Rewinding 2011: The Top 10

December 31, 2011
A thought by James Berardinelli

Why does someone like me, an avowed list-hater, go through the process of developing a Top 10 list every year? (Not to mention a Personal Top 100, mid-year Top 10s, and Bottom 10s?) This is the 20th consecutive year I have engaged in the exercise and I don't have a good answer. Duty? Habit? A feeling that I'm not a "real critic" if I don't do it? A desire to remember the best the year had to offer when my natural inclination is to dwell on the worst? Maybe the answer is less complicated: I like making lists but not reading them.

I have always maintained that the composition of a list says a lot about the list-maker. So I find there to be value in reading individual Top 10s. On the other hand, there is nothing of less value than an "aggregate" Top 10. Supposedly, these are intended to be more "accurate" in gauging film quality, but one always runs into the obvious questions: Who represents the voting block? How were they vetted? What are their qualifications? The ReelViews list represents the opinion of one person, and none of the titles should be a surprise to those who have followed the site over the course of the past twelve months. Those looking for absolute consistency may be a little frustrated since the pecking order has likely changed since the mid-year list. The passage of time often provides minor shifts in perspective, so it's possible that something higher on the mid-year Top 10 may have slipped to a lower position on the final list. (I don't consult the earlier list when compiling the end-of-year one.) And, though I gave out a single four-star review this year, it falls into the "weak" end of the four-star spectrum and will not be a candidate to break into my Personal Top 100. Maybe next year, which promises some potentially imposing titles. Of course, realizing potential is a difficult thing, and expecting greatness is the surest path to disappointment.

As usual, these are presented in reverse order. And, yes, I cheated with a TIE at #10 to sneak in an extra title, mainly because I couldn't decide which of those #10s was more deserving. I liked them equally. It's also worth noting that, of the Top 15, ten are late-year releases and two are carry-overs from 2010. That means only three of the Top 15 were released between February and September 2011. This is an illustration of why it was easy to bemoan the bulk of the year as being disappointing, then ending up with a solid Top 10. Quality films now have a short three-month season: October/November/December. Autumn=Good Movies.

Honorable Mentions (four excellent films that got bumped off in the last two weeks): Certified Copy, Drive, The Ides of March, Margin Call

10. [TIE] Hugo: Someone remarked to me that the reason Hugo has been a box office disappointment is that it's in 3-D. My response: It has nothing to do with the 3-D and everything to do with the deplorable state of audience expectations. "Scorsese fans" aren't getting what they expect from the director. It's not dark, it's not violent, and it's not profane. On the other hand, Hugo is too cerebral for the average "family film" audience, which has become inoculated against any movie that attempts to inject intelligence into the action-packed experience. Hugo does not need to be seen in 3-D to be appreciated, but this is one of the few film where the surcharge is worth paying. Regardless of how many dimensions it's seen in, it's worth the price of admission.

10. [TIE] Super 8: How odd is it that, in a year when Steven Spielberg released *two* new films, the best "Spielberg" movie is one he didn't direct? I'm referring to Super 8, which is the best trip back to the '80s that cinema has been able to offer (maybe) in the last 22 years. Has it really been that long? There's a huge nostalgia element at play here, which may explain why the movie seems to work better for middle-aged audiences than younger ones. For my money, easily the best would-be summer blockbuster of 2011, trumping superheroes, Pixar, Harry Potter, and an assortment of lesser contenders.

9. Blue Valentine: A 2010 "leftover," this movie has remained with me for much of the year. Had I been able to see it before December 31, 2010, it would have been on last year's list. I appreciate this sort of movie - a film that presents the Hollywood clichés about relationships and romance, then shows the less glamorous, amorous aftermath. It's like getting a window into what transpires after the credits roll in a mainstream romance, and it ain't pretty.

8. We Need to Talk about Kevin: God, this is a bleak film. It belongs in the category of movies that put the viewer through the wringer. I'm glad I saw it but, after having watched it twice, I never want to sit through it again. This is for film viewers who like to be challenged by a movie and who don't have to walk out of the theater in an upbeat mood. It's powerful but, like so many movies to earn such a description, it delivers its share of battering blows. It's not for everyone but those who see it with proper expectations won't hesitate to name this among 2011's best.

7. Martha Marcy May Marlene: One of those "little films that could," an indie that emerged from nowhere and gained a lot of positive buzz primarily on the strength of Elizabeth Olsen's performance. The situation is fascinating in that it tells the story of a girl who is desperate to belong but cannot find a "family" where she feels comfortable. The ambiguous, maddening ending is a sore spot for some viewers, but I think it's perfect for the material. Showing what happens "next" would almost inevitably lead to anticlimax and/or dissatisfaction.

6. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Few 2011 films have divided critics as sharply as this one, with the New York Film Critics Circle being among its most vocal detractors. That shouldn't be a surprise; the source novel also divided opinion. The movie contains two hot-button issues: 9/11 in New York and the "unfinished" relationship between a loving father and his son (who is apparently afflicted with Asperger's Syndrome or some other form of high-functioning autism). Individual reaction will tie in strongly to one's emotional response to how the movie handles these subjects. For me, the filmmakers have successfully navigated the minefield, providing an emotionally enveloping experience that never left me feeling overtly manipulated or cheated. I didn't know many who died in the WTC that day, but I know quite a few who lost a friend or family member, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close offers an honest and truthful reflection of their journey of loss, grief, and (partial) healing. It is respectful, not exploitative. The scene in which the main character hears the sixth phone message while watching the TV coverage is devastating. I have a low threshold for mawkishness and artifice and nothing in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close set off my alarm bells. Some saw it differently; my final word is to place it in my Top 10.

5. The Artist: In silence, there can be beauty. Who would have imagined that one of the best silent films I have seen would be made in 2011, 80 years after the technology was left for dead by the film industry? I'd love to say The Artist will convert unbelievers, and it's hard to believe anyone who sees the film won't fall in love with it, but the problem may be getting butts into seats. It's a thing of magic and deserves to be seen by anyone who cares about movies, but it's a hard sell. Do yourself a favor: forget that it's silent and in black-and-white, and remember that it's one of the best films of 2011.

4. The Tree of Life: Thankfully, Fox elected to give this movie an early summer release rather than holding it until the end of the year. Admittedly, a November/December opening might have enhanced its Oscar chances, but opening it at Memorial Day provided a May re-affirmation of what cinema can do when placed into the hands of a director who is interested in more than making things blow up real good. Not only is The Tree of Life a beautifully assembled picture, but it's one that can spark lengthy, substantive post-showing discussions. It's unlikely that a similar assertion could be made about any of the other films available during the same time period.

3. Shame: Although not as bleak as We Need to Talk about Kevin, Shame is pretty dark and depressing in its own right. An examination of sexual addiction, it shows the compulsion for what it is and accomplishes this by de-glamorizing and de-eroticizing all of the elements that might be deemed "gratuitous" in a lesser film. Shame is movie of courageous performances - both Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan bare all, physically and emotionally, in two of the year's most draining portrayals.

2. The Descendants: Alexander Payne's trademark mixture of drama and dark comedy is perfectly at home in this story of a faithful husband who discovers his wife's infidelity when she's lying on her deathbed. Sharp writing, top-notch acting (as many as four performers - George Clooney, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, and Shailene Woodley - could be considered Oscar contenders), and a strong emotional catharsis make this a noteworthy motion picture and an early Oscar front-runner. (At this early date, if I was to pick the probable Best Picture winner, this would be it.)

1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: It's impossible to discuss The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo without at least a cursory mention of the earlier Swedish version, but David Fincher does something I might have deemed impossible before seeing his interpretation: he tells the same story in such a different way that it seems fresh and new. That's a startling achievement, and it begins with his "reimagining" of heroine Lisbeth Salander who, as portrayed by Rooney Mara, is a much different creature than Noomi Rapace's character - more delicate, more passive, more lethal. Wrapped in Fincher's dark, gloomy aesthetic, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a spellbinding achievement, and that doesn't even touch upon the clear, concise way in which the mystery narrative (heavily influenced by a century of British detective fiction) unfolds. It's a great movie for those familiar with the source material and/or the earlier movie and for those who have never heard of Stieg Larsson or Niels Arden Oplev.

That's it for 2011. Onwards and upwards to 2012. First up (after a few 2011 leftovers) is Mark Walhberg's Contraband. I can hardly wait.