The Artist, Tinker, Midnight in Paris: Stephanie's Top 10 Movies of 2011

And so my most-favorite, least-favorite task of the year rolls around again. I never call it a "10 best" list -- meaning the unequivocal 10 best films of the year -- because I'm fully aware of how subjective it is. Yet as frustrating as it usually is to pull together just the right 10, I found the job surprisingly pleasurable this year. So many movies to love! How could this have happened? Let's not even address the fact that two 3-D movies made it onto my list -- that surprises me as much as anyone. The remarkable thing is that year after year, no matter how much samey-sameness Hollywood (or even so-called indie cinema, for that matter) seems to give us, there are always pictures that resonate, movies that stand apart as if to do so were their God-given right.

This year was, I think, particularly rich, but again, no critic's list can ever be the perfect definition of the year's finest movies. Besides, all the fun lies in comparing and contrasting. That's why I urge you to share your favorites with me, in the comments section. That's one of the things I most look forward to each year.

A note about the order: My top four movies are pretty much ranked in order of preference. But the remaining six are just a happy jumble -- Drive could just as easily be Number 7 instead of Number 10, and Bill Cunningham: New York could have crept up to Number 6. And in the Honorable Mentions category, all bets are off. This is secretly, or perhaps not so secretly, my favorite part of compiling a year-end list. It's the place I can revisit every movie of the past year that has somehow stuck with me, without having to make a case for alleged greatness. Because as I've said many times -- and plenty of other people have said it before me -- greatness so often happens in the margins.

Here goes:

The Artist -- Michel Hazanavicius' nearly silent black-and-white film (featuring the ultra-charming Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo) has inspired lots of rapture among critics, but also a great deal of harumphing that it's nothing more than a trifle and says very little about silent film as an art form. But ideally, what, exactly, might it have said? Beyond offering such beauty and pleasure (as if that weren't enough), Hazanavicius has reopened the world's eyes to a long-gone mode of filmmaking. Sure, yes, of course, there are Keaton films, Griffith films, Murnau films that are better, and there are plenty of critics around to remind us of that. But when critics write chiefly for other critics -- in other words, to show off how much they know -- they forget that thousands of people who have never even seen a silent film will see and enjoy The Artist, and maybe seek out more of the great silents. Meanwhile, no one needs a badge of certification to "properly understand" silent film, or The Artist. Thank God.

Melancholia -- Lars von Trier's meditation on serious depression is gorgeous to look at, deeply moody and atmospheric, and always in on its own grim little joke. The most rapturous, uplifting picture about the end of the world -- or the end of a world -- ever made.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy -- Over the past few weeks, Tomas Alfredson's intricate John LeCarré adaptation has crept -- kind of like a super-stealthy MI6 agent -- from my Honorable Mentions section to the bottom of my 10-favorites list to somewhere very close to the top. The picture is sly, precise and deeply fulfilling. It also features Gary Oldman in one of the great performances of the year.

Midnight in Paris -- In the past 20 years I've liked bits and pieces of Woody Allen's films (Scarlett Johansson's brainy-cute journalism student in Scoop, the great Elaine May in Small Time Crooks). But mostly, since Manhattan Murder Mystery, I've pretty much loathed them, and that includes the much-lauded Match Point. Which is why it gives me extra pleasure to have fallen in love with a Woody Allen film once again. Midnight in Paris reckons with the past as a real place, even as it worries about the limits of nostalgia. What happens if we don’t care about the past enough to carry it with us into the future? That’s the question Midnight in Paris worries over. It’s a movie about every yesterday we stand to lose as we’re busy making the leap, over and over again, between today and tomorrow.

Jane Eyre -- Cary Joji Fukunaga understands both the novel's quintessential Englishness and the raw animal nature that drives it. Michael Fassbender, as Mr. Rochester, finds the character’s inherent, awkward warmth without mistaking it for anything so bland as mere niceness. And Mia Wasikowska's Jane, physically just a slip of a thing, has carnal boldness to burn. Sex is threatening, as Charlotte Brontë knew, and Wasikowska and Fassbender make this particular dance look exceedingly dangerous.

Le Havre -- Finnish sadsack Aki Kaurismäki gives us a sort-of bookend to Melancholia, with an equally happy, albeit very different, ending. With this story of an aged Normandy shoeshine guy who takes a African refugee under his wing, even as he faces the loss of his possibly terminally ill wife, Kaurismäki takes the most generous attitude possible toward human nature. Being jaundiced about the world is easy -- it takes relatively little energy to expect the worst from everyone. But it's harder to allow for the possibility of surprise in the way people behave and treat one another, and the rewards are far greater. That's what Kaurismäki captures in this unapologetically joyful picture.

Bill Cunningham: New York -- Richard Press' glorious documentary isn't just a movie about fashion or street photography or even just one pretty eccentric and fascinating guy, New York Times photo-columnist Bill Cunningham. It's a picture that captures the vitality and myriad idiosyncrasies of New York. At one point in the film, Cunningham says plainly, "He who seeks beauty will find it." Press’ movie shows Cunningham leading by example, urging us not just to look, but to really see.

Pina -- Wim Wenders' 3-D documentary about choreographer Pina Bausch doesn't demystify modern dance -- it still seems pretty weird, which is as it should be. But Wenders opens up Bausch's world in a way that beckons us close. This is less a strict documentary than a heartfelt -- and visually gorgeous -- celebration of Bausch’s work and her mode of working.

Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams -- Herzog: What a weirdo! But he's our weirdo, and with this stunning 3-D documentary about the Paleolithic drawings in France's Chauvet Cave, he uses relatively new technology to burrow a little deeper, both literally and figuratively, into history -- into the nature of mankind, even. At one point Herzog startles a sweet, serious French archaeologist by earnestly posing unanswerable questions about the artists who made these drawings so long ago: "Do they dream? Do they cry at night?" But of course, Herzog knows the answer -- doesn't everybody?

Drive Nicolas Winding Refn's winking existentialist portrait of a laconic getaway driver named, well, Driver (and played superbly by Ryan Gosling) could have been the best drive-in feature of 1975. As it is, it's the best action movie of 2011.

Honorable Mentions: Martin Scorsese's Hugo, David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, William Monahan's London Boulevard, Jim Sheridan's Dream House, Tsui Hark's Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Michael Winterbottom's The Trip, Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods & Men, Bennett Miller's Moneyball, Steven Spielberg's War Horse, Cindy Meehl's Buck, Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, Craig Brewer's Footloose, Andrew Niccol's In Time, Jake Kasdan's Bad Teacher.

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  • AS says:

    My favorite film of the year was, like many, Drive. There's really nothing to say about it that hasn't already been said. But I must take umbrage with SZ's labeling of the film as an "action" film. It's not. It was certainly marketed it that way, but it's definitely not.

    My top 5:

    The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
    The Ides of March
    A Dangerous Method

  • Tenetria says:

    Love seeing Footloose in the honorable mentions...I am slightly ashamed to say it was one of my faves, too.

  • Jeff says:

    Zacharek--long my go-to for best, bravest (i.e. least-pappy predictable) film criticism--has made another eclectic, idiosyncratic "best of" list. What fun! I, too, especially like those "honorable mentions" choices (of which--for my personal list--"Bonmee," "The Trip," and "In Time" would have ranked higher). My additions: "Beginners," McGregor turning in an even finer performance than Plummer; and "Weekend," which--despite rumored a-political universality--struck me roundly as a jarring, acute representation largely unprecedented in movies.

  • Doug says:

    Is this the most pretentious ten best list ever? I think so. Ohmygod, that Stephanie has such impeccable taste. Got the message. Now, what movies did you really enjoy?

  • Robert says:

    Great list as always, Stephanie...glad to see the praise for's one of those rare films that seems to have one foot in reality and another in a dream yet it all comes together....Von Trier's films in the last few years have not been totally consistent, but this masterwork of this early decade will be one of the best at the end of the decade as well.

  • Morgo says:

    i had forgotten about Jane Eyre. I remember I enjoyed it too, but it reminded me of that other Jane Eyre movie with charlotte gainsbourg in it. i think there are too many jane eyre movies! but if somebody has seen none yet, that new one is quite a good entertainment.

  • stwsr says:

    Would be perfect except for that gawd awful "The Artist", 2011's "Life is Beautiful". Both are pieces of deliberately created saccharine cheap sentimental turds.

  • Oof says:

    Some inspired choices but Detective Dee was basically unwatchable and Bad Teacher was Sony's fuck you to humor.

  • Charles says:

    Wow, so many movies on that list I haven't seen. So many I refused to see ("Footloose," "In Time"), and so many that never even made it to my neck of the woods!

    At any rate, my favorites of the ones I did see:
    Cave of Forgotten Dreams
    Young Adult
    Midnight in Paris
    Margin Call

    Now bring on 2012!

  • Eren Odabasi says:

    Wonderful top 10! Pina, Le Havre, Drive and Midnight in Paris are awesome picks. I haven't seen a few of these films (Tinker, Tailor excites me the most among them) because of release date issues. Especially glad to see Detective Dee mentioned, which is a very personal film for Tsui Hark and a hugely entertaining genre exercise at once. Sadly, it's often discarded as nothing more than an action fantasy.

    I won't give a full top 10 because I have seen a lot of 2010 films in 2011 here in my country. But my list includes the following titles:

    Certified Copy
    Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
    A Separation
    Midnight in Paris
    The Future
    Le Havre

    I guess all these are 2011 releases in the US. I will see Moneyball, Tinker Tailor, War Horse, Dragon Tattoo and Cave of Forgotten Dreams in a few weeks, so this list gives me plenty to look forwaed to.

  • del says: seem to mirror my tastes more than any other reviewer as I've noticed in Entertainment Weekly and here! Placing 'Bad Teacher' in the honorable mention deserves praise, just for doing it. I laughed harder at that movie then I should have!

  • gordon says:

    Tributaries, no mainstream. And only 3 from this year (I think). 4 of these I caught on netflix streaming. 3 more are available there as well.

    Fish Tank
    Meek’s Cutoff
    Breaking the Maya Code
    The Tillman Story
    Under Our Skin
    Inside Job
    The Hour (BBC series)
    Until the Light Takes Us

    Just my favorite viewing experiences, thanks for sharing yours.

    Meek's Cutoff is worth getting on blu ray.

  • Sisa says:

    Stephanie -

    Loved your list! Here's how I would order them this year:

    The Artist
    Jane Eyre
    War Horse
    Midnight in Paris
    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

    I also was taken with the daringness of Young Adult, though I can see how polarizing it is. It made me squirm. Almodovar's The Skin I Live In wasn't one of his best, but I think it makes great Halloween viewing. It's a horror story with a major "ick" factor. Overall, a year with many wonderful and interesting movies. I'm still making my way through them.

  • Kristin says:

    There are still so many of the more talked about films I've yet to see, and I'm thrilled to see Jane Eyre on yours, as it's on mine as well, it seems to have been lost in the shuffle of a year full of very good and great movies.

    1. Drive
    2. Melancholia
    3. The Trip
    4. Jane Eyre
    5. Beginners
    6. The Myth of the American Sleepover
    7. Stake Land
    8. A Somewhat Gentle Man
    9. The Lincoln Lawyer
    10. Crazy Stupid Love

  • Individue says:

    My list...
    1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
    2. Drive
    3. The Artist
    4. Melancholia
    5. Hugo
    6. Midnight in Paris
    7. A Separation
    8. Moneyball
    9. The Help
    10. The Tree of Life

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