Best of not-2011

It’s time again for my favorite post to write all year. As has become a tradition, this is a list of the ten best films I saw in 2011, that weren’t made in 2011. Though I’ll be putting together the traditional top ten list over on the MacGuffin shortly (just a wee bit of catch-up still to do), this list is more fun because no one can tell me how horrible I am for leaving something off of it. It is mine and mine alone, reflecting my year of movies outside of the theater.

Speaking of the MacGuffin…because so much of my non-new-release viewing time is dedicated to films I’ll potentially be writing or recording about for the site, almost everything I mention here has been discussed in some fashion over there. I’m including links for those who may be interested. Articles and Top 5s are generally pretty spoiler-free; however, you should definitely see the movie in question before listening to any roundtables.

Without further ado…

10. sex, lies, and videotape (1989)

I did a lot of catching up with Steven Soderbergh’s filmography before Allen and I discussed our Top 5 Soderbergh films. His first film as a writer/director, the impressively-cast sex, lies, and videotape, beautifully displays the level of control that has made Soderbergh the kind of filmmaker who can jump from genre to genre with ease. The characters, with their particular quirks and fetishes, click for the viewer instantly, never seeming like they were created just for the purpose of having the conversations that make up the film. Aspiring filmmakers, take note: twenty-two years later, this is still how you make an indie movie that is essentially just people talking in rooms.

9. Fish Tank (2009)

As far as movies about angry adolescents go, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank might be the best I’ve ever seen. 15-year-old Mia, masterfully played by newcomer Katie Jarvis, has many reasons to be angry, some of which she maybe has brought on herself, some that are out of her control. When she crosses paths with her mother’s new boyfriend—played by Michael Fassbender just before he became Incredibly Desirable Hollywood Star Michael Fassbender—things explode. For more thoughts, especially on that performance by Jarvis, see the piece I wrote about Fish Tank in March.

8. Dead Alive (1992)

I wrote a bit about Peter Jackson’s icky, hilarious, no-seriously-icky horror film during this year’s cascade of pre-Halloween horror coverage. This film provides the very definition of taking things to the next level. Everything in its story of a sort-of zombie invasion in 1950s Wellington goes about ten notches past where you could imagine it might, and then cranks it to eleven, with incredibly impressive, non-CGI special effects. Now that I’ve finally seen it, this is sure to be one I revisit each Halloween.

7. The Thing From Another World (1951)

Howard Hawks made this first adaptation of John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella “Who Goes There?”, and though the tone and the monster are much different than in John Carpenter’s The Thing, I liked it just as much. When done well, the horror premise of being trapped in a remote/inaccessible location with a monster is timeless, and getting to see it with 1950s banter zinging all around at the same time is a special treat. We had a particularly fun roundtable discussion for this one.

6. Paris is Burning (1990)

I recently visited Jennie Livingston’s documentary on the “ball scene,” a subculture of 1980s gay and transgender groups in New York City, mostly minorities. The film explores this world of self-organized elaborate competitions called balls—like fashion shows, but with much deeper and more sprawling significance. The competitions are incredibly fun to catch a glimpse of, and the key figures interviewed by Livingston offer open commentary on the meaning of it all, both for the community and for them personally. The film is an amazing snapshot of a unique moment in American LGBT culture.

5. Holiday (1938)

I saw this Katherine Hepburn/Cary Grant gem for the first time only a few days ago, for a roundtable discussion that just posted today. Given my undying devotion to that other Hepburn/Grant collaboration by George Cukor, The Philadelphia Story, I have no idea why it took me so long to see this one. No surprise, it’s a one-liner filled, charm-soaked delight, as Grant finds out that his new fiancée (Doris Nolan, doing a fine job of being not-Katherine-Hepburn) is incredibly rich, and bonds with her self-described “black sheep” of a sister, who’s not too good at fulfilling her high class obligations. Throw in a scene-stealing Lew Ayres as drunken younger brother Ned, give the ladies plenty of opportunities to wear ridiculous gowns and Grant a chance to show off his vaudevillian tumbling skills, and wrap it up with Hepburn’s trembling jaw: it’s everything I ever want in a classic Hollywood film.

4. Trouble Every Day (2001)

As I wrote about in October, Trouble Every Day was the sort of film I could not get out of my head after watching. Claire Denis, easily one of the most interesting and talented film directors working today, incorporates elements of the horror genre into her extremely visual storytelling style, resulting in a story of searing images that, even after years of horror watching, is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The relationships of two couples—one affected by mysterious violence, the other teetering with paranoia even while in the literal honeymoon phase—entwine to reveal a story about monsters that, like all the best stories about monsters, is really about humanity and its darker impulses.

3. Brothers (2004)

Susanne Bier made one of my very favorite films of all time, the number one film on this list last year: After the Wedding. Her film previous to that masterpiece was Brothers, the story of a damaged man returning home after having been presumed dead while at war, and the complications that arise when it becomes clear that his wife and his brother bonded over their shared loss. Like other Bier films, this is a showcase for acting, and all three principal players (Ulrich Thomsen, Connie Nielsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas) are phenomenal. The Hollywood remake that came in 2009 suffers from making the characters much younger and from feeling melodramatic without Bier’s magic touch; see the original if you haven’t. (I wrote about Brothers for my very first Bird Watching column, which ambitiously states that I’ll be writing it every week. Oh, past Brandi and your lofty goals.)

2. I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)

Chosen by former MacGuffin writer John for our first roundtable, this early effort from co-writer/director Robert Zemeckis is easily one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen. For added delight: it’s mostly ladies doing the funny stuff. Oh sure, the teen girls on a quest to see The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show have some boys in tow as well, but it’s really their show. Wendie Jo Sperber, Nancy Allen, Theresa Saldana, and Susan Kendall Newman all get their moments in the spotlight, and bits of physical humor from Sperber and Allen reach levels of perfect over-the-top lunacy. Months before I got to revel in the manic bliss that is Bridesmaids, this film was a perfect reminder that there have been women wanting to do that kind of comedy for years, if only they had the opportunity.

1. A Single Man (2009)

Despite my love for Colin Firth, I had missed his Oscar-nominated performance in Tom Ford’s beautiful film, and remedied that early this year. Though I am pleased that Firth won the next year for The King’s Speech, his work here is more impressive to me, because the emotions have to stay even more contained at first, before outbursts that are even more painful to watch. As a gay man in the 1960s who loses his long-time boyfriend to a car accident, Firth plays the aftermath to perfection. Tom Ford’s direction is visually impeccable, but wisely puts most of the focus on that devastating lead performance. Exceptional.

Previous lists:

Best of not-2010
Best of not-2009
Best of not-2008


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Other projects:

Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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