Late in the documentary Bill Cunningham New York, the
street-fashion photographer chokes up as he offers his personal credo.
"He who seeks beauty will find it," says the 86-year-old Cunningham, and
any veteran moviegoer will recognize an urgent common cause. We sit in
the multiplex instead of cycling between taxi cabs, but we too are
looking for the burst of color, the shimmer of life. The advice is
especially apt this year, when the overwhelming bulk of films were
dreary commodity. Even the medium conveying the stories changed to the
crisp airlessness of digital. But maybe final gulps of breath are the
most precious, and the discovery of fleeting art correspondingly more
"Doom is fun." That's how James Ellroy boiled down the essence of noir as he introduced an anthology of the giddy, bleak shit this year. In the sensationally florid L.A. crime homage Drive, ultraviolent Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn amended Ellroy's maxim: Doom is fun and noble. Can Ryan Gosling have his cake and smash somebody's face with it, too? Only if you accept the one lesson that condemned celluloid has left to teach: Doom is everything.
2. The Tree of Life
If Drive is the way of nature—red in toothpick and claw—then this is the way of grace. By which I mean that Terrence Malick wrestles with God, his family, dinosaurs and Jessica Chastain, then simply dances with all of them. He grants his memories a kind of aching immortality.
3. Take Shelter
In the beginning, there was Chastain…and here she is again at the (possible) end of days. An entire continent of anxiety is compressed into the faces of her and Michael Shannon: Few movies have conveyed the alarm that American righteousness could amount to oily rags. In an intimate drama about digging a tornado basement, Jeff Nichols has made a time capsule of how helpless we felt in 2011.
4. Source Code
Another movie about trying to save something that has been lost—but director Duncan Jones operates within the structure of video games to explore the cultural fantasy of hitting the reset button. It's escapist action, but with awful implications.
They say Portland is an extended adolescence, but local writer Patrick deWitt teamed with director Azazel Jacobs to make a tiny, vivid picture about how nobody is ever ready for adulthood.
6. Meek's Cutoff
Out in the Oregon desert, Kelly Reichardt and Jon Raymond solved the conundrum of the historical epic. We think we know how it ends, but we'll never know how it ends, because it doesn't end.
Behold the French-Canadian New Wave. Xavier Dolan used all the formal tricks in his toolbox to show young love as that glorious moment when you know you'll never be this sad again.
Like Drive, Johnnie To's spiral staircase of Hong Kong genre tropes treats revenge as a moral responsibility. The movie sums itself up in the image of massive cubes of garbage rolled in synchronicity to shield from bullets.
There's no crying in baseball! But this study of the Oakland A's' positive-thinking penury contains the most affecting speech of the year—an Aaron Sorkin homily in front of a highlight reel, about how our best moments all seem like failures.
10. How to Die in Oregon
In some way, every great movie of 2011 tries to answer this question in its own place and time. But no person did so with more honesty and courage than Oregon Health and Science University employee Cody Curtis, who allowed Peter D. Richardson to film her physician-assisted suicide.
RUNNERS-UP: Bill Cunningham New York, Tabloid, Cold Weather, The Skin I Live In, Shame, Young Adult, The Descendants, Bobby Fischer Against the World, Win Win.
Also see WW's picks for the 10 Most Memorable Movie Performances, and 10 Most Memorable Movie Scenes of 2011.