My Top Ten Films of 2011
(film comments by Mark R. Leeper)

Some years there is not a whole lot of variation in what film reviewers choose as the best films of the year. One can pick out two or three films and be fairly sure that the Academy Award for Best Picture will go to one of them. This year there is much more variation in lists. There is much less consensus. It was a very creative year for filmmaking and some very different films are people's favorites. That may be a good sign. We are getting fewer formula films. But I remember few years when it was so hard to recommend films. I do not remember when so many of the choices for top ten films were so controversial. Well, I like arguing films and the diversity of popular films is one of the few good signs is a year that most people found the way the outside world was going was disappointing. Maybe after a long nap, the art of filmmaking is waking up and being creative again. So what films did the most for me this last year?

There is a phantom haunting the Paris Train Station. Twelve-year-old Hugo lives in the walls of the station and maintains all the mechanical clocks. This film is about him, but also about a lot more. It is much more than a children's film about a little boy. Beautifully filmed in 3D it, turns into an education for the viewer on a subject near and dear to director Martin Scorsese's heart. This may be more Scorsese's film than even GOODFELLAS or CASINO was. He has made a beautiful tribute to his favorite art form. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10

This is a sensational surreal horror/comedy fairy tale co-written and directed by Basque auteur Alex de la Iglesia (THE OXFORD MURDERS). It has to be the weirdest and one of the funniest films I have seen in quite a while. As time goes on, everything in THE LAST CIRCUS becomes more grotesque and dreamlike. Manic and dark and surreal but fun all the way, Iglesia's story seems like a high intensity version of a Guillermo del Toro film crossed with a Quentin Tarantino action pic. It is breathtaking, beautiful, and weird. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10

The life of the Yiddish storywriter Sholem Aleichem mirrors the changing, often tragic, world of Eastern European Jewry in the late 19th and early 20th century. Writer/Producer/Director Joseph Dorman lovingly crafts a biographical documentary of the often beautiful, often tragic life in shtetl communities. As the title suggests this is a portrait of a people living in constant hardship and keeping themselves sane with a bit of humor. The telling is as sweet as honey cake and as bitter as horseradish. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10

Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns give us a fast-paced and grim scenario when a nasty but all-too-possible avian flu has been released and spreads through the environment. There are about six strands of plot running through the scenario, each with a recognizable actor playing the main character. In spite of the presence of major stars Soderbergh gives us the confidence that he is not tweaking the film to exaggerate the drama or excitement. Even without the usual tropes of science fiction, this is--among other things--an excellent science fiction techno-thriller. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10

This is the story of Barney Panofsky, directed by Richard J. Lewis based on a Michael Konyves's screenplay based on the novel by Mordecai Richler. Barney is a self-indulgent, inconsiderate, alcoholic cad who somehow wins a wife who should have known better. Paul Giamatti gives a strong, multi-layered performance of a selfish, but not uncommon man. Rosamunde Pike plays his long-suffering wife. There is an undeniable fascination with this man whose life we see from early twenties to his late 60s. The dialog is really good without being unrealistic. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

As with HUGO we have a tribute to silent film. The two films are interesting to compare. But rather than just giving silent clips, THE ARTIST is an entire feature film, virtually all created in the style of the monochrome silent motion pictures. And just that novelty sustains the film for most of its length. THE ARTIST is a charming French-Belgian production set in good old Hollywood in that late 1920s and early 1930s. Somewhere along the line it becomes obvious that THE ARTIST does not attain the heights a Chaplin or a Fairbanks film might. The novelty fades and one might be watching a somewhat run of the mill silent. Still, the experience brings back memories of some great silent movies. The plot may be a bit similar to A STAR IS BORN, but as a reminder of the greatness of silent films, this is one of the must-sees of the season. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

Everybody is concerned about the world fiscal failures and about the Wall Street securities traders who were instrumental in toppling the economy of this country. However, it seems impossible to make a dramatic film on the subject without huge expository lumps explaining economic theory. J. C. Chandor makes an intelligent thriller about a company that is faced with moral decisions and he makes it a compelling drama. It works like a good production of Shakespeare making the acting carry the story when the wording might be unfamiliar. The cast includes Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, and STAR TREK's Spock, Zachary Quinto. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4 scale) or 8/10

This film is mystical and yet holds a solid drama. TREE OF LIFE is the chronicle of a 1950s family living near Waco, Texas, placed in a context of all life going back to the creation of the world and later the age of the dinosaurs all to the tune of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde". What appear to be hundreds of apparently random inconsequential moments, presented in almost stream of consciousness; of the texture of everyday family life eventually add up to a plot both sentimental and bitter. A father, played by Brad Pitt, transforms from loving to strict to abusive and leaves a deep mark on his two sons. Terrence Malick has a feel for the textures of life. At the same time he features some spectacularly beautiful nature photography. This film is visually beautiful but still not for all tastes. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4 scale) or 8/10

Just surviving is difficult enough for a lonely music hall stage performer in the 1950s. When a young teenage girl follows him to a new town he takes her under his wing to be his surrogate daughter. Sylvain Chomet animates a script by the great Jacques Tati. The story has a delicate bittersweet tone much too rarely present in contemporary films. The animated film THE ILLUSIONIST is really a film not to be missed. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

Other films this year are overt tributes to older style of filmmaking, specifically HUGO and THE ARTIST. Stephen Spielberg simply gives us a film that starts with life in an English village and then follows the life and fortunes of one horse as he goes through episodes in his life with different owners. His human characters may not be complex, but they are three-dimensional in ways one does not need plastic glasses to appreciate. The stories are moving and allow the viewer to see how animals are treated by human society. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10


					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2012 Mark R. Leeper