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The Dissenter’s Top Films of 2011

For the past six months, I have reported on the Occupy movement and regularly covered WikiLeaks. I covered Pfc. Bradley Manning’s pre-trial hearing with great detail just over a week ago. But, now, I would like to take a moment to share with you some of the films I most enjoyed this year.

Why is The Dissenter posting a top ten list (in no particular order) of films?

I graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a Film/Video degree. I enjoy writing about film. I especially enjoy writing about films that help call attention to important political or social issues in society (see my review of The Whistleblower this year, which happens to be on the list below).  I am by no means a professional movie critic, but I do like to use film to interrogate the world and I also appreciate directors/producers/screenwriters, etc, that dare to interrogate the world or provoke thought in society through film.

Additionally, on a much more personal level, I am able to produce the writing that I post here regularly because I take time to pause and consume art. I can immerse myself in a story, like the Pfc. Manning’s hearing or the “Cablegate 2” release from WikiLeaks in August, spending day after day doggedly reporting each aspect or sifting through a major release of important government documents. I can feverishly follow Occupy camps and work to be the first to have live video streams of evictions or protest action in the live blog here. But, I always pull back at some point and do a refresh by consuming art or entertainment.

Here is the list. I did not get around to viewing Drive or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I suspect would be in the top ten if I had seen them. Also, I do not separate documentary from film. There should not be best films and then best documentaries. Documentaries are films and the one documentary I put on my list deserves to be considered one of the best films of the year.


Another Earth:

Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling), a student who has just been accepted into MIT, is driving down the street one night as she sees a duplicate Earth has appeared in the sky. Distracted, she does not see John Burroughs (William Mapother), a composer, and crashes into his car killing his child and wife and injuring him severely. She goes to jail and upon her release she wants to apologize to Burroughs but cannot bring herself to tell him. She also finds out about an essay contest that could win her a trip to the other Earth.

The other Earth is supposedly a parallel Earth where you could have possibly done something differently than what you did here on this Earth. On a shoestring budget, first-time director Mike Cahill does a wonderful job of telling this story that like many science fiction stories is about escaping one’s world for a new world where the problems one has experienced can be forgotten or even erased permanently.

The Artist:

It is 1927. The era of silent movies is about to come to an end as the technology for “talkie” motion pictures becomes available to film studios. Enter silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who does not want to have anything to do with this new era of film because he cannot “talk” on camera. Contrasting Valentin is Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), an extra whom he bumps into and kisses in front of the press. She is set on being a movie starlet and has nothing but love for acting. She especially longs to be in pictures with Valentin and will do everything to try to save Valentin as his career and life goes downhill.

The love story is a celebration of an art form that has long been lost: the silent movie. The bold concept takes a huge risk and succeeds. With no dialogue (save for the few lines at the end of the film), it masterfully employs music, sound and charming performances. What makes the movie even better is that the actor playing Valentin could scarcely speak English and in 1927 would have been the kind of actor to dread the new business of “talkie” motion pictures.

The Descendants:

Matt King (George Clooney) owns quite a bit of Hawaiian land that has been passed down from earlier generations in Hawaii. He faces a decision on whether to sell the land, along with an even tougher decision: whether to let his wife on life support die because there is little chance of her recovering from injuries she suffered in a boating accident. Also, as King is trying to reconnect with his daughter, Alexandra King (Shailene Woodley), he finds out that his wife was having an affair before the boat accident.

The story could be a heavy drama that is almost unbearable to watch. Director Alexander Payne, one of the best screenwriters in the business, goes another route and infuses this dark story with wit and a bit of charm. The characters say what they should say in the worst of situations and the film is superb because the people in the movie are honest. They say the things we wish we would say in the toughest of situations so we would no longer be lying to ourselves or ignoring that close family member that needed to know how we really felt.

The Interrupters:

“The Interrupters” are a group in Chicago committed to preventing gang violence in communities. Many of the leaders are, in fact, former gang leaders, who went to jail. In seeking redemption in society they have chosen to give back by impressing upon young people the importance of violence not being the answer to every argument or problem. The film opens with the violence that killed Derrion Albert at Fenger High School and then follows this bold and courageous group of people  for a year, as they work with Chicagoans on the south and west side of Chicago.

Snubbed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, this really should be nominated for Best Documentary of 2011. The film produced by Kartemquin is made by a crew that manages to earn intimate access into the day-to-day conflicts the Interrupters find themselves disrupting. The opening sequence shows the volatility of parts of the south side of Chicago as a young person runs around wielding a butcher knife because the person believes her brother has been insulted. A hunk of concrete than comes flying. The camera crew is right in the middle of all this. They are also right there in counseling sessions as we watch younger people try to find a better way to live that does not always involve resorting to violence.

Margin Call:

Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) has just been fired from a trading firm. As he leaves the firm for good, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) is handed a USB drive with a project Dale has been working on. Sullivan takes a look at the contents and discovers market capitalization will be significantly lower than future losses. The assets need to be dumped and the firm holds a meeting immediately on unloading them.

This feature film is essentially a fictional version of Lehman Brothers’ role in the 2008 economic collapse. The time that elapses in the film is only 24 hours. Characters like Sullivan slowly realize how much power they have to impact regular Americans’ lives and how that is incomprehensible to most citizens. And, this clearly all happens because they have fallen victim to their money or stock trading addiction. As CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) says, “So what you are telling me is that the music is about to stop and we are going to be left holding the biggest bag of odorous excrement ever assembled in the history of capitalism”?

Midnight in Paris:

Screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is struggling to complete his first novel. He has gone on vacation in Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. Pender, a romantic, thinks they should move to the city but Inez doesn’t share his passion. Pender goes on a walk at midnight and finds an older car that stops and invites him to a party. He gets into the vehicle and finds he has been transported to the 1920s, a time period of great artists, musicians and writers. And, in fact, he finds himself encountering these people: Cole Porter, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Josephine Baker, etc.

The film by Woody Allen centers on themes of nostalgia. Pender People, especially romantics, tend to idolize the past and believe they would have enjoyed life more in earlier eras. He falls for Picasso’s mistress Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who does not romanticize the 1920s like Pender. She longs to live in an earlier era in the late 1800s. All of which makes the film as much about idealizing periods of history in addition to the sheer entertainment of watching Gil meet icons of the 1920s.


Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is a sex addict. Sullivan’s life is a ritual dominated by sex—ordering hookers, watching porn, masturbating and womanizing on train rides. His private but miserable sex addict life is thrown into disarray when his sister, Sissy Sullivan (Carey Mulligan), pressures him into letting her stay in his apartment. Her presence makes it hard for him to keep up his sex addiction in privacy further complicating his life and compounding his torment.

This is a character-driven film that aesthetically puts the viewer into the mind of Brandon. Many times the camera hangs on the face of Brandon allowing viewers to take in the pain, anguish or engrossed feelings that he is experiencing. The film is rated NC-17 so the story does not shy away from showing us the most raw and depraved aspects of Sullivan’s life. He is a tragic hero. It is likely Sullivan never overcomes his addiction, but his story isn’t compelling because it appears he could take control of his destructive lifestyle. It’s compelling because he appears to prefer struggling to actually changing the way he lives.

Source Code:

US Army helicopter pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself on a Chicago commuter train. The train explodes eight minutes later. He “wakes up” after the blast and is in a pod. Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) notifies him through her headset that he is to locate the person who set off the bomb on the train by using the “source code,” which is essentially a time loop program that allows someone to take over the body of someone during the last eight minutes of their life. They send him back again and again to find this person, but more important to Goodwin is who he is and why he is being forced to accomplish this hyper-technological mission.

The film, directed by Duncan Jones, uses time in much the same way that Harold Ramis used time in Groundhog Day. Goodwin has eight minutes each time he is on the train to try and figure out what exactly has happened to him without officers back at the station knowing. There’s also a girl, Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), on board, who he falls in love with during his operation in the source code.


Fourteen-year-old Annie (Liana Liberato) meets someone online, who says he is sixteen-years-old and named Charlie. They chat constantly every day. Their conversation becomes tense as he tells her in the chat that he isn’t really sixteen but twenty. They plan a time to meet each other and she realizes he isn’t twenty but thirty-five. She cannot understand why he lied to her. She goes with him to a hotel room and puts on a bra and panties for him. He then proceeds to take advantage of her.

The film, directed by David Schwimmer, would be a straight up to catch a predator story. But, when the FBI comes in, Annie’s father, Will (Clive Owen) grows impatient and begins to take matters into his own hands. Will and her mother, Lynn (Catherine Keener), try to get Annie help, but it just frustrates her because she believes she was in control when he had sex with her, which means she was not really raped. The drama that unfolds is intense and the conflict profound.

The Whistleblower

Inspired by a harrowing true story, Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) is a former police investigator from Nebraska who takes a job as a UN peacekeeper in Bosnia in 1999. She begins to discover the extent to which UN peacekeepers are complicit and involved in the sex industry. She happens upon two Ukrainian teenagers, Raya and Luba, who become ensnared in the sex industry after being promised a job at a hotel. The girls and women, as one top agency commander says in the film, are regarded as “whores of war.

The people shown are so depraved that nobody is willing to speak up for the abused girls and women—except for Bolkovac. The people shown are so depraved that nobody is willing to speak up for the abused girls and women—except for Bolkovac. And, it is a powerful portrait of what happens when an employer pins someone in a position where they have to become an activist to do their job. Also, in the age of WikiLeaks, it shows why whistleblowers deserve protection, not prosecution.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."