The Films of 2011: It was a very good year

Like any year, it had its share of disappointments (many of the films I had most anticipated, like David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, turned out to be only middling) and outright duds (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Quentin Dupieux's Rubber, the latter of which I didn't even bother to review on the site, were two of my least favorite films of the year; thankfully, I have the privilege of avoiding fare like Jack and Jill altogether).  Even more frustrating to me than outright-bad films, though, was the on-going willingness to settle for safe, middlebrow fare like Beginners and Win Win, the kinds of films that seem to be tricking audiences into thinking they're great cinema because they're inoffensive and look well put-together--underneath the twee montage sequences and clever, gimmicky banter, is there anything there?  The success of very-good-but-not-great films like The Descendants and The Artist is also distressing, because it suggests that mainstream audiences are so hungry for any remotely intelligent alternative to blockbusters that they will slaver over crumbs.  But, all told, the year's cinematic crop was a fruitful one.  Any season that brings us new films by Scorsese, Malick, Polanski, Haynes, von Trier, Payne, Eastwood, Spielberg, Soderbergh, Cronenberg, and Woody Allen can't be complained about.  And performances were particularly strong, both from veterans and from newer talents: Carey Mulligan, Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling each had two relatively high-profile films this year, and they were still overshadowed by attention for newcomer Jessica Chastain, whose name no one had ever heard of a year ago at this time and who has since appeared in five major films, and for Michael Fassbender, who starred in four.  See my list of the year's ten best films after the cut (click each title to link to a full review of each).

1. Melancholia, Lars von Trier

2. The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick

3. Weekend, Andrew Haigh (added 2013)

4. Mildred Pierce, Todd Haynes

5. Shame, Steve McQueen

6. Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen

7. Meek's Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt

8. Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan (added 7/12)

 9. Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols

 10. Hugo, Martin Scorsese

And here are five other films I enjoyed, flawed though they may be: We Need To Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsay); Tabloid (dir. Errol Morris); Certified Copy (dir. Abbas Kiarostami; pictured, top); Young Adult (dir. Jason Reitman); and The Skin I Live In (dir. Pedro Almodovar).  
Among my favorite performances were Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan as the wounded, self-destructive brother and sister Brandon and Cissy in Shame, as well as Nicole Beharie in the same film, playing one of Brandon's co-workers and would-be love interest (she only appears in three scenes, but they're among the most poignant and quietly moving); Bruce Greenwood as the wild and woolly--and potentially untrustworthy--frontiersman in Meek's Cutoff, a figure out of American myth; Philip Seymour Hoffman, who gripes and fumes magnificently in The Ides of March; Jessica Chastain, who proved in Take Shelter and The Help that she can play drama and comedy with equal effortlessness; Kate Winslet, also showing off her versatility as the long-suffering matriarch in Mildred Pierce and an exasperated yuppie in Carnage (her drunk scene in that film was one of the year's funniest moments); Michael Shannon in Take Shelter, where he does some of his most impressive acting by being uncharacteristically quiet; and Meryl Streep, who doesn't so much "disappear" into the role of Margaret Thatcher as she does make Thatcher herself disappear in The Iron Lady.

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