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“FAVORITES” by Joseph Kolean

The following list compiles my favorite films released theatrically in 2011. They are listed in order of general preference. Lists are a bit silly, as tastes change suddenly and sometimes without warning, but they’re fun. Super fun. I guess. Of the films I watched these were the most inspiring, imaginative, and, in some cases, boundary pushing. These were the ones that gave me hope for the future of the medium, and made me want to keep creating.

1. The Tree of Life
No other film this year had as many exhilarating moments. No other film had even half the reckless daring, ambition, and resonance. How could they have? A legendary film-maker working at the peak of his powers with a crew of some of the world’s greatest technicians, no one had a chance.

Terrence Malick, a man well into his sixties, in making a film that attempts to see the universe through the eyes of a child, creates the wildest, most hypnotic vision of his illustrious career. He may be the only big budget film-maker truly pushing our understanding of story. As in all of his films, particular attention is given to the environments his characters inhabit, to the point that the environments themselves become characters. A gorgeous, profoundly moving film. One of the best experiences I’ve had at a movie theater. We deserve more films like this.

2. Drive
Could it be that the ghost of Jean-Pierre Melville inhabits this film? It’s the best film he never made. And Ryan Gosling is the best anti-hero since Alain Delon in Le Samurai. An action movie unlike any other in recent memory, Drive was at once crazy and controlled, blistering and beautiful. It felt nearly perfect. I can’t think of anything I’d change. One of the few action movies I’ve seen that is as comfortable with scenes of calm, breathtaking beauty as it is with those of brutal violence, and this one has plenty of both. An absolute gem.

One more thing. Every actor in Drive is pretty much pitch perfect, but Albert Brooks blows the doors off the thing. He completely reinvents himself. Remember the narcissistic loser of Modern Romance? This is the opposite end of the spectrum. A confident, terrifying, ruthless, and poisonous creature no one would ever hope to meet. I was mesmerized every time he was onscreen.

3. Cold Weather
This little independent film began making the festival rounds in 2010, but didn’t see a theatrical release (albeit an extremely limited one) until early 2011. It’s a shame more people weren’t given the opportunity to see this one. It’s so very lovely and charming. Too many independent films reek of trying too hard, but Cold Weather feels effortless.

Set in some anti-hipster part of Portland, Oregon, it’s a relationship film in the guise of a mystery. The director and co-writer, Aaron Katz, has downplayed the mystery elements of the film, saying that it’s more about a brother-sister relationship, which is fine. However, the mystery elements leaven the story and deepen the relationships between characters in a way that feels organic, so I’m not certain that they need be downplayed. Either way, this is a great film. I think I was grinning ear to ear after watching it. Must have looked like a real idiot.

4. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Easily the most frightening film of the past year, maybe of the last several years. Not exactly a horror movie, but it harnesses the elements of all great horror – near unbearable tension, relentlessly spooky atmosphere, and plenty of surprises. And the murky quality of the cinematography meshes perfectly with the tone of the story. Plays like a very bad dream, seamlessly transitioning from past to present as if they are happening concurrently, keeping the viewer slightly off balance. Like any good nightmare, everything feels too real to rest easy.

First-time feature director Sean Durkin has said that some of his research involved speaking with a friend that escaped a cult, and the film, though fictional, has a factual feel. Elizabeth Olsen’s earthshaking performance as the confused, terrified, and terrorized title character aids credibility considerably. Her fearless portrayal of a young woman on the razor’s edge of sanity should be cherished. Watch this one next Halloween.

5. Meek’s Cutoff
A slow-burning suspense film with political undertones, it’s a film that rewards close attention. It’s also a Western. The period details are nice, and don’t feel overdone. But the performances are what holds this treacherous tale together. Michelle Williams is outstanding as a wannabe frontier woman with a conscious, and Bruce Greenwood is nearly unrecognizable as the possibly insane guide.

Kelly Reichardt, on a major roll after the one-two punch of Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, gets just about everything right here. Every frame is gorgeous. And not a scene is wasted. Great economy. This is enigmatic, engaging film-making by one of the best film-makers working.

6. Beginners
Highly stylized and heartfelt, featuring great performances from everyone involved. Christopher Plummer knocks it out of the ballpark as a dying widower who has recently come out of the closet. Oh, and there’s a girl with a French accent, and a cute, little doggie. Feels so right. Good work.

7. Bellflower
This movie is wild. Made by late 20s, early 30s males for their peers. Everything about this enterprise is raw and uninhibited. It’s kind of stupid to call this a roller coaster ride. But it is a roller coaster ride. Sorry. Completely entrancing and exhilarating. I loved it.

8. Bill Cunningham, New York
One of the most compelling and inspiring character studies I’ve seen. Bill Cunningham is a humble genius. No other movie this year made me as happy.

9. Melancholia
Feels restrained after the wacky final third of Antichrist, but it’s definitely not. Defiantly even. The antidote to the high you feel after The Tree of Life, Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic vision is moody beyond belief. Beautiful and suspenseful in equal measure, I felt like I’d experienced every emotion possible when it was finished.

10. Le Quattro Volte
Strange and strangely hypnotic. I never thought I’d be riveted watching the life of a tree. But I was. And that’s only part of the story. The movie is nearly dialogue free, but it doesn’t matter. Who needs dialogue with film-making this great? Not me.

11. Nostalgia for the Light
I don’t know what to say about this movie. It’s about the Atacama Desert, but it’s also sort of about everything. It’s hard to capture its brilliance in words. I’ve heard it referred to as an essay film, and that feels accurate, if a little dull. This is ecstatic film-making, so alive and in tune with what is happening. See it.

12. Midnight in Paris
A dear friend of mine thinks this movie is terrible. She’s wrong, of course. But she understands the film on a level that most of us praising it do not. On the surface it’s a silly, trifle of a film, built upon caricatures of famous dead folks. Here’s what she’s missing – it’s exactly as it’s supposed to be. Owen Wilson is great as Woody Allen’s stand-in, funny and kind of annoying yet endearing in that Woody Allen way. Beneath the surface is an astute understanding of what it means to be a tourist, as well as a traveller in a strange time. It pokes fun at our cartoony imaginings of dead celebrities, as it invites us to consider why we believe the past is better than the present. Might be Woody Allen’s wisest, most beautiful film. It’s pretty funny, too.

13. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
This is light years ahead of the corny Swedish version in every way imaginable. Briskly paced and gloriously trashy, it fully embraces its pulpy origins. Cold, calculated, occasionally cringe-inducing and uncomfortable, and never less than thrilling.

14. Road to Nowhere
Low budget noir thriller by the director of 70s underground classics Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter. Works as a tribute to the film-making process, but also as an indictment. Loads of suspense and surprises.

15. The Muppets
Impossible not to love. Joyous.

16. Warrior
Ridiculous, preposterous, and really, really good. It had me hook, line, and sinker from the start. The three lead actors are amazing. Total commitment in a B-movie is something to behold. The final third of the film is as suspenseful and exciting as any other film this year.

17. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
Captures what it means to be a celebrity better than any other film I’ve seen. Hilarious and slightly disturbing. And Conan is a comedy genius.

Hopefully 2012 will hold as many cinematic surprises and delights as 2011. Thank you for reading.