One of the problems in this year's Oscar race is that it contains a lot of movies to like -- but not a lot to love. And that's also a problem with assembling a Top 10 list. There's not a movie on my list that I didn't have problems with at some point, not one that I can embrace as wholeheartedly or root for as unabashedly as some top picks in years past.
So I went with the ones that, when they worked, provided the most dazzling cinematic experiences of the year.
The top two movies on my list are hugely divisive, and I understand why their sometimes glacial pacing can be off-putting. But they’re also wildly, cosmically thrilling, and to me that overcame their failings.
(Understand, the first film that truly transported me was the similarly slow and cosmic "2001: A Space Odyssey," which I saw nine times in theaters back in the days when you really had to work to see a movie that many times.)
By the way, there's another big problem that spills over from this year's Oscar race into my Top 10 list: This year the Academy's Best Picture ballots contain only five lines on which voters can list their choices, not 10.
That means I'm out of luck if I want to do what I've done the last two years, and merge my Oscar-blogger and film-writer roles by using an Oscar ballot to list my Top 10. It'd take a pair of 2011 ballots to fit in all 10 selections – or I'd have to use a copy of a previous year's 10-slot Oscar ballot instead.
I went with the second option.
1. "The Tree of Life"
It finished first in the indieWIRE critics poll and the Village Voice/L.A. Weekly critics poll, so I guess this is an obvious choice. But I love Terrence Malick's crazy meandering epic for the way it takes a tiny personal memoir and blows it up to grandiose cosmic proportions, and the way it insists on telling its story in a way that makes you feel as if you're eavesdropping on all the inessential bits of the conversation.
And while I draw the line at the Sean Penn stuff, I even like the dinosaurs.
Lars von Trier can certainly be an idiot at times, but the dark beauty of "Melancholia" (which certainly has some parallels with "Tree of Life") shouldn't be overshadowed by his ridiculous Cannes comments. The first half can be deliberately excruciating, the second half gradually enthralling, the ending gloriously cataclysmic. I haven't been as impressed by a von Trier movie since "Breaking the Waves."
The most magical experience I had at the movies in 2011. Whenever I started to quibble with the storytelling, Martin Scorsese's passion for the subject and his brilliant, playful use of 3D overwhelmed my doubts.
I'm amazed that two of my top four are 3D movies, because I've never been a big booster of the format. But Wim Wenders' documentary on the provocative choreographer Pina Bausch creates another kind of magic. "Pina" is challenging and dynamic, doing full justice to a woman whose work I've loved for more than 20 years. (I also loved the doc "The Swell Season," which goes the opposite direction to create a marvelously intimate look at the creative process.)
5. "The Turin Horse"
Here's a movie to make "The Tree of Life" and "Melancholia" seem as fast-paced "The Bourne Identity." Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr's final film (or so he says) is an unhurried examination of daily life that uses amazingly long takes to detail the minutiae of a hardscrabble existence.
Watching it might be torture for many, but I found myself mesmerized its impossibly slow rhythms. And the final scene – a man and his daughter sit at a table and eat potatoes, as they've done again and again over the preceding two-and-a-half hours – is simple, and simply shattering.
6. "The Descendants"
In September, I picked this to be the year's Best Picture winner sight unseen. At this point it's pretty clear that I was wrong about that – but if Alexander Payne's deft tragicomedy is too delicate a balancing act to become a consensus Academy choice, it's still a strong and haunting work.
7. "Take Shelter"
Before the likes of "The Artist" and "Hugo" came along to give the year a happy face, the tone of 2011 in film was looking dark and ominous. One of the best examples of a disturbing crop, Jeff Nichols' low-budget indie starts with a prevailing sense of dread and hangs the movie on a question: "impending apocalypse, or paranoia?" A monumental performance by Michael Shannon doesn't hurt, either.
The second time I saw Mike Mills' autobiographically-inspired film, I started wondering about a double feature of the year's two comedy-tinged family dramas that face death, this and "The Descendants." And I'm not completely sure which of those films would come out on top in head-to-head comparison. With a wonderful performance from Christopher Plummer, Mills has created a wry and touching riff on grief and loss, with a handful of offbeat narrative conceits that never come across as indie-twee as you might fear.
"Chinatown" meets "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," with a lead character who's equal parts Don Knotts and Hunter S. Thompson? Heck yeah. I could go on and on about how the year's best animated film is smart and weird and twisted, but the bottom line is that I can’t even look at some of the Gore Verbinski film's characters without laughing.
10. "Nostalgia for the Light"
I think of this as a fitting bookend to my number one pick. The documentary recently named the year's best by the International Documentary Association, "Nostalgia for the Light" is Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman's elegant, gorgeous and deeply disquieting attempt to make connections between the personal and the cosmic – in this case, between the observatories that scan the skies from Chile's Atacama Desert, the driest spot on earth, and the women who comb the surrounding sands for the remains of loved ones killed during the Pinochet regime.
By the way, I'm secure about my top five but very uncertain about numbers six through 10. Other films that made a strong play to be included were "Shame," "Martha Marcy May Marlene," "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," "The Muppets" and "The Trip" – along with a number of documentaries, including "The Interrupters," "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey," "Undefeated," "We Were Here" and "Darwin."
Now, if I were actually eligible to vote for the Academy Awards, which obviously I'm not, I'd have to change a couple of my picks. "Nostalgia for the Light" is not on the Academy's 2011 reminder list of eligible films. And while "Pina" is competing in the foreign-language and documentary categories, it is not eligible for Best Picture.
But they're both eligible to be among my best pictures.