Every December, I vow not to make another Top 10 Movies of the Year list. It’s an arbitrary number, there are too many releases, pitting indies against blockbusters isn’t fair, excuses ad infinitum. But once again, I find myself incapable of sticking to that resolve.
Not only is the temptation to pick favorites and champion underdogs too great to pass up, but it’s also an opportunity to reflect upon the diversity of films released throughout the year and celebrate the theatrical venues that bring them to audiences. This year, cinemas below 14th Street were thriving with blockbusters, documentaries, indies, foreign discoveries and experimental fare. Whatever your tastes, the downtown movie scene always delivered. Here are my picks (in alphabetical order) for the best films of 2011 seen below 14th Street.
Bellflower (Angelika Film Center)
Boy meets girl, girl cheats on boy, boy gets revenge with flamethrower. An explosively stylistic film about the euphoric ups and devastating lows of relationships, complete with homemade cars and homemade explosives shot on a homemade camera. Audaciously blending Greek tragedy-type drama and ’80s action movie hijinks, Bellflower still manages to resonate as one of the most heartfelt relationship movies in years.
Fast Five (Regal Union Square)
Once in a while, we all need a big-screen action fix, and nothing delivered more high-octane thrills than the latest in the Fast and the Furious saga. This time, Vin Diesel and company are plotting a big heist in Rio de Janeiro, with federal agent Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson hot on their trail. Smartly directed by Justin Lin and featuring a surprisingly strong ensemble cast, this is blockbuster entertainment at the peak of craftsmanship. No need to feel guilty about liking this one!
Meek’s Cutoff (Film Forum)
The most daring, original Western since Unforgiven (if not The Wild Bunch) will enthrall even those viewers who long ago swore off the genre. Lost in the desert with diminishing water supplies, a wagon train must decide whether to trust their guide, who led them off the trail, or their Indian captive whom they have been taught to fear and hate. Stripping the Western migratory to the bare essentials, director Kelly Reichardt transforms this tale into a minimalist thriller distinguished by a stellar ensemble cast (including one of two brilliant turns this year by Michelle Williams).
The Robber (Cinema Village)
Proof that the best crime stories come straight from the headlines, this is the true story of Johann Rettenberger, a famed German marathon runner who robbed banks (wearing a Reagan mask) on foot because no one could keep up with him. Featuring some of the most thrilling and realistic chase scenes this year, a U.S. remake is already in the works.
The Muppets (Regal Union Square)
Just as delightful and intelligent as the original The Muppet Movie from 1979, The Muppets is that rare comedy that works just as well for adults as for children—and the even rarer musical that actually features songs worth listening to.
My Week with Marilyn (Angelika Film Center)
The Artist, with its one-dimensional history lesson, might be getting more Oscar buzz, but My Week With Marilyn is the real treat for lovers of classic Hollywood. Set during the shooting of The Prince and the Showgirl, the film captures the complex psychological and emotional nuances of one of cinema’s most haunting legends. In her second virtuoso performance this year, Michelle Williams is so convincing that, at times, you forget she isn’t the real Marilyn.
Outrage (Cinema Village)
The Rube Goldberg of yakuza flicks, Outrage is a bloody treat from Japan’s grandmaster of gangster films, Beat Takeshi (aka Takeshi Kitano). More mechanical than emotive, Outrage is nonetheless a fascinating design about the domino effect of betrayal. If severing fingers with box cutters and stabbing ears with chopsticks sounds funny to you, then don’t miss this one.
Septien (IFC Center)
The most bizarre yet heartfelt movie of the year. Eighteen years after he disappeared, Cornelius Rawlings (Michael Tully, also the director) returns to his family’s Tennessee farm to reconnect with his brothers. Fresh and unpredictable, Septien abounds with humor (sports hustling!) and the all-too-familiar weird tenderness that comes with family reunions, something many of us will experience this time of the year.
Outer Borough Pick:
Bad Posture (Rooftop Films)
A slacker crime story set in Albuquerque about two friends, Flo and Trey, whose latest spree begins when they spot a girl reading in the park. While Flo falls in love, Trey steals her car. As the duo sells drugs, paints graffiti and plays with automatic rifles, Flo secretly plots how to get the car back to her. A surprising and innovative film, Bad Posture has that rare local authenticity that is often lacking in Hollywood productions.
Le Quattro Volte (Film Forum)
A beautiful, meditative and humanly funny fable about an aging shepherd and his goats in rural Calabria. The less said about Le Quattro Volte ahead of time the better—it is overflowing with life and surprises, and it is best to let viewers experience the film for themselves without preconceptions. One of the simplest, most profound documentaries of the year.
Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston St. (betw. Broadway & Mercer St.), angelikafilmcenter.com
Regal Union Square, 850 Broadway (at E. 13th St.), regmovies.com
Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), filmforum.org
Cinema Village, 22 E. 12th St. (betw. 5th Ave. & University Pl.), cinemavillage.com
IFC Center, 323 6th Ave. (at W. 3rd St.), ifccenter.com
Rooftop Films, 232 3rd St. (betw. Union & Sackett Sts.), rooftopfilms.com
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