2011 was an interesting year for movies. You had a slew of big blockbusters and broad appeal films, but it was really the smaller and independent movies that really made a name for themselves. Unlike the past years, there isn't really that one big "great" movie that everyone is on board with, but there's a lot of smaller great movies that I certainly fell in love with. Below are the 25 I enjoyed the most.
25: Take Shelter
A movie that's not just about the end of the world, but about a man obsessed over it. Haunted by dreams and visions, he feels what he's doing is right as he prepares for the inevitable and tries to warn his loved ones. It's hinged completely on the performance of Michael Shannon who is giving his all here. Cold sweats, nightmares, the shunning of his family begins to take their toll on him land he's absolutely convincing in his portrayal of a man on the verge of a breakdown. Really a movie I highly recommend, though it got little distribution.
24: The Skin I Live InWriter/Director Pedro Almodovar is always an intriguing filmmaker to watch. His films are vibrant, emotional, unique...but The Skin I Live In might go down as his most strange. It's rooted more in horror than anything as it's a emotionally-rich and sometimes uncomfortable film that I unfortunately can't get into too much without saying something to ruin it. It tests patience of reveals, your "sides" of the moral question it imposes (shades of gray at its finest) and whether or not you understand the purpose and thoughts of these characters, all of whom are tested to emotional strain. It's a film that stays with you, that's for sure.
23: Cold Fish
In my review of Cold Fish I mentioned the similarities to the Sam Peckinpah 1971 classic, Straw Dogs. It's a meditation on the complacency of a man who is pushed too far. So far that he eventually begins to be unrecognizable to himself. Blending dark, ok very dark, humor with a twisted and demented edge, Cold Fish is a film that stays with you long after it's over. It does everything with intention, though. It's not unnerving or gory without purpose, as all becomes clear by the end, nor is a film that should be overlooked.
22: Captain America
Captain America was about as much fun I had with a movie this year. It's full of adventure, the characters leap off the screen and it's just a damn well-done superhero flick. Marvel had a lot going for it this year between this one, a surprisingly good Thor and a great X-Men First Class, but this one really got all the cards right. Great atmosphere, great design, great casting and directing. My selling point was the uniqueness of being a period piece on top of the superhero aspect, which is the first I've seen that goes to set it in a time that wasn't modern (First Class did the same, which is also why I liked it so much). Probably the most fun I had with a superhero movie since the first Iron Man.
A small and odd little movie from the UK that is all about a teenager in love...and it's done surprisingly well. It's quirky and fun, but it never feels forced in doing so. Teenager-rom-coms are usually predictable and pretty one-note, but Submarine has teens that feel and act real and situations that actually might occur in our world. Nothing feels too contrived and there's great bits of humor throughout making for a surprisingly endearing and memorable movie.
It's not merely funny, and a bit raunchy in the process, but Bridesmaids is also smart. Rally smart. It's a sharp script, witty and snappy dialogue and it doesn't pander to the typical "female moviegoer" by falling into cliches and predictable "man wants woman" romance plot. It's about friendship and it's absolutely honest about it. Finally seeing a movie that speaks like women rather than down to them in a superficial and shallow manner was just a breath of fresh air, plus it has some of the funniest moments you'll see in a movie all year. This is a movie that will go down as an instant classic, ala 40 Year Old Version or Half Baked.
19: The Adventures of Tintin
This film wasn't initially on my list, but the more I sat and thought about it, the more I realized I really, really enjoyed it. It's a very well done, visually creative and just fun movie full of adventure and memorable characters. I could easily see myself watching it again and again as there's so much fun, energy and cleverness going on it's one that you actually want to watch again just to appreciate it.
18: Win Win
This indie flick was all the rage earlier this year, but for some reason seemed to have dropped out of the spotlight. It's really a smart, funny-but-dramatic movie about family...and wrestling...but mostly family. Paul Giamatti is really at the top of his game in this one and Alex Schaffer is acting well beyond his 17 years. It's strength, though, is just a damn good script. It's a sports movie, but it's a sports movie in the same way "Hoosiers" or "Rocky" is a sports movie. The sport isn't the end, it's merely the means. The real story is the characters, the family and the trouble boy that is looking for a home.
17: We Need to Talk About Kevin
Some movies demand a lot of the audience, and there were a few of them this year, but this one takes the cake in "I don't know if I want to watch this anymore" department. It's not graphic or violent or bloody, it's simply emotionally draining as you see Kevin start bad as a child, and grow to become worse all the while Tilda Swinton, in one of her finest performances I've seen, feels helpless in doing anything. It's tough to watch, because you know what's going to happen (it makes that abundantly clear early) but even preparing doesn't make that pill easier to swallow.
Who knew cancer could be funny? Of course, that undermines the entire point of this movie. Yes, it's funny, but it's funny it that honest, human kind of way that puts life into perspective - really the smartest (and probably only) way to make the ailment of our main character, played remarkably by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, funny in the first place. It's a sweet, small movie with some great laughs and a hilarious script that also has a lot to say about those suffering from sicknesses and cancer. It's a movie I wish more had gone to see, especially considering it's sitting at a whopping 93% on Rotten Tomatoes.
15: Super 8
Oh Nostalgia, it does gloss over our eyes, doesn't it? Super 8 is completely reliant on that aspect, for the most part. It went, and pretty much succeeded, in recapturing the tone and feel of a 1980s family movie (probably produced or directed by Steven Spielberg). Though it's far from perfect, the fact is you just don't see movies like this too often and it really puts things into perspective. It's a movie that transcends age, adults and kids will like it alike, and doesn't treat its child characters as cliche-driven and acted robots. Everything has an organic quality to it, feels natural and true, and is why I ended up liking it as much as I did.
14: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Though it won't go down as a great David Fincher film, relatively speaking even just a "good" Fincher film is better than most.Full of atmosphere and stylish as always, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a movie that puts a hell of a lot into its two and a a half hours and, amazing (and saying much to the script and Fincher's ability) able to keep it all in-line, clear and enjoyable to follow. Rooney Mara is a revelation in her role, demanding of her in every way, and is worth seeing one of the most intriguing characters on screen in a long while (and a similar-yet-different interpretation of the Swedish version making for an interesting analysis.)
13: The Tree of Life
A visual poem if there ever was an example of one. There's not a lot of films that you simply "experience" but this arguable masterpiece from auteur Terrence Malick would probably be the shining example of it. It's a stream-of-conscious contemplation with a singular theme holding it together. There's no real direction, no typical structure, just a meditation. It's a movie to be seen and contemplated on. A movie where you kind of just let go as you watch it, succumb to its hypnosis of visual imagery and auditory beauty, and then think about the elements it brings once it's over.
12: The Descendants
Alexander Payne just knows how to write a script and, more importantly, characters. He paints a vivid picture in the The Descendants about generations of family and how they make us who we are and influence who we will be. On top of a great script and great acting to accompany it, Payne also lavishly gives us the setting of Hawaii. It feels authentic, real and honest about life and emotion, his trademark drama with slice-of-life comedy in full effect in a film that's every bit as reminiscent as Sideways or About Schmidt (grown men trying to figure their lives out).
11: Attack the Block
A great blend of action, comedy and scares all set in the inner-city with juvenile delinquents as your heroes. Attack the Block is one of those movies you really don't get tired of watching. The humor is never obvious, in fact so much of Attack the Block isn't obvious. It's smart, clever, knows its roles well as it sneaks the comedy, horror moments and action pieces into the film that feels natural. Sometimes genre-bending movies can feel disjointed, but Attack the Block feels completely natural in its own skin. It's really a one-of-a-kind picture every genre fan should see.
On paper, it seems like a lot of animated films. The plot isn't anything new. Yet, it's the execution of it all, because Rango is a movie that looks, feels and plays out unlike any other. It's full of great voice performances that really draw out these characters and a unique visual style that makes a distinct personality of the art style alone. The animation is spectacular, easily the best I've seen all year as it handles the slower and serious straight, giving time for the story to breathe, then will wow you with impressive action sequences from gunfights to numerous chase sequences. It's an animated film that puts it all on the line, feels complete and not trying to franchise itself - which is pretty rare.
Though it takes a bit to really get going, once Hugo starts hitting its stride, it's hard to not be absolutely captivated by it. It's full of imagination and love of cinema, why wouldn't I like it? It's a movie that feels as though you're having a dream. It's a wondrous and charming movie from a director that isn't really known for either of those qualities - Scorsese is known more for the meditative and the raw, or the violent and serious. Who would have thought an adaptation of a children's book, with its own variants of course, would actually end up being one of his very best. It looks amazing, is rich is texture and atmosphere and is one that every fan of film must see.
8: Midnight in Paris
Speaking of dreams, that's the entire point of Woody Allen's finest movie in years, Midnight in Paris. It's a film that's more an exploration than a story - an exploration of nostalgia and romanticism of things past. From artists to writers to period of time we think we might prefer to find ourselves in as though we are displaces somehow. Well some of us anyways. Owen Wilson delivers Allen's dialogue with passion and sincerity as he traverses to the past to find a better life, but he finds more about himself in the process. It's a very simple and sweet story done with the hand of a master storyteller, making it feel grandiose.
7: The Guard
Probably one of the most overlooked films out this year, this is a brilliant comedy from Ireland with one of my favorite performances of the year given to us by Brendan Gleeson. His "guard" is rude, dysfunctional, but overall a pretty good guy that's looking to bring down the big bad guy. It's a subtle comedy with humor that seems to develop gradually rather than try to punch you in the face with it (as many UK/British/Irish comedies tend to do). The Guard is full of memorable moments and comic-wit that makes it my favorite comedy of 2011.
6: Source Code
Duncan Jones gives us yet another fantastic Science Fiction movie. Larger in scope than his previous Moon but every bit as subtle and haunting, Source Code handles many different ideas, juggles various plot threads, and still comes out on top of it all. I especially loved how it handles various reveals, like gradually peeling off wallpaper covering the big picture underneath over the duration of its running time. It puts a nice pin in it all at the end as well, making you ponder everything that you had just witnessed on a level of insight and emotional meaning. It's a movie that confirms that Duncan Jones is the real deal and Moon wasn't some fluke.
5: I Saw the Devil
Viscerally violent, cathartic even, I Saw the Devil is a masterpiece of a revenge-thriller that shows the depths one man will go to make the life of a serial killer as miserable as possible...and you actually route for him along the way. He's doing awful things, but you know the other man did things far worse (you saw most of it). Action is fast, quick, bloody and the film says a lot about how revenge can make you the demon you hunt if you go too far. Director Kim Ji-Woon has another fantastic film under his already impressive belt.
4: The Artist
A latecomer on this list and one that skyrocketed to the Top 5. It's, quite honestly, about as perfect of a movie as you'll see all year. Beautifully shot, gloriously acted, original and fresh and truly a work of art. Above all that, though, is a simple and well-told story full of drama, a lot of humor and, of course, romance. I also took note of the insane amount of detail going on in every scene, such as signs in the background, the props and sets and the overall atmosphere the film conveys. It's not quite ripped from the late 20s/early 30s like a long-lost film, it's a bit of that, a bit of modern camera techniques and a thematic verisimilitude of Ingmar Bergman. It's the darling of the Awards Season this year and for good reason.
3: 13 Assassins
Another throwback film, only much much bloodier. Takashi Miike is one of Japan's premiere directors and this action epic in the vein of the Samurai Trilogy or classic Kurosawa is one of his very best. It's violent, but it's a well-done a purposeful bloodbath we find ourselves soaked. Offering amazing choreography and shooting of action scenes, this is just a well-done action epic that you really don't see that much anymore. Fans of this genre rightfully fell in love with it right away, including me.
Honest. Funny. Dramatic. Artistic. Emotional. Beginners is a film about love and life, but not necessarily story of love as much as it is a question of it and how life can play little tricks on you, drop an anvil on you or make you feel free and happy at every turn. How do you know you're feeling love? Is it truly a connection or just a passing glance? How does who you were affect who you are. Unique is the screenplay, full of poignancy and smart dialogue, the directing absolute top notch (both done by Mike Mills) and the cast absolutely committed to their roles. Plus you have a cute little dog that talks to you in subtitles along the way.
There was a lot of "retro" in film in 2011. From Hobo With a Shotgun to Super 8 reliving the 1980s to The Artist, War Horse all having callbacks to classic styles in their demeanor and expressing their love of it. One, though, did it in a way that wasn't as direct. Oh, this little love letter to classic action movies and 1980s ultraviolence is obvious, but it's not trying to be. It's a stylish, slow-brew movie that will hit you out of left field with its violence one minute, then have a moment of tranquility the next. The film is full of memorable scenes that come across as a living painting, full of detail and light and possibly brain matter. Drive is a movie I wasn't sure I would put at the top of my list. Top Ten easily, but as number one I didn't really have anything I felt comfortable with. Then I realized I had seen it five times...
Others in Consideration: Everything Must Go, The Muppets, Young Adult, Arthur Christmas, Kill List, Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, Corioloanus, The Iron Lady, War Horse, Hobo With a Shotgun, Hanna, X-Men First Class, My Week With Marilyn, The Innkeepers, Trollhunter, Super, A Seperation