And to keep it all in context, here are my top ten favorite films that I watched in 2011, not made in 2011 or 2010.
A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) - Twin zoologists, recently bereaved, take up a study of death and decay. This spurs them to kill a series of black and white animals, and romance a one-legged car accident victim. "Zed" is one of the best examples of Peter Greenaway's artful obsession with whatever subject he chooses to explore, and his willingness to go to extremes to bring about his singular, fascinating vision.
Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) - Bela Tarr's imagery is so powerful, so distinct, that his mysterious narrative about a strange circus that brings ill tidings to a small town still manages to connect on a deep emotional level. The long, single take that captures the senseless attack on the hospital is one of the most beautiful and moving things I've ever seen in cinema, and I still don't know quite how to explain why that is.
A Nous A Liberte (1931) - It's strange to think that director Rene Clair disliked the use of sound in film, because he was one of the most innovative of the early sound filmmakers. "Liberte" is his masterpiece, a predecessor to Chaplin's "Modern Times." He pokes fun at modern, mechanized society, depicted by Clair as a world of cogs and conveyor belts and too many cops. Fortunately his comic heroes are there to upend it.
Hoop Dreams (1994) - A documentary about two Chicago high school basketball players aiming for the NBA, which contains more drama, more suspense, and more twists and turns than any fictional sports movie I could name. Director Steve James devotes as much time to the social difficulties the kids face as to the intricacies of the recruitment system they navigate, and the context makes all the difference.
Marty (1955) - Paddy Chayefsky set out to write a love story for the little guy, the regular joe. His hero is Marty, played by Ernest Borgnine, a humble butcher who still lives at home with his mother. And maybe that's why the story rings so true and why Marty is still fondly remembered as such a relatable, inspirational figure. "Marty" is a no frills, no fuss, and a good reminder of what screen romances should be more often.
The King of Comedy (1983) - Rupert Pupkin is a wannabe comedian who will not take no for an answer. He is a man so obsessed with fame that he may be capable of doing something horrible to his idol, a late night host who he stalks mercilessly. Scorsese is known for films about gangsters and tough guys, but I think Pupkin is one of his most dangerous characters, living in a warped fantasy world it's often difficult to tell apart from our own.
Jean de Florette (1986) – This is such a lovely, picturesque film. Set in the countryside of Provence, you get a wonderful feel for the land and its native inhabitants, which is appropriate given that the story chiefly concerns a pair of ambitious farmers, played by Daniel Autueil and Yves Montand, trying to wrest a piece of property away from its inexperienced new owners, led by Gerard Depardieu in one of his most delightful performances.
Hour of the Wolf (1967) - One of Ingmar Bergman's most unsettling masterpieces, that straddles the line between psychological thriller and out-and-out horror. We follow the journey of a troubled man who suffers from paranoia, and is perhaps going mad. Watching the final monologue delivered by the man's wife, who is played by Liv Ullman peering out uncertainly from the darkness, is a haunting, lingering experience.
The Music Room (1958) - The names of the characters may not roll off the tongue so easily, but Satyajit Ray's tale of a man's who is brought to ruin by music and pride has universal resonance. Ray thought his examination of Indian class and social issues wouldn't translate, but the classical Indian music and dance performances are entrancing, the settings are rich, and the characters and their motivations are easily understood.
Dancer in the Dark (2000) - Lars von Trier made a musical film starring the Icelandic singer Bjork, a strange and audacious combination that yielded one of the darkest, most affecting song-and-dance pictures ever made. Whether you love it or hate it and whatever you think of the director, it is impossible not to have a reaction to this film. It certainly left its impact on me, as I was unable to stop thinking about the story, or stop humming the songs, for weeks.
Honorable mentions: El Norte (1983), Forbidden Games (1951), Hearts and Minds (1974), Irreversible (2002), Le Bonheur (1965), Le Trou (1959), Nil By Mouth (1997), Senso (1954), Shoeshine (1946), The Color of Pomegranates (1968), The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), The Double Life of Veronique (1991), The Human Condition (1959-1961), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), The Italian Job (1969), The Long Good Friday (1980), The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), The Wind (1928), This is England (2006), Topsy Turvy (1999), Underground (1995), Wait Until Dark (1967), Where is the Friend's Home? (1987), and Woman of the Dunes (1964),