The Best Films of 2011: The Staff Picks

Kate Erbland, Associate Editor

Take Shelter
Jeff Nichols’ film is, by far, the most terrifying and most beautiful film of the year, a story of a regular man driven mad by the ordinary things in life. Michael Shannon delivers the best performance of his already pitch-perfect career, with it-girl Jessica Chastain lingering on the sidelines before turning in an awe-inspiring scene in the depths of a modified storm shelter. An unnerving achievement that stuck with me from its Sundance debut in January through the rest of the year, and likely for many years to come.

A documentary about a Brazilian Formula-1 driver that transcends those apparent boundaries to simply be a film about a man and his dreams. Director Asif Kapadia and writer Manish Pandey meticulously built their film from thousands of hours of video, turning in a technical marvel that comes complete with its own (unexpected) emotional punch. The best documentary of the year.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Nearly perfectly constructed, ceaselessly terrifying, a true piece of art from first-time director Sean Durkin. While another Sundance it-girl, Felicity Jones, is racking up the accolades for her work in Like Crazy, it is this film’s star, Elizabeth Olsen, who truly broke out with her first feature role. As the titular character, she’s just as lost and confused as most filmgoers were when they tried to say the alliterative-filled title. A classic runaway tale pumped up by the influence of  John Hawkes and his magnetic cult, there was nowhere for Martha to run, and I couldn’t turn away.

The Skin I Live In
Pedro Almodovar again pushed the envelope with the year’s most bizarre and weirdly absorbing love story. Film as cipher, identity as malleable, sex as currency, revenge as salvation, lies as truth. Ask ten audience members what the film was about, and you will get ten different answers, all of them as true and as rich as the others.

Sex wasn’t sexy in 2011, and no film proved that point more than Steve McQueen’s stunner. Starring Michael Fassbender as a tortured sex addict, the film stripped bare a man in the year’s finest (and most wrenching) character study. Less about sex addiction, and more about pain and (forgive me) shame in the general sense, the film is oddly accessible and undeniably human.

Nathan Adams

Martha Marcy May Marlene
No other film this year struck me as being as well crafted a piece of art as MMMM. From the jumbled timeline of the storytelling, to the powerfully manic performances, to the visuals of the film blending one gorgeous scene into another; everything worked together in perfect sync to recreate the disorienting yet euphoric feeling of being a brainwashed cult member. This film truly plays as something you experience rather than just passively watch. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for John Hawkes gazing into my eyes and crooning.

Living in a society that’s swimming in pornography where people spit on and strangle each other and Girls Gone Wild advertisements where people are glorified for getting drunk and exposing themselves in public has us so numbed to sexual dysfunction that the dysfunction is becoming the norm. It’s only a society like this that could create Brandon, Michael Fassbender’s compulsive, sex addicted, isolated character in Shame. Fassbender’s hypnotizing performance and director Steve McQueen’s experimental, yet assured use of the camera hold a mirror up to the darkest parts of the soul of modern man, and seeing that twisted reflection looking back at me was a first visceral, then haunting experience that I’m not going to forget anytime soon.

Super 8
I’m a sucker for 80s genre nostalgia, and Super 8 has that in spades, but I honestly don’t think that’s why I responded so strongly to it. While J.J. Abrams’ monster movie delights in  making us remember all of the Amblin Entertainment films from my childhood, it’s not content just to reference or pay homage to them. It creates characters that are memorable and relatable on their own, it explores human relationships and how sometimes we can live so deeply in our own minds that we create barriers between ourselves and other people, and then it systematically breaks down those barriers in a cathartic, joy inducing third act that I’m sure had to make an old softy like Steven Spielberg smile.

Attack the Block
If Super 8 is a movie designed to bring back the warm fuzzies of 80s era family fare, then Attack the Block is it’s older teenage brother, meant to give us spine tingling recollections of the crasser 80s genre works of legends like Joe Dante and Walter Hill. But aside from that it’s just a thrilling sci-fi/horror film that gives us big laughs, crazy action, memorable characters, and a breakneck pace that never lets up from the film’s ominous opening to its inspirational end. It’s probably the most fun I had in a theater all year.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is probably the last actor I would ever cast as a metalhead drifter, but that’s why I don’t get paid to make movies, because in Hesher he plays the best metalhead drifter I’ve ever seen. Hesher in his hands is a mythic figure, a catalyst for change that steps into a grounded and sad story and completely turns everything on its ear with juvenile, destructive nonsense. He practices the zen of lighting shit on fire and breaking stuff, and watching him shake the shattered Forney family out of their doldrums made for one of the most hysterical and affecting films of the year. Also, it contains the most absurd Star Wars homage I’ve ever seen in my life.

Neil Miller is the Founder and Publisher of Film School Rejects. For almost a decade, he has been talking movies on television, the radio, and the Internet.

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