Since December 1, Ben Sachs and I have been counting down our favorite films of 2011 on the Bleader, posting on alternate days, in a game attempt attempt to enliven one stale journalistic gimmick (the top-ten list) by combining it with another (the TV-style tag team). Consider this a precis of the longer write-ups that can be found collected online, along with video clips and links to long-form reviews. —J.R. Jones
1. Of Gods and Men Written and directed by Xavier Beauvois, this stately and moving French drama tells the true story of Trappist monks ministering to poor Muslim villagers amid the Algerian civil war of the 1990s. As mujahideen close in on the monastery, targeting its medical supplies and other resources, the holy men confront the horrible possibility of martyrdom but resolve not to desert their flock. "Often, throughout my life, I've wondered how God could act so strangely," says one of the religious texts they hear read aloud at their rustic dinner. "Why does he stay silent so long? Why is faith so bitter?" Bitter indeed—seven of the monks on which the movie is based were kidnapped, held captive for nearly three months, and finally killed in May 1996. Beauvois reaches deep into the men's hearts, especially in his slow pan across their painful last supper at the monastery: powerfully moved by a radio broadcast of Swan Lake (the first and only music on the soundtrack), the monks sit silently, coming to grips with death.
2. Bridesmaids Producer Judd Apatow has argued that there should be a separate Oscar category for comedy, and he's probably right: precious few comedies have ever won Best Picture (the last was Annie Hall in 1977), and only one flat-out farce can claim the honor (Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You in 1938). Having written and directed a string of thoughtful sidesplitters himself (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People), Apatow served as midwife to Kristen Wiig, the hugely talented Saturday Night Live player, to deliver Bridesmaids, and it's a genuine original. Directed by Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks) from a script by Wiig and Annie Mumalo, the movie manages to reconcile those two most antithetical of movie forces—female friendships and knockabout comedy.
3. The Tree of Life No film this year inspired more debate than Terrence Malick's epic drama about two fathers: an angry middle-class man in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s (played with great compassion and restraint by Brad Pitt) and God Almighty (evoked in staggering optical-effect sequences by Douglas Trumbull, who made his name with 2001: A Space Odyssey). Malick caught plenty of flack for his astronomical and geological visions, but they provide a sharply naturalistic context for the gripping, largely unspoken drama that plays out in Waco between the tight-lipped everyman, his ethereal wife (Jessica Chastain), and his rebellious, intently watchful son (Hunter McCracken). A frankly religious movie, The Tree of Life is obsessional filmmaking at its finest, and a reminder of how few American directors are inclined to tackle the great questions of existence.
4. Terri This wonderfully eccentric comedy from New York independent Azazel Jacobs stars newcomer Jasob Wysocki as a giant obese kid in junior high hounded in junior high and John C. Reilly as the misfit vice principal who tries to help him out. Reilly has enlivened an impressive number of small, idiosyncratic projects like this one, and his performance here is hilarious: he's located the character in the bursts of shouting he uses to do his job and the warped sense of humor he needs to deal with the weird kids sent his way.
5. Tabloid Errol Morris's documentary tells the outlandish true story of a North Carolina beauty queen who traveled to the UK in the late 70s and allegedly kidnapped her Mormon boyfriend, who testified that she had manacled him to a bed. The British tabloids had a field day with the story, and Morris captures a fundamental truth about the scandal-rag business—what sells papers isn't only the tawdriness of the story but the human emotion involved.
6. Client-9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer The brilliant muckraking director Alex Gibney goes beyond the screaming headlines of the prostitution scandal that brought down the New York governor. The movie recounts Spitzer's fierce crusade against Wall Street as attorney general, speculating that the FBI targeted the governor for political reasons, yet Gibney also closely questions Spitzer himself, less a man than a maze of political idealism, professional ruthlessness, and spiritual crisis.
7. The Elephant in the Living Room Documentary maker Michael Webber spotlights a scandal that periodically turns up on local newscasts but then disappears from public consciousness: private ownership of dangerous exotic animals in the United States. This gripping film centers on the rising conflict between two men: an intrepid public safety officer in Ohio, and a disabled and depressed ex-truck driver whose weepy solicitude for his pet lions leads to tragedy.
8. The Wise Kids Local filmmaker Stephen Cone takes a quantum leap with this moving story about physical and spiritual longing in a Christian youth group in small-town South Carolina. The movie opened this year's gay-lesbian film festival, but it's distinguishable from most gay films—in fact, most films, period—in its respect for religious devotion. The lovely closing scene, of characters dressed as angels for a nighttime Christmas ceremony, is presented without a trace of irony.
9. Beautiful Boy A great movie can take you someplace you've never been before, even if it's someplace you don't particularly want to go. In this debut feature writer-director Shawn Ku recounts in minute and surely observed detail the agony of a professional couple (Maria Bello and Michael Sheen), preparing to separate after two decades of marriage, after their only son kills 16 people and then takes his own life in a college shooting rampage.
10. Margin Call Roughly an hour into this debut feature by J.C. Chandor, two high-ranking executives at a global investment firm (Demi Moore, Simon Baker) share an elevator with a late-night cleaning woman and her janitorial cart. The woman stares ahead politely as the execs speak over her head, debating who will take the rap for the financial debacle that's about to take down their firm and the U.S. economy. To these two snakes, the cleaning woman doesn't even exist. Could there be a more potent image for 2011?