The Top 20 Films of 2011
2011 was a bit of a let down in the world cinema. 2010 was a much stronger year. 9 of the 10 Best Picture nominees were great films (only the god-awful, mixed morality tale The Kids are Alright missed the quality mark). This year’s Best Picture field is pretty thin. Two masterpieces (The Artist and The Descendants), three excellent films (Warhorse, Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life), three mediocre disappointments (Hugo, Moneyball and The Help) and one god-awful, eye-gouger (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close). Not a solid list of films that will vie for Hollywood’s top honor. I guess we got spoiled last year. The Academy missed a lot of great work. Take Shelter, 50/50, Hanna, Drive, Warrior and Rise of the Planet of the Apes all would have been excellent and worthy nominees. But alas, mediocrity prevails this year among the Academy Award nominations. Guess I will have to show them how it should be done. Here are my selections for the 20 best films of 2011.
What were your favorite films of 2011? Did I miss any (there are always a few that I see too late to add to the list)? Anything too low or too high? Let me know. My apologies to The Muppets. It was #21. Sorry Kermit.
20. The Guard Directed by John Michael McDonagh
Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle make quite a hilarious team in The Guard. The film plays out like a typical mismatched buddy cop film, but the dialogue is much sharper than others in the often worn out genre. Gleeson gives the strongest performance in the film by far. He is absolutely hilarious. After seeing this film, and the witty dark comedy In Bruges, I hope to see him do more comedies in the future.
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil
19. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil Directed by Eli Craig
A rare successful attempt at mixing horror and comedy. A bloody, gory, hilarious and clever film about a couple of good old boys from West Virginia that have to fend off a group of preppy college kids. Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine both kick a lot of ass as the besieged hillbillies. An excellent and unique film that should not be missed by anyone interested in this genre (but its not for the squeamish).
18. Thor Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Surprisingly good super hero entertainment from renowned Shakespearean director Kenneth Branagh. Chris Hemsworth makes a star making turn as the Norse god. By no means perfect or as good as the first two Spider Man films, its still a very good, and most importantly, a fun entry into the Marvel film mythos. Lets keep our fingers crossed for The Avengers.
The Myth of the American Sleepover
17. The Myth of the American Sleepover Directed by David Robert Mitchell
The Myth of the American Sleepover is an excellent and understated film that sadly flew in way under the radar of most cinema goers in 2011 (at least it was in Christy Lemire’s top 5 of the year). Its a lot like an American Graffiti for this current faceless and lost generation (by no means as exciting, but that is kind of the point). It was a big gamble for David Robert Mitchell to direct a film about teenagers at the same pace of a Tarkovskiy film, but it really works. This film is the exact opposite of the putrid American Pie films, and its many clones. Also, look how awesome that poster is.
Midnight in Paris
16. Midnight in Paris Directed by Woody Allen
I usually do not care about Woody Allen films. I think he is one of the most overrated directors of all-time (up there with, but not as over-hyped as Polanski and Godard). Allen has always been a talented writer, but his acting is borderline tortuous. Thankfully, Woody Allen does not appear in Midnight in Paris. Somehow, this film turned out to be a witty and well acted comedy. Perhaps the multitude of history and literary references made Midnight in Paris more interesting than the typical Allen fare. Owen Wilson is surprisingly charming as the film’s lead.
15. Cedar Rapids Directed by Miguel Arteta
Cedar Rapids is a very raunchy comedy that never strays too far from its innocent heart. It is excellent at balancing over the top hilarity with touching moments. Ed Helms plays the honest and clueless fish out of water extremely well. John C. Riley steals the show as the over the top, over compensating fellow salesman that Helms is warned to avoid on his business trip to the “big city” of Cedar Rapids. Sadly, this film flopped at the box office. Make sure you catch this one.
The Tree of Life
14. The Tree of Life Directed by Terrence Malick
Well this was an interesting film. Malick has always been a unique director to say the least. Audiences fled screenings of The Tree of Life in droves, enough so that theaters began putting up “no refund” signs to warn people of what they were getting into. The film begins with a long, avant-garde, opening sequence that basically encompasses the entirety of the creation of the Earth. What that has to do with anything, or the rest of the film, is anyone’s guess. It looks amazing and is often awe inspiring, but it does not really ad to the story, but we can let it slide and chalk it up to artistic expression. Once the meat of the film begins, it unfolds as an amazing story of three young kids and their parents in 1950′s Texas. The story is deep and flows at a beautiful pace. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are great as the parents of the three children. Why is it then that the film is only #14 on the list? Unfortunately, it has a really poor and seemingly meaningless ending headed by a completely lost Sean Penn. I have no idea what he is supposed to be doing in this film. He looks miserable, as if he was strung out on some mind altering drug. The film’s finale is way too hookey for someone as great as Malick. Even with the lame ending, its still a great film.
13. Beginners Directed by Mike Mills
A touching, thoughtful, little film that most people missed in 2011. Ewan McGregor plays a sullen man that has recently lost his father to cancer, and meets a beautiful actress (Inglorious Basterds‘ Melanie Laurent) that changes his outlook on life. Shortly before his father’s death, he (played in flashbacks by the probable Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor, Christopher Plummer) came out of the closet and embraces the fact that he has been gay. The movie flows extremely well between his relationship with his father and his new girlfriend. A very insightful, and often honestly romantic film. Too bad other films that tackle romance and love fail so miserably. Damn you Katherine Heigl. Damn you Sandra Bullock.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
12. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Directed by David Fincher
David Fincher is without a doubt the best director of this era. With the only the exception of his first film, the unpleasant let down of Alien 3, he never disappoints. Although The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is nowhere near as good as Fincher’s masterpieces Seven, The Social Network or Fight Club, it is an excellent film that does not disappoint. Fincher is the perfect director to handle such a dark mystery story. Rooney Mara, Stellan Skarsgard and Daniel Craig are all quite good. Trent Reznor’s score matches the film perfectly. Much better than the Swedish film that was released in 2009.
11. The Beaver Directed by Jodie Foster
Its unfortunate that Mel Gibson is crazy and says a lot stupid things. His incredible talent gets over shadowed by his inability to avoid doing dumb crap. The Beaver suffered greatly from Mel’s bad public image and its highly unusual subject matter, and that is a damn shame. It is a wonderful and enlightening film about a desperate man that has lost his family’s respect and the will to live. After finding a discarded beaver puppet, he begins to speak through the puppet, and finds a new lease on life. It sounds like an unfilmable premise, but Jodie Foster pulls it off with amazing heart. Gibson gives one the best performances of his stellar career. Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) and Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) are excellent in supporting roles. Make sure you give this one a chance.
X-Men: First Class
10. X-Men: First Class Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Thankfully, the X-Men franchise has been saved by Matthew Vaughn and Michael Fassbender. X-Men 3 was so terrible it looked like the series was done (Brett Ratner, you can go to Hell). Who would have thought a prequel set in the 1960′s would save the franchise, and would be so entertaining? Michael Fassbender delivers an amazing, star making performance as a young Magneto. Kevin Bacon makes a great comeback to realm of relevant cinema as the film’s villain, Sebastian Shaw. By far the best comic book film of 2011.
9. 13 Assassins [Jusan-nin shikaku] Directed by Takashi Miike
The world needs more films like this. Exciting, action packed, thought provoking, worthwhile Asian cinema has been a rarity since the days of Kurosawa. In recent years, so much of Asian cinema has been mindless action flicks and awful horror mind-melters. 13 Assassins bucks the trend by being an incredible film that delivers as much action and it does story and heart. Its the best film of the Asian, action genre since Battle Royale and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
8. Hanna Directed by Joe Wright
Too bad this film came out so early in 2011. It seems to have been forgotten by most film-goers. Hanna is an awesome, unique entry in the action film genre. Think The Bourne Identity with a teenage girl has the star. Sounds like a weird premise, but it works because Saoirse Ronan is such an incredible talent. She seems poised to battle it out with Jennifer Lawrence to see who will be the best actress of her generation.
7. 50/50 Directed by Jonathan Levine
A comedy about a young man that is diagnosed with cancer? That must have been one hell of a pitch that got this film green lit. Thank goodness that pitch worked, because 50/50 is one amazing film that will stay with you long after you leave the theater. Joseph Gordan-Levitt is perfect as the young man given a 50/50 chance to live after finding out he has cancer. Levitt continues to give great performance after performance (500 Days of Summer, The Lookout, Inception, Brick). Who would have thought that the little kid from Third Rock From the Sun would become one the most talented actors working today. Seth Rogan really stands out as Levitt’s best friend. Rogan has always been funny, but his films have usually been mediocre. Its nice to see him shine in a great, well written film. Anna Kendrick is also quite good as Levitt’s young, inexperienced therapist. 50/50 is as funny as it is touching.
6. Drive Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow up to his incredible, underrated masterpiece, Valhalla Rising, is an amazing, cinematic experience the likes of which you may never see again. Drive is a completely unique film in almost every way. Its visually stunning. Every little detail is worth noticing. The outstanding score and soundtrack sound like an homage to an 80′s Michael Mann film. Its so unusual, that somehow it fits the film perfectly. Ryan Gosling and Albert Brooks give some of the best performances of 2011. Brooks was absolutely screwed out of an Oscar nomination. I cannot fathom how that happened. Brooks is a cherished Hollywood legend that has never won an Oscar. That is usually all you need to get a Best Supporting Actor nod. Guess not this year. Jonah Hill sneaks in for his fat and nervous performance in the boring, overrated Moneyball. Lame.
5. Warrior Directed by Gavin O’Connor
This movie was sold in commercials and in its trailer as an overly commercial MMA version of Rocky or Miracle, an almost Disney-like story of family triumph. The trailer and commercials were totally misleading. This is not a family fun time movie. Perhaps that is why it was a box office flop. Its so much more than a basic brother vs. brother story. This film has a very dark, and very real, unflinching heart. Family is important in this film, but it never comes off as phoney or melodramatic like most films about family members at odds. Thomas Hardy, Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte are absolutely incredible as the fighting brothers, and their long ago discarded father. I am somebody that does not give a rat’s ass about MMA, but this film makes it actually interesting. That is one hell of an accomplishment.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
4. Rise of the Planet of the Apes Directed by Rupert Wyatt
This was an absolutely dead franchise that had no signs of life whatsoever. Miraculously, Rise of the Planet of the Apes single handedly breathed life back into this once proud franchise. I find it hard to believe that someone gave a young, unknown filmmaker (Rupert Wyatt) $100 million dollars to make an ape film, but I am glad they did. Andy Serkis steals the show as Caesar, the intelligently enhanced ape that revolts against the humans that abuse his fellow simians. Serkis is truly an underrated actor (he should have got an Oscar nomination for this film). His CGI work must be more difficult than that of the typical actor. Guess Hollywood will never appreciate him.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a fascinating and thrilling film that reveals the early aspects of the back story of how apes will become the dominate form of life on Earth in the later Ape films. An excellent combination of story, character and action that should keep anyone that watches it entertained.
3. The Artist Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
I never thought I would see a new silent film in my lifetime, let alone one as great as The Artist. Its a true wonder that a film like this was allowed to be made by a major studio in this day and age. With all of the mind-raping garbage being produced in this era, its encouraging to see something creative and wondrous come out of Hollywood. The Artist is defiantly a welcomed gem. It is a charming tale about a bygone era that is legendary to, and beloved by, many a lover of classic cinema (perhaps that is why it is getting so much award love). If you are unfamiliar with the often glorious history of film this one will not be for you (and shame on you – you have some homework to do). Most people cringe at the sight of a black & white film, especially a silent one. Do not be afraid. Give this one a chance. Jean Dujardin, Uggie (the dog sidekick) and Berenice Bejo will make you smile and temporarily make you forget about the rotten state of the world. Its a rare film where you actually are rooting for the people in the film to succeed.
2. Take Shelter Directed by Jeff Nichols
This one was real close to being the best film of the year. I really hate placing in the second spot, because Take Shelter is an amazing, unforgettable masterpiece. Michael Shannon (who you will see soon as Zod in the next Superman film) gives the best performance of the year as a father & husband that begins to have horrible visions that begin to threaten his family’s safety, and possibly his own sanity. The film masterfully shifts between his disturbing nightmares and the reality of his life. The most prevalent vision that haunts him is that of an oncoming storm for which he must prepare his family to survive, but they may not be able to survive what he must do to protect them from something that might not be real. Take Shelter is an incredible film that is perfectly paced. It never falters. Its an insightful look into mental illness and its effects on family (the exact opposite of the truly putrid Melancholia). If a full investigation is launched, there may be extended jail time for the Academy members that screwed Michael Shannon out of a Best Actor nomination.
1. The Descendants Directed by Alexander Payne
Alexander Payne does not make enough movies, but when he does, he is no stranger to my best films of the year list. Election, About Schmidt and Sideways are amazing films that were made under his talented direction. With The Descendants, Payne has made the best film of his career, and the most outstanding film of 2011 (just barely edges out Take Shelter). Its a poignant film about a man that has a lot on his plate. He is intrusted by his family to make a decision about the future of land they have owned for generations. That land is going to be defaulted back to the people of Hawaii in the near future, unless they sell it off relatively soon (should he allow them to make a huge profit, or do the right thing and let the people have it back?). While dealing with that, his wife is critically injured in an accident. He must gather his two daughters and inform their family and friends that his wife will soon die. To make things more complicated, he finds out she had been cheating on him. Payne has always been a gifted writer, but he really out does himself here. This story has so much going on, and yet it never loses focus of the captivating characters or the fascinating journey the family goes through.
George Clooney should be a shoe-in for the Best Actor Oscar (I really wish he was going up against Michael Shannon, but the Academy peed in my Kool Aid on that one) for his incredible performance as the troubled father. Shailene Woodley is wonderful as his oldest daughter. Its an absolute crime that she was not given an Oscar nomination for great work, especially with the weak field in the Best Supporting Actress category this year. Its also nice to see Robert Forster in action again. He has several excellent and hilarious moments in the film.
See you in 2012. We are off to a great start with The Grey.