Since December 1, Ben Sachs and I have been counting down our favorite films of 2011 on the Bleader, posting on alternate days, in a game attempt attempt to enliven one stale journalistic gimmick (the top-ten list) by combining it with another (the TV-style tag team). Consider this a precis of the longer write-ups that can be found collected online, along with video clips and links to long-form reviews. —J.R. Jones
1. Of Gods and Men Written and directed by Xavier Beauvois, this stately and moving French drama tells the true story of Trappist monks ministering to poor Muslim villagers amid the Algerian civil war of the 1990s. As mujahideen close in on the monastery, targeting its medical supplies and other resources, the holy men confront the horrible possibility of martyrdom but resolve not to desert their flock. “Often, throughout my life, I’ve wondered how God could act so strangely,” says one of the religious texts they hear read aloud at their rustic dinner. “Why does he stay silent so long? Why is faith so bitter?” Bitter indeed—seven of the monks on which the movie is based were kidnapped, held captive for nearly three months, and finally killed in May 1996. Beauvois reaches deep into the men’s hearts, especially in his slow pan across their painful last supper at the monastery: powerfully moved by a radio broadcast of Swan Lake (the first and only music on the soundtrack), the monks sit silently, coming to grips with death.
2. Bridesmaids Producer Judd Apatow has argued that there should be a separate Oscar category for comedy, and he’s probably right: precious few comedies have ever won Best Picture (the last was Annie Hall in 1977), and only one flat-out farce can claim the honor (Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You in 1938). Having written and directed a string of thoughtful sidesplitters himself (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People), Apatow served as midwife to Kristen Wiig, the hugely talented Saturday Night Live player, to deliver Bridesmaids, and it’s a genuine original. Directed by Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks) from a script by Wiig and Annie Mumalo, the movie manages to reconcile those two most antithetical of movie forces—female friendships and knockabout comedy.
3. The Tree of Life No film this year inspired more debate than Terrence Malick’s epic drama about two fathers: an angry middle-class man in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s (played with great compassion and restraint by Brad Pitt) and God Almighty (evoked in staggering optical-effect sequences by Douglas Trumbull, who made his name with 2001: A Space Odyssey). Malick caught plenty of flack for his astronomical and geological visions, but they provide a sharply naturalistic context for the gripping, largely unspoken drama that plays out in Waco between the tight-lipped everyman, his ethereal wife (Jessica Chastain), and his rebellious, intently watchful son (Hunter McCracken). A frankly religious movie, The Tree of Life is obsessional filmmaking at its finest, and a reminder of how few American directors are inclined to tackle the great questions of existence.
4. Terri This wonderfully eccentric comedy from New York independent Azazel Jacobs stars newcomer Jasob Wysocki as a giant obese kid in junior high hounded in junior high and John C. Reilly as the misfit vice principal who tries to help him out. Reilly has enlivened an impressive number of small, idiosyncratic projects like this one, and his performance here is hilarious: he’s located the character in the bursts of shouting he uses to do his job and the warped sense of humor he needs to deal with the weird kids sent his way.
5. Tabloid Errol Morris’s documentary tells the outlandish true story of a North Carolina beauty queen who traveled to the UK in the late 70s and allegedly kidnapped her Mormon boyfriend, who testified that she had manacled him to a bed. The British tabloids had a field day with the story, and Morris captures a fundamental truth about the scandal-rag business—what sells papers isn’t only the tawdriness of the story but the human emotion involved.
6. Client-9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer The brilliant muckraking director Alex Gibney goes beyond the screaming headlines of the prostitution scandal that brought down the New York governor. The movie recounts Spitzer’s fierce crusade against Wall Street as attorney general, speculating that the FBI targeted the governor for political reasons, yet Gibney also closely questions Spitzer himself, less a man than a maze of political idealism, professional ruthlessness, and spiritual crisis.
7. The Elephant in the Living Room Documentary maker Michael Webber spotlights a scandal that periodically turns up on local newscasts but then disappears from public consciousness: private ownership of dangerous exotic animals in the United States. This gripping film centers on the rising conflict between two men: an intrepid public safety officer in Ohio, and a disabled and depressed ex-truck driver whose weepy solicitude for his pet lions leads to tragedy.
8. The Wise Kids Local filmmaker Stephen Cone takes a quantum leap with this moving story about physical and spiritual longing in a Christian youth group in small-town South Carolina. The movie opened this year’s gay-lesbian film festival, but it’s distinguishable from most gay films—in fact, most films, period—in its respect for religious devotion. The lovely closing scene, of characters dressed as angels for a nighttime Christmas ceremony, is presented without a trace of irony.
9. Beautiful Boy A great movie can take you someplace you’ve never been before, even if it’s someplace you don’t particularly want to go. In this debut feature writer-director Shawn Ku recounts in minute and surely observed detail the agony of a professional couple (Maria Bello and Michael Sheen), preparing to separate after two decades of marriage, after their only son kills 16 people and then takes his own life in a college shooting rampage.
10. Margin Call Roughly an hour into this debut feature by J.C. Chandor, two high-ranking executives at a global investment firm (Demi Moore, Simon Baker) share an elevator with a late-night cleaning woman and her janitorial cart. The woman stares ahead politely as the execs speak over her head, debating who will take the rap for the financial debacle that’s about to take down their firm and the U.S. economy. To these two snakes, the cleaning woman doesn’t even exist. Could there be a more potent image for 2011?
1. Aurora The third feature of Romanian director Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), this hypnotic hyperrealist account of a blank-faced man killing four people in cold blood over 36 hours is both an urgent work of art and a formalist breakthrough: without deceiving the audience, it presents everything about its characters but manages to explain nothing. In the Internet age we run the risk of confusing information with knowledge, of accumulating facts without synthesizing them into a system of ethics. Puiu makes this crisis the foundation of Aurora, saturating the viewer in detail but denying him any emotional connection to what he sees. In doing so, he articulates like few other artists what our present culture stands to lose.
2. Secret Sunshine With his latest two features, South Korean director Lee Chang-dong has established himself as one of the cinema’s leading humanists. I prefer Secret Sunshine (2007), which received a belated theatrical release in January, to Poetry (2010), which opened in the spring, but they’re both challenging, involving, and deeply felt epics about what used to be called the human condition. Though they’re filled with traumatic episodes, I wouldn’t call either one upsetting: Lee has developed a patient, philosophical style, looking through the immediate impact of a scene to ponder what it teaches about human nature.
3. Film Socialisme Jean-Luc Godard’s most energized movie since the 80s may also be his most optimistic ever. Reader contributor Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has argued that the final title, “no comment,” represents Godard relinquishing his status as author and encouraging his audience to find meaning—and art—where they see it. For all the dialogue and dense imagery, the movie is straightforward in its exaltation of youth, as seen in the form of a wisecracking eight-year-old and such new modes of visual storytelling as YouTube and cell phones.
4. Goodbye, First Love A fluid, sensitive depiction of the loss of innocence, this French drama by Mia Hansen-Løve depicts the relationship between two teenage lovers both during their romance and in the decade afterwards. Hansen-Løve is a born filmmaker: in her work, every cinematic device feels tied to a distinct emotional response.
5. Poetry See number 2.
6. The Strange Case of Angelica This lighthearted—but by no means lightweight—fantasy was Manoel de Oliveira’s most substantial film since A Talking Picture (2003). A moving allegory about cinema, it tells of a young man who finds himself able to communicate with the dead by looking through the lens of his camera. The movie is the work of a man at peace: every image is simple, harmonious, and essential.
7. Detective Dee & the Mystery of the Phantom Flame How many live-action filmmakers would depict a venerated spiritual adviser as a talking deer, or reveal said deer to be a martial arts expert? With this martial arts epic, Hong Kong master Tsui Hark teaches us that good movies don’t have to make sense—provided they’re written, designed, and choreographed with imagination and good cheer.
8. Target Set in a parallel-universe Moscow in the year 2020, this philosophical SF epic by Alexander Zeldovich follows six aristocratic friends who receive the gift of eternal youth, then pursue wild, destructive love affairs and go mad. The film is up-front about its heady ambitions—characters discuss the nature of happiness and whether enduring romantic love really exists—yet the style is an operatic fusion of action filmmaking, melodrama, special effects, and elaborate slapstick.
9. 13 Assassins One of his most sustained efforts of Takashi Miike, the greatest working genre director, this samurai extravaganza is divided into two movements, a slow-building drama of political intrigue followed by a full hour of samurai combat. This distinctive structure brings together two modes of filmmaking—one based on quietude and careful compositions, the other on spontaneous movement and a rich, shifting mise-en-scéne—into something like an action symphony.
10. And Everything Is Going Fine Steven Soderbergh’s documentary about the actor and monologist Spalding Gray is one of the director’s most impressive formal achievements, presenting a chronological history of Gray’s life with nothing but preexisting footage. It’s a staggering feat of editing, yet it always proceeds fluidly from digression to digression, just like one of Gray’s own monologues.
Unanimous: Paul and Sandra Ferlinger’s My Dog Tulip, an affecting adaptation of J.R. Ackerly’s 1956 memoir about his beloved German shepherd.
Unanimous: Clint Eastwood’s ambitious J. Edgar, the story of a malign soul who changed the nation.
Jones: After Bridesmaids and Terri, Jonathan Levine’s 50/50, an unlikely story of friendship and brotherhood amid the death sentence of cancer. Sachs: Spencer Susser’s Hesher, an absurd and inventively shot send-up of suburban malaise.
Sachs: Huang Weikei’s Disorder, a funny, horrific portrait of modern China that’s also a fine piece of experimental video art. Jones: Patrizio Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light, a majestic essay film that links the filmmaker’s fascination with astronomy to his lifelong chronicling of the Chilean coup.
Jones: Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a staggering visual reimagining of a 70s cheeseball classic. Sachs: Duncan Jones’s ingenious Source Code, in which an Iraq war veteran is repeatedly sent back in time to foil a terrorist bombing.
Sachs: Giuseppe Capotondi’s The Double Hour, the rare metaphysical puzzle movie that also succeeds as a mystery. Jones: Sean Durkin’s fiendishly quiet debut film Martha Marcy May Marlene, about a young woman in hiding from her sinister backwoods cult.
Jones: At Gene Siskel Film Center, Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (1957), a priceless document of addiction and despair in New York City. Sachs: Also at Film Center, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Hands Up! (1967-81), the Guernica of political filmmaking.
Most Overrated Film of 2011
Sachs: Mike Mills’s Beginners, a sweet but terminally self-regarding piece of autobiographical fiction. Jones: Nicholas Winding Refn’s 70s car-action retread Drive, though it definitely had the year’s best head explosion (Christina Hendricks getting blown away in a hotel bathroom).