My annual best films of 2011 list.

It has become a bit of a tradition for me to blog a list of top ten movies at the end of every year.  I don’t know that anybody is particularly interested in what pastors think about movies.  You might say that I should stick to what I know.  But my dirty little secret is that I might know as much about movies as I do about theology, for better or for worse.  And with such compelling films with explicit faith themes as Of Gods and Men and Tree of Life out in 2011, there’s even more intersection than usual between my vocational and leisure interests.

So here it is, my non-authoritative but definitive lists of top ten films of 2011.  Here are my disclaimers: Since I’m not a full-time movie critic, there’s a lot of films that probably would warrant real consideration that I just haven’t gotten around to.  That list would include Hugo, The Artist (which just came to Charlotte), The Descendants, and one of the year’s most anticipated movies for me personally, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which is still only in major cities.  I think my love for documentaries might muddy the waters a bit, but again not being a full-time movie critic I wouldn’t have enough docs to warrant a separate list.  So know in advance I’m collapsing apples and oranges into the same place.

So here we go:

1.     Of Gods and Men

It’s a good year to be a preacher and filmgoer.  For me, the elegant French Of God and Men from Director Xavier Beauvois sits on top of a highly elite list of the most beautiful spiritual films of all-time (that for me would include such luminaries as The Mission and The Apostle).  Based on a true story, it chronicles the lives of monks in Algeria who must decide whether or not to stay or flee from their small village under the threat of violence from Muslim extremists.  Very rarely does this kind of 100 proof gospel make it into the artistic bloodstream in the US.  Not only do you have a powerful embodiment of the non-violent way of the cross and  blistering images of divine love in context of human terror, but an equally vivid depiction of the very human doubts and fears that plague even great people of faith.  The scene where the actions of the terrorists are juxtaposed with the liturgy of Christmas Eve is jaw-dropping.  The extended sequence celebrate their own version of the last supper with the music of “Swan Lake” playing behind them, lingering on the wrinkles of their haunted faces, is one of the most powerful sequences in the history of cinema.

  2.    Tree of Life

Either you love it or you hate it.  There is no in-between for Terrence Malik’s sweeping magnum opus, not only among critics but among my most immediate friends.  No summary of Tree of Life could do it justice, but it is in essence the story of Jack O’Brien, played as an adult by Sean Penn, as the eldest son of a troubled Texas family.  Brad Pitt gives possibly the best performance of his career and certainly my favorite male performance of 2011 as his rigid but complex father.  But the story on the surface is only a tiny fraction of the film’s enormous ambition, which dares to place these small fragile lives in cosmic perspective.  It is as much a poem or even a prayer than it is a film.  There were many audiences who famously walked out during one of the film’s more artistic sequences.  For my part, I found the film to be as straight forward as many found it to be obtuse.  Visually and emotionally, it’s just stunning.  I stayed in the theater at the Manor so I could hopefully be done crying when the credits were done.  I do not think Malik, for as overtly spiritual as the film is, intends anything evangelistic, but I can only tell you that I could have given an altar call when the movie was over.

3.     Midnight in Paris

It’s one of Woody Allen’s best late career films by a country mile.  A romantic comedy set in Paris, this time Allen applies the same sort of reverent attention to detail he normally gives to New York.  The central conceit of the film would be criminal to give away, so I’ll avoid saying too much about the plot.  What’s interesting about this utterly charming movie is that it is both penultimate Allen in that it does all the things he has always done best—in its absurdity, charm, high brow wit, and Owen Wilson channeling Allen himself as the lead—and yet may be the most accessible entry yet to those who are not Allen  fans.  When we left the theater, I said the reason I go to the movies at all is in hope of a film with this much magic.  It’s gorgeous, and I can’t think of a single kind of person in my life who would not enjoy it.

4.     Into the Abyss

Werner Herzog’s talents as a filmmaker and documentarian are practically superhuman, as attested to the fact that I am placing two of his documentaries on the list from the same year.  This time he’s exploring a triple homicide case in Conroe, Texas, raising the question of both why people kill and why a state kills. It features remarkable footage of 28-year old Michael Perry just days away form execution.  He gives as much time to the families of victims though, which is what this makes his treatment of the death penalty even-handed and not overly preachy.  His conversation with a state executioner who’s overseen over 100 Texas executions was worth the price of admission.  And always attentive to the faith issues raised, I was overwhelmed by the articulate, humble passion of the Death row chaplain on display in the film’s first 10 minutes.  It’s haunting. 

5.     Take Shelter

Take Shelter is a film that works on a lot of different levels.  Because it so well captures the sense of heightened paranoia that is the marker of our cultural milieu, it works as a sort of eerily relevant metaphor for our times.  But it works equally well on a superficial level.  While too serious to be considered a popcorn thriller, the sense of dread, foreboding and suspense is Hithcock on steroids.  On a technical and visceral plane, I can’t think of any other film that so successfully makes you feel the anxiety of the lead character (played to perfection by Michael Shannon in easily one of the year’s best performances) as he has terrifying visions of a forthcoming apocalypse.

6.     Page One: Inside the New York Times

It’s a sprawling, fascinating story with a whole host of fascinating characters, and really a number of different storylines.  For all the ways it is well crafted though, what elevates the film’s importance is how well it functions as a broader depiction of where and how we are making the full transition into the digital age, and how both individuals and institutions attempt to move forward without leaving the best bits of the past behind.  That might sound heavier than I mean it to, as the truth is the movie is brisk, fast-paced and a lot of fun to watch.

7.     Tabloid

Errol Morris is one of the great storytellers of our time, across any medium.  I’ve had a great time delving into the backlog of his great documentaries this year.  But none have been as fun (or as salacious-while a doc, so note some of the content is strong) as this bizarre account of former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney, accused of kidnapping her former Mormon lover and manacling to a bed for a weekend of passion in England.  From there forward, she stole tabloid headlines, from battling the kidnapping charge to, years later–appearing in the press for having her dog cloned?!  Morris never patronizes his eccentric subjects, though McKinney may be his most eccentric yet.  Tabloid is bitingly funny, deeply strange, and brilliantly told.

8.     Margin Call

This may well be the best movie you haven’t seen in 2011.  Despite a heavyweight cast including Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore and Stanley Tucci , the most poignant film related to the 2008 financial crisis seems still oddly under radar.  That’s unfortunate, because it packs a wallop.  The ever-reliable Spacey gives one of his most nuanced, well-rounded and memorable performances in years (bordering on Oscar worthy).   It’s provocative in its account of Wall Street greed and corruption, and certainly is a film with a lot to say.  And yet for as sickening as we might find some of the things we see on screen, the characters are so rich and so human that it hardly feels like a mere statement.  Hardly an action thriller, the palpable suspense of it’s 12-hour construct (set just hours before the Wall Street crisis broke) and real pathos is noteworthy.

9.     Ides of March

I may have an undue bias towards Ides of March, since this is the kind of understated political drama (and quintessential Fall release) that I am always going to be game for.  Both Clooney and Gosling (in a remarkable year) are exceptional, with a killer supporting cast featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Marisa Tomei.  It’s a great outing for Clooney as director, as it really the pacing that ultimately makes this slow burner work so well.

10.  Cave of Forgotten Dreams

I could have flipped a coin between the really solid Moneyball (go Aaron Sorkin!) and a second Herzog documentary for the same list on the same year.  But ultimately, the lyrical quality and reverence of Cave of Forgotten of Dreams make it such a unique theatrical experience I could not help but include it here.  For all the hate out there for big studio, gimmicky 3-D, here’s an elegant use of the technology that almost singlehandedly redeems the medium.  My only complaint being, as it is well documented that new 3-D projectors are significantly less bright than any of their counterparts, the lack of vivid color when I saw this in Colorado this summer was almost criminal. But its undeniably beautiful.

Honorable mentions:

Thor (a much better addition to the Marvel Comics film canon than this year’s Captain America, in my opinion), the excellent documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (which I have recommended to preachers for its implicit critique on what the stage/spotlight does to a performer), Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol  (first-rate thriller and wildly inventive action sequences), X-Men First Class (some of the most fun I’ve had at the movies this year), and on the same tier: both Source Code and Adjustment Bureau (both perhaps imperfect but highly entertaining sci-fi genre entries).

I will resume my day job now (well, after I post favorite albums and books in the coming days!)