Before I get into my top ten, I have to comment upon the maddeningly depressing exploration of emotionally numb films that seem to be showing up on a great deal of film critics’ best of lists. The “AWARD FILM SCREENERS” that deluge us critics at the end of the year, in 2011, felt like the biggest bummer festival in many a year. End of the year lists are always so terribly pretentious because everyone making them has seen different films, had different years – and for me… 2011 was an incredibly brutal year. The first 3 months of the year, I didn’t see a film in a theater due to the spinal surgery that I had to go through, pretty much exactly a year ago, this January 13th.
Due to the regimen of therapy & rehab – I found myself seeing less films theatrically than I have. Video on Demand and Studio sent screeners meant that I could enjoy a great deal of new cinema from the comfort of my home. Being out in public when you feel like shit, well, it keeps you out of theaters. At least it did me this year. But be reassured, I’ve seen just about everything. I’ve loved a lot of popcorn films this year, some that my fellow critics hated, but then… they’re not Harry. And thankfully, I’m not them.
The following 10 films represent the 10 films that I not only feel are absolutely excellent works of cinema, but that you might actually want to BUY – because they’re truly wonderful films that you would share with fellow film lovers and mark the year with. They come from the theatrical releases, along with the film festival screenings that I attended. There will be films on this list that will be released later on this year in the United States, but if anything, that should tell you that if you truly love film, you should make the effort to attend a film festival or two a year, just to flush out your film experiences. After all, if you’re only watching films that get distribution – you’re possibly missing the best films of the year, because the films that get distribution, those only represent the films that the studios marketing departments can figure out how to maybe make money on. Their best guesses.
Here are the 10 films I take with me from 2011. To me, they represent the best films I saw this year.
10. ATTACK THE BLOCK
I didn’t get to see this film at SXSW, where the online army of critics embraced it, humped its leg and I just had to believe that it couldn’t possibly be true. ATTACK THE BLOCK was the best young adventure film of the year that wasn’t directed by Martin Scorsese. And the year had SUPER 8 and TINTIN that were also outstanding youthful adventure films, but ATTACK THE BLOCK felt new, refreshing and vitally progressive in a way that the other two felt nostalgic. Joe Cornish’s directorial debut is highlighted by the discovery of John Boyega, who plays Moses. A street thug that aspires to be the big man on his block. Moses and his friends start off as the sort of street bastards that most audience members would express zero sympathy with… but over the course of the story, we learn more about Moses, from his apartment, from his own mouth and mostly through his actions. Moses is a leader. Ultimately, this film is one of the best action films of 2011, one of the best suspense films of 2011 and one of the best first films of the year.
9. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
Back in 2002, director Lynne Ramsay made MORVERN CALLAR with Samantha Morton as the titular character – and grabbed my attention. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is a brilliantly frightening film that could scare folks from ever wanting to have children. Tilda Swinton plays a tormented mother, who’s son went on a killing spree at his High School. Much of the film takes place as she is victimized in the town that holds her accountable for her son’s actions. We see much of the story as a series of flashbacks, watching Kevin as a toddler, a pre-teen and as an increasingly dangerous teenager. Swinton’s performance is my pick for Best Actress of 2011. She is incredible in this film. Ezra Miller’s teenage Kevin is another superior performance that should be strongly considered for Best Supporting Actor. I also feel strongly that the Music by Jonny Greenwood be considered as one of the best scores of 2011. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography and Joe Bini’s editing are also quite superior. I really fell in love with this film, which takes a very smart look at the nightmare child we hope to never raise.
8. THE TREE OF LIFE
Terrence Malick’s TREE OF LIFE is a cinematic experience, a cinematic memory… Malick plays with the huge themes we consider in life. Be they the essence of life and death, the beginning and the end, our familial legacies, the progress of the modern world as it is contrasted by the world of 50 to 60 years ago. Praising the cinematography of a Terrence Malick film is very nearly redundant. It is what his films do best. Lubezki is one of our finest cinematographers working today, and this is his best work to date. There are images and camera movements that left me breathless by their elegance and beauty. This is a film that requires your complete attention. This is High Cinema. I’ve seen the film over 5 times this year & every viewing I see new things and think different thoughts. Truly a great work of art.
As far as featured Best Actors in the films I saw in 2011, Aksel Hennie’s Roger Brown from Norway is the only actor that even approaches the awesome of Liam Neeson’s turn in THE GREY. Hennie’s Roger Brown in his documented life is a Headhunter, finding talented executives for companies wanting the best executive talent in the world. He’s confident, charismatic and smooth. This is all a veneer though. He has a stunningly beautiful wife, quite taller than himself. His sense of inadequacy and paranoia about being good enough for her motivates his real source of wealth, which is as a brilliant Art Thief. I’ll simply say things take a whole lot of wrong turns for Roger – and Aksel Hennie just is so impressive. Being pushed into situations that begins to make him take his entire life into perspective and it is beautiful. This film is being remade in the U.S. and the film does have distribution, playing limited engagements this April. Which is so deserved. I feel that Aksel Hennie is going to be a very well known actor. He's amazing to watch on film. I can't wait to see him in more. Also check him out in MAX MANUS. Such a great little film.
6. A BOY & HIS SAMURAI
If you haven’t seen Yoshihiro Nakamura’s GOLDEN SLUMBER and FISH STORY, just know that FISH STORY is available on Netflix right now, and you’ll begin to discover a filmmaker that is basically unknown in the western world according to about 98% of their critics, but those few folks that have taken in his films, well they will never miss another. Massawyrm went gaga in love with FISH STORY in a fashion that is highly appropriate for anyone that has ever seen it. That said, as pervasively awesome as FISH STORY is – I love A BOY & HIS SAMURAI even more. Like MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, it involves fantastical time travel, meaning time travel that doesn’t require technology… Here, it comes in answer to a prayer to Buddha… In MIDNIGHT IN PARIS it comes simply by hitching a ride. The notion of a feudal era Samurai coming forward in time, being adopted by a modern day single mother and young boy living in Tokyo… only to find his true calling in life as a brilliant dessert chef… well, you probably can’t imagine the metaphysical perfection that this film effortless squirts out of every microscopic part of its emulsion, but it is there all the same. People that talk about the joy of THE ARTIST – should probably see the superior 0SS 117 films those filmmakers made prior to that, and then behold the very real brilliance of Nakamura. That I didn’t get a great PIXAR film in 2011, well, it was ok, because I got to see A BOY & HIS SAMURAI. It doesn’t get much better than this!
5. THE GREY
I know, party foul, this film is not a film about fist fighting wolves. I know that’s what the trailers tell you, but this film features two of the very best performances I saw in 2011. Liam Neeson delivers one of his very best performances ever, if not his very best work for Carnahan’s tale of a man that was a heavy finger from death, but will fight with everything he has to stay alive. The best acted scene of 2011 is Liam Neeson preparing a man for his own death. The scene is just simply riveting. The power in Neeson’s face, voice, eyes… it captivates every character in the scene and the whole of the audience watching it. That this film wasn’t played in NY & LA to qualify for this year’s Academy Awards, may go down as one of the worst Publicity mistakes in years. Once y’all see this film, let’s all work to make sure that 2012’s awards don’t overlook this stunning work. And it isn’t all Liam. Frank Grillo’s John Diaz is a tremendous supporting performance that when taken in combination with Grillo’s work in WARRIOR – Frank Grillo is going to be an actor to watch, he’s going to get a lot of attention for his work in THE GREY. Joe Carnahan fought back after A-TEAM with a film that is simply so far and away his best work, that it forces me to think of Carnahan as a filmmaker that from this point forward has a heavy task of making a film better than this. It won’t be easy, but I look forward to seeing him try.
4. I SAW THE DEVIL
It played at Fantastic Fest 2010, but I didn’t see it till it was theatrically released in 2011, so I find it here. Director Jee-Woon Kim first caught my attention with his segment of 3 EXTREMES, then when I saw THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD – I lost my mind with his show-stopping visual flair. I loved his A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, but nothing in his career prepared me for I SAW THE DEVIL, which is the best Serial Killer cat & mouse flick I’ve seen in ages. You can see this on Netflix right now. Do so. The serial killer who makes the unfortunate hunting choice of killing Byung-hun Lee’s bride is played by Min-Sik Choi (you know him better from OLDBOY) and as Byung torments him, you’ll see a brilliant performance come out of Min-sik Choi. The way this film plays is just brutally invigorating as a work of suspense. Byung-hun Lee’s extraordinarily talented special agent has focused his amazing talents on revisiting the torment and horror that Min-Sik had put his victims through… but a hundred times worse. I’ve shown this film to more people this year than any other. It is great.
3. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
The director of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, knocks another one out of the park, and for a bit of time, I felt this was my pick for the best film of 2011. I can still make the argument for it. Gary Oldman is riveting in the film. It is amazing what this film does for him as an actor. To bottle up the mania that we know he is capable of, to bottle up all of the fierce intelligence that he’s capable of – and to express it in glances… you see everything in his face, that the others in the film can’t read. His George Smiley is one of my favorite characters on screen this year. I never questioned the reality of the film, it felt real to me. I love that the camera doesn’t go nuts. That the film is told in a fashion that rewards those that pay attention, but most of all – I just love how rich the performances are. Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and a small army of supporting players that are each absolutely wonderful in their respective roles. In many ways the finest crafted film of the year. Just wonderful, I could watch it repeatedly and will.
2. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
I instantly fell in love with this film. Woody Allen hit pay dirt with MIDNIGHT IN PARIS – a film that plays as wish fulfillment. I think increasingly we are becoming disillusioned with the time in which we live and Woody explores this theme, believing that in all times, people yearn to live in what they consider a golden era. For me, I have always wanted to live in the 1930’s & 40’s. I love the style, the attitude and the period of film like no other. To live through the birth of sound, color, the advent of cinemascope… That said, I believe I was meant to live in exactly the times in which I am living. From my spinal surgery to my website – had I not been exactly where I was at the time I was given, the alternative might have been quite frightening. Whimsical Woody is amongst my favorites – and for the first time since PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO he nails it exquisitely. I’ve seen this film upwards of 10 times this year. It gets better on every viewing, becoming a film I just want to watch… and look forward to those future viewings.
This is no surprise to anyone that knows me. When the film first played at the New York Film Festival, I had multiple friends in attendance that tweeted at me, IM’d me and they each said that the movie made them feel like they were Harry Knowles loving a movie completely as they watched it. Some of these folks had a high degree of cynicism… So I didn’t know entirely what to make of their statements, but then I went to the Alamo South on that fateful morning that I first saw HUGO and fell in love with the film like I fell in love with GODS & MONSTERS, CINEMA PARADISO and MALENA. It felt like I was getting a hug from Martin Scorsese and at first it was just so damn fucking weird to be getting a cinematic hug from Scorsese… but then I decided, wow… This is Scorsese’s cinematic soul laid bare. HUGO is the first brilliant 3D film. Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese and Robert Richardson gave the world of cinema a master’s class on how to use this very old, but constantly new technology. This film should win Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Film Editing, Directing, Production Design and more. It is simply Scorsese showing that a brilliant director can master any genre. Do not let this film escape you.
That’s it for this year’s list. As usual I do not do Honorable Mentions or Runner ups… I just feel that a Top Ten should be exactly that. Telling folks what missed the Top Ten is just… well not where I want the focus to be. These are the 10 films I take from 2011 into my life for always. In all, I feel there were some wonderful films that didn’t make this list – and I might do a list of my favorite Popcorn flicks of 2011, if anyone is interested. But for me – these are the films I hug hardest this year.