Of the movies I saw in a movie theater in 2011 (I don’t count those I’ve seen at home), these are my favorite 10, listed in the order that I saw them. I can’t say these are the best ten movies of the year because I only see about forty of them in the theater. But of those, these are my favorite, regardless of the year they were released.
1. Another Year
Tom and Gerri, a compassionate, happy couple in their sixties, are visited by friends and family over the course of a year, and it becomes clear as the seasons change, how unhappy most of the people in their life are. This is especially true of Mary, one of Gerri’s co-workers, whose emotional collapse is traced over the course of the film. That writer and director Mike Leigh doesn’t center the drama on Mary coming to grips with her problems—rather, she comes in and out of Tom and Gerri’s life like regular bursts of noise on an out of tune radio—is one of the film’s strengths. Instead, Mary is an enigma. A former cocktail waitress whose past we can only guess, she reveals through glances, uneasy laughs, fumbled flirtations, and scathing self-deprecation that she is unsuccessfully trying to hang onto her past instead of aging gracefully. Leigh’s movie is alternately funny and tragic without settling for either.
2. The Illusionist (L’Illusionniste)
L’Illusionniste is a beautiful animated film from the creators of The Triplets of Belleville about an aging magician who befriends an adolescent girl while touring Scotland in the late 1950s. Believing he’s capable of real magic, she goes on the road with him, and he becomes a kind of surrogate father to her. As she matures and meets a handsome young suitor, the magician frees her from his spell by teaching her a lesson that is hard for both of them: “Magicians do not exist.” The movie is heartbreaking and gently funny, not surprising, considering that it’s an adaptation of a previously unproduced Jacques Tati script that was intended as a love letter to his estranged daughter. There is a funny bit of self-referential humor in the film when the magician enters a movie theater that’s showing Tati’s Mon Oncle. The action of l’Illusionniste stops for one moment while the “real” Tati on the screen and his animated counterpart eye one another with surprised recognition.
3. Win Win
I remember when I first saw a poster for Win Win in the lobby of a movie theater, I wondered how many people were clamoring for what appeared to be a movie about high school wrestling. Of course, it’s about much more than that, and though it’s my least favorite film by Tom McCarthy (who also wrote and directed The Visitor and The Station Agent), it has many of the qualities of his other films that I like: it’s funny, showcases an excellent character actor (Paul Giamatti in this case), is genuinely sympathetic toward characters who don’t always do the right thing, and tells a good story. Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a fairly unsuccessful lawyer and wrestling coach, who, to make a little money, takes control of the living situation of a client suffering from dementia. Flaherty’s life is irrevocably changed when Kyle, his client’s grandson, ambles into his life. The film also features Amy Ryan and Jeffrey Tambor, both of whom do good work here, though the real focus is on Giamatti and newcomer Alex Shaffer.
4. Midnight in Paris
Midnight in Paris is the most satisfying Woody Allen comedy in many years; it’s much better than the overrated Vicky Christina Barcelona, a film that largely worked due to Penelope Cruz’s lively performance. Midnight in Paris is more along the line of Woody Allen’s fantasies, like The Purple Rose of Cairo, Alice, and Zelig than his other recent comedies have tended to be. It tells the story of Gil, a dissatisfied screenwriter with dreams of becoming a respected novelist, and his fiancé Inez vacationing with her parents in Paris on the cusp of their wedding. Doubting the soundness of his upcoming marriage and even of the choices he has made in his life, Gil drunkenly wanders the streets of Paris, until one night, at the stroke of midnight, he takes a mysterious car ride back into the 1920s, when his favorite writers and artists lived. It’s a charming film, and Owen Wilson is probably the best of the Woody Allen stand-ins from the past twenty years, who admittedly have been a pretty mixed bunch.
5. The Tree of Life
Jack, played by a woefully underutilized Sean Penn who doesn’t do much more than gaze meaningfully into the distance, is a middle-aged architect who reflects on the mysteries of life as he recalls his brother’s suicide. Much of the movie consists of impressionistic snapshots of a childhood in Texas during the 1950s. The story isn’t really linear—it moves not only between the present and the 1950s, it also goes back to the Big Bang and the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth—but it’s essentially a coming of age story, as Jack moves from the relative innocence of childhood into the more turbulent and riskier period of adolescence. As Jack grows, he engages in activities he knows are wrong, and the more he does them, the further he feels himself slipping away from his family. I found the childhood scenes evocative and emotionally similar to aspects of my own life. And it’s probably the first performance by Brad Pitt that I’ve admired. I wasn’t sure what to make of the cosmological material in the movie—part of me thinks it’s unnecessary, but I like the risk that director Terrance Malick made by including it—and I thought the ending was like some of the dopier “spiritual” scenes in TV’s Lost, but I thought the film did a fantastic job of capturing the uncanniness of vivid childhood memories, as well as the unsettled, painful quality that is part of the wonder and beauty of life.
6. City of Life and Death
Set in late 1937, as the Japanese captured the Chinese capital of Nanking near the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War, City of Life and Death mainly depicts what is commonly referred to as the Rape of Nanking, when hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers were beaten, murdered, and raped by the Japanese occupying forces. Directed by Chinese director Lu Chuan, who made the unusual “action” film Kekexili: Mountain Patrol about civilians who battle poachers on the Tibetan plateau from hunting the endangered Tibetan antelope, City of Life and Death unflinchingly depicts the atrocities committed by the Japanese upon the Chinese people. It certainly was hard to watch at times, but it is an important historical event, the scope of which relatively unknown to American audiences. In spite of some powerful filmmaking, if that’s all the film had been, I’m not sure I would have liked it. But when Chuan personalizes the story, it gains greater depth. Some critics found the ending—when a young Japanese soldier frees a father and son before committing suicide, the movie ending on a still image of the boy’s smiling face—mawkish. I felt that after the atrocities we had witnessed, all conventional emotions were severely undercut. In my mind, it was miles away from the awkward, weepy sentimentality that closed out Schindler’s List.
7. 13 Assassins
I love a good Samurai film as much as I love a good Western, and 13 Assassins is in the vein of The Seven Samurai. A remake of a 1963 film of the same name, 13 Assassins tells the fictional account of real historical figures in mid-nineteenth century Japan, at the twilight of the samurai’s heyday. Lord Naritsugu is a loose cannon ravaging Japanese citizens and avoiding prosecution because of his relationship to the current Shogun. When an important government official realizes that Naritsugu is on the verge of gaining even more political power (I can’t remember if he’s in line to be the next Shogun, but it’s something like that), he approaches Shinzaemon, a retiring samurai, to assassinate Naritsugu before he commits even greater atrocities. Shinzaemon gathers eleven other samurais to do the job, and on the way they are joined by an itinerant hunter. The action scenes are thrilling and clever, and the oldest samurais are brilliantly played. The film is directed by Takashi Miike, whose films can get pretty gory, so the violence here is a bit more over-the-top than usual, but it doesn’t get in the way of the classical structure of the story and the great performances.
8. The Trip
Created from the award-winning BBC show, The Trip was the funniest movie I saw this year. The premise is that Steve Coogan has been hired by The Observer to write reviews of restaurants in northern England. When his girlfriend backs out at the last minute to spend some time in America, he reluctantly invites his friend Rob Brydon to join him. Neither the premise nor the food they eat along the way is what this film is about, though. Instead, it’s about the joy (and irritation) of two comedians goofing around. In one great scene, both men imitate Michael Caine, analyzing each other’s impersonations in the voice of Michael Caine. The film bogs down a bit at the end when it tries to be serious, but it’s at its best when it’s not about much at all, which happily is much of the film. I enjoyed the movie even more when it bothered an annoying couple attending the showing I was at, an anecdote I related in a previous blog post: https://chaszak.wordpress.com/2011/08/04/training-reels/
9. The Holy Mountain 
The only film on my list not made in the past few years, The Holy Mountain is the Dr. Zhivago or Ten Commandments of Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky: it’s a big budget spectacular telling an epic story. Of course, since it’s Jodorwosky, just what that story is can be a bit hard to parse, so here’s a synopsis of the plot from the Internet Movie Database: “A Christlike figure wanders through bizarre, grotesque scenarios filled with religious and sacrilegious imagery. He meets a mystical guide who introduces him to seven wealthy and powerful individuals, each representing a planet in the solar system. These seven, along with the protagonist, the guide and the guide’s assistant, divest themselves of their worldly goods and form a group of nine who will seek out the Holy Mountain, in order to displace the gods who live there and become immortal.” I find that Jodoworsky’s films can be a bit relentless, and The Holy Mountain is no exception, and it’s definitely a product of its time, but I still found the loopy, cartoonish surrealism of the film quite appealing.
10. The Skin I Live In
The Skin I Live In is, to my knowledge, Pedro Almodóvar’s first horror film, though its style of horror is closer to Eyes without a Face than Se7en or Halloween. Antonio Banderas plays Dr. Robert Ledgard who is performing skin grafts on a young woman whom we assume has suffered major burn over the entirety of her body and whom we soon realize is also Dr. Legard’s prisoner. Slowly, we discover what’s really going on between the Dr. and the young lady, but to tell more would be to spoil some of the pleasure of watching this film, which comes in part from figuring out what we think is going on, only to have those assumptions completely upended. While the film consciously draws on Eyes without a Face and Vertigo, I also felt like the plot could have been the premise of an early John Waters film done as a melodrama instead of as a trashy comedy. In fact, John Waters said of this film, “God bless Almodóvar,” a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly concur. On the other hand, Roger Ebert complained that the film made him more than a bit queasy as the plot unfolded, so be forewarned.