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The best (in alphabetical order):

  • Melancholia
  • Rubber
  • Senna
  • Take Shelter

The next best (ditto):

  • Attack the Block
  • Drive
  • Hugo
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Stake Land

The rest:

  • Midnight in Paris

Note: only 2011 theatrical & direct to DVD/VOD releases were considered.

As in the past (see 20082009 and 2010), the last spot was a virtual coin flip. I liked but didn’t love Paris, just as I liked but didn’t love two other comedies, Bridesmaids and Young Adult. Paris gets the nod for doing for the City of Lights what Manhattan did for Manhattan. For that, and for the way Corey Stoll’s Hemmingway utterly steals the movie. (Corey who? Exactly.)

So much for the bottom. Up at the top, I think of Melancholia and Take Shelter as a matched set. Both use apocalyptic imagery as metaphors for mental illness, bipolar disorder in the former and schizophrenia in the latter. Von Trier’s film explores (predominantly but not uniquely) female anxieties around marriage, family, career and identity, while Nichols unpacks the stereotypically male fears of providing and protecting the family in this age of recession and foreclosure. For my money, no two films better capture life in 2011.

I’m tempted to pair up Senna and Rubber as well - the first a documentary about a Formula 1 driver and the other a postmodern tale about a killer car tire. But really, the two films could hardly be less alike. Senna tells the story of a pretty remarkable life in a truly remarkable way: without talking heads or voiceover. The filmmakers deliver an uplifting tale of a full if tragically short life relying on nothing more than TV coverage, home movies and breathtaking in-car race footage. No knowledge of or even interest in car racing is required to enjoy this great documentary.

As for Rubber, the less said the better - but be aware that there is another level to the film beyond what you see in the trailer. Madman director Quentin Dupieux is the antidote to tired, formulaic filmmaking. 

Attack the Block was the best sci-fi film of the year and Stake Land my favorite horror film (think Zombieland meets The Road, but with feral vampires and crazy cultists).

Martha Marcy May Marlene could almost be considered a horror movie. It delivers a sense of inescapable dread as we peel back the layers of a young woman’s past in a rural cult and her present with her materialistic sister and brother-in-law. First time writer-director Sean Durkin is clearly one to watch, as is his star (and Olsen Twin sibling) Elizabeth Olsen.

I adore Scorsese for sneaking a primer on the history of film into a big budget, 3D holiday release, though I have some problems with the source material. (As with Super 8, I kept asking myself “why is the boy the star and the girl the sidekick?” Here are rare instance where Scorsese and J.J. Abrams could take a page from Robert Rodriguez.) 

Drive could have made it into the first group, except it went off the rails for me after the over-the-top elevator fight. Sure Gosling’s “Driver” is a badass, but he’s not the goddamn Batman

Overall, a pretty solid list, if not as strong as last year’s. That’s my top 10. What’s yours?

(Check back later this week for a few “honorable mentions,” including my favorite movie trailer of 2011.)