Staff List: The 30 Best Films of 2011

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With more movies in limited and general release than ever before, 2011 was a ridiculously crowded year for both casual and discerning moviegoers alike. One by-product of the glut is a refreshing lack of consensus; so many films have been championed in so many corners – while those same films get trashed in others – that our cultural need to rally behind obvious points of praise and awareness have been gloriously undercut. 2011 was the year to see and love films that spoke to you, and to be prepared to argue the case with fellow cinephiles. In other words, 2011 was the year the gloves came off. To say that none of the 30 films on our staff-voted list is universally beloved is putting it mildly; but then, that’s the nature of polls like these.

I think it’s safe to say that not one person including anyone on our staff will agree with every movie selected on this list. However I do believe that the list reflects well on the scope of movies we”ve covered all year long. Sound On Sight is blessed with over 30 contributors worldwide who all took part in voting. There’s a bit of everything for everyone be it mainstream flicks such as 50/50, obscure foreign titles such as Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and even genre pics like Kill List.

Every year we’ve run this poll, there’s been a runaway winner; this year, the top 2 films were tied up until the last ballot; three crossed the hundred-point threshold. Only five films earned the support of over a third of the contributors. That’s the sort of year it was. (In the event of a tie, which only occurs when the films get the same number of votes AND points, they share the poll number. Got it?)

Worth noting: Incendies, La Quattro Volte, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives all made it onto our 2010 staff list.

30. 50/50 (3 votes, 21 points)

While Jonathan Levine waits for his Amber Heard-starring feminist slasher All the Boys Love Mandy Lane to finally get a theatrical release, he can take some comfort in the fact that his Joseph Gordon-Levitt / Seth Rogen bromantic dramedy 50/50 was the beneficiary of considerable audience warmth, striking a measured tone between pained pathos and broad, familiar swathes of humor. And without a release fiasco of any kind.

29. Into the Abyss (4 votes, 21 points)

Werner Herzog’s cinematic universe is so self-contained that it’s a little shocking when his death-row doc Into the Abyss gives so little of its time over to the director’s meandering philosophical musings, preferring instead to let beleaguered voices behind the glass and the victims of violent crime (to whom the film is dedicated) almost the entirety of his camera’s attention. The result is maybe the most emotionally direct film Herzog has ever created.

28. Beginners (4 votes, 22 points)

Both Mike Mills and his wife, Miranda July, released films this year tackling grief and personal growth that happened to feature some variant on talking animals. Of the two, Mills’s Beginners found wider acceptance, thanks in no small part to sterling performances from Christopher Plummer and Ewan MacGregor, and the film’s refreshingly candid take on mortality, the evolution of sexual mores, and the tangled nature of parent-child dynamics. The dog probably didn’t hurt, either.

27. Super 8 (tie; 4 votes, 23 points)

Super-producer J.J. Abrams’s third feature as a director was deliberately shrouded in mystery for some time, before ultimately being revealed as a wide-eyed sci-fi/adventure homage to the Spielberg films Abrams grew up with. That sense of awe is appropriately replicated by the film’s young cast of mostly first-timers, whose filmmaking efforts charmingly underscore Abrams’s personal connection to the era and the genre.

27. Senna (tie; 4 votes, 23 points)

One of the most stylistically distinct docs in recent memory, Asif Kapadia’s Senna dispenses with the usual talking-heads approach favoured by so many conventional narrative docs, sticking instead exclusively to archival audio and video in its enthralling encapsulation of the life and career of F1 driver Ayrton Senna. The result is a film that is unusually immersive and emotionally enveloping, even for viewers with no knowledge of the sport.

25. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (5 votes, 23 points)

Some doubted whether or not Tomas Alfredson and screenwriter Peter Straughan would be able to finesse John le Carre’s densely plotted spy tale into the shape of a feature film, especially since it already made for a seven-hour miniseries in 1979. They needn’t have worried; Alfredson carries over the chilly charms of Let the Right One In while Straughan manages to axe just enough material to make the transition work, and Gary Oldman heads up a terrific cast, making the almost-mandatory second viewing to sort out some of the plot specifics a deeply pleasurable experience.

24. Meek’s Cutoff (4 votes, 24 points)

Kelly Reichardt might be the testiest and brashest of the recently emergent female directors to have made their mark in the arthouse realm. Reteaming with the always-great Michelle Williams, Reichardt goes from no-budget to low-budget in this stark, bare-bones, subtly revisionist Western, which garnered early raves last year but gradually made itself available throughout 2011. Meek’s Cutoff continues Reichardt’s steady, admirable campaign of destabilisation.

23. Kill List (tie; 4 votes, 25 points)

Ben Wheatley’s sophomore feature, following the no-budget black comedy-thriller Down Terrace, was only seen by UK and film-fest audiences, so its appearance here testifies to the idiosyncratic thriller’s support amongst those who have seen it. It gets a stateside release courtesy of IFC in the new year so everyone can catch up to the hubbub, including the film’s already-notorious final reels.

23. Moneyball (tie; 4 votes, 25 points)

Talk about unlikely success stories. After being passed through multiple directors’ hands, and seeming to be in development hell for ages, Moneyball finally emerged as a sort of adult drama dream come true, with Aaron Sorkin co-writing and Capote‘s Bennett Miller directing a stellar cast. That it managed to wrest drama out of the arcane science of baseball number-crunching is the even bigger surprise, thanks in no small part to the film’s sterling performances from Brad Pitt and, surprisingly, a snark-free Jonah Hill.

21. Margaret (3 votes, 27 points)

Kenneth Longergan’s epic-but-intimate Anna Paquin vehicle finally saw the light of day this past year after a very long stretch in stasis, emerging as one of the most passionately adored of art-house cause celebres when it all but disappeared from the few theatres it screened in within just a few weeks of opening. Thanks to a host of stunning performances (Paquin, Jeannie Berlin, J. Smith-Cameron) and its bracing style and thematic import, Margaret is poised for much wider admiration come its eventual DVD release.

20. Take Shelter (tie; 5 votes, 27 points)

For their second collaboration, writer-director Jeff Nichols and star Michael Shannon dive into potentially dicey waters, and come out with a genuine breakout. Most movies about mental illness are misbegotten or ill-conceived, but Nichols and Shannon succeed by avoiding trite sentimentality and over-simplification, instead crafting a believably lived-in portrait of a family and a community’s response to intimate tragedy.

20. Contagion (tie; 5 votes, 27 points)

Maybe his intimations of retirement are phony, but Steven Soderbergh can’t be faulted for resting on his laurels, if he ever had any. Who else would be able to get an ensemble movie with a serious penchant for killing off its A-list cast and a studious avoidance of over-the-top genre thrills off the ground? Contagion is closer to an honest-to-goodness research piece than a movie like Outbreak, which turned out to be one of its greatest virtues.

18. Bridesmaids (6 votes, 27 points)

Probably the only consensus comedy of the year, Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids saw mega-producer Judd Apatow making a conscious effort to appeal to women in the wake of his many male-centric hits, and the result combined naked commercial ambitions with satisfyingly raucous, nasty humor. But it’s the performances the really stick out, especially Kristen Wiig’s damaged-but-loveable heroine, Melissa McCarthy’s rampaging sidekick, and Jon Hamm’s wonderfully self-deprecating turn as a complete lech.


17. 13 Assassins (tie; 4 votes, 30 points)

After a few years in relative Western critical wilderness, director Takashi Miike came roaring back with the epic, brutal 13 Assassins, an old-fashioned samurai yarn with a classically composed first 90 minutes and an increasingly insane climax, which for many was the year’s first and last word in action sequences. That’s difficult contention to find fault with.

17. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (tie; 4 votes, 30 points)

The march of “slow cinema” continues; if last year most memorably marked the triumph of Uncle Boonmee at Cannes, 2011’s totem of cinematic patience might well be Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, an exacting but rewarding art-movie take on that most traditional of genes, the murder mystery; only here, it takes some time for the body in question to even shore up.

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