My Favorite Movies of 2011

I don’t have a whole lot to say by way of a prelude here.  Just remember I am calling this list my favorites, not “the best”.  There are very few that I wanted to see that I didn’t get to see; the only ones I can think of off the top of my head are “The Artist”, “Carnage”, and “We Need to Talk About Kevin”.  As in the past, I have not included documentaries in the list, but I have put a non-ordered list of my favorite docs from 2011 at the end of this entry. OK, without further ado, my list:

10.  Mission Impossible:  Ghost Protocol

Just because a movie is a big budget crowd pleaser that isn’t, at it’s core, about deeply held human values or sad things, doesn’t mean it isn’t a hum-dinger of a film.  “MI4” is an expertly-crafted action-spy-drama that at times literally had me on the edge of my seat.  Although I knew Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt was not going to perish at any point, director Brad Bird somehow makes you believe he’s going to pull the trigger on him anyway.  And back for his second “mission”, Simon Pegg adds true humor and some believable heart that stops short of being hokey.

9.  Beginners

Hopefully someday our culture can get to a point where we can tell stories about gay folks without everyone having to make a big deal about the fact that it is about gay folks.  That sure was an unwieldy sentence.  Anyway, “Beginners” tells a new kind of story about gay folks: the story of a man in his twilight years, after his wife has died, finally able to “come out” in his final few months before his death; we get to see (in various flashbacks and flash-forwards) how this intense experience effects him and his son.  The father and son are played absolutely perfectly by Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor, respectively.  Would be on my short list for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

8.  Paranormal Activity 3

This choice will probably get me killed by some of you.  Listen, for all I know, these movies might be horrible.  All I know is, they scare the crap out of me.  I am a full-on believer in the “Blair Witch”-style realism, found-footage method.  Not that I find them all good (see: “The Last Exorcism”), but for the most part, they really scare the crap out of me, and when a horror movie can successfully scare the crap out of me, I am highly appreciative.  And “PA3” scared me even more than the first two.  The Paranormal Activity films continue to do well what most horror films—even found-footage horror films—don’t have the balls to do:  keep quiet and let the content of the film scare us.  That’s what “Blair Witch” did so well and that tradition is very much alive and well in this installment.

7.  The Beaver

  It’s a shame that the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson’s oversize problems all but buried this tiny little drama (directed by Jodie Foster, who also co-stars) about a man so overcome with depression that he resorts to communicating with the outside world through a hand puppet of a beaver.  What’s so amazing is that the premise is, of course, totally ridiculous, but the film pulls it off pitch-perfect, never too serious and never too ridiculous so that by the time the film ends, you are 100% on board.  This is thanks in no small part to keen direction from Foster, but also the best performance of Gibson’s career, which I do not think is faint praise (even in film’s like “Signs” Gibson is an underrated powerhouse).  Hopefully, someday the pallor surrounding Gibson’s off-screen persona will lift, and the world might discover this gem for the first time.

6.  Melancholia

Really, there is not enough space here for me to properly ruminate on director Lars von Trier’s most ambitious (and most commercially successful) film to date.  There is a ton going on, from infidelity, to calm depression, to a rogue planet colliding with the earth causing the end of all life as we know it.  Somewhere in there are metaphors both interesting and obvious, a tremendous use of Wagner’s opera “Tristan and Isolde”, Keifer Sutherland, and some of the most breathtaking cinematography of the year (courtesy of Manuel Alberto Claro, who hasn’t worked with von Trier before, which explains why this doesn’t look like a von Trier movie).  This one really has to be seen to be explained; I implore you to see it.

5.  Hugo

The true genius of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” is its ability to play on many intellectual and emotional levels at once without ever coming off as a hoity-toity movie for film snobs, even though one of its most potent undercurrents is an emotional homage to the history of film.  Mixed up in that homage to film are themes on the loss of the ones we love, the desire to live forever, and the infinite sadness of childhood; all these themes are viewed through the prism of the world of “Hugo” as well as through the prism of film itself.  Scorsese manages to make us care about the characters he’s crafted as well as the medium they inhabit with equal passion.  If you are looking for a wonder-filled cinematic thrill ride with an emotional punch, this is for you; if you want to shed a few tears and also try to piece together exactly why you’re crying, “Hugo” will work for that, too.  Oh, and if you missed seeing it in 3D, you missed out big time.

4.  Drive

Ryan Gosling is beyond badass in this highly-stylized, atmospheric mood piece, and Carey Mulligan provides an emotional center in what I consider her true breakthrough performance.  Here, just watch this:

3.  The Future

This all-but ignored sophomore indie drama from Miranda July (her of the extraordinary first-feature “Me and You and Everyone We Know” from 2005) blew me away so much that after I saw it, I sat in stunned silence in my darkened apartment for at least 15 minutes, then showered in the dark for another 15 minutes.  I was no longer thinking about the movie, but my own life.  It is a “drama” about “relationships”, and certainly no film that fits that category has ever been so well-aligned with my own thoughts on the subject (currently largely cynical) while also enlightening me.  Warning: it is told very unconventionally and some elements of it are intentionally annoying, but I have never seen a movie quite like it, and it is deserving of much more acclaim than it has received.

2.  Meek’s Cutoff

In this quiet, deceptively-rambling “Western” (one must call it a Western due to its subject matter, but it hardly fits the genre) very loosely based on real events, the viewer is often unsure exactly what events are transpiring, whose side we are on, or what, really, we’re watching.  Dialogue can be difficult to hear and characters meld together.  And ultimately, the mystifying, vague ending leaves many viewers feeling cheated and let down.  So of course, I found it to be one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen.  The film defiantly skirts film convention in non-flashy ways to tell a story that is mystifying and vague, that questions the way we see good and evil, and leaves us feeling as lost and hopeless as the characters must feel.  How is that for a film being successful:  making the viewers feel the same powerful, horrid emotions it’s characters feel, just as the credits roll and we are left to our own lives with the lights going up.

1.  The Tree of Life

“The Tree of Life” is more than a movie.  It is more than a great film.  It is the guttural, visceral, all-nerves-and-tears experience of love, life after death, and the birth of the cosmos;  “The Tree of Life” is the questions we ask of eternity, and it is even the answers that come back.  Perhaps you think this sounds corny, or that I am overstating the case?  Well, maybe I am, but I don’t think so.  Be warned that this movie is told unconventionally.  It does not (for the most part) have a linear plot.  It has many sections that are designed more to be felt than understood.  It means to convey through images and sound the experience of being alive, and being dead, and being alive after others have died before you have; it means to tie these small, individual human experiences in with the whole of the universe from the beginning of time; it asks what our human presence means to the universe, what it means to us.  And yes, very famously, there are dinosaurs.  And Brad Pitt.  Just watch it.  You might not like it, but it also might change your life.

Movies I also really liked that just missed the cut, in no particular order:  “Margin Call”, “Albert Nobbs”, “The Descendants”, “A Better Life”, “The Conspirator”, “Red State”, “The Muppets”, “Midnight in Paris”, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”, “Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas”, “The Ides of March”, “J. Edgar”, “Bellflower”, “Insidious”, “Certified Copy”, “Win Win”, “Your Highness”, “Skateland”, “Take Shelter”, “The Rum Diary”, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

And my favorite documentaries of 2011:  “The Interrupters”, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front”, “We Were Here”,  “Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times”, “Honest Man: the Life of R. Budd Dwyer”, “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop”.

5 Responses to “My Favorite Movies of 2011”

  1. Kyle Sundgren Says:

    I’m more surprised by what isn’t included on the list or honorable mentions. I hesitate to name specifics as it would give away half of my own list. We can discuss in more detail whenever that is (I’m standing firm with my 15th deadline even if I cross no more off my list).

    I’m a little ashamed that I hadn’t even heard of ‘Meek’s Cutoff’.

    Good list though. I always enjoy this sort of thing.

    • sethdellinger Says:

      Oh now I’m going nuts with the thoughts of something I might have missed!

      “Meek’s Cutoff” got missed by just about everybody.

  2. The soundtrack in the Beaver was surprisingly good as well. Drive was probably my favorite of the year followed by Girl with the Dragon tattoo (those this may be biased). The beaver would have to be up there as well but I didn’t see nearly as many movies as you to be a fair judge. I usually don’t see a lot of the smaller movies until closer to oscar time.

    • sethdellinger Says:

      Wow, I really thought I might go my whole life without meeting another “Beaver” fan! Huzzah! I didn’t see “Dragon Tattoo”…it kept being on my last-minute list and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. No interest. Did you see “Tree of Life”?

  3. […] film.  I watched it when it first came out, in 2011 (and it even took second place in my top ten movie list of that year) and I promptly bought it on DVD, but I waited until this week to even view it a second time.  But […]

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