It’s that time again: Time to share my favorite films of 2011.
Today, I’ll share twenty-one silver medal winners—movies I admired very much. Tomorrow—the gold medalists—the top ten.
I was asked to share this list on a Pittsburgh radio program last week. But we got sidetracked. The show hosts asked questions about a celebrity controversy (Sean Penn’s criticism of The Tree of Life) and then asked why I hadn’t included more popular titles like The Help or Anonymous.
“Your list,” one of them said, “hardly contains any of the titles that we found on the list of this year’s biggest box office hits. Why is that?”
Indeed. What could possibly explain this discrepancy?
If time had permitted, I’d have referenced an alarming article by Michael Medved published in USA Today several years ago: “Film Critics Frown While Movie Fans Delight.”
Even the title of that piece is intriguing, as it implies that critics are a different species than movie fans.
Medved, too, observed that reviewers have a habit of giving top ten list attention to obscure, exotic titles unfamiliar to most American moviegoers. His diagnosis?
"Endorsing such movies not only enhances a critic's conviction that he serves some important purpose, but also strengthens his sense of superiority, suggesting that the reviewer possesses knowledge, refinement, and sophistication that set him apart from ordinary moviegoers."
So the people who spend their lives studying a subject don’t really “serve some important purpose” or “possess knowledge” beyond what others have?
And yet, sports fans listen to sports reporters when they highlight an up-and-coming talent. Homeowners ask for advice from plumbers when things go awry under the house.
If I asked you to name the places where you enjoyed memorable meals over the last year, you might name a restaurant I’ve never visited, or a friend’s kitchen where you tasted something new. You probably wouldn’t say McDonald’s, KFC, or Subway.
Most of the film reviewers I’ve met in my fifteen years of film reviewing are, in fact, movie fans, not egomaniacs trying to look sophisticated. They’re so devoted the subject of cinema and discernment that it’s become a vocation. They know that there’s more out there than the committee-approved, by-the-numbers entertainment that’s installed in multiplexes every week. They know that the greatest big-screen art is often found in faraway places, created by undiscovered artists. And they love to share what they find.
The critics I follow are passionate tour guides, more focused on their subject than themselves. And they serve two very important purposes:
They’re teachers. When I read them, I see more clearly. Composition, style, history, biographies, and more—I’m learning what to watch for, what’s possible, whether I’m in a multiplex, an arthouse theater, or at home watching favorites on DVD.
They're curators. Their travel journals send me off the beaten path to see wonders that have never been advertised on television, that have never played at a theater near me.
I go to Steven Greydanus, Roger Ebert, and David Thomson for clear, insightful perspectives on popular American cinema. I go to Michael Sicinski, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Victor Morton for challenging considerations of lesser-known films I’d never discover otherwise.
If I’m spending time and money on movies, I want to watch what’s worth seeing twice, worth discussing. I want to walk out of the theater grateful, wiser, seeing more clearly.
I’m grateful to these reviewers—and the moviegoers at artsandfaith.com—for leading me to some of the recommendations on this, my own list of 2011 favorites.
I’d love to see each of these movies with you, discuss them afterward, then watch them again, and discuss them further. I’d never be so presumptuous as to call these the Best Movies of 2011 but I’m grateful for all of these experiences.
And please, share your own favorites of 2011 in the comments below!
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I’ve written about this first batch already. Follow the links.
The Arbor: The story of the troubled Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar and her daughters, who somehow survived their childhood. A groundbreaking documentary, in which actors bring the story to life by lip-synching to interviews with the actual “characters.”
Attack the Block: A hilarious, wildly entertaining alien-invasion action film that has more on its mind than monsters. Low budget? Yeah, but imagination triumphs here. It’s bound to be a cult classic.
The Descendents: As Alexander Payne films go, this one’s less...painful. As with About Schmidt and Sideways, he’s telling the story of a dope who takes a few steps toward wisdom. But this time he shows more compassion, and refrains from cruel and degrading characterization.
Hugo: Martin Scorsese adapts Bryan Selznick’s fantastic graphic novel, and in doing so he gives us a personal fairy tale, a celebration of cinema’s magical beginnings that also demonstrates the promising future of 3D.
Le Havre: This inspiring story about a community that opens its arms and its hearts to a frightened runaway is memorable for its colors, its faces, and its patient, observant storytelling.
Le Quattro Volte: I’m told it’s the story of one soul moving through four successive lives: human, animal, vegetable, mineral. Whatever. I found it enthralling in its patient attention to people, animals, trees, and environments. And a remarkable dog is the star of the most amazing shot I saw all year.
Midnight in Paris: A whimsical, warm-hearted movie from Woody Allen? Will wonders never cease? It’s a fairy-tale version of Paris and its literary history, but it’s a very pleasant dream.
Moneyball: Finally! A baseball movie that’s actually about the game and business of baseball! And it has a wonderful father-daughter relationship at its heart. But as is the case with any film written by Aaron Sorkin, Sorkin is the real star.
Poetry: A fearless performance by Jeong-hie Yun is just one reason to see Poetry, which is about a woman who, struggling with Alzheimer’s and a horrific discovery about her son’s private crimes, enrolls in a poetry class, searching for meaning in a severely broken world.
Rango: An animated celebration of spaghetti westerns with a refreshingly reckless sense of humor, a wild visual imagination, and a lot of laughs. In a year when Pixar’s perfect record became a thing of the past, Rango wasn’t a bad consolation prize.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes: What a surprise! Rise is the start of a promising franchise, with smarter storytelling and a bigger heart than your typical summer blockbuster. Andy Serkis is sensational.
Road to Nowhere: How does filmmaking skew the way we see our lives? Lines blur between fiction and reality for these independent filmmakers in a mystery/thriller that’s inspiring most critics to mention David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
Take Shelter: Jeff Nichols, director of the extraordinary Shotgun Stories, is back with a film about masculinity, fear, madness, and prophecy. Featuring tremendous performances by Michael Shannon and this year’s big-screen MVP—Jessica Chastain—it suggests that whether or not troubles are coming, fear is a storm of its own.
The Trip: I’d trade fifty Hollywood action franchises for a long-running franchise in which Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan just talk about their meals and compete in celebrity impressions. Their chemistry is something that cannot be scripted or reproduced.
Wrestling for Jesus: Getting to know men who stage wrestling matches in Jesus’ name, Nathan Clarke has made the most thoughtful documentary about evangelical Christianity in America I’ve ever seen. He’s respectful, even-handed, and fearless in provoking questions. It’ll spark discussions about masculinity, marriage, family, and the definition of “calling.” Moreover, he shows us how dramatic conversions and theatrical Christianity can often distort the Gospel or leave it behind entirely.
Tomorrow, Part 2: The Top Ten!