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TOH! Top Tens of 2011

TOH! Top Tens of 2011

While I shared my top ten on Oscar Talk Friday, here’s the actual list, plus an assemblage of ten bests from the TOH! gang of regulars. Like most ten-best listmakers, we range from well-reviewed smart indie fare to mainstream studio pictures to the arcane. The year was strong for docs and foreign films, so I include my top five of both; in a rare departure, no animated film made my ten best this year.

Anne Thompson:

1. “Pina” – Wim Wenders

A master filmmaker returns to form by getting out of his own way with a controlled yet delirious use of spatially inventive 3-D cinematography, in studio and on location, in the service of honoring the memory of great modern dancer Pina Bausch via her surviving dance troupe. You have never seen anything like this dramatic and vibrant combo of technology, music, dance, documentary, and eulogy.

2. “Weekend” – Andrew Haigh

British writer-director Haigh’s perfectly swell gay romance is about a closeted gay man (Tom Cullen) passing for straight who picks up a man in a bar (Chris New) and takes him home. This deceptively simple love story is stripped-bare honest, exquisitely written and directed in a naturalistic, hand-held style on a shoestring. It’s heartbreaking.

3. “Melancholia” – Lars von Trier

One of the Danish filmmaker’s best films, “Melancholia” is up there with “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark.” Visually sumptuous and witty, accessible and atmospheric, the movie opens with yet another stunning surrealistic prologue, accompanied by Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” and moves on to Kirsten Dunst‘s wacky castle wedding, a mesmerizing dose of severe depression and the coming apocalypse. The movie was looking good to win the Cannes Palme d’Or– until Trier capsized himself.

4. “The Descendants” – Alexander Payne

This funny-sad movie is harder to pull off than it looks. Payne often opts for restraint when others would overplay a big moment by hitting it on the head. Yet he still earns real emotion, thanks in great part to George Clooney, with his strongest performance to date, leading a well-cast ensemble. You care for this Hawaiian family, who get to say great lines like “paradise can go fuck itself.”

5. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” – Rupert Wyatt

This is not another cynical cookie-cutter sequel or remake. Married producer-writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver’s emotional family drama reinvents the origin myth of the “Planet of the Ape” movies that came before. Made smarter by “Avatar”‘s Weta performance capture DNA, Wyatt’s prequel knocks all the other versions out of the water–without 3-D. You’ve never seen anything like these sentient apes–and Andy Serkis deserves a supporting actor nod as the film’s charismatic, moving anti-hero, Caesar.

6. “I Saw the Devil” –  Kim Jee-Woon

Kim is a smart visually canny Korean filmmaker with a sharp sense of humor who adeptly plays with genres, from his sixth film, the wacky Oriental western hit “The Good, The Bad, and the Weird” to the serial killer thriller “I Saw the Devil,” which also features “Good Bad Weird” star Lee Byung-hun. He plays a homicide detective on the hunt for an insane serial killer who wacked his pregnant wife– in an unforgettable opening sequence. Kim takes violence about as far as anyone ever has–but he’s working out ideas; this vengeance plot, with all its evil and gore, is in the service of art.

7. “A Dangerous Method” – David Cronenberg

In this provocative period biopic, Cronenberg and writer Christopher Hampton conduct a brainy examination of the intense relationships between the pioneers of psychoanalysis, elder Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and younger acolyte Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and two well-educated but neurotic patients (Keira Knightley, Vincent Cassell) who challenge their ideas about sexuality and societal constraints. Only Cronenberg delivers talk cinema this kinky.

8. “Jane Eyre” – Cary Fukunaga

Cary Fukunaga’s subtly elegant period drama is the best of a long line of adaptations of Charlotte Bronte’s romantic classic (adapted here by Moira Buffini). Mia Wasikowska is pitch-perfect as the clear-eyed, lonely, self-reliant orphan governess who falls in love with mercurial employer Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender in yet another masterful 2011 performance). She saves him, is the point.

9.  “Win Win” – Tom McCarthy

This serious family drama is that rare bird: an R-rated original script backed by a studio (Fox Searchlight) about everyday people in suburbia. McCarthy pulled superb performances from an ensemble led by Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan as a New Jersey couple trying to cope with financial stress and the arrival of a teenager on their doorstep (star wrestler Alex Shaffer) whose mom (Melanie Lynskey) eventually turns up fresh out of drug rehab. It would be a pity if this Sundance launch got buried by all the year-end noise.

10. “Take Shelter” – Jeff Nichols

At Cannes, this movie hit me harder than “The Tree of Life,” which felt inflated, overwrought and ambitious, as though Terrence Malick was trying too hard to make a Big Movie. Writer-director Nichols, working on a much smaller canvas, shows a man (Michael Shannon) and his wife (Jessica Chastain) facing the anxiety and uncertainty of an approaching storm that threatens their sanity and future. It captures the global zeitgeist better than any other film this year.

More must-sees just off the bottom of that list: “Moneyball,” “The Artist,” “Coriolanus,” “Contagion,””Drive,” “Hugo,” “Meek’s Cutoff,” “Rampart,” “Warrior,” “Margin Call,” “Beginners,” “We Need to Talk About Kevin,””The Guard,” ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Attack the Block,” “The Tree of Life,” “J. Edgar,” “Tyrannosaur,” “The Future,” and “The Myth of the American Sleepover.”

Best Foreign Films
1. “I Saw the Devil” – Kim Jee Woon
2. “A Separation” – Asghar Farhadi
3. “Kid with a Bike” – The Dardennes
4. “Le Havre” – Aki Kaurismaki
5. “Declaration of War” – Valerie Donzelli

Best Documentaries
1. “Pina” – Wim Wenders
2. “Nostalgia for the Light” – Patricio Guzman
3. “Senna” – Asif Kapadia
4. “The Interrupters” – Steve James
5. “Tabloid” – Errol Morris

Sophia Savage: My top ten theatrical releases in 2011 share some common themes. I’ve seen each twice (except #10), and  intend on having a triple-feature screening of my top three. Their temperature is so à propos: each is so intimate while dealing with enormous concepts. Four and five both look at masculinity and violence (among other things), and, again, while the stories stay intimate, the films make insightful statements about our global dis-ease. Six is the feel-good movie of the bunch, the perfect mixture of sincere storytelling and mainstream appeal. It seems fitting that its underlying theme is about the value we place on ourselves vs. the value others place on us. Seven is the ballsiest, and it knows it (that’s why it’s so good). Eight wins the gold for balancing delight and depression. Nine is so charming you almost forget how clever it is, and ten is a knockout you won’t soon recover from.

1. “The Tree of Life” – Terrence Malick
2. “Melancholia” – Lars von Trier
3. “Take Shelter” – Jeff Nichols
4. “In A Better World” – Susanne Bier
5. “Poetry” – Chang-dong Lee
6. “Moneyball” – Bennett Miller
7. “Drive” – Nicolas Winding Refn
8. “Beginners” – Mike Mills
9. “Certified Copy” – Abbas Kiarostami
10. “Shame” – Steve McQueen

Matt Brennan
1. “The Tree of Life” – Terrence Malick
2.  “Weekend” – Andrew Haigh
3. “Melancholia” – Lars von Trier
4. “Win Win” – Tom McCarthy
5. “Margin Call” – J.C. Chandor
6. “Jane Eyre” – Cary Fukunaga
7. “Meek’s Cutoff” – Kelly Reichardt
8. “Contagion” – Steven Soderbergh
9. “Bridesmaids” – Paul Feig
10. “The Help” – Tate Taylor

BEST PICTURE: “The Tree of Life”
Epic and imperfect, fascinating and frustrating, Terrence Malick’s audacious vision of the meaning of life remains with me more vividly than any other film this year, even months after seeing it. The air of theology and philosophy were daring, not pretentious, matched by the dazzling beauty of Emanuel Lubzeki’s ethereal camerawork. Bold as brass, “The Tree of Life” is a reminder of the power of the medium.

BEST DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”
It takes a master to make a love letter to the movies like “Hugo,” and Scorsese’s inventive, good-humored story of the birth of fiction films stood out for its brilliant use of 3-D. This year, Malick showed he still has the chops he always had, but Marty showed he can beat the young guns at their own game.

BEST ACTOR: Michael Fassbender, “Jane Eyre,” “A Dangerous Method,” “Shame,” “X-Men: First Class”
Fassbender displayed both range and depth in 2011, from comic book action to period romance to bleak contemporary drama. In each he showed an admirable attention to craft, but for two roles in particular he stood out: in “Jane Eyre,” he lent the brooding Rochester a quiet sexual ferocity that played well against Mia Wasikowska’s Jane, and he capped off the year with a harrowing, haunted performance in “Shame.” If he wasn’t already, 2011 made him the art house’s brightest new star.  

BEST ACTRESS: Viola Davis, “The Help”
 In a single interrupted sentence, in the startling opening moments of “The Help,” Viola Davis conveys more intensity of emotion that most performers do in the entire course of a movie. Despite the film’s problematic depiction of race relations in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, it captures the full range of human experience, from wry humor to total heartbreak.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”
A brave performance in a winning film, the aging Plummer’s turn as a father who comes out of the closet near the end of his life has in it a delicate balance of regret and relief. It’s pitch perfect, and of all the awards bestowed here, it’s also the one most likely to line up with the Academy — for good reason.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Melancholia”
Most critics lauded castmate Kirsten Dunst, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes, for her performance as a young woman succumbing to depression in the face of apocalypse. But Gainsbourg, as the sister who holds her miserable family together and then herself begins to come apart, showed most of us how we would react at the end of the world. When the revelation arrives and the panic flashes across her face, the real meaning of “apocalypse” — personal, devastating, immensely frightening — becomes clear.   

BEST ENSEMBLE: Tie, “The Help” and “Margin Call”
One cast was nearly all women, the other nearly all men, but both showed how performance in tandem, the actors playing off each other for effect, can elevate a smart script to new dramatic heights (“Margin Call”), or tamp down melodrama to make the feelings real, and more complicated than they’d look in lesser hands (“The Help”). In casting, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Writer-director Tom McCarthy’s film about a star high school wrestler from the wrong side of the tracks and the family in flux that takes him in is, at first blush, just a warm, generous sports movie. But McCarthy’s writing sneaks up on you, and what begins as a mere undercurrent of recession-era blues turns into a sharp reminder that, in a world where the few get everything and the many get a whole lot less, what we need most is a new definition of what winning looks like.  

A small, unassuming British independent from writer-director Andrew Haigh, this story of two men dancing around each other over the course of a weekend is both a swooning love story and an authentic, detailed slice of life. Written, acted, and shot with an easy naturalism, it registers emotion way out of proportion with its size, capped off by the most perfect movie ending of the year.

Meredith Brody

I love reading other people’s Top Ten Lists, but I hate making my own.  I’m reminded of how many movies I haven’t yet seen —off the top of my head: “Take Shelter,” “Tyrannosaur,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “Tintin,” and that’s just the Ts (yes, I do know that it’s “The Adventures of Tintin”). And I’m reminded of just how much time I’ve wasted seeing disappointing movies.  Oh well.  Despite the caveats, I’m pretty happy with this list. The ones I haven’t seen twice already, I will in future. If “The Story of Film” was currently available on DVD (it comes out in January), it would be my Christmas present of choice (both to give and receive). N.B.: my number ten choice (alphabetically, fortuitously) stands in for all the revelatory films from the past that I saw at festivals, archives, and revival houses – in honor of my friend Rick Sandford, who chose his own personal Oscars every year, based on what he’d seen, and would cheerfully pit Greta Garbo in “Queen Christina” against Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice.”
1. “The Arbor” – Clio Barnard
2. “The Artist” – Michel Hazanavicius
3. “Bill Cunningham New York” – Richard Press
4. “Hugo” – Martin Scorsese
5. “Living in the Material World” – Martin Scorsese
6. “Melancholia” – Lars von Trier
7. “Midnight in Paris”- Woody Allen
8. “Pina” – Wim Wenders
9. “The Story of Film” – Mark Cousins
10. “The Woman of the Port” (1934), Arcady Boytier

Jacob Combs (alphabetical)

”The Artist” – Michel Hazanavicius
“Beginners” – Mike Mills
“The Descendants” – Alexander Payne
“The Help” – Tate Taylor
“Hugo” – Martin Scorsese
“Moneyball” – Bennett Miller
“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” – Tomas Alfredson
“The Tree of Life” – Terrence Malick
“War Horse” – Steven Spielberg
“Weekend” – Andrew Haigh

Amy Dawes (alphabetical)

”The Artist” – Michel Hazanavicius
“Beginners” – Mike Mills
“The Descendants” – Alexander Payne
“Hugo” – Martin Scorsese
“The Iron Lady” – Phyllida Lloyd
“My Week With Marilyn” – Simon Curtis
“Pearl Jam Twenty” – Cameron Crowe
“Senna” – Asif Kapadia
“The Tree of Life” – Terrence Malick
“War Horse” – Steven Spielberg

Bill Desowitz
1.  “Hugo” – Martin Scorsese
2.  “The Artist” – Michael Hazanavicius
3.  “The Tree of Life” – Terrence Malick
4.  “War Horse” – Steven Spielberg
5.  “Moneyball” – Bennett Miller
6.  “The Descendants” – Alexander Payne
7.  “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” – Tomas Alfredson
8.  “A Dangerous Method” – David Cronenberg
9.  “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” – David Yates
10.  “Source Code” – Duncan Jones

David Gritten
1.  “The Artist” – Michel Hazanavicius
2.  “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” – Tomas Alfredson
3.  “Pina 3-D” – Wim Wenders
4.  “We Need to Talk About Kevin” – Lynne Ramsay
5.  “Incendies” – Denis Villeneuve
6.  “Hugo 3-D” – Martin Scorsese
7.  “Beginners” – Mike Mills
8.  “Submarine” – Richard Ayoade
9.  “Tree of Life” – Terrence Malick
10. “Post Mortem” -Pablo Larrain

Beth Hanna
1. “Meek’s Cutoff” – Kelly Reichardt
2. “Sleeping Beauty”  – Julia Leigh
3. “Into the Abyss” – Werner Herzog
4. “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” – Nuri Bilge Ceylan
5. “Pina” – Wim Wenders
6. “The Tree of Life” – Terrence Malick
7. “The Future” – Miranda July
8. “A Dangerous Method” – David Cronenberg
9. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” – Tomas Alfredson
10. “Marwencol”  – Jeff Malmberg

Honorable mentions: “Shame” (Steve McQueen), “Bridesmaids” (Paul Feig), “Hugo” (Martin Scorsese), “Snowtown” (Justin Kurzel).

Justin Lowe (alphabetical)
“The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn” – Steven Spielberg
“The Artist” – Michel Hazanavicius
“Bellflower” – Evan Glodell
“Carnage” – Roman Polanski
“The Descendants” – Alexander Payne
“Hugo” – Martin Scorsese
“Jane Eyre” – Cary Fukunaga
“Midnight in Paris” – Woody Allen
“Senna” – Asif Kapadia
“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” – Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Matt Mueller
1. “A Separation” – Asghar Farhadi
2. “The Artist”-Michel Hazanavicius
3. “The Tree Of Life” – Terrence Malick
4. “Tyrannosaur” – Paddy Considine
5. “Weekend” – Andrew Haigh
6. “We Need To Talk About Kevin” – Lynne Ramsay
7. “The Descendants” – Alexander Payne
8. “Senna” – Asif Kapadia
9. “Drive” – Nicolas Winding Refn
10. “Bridesmaids” – Paul Feig

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