Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

The Best Films I Saw in 2011

In Film, Reviews on January 12, 2012 at 1:41 am

by Matt Smith

Every year I go through the same process. I watch a ton of movies and I love about half of them. Others are stronger than other, some are terrible, and some I like simply because they made me laugh or they interested me in some other small way. A shot or an idea, or just a mood. I can never whittle it down to just ten films. The concept of a “Top Ten” is as alien to me as the star ratings I give to films on this site: abstract at best, totally subjective and wholly inadequate. But here I am anyway, disclosing a “Top Ten,” or in this case Fifteen, because we all know that those “almosts” really are just things I couldn’t spare to not shove in someone’s face and scream, “HERE, WATCH THESE!!!”

Before getting into the list proper, I do want to give a shoutout to an “almost almost,” which I caught recently on Netflix but haven’t had the proper time to absorb and transmute and completely dwell on. The Imperialists Are Still Alive! is the first feature from Zeina Durra, a graduate of NYU’s MFA Film program. This small wonder of a film was a great discovery for me, and the fact that it’s streaming on Netflix, with little or no fanfare is bizarre to me. Elodie Bouchez, who is mostly known for her work in The Dreamlife of Angels, plays a French Muslim artist meandering through some situations in New York with her new Hispanic-American boyfriend and, at least what we would call a “plot” never really happens. Instead, the film is imbued with the deadpan delivery and style of a Whit Stillman film about disaffected New Yorkers, but with a multicultural spin. This film is currently streaming, and I highly recommend it.

I would also like to add that, as of the time of this list’s creation, I had not seen several films which I have since seen or am still awaiting the chance to see. This list includes: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, A Dangerous Method, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Shame, Take Shelter, Le Quattro Volte, My Week With Marilyn, Moneyball, The Descendents, and Warhorse.

Now, without further delay, my real-deal, 100% authentic “Top Ten Films of 2011 (Plus 5 More!)” list.

1) Drive
After leaving the theater from Drive, my mind was racing. I was energized, alert, utterly affected. That feeling generally hits me once a year in the cinema, and in that instant I know that the movie I just watched had changed me somehow, indescribably, ephemerally, profoundly. Nicolas Winding Refn’s action-thrill riff on fairytales (and not the other way around, and the first of two such films on my list this year) is an experience of a lifetime for me, and that feeling I had when walking out into the early Fall night after Drive will never be replicated.  As I’ve stated elsewhere, the heart of this film lies in the supporting roles. Not to sell stars Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan short (they’re terrific, electric, pitch-perfect), but Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks damn near walk off with the movie from right under their noses. And then there’s Ron Perlman’s gangster/pizzeria owner and Christina Hendricks’s Blanche, who meets an awful fate in a motel bathroom. Gosling’s performance is subdued and introverted, but there is always the hint of rage burning beneath his eyes once the story starts revving up.  It is my favorite performance of the year, and, in a year in which Gosling did more than his fair share of heavy lifting, the best Gosling performance of the year.  There are so many indelible moments in this movie that it’s hard for me to choose just one to highlight, but I suppose if you force my hand it would have to be the brilliant calm-before-the-storm kiss in the elevator right before an explosion of ultraviolent brutality. Breathtaking, beautiful and oh so much more. Best film I’ve seen all year. Gets me going all the time just thinking about it.

2) Young Adult
I think this is the best work from either Diablo Cody or Jason Reitman. It’s human, dark, depressing, and very funny. Patton Oswalt and Charlize Theron make an unlikely but appealing pair of leads that keep things moving in some interesting directions. Their scenes are priceless in a year that hasn’t been too kind for pairs of normal, everyday people as main characters. Oswalt’s Matt Freehauf is charming and hilarious, keeping us guessing just enough about his character that we’re surprised when he finally hooks up with Mavis and it looks like they’re both going to be on the way to a healing moment that so often ruins movies like this for me. Instead, Mavis hears the wrong thing at the wrong time and remains completely unchanged, ditching her hometown, her old high school sweetheart and even her newfound friend Matt because she realizes she really is just so much better than other people. That’s kind of a refreshing outlook in and of itself, despite how depressingly accurate and uncomfortable it can be to watch for those of us who identify with someone who spent their twenties escaping their hometown where nothing happens and no one does anything only to sort of rekindle some love affair with the notion of moving back. Thank god I didn’t, because it would probably have ended up a lot like this, no matter how unsavory Mavis’ actions may be. A great character study with many great moments, all of them adding up to a completely satisfying whole.

3) Drive Angry 3D
Patrick Lussier’s Drive Angry was one of the most fun experiences I had in any movie this past year. It’s kitsch and gore and “so bad it’s good” done exactly the right way, with Nicolas Cage giving his all in a performance that has become increasingly typical for him over the past decade, but with just the right amount of insanity that has become so rare (for another example, check out Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans). He plays Milton, a man who literally breaks out of Hell within the first five minutes of the film in order to save his granddaughter (and only surviving family member) from the clutches of a cult intent on sacrificing her to unleash Hell on Earth. If that premise doesn’t put your butt in front of a TV to watch this thing right now, then there’s nothing I can do for you. Even if you end up hating the movie, the story alone should get you to watch it once. Luckily, it’s actually entertaining as all hell, and goes off in directions that you don’t even see coming as the story ramps up and other characters get involved: a troubled twenty-something hottie played by genre stalwart Amber Heard, and a demon looking to drag Milton back to the fiery depths. It’s a car movie, an occult movie, and an exploitation flick all wrapped up in one bad ass 3D package, and I loved every single minute of it.

4) Bridesmaids
Kristen Wiig’s first official vehicle after spending the past six years stealing every scene in other films, Bridesmaids is a raunchy, foul-mouthed surprise for 2011, which was fairly bland as far as comedies are concerned. In fact, with the exception of the `excellent Cedar Rapids, I haven’t had the urge to watch a single full-on comedy again after seeing it. A story about friendship and loyalty, as well as about growing the eff up and realizing that not everything revolves around you, Wiig’s first time out as a star knocks it fairly well out of the park, and it took in the box office receipts to prove it. What makes a movie like this work (and is something that I’ve enjoyed about all of the comedies produced under Judd Apatow’s banner) is that the characters, no matter how outlandish, are generally enjoyable people. And you can tell everyone had a good time working on the movie. I also enjoy a good poop joke, and Bridesmaids has one that goes on and on and on. Kind of glorious.

5) Hugo
Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Brian Selznick’s young adult novel is the best children’s film this year, and a great achievement for the director, who steps way out of his comfort zone as far as characters and story go and delivers a love letter to the cinema. Tackling a story that prominently features silent cinema and Georges Meliés in particular may seem like a no-brainer for a Scorsese project, but when I first found out he was directing, I was more than a bit surprised. The entire story revolves around children, and the subject matter is fairly light, though some adult themes do peek around the corner now and then (death and the concept of death hangs very heavy in some scenes). The use of 3D is subtle and amazing and truly expands the image in a way that serves the same immediate purpose as the use of deep focus. Asa Butterfield and Chloë Moretz are a great pair of leads, and Ben Kingsley gets a turn in some young makeup for once in a truly inspired (if a bit heavy on details for some viewers who are already familiar with the material) history lesson of cinema’s origins. It’s not Scorsese’s finest work, but it’s a strong film in a year that had a fair number of really good family films that finally got outside of the “pop-culture reference merely for mom and dad’s sanity” box.

6) The Skin I Live In
The new film from Spain’s most celebrated filmmaker, Pedro Almodóvar, has garnered the most mixed reviews of any of his films as I can remember. Some people hate it, and others love it. I fall into the latter camp. The Skin I Live In is a dark and twisted ride that somehow manages to hit all of the Almodóvar beats even though the story is so different from what we’ve seen from him before. Following a mad scientist who is mourning the loss of his wife and daughter, and who is desperately clinging to a dark secret of vengeance, the film is filled with a sense of sadness that can only come from Almodóvar.  It’s fitting that he chose this project to rejoin with star Antonio Banderas, as the subject matter is sort of like an extreme extension of their earlier work, particularly in Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, which from what I can remember garnered a similar mixed response. Following a mad scientist as he experiments on a patient who we think all along is his wife (until a stunning revelation pulled off with a single masterful dissolve) halfway through the film, The Skin I Live In is many things, but boring and predictable is not one of them. The final shot is haunting, full of anxiety, multiple possibilities, and, most importantly, total uncertainty.

7) Another Earth
Brit Marling’s screenplay for this amazing, small in scope but big on ideas science fiction is made of small moments, intimate, moving, and full of beauty and grace (something which I found too few of in that much bigger film that actually used grace as one of its guiding tools). In the present day a second Earth appears above our own, a mirror image of the world and, as revealed with masterful precision and profundity, containing presumably mirror images of ourselves. Directed by first timer (and Marling creative partner) Mike Cahill, the film features moments that would make Stanislaw Lem proud, and is full of absolutely gorgeous cinematography, shot on what seems to be mid-grade consumer digital in some scenes. I won’t go into the plot (please see my review if you wish to read more about the film), but it takes us to some unexpected places, all of which lead to a final shot that is full of power and open for interpretation. An absolutely terrific film that I can’t wait to revisit.

8) The Future
Writer/director Miranda July’s second feature The Future is another film that dabbles in science fiction, and not in a way totally dissimilar to that of Another Earth. Starting out as a quietly quirky comedy about a couple in their mid-30s struggling with the smothering prospect of adopting a cat that could be with them for “up to five years,” the film quickly becomes a treatise on the choices we could all make at any moment which determine our fates, eventually fracturing its own story into several different elements and possible futures that are all tethered to narration delivered by their potential new adoptee, patiently awaiting their return to the shelter before he is put to sleep. July’s previous film, Me You and Everyone We Know was a favorite of mine, but like my colleague, I think The Future surpasses even that film’s achievement of successfully delivering a complex plot structure and even more complex (some might say “too quirky”) characters than we are given here. The loss of some of that quirkiness is ultimately this film’s blessing, though it isn’t gone entirely. July has some wonderfully loopy dance pieces, and her partner, played wonderfully by Hamish Linklater, ends up going door to door trying to get people in Los Angeles to buy trees to plant on their property. It’s a charming, intricately made puzzle of a movie that I’m sure will only gain in reputation over the years, from one of our most original and thrilling American artists and filmmakers.

9) Rango / Winnie The Pooh
I’ve decided to pair these up (and cheat the system a bit) because I really can’t decide which one I liked more. Rango is that rare film that comes out of nowhere and is weird wild and wonderful in ways that you could never imagine. What truly amazes me about the film is that the animation is flawless. Absolutely amazing CGI. And it’s never overly cutesy or caricatured, and its humor never falls to the level of simple pop-culture references that (thankfully) seem to have been left behind by the studios who have gotten around to making pure animated entertainment for adults and children again. Speaking of which, Winnie the Pooh, which I reviewed in full earlier this year, is a terrific piece of filmmaking. The hand-drawn (approximately) animation is gorgeous and fluid, and the characterizations are spot on for what the Pooh gang should be. Not only that, but in theatrical release, the film was accompanied by a terrific short, which I am glad to see Disney bringing back into vogue, but which really should happen before every movie. See these two films and reinvigorate your love of the animated feature. They are both so great it’s ridiculous.

10) Hanna
I loved Joe Wright’s amazing feminist take on the fairy tale from the very first scene, in which Hanna is hunting a deer in a snow covered forest. It’s an action movie full of magic and wonder, and a heroine who, despite her young age, is as compelling as anything we’ve seen from her grown up, studio tent-pole cohorts. Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones) gives a great performance that never betrays her character’s believability–Hanna is a stone-cold killer trained to assassinate a clandestine government operative who is out to kill her father and take her back to the lab for study. Hanna is full of terrific action set pieces, including a show-stopping sequence in a shipping yard and a great single-take fight in a parking garage which gives Eric Bana’s character a chance to show off just how he was able to train Hanna to be such a bad ass after long stretches of the movie being devoted to his activities taking place off screen. Chock full of great moments, the film is tied together by a ruthless and breathtaking soundtrack by The Chemical Brothers, who perfectly marry their electronic sensibilities with those of a traditional film score. Since its theatrical release I have watched this film a couple of times on Blu Ray, and it remains just as strong each time.

Five More Worth Your Time

A Lonely Place To Die
Director Julian Gilbey imbues the first three quarters of the film with a sense of urgency and danger that has become, sadly, a rare component of the thriller genre.  He is a climber himself, and he gets the perils of mountaineering, using that knowledge to craft a rather intense experience.  Starring Melissa George in a terrific performance as one of a group of climbers who find a Romanian girl buried underground while on holiday, A Lonely Place to Die is well worth the time of any genre fan.  It won top honors at ActionFest 2011, and has been well received by audiences and critics alike.  The final act of the film derails ever so slightly as it becomes a more traditional chase thriller, abandoning the Scottish highlands for the streets of a small town, but the great imagery stays in place, though much more human in scale.  The film was shot on location, with George doing her fair share of the climbing and stunt work, and it is gorgeous and picturesque.  I particularly liked that there was no CGI.  As Gilbey himself put it, those are really people dangling off of the rock faces.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
This re-imagining/re-adaptation/remake (or whatever you want to call it) of Stieg Larsson’s literary phenom and previous Swedish adaptations would be redundant under the control of most creative talent in Hollywood, but like last year’s Let Me In, the project found a team able to pull it off and make a stand-alone, utterly fascinating new take on the well-known source material. News of the remake came out very early on, and it wasn’t until David Fincher was announced as director that I became interested at all. The casting had me even more intrigued. Daniel Craig, an actor I rather like but who often gets cast in action-oriented roles, would play Blomkvist, and Rooney Mara, a relative newcomer who I had seen and recognized but had overall been unfamiliar with, would play Salander, a role which had heretofore been synonymous with Swedish actress Noomi Rapace. The result is a surprisingly strong work that may, in time, prove to be the better film than even Neils Arden Oplev’s superb adaptation of the first book. It’s not perfect, and there is a sense for fans that they have definitely seen all of this before (and read and re-read), but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing. A first-rate film from one of America’s great filmmakers.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Speaking of re-makes, Tomas Alfredson’s first English language feature tackles the mother of all Cold War spy novels–and a towering achievement of British television (watch the 1979 Alec Guinness vehicle now)–and does so very well indeed. Gary Oldman’s Smiley is a pensive, pent-up sort of man, an emblem of the traditional British reserved personality fighting for some semblance of honor in an era which sees his country slowly begin to step out of the world’s spotlight. There are plenty of moments I love in this cold, grey, almost Scandinavian take on British intelligence (I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a hint of Wallander in this film’s Smiley), and despite its two hour run-time, I’ll be damned if I can even remember what might be missing from the five hour mini-series version. The film is an amazing example of economical technique.

A much more focused (and much more downbeat) take on the cosmic implications of life on Earth than Terence Malick’s bloated and whispery Tree of Life, Lars von Trier, the enfant terrible of the European art cinema, has created an astonishingly immersive and totally accurate depiction of clinical depression. The film is split into two halves, one for each of a pair of sisters, portrayed by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Opening on the night of Justine’s (Dunst) wedding, Melancholia details the strained relationship of these two sisters as the world slowly comes to an end. Bookended by two sequences of cosmic destruction, Trier’s movie doesn’t seem to be able to imagine a world that continues its existence, because the universe is uncaring, life on Earth is likely all we will ever know even if it should by some chance exist somewhere else in the universe, and we’re all pretty terrible creatures to one another anyway. Dunst gives a fearless performance, open and honest, and Gainsbourg, the denier of truth here, is thankfully not asked to endure the previous horrors she faced for the director. A stunning achievement in every possible way, a tortured (some would say tortuous) melodrama, and one of the most astounding films of the year.

Red State
I saw Kevin Smith’s truly independently financed and distributed Red State during its stop in Atlanta last spring, and even then I thought it was fantastic. This is something totally different than what we’ve ever seen from Smith before, part comedy, part horror flick, and part police action film, Red State’s critics have constantly berated it for lacking an identity, for trying too much, and for not being very good. But it is good, and it does try to do too much, but I think that works to its advantage as an experiment during this, according to Smith, last leg of a career that has been spent peddling amazing (or merely good, and sometimes not so good) slacker comedies. See it for Michael Parks’ amazing performance as the leader of a Westboro Baptist Church-like cult that is hellbent on spreading the Lord’s gospel truths even if it means you blow out the heathens’ brains.

  1. nice list, though I have to say I could not bring myself to sit through Tree of Life. Also though that The Future could have been better. I sorta liked it and am fond of July’s previous film and her short stories but I felt there was something missing with this one.

    Here is my top 11 for what it’s worth:

    Promise I’ll watch Drive Angry based on the gushing review

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