2011 was one of the best years for film in recent years. There are about 25 films that could have made my top ten list and each film in my top 5 could be my number one. I saw about 100 films this year and I still wish I could have seen more. I feel very comfortable with my top ten and I feel like it was a good representative of the year in film. However I do feel that people looking at this article should go over to Sound On Sight and see all the staff’s individual lists, as well as the honorable mentions that just missed my list. You will find a great collection of films on those lists.
Directed by Sean Durkin
I saw Sean Durkin’s directorial debut in August and knew as soon as the last frame came up that this was the best picture of the year. In fact, I wanted to see the movie immediately again because I found the film to be so satisfying. I saw it again in October and my experience was as powerful as the first time. This is a perfect film: perfectly acted, perfectly directed, perfectly written, and perfectly edited. Elizabeth Olsen gives a haunting breakthrough performance as Martha, the film’s protagonist who has just escaped from a cult led by the magnetic John Hawkes, and is now living with her sister played by Sarah Paulson. Hawkes doesn’t chew the scenery, instead going for a much more subtle indoctrination. Yes he is creepy but he is also charming and manipulative. The editing is flawless, effortlessly cutting back between Martha’s time at the cult and her time at her sister’s house. The affect is somewhat disorientating but in an effective way and this helps make the film uncommonly tense. The ending is pitch perfect, with it’s refusal to wrap up neatly like most psychological thrillers.
Directed by Drake Doremus
For whatever reason, this film has flown completely under the radar during the end of the year hoopla. Drake Doremus’ drama is easily the best and most authentic relationship film of the year. No other film has managed to capture the joys of falling in love and the pain of being kept apart, and eventually heartbreak. Doremus takes a stripped down and naturalistic approach, featuring handheld cameras and a largely improvised script, and because of this, along with Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones, who deliver two of the year’s best performances, there isn’t a false moment. Every moment of this film feels like it was drawn from real life and it makes it irresistible.
It’s a simple story. Boy and girl meet cute. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy and girl are kept apart. Yet the story doesn’t go where we expect it to go. I love the way Doremus uses montages to show the relationship and time passing. The supporting characters feel real and authentic, especially Jennifer Lawrence as Sam who takes up with Jacob (Yelchin) and Charlie Bewley as Simon who takes up with Anna (Jones), and are not stock archetypes that we usually see in romances. And the film also avoids any of the potential political grandstanding that could have featured in the a story like this. The film also features the most memroable final shot of the year, one that is left up to our interpretation whether it is hopeful or bleak.
Directed by Terrence Malick
What more can be said about this film that hasn’t already been said? Well, I’ll try. I’m not putting this film on my list for the gorgeous visuals, the wonderful score, the dinosaurs, and the overall cinematic poetry. Don’t get me wrong, these things are all fantastic. Terrence Malick is after all, a cinematic poet. All of the images in this film could hang in an Art Museum. The real reason I adore this movie so much is because of this scene, and more specifically this piece of dialogue: “You know, Jack, all I ever wanted for you was to make you strong and grow up and be your own boss”, Mr. O’Brien tells his son. “Maybe I’ve been tough on you. I’m not proud of that.” “I”m more like you than her,” the son Jack replies. “You boys are about all I done in life,” says the father. “Otherwise I’ve drawn zilch. You’re all I have. You’re all I want to have.”
This scene destroyed me when I initially saw it in the theatres. It’s so simple and so acutely observed as to have been drawn from real life. Throughout the film, Jack’s father and young Jack constantly fight. In this scene, which is meant as a resolution between father and son, it shows that the only thing more universal than sports and food, is fathers and sons not getting along. This along with the scene where Jack steals a neighbors nightgown and throws it in the river speaks perfectly to the idea of the loss of innocence that is explored in the film.
Roger Ebert put it best when he opened his four star review of the film with the following: “‘The Tree of Life’ is a film of vast ambition and deep humility, attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives.” It was a pleasure being a guest to Mr. Malick’s humility. Tree of Life is a cinematic poem about childhood, loss of innocence, and what our purpose is in life.
Directed by Steve McQueen
As Simon Howell so eloquently put it in his review, Steve McQueen’s Shame isn’t a film about sex addiction but about self loathing. The main character Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a sex addict but he uses this addiction to mask his and deal with his self loathing. McQueen’s follow-up to Hunger might be the most visceral movie going experience that I have had this year. In fact it is more visceral and disturbing than Hunger, a film which shows shit on a wall. What McQueen has done here is explore the consequences of loneliness and our need for human connection. He does it through a sex addict and it is a quite effective way of presenting this. We see how hard it is for Fassbender’s Brandon to form any kind of human relationship with someone, like in the scene when he takes a co-worker of his out on a date. The only relationship he has is to his wayward sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who reenters his life at the beginning of the movie. Yet he does his best to alienate her. McQueen uses the same technique he used in Hunger, employing long unbroken takes that sometimes last up to five or six minutes, refusing to let us break away from this man’s self destruction. Fassbender and Mulligan both turn in two of the best performances of their careers as troubled siblings who desperately need each other. New York has never been used as effectively as it has been here as McQueen turns it into the third central character of the film. This is uncompromising and daring filmmaking at it’s finest.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
The first unqualified masterpiece of 2011 and the film that should have won the Best Foreign Language Film Award at this year’s Academy Awards, Denis Villeneuve’s film is an adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s play of the same name. Villeneuve and his co-writer Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne stripped away an hour out of the play’s running time while still staying faithful to the play’s structure. What makes the film really work is that it is an intimate family drama set on a global scale that plays out as an engaging and tense thriller. This is the film that Susanne Bier’s film In a Better World tried so hard and failed to be.
Starting with one of the most haunting opening sequences in any film of recent years, the film’s action hops back and fourth through time in an unnamed country that is a stand-in for Lebanon. Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne Marwan’s (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) mom Nawal (Lubna Azabal) has left them one final final request in her will: to find their brother and their father. On this search for these two people, the film flashes back to the 1970s when Nawal was a young mother in this country. Villeneuve isn’t afraid to confuse us once the flashbacks start. For the first thirty minutes, the film is incredibly disorientating because Nawal and Jeanne look alike.
What makes the film so powerful is the family drama that is at the core of this story. In fact the film has a very simple but powerful message: we need to forgive no matter how terrible a tragedy we undergo. This is the message that Nawal ultimately passes on to her kids.
Directed by Bennett Miller
Bennett Miller’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ bestseller is terrific entertainment and it once again proves that the best sports movies come not from the action on the field but from the personalities of the players and coaches. Lewis’ controversial book of the same name follows Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane as he tries to build a pennant champion with $30 million. While Lewis might not give enough credit to the A’s phenomenal starting rotation, the book is a phenomenal read for baseball fans and non-baseball fans alike. And whether you want to acknowledge it or not, Beane did change the game by showing that you can win on a small payroll. His model was eventually used by the Tampa Bay Rays to climb out of the gutter and become a dominant team in the AL East. Miller, who previously directed the phenomenal 2005 biopic Capote, and screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zailian are able to craft a narrative out of Lewis’ dense and statistic heavy book. Brad Pitt gives his second great performance of the year as Beane, doing a pitch-perfect imitation while also embodying the man. Jonah Hill is a marvel as Peter Brandt (a stand-in for former A’s assistant GM Paul Depodesta), finding quiet confidence as the film progresses and is a perfect foil for Beane. Together, Hill and Pitt make a great team and they compliment each other perfectly. Neither performance would be as good without the other performer. The film is funny and moving, and provides that “chills” moment that is required of all baseball films.
Directed by Joe Cornish
This year’s Shaun of the Dead, Attack the Block was badly mistreated when it came over from the UK to the United States. Released in the middle of the summer, it never made it past 66 theatres, which is really unfortunate because this film should have made $100 million. Joe Cornish’s debut might be the best look at the London council estate youth since Edward Bond’s seminal play Saved. In thirty years, Attack the Block will be spoken of in the same breath as Saved, in terms of looks at social disenfranchisement in London. Thanks to the London riots, Attack the Block is now the most relevant film to come out of Britain. Having said all that, it is also just an incredibly funny and thrilling sci-fi action movie. John Boyega gives a star-making performance as the leader of this inner city gang who must protect their council estate from aliens. Jodie Whittaker is also very good as Sam, a victim of the gang at the beginning of the film who eventually befriends and helps Moses (Boyega). We come to care about all of these characters despite the fact that they are in a gang and unlike many studio friendly films, Cornish isn’t afraid to kill these kids off. This just adds to the stakes. Besides being an entertaining action flick, the film is also a poignant coming of age story, one that uses the aliens as a perfect metaphor for Moses becoming a man and learning to take responsibility for his actions.
Directed by Joe Wright
The year’s best action film, Joe Wright brings his art-house sensibilities to his first genre film and was rewarded for stretching outside his comfort zone by making his best film yet. This film capitalizes on all the potential that he showed in Atonement and Pride and Prejudice. Wright pulls a Danny Boyle and reinvents himself from period auteur to genre auteur with this outing. Wright manages to top himself with each action sequence, the highlights being the unbroken take of Eric Bana in the subway station and the final big action scene between Hanna (Saiorse Ronan) and Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) at the amusement park that is based off of the Grimm Brothers. Wright seamlessly blends the spy action-thriller genre with fairy tale tropes. However the story of a teenage assassin sent off into the world would not work without it’s star Ronan. An already accomplished actress, this is Ronan’s best work to date and is going to make her a star. Tom Hollander also manages to do memorable supporting work as the pedophile who is sent by Wiegler to catch Hanna. Add to that, the best score of the year courtesy of The Chemical Brothers and you have the most exhilarating piece of pure cinema of the year.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
If your Martin Scorsese, how do you go about achieving your secret goal of world cinephile domination? By pretending to make a 3D “family” film that is secretly designed to turn youngsters into cinephiles. And that is what Scorsese did. He made a film that is a plea for the restoration of films while masquerading as a family adventure. But that film just happens to be one of the most magical films of the year. Scorsese’s love of film is infectious throughout and, while it probably won’t appeal to the youngest of children, it will warm the heart of any cinephile, as jaded as they might be. This is also the best use of 3D since Avatar, and it might even top Avatar. The 3D here is truly groundbreaking and this is one of the few films that must be seen in 3D. Seeing Ben Kingsley as the legendary director George Mellieres getting his due at the end of the film brought tears to my eyes, as did the arch of the police inspector, played beautifully by Sacha Baron Cohen. This is terrific entertainment and one that will no doubt succeed in what Scorsese set out to do: recruiting young cinephiles.
Directed by Lars Von Trier
This was the last filmmaker I expected to include on an end of the year best of list. I have a storied history with Lars Von Trier, and while I have always found him to be a talented filmmaker, many of his films have turned me off. I hated Dogville and Manderlay, I was not a fan of Dancer in the Dark, and was bored by Anti-Christ, performances aside. I think my problem with him has always been the suffering that he has forced his characters to endure. I have found it to be over the top and unnecessary. However Melancholia works and it has stuck with me since my first viewing in September. I can’t get this film out of my head.
I think what makes this film different from the other films that I listed above is, despite the fact that most people have called this his bleakest and most depressing film, and it’s his first film that explicitly deals with depression, it is actually quite funny. Especially the first half which follows Justine (Kirsten Dunst, never better than she is here), the character who suffers the most as she is the one dealing with depression. Despite the fact that Justine is in a deep depression, the supporting characters at her wedding, especially Charlotte Rampling and Keifer Sutherland, are quite funny and the wedding becomes so absurd that we can’t help but laugh. Von Trier gets all the little details of depression right and I like the fact that Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) knows what Justine is going through and is there for her. He isn’t a caricature. The second half of the film follows Justine’s sister Claire as she deals with the end of the world because the planet Melancholia is about to crash into earth. The metaphor of depression as the apocalypse works perfectly and it is quite accurate. The imagery is stunning and it demands to be seen on the big screen. This is bold and daring filmmaking at it’s finest.
Directed by Gore Verbinski
I am here to tell you that the best stoner film of 2011 is none other than an animated movie that was marketed as a “kids movie”. Gore Verbinski’s first foray into animation doesn’t even pretend to be anything but a trippy stoner comedy and it works perfectly as that. It is also a loving send up/tribute to classic films from the 70s including Chinatown and Apocalypse Now, as well as recent westerns like The Proposition. Easily the funniest comedy of the year.
Directed by Richard Ayoade
Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut is a wonderfully funny and ultimately touching coming of age comedy that follows Welsh high schooler Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) as he tries to lose his virginity before he turns 16. The film is based off a popular British book of the same name and it feels true to the spirit of it while also being incredibly cinematic. This is a perfect coming of age story, a film I wish I had around when I was Oliver’s age. The storyline involving Oliver’s attempt at saving his parents marriage is both funny and yet filled with truth. Ayoade found a potential star in Roberts and this is certainly an eye-opening performance. Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor are both wonderful as his parents who may be headed for divorce. Paddy Considine is also very good as the goofy next door neighbor. While the character is definitely funny, the script along with Considine keep the character from being ridiculous. This is a film that is full of honesty and it’s a remarkable debut. (Note: This film was given an R rating because there are about 10-12 uses of the word “fuck”. It’s ridiculous. This is a movie that 14-15 year olds should be seeing.)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refin
A consensus pick among critics this year, Nicolas Winding Refin’s Drive is a superior thriller and an improvement on the James Sallis novel of the same name that it is based on. Like the book, Drive tells the story of Driver, a stunt driver in the movies who also works as a getaway driver on the side. During the day, he is a mechanic at Shannon’s (Bryan Cranston) autoshop. Things get complicated for Driver when he meets his next door neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) whose husband is due out of prison soon. Refin takes Sallis’ book and, besides changing some of the characters fates around, also streamlines the book by putting it in chronological order. Gosling proves that he was it takes to be an action star with his cool and reserved performance as Driver. He captures the naivety and yet ruthlessness from Sallis original character. However the real revelation is Albert Brooks as the villain Bernie Rose. Brooks is terrifying here and deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Directed by Miranda July
With Miranda July, either you like her sensibility or you don’t. I love her sensibility and her follow up to my favorite film of 2005 (Me You & Everyone We Know) did not disappoint. This time, July stretches outside her comfort zone as an actress to play Sophie, a woman in her mid 30s and in a long term relationship with Jason (Hamish Linlater). As a director, July once again creates a quirky film about relationships and our need for connection. July’s humanity is on full display and her refusal to pass judgement over any of her characters elevates the film.
Directed by Justin Lin
In it’s own way, Justin Lin’s Fast Five is so preposterous and it’s action is so relentless that it’s a work of art. Dominic Torretto and Brian O’Connor head to Rio de Janeiro and reunite with all the main characters from the first four films. In Rio, which is used beautifully as a main character, they decide to pull off an outlandish heist even though FBI agent Luke Hobbs (The Rock) is after them. There is a scene late in the film that features our heroes driving through the streets of Rio de Janeiro at high speeds while carrying a bank vault that weighs god knows how much and being chased by some of Rio’s finest. Normally one would be watching this scene in complete and utter disbelief yet you have no choice but to watch this scene with respect and amazement. Lin’s film is a skillfully made example of great trash. It doesn’t have a brain in it’s big and loud head but it is fast and furious. The heist formula works perfectly for this franchise because of it’s heavy reliance on car chases. The fact of the matter is that the Fast and Furious saga delivers on exactly what it set out to do: to be fast and furious. Fast Five is a film that knows exactly what it is and executes it perfectly throughout. The best popcorn film of the year.
Directed by Abas Kiarostami
Abas Kiarostami’s English language debut is one of the most intriguing and beguiling mind-fucks of the year. It starts like Before Sunrise, two strangers, Elle (Juliette Binoche) and James (William Shimell), meet randomly in Tuscany and decide to spend the day together. He is a British writer specializing in Art and she is a single French mother. However, around the halfway point, a random question allows the movie to make a turn for the unexpected and we begin to realize that we might be watching something far different from what we first perceived. Binoche and Shimell are well paired, both having terrific chemistry with each other, which is important considering they spend a lot of the film in heated debate. Shimell, making his acting debut, is very good and allows his character to remain likeable even when he becomes more disagreeable. Binoche is incredible as usual. The film asks really important questions about the nature of reality, art, and marriage, but it maintains a light and delicate tone throughout.
Directed by Ralph Fiennes
Ralph Fiennes, along with screenwriter John Logan, have taken one of Shakespeare’s most complex plays and turned it into a kick-ass action film. Coriolanus is terrific entertainment, a blockbuster film that has strangely gone under the radar during the awards season. Fiennes, making his directorial debut, takes a thing or two from his Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow’s playbook, employing handheld camera throughout and giving the action sequences a visceral reality. The film, the first ever of this play, updates the setting to the present day in a place called Rome, even though it was actually shot in Belgrade, Serbia. Coriolanus (Fiennes, pulling double duty as an actor as well) is a war hero who now resides over the consul of Rome. Incredibly unpopular among the citizens of Rome, Coriolanus is banished and he teams up with his sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) to defeat Rome. Even though it is a kick-ass action flick, the film remains an effective and powerful anti-war story. The most powerful scene of the film comes when Vanessa Redgrave, deserving of Best Supporting Actress consideration for this scene alone, as his mother Volumnia, pleads with her son not to attack Rome. I also enjoyed the homo-erotic relationship between Aufidius and Coriolanus, played with seething rage by Fiennes. Brian Cox gives the film’s standout performance as Menenius, the senator of Rome and Coriolanus’ confidant, taking a potentially boring character on the page and enriching him with humor and depth. There are echoes of Arab Springs and Tahir Square in it’s use of technology. Logan and Fiennes wisely stage most of the conversations between politicians and Roman citizens as TV talk show interviews and news segments. It is a pleasure to see such gifted classically trained actors like Fiennes, Butler, Cox, Redgrave, Lubna Azabal, Jessica Chastain, and James Nesbitt handle Shakespeare’s verse with ease.
Directed by Pedro Almodovar
Anyone going into Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s latest film because they were big fans of Volver and expect to see a film like that will be sadly disapointed. The Skin I Live In, is Almodovar’s first foray into the horror genre and it is his torture porn. It’s gruesome, scary, over the top, and all the things you would come to expect from torture porn. In a story that pays homage to Frankenstein, Antonio Banderas, in his best performance in years, plays Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who may be up to no good with one of his patients. I won’t reveal anymore because there is a twist halfway through the film that will take you by surprise. If this sounds vaguely Cronenbergian, it is but Almodovar infuses it with his own pet themes including gender identity, melodrama, camp, the body, and mother issues, as well as the numerous references and homages to films that he loves. The film, despite being so over the top as to be absolutley ridicuous, builds up a kind of power towards the end and it actually becomes quite moving. With that being said, this is not the gentle and restrained Almodovar of All About My Mother. This is the giddy movie geek Almodovar giving us a gory treat. The one who sits next to us in the theatre and high fives us during the good parts. It’s a gleefully unapologetic genre filmmaking and Almodovar at his most unrestrained.
Directed by David Yates
A satisfying conclusion to the eight film Harry Potter trilogy, Part 2 is a non-stop action film from the first frame till the final frame. David Yates, who started with the fifth film in the franchise, and still the best, Order of the Phoenix, did a great job capping off the trilogy and it was nice to see everyone from the previous installments back. The film moves quickly and it is an effective war film that doesn’t skimp on the blood. Alan Rickman gives the film’s standout performance as Severus Snape, the mysterious double agent whose side we don’t know he is actually on until this film. The montage sequence with him is devestating. Ralph Fiennes gives his best performance as Voldemort, adding depth and humanity to the character. We pity him by the end of the film because of his fear of death. A strong finale.
Directed by Tom McCarthy
With The Station Agent, The Visitor, and now Win Win, actor turned director Tom McCarthy has established himself as a national treasure of sorts when it comes to independent cinema. His films all bear a singular stamp both thematically and tonally. The theme is family and the tone he uses is low key comedy. Win Win might be his best work to date, a comedy about a down and out lawyer Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) who is also a high school wrestling coach. One day the grandson of a client walks into his life and Mike has no choice but to take him home and adopt him as a surrogate son. It turns out this grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) is a phenom wrestler and he turns Mike’s team around immediately. We’ve seen this story before but McCarthy manages to craft a pitch-perfect comedy that doesn’t take a wrong step. The supporting characters are rich and realized including the hilarious Bobby Cannavale as Mike’s best friend, Amy Ryan as his supportive but concerned wife, and Melanie Lynskey, in one of the best supporting performances of the year, as Kyle’s self-destructive mom.
Here are some films that didn’t make my top 20 but were ones I admired greatly: Another Earth, The Artist, A Better Life, Bridesmaids, The Descendants, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Guard, Jane Eyre, Kaboom, Midnight in Paris, A Screaming Man, Stake Land, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, We Need to Talk About Kevin