2011 is the best year for movies since I started reviewing movies professionally back in 1998.
Now let me qualify that. Under the consistent but immensely flawed criteria by which I consider a movie for list-making purposes—released commercially for a week or more in New York City between the months of January and December—2011 is the best year for movies since I started reviewing movies professionally. Top 10 lists are not etched in stone. They’re merely a record—an oft-arbitrary record—of what the list-maker was feeling at the time; objects can shift during flight, etc. And by that standard, 2011 was an extraordinarily exciting time to go to the movies, a year so strong that Martin Scorsese’s enchanting tribute to the early days of cinema couldn’t crack my Top 10, Takashi Miike’s best film since Audition barely made the Top 20, and Pedro Almodóvar’s best film since Talk To Her wasn’t present at all. Even a colossally stupid franchise like The Fast And The Furious, which spent the last decade pissing on gearhead tradition with its CGI-enhanced fakery, managed to streamline its “mythology” into an enjoyably ludicrous Ocean’s Eleven knock-off. I’d been joking all year that I’d have to create some sort of elaborate, multi-tiered nerd architecture to contain all the films I adored, but just for reference, here’s the Top 20:
- Meek’s Cutoff
- Certified Copy
- A Separation
- The Tree Of Life
- Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
- Martha Marcy May Marlene
- The Arbor
- House Of Pleasures
- Tuesday, After Christmas
- The Interrupters
- 13 Assassins
- I Saw The Devil
And hell, here’s another 30 Honorable Mentions (in order of release): Kaboom, Cold Weather, Heartbeats, The Lincoln Lawyer, Bill Cunningham: New York, City Of Life And Death, Beginners, Buck, Leap Year, Terri, Project Nim, Winnie The Pooh, The Myth Of The American Sleepover, Attack The Block, Senna, Warrior, Contagion, Moneyball, You Don’t Like The Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantánamo, The Skin I Live In, Margin Call, Melancholia, Into The Abyss, Tomboy, Rampart, Shame, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, War Horse, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
And even that 50 doesn’t include never-released reissues like Edward Yang’s epic A Brighter Summer Day, the many acclaimed 2011 films I have yet to see (A.V. Club Top 15-er Submarine, Potiche, Beats, Rhymes & Life, Shit Year, How I Ended This Summer, Le Quattro Volte, and others), and Todd Haynes’ wonderful Mildred Pierce, an HBO miniseries so luscious and cinematic that I was tempted to pretend it wasn’t made for television and commandeer it for my purposes. Incredibly, the list comes after a notably lackluster awards season where auteurs like Alexander Payne (The Descendants), David Cronenberg (A Dangerous Method), and Roman Polanski (Carnage) brought their B-game and awards hawkers (and the awards punditocracy that services them) are pushing weak sauce like The Artist, My Week With Marilyn, and the [expletive deleted] Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close.
Finding some unifying theme that ties together the best movies of the year is an even more arbitrary exercise than making the lists to begin with, but broadly speaking, the ones that rose to the top of my list tended to be those that let a few questions linger. Abbas Kiarostami once talked about his films being unfinished works that the audience would then “complete,” a statement that for some falsely implies a lack of craft or follow-through. There’s nothing out of place in Kiarostami’s beautiful Certified Copy, but he has no interest in solving the puzzle of his central couple’s relationship, only arranging the pieces in a mysterious and affecting way. We leave asking ourselves why we were so moved by a relationship that’s so hazily defined, and whether it really matters that we have the information that every other screen romance provides for it. The oblique endings of Meek’s Cutoff and Martha Marcy May Marlene have been greeted with cries of anguish from some audiences, but neither is a case of the filmmakers writing themselves into a corner and ducking out. I’d argue that the ending of Meek’s Cutoff isn’t ambiguous at all—I won’t give anything away here, but Bruce Greenwood’s final lines are a strong indication of where things are headed—but Martha Marcy May Marlene’s final shot (maybe my favorite single shot the year) just reinforces the brilliant design of the whole movie, which taps into the disorientation of a former cultist whose identity has been obliterated. A real cheat would have been a cleaner resolution.
Of course, no film was less resolved in 2011 than Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, which emerged from six years in post-production/legal purgatory as a wounded animal that Fox Searchlight kicked to the curb and critics adopted and nursed back to health. It was, in our little corner of the world, the year’s most inspiring story: The groundswell of support for Margaret—forged around a petition demanding (and yielding) opportunities for critics to see the film for awards purposes—was too late to make a different in U.S. arthouses, where it opened in few cities and closed with less than $50,000 in grosses, but the movement inspired an entirely different and far more generous reception in England, and beyond that, demonstrated that passion and critical advocacy could hold power to shape the discussion. Of course, not even Margaret’s most fervent advocates (and I count myself among them) would claim the film is a complete and perfect vision; the version circulating now is Lonergan’s contractually obligated, seconds-under-150-minutes cut and one clearly battered by the process. Yet Margaret is supposed to be a prickly little bastard of a movie: In her response to a bus accident that she witnesses (and to some degree helps cause), Anna Paquin’s 17-year-old protagonist finds herself in a situation where there are no easy answers and where she isn’t making all the right decisions. She seeks justice and truth, but she’s as impulsive, narcissistic, and generally full of shit as any teenager, and Lonergan is rightly comfortable to let the audience live with her contradictions.
“Now how can I see Margaret?” you might ask, reasonably. The answer, for now, is you can’t, at least in America: Its critical revival may lead to a trickle of repertory screenings in some cities—and it could only be a trickle, given how few prints were struck—and no DVD date has been announced. To a degree, I can understand the frustrations of many commenters who looked at our Top 15 list and said they’d never heard of these movies, much less seen more than one or two of them—and thus, 2011 totally sucked. And yet, even the laziest hump with a Netflix account has access to many of these films right now: True independents like Kino, Strand Releasing, and Oscilloscope all had exceptional years and all make most of their films available to stream. From those three alone, you can now watch Meek’s Cutoff, Uncle Boonmee, The Arbor, Leap Year, Rapt, Poetry, and Le Quattro Volte. And when bigger indie pipelines like IFC Films and Magnolia are not making everything they put out available day-and-date on Pay Per View, they too are inclined to stream on Netflix for free, which means the following are a click away: 13 Assassins, I Saw The Devil, Heartbeats, Cold Weather, Buck, and The Myth Of The American Sleepover. And still more from other sources, too, like the beloved-by-all documentaries Senna and Bill Cunningham New York.
I don’t mean to be bullying or schoolmarmish about it, only to point out that when great films get pushed to the margins in our technology-rich times, far more than just a handful of self-selecting New Yorkers have a chance to see them. The key is to not let awards-season hype color your perception. We consider 2007 a monumental year because its strongest achievements—movies like There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, and Zodiac—happened to have healthy budgets and the backing of major studios. Compare that to a 2011 where a pleasant-but-disposable trifle like The Artist is leading the charge, and it’s little wonder that perception marks it as a weak year. (The Tree Of Life may be the only 2011 film high in both ambition and visibility, and will almost certainly top every critics’ poll as a result.) But for the adventurous—and again, you don’t have to venture off the couch to be among them—2011 was an embarrassment of riches, full of lively, diverse, form-busting visions across all genres and around the world. And the best of them ask something of the viewer, offering rewards in exchange for an active engagement. Just don’t expect all the question marks to turn into exclamation points: To quote some advice to Michael Stuhlbarg’s spiritual seeker in A Serious Man, “Accept the mystery.”