Making lists is not my favorite occupation. They inevitably inspire only reader complaints. Not once have I ever heard from a reader that my list was just fine, and they liked it. Yet an annual Best Ten list is apparently a statutory obligation for movie critics.
My best guess is that between six and ten of these movies won't be familiar. Those are the most useful titles for you, instead of an ordering of movies you already know all about.
One recent year I committed the outrage of listing 20 movies in alphabetical order. What an uproar! Here are my top 20 films, in order of approximate preference.
1. "A Separation"
This Iranian film won't open in Chicago until Jan. 27. It won the Golden Bear at Berlin and was just named the year's best foreign film by the New York Film Critics Circle. It is specifically Iranian, but I believe the more specific a film is about human experience, the more universal it is. On the other hand, movies "for everybody" seem to be for nobody in particular. This film combines a plot worthy of a great novel with the emotional impact of a great melodrama. It involves a struggle for child custody, the challenge of a parent with Alzheimer's, the intricacies of the law, and the enigma of discovering the truth. In its reconstruction of several versions of a significant event, it is as baffling as "Rashomon."
A modern Iranian couple considers emigrating to Europe to find better opportunities for their daughter. The mother wants to leave quickly. The father delays because his father has Alzheimer's and needs care. "Your father no longer knows you!" his wife says during a hearing in divorce court. "But I know him!" says her husband. We can identify with both statements.
A caregiver is hired but cannot come, and his wife secretly substitutes for him. It's against her religious principles for her to touch any man not her husband, but her family needs the money. This leads to events which create a deep moral tangle. Asghar Farhadi's real subject is Truth, when it is disagreed about by people we respect even though we know most of the facts. "A Separation" will become one of those enduring masterpieces watched decades from now.
Michael Fassbender's brave, uncompromising performance is at the center of Steve McQueen's merciless film about sex addiction. He's a loner with a good job, who avoids relationships because of his obsession with sex. He is driven to experience multiple orgasms every day. His shame is masked in privacy. He wants no witnesses to his hookers, his pornography, his masturbation. Does he fear he is incapable of ordinary human contact?
There isn't the slightest suggestion he experiences pleasure. Sex is his cross to bear. The film opens with a close-up of Fassbender's face showing pain, grief and anger. His character is having an orgasm. He is enduring a sexual function that has long since stopped giving him any pleasure and is self-abuse in the most profound way.
Carey Mulligan co-stars as his sister. She is as passionate and uninhibited as he is the opposite. She needs him desperately. He fears need. He flies at her in a rage, telling her to get out. She has nowhere to go. He doesn't care. Childhood has damaged them. "Shame" is a great act of filmmaking and acting. I don't believe I would be able to see it twice.
3. "The Tree of Life"
A film of vast ambition and deep humility, attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives. Terrence Malick's film begins with the Big Bang that created our universe, and ends after the characters have left the realm of time. In between, it zooms in on a moment, surrounded by infinity.
Scenes portray a childhood in a town in the American midlands, where life flows in and out through open windows. There is a father who maintains discipline and a mother who exudes forgiveness, and long summer days of play and idleness and urgent unsaid questions about the meaning of things. Three boys in the 1950s American Midwest are browned by the sun, scuffed by play, disturbed by glimpses of adult secrets, filled with a great urgency to grow up and discover who they are.
Listen to an acute exchange of dialogue between the son Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his father (Brad Pitt). "I was a little hard on you sometimes," Mr. Brien says, and Jack replies: "It's your house. You can do what you want to." Jack is defending his father against himself. That's how you grow up. And it all happens in this blink of a lifetime, surrounded by the realms of unimaginable time and space.
In the guise of a delightful 3D family film, Martin Scorsese makes a love letter to the cinema. His hero Hugo (Asa Butterfield) had an uncle who was in charge of the clocks at a Parisian train station. His father's dream was to complete an automated man he found in a museum. He died with it left unperfected. Rather than be treated as an orphan, the boy hides himself in the maze of ladders, catwalks, passages and gears of the clockworks themselves, feeding himself with croissants snatched from station shops, and begins to sneak off to the movies.
His life in the station is complicated by a toy shop owner named Georges Méliès. Yes, this grumpy old man, played by Ben Kingsley, is none other than the immortal French film pioneer, who was also the original inventor of the automaton. Hugo has no idea of this. The real Méliès was a magician who made his first movies to play tricks on his audiences.
Without our quite realizing it, Hugo's changing relationship with the old man becomes the story of the invention of the movies, and the preservation of our film heritage. Could anyone but Scorsese have made this subject so magical and enchanting? Although I believe that 3D is usually an unnecessary annoyance, the way Scorsese employs it here is quite successful; in calling attention to itself, 3D subtly calls attention to film itself.
5. "Take Shelter"
Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) appears to be a stable husband and father with a good job in construction, but he also can evoke by his eyes and manner a deep unease. Curtis has what he needs to be happy. He fears he will lose it. His dreams are visited by unusually vivid nightmares: The family dog attacks him, or storms destroy his home. They live on the outskirts of town, in an area which is swept from time to time with tornadoes.
Director Jeff Nichols builds his suspense carefully. Curtis is tormented but intelligent; fearing the family's history of mental illness, he visits his schizophrenic mother (Kathy Baker) to ask if she was ever troubled by bad dreams. He turns to the area's obviously inadequate public health facilities.
And he also acts as if his warnings should be taken seriously. He borrows money from the bank and equipment from work to greatly expand an old storm shelter in his backyard. His wife (Jessica Chastain) is frightened by his behavior. His job and health insurance are threatened. People begin to talk. And then a storm comes. It leads to a searing scene in which the man and his wife must confront their fears about the weather--and about each other.
I was moved by "Hotel Rwanda" (2004), but not really shaken this deeply. After seeing "Kinyarwanda," I have a different kind of feeling about the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994. The film approaches it not as a story line but as a series of intense personal moments.
In an independent film of great emotional impact, the film's director, a Jamaican named Alrick Brown, establishes a vivid group of characters. A young couple from different tribes who are in love. The female head of a military unit trained in Uganda, hoping to bring peace. A Catholic priest. The Mufti of Rwanda. Most memorable, a small boy named Ishmael. Their personal stories are entangled in the ancient conflict between tribes, while the UN regards the genocide from afar. The title may put some people off. It is the name of the language both tribes speak, although the film is largely in English. I'm inviting "Kinyarwanda" to Ebertfest 2012.
The Driver drives for hire. He has no other name and no other life. When we meet him, he's the wheelman for a getaway car, who runs from police pursuit not by speed, but by coolly exploiting the street terrain and outsmarting his pursuers. By day, he's a stunt driver for action movies. The two jobs represent no conflict for him: He drives. He has no family, no history and seemingly few emotions. Whatever happened to him drove any personality deep beneath the surface. Played by Ryan Gosling, he is an existential hero, defined entirely by his behavior.
The director, Nicolas Winding Refn, peoples his story with characters who bring lifetimes onto the screen--in contrast to the Driver, who brings as little as possible. Ron Perlman is a big-time operator working out of a pizzeria in a strip mall. Albert Brooks plays a producer of the kinds of B movies the Driver does stunt driving for; he also has a sideline in crime. These people are ruthless. "Drive" looks like one kind of thriller in the ads, and it is that kind of thriller, but also another and a rebuke to most of the movies it looks like.
8. "Midnight in Paris"
A fabulous daydream for American lit majors, Woody Allen's charming comedy opens with a couple on holiday in Paris. Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams) are officially in love, but what Gil really loves is Paris in the springtime. He's a hack screenwriter from Hollywood who still harbors the dream of someday writing a good novel and joining the pantheon of American writers whose ghosts seem to linger in the very air he breathes: Fitzgerald, Hemingway and the other legends of Paris in the 1920s.
By (wisely) unexplained means, each midnight he finds himself magically transported back in time to the legendary salon presided over by Gertrude Stein. He meets Scott and Zelda, Ernest, Picasso, Dali, Cole Porter, Luis Bunuel and, yes, "Tom Eliot." He even gives Bunuel the idea for his film "The Exterminating Angel." Kathy Bates makes an authoritative Miss Stein, and Marion Cotillard plays Adriana, who has already been the mistress of Braque and Modigliani, is now Picasso's lover, and may soon -- be still, my heart! -- fall in love with Gil.
9. "Le Havre"
Aki Kaurismaki is a Finnish director who makes dour, deadpan comedies about people who shrug their way through misfortune. They have a hypnotic fascination for me. "Le Havre" is the sunniest film of his I've seen. Set in the French port city, it involves young Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), an illegal immigrant from Gabon, solemn, shy, appealing. The hero, Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms), fishing near a pier, sees the boy hiding waist-deep in the water. He leaves out some food and finds it gone the next day. And so, with no plan in mind, Marcel becomes in charge of protecting the boy from arrest.
The whole neighborhood gets involved in hiding the boy from the port inspector. This involves low-key comedy that occasionally shifts into high, as with a local rock singer named Little Bob (Roberto Piazza), whose act is unlike any you have ever seen. Young Idrissa finds himself in the center of a miraculous episode between Marcel and his wife, which may not be believable but is certainly satisfying.
10. "The Artist."
What audacity to make a silent film in black and white in 2011, and what a film Michel Hazanavicius has made! Jean Dujardin won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his work as a silent star who is cast aside with the advent of the talkies. His career is rescued by a young dancer (Berenice Bejo) he was kind to when he was at the top. This wonderful film is many things: Comedy, pathos, melodrama. For many people, this will be their introduction to silent movies, and cause them to reconsider if they really dislike black and white. It's an audience pleaser, and many in the audience won't be expecting that. It also seems to be leading the year-end lists of award nominees, and could even become the first silent film to win an Oscar as Best Picture since "Wings" (1927).
This film about the end of the world is, Lars Von Trier assured us, his first with a happy ending. I think I see what he means. At least his poor characters need suffer no longer. If I were choosing a director to make a film about the subject, von Trier the gloomy Dane might be my first choice. The only other name that comes to mind is Werner Herzog's. Both understand that at such a time silly little romantic subplots take on a vast irrelevance.
That's even the case in "Melancholia," which actually takes place at a wedding party for newlyweds. In the sky, another planet looms ever larger, but life carries on all the same here below. Kirsten Dunst is the new bride, and Charlotte Gainsbourg plays her sister. The two seem to exchange personalities. The details matter less than the grand overarching mood.
Tells the story the story of a fat kid who is mocked in high school. Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is smart, gentle and instinctively wise. His decision to wear pajamas to school "because they fit" may be an indication that later in life he will amount to a great deal. He has character. He's been missing a lot of school and is called in by the assistant principal (John C. Reilly), a school administrator unlike those we usually see, offering kindness, anger and hard-won lessons learned in his own difficult life. He and Terri slowly begin to communicate person to person.
Chad (Bridger Zadina) is another of the administrator's problem children, a morose, slouching outsider driven to pluck hairs from his head. Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) is a pretty young student who is threatened with expulsion, Terri steps up and defends her, in a way that shows he respects her and empathizes. He may be a kid who is fat and weird, but he's much more than fat and weird. This film has also been invited to Ebertfest 2012.
13. "The Descendants"
George Clooney in one of his best performances as a descendant of one of Hawaii's first white land-owning families, who must decide whether to open up a vast tract of virgin forest on Kauai to tourist and condo development. This decision comes at the same time his wife has had a boating accident and is in a coma. Having devoted most of his attention to business, he now must learn to be a single parent of two daughters while also dealing with the King family's urgent desire to close the multi-million-dollar land deal.
Leading the push for the King family is Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges). As affable as Bridges can be, he doesn't want to listen to any woo-woo Green nonsense about not selling. The film follows Clooney's character's legal, family and emotional troubles in careful detail, until director Alexander Payne shows us, without forcing it, that they are all coiled together. We get vested in the lives of the characters. We come to understand how they think, and care about what they decide about the substantial moral problems underlying the plot.
Kenneth Lonergan's film begins with a young woman (Anna Paquin) thinking she may have contributed to a fatal bus accident through her own foolishness. She decides the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) should also be held accountable, and makes it her business to see that he is. This story cross-cuts with others, including Jean Reno and J. Smith-Cameron in a sweet mid-life romance. The film inspired an online conspiracy theory when Fox Searchlight was accused of being shy about its 9/11 material. Actually, 9/11 figures only marginally; what's important is the conflict between the young woman's perfectionism and things as they are.
15. "Martha Marcy May Marlene"
Those are four names that apply at various times in the life of a young woman played by Elizabeth Olsen. "Martha" is her name. "Marcy May" is the name given to her by the leader of a cult group she falls into. "Marlene" is the name all the women in the group use to answer the telephone. The cult leader is an evil and mesmeric figure played with great effect by John Hawkes. Her experience in the cult causes her confusion about her identity after she escapes into the relative safety of the home of her sister (Sarah Paulson). Sean Durkin's film builds on the strong Elizabeth Olsen to show how easily groups can control their members.
The second installment in the last chapter of the legendary saga comes to a solid and satisfying conclusion, conjuring up enough awe and solemnity to serve as an appropriate finale and a dramatic contrast to the lighthearted (relative) innocence of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" all those magical years ago.
The bravest thing about David Schwimmer's "Trust" is that it doesn't try to simplify. It tells its story of a 14-year-old girl and a predatory pedophile as a series of repercussions in which rape is only the first, and possibly not the worst, tragedy to strike its naive and vulnerable victim. Liana Liberato stars as a "good girl" who isn't advanced, who feels uncomfortable at a party where "popular girls" fake sophistication. She's never had a boyfriend when she meets Charlie (Chris Henry Coffey) in an online chat room. Charlie is in high school. Like her, he plays volleyball. He's a nice kid, too. He understands her. She grows closer to Charlie than any boy she's ever known. They talk for hours on the phone. But Charlie is not what he seems.
18. "Life, Above All"
This South African feature centers on a 12-year-old named Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), who takes on the responsibility of holding her family together after her baby sister dies. Family members are suspected of having AIDS; the community ostracizes them, until a courageous neighbor finally steps in. An opening scene shows Chanda choosing a coffin for her baby sister. The seriousness and solemnity with which she performs this task is heart-rending and heart-warming. Both director Oliver Schmitz and the gifted Miss Manyaka attended Ebertfest 2011.
19. "The Mill and the Cross"
Any description would be an injustice. It opens on a carefully-composed landscape based on a famous painting, "The Way to Calvary" (1564), by the Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Within the painting, a few figures move and walk. We might easily miss the figure of Christ among the 500 in the vast landscape. Others are going about their everyday lives. The film is an extraordinary mixture of live action, special effects, green screen work and even an actual copy of the painting itself (by Lech Majewski, the film's Polish director). Set not in the Biblical lands but in Flanders, it uses Belgians as Jews and the Spanish as Romans, in an allegorical parallel which also breaks down into fragments of lives. It is a film before which words fall silent.
20. "Another Earth"
Joins "Melancholia" as a second 2011 film about a new planet hanging in our sky. This one doesn't presage the end of the world, but represents perhaps our very same Earth, in another universe that has now become visible. Stars Brit Marling a young woman who has been accepted into the astrophysics program at MIT. She hears the news about Earth 2. Peering out her car window to search the sky, she crashes into another car, killing a mother and child and sending the father into a coma.
A few years pass. She's released from prison and learns that the father, a composer named John Burroughs (William Mapother), has emerged from his coma. Rhoda is devastated by the deaths she caused and wants to apologize or make amends or ... what? She doesn't know. She presents herself at the shabby rural house where Burroughs lives as a depressed recluse. They grow closer. Did the accident not occur on Earth 2?
Those are my top 20, leaving out documentaries, which I will list later. To include them on the same list would be ranking oranges and apples. There were many other excellent films in 2011, some fully the equal of some of these. Alphabetically:
"13 Assassins," "The Adventures of Tintin," "Beginners," "Blue Valentine," "Boy Wonder," "Certified Copy," "The Future," "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," "The Guard," "The Help," "Higher Ground," "I Will Follow," "J. Edgar," "The Last Rites of Joe May," "Le Quattro Volte," "Margin Call" "Meek's Cutoff," "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol," "Moneyball," "Mysteries of Lisbon," "My Week with Marilyn," "Poetry," "The Princess of Montpensier," "Rango," "A Screaming Man," "Silent Souls," "Tyrannosaur," "Queen to Play," "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," "War Horse" and "The Whistleblower."
Note: Many of you asked if I forgot about "We Need to Talk About Kevin." Not at all. It doesn't even have an opening date in Chicago, and so will be on my list of the best films of 2012. But if it helps, just say I called it "one of the best films of the year," which it certainly is. Watch Tilda Swinton here as she talks with me about the film at the Toronto Film Festival: http://bit.ly/qYwRJf
My list of the Best Documentaries of 2011.