After finalizing the list of my favorite films of 2011, I glanced over the entries and noted two interesting but unintended trends:

#1: You probably haven’t seen them. Only two films on my list grossed more than $100 million worldwide. The other eight can hardly be called box office hits. A few made such a small blip that their domestic grosses can’t even be measured in millions. Oscar voters picked The Artist this year and were accused of being too artsy; my choices make the Oscar-winners look like Transformers.

But that’s okay. Three films in my top ten stream instantly on Netflix as of this writing. Most of the others are available on DVD. They might pleasantly surprise you. I intend no comment about the quality of small films versus blockbusters. These are the films that meant the most to me.

#2: It was a good year for women. It is often said that there are not enough films by and about women. This is true, but just as often the great films by and about women are not the ones people notice, and with one exception on my list they’re not the films people went to see. Six of my top ten movies are predominantly about women. Three of those were directed by women. Only one of them made any money.

My list starts with one of those female-driven films:

Directed by Vera Farmiga – I only recently caught up with Higher Ground, which fell through the cracks during Oscar season; now I hope it will be discovered. Farmiga, for years one of my favorite actresses, makes her directing debut and proves as natural behind the camera as she is in front of it, telling a story about religion that doesn’t take a particular position on faith but considers it from all sides with openness and compassion.

Directed by Andrew Haigh – I’ve seen many films about gay men, but few that have resonated on such a personal level. Haigh’s British romantic drama, about two men (Tom Cullen and Chris New) who meet for sex but then form an intimate bond over the next two days, avoids formulas and cliches. In it I found reflected back at me complete and true characters I recognized. It streams instantly on Netflix.

Directed by Xavier Beauvois – Like Higher Ground, the French drama Of Gods and Men is a story about religion that neither criticizes nor proselytizes, because it’s more about men than it is about gods. It tells the true story of an order of Trappist monks threatened by terrorists in Algeria. If they stay, they may die, but returning to the safety of France means abandoning the community they serve. They wrestle with God and question their faiths, but their struggle has more to do with conscience than scripture. They must choose between their lives and their values.

Directed by Woody Allen – Nostalgia was a recurring theme in 2011, particularly in the classic-cinema tributes The Artist and Hugo. I think Midnight in Paris is better than those films, because even in its warm, glowing reverie of 1920s Paris it recognizes the limitations of nostalgia. It’s actually an unrequited love story, you see. Restless Hollywood screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson) adores the artistic giants of the early 20th century, but the past can never love him back.

Directed by Clio Barnard – Will you be immediately put off when I explain that this is an experimental documentary? I first became aware of it by listening to The Guardian‘s Film Weekly podcast, whose critics ranked it among their favorite UK releases of 2010 (it opened in the US in April 2011). It uses actors to lip-sync the words of its interview subjects: the family of late playwright Andrea Dunbar, who herself used art to express the pain of her impoverished upbringing. By transforming her surviving children’s lives into art in this way, the film builds an emotional bridge between Dunbar and her daughters, reconciling past and present with elegance and insight. It streams on Netflix.

Directed by Paul Feig – That this film is riotously funny is only half of what makes it outstanding. It’s also unexpectedly humane. Kristen Wiig gives a fearless performance as Annie, who is in the midst of a midlife crisis just as her best friend (Maya Rudolph) is at her happiest, engaged to be married and surrounded by a new class of friends. Annie has lost her business and much of her self-esteem, making this not only a great ribald comedy with poop jokes but a recession-era catharsis for those fallen on hard times.

Directed by Lynne Ramsay – This is not simply a horror story about a bad seed, though it is about a bad seed (played with icy cruelty by Ezra Miller). Ramsay’s film, based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, is more interested in the psychic damage done to his mother, who entered parenthood with ambivalence and can never seem to find in herself the affection she is supposed to have for her child. Tilda Swinton gives a remarkable performance of deep loneliness, guilt, and dread that is among her best work, which is really saying something if you’ve seen her other work.

Directed by Jeff Nichols – Like Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Michael Shannon plays a person suffering in isolation from the world around him. He plays Curtis, a midwestern husband and father having apocalyptic dreams. He’s a rational man who questions his sanity and seeks help, but he can’t shake the overwhelming terror, and the emotional power of the film, directed by Nichols at a low simmer that builds to a boiling dread, is watching a good man in a war with himself and with nature that he may not be able to win.

Directed by Lars von Trier – I was fully prepared to hate this film. The only von Trier film I had seen prior to this was Antichrist, a nasty exercise in sadism with art-film pretensions. Melancholia, though perhaps just as pessimistic, is far more empathetic. It shares with Take Shelter the threat of a possible apocalypse; the titular planet looms overhead, threatening life on Earth, where two sisters (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) struggle with depression, despair, and life as they know it. The film taps into a universal fear; mercilessly, relentlessly, unshakably, von Trier considers the subject that unites us all: mortality.

Directed by Lee Chang-dong – How do I love this film? Let me count the ways.

I’ve been ranking my favorite films for almost fifteen years, and this is the first time a director has topped my list twice. Lee’s Secret Sunshine, which I saw at the 2007 New York Film Festival but wasn’t released in the US until 2010, was my favorite film of last year, and his followup, Poetry, is just as good. Once again he builds a deeply moving character study around a luminous lead performance. Yun Jeong-hie plays Mija, the grandmother and caregiver of a selfish teenage boy. She is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and begins to take lessons in writing poetry.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There has been a crime committed. Someone has died. We sense that Mija has spent a lifetime accommodating others – especially men – but as she faces the loss of herself to disease, she must discover her own feelings and make a moral choice. Lee addresses gender, class, and justice with such a subtle hand that the film hardly seems directed at all, as if it materialized on the screen fully and perfectly on its own. Shall I compare it to a summer’s day? I don’t much care for summer. I’ll take Poetry any day.

Second String

Five films that narrowly missed a spot in my top ten:

CONTAGION Steven Soderbergh‘s thriller about a global outbreak never strains for an effect. It is cool in its delivery, its writing free of bombast, its characters dedicated professionals trying to solve a problem and not heroic archetypes out for glory. He approaches this story with the same steady confidence he brought to Traffic, and it’s all the better for it.

 

JANE EYRE – Director Cary Fukunaga‘s previous film was the illegal immigration drama Sin Nombre, and his followup couldn’t be more different. His adaptation of Charlotte Bronte‘s famous novel is visually lush and full of sensuality and foreboding, a surprisingly natural fit for the filmmaker.

 

MARGIN CALL – A surprise Oscar nominee for its screenplay, but only a surprise until you’ve seen it. The film has in common with Higher Ground that it approaches a hot-button subject – in this case Wall Street malfeasance – not with political fervor but with personal interest in the people involved. Writer-director J.C. Chandor has made a fascinating film about the hierarchies of business, and the little people working for the big companies that played fast and loose with their money, their jobs, and their lives.

 

RANGO – Nothing in Gore Verbinski‘s career – including The Mexican, The Ring, and the Pirates of the Caribbean films – would lead one to expect this. His first animated film is also by far his best film. Telling the story of the title chameleon, who finds himself stranded in the desert after being raised as a domestic pet, it follows the tradition of many modern animated films in that it is more visually and emotionally sophisticated than its talking animals would suggest.

 

A SEPARATION Asghar Farhadi‘s stirring Iranian drama is not about one thing. It is not a political polemic about life in Iran. It does not take a stand for or against Islam. It is universal in the way that we could imagine its characters almost anywhere in the world. In it, a misunderstanding leads to a miscarriage, which leads to a court case, all of which is complicated by a divorce proceeding. The film’s emotional tension comes from the fact that we sympathize with all parties, who are in their own ways trying to do what it best for themselves and those they love.

Special Distinction

Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky – By itself, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – which had an Oscar-qualifying run in 2011 and premiered on HBO in January 2012 – would not quite make my list of the year’s best films, but taken together, the Paradise Lost series is among the great achievements in documentaries. From the very beginning, the filmmakers followed the case of the West Memphis 3, a trio of teens who in 1994 were wrongly convicted of vicious child murders because they were believed to be Satan-worshipers. Over nearly two decades and three films, Berlinger and Sinofsky exposed the dangers of cultural paranoia, the stubborn hubris of the justice system, and how persecution of the Other can lead innocents to be punished and the guilty to go free. In all likelihood, the butcher of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, will live out the rest of his days a free man. This is how it happened.

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