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2011 Top Ten Movies: Film Studies Faculty Pick Their Favorites

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Once again, the cinephiles in Emory University’s Department of Film and Media Studies have singled out what each of them consider the best movies of 2011 based on films available to Atlanta moviegoers as of Dec. 18. Many of these are still in theaters, and some will be available soon for streaming online or DVD.  Expert faculty members and movie raters include professors Amy Aidman, Matthew H. Bernstein, William Brown, Kevin Cryderman, Eddy Von Mueller, Karla Oeler and Michele Schreiber.

The Descendants

Alexander Payne returns (seven years after “Sideways”) with another compelling and compassionate dismantling of the overconfident American middle-aged male. This time he has adapted Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel about a land-rich, extended Hawaiian family poised between their heritage and their future. As central character Matthew King, a neglectful father and husband with an eye primarily on the family holdings, George Clooney delivers a transformative performance the likes of which we haven’t seen from him since “Syriana.” The excellent ensemble cast, the film’s appropriately strong sense of landscape, and its alternately humorous and moving use of island music combine for a moving story of painful family acceptance and growth. (Matthew H. Bernstein)


Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s crime-centered plot about an unnamed “wheel man”could have easily relied just on action, suspense and violence. While all those elements are there in spades, the film also carefully builds a strangely romantic mood of longing amidst obstacles. Drive explores the quiet magic of unexpected human connections through music, color, slow motion and understated acting from leads Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan. Albert Brooks channels a menacingly pragmatic violence here as Bernie Rose in an 80s-tinged L.A. neo-noir whose stylized minimalism runs the risk of becoming ridiculous or an emotionally detached exercise in style. Instead, the film steers carefully through an engagingly sustained tone that is poignant and cool but never cold. (Kevin Cryderman)


Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Brian Selznick’s astounding young adult novel “The Adventures of Hugo Cabret” pays homage to two of the director’s greatest passions, film history and film preservation. If this sounds like a snooze, don’t be fooled. In dramatizing a mechanically-inclined Parisian orphan’s encounter with pioneer French master Georges Melies in the late 1920s, Scorsese has created a dazzling affirmation of film’s fundamental basis in the machine age while offering us a movie with many kinds of wonderment—beautifully acted, computer generated and digitally composited. Even more than the charming “The Artist,” “Hugo” is a film to watch with friends who love film – on the big screen and in 3-D. (Matthew H. Bernstein)

The Ides Of March and Moneyball

Like last year’s smash hit “The Social Network,” “The Ides of March” and “Moneyball” contemplate one of the most pervasive cultural tensions of the contemporary era. That is, the ever-increasing gap between the staid, conservative and often unscrupulous, values that preoccupy the past and the hope for a future filled with transparency, frankness and (often technologically-based) innovative thinking. Provoked by the recession, the digital revolution, Barack Obama’s presidency, and the right wing opposition to it, these films negotiate this tension between old and new through multiple sets of male characters who are pitted against each other, and through two of the most venerable American institutions: government and baseball. However, Ides and Moneyball offer strikingly different verdicts on the possibility for reconciliation between these two seemingly opposing belief systems. 

Paying homage to the type of intelligent political filmmaking that dominated 1970s Hollywood, George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” suggests that the irrepressible intoxication that comes with power will always triumph over the more idealistic alternative. Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” is decidedly more hopeful, suggesting that it is possible to combine the romance of baseball with the rationality of statistics to change the game for the better.

Both films are worthy of Top Ten status not just because they are well made, and offer fascinating and true-to-life portraits of their respective institutional arenas, but because more than any other films made this past year, they tell us about where our country is in 2011. (Michele Schreiber)

Like Crazy

In “Like Crazy,” Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin) fall wildly in love as college seniors in Los Angeles. He’s a local. She’s a British exchange student. Anna’s visa complications lead to a painful intercontinental relationship and like in life, reality intervenes. A hybrid approach to dialogue (partially scripted and partially improvised) makes for natural sounding conversations and infuses the characters and the story with authenticity. Beautifully shot and acted (the two leads are stunning), the 27-year-old director, Drake Doremus, gives us a non-formulaic take on young love and lives in progress which refuses a neat resolution. (Amy Aidman)

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Sean Durkin’s first feature, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” follows Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a troubled teenager, as she attempts to re-adjust after two years in a cult. Martha struggles to fit in at the vacation home of her affluent sister. She thinks nothing of swimming nude or crawling into bed while her hosts are having sex. The cult is always looming, always influencing the behavior of Martha. Durkin deftly reveals, using cross cutting, cult leader Patrick’s (John Hawkes) ability to creep into the unformed minds of his mostly teenage girl followers. Patrick is the unwelcomed center of this story. He steals the affection of his victims and then, more darkly, leads the victims in the commission of unimaginable crimes. (William Brown)


“Melancholia” opens with slow motion images of a world where gravity is reversed and electricity flows out of power lines. It’s pure visual poetry. Lars von Trier, who suffers from depression, spins a tale about a rogue asteroid named Melancholia on a collision course with earth. Justine (Kirtsen Dunst), perhaps sensing the coming apocalypse, seems to embrace the end as she lies naked in the planet's unearthly glow. Her melancholia becomes a source of strength as all around her become unhinged. Von Trier's films always seem to have angels, transcendent women wronged by bad men or bad luck. Melancholia's angel seems to say acceptance is the only sane reaction to the end we all know is coming. (William Brown)

The Muppets

Even Statler and Waldorf, those famously finicky cranks that ruthlessly heckled every act trotted out on “The Muppet Show,” would have a hard time finding fault with the latest – and since the very first Muppet movie in 1979 – the best feature film starring Jim Henson’s menagerie. Penned, in part, by die-hard Muppet fanatic and sitcom mainstay Jason Segel and directed by James Bobin (one of the minds behind “Da Ali G. Show” and “Borat,” of all things), “The Muppets” stays surprisingly true to its wholesome small-screen roots by maintaining the backstage musical, show-within-a-show conceit that was so much a part of the original show’s charm.  The songs are catchy, there are plenty of franchise in-jokes and chucklesome non-puppet cameos (I would’ve liked more Alan Arkin and less Jack Black, but that’s picking nits), and of course a moving reunion of those quintessentially species-crossed lovers, Kermit and Miss Piggy. (Eddy von Mueller)

Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” aims to hold eternity, not in William Blake’s famous hour, but in 139 minutes. Intensely autobiographical, it tells the story of Jack O’Brien (played as an adult by Sean Penn and as a child by Hunter McCracken), torn between the grace of his mother (Jessica Chastain) and the aggressiveness of his father (Brad Pitt). His younger brother’s death prompts Jack’s reflective memories. He imagines his parents’ experience of the loss – and God’s response – in a film whose visions encompass the creation of life, the extinction of the dinosaurs and life after death. Douglas Trumball, famous for the special effects of Kubrick’s 2001, helps craft scenes of galactic upheaval. Ambitious and risk-taking, the film is uneven but commands respect. (Karla Oeler)

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