Top 10 Films of 2011
Here, in the order that our reviewers emailed them, is our Third Way CaféMedia Matters Best Films of 2011. Compare to your own favorites or save this for when you want quick descriptions in picking a film to view or discuss in a group.
- The Tree of Life. This mesmerizing film is unlike any other at the cineplex. Terrence Mallick uses impressionistic images and a nonlinear narrative to explore the life of grace and the life of nature, represented respectively by Mrs. O’Brien and Mr. O’Brien, a couple in a 1950s Texas small town. The film is less something to watch than something to experience.
- Of Gods and Men. This French-language film tells the true story of a group of Trappist monks living near an impoverished Algerian community under threat by fundamentalist terrorists. This beautiful, haunting film shows the courage, fear, and humanity of the monks as they decide whether to leave or stay.
- Margin Call. This well-written, well-acted film presents an incisive look at a 24-hour period at an investment bank in New York in the early stages of the financial crisis. It is an excellent fictional complement to last year’s superb documentary Inside Job. It shows the human struggles as well as the perverse greed that helped create the economic downturn that resulted.
- The Descendants. This well-paced film explores themes of death, grief, infidelity and family relationships. In an excellence performance, George Clooney plays Matt King, a land baron who tries to reconnect with his two daughters after a boating accident leaves his wife in a coma. Strong on dialogue, this film combines humor and pathos in showing family healing.
- Hugo. This is a delightful tale of a12-year-old orphan boy who lives in the walls of a train station in 1930s Paris and tries to solve a mystery involving his late father and an automaton. Shot in 3D, the film celebrates the beginnings of film and incorporates that history into the story.
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This excellent adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel is set in the bleak days of the Cold War. Espionage veteran George Smiley is forced from semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet agent within MI 6 and features an outstanding performance by Gary Oldman as Smiley. The film reveals the tension and compromise, not the glamour or romance, of the spy game.
- Poetry. In this Japanese film, a 60-something woman, faced with the discovery of a heinous crime by the young grandson who lives with her and that she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, finds strength and purpose when she enrolls in a poetry class. The film’s script uses poetry deftly in the narrative as the woman tries to understand the suicide of a girl.
- Le Quattro Volte. This Italian film is another unique one. With no dialogue, it is a work of visual poetry as it follows an old shepherd’s last days in a quiet medieval village high on the hills of Calabria, at the southernmost tip of Italy. The title translates “the four times,” and the film chronicles the earthly journey and material transformation of an old man, a young goat, a tree and a batch of charcoal.
- Higher Ground. This is perhaps the first film since The Apostle to portray a fundamentalist Christian group with honesty and respect, neither preaching a point nor holding it up for ridicule. Vera Farmiga, who directed the film, is magnificent in the lead role of a woman who embraces faith, then experiences ambivalence, leading her to question what she’s been taught.
- Buck. This is a documentary about Buck Brannaman, who served as the inspiration for the novel and movie The Horse Whisperer. Having survived a childhood of abuse by his father, Buck has become a cowboy philosopher who travels the country giving clinics for people with horses that have not been saddled. His patient approach toward horses and his direct truth telling to their owners is a model of humane, if not Christian, behavior.
- Of Gods and Men. A profound and sublime work of cinematic art, Of Gods and Men tells the true story of nine French monks caught up in the Algerian Civil War of 1996. With one beautiful scene after another, this film depicts what loving others and following Jesus is really about while showing both Christianity and Islam in a positive (and even compatible) light.
- The Tree of Life. Yet another profound and sublime work of cinematic art, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life uses breathtaking cinematography and classical music to create a poetic theological film about the meaning of life, specifically the life of Jack, an architect reflecting on his childhood in small-town Texas. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are wonderful as Jack’s parents and Hunter McCracken is amazing as the adolescent Jack.
- Incendies. A haunting, expertly-crafted film from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, Incendies is the story of a woman who struggles for dignity in a world torn apart by religious violence. An insightful and poetic reflection on Middle Eastern violence.
- The Way. A funny, inspiring and beautiful film about a man (played by Martin Sheen, whose son, Emilio Estevez, directs) who decides, on the spur of the moment, to do a famous pilgrimage in northern Spain. Along the way, he meets a number of lonely people who have lost their way and who are, like himself, searching for community and God.
- Take Shelter. A spellbinding psychological drama which may, or may not, be about a coming apocalyptic storm (and about global warming), Take Shelter features awe-inspiring performances by Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain as a couple struggling with the effects of mental illness on a loving young family.
- Moneyball. A classic-style film written by the formidable Aaron Sorkin and featuring a brilliant performance by Brad Pitt as the manager of the Oakland A’s (baseball team) in 2002, Moneyball is moving and funny and all about relationships (not baseball).
- Hugo. A delightful old-fashioned adventure film with a beautifully-realized setting (a Paris train station in the 1930s), Hugo is about fixing broken people who have lost their purpose in life and about the wonder of film. Too bad it had to be in 3D.
- Margin Call. A haunting, intelligent film with a great ensemble cast, Margin Call tells the story of one fateful night in an investment firm at the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis. While humanizing those responsible for the crisis, it exposes the dehumanizing impact of money on all of us who are among the rich.
- The Descendants. George Clooney is wonderful as an Hawaiian lawyer who finds himself needing to relate differently to all the people around him after his wife has a boating accident which leaves her in a coma. The Descendantswas made by Alexander Payne, a master of satisfying character development.
- Beginners. Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent are flawless as Oliver and Anna, two lonely, hurting people, haunted by their fathers, who try to make a lasting connection. Christopher Plummer, as Oliver’s gay father, provides outstanding support. Beginners somehow manages to be both a subdued melancholy film and a very funny one.
- The Descendants. George Clooney plays a father trying to raise two daughters while his unfaithful wife lies in a coma. A poignant film which deals with real issues, in both the nuclear and extended family. It won Golden Globes for both best picture and Clooney for best actor. Be sure to have a handkerchief handy.
- Midnight in Paris. This is perhaps Woody Allen’s best film since Annie Hall. The key to his success was to take himself off camera and add Owen Wilson in his place and to transpose the story from New York City to Paris. The cinematography is gorgeous. It made me want to visit Paris in the spring.
- The Help. This is a truly memorable film about civil rights set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Based on Kathryn Stockett’s sensational best seller of the same name, The Help is not only heart-warming and delightfully entertaining, it wrestles with a serious issue. The film eloquently captures and contrasts the charm of the South, with its plantation homes and debutante balls, and the hurtful Jim Crow laws, which subjugated a race of people to humiliating subservience.
- Moneyball. This is a story about baseball which transcends the game. Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, who remarkably puts together a championship team on a shoestring budget with a computer model using on a player’s on base percentage. Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman also contribute strong performances.
- Hugo. Set in Paris in the 1930s, this enchanting 3-D tale about a boy’s life in a train station was directed by Martin Scorsese. His films are typically violent and bloody but he made this especially for his young daughter. It is based on a children’s book titled The Invention of Hugo Cabret, written by Brian Selznick.Ben Kingsley and Sasha Baron Cohen star alongside a young British actor, Asa Butterfield, who plays the boy Hugo.
- Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. This sequel, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the British sleuth and Jude Law as his side-kick Dr. Watson, is just as original as the first Sherlock Holmes film, released in 2009. Here they meet their arch adversary Professor Moriarty, who is engaging in terrorism to bring about war and thereby profit from the sale of weapons to both sides. A very entertaining film.
- The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick’s cinematic masterpiece and winner of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival Palme D’or award, explores faith and the meaning of life. In stunningly beautiful scenes of volcanoes erupting, fish swimming, waves crashing, cells multiplying and stars imploding, the film explores the creation of the universe and life itself. Director Malick displays the majesty of God’s creation and the incomprehensible distances within the universe. It asks universal questions such as “God, where were you when my child died?” However, it is a critic’s favorite which may not be popular with most moviegoers.
- The Way. This deeply spiritual film is set in Spain along the ancient and exotic pilgrimage route known as the Camino de Santiago or Way of Saint James. Emilio Estevez produced and appears in the film, along with his real life father Martin Sheen. But what impressed me most was the travelogue nature of the film. The breathtaking cinematography, ancient cathedrals, countryside and local flavor of the Camino are palpable. I had never heard of this ancient path until I read Associate Mennonite Biblical Seminary professor Arthur Paul Boers’ book, The Way is Made by Walking just two months before seeing this film. They have given me a desire to make this pilgrimage.
- Forks Over Knives. This isa documentary which catalogues our present health crisis. It traces the careers of two prominent doctors, Caldwell Esselstyn, a medical doctor and heart surgeon, and Colin Campbell, a research scientist who has extensively studied the correlation of diet and disease. Together they have pioneered the treatment of chronic disease through a plant based diet. It could change your life.
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part II. The airing of the film climax of the best-selling books of all time was sure to be a bittersweet moment for Harry Potter fans. But it delivered the magic we’ve come to expect as Harry, Ron and Hermione search for Horcruxes in an effort to destroy the Dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Crint reprise their familiar roles.
I continue to be impressed at the increasingly large number of worthwhile films released each year. I remember a time, a few decades ago, when it was difficult to find enough good films in one year to make a top ten list. I haven’t seen all the films that are showing up on some of the “Best of 2011” lists including, Moneyball; The Descendants; The Artist; Margaret; Mary, Martha, May, Marlene; and the latest Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. But of the films I’ve seen, this is my top ten list in reverse order:
- Margin Call is a dark, tense, captivating drama about a financial crises that destroys Wall Street and threatens the livelihood of the human race. The soundtrack is appropriately straight out of a horror film. Grim, scary, and quite relevant.
- I Am. I included the autobiographical documentary, I Am, by director Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura, Pet Dectective; Bruce Almighty; Liar, Liar) on this list because of the enthusiastic and contagious energy he puts into promoting the blessings of down-sizing, which is what Shadyac choose to do after having a near-death experience. Short, fast-paced, and very positive.
- Take Shelter. I was disappointed in the surprise ending to Take Shelter, but it was the only thing about this film I didn’t like. The acting of Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain is superb and the story is flawlessly told, a story which seems to be a serious drama about mental illness in a rural Ohio family, at least until the last couple minutes of the film.
- Jane Eyre. It’s nice to know that a famous novel, Jane Eyre, which has been told on film numerous times before, can still be done in an original and refreshing manner. There’s an energetic tension between the main characters, played by Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, in the 2011 edition of this classic. It made me want to read the book again.
- Super 8. The director and producer make no attempt to hide the fact thatSuper 8 is simply a copycat of ET, only with a much bigger and more frightening alien. The film also makes the mistake of having the most spectacular train wreck ever filmed, located near the beginning of this film, at the risk of outshining the climax at the end of the film. But neither of these near-disasters harms this movie in any way. It’s probably too scary for small children, but otherwise this entertaining story is a great family film.
- Cave of Forgotten Dreams. One of the best uses of 3D I’ve seen, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, takes us underground for an intimate look at the 32,000 year-old drawings in the Chauvet Cave in southern France. It was filmed under very strict conditions with minimal lighting and only four people including the director, intrepid documentarian, Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man; Into the Abyss). Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a fascinating journey into the past.
- Beginners puts a human face on aging and terminal illness, that of veteran actor Christopher Plummer. But it does much more than that. Beginners is a sensitive, delicate film about a young man (Ewan McGregor) whose father recently died, and who has difficulty making a permanent commitment to his new girlfriend (Melanie Laurent). This might come across as simply a better-than-average film, but Director Mike Mills pushes Beginners to near the top of this list by the original and unique methods used to tell this endearing story.
- Hugo is an enthralling film for all ages. It’s about an orphan boy who lives in a clock tower in a train station in Paris. There are no bad guys in this film, only one person who needs a little more sensitivity. It’s another wise and worthwhile use of 3D. Hugo reminds viewers of the need to respect history and appreciate and preserve the artistic accomplishments of the past.
- Midnight in Paris is a compact film that brims with content and covers a century of time. An engaged couple, Gil and Inez, played by Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams, travel to Paris together, but their hearts are aimed in different directions. While Inez travels to local attractions during the day to socialize with family and friends, Gil spends nights journeying to a different part of Paris. Midnight in Paris is another reminder that Woody Allen, as a film maker, seems to be getting better as he gets older.
- Tree of Life. Because of its overwhelming ambition and exquisite breath-taking cinematography, The Tree of Life is my choice for the top film of the year. It’s a story of a family in Texas told in the context of the creation of the universe and the endlessness of time. Director Terrence Malick is not afraid to dream big and has the skill to put those dreams on film. I was thrilled by the images in this film, even to the point of them diverting my focus from the actual story. The Tree of Life is an original masterpiece for all time.
Matthew Kauffman Smith
- Moneyball. I saw a lot of very good movies but nothing that screamed “classic” and much of my list is interchangeable. But Moneyball stands out because the degree of difficulty it takes to make a compelling film based largely on baseball statistics. Give co-writers Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian credit for that.
- The Descendants. George Clooney will add a best actor Oscar to his collection for his portrayal of an attorney who struggles to lead his family after his wife has an accident. Equally impressive was the performance of newcomer Shailene Woodley, who plays Clooney’s eldest daughter.
- The Ides of March. This political drama is as depressing as it is gripping. The film explores the dysfunctional political system and the theme of personal gain vs. communal gain. The movie offers a rare chance to see four of the best male actors – Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti – together in one film.
- Meek’s Cutoff. A group of pioneers in the 1840s put their trust in a guide to get them across the Oregon Trail. But can they trust the guide or do they put their faith in a Native American, who they perceive as their enemy? This is a slow but beautiful film.
- Senna. I am not an auto-racing fan in the slightest but this film about Formula One driver Ayrton Senna was my favorite documentary this year. Director Asif Kapadia weaves a great narrative of faith and mortality by using file footage and voice-over interviews.
- Bill Cunningham New York. This documentary profiles longtime New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, who rides his bicycle all over New York snapping pictures of anyone on the street he finds interesting. It is refreshing to see someone onscreen who enjoys his job so much.
- Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen is too old to play a young, neurotic writer anymore so he hired Owen Wilson to do it for him. Wilson’s character travels back to 1920s Paris every night at midnight, when he mingles with the likes of Ernest Hemmingway, Gertrude Stein and Salvador Dali. In a very entertaining film, Allen explores whether there really is such a thing as the good old days.
- Crazy, Stupid, Love. An aptly titled romantic comedy that was part crazy, part stupid but ultimately lovely.
- Forks Over Knives. At times preachy, this documentary nonetheless makes a compelling case for a plant-based, whole-foods diet instead of one based on animal protein. I didn’t give up eating meat after watching this film, but it is a must-see for anyone at risk for heart disease.
- Beginners. I went back and forth between this and Bridesmaids, but ultimately leaned toward writer-director Mike Mills’ film based on his relationship with his father, who told Mills he was gay at the age of 75. Ewan McGregor plays the son and Golden Globe winner Christopher Plummer plays the father in this film that explores how to navigate excitement and discovery in a world full of sadness and loss.