The Best Films of 2011: The Staff Picks

Rob Hunter, Associate Editor

Nicolas Winding Refn is a director who refuses to feel restrained by genre or expectations, and Drive shows that yet again as he vividly brings to life the inside of Michael Mann’s head for our viewing pleasure. Neon colors, eighties synth songs, fast and brutal action scenes, and a protagonist who moves silently amidst the carnage like a shark in a satin jacket. Ryan Gosling takes the commanding lead, but solid supporting turns from Carey Mulligan and the amazing Albert Brooks help flesh out the film with humanity and humor. The movie oozes cool from every pore, and even though it’s far more of a moody character piece than an action film it’s still one of the year’s most exciting cinematic experiences.

I saw this Norwegian film with zero prior awareness, and it immediately became one of my favorites of the year. This adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s novel about an executive headhunter who moonlights as an art thief is thrilling, smart and blackly comic. Roger Brown (the fantastic Aksel Hennie) is a bit shifty and vain at first, but after you’ve gone through hell and back with him you can’t help but side with the poor guy as one thing goes wrong after another. It’s a Norwegian After Hours only Brown isn’t an innocent shlub simply trying to make his way home… he’s trying to steal a fortune in art and survive to see his wife again. This constantly surprising and entertaining gem is my favorite film of the year.

Meek’s Cutoff
Yeah, I’m surprised to see this one here too. Nothing about Kelly Reichardt’s sparse Western should have worked for me, but months after watching it I still can’t get it out of my head. Michelle Williams plays a young wife traveling across the Midwest as part of a small wagon train being led by an eccentric guide named Meek (Bruce Greenwood). The film is almost an anti-Western as the dramas, hardships and behaviors are far removed from the world of gunfights and cattle rustlers we’re familiar with. Instead, the movie offers a contemplative look at one woman’s growth through adversity, steadily building suspense as the situation worsens. The film actually bears some similarity to Martha Marcy May Marlene with its focus on a strong but challenged woman, a methodically paced journey through dangerous uncertainty, and an ending that haunts and frustrates in equal measure.

I’m not a sports guy. I don’t play them and I don’t watch them. (Unless you count tennis, which most folks mistakenly don’t.) And while that doesn’t mean I don’t like sports films they’re still often left fighting an uphill battle with me. But this movie surprised the hell out of me and works on every single level even with a healthy dose of shmaltz. Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy are compelling and believable inside the ring and out, and you’ll find yourself cheering for both of them even as they go head to head against each other. The final bout is an energy sapping, emotionally rewarding experience that will leave you drained and elated.

The Yellow Sea
If it seems that South Korean films have become a staple of my year-end best-of lists it’s because the country knows how to make phenomenal and occasionally brutal cinema. Last year’s one-two punch (kick?) of The Man from Nowhere and I See the Devil is hard to beat, but 2011 compared nicely with Blind and The Yellow Sea. The latter film is from the director of the equally awesome The Chaser, and follows a man who only wants to find his missing wife but instead winds up tasked with murder and on the run for his own life. The film is filled with ridiculously awesome fight and chase scenes including one that goes on for a full twenty minutes. It is pure bliss.

Jack Giroux

Not enough of you bastards went to go see Richard Ayoade’s — who starred in The IT Crowd, a personal and site favorite — feature film debut. Submarine is a great coming-of-age and love story about a cold, distant, and kind of creepy teen genius. Most of the film’s influences are apparent, but Submarine stands alone as a hilarious, witty, stylish, and lovable comedic drama. Plus, it’s got some awesome tunes from Alex Turner.

Unlike Margaret, the messiness of Rampart definitely represents the damaged mind and life of Dave Brown, a racist, sexist, nihilistic, narcissistic, and all around bad cop and father. This guy’s actions are monstrous, but through Woody Harrelson’s powerful performance Brown is more than your typical cop. He’s just an extremely messed up human being, for whatever ambiguous reasons. Like Oren Moverman’s 2008 film The Messenger, the writer-director shows emotionally broken characters at their most vulnerable and empathetic.

Jonathan Levine’s one of the more notable up and coming director talents working today. Both The Wackness and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane are lot of fun, but 50/50 is on another level. The Wackness worked better as more of a comedy than a drama, while this formerly titled “I’m with Cancer” is tremendous.

Kenneth Lonergan’s exceedingly long-awaited epic is so messy, and yet so beautifully melodramatic. I’m not quite sure if Margaret is a great film, but it is quite an experience. Very few films linger and grow the way Lonergan’s does. One leaves the theater seeing what’s obviously missing, but later on spends more time reflecting on all the little life moments Lonergan truly understands. The structural messiness doesn’t represent the state the characters are in, it’s a real problem. However, one doesn’t have to look past the issues to see the relatable everyday feelings Lonnergan captures.

Win Win
Such a sweet and well-crafted film. Tom McCarthy is a writer-director who isn’t afraid of covering simple ground and simple people. He never satirizes the suburban life and is clearly in love with his real, flawed, relatable characters. And it needs to be mentioned Paul Giamatti gives one of the best performances of the year. It’s not showy work, and that’s what’s so great about Giamatti and the rest of Win Win.

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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