One More for the Road: Mary Pols’ Top 10 Films of 2011

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L. to R.: Myles Aronowitz; Magnolia Pictures; IFC Films / Everett

Have you noticed the new trend in Top Ten lists? Some critics now produce more than one list, ranging from quick and dirty ones for critic’s polls (like Indiewire’s or MSN Movies) to carefully argued lists for one’s individual publications. At first blush this struck me as awfully indulgent, a bit like the multiple wedding dress movement, where the bride has the formal, innocent gown for the ceremony, something shorter and sexier for dancing and perhaps even a third for some other specialized activity, like eating. You could get completely carried away, formulating the perfect blend of mainstream and  artsy, or something more specialized — in 2011, even the all-Apocalyptic list would fly. But a list is about culling, refining, refraining from the temptation to throw 25 titles at readers. A Top 10 list is supposed to represent rigorous personal debate, presented without apology or equivocation.

At second blush, considering the multiple list option, I was as tempted as Nicole Ritchie standing in a Marchesa showroom. It’s such a busy month, so front loaded with screenings of awards bait films that there was barely time to think, let alone write. I had to turn in my first Top Ten list on December 9, about two minutes after I’d walked out of Young Adult and five minutes before I walked into Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I had not yet had a spare second to sit down with Michael Fassbender’s poor overworked, doubtlessly chapped penis or study the Iron Lady’s overbite and suddenly my colleague Richard Corliss was telling me (and you) that Fast Five was the 10th best movie of 2011. It was a rich and confusing time. It started to seem not unreasonable to revisit that earlier list with slightly more leisure, and so I decided to be trendy. In the old days, we actually waited until the last week of the year to assess the year’s films. Because it’s so late in the game, I’m not going to write full summaries of the films — they’ve all been written about extensively already. Here’s how they rank and why I loved them.

(READ: Mary Pols’ 10 Worst Movies of 2011)

10. Margaret

The list is not about perfection, it’s about the experience the movies provide. Kenneth Lonergan’s talky, much delayed film about a self-absorbed teenaged Manhattanite (a brilliant Anna Paquin) whose accidental contribution to a woman’s death sends her on a quest for peculiar justice is hardly a smooth ride. It bumps along in patches and meanders in others, but when it gathers steam becomes an unforgettable force of startling emotional intelligence. In its invigorating fullness it reminded me of the great Italian miniseries The Best of Youth. The controversy behind the making and releasing of Margaret, a sordid tale of punishing litigation between producers, distributors and directors that drags on even today, undeniably added to the film’s mystique. A vivid, complex New York story wrapped in an even more complicated Hollywood story, Margaret will resonate for years to come.

See TIME’s review of Margaret here

9. Contagion

Back in 2000 it took Steven Soderbergh 147 minutes to place drugs into a global context in Traffic. Here he briskly handles a world plague in 106 minutes without missing a beat, thanks in no small part to Scott Z. Burns’s extraordinarily streamlined screenplay. The star power is huge — Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law — but a terrible, destructive flu is the true lead, with modern technology and speed-of-light communication playing supporting roles. Contagion is basically a horror movie, but it was still pure Soderbergh. His people behave abysmally, they abuse the earth and each other, but enough good always surfaces to make you feel the possibility of a hopeful future. I never thought I’d have this much fun watching people foam at the mouth.

See TIME’s review of Contagion here

8. Meek’s Cutoff

Seven emigrants lost in the Oregon High Desert grow justly paranoid that their guide, a pontificator named Meek (Bruce Greenwood), may be as new to this land as they are. “Is he ignorant, or just plain evil?” wonders Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams, as great as she was in My Week With Marilyn). “That’s my quandary.” It’s 1845; an encounter with a mysterious Native American might either represent absolute ruin or hope. Meeks Cutoff, which fit neatly within director Kelly Reichardt’s oeuvre of Oregon-set road trip films (Wendy and Lucy, Old Joy) is a marvel of realism and atmosphere that left me feeling as sunbaked and battered as the settlers. It owed plenty to the classic Wild West genre, including the 1924 film Greed, but it didn’t feel dated. Nowadays we can use smart phones to avoid ever getting lost — and even to play  The Oregon Trail — but trusting leadership is still our quandary.

7. Young Adult

My list is likely female-centric. I almost put Bridesmaids on it, because it made me laugh so hard. Feel free to complain to me when there are as many women filmmakers and critics gainfully employed in America as there are men. So yes, I may have been predisposed to put Jason Reitman’s dark comedy on my list in part as a defense of Diablo Cody, who seems to strike the irrational male gag reflex more than any other screenwriter. Jennifer’s Body did suck. Juno was awfully cute. But Young Adult doesn’t and isn’t. The fearless Charlize Theron as wicked, superficial, mean Mavis Gary is as riveting as she was in Monster. Patton Oswalt? He’s an entire Alexander Payne movie* in one man. The movie’s message is you can go home again, but be prepared to meet yourself there. Trust that what happened in Mercury isn’t going to stay in Mercury.

*Why not Payne’s The Descendants? I’d recommend it in a heartbeat, but I suspect I’ll have forgotten it in a year.

See TIME’s review of Young Adult here

6. Martha Marcy May Marlene

This was the year of the ambiguous ending, and if that drives you crazy, avoid Like Crazy, Meek’s Cutoff and this film. Elizabeth Olsen came out of nowhere – well, technically from the same loins that delivered us the Olsen twin conglomerate – to play a cult escapee still half in its sway. She frustrates her sister and her uptight husband, strips at the worst moments and is overflowing with dark secrets about the commune she fled, particularly about its leader (John Hawkes). Prettier than any movie this scary has a right to be, the movie cuts right to the heart of a multitude of modern fears that have nothing to do with actual cults, including the big one; is the life you’re leading the right one? And is danger always right with you, perhaps in the car behind you? I can’t wait to see what first time writer/director Sean Durkin does next.

See TIME’s review of Martha Marcy May Marlene here

5. Moneyball

What a smooth pleasure from Capote director Bennett Miller. The Social Network’s Oscar-winning scribe Aaron Sorkin was one of several who took a turn at the screenplay, and likely he deserves some of the credit for the speed, humor and glee that permeated this adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book about the supposed numerical salvation of the Oakland A’s. But Moneyball was riveting because it dealt as much in failure as in success; the A’s field of dreams is located a few yards from a busy freeway in a permanently downtrodden city. What stands out in retrospect is less the cleverness of Peter Brand’s (Jonah Hill) methods but rather Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) noshing on Twinkies, being at best a quarter-time dad to his young daughter, too nervous to actually watch his team play and never, ever forgetting what it was like to choke in the big leagues. Moneyball was all-American, but not in the traditional sense.

4. Certified Copy

The year’s most slippery, hard-to-define film is superficially just a conversation between two people, a volatile Frenchwoman (Juliette Binoche) who runs an antique shop in Tuscany and a smug English writer (opera singer William Shimell) who has just published a book about the value of original art works versus reproductions (he thinks a copy is just as good as the real thing). They drive, they walk, they almost have dinner. These two could be new acquaintances or an embittered married couple — as the film shifts under our feet they make a convincing case for both. Anyone who tells you they completely understand what Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is up to is probably not trustworthy; I’m not sure there are any true answers. I’ll mull this film for years.

3. The Tree of Life

I will not defend the dinosaurs. Maybe the interlude added depth. Maybe it wasn’t entirely needed, like a cheese course, or Sean Penn in a suit. Naturally it was beautiful and painterly; Terrence Malick knows no other way of making movies. But The Tree of Life’s power derived from the way it felt like the murmur of memory, a childhood remembered in all its small and big dramas. Brad Pitt loomed so large, a father to be feared and admired in equal parts while Jessica Chastain hovered dreamily, a model of mid-century maternal perfection. And the pack of boys with crew cuts, dirty knees, mosquito bites, sticky fingers? They were all of us.

See TIME’s case for why Brad Pitt’s performance in The Tree of Life was the best of the year.

2. The Artist

What’s black and white, soundless and aroused the year’s greatest film debate? The backlash against Michel Hazanavicius’s sumptuous period piece about Hollywood’s transition from silent film to talkies included grumbling that it was too charming, too slight, too gimmicky. The initial tidal wave of love for it out of Cannes caused some viewers to expect a life changing experience, while others shifted into grumpy cool mode, i.e., it couldn’t possibly be all that. I love to write and read about movies but I wish viewers might have had a prayer of coming to it without great expectations. I feel lucky. I’d barely read anything about it when I saw it, and took my seating thinking, so, what, is this about a painter or something? No. It’s about being really good about one thing but letting yourself be ruined by hubris, by dragging your feet, by refusal to move on, completely modern really. It’s also the richest cinematic sensory experience of the year.

See TIME’s review of The Artist here

1. Melancholia

I watched it on my laptop; the only conditions that could have done it less justice would have been my phone. I have disliked every Lars von Trier film I’ve seen and in recent years, just avoided them on the grounds that there’s only so much misogyny one person can take. Yet his deceptively languid take on the possibility of apocalypse, seen through the eyes of a depressive (Kirsten Dunst) and her fussy sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg), both of whom were much more fun than they sound, went immediately on to my list (knocking Another Earth, another dreamy film featuring a depressed blonde and a new planet, as well as the haunting Take Shelter, with its terrible storm brewing, off it). This film actually comes to terms with man’s place in the universe, with surprising humility. Melancholia is funny, brave, unwavering and overwhelmingly beautiful even on a 13-inch screen.

See TIME’s review of Melancholia here