Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Top 10 Favorite Movies of 2011

I have a love/hate relationship with making top movie lists. When I return to past lists, I find that a few months' or years' time has dramatically changed my opinion about many of the films present. And how is one to order such lists? How do I compare Attack the Block with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, or 50/50 with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? My tastes shift and change and mature. Depending on the day, my all-time favorite film is one of a consistent list of five different movies (Lost in Translation, Amelie, The Thin Red Line, Star Wars, and Casablanca, in case you were wondering.)

Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.

Here are my favorite films of 2011 thus far. There are plenty of great films I have yet to see, and plenty of critically beloved films that you won't find here. My hope in offering these is that you'll find a new favorite, one you might not have expected.

10. Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)It's a British-indie-action-teen-comedy-sci-fi-B-horror film. (You could even argue it's a romance, though that'd be stretching it.) And it's good. Really good. Aliens invade a South London block, leaving the tenants fighting for their lives. But these tenants aren't going down without an expletive-filled fight. The visual effects are extremely impressive for an indie film, and John Boyega gives a phenomenal debut performance as the defiant leader, Moses. Entertaining, hilarious, and innovative.

9. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog). Herzog is either the best or the worst narrator for a film, but I love him. His subjective musings always lean towards the philosophical and spiritual, and his accent makes for unintentional hilarity at times. He has crafted one of the most fascinating documentaries about the human capacity for creativity and art. Filming the inside of the Chauvet cave in France, where the earliest known cave drawings are located, Herzog invites us into a world long forgotten. Etched into the walls are beautiful murals of animals that are more than 30,000 years old. What were these early human beings thinking and dreaming as they painted these intricate drawings? We'll never know. But we can continue to dream with them.

8. Cold Weather (Aaron Katz). A film set in Portland, OR needs to have bridges. Cold Weather has plenty, both literal and relational. It is a look at ordinary people going through ordinary life--a brother living with his sister, making friends with his coworker, interacting with his ex-girlfriend, etc.--and the stories that can sometimes unfold. Some might call this film slow and boring, but it never left me bored. With a quietly engaging tone and a slow-burn tension that builds to its suspenseful climax, Cold Weather  reminded me of how much I love watching interesting characters navigate odd situations...especially if those situations are in Portland. A mumblecore noir film.

7. Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois)Every so often, a film comes along that merits using "Christian" as a description simply because it beautifully reflects the kingdom of God. Of Gods and Men is such a film. Quiet, solemn, and contemplative, my viewing of the film offered one of the more profound spiritual experiences I've had in recent history. Based on a true story about the kidnapping and execution of eight Trappist monks in Algeria, the film focuses less on the abduction and far more on the spiritual lives of these men. The life of a monk is quite ordinary. Boring, even. They pray. They worship. They study. They work. They eat and sleep, then do it all over again the next day. And its marvelous. An enlightening film that will force you to rethink your own faith.

6. Super 8 (J.J. Abrams). The second teenage sci-fi film on this list. J.J. Abrams managed to resurrect classic Spielberg this year better than Spielberg did himself. Super 8 contains some of most authentic and affecting teen performances in a film this year. Both Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning are remarkable here. I could have watched these young folks make movies for two whole hours, but the added element of an alien presence after the crash of a train is the macguffin for the film. This is a film about young people moving beyond being kids and revealing their capacity for adult responsibility and decisions. The final act is a bit lacking, but the lovable characters more than make up for it.

5. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen). This was the film I found myself recommending to friends throughout the year when they asked what movies they should be watchingThe trailers don't give away the true magic of this film, so neither will I, suffice to say that the audiences who appreciate Midnight in Paris the most will be the ones who paid attention in their English classes and appreciate a more vivid culture than what you find on television and Michael Bay films. If you love Paris, art, and literature, you'll likely find yourself delighted with this film. More than anything, Midnight in Paris encourages the viewer to be present, a value I'm striving to embody.

4. Hugo (Martin Scorcese)Hugo is set in a Parisian train station in the 1930s. I've actually walked through the exact station, coming in on a train from Frankfurt and entering the wondrous world of Paris. Like another whimsical Parisian film this year, Midnight in Paris, the city of lights is a place of journeys into the imagination. Train stations are places of interlude in between adventures. Books and movies take us into our dreams. "Come, dream with me," is an invitation given in the climactic moment of Hugo. A film set in one of my favorite cities in the world? A film that maturely celebrates both literature and cinema? A film that features fantastic storytelling, top-notch acting, a wonderfully cathartic happy ending without any sense of being overly sentimental, and the best use of 3D in a life action film I've yet seen? A film that is filled with redemption of broken machines and people, offering light and life in our dark world? Consider Hugo a new personal favorite.

3. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols). What if you began having dark visions of a coming storm? What if your feelings of dread were premonitions of an imminent disaster? What would you do? Like a modern day retelling of the Noah story, Take Shelter forces the viewer to ask a myriad of spiritual and philosophical questions about our fears and choices. As Curtis (Michael Shannon) begins to have these dreams and visions, his world seems to spiral out of control. Shannon's performance as Curtis is the driving force behind Take Shelter. Director Jeff Nichols--who also directed Shannon in Nichols' first film, Shotgun Stories--slowly builds a growing sense of fear through Shannon, who becomes a conduit for the mounting dread that permeates the film. Curtis is quiet and surprisingly normal, with brief explosive outbursts that allow for cathartic releases of tension while also cultivating more of it. Shannon portrays Curtis as just crazy enough; his brooding eyes foster both empathy and fear. Jessica Chastain is equally powerful as Sam, a wise and pragmatic wife who only wants to support her husband in this time of distress. It's some of the best acting you'll see this year from two of the best actors of our generation. From the performances to the cinematography to the pacing to the final climactic moments--Take Shelter has one of the better endings I've seen in a while--this is an artistic meditation on the concept of fear and our fear-driven culture.

2. Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn). The coolest film of the year. You may think you've seen this film before. In some ways, you have. Images of films like Bullitt, Heat, Taxi Driver, and Eastern Promises all come to mind, as well as the films of Quentin Tarantino. Drive falls in line with any film where the antihero decides to sacrifice his own selfish pursuits for the sake of a damsel in distress. Drive has both style and substance; in some ways, its style is its substance. Drive is slow-burning and contemplative, with extended quiet moments between its swift action sequences. Almost a fantasy or fairytale in its tone, director Nicholas Winding Refn has created something beautifully unique from a familiar arc. This is a film where image trumps dialogue; a simple glance between a pair of eyes is infinitely more revealing than any speech or conversation. There are some authentically affecting moments in between some of the most intense acts of violence I've seen on film. The driver is both an antihero and a superhero, a man who walks with an almost-comical confidence and cool, whose quiet tone make his few words stand out as assertive and firm. There is little subtlety when the soundtrack begins to pump an '80s-sounding tune with the words "a real human being / and a real hero" as the driver cruises the neon hazy streets of Lost Angeles. If it's a superhero film, it's the best one of the year. While it's difficult to find a concrete redemptive message, if the medium is the message, then Drive sends a message of creativity and style, one that celebrates art itself.

1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick). Was this any surprise? Malick is my favorite filmmaker, and The Tree of Life is his magnum opus. It is at once a prayer, a symphony, a theological treatise, and a parable. It is intimate and grandiose, emotive and cerebral, imaginative and altogether new. It's difficult for me to know how to describe this film in words; you simply have to see it. I remember that a gentleman fell asleep in the row behind me during my first viewing (I saw it twice in theaters), and I found that his napping was indicative of our culture. The Tree of Life will be deemed as boring by many. So is following Jesus. It requires patience, discipline, a discerning mind and an open heart. It is also completely worth it. Brad Pitt's performance here as the stoic father is his best of the year--yes, even better than Moneyball--and Jessica Chastain literally embodies grace, particularly as she floats and dances and walks on the beach of the kingdom of heaven. It tops the most critics' lists of 2011, and won the Golden Palm at Cannes. Will it even be nominated for Best Picture by the Academy Awards? Probably not. It's admittedly not a very accessible film. It is, however, a beautiful film. Keats once wrote, "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty.' -- that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

The rest of the top 20, in order:
11. Moneyball
12. Incendies
13. Jane Eyre
Certified Copy
15. 50/50
The Descendants
17. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
18. Win Win
19. Bridesmaids
20. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Yet to see: Martha Marcy May Marlene; A Separation; Melancholia; Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy; A Dangerous Method; Poetry; We Need To Talk About Kevin; The Future; The Artist

Honorable Mention: Winnie the Pooh was my son's first film in theaters, beginning what I hope will be a life-long passion for the cinema. And it's a good little film, too.

What were your favorite films of 2011? Share them in the comments!


  1. Long time reader. First time commenter (I believe). You help me know what media to consume, and for that I thank you!

    I just watched Tree of Life last night. My wife gave up on it ten minutes in :) I loved it. Beautiful film. Made me want to wake up my kids and hug 'em tight.

  2. Tim, I'm glad you loved The Tree of Life as much as I did. Thanks for the encouraging words!

  3. Another great list. I feel like I need to watch The Tree of Life again, scene-by-scene. Like, pause it every five seconds and examine the symbolism and meaning behind each and every shot. A mask floating in water? It's a gorgeous shot, but why?

    Glad to see Drive so high on your list. As you saw, it was my favorite film of the year. Just so stylish, creative, and practically came out of nowhere. Also liked #3-6. Haven't seen Of Gods and Men. Like that you listed Cold Weather. Haven't seen Cave of Forgotten Dreams. And Attack the Block breaking your top 10 is a nice surprise.

  4. "Warrior." Incredible movie. Great for guys in youth ministry.

    "The Help." If you need to cry. If you love watching people fight injustice.

  5. Drew, I've heard lots of great things about "Warrior." I'm intrigued. I'll have to see it.

    Cam, your second and third viewings of The Tree of Life will be way more enlightening than the first. It's like scripture; you keep coming back to it and finding more truth that you missed.

  6. holy cow, mayward -- i can't believe you compared The Tree of Life to following Jesus. i'm not sure we can still be friends, not because you offended my faith, but because you offended my estimation of a truly displeasing movie-watching experience! :) (sure, the acting was great, when the actors were actually acting, not zombies on a beach, or waiting in their trailers while nebulas and dinosaurs took over the screen.) call me shallow if you will, but i don't find following jesus quite that boring.

  7. Marko, your comment definitely made me giggle. If you didn't like my top movie, then you'll definitely not like my upcoming article in Immerse Journal. :) It's called "Boring Is Better" and it's about my love for The Tree of Life (and similar films) and how they reflect our faith. I'd suggest you try watching it again. It's like wine or coffee; it's an acquired taste, but it's beautiful when you develop that taste for it.

  8. Cam-Fu,

    More than anything, I think "The Tree of Life" asks for (I'd even go so far as to say requires) personal interpretation. It's like poetry - not everyone is going to respond the same way to all the images.

    That being said, since the image of the mask floating in the water is one of the cherished insights I came away with after watching the film a second time (I've now seen it four times), here's my take:

    The shot of the mask floating in the water, which comes at the end of the film (in the 'after-life' or apocalypse section of the film) is a visual reference to an idea St. Paul explores: that of knowing Jesus Christ truly.

    Paul says (in one of the Corinthians I believe) that right now we see dimly in a mirror, but at a later point we will see Christ as he really is. That image of the mask - floating useless in the water - seems to me symbolic of this coming reality. In that final scene, true identity (both Christ and our's) has been unveiled. There is no hiding. There are no masks.

    Anyway, that's just my task. It's visual poetry, so it doesn't lend itself to definite interpretation.