The Top Ten Films of 2011

By Drew Hunt

10. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, U.S.): “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a bold and contemplative look at one woman’s struggle to re-enter society after being reprogrammed by an abusive cult. Though it may be Durkin’s first film, the artistry in “Martha” suggests otherwise. He uses tense, visceral moments to provide space for larger ideas, which concern the shattered innocence of the film’s young protagonist (Elizabeth Olsen), whose yearning for stability is denied at every turn. Equally socially conscious and psychologically unnerving, “Martha” is a unique film experience from a director with a real future ahead of him.

9. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark): As one of two major films released this year that deal with cosmic answers to human questions, “Melancholia” arrives as one of von Trier’s most fully realized and uncompromising films. As the errant planet Melancholia sets a crash course with Earth, a pair of sisters ( Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) have distinctly opposite reactions to the world’s impending demise. This quasi-sci-fi film appears contemptuous on the surface, but emits a glow of aesthetic warmth. The buzz of global panic and media furor that would normally accompany such a film is left undocumented, the focus instead on the heartbreakingly humane emotions that lay dormant in all of us, eventually reaching the surface when faced with moments of hopelessness.

8. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, USA): As the year’s best performance, Michael Shannon stars in “Take Shelter,” playing a modest and caring family man whose mental state grows increasingly unhinged. Plagued by visions of a massive, apocalyptic storm, Curtis (Shannon) begins rehabbing an old bomb shelter in his backyard where he, his wife and hearing-impaired daughter can be safe, effectively squandering away his savings in the process. Though the film operates magnificently as a sort of mid-American horror film, the effect of the economic crisis looms over “Take Shelter” like a dark cloud, operating as the silent antagonist that turns Curtis’ life upside down.

7. Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino, Italy): This whimsical, succinct film is the very definition of “show, not tell.” Set in an idyllic village in the Calabria Mountains, “Le Quattro Volte” is a philosophical abstraction broken into four parts, each one examining the seemingly mundane existences of an old man, his goat, a tree and batch of charcoal. Frammartino makes little use of conventional narrative, instead focusing on a series of seemingly innocuous moments that, when viewed in succession, build to broader, more meditative ideas. The film’s slow, deliberate pace belies the amount of introspection taking place subtextually.

6. The Arbor (Clio Barnard, UK): Mixing documentary and fiction forms, “The Arbor” is disarming in its experimentation. It tells the very real and very tragic story of English playwright Andrea Dunbar, who after being crowned an artistic wunderkind, drank herself to death at the age of 29, leaving behind her three children. For the film, Barnard cast actors to lip-sync the testimonials of the real-life subjects. What sounds like needless artifice actually bolsters the film’s authenticity. The blurring of reality and representation was crucial to Dunbar’s work, whose plays depicted her own stories of growing up in the slums of Bradford, England. It’s a tricky but sinuous film, and easily the best documentary of the year.

5. Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, U.S.): The best film made under the major studio apparatus, “Contagion” is a slick thriller wholly a product of its time. Its large ensemble cast, complex narrative structure and international feel are typical Soderbergh. When coupled with themes of social disorder, the failure of globalization and new media’s role in distributing information worldwide, “Contagion” becomes a stirring examination of what a global crisis looks like in the 21st century. Astonishingly, Soderbergh is able to make his film highly politicized without being preachy.

4. Putty Hill (Matt Porterfield, U.S.): Part anthropological study, part stirring backwoods drama, this loosely structured but fiercely realized film is a powerful examination of the residents of a small suburb of Baltimore, where unlived lives and lowered expectations have a lasting effect on its residents. Porterfield assembled a group of locals to play themselves, telling the story of a fictional 24-year-old who dies of a drug overdose. As the film progresses, it’s impossible to discern legitimate reactions from staged ones, resulting in a sort of hyper-realism that leaves the realm of docudrama and occupies a space reserved for the likes of Robert Bresson and Pedro Costa.

3. Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard, France): At the tender age of 81, Godard, one of the true masters of cinema, continues to push the boundaries of film form with “Film Socialisme.” The film is an elusive yet absorbing foray into mixed production modes, lyrical mise-en-scene and persnickety subtitles. Visually, the film is all about texture as Godard uses anything from high-definition cameras to a years-old cell phone to capture his images. Structurally, it’s divided into three parts: first, a naturalistic sequence set on a cruise ship where Patti Smith roams the deck; second, a family discusses an upcoming local election using typically Godarian terminology; and third, a visual essay that incorporates images of Hitler, ancient Greeks and “The Battleship Potemkin” to detail Europe’s past, present and future. Yes, it’s maddening—but that’s precisely the point.

2. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, U.S.): The final film in her so-called “Oregon Trilogy,” “Meek’s Cutoff” represents a distinct departure for Reichardt. By reorienting her visualization to represent a more classical style, Reichardt successfully sheds her “queen of mumblecore” branding, leaving behind the transient cityscape that is her typical setting in favor of an ominous desert terrain. She consistently excels in amplifying even the smallest details. “Meek’s Cutoff,” with its inserts of grinding wooden wheels, cast of dirt-covered pioneers with dry, chapped lips (Michelle Williams, virtually unrecognizable, among them) and the consistent presence of a boiling sun, is pure visual expression.

1. The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick, U.S.): The arrival of new a Malick film is, by its very nature, something to pay attention to. When a film just happens to be “The Tree Of Life,” there’s cause for celebration. Much has already been written about the film; suffice it to say that little of it has been hyperbole. Simply put, there isn’t a single experience—cinematic or otherwise—that quite compares to “The Tree of Life.” With its fully realized milieu, undeterred camera movements that defy perspective or convention and its miraculous renouncement of a conventional narrative, “The Tree of Life” is peerless. Even when the film could have suffered from the weight of its own vision, Malick remains in distinct control over every moment. Never has a film that featured CGI dinosaurs felt more real, more personal or more meditative.