The Best Films of 2011

It has come time once again to move from celebrating the worst, most annoying and most discussed films of the year — something we do at the front of our Year in Review for a reason — and start celebrating those films that have earned places in our hearts, celebrating all the best of 2011, a year that, on the whole, wasn’t such a bad year at the movies. And once again I’m honored to present my top picks of the year, as the Publisher of Film School Rejects. It’s not a vanity thing, but more of a tradition. Since the site’s inception, I’ve always presented my best of the year as The Editor’s Picks. And while I’m honored by this opportunity and enjoy it immensely, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably waiting with bated breath for what will come later in the week when we release The Staff Picks. Because they are the ones who are really interesting. But until then, you get me and my odd gathering of best films from the year that was.

Unlike in previous years, I will not present you with a long list of honorable mentions. As was the case in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010, I’ve always been long-winded in my efforts to get as many movies into my “top ten” as possible. Last year, I believe there were some 20 films on a list that should have included ten. So none of that for this year. There will be no talk of how much fun I had with Kung Fu Panda 2, or how it might be the best American made action film of the year. There will be no mention of how War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close fought through bland first acts to bring me to tears with great finishes. Or how delightful everything about The Artist was. Or about how difficult is was to keep the likes of Like Crazy, Sound of My Voice, 13 Assassins and Hobo with a Shotgun just off this list. And no mention of my secret love for The Help or my new preference for David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There will be none of that. Just the following eleven films, which I’ve chronicled as the best I’ve seen in 2011. Of the almost 250 new releases I viewed this year at festivals, in theaters, in back alley screener deals and as part of my sometimes weekly Blu-ray column, these are the 10 11 12 films that stand alone as the best of 2011:

T-11. Cave of Forgotten Dreams

The Best Films of 2011

I believe it was my colleague Devin Faraci of Badass Digest who said recently that only geniuses should be allowed to use 3D technology to make films. This has been proven by James Cameron, and more recently Martin Scorsese. But they weren’t the only ones. Werner Herzog delivered, with his documentary about some of the oldest cave drawings known to man, a deeply engrossing, fully captivating 3D experience that allowed his audience to feel as if they were part of some great human discovery. All with the thoughtful, deeply German narration for which he has become known. It was a sight to behold, and an experience to be had.

T-11. Captain America: The First Avenger

The Best Films of 2011

This year saw a deluge of comic-based prequels, a list that will be impressive until at least next summer. And among the prequels, sequels, reboots and readaptations that may come to define 2011′s year in film, it was a hero whose cinematic glory was previously non-existent that made the biggest impact. With a charismatic performance from Chris Evans, an old timey style from Joe Johnston’s Rocketeering past and a killer villain with the voice of Werner Herzog and the death stare of Hugo Weaving (and some pretty slick make-up), Captain America emerged as the faith building movie that Marvel fans had hoped for after Iron Man 2 led them astray. It was the exact hero we needed to keep us primed and ready for The Avengers in 2012. And best of all, it stands on its own as a pretty kick-ass actioner.

10. Take Shelter

The Best Films of 2011

Michael Shannon has long been a devastating screen presence, he’s simply been relegated to supporting performances that have left us weak. In Take Shelter, he balances his emotional range with that of Jessica Chastain in a gut-wrenching story of faith, family and our ability to deal with what’s happening in our own minds. On top of those two great performances, director Jeff Nichols gives this intimate story an unmistakable scale as it sits across the table from the end of days.

9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The Best Films of 2011

It’s the sequels and prequels problem, I tell you. There’s something about this trend that lowers expectations these days. We don’t expect much because we’ve never been given much from Hollywood’s torturous rehashings. We should have expected more from Rupert Wyatt’s Planet of the Apes prequel. Even then, the spectacular CGI, the smarter-than-it-deserved-to-be story and the engaging mo-cap performance of Andy Serkis would have blown said expectations out of the water. Of all the movies on this list, this is the one for which I can’t wait to see a sequel.

8. Moneyball

The Best Films of 2011

For those who aren’t necessarily into baseball, there’s always Aaron Sorkin. In his inimitable way, Sorkin takes something very precisely niche — the running of a Major League Baseball team from the General Manager’s office —  and delivers an intelligently crafted story that speaks to fans of humanity, not just fans of the game. It doesn’t hurt that director Bennett Miller had a clear sense of what to do with his script, or that Brad Pitt gives his best performance in years, or that the source material is based on a pretty miraculous story of ingenuity. But it’s Sorkin’s words that tie it all together. And it works so well that it feels surprising, even though it shouldn’t be.

7. Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen

The Best Films of 2011

For years I’ve croaked about Donnie Yen’s screen presence as if it were the end-all, be-all of great on-screen martial artists. I will not be retracting such statements anytime soon, especially when he’s teaming up with Andrew Lau to make movies like Legend of the Fist, a grand epic that puts the best of Ip Man at the heart of Saving Private Ryan-esque action before turning into a twisted masked detective story. Sure, it has some exposition that overstays its welcome on occasion, but there is action in this film that can not be reproduced by lesser talents.

6. Submarine

The Best Films of 2011

Prior to directing this, his first film, Richard Ayoade was nothing more than the man behind one of the funniest television characters of the past ten years. Surprisingly enough, his work in writing and directing Submarine feels like nothing if not a great departure from his work on The IT Crowd. The story of Oliver, a 15-year old boy with serious life goals like breaking up his mother’s relationship with a crazyperson and losing his virginity, is less silly and more smart. Less energetic, but always moving. Less ridiculous and more straight to the heart. Its charm and verve are undeniable, with all the right amount of quirk and oddity that we’d expect from a mind like that of its director.

5. Rango

The Best Films of 2011

In the year when Pixar essentially sat on the sidelines, one would expect to see great things from the likes of Dreamworks Animation and Sony Animation and Illumination Entertainment. However, it was the work of the animators at Industrial Light & Magic and the odd performance capture practices of director Gore Verbinski that won the day, or rather the year. With their acid-trip story of a Hunter S. Thompson-infused lizard who gets into trouble in an Old West puddle town, they delivered the single most entertaining, layered and meticulously crafted animated films of the year.

4. Attack the Block

The Best Films of 2011

Believe. That’s all there is to your salvation with a movie like Attack the Block. All you have to do is believe in the storytelling talents of Joe Cornish, the producing eye of Edgar Wright and the abilities of a cast of unknowns enough to get you in front of this movie just once, then you’ll be hooked. It’s high energy — thanks largely in part to an awesome score from Basement Jaxx — and creative at every turn. From creature design to its aggressive cinematography to the charm of its cast of ruffians, there’s nothing about this film that isn’t deeply enjoyable, whether you’re on viewing one or twenty.

3. The Last Circus

Best of 2011: The Last Circus

Like many a well-travelled festival film, it took a while for Alex de la Iglesia’s terrifying vision to actually hit theaters here in the United States. It’s been around so long that it was part of Cole Abaius’ best of 2010 list, as it played Fantastic Fest in the fall of last year. But I didn’t see it then, nor did it get its theatrical run until well into 2011. So it goes on my list, as well. It’s dark, imaginative, sick, twisted, terrifying, hilarious, bloody, sexy, energetic, appalling, devious and full of clowns and love. It’s beautifully shot, acted to incredible depth and brutal at its very core. If you are brave enough, it’s one hell of a heart-stopping cinematic experience. You’ll certainly never look at clowns the same way again.

2. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

The Best Films of 2011

2011 was a year that brought yours truly to tears more often than not. Perhaps I’m going trough menopause or something. But as many films as there were that brought me to tears of sadness — some of which I’ve mentioned above — there was one that sticks out in my mind as bringing me cheers of unending joy. It’s about a muppet, but not the one you’d expect. With the story of puppeteer Kevin Clash, directors Constance Marks and Philip Shane found absolute gold. It’s the heartwarming tale of a kid who knew early on that he wanted to be part of Jim Henson’s magic team and made his way into the business honestly, humbly and with great love for his craft. It’s one of those old school great American stories, rags to riches and such, that reminds us that such things are possible, even in the most cynical of times.

1. Drive

The Best Films of 2011

Speaking of things born of our cynical times, the story of a lone hero as portrayed by the oozing sexuality of Ryan Gosling will undoubtedly go down as the film we’re talking about 10 years from now when someone asks about 2011. Nicolas Winding Refn’s film is efficient in its delivery of its twisted narrative. Like its main character, it never says more than it needs to say. All the while, it combines score with visual to absolutely throb throughout its 100 minute runtime. It’s a rare thing, for a film to create such emotional response from a shot of a man driving a car set to music, but it’s accomplished in spades here. From a wealth of great performances to its unmistakable style, there is no more interesting, more engaging and more striking tale than that of the Driver whose name we’ll never know.

Click below to read my lists from years past:

For more celebration of the best of the year, keep an eye on our 2011 Year in Review homepage.


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