15. Hugo (dir-Martin Scorsese)
A wonderful fable that evokes a child-like awe of the machinery of clocks and robots, and in turn the machinations of cinema. The Melies on-set segments and film clips were pretty magical for me (being a movie geek and all), aided by the perfect choice of using Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre”. The teal-based 3 strip Technicolor looks beautiful, and was perhaps influenced by Scorsese favorite Leave Her to Heaven (just a guess), which uses a similar color palette.
14. A Serbian Film (dir-Srdjan Spasojevic)
In an era of completely jaded horror fans (and the internet, where every perversion becomes a possibility), here is a genuinely transgressive horror film. The movie works because the taboo smashing acts of perversion within are anchored by the destruction of an innocent family. The movie-within-a-movie construction combined with the flashback structure is effective in breaking down the audience’s comfort level in being able to safely establish the reality of the film, amping up the horror without collapsing into confusion.
13. Certified Copy (dir-Abbas Kiarostami)
Juliette Binoche is captivating and reason enough to watch this mostly two-person conversation about love, life and art through the streets of Tuscany. Certified Copy is a bit like Before Sunset, but digs deeper (not that there’s anything wrong with Before Sunset), both in terms of getting closer to the actor’s faces and becoming a closer examination of identities in relationships and truth in art, complete with a Bunuelian twist that calls into question all that came before.
12. Red White & Blue (dir-Simon Rumley)
I heard good things about this one but forgot any of the details, so I went in completely cold and got a much welcomed kick in the nuts (a “kick in the nuts” is a good thing when it comes to horror films but usually bad otherwise). As with many great horror films, this is set up as if it wasn’t a horror film, as the world and characters are completely realized, and we wait for things to break bad. And lordy do they, as one AIDS infection causes this small fabric of characters to completely unravel in a series of horrors both tragic and realistic.
11. Blackthorn (dir-Mateo Gil)
Butch Cassidy (a fittingly gangbusters Sam Shepard) doesn’t die in the shootout in Bolivia, but survives to live a quiet life until he is forced to go on one last score. This “old man” western completely avoids the obvious cheeseball moments and instead goes for something more realistic, detailed, and elegiac. It’s a throwback, not to hackneyed western plots, but more so to some of the 70’s revisionist westerns (think Bad Company or McCabe and Mrs. Miller). It’s also maybe the best showcase thus far for a western shot digitally.
10. Contagion (dir-Steven Soderbergh)
Maybe the most impressively edited film of 2011 (courtesy of Stephen Mirrione), a rapid fire assemblage of events and media from around the world that realistically accounts what might happen if a deadly virus did indeed spread. A sprawling apocalyptic chiller that presents a plausible world disaster, instead of the typical Hollywood-ized disaster flick you normally get.
9. Sleeping Beauty (dir-Catherine Breillat)
Not the movie where what’s-her-face gets naked, this is instead another take on a classic fairy tale by Catherine Breillat after 2010’s Bluebeard (which made my top 5). Instead of cutting back and forth between a young girl reading the story in modern day and the actual story played out in the past, here a young girl wanders through a magical fairy tale land that is odd, beautiful, and frightening. Unlike most fairy tale movies, this one is appropriately dark (and not in a Tim Burton kinda way), and the world itself feels tangible and authentic.
8. Road to Nowhere (dir-Monte Hellman)
A movie-within-a-movie about a director obsessed with making his masterpiece, another determined Hellman existential hero, and how his reality and the reality of the film co-mingle. Reality is slyly edited together with scenes from the film without it becoming a simple gimmick where art imitates life directly. The film is also a great document of how films are made nowadays using computers and digital technology.
Dominique Swain as the "movie blogger"
7. The Skin I Live In (dir-Pedro Almodovar)
A variation on Eyes without a Face that is nevertheless very Almodovar, with humanity cutting through a melodramatic story, including some Almodovar-esque out-of-left-field “trashy” plot developments (like the rapist wearing a skintight tiger suit). Antonio Banderas and the ever-beautiful Elena Anaya go emotionally toe-to-toe, completely rooting what could have been a simple mad scientist movie in lesser hands.
6. Love Exposure (dir-Shion Sono)
An epic love triangle with three oddball heroes scarred by various sexual perversions, fleshed out as if each were the star of the movie, completely justifying the four hour runtime (and making it feel more like 2 ½ hours). Review coming soon!
5. The Last Circus (dir-Alex de la Iglesia)
Maybe my favorite circus-sploitation movie ever, besting the likes of Nightmare Alley and even Big Top Pee Wee. Review here.
4. Jane Eyre (dir-Cary Fukunaga)
My favorite adaptation (although not the most faithful), with both my favorite performance of the year (Mia Wasikowska in the lead) and my favorite cinematography (Adriano Goldman), with a breathtaking use of natural light. The movie gives us a darker Jane, where the horror of repression leads to true tragedy, instead of the more token costume dramas with their bland notions of love and passion.
3. Drive (dir-Nicolas Winding Refn)
Nobody does postmodern hodgepodge better than Refn, and here he does his combination of Michael Mann’s Thief and Walter Hill’s The Driver, juggling tense genre character drama and cinematic pop art, while giving it a modern European sensibility. The surprisingly killer synth pop soundtrack adds emotional layers instead of conveying simple 80’s nostalgia.
2. Amer (dir-Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani)
I know this has a release date of 2009 on IMDB, but I’m counting the U.S. DVD/Blu-ray release in 2011 as the release date since it was difficult to see before that. Anyway, as a big Argento fan, this “Argento homage” was one of the few times in recent years where I highly anticipated seeing a movie well before its release date, and this one didn’t disappoint. And I use “Argento homage” very loosely; Amer is the very rare film that uses another director’s style as a jumping off point to create something totally unique, taking the psychosexual subtext of the giallo and running with it.
1. Tree of Life (dir-Terrence Malick)
As a huge Malick fan, I could’ve called this ahead of time. Even so, the movie surprises with flights into the cosmic (literally and figuratively), as almost some kind of inversion of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It also literally presents a world fragmented by memory and the human pull between nature and modernization, rather than simply being a theme like in his previous films. Jessica Chastain feels like the movie’s true centerpiece, like a beacon of humanity and motherhood that holds the movie together.