Yeah, I'm just going to come right out and say it… I loved 2011. Last year I had a really hard time with my year end Top Ten list, but not for the right reasons. There weren't enough standouts, really, to justify a full list in 2010, but 2011 is an entirely different story. Check out the massive list of "Honorable Mentions" on the second page to see just how hard it was to narrow down my top picks this year. That said, my handful of top choices were confidently chosen: in a year full of standout dramas, action movies and genre treats (not too many great comedies, alas), these were the cream of the crop. Movies that are destined to go down as genuine classics, even if not everyone realized it at the time. (I'm alone on my choice for #6, it seems, but I stand by it.)
Whatever. Enough dilly-dallying. These are my picks for The Ten Best Movies of 2011. There are a couple of acclaimed releases I haven't had the opportunity to catch yet – My Week with Marilyn and Shame are the most prominent – so it may be necessary to revisit and update my picks at a later date. I'll keep you posted.
Warrior may be one of the best fight movies ever made. In most fight movies the climactic showdown boils down to who deserves to win it most, but in Warrior, two separate underdogs with fleshed-out, noble purposes are set at odds with each other. To make matters even more dramatic, they’re also brothers. Gavin O’Connor directs Warrior with punch drunk love, skillfully visualizing the world of Mixed Martial Arts in all its brutal, powerful glory, and wisely ties the heroes’ fighting styles into their rich personalities. Tom Hardy plays his part like an abused pit bull, lashing out in a decisive, furious rage while his brother, a high school physics teacher played by Joel Edgerton, uses strategy to overcome his obvious inadequacies in the ring. The buildup to their bout is dramatically filmed, and the actual climax is as rousing as Rocky. Why the hell wasn’t this a bigger hit?
Hesher is the story of a young boy, played by Devon Brochu, whose mother has died and whose family is collapsing under the weight of their grief. Like a “Mirror, Mirror” version of Mary Poppins, Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows up as the titular Hesher, an anarchistic metalhead whose brash and often violent outbursts – he intentionally hits Brochu with his car – force these sad-sacks to confront their emotions head on, for better and worse. Hesher intuitively understands the melancholy and quiet rage of daily life, and most significantly loss, but never ceases to entertain as it forces you through an overwhelming emotional experience. It’s one of the most affecting films of the year, and an impressive debut from director Spencer Susser. I can't wait to see what he does next.
8. LEAP YEAR
One of the quietest movies of the year also had 2011’s most compelling mystery: what is going on in Monica Del Carmen’s head? Leap Year is a stark and objective look at a Mexican woman who habitually lies about the quality of her life, and only finding a modicum of happiness in an increasingly dangerous sadomasochistic relationship. It sounds a lot tawdrier than it is. What we find here is a disturbing look at the inner world of a woman dealing with complex psychological issues, without any overt explanations to guide us by the hand. But if you look at the film with a detective’s eye, you’ll see all the clues to understanding this fascinating figure are right in front of you the whole time, and that the mystery’s final solution is as dark and disturbing as any murder plot. It may be too quiet for a group viewing, but anyone willing to give themselves over to Leap Year’s intricate world will find it absolutely riveting.
Gore Verbinski has always been a vibrant director, but before Rango his films never seemed to have anything on their minds, no matter how much they entertained. Rango is a near-perfect marriage of philosophical debate and crazy, hilarious set pieces. It’s odd that a film with Gatling guns latched onto swarms of bats should also be a compelling treatise on personal identity. I’m not complaining. The best animated film of 2011 found Johnny Depp playing a chameleon – not a coincidence – who leaves a glass habitat of forced social isolation and, upon making contact with other creatures/people for the first time, goes through a long and complicated inner journey while he decides who he wants to be. The outer journey has a rattlesnake with a Lee Van Cleef moustache, and a cameo by Clint Eastwood (played by Timothy Olyphant) who makes bizarre in-jokes about Kim Novak. Rango entertains on every level, but it’s also that rare family movie that was made for adults first and foremost. It’s going to be a classic, you wait and see.
6. SOURCE CODE
I may be the only person who loves Source Code this much, but I still maintain that it’s one of the most intelligent, meaningful and exciting science fiction films about the modern era. Moon director Duncan Jones takes a fundamentally flawed concept – about a man who goes back in time to relive a tragic bombing, unable to affect the outcome – and turns it into a powerful and most importantly thrilling parable about objectivity. To Jake Gyllenhaal’s superiors, the victims of the attack are mere statistics, important only to the extent that a lesson can be learned from their deaths. To Gyllenhaal, they are human beings as worthwhile and significant as any living soul. In an age where we can watch earthquakes, wars and terrorist attacks on the news every night and feel absolutely no empathy, that’s a vital subject to tackle. Jones does it with suspenseful aplomb. Source Code is a woefully underrated sci-fi movie.
5. TUCKER & DALE VS. EVIL
I made a bold statement in my initial review of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, and I stand by it now: “If Preston Sturges had lived long enough and was actually inclined to make a horror movie, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil would be it.” If you actually know whom I’m talking about, you’ll understand what bold praise that is. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is a screwball comedy of the highest order, built on pervasive misunderstandings and impeccable comic timing, and on that level it is a flawless comedy. But it’s actually about something – the pervasive negative repercussions of poor communication – and features sympathetic, utterly lovable performances by Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine in the title roles. Oh, also it’s gory as all hell. Horror comedies don’t get much better than this.
4. THE TREE OF LIFE
The Tree of Life was one of the most polarizing movies of the year, with people who think it’s brilliant (like me) coming to blows with those who think that Terrence Malick’s latest film is boring, pretentious crap. I think time will be on my side. The Tree of Life is a graceful, beautiful trip into childhood memories, fascinatingly portraying the story of a life the way you recall your own. The further back you go into your memory bank, the briefer and more meaningful the moments are. As you think about later events in your life, your recollections become more vivid but still contain incomplete elements. That’s how Tree of Life works, and it works beautifully. Malick manages to tie the quiet but vivid lives of a small town Texas family into the very fabric of the universe itself; they have as much to do with our own, personal experiences as the Big Bang and the dinosaurs. And he gets away with it. Tree of Life is incredible filmmaking from one of the finest and most thoughtful storytellers on the planet.
James Gunn’s second film after the clever and hilarious horror comedy Slither is an unexpectedly deep examination of the superhero phenomenon, anchored by a tortured performance from Hesher’s Rainn Wilson. Wilson stars as a man who puts on a costume and fights crime using a wrench. It only sounds funny. In truth, Super examines the motivations of someone driven to do great things by extraordinary, and arguably demented means. Whether he’s chosen by God (personified by shokushu goukan tentacles, implying truly creepy things about his psyche) or just unable to get over his wife leaving him, his reasons for asserting himself in such an unusual manner are never glorified, although they are always dramatic and occasionally inspiring. The wrench may be a joke, but Gunn uses the Looney Tunes weapon to deconstruct the notion of glorified violence: hitting someone with a blunt object is never funny, and his victim’s pain is never underscored. On the opposite side of the fence, Ellen Page portrays the first cinematic costumed hero who openly fetishizes the experience, which is a welcome addition to the lexicon. I could go on for pages. Super is the most intelligent and fascinating superhero movie since The Dark Knight.
2. THE WOMAN
Lucky McKee’s latest film, The Woman, is more than a horror film. It’s an indictment of mankind, with an emphasis on the “man” part. It is the utterly terrifying story of an abusive household, led by an insidiously misogynistic patriarch cloaked under a veneer of wholesomeness. Sean Bridgers gives an unforgettable performance as the head of the Cleek family, who finds a wild woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) in the woods and chains her in the storm cellar under the pretense of “civilizing” her. His true intentions are impossibly dark, as are the secrets he keeps and the impact they have on his family. This movie is so penetratingly disturbing that it will make you crawl into a ball and pray it’s messages aren’t true, even though you’ll know, sadly, that they really are.
1. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
Devon Ashby wrote our review of We Need to Talk About Kevin, but I agree with every word she said. Lynne Ramsay’s third film after Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar is easily the best movie of the year, and one of the best movies in god knows how long. This insightful and empathetic journey of a mother (Tilda Swinton, in another Oscar-worthy performance) whose son went on a high school killing spree takes a look back at the boy’s upbringing with a combination of Hitchcockian suspense and ingeniously cinematic subjectivity. The film delicately balances Swinton’s good intentions with her utter failings as a mother, and eerily dramatizes the all-but-inevitable fallout. Challenging, chilling, engrossing and fiercely emotional filmmaking from start to finish. This is one of the classics.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order):