Receiving the year end issue of Sight and Sound is intimidating. There, a round up of the world's best film writers, or perhaps mostly BFI staffers, list their top 10 films of the now-ending year. The January 2012 issue is especially exasperating, because the films its international writers praise sound so much better than most of the films on conventional, regional reviewer lists. This cuts to the heart of the absurdity of 10 best lists, that not every reviewer can or even should see everything. But that's why all the reviewers do it, perhaps, and the Sight and Sound survey offers the perspective of some 75+ writers. On the other hand, a working writer can see almost everything if they dedicate the time and know how to do it.1
Had I been such a person, here's what my 10 best list might have looked like:
Faust (Aleksandr Sokurov, Russia)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
Once upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey-Bosnia and Herzegovina)
The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, Hungary, Switzerland-Germany-France-USA)
The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium-France-Italy)
Kill List (Ben Wheatley, UK-Sweden-Australia)
Shame (Steve McQueen, UK)
The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, UK)
Hors Satan (Bruno Dumont, France)
I Wish (Kiseki; Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)
Unfortunately, none of these films have appeared yet, or at least in a way that this particular reviewer could see them in a timely fashion.2 With luck, some of these titles will appear in the forthcoming Portland film festival (or the one the following year!), on DVD, or through other avenues. But even more so, reviewers need to stop viewing themselves as regional or provincial. Since most newspapers are (or should be) on line, and so potentially are speaking to an international readership, they should write aggressively and accordingly. With a world wide readership also comes the capabilities of viewing international films, either via Netflix downloads or other avenues.
Which brings me to another matter, the sloppiness of most 10 Best Lists, in that some reviewers prefer to draw upon films that were released in their area rather than follow strict calendar year limits. Thus a terrific movies such as 13 Assassins, Le quattro volte, and The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu appear on the Sight and Sound lists because a lot of writers saw them last year even though they were released in 2010. I prefer to follow the strict limits of the calendar, on the feeble hope that future generations won't be confused by smudging of works from one vast track to another.
In any case, in comparison with the high toned films that could have been on it, my list for 2011 will look modest and commercial. As usual, it is a list of films that I would very much like to see again, and then again, that is, films that are now to become a part of my life. Also, as usual, the list if something of a cheat, since it is nearly impossible, unfair, or Procrustian to limit the best to a mere dime.
Melancholia, is my favorite film of the year, and it is a typically challenging yet beautifully photography and well-written and acted psychological portray by Lars von Trier.
Is it possible that the best performance of the year was a blend of animation and motion capture? Yes, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Margin Call, Moneyball, The Ides of March, Contagion: Four serious adult dramas from the Clooney-Soderbergh-"indie-to-mainstream" infusion. Probably too slow paced for the majority of viewers.
2011 was a surprisingly good year for comedies: The Change-Up, Horrible Bosses, The Sitter, Crazy Stupid Love, and A Very Harold & Kumar Xmas.
Drive Everyone's favorite American action film – directed by a Dane and written by an Iranian.
A Dangerous Method is a rare examination of ideas, but also the personal foibles whence they came, as it charts the falling out between Freud and Jung.
The Green Hornet and the X-Men prequel serve as my place holders for good comic book or pulp hero adaptations, of which the others see below. Hornet was the only funny, interesting, and original, while X-Men caught the spirit of the early '60s marvel comics.
Hugo is yet another love letter from Martin Scorsese to cinema.3
Two '70s Peckinpah remakes, The Killer Elite and Straw Dogs, proved to be better in most ways to their originals. Killer Elite was simply a much better and more coherent action film, while Straw Dogs brought some of the nuances of the central relationship and showed more sympathy for the wife.
Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol showed yet again, at least to those of us who don't need reminding, that Tom Cruise is a great screen star, with both action film skills and serious thespian capabilities. Paul W.S. Anderson's Three Musketeers was also notable cinematically.
Troll Hunter was fun and goofy and well worth seeing again.
The "American" version of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is really much the same as the Swedish one, but with certain core, key differences. I enjoyed it as a movie much more, thanks to the casting, the pace, and the compression of the plot.
Yin to the above list's yang must come the worst films of 2011. And here it does no good to list the obvious examples, your Transformers and your Zookeepers, films which are either obviously bad or simply routine. Rather better is to focus on the ambitious movies that could or should have been better or which signify dire cinematic trends or audience tastes.
It is intentionally provocative to put The Tree of Life on one's worst films list, especially given that I did indeed kind of like it. But it is not for everyone, and there is always the intuition that Malick is not issuing his best versions of his films. Even worse is the rote inclusion of the film on too many other best lists.
Midnight in Paris is the most overrated film of the year: middlingly competent Woody Allen with middlebrow citations of notable artists and writers and a sappy and predictable ending.
Of Gods and Men was highly praised and yet clearly misunderstood by many viewers, at least when the film could be understood at all.
It was also a bad year for comedies: Larry Crown, Bad Teacher, Your Highness, Arthur.
The decline of the religio-medieval-fairy-tale action film: Priest, The Rite, Season of the Witch, Red Riding Hood
Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America were just among many comic book adaptations that betrayed the source, bored the audience with inauthentic origin stories, and happened also to be all terribly and boringly miscast.
Art of Getting By and Beginnings were just the latest two examples of too many films by debuting writer-directors who draw on their own recent private lives to essentially brag about themselves.
Water for Elephants was just one of many bad love stories.
The American Compare this dull Europeanized thriller to Drive and note how incoherent, willfully obscure, and repetitions it is, especially in its many driving sequences.
Rarely has a title and trailer prepared viewers for as much fun and excitement as Cowboys and Aliens only to be let down terribly by the actual film.
J. Edgar: Another tedious, lazy, dark, and inconsequential film from Clint Eastwood.
The first episode of the second season of Sherlock Holmes, with its great pace, acting, and clever script from Stephen Moffat, shows the diminishing returns of the big screen series, reaching its nadir already in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows.
On other matters, I wish that I had seen Young Adult. Update Tuesday, 2 January: I've just seen Young Adult and it is great and deserves to go on the 10 best list. It's a remarkably subtle script, and Theron is perfect in it, along with Oswalt. I especially enjoy the way Theron's writer is continually stealing from the real world, as well as from Oswalt's character.
Also, I did not include any documentaries or animated films in this survey. Really, these two types of movies should have their own lists.
1 The full list is available on line at the BFI website.
2 Shame is currently playing locally at the Cinema 21.
3 Coming out the same year that the festival-hogging, Oscar-bound The Artist also celebrates silent film, though from a derivitive angle.