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The 11 Best Films of 2011

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2011 boasted more than a few cinematic gems, and listed below are the highlights.

Honorable Mention

Moneyball
Margin Call
Midnight in Paris

Runners-Up

Warrior

This by-the-numbers sports drama about two brothers competing in the same mixed martial arts tournament is elevated by raw performances from Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte and Joel Edgerton.

Click here to view a scene from the film.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher’s hard-R-rated “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” begins one of the most inhospitable franchises in American cinema, culled from the best-selling trilogy from Swedish author Stieg Larsson. Fincher smartly capitalizes on what really works in the story: the weathered characters and implacable atmosphere. It’s one of those movies you have to wash off the following day.

Click here to view the trailer.

Drive

Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” starring Ryan Gosling, is a slow, meditative crime thriller that is as serene as it is brutal. The plot is dispensable, but the visuals and ersatz 80’s pop soundtrack fetishize everything from lovers’ first kiss to the crushing of a human skull, sometimes in the same scene.

Click here to view a scene from the film.

11.) I Saw the Devil

A 2010 South Korean film that was released Stateside in 2011, Kim Ji-woon’s “I Saw the Devil” is a violent revenge fantasy that questions the moral cost of punishing the wicked. A secret agent, Lee Byung-hun, tracks down a serial killer who murdered his wife, catches him, beats him senseless and then lets him go — only to restart the hunt again. In making the killer’s life a living hell, Byung-hun continually sinks to new lows, letting his grief fuel his sadism. Choi Min-sik is even more contemptible as the killer, who is too stubborn to bend to the will of another madman. Although the film is single-minded, director Ji-woon’s control of the drama is no less impressive. The action always has tangible stakes, and the story never forgets what has been lost. Displaying so much inhumanity scene after scene, Ji-woon is able to capitalize on the few tender moments for maximum effect.

Click here to view the trailer.

10.) The Artist

French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius’ ode to black-and-white silent films proves that just as much can be said about fading stardom without words as with them. Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo carry the film through impressive body acting and tell a compelling story about entertainers being eclipsed by the promise of the next generation. The film might have dug deeper into audiences’ obsession with the new and scorn of the old, but “The Artist” is proud to be a surface-level pleasure. In most cases, its simplicity is its strength.

Click here to view the trailer.

9.) The Descendants

Writer/director Alexander Payne (“About Schmidt,” “Sideways”) is known for mining dark comedy from the suffering of his characters, but he’s less interested in uncomfortable laughs with “The Descendants” and more concerned with the thematics of grief and acceptance. George Clooney is excellent as a mild-mannered Hawaiian whose wife lands in a coma after a boating accident. He must assume sole guardianship of his two daughters and deal with unwelcome revelations about his wife, all while deciding whether he should sell acres of island in service of a new resort. The film isn’t as challenging as “About Schmidt” or “Sideways” — Clooney is a much more palatable main character than the misanthropes in the previous films, which really gave those stories their charm — but it’s an honest meditation on betrayal and loss. Payne suggests that through all the bewilderment and rage, we should never undervalue the people still holding our hand and the land beneath our feet.

Click here to view the trailer.

8.) The Tree of Life

“The Tree of Life,” directed by Terrance Malick, plays like a nature documentary that observes all types of life with the same curiosity, juxtaposing the first creatures to roam the Earth with a family living in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s. It’s light on plot and heavy on existential questions, which is just about right for an assessment of life and the universe. It may be hard for audiences to embrace a film that groups the Big Bang with a baby’s first steps, but, in the context of the movie, one is just as important as the other.

Click here to view the trailer.

7.) Martha Marcy May Marlene

Elizabeth Olsen is terrific as Martha, a young woman trying to assimilate into her sister’s family after spending two years living with a cult. Writer/director Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” at first does not demonize the cult. He conveys the commune in flashbacks as a conscientious group of people favoring shared responsibilities and livelihood. Durkin gradually reveals the cult’s more dangerous practices, parallelling the revelations with Martha in the present day attempting to grasp accepted social norms once again. Her struggle to reconcile the two styles of living is impeded by suspicions that cult members are watching her and planning to force her return. Durkin keeps the paranoia in the background and emphasizes more tangible details of Martha’s difficult adjustment, such as her taking a dip in a public lake without swimwear. More than a commonplace domestic drama, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” forces viewers to imagine a life interrupted and question whether it can ever be relearned.

Click here to view the trailer.

6.) Attack the Block

Writer/director Joe Cornish’s British science fiction film “Attack the Block” is aptly summarized by its tagline: “Inner city vs. outer space.” It’s an inspired actioner that delivers the thrills and humor you would expect from a story of young hoodlums using their knives and baseball bats on furious aliens with glow-in-the-dark teeth. But it amounts to more than its premise. Beneath the impressive low-budget effects and well-timed comedic mugging of the young British cast is an objective look at youth violence in South London. The film slyly suggests how some of these kids become professional criminals by their early teens and, weighing their intelligence and resourcefulness, dreams big about what they could achieve with the right motivation.

Click here to view the trailer.

5.) Shame

British filmmaker Steve McQueen chooses an effective strategy for examining sex addiction in his drama “Shame.” He begins the film by portraying Michael Fassbender’s Manhattanite businessman simply as man who likes sex. He sleeps with women he meets at bars, engages in eye games with married women on the subway and looks at pornography while he’s home alone. These actions could describe many single men in their 30s, and McQueen exploits this notion so viewers sympathize with the character in the early goings. As the film continues and numerous obstacles develop (his sister attempts to live on his couch for a few weeks, myriad viruses from porn sites are found on his work computer), McQueen reveals how truly difficult it is for sex addicts to function in society. By the finale, the audience has pulled away, barley recognizing Fassbender’s glazed eyes as he wanders into clubs or alleys looking for release. The visuals in the film are stunning. Manhattan’s skyscrapers seem to bear down in judgement, while inconsistent lighting reveals Fassbender’s face as never quite the way you remember it. Long takes of seemingly mundane dialogue grow from normal interactions to sexual propositions, whether said or unsaid, while the sex acts themselves are typically brief and fleeting — never satisfying. Here is film that invites consideration of a taboo subject matter by convincing viewers to tag along until it’s too late to turn back.

Click here to view the trailer.

4.) Hugo

Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” is the best family film in years and a serious argument for the benefits of 3D technology. It’s the story of an orphan (Asa Butterfield) living in a Paris train station in 1931 who unearths the secrets of an elusive, aged shopkeeper (Ben Kingsley). The film is part snow-covered mystery and part tutorial about the advent of silent films, though this angle is not evident from the previews. The 3D breathtakingly extends Hugo’s world and peerlessly examines its characters. Silent films were director Georges Méliès’ medium for bringing his dreams to an audience. In the case of “Hugo,” 3D is Scorsese’s medium, and it’s one step closer to pure magic.

Click here to view a scene from the film.

3.) Melancholia

Lars Von Trier isn’t afraid of grand metaphors in “Melancholia,” a story about a new bride (Kirsten Dunst) battling depression as a newfound planet follows a collision course with Earth. However, her anxiety manifested as a blue orb in the sky isn’t the controversial Danish director’s only trick. During the film’s intriguing second half, Von Trier studies how the illness allows her to be one of the few people equipped to deal with the impending armageddon. The director also examines the unreliability of science and the false hope it provides mankind, which viewers may take as a criticism of using medication to solve depression. Helped to life by a committed performance by Dunst, the movie is more fact than fantasy, credibly noting the disorder’s effect on interpersonal relationships. “Melancholia” is an intensely personal movie for Von Trier, who has said he suffers from depression. It’s not hard to see the film as an elegant solution for keeping his own planet at a safe distance.

Click here to view the trailer.

2.) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” based on John le Carré’s eponymous Cold War espionage novel, is presented by director Tomas Alfredson as a reflection of its main character, British Intelligence Agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Smiley is contemplative and guarded, and the movie mimics his demeanour, methodically releasing bits of information in piecemeal fashion. The approach has led some to find the film dull or baffling, but it’s as rewarding as any movie this year if audiences are willing to meet its challenge. Oldman’s performance is a marvel, bolstered by measured turns from Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy. As characters reveal more of themselves, the film loosens its grasp, allowing themes of personal sacrifice and homosexuality to escape from the dialed-down theatrics. Demanding more than one viewing, this movie will tell secrets for years to come.

Click here to view a scene from the film.

1.) Take Shelter

Veteran character actor Michael Shannon (currently portraying Agent Nelson Van Alden in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) would seem to be the most important ingredient of “Take Shelter,” the story of an Ohio man determined to save his family amid visions of the end of the world. His performance moves from the smallest eye flickers of anxiety to clamorous monologues and is certainly one of the year’s signature acting achievements. However, writer/director Jeff Nichols’ script is just as important to the success of the film, matching Shannon’s creation of the American animus with a realistic portrait of a lower-middle-class Midwestern family beset by domestic hardships. The film ingeniously offers situation after situation referencing what modern Americans fear most — from soaring gas prices, to the threat of credit card debt, to inadequate health insurance — without overreaching or seeming contrived. As timely as any documentary or economic study, “Take Shelter” presents a storm that is real and brewing right now.

Click here to view the trailer.

 

NOTE: I was not able to view the Iranian drama “A Separation” — cited by many critics as one of the best films of the year — because it has not yet been released in Washington, D.C. Click here for the trailer.