Tuesday, January 31, 2012

My top ten films of 2011

I think I've gotten around to most of the prominent films that have turned up in discussions of the year's best. Contrary to many naysayers, I think there were a pretty good number of excellent films this year. The difference this year is that there isn't as much consensus as there has been in year's past.

Last year was especially clear cut. It was fascinating and bizarre how the critics lined up behind The Social Network and both the general public and the film industry lined up behind The King's Speech. This year's films seem to be more diverse and polarizing. Almost every one of the critically acclaimed films has some vocal haters who have nothing good to say about it.

I myself tend to like polarizing films, so I have enjoyed most of the films being talked about during this awards season. I try to view films through the eyes of the artists' intentions. There is only one of the awards-contending films that I dislike. I've written that The Help is a terrible disappointment, a mediocre film that has an inherent racism that undercuts its supposed anti-racist message.

There are a few others that I found underwhelming. For instance, I thought David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was slicker but less engaging than the Swedish version, and certainly not worth the extra $80 million spent to remake it.

Otherwise, there have been many enjoyable and worthwhile films. I do agree, however, with Roger Ebert who dislikes lists and finds the exercise somewhat arbitrary. I do not rank my films in any particular order because I think it's silly to say this or that film is definitively better or worse than another. It all comes down to taste and one's mood at that moment. But if I had to pick a favourite for the year as a whole, it would undoubtedly be Asghar Farhadi's A Separation.

Here are my Honourable Mentions, which on any given day might just as easily have made my top ten: Bridesmaids, Contagion, Drive, The Future, Le Havre, The Lincoln Lawyer, Midnight in Paris, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Moneyball, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Project Nim, The Skin I Live In, Source Code, Take Shelter.

Here are my top ten films in alphabetical order:

The Artist
A silent film about silent films in the style of early silent films. One of the two outstanding "love-letters to cinema" this year (the other being Hugo), this is perhaps the more daring and impressive of the two. It does more with less and in its own way is quite perfect. People have quibbled about some of the filmmakers choices but in every instance, I understand and/or prefer what Hazanavicius chose to do. Having seen it again, I think it is far deeper and more accomplished that many realize. He has made a brilliantly exquisite gem that is (and will be) worthy of all of its awards.

The Descendants
This is another finely crafted and delicate drama from Alexander Payne. Many will find it underwhelming but it isn't trying to dazzle. It finds humour in little things and real emotions. Like its non-touristy depiction of Hawaii, The Descendants explores less pristine aspects of family and relationships and finds beauty and truth in all the messiness.

A film unlike anything by else Martin Scorsese. Whereas The Artist used the language of its subject matter, Hugo chooses to use the latest in technology and 3D to underscore the changing of film eras. I did not find the 3D as skillfully employed as in Pina (still too much 2D technique, such as shallow focus and quick cutting), it is nonetheless very good and adds to the delightful story that also functions as a film history lesson.

The Interrupters
Unfortunately excluded from the Academy Awards nominations, this is a gripping, inspiring portrait of a group of former gang members who have dedicated themselves to stopping violence in their neighbourhoods. Although some moments make for harrowing viewing, we come away with a strong sense of hope and respect for these individuals who have successfully turned their lives around and who are managing against all odds to do the same with their community. It's also surprisingly funny at times.

This was an unfortunate victim to a lot of nonsense during the Cannes Film Festival. But whatever you feel about Lars von Trier personally, there is no doubt that he is an exceptional and important filmmaker. This is probably his most accessible and even uplifting film. Even though it is about the heavy subject matter of the Earth's destruction and depression, Melancholia has a compassionate core that is anchored by the stellar acting by Kirsten Dunst.

Monsieur Lazhar
Another Oscar-nominated drama from the Canadian producing team that made last year's nominee Incendies, which was also adapted from a play. Although I didn't find it quite as compelling as Incendies (which was my favourite from last year), it nonetheless has the same level of skill, depth and humanity applied on a more intimate canvas. Excellent acting too, especially from the two very young leads.

Some complained that this was "slight" but that misses the point. It may be less than a documentary, but at the same time it is so much more. It is a groundbreaking work that pays tribute to its subject Pina Bausch by being as daring, unconventional, wordlessly expressive, beautiful and deep as she was herself. Wim Wenders' masterful filmmaking is both thrilling, yet unobtrusive and allows the powerful emotion of the dancers to shine. I have seen this several times and do not believe I could ever tire of watching such a perfect marriage of artistry from the dancers and the filmmakers.

A Separation
This is an Iranian film unlike any I have ever seen before. Unlike the more restrained work of previous Iranian masters, Asghar Farhadi uses everything as his disposal to tell his complicated story of a marriage breakup that becomes much more. Everything about it is sheer perfection: from the tightly-woven script, to the skilled naturalistic acting, to the dazzling yet always appropriate direction and camera-work. I cannot praise this film highly enough. It was my favourite film of the year and one of my favourites of all time.

Yet another strikingly bold work from Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender. McQueen's Hunger was my favourite film of two years ago, and perhaps that heightened expectation led to the tiniest bit of letdown for me with Shame. Still, there was a whole lot going on and much to appreciate about its somewhat disturbing story and subject matter. McQueen has to be the most exciting new director on the scene right now.

The Tree of Life
A great film, though I must admit also an over-rated one. People complain about Hazanavicius' "criminal" use of music from Vertigo, yet give a pass to Malick's "rape" of Smetana, Bach, Mahler and other classical giants, and his theft of Kubrick. Yet there is an undeniable beauty and artistry beneath all that flabby narrative. Only he could have gotten away with making a film so hit-and-miss and yet so fascinating, mesmerizing and lovely.


Guilty Pleasure
Horrible Bosses

Most Overrated Film
Super 8

Most Underrated

Worst Movie of the Year
The Hangover Part II, Transformers: Dark of the Moon (I didn't see Jack and Jill)

Most racially insensitive film
The Hangover Part II, The Help

Best representation of Asians in a mainstream film
A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas 3D, Fast Five

Best Performances
George Clooney, Jean Dujardin, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Meryl Streep, Tilda Swinton, Kristen Wiig, Michelle Williams

Breakthrough Performer
Jessica Chastain


  1. It's there. It's in the runner-up list, which I said could easily be a top ten film depending on the day. It's all subjective.