As is becoming tradition, I don’t complete my top ten list until a few months into the new year. This is mostly because I’m trying to see everything I missed. This list is late for that reason of course, but also because I was having my friends at Outpost Media put together a video companion (which I think came out looking sweet, many thanks to them). I thought it might be fun. So watch the video, then read on for more context or read first then watch or whatever you feel like doing. Just enjoy.
I don’t include documentaries and I try to only include films theatrically released in 2011. And because my list is late(r), almost everything is on DVD by now, so go rent and see for yourself.
Tyrannosaur – Dir. Paddy Considine: A bleak and brutal British drama from actor turned writer/director Considine. Features two of my favorite performances from last year. Peter Mullan stars as a pitiless man finding a strange connection to an abused and pious Olivia Colman.
Martha Marcy May Marlene – Dir. Sean Durkin: A sublime debut from a very talented new writer/director. It’s also an amazing star-making performance by Elizabeth Olsen. She’s a runaway from a creepy cult trying to adjust to normal life and discern reality from her own fractured psyche. Plus, John Hawkes will scare the shit out of you.
Meek’s Cutoff – Dir. Kelly Reichardt: A very Malick-y western set on the unforgiving Oregon Trail. When a wagon train becomes lost due to their guide’s incompetence, Michelle Williams and co. must decide whether or not to trust a captured Indian. It’s quiet, slow, and shot beautifully in 1.33 aspect ratio (like a box). The pace isn’t for everyone but if you ride it out it will haunt you long after.
War Horse – Dir. Steven Spielberg: Spielberg takes on WWI through the eyes of a very remarkable horse. The great director brings his gift for show-stopping set pieces and crowd-pleasing theatrics with a wallop of emotion and heart. It’s a bit old-fashioned for some, but I was highly entertained.
Bridesmaids – Dir. Paul Feig: The best straight up comedy from last year. It doesn’t sacrifice character just to get a laugh or skimp on storytelling and craft for cheap jokes. The whole cast is brilliant, and not just the ladies. Chris O’Dowd is a perfect counterpart for Kristen Wiig’s self-destructive Annie. Plus, Wilson Phillips!!!
10. Weekend – Dir. Andrew Haigh
The best romantic film I’ve seen in a while. Weekend is a brilliantly scripted and super-low budget British film that is also very gay. But while a lot of gay-cinema can be exploitative, Weekend is honest and smart. Tom Cullen and Chris New have wonderful chemistry as two guys trying to decide whether or not their one night stand is something more. Essentially the film is just two people talking but everything they’re saying is thematically rich and true not just to life but to their characters. It’d be a bit reductive to call it the gay Before Sunset, but the film is good enough to withstand the comparisons.
9. Shame – Dir. Steve McQueen
A fascinating and dark look at the harmful nature of addiction, in this case sex addiction. Michael Fassbender is tremendous in this film. He does so much acting with just his eyes and his body (and not just when he’s naked) it’s remarkable. Carey Mulligan plays against type and nails the whole “little sister in trouble” routine. Movies are great when they take you somewhere you’ve never been before and Shame does. Emotionally and physically like nothing you’ve ever seen.
8. 50/50 – Dir. Jonathan Levine
Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a subtle and powerful performance as a young man discovering he has cancer in this funny and heartfelt film. I can’t think of too many films where I was crying from laughing so hard one minute and then crying from, well, actually being shown I don’t have a black hole where my heart should be. It’s a difficult juggling act to pull off and everyone involved does a stunning job. There are so many ways this film could have failed or simply settled for easy clichés. I’m so happy it invested more time and effort than that because the result couldn’t be better.
7. Midnight in Paris – Dir. Woody Allen
I agree. This is not one of Woody Allen’s best films. But it was certainly one of the best films released last year. Owen Wilson is the perfect Woody stand-in. He’s a writer nostalgic for 1920’s Paris when he finds himself magically transported to the time of his heroes. The grass is always greener message isn’t earth shattering but it’s handled superbly. It’s funny, romantic, and full of great small performances especially Corey Stoll as Hemingway. Being this effervescent is not nearly as easy as it looks.
6. Take Shelter – Dir. Jeff Nichols
For the millionth time, go out and watch Nichols first feature, Shotgun Stories. It’s amazing, and his follow-up Take Shelter is even better. Michael Shannon is in both, and here he gives his best performance to date as a man either slowly losing his mind or eerily seeing visions of the future. It’s a terrifying film for many different reasons. Whether it’s the fear of being a parent, being alone, being helpless, or being right, this film is chilling. I absolutely loved the climatic storm shelter scene where I had zero idea what was going to happen next. Tis a very rare feat.
5. Margaret – Dir. Kenneth Lonergan
After spending years in movie purgatory, Lonergan’s operatic masterpiece was finally released and it is glorious. Anna Paquin plays a naïve and privileged 17-year-old whose world is rocked by a horrific bus accident she inadvertently induced. But as her saga is unfolding, the world (specifically NYC) doesn’t stop and indeed neither does her own day-to-day. She struggles to make things right while dealing with school, parents, and her blossoming sexuality. No capsule could possibly do the film justice. The acting, the writing, and the scope are far too great. It’s rough around the edges but filled with at least 3-5 all-time great sequences.
4. Moneyball – Dir. Bennett Miller
This is the kind of big studio, big star drama that hardly gets made any more. It’s done so well and so compellingly but without being too flashy that you might not realize how great it truly is. Based on the real life story of how Billy Beane used advanced statistics to change the game of baseball. Brad Pitt is charming, magnetic, yet filled with a quiet sorrow as Beane. It’s a layered and subtle performance that should not be forgotten. Jonah Hill displays some range not yet seen before as well. From the cinematography to the score and beyond the film is its own theme, undervalued.
3. Hugo – Dir. Martin Scorsese
I continue to be in the tank for Scorsese. The actual plot about a boy living at a Paris train station and getting into adventures is not that complex. But Scorsese takes the thin narrative and spins it into a magical celebration of film that is thoroughly emotional and a feast for the eyes. I cannot stress enough how essential the 3D is and how wonderful the artistry of the film is on the big screen. The film justly won a few technical Oscars. The film proves that it’s not the story but the storytelling that makes a great movie, and Scorsese is obviously a master.
2. Drive – Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
Stuntman by day, getaway driver by night, Ryan Gosling becomes an instantly iconic badass in Drive. The film is ridiculously cool. From the slick title font to the 80’s inspired soundtrack to Gosling’s satin jacket and his all-important driving gloves. But the film is also a fascinating character study with some intriguing twists on hero-worship and believe it or not, fairy tales. It’s subjective and layered and crafted perfectly. The supporting performances are just gravy with Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks being the standouts. And it must be said again; it’s badass and cool, like really badass and really cool, which counts for something sometimes.
1. We Need to Talk About Kevin – Dir. Lynne Ramsay
This film was the one I could not stop thinking about… still can’t. Tilda Swinton is terrific as the mother of a child responsible for a school massacre. The editing is crazy good, cutting between Tilda now and Tilda then, slowly peeling away not just what happened but how her character feels about all of it. The sound design is unsettling as it keys us into certain motifs and keeps us aware of every beat. The color red has never been used more lavishly or with such exacting purpose. The film is hyper-stylized and will surely rub some people the wrong way. But the style would be annoying if it weren’t so fundamental to the subjectivity and themes of the movie. Haunting and essential, the best film I saw last year.
Let me know what you think, and if I forgot your favorite (I’m always looking for a good recommendation).