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Personal Best of 2011

The term “Top 10” is highly subjective. Obviously it means a very different thing to people who say it than to those who hear it. As such, I’m not claiming that these movies are the best of the year in all objective areas of classification. I am, however, saying that to me, personally, these are the ten movies I would recommend to anyone looking for the best of 2011’s cinema offerings.

Each write-up includes a choice quote from my review of the film. For the full review, click the movie title. 

#10 – Certified Copy

The rare film that perfectly melds philosophical concepts with a powerful and emotionally resonant narrative. As the conversation between these two strangers(?) deepens to encompass the art of film and storytelling itself, it becomes clear that director Abbas Kiarostami has made something very beautiful.

In closing, Certified Copy, I would just like to say that you lead me down a primrose path, believing I knew your every secret, ready to accept you as a good example of a standard “foreign film.” before blindsiding me, and made me reconsider everything I had seen or felt before. But this is why I love you, and why I feel that I won’t be satisfied until I see you again.

#9 – Beginners

Part social statement, part romantic comedy, and part indie plum, this film easily could have dissolved into the standard goo of sacchraine nonsense. Luckily, thanks to the writing, direction, and strong performances from a stellar ensamble cast, it becomes one of the best of the year.

As a story about the dangers of allowing anything other than your own self to define the terms of your happiness, you ring with subtle truths that most movies would avoid. Your arc takes us through the fifties, when homosexuality was considered a disease, all the way to today, when Gen-X malaise has reached its peak and unhappy parents have thoroughly infected their now adult children’s sense of love and happiness. These are themes and story points that might otherwise cause a fillm to sink into maudlin self-consciousness, but you rise above these pitfalls through charm and pluck.

#8 – 50/50

A comedy about cancer at first feels a bit like a shot at some controversy. To the contrary, this film becomes a thoughtful and meaningful examination of the ways in which people deal with the concept of mortality long before anyone thought they would have to. Funny, touching, and filled with affable performances.

This is your real boon and strength. You do not pretend there is a magic bullet to cure the hero’s predicament. No matter what happens, no matter what anyone says, no matter what he reads or does, his odds never change. His chance for survival is an immovable ratio of success to failure. What counts, though, is that there are people around him who care enough to fail so brilliantly at taking his mind off of that.

#7 – Melancholia

Lars von Trier is a provocateur and a master of the cinematic craft. In this film he finds a balance between his usual histrionics and his detailed visual artistry. The story is personal and yet massive, and every aspect of its production is executed by people working at the top of their game.

There will be those who single out your drama, your boldness, your lack of subtly, your commitment to allegorical grandeur, and say that those things are pretentious and laughable (much as they did with The Tree of Life). They will find the scale of your story to be a crutch or an artistic extravagance. Yet I see you for what you really are – a story of personal, existential fear and perception writ large, given the scope that we all feel, and that none of us are willing to articulate. In this way you are a fierce, powerful, ambitious and frightening work of singular vision.

#6 – Hanna

Style and craftsmanship can go a long way. Sometimes all a movie has to do is be one of the best action films in recent memory. In this film, music gets elevated to the status of character, and characters perform feats of physical prowess in the real world with actual intensity and dexterity. This commitment to reality goes a long way, as does the outstanding camerawork.

In fact, the only criticism of a negative nature that I could bring to bear against you would be the difficulty inherent in discussing what makes you so great. Most movies can be broken down into their constituent parts in order to methodically detail the things that work, and the things that do not. Like a rifle they can be stripped, cleaned and thoroughly inspected in pieces.

You, on the other hand, are like a finely crafted samurai sword – a single piece of shining metal created by forces and processes that are invisible yet integral parts of your final form.

#5 – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Spy thrillers rarely focus on the emotional toll of the spy trade. This is the rare film that trades out lavish technology for hard work, emotional investment, and ultimately the cost of a human soul. Add to that emotional acuity the technological accomplishments of director Tomas Alfredson and you’ve got all you need for a gripping, beautiful film.

Between this directorial discipline, your story, the acting, and the sound editing – silences amplify the subtle, everyday noises that collect like menacing specters in the wings of your tale – your place among my top films of the year is assured. Oldman and the crew create subtle, vital characters that fill a tense, vibrant tale of espionage, loyalty, and the human cost of nationalized paranoia and suspicion.

#4 – Take Shelter

Rare is the film in which all eventualities lead to doom and yet the characters remain worth rooting for. This is a wrenching, painful film with top-notch performances and outstanding writing. Every scene is dripping with tension and foreboding. A small, existentially terrifying film.

A true element of horror, which many films seem to be neglecting recently, is the fear of something bad happening to someone we empathize with. Curtis is such an earnest man, such a committed father and husband, that we fear both the possibility of the world’s end and the possibility of Curtis’s mental illness separating him from his family. You know that a movie is something special when you end up rooting for the end of the world, and that is exactly what happens here. The fear that Curtis is right is only eclipsed by the fear that he is wrong.

#3 – Drive

Stylish, brooding, and filled with some of the most majestic and bracing scenes of violence put to film in recent memory, this is a movie that burns slow and ends white-hot. That purposefulness, that rigid and measured march toward mayhem, is a masterful accomplishment.

Many movies nowadays depend on action and spectacle to drive their narrative forward or – at the very least- keep people interested and distracted long enough to make them forget that the entire plot has been lost, replaced by a haze of fire and smoke. You, though, trust the audience enough that you progress, for the most part, without any clear narrative line for a quarter of your run time. In the place of a clear plot thread to guide us, you give us instead a compelling enigma of a character to follow and observe; to slowly come to understand, and possibly fear and admire.

#2 – Shame

This is one that will stick with you. One of the most completely realized characters in modern film is set on a collision course with his own addiction. The tale told is complex, humane, and utterly without the cliche trappings that usually attach themselves to such a tale. As seen through the unflinching lens of director Steve McQueens delicate camera this story is harrowing, moving, and worth visiting again and again.

You, Shame, are a movie that denies the audience that comfort. You deny the comfort of a pat narrative explanation for your protagonist’s sex addiction. In place of genesis and origin you offer a glimpse of the fallout, a taste of the wreckage left behind in the wake of whatever it was that create this compulsion. Similarly, you offer us no Good Will Hunting-style breakthrough or solution. The tendrils of that trauma and the resulting compulsion are so deeply rooted that “fixing” it would be just as reductive as claiming a sole moment of inception.

#1 – The Tree of Life

Ambition can be a poison to success. To that end, nothing could be more ambitious than trying to find and justify the existence of God by contextualizing personal tragedy in the grand scheme of the miracle of life. Terrence Malick, never one to stray from a fight, takes on this seemingly insurmountable task with grace and fierce will. That he comes out on top is nothing short of a miracle.

Throughout the course of our time together you managed to make me feel not only for the characters on the screen, but also about myself. You broke into me and reached plains of understanding and knowledge that I had forgotten to remember. At one point I found myself wishing you were over, not because I didn’t want to watch you or felt that we were done, but because I wanted to have already seen you in your entirety. I wanted to compact you and experience you in a single moment, so that I wouldn’t have to wait for all of the other emotions you would instill in me.

9 thoughts on “Personal Best of 2011”

  1. Ric Desan says:

    I find it interesting your selections didnt include less cerebral more action packed films. I am sure my list would include Battle Los Angeles and Super 8!

    I will say however, I would like to see all of these, so there is no question this is a superlative list.

    1. Brian J. Roan says:

      Battle: Los Angeles and even Captain America almost made my list. In fact, I might be adding a “honorable mention” area. And by the by, did you see Hanna? That was a damn good action film.

      1. Ric Desan says:

        Nope I didnt see Hanna, but it is on the list and keeping these at 10 is never easy!

        1. Brian J. Roan says:

          Well once you see it make sure to let me know what you think. If you can stop whistling “the tune” to yourself within three days, you’re a better man than I.

  2. Dylan says:

    “I find it interesting your selections didnt include less cerebral more action packed films.” – was that a joke? Brian, I don’t know you all that well, but this list was 100% in line with what I do know of you, which I think is a good thing.

    I’ve seen 6 of these…really agree on some (Hanna, Tinker, Drive), really disagree on others (Melancholia, Tree o Life). And I really wanna see all of the ones I have yet to.

    1. Brian J. Roan says:

      Well I did have insanely high opinions of some action pics. Reading back over my reviews on here I was surprised how often I was emphatic about some more base, action-oriented fare. And while many films this year were outstanding in that respect (Hanna, Drive, Battle: LA, Captain America) I did tend toward films that advanced film art and did new things, rather than things that just did an old trick well.

      I know that Melancholia and Tree are films that are
      seemingly inaccessible and divisive, but of course I loved them. Challenging, difficult, ambitious films speak to me on a more impassioned and cerebral level. There was a moment earlier in the year where I had a lot of more populist (Jesus I’m an elitist) films on my list. But the more time I had to marinate my opinions of the more cerebral films, the more I realized they’d be the ones I came back to. I’m not like most people – I only usually see action films once, it’s the more in-depth films I love to revisit randomly.

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  5. Eric says:

    Nice list — I really enjoyed Drive, 50/50, Shame and Beginners myself. Take Shelter and The Tree of Life have been on my must-see list but I haven’t had the chance to check them out yet. I can’t wait to see both.

    1. Brian J. Roan says:

      Thank you, I’m glad you agree.

      You definitely should see Tree of Life and Take Shelter as soon as possible. You won’t be disappointed. Tree of Life is a challenging but rewarding film, and Take Shelter is both thrilling and moving.

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