Once again, I find myself attempting to sum up a rather unusual year for movies. Here we have a year of movies that managed to transcend mediocrity, but none which achieved true greatness. There were a ton of good movies released this year, ranging from a good way to spend a few hours to… a very good way to spend a few hours? Again, nothing seemed to really hit on all cylinders this year.
The theme of 2010 was a questioning of reality. I don’t see a theme in 2011, but I do see some patterns. The one that sticks out to me is that there seemed to be a preponderance of art house genre pictures. These movies tend to be low budget schlock-fests, even when they’re good. But this year, several talented directors took on unusual genres, and instead of schlock, we got deliberate pacing punctuated by visually spectacular moments of beauty. From cosmic existentialism (The Tree of Life, Melancholia, Certified Copy) to straightforward action (Drive) to westerns (Meek’s Cutoff), we got a ton of unusual takes on standard genres this year. There are even more examples that will be listed below. Does this really qualify as a Theme (capital T) for 2011? Probably not, but it’s the pattern I’m most struck by… it seems that all the interesting movies this year were playing with form and genre…
As of this moment, I’ve seen 75 movies that would be considered 2011 releases. Add in the 19 movies I saw at Fantastic Fest, and that brings the grand total up to 94 movies. This is a record for me, though probably much less than a lot of critics would see in a year.
The standard disclaimer goes double for this year: creating a list like this is an inherently subjective process, and I seemed to have struggled with the list more than expected, to the point where I’m having trouble orienting films on a pure 1-10 scale. For the past several years, I’ve always had a pretty easy time with the top 5 movies of the year. I would have a little more trouble with the 6-8 picks, and the final two were always impossible to pick. This year? I feel like I’ve got 10 movies I want to cram in those 9 and 10 slots, with maybe a few in the 6-8 realm… As such, I’m breaking from tradition this year and listing out my top 10 in alphabetical order. A bit of a cop out, sure, but what are you going to do? Sue me?
I used to put this list together by trying to figure out the best films of the year, but in the past few years, I’ve been gravitating more towards my favorite films. There were films I really respected this year that never quite connected with me the way they did with critics, so I have a feeling my list will be more personal and unusual than most top 10s… Indeed, this is probably the least commercial list I’ve ever put together (there are normally at least a few big budget Hollywood type films on the list, but not so much this year…) My hope is that this will make for a more interesting list to read, but enough babbling, let’s get this show started:
Top 10 Movies of 2011
* In alphabetical order
- 13 Assassins: Takashi Miike’s period Samurai action flick is among the prolific director’s best films (that I’ve seen at least). A rather straightforward tale following the titular 13 assassins as they take on an evil lord bent on domination, this film is often graphic and disturbing, but also thrilling. Especially in the final action centerpiece of the film, which sustains the tension for a remarkably long time. Well worth watching for action fans.
- A Boy and His Samurai: Set in modern day Japan, a child and his mother stumble upon a man in Samurai garb. It turns out that he is actually from the Edo period. It’s something of a cliched premise, a fish out of water story, but the film studiously executes on every level. What could seem derivative ends up being simply charming. A sweet, sincere, and heartfelt film… Unfortunately, it hasn’t really received much of a distribution outside of Japan, but if you get a chance to see it, it’s well worth your time.
More Info: [IMDB]
- Extraterrestrial: Nacho Vigalondo’s take on an alien invasion film is actually a romantic comedy, and it’s all great fun. Julio wakes up in Julia’s apartment with quite a hangover. After some awkward pleasantries, he seeks to depart… and that’s when they notice. Cell phones, land lines, television, and the internet are down. And there’s something massive in the sky above Madrid. Again, we’ve got a cliched premise, the alien invasion, but Vigalondo almost completely ignores it in favor of the romantic comedy aspects of the story. Twisted, a little silly, and very funny. Unfortunately, this is also not really available yet…
- Hanna: Director Joe Wright’s take on a modern day fairy tale, this is dark, action packed, fantastical stuff. Excellent performance from 17-year-old Saoirse Ronan in an exceedingly difficult role. Also a wonderful Chemical Brothers score. I initially thought of it as being a bit thin, but it has only grown in my mind as time goes on. I really quite enjoyed this film and recommend it highly.
- Knuckle: This intriguing documentary follows 12 years in a longstanding feud between two Irish Traveler clans. The strife goes back decades, and through numerous interviews and bare-knuckle fights (officiated by third-party clans, this is the seemingly preferred way to resolve arguments), we get a close look at the circle of violence in action. This specific tale is heartbreaking, not just because of the people involved, but because it’s a microcosm of all human conflict. The pattern presented here is instantly recognizable and applicable to a wide range of conflict. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s one that has stuck with me since I saw it…
- Rubber: What a wonderfully absurd and weird movie. Another deliberately paced genre film, this one is visually interesting enough to keep momentum, and it has a lot to say about movies and audiences. Plus, come on, it’s hard not to like a movie about a sentient tire named Robert who can use his telepathic powers to make people’s head explode. There’s no way to really encapsulate the greatness of this film in a short paragraph, but this is an intriguing movie and a must-watch for any genre fans out there…
- Tabloid: Errol Morris’ documentary about a former beauty queen charged with abducting her quasi-boyfriend, a Mormon Missionary in England. The whole story was covered in the British Tabloids, and boy is this a corker of a story. Just when you think it can’t get any crazier, it does. And then it just keeps going… An interesting story in itself, but also more broadly applicable and thought provoking when it comes to the nature of attention seekers and the tabloids that feed them (and us). And the British tabloid reporters are hysterical (particularly the one who keeps talking about the “spread eagle” position, even verbing it at one point!) I can’t recommend this one highly enough.
- The Artist: This modern day silent film is getting a lot of Oscar buzz and it’s already gotten some backlash, but when I finally caught up with it, I found myself surprised by how much I enjoyed it. To me, this one falls under Howard Hawks’ belief that all you need to make a good film are “three good scenes, and no bad ones.” For me, there might even have been more than three scenes – the deafening silence of applause, a lady and a jacket, and a few others… Yeah, Hollywood is going to be all self-congratulatory about this movie come Oscar time, and I don’t think I’d put this near the top of my list were I not ordering it alphabetically, but I think it still deserves recognition (now if only they’ll make one of my other proposed silent films!)
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: This was the slot that was really hard to fill. If this were an ordered list, this is the slot that would be interchangeable with a bunch of the honorable mentions below. And this movie is flawed, but very interesting. At once jam packed and deliberate; overstuffed, but leisurely. Maybe I’m a sucker for intricate spy stories that are less complicated than they seem, but I found myself very taken by the movie. An exceptional performance by Gary Oldman anchors the film and makes it more approachable, despite the bland emotionlessness the role requires. Dour, stoic, bleak, and contradictory. Somehow the movie worked for me, despite the fact that most of my description makes it sound like a movie I wouldn’t like. I’d have a hard time recommending this to anyone, actually, but I did really enjoy it myself, so here we are…
- Tucker and Dale vs Evil: One wouldn’t expect a film playing with the genre conventions of Hillbilly Horror could also represent an interesting statement on the nature of prejudice, but here we are. Indeed, because of the humorous nature of the film and its subject matter, it’s almost more effective than films that tackle the subject head-on. But don’t let any of this high-minded talk fool you, it’s a really funny little film that doesn’t have any pretensions about what it’s trying to do, and a must watch for horror fans. Another highly recommended film.
* Also in alphabetical order
- Attack the Block: A big ball of genrerific fun that just never quite reached the heights for me that it seemingly did for some critics. I really enjoyed it though, and there were some thematic confluences with real world events that helped make this movie more interesting than I think it even really intended. Another alien invasion cliche here, though this one actually plays up that side of the story, and it manages to succeed where a lot of lesser movies fail (in particular, it takes some initially unlikeable protagonists and makes you root for them). Another film that could have subbed in for Tinker Tailor on the top 10 proper, depending on my mood…
- Cedar Rapids: A most unusual comedy, this one follows a small-town boy as he makes his way to the big city for an insurance convention and quickly gets in over his head. Great ensemble cast – Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, and even Sigourney Weaver. Lots of hijinks ensue, but things go deeper than expected without getting overwhelming either. A neat trick, that. Another candidate for that tenth slot on the top 10…
- Certified Copy: This is a movie I like thinking about more than I actually liked watching. It’s a study in ambiguity. It makes no real sense, and thus there are so many differing interpretations you could take that it becomes something of an existential exercise. Unfortunately, films where two mildly unlikeable people just talk around each other for a few hours with no real point aren’t usually my thing, and thus it was a bit of a slog to sit through. Director Abbas Kiarostami grounds the movie in realism, but about midway through, a conversation with a woman working at a coffee shop changes everything. It’s a movie where I was constantly asking myself what was going on. There are lots of interesting ideas here, for instance the idea that in art, often a copy can be as good as the original. How does that play out in the movie? What is the real relationship between the man and the woman? I’m at a bit of a loss here. I really like a lot of the discussions surrounding the movie, but I didn’t particularly enjoy sitting down and watching it…
- Drive: Nicolas Winding Refn’s art-house version of The Transporter, but much better than that sounds. After an intense and exciting opening chase sequence (that focused more on subterfuge and concealment than pyrotechnics and speed), the film switches gears, telling a bit of a love story through nothing more than long, meaningful glances and facial expressions. Oh, and explosive, gratuitous violence. This one narrowly missed out on a top 10 slot, and who knows? I think that if I were to compile this list on some other day, it might have made the list ahead of Tinker Tailor. But then, it could just as easily have not made the list due to at least a few of the other Honorable Mentions here…
- Elite Squad II: The Enemy Within: A Brazilian film about police corruption, I was a little worried about the politics of this film, but it eventually settles on a synthesis, not endorsing either side, but rather, emphasizing that both sides must work together in order to succeed. It’s an interesting, well considered position, and films that can pull off that balancing act are few and far between. I’ve actually never seen the first film in the series, but I did find this one quite well done. Yet another candidate for that coveted tenth slot of the top 10…
- I Saw the Devil: Kim Jee-woon’s epic revenge film is certainly a sight to behold. Ultimately it didn’t stick with me as much as I initially expected, but it’s still one of the surprisingly many Korean films about Vengeance that’s worth watching. In this particular case, you better be prepared for some particularly brutal and disturbing stuff, but that’s the way these films seem to go.
- Midnight in Paris: I’ve never been a particularly big fan of Woody Allen, and this film does have a lot of his stamp on it, but on the other hand, the fantastical trips to the past were absolutely delightful. It was the present-day stuff that seemed so caricatured and mind-numbing and so… Woody Alleny. This is totally a film worth a watch, just to see the interactions with historical figures in Paris, but I just couldn’t get past Allen’s usual ticks, nor could I quite reconcile the apparent message of the film (nostalgia for the past blinds us in the present – an intriguing idea, actually) with what Allen was actually showing us on screen. Instead of demonstrating his point to us, he tells it to us through dialogue… but what he actually shows us is the opposite message…
- Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol: Good old fashioned, action packed fun. From director Brad Bird, who has made some of my favorite animated movies (notably The Incredibles), in his live action debut, he has shown a deft hand here. I’m not sure I ever really considered it for a top 10 slot, and there are things about it that I don’t love, but it was still a ton of fun and I’m really excited to see what Bird will do next…
- Rise of the Planet of the Apes: I enjoyed this movie, but I have to admit that I’m surprised by the amount of praise heaped upon it by critics. For all the fun and successful motion capture performances, the film still suffered a bit from awkward dialogue (some awful clunkers in here, as well as a few groan-inducing clichés) and a stilted story (which is ultimately what put it down here in the honorable mentions). Still, a rousing climax and a great character arc for Caesar the ape. And let’s not forget Maurice the CGI orangutan, the only true the voice of wisdom in the film!
- The Greatest Movie Ever Sold: Morgan Spurlock made a name for himself with a concerted effort at brand assassination, so it took guts to make this movie: a movie about product placement and branding that was completely financed by… product placement and branding. It’s a great idea for a movie, and the fact that it’s Spurlock making it adds a bit of tension to the proceedings that wouldn’t be there for other filmmakers. Then again, that might not be such a great thing. Ultimately only a surface-level affair, it was still interesting and very entertaining stuff. Worth watching!
- The Guard: An eccentric Irish policeman teams up with a straight-laced FBI agent to take down a drug ring. Another most unusual movie that doesn’t really go down the way the premise would have you believe. Great performance by Brendan Gleeson as the baffling and confrontational Irish policeman, and a mostly endearing character, despite his many quirks. It’s an interesting movie and I’m glad I got the chance to watch it, but something about it never clicked with me either…
- The People vs. George Lucas: A documentary covering the career and movies of George Lucas, and the many complaints the man has garnered over the past 10-15 years. It’s an interesting and entertaining documentary, provoking questions about the ownership and meaning of art itself, as well as providing something of a catharsis over some of the beloved films Lucas has made and… changed. It’s not quite as one-note or unfair as it sounds – this isn’t a long bitching session about, for instance, Greedo shooting first, though there’s certainly a lot of that there. It’s a fair movie, albeit one that ultimately comes down on the side you’d expect. Definitely worth a watch for any Star Wars or Indiana Jones fans out there who are hurting…
- The Muppets: A delightful little film that nonetheless had me wondering about a few things when it was over. There’s nothing particularly interesting about the plot and indeed, it seems unnecessarily disjointed and a little confusing in the end. That being said, the movie is filled with fun gags and nostalgic callbacks that are really wonderful fun. I had a great time with it, but it’s also not something that really stuck with me, so it falls down here in the Honorable Mentions…
- Win Win: An interesting little film about families trying to make it by. I find it difficult to really talk about this movie. It’s got lots of funny moments, but it’s not really a comedy. Perhaps you’d call it a dramedy. It’s got dramatic substance without being overwhelmed by heft, and it was one of the more enjoyable underseen films of the year. Definitely worth a watch and a contender for that coveted tenth slot…
Just Missed the Cut
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order:
- Source Code
- Hobo with a Shotgun
- Another Earth
- Bill Cunningham New York
- Paranormal Activity 3
These are films that are almost universally recognized in critics’ circles, but which didn’t really connect with me. Again presented without comment and in no particular order:
Should Have Seen
Despite the record number of movies I saw this year, there were still a few that got away. This could be because of limited distribution, or because I just didn’t find the movie that compelling until after it was out of theaters or something like that… Again presented without comment and in no particular order:
- The Arbor
- Project Nim
- The Interrupters
- The Descendants
- Take Shelter
- The Help
- Martha Marcy May Marlene
- Cave of Forgotten Dreams
- A Separation
- The Trip
Well, there you have it. More than you could ever want to know about my favorite movies of 2011. Did I miss anything? Are my picks wildly off-base? Feel free to leave a comment. I have to say that I’m sorry that two of the films on my top 10 aren’t even really available on DVD/BD/Streaming yet. I usually hate it when critics do crap like that, but I do love both of those movies, so they have to stay on the list. I think this might also be my least commercially successful list ever. I don’t quite know what to make of that, but here we are…
Anyways, stay tuned next week for the annual Kaedrin Oscars Liveblogging event! It should be a real corker.