Favorite Films of 2011

October 30th, 2012


I said I wasn’t going to do this.

A “Best of 2011″ list seems completely pointless right about now. It’s especially irritating that it has taken me the better part of 2012 to watch most of 2011’s films. One upside to releasing this list right now is that all these films are available on DVD or BluRay.

Contrary to what you may have heard, 2011 was in fact a damn fine year for film. The movies listed below are bold, provocative, and dare I say - artistic. With the exception of one film, most are not box office successes. Some have fallen through the cracks of the studio system and have resisted commodification. Others will likely lay in obscurity to be perhaps rediscovered in the future.

This year marks the first time that 3 women directors have made the list. There are 2 openly gay directors and a black (British) director. Not surprisingly, the majority are American or European (Spanish, English, Scottish, Hungarian, Danish, Swedish) and one is Australian. Sadly, there are no Asian or Latin American directors this year.

And without further ado, I give you my favorite films of 2011!


Mildred Pierce
directed by Todd Haynes

While technically an HBO miniseries (the reason I’m listing it #12), Todd Haynes refers to Mildred Pierce as a film. It’s a hybrid of cinema and television, at once epic and intimate and incredibly relevant to the troubles many people face in this economy since the film is set in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. Todd Haynes’s style is well suited for this kind of American melodrama made popular by the films of Douglas Sirk. But unlike Sirk, Haynes chooses to look behind the curtain of falsehood and reveal the transgressions that lie beneath the polished veneer of Americana. In the case of Mildred Pierce, it’s greed and conformity and the aspiration to bourgeois ideals.


Sleeping Beauty
directed by Julia Leigh

Films about female desire are rarely left to women filmmakers, but with Sleeping Beauty, Australian director Julia Leigh has changed that. She takes her inspiration from the likes of Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut to craft a film about a young girl who gets paid to perform certain jobs naked for old, wealthy men. At once voyeuristic and exhibitionist, Sleeping Beauty is less about the objectification of women and more about the failed attempts to subvert the inherent paternalism of Western decadence. The poster says it all: a supple young girl straight out of a Renoir painting, implicating the audience with her gaze. The heroine may be sleeping, but this film is wide awake.


directed by Ralph Fiennes

In a time when the media blurs the lines between news and entertainment, Ralph Fiennes’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus is incredibly relevant. This is Shakespeare meets Occupy Wall Street via YouTube. Shakespeare’s language never seems anachronistic in present day Rome, but instead ominously portends a bleak and war-torn city, which more closely resembles the decimated streets of Fallujah (as seen on CNN) than a Western European art capital. But the film never forgets its roots. Watching Fiennes in hand to hand combat with Gerard Butler is like watching two lions tear each other apart at the Colosseum. Bread and circus.


directed by Steve McQueen

With regard to sex, my friend Nathan has said that guilt is sexy, but shame is a turn-off. Shame is less like a film and more like a recurring nightmare, an endless loop of obsession and misery, from which the only escape is not an orgasm but the fleeting moments after when that bitch desire is bitterly and temporarily sated. The sex is antiseptic, cruel, and grotesque. Director Steve McQueen turns Michael Fassbender’s sex appeal into a display of suffering. Carey Mulligan’s portrayal as the hot-mess sister sets off an inconsolable pathology in Fassbender’s character of Brandon; something like an inside-out aphrodisiac. Despite the scenes of full-frontal nudity for both characters, Shame is a film about an ocean of childhood wounds that lurk beneath the naked bodies.


the skin I live in
The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)
directed by Pedro Almodovar

While I consider The Skin I Live In a minor film in Pedro Almodovar’s oeuvre, it is easily his most gut-wrenching. This film is sickeningly perverse, and yet gorgeous to watch. Although the script stumbles as Almodovar explains moments best left unexplained, the narrative unfolds right through the viscera.  There’s a moment half-way through the film when I started to realize what was happening, but I couldn’t, or rather, refused to let myself believe it. And when my worse fears were realized, I felt like I had been punched in the gut. This is Antonio Banderas at his best in 25 years, when he’s shed all notion of realism and Hollywood homogenization; instead, he loses himself in the same territory of obsession that Jimmy Stewart explored in Vertigo. Pure cinema.


directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Okay, remember this blog post here? I stand by everything I say. There’s just one problem: I can’t get Drive out of my head. It’s a hell of a film that I keep thinking about at random times. I’ve rewatched it and it holds up even better than I remember. Winding knows how to shoot film with maximum impact. While he borrows very much from Michael Mann’s Thief and Walter Hill’s The Driver, you can’t help but feel we’re exploring Winding’s own fetishes here - and there are a lot - like violence, cars, children, and music. Ryan Gosling is one of the few actors in Hollywood who isn’t afraid to give a real performance - here his Driver character is smooth and confident and unsettling. The use of  his voice is what enhances this performance, vaguely feminine, like Brando in The Wild One or James Dean in East of Eden. Again, I’m talking about other films, and that’s at what makes Drive so good and confusing - it’s basically a 70’s film with an 80’s aesthetic, a pure throwback to American cinema’s modern age, but postmodern by its very nature.


We Need to Talk About Kevin
directed by Lynne Ramsay

I have a difficult time describing this film. Art-film horror? Family thriller? Psychological melodrama? This is the most cinematically jarring film I have seen this year, using the limits of form to create an emotional stimulation through cinematography, editing, art design, and music. Unfolding through a series of flashbacks, we learn the story of a disillusioned mother (played by the ever transfixing Tilda Swinton) and her doomed relationship with her sociopath son, Kevin. Director Lynne Ramsay poses a very provocative question in this film: What makes a good mother? And she doesn’t dare answer it, but rather, makes a case for and against every answer that comes to mind.


The Turin Horse (A tórinoi ló)
directed by Bel Tarr

In 1889, walking out his apartment in Turin, Italy, Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed the whipping of a horse. In despair, he threw his arms around the horse, and with tears in his eyes, begged the horseman to stop. After the incident, Nietzsche never spoke again. But what happened to the horse? Bela Tarr’s interpretation of the traumatic event led him to make an apocalyptic film unlike any other you’ve ever seen. Yes, this film brings to mind Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, but whereas the donkey in Balthazar embodies the salvation of humanity, the mare in The Turin Horse symbolizes its damnation. From the opening shot, in stark black and white, of a horse and carriage galloping across a wind storm, The Turin Horse makes no compromises for its audiences. Yes, this film is challenging, but it features one of the most simple but terrifying uses of darkness I’ve ever seen in film. This is a the final film of Bela Tarr, and he leaves us with a hypnotic masterpiece of allegorical beauty.


Meek’s Cutoff
directed by Kelly Reichardt

I’m in complete awe of this ballsy, feminist Western film, or rather anti-Western. Three families, led by the rough and tumble pioneer Stephen Meek, make a grueling trip across the Oregon Trail… and get lost. Meek’s Cutoff slowly lulls the audience into its world with mesmerizing but claustrophobic cinematography of the American west. The film moves at a pace where you feel the film imposing itself upon you. Actually, it does so from the very first frame.  The film is shot in 1:33 format to more closely resemble the points of view of the women characters - literally - so that if feels like you’re looking out from behind their bonnets. Michelle Williams’s performance is subtle and heroic. Kelly Reichardt’s direction sheds new light on a tired genre dominated by men and horses.


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
directed by Tomas Alfredson

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a testament to the power of narrative. The film may seem convoluted to the untrained eye, but director Tomas Alfredson allows the narrative to unfold cinematically, without worrying about something as meaningless or passé as plot. I’m going to let you in on a little secret about cinema - PLOT DOESN’T MATTER. The depiction of narrative through images is what elevates cinema to an art over simple storytelling. The world of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the administrative underbelly of spy films, all paperwork and manila folders. And while this world may resemble more a cubist painting in its fragmented nature, when you step back and see the whole picture - the intrigue, the missions beyond the Iron Curtain, the betrayal, the circus - you’ll find a film driving its characters into a subdued catharsis, struggling to remain human in a dehumanizing environment. So stop trying to figure it all out and instead let this film have its way with you.


directed by Lars Von Trier

The end of the world has never looked so beautiful and yet so elegiac. Indulgent and sadistic, Melancholia is a film with its inception as a loose adaptation of Jean Genet’s play, “The Maids” before it became twisted and disfigured by Lars von Trier’s life-long battle with depression. Both Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg turn in fearless performances - Dunst finally embracing the complexities of her sexuality, and Gainsbourg with her blank-slate of a face. This film serves as a foil to Malick’s The Tree of Life, as it strikes similar notes, but on a minor key. There are shades of Resnais, Tarkovski, and Bergman in Lars von Trier’s direction, as well as a jazz-like exploration of photography that is simultaneously nuanced and improvised.


The Tree of Life
directed by Terrence Malick

The last time I had a cathartic or a (and I’m embarrassed to use this word) spiritual experience watching a film, was with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in a new 70mm print at the American Cinemateque last year. I understand the criticism and backlash against The Tree of Life: the audacity to portray a manifestation of God, the total and complete lack of irony, the almost-bad poetry. But when director Terrence Malick chooses to make a film about the “the birth of compassion” that spans millions of years, from the big bang of the universe to a small town in Texas in the 1950’s, he has no other film to use as reference. This film is pure nostalgia explored through the primordial. The Oedipal fate of the characters seems rooted not only in literature but in nature itself. Nature vs. Nurture is dissected through the American family unit, through fathers and mothers, through brothers and self, exploring the transcendental ideas of what it means to be a creature worthy of life. In the theater, I sat on the verge of tears for practically the whole film, in a rapturous state, much the way I did when reading Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. And when the credits rolled, I remained in darkness for about 10 more minutes, trying to keep myself together. Instead of asking the eternal question “Why am I here?”, I wanted to run into the street and shout to the heavens, “We’re here. We’re always here. Now, live!”

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3 responses so far ↓

  • Yeah, interesting list. Its a parlor game, but amusing to do and one hopes it reveaels something. I really thought Mildren Pierce was hands down the best film of the year. Just far and away. Its a formalist exercise in one sense, but its a critique of Sirkian aeshtetics, of what I think it was RIvette called The Impossible Cinema of Douglas Sirk. And i have a hunch fassbender played a subliminal role in what Haynes did. I think its a film about class in america. And maybe more astute about sex and class than anything I can think of in the last ten years.

    I of course really disliked Melancholia. I mean this is where real questions arise…same with the Malick. Real questions of what are the conditions for having importance? And Shame. All three share this self annointed sense of importance. Its a form thing…..and too big a topic to get into here. Ihavent seen Coriolanus yet. I love the Ramsey.
    I think Tinker is interesting by virtue of not being as good as his previous more genre topheavy film. Not sure what to make of that film, really (tinker i mean).

    Id put Drive on there, and even Contagion. I fear the influence of prestige aura………….thats what bugs me about Malick and especially Von Triers. Thats my zen kone for today….or something.

  • Hey John, great points on Mildred Pierce. What I find interesting about the film is that it somehow evokes a first generation immigrant story with this botched idea of American ambition.

    Yeah, I understand how you feel about the Shame, Tree of Life, and Melancholia. I think your point is definitely valid for Malick. To be honest, that’s how I feel about most of his films (except for The New World). But von Trier has more of an “enfant terrible” feel to his work, don’t you think? The article you wrote about Melancholia brought up good points about the erasing of historical context. I feel he makes movies that forgo any kind of social grace - sometimes to a fault.

    I could be wrong here, but I think you would really enjoy Meek’s Cutoff. I was on the edge of my seat all throughout the film. It has a Beckett-like sense of doom. It feels almost… sci-fi. I can’t explain it.

    My main problem with Contagion is that it plays into the fear of travel to non-white continents - Asia, Africa, Latin America. That somehow, viruses like SARS, H1N1, or even AIDS start because of the lack of cleanliness, or immoral abuse of animals - whether eating or even fucking them, and it’s eventually the pretty white girl who pays the price. Traveling through other countries, every part of the animal gets eaten, nothing goes to waste, but Americans have a hard time stomaching that.

    Oh yeah, try to find Sleeping Beauty too, the Australian. It’s a small film but very powerful.

  • I’ve not seen one of these films on your list. The two I intend to see immediately are Sleeping Beauty and Melancholia. Should be interesting since I have oodles of adoration for Campion and nothing of the sort for Von Trier. Also excited for Shame and now, Meek’s Cutoff. My mentor at USC always had a thing for westerns about women, maybe now I’ll get it. Found Mildred Pierce, much to my surprise, unwatchable and disappointing on multiple levels. Same with Tree of Life. But then again, I didn’t finish them so perhaps…? As my taste for story shifts back from television to film, I value your recommends and pans since I don’t have the luxury (of time) to wallow in the consumption of cinema, an occupation sorely missed, I can assure you. Thanks.