Top Films of 2011

A Dangerous Method, Aurora, and more

Top Films of 2011
Magnolia Pictures

Team Margaret

Karina Longworth on why you've never heard of her favorite movie of the year, plus nine more bests

Margaret, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me), starring Anna Paquin with key supporting performances from Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo, is the best film of 2011. Chances are very, very good that you haven't seen it—or were even aware you could see it. And right now, you can't.

Fox Searchlight
 A Dangerous Method
Sony Pictures Classics
A Dangerous Method

Written in 2003, shot in 2005, and mired in post-production troubles and subsequent lawsuits, Margaret was not theatrically released until September of this year—and almost as soon as it arrived in theaters (very few theaters), it disappeared. A coming-of-age tale infused with post-9/11 anxiety, Margaret features Paquin—in the performance of the year—as Lisa, a Manhattan high-schooler whose role in a fatal bus accident leads to a battle with her self-absorbed actress single mom, a few reckless (if awkward) seductions, and the obsessive pursuit of retribution on behalf of the accident victim.

Margaret opened in Los Angeles on September 30, on a single screen, and closed two weeks later. In many cities it never opened at all. So what happened? According to the Los Angeles Times, after spending years in the editing room and seeking counsel from friends such as Martin Scorsese (who called an early cut of Margaret "a masterpiece"), Lonergan was unable to produce a version that would, per his contractual obligation with Fox Searchlight, come in at under two and a half hours. Searchlight demanded that Lonergan turn in an edit in 2008; he gave them his director's cut, which was longer than the 149-minute film eventually released. Lawsuits among financier Gary Gilbert, distributor Fox Searchlight, and Lonergan delayed the film until this year.

When Fox Searchlight was asked to explain why the film so quickly disappeared, it could fairly point to dismal box-office returns. (The film grossed just $46,495.) But of course, without significant advertising or media coverage for the film, the audience could hardly have shown up for a movie they didn't know existed. Not all critics are boosting it either. The New York Times's A.O. Scott wrote that in Margaret's second half, "the sense that anything is really at stake, or that anything even makes sense, dwindles before your eyes." This is not a totally inaccurate assessment of the film—though I would say it's a willful rejection of the film's deliberate climate of confusion.

If Margaret is unequivocally my choice for the film of the year, after that it gets complicated. My top five films solidified fairly quickly—but roughly 30 films took turns occupying the remaining five slots. In the end, I went with titles that gave me the most pure pleasure as a filmgoer.


Kenneth Lonergan, United States


Lars von Trier, Denmark

The sheer beauty and personal depth of Lars von Trier's triangle of depression, anxiety, and cosmic apocalypse has been well documented. What has been overlooked, I think—and what pushes Melancholia into masterpiece realm for me—is its subversion of Hollywood's two primary currencies: the special-effects epic and, in the casting of Kirsten Dunst as von Trier's alter ego, the celebrity confessional.


Kelly Reichardt, U.S.

Since the start of the economic downturn, has a better American film about survival instincts in the face of financial desperation been made? In a great year for supporting actors, Bruce Greenwood's incredible transformation into the rugged titular character is the most unjustly overlooked.


Terrence Malick, U.S.

Even if the reach of Terrence Malick's infinite loop exceeds its grasp, that reach is unprecedented. At Cannes it was tempting to pick a side between Tree of Life and Melancholia—Team Terry's earnest theological questioning versus Team Lars's Dogme dystopia. But even in their wildly diverging stylistic and philosophical approaches to life, death, and the mysteries of the universe, the two movies defined the year in film with their implicit dialogue between each other.


Clio Barnard, U.K.

Clio Barnard's hybrid of primary-source reporting and dramatic staging tells the tale of alcoholic British council estate bard Andrea Dunbar and the daughters she left behind. It's not just the best nonfiction film of 2011, it's also the most innovative—not a small feat in a year that also brought the archival super-edit The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu.


Asghar Farhadi, Iran

A master class in storytelling and character study under any circumstances, Asghar Farhadi's Berlinale winner, about the reverberations of one middle-class housewife's decision to leave her family when her husband refuses to leave Iran, is all the more impressive as an implicit critique of the standards and practices of the Iranian government that sanctioned its production.


Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark

The best music video Michael Mann never made. Ryan Gosling's (unsuccessful) campaign ad for the crown of Sexiest Man Alive. A movie-length escalating joke about the manipulative seduction of genre-film tropes, Drive is the visual-pleasure bomb that critiques itself.


Steven Soderbergh, U.S.

A filmmaker whose primary obsessions have been work and sex, Steven Soderbergh turned an outbreak story that demonizes both into an unflinching, dispassionate nail-biter. Contagion is uniquely Soderberghian in its appropriation of a Hollywood genre for personal ends. When the big emotional catharsis comes, it's all the more devastating as a break from the total coldness that preceded it.


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