by Alexander Huls Friday January 6, 2012

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It’s that time of year when everybody weighs in on what their favorite movies of 2011 are. Naturally, I don’t want to be left out, so without further ado here are the movies that made the biggest impression on me this past year.

Oh, and you know what you should do? You should go ahead and post your own Top 10 in the comments section below!

Honorable Mentions: Attack the Block, Hugo, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Moneyball, Submarine, Tyrannosaur

Wish I Had Seen: A Separation, Certified Copy, The Descendants, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

A Special Note About The Descendants: I actually saw The Descendants at TIFF but I was operating on three hours of sleep and stress from airport rushing and cell phone breaking, so I was not very lucid. I liked the movie, but need a second viewing to properly get an informed opinion about the film to put it anywhere on this list. Sorry, Alexander Payne.

10. Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol

The woeful state of the modern action movie has been a source of heartbreak for an action flick junkie like myself, which is why Mission: Impossible was such a welcome and remarkable surprise. It’s not just a good old- fashioned action movie, it’s a good action movie, period – something we haven’t had in a long time. Thrilling, exciting, smart, and expertly made by Brad Bird, Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol provided one of the most entertaining theatre experiences I’ve had all year. 

9. Drive

For anyone who ever questioned whether art house action can work, Drive assured them it can – sometimes better than traditional action movies. (Well, unless you were actually expecting it to be Fast Five). Nicolas Winding Refn`s ultra-stylish and violent film is a perfect evocation of some of the best of 70s American filmmaking, and remains probably the coolest movie of the year.

8. Beginners

Just like with the found-footage genre, I imagine most of us are starting to slowly build up immunity to the effectiveness of the quirky, cutesy, indie dramedy. If we get more movies like Beginners though, we’ll be succumbing to them for quite some time. Sure, it’s a bit scattered at times, but it’s so unbelievably sweet and good-hearted, it doesn’t really matter. It’s an enchanting take on the joys and struggles of new beginnings and how they are never quite detached from the past. Plus, Christopher Plummer’s and Ewan McGregor’s lovely performance anchors the rare and refreshingly functional cinematic father-son relationship.

Skin I Live In

7. The Skin I Live In

Pedro Almodovar’s deeply unsettling film proved to be not only one of the best movies of the year, but one of its best horror movies. Of course it`s a horror movie as only Almodovar can make it, full of his usual thematic preoccupations, just perhaps at their most accessible, entertaining and distilled. Full of twists and turns that don`t shock you so much as go deep into your bones, The Skin I Live In is a brilliant, nasty, and - dare I say it - fun piece of work.

6. The Artist

I saw The Artist when it was already riding a giant wave of accolades and hype that made it seem like the Oscar`s Best Picture race was already over. It would have been all too easy to walk out feeling that it hadn`t lived up to its reputation.  It did. I may not think it`s Best Film of the Year worthy as it is ultimately a lightweight exercise in nostalgia and homage, but that`s not meant as a slight. It`s charming, entertaining and channels an era of filmmaking I adore; it`s loving nostalgia is playing to exactly the right crowd. It offers up the full entertainment package (romance, drama, comedy, etc), and the scene where George and Peppy fall in love is one of my favorite moments in film this year.

5. 50/50

When I say I am completely in love with 50/50, I don’t mean that just on an emotional level. Sure, yes, I probably didn’t feel more for any other movie this year. In fact, if the sum number of goofy smiles, constricted throats and rogue tears escaping from watery eye ducts determined the No. 1 movie of the year, Jonathan Levine’s film would be mine hands-down. But I don’t just love 50/50 because it resonated so deeply on an emotional level, but because it’s a well-made, almost note-perfect movie that does the near impossible: makes you both acutely feel the human toll of cancer and allows you to laugh at it.

4. Melancholia

In its opening moments Melancholia seemed like it might be completely impenetrable. By the end of the movie, Melancholia was still difficult, but proved to be a movie that was completely engaging and ultimately unforgettable. It’s not just a gorgeous visual treat, but a profound and heartbreaking character study of depression – one of the most realistic ever put on film. The movie lingered with me for weeks after, only getting deeper and better with time and thought (helpfully spurred on by the analysis of Monika Bartyzel from Movies.com). It still haunts and resonates all these weeks later, and that is the testament of a truly great movie.

3. Shame

As a movie buff there’s nothing like the experience of sitting down to watch a movie by a new director and feeling within moments that I am in the hands of an assured, confident and undeniably talented filmmaker. Having not seen Hunger, this was my first exposure to Steve McQueen and within five minutes I was completely mesmerized. That feeling only deepened as the film progressed and I saw what this director is really capable of. There are scenes here that still stick in my mind, even some that would be fantastic stand-alone films on their own. Thankfully we get more than a short movie. Shame is the rare film that successfully blends technical/visual prowess with expert storytelling, creating a transfixing and devastating character study – anchored by a stunning Michael Fassbender performance – of not just sex addiction, but damaged, dysfunctional or traumatized (sexually abused, even, in my opinion) people.

Tree of Life

2. The Tree of Life

As joyous as it is to experience the assured work of a talented rookie like McQueen, there is perhaps even greater joy in seeing an auteur master like Terrence Malick pull out all the stops to ambitiously take on the universe and life itself. Profound isn’t a word I like to use lightly (and I know I already have for Melancholia), but Tree of Life is just that. It’s gorgeous art, visual poetry that at times had me dumbstruck with awe at its beauty, scope, and truth – whether it was the formation of the universe itself, or the simple act of a mother playing with her children. That’s what I marvel at the most at what Malick does here: how he finds the beauty in the big and the small, and makes us see it too. Because for all the talk of its religious and creationist bent, for me Tree of Life was a profound reminder that the creation of a life and a life itself, is no less than a universe and its creation.

1. Take Shelter

For all its dazzling success as awe-inspiring, transcendent cinema, The Tree of Life isn’t a flawless movie. Take Shelter is. It’s not just Jeff Nichols’ film’s note-perfect performances, direction and writing that make it my top choice, but that it offers all that and such a thematically rich cinema experience. It’s a movie about religion, faith, marriage, survival, parenthood, family, the state of America, the instability of security, mental health victims and the treatment of them, and perhaps the apocalypse. Miraculously, instead of becoming cluttered, every one of those elements work together as well as on their own, and like a Rorschach test every person seems to walk away with their own interpretation of what it’s ultimately really about. Any movie that juggles so much and does it so well – without a single misstep – makes it pretty easy to call it the best film of the year.

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