The 10 Best Films of 2011 (in my humble opinion)

After gorging on films over the last few weeks, and having seen a larger number of films at festivals than has been the case in recent years, I feel somewhat qualified to offer up a ten best list. The following is in approximate order of preference.

1. The Descendants: It’s been a long time since I’ve been so moved by a film that I have gone to see it multiple times. The film’s portrayal of a family in crisis is as realistic as anything I’ve ever seen on film. And even though the surface level of the story is what one might call depressing, underneath it is a life-affirming exploration of the regret we all feel at momentous times in our lives. This is not only Alexander Paine’s most fully realized film, it is also George Clooney’s most nuanced performance. It’s far more entertaining than it has any right to be.

2. The Interrupters: Arguably a better film than “Hoop Dreams.” Now, with two masterpieces under his belt, Steve James rises to the first ranks of documentarians. The only possible explanation for the film not getting short listed for the Oscars is that the committee doesn’t appreciate the talent it takes to be in the right place at the right time, and to have the trust of the subjects to the point where they forget the camera is there. The characters in the film are so vivid that it brought to mind “The Wire.”

3. Take Shelter: Of the two (sort of) apocalyptic/depressive films on this list, this is the one that had me on the edge of my seat. It’s beautifully made and acted, and produced enough anxiety to make Hitchcock jealous.

4. Margin Call: In its matter-of-fact way, it dramatizes the cancer that is at the heart of what’s wrong with the society we live in. The characters are various shades of greed and evil. Yet, you can recognize them as your next door neighbors.

5. Moneyball: Does for baseball statistics what “Social Network” did for Facebook–takes a very “inside” subject and makes it accessible, personal and dramatic. It’s no accident that Aaron Sorkin had a hand in both. Brad Pitt is a perfect Billy Beane, and does it with an understated intelligence.

6. Melancholia: The second of the apocalyptic/depressive films on this list, Von Trier’s is aspiring to higher art, and hits the mark. The opening “overture” is as gorgeous and brilliant as anything that has been on screen in quite some time. And what follows is as puzzling as it is dramatic. I’ve never been much of a Von Trier fan, but this film is in another world.

7. Tree of Life: This is a film that grows on you the more you think about it and talk about it. I don’t buy the totally religious interpretation I’ve heard from others. Malick’s view of grace vs. nature is more complicated than that and there are moments where both world views are presented in ecstatic terms. Suffice to say, I need to see it again.

8. Contagion: What Soderbergh’s straightforward pandemic drama lacked in hysterics, was made up for in sheer realism, which only made it more frightening. I wash my hands so much more often than I did before.

9. Shame: McQueen’s exploration of obsessive behavior is less about sex than it is about loneliness. McQueen’s imagery is hypnotic.Fassbinder’s performance is typically brave and extraordinary, but Carey Mulligan is the revelation. Her performance of “New York, New York” may forever redefine that song.

10. Win Win: I’ve been a fan of all of Tom McCarthy’s films, but this comedy-drama is his most accessible and entertaining film to date. The opening sequences made me thnk that it was playing a bit too broad and contrived for my taste, but as the film went on, it won me over.

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):

A Separation
In the Family
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Super 8

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