“Top 10 lists now?” I hear you say. “Isn’t February 26 a little…late?” Actually, right on time, given tonight’s big event, and I don’t mean the latest episode of The Walking Dead, not that I’d blame you for switching over amidst what it likely to be a corpse of an Oscar competition. Or, if you ask me, premature–I really should do these in July or August, when I’ve had more of a chance to see a fuller spectrum of what 2011 had to offer under optimum conditions (The acclaimed Certified Copy stuttering and buffering on Netflix Instant doesn’t count as an “optimum condition,” but the upcoming Criterion Blu-ray would.) Come to think of it, 2021 may be the best time, when it’s possible to take a big picture look at the big pictures to see what really held up. (Gosford Park, from 2001, yes; A Beautiful Mind, not so much.)
But you’ve got to take a stand sometime. The nice thing about doing it now is that you don’t have to elaborate on your choices too much, so here it goes, from 1 to 10, with some elaboration:
A Separation. I pegged this as my best picture of the year in October, and like The Social Network in 2010 it didn’t budge. Sometimes you just know these things. In release now so seek it out.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Even viewed as a screener this leapt out at me. Quite a stunning feat of adaptation.
Hugo. A good year for Marty, with this and the fine documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World, which is on HBO Go.
1/2 Melancholia. All of Kirsten Dunst’s amazing performance. Kiefer Sutherland’s surprisingly withdrawn one. The incredible prologue. The sound design. The ending. (The wedding, Lars von Trier’s typically weirdo casting of everyone else, expendable.)
1/2 The Tree of Life. Cinematography. Music and sound design. The boyhood memories. (Sean Penn, the cosmic asides, expendable–but I liked the dinosaurs.)
Project Nim. Other notable documentaries in 2011 included Buck, Tabloid, Pina, Cameraman: The Work and Life of Jack Cardiff, and The Interrupters–the last of which I need to see full-strength, as PBS’ bleeped, edited variant was unsatisfying.
Margin Call. A terrific feature debut from J.C. Chandor. Between this and his volatile performance as Richard III (at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for another week), an energizing year for Kevin Spacey, at the center of a strong cast.
Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol. A movie I wasn’t all that interested in seeing turned out to be the movie I’d been hoping to see all year, the only fully satisfying “popcorn” picture of 2011, particularly in Imax. Tom Cruise embraces his inner Jackie Chan as he nears 50. (Runner-up: Captain America: The First Avenger, marred by an unsatisfactory–if, to set up The Avengers, necessary–ending, and X-Men: First Class, an agreeable though overlong prequel in a 2011 top-heavy with useless sequels and comic book nonsense.)
Moneyball. Something Oscar got right: Brad Pitt’s is “a beautifully concentrated performance that uncoils when he’s in (Jonah) Hill’s presence.”
Margaret. The very limited release of this five-year-old shelf-sitter from Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) proved a cause célèbre among film critics, so I headed to New York’s dinky Cinema Village for a look. The print looked as if it had come from a grindhouse circa 1973, and the movie is equally ragged (when in doubt, Lonergan has everyone scream at each other). But it’s also dogged and intemperate, as Anna Paquin (well before her True Blood makeover, and terrific), like the characters in A Separation, learns that the law and justice are two different things as she sorts out the aftermath of a grisly Manhattan bus accident she feels partly responsible for. The presence of Jeannie Berlin, Elaine May’s daughter, in the cast is a spiritual link to one of May’s “difficult” movies, and Margaret is problematic, too–but it’s still one of the best of 2011, and also 2006.
Bridesmaids. The rude “guy” humor is funny–but what animates the film is Kristen Wiig’s indelible portrait of a cash-strapped Everywoman mired in crisis, another great performance that Oscar naturally overlooked for the usual run of victims and bio-portraits, not one of them for the ages. (You’ll definitely recall Wiig, Paquin, Dunst, and Charlize Theron in Young Adult in 2021.) Bonus point: Wiig telling movie mom Jill Clayburgh that she loves her in Clayburgh’s final scene in a movie.
What else did I like, besides these and the others I mentioned? If you haven’t seen them, or happen upon them, don’t turn away from Amigo, Attack the Block, Bellflower, The Descendants, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Insidious, The Last Circus, Meek’s Cutoff, Midnight in Paris, Poetry, Point Blank, Rapt, The Skin I Live In, Source Code, Take Shelter, 13 Assassins, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, War Horse, Winnie the Pooh, and Young Adult.
Maybe you got more than I did from Beginners, Drive, The Guard, The Help, My Week with Marilyn, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Shame, and Super 8, movies whose parts (some of them considerable) exceeded their wholes. But for God’s sake don’t make the mistake I made in seeing Arthur, Battle: Los Angeles, The Green Hornet, Your Highness, The Mechanic, and Trespass. No, I didn’t see them in theaters–I’ve learned to rise above–but even on cable and home video I was wincing in pain, and too paralyzed with terror to turn them off. The Arthur remake alone is like slow-acting poison on the soul.
Shudder. But it’s a new year. Next up: My home video picks for last year and the year to date. As for tonight’s big event–no, not the NBA All-Star Game, the other one that’s not the new episode of The Walking Dead–you can find my picks on Twitter as we wrap 2011.