Any list that tries to outline the “best” films of the year is rife with complications. First of all, how can anyone really know what makes one movie better than another? What are the qualifications for making these choices? Are these the most original features of 2011, or simply those offering the greatest pure entertainment? There’s no easy answer to these questions, and a critic or blogger who claims to have an objective approach is missing the point. These lists should offer a subjective perspective on the person making the picks. That’s easier said than done when you’re actually ranking films, however.
For this list, I repeatedly flipped the movies, especially after the top two. My final choices are as close as I could get to presenting my favorite viewing experiences of the year. The obvious limitation is the fact that I still need to see many of the late-season award contenders. Within the next week, I’ll be watching The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, and Beginners, so this list might look very different if created in the near future. I’ll be appearing on the LAMBcast's Top 10 of 2011 podcast next month, and I’ll continue to make updates until that point. I consider this a snapshot of my current feelings at the end of the year. I’m sticking with the Top 5 format for brevity’s sake, but there are two honorable mentions that fell just outside this list. Enough rambling; let’s check out the picks!
Honorable Mention: The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
One of the most stunningly photographed movies that I’ve ever seen, Terrence Malick’s striking film includes scenes of such emotional weight that they can become hard to take. Watching the O’Brien family grow up in the 1950s is never boring despite the lack of a clear narrative. Letting the stream of images wash over you is the right approach to this material, which remains dazzling even on the small screen. Brad Pitt is chilling as a stern father who takes out his frustration with his failures by injecting fear in his sons. Jessica Chastain is radiant as the mother who deals with his anger and tries to maintain a happy life for the kids. There are plenty of challenges with this movie, from the lengthy sequence involving the world’s creation to the very symbolic ending. I didn’t have a problem with the slow pace or Malick’s style, but my admiration was still more from a distance by the end.
Honorable Mention: Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)
In a different sphere than The Tree of Life, Joe Cornish’s throwback horror film was one of the most fun viewings for me this year. The British filmmaker’s first feature presents an alien invasion from the point of view of teenagers in South London. These tough kids mistakenly kill one of the beings, and that opens the floodgates for an all-out war with the awesomely strange creatures. Although some characters don’t survive the fight, Cornish never takes the action too seriously, which is just the right tone for the hokey material. Newcomer John Boyega stands out as the leader who courageously takes on the aliens. It’s a fast-paced adventure that provides laughs and surprises right up to the end.
5. Hanna (Joe Wright)
This spare and remarkable thriller from Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) is one of the few action films that consistently surprised me this year. The Chemical Brothers’ soundtrack builds just the right tone for the cool chase movie that’s so different from Wright’s other work. Saoirse Ronan and Eric Bana are excellent as a makeshift father and daughter still dealing with the ramifications of his choices from years earlier. Ronan’s Hanna may seem like a typical teenager, but she’s also a killer trained for life to survive almost anything. The only black mark is Cate Blanchett’s one-note villain, who’s not mysterious enough to keep our attention. Moving at a breakneck pace and filled with classic sequences, Hanna is one of the year’s most underrated films.
4. Cold Weather (Aaron Katz)
With his third feature film, Aaron Katz (Quiet City) creates a fun mystery that is part film noir, part family drama. Brother and sister Doug and Gail (Cris Lankenau and Trieste Kelly Dunn) are bored in Portland and looking for any excitement. When his girlfriend apparently disappears, it energizes their dull lives and offers them a chance to bond. You could call Katz’s filming approach “mumblecore” because of its minimalist style, but that wouldn’t give him enough credit. He writes believable characters that are likable even when they’re just hanging out. Doug’s obsession with Sherlock Holmes is endearing, and watching the worn-down Gail’s regain her energy adds to the enjoyment. Katz creates a fun, believable environment and lets the story develop naturally as we grow fond of the characters. This was one of my favorite surprises of the year.
3. Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
Grandly following up his success translating difficult material with The Social Network last year, Aaron Sorkin does it again with Moneyball. Adapted from Michael Lewis’ intriguing book about a new way to consider baseball talent, it’s a surprisingly heartfelt story. Brad Pitt carries the movie as Billy Beane, the general manager of the cash-strapped Oakland A’s. Sorkin wisely focuses on this character, which makes this film accessible to viewers who aren’t fanatics. I’m into baseball and the numbers behind it, so this story was right up my alley. What’s surprising is the way Director Bennett Miller keeps us connected with Beane and his team’s success. The conclusion is known to anyone familiar with the subject, but it still hits all the right notes. Even when Miller and Sorkin make the conflicts too obvious, we stick with them because we’re engaged with the characters. Jonah Hill also shines as the number-cruncher who helps Beane change their approach. It’s a well-written, straightforward drama that stands out from the rest of the mainstream fare this year.
2. Headhunters (Morten Tyldum)
I caught this spellbinding Norwegian thriller at the St. Louis International Film Festival this year, and it was just too good to leave off this list. Aksel Hennie plays Roger Brown, a headhunter for big corporations who supplements a lavish lifestyle by stealing valuable artwork. When he robs the wrong guy, it sends him on the run for his life from a vicious and clever killer who’s always one step ahead. It takes a little while to get moving, but once the action kicks into gear, it’s a stunning experience. Director Morten Tyldum (Fallen Angels) cranks up the tension to almost unbearable levels and puts us in Roger’s shoes, even though he’s not very likable. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones) brings just the right combination of charm and menace to the unstoppable enemy as he hunts the unprepared guy. Headhunters should be a must-see once it finds a DVD release.
1. Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn)
When I walked out of the theater after seeing Drive, I wouldn’t have guessed it would reach the top of my list at the end of the year. After some reflection, the effects of Nicolas Winding Refn’s thrilling film really started to become clear. It charms you with the smooth lights of Los Angeles and then pulls back the curtain to reveal the brutality underneath. Ryan Gosling’s unnamed lead is a quiet guy who appears gentle on the surface, but that emotionless mask hides the brutality underneath. With ‘80s synth-pop tracks playing the background, the early moments hearken to the best of Michael Mann’s urban visions like Thief and Collateral. When Refn takes the story to a much-different place, the shift can be off-putting, but that uneasy feeling is by design. Despite a cute, brief romance with Carey Mulligan’s Irene, there’s little chance for this guy to find peace in this nasty world. It’s a stunning film with a singular style that places it at the pinnacle of the 2011 releases.
These are also strong choices that just missed the list (arranged alphabetically):
13 Assassins (Miike)
Meek’s Cutoff (Reichardt)
Super 8 (Abrams)
Next week, I’ll ring in the new year with my List of Shame marathon of movies nearly everyone has seen but me. The first choice will be the Stephen King adaptation of Stand by Me. See you next year!