Best of 2011: 20 Directors

4 Feb

A whole month after 2011 ended I have wrapped up my yearly rankings, having seen 256 films released in 2011, granting 13 perfect A+ scores and a really superb 76 scores in the A range. To remember the year that was I thought I should start a feature that will hopefully become a yearly thing for me and do a few Best of 2011 posts, choosing my Top 20 films, directing efforts, screenplays, and performances (separated by lead male, lead female, supporting male and supporting female) and doing a post honoring them with a brief paragraph explaining what made each of those 20 options so remarkable and memorable and thus made 2011 a great year for films. For the third entry in the series of posts we have my Top 20 Directors of 2011:

20. BRAD BIRD for Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

I know this is kind of a weird pick, but, for one, I really loved the latest Mission: Impossible film (it would have been the 21st pick had my Top 20 been expanded), and, secondly, I think a lot of that has to do with how Brad Bird directed it. The fact that this was his first foray into live-action, after winning two Oscar’s for The Incredibles and Ratatouille, shows the man really has the goods, and here he delivers a tremendously fast-paced action flick that’s just full of huge set pieces that are jaw-dropping and it all has just so much style. It’s all done with an action-y kind of grace, with awesome scenes that are impeccably choreographed and a great sense of humor.

19. PAUL FEIG for Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids celebrates women in comedy, written by two extremely funny gals and acted out by an ensemble full of other ones, and it was a hugely refreshing and hilarious film to watch when it came out. But, for all the female talent it has, there are two key male players off-camera that also helped make it the $290 million-grossing film it is. One of them is producer Judd Apatow, but the other is Paul Feig, the creator of Freaks and Geeks and a comedic genius on his own right. This is comedy done to perfection, equal parts raunchy and witty, and with a helluva lot of heart in it, too. After naming it my second favorite screenplay of the year this is now my second ranking in which Bridesmaids appears.

18. DRAKE DOREMUS for Like Crazy

I named this film the eleventh best of all 2011, and its director gets a shout-out in this ranking too. And he has to be here because Like Crazy is all about very raw emotions being on display all the time, and it all starts with Doremus, who based it a lot on his own real-life experience and who gave his actors, Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin, just a very specific outlines and terrific direction and allowed them to improvise the drama unfolding. It takes a great director to have accomplished the kind of improvisation seen on screen in this film, as natural as it all feels you just know there was a lot of care and loving that went into it. He knows how to keep still and do a lot with silence, and he knows how to guide his actors; truly a talent to watch out for.

17. JEFF NICHOLS for Take Shelter

After appearing on the final spot on my Top 20 Screenplays, Jeff Nichols also appears here for his directing duties on his spellbinding film. It’s just a wonderfully subtle piece of work by him, really knowing how to create this outstanding sense of unease to go along with the mesmerizingly great domestic drama of it all. I just loved his work in this film, how he manages to make it just creep under your skin, making you feel uncomfortable and building a sense of horror while creating a really rich psychological examination of a contemporary American family.

16. ASGHAR FARHADI for A Separation

#15 on my Best Films ranking and #17 on my Best Screenplays one, Asghar Farhadi’s phenomenal film makes yet another appearance in this one. The direction is just so neat, and right after the opening scene Farhadi starts to shape his film tremendously, showing us the heart of the modern Iranian state while also commenting on the more universal themes this film touches upon, like marriage, parenthood, class and just an overall amazing portrayal of life. The ethical and moral questions this film raises are so deftly handled by Farhadi, it’s amazing.

15. JASON REITMAN for Young Adult

#12 on my Best Films ranking and #3 on the Best Screenplays one. Another film that’s now been in all three of my rankings thus far, and I’ve always really loved what Jason Reitman does in his films, and with Juno, Up in the Air and now this one he has a streak of three perfect films going on, and is quickly becoming one of the most important American directors around. It’s kind of a more snarky and sour film than what we’re used to getting from him, and he just knows how to execute that tone perfectly, and even though the portrayal Charlize Theron gives of Mavis Gary and the depiction of her from Diablo Cody’s screenplay don’t make her out as a likable character, he gets us to laugh at her and, maybe, even if it’s just a little bit, actually sympathize.

14. SEAN DURKIN for Martha Marcy May Marlene

Another film on all three of my rankings so far, coming in at #1o on the Best Films list and #13 on the Best Screenplays one. This is actually Sean Durkin’s debut feature, and it’s a thoroughly impressive one, just how he employs the various techniques to shine a light on the state of his lead character is fantastic, using really awesomely the time-shifting narrative, going back and forth from the chronological beginning of the story to the end, he uses that to create a sense of confusion and to make us join into her paranoia and understand how the realities are just as mixed up in her mind. Just a seriously terrific debut from a guy I can’t wait to see more of.

13. GEORGE CLOONEY for The Ides of March

#18 on both my Best Films and Best Screenplays rankings, The Ides of March gets a higher slot here because of how great I thought the direction by George Clooney, who also co-stars in it, was. You just get the sense that the man, while being a terrific actor, also has the makings of a great director, clearly having picked up some stuff after working under the direction of the Coen brothers, Steven Soderbergh and Jason Reitman. Here he shows he’s good at telling stories of smart men in complicated situations, and he creates just a great atmosphere and a wonderful sense of intrigue, as well as a kind of old-school pacing from political films of the 70’s.

12. LARS VON TRIER for Melancholia

My 16th favorite film of the year gets a nod to its crazy director, the one that got a lifetime ban from the Cannes film festival after some comments he made after the premiere of Melancholia. As always he brings forth a really unique vision to this apocalyptic story, but seeing the end of the world not in some grand way but in a smaller scope, in a very intimate way that allowed him to get a career-best performance from Kirsten Dunst, who just shines in this film, as well as create some really striking imagery to go along with the literal end of the world as well as for the inner crumbling down of the world that the depressed character Ms. Dunst plays is going through.

11. LYNNE RAMSAY for We Need to Talk About Kevin

Lynne Ramsay is one of the most talented female filmmakers around, and after a nine year absence (since 2002’s great Morvern Callar), she was back at it again with this film, teaming up with the great Tilda Swinton, an actress who delivers an amazing performance and in which she can rely to let tell the story and just take a more backed off kind of approach. How she employs the flashbacks to shine a light on the life of Eva before and after the school shooting committed by her own son is terrific, and how she never takes the easy way out of making Eva a pitiable character is terrific, trusting her actors to do all the heavy-lifting to make the story function, which the really succeed at under her confident direction.

10. TOMAS ALFREDSON for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Another film that’s been on all three of my rankings thus far, and in the Top 10 of all of them (#9 film, #8 screenplay, now this), and I guess I’ll say it again for this ranking: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is probably the smartest film to have come out in 2011. And kudos must be given to Tomas Alfredson who after delivering the sublime Let The Right One In in 2008 now made the leap to English language films with this one. And boy did he succeed tremendously, masterfully crafting a film that never once underestimates its audience, giving us an intricately-plotted film and never once dumbing it down, trusting that we’re smart enough to follow them through the puzzles of the espionage world he and his cast and crew so expertly craft.

9. BENNETT MILLER for Moneyball

Another film that’s been in the Top 10 of all my rankings so far (#7 film, #4 screenplay, now this). The fact that Bennett Miller has only made two feature films is actually quite stunning when you consider the two have been Capote and now this one. He really does bring a lot to the table in this film, a film that was based on a book about baseball statistics, but that thanks to the wonderful script, amazing performances, mainly from Brad Pitt, and the skillful Mr. Miller who made this film not about the numbers but about the people crunching them, and the relationships between them which really made this film as perfect as it ultimately was.

8. WOODY ALLEN for Midnight in Paris

My fourteenth favorite film and my very favorite screenplay of the year; all of that because of Woody. I’m an unapologetic Woody Allen fan, even his lesser works do it for me, the guy just seemingly having a direct line to my sensibilities and to my funny bone. Midnight in Paris, of course, is Woody going back to doing to what he does best and to what he’s actually the best at doing in the world; this film is just so beautifully embedded in a lot of nostalgia, and is so funny and charming, and everything else that a Woody Allen film should be. The opening scene of this one is as much an homage to Paris as the opening of Manhattan was to the place where he made his best work. He’s just sheer genius.

7. MICHEL HAZANAVICIUS for The Artist

The presumed front-runner for the Oscar. And while that award should certainly go to Martin Scorsese, I guess the frenchman would also be a worthy winner. Creating a silent, black-and-white film that has captivated every person that’s watched it (and that I ranked as the #8 film and #12 screenplay). It works as an homage of the highest class to the Golden Era of Hollywood, recreating the charm of the films of the time, showing that he as a director is skillful and knowledgeable about his art to make a film like this, knowing how to thrill and move his audience and make one of the most entertaining films of the year out of a silent film.

6. ALEXANDER PAYNE for The Descendants

One of the greatest living American directors, as well as the man responsible for the screenplay of the film (which I ranked #7 in that ranking) and the film itself being my fifth favorite of the year. Here again he captures the essence of life every so masterfully, giving us his very unique human mix of emotions that take you by surprise; sometimes having you laugh at what’s happening on screen, sometimes having you cry. The balance between tragic and funny on display in The Descendants is one that only a man like Alexander Payne could have achieved, and the moments of emotional sincerity on display in this film, most of them acted out by George Clooney in a career-best performance, are a thing of beauty.

5. DAVID FINCHER for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher is probably one of my five favorite living directors, after delivering my second favorite directing effort of 2010 with the masterpiece that was The Social Network he’s at it again only a year later with my third favorite film of 2011 (and the one that had my 15th favorite screenplay of the year). Creating a two-and-a-half-hour film that’s unapologetically brutal and ever so captivating, getting an iconic performance from Rooney Mara that will grab you by the throat and never let you go. Every single frame of this film, from that insanely awesome opening sequence onwards, is sheer perfection, he’s known for asking up to a hundred takes of any one scene, but at least he has stuff to back that crazy request with when the results are going to be as masterful as they are here.

4. STEVE McQUEEN for Shame

My second favorite film of the year, and the one with my fourteenth favorite screenplay. Steve McQueen is proving to be a director with a truly unique voice. He’s such an intense kind of director, ready to deliver some truly outstanding and powerful films that will certainly leave their mark on you once you see them. Shame won’t be for everyone, I know that, but to me it was just spectacular to see how a director so vividly portrayed a state of addiction and an inner life that’s a living hell through his lead character, Brandon, that’s so masterfully acted by Michael Fassbender, who was also McQueen’s lead in Hunger, proving that theirs is one of the most exciting actor-director tandems in film right now.

3. TERRENCE MALICK for The Tree of Life

I ranked the film as the sixth best of the year, and the screenplay as the nineteenth best, but Terrence Malick as a director gets a higher positioning because this film proves why he’s such an exceptional auteur, and why his long, tedious and picky process of creation really does pay off. The Tree of Life is a true cinematic achievement in every sense of the word, even if you think some scenes are too long and how it sometimes didn’t feel all that cohesive a film you have to acknowledge that, you have to acknowledge the man made a tremendously special film that, even if the emotional and spiritual parts of it didn’t ring true to you, is still an undeniable visual feast.

2. NICOLAS WINDING REFN for Drive

#4 film, #16 screenplay, and now #2 director. Nicolas Winding Refn is a man with such a unique and incredibly awesome visual style that Drive is just a masterpiece pretty much solely because of that, and if the aforementioned director-actor tandem of McQueen-Fassbender is one that really gets me excited, so too is the one of Refn-Gosling, since the two really seem to have a lot of chemistry and trust in each other in this one. How he uses violence is just outstanding, maybe it’s too extreme for some, but it was just right for me, and as shocking as it may be, it’s not gratuitous, but used by the director to elicit reactions from his audience, and that, alongside some of the other heavily-stylized techniques he employs, are used to really add a lot to the end product.

1. MARTIN SCORSESE for Hugo

Of course Martin Scorsese was going to top this ranking for me; Hugo I have already named as the best film of 2011, and the screenplay for it I ranked eleventh in those rankings. Considering he’s my favorite director all-time, this was a no-brainer. Also considering he crafted another masterpiece, but this time did so straying far away from his comfort zone, making a film aimed at kids, in 3D no less. But this is also probably the most personal film the legend has ever made, one he did so that his young daughter Francesca could finally see a film of his, one that he did as a beautiful love letter to the art of cinema himself, one that he’s incredibly passionate about and does so much to preserve. A clear #1 for me. All 5 of the Oscar nominees are in my Top 10, but if I ran the Oscars, only two of them, Scorsese and Malick, would have actually gotten a nominated, here’s hoping Scorsese can pull of the win against Hazanavicius.

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