In an age when being first threatens to preclude being best, film criticism struggles like everything else to serve a purpose without pandering to the need to grab eyeballs. The heap of reviews I've written over the last 12 months, often under the extreme deadline pressures of film festivals, aren't impervious to this danger. However, looking back on the most popular reviews from 2011, it's a relief to see that most of them genuinely managed to launch conversations. Whether they delighted or angered readers, the dialogue never started or ended with the grade. Here are the top 10 that made the cut.
"This Must Be the Place" Excites the Right
With close to 180 comments, Paulo Sorretino's English-language debut "This Must Be the Place" was Indiewire's most popular review of the year, if not for the best reason. A single link on the Drudge Report, celebrating that liberal activist Sean Penn starred in a movie that had received a lowly D+, invited a stream of neoconservative hate comments.
Part of the 2011 Cannes competition slate, the film screened late in the festival, and it was easy to see why: As an aging goth rocker searching for the Nazi who tortured his father, Penn awkwardly stumbled into a campy role in a movie even more lost than he was. But "This Must Be the Place," eventually picked up for U.S. distribution by the Weinstein Company ahead of its Sundance premiere next month, attracted the wrong kind of derision from the right. Its failings are apolitical.
"Sleeping Beauty" Arouses Curiosity
Of course, any movie with a nude young starlet is bound attract attention from various horny corners of the web. But few of them involve such a bizarre, mysterious premise: Novelist Julia Leigh's directorial debut, which landed the opening competition slot at Cannes, starred Emily Browning in a boldly revealing role: She played a young woman drawn into an unnerving gig in which impotent men toss her nude body around while she slumbers away.
Cannes response was lukewarm, but a few passionate defenders stood up for the hypnotic approach that Leigh brought to her vision of sexual longing. Still, commenters had a hard time buying it. "What's with the girl actresses who play cute, innocent characters and then suddenly want to play sexual deviants?" one asked. "Is it a Freudian thing?" That alone proves how "Sleeping Beauty" invites deconstructive analysis even from people unwilling to give it a shot.
"Grave Encounters" Pan Divides Audiences
A cheap "Blair Witch" rip-off that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, "Grave Encounters" seemed destined to sink fast to the bottom of the bargain bin. I found the plot--in which some smarmy reality show producers try to make a paranormal activity show and get trapped in a mental asylum--annoyingly derivative from start to finish. Surprisingly, however, the movie's limited New York run and VOD life invited some passionate defenses.
"This movie made me spaz so hard that I punched myself in the balls not once, but twice," a fan wrote. "So, in my balls' opinion, this movie was scary as hell." Exactly: "Grave Encounters" is a movie for people with the intellectual capacity of testicles.
"Melancholia" Proves Von Trier's Movies Are More Popular Than He Is
The flipside of Lars von Trier's infamous "I'm a Nazi" comments during a press conference at Cannes this year was that it widened his exposure more than ever before, and that included attention brought to "Melancholia," one of his best achievements in a consistently provocative career. Despite some speculation that U.S. distributor Magnolia might face an uphill battle with the movie's release, "Melancholia" was a bonafide indie hit, the most deserving moneymaker of the year. It's an abstract masterpiece about the end of the world, but its emotional depth isn't science fiction.
"Human Centipede Part II: Full Sequence": So Appalling You Can't Look Away
Look, if "The Human Centipede" isn't your thing, obviously the sequel won't change your mind. But for those who found the unabashedly silly and supremely gross extremes of the first movie inherently amusing, or those surprised that director Tom Six can actually tell a story while shocking his audiences, "Part II" does not disappoint.
Then again, both "Human Centipede" movies are less appealing than the culture of camp obsession they excite, and there was simply nothing like the "human centi-pig" feast prepared for patrons at Austin's Alamo Drafthouse for the movie's world premiere at Fantastic Fest.
"The Tree of Life" Begins Its Beguiling Journey
Terrence Malick's experimental look at a Texan family through the ages--well, that's the simplest way of putting it, anyway--seemed to divide audiences at Cannes, especially the ones who infamously booed after the first press screening. However, the recent spate of critics' polls have brought "Tree of Life" back into the conversation as a true accomplishment of cinematic lyricism, and possibly the apex of the elusive Malick's career. From the beginning, however, many people were curious about "Tree of Life" since its cryptic trailer provided few answers to questions about the movie's real concerns. As it turns out, the movie didn't, either. It's the big-screen puzzler of the year.
"Drive" Puts Ryan Gosling In the Fast Lane
"It's a pedal to the metal mean machine," wrote a commenter on my review of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's crowdpleasing genre exercise. That's basically the essence of it: Refn has been gearing up for a pure stylistic indulgence along the lines of this gleeful '80s pastiche for the last few years, and held nothing back. Meanwhile, Ryan Gosling's turn as a badass getaway car driver proves that he'll never have to pander to Hollywood by wearing superhero tights.
"The Skin I Live In"
Pedro Almodóvar returns to the surreal, oddly visceral style that put him on the map over 20 years ago. "The Skin I Live In" isn't his best work, but it has plenty of entertainment value for fans of that earlier stage. The movie's solid reception at Cannes, followed by a healthy life at the box office, proves that the Spanish director's cult appeal has lost none of its arthouse momentum.
A lot of people were blown away by this metaphysical science fiction tale from first-time director Mike Cahill when it premiered at Sundance in January. I wasn't among them, but the enthusiasm was enough for Fox Searchlight to make an unorthodox movie by picking up the microbudget movie at the festival. The gamble didn't pay off for the distributor, but it did help put Cahill and star Brit Marling on the map.
The directorial debut of German casting director Markus Schleinzer showed up in competition at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year as a total question mark. Nobody could have guessed that it centered on a pedophile (Michael Fuith) who keeps a child (David Rauchenberger) locked in his basement. Alternately harrowing and uncomfortably funny, "Michael" divided audiences and will continue to have that impact next year, but those willing to spend time with Schleinzer's troubled antihero will discover one of the more fascinating character studies to come along in years.