2011's Most Affecting Films
A mix of big-budget studio movies, American independents and foreign pictures comprise the outstanding films in a year that showcased the tormented soul.
The best films of 2011 were quite good, and there were quite a few of them. Not absolutely great, perhaps, but there were at least 30 movies I could unhesitatingly recommend and quite a few more I could agree were worth seeing. Some years it's difficult to comfortably come up with even a 10-best list, so two or three dozen solid films make for a better-than-average year.
Where did these films come from? Of my top 30, seven are big studio movies, 13 are American indies in the most general sense and 10 are of foreign origin. Three had very large budgets, while at least five were made for barely seven figures, if that.
One pronounced statistic is that 24 of my top 30 movies of 2011 debuted or were discovered at film festivals. What this speaks to is not only the still-vital role festivals play in launching and exposing quality films but also the increasingly bifurcated nature of the market, where movies of artistic ambition that have a prayer of winning theatrical release are channeled through festivals, while the rest, with the ongoing contraction of the specialized and art house cinema circuit, will be watched at home on various personal-screen formats.
If there was a consistent character in the best films of the year just ending, it was the tormented soul. Outstanding performances abounded from actors who had meaty opportunities to inhabit human beings experiencing great pain and turmoil. Of course, conflict is the source of most drama, but the individuals who occupied center screen this year had to confront more than routine issues: Both Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia and Brit Marling in Another Earth faced the end of the world as we know it; Michael Shannon dealt with a related fear in Take Shelter; George Clooney was obliged to digest his wife's infidelity along with her imminent death in The Descendants; Yoon Jeong-hee confronted her son's horrible deeds in Poetry; Leonardo DiCaprio's J. Edgar Hoover doggedly repressed human instincts in J. Edgar; the family members in A Separation and Carnage let simple incidents spin them out of control; Charlize Theron wallowed in her own delusions and wayward behavior in Young Adult; the entire ensemble was put through the wringer of ethical and professional crisis in Margin Call; eminent shrinks played by Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen, as well as Keira Knightley as their patient, were put to demanding tests in A Dangerous Method; Tilda Swinton's horrid son took her to the limit in We Need to Talk About Kevin; Ben Kingsley's pioneer filmmaker endured abject rejection in Hugo; Meryl Streep played a former world leader losing her bearings in The Iron Lady; Brad Pitt suffered from a feeling of failure as a father and disappointment with life in The Tree of Life; Elizabeth Olsen's cult member was kept constantly on the hook in Martha Marcy May Marlene; brothers played by Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton battled demons in the ring in Warrior; Woody Harrelson's corrupt cop went 'round the bend in Rampart; the young and wasted endured terrible trials in Bellflower; Fassbender agonized that he might never have enough sex in Shame; and the entire population of Nanking became targets in a shooting gallery in the historical City of Life and Death. Draw what conclusions you will.
Yet it wasn't nearly as depressing a year as this compendium might make it sound, simply because the films were often so bracing, perceptive and skillfully made. Whether they were original stories or based on existing material, many of 2011's best movies felt freshly conceived and mercifully unformulaic. Given the tendency at major studios and among independents to follow proven patterns, there was an extraordinary absence of genre fare. For years, many of the best movies were bluntly generic, particularly in the crime field, when filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Michael Mann, David Lynch, the Coen brothers and others were peaking and setting examples so many wannabes tried to emulate. There might have been specific crimes depicted in quite a few of this year's best movies, but the results were not what could properly be called genre films.
Following is my Top 30 for 2011 as of today, not yesterday or tomorrow. Such lists can fluctuate as easily as moods.
TODD McCARTHY'S BEST OF THE YEAR: From franchise-ending finales to classics remade, from cinema's origins (silents) to its future (two unexpectedly brilliant uses of 3D), 2011's top films covered it all.
The Descendants (Alexander Payne) Payne puts it all together. Again.
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg) As artistically precise as a Zeiss lens.
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick) I also happily would see a shorter version without Sean Penn, as well as the rumored six-hour cut.
City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan) A startling panorama of the Rape of Nanking and a credible view of how it happened.
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi) An entirely accessible Iranian film that doesn't speak in code or parable.
Hugo (Martin Scorsese) An amazing evocation of the first flowering of the cinematic imagination and 3D at its best.
Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino) The better of the two "silent" films of the year, simple and often very funny.
Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean) Adultery, separation, nary a false beat.
Poetry (Lee Chang-dong) A lovely tale of how creativity can elevate a soul.
Shame (Steve McQueen) Sears the mind, doesn't go away.
Pina (Wim Wenders) For a Pina Bausch fan, a great souvenir, and more great 3D.
Young Adult (Jason Reitman) All involved extend their range in the film equivalent of a tart short story.
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor) An exceptional debut, the economic meltdown in gripping miniature.
Moneyball (Bennett Miller) Makes fine entertainment out of a numbers game.
My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa) So breathtaking as cinema and so grim as a picture of modern Russia.
Warrior (Gavin O'Connor) A gritty portrait of desperate straits in the guise of a sports melodrama.
Another Earth (Mike Cahill) One of the year's craftiest and most original independent debuts.
Rango (Gore Verbinski) A director escapes the Caribbean and makes the year's best animated film.
Bellflower (Evan Glodell) A homemade movie that seethes, sweats, bleeds and bursts creativity.
The Guard (John Michael McDonagh) Great rude dialogue, great rude Brendan Gleeson.
The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius) A charming tale of the last days of silent Hollywood filmmaking, cleverly done in the language of the time.
Bridesmaids (Paul Feig) The gross-outs seemed out of place, but all else was aces in this down-to-earth comedy.
Jane Eyre (Cary Joji Fukunaga) A fine, rigorous adaptation of the perennial.
Like Crazy (Drake Doremus) Felicity Jones, the find of the year, made a simple love story come vibrantly alive.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (David Yates) It ends very well.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin) Absorbingly creepy, coldly shot like a European art film.
Win Win (Tom McCarthy) A flawed man trying to do the right thing and touchingly managing it.
J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood) Problems and all, it stays in the mind.
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen) Minor Woody, but who hasn't thought about going back to mingle with the legends of the past, when things were better, right?
Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan) The lost cause of the year, now almost a period piece, which implodes in the second half but still has more meat on its bones than many other films.