Top 10 Movies of 2011 | Pete Timmermann

film boonmee2011 was a funky year for movies. It was thankfully a good one—like 2010, I had a hell of a time whittling this list down to just 10 films, and left out a lot of really good ones in the process.

 

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But nearly all of the best films came out early in the year, so if you’re going strictly by the recent awards season fare (which usually makes up the meat of lists like this), it might feel like it hasn’t been that strong (though, in fairness, I haven’t been able to catch up with either Carnage or Rampart yet, two year-end films I’m anxious to see). In fact, I predicted what my number one and two films for this year were going to be as early as last year, as that was when I saw them for the first time, but they didn’t get their official U.S. theatrical release until this year. No less than six of the films on this list were seen by Americans who frequent film festivals (especially Cannes and Toronto) prior to 2011, but just didn’t get their official theatrical runs here in America until this year.

Also, I feel like I’d be remiss to not apologize for the relative obscurity of this list. Not that that’s somehow a valid criticism of the list nor my fault exactly, but I realize that most people find the fun in reading lists like these in either agreeing with or disagreeing with my opinions, and it can be annoying and/or uninteresting if you don’t know much about a lot of the films on the list. That said, the top five films are all out on home video in the United States now, so take this as a list of suggestions rather than a conversation-starter if these are films you haven’t heard of or haven’t seen yet. And I promise you I’m not trying to show off by focusing so heavily on obscure fare—these truly are the best films of the year.

As mentioned before, there were many films that didn’t quite make this list but that I greatly enjoyed all the same. At the risk of just making a top 11 to 20 list here in my intro, let it be known that most of the big films from big directors everyone else seemed to love were also liked a lot by me (e.g., Melancholia, Midnight in Paris, The Skin I Live In, The Descendants). And it was also a particularly strong year for woman directors; had I made an 11 to 20 section, it would have likely have included The Future, Meek’s Cutoff, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and/or Tomboy, all films from female helmers. And finally, a couple of stray films I liked a lot but just barely missed the cut were Shame and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, the latter being the best midnight movie of the year.

The best films of 2011, in order of preference:

1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Strand Releasing, NR)

I mentioned in my intro that this year included a lot of major works from some of the most important international directors, but none fits either category more so than the newest film by Thai film master Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Uncle Boonmee has had a grand total of five theatrical screenings in St. Louis: —two in 2010’s St. Louis International Film Festival and then three this past April at the Webster Film Series. Of those five screenings I attended three, and I surely would have gone broke if this film had gotten a more traditional run here in St. Louis. One of the marks of a great film is the ability to get more and different things out of it every time you watch it, and I’ll be getting good stuff out of old Uncle Boonmee for a long time.

Also, the Chris Ware-designed theatrical one-sheet is easily the best movie poster of the year. Anyone who tries to tell you The Ides of March’s was clearly hasn’t done their research.

2. Love Exposure (Olive Films, NR)

Finally, almost three years after its theatrical run in its native Japan and two years after its U.S. premiere at the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival, we got to see Sion Sono’s Love Exposure here in America. Well, some of us did; it never came to St. Louis theaters, sadly (though it was recently released on DVD stateside). That said, it’s hard to fault anyone too much on that, as I would think a four-hour foreign movie about panty shots and religion is hard to market. I’d bet that last sentence either totally made you want to see Love Exposure or wonder what the hell’s the matter with me recommending a film like this. The craziest thing about Love Exposure is how accessible, well-paced, and never boring it is. You’ll like it much more than you’d ever expect to, whether you go in expecting to like it or hate it. And we’re not talking about weird-good or kitschy-good or anything like that; Love Exposure is good-good.

And in another random award, Olive Films gets my pick as the best U.S. film distributor of the year. In addition to having the good sense to finally bring us Love Exposure theatrically and on DVD no matter how much a gamble it must have seemed on paper, also in 2011 they released Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoirie(s) du Cinéma on DVD, which has never been available in the United States before, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Despair on DVD and Blu-ray, which hasn’t been available in the U.S. since VHS days. Keep fighting the good fight, Olive!

3. Le Quattro Volte (Kino International, NR)

In a year where the silent movie made a comeback (see The Artist, which landed somewhere around the #11 or 12 slot on my list), the Italian film Le Quattro Volte was the best. It’s not traditionally silent—there are sound effects, but no dialogue to speak of. Not that it needs it. There’s no trick here, except that this is a story that just doesn’t need dialogue to be conveyed properly. When’s the last time you saw a movie like that? Even if you can think of one, I’m sure it wasn’t carried off as well as Le Quattro Volte is.

4. Poetry (Kino International, NR)

In my review of the South Korean movie Poetry earlier in the year, I was a little bit underwhelmed with it, as while it’s a very good movie it isn’t quite on the level of director Lee Chang-dong’s previous feature, Secret Sunshine. Expectations are a bitch, and if Poetry had been released later in the year than it was it might not have made this list at all. As it was, I saw it in March, and the story of an Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandma (Korean screen legend Yun Jung-hee in my favorite female performance of the year) dealing with her live-in grandson’s crime has been haunting my memory ever since. Bonus points for having the most elegant, satisfying, and memorable ending of the year.

5. Beginners (Focus Features, R)

While Beginners has by and large been well received by critics and audiences alike, the thing that most people seem hung up on in the film is Christopher Plummer as Hal Fields, the recently out-of-the-closet, terminally cancerous father of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), the film’s main character. And while Plummer is great, the biggest joy in the movie for me is McGregor, who is better here than he’s been in years, and his relationship with love interest Anna (Inglourious Basterds’ Mélanie Laurent, who here is completely charming). The shtick with the dog who speaks in subtitles and other directorial flourishes all work well for me, too, in what I attribute at least somewhat to the influence of director Mike Mills’ wife Miranda July, whose film The Future just missed this top ten list. Mills’ only other feature film (which he made prior to his marriage to July), 2005’s Thumbsucker, was nowhere near this good.

6. A Separation (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)

Coming in and stealing away with tons of film critics circles’ end of the year award for Best Foreign Language Film (as well as a Golden Globe nomination for same) has been Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian film A Separation, which didn’t seem to crop up on many people’s radars until just a couple weeks ago. In a near-perfect encapsulation of such broad human dichotomies as lying and telling the truth, right and wrong, wealth and poverty, etc., Farhadi speaks volumes in a chamber piece about a wealthy man who employs a poor woman to take care of his ailing father in his home during the day. It shouldn’t be long before everyone’s talking about this film, though, as it comes out in limited release in a few U.S. markets at the end of this year, and we’ll see it here in St. Louis in early 2012.

(And unlike my unofficial prize to Uncle Boonmee’s poster, A Separation sports perhaps the most boring one-sheet this year, behind maybe only 50/50’s. Don’t let the poster put you off of the movie.)

7. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (IFC Films/Sundance Selects, G)

I’ve long been a huge fan of Werner Herzog, who has had one of the reliably strongest careers in cinema history, now in its 50th year. It doesn’t matter if he’s making fiction films or documentaries, if he’s making them in America or Antarctica or his native Germany or anywhere else, if he’s making them in the 1970s or in the present: Herzog’s films are about the best you can hope to see. And in 2011 we were blessed with two great Herzog documentaries, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss (see #9 below), which stand alongside Grizzly Man as his best documentary work. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a 3-D exploration of the Chauvet Cave in France, which contains the oldest known cave paintings and which practically no one has ever had access to given the fragile state of its environment. Herzog doesn’t blow his chance to get inside of it with a movie camera, and here makes a film for the ages. Bonus points for making the first 3-D film to ever turn up on an end of the year top 10 list of mine.

8. Drive (FilmDistrict, R)

As the one film on my list this year that actually got a wide release, Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive still feels like an indie, what with its cast of modern art house stars (Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan—both of whom are getting bigger and bigger in Hollywood despite, or maybe because of, their hard-won street cred), slow-burn pace, and surprisingly gruesome violence. Between this and earlier films like Bronson and Valhalla Rising, Refn is proving to be a very talented director who can’t help but leave his mark on any project he’s affiliated with. I’m anxious to see what he does next.

9. Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life (IFC Films/Sundance Selects, PG-13)

In what is at once the most depressing movie of the year and also maybe the most hopeful (as much can be inferred about this movie by the title alone), Werner Herzog’s documentary focuses on the topic of the murder of three people and the aftermath for the victims’ families, the perpetrators, and those who are involved in the overall culture of death we seem to sometimes foster here in the United States. For many, Into the Abyss will be the more outwardly entertaining of the two great Werner Herzog documentaries this year, but that doesn’t mean Herzog skimps when it comes to fodder for you to consider long after the movie is over.

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

Like Into the Abyss, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a creepy, haunting film. This one is a fictional account of a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who has left a cult to return to a more “normal” life with her sister and her sister’s husband, but she seems to have trouble a lot of the time distinguishing where she is and why (as does the viewer, thanks to rather confusingly interspersed flashbacks). MMMM is ambiguous and threatening, and does a better job than any movie in recent memory of making the viewer afraid but not letting them know quite what it is that they’re afraid of.

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