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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kung Fu Panda 2
Kung Fu Panda 2 is like the animated Expendables, if The Expendables included actors from all genres, so what I’m saying is, it has a great cast, featuring Jean Claude Van Damme, Jackie Chan, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, and Lucy Liu, among others. This action oriented film had great fight scenes, excellent comedy, and plenty of heart.
As a fan of Westerns, Rango got it all right when it comes to honoring the West. Timothy Olyphant’s portrayal of ‘The Spirit of the West’ alone makes this movie one to watch, but when you add in great classic Western tropes with a modern, weird twist and the talents of Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski, this strange tale it all the right notes for me.
I love this movie because someone has to. It’s absolutely ridiculous. It features titties, minotaur dicks, pedophilia, and drug use. Your Highness is a lot smarter than the dumb movie it appears to be and it perfectly lampoons the sword and sorcery genre, either through elaborate set pieces or James Franco simply replying “Nice” in a bro-voice instead of giving a lengthy hero speech.
If I was less of a man, I’d say this film brought something close to a tear to my eye, but I’m a super man, so yeah, whatever. I found this film to have superb special effects, great boxing action, and a whole lot of heart, most of which came from Atom. I swear if you look close enough you can see a soul in there.
Transformers 3 The Dark of the Moon
Fuck you. I know what you’re thinking and fuck you. I love Michael Bay and I love Transformers. Sure, Dark of the Moon was too long, but other than that I thought this was one of the best action movies of the year. With special effects that should win Academy Awards and massive, epic action sequences that seamlessly blend real explosions, real metal, and fake robots, Michael Bay put a shot of adrenaline straight into my dick with this one.
Japanese director Takashi Miike is typically pretty hit or miss due mainly to the man’s insanely prolific output. That said, 13 Assassins is a direct hit. It seems to neatly into two parts, setup and execution and while some will find the setup a bit tedious, no one can deny the sheer badassery of the execution. Miike is in complete control showing a steady handy as he crafts the story with consistent pacing and plenty of payoff for the lengthy setup. This is a classic underdog tale with a ragtag group of misfits taking on seemingly unsurmountable odds, risking their lives for the greater good. It’s an old fashioned samurai story with plenty of weighty moral and ethical dilemmas challenging notions of loyalty an honor that eventually give way to monumental bloodshed.
Attack the Block
This blew the doors off the theater at SXSW this year and it couldn’t have happened for a better film. First time director Joe Cornish has created a monster, or rather several jet black furry creatures which fall from the sky directly into the council estates of south London. Young John Boyega is a revelation as Moses the leader of gang of youths who discover the first creature and kill it. But there are plenty more on the way and Moses and his crew are the only ones who can stop them. Drawing on classic 80s fare from Goonies to Gremlins to Critters, Attack the Block is a 90 minute thrill ride.
I’d give Michael Shannon this year’s Oscar for Best Actor today if I could. The man is a phenomenal actor and he gives maybe his best performance ever in Take Shelter, which is certainly saying something. Shannon’s Curtis takes on the mantle of the everyman and all the fears that go with that. His scene in the Lion’s Club dinner is worth the price of admission by itself. While the end will divide audiences and rightfully so, I ended up on the loving it side. It’s the film more than any other this year that has really stuck with me, that I find myself thinking about it and wanting to discuss and I can’t give it a higher recommendation than that.
I Saw the Devil
If you’re not familiar with Korean director Jee-woon Kim now is the perfect time to check him out. The man has been on a roll starting with 2003’s A Tale of Two Sisters and continuing on through A Bittersweet Life and the phenomenal The Good, the Bad, the Weird culminating with his most recent outing I Saw the Devil. This is a dark, brutal film showcasing a deadly game of cat and mouse between a government agent and a deranged serial killer. Byung-hun Lee, who American viewers will recognize as Storm Shadow from 2009’s G.I. Joe, is fantastic in the lead role of the agent hunting down the man who killed his fiancee. He’s brooding and calculating and driven, willing to do anything necessary for revenge. Min-sik Choi is great as well as the serial killer, taunting and toying with Lee with no hint of remorse. Make no mistake, this is a difficult film to watch with a hard edge that will rattle your nerves, an experience well worth seeking out.
Yes, I realize that characters break the 4th wall, constantly break into song, and even reference the fact that they’re in a movie and while all these would be cloying in any other film, they just seem quaint here. This is the cinematic return of The Muppets after all, and I’ll be damned if Jason Segel hasn’t crafted a fantastic love-letter to Jim Henson’s puppet friends. This is the type of movie that can cheer you up when you’re having a bad day. It’s charming and heartwarming and funny and I can’t wait to see it again.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.