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End of Year Party: 2011′s Best Films Picked By Our Writers

Our critics pick their favorite films of the year.

By Kevin B. Lee December 22, 2011

Join the party, Juliette Binoche: You starred in the top film of 2011 among Keyframe critics, "Certified Copy"

Editor’s note: Sometimes I wish I had a regular office job with co-workers whom I can see on a daily basis and work alongside in a pure state of synergy. Instead, I’ve spent this year sending out waves of email invitations and exhortations, building a network of over 50 critics and writers spread all over the U.S. and beyond. It’s been an exhausting effort reaching out to these collaborators in an attempt to build Keyframe from virtually nothing and give it stature among a community of respected peers. I owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for their cooperation over the many hours spent hashing out article ideas and poring over edits to help establish an editorial standard and a voice to the site.

At this time of year, I really wish I could throw a holiday party, the kind that many offices take for granted. One thing I don’t take for granted is the work of all of all those who’ve contributed to this endeavor known as Keyframe and the Fandor site that it supports. So in lieu of in-person festivities, I offer this makeshift party for Keyframe, its writers and the movies they in turn celebrate as their favorites of the past year. If you click on their names you can access articles that they wrote or are referenced in: their writing is cause for celebration, too.

Thanks to all of Keyframe’s writers and readers for your ongoing support. – Kevin B. Lee

Keyframe’s Top Films of 2011 (sorted by number of mentions among our critics’ top ten lists)

1. Certified Copy (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
2. A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi)
= The Mysteries of Lisbon (dir. Raul Ruiz)
4. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
5. The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick)
= Tuesday After Christmas (dir. Radu Muntean)
7. Melancholia (dir. Lars von Trier)
8. Margaret (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
= Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (dir. Tomas Alfredson)
10. The Artist (dir. Michel Hazanavicius)
= Hugo (dir. Martin Scorsese)
= Meek’s Cutoff (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
= Poetry (dir. Lee Chang-dong)

Hey, guess what? You can watch one of the top films of 2011, Poetry, on Fandor. Try it with a One Week Pass:

Get a Fandor Free Pass

Read separate Top Ten articles by Kevin B. Lee, Michał Oleszczyk and Alejandro Adams

Steven Boone

"The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975"

10. Of Gods and Men. Priests stand up to military thugs. The cleanest, clearest depiction of peaceable courage under the boot heel since John Sayles’ Men with Guns.
9. Paranormal Activity 3. Wrongly dissed, the Paranormal franchise is purer, more ingenious horror cinema than its obvious found-footage influences, The Blair With Project and Cloverfield. Episode three celebrates a VHS-era video hobbyist, whereas the first one punished its slick, day trader protagonist, dallying stupidly with his expensive HD toy.
8. Essential Killing. Not to be glib, but this film is the Scared Straight program for terrorists. Well, terrorists who liked Jeremiah Johnson and love bleak existential poetics.
7. The Skin I Live In. The 3D craze is happening because it takes actual storytelling genius to direct a film like this 2-D Pedro Almodovar lucid dream, which can make you gaze upon a set of pert nipples and know what they taste like.
6. Attack the Block. A far better Spielberg tribute than Super 8, without even trying. AtB also gives us a hood rat hero who troubles your conscience as sharply as the kids in Pixote and Los Olvidados.
5. Tuesday After Christmas. Anybody who would call this Romanian drama slow and boring has never told a lie to his or her mate. Good for them.
4. Certified Copy. Abbas Kiarostami figured out that all it really does take to make a spellbinding film is a man, a woman and a camera–so long as the couple’s competing agendas remain frustrated/tangled and the precise nature of the relationship tantalizingly ambiguous.
3. Love Exposure. A nearly four-hour war between cynical power brokers and powerless naifs, told as a goofy, sexy live-action anime. “Become erect with your heart” is the line of the century.
2. The Tree of Life.  Terrence Malick ponders the meaning of life and becomes his country’s Andrei Tarkovsky, misunderstood by the very folks his poetry is meant to awaken.
1. The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. History written with lightning. REPORTER: “Isn’t there a possibility you might end up in jail upon your arrival?” STOKELY CARMICHAEL (smiling serenely): “I was born in jail.”

Phil Coldiron

"House of Tolerance"

1. House of Tolerance (Bertrand Bonello) – One of the greatest movies ever made about friendship, featuring no less than half a dozen of the most talented young actresses in France.  Though its story concerns the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, its form signals the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.

2. Buenas Noches, España (Raya Martin) – In a year full of movies of varying degrees of fetishistic nostalgia, Raya Martin continued to kick around cinema’s history without the slightest sentiment and made another masterpiece – one that’s equal parts Gance and Mekas, with a dash of Loony Tunes.  In the span of 70-some minutes it gives full expression to ideas on art, national identity, colonialism, love, time, space, beauty, color, sound, etc. before arriving at the most wonderfully beguiling ending of the year; to steal a phrase from Luc Moullet: the cosmic film.

3. The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry) – Dozens upon dozens of ideas scurrying around, cropping up, running away just as quickly:  it makes Truffaut’s famous four-ideas-per-minute maxim sound lazy.

4. Low Life (Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Perceval) – While nostalgia ruled Hollywood this year, the festival circuit seemed to constantly circle back to two concerns: immigration and the end of the world.  Low Life, the greatest DSLR film made to date, wove both of these together into a dusky, romantic vision of youth radicalism in a crumbling world that looks more than a little like our own.  By turns poetic and magical, didactic and dialectical, it’s another vital piece of highly personal political cinema from Klotz and Perceval.

5. Vertigo Variations (B. Kite and Alexander Points-Zollo) – The first two sections would be enough to earn a place on this list.  The third, which throws out a rich web of thoughts only to dolly-zoom them through the eye of a needle and use the resulting thread to stitch a doorway opening onto infinity makes me wonder how I’m not putting it higher.

6. Jackals and Arabs (Jean-Marie Straub) – “And what had been so far away was suddenly close by.”

7. Seeking the Monkey King (Ken Jacobs) – The reclamation of spectacle:  the first great Occupy film.

8. A Lax Riddle Unit (Laida Lertxundi) – Returning to pop filmmaking following the moderate expansion of Cry When It Happens, Lertxundi uses the California desert, an apartment, a view of Los Angeles at night, and songs by James Carr and Robert Wyatt to make a tiny portrait showing everything that’s beautiful and awful about the city.

9. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher) – Turns Zodiac inside out:  instead of an obsessive arrow pointing at a massive emptiness, Fincher digs answer after answer out of Steig Larsson’s pulp premise and finds that not a single one of them is satisfying.  Fincher brings together every preoccupation he’s had since Seven and sets them loose in an intricately designed mise en scene built out of constantly stymied movement.

10. This Is Not A Film (Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) – Yes, an astonishingly brave effort, but it’s also the most fascinatingly reflexive work of the year:  a hard look at what exactly auteurism might be good for in the face of repression, or maybe just what it’s good for at all.

11. Scream 4 (Wes Craven) + The Innkeepers (Ti West) – Two exceptional American horror films that, taken in tandem, form a nearly perfect picture of life here circa now.  Craven’s hilarious hall of mirrors, all of them pointing at the doomed solipsist standing in the middle, is the amber that traps West’s terrifying portrait of the death of the small business – who could imagine a ghost story set in a Courtyard By Marriott?

Note:  Certain titles with more than enough consensus behind them have been left off, i.e., at this late date – and certainly the third week of December constitutes a late date in the ever more frenzied world of year-end lists – my listing The Tree of Life here wouldn’t be doing much for anyone.  The only rule for inclusion was a 2011 premiere, since, as always, many of the year’s best films won’t ever see the glory of a theatrical release (and this year’s fifth best film wasn’t even created with the intention of ever being seen in a theater in the first place).

Note:  Certain titles with more than enough consensus behind them have been left off, i.e., at this late date – and certainly the third week of December constitutes a late date in the ever more frenzied world of year-end lists – my listing The Tree of Life here wouldn’t be doing much for anyone.  The only rule for inclusion was a 2011 premiere, since, as always, many of the year’s best films won’t ever see the glory of a theatrical release (and this year’s fifth best film wasn’t even created with the intention of ever being seen in a theater in the first place).

Nick Davis

"My Joy"

I am appending my 10 ranked choices with the tweets I initially published after seeing them, more than anything as time capsules of a deeply stirred response.  Of course, these phrases seem even less adequate to my feelings about the films now than they did in the moments when I posted them.

1 – My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa) Like Russian Ark dreamscape restaged as Wages of Fear-style suspenser, in mordant, purgatorial key of Romanian New Wave
2 – The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick) A brother’s grief kiln-blasted and glazed into a grand, restless, ecstatic lament for a living and dying world.
3 – Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh) Astounding control of image, color, pace. Tensions grip, enigmas fascinate. Brisseau + Buñuel + Barney ÷ Breillat.
4 – Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan) Erratic, hilarious, endlessly sympathetic. Semi-wittingly a new kind of NYC film, a free-verse icon of life’s untidiness.
5 – The Interrupters (Steve James) An achievement fully comparable to Hoop Dreams, with some of the year’s most indelible moments and characters.
6 – Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami) Disarmingly lived-in, even warm for a study of romantic skepticism and ambivalence; concepty, yes, but rings with truth
7 – Melancholia (Lars von Trier) Last Days at Marienbad. Is doom a simile for depression, or disconsolate wedding a metaphor for denying imminent doom?
8 – Beginners (Mike Mills) Tactful, tender, and generous, rich in humor and characterization. Joins the Junebug Hall of Fame for exquisite modesty.
9 – A Separation (Asghar Farhadi) Farhadi jewel-cuts another polygon of enigmatic conflict as both a social essay and a prism for refracting psychology
10 – How I Ended This Summer (Aleksei Popogrebsky) Beats even The Return for unusual but thick suspense. Strong actors and images, amazing sound design.

Leaving Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend off the list feels especially painful, though a fuller, alphabetical list of runners-up would also include A Dangerous Method, Drive, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Poetry, Le Quattro Volte, Tomboy, and Tuesday, After Christmas.  The Turin Horse and Miss Bala are surely headed for spots on next year’s list; I’m starting to divine that Love Like Poison and On Tour might never materialize on American screens after waiting well over a year, so they deserve honorary mentions.  Then there’s the matter of released titles I haven’t caught up to yet, of which City of Life and Death, Mysteries of Lisbon, Of Gods and Men, and Armadillo currently loom largest in my mind.  The glory of operating your own site is that you can keep seeking out the films and fiddling with the rankings till you just can’t fiddle no more.  I’m still seeking, and still fiddling.

David Ehrenstein

"Hugo"

1. Hugo : Marty’s most personal film.
2. Mildred Pierce: Yes it’s an HBO mini-series, but it’s a Todd Haynes movie damn it!
3. The Mysteries of Lisbon: Adieu Raul!
4. Weekend: The best gay love story since Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train
5.We Were Here: The best film to date about the AIDS epidemic.
6. In the Land of Blood and Honey: Introducing an exciting new film master named Angelina Jolie.
7. Carnage: Roman Polanski on Grown-Ups Behaving Badly. Includes his first Happy Ending EVAH!
8. Vito: The life of film critic and gay/AIDS activist Vito Russo (Full Disclosure: I’m in it.)
9. Le Havre: Kaurismaki at his sweetest.
10. Midnight in Paris: The Woodman’s best since I can’t remember when.

Dan Callahan

1. The Tree of Life (Malick)
2. Certified Copy (Kiarostami)
3. A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg)
4. Rampart (Moverman)
5. Public Speaking (Scorsese)
6. Poetry (Lee-Chang dong)
7. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Alfredson)
8. The Skin I Live In (Almodovar)
9. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz)
10. Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan)

Vadim Rizov

"Margaret"

1. Margaret (2011) If you’ve been on Twitter and following any film feeds at all for the last, say, month and a half, you’ve probably come across the hashtag #teammargaret. Is it getting annoying to read over and over that one of the year’s best films is a barely released contractual fiasco  — a suspiciously familiar provocation for film critic grandstanding if there ever was one? I walked back from a late-night viewing all the way down 1st Ave. from the theater to my subway stop in a 14-block stupor. That doesn’t happen very often, hardly ever; at the very least it deserves to be widely known that Margaret‘s a year-end talking point if perhaps a less probable crossover hit. New Yorkers get another chance at it this Friday for a week at the Cinema Village; if you’re not out of town, you need to be there.
2. Meek’s Cutoff (2010) Seen at last year’s New York Film Festival. Viewing companion: “Of course you like this. You like Gerry.” And I’m thinking a) “Ouch, true! That makes me super predictable!” b) “That’s not a problem.”
3. Tuesday, After Christmas (2010) Post-communist shopping expeditions and cosmetic dentistry can’t fill that emotional void. An epic of adultery, devastatingly acted and filmed with all the gravity of 2001.
4. Two Years At Sea (2011) Magic moments and surprisingly broad laughs in a film whose only real avant-garde characteristic is that it’s non-narrative. In other words, the label’s stupid.
5. To Die Like A Man (2009) Remember the days when people complained about the overwhelmingly poor quality of gay-oriented cinema? It’s movies like this that will one day nail that coffin shut.
6. Contagion (2011) Personally, for me this is Soderbergh’s most satisfying film since Bubble.
7. The Student (2011) The revolution will not be televised; it won’t even make it past multiple student faction meetings. An inadvertently cynical film made by optimists.
8. Putty Hill (2011) Turns abandoned, decaying parts of Baltimore into an uplifting experience without getting precious about it.
9. You All Are Captains (2010) Nearly as complex as the self-reflexive Kiarostami cinema-essays/”narrative films” it took its olive trees from.
10. The Guard (2011) Not the 10th-best film/release of the year, but I’m tired of writing about Melancholia. There should be more comic vehicles for Brendan Gleeson.

Ali Arikan

  1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
  2. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  3. A Separation
  4. We Need to Talk About Kevin
  5. A Dangerous Method
  6. Uncle Boonmee
  7. Carnage
  8. Certified Copy
  9. Take Shelter
  10. Meek’s Cutoff

Jesse Ataide

"Mysteries of Lisbon"

01) Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz)
= 01) Public Speaking (Martin Scorsese)
03) Maya Deren’s Sink (Barbara Hammer)
04) The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
05) Hotspell (George Kuchar)
06) Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
07) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
08) The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
09) In Time (Andrew Niccol)
10) Melancholia (Lars von Trier)

Honorable Mentions:

Beginners (Mike Mills), The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar), The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira), Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975 (Göran Olsson)

Comments: My list is at the whims of 01) what was released theatrically in San Francisco this last year, and 02) if I was able to afford a ticket before it disappeared from theaters (translation: there’s still so much I haven’t yet seen that it almost feels silly compiling a list at this point).  My top two represent two ends of the cinematic spectrum—four hours of elegantly playful narrative sprawl vs rapid-fire chatty banter—that each gave me such intense viewing pleasure I ultimately gave up trying to choose between them.  Just barely behind is a moving portrait of one pioneering female auteur by another.  Everybody seemed to dislike “In Time,” much to my chagrin.  And finally, my most moving cinematic experience of 2011: shaking George Kuchar’s hand on the way out of the premiere of “Hotspell,” the latest installment of the “Weather Diary” series and then three short months later came the news he was dead.  It’s a film bristling with vitality and life—I don’t know if it actually ended up being his last film, but it stands as a fitting tribute to a beloved local legend and a great filmmaker.

Michael Atkinson

1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
2. A Brighter Summer Day
3. A Separation
4. Mysteries of Lisbon
5. My Joy
6. Poetry
7. Martha Marcy May Marlene
8. City of Life and Death
9. Tuesday, After Christmas
10. Bellflower

Farran Smith Nehme

1) Mysteries of Lisbon
2) Hugo
3) A Separation
4) Certified Copy
5) Le Havre
6) Midnight in Paris
7) Melancholia
8 ) Tuesday, After Christmas
9) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
10) The Artist

Kurt Osenlund
10. Take Shelter
9. The Descendants
8. Meek’s Cutoff
7. Poetry
6. Drive
5. The Future
4. The Artist
3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
2. A Separation
1. Melancholia

*Honorable Mention, alphabetically: Bridesmaids, Certified Copy, Hugo, In the Land of Blood and Honey, Jane Eyre, Le Havre, Moneyball, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Rango, The Tree of Life.

"The Tree of Life"

Timothy Brayton

1. The Tree of Life
2. Certified Copy
3. Hugo
4. Pina
5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
6. Margaret
7. We Need to Talk About Kevin
8. Into the Abyss
9. Winnie the Pooh
10. The Artist

Jaime N. Christley

1 Certified Copy
2 Mysteries of Lisbon
3 Midnight in Paris
4 A Dangerous Method
5 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
6 Tuesday, After Christmas
7 The Descendants
8 Film Socialisme
9 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
10 The Three Musketeers

Steve Erickson

"Melancholia"

1. “Melancholia” (Lars von Trier)
2. “United Red Army” (Koji Wakamatsu)
3. “The Arbor” (Clio Barnard)
4. “Certified Copy” (Abbas Kiarostami)
5. “Petition” (Zhao Liang)
6. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (Rupert Wyatt)
7. “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
8. “A Separation” (Asghar Farhadi)
9. “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” (Tsui Hark)
10. “Into the Abyss” (Werner Herzog)

Runners-up: “Disorder” (Huang Weikai), “House of Pleasures” (Bertrand Bonello),  “Hugo” (Martin Scorsese),  “Nostalgia For the Light” (Patricio Guzman),  “Oxhide II” (Liu Jiayin), “Punished” (Law Wing-Cheong), “Rango” (Gore Verbinski),  “El Sicario, Room 164” (Gianfranco Rosi), “Terri” (Azazel Jacobs), “To Die Like a Man” (Joao Pedro Rodrigues)

Glenn Heath Jr.

1. Mysteries of Lisbon
2. A Brighter Summer Day
3. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
4. The Tree of Life
5. Certified Copy
6. In the Family
7. A Separation
8. Nostalgia for the Light
9. Margaret
10. Hugo

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2 Comments »

  • These are all great line-ups and I’m honored I could be a part of the process thanks to the kind invitation from Kevin. Keyframe made a tremendous leap under his editorial care; it became a regular fixture of my daily reading up on film.

  • And yes: how great would it be to have one big party where all of us involved with Keyframe could meet up!

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