboo addiction: sex addiction. In the film, we watch an ostensibly successful New Yorker named Brandon (Michael Fassbender) destroy his own life because of his uncontrollable urge for sexual contact. Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, who plays Brandon’s sister, give two of the most raw and emotional performances of the year in a film that will likely lead to repeat viewings.

6. Take Shelter (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

Writer-director Jeff Nichols may be one of the most unassuming masters of suspense in modern independent filmmaking. In Take Shelter, we meet Curtis (Michael Shannon), an honest Midwestern family man who is either losing his mind or is seeing visions of an apocalyptic future for our world. Shannon is in cahoots with Nichols and doesn’t give the audience the slightest hint as to which is true, filling every scene with ambiguity and doubt. Take Shelter is about as close to a good old-fashioned Hitchcock film as we’ve seen in a while.

7. Warrior (Lionsgate, PG-13)

Warrior reminds us that, although it has become exponentially lazier in recent years, Hollywood can still surprise audiences with a solid movie with as much heart as any indie film. Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton give two of the most physically exhausting performances in cinema history as brothers who compete against each other in a mixed martial arts championship. Hardy is especially intimidating to watch, pacing like a caged animal anytime he isn’t seriously injuring an opponent. Writer-director Gavin O’Connor proves once again that sports movies are a genre that will always be welcome.

8. Another Earth (Fox Searchlight, PG-13)

Like Melancholia, Another Earth imagines that another planet is discovered in our solar system after hiding behind the sun. Here, though, director Mike Cahill works with a fraction of the budget von Trier had at his disposal, yet still manages to create a wonderfully honest examination of one girl (co-writer and star Brit Marling) who sees the arrival of Earth 2 as a second chance for the mistake she must now live with. Not only is Cahill a capable storyteller, he has an artist’s eye for powerful images that make this movie unlike anything else this year.

9. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Sony Pictures Releasing, R)

Leave it to David Fincher to do the impossible: create an American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Fans of the Swedish film will surely argue that this version is unnecessary and just a way to make money. They might be right, but it doesn’t matter. Fincher’s film is one of his best and Rooney Mara, who plays Lisbeth Salander, gives a performance which she will have a difficult time ever topping.

10. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Fox Searchlight, R)

So much has been made of Elizabeth Olsen’s breakthrough performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene (and rightly so) that audiences have overlooked the film itself and the unbelievable amount of story packed into a seemingly shallow film. Sean Durkin, who directed and wrote the screenplay, isn’t interested in what happens to a person when they get sucked into a cult. He wants to know how (or if) they can return to normal society and the life they once led. Martha is a fantastic example of how sometimes the simplest approach to filmmaking can pack the most power.

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