My top 20 films of 2011

Another year. Another list a year behind the times. Life moves at a slower pace here when it comes to movies. It’s like being in a time machine always set to minus twelve months.

20. Martha Marcy May Marlene

The tension of the film builds as we learn more about the cult and what fate likely awaits those who try to escape. What at first seems like hippies out in the woods living in a makeshift commune becomes a full blown cult, complete with violent rituals and the mandatory mind control. The reality of Martha's current situation seems more dire as each flashback peels away one horrific layer after another to the core of her former life. Through it all, Elizabeth Olsen's performance is near perfect. She behaves awkwardly with Lucy and Ted but never in a manner that feels melodramatic. My full review.

19. Footnote

Great performances and an intriguing story of a father-son relationship carry Footnote through a first half which provides many laughs and a second half which expresses the deep hurt a long and painful father and son journey inevitably delivers. An original film told in an originally, if not jarring manner. Refreshing. My full review

18. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Ghost Protocol never pretends to be what it isn't. Those looking for thought provoking cinema or even character development are sure to be let down. This is an action film that has fun being that and nothing more. My full review.

17. A Separation

An exhausting film, but in a good way. A Separation tells what would appear to be a simple story in a way that is anything but simple. The moral and ethical decisions characters make in some trying situations would seem easy to judge except director and writer Asghar Farhadi doesn't provide an effortless judgement. He, like the actors themselves, ensure reality is represented in full until the end where emotions are tapped out. My full review.

16. Contagion

Never completely satisfying as a drama or thriller, Contagion finds its sweet spot somewhere in between genres. And though it never connects on a deep emotional level, the end result is a well done film that tells a believable story about a scenario none of us wishes to experience. My full review.

15. Young Adult

The journey to destroy a marriage and fulfill the selfish desires of a despicable character does not sound fun but the way that the screenplay writer, Diablo Cody (most famous for writing Juno), positions her extremely narcissistic main character with a backdrop of decent human beings makes things fun. We can never cheer for our main character. Her plans and her ways are never worth cheering for. But we can laugh at the absurdity of her behavior, realizing that when we give into our own notions of self-importance, our vanity, we transform into creatures not unlike Mavis. And in the end, Young Adult serves as a warning for those of us who might think we're far away from ever being like Mavis. A full review.

14. Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman makes a welcome return after nearly a dozen years since his last film. Damsels in Distress is a witty comedy with commentary on a variety of topics but never heavy handed. The laughs come along with a satirical backdrop and characters to match. Not everyone's cup of tea but possibly a surprise for those who haven't enjoyed Stillman's past films. Damsels was a pleasant surprise for me. My full review.

13. The Descendants

The laughs come in small spurts, as Matt confronts the onslaught of obstacles, sorrow and tragedy before him. Rising above the quirky indie comedy, The Descendants succeeds where many fail. The seriousness of the story presented is never fully played for laughs nor is there a need to redeem itself in the end with melodrama. Instead we're left with a film that feels oddly comfortable even in the midst of uncomfortable situations. My full review.

12. Higher Ground

Vera Farmiga succeeds in not only carrying the load of this film based on real life memoirs of Carolyn S. Briggs, she also directed it as a first time effort behind the camera. I admire her attempt to tackle a subject that is not a popular one in her circles and generally handling it with great care, never taking the easy route of cynically portraying her characters while also not hiding their struggles and faults. My full review.

11. The Hunter

Maybe all the pieces don't add up in a completely satisfying manner, but that doesn't stop the beauty of The Hunter from resonating. Willem Dafoe carries the quiet thriller on his back with a performance which is as much about the smallest moments, the slightest of facial expressions in the midst of a mysterious hunt for the most unlikely animal to be called a tiger. My full review.

10. Jeff, Who Lives at Home

I was at first convinced Jeff, Who Lives at Home was going to be another vulgar and cynical comedy; one that treats its characters with disdain by putting them through painfully awkward situations, only to watch them dangle in despair until the bitter end where there is a weak attempt at redemption. And while it is vulgar at times, there is a genuine care for these characters, all of whom are easy to make rash judgments about. The story is more than just a setup for laughs, though there are plenty of those. Jeff's obsession with his destiny may not jive with reality but it makes for a surprisingly compelling story with an emotional payoff. My full review.

9. Margin Call

The tone never changes throughout, for better or worse. It's a slow burn of a film. Certain characters seem to grow the 24 hour time span while others start a new path in their life that is likely to be filled with regret. The ending is as sad and poignant as one can imagine without resorting to cheap plot twists. Margin Call serves as an admirable tale for our times. My full review.

8. Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes may not get a lot of love on people's top films of 2011 but it should. It's one of those rare sci-fi action films that is so well paced and executed that you forget the challenge it overcame, following a long line of predecessors, many of which weren't all that good and some that were simply awful. My full review.

7. Moneyball

Watching Billy Beane struggle, even after he experiences a wild amount of success, makes Moneyball a special film. Most would have had the Oakland A's GM triumphantly proclaiming his loyalty for his team and ended it in a great David vs. Goliath story. Instead we get Billy Beane the always appearing calm figure who is never quite sure what to make of this game of baseball. Even in success he is unsure. His final decision to stick with the underdog feels like it's filled with doubt. As if Beane's decision to stick with the A's or go with the incredible offer from the Red Sox is lose-lose. To Billy Beane, there is no sure thing. The obvious first appeal of anything cannot be trusted. My full review.

6. Hanna

Hanna was entertaining throughout, avoiding the temptation to add unwieldy plot twists and characters (I'm looking at you Harry Potter). The tone of the film hit me just right. The experimentation within the action genre was a great success. While not a fan of sequels in general, I wouldn't mind seeing Hanna 2. My full review.

5. The Interrupters

While reality TV has trained most of us to build a cynical force field to what we see on the television, documentaries like The Interrupters pierce our hearts, not with emotional trickery but by displaying slices of life otherwise unnoticed by most. My full review.

4. Beauty Day

Beauty Day is refreshingly honest. There is a nervous energy about Ralph Zavadil that is hard to not get wrapped up in. At the same time, Ralph is human and the film never tries to hide that. It would be easy to portray him as a misunderstood genius of self-destructive stunts or a troubled soul we should feel sorry for, but instead we get a look at the good, the bad and the stuff that falls somewhere in-between. And all of this is done with a sense of humor and unique style that adds up to a fine film. My full review.

3. The Elephant in The Living Room

What could have been not much more than an issue documentary turns into a rather sophisticated look at two men involved in the thick of the topic. The human story is what ends up driving the film home and puts it over the top of an already solid educational look at the problem of exotic animals as pets problem in the US. My full review.

 

2. Better This World

Whether one agrees with their left leaning politics or not, it's hard not to feel empathy for Crowder and McKay in the latter half of the film. The two twenty-something friends are not simply used as exhibits A and B in a case against the US justice system and overreaching homeland security, they are shown as people who have families and loved ones. The repercussions for Crowder and McKay are deeper than a lost battle for the cause they believe in. These young men are faced with hard prison time away from loving families and friends.

Unlike its counterparts, Better This World makes the most of its activist focused material and tells a compelling story in a manner worthy of the source material. My full review.

1. Take Shelter

Take Shelter is sure to leave some perplexed, others enthralled, and almost everyone thinking for days about what it all meant in the end. Count me in the camp of those enthralled. The performances, the overall mood, and the contrast between an everyday life and schizophrenia are done in a near perfect manner. My full review.