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My Favorite Films of 2011

On account of the fact the 2012 Oscar nominations were officially released today, we asked one of our movie critics for a list of his favorite films from the past year. Needless to say, he delivered. The following is a list of favorites from Andrew Welch.

My Favorite Films of 2011

Because I'm not a full-time critic and (unfortunately) not part of any critics group, I don't have the kind of access to films that other critics have. I'm able to make it to a press screening from time to time, but living in Denton makes it much harder to do that on a regular basis, seeing as how they're all in Dallas, at least an hour's drive away.

Still, I did my best last year to see as much as I could, and as a result, I probably saw more new movies in 2011 than I ever have before. That doesn’t mean this list is authoritative in any way—these are simply the movies that captured my attention and imagination throughout the course of last year.

And now, the list (in alphabetical order):

Certified Copy

Of all the movies on this list, Certified Copy is the one I'm just getting to know. Directed by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, it centers around one emotional afternoon shared between an antiques shop owner (Juliette Binoche) and a writer (William Shimell). At the film's start they appear to be strangers meeting for the first time, but by the end all our presuppositions about them will be called into question. Are they actually married, as the ending suggests, or merely playing out some elaborate game? Multiple viewings may (or may not) unlock the answer, but regardless, Certified Copy evokes a dreamlike feeling without relying on surreal imagery. Instead, its power is derived from the virtuosic performances of Binoche (who won the Best Actress prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival) and Shimell, as well as Kiarostami's painterly compositions. Certified Copy is realism at its dreamy best.

Drive

For a long time I resisted Drive, in part because of its over-the-top violence and also because the story sounded so generic. I mean, how many times do we need a movie about a heist gone wrong? Don’t they ever go right? But of course, the point of a genre picture isn't so much to break new ground but to break similar ground in a different and surprising way, and Drive certainly does that. It’s an homage to genre, to archetypes, and it has a distinctly eighties vibe. The result of all these things combined is, strangely enough, quite beautiful and surprisingly complex. It would seem that by pairing Drive down to only its absolute essentials, director Nicolas Winding Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini have managed to create a genre pic more captivating, nuanced, and disturbing than it might at first appear. This was my surprise of the year.

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen's latest movie—his 41st—is gorgeous, both in the way it's photographed and in the melancholic way it taps into a familiar longing for “the other side” (as in “the grass is always greener on…”). Also refreshing was its more upbeat, optimistic tone, as compared to most of Woody Allen’s other films, which can be more than a little soul-crushing. The tradeoff is that it may be more quaintly charming than anything else, but where’s the crime in that? A good story well told is hard to come by, and Midnight in Paris scores higher than most on both points. 

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

I can’t say for sure that the fourth installment in the Mission Impossible franchise has replaced the first as my favorite, but I can at least say it’s in the same league. Brad Bird, who previously directed the excellent animated films The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, proves to be just as capable with live-action (emphasis on the action), while Tom Cruise’s willingness to perform his own stunts lends every major set-piece an air of credibility that CGI just can’t top. Ghost Protocol doesn’t have the most inventive of plots, but it has more imagination and genuine excitement than nearly all of this year’s big-budget blockbusters combined.

Of Gods and Men

What I remember more than anything about Of Gods and Men is the stunned silence of the auditorium as the end credits began to roll, and the palpable sense that speaking or even moving would be disrespectful. It was as if everyone in the room had all been transported away from our little corner of the movie theater to someplace holy, mystical, mysterious. What Xavier Beauvois and his talented cast have wrought in Of Gods and Men is not just a moving work of art but a transcendent example of what can happen when religious faith is portrayed with dignity, humanity, and above all, when it's not used to preach but to explore essential aspects of a character (or in this case, characters). I wish more films had the courage to explore the territory Beauvois covers here.

Poetry

I've only seen two films by Lee Chang-Dong (Secret Sunshine and Poetry), but in both cases I appreciate the unhurried and surprising ways they unfold. They don’t appear to follow any set pattern but instead meander like a shallow brook, resulting in intensely character-driven and often perplexing stories that leave you feeling like you’ve only just skimmed their surface. It’s rare that a movie makes me feel this way, and to have had such an experience twice within two weeks (both films are currently streaming on Netflix) is incredible. Poetry in particular has a kind of fragile quality about it, marking it as the work of an insightful, humane, and detail-oriented craftsman. From beginning to end, it’s obvious that Chang-Dong sees the world in a vastly different light than most of us do. For him, it’s coated in warm, golden sunlight, even as it’s bordered by shadow.

The Tree of Life 

I resisted the urge to rank my end-of-the-year list, but I have to confess that The Tree of Life is by far my favorite film of 2011. To me, nothing else comes close to matching its beauty, wonder, and imagination. I’ve yet to go back and watch it on Blu-Ray, but when I do I suspect I’ll discover details and nuances I didn’t see before. Roger Ebert called The Tree of Life a prayer when he first wrote about it for his blog, and I’m not sure there’s a better way of putting it, whether you're talking about its lush photography, meditative, or the way it explores mankind’s relationship to God and the universe. The 20-minute creation sequence alone is one of the most awe-inspiring sequences I’ve ever seen on the big screen. You can read my full review here.

The Trip

On paper, The Trip doesn’t sound like the most exciting of movies. After all, how much fun can it really be watching two well-to-do British comedians crack jokes at each others’ expense while enjoying one fine meal after another. Well, it turns out it’s pretty fun. Directed by Michael Winterbottom, The Trip stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as fictional versions of themselves. Of the two, Coogan fancies himself the more successful (not to mention more talented), but in moments when he’s alone we can see he’s clearly not as content with life as Brydon is. These quiet character moments, combined with the hilarious one-upmanship between The Trip’s stars, add depth and a sense of sadness to what could’ve been just a flimsy comedy.

War Horse

If War Horse comes across as overly sentimental, I think it’s for good reason. As others have already noted, Spielberg’s latest epic is based on a children’s story, and, stylistically, pays homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age. But beyond both of these reasons, I think Spielberg needed to show us such exaggerated innocence because of what was to come. War is ugly, and though War Horse isn’t as graphic as Saving Private Ryan, it doesn’t shy away from the horrifying realities of combat. We’re still brought face-to-face with the mud, the damp cold, and yes, the battlefields littered with corpses. How would these moments have looked to us if Spielberg hadn’t first shown us such pure innocence at the beginning? Would Albert and Joey’s journey still be as meaningful as it becomes? War Horse may have its sentimental moments, but it’s difficult to feel the impact of the Fall if you’ve never experienced the Garden in the first place.

Win Win

A great story is one that teaches us something essential about life without relying on simplistic moral arguments or preaching. Preaching's easy, after all—it’s much harder to convey with grace and humanity all the various complexities that can make life so challenging. And to me, very few movies from 2011 did this better than Thomas McCarthy’s Win Win. Paul Giamatti plays the main character, Mike Flaherty, a man we can identify with and understand even as we recognize his mistakes. But instead of making Mike unlikeable or letting him off the hook, McCarthy nudges him towards growth the way a loving parent might or the way God himself might. Right now, The Descendants is the family drama that’s grabbing everyone’s attention, but it pales in comparison to the riches of Win Win.

 

Other notables films: The Adventures of Tintin, The Artist, Attack the Block, ContagionThe Descendants, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Hugo, The Muppets, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Source CodeTerri, Tuesday After Christmas, Weekend, Young Adult