As you may have noticed, this final week of 2011 has been almost completely taken over by our third annual Year in Review. It was born in 2009 out of our love for lists and your thirst for reading, discussing and ultimately hating them. And each year the entire project gets a little bigger, a little bolder and slightly more absurd. With that in mind, I’m once again proud to present you with The Best Films of 2011: The Staff Picks. Each of our 14 regular staff writers, contributors and columnists, almost all of whom have been with us the entire year, were asked to present their top 5 films, in no particular order (although many of them placed their top film at the top, as logical people tend to do), each with an explanation. Some even included curse words as a bonus to you, the reader.
Once again, the Staff Picks are a testament to the diversity we have here at Film School Rejects, with picks ranging from the likely suspects (Take Shelter, Hugo, Shame) to the slightly more nerdy (Attack the Block, Super 8, The Muppets) to several movies that may not yet be on your radar (see Landon Palmer’s list for those). And once again, it’s with a deep sense of pride that I publish such a list, the best of 2011 as seen through the eyes of the movie blogosphere’s most talented team.
Do I care that this only played at Fantastic Fest? Do I care that it wasn’t released theatrically in 2011? Of course not. I didn’t care when I put The Last Circus on my list last year, and I don’t care now. Why not? Because this was such a Goddamned breath of fresh air (from a stale old mansion) that it demands to be celebrated. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett alongside a hell of a cast have done something wondrous to the world of horror. Not only that, they tackled the oldest trick in the book, swung an axe into its forehead, and left it with a smile on its face in a bloody puddle. You’re Next is (and will be next October) the best thing to happen to the genre since Scream.
30 Minutes or Less
It’s difficult to explain why an R-rated comedy that was fairly straightforward made its way to the top of the pile, but Ruben Fleischer’s follow-up film caused me physical pain from the amount of laughing I was doing. It was great to see a movie unabashedly made for adults that took a ridiculous premise and mined it for all the comedy gold it was worth. For all the movies trying to be the next Hangover (including Hangover 2), this actually delivered. Fleischer is two for two.
The Skin I Live In
There were two films that left my eyes wide and my jaw lowered to my chest this year. The Skin I Live In was one of them, and with its raw, bizarre, perversely compelling power, it’s an outstanding return to the kind of filmmaking Almodovar was tackling back with Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Hell, it’s Matador levels of goodness. Antonio Banderas’s turn as a mad scientist was only made better by all the Puss in Boots promos that were playing right after I saw this weird, fantastical, psycho-sexual horror. Almodovar is probably the only director who got to legitimately raise an eyebrow and unnervingly whisper “Gotcha…” to his audience in 2011.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2
I know, I know. It’s obvious. But my goal here was not to be cunning; it was to pick the films that hit the hardest, and few even had the potential to swing a bat as heavy as the final Harry Potter. It delivered on every level – picking up where the sobriety of the 7th movie left off and wasting no time in building to a massive battle set piece that put true heroes on display. It was the perfect high note on which to end an era.
The other movie that grabbed me by the jaw this year, Jeff Nichols’s drama about a small town man tortured by portents of the end of days is peerless at every level. Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain deserve every statuette on the shelf. Take Shelter is a living thing. It’s a giant, terrible, foreboding masterpiece that sets up shop in your mind and never leaves. It’s flawless filmmaking that needs altars built to it.
Alexander Payne’s first film since Sideways is also his best one yet. It’s a movie that understands what it means to face the death of a loved one, to live on in the face of unspeakable personal tragedy. At the same time, the screenplay brilliantly interweaves that specific focus into a broader portrait of a developing Hawaii grappling with its past. The picture reveals the unexpected fortitude of the human spirit in its beautifully understated, truthful depiction of lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) and his daughters reconnecting and persevering after their wife/mom slips into a coma.
It’s astounding that documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams) got snubbed by the Academy again for this extraordinary doc. It’s a herculean effort that goes inside CeaseFire, a Chicago program that uses a public health blueprint to stop gang violence before it happens, with a specific focus on three of the organization’s best “interrupters.” In its depiction of the program’s unmistakable success, the film offers a deeply moving indictment of the oft-held belief that the violence destroying so many of our cities is endemic and unsolvable.
Somehow Martin Scorsese made a mega-budgeted, 3-D family movie about Georges Méliès, the early special effects innovator best known for A Trip to the Moon (1902). We’re all extremely fortunate he did. The Oscar-winning legend’s latest masterpiece is a picturesque, elaborately conceived, highly emotional tribute to the magic of cinema. Its core reflects the medium’s unparalleled ability to bring whole universes alive.
I saw this underrated science fiction-tinged romance at the Sundance Film Festival last January and it’s stayed with me ever since. A haunting tone poem, it’s a moody evocation of loss and regret set against an imposing, mysterious celestial phenomenon. From filmmaker Mike Cahill and starring Brit Marling (who co-wrote with Cahill), this is the movie Melancholia wishes it could be.
Most cancer movies are grim affairs, extended funerals, slow and uncomfortable marches toward death. 50/50 is not one of them. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, it’s the life-affirming and relentlessly upbeat portrait of a man who just won’t let his discomforting diagnosis or his debilitating treatments prevent him from living his life, following his dreams and being the man that he wants to be. It’s not easy to wring a genuine message of hope out of such relenting despair, but this cathartic picture does it.