Top Ten Films of 2011

As we enter 2015 and the second half of the decade, now seems appropriate to recap the best films of the 2010s so far. This week “The Marquee” will profile the top ten films from each of the last five years. We continue our coverage with 2011, which some consider to be one of the best years in film ever. Be sure to list your own favorite films from 2011 in the comments, and stay tuned for more annual lists in the coming days.

 Martha Marcy May Marlene

 10. Martha Marcy May Marlene

The secret cult sub-genre—or more eloquently, the “Prison of Belief” sub-genre—has seen a slight resurgence as of late, gaining traction with the indie hit Sound of My Voice and the recent scientology documentary Going Clear that premiered at Sundance to near-unanimous acclaim. In Martha Marcy May Marlene we see the aftermath of indoctrination and brainwashing when Martha (Elizabeth Olson) escapes a rural cult to live with her older sister Lucy. Life with Lucy and her husband Ted is intercut with life on the farm, and clever connections are drawn by writer-director Sean Durkin that confuse us as to which setting we are in. Whether or not Martha will ever move on from life in the cult with its deified leader Patrick (another brilliantly creepy performance from John Hawkes) is unclear, but Durkin effectively conveys that the trappings of Patrick’s influence go far beyond the physical.

Meek's Cutoff

9. Meek’s Cutoff

Meek’s Cutoff has more in common with the classic John Ford westerns than the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns that younger generations may have grown up with, but that still doesn’t say much about director Kelly Reichardt’s bleak, minimalist Westward expansion drama. The iconic Monument Valley is replaced here by the rolling, desolate plains of the Oregon Trail, and the film does not feature a heroic cowboy with a white hat nor a villain in black. We revisit a similar shot over the course of the film: an extreme wide take stretching across the horizon, and in the distance are three families and their wagon trains, venturing aimlessly with the only direction being a better life in the West. One of the wives, Emily (Michelle Williams), serves as our point of view into the morale of the group, and she often banters with their hapless guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who has caused the group to become utterly and irredeemably lost. What are left are the harsher but more authentic perils faced in the Wild West: disease, thirst, and starvation. Such desperation for such basic needs reveal the true colors of the characters and showcases a quietly forceful performance from Williams. One could say the same thing about the film’s contribution to the Western canon.

A Separation

8. A Separation

In A Separation Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi moves his characters like chess pieces into morally and sometimes legally uncomfortable scenarios. It is even more evident when the film takes place in modern-day Iran where the nation lives under Sharia law. But the film should not be confused for a commentary on Islam. The United States and all countries wrestle with the rule of law and religion, and you will find that we face many of the same moral quandaries experienced in the film. Parents Nader and Simin want the best for their family, but they have very different views on how to get there. So much so that it causes Nader to file for divorce, not because she doesn’t love Simin but because she wants a better life for their daughter Termeh. Meanwhile Nader refuses to leave his father afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and Termeh won’t leave her father. What Farhadi presents as a fairly straightforward narrative still offers a great deal of emotional and philosophical complexity, and this is before the family is thrust into a court case after an altercation with a hired nurse. The judge in the proceedings is a convenient metaphor for us in the audience, and regardless of our religious or political leanings, we cannot help but feel for the players involved.

Certified Copy

7. Certified Copy

The title Certified Copy comes from a lecture given by art historian James Miller during the first reel of the film about the artistic validity of copies versus original works, but it can also be applied to the couple at the center of writer-director Abbas Kiarostami’s romance. Briefly after meeting James (William Shimell), our unnamed leading lady (Juliette Binoche) takes him to a village in Tuscany close by, and when a local café owner mistakes them for a married couple after witnessing an argument, the two decide to play the part. It leaves some pretty heady questions in the end. Is a “certified” copy of a Monet as valuable as the original? Can true love be replaced with the next best thing? Certified Copy is a film whose questions evoke more emotion than logic, the kind of emotion that certainly cannot be faked.

Melancholia

6. Melancholia

There is a level of irony that presides over much of the first half of Melancholia. The wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) at a beautiful country estate, normally a time of celebration, is overshadowed by the looming threat of another planet on a collision course with earth. Most would welcome a wedding even at a time like this, if only as a way to cope with their impending doom, but Danish director Lars von Trier, one never to pass up an opportunity to exact suffering on his characters, makes sure the gravity of the situation is felt in his own sadistic ways. No one is more tortured than Justine, who exhibits a debilitating depression throughout the film and becomes even more undone after the wedding when the aptly named rogue planet, Melancholia, appears in the sky from behind the sun. Justine’s sister Claire, played by von Trier regular Charlotte Gainsbourg, hopelessly tries to console her, but as the end draws near—in a climax that is simultaneously operatic and intimately poetic—we question which sister exudes more grace, if not more sanity, in dealing with the end.

Shame

5. Shame

Very little—if anything—is sexy about director Steve McQueen’s Shame, the story of a man living in Manhattan with sex addiction. With a topic that could easily be exploited into a more typical psychoanalysis by a lesser director, McQueen (12 Years a Slave) presents his subject with a more artistic and detached lens. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) desires no company as he languishes through his days, with sex far removed from offering anything but suffering, so when his younger sister (Carey Mulligan) visits him unannounced, Brandon’s shame is no longer guarded in privacy. We learn she battles her own demons; shown in one unforgettably heart wrenching scene where she performs a somber—but beautiful—rendition of Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” “I’ll make a brand new start of it,” she sings. We can only hope the same for Brandon.

Take Shelter

4. Take Shelter

We all have experienced a moment in our lives when we are so completely convinced of something—whether it was an event that occurred or an event that will occur—yet no one believes us. A similar treatise drives director Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, but here it shows up on a more apocalyptic scale. Curtis (Michael Shannon) seems to have a perfectly comfortable life. He works for a construction company, has a wife and daughter, owns a dog, and lives in a modest but suitable home. But soon he is haunted by vivid nightmares and visions of a great storm, and so he sets out feverishly to build a fallout shelter fit for the end of days. Nichols is not interested in giving us a modern take on Noah and the Ark, but instead he dials into something much more personal: the urge to do whatever it takes to protect those you love, even if they come to loathe you for it.

Drive

3. Drive

In what has already become a de facto cult classic just a few years after its release, the hero at the center of Drive could be considered an eponymous character. The nameless protagonist played by Ryan Gosling has no back-story to speak of, no family to come home to, and little-to-no feelings. Less a man than the idea of one etched in our minds from classics such as Bullitt and Duel, he moonlights as a getaway car driver when he is not driving for stunts in films. He breathes. He sleeps. He drives. It is a thankless job, but he does it with such skill and elegance that you get the sense the driver is a man of principle, even if it takes him to some nefarious and violent ends. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn is no stranger to violence in his work, but in Drive the violence appropriately raises the stakes as the driver must protect his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benecio from a group of merciless gangsters. Without Gosling, Los Angeles would be the star of the movie, presented as a seedy, deliberately unglamorous metropolis, infused with disarming flashes of neon and a beautifully pulsing soundtrack.  The only thing comparable to the rush the driver feels racing through the streets is the cinematic rush Refn delivers the audience.

The Descendants

2. The Descendants

If not for the beguilingly heartbreaking performance by George Clooney as a white descendant/resident of Hawaii, out of touch with his daughters, his wife, and his home, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants may not leave such a lasting impact as it does. Although a lot of terribly unfortunate events happen to him in a short time (his wife ends up in a coma from a boating accident and shortly thereafter he learns she was having an affair), what stings the most is witnessing his strained relationship with his daughters Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). And so when they do realize how hard they have been on their father—as he also must decide whether or not to sell a large parcel of land passed down from multiple generations—the film concludes in uplift, albeit bittersweet. Payne is an expert at balancing humor and drama with an earnestness that rarely strays into condescension, and in The Descendants his aim could not be truer.

The Tree of Life

1. The Tree of Life

Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life is a singularly ambitious achievement, at once enveloping the vast existence of our universe as well as following the coming-of-age of two sons in suburban America. We never know for sure in what period of history this portion of the film takes place (one could probably guess some time in the 1950s), but the clothes, the cars, and the conversations are of a time so familiar that it could be encased in amber. But the epistemological evocations come not solely from the moment-to-moment happenings of the film. They also come from the countless images that linger long after the credits have rolled, shot with brilliant lyricism by the accomplished cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. We hear excerpts from the book of Job as beautifully exquisite renderings of our cosmos flash on the screen, and then cut to a family argument at the dinner table where a father (Brad Pitt) exercises his responsibility as a disciplinarian. Upon viewing The Tree of Life, it is hard not to wonder, “What significance are our lifetimes in a universe of indefinable space and time?” But the real triumph is that this film is about so much more, and that “more” differs for each of us.

 

Honorable Mentions

Martin Scorsese’s ode to the medium in one of the better uses of the 3-D format, Hugo; A gripping procedural on the eve of the 2008 Wall Street financial crisis from up-and-coming director J.C. Chandor, Margin Call; The hilarious emergence of household names in comedy Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids; A wistful flashback to a golden age of modern literary thought in the City of Lights, Midnight in Paris; The methodical, blink-and-you-might-miss-it John le Carré adaptation, featuring a great leading performance from Gary Oldman and impactful supporting turns from present-day stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; The thrilling sibling mystery set in the Middle East from Canadian director Denis Villenevue, Incendies.

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