I saw 181 new releases in 2011 - here are my 20 favorites.
As a follow up (probably after I see A Separation), I will release the Brandy Awards, which is a full best of 2011 list with nominations (see previous years’ Brandy Awards for more). I put a lot of time into this list and the order, not so much into the writing. If you really want to know more, talk to me about it! Seriously though, the writing is not good…
Please direct all comments to my Twitter or Facebook (I’ve had trouble with the commenting feature in the past).
20. Source Code
Source Code is a well-crafted, entertaining and engaging studio movie that appealed to me strongly (aka a rarity). The story is tight, the acting is great, it asks intriguing questions and mostly importantly it’s emotionally engaging. As a cinephile with friends and family who aren't, I loved that this is a film I could share with anybody.
With beautifully crafted images and a complex story, this elegant little French film deserves to be seen by a larger audience, and I hope it finds that audience on home video (fingers crossed for Netflix Instant Watch). Few films had characters as complicated while still being honest. I loved Pariah, but Tomboy is the best movie I saw this year about a gender-confused youth.
18. The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito)
Pedro Almodóvar goes farther than I’ve ever seen in The Skin I Live In. This movie has a batshit insane plot and it works. If you like melodrama and/or Spanish film, watch this movie…you will not regret it.
17. The Future
Miranda July is a strange and fascinating artist. I didn’t love this film at first, but I never stopped thinking about it. If you can handle a film with a talking cat, watch this.
This French Canadian film shocked me; you will not expect how melodramatic it goes until it goes there. The grainy image entranced me throughout both viewings. The unsung acting is extraordinary, as is the powerful cinematography. I highly recommend Incendies to fans of foreign film.
15. Kung Fu Panda 2
Oh no, another crappy Hollywood sequel right? No. Perhaps I’m overrating this movie, but it was exciting to see a sequel that actually builds on the original story in a meaningful way! This film has the same playfulness and cool aesthetics of the first, with more intellect. Certain scenes in this film are stunning, and the sheer fact that they decided to make a boldly philosophical film deserves credit. Well done.
I didn’t expect much from this baseball movie, and it surprised me. Moneyball explores the idea of challenging the status quo. Bennett Miller does a damn good job letting this story be what it needed to be, instead of being a sports genre film.
I am a sucker for Joseph Gordon-Levitt and this is one of his best performances in years. Every aspect of this movie works phenomenally well. The way the images are crafted by director Jonathan Levine (of the excellent The Wackness) and cinematographer Terry Stacey is much more impressive than I was expecting and much more important to the film than most give it credit for. While the writing is great as well, the color tones, makeup and art direction really drew me to the story. Love this film.
12. Another Earth
The imagery in this film is intellectually provocative and emotionally engaging. I’ve gone back to the trailer and images time and again, and will continue to for years to come. The cinematography in this movie is pure poetry. There are some story problems and I wasn’t a big fan of the score, but this movie is one that has stuck with me.
11. Red State
I emphasize again, this is a favorites list…Red State is not on this list as a stand-alone film. Kevin Smith and the whole Red State saga has been inspiring to me, and I’m glad to cheer on Smith in his independent ventures. That being said, I had a blast watching this film. The acting is great, it’s exciting, scary, and most importantly, it’s simply fun without being stupid!
I make a point to seek out the year's Sundance films. I watched Bellflower because it played at Sundance, and two critics I admire, Matt Singer and Joey Magidson, were big fans. I soon found that Bellflower is a powerful, eclectic independent drama. Besides having some of the most unique and stunning cinematography of the year (on a shoestring budget), Bellflower works as a character drama about a relationship and the way that affects a close friendship. The characters felt so real in Bellflower I couldn’t look away. The character I couldn’t stand at the beginning was the one I felt most deeply for by the end. This film riveted me. Watch it.
I expected this to be a humorous indie comedy, which would only succeed because of its star power. I was damn wrong about that. Beginners reached me on a deeply visceral level. I find myself going back to the images and sounds frequently. I cannot articulate what I love about the film, except that it all feels perfect to me.
8. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
This is not a fast, exciting spy movie. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a slow, brooding character drama about the reality of being a spy. Gary Oldman is subtle and brilliant in this role, and his performance is highlighted by the patient camera of Tomas Alfredson.
What’s most impressive about Tinker is that it’s not afraid to let Oldman sit and think; for me, this works amazingly. Among the many major releases I saw in December, this one was the best.
7. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Daldry’s naturalist film works on every level. I didn’t cry more at a movie this year than this one. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is the 9/11 movie I’ve been waiting for, and believe me, I’ve been waiting.
I often talk about how movies can interest me, but I’m not invested in the characters or the story. I am deeply and honestly invested in the characters and story of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. The acting, especially by Thomas Horn, is excellent. The direction is unique and affecting. The score is emotionally complex and powerful. Finally, the film as a whole is monumentally successful at embodying the paralytic fear of being a New Yorker after 9/11.
I love this movie.
6. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee Raleuk Chat)
Uncle Boonmee, winner of the top prize at Cannes 2010, is a mysterious film that feels more like a dream than a story. Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul directs with a masterful sense of unity with nature. I left the film feeling different, looking at the world and, more importantly nature, from the lens of Weerasethakul. To me, this always marks a truly powerful and effective vision. If you’re into art film and/or visual storytelling, Uncle Boonmee is a must-see.
5. Project Nim
For me, this film elicited excitement, curiosity, outrage and tears, among many other emotions. The Sundance Film Festival guide accurately called the film an “unflinching, unsentimental biography of an animal we tried to make human. What we learn about Nim’s true nature – and indeed our own – is comic, revealing, and profoundly unsettling.”
4. How to Die in Oregon
While people often look to God for purpose and meaning, this documentary dares us to reach within ourselves to find value. Oregon shows us that being able to live is the blessing. Let this ]intelligent and poignant film give you the catharsis it gave me; let it bring you closer to peace with death.
3. Martha Marcy May Marlene
I am obviously obsessed with the Sundance Film Festival. This year Martha Marcy May Marlene was the film that blew me away more than any other film from Sundance. Durkin paints a deep and complex portrait of a girl lost between two worlds (or societies?). She is played with reserve and nuance by Elizabeth Olsen, who knows when to conceal her feelings and when to explode. Martha Marcy May Marlene is everything I love to see at film festivals and art-house theaters.
2. The Tree of Life
While the next film is my favorite this year, The Tree of Life is without a doubt the best film this year. The Tree of Life deserves to be an American classic, and I’m proud of the Academy for recognizing that. Many characters in American cinema have been seen as truly American, but I think none is more honest than Brad Pitt’s Mr. O'Brien.
The Tree of Life is about the modern relationship between father and son, or parents and children. Some call The Tree of Life over the top and pretentious, I think it works almost perfectly (including Sean Penn and the creation sequence).
With good reason, people ask me why I watch so many movies. I saw 181 new release movies this year, which is an absurdly high number for a non-critic (it's not my profession, so I don’t get them for free). The reason is that I hope for that rare experience when I have a truly special connection with an outstanding film. This year, that experience was watching Hugo in 3D at the Boston Common Theater.
Hugo, as many have said it, is a love letter to cinema. To go even further, it’s a love letter to creativity and passion. Not only does Hugo love everything I stand for, it embodies it.
Added note: I’m not intentionally leaving anything out. While I did love plenty of the Oscar films and critic darlings, I loved these films more. I would expect to see some of them (The Artist, Drive, Melancholia, possibly others) pop up at the Brandy Awards.
Notable films I DID NOT see in 2011: A Separation, The Interrupters, Mysteries of Lisbon, Littlerock, Into the Abyss