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The 25 Best Films of 2011

The 25 Best Films of 2011


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The auteurs had it in 2011, which delivered such a feast of fantastic domestic and international cinema that it's difficult to remember a year in which it was harder to compile a consensus Top 25. Nonetheless, best-of-year rankings wait for no critic, and our list is practically overflowing with films by young and old masters at the apex of their games, be it Terrence Malick's sumptuous spiritual odyssey The Tree of Life, Edward Yang's long-unreleased 1991 classic A Brighter Summer Day, or Abbas Kiarostami's formalist masterwork Certified Copy. Not that there weren't new faces making headway into the cinematic upper echelon, as Radu Muntean's gripping Tuesday, After Christmas and Asghar Farhadi's blistering A Separation (2010 and 2011 New York Film Festival alums about marital chaos, respectively) signaled the arrival of two major new voices who married aesthetic rigor with empathetic narrative complexity. The year's most heralded film that no one saw, Margaret, received scant support from Fox Searchlight, leading our own Jaime Christley to start a December petition for the studio to provide screenings and screeners for critics, but plenty of praise from those few fortunate enough to experience Kenneth Lonergan's epic drama. Many other small, powerful indies (In the Family, Tomboy, Extraordinary Stories) received a similarly undeserved unseen fate, further proving the need for more creative alternate means of new-release distribution. Yet even those with access only to the most marquee art-house offerings were blessed with strong new efforts from David Cronenberg (A Dangerous Method), Pedro Almodóvar (The Skin I Live In), and Martin Scorsese (Hugo). So bountiful was 2011 that it could even sustain a relative dearth of revelatory horror and documentary gems—though from the desolate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and barren Meek's Cutoff to the apocalyptic Take Shelter, there remained, throughout the year's many great films, no shortage of palpable real-world and existential dread. Nick Schager

Editor's Note: Click here for individual ballots and list of the films that came in 26—50.


Of Gods and Men

“Why is faith so bitter?” pleads one of the eight Trappist monks whose moral crisis animates this humanist drama of devout individuals valuing their lives through an increasingly firm refusal to make saving them a priority. When their contemplative life of prayer and self-sufficiency, along with service to Algerian mountain villagers who rely on them for scarce medical attention and new sneakers, comes under imminent threat of annihilation by a band of local terrorists, writer-director Xavier Beauvois doesn't render the men as martyrdom-ready saints. Mortal peril doesn't unhinge them, but is reconciled within the parameters of their religious identities and with the ideal of universal love implicit in their vows. Beauvois is careful to acknowledge the primary suffering of the Muslim population at the hands of the extremists, and the legacy of French colonialism in the monks' plight, not in guilt-ridden checklisting but as part of a tough, tender vision of an aspiration to healing grace. Of Gods and Men reaches an apex in a late sequence where the brothers share wine and a Tchaikovsky recording, having achieved a resolve that, in a montage of close-ups, shows an existential joy washing over fear. Bill Weber



Hugo, the tale of the titular boy (Asa Butterfield) in 1930s Paris who meets a forgotten but eventually legendary filmmaker, is Martin Scorsese's most beautiful and entrancing fictional film since his idiotically rejected Kundun. Of course, this film is catnip for cinephiles, as the filmmaker that Hugo encounters is eventually revealed to be Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the magician-turned-director who is said, with A Trip to the Moon, to have made the first science-fiction movie. Méliès's story is tied in nicely with Hugo's search for the missing part of his dead father's automaton, but Scorsese is clearly more concerned with staging a very thinly veiled plea for the kind of film preservation that he's been tirelessly championing all of his life. While that's undeniably important and resonant, Hugo touches on a broader truth of greater urgency: the rapid erosion of shared cultural heritage in a contemporary world that prizes disposable quips and sound bites above all else. For two hours, a master filmmaker restores hope in a seemingly endangered medium. Chuck Bowen


The Skin I Live In

Pedro Almodóvar's adaptation of Thierry Jonquet's novel Tarantula is his most emotionally thorny and complex melodrama since Bad Education. The film's layered narrative floats the idea that our bodies are, more often than not, the thin membrane that helps us to form our respective identities. If you puncture, reshape, or damage your bodies, we become monsters. Antonio Banderas's deranged plastic surgeon secretly experiments on a mysterious but alluring victim (Elena Anaya) in his enormous personal estate. And while he plays God, we watch, through a delicately balanced series of interwoven plot threads, as his life and the people who are most immediately affected by his actions fall apart. The Skin I Live In is a yo-yoing cycle of violence where characters struggle to become new people only for their lives fall apart again. The characters' tragic imperative to fix, to alter, and to recklessly right wrongs by affecting other people's bodies—Pedro really brings the pathos this time around. Simon Abrams


Extraordinary Stories

A 240-minute pick-up game between verbal and visual storytelling, Extraordinary Stories begins with a deal gone wrong, frustratingly captured in a static long shot on grainy low-def digital. From there, director Mariano Llinas devotes himself to repeatedly confounding expectations, and each unconventional move—whether it's conveying reams of story entirely through narration, torrents of language with which subtitles struggle to keep up, trapping a primary character alone in a hotel room for a good chunk of the story, or depicting the movie's most exciting scene through La Jetée-style still photos—provides the occasion for another nifty bit of sleight of hand, another dazzling escape from a complicated situation. The result is a kind of small masterpiece that also feels warmly overstuffed, bursting with ideas and concepts, an addictive film so full of stories and life that it feels like it could go on forever. Jesse Cataldo


The Time That Remains

Everything is a complex allegory enacted by the simplest of all setups in Elia Suleiman's film about Palestinians living as aliens in their own territory. Although structured similarly to Jacques Tati's deadpan tableaux and comedy sketches, The Time That Remains's is a humor more rooted in the acerbic simplicity of popular jokes, that spring up organically as emblems of a culture, than anything cinema has carefully crafted. Like the ones told by the old, mustachioed, wife beater-wearing neighbor in the film who stops by every once in a while to repeat a short anecdote, whenever he's not unsuccessfully setting himself on fire. Neighbors, in fact, play a large role in the film, coming and going in one another's homes in a tellingly unceremonious laissez-passer. They are more like functions than actual people, their presences triggering not much more than collective neurasthenia. Beyond its socio-political gravitas, The Time That Remains works so beautifully just as a series of poetic motifs: two men go fishing at night (completely unaffected by lazy calls from guards for identification); a woman writes a letter about yearning to see the clean streets of Amman; a child gets scolded for calling America imperialistic; a school teacher blocks a film projector as it shows a scene of passionate heterosexual kissing (“Girls, he is like a brother to her!”). Diego Costa


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The best episode of Mad Men never made, Tomas Alfredson's smoke-and-beige-lacquered film of John Le Carre's 1974 novel doesn't just focus on Well-Dressed Overgrown Boys, it also locates much of the same sense of proportion, and down-is-up layering of priorities, that underwrites the belief structure of each world. Me before you, ego before country, secrecy before loyalty, bureaucracy and shitty vindictiveness above all. In a deliciously rendered husk of post-imperial Great Britain, Alfredson performs the miracle of transforming Le Carre's prose—aggressively obfuscatory when it's not quietly purple—into a tapestry of fragments, half-heard conversations, and indelible details. Almost every actor in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is cast against type (Gary Oldman the church mouse, Tom Hardy a mop-topped ragamuffin, Mark Strong a largely decent fellow with a slight case of soul-sickness), but nobody is denied their moment in the sun. Jaime N. Christley


Meek’s Cutoff

After stripping and reassembling the male-bonding journey movie with Old Joy and the neo-realist weepie with Wendy and Lucy, Kelly Reichardt set her sights this year on the western, perhaps the hoariest and most loaded of American genres. In Meek's Cutoff, her barebones approach is impressively realistic, imagining a cross-country journey through arid, featureless Eastern Oregon as an exercise in numbing frustration, an approach that more importantly lays the groundwork for the film's core gender conflict. Preserving the mystical status of the Old West as a place for allegorical fables and origin stories, she shapes this dusty journey into a parable of feminist agency. The westbound wagons of Meek's Cutoff represent not only the creeping vines of a still-growing nation, but the occasion for one woman's development, as Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) progresses from dissatisfied frontier wife to rifle-wielding voice of reason, a welcome corrective to decades of decisive, bravely trailblazing male heroes. Cataldo


Leap Year

The perversions that take shape when nobody is watching pervades Leap Year, Michael Rowe's perfectly concise film about an ordinary woman (Monica del Carmen) alone in her apartment in Mexico City. She spends her time eating canned noodles, picking her nose, staring at the walls or at the neighbors, sometimes masturbating to their most banal gestures of intimacy, and, most symptomatically, having sex with strangers who always leave too soon. The rituals, the repetitions, the horror of solitude, as well as the ridiculous fantasies that it harbors—she could be Jeanne Dielman if she charged for her body, or a New Yorker with a Craigslist account. Del Carmen's realistic portrayal of a seemingly ordinary woman with supposedly extraordinary needs exposes the massive chasm between the performance of everyday life and the existential agony that underpins it. Leap Year is also an astute rumination on Latin American temporality and kinship. Here, time is tracked by whether or not one has already had lunch or dinner, and the family both haunts and suffocates even when, or especially when, it's the least physically present. Costa


A Dangerous Method

For all the repression and freaky sexuality and obsession and caning Keira Knightley across the ass, A Dangerous Method might be David Cronenberg's sunniest take on the question of “the new flesh” in all the 40-odd years he's been contemplating it. Mildly heartbreaking that it should also seem to look forward to two World Wars. It's also the case that Cronenberg hijacks very proper and very dry prestige material and, in the very act of giving said material the deluxe, clean-lined, hi-fi treatment, finds what may be Patient Zero of all the perversions and blasphemies to come, right in the fabric of the film. It begins with Michael Fassbender's faithful husband and good doctor Carl Jung applying the “talking cure” to Knightley's hysterical Sabina Spielrein, who seems beyond help. With perverse precision and spotless period detail, Cronenberg performs the talking cure on his own film at the same time as Jung performs his, unraveling and redeeming the 20th century even as it's only getting just started. Christley


El Sicario, Room 164

El Sicario, Room 164, one of the most revealing and shocking documentaries ever made about the drug trade, is mostly a series of fixed shots of a masked man talking to a camera. The sicario's story is a familiar, eerily three-act rise-and-fall crime saga: A young poor child is seduced by a Mexican's cartel's vast power and gradually evolves from performing petty errands and crimes to kidnapping and torturing people for maddeningly vague reasons. Eventually tiring of the lifestyle's accompanying drug abuse and alcoholism, the assassin becomes a pariah in danger of winding up on the wrong end of a gun himself. There are haunting, inventive touches that quietly speak to the matter-of-factness of his dehumanization: The former killer sketches accompanying images on a pad while talking, and he occasionally rises from his chair to pantomime some of his more outrageous acts. These simple gestures, which speak of the effectiveness of elegantly pared filmmaking, suggest a truth, and a disturbing empathy, that more enraged, self-righteous documentaries rarely manage: the terrifyingly casual roots of evil. Bowen



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