by Sam Adams , Noel Murray , Keith Phipps , Nathan Rabin , Tasha Robinson , Scott Tobias , and Alison Willmore December 13, 2011
How good was 2011 for cinema? So good that even an unusually tepid awards-season crop didn’t keep us from expanding from our Top 10 lists to a Top 15 (plus a bonus five), which still left a diversity of great films off our ballots. If there’s a common theme to the year’s best, it’s the wealth of ambitious personal visions, from Terrence Malick evoking creation to tell the story of his upbringing in The Tree Of Life to Martin Scorsese channeling his boyhood enthusiasm for spectacle in Hugo to Kenneth Lonergan finally delivering the beautiful, wounded Margaret after six years in post-production purgatory. It was a year where documentaries sought to expand the form, where the best American independent films went far out on a limb, and where old masters like Abbas Kiarostami and Pedro Almodóvar released films that felt exuberant and alive with possibility. A few titles weren’t available to see before press time— The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo , Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close , and Alvin And The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked among them—but we’ve worked hard to give a special year its due. For your consideration…
The Top 15
Some wrote off the directorial debut of The IT Crowd ’s Richard Ayoade as Wes Anderson lite, but his singular coming-of-age story owes more to The 400 Blows than to Rushmore . The young hero (Craig Roberts) plots his life like a military offensive, calculating the right mixture of cruelty and cool to gain his first sexual partner, but life moves faster than his ability to respond, and his shallow mastery of teenage mores is challenged by traumas that can’t be assuaged by the right choice of mix-tape. Although Ayoade is known as a comedian, his approach is more wistful than laugh-out-loud: Submarine is saturated in dark, almost brooding colors and scored with plangent songs by Arctic Monkeys ’ Alex Turner. It’s a film out of time rather than one attuned to the current trends, destined to be a cult object no matter when it was released, but grateful teenagers will still be stumbling across it years from now.
14. The Interrupters
For his latest documentary, Steve James ( Hoop Dreams , Stevie , Reel Paradise ) has trouble bringing an entire area and social issue into focus: His attempt at an overview of troubled Chicago neighborhoods during a period of extraordinary violence focuses on three of the people trying to improve the situation, in the process following so many players and focusing on so many intense, immediate, ephemeral situations, it’s hard to keep track. But as the film blurs into a morass of angry, frustrated people, The Interrupters gets at all the common ground between them and their situations—particularly how their environment trains them to fight, escalate, and never back down, while their own instincts often make them conciliatory at the first sign of reasonableness and a socially acceptable escape from a hairy situation. And moments stand out, as the three “violence interrupters,” working with a group called CeaseFire, intervene to set up conversations between combatants, and memorably, between a robber and his past victims. James’ documentary is a heartbreaking look at some of the causes of systemic inner-city violence, and some of the people working toward a solution: On the micro level, it’s unsettlingly intimate, as when one troubled girl confronts how she keeps letting herself and her sponsor down. And on the macro level, it’s food for uncomfortable thought, as James lets the participants’ words and actions speak for themselves, asking whether it is actually possible to end the violence on a larger scale, instead of just one moment and one fight at a time.
13. The Arbor
Clio Barnard’s documentary about the short, fierce life of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar and the three children she left behind makes use of a simple, ingenious device. The film is comprised of interviews with Dunbar’s family and others who knew her or her work, but we don’t see them on camera. Instead, actors, a little more polished, a little more photogenic, lip-sync their recorded words to the camera in what aren’t quite re-enactments—they’re more restagings. The theatricality matches Dunbar’s medium, and means that the factual scenes don’t look so different from the performances of snippets from her plays peppered throughout the film, simultaneously removed and painfully immediate. As the awful cycles of poverty, neglect, and substance abuse unfold, The Arbor provides a piercing reminder of the humanity behind these accounts.
In a year filled with outstanding narrative documentaries, the old master Errol Morris kept pace with Tabloid , a film about the chatty, personable Joyce McKinney, best-known (for those who know her at all) for her involvement with a 1977 kidnapping/rape case that the British press dubbed “The Manacled Mormon.” Morris allows people with different angles on McKinney’s story to tell their piece of it—including reporters from competing British tabs, one of whom championed McKinney and one of whom trashed her—but he makes no real effort to investigate the truth of what happened, because that isn’t really Tabloid ’s point. The film is more about how easy it is to skew a story for entertainment purposes, and thereby make celebrities of people who haven’t really done anything except be nutty. Case in point: Tabloid itself, which is crazily entertaining and unpredictable.
Two men hook up at a bar in Nottingham, England, and their drunken one-night stand leads to something more substantial in Andrew Haigh’s beautiful writing and directing debut feature, which might crudely be called a gay Before Sunrise . Tom Cullen plays the more reserved of the two, insecure in his sexuality and unable to come out to his family, yet open to a long-term commitment; Chris New is his opposite, brash and promiscuous and suspicious of convention, especially as it applies to romance. What’s thrilling about Weekend is how much their relationship takes on a life of its own, something neither of them could have planned or controlled. Cullen and New start as types, but they grow into more specific characters as the film goes along and their conversation deepens. Weekend is full of wit and intelligence, and tells the story of this relationship with admirable explicitness, whether its characters are in the bedroom or baring their souls.
New York teenager Lisa Cohen ( Anna Paquin ) may be the most vibrantly realized movie character of the year, a precocious, entitled, well-meaning, infuriating 17-year-old who witnesses (and partially causes) a terrible bus accident that leaves a woman dying in her arms. Her quest to right her perceived wrong gets twisted beyond the hope of any satisfaction, she picks fights with her divorced mother, flirts with her math teacher, and loses her virginity to a classmate in a brilliantly awkward scene, and the film spirals out to turn its infinitely empathetic gaze on other characters in her world, from the boy who harbors a crush on her to her remarried dad in California to her mom’s suave new boyfriend. Margaret is messy, but marvelously so—it’s a film about the trauma of realizing that life will go on without you when you’re gone, but even more than that, it’s a testament to how rich, complex and ripe with possibility life is.