The Best Films of 2011: The Staff Picks

Brian Salisbury

Attack the Block
Quoted from my FSR review: “To the serious movie geeks, those of us who don’t go to our movie house churches on the Easter that is December and the Christmas that is May, there is so much more to love about Attack the Block than its slick veneer lets on. It plays to our passionate love for the genre films of the 80s with glee. If you love Carpenter, he’s in there. If you’re a massive Critters fan, you’re covered. If you dig the shit out of The Warriors, you will not be disappointed.”

Take Shelter
Take Shelter is a beautiful, tragic story of love and acceptance. It explores the tribulations of a woman struggling to continue to love and support her husband whose mental instability is tearing her family apart. The way they fight for one another in spite of the suffering it causes is what makes Take Shelter such a triumph. Of course powerhouse performances from Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon, as well as spellbinding photography, don’t hurt none either.

Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen takes a tired nugget of homespun philosophy, that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and repackages it as a light, charming tale about nostalgia and the the romantic sentimentality of one magical city. There isn’t a missed note in the entire film. The performances are outstanding, the story stays upbeat (never getting bogged down in frustrating tropes), and I won’t pretend its obvious affection for writers didn’t win my heart.

Nicolas Winding Refn creates poetry out of violence and criminality with his elegantly ass-kicking neo-noir. Ryan Gosling’s quiet, smoldering performance recalls the iconic screen presence of Steve McQueen. Drive redefines the standards of action cinema, combining unflinching brutality with stunning artistry.

I Saw the Devil
From the director of The Good, the Bad, the Weird, I Saw the Devil is a sinister deconstruction of the serial killer thriller. The visuals of the film are striking in both severity and twisted beauty and the characters are staggeringly layered. The bizarre game of catch and release that the once victimized agent plays with the killer blurs the lines between good and evil and leads to one of the most shocking endings of the year.

Allison Loring

Attack The Block
As a child of the ‘80s, I grew up on films that featured groups of kids embarking on adventures together or attempting to fight evil (or their parents) and while Super 8 had elements of this idea, it was Attack The Block that really drove it home for me. With its intense action scenes, honest to goodness scares and a good dose of humor laced throughout it was the one film that truly made me feel like a kid again while I was watching (that was not a literal throwback like Winnie The Pooh or The Muppets). Plus a score by Basement Jaxx and some seriously freaky looking “visitors” I walked out a fan of alien invasion movies.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
I worried I had heard too much hype about this film (which I missed during Sundance and kicked myself for every day until it was released) and it would not end up living up to the expectations I felt myself start having for it. But the second Elizabeth Olsen appeared on screen, I knew all the hype was for good reason s I was immediately sucked into her performance and trying to figure out exactly what happened to her and what (if anything) was real. Sarah Paulson as Martha’s sister Lucy also turned in a performance worth noting as her frustration grew along with ours as Martha’s behavior became more erratic and she refused (or was unable?) to explain why.

Sound of My Voice
Unfortunately this film has yet to get released and it pains me that so few people have been able to see it yet, but for those of you noting what to look out for next year, add this little gem to your list. Where Martha Marcy May Marlene had us guessing exactly what happened to Martha, Sound of My Voice takes you directly into the life of a cult as Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) attempt to infiltrate the inner workings of one and end up getting sucked in to it instead. Brit Marling gives John Hawkes a run for his money as cult leader Maggie who is equal parts haunting, mesmerizing and unshakable.

Also known as the “movie about sex addiction,” Shame stayed with me thanks to its depiction of two people who were brought up together and became two very different people, but both clearly damaged. Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan each turned in two of my favorite performances of the year with Brandon’s quiet contempt and Sissy’s unbridled rage working against (and at times with) each another from moment to moment. Shame never played things for shock value and even though it didn’t shy away from things considered embarrassing or private, it did so with a purposeful intensity that proved director Steven McQueen is another talent to watch.

Drive also grabbed the top spot on my year in review music list and while it’s soundtrack was unquestionably my favorite of the year, the film itself also stayed at the top of my list thanks to a “breakout” performance from Ryan Gosling (although I’m pretty sure that moment happened back with Half Nelson, but I’m a long-time Gosling fan), the film’s distinctive look (that neon pink cursive font) and story that moved from romantic to intense to just plain horrifying and all with barely a few words spoken by the two leads. Add in a soundtrack that was as slick and unrelenting as the Driver himself and you ended up one of the films that will always define 2011 for me.

Simon Gallagher

The Artist
A triumph of artisan film-making, The Artist took what some might cruelly call antiquated film-making techniques and made them feel as appropriate and timeless as they should always be considered. Stripped of the artifices of special effects and 3D gimmickry, this huge-hearted black and white silent number was an illustrious success thanks to a precise eye for story-telling and stand-out performances, not least from the wonderful Jean Dujardin.

Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn
A surprising revelation, considering how underwhelmed I had been on its announcement, Spielberg’s animated epic took every element of his film-making skill and translated it through a medium that allowed his imagination and near super-human eye for shot composition and action set-pieces to flourish to an extreme degree. No dead-eyed mo-cap sprites here either, which was always a boundary for film-makers in this medium. A genuinely entertaining pleasure.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Another film that traded not on expensive effects or gimmickry in either technique or story, Tinker Tailor is a slow-burning thriller to end them all, dripping with atmosphere and crammed with the cream of British talent. Some might call it pretentious film-making, but the way story is king without frivolous need to use hyperbole makes for perfect claustrophobic tension, and if it doesn’t pick up a raft of award nominations, I will happily eat my hat.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
A sequel made by plastic “Cockney geezer” Guy Ritchie should never have been this fun, and while the very end was a little too explicit and full of itself, A Game of Shadows was a riveting and wholly entertaining ride, playing perfectly to Robert Downey Junior’s skills. Built on an intoxicating chemistry between Downey Jnr and Jude Law, the film was difficult not to like, and the decision to give Jared Harris the opportunity to play arch-nemesis Moriarty was a bloody inspired one.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Yes, it totally spoils the magical conceit of the original franchise, and particularly the revelatory finale of the first film, but the prequel that established exactly at what point all of the monkeys started talking, hating on everyone and wearing trousers was nevertheless a marvellous achievement. Heavy on story, and featuring yet another grand-stand mo-cap performance by the king of that technique Andy Serkis, Rise was exactly what every summer blockbuster should aspire to. No bluster, just fine, tight film-making.

Don’t forget the rest of our 2011 Year in Review. We wouldn’t want it to get lonely.

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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