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Nicholas’ Top 20 of 2011: Picks 20-11

Not unlike other years, 2011 had its share of particular titles that dominated cinematic conversations (though I don’t recall ever having had more conversations about a new film than The Tree of Life), with the end of the year heralding shoe-in awards fodder for hotly anticipated, overbearing biopics, starring Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams.

Not unlike other years, 2011 had its share of particular titles that dominated cinematic conversations (though I don’t recall ever having had more conversations about a new film than The Tree of Life), with the end of the year heralding shoe-in awards fodder for hotly anticipated, overbearing biopics, starring Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams. While many an auteur trotted out new, astounding masterworks, whether they be tempered with flaws (Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method) or arrived without much ado (Almodovar’s excellent The Skin I Live In), 2011 also really featured some excellent debuts and some auteurs-in-the-making returning with astounding second (Kenneth Lonergan’s devastingtly ignored Margaret, Oren Moverman’s brilliant Rampart) and third efforts (Lynne Ramsay’s bad-seed Swinton starrer, We Need to Talk About Kevin).

And whereas 2009 was credited as an exceptional year for female directors, one could argue that 2011 announced some excellent new global female filmmakers, with spectacular debuts from France’s Mona Achache with The Hedgehog, and Austria’s Feo Aladag with When We Leave. And on the American side, 2011 saw the debuts of two exceptional female African American directors, with Dee Rees’ Pariah and Ava DuVernay’s I Will Follow.

And as with every year’s crop of new films, there’s always a plethora of festival circuit films to look forward to in the new year. The best theatrically unreleased films of 2011 include a beautiful (and Cannes panned) new film from Christophe Honore, Beloved; an astounding new feature from Yorgos Lanthimos, ALPS; Ben Wheatley’s sophomore genre jumping thrill fest, Kill List; a trashy pulp extravaganza from master William Friedkin, Killer Joe; the Duplass Brothers’ best feature yet, Jeff, Who Lives At Home; the latest from Turkey’s master auteur, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia; the excellent debut of Austria’s Markus Schleinzer, Michael; what may be the last film of Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr, with his mesmerizing The Turin Horse; the Dardenne Brothers’ understated The Kid With a Bike; an amazing Mexican art house neo-noir Miss Bala; and a frothy and hilarious performance from Isabelle Huppert in Anne Fontaine’s My Worst Nightmare. But without further ado, my 20 favorite theatrically released films of 2011 are as follows:

20) Leap Year
No, this isn’t that bizarrely anachronistic romantic comedy starring Amy Adams, but something much darker and startling. The feature debut of Australian born Michael Rowe, who has been living in Mexico for the past 17 years, Leap Year (slightly reminiscent of a grainy Italian art house mess starring Elizabeth Taylor from 1974, The Driver’s Seat) is set nearly entirely in the Mexico City apartment of a freelance magazine writer, Laura (Monica del Carmen). It becomes immediately apparent that Laura is a lonely woman, spouting obvious lies about her life to family members over the phone, masturbating as she spies on a couple engaging in banal activities across the way, and bringing home various men for anonymous sex. As February rolls around, Laura highlights the 29th with a red marker, and as meticulous black X’s eat away the remaining days of the month, a foreboding anxiety develops about why the end of the month is bathed in red. Things get really heavy when she meets Arturo, an aspiring actor who develops a penchant for S/M scenarios with Laura. While he’s the first trick that’s shown to ask Laura her name, director Rowe gives us several explanations about Laura’s attraction and the racial element that may be involved. As their relations become more and more violent, Leap Year becomes the quietest and most devastating film about loneliness that you’re apt to see, and won’t be able to soon forget.

19) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s follow-up to his insanely awesome Let the Right One In, this stylish and intelligent adaptation of the classic John Le Carre novel gives Gary Oldman one of the best roles of his career as retired espionage veteran, George Smiley. A Cold War set tale of funneling out a mole in the upper ranks of the dilapidated British Intelligence, Tinkermay be one of the more enthralling and intelligent espionage thrillers ever made, a throwback to filmmaking from the 70’s, when explosives and CGI didn’t dictate the framework of the narrative. A delicious supporting cast including John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch are all highlights. But perhaps the strongest element of Tinker is the decrepit and dank cinematography, which almost gives off a stale fecundity of its own, with background images disappearing into murky, dream-like images at times, our focal points almost stepping out of the vapor as they come into the fore.

18) Cedar Rapids
Certainly lighter in tone than his three previous films, Miguel Arteta still manages to create a portrait of strangely comical identity scenarios with Cedar Rapids, a raunchy yet impeccably sweet film. Ed Helms plays a small-town insurance salesmen sent to represent his company at a convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. While there, he’s placed under the tutelage of three insurance veterans, hilarious John C. Reilly, Isaiah Whitlock Jr, and a brilliantly subtle Anne Heche. While Helms plays a hopelessly naive sweetie-pie thrust into a one of those “do the right thing” scenarios, he manages to make an impressive mark as a leading man here, even if his presence may cause the film to seem like The Hangover in Iowa. Plus, Sigourney Weaver lends a terrific accent as Helm’s junior high school teacher, currently using him for sex.

17) Hanna
Director Joe Wright takes a step away from Keira Knightly and British period pieces (though he’s currently adapting Anna Karenina with his muse…we’ll just have to see how that goes) to direct this child-assassin, fairy-tale infused action film that sports one of the best soundtracks of the year with original work from The Chemical Brothers. Saoirse Ronan is the titular lass, raised by her father (Eric Bana) to be the perfect killing machine, and hunted by a ruthless intelligent agent (Cate Blanchett) across Europe. Featuring several terrific action sequences, beginning and ending with one killer line, Ronan’s performance in Wright’s film is terrific (and the same cannot be said for the as-yet-unreleased debut of Geoffrey Fletcher, Violet & Daisy, also a child assassin film starring Ronan and Alexis Bledel). And as the deliriously evil agent, Blanchett is just perfect, stalking Ronan in a dilapidated fairy tale themed playground, with one breathtaking sequence in particular where she saunters out of the open maw of a wolf.

16) Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil
Director Eli Craig’s hilarious debut may sound like just another send up of horror movie tropes that’s already been done time and time again, and it really is more of a comedy than a horror flick. However, it just so happens to be charming, gory, hilarious and one hell of a crowd pleaser, perhaps an American cousin to Shaun of the Dead. As with Pegg and Frost in that film, Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine as the titular leads are really what make the film so funny and entertaining. For pure slapstick purposes, (and horror movie by mistake), it’s definitely deserving of a cult following.

15) Hugo
Martin Scorsese’s first foray in 3D technology is perhaps one of the only films that warrants a use of such a derided and abused spectacle. A completely charming film even without that, most fitting is the fact that Scorsese’s film is about the first special effects filmmaker, Georges Melies. Hugo is set in 1930’s Paris where the eponymous orphan (Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of a train station, winding the clocks. He is in possession of a rundown automaton, found by his dead father (Jude Law) in a burned down museum. As he tries to reconstruct the automaton himself, the young Hugo becomes involved in a mysterious plot that leads him to a friendship with a young girl (Chloe Moretz) and her caretaker (Ben Kingsley), a cranky man that runs a toy booth at the train station. This happens to be Scorsese’s ode to cinema, and just as cinema is given as a gift to characters in this film, it’s really Scorsese’s gift to us. Compelling, moving, and an utterly fascinating film about magic, dreams, and one of the few mediums we can share those things with each other.

14) Take Shelter
Director Jeff Nichols’ excellent follow-up to Shotgun Stories , gives Michael Shannon a weighty role as a man that may either be having visions of an apocalyptic storm or he just may be schizophrenic. While it at first seems obvious that he’s really suffering from some kind of breakdown (his mother, played by Kathy Baker, suffered one, forcing her to leave her two young boys) his supportive wife (Jessica Chastain, in the role for which she should receive awards attention) isn’t sure what to do. As Shannon’s behavior spins more and more out of control, the film comes to an awesome crescendo….and then leaves us with one of the best final shots to end a film this year.

13) Carnage
Master filmmaker Roman Polanski returns with this comedy of manners, based on Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage. A hysterical and simmering chamber-piece set almost entirely within the confines of one Brooklyn apartment, belonging to parents Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly, whose child was recently attacked on the playground by the child of visiting parents Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz, Carnage recalls the aesthetic of one my personal favorite Polanski films, Death and the Maiden starring Sigourney Weaver, also based on a play and set almost entirely within one house. While this latest effort doesn’t happen to be particularly lacerating or deeply provoking (though there are some flourishes with the bookend scenes that recall Michael Haneke’s 2005 masterpiece, Cache) it does showcase four awesome performances from its well-chosen cast. In particular, Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster, both playing characters that unravel beautifully in their own surprising ways. Certainly a broad commentary on class and manners (and gender, too), Polanki’s film is really a piece of decomposition. The use of words and language are particularly important to the bitchy bickering, and Polanski’s removal of the word God posits this scenario as one entirely man-made. A brilliant comedic treat in the vein of some Bunuelian born nightmare, Carnage lays waste to good intentions.

12) Pariah
The much hailed debut of Dee Rees is indeed a rarity, the coming out story of a young African-American female. Featuring an awesome lead performance from newcomer Adepero Odiye as Alike, Pariah is one of the most realistic, painful, and hopeful coming out stories that’s been yet made. Deservedly winning a prize at Sundance 2011 for cinematography, it also features a viciously nuanced performance from Kim Wayans, a mother unwilling to accept her daughter for who she is. Pariah obviously has a lot in common with similar coming out stories, and it’s hard to escape the facts that these similarities sometimes seem cliché, (yes, it’s still difficult to be gay and non-white in America), but nevertheless, this is a compelling and gorgeous debut. It does get better, and Dee Rees is among a handful of filmmakers that proves the telling of LGBT stories has gotten better, too.

11) The Woman
This much reviled latest work from horror master Lucky McKee (yes, his debut May stands as one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen) pairs him with cult writer Jack Ketchum to tell this wildly overblown tale exploring our culture’s ingrained acceptance of misogyny. The female member of an uncivilized violent clan that’s been wandering through the wilderness for decades is abducted by the patriarch of a well-to-do nuclear family. He decides that he must civilize this woman, but immediately upon capture, she bites off his ring finger, and once this symbolic bondage of womanhood is broken, the rest will follow suit. A throwback to the gritty exploitation horror films of the 1970’s, today’s audiences seem unaccustomed to this kind of cinema, often written off as torture porn. Of course, McKee’s tale is an exaggerated exercise, but for all intents and purposes, McKee has directed the most feminist piece of cinema this year. There are so many awesome symbolic elements in The Woman(title included) this also makes for the most intellectual horror film of the year.

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Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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