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Best Films of 2011


In alphabetical order:

CORIOLANUSRalph Fiennes directorial debut is the most in-your-face adaptation of Shakespeare since Julie Taymor’s Titus. Fiennes also stars as a general whose successes in war don’t translate into the political arena when he returns home. The play’s contemporary relevance is brought home by resetting it in a modern era driven by mass media. It’s scheduled to open in Buffalo on January 20.

DRIVE—The woman who tried to sue this film’s distributor because the promotional trailer implied that it was an action film with lots of car chases wasn’t wrong. It’s just sad that she doesn’t seem to have noticed how much better this seemingly sedate but chillingly intense film was than the one she paid to see. Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher) nimbly avoided the curse that usually befalls foreign filmmakers when they come to Hollywood.

HUGO—If you had told me a year ago that Hollywood would spend $170 million to make a film about Georges Méliès, the stage magician who first brought magic and fantasy to cinema at the end of the 19th century, I would have laughed. If you told me that it would be a hit, I would have asked you for a hit of whatever you were smoking. If you had told me the whole thing was going to be done by Martin Scorsese, I might have hesitated but still would have scoffed. So what do I know?

J. EDGAR—I don’t know who else other than Clint Eastwood would have bothered to make this film about the man whose dark soul cast such a shadow over so much of the American century. I’m almost certain than anyone else who tried would have fallen far short of the mark. Further proof if any were needed that Eastwood has matured into one of the most bracingly intelligent American filmmakers.

Midnight in Paris

MARGIN CALL— Reminiscent of the best work of David Mamet, especially Glengarry Glen Ross, this is a disaster movie more unsettling than any FXtravaganza about earthquakes or meteors: the financial crisis caused by financial “geniuses” who assumed that they could endlessly siphon away the cream of the world’s economy. The critics’ organizations that have an award for Best Ensemble will be hard-pressed to top the work here of Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Penn Badgley, and Zachary Quinto.

MELANCHOLIA—The always controversial Lars von Trier has finally made an inarguable masterpiece, in which the overwhelming emotional impact of depression is externalized as universal annihilation. Audacious, mesmerizing, and deeply beautiful, though if you missed it theatrically you’ll never get the entire effect in your living room.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS—Woody Allen’s biggest hit in years will probably get a reputation as the movie fans use to convert friends who don’t like Woody Allen. (For one thing, it’s relatively free of the tics that usually dot his work.) It’s a lightweight comedy, bigger on enchantment than laughs, but droll and completely likeable.

A SEPARATION—Despite its consistent excellence, Iranian cinema has never found a popular audience in the US. That will hopefully change with this engrossing drama about a court case that begins with a couple reluctantly seeking a divorce before going into unexpected directions. Expect to see it in Buffalo in late January.

SOURCE CODE—In the past this sci-fi thriller would have been a summer release, but that market has become way too dumbed down. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as an Air Force sergeant in an experimental program that repeatedly sends him a few hours in the past to try to prevent a terrorist disaster. Echoing Groundhog Day, Brazil, Quantum Leap, and the films of Christopher Nolan, it’s a smart movie that engages both the mind and the heart.

THE TRIP—Combine Sideways with My Dinner with Andre and you have this delightful comedy that can be enjoyed as nothing more than two hours of two very funny men (British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) trying to make each other laugh over various overpriced dinners. The most quotable movie of the year: A sequel is in the works.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Honorable mention: The Double Hour, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Small Town Murder Songs, Nora’s Will, Henry’s Crime.

Films I saw that deserve a wider release: the British social drama NEDS, part of a digital series at the Amherst; Absentia, the most unsettling horror film I’ve seen in years, at Buffalo Screams; The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies’ film with a performance by Rachel Weisz that I am amazed is not getting any awards attention, along with The Turin Horse, We Have a Pope (Habemus Papen) and Présumé coupable (Guilty) (all from the Toronto Film Festival); Eliminate: Archie Cooksen, a British black comedy about shelved spies that might get distribution if the remake of Tinker Soldier Sailor Spy is a success, which I saw at the Montreal Film Festival along with Chinese Takeaway and Pa Negre (Black Bread).

Yes, I saw them; no, they’re not on my top 10: The Artist, Shame, The Tree of Life, The Descendants, The Help, War Horse, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, My Week with Marilyn, Carnage.

Films I didn’t see that might have been on my top 10: A Dangerous Method, Iron Lady, Moneyball, Beginners, Take Shelter, We Need to Talk About Kevin,

TV shows that I enjoyed more than most films I saw this year: Boardwalk Empire, Big Love, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Episodes, The Borgias, and the brilliant British political satire The Thick of It, which the generally useless BBC America showed a few episodes of when it wasn’t cramming Top Gear, Gordon Ramsey, and Doctor Who down our throats.

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