The Best Films of 2011: The Staff Picks

Landon PalmerLandon Palmer

From the onset of the quietest opening car chase ever conceived in any film labeled “action,” Drive is clearly not your normal exercise in genre. As much a neon pink and 80s-synth-infused tone poem as it is a vigilante revenge thriller, Nicolas Winding Refn’s breakthrough work is a masterpiece in form, accompanied with Ryan Gosling’s steel-jawed performance that never misses a beat. It’s the type of movie I want to watch over and over just to admire how well it’s put together.

Bill Cunningham: New York
A documentary as modest as its subject, Bill Cunningham: New York is a wonderful surprise. The film simultaneously told the history of New York City fashion since the middle of the twentieth century, captured the nicest and spryest octogenarian you’ll ever meet, and depicted the changing landscape of New York City in terms of property value, neighborhood shifts, and the newspaper industry without feeling like three separate mammoth documentaries. Engaging, entertaining, touching, and informative, rarely has there been a worthier subject for the feature-length nonfiction treatment than Bill Cunningham.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carre’s 1970s Cold War spy novel immersed me in its stylish-yet-restrained, smoky atmosphere, but Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is hardly just an exercise in style. The narrative’s elliptical structure deliberately assembles the best cinematic puzzle of the year. Where the film ends up may not be as engaging as how it got there, but overall Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a masterfully executed spy thriller across the board, from its direction to the performances by its incredible British cast.

Meek’s Cutoff
Kelly Reichardt’s unrelenting, anti-romantic depiction of western expansion in the 1840s renders the American landscape simultaneously daunting, harrowing, and beautiful.  Reichardt here has made a giant leap forward as a director. Her previous films’ use of silence as meditation now employ silence to effectively depict paranoia, hopelessness, mystery, and dread at the prospect of a potentially unachievable goal, and her visual composition is impeccable.

Certified Copy
Easily my favorite film of the year, Abbas Kiorastami’s interchangeably enigmatic, charming, and maddening film at first posits a mystery surrounding the status of the central couple’s relationship as its narrative crux, but then deftly makes you realize that the status of the mystery itself is its subject. Is a copy any less real than “the real thing” if it feels real? Watching Juliette Binoche and William Shimell play out various stages of a potential romance at the same time, I’d have to say that the answer is an encouraging and perplexing no.

Gwen Reyes

I happened into a pre-SXSW screening of Mike Mills’ Beginners in early February. When I walked out I blurted to no one in particular (yes, I talk to myself, okay?) that this was for sure my movie of the year. Nothing could possibly compare to the sweet sadness I had just witnessed, and despite how I would normally have been turned off by a film about a sad-sad hipster trying to move on from his father’s death and finally allow a woman to touch his heart (ugh, see every indie hit ever), I was just too charmed to car. From the “talking” dog Arthur to Melanie Laurent’s infectious yet melancholy smile, I couldn’t have asked for a better film. And it’s even better on the second viewing. Don’t let Luke Mullen tell you otherwise.

Ah, Bridesmaids. What really needs to be said about this film that hasn’t already been said? As a woman I love it for its honest depiction of solid female friendship (even with the ups and downs associated with a touch of lady jealousy). As a comedy lover I was ecstatic to see a fresh take on the romantic comedy. And as a lover of all things Melissa McCarthy I was pleased as punch to see a funny woman challenge what Hollywood considers beautiful.

These next two were hard to choose between. There is no denying Ryan Gosling was the man of the year, regardless of what PEOPLE Magazine says, and there is no denying his character Driver will go down in the annuals of history as one of the more identifiable sociopaths of the early 21st century. This film gets lauded not because it’s cool to love it, but because it’s just that darn good. Now where’s my hammer?

I have not been shy about sharing my love of Michael Fassbender’s performance in Shame. He is perfectly quiet, heartbreaking, and sexy as all get out. These are the thoughts that run through your head as you watch his character Brandon attempt to acknowledge his addiction while the world he knows crumbles around him. For such an in-your-face film, Fassbender’s reserved performance is even more unnerving.

The Trip
Let’s end this on a lighter note, shall we? The Trip is one of those surprisingly simple yet charming films that don’t come around enough. While its initial English run saw it play out as a six-part BBC miniseries, us Yanks got to experience it in all its two-hour glory on the big screen. Steve Coogan plays a narcotic and manic version of himself as he travels through the English country side from fancy restaurant to fancy restaurant with friend and colleague Rob Brydon (also playing himself). Along the way they both explore loneliness, family, and their varying breadth of Michael Caine impressions.

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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