Top Films of 2011
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.
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.
3. MEEK'S CUTOFF
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.
4. THE TREE OF LIFE
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.
5. THE ARBOR
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.
6. A SEPARATION
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.
9. THE FUTURE
Miranda July, U.S.
The best of 2011's many Sundance-hits-turned-box-office-bombs. The reception accorded Miranda July's second feature—a deeply personal and unique hybrid of hipster relationship drama, lo-fi sci-fi, and filmed performance art—only affirms its courage as a would-be commercial endeavor.
Bennett Miller, U.S.
Am I biased as a baseball fan? Maybe, though as a faithful follower of the Dodgers—whose 2011 season offered a gripping seesaw of tragedy and triumph—I hardly needed to go looking for baseball drama elsewhere. Less an adaptation of Michael Lewis's bestseller than a cinematic rendering of the unlikely marriage between passion and fiscal ration that motivated the sport to put its faith in sabermetrics, Moneyball moved me to tears. Twice. My vote for most satisfying popcorn movie of the year.
The following films (listed alphabetically) almost made the cut: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Beginners, Certified Copy, City of Life and Death, A Dangerous Method, Dragonslayer, Fast Five, Go Go Tales, House of Pleasures, Jane Eyre, The Lincoln Lawyer, Love Exposure, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Mysteries of Lisbon, Rubber, Silver Bullets, Take Shelter, The Trip, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Winnie the Pooh.
J. Hoberman's favorites of 2011
The past 12 months brought a number of powerful, introspective, big-theme cine-statements, many of them by old masters. Some pondered history—as well as its end. A few upended the old-fashioned movie-house paradigm. In recognition of the medium's ongoing mutation, my annual list ends with two such extra-theatrical projections.
1. A DANGEROUS METHOD
David Cronenberg, Canada
Cronenberg's viscerally cerebral, historically scrupulous science-fiction romance teleports the viewer back to the birth of psychoanalysis. Europe's 20th century is the subject, given form by Sabina Spielrein (and Keira Knightley's electric performance). Consummate classical filmmaking, A Dangerous Method has an exaggerated Masterpiece Theatre patina that is regularly fissured by geysers of desire (as well as dreams and ideas) and ultimately blown away as Spielrein, Freud, and Jung meet their respective fates.
Lars von Trier, Denmark
On any other day, this might have ranked first. Melancholia's first five minutes are like a formal invitation to the end of the world; the next two hours allow you to live through the run-up. We are all ultimately alone, and yet this thrillingly sad, beautiful movie dares to imagine (and insists we do as well) the one event that might bring us all together.
3. MYSTERIES OF LISBON
Raúl Ruiz, Portugal
Ruiz, who died this summer after a nearly 50-year career, dramatizes every outrageous plot twist in a classic 19th-century novel with serene equanimity—treating the hopelessly old-fashioned as the new avant-garde. After some four hours, Mysteries cuts its own Gordian knot to wrap with a magnificent, looping closer that metaphorically conflates the end of literature, theater, and cinema. The nothingness is Olympian.
Cristi Puiu, Romania
Ionesco meets Jim Thompson: This murder mystery, shot vérité-style, is less a psychological case study than a philosophical treatise—or better, it's a case study as philosophical treatise in which the killer's identity is known but his motives are not. Aurora dramatizes the Sartrean notion "shame of self," rooted in the recognition that we are "the object which the Other is looking at and judging." With Puiu playing the killer, the audience ponders the filmmaker looking at the protagonist who just happens to be himself.
5. SEEKING THE MONKEY KING
Ken Jacobs, U.S.
Shown twice as part of the New York Film Festival (and again at Zuccotti Park the night before the mayor and police broke the occupation), Jacobs's incantatory, hallucinated, apocalyptic screed is a deeply troubling combination of stunning abstract imagery and enraged political analysis.
6. TO DIE LIKE A MAN
João Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal
Fado music makes something wistfully jaunty out of inconsolable loss, and so does this mysterious, fabulously sad fable about the final months of a fado-singing, pooch-pampering drag diva. Such a surplus of melodrama might have prompted an Almodóvarian frenzy, but Rodrigues is neither hysterical nor maudlin. To Die Like a Man is playful, unpredictable, and incongruously verdant.
7. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand
The acme of no-budget, Buddhist-animist, faux-naive, avant-pop magic neorealism is a movie in which conversing with the materialized spirits of the dead and watching the so-called living on TV exist on the same astral plane.
Martin Scorsese, U.S.
After decades in the business, Scorsese finally makes a kid's film, and it turns out to be the best Spielberg movie that Spielberg never made. Hugo is distinguished first of all by its genuinely dramatic use of 3-D and second by a cinephilia that has nothing to do with a belief in Hollywood happy endings.
9. J. EDGAR
Clint Eastwood, U.S.
Like most Eastwood productions, this densely woven historical tapestry is frugal and underlit. Like his better films, it has an undercurrent of nuttiness. Just as Leo DiCaprio's Hoover is regularly accused of fabricating media stories and posing as a fictional hero, J. Edgar is a self-aware production, filled with its own textual signposts. (At a kidnapping trial, the word "nelly" leaps out of a courtroom display.) Dirty Harry turns himself inside out: The film even provides a near credible theory on Hoover's sexuality. It too might have been called "To Die Like a Man."
10. UNITED RED ARMY
Koji Wakamatsu, Japan
The veteran Japanese pulp artist makes a new sort of horror movie—a grueling, engrossing three-hour account of Japan's insanely ideological New Left that faces the void with the prolonged, increasingly violent, ever more self-critical group sessions, staged in near-darkness and shown in close-up, wherein the clandestine Red Army tore itself apart.
Christian Marclay, U.K.
One of the most radical film-objects of the 21st century, Marclay's 24-hour found-footage assemblage—which screened in Boston, Los Angeles, and New York this year—was not only a surprise art-world blockbuster but also, by making an overt spectacle out of time passing, reiterated Andrei Tarkovsky's assertion that cinema is essentially a form of temporal sculpture.
Todd Haynes, U.S.
The most academic yet mass-culture-minded of U.S. indie directors, Haynes made a characteristically sidelong move toward the mainstream by treating James M. Cain's novel as epic domestic drama with intimations of historical tragedy. Haynes's HBO miniseries saga of unrequited star worship, terminal class envy, failed self-empowerment, and self-immolating smother love is less a narrative than a fastidiously designed, endlessly resonant world that, harking back to Hollywood's last golden age, might have appeared in the disillusioned days of The Godfather or Chinatown.
A dozen runners-up: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Certified Copy, Film Socialisme, Le Havre, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Meek's Cutoff , Le Quattro Volte, Octubre, Super 8, Terri, Tuesday, After Christmas, and Young Adult.
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