Ah 2011, you marvelous son of a bitch! You ended up being A-OK! Sure, this year had bombs but it also gave us some terrific cinema. The fine folks of Very Aware are spending this week compiling our favorites from the year. If you missed it, you can take a look at Courtney and Mel’s top ten lists. Stay tuned, Manny has his list brewing, it’ll be online later this week.
I wasn’t so sure about 2011 when it first started. With the exception of some major releases, I wasn’t looking forward to much. Luckily, I discovered some surprising gems. So what if the major blockbusters sucked? It led me to venture off the beaten path and I’m much happier because of it.
So here we go, the best films of 2011, according to me. Bon voyage, 2011! Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!
Please feel free to tell me where/how I’m wrong, as I’m sure I am.
Honorable mentions: BRIDESMAIDS, THE TREE OF LIFE, FAST FIVE, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL, YOUNG ADULT, MELANCHOLIA, SLEEP TIGHT, HUGO, THE MUPPETS
I feel like I was the last person on Earth to see DRIVE. I had to withstand months of people gushing over Nicolas Winding Refn’s brutal revenge film. No matter, even with the wait I still got a kick out of the film. Still, while I greatly respected DRIVE, I think it’s a hard move to fall in love with and wrap yourself in. It’s a cold, violent, uncomfortable examination of a quiet, deranged man trying to do what he thinks is right. It’ll stick with you, that’s for sure. It’ll also make you think twice about messing with Albert Brooks.
I’m surprised by how much I dug MONEYBALL. Why? Well, because I know jack shit about baseball. Despite my lack of knowledge on the subject, MONEYBALL still worked for me, mainly because of the performance from Brad Pitt, who is at the top of his game here. Supporting turns from Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Chris Pratt only sweeten a tight, expertly crafted story about last chances and keeping the faith. Baseball and analytics have never been so exciting!
In a year when Pixar turned out its worst film (I hate you, CARS 2), Gore Verbinski was there to pick up the slack. RANGO is the tale of a soul-searching chameleon who becomes the sheriff of a small desert town and discovers who he is truly meant to be. The voice performances from Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher and Ned Beatty are terrific but the real stand outs here are the jaw-dropping visuals and amazing direction from Verbinski. One particular high speed chase through the desert canyons is a thing of genius – easily one of the best scenes from 2011. RANGO is an funny, strange little movie that both kids and adults (especially adults. Especially stoned adults) will marvel at.
Sean Durkin has created an suffocating, scary debut picture with MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE. It’s the type of movie that’ll suck you in, toy with and frustrate you, and then stay with you long after it ends. Much has been made about Elizabeth Olsen’s titular performance. With good reason: she’s amazing. She’s not alone though; Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet and especially John Hawkes turn in some killer work, all matched by the ridiculously impressive vision from Durkin. Many have complained about the ambiguous ending but it had a strong effect on me. By the time the abrupt finale rolls around, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE has already done more than enough to get your attention.
Surprisingly, my favorite feature from Fantastic Fest 2011 wasn’t a horror or sci-fi movie. Instead it was Ian Palmer’s film documenting 12 years of dueling Irish families. Sometimes brutal, sometimes funny and always revealing, KNUCKLE is about family pride, the silliness and gravity of grudges and the distance lower-to-middle-class folks will go to prove their worth. Like all good docs, KNUCKLE is a great character study about its subjects, it opens them up without insulting or making fun. The fact that Palmer got sucked into their close-knit circle gives us better access to the compelling and violent world of “traveling” families. Like a car crash or aggressive fist fight, you’ll have a hard time looking away.
5. TAKE SHELTER
Damn, now this is a movie. Michael Shannon turns in the best performance of 2011 in Jeff Nichols’s truly unnerving psychological horror film. While there are no jump scares or gimmicks in TAKE SHELTER, the film still manages to crawl under your skin and disturb you in a way that most horror doesn’t. Shannon is subtle, complex and heartbreaking, all while keeping his emotions internal. Playing a father and husband who’s afraid he’s becoming schizophrenic, Shannon keeps his fear and panic just under the surface, burying it below his gruff voice and clenched jaw. He never comes out and says it but he is obviously terrified. Though he could be, Shannon never comes off as menacing or unhinged. This isn’t THE SHINING, it’s a sad portrayal of a man desperately in love with his family and afraid of losing them to an unstoppable, unknown force.
Michael Shannon has always been a supremely talented actor but his turn in TAKE SHELTER ranks up there with some of the best performances of the last ten or fifteen years. As for Nichols, the director is an expert at playing up the dread and terror of suburban horror. There is one scene in the film, a nightmare that takes place in a kitchen, that has really haunted me. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. Truly scary stuff.
The year of Ryan Gosling continues! Stephen Meyers (Gosling) takes on the dirty world of politics. But don’t tell him it’s dirty, he’s convinced that presidential candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney) is above all that. Ah, Stephen, you poor bastard. So what if THE IDES OF MARCH isn’t a groundbreaking drama despite its marvelous stars and director? It’s a damn fine flick that’ll keep you engrossed for the entire run time. Everything works here. In fact, there’s not a weak element in the entire picture. Several scenes, like a particular one between Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ryan Gosling, sing as the two stars trade barbs and show off their remarkable acting skills. There’s so much talent on screen you should see it in IMAX (sorry).
Some say THE IDES OF MARCH should have been a classic given the talent involved. If you forget that silly complaint and just expect a deftly made political drama/thriller then you’ll enjoy the film as much as I did. Just don’t let it make you jaded.
3. WIN WIN
What the hell guys? Why aren’t more people talking about Tom McCarthy’s WIN WIN? The movie is grounded in reality, never gets too sappy or overdramatic and features some of America’s best actors. So just because it came out early in 2011 that means it doesn’t get any end-of-year love? For shame, friends, for shame. But seriously, this is one terrific film. Dramedy is usually such an ugly word but McCarthy mixes humor and drama so well you’ll revel in the label. There’s no silly slapstick in WIN WIN, no larger-than-life villains, nothing that couldn’t happen in real life. This is an honest story and far more engaging than any transforming robot or teenage vampire could be. Tom McCarthy is one the best talents in Hollywood, WIN WIN proves that once again.
I can sum up Mike Mills’s BEGINNERS in one word: lovely. Part autobiographical, part fantasy, BEGINNERS is so god damn lovely it almost hurts. It’s gentle, it’s got a big heart, it’s gorgeously shot and it’s full of characters you hate to leave behind. But here’s the thing about this movie: it’ll sneak up on you and really tug at the heartstrings. Christopher Plummer has been gaining awards buzz for his turn as an out-and-proud 75-year-old. It’s refreshing to see Plummer, who usually plays such stoic, no-nonsense guys, as a carefree, smitten man. While the movie deals with death, depression and heartache, it’s still light in a whimsical, romantic way. Not as heavy as THE GRADUATE, not as cold as GARDEN STATE, BEGINNERS is a realistic look at love that still feels magical. Just lovely.
No one should be surprised that CONTAGION is my favorite film of 2011. As I’ve said before, the movie was tailor-made for me. A star-studded cast, a remarkable director, a scary plot about an unstoppable disease, this thing had my name all over it. Still, it could have sucked. I’ve been let down before. Luckily, Steven Soderbergh turned in a taut, finely crafted thriller that spares no expense and shows no mercy – to the audience or the cast. Many have complained that CONTAGION is an emotionally empty vessel, there’s no one and nothing to give a damn about. That’s one of the aspects I like about the film. You can sit back and observe the film as a removed party. Watch cast members get sick and die, witness society fall apart, track the virus as it spreads from person to person. You’re on the outside looking in, luckily. Does it sometimes feel like a Discovery Channel special about a possible pandemic? Sure, a fantastic one.
The strongest feature of CONTAGION is its plausibility, there’s no doubt this can really happen. Is the movie a warning, a cautionary tale about how fragile civilization is? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just a brilliant, uninviting, scary movie that answers the most terrifying question of all: what if?