As I’m sure I’ve already made clear from my previous list of Honorable Mentions, my cup was absolutely overflowing with options for this list. I could’ve made a top 20 and I’d still have to make some extremely painful cuts. This was an incredible year for prestige cinema, but you’d never know it unless you were paying attention.
Of the ten films listed below, only two of them got wide releases and all of them got trounced at the box office. Sorry if I keep sounding like a broken record, but films like these are to be seen and treasured. Part of the reason why I keep this blog is to spread awareness of great new releases that tend to fall by the wayside. The box office grosses of recent years have made a trend out of rewarding mediocrity and shunning films that might be the least bit original or challenging.
If you’re as tired of that trend as I am, then these are the films that I most highly recommend you track down, watch, and support. These are the films that I consider to be the year’s most outstanding examples of intellectual depth and excellence in the filmmaking craft. These are the movies that made me think, made me feel, and made me proud to be a film geek. They are my choices for the greatest movie masterpieces of 2011.
10. Jane Eyre
The first time I saw this movie — with absolutely zero prior knowledge of Bronte’s novel — I thoroughly enjoyed it. Not only was the movie filled with gorgeously dark atmosphere and dazzling visuals of the British countryside, but the two lead performances from Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender were absolutely exquisite.
The second time I saw this movie — now having read Bronte’s novel — I absolutely loved it. The filmmakers did a phenomenal job of adapting the source material, extracting all the worst and most outdated sections while carrying over the best parts almost verbatim. Additionally, the filmmakers restructured the story in some bold and inspired ways, helping to make the story more cohesive and heartfelt. It’s a very underrated movie and a solid example of how to adapt a book to the screen.
Though the plot could stand to be a little bit tighter, this is still a damn fine movie. The visuals are mesmerizing, the 3D is effectively used, and the set design is unparalleled. The movie also boasts outstanding performances from Ben Kingsley, Chloe Moretz, and all the other actors in this stellar cast.
More than anything, I deeply appreciate the amount of love that went into this film. Here’s a movie that very effectively portrays the joy in seeing a movie, and captures the art of old-school special effects in a way that makes it seem no less magical for all the strings and clockwork on display. It’s essential viewing for the movie lover in all of us.
This is a beautifully ugly movie. This film has deliberately worn-down visuals, oppresively bleak subject matter, thoroughly impressive hand-made pyrotechnics, and disturbingly committed performances from all involved. On every level, this movie completely works as a dark mirror held up to my generation. It isn’t just a brutal film, it’s a brutally honest film. It’s a compelling piece of cinematic abstract art as presented by an auteur with a surely fascinating career ahead of him.
If Bellflower is a work of cinematic abstract art, then Beginners is a work of cinematic poetry. The various scenes and flashbacks in this film are edited together in such a novel way that they actually rhyme with each other. As a result, writer/director Mike Mills crafted a film that elegantly comments on the interactions and influences between parents and children, between past and present.
Much like 50/50, this is a film that portrays the drama of sickness, mortality, and loss in a heartfelt manner, while skillfully balancing the misery with comedy. But unlike Will Reiser’s excellent film, this one goes so much further in its exploration of such themes as love, happiness, responsibility, family ties, the passage of time, and the need for emotional connections with other people. Between the extraordinary writing and the awesome combined talents of Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent, and Christopher Plummer, I just don’t think it’s possible not to fall in love with these characters or with this movie.
These movies are disturbing in all the right ways, in large part because of how they deliver blatantly sexual content with such skill and confidence. More importantly, both movies are very intimate character studies of protagonists who are completely broken. They show in great detail how these characters are mentally and emotionally damaged, show their attempts to heal, and then steadfastly refuse to answer one way or another if these characters are even capable of healing. It’s this conflict between free will and the tyranny of inner tendencies — not to mention pressure from the surrounding environment — that makes both movies so compelling. And that isn’t even getting started on their explorations of such themes as trust, denial, and of course, sexuality.
Additionally, both of these films very deliberately take their time in such a way that it creates atmosphere and tension. And perhaps best of all, both of these movies feature outstanding lead performances from two of the year’s most notable breakout actors (Elizabeth Olsen and Michael Fassbender), supported by strong turns from powerful up-and-coming talents (John Hawkes and Carey Mulligan).
It almost feels like cheating to put this film on the list — especially so high up — considering that most of the work was done 30,000 years ago. Still, there’s one thing this movie has that’s entirely Werner Herzog’s work, and I feel like it’s the only reason I need for calling this one of the year’s greatest films: 3D.
Without hyperbole, this may well be the single greatest use and presentation of 3D technology in the history of cinema. I’ve seen a lot of movies that were enhanced by 3D presentation, but never before have I seen a film in which 3D was this fucking mandatory. With nothing but a skeleton crew of four technicians and a bare minimum of equipment, working within an impossibly dark and cramped space while standing on a narrow scaffold, Herzog and his team somehow managed to create a 3D film more spectacular than millions of Hollywood dollars could buy.
For the most part, Herzog made every effort to remove himself from the picture and not to make any socio-political point. This was a film made for the sole purpose of taking its audience into the magical hidden world of the Chauvet Cave, where only a handful of spelunkers have gone before. It was such an immersive and awe-inspiring journey, done with so little money and manpower, that I have no problem putting this film at #5.
I’m almost required by movie geek law to put this film somewhere on my list, and it’s not like I needed the encouragement. The opening car chase — which was so much smarter and more creative than just “go really fast” — was enough to warrant heavy consideration all by itself.
This was a thoroughly compelling neo-noir tale, powered by Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, and an airtight cast of other great actors giving inspired performances. Director Nicolas Winding Refn and his singular brand of ultra-violence deserve a lot of credit as well. The pacing was outstanding, the story was thrilling, and the theme of redemption was masterfully presented without being too blunt or cliche. From start to finish, it’s a film every bit as intelligent as it is entertaining, as creative as it is compelling.
3. Take Shelter
Yes, it’s another character study about a broken individual, but this one does a lot more to put us into the headspace of its lead character, to frightening results. The dream sequences in this movie are so damn terrifying that it’s easy to understand the protagonist’s paranoia, even after the dreams are long over.
The cinematography and effects in this movie are extraordinary, and the movie addresses such themes as paranoia and fear with a staggering degree of depth. The character development is superb, in large part because of heartbreaking performances by Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain (who’s another of this year’s great breakout stars).
2. The Artist
The cast is uniformly superlative and they all deliver staggering performances. The visuals are so gorgeous that they don’t even need color. The pacing is rock-solid, the score is outstanding, the strategic use of sound effects is remarkable, and the filmmakers’ work within the limitations of silent cinema is jaw-dropping. It may have been a very simple story with little new thematically to say, but the story was told so damn well that this movie shoots to #2 on my list for the strength of its presentation alone.
I really had to debate with myself about putting this film at #1. On the one hand, as much as I try not to use words like “flawless” or “perfect” in my reviews, there’s just no other way to describe some aspects of this film. When I say that the visuals are flawless, I mean that every single frame is literally so beautiful that it has no flaw. When I say that the cast is perfect, I mean that every individual actor is perfectly cast and their performances could not be improved upon.
What’s more — and I realize that I may be in the minority on this — the movie really spoke to me. I could plainly see and understand that this movie was Terrence Malik’s attempt to portray all the struggles, joys, losses, relationships, uncertainties, and insecurities of the human condition by using a single family as a metaphor for the entire human race. And Malik didn’t even stop there. He went so far as to put on a re-enactment of all history, clear from the Big Bang right up to the present day, just to ask “Where is God?”
On the other hand, I certainly won’t pretend to understand all of the movie’s visual metaphors or thematic points. Hell, I’m not 100 percent sure there’s anything to get at times. Additionally, there’s a lot to be said for such things as escapism, accessibility, and comic relief, of which this movie defiantly offers none.
When all is said and done, this is supposed to be an honest list that celebrates movies with ambition, creativity, intellectual merit, thematic depth, and technical filmmaking excellence. Based strictly on those criteria, there’s no other film this year that comes close. For better or worse, it’s my pick for the greatest film of 2011.