But, first, a few others that just missed the list:
It was an incredibly strong year for documentaries. The great Werner Herzog himself had two very different ones. First he had the awe-inducing Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Chauvet caves in southern France, home of what is the oldest-known cave paintings. The caves transport you to a different time and if you were lucky enough to see the film in theaters and in 3-D, the art and technology of cinema took you to a different place. On the completely different end of the spectrum, Herzog's next doc was the harrowing Into the Abyss, about the experience of the Texas death row system, specifically about two young men who committed a triple homicide in 2001. The joy and wonder of the earlier film is matched by the sadness and horror of the later one.
Buck, about the real-life horse whisperer Dan "Buck" Brannaman, is as standard as these types of movies usually are. But it's also a moving story about compassion and forgiveness, family, and man's relationship to nature. Everything about Buck's upbringing should have led him down a much darker path. That it didn't isn't the result of a miracle, but patience and perseverance, which is exactly what he exhibits every time he touches a horse. Clio Barnard's The Arbor is anything but standard. The film about the late British playwright, Andrea Dunbar, ingeniously brings to life audio interviews of her family by having actors lip-synch their words in front of the camera as well as act out parts of her plays. It is a fascinating and completely new way to weave a picture of a life wrought with pain and complicated relationships with those who loved the very autobiographical author most.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is not only carried by two of the best performances of the year--Elizabeth Olsen as the titles character(s) and a scary-as-hell John Hawkes, who seduces her into his commune--but also by the consistently eerie tone he is able to balance with an ever-percolating sense of insanity that only occasionally comes to a boil. The Hitchcockian The Skin I Live In, from Pedro Almodóvar, has everything you'd expect from that crazy Spaniard: bold images, extremely heightened melodrama, beautiful music and beautiful faces. One of those beautiful faces is Elena Anaya, who like Olsen in above film, has to emote in several different directions, to not only keep the other characters off balance, but us as well.
Hugo is more than an homage. It's part mystery, redemption story, and coming-of-age drama. If Scorsese's picture is indicative of a some kind of growing sense of nostalgia among filmmakers, in many ways Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is a rejection of that sensibility. Yes, Owen Wilson's Gil is happy to be magically transported to his favorite era in history--1920s Paris. It's minor Allen really, but part of the reason it's here is because it feels like the anti-nostalgia film of last year, arguing for engagement with the current world around you over the idolatry of a bygone era.
If Iranian cinema was dealt horrific blow with the bogus arrest of and six-year sentence given to director Jafar Panahi, there may be some measure of solace found in the ongoing presence of the country as a center of important cinema. Three terrific examples make the list of my favorite films of 2011. You'll see the other two lower on the page. My favorite narrative feature from last April's Florida Film Festival was Hossein Keshavarz's Dog Sweat. I imagine there are some that would assume that a drama from Iran to be dryly political, a harrowing look at a repressed or fundamentalist life (I was one of them). Surely the movie is political--and overtly so--but it is weaved together so beautifully with the personal stories of a handful of young Iranians trying in small ways to liberate themselves (mainly in the avenue of love and sex).
10. (tie) The Adjustment Bureau (review)/Warrior
9. Take Shelter
8. Certified Copy
6. Meek's Cutoff
5. Beginners (review)
Probably my for-personal-reasons favorite movie of the year, Mike Mills's autobiographical movie is both a wistful romance, an examination of one's final years, and most strikingly a treatise on sadness. Everybody's got baggage and each has his or her own way of dealing with it. Christopher Plummer's Hal spent a lifetime dealing with it before coming out at the age of 73. Oliver and Anna (Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent) are still trying to overcome theirs. Cosmo, as Arthur, is the cutest dog ever.
4. A Separation (review)
In terms of scale, A Separation (the best of the three Iranian movies mentioned here) is fairly modest in scope. But Asghar Farhadi's emotional roller coaster distills and focuses a world of thematic elements into one family drama. The actors, especially Peyman Maadi and Sarina Farhadi as the main father and daughter, respectively, superbly render the director's screenplay, which has the deftness to make each characters' points of view feel legitimate despite being completely conflicting.
3. The Tree of Life
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (review)
Cinema has the unique ability to combine the various arts and, in doing so, can bring us to places we'd ordinarily be unable to visit. Sometimes those places are halfway around the world. Other times they're simply one man's vivid imagination. Even better, sometimes it's our own. The magical Uncle Boonmee... from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (or just "Joe" to you and me) takes us to all those places. That the film has oblique references and seemingly inexplicable narrative flights of fancy doesn't make it inaccessible. It's merely a beautiful dream from which you don't ever want to wake up.
Shy Russell meets outspoken Glen at a bar. They spend the night together. The next morning Glen tells Russell he's leaving for America for two years to study. It's as unceremonious a beginning to a movie romance as you'll find. It's also as standard a beginning to one you'll find in everyday life. And that's one of the many joys to be had with Andrew Haigh's lovely film. To call it a gay, UK version of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset movies is a bit reductive. But it begins to point in the direction of the tone the movie sets. Much of the film is a series of conversations between the two (played wonderfully by Tom Cullen and Chris New) and there's a fly-on-the-wall feeling to it. Haigh's camera seems to be merely eavesdropping on the most intimate of moments between the two. Like all the great love stories, you feel as if a whole world is explored within the simple connection between two people. A character in the above Certified Copy says that "there's nothing simple about being simple". It's political without beating you over the head, explicit without being graphic, romantic without being sappy. It's a combination of its two leads, quiet and outspoken. It's brilliant and moving. It's the best movie of 2011.
As of this writing, Weekend, Uncle Boonmee..., Meek's Cutoff, Certified Copy, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Buck, and The Arbor are available to watch on Netflix Instant and most of the rest are available on DVD. Happy watching and here's to hoping 2012 gives us as many wide-ranging gems as 2011.