Top 10 Films of 2011

     December 29, 2011


Between festivals and theatrical releases, I saw over 100 new films this year.  Some were awful, some were good, and some were mediocre.  And then there were the movies that stayed with me, and more importantly, held up on repeat viewings.  In past years, I’ve usually only had one chance to watch a movie and sometimes the initial positive impression was enough to land it on my annual Top 10 list.  Then I looked back on the list six months later and realized some films shouldn’t have made the cut.  This year, I got to attend major festivals and received “For Your Consideration screeners, which made it easier to double-check movies I enjoyed.  If you’re wondering why movies that originally received an a high rating didn’t make the list, it’s because while I still liked them on a second viewing, their faults became more apparent.  The movies on my Top Ten list became better on repeat viewings and I look forward to watching them again and again over the years.

Hit the jump to check out my picks for the Top 10 films of 2011.




Reminder: this is my Top 10 list.  If you want something closer to an “objective” list, pop over to Rotten Tomatoes.  Hobo with a Shotgun felt like it was made to appeal directly to my sick sense of humor.  The movie is nothing but sheer, unadulterated madness but director Jason Eisener brings a method to it.  There’s a surprisingly level of creativity in how tasteless it can be, and there’s an art to making a good bad movie.  Eisener also had the sense to provide some semblance of sanity to the picture by casting Rutger Hauer as the hobo.  Hauer brought a melancholy, angry justice to the story, and while it didn’t make Hobo a serious drama, it kept the balance required to make the movie a delightfully twisted and unhinged schlockfest.



This year saw more than its fair share of R-rated comedies, but Horrible Bosses was the champion.  The movie held-up on repeat viewings because it has the off-handed one-liners that sneak through on the first go-round.  Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis had tremendous chemistry and watching them bounce lines off each other as their characters argued added so much to the movie.   The flick also gave Colin Farrell and Jennifer Aniston a chance to play against type and both delivered in spades.  Great comedies keep delivering after the big jokes have been worn away.  Horrible Bosses is a great comedy.



2011 also saw far too many alien-invasion flicks.  The best one didn’t have the big-name stars, a bloated special effects budget, or a fetish about hiding the design of its alien.  Instead, Attack the Block gave a bunch of teenage hoodlums a chance not to save the world, but to save their apartment building and do so with whatever non-age-restricted weapons they had in their closets.  Once you fell into the rhythm of the characters’ dialect, the dialogue positively sang and added another special flavor to the mix.  And while other alien invasion flicks built up to a whole lot of nothing with their alien designs, director Joe Cornish came up with a simple, iconic monster that audiences won’t soon forget.  Throw in a killer score, thrilling action scenes, the willingness to off major characters, and Attack the Block isn’t just the best alien invasion movie of 2011.  It’s one of the best sci-fi action flicks in years.



I debated whether or not this should land on my list since it only works as the last part in a series.  And then I remembered the same goes for Return of the King, and people seem to appreciate that movie just fine.  Harry Potter really is one major story with one central hero destined to battle with a single arch-nemesis.  The question with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 was whether or not director David Yates would stick the landing, and the answer turned out to be, “Hell, yes.”  The movie is action-packed but it still finds time for the beautiful character moments that have put the series far above all imitators.  The final installment didn’t coast on what had come before.  Deathly Hallows – Part 2 expertly delivered excitement, joy, and heartbreak.  It’s a grand finale that’s truly grand.



At first glance, Hanna seemed like it was a bit outside the wheelhouse of director Joe Wright whose previous efforts were the Oscar-baiting dramas Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, and The Soloist.  But with Hanna, Wright proved his brilliant and inventive direction could just as easily turn out a kick-ass action flick.  He used this long-take technique and created a brilliant set piece of Eric Bana taking down CIA agents.  His energetic editing and use of sound were right at home when applied to pulse-pounding fights scenes.  But the masterstroke was casting the story as a dystopian fairy tale, which turned Hanna into a strange, off-beat, and unforgettable flick that’s so much more than a simple action movie.



I didn’t much care for acclaimed relationship dramas like Bellflower and Like Crazy.  I felt that they used one-dimensional characters to convey a single emotion and relied too heavily on the viewer bringing their own experience to the table in order for the film to work.  Beginners blew these films away by drawing distinct characters going through complex emotions that translate into something every audience member can appreciate.  It earns the emotional payoff rather than stealing it from the viewer.  You don’t have to be a 75-year-old man who has just come out of the closet to relate to the character.  We can relate not only because of Christopher Plummer‘s tremendous performance, but because writer-director Mike Mills understood that love isn’t contained simply to resentment or longing.  Beginners goes far beyond by jumping around time, memories, tangents, relationships and the result is a movie that understands and appreciates love for the beautiful mess it is.



The Messenger was no fluke.  Writer-director Oren Moverman once again proves that he’s not only an amazing visual storyteller, but his stories shatter our expectations.  Just as The Messenger wasn’t the same tired “PTSD Soldier” story, Rampart turns the corrupt cop film inside out.  Officer Dave “Date Rape” Brown is a dirty cop, but he knows it and he believes his place in the universe is to soak up mankind’s sins and deal out the retribution we secretly want.  Rampart holds a deeply cynical social critique and wraps it in a fascinating character study.  Woody Harrelson‘s complex and captivating performance works hand-in-glove with Moverman’s thoughtful direction, and then the glove balls up into a fist and punches you in the solar plexus.



Chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky was taught sign language so he could “speak” with humans.  James Marsh‘s documentary about Nim speaks to our humanity.  It shows our selfishness and our selflessness, our ignorance and our intelligence, our indifference and our compassion.  Nim was taught how to sign so we could get inside his head, learn what he was thinking, and gain a greater understanding of language.  Project Nim ingeniously bounces the experiment back onto Nim’s caretakers, and sends the audiences on an emotional roller coaster.  The film knows when to add stylistic flourishes, when to use a dramatization and most importantly, when the file footage or interview doesn’t need any embellishment.  Nim’s story could have made for an interesting magazine feature, but Marsh transformed it into an emotionally devastating and thought-provoking powerhouse.



The sentence, “I am a leader and a teacher,” will send a cold shiver up my spine for the rest of my life.  In his remarkable debut feature, writer-director Sean Durkin doesn’t miss a beat in trapping his audience in a razorblade cage that cuts beneath the skin with every creepy, horrifying, and all-too-real moment.  Martha Marcy May Marlene convincingly terrifies us by showing the fragility of our sanity and how our minds can become warped not through brute force, but by pulling at the threads of our identity.  Elizabeth Olsen fearlessly shows us a psyche that has been ripped to shreds, John Hawkes quietly shows us the disturbing power to destroy that psyche, and both actors do it with unwavering honesty.   I saw Martha Marcy May Marlene in January.  It’s still under my skin.



Drive is a movie where you could analyze it frame-by-frame and find something new every time, but you can still enjoy gliding across the slick, cool surface.

Every single moment, from the flicker of a street light to the blast of a shotgun, holds our full attention.  Director Nicolas Winding Refn provides a master class in how to say everything with an actor’s glance, a well-placed shot, an inspired music cue, and a perfectly-timed cut.  There’s not a wasted frame and not once does it feel like Refn is showing off.  Rather than celebrate his own cleverness, Refn decides to entertain.  He allows the audience to revel in a taut car chase, the coolness of the 80s vibe, the shockingly gruesome violence, but none of it is shallow or overblown.  Everything is played to precision.

The remarkable technical skill is all in service of a gritty, hard-boiled story that explores themes of solitude, heroism, nobility, and identity.  Drive reminds us that it’s not enough to simply be cool or detached or heroic.  There’s a price.  There’s a sacrifice.  This is the harsh lesson film noir provides, and it’s one of the reason I love the genre so much.  It says that good deeds won’t save you.  There is no bonus, no pat on the head, no riding off into the sunset with the girl.  The best film noir present a character with a simple choice that will test their souls, and through his or her actions we question our own limits when faced against people with less virtue and more power.  It’s the choice between what is easy and what is right.

Drive is film noir at its best and it’s the best film of 2011.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Captain America: The First Avenger, Midnight in Paris, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Rango, Young Adult.

Movies I’m Sorry I Missed (in alphabetical order): Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, Kill List, Margaret, The Raid, A Separation, Sound of My Voice

Monday: Top 10 Posters of 2011

Tuesday: Top 10 Trailers of 2011

Wednesday: Best Performances, Directing, and other Miscellany of 2011

Thursday: Worst 5 of 2011

Friday: Top 10 of 2011

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