1-The Tree of Life-Like, Love or even hate this film this is potentially the most admirable film of the year. Director Terrence Malick made this a passion project for many many years, and the end result is a breathtaking film experience that transcends all other films this year. Malick's direction is the best of the year he works hard to create a piece of work that has so many layers it will take me years upon years to study and understand the depth to his work. While in my review I did call this self indulgent (and I still think it is for at least 10 minutes) it still takes film to a different level that films rarely achieve. Emmanuel Lubezski did the cinematography for the film, and I was blown away. Lubezski's cinematography is some of the best shot work I have ever seen!
The film is mostly a visual experience, but the performances of the main cast add to this visual strong work. Hunter McCracken is the best younger performance of the year; he said more with his face than many actors say with hundred of lines. Prior to this year I have to say I admired Brad Pitt for his comedic acting like in Burn After Reading or the Ocean's films but never thought he had the chops to do drama. This film (along with Moneyball) changed my mind. Malick brought out the strongest Pitt role to date as the father with a long suffering relationship with his wife and sons. This role is so complex and layered that it impressed me. In her first mention on this list, Jessica Chastain gives a quietly subtle performance as Pitt's wife, and she is incredible!
This film is a spiritual experience that chronicles a families journey through paralleled experiences with the beginning of time. In true Malick style the film has very little dialogue, but it does not use this as a gimmick. This is the better quiet film of the year.
2-Take Shelter-The most under rated film of 2011, is the second best film of the year. This coarse film about a man who fears he is succumbing to his mental illness like his mother, or are the visions he is having a signal of the end of days? Jeff Nichols direction and screenplay are phenomenal; he captures this dark terse emotional breakdown of Simon (Michael Shannon). Shannon is an excellent actor, and his performance in this film takes this film to another level; his visions/dreams create a haunting painful experience that starts to tear him away from his family and friends. Jessica Chastain plays his suffering wife Samantha, in her strongest role of the year (and least talked about); she takes her performance to a whole different level Chastain is more than the wife dealing with her husbands potential psychosis; she is the epitome of a strong female character. The script and acting get most of the credit for making this film great, but the cinematography in the scenes where Curtis is seeing his different visions like the flock of birds creates a bitter chill that creeps up your spine.
3-Drive-The second most under rated film (by award shows) is a beautifully shot, directed, acted, and scored film entitled Drive. Drive is about a nameless character played by Ryan Gosling that is both a driver for stunts on films, and has aided in helping men in robberies. The opening sequence of this film helps set the frame for brilliant direction from Nicholas Winding Refn and the palpable cinematography from Newton Thomas Sigel. Refn's direction won him Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival, a prize he deserved. Refn's work pieces together the strength of the screenplay along with Sigel's cinematography to create a strong well plotted, and deep action film. My two favorite things about this film (besides the fact that it stars the incredibly versatile Ryan Gosling) are the score from Cliff Martinez and the dark supporting performance from Albert Brooks. Martinez's score was ruled ineligible by the Academy to compete for the Oscars, but in my opinion this was the best score of the year. Martinez seemed to listen to Brook's character Bernie Rose when he stated "I used to produce movies. In the 80s. Kind of like action films. Sexy stuff. One critic called them European. I thought they were shit." The score and the credit sequence capture this embellished 80s style. Brooks is the best supporting performance of the year; he is dark, yet comical and works with great ease. What a great film with a wonderful lead performance from Gosling that makes this film near perfection.
4-Shame-A raw powerfully emotional film that delves into the dark abyss of sex addiction. Steve McQueen has crafted a film so intimate that lacks intimacy and focuses on the sheer act of sex. The film's star Michael Fassbender is brilliant in this film, and often provides some of his best moments with his facial expressions. In the scene with his co worker where he is attempting to have sex with her, and can't perform his face looks shocked, stunned, and as though he then realizes sex can not be an act of love. The editing of this film is also brilliant and helps to showcase Fassbender's performance. While on the train home from his night of varying sexual acts the editor pieces together the different sexual acts to suggest such an intense emotional experience. Meanwhile Fassbender emotionally breaks down as though he knows he is spiraling toward a much darker place. Carey Mulligan plays his sister who is a brilliant role that stands in juxtaposition to her brother. Yet the only real difference is her naive portrayal of the younger sister. The only difference as she points out is that he has a job. My favorite scene that was shot for this film is Fassbender running through Manhattan at night, the scene is brilliantly shot and connects things to make this an excellent film.
5-Hugo-The best film I have ever seen in 3D. I have never seen that actually uses 3D throughout the entire film that gets the purpose of 3D like this film. Even Avatar director James Cameron stated this was the best 3D experience he has ever had. 3D aside this is a beautiful film experience that captures the essence of childhood innocence along with the birth of film and the famed director Georges Méliès. The story is told from the point of view of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who lives in a clock tower and has a passion for adventure and innovation. Butterfield's performance is quite brilliant and he does a wonderful job bringing this story to life. The ensemble is comprised of Ben Kingsley, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sascha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour and a few more, and they come together to create one magical beautiful film experience. This was a labor of love for director Martin Scorsese, whose passionate work in film has paved the way for him to create this beautifully shot, edited, and visually awe inspiring film. Scorsese is a master in the director's chair and this change in direction of his films proves his brilliance in creating works of art.
6-A Separation- This is the only film on my list that is not in English. A Separation is an Iranian film that takes the simple act of well, a marital separation and takes two families down a path neither wants to go down. The film's pacing may seem slow to some but director and writer Asghar Farhadi uses his brilliant strokes in his screenplay and direction to create an intense build to an incredibly emotional final act. Farhadi's work behind the scenes has created a story that is truly Iranian, but transcends cultural boundaries at the same moment. The writing catapults the audience into a melodramatic world that never goes too far to become overwrought. Watching each family work through their emotional and financial difficulties is not only a test to the brilliants screenplay, but the tremendous acting. Peymann Maadi plays the Nader who is going through the separation with his wife Simin played by Leila Hatami. Maadi and Simin have such great chemistry as a couple whose best years together have withered away. While the script shows there was once love, the acting by both parties conveys the emotional loss of their marriage which ultimately create extreme distress for their daughter. The main premise of their separation seems to be surrounded by two things Nader struggle to want to stay with his father who has Alzheimer's disease, and Smin's desire to want to move to Europe where they can provide a better life for their daughter. As Simin leave her family behind, Nader hires Razeih (Sarah Bayat) to take care of his father, and their lives are forever changed, all because of a separation.
7-Midnight in Paris-Charming, nostalgic, witty, and a beautiful tribute to the city of lights throughout the years. Woody Allen's first love may be New York City, but his mistress is Paris. Midnight in Paris is one of the most likable of the films of the year. The Woodman's script is so smart and captures the journey of a young writer as he tries to find his voice in the present day, only to find himself transported to 1920s Paris connecting with the roots of literature, art, and culture. After Robert Altman Allen knows how to bring together an ensemble that pull things together so effortlessly. With Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Corey Stoll, Adrien Brody, Allison Pill, and man others this is one impressive combination. These actors may be the stars, but the real star is the beauty of Paris and the cinematography that captures just how inspiring this city is.
8-Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2-Not only is this the blockbuster of the year, but this film is one of the most gratifying conclusions to a film series ever. Fans often wait for their films to provide a satisfying conclusion and director David Yates provided an amazing concluding chapter. This film balanced the wit, and darkness of the entire series (more darkness). The film is visually stunning, providing some amazing cinematography, that takes the viewer through a visual sumptuous masterpiece. The performances were also some of the best they have ever been with Radcliffe proving that not only has he grown up in front of our eyes but his acting skills improved vastly. Yet there is one person we all loved, Severus Snape, played by Alan Rickman, what a performance!
9-Martha Marcy May Marlene-The most haunting/terrifying film of the year. Sean Durkin's first feature film is brilliant and tells the tale of a young girl named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) who finds her way into a cult. Durkin's writing and direction keeps the audience on the edge of their seat; he builds up this incredibly tense situation that leaves the viewer emotionally wrought. Durkin's use of the ingenue Elizabeth Olsen is another masterful feat. Olsen is the breakthrough performer of the year. As you watch Martha go from being part of the cult to being with her family and paralleled paranoia play out you can see every emotion in her face. Olsen goes from becoming a forceful follower of the brilliant John Hawkes who plays Patrick the cult leader to a scared little girl seeking protection from her sister after she escapes. The editing on this film helps intertwine the emotional experience, and makes this an amazing film.
10-Moneyball-I remember hearing many people say, another film about baseball it's going to be the same thing again, I remember thinking the same thoughts. It's not. Combine the skills of director Bennett Miller (Capote), writers Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian, and get Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill to work together in some of their best work, and you get one of the best films of the year. The movie is not about baseball. I repeat the movie is not about baseball, but if in the wrong hands this could have been handled wrong. This film centers around Billy Beane (Pitt) who was the general manager of the A's and the fact that at the end of great year he lost three great players to different teams because of money. Beane meets Peter Brand (Hill) and together they come up with a system that would change the game forever! This film is about teamwork, leadership, and imbibes this wonderfully great spirit about working towards a belief in changing a system that is broken. The film is emotionally charged enough as it focuses on Beane as a father, but also in the sense that you grow to understand what baseball means to him and how it effected his outlook. With solid editing that pieces this work together, this film takes "sports" movies to a different level.