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Top 10 Films of 2011

by James Rocchi, BA'92 (King's)

It's always problematic making a top 10 list for the year's films - do you worry about trying to craft an overall blend of genres and styles, or do you just let the films fall where they may? Do you try to predict the Oscars, or ignore them? Your coldly calculating brain or your warm and wavering gut? And finally, when do you say 'Done?' I'm writing this list at the mid-November point - with many films yet to be seen - but right now, these are my top 10 films of 2011 - in no particular order.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn turns the stuff of '80s crime thrillers into a dark fairy tale about life - and death - on the streets of L.A., with Ryan Gosling in a star-making performance. The mix of unrequited passion and up-close killing makes the film uneasy to watch - and makes for a movie that questions the very films that inspired it, all within a thrilling film noir plot updated for the 21st century.

Young passion, madness and death in a film that veers between the beauty of love found and the terror of love lost, with an amazing sense of visual style that makes it feel handcrafted and yet epic. Shot with a digital camera enhanced with handmade modifications - and featuring a flame-throwing muscle car named 'Madam Medusa' - it's the best, most beautiful and most critical look at young manhood since Fight Club.

The Muppets
A pure celebration of friendship and delight that not only revives the Muppets but, more importantly, makes them emotionally invested characters, right down to Kermit as Citizen Kane, alone with his memories. Plus songs, sight gags, silliness and more; if cinema is using talent and technique to create joy, then this is the most cinematic film of the year.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
One of the scariest films of the year, and one of the best dramas as Elizabeth Olsen flees a cult and finds escape with her sister - but not for long. Is it in her head, or is the peril real -and which would be worse?

The Interrupters
The best documentary of the year, as a group of ex-gang members on the streets of Chicago take an epidemiological response to gang violence - treating it like a sickness, isolating carriers, preventing transmission. Brilliant and moving, it's a worthy follow-up from the director of the legendary Hoop Dreams.

With a tour-de-force performance by Michael Fassbinder (Inglourious Basterds) as a sex addict in Manhattan, Steve McQueen's second film is beautiful and haunting, constantly moving between the hot flush of desire and the burning ache of despair. Carey Mulligan, as a similar-but-different wounded sister to Fassbinder, turns in the performance of a career.

Into the Abyss
Documentarian Werner Herzog looks at a death row case in Texas -- where the inmate is scheduled to die in eight days. A stunning existential mystery, with an unsolvable question at its core - namely, why do we kill? With Herzog's plainspoken frankness and the capacity to find dark beauty in, for but one example, crime scene video, it's a film that will stay with you long after the final credits.

The Myth of the American Sleepover
On the last night of the summer, three separate parties keep the kids of a small American town hopping, propelled by feelings and friendship into the summer night. A mix of Robert Altman and John Hughes, the film is a slight and slender (and, yes, enchanting and fun) journey through youth, possibility and the hurt hearts teens hide from the world.

Certified Copy
Two strangers (Juliette Binoche and William Shimmel) pretend to be lovers while touring the countryside - or, perhaps, they're two lovers pretending to be strangers. Running the spectrum of emotions from infatuation to exasperation, impassioned words to bruised silence, Certified Copy is a gorgeous, intricate and delicate look at the truth of love.

The Trip
When British comic Steve Coogan (playing himself) is given an assignment to tour England's great restaurants, he plans a getaway with his girlfriend - and winds up saddled with fellow comic Rob Brydon (playing himself) instead. Picture My Dinner With Andre set in the English countryside, with Brydon and Coogan constantly trying to one-up each other over work, love and who does the better Michael Caine imitation - with true insight and emotion between the hilarious kidding around.

James Rocchi is a film critic based in Los Angeles, Calif.

To read the Alumni Gazette profile of Rocchi, click here.


This article appeared in the Winter 2012 edition of Alumni Gazette
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