There is little that is more subjective than attempts to list the "best-of" any given thing or category. Ranking artifacts of pop culture, especially in cases like this, when the items in question are fairly new to this world, deepens my own suspicion that the hierarchical ordering of one thing over another is a task belonging to false prophets and the self-deluded.
In the spirit of this election year, however, I fully endorse my inclusion of all the films on this list. It's the ordering, especially the top 5 films, that troubles me. Granted a different mood, a second viewing or, especially, the passage of time, I imagine the ordering of the list would be quite different. So...take the following with a grain of salt. Check out the films you may have missed and consider taking another look at those you've already seen. I dug 'em all.
#20 The Names of Love (dir. Michel Leclerc):
This French gem is a work of biting sociopolitical critique masquerading as a romantic comedy. Remember that song from Mary Poppins about how "a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down?" In this case, the familiarity of genre is the sugar that allows for an easier acceptance of what's being forwarded.
The two leads, Sara Forestier and Jacques Gamblin, display an impeccable gift for this kind of material and their shared chemistry leaps off the screen. It's also very likely the funniest film I saw this year.
#19 Win Win (dir. Thomas McCarthy):
Thomas McCarthy's semi-recent transition from an actor to an actor's director has continued to pay out in dividends. From the modest successes of The Station Agent and The Visitor, it became clear that McCarthy knew his way around story and character, anchoring both to an emotional weight that is hard to resist.
Like those previous films, Win Win has heart aplenty and a cast made up of great American character actors like Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan. The story, about a failing lawyer who coaches a high school wrestling team, barely registers this time around, since McCarthy places the focus on the lives of the people who populate it. In other words, it's not really about the wrestling.
#18 The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (dir. Werner Herzog):
This is probably the only 3d film where I felt the gimmick enhanced the viewing experience. Herzog takes his audience deep below the earth's surface to question humanity's shared drive to leave behind testaments to our own existence. The paintings found at the Chauvet caves in France serve as a springboard for Herzog's philosophical musings about why we create and what it means in the larger scheme of all things human.
#17 Of Gods and Men (dir. Xavier Beauvois):
I saw this one a second time when it came out on Blu-ray. It only deepened my appreciation of the acting on display here. Hit the link to see what I wrote about the film back in February.
#16 Bobby Fischer Against the World (dir. Liz Garbus):
The tragic tale of chess genius Bobby Fischer made for one hell of a tensely, dramatic documentary. Edited by the late Karen Schmeer whose cutting here resembles the intelligent pacing of her work on Errol Morris' films.
And that concludes this installment of "the best of 2011." The next five on the list should be up on the blog fairly soon, so stay tuned for more. In the meantime, why not check out some of the films on the list?