Let’s be honest: 2011 was not an easy year in the world. It annoys me to no end that the awards season we are in the midst of is almost wholly rewarding escapist, whimsical or stunning conventional fare that do not really say much of anything about the world we’re living in. Yes, you might say escapism is one of cinema’s greatest attributes. But for me, I want my movies to tell me something about my own existence. Not take me out of it.
It’s an obvious disclaimer that film is a highly subjective medium and that the onslaught of top 10 lists we’re all in the midst of clearly reflects that. How one views and potentially enjoys a film is largely based on their own personalities, their tastes, or even their frame of mind upon seeing it. I would never suggest the top 10 I’ve listed here are the best films of 2011. They’re just my best.
So how did my best boil down when I look back at the films I enjoyed the most in 2011? “Enjoy” is perhaps not the most appropriate word. My top 10 list is unintentionally a bit grim: Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In,” Clio Barnard’s “The Arbor”…. More often than not, the films are led by solitary, lonely and generally fucked up protagonists in the midst of self-destruction. And while this all suggests I’m some sort of masochist, ’tis not the case: I love these films not because I related to their characters or took pleasure in watching them self-destruct. I loved them because they were collectively the most affecting cinematic experiences of my 2011.
For me, the key to a cinematic experience is indeed affect, and most definitely not in a manipulative or overly sentimental manner. I want a film to surprise me. I want it to challenge my own worldview. I want it to make me feel.
I resisted the alleged charms of likely Oscar favorites like “The Artist,” “Hugo,” “The Descendants” and “Midnight in Paris.” The former two are certainly accomplished odes to Hollywood’s past, and I appreciated them in many ways… but didn’t really feel them (I also found them overwhelmingly boring). The latter two? Overrated, irritating odes to first world problems that left me cold – and confused as to why everyone around me seemed to have enjoyed themselves so much. And don’t even get me started on “War Horse” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” – which define the manipulative/overly sentimental trajectory.
From the end of the world and drastic sex addiction to sadistic cults and sociopathic children, the 7 films I’ve already noted from my top 10 make the problems the folks in “The Descendants” and “Midnight in Paris” are going through seem like a field day. And they are joined by a trio of films that while equally affecting can’t be grouped in with the others.
Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend” stands apart from my entire list as a gay ray of optimistic sunshine (though it’s quiet optimism – exactly how I like it). Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and Michelangelo Frammartino’s “Le Quattro Volte,” meanwhile, stand together as profoundly cinematic, remarkably ambitious takes on existence altogether (and note that the wordless “Volte” has my vote for the best silent film of the year). The three of them do share a quality in that they are the only films on this list that made me cry. And unlike when I resentfully bawled during the last 20 minutes of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” I never saw it coming.
For what it’s worth, my top 10 films of 2011:
2. We Need To Talk About Kevin
4. Le Quattro Volte
5. The Tree of Life
8. Martha Marcy May Marlene
9. The Skin I Live In
10. The Arbor
Very Honorable Mentions (in order of preference): Certified Copy, Pina, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Terri, Attack The Block, Beginners, Take Shelter, A Dangerous Method and Bridesmaids
Note: I regretfully did not see A Separation, The Interrupters, Mysteries of Lisbon, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Margaret.