My favorite movies of 2011.

(cross-posted from Chicagoist)

Even before I finished drawing up this list, I knew that including movies not released this year would annoy lots of people. “That’s cheating!” they’d say. “How can you say a movie from 1951 is one of your favorites of 2011?” Somewhere, C.S. Lewis once wrote that for every new book you read, you should read an old one. I like to apply that advice when it comes to movie-watching. I can only reiterate that while an arbitrary calendar cutoff is extremely useful for determining Oscar nominations, when it comes to actually experiencing and digesting cinema it’s for the birds. So the 27 sequels released by Hollywood this yearwill have to wait—Lord knows I haven’t seen some of the originals yet anyway.

Some of these are still in theaters, some aren’t, and one hasn’t even been released yet. But when it comes to 2011, here are my top ten.

Bridesmaids (directed by Paul Feig, 2011)
If there was a funnier movie this year, I didn’t see it. And I can’t wait to see Bridesmaids again. An exceptionally sharp screenplay and well-drawn characters go hand in hand with the fruits of skillful improv.

Certified Copy (directed by Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
It’s about love, it’s about how well you can ever really know someone, it’s about the nature of cinema, it’s about art, it’s about a lovely Italian afternoon. If you haven’t already seen it, it’s about time you do.

Hugo (directed by Martin Scorsese, 2011)
Scorsese’s best movie since The Aviator. Sure, the 3-D was cool. But it’s really the skill with which he executes the intelligence of John Logan’s screenplay that carries it off. It’s the rare kid’s movie that does not assume that both children and their parents are easily distracted idiots. Special props to Sacha Baron Cohen, who brilliantly channels Peter Sellers in his role as the Stationmaster.

The Incident (directed by Larry Peerce, 1967)
Earlier this year Northwest Chicago Film Society presented a rare screening of this prescient, underseen thriller. It’s an intriguing precursor to both The French Connection and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three in its gritty evocation of NYC as urban hellhole. The once-in-a-lifetime cast includes Martin Sheen (in a very early role as one of the hoodlums), Beau Bridges, Brock Peters, Ruby Dee, Ed McMahon (!), Gary Merrill and Thelma Ritter. Here’s hoping it makes it to DVD sometime soon.

The Interrupters (directed by Steve James, 2011)
What else can I add to what’s already been said about this important new documentary? The barbershop reconciliation is the most gripping scene in any movie I watched this year. True, The Interrupters was snubbed by the Oscars; but a $50,000 grant for Steve James has surely softened the blow.

Meek’s Cutoff (directed by Kelly Reichardt, 2010)
As I wrote earlier, “With this followup to Wendy and Lucy, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt confirms her status as the finest American independent filmmaker working today. She and screenwriter Jon Raymond (who also adapted Mildred Pierce) take a hackneyed genre and strip away all the clichés. There are no gunfights, no saloons, no cowboys, and no whorehouses in this Western. Just ordinary folks trying to make a new life for themselves, at the mercy of an indifferent environment and their own doubts.”

The Prowler (directed by Joseph Losey, 1951)
This rediscovered and restored film noir played at the Music Box a few years ago, but I only caught up with it recently. I figured that any film championed by both James Ellroy and Bertrand Tavernier had to worth checking out. It’s a knockout. Featuring Van Heflin as one of the rottenest cops I’ve ever seen onscreen, and an incredibly twisty plot, it’s also hard to believe how some of this stuff got past the censors in 1951–almost entirely through insinuation, it makes you feel dirty just watching it.

35 Shots of Rum (directed by Claire Denis, 2008)
Claire Denis makes films that are stuffed with contradictions: gentle, harsh, touching, quiet, pulsing with life. Watching them is inevitably an exhilarating experience. Roger Ebert summed up this movie best: “You can live in a movie like this. It doesn’t lecture you. These people are getting on with their lives, and Denis observes them with tact. She’s not intruding, she’s discovering. We sense there’s not a conventional plot, and that frees us from our interior movie-going clock. We flow with them.”

We Need to Talk About Kevin (directed by Lynne Ramsay, 2011)
During CIFF I ranted about the press embargo that prevented me from giving this movie a proper review. Well, the movie is slated for a February release, at which point I will. It’s a haunting, disquieting movie that features yet another stunning performance by Tilda Swinton.

The Wise Kids (directed by Stephen Cone, 2011)
When it comes time to write about a movie, the easiest thing to do is to compare it to others. And when no other movies come readily to mind, it’s usually proof that you’ve just watched something special. Sure, you could call The Wise Kids a coming-of-age movie (like Stand By Me), or a Christian drama (like Higher Ground), or even perhaps a Christmas movie (like a certain Charlie Brown TV special). And, yes, it has played at gay film festivals all over the country, including here at Reeling. But the fact is, The Wise Kids doesn’t really fit into any of those boxes. Following several characters in in small town in South Carolina, It’s the rare movie that manages to be both complex and straightforward at the same, cleanly depicting moments of messy truth. Let’s hope the Siskel mounts an extended run in 2012.

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