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Moveable feasts: the top 10 films of 2011

Published: January 20, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

A confession: I love making lists. If there’s downtime in class, I’ll make chronological lists of the American presidents, British monarchs and novels of William Faulkner. My desk always features at least one to-do list, while my laptop houses lists of all the books and films I’ve seen since beginning college.

Consequently, when I became an editor in January 2010, the first thing I did was draft a top 10 films list, copying the annual rite of passage staged by all my favorite film writers. There’s something so appealing about making sense of a given year in cinema, even if the very project of ranking art is silly—looking at my own list, how do you compare the raucous “Bridesmaids” to the meditative “The Tree of Life,” the thoroughly adult “Melancholia” to the kid-targeted “Tintin”? You can’t—but that doesn’t mean you can’t try.

I approached the 2011 list with a bit of trepidation, as I felt fewer films than usual appealed to me. Yes, there were a number that I liked and respected, but few inspired love at first sight—nothing like the slick intelligence of David Fincher’s “The Social Network” or the gonzo psychodrama of Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.” In saying that, the respect I feel for the 10 films I’ve assembled has almost universally transformed into love, particularly in regard to my top pick, which I’ve watched several times since its release.

Of course, there are films I wish I had room to include, and I’m sure that if I were to draft this list another day some new films would appear and others currently on the list would become also-rans. There are also the films I did not get a chance to see, owing to the nature of release schedules for more independent fare and the fact that—alas!—no one pays me to see movies.

1. “The Tree of Life”

Director Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is the rare film that’s both epic and intensely intimate, coupling the story of a family in 1950s Waco with scenes depicting the earth’s creation. The film thrives in this contrast between the emotional immensity of human experience and the physical largeness of the universe. “Where were you?” the family’s spiritual mother (a radiant Jessica Chastain) asks God after one of her sons dies, and the film answers by presenting life, swathed in Malick’s painterly, evocative images, as one whole religious experience.

2. “Drive”

In contrast to Malick, director Nicolas Winding Refn imbues his “Drive” with a stylized verve as he presents the story of a Hollywood stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who moonlights as a getaway driver, a job that gets him into trouble when one heist goes awry. Our unnamed, psychotic hero’s main antagonist is a former producer of ’80s action flicks—“One critic called them European,” he says—and “Drive” proudly flaunts its genre influences, coupling omnipresent neon lighting with a pulsing, synth-heavy soundtrack.

3. “Certified Copy”

When Juliette Binoche offers to show William Shimell around a small Tuscan village in “Certified Copy,” their blatant singleness and the film’s sun-kissed lensing immediately suggest that this will be a conventional art-house romance. Thankfully, director Abbas Kiarostami subverts that expectation, as he’s more interested in exploring how all things in life and art are simply certified copies of something in the distant past. Though Binoche and Shimell’s characters have just met, they begin telling others they’ve been married for 15 years and quickly invent a backstory—hotels visited, hearts broken—that leaves you wondering which version of them is authentic and which is fake, and whether that even matters.

4. “Bridesmaids”

The Judd Apatow School, as some have dubbed the recent wave of raunchy-funny-films-with-hearts-of-gold, has produced some funny films in the last six years. None has been as singular and hilarious as “Bridesmaids,” a fantastic exploration of a woman on the edge, with poop thrown in for good measure. The scene in which bridesmaid Annie (Kristen Wiig) engages in a toasting duel with fellow bridesmaid Helen (Rose Byrne) at an engagement party remains one of the most uncomfortable scenes committed to film in recent memory.

5. “Meek’s Cutoff”

Director Kelly Reichardt explores the limits of human physical and mental endurance in her latest film, an Oregon Trail story which features sparse dialogue and even more sparsely vegetated vistas. Michelle Williams stars as a frontier wife who ultimately takes command of a wagon train lost in the Oregon scrub desert and decides to place her faith in a captured Native American who may want them dead.

6. “Midnight in Paris”

Woody Allen’s latest feature brings 1920s Paris to full, vibrant life—Hemingway, Dali and the Fitzgeralds all put in appearances. Despite Allen’s clear reverence for the period, the film never falls victim to the uncritical nostalgia that plagues its characters.

7. “Beginners”

Director Mike Mills meditates on love in his sophomore feature, which finds Ewan McGregor playing a man coming to grips both with his own inability to commit and his 75-year-old father’s coming out of the closet. Though the film features a dog who communicates via subtitles, it never succumbs to emotional shallowness or preciousness.

8. “Melancholia”

Of today’s filmmakers, only Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier could have gotten away with staging a filmic apocalypse as a metaphor for his own battle with crippling depression. Kirsten Dunst gives a defining performance as a bride consumed by her personal and societal demons yet perfectly content with the imminent destruction of Earth.

9. “The Adventures of Tintin”

Steven Spielberg’s last film, the fourth installment in the “Indiana Jones” series, proved to be the opposite of a good adventure film, which is usually plodding, cheesy and often nonsensical. Luckily, his adaptation of the Belgian artist Herge’s Tintin series is quite the opposite, providing a sense of real wonder and discovery missing from too many films. Roving boy reporter Tintin and his canine sidekick Snowy are worthy successors to Indy in the Spielberg canon.

10. “Moneyball”

Despite its focus on sports and statistics, director Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” proves addictive viewing even for those unaccustomed to dealing in either subject. Brad Pitt, who also wowed in “The Tree of Life,” stars as a former baseball player trying to prove his worth as the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, and he’s aided in that quest by Miller’s unfussy direction and a crackling script by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian.