Most critics seem to be in agreement that 2011 was not an especially great year for film but there were nevertheless gems to be found if you did a little digging. I did a lot of digging last year, more than ever in fact, surpassing my previous benchmark (by about 30 films) by viewing a record 103 films in the theatre in 2011. And that’s not including about a half dozen of those which I saw more than once. Much of this is due to the fact that I took my first trips to the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, and began writing a bit more seriously about film at The Playlist on Indiewire, and consequently here. If you’re like me you have already read 1,000 other Top 10 lists - and you’ve read the films that won’t be appearing here - so let this be the last (and hopefully best). There’s always an instinct when you start reading other lists to start rearranging your own but I tried - this year more than ever - to go with my initial instincts and not be swayed by critical consensus. Here are my favorite films from 2011.
1. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
The elements are all familar - a man with no name, a woman in trouble, a criminal kingpin, a femme fatale and a heist gone wrong - so how is it that “Drive” feels like nothing I’ve ever seen before? Director Nicolas Winding Refn fuses his gonzo arthouse sensibility onto a Hollywood genre film and the results are riveting. Despite a well traveled plot, I was on the edge of my seat for the entire film with no idea what was going to happen next. The opening establishes an expectation and then the rest of the film proceeds to dismantle that expectation, scene by scene. The opening getaway is thrilling in its quiet precision. Then comes the neon tinged opening credits with “Nightcall” synths blaring and you wonder if this is supposed to be for real. And then about thirty minutes or so into the film comes the first burst of violence - so strong and so unexpected you could see the hands going up all over the theatre - and you realize this is for real.
Then comes the strip club, the elevator, the chinese restaurant and you start to wonder why every movie isn’t this movie? And with your jaw still hanging open you start to get a little angry with other, lesser, filmmakers for being so lazy. Director Refn re-imagines the heist film as a neon noir fairy tale where anything can happen and no one is safe. You might have to go back as far as “Pulp Fiction” to find a filmmaker who fused pop music and images quite as effectively as Refn does here. But unlike Tarantino’s sprawling, verbose scripts, “Drive” is incredibly economic. Scenes that in lesser films would be full of exposition, here have been shaved down to the bone. You get everything you need without a wasted moment. I had such a strong, visceral reaction to the film I have a hard time relating to anyone who doesn’t love it. This was the best film of 2011.
2. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
Despite taking home nearly every critics award, there has been quite a backlash building for “The Artist,” which I could understand if it wasn’t so damn good. Look, I was skeptical too. Snatched up by The Weinstein Co. just before it’s Cannes debut, this seemed like exactly the type of movie that usually gets on my nerves: an exercise in nostalgia aimed squarely at the older Oscar voters that make up the bulk of the Academy. (Otherwise known as Oscar Bait.) And on top of that, it had the added gimmick of being a silent film. At its NYFF premiere I skeptically spent the first few minutes resisting its charms, wondering what purpose other than novelty a silent film could serve in 2011. But within minutes all of that cynicism melted away and I thought, ‘Fuck that. I love this movie.’ I was utterly charmed by stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, dazzled with the way Hazanvicius used the format as a storytelling device while playing with conventions and by the time the film ended I was incredibly moved. Wiping away a few tears I thought, ‘if this wins Best Picture, I’m totally okay with that.’ A great film.
3. Bridesmaids (Paul Feig)
In the six months since “Bridesmaids” became a massive box office hit, I’ve been thoroughly baffled by the conversations I’ve had with people about the film. If you thought it “wasn’t that funny” or that it was “just okay,” I don’t know what to tell you other than that you probably don’t deserve a comedy this good. Not every scene is designed for laughs and that’s what makes it brilliant. It’s a film with the confidence, nay balls, to let the audience breathe for a minute and watch star/co-writer Kristen Wiig make a cupcake. Why? Because it’s an important character beat. In any other studio comedy, this would have been the first thing to go. Thank producer Judd Apatow, screenwriters Wiig and Annie Mumolo and director Paul Feig for having the courage to go for humor and pathos, creating some of the most memorably awkward sequences (in a good way) since the U.K. “The Office.” Melissa McCarthy has been deservingly receiving praise for her performance but the entire cast shines here with Rose Byrne, Maya Rudolph and Wiig absolutely nailing every scene. I’ve seen the film four times now and I could watch it again right now. The best comedy of the year and one of the best films period.
4. Attack The Block (Joe Cornish)
Hype can be a killer. And after a raucous almost-legendary Midnight premiere at SXSW, was there any way “Attack The Block” could possibly be as good as it was supposed to be? Yes, it can. Dumped in the middle of summer with a non-existent marketing campaign, it’s already a cult classic in the making. Centering on a group of young teens in South London fighting off an alien invasion, there are nods to the 80s cinema of John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg but they feel lived in, genuine, as if they’d been absorbed naturally rather than studied. Like “Shaun of the Dead” or “District 9” before it, the film has a distinct voice - in this case first-time filmmaker Joe Cornish - and you can see his fingerprints all over the film. And Cornish has more on his mind than simply recapturing an era. He’s been inspired in equal part by his experiences growing up there and the issues of race and class that the film hints at make it a lot more substantial than your typical alien invasion flick. And that’s not even mentioning Thomas Townend’s ultra-saturated cinematography, the propulsive score by Basement Jaxx, wonderfully stylized creature design and the ending which is likely to raise your goosebumps as it did mine. Believe.
5. Young Adult(Jason Reitman)
Speaking of backlash, sometime around the time Diablo Cody collected her Oscar for “Juno” most of the world’s cinephiles collectively decided the screenwriter was a hack. Which is too bad for them because I suspect now they’re going to be eating those words. Hilarious, uncomfortable, sincere and devoid of the stylized dialogue she has long been criticized for, this is the film that should silence any and all of her detractors. Charlize Theron-in a brilliant, monster performance-stars as an author of young adult novels who returns to her hometown to win back her married high-school boyfriend. It’s an uncompromisingly ugly portrayal that movie stars do not give very often if ever, and she does it without prosthetics or distractions. I’ve liked each of director Jason Reitman’s previous films but felt they each received a bit more praise than they were perhaps deserving. Ironically “Young Adult” is his best film to date and it’s being completely ignored principally because he made a film where the lead character is unlikable. She’s not Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada,” instead resembling a female version of Noah Baumbach’s acidic (and underrated) “Greenberg,” another love-it-or-hate-it proposition dividing viewers who simply didn’t want to spend time with a prick. It’s their loss, the film is a career best for all involved.
6. Hanna (Joe Wright)
One of my earliest favorites this year, “Hanna” reminded me of a lost Danny Boyle film from the 90’s. Director Joe Wright (“Pride & Prejudice”), here making his first steps into the action milieu, is an outsider to the material just as Hanna is to the civilized world and the disparity proves galvanizing for the filmmaker. A preternaturally sharp Saoirse Ronan stars as the titular character, a young girl raised by her father (Eric Bana) in the woods and trained to be an expert killer until she is no longer content to live in seclusion. On the run, she’s hunted for as-yet unknown reasons by a CIA agent (Cate Blanchett) as she has her first experiences with civilized mankind. Puzzlingly, audiences and certain critics don’t seem to get that it’s a fairy tale. Yes, Blanchett is over-the-top but everything here is amplified. This is the same film that with a straight face introduces a suitcase with a giant blinking red button and sets the finale in an abandoned Hansel & Gretel house. So yeah, the film isn’t wholly concerned with approximating reality. And that’s okay because the reality of the film works and works wonderfully.
7. Shame (Steve McQueen)
Somehow I was late to the game on British artist-turned director Steve McQueen (no relation). I hadn’t seen his first film until a few weeks before his latest was set to unspool at the Toronto Film Festival. But in a way I’m glad it happened that way because the one-two punch “Hunger” and “Shame” - both with awe-inspiring performances by star Michael Fassbender - have convinced me McQueen is one of the most exciting new filmmakers working today. Fassbender gives arguably the single best performance this year as Brandon, a Manhattan advertising executive whose sex addiction begins to spiral out of control. Carey Mulligan is atypically cast as Cissy, his dramatic younger sister who comes to stay with him. Carefully framed with beautiful, precise, long takes McQueen doesn’t spell anything out for you but doesn’t drag things out either. As it builds to it’s “Requiem For A Dream”-esque climax, his filmmaking demonstrates such confidence you can see why stars like Brad Pitt are dying to work with him.
8. Like Crazy (Drake Doremus)
After similarly themed films like “(500) Days of Summer” and “Blue Valentine” became successful, I’m surprised that Drake Doremus’ Sundance darling didn’t find a bigger audience. Without the arch stylization of the former and exaggerated melodramatics in the later, “Like Crazy” may be the best of the bunch. On the surface, it’s simple. A boy and a girl fall in love in college and after graduation enter unwittingly into a long distance relationship. From there, things become complicated. But the way the story is told - full of perfectly realized moments, painful and true - as it skips forward in time dispensing with overused cheap dramatic moments like ‘will they or wont they’ and cutting right into the heart of the ‘it’s already done.’ Felicity Jones delivers a breakout performance in the film, whose only real flaw is Anton Yelchin. While he’s not bad in the role, he lacks the necessary charisma for making you fall for his character at the beginning of the film. But if you can suspend disbelief long enough to say “okay, they love each other,” you’ll be helpless to defend yourself from the remainder of the film where it takes your heart and rips it out. Initially my second favorite film at Sundance, “Like Crazy” actually jumped into first position after a second viewing in October rendered it even more impressive 10 months later.
9. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
Upon seeing the original Swedish version of the international bestseller, I questioned, “How David Fincher will make anything interesting out of this I have no idea.” While still hampered by the whodunit source material, Fincher does everything in his power to turn the procedural potboiler into high art and very nearly succeeds. Keeping the momentum from “The Social Network,” this film retains key members of production (including DP Jeff Cronenweth, composers Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross and editors Kirk Baxter & Angus Wall) who are all firing on all cylinders here. The results are intoxicating. Fincher is aesthetically unsurpassed by almost anyone working today and ‘Dragon Tattoo’ is a visual and aural marvel. Rooney Mara is everything she needs to be to portray the iconic Lisbeth Salander: a complex, mesmerizing human character and Daniel Craig - who hasn’t really found a good role since becoming Bond - is a perfect fit as Blomkvist. If the film is not on the same level with the director’s best work (“Se7en,” “Fight Club,” “Zodiac”), it’s only because he’s set the bar so high.
10. Kill List (Ben Wheatley)
A former soldier is pressured by his wife and their grim financial situation to take the occasional job as a contract killer. Against his better judgement he takes on a job - the “kill list” in question containing several seemingly unrelated targets - even after red flags start being raised and things spiral out of control from there. To further describe what makes this film great would be to rob you of the pleasure of seeing it for yourself. Violent without being gratuitous, with turns you would never see coming from the outset, the easy rapport between leads Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley keeps the film alarmingly watchable even as the rug starts to get pulled out from under you and you’re not even quite sure what kind of film you’re watching. Suffice to say this British chiller is one of the most distinctive and indelible genre efforts I’ve seen in some time and I’ll likely be recommending it to friends for years to come. “Kill List” is available OnDemand starting today. Don’t miss it.
11. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (Rodman Flender)
One of the most overlooked documentaries of the year. Directed by O’Brien’s Harvard classmate Flender, this warts-and-all tour doc gains unfettered access to the self deprecating late night host, revealing sometimes bitter though always hilarious dimensions to his enthusiastic onscreen persona. An illuminating (though not always flattering) portrait of the comedian.
12. Beginners (Mike Mills)
Graphic artist turned filmmaker Mills’ warm, semi-autobiographical account of his father coming out of the closet at 75 (played wonderfully here by Christopher Plummer) has divided critics sharply between those that found it too precious and those that fell head over heels for it. For me, the film has only grown in my estimation upon repeat viewings where the film’s heart-on-a-sleeve construction has really worked its charms.
13. George Harrison: Living In The Material World (Martin Scorsese)
I had the pleasure of seeing Scorsese’s epic 3 1/2 hour doc on the big screen during the NYFF and as many times as I’ve heard The Beatles story told in countless articles, books and other films, Scorsese along with editor David Tedeschi manage to make it feel exciting again. The audio mix for the soundtrack alone deserves an award.
14. Submarine (Richard Ayoade)
Initially my favorite film from Sundance ‘11, this underrated British coming-of-age film suffered from (unavoidable) comparisons to “Rushmore” But unlike many deadpan also-ran’s, Ayoade’s film has the style and heart to pull it off thanks in part to newcomers Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige and the filmmaker’s varied influences. And it’s got a killer soundtrack.
15. Midnight In Paris (Woody Allen)
This comic fantasy casts Owen Wilson stars as Allen surrogate Gil, a frustrated screenwriter who idealizes Paris in the 20’s. The actor brings his laid back delivery to Allen’s usually high-strung dialogue and the contrast is unexpectedly brilliant. While not one of Allen’s great films, it was one of the best times I had watching a movie all year.
16. Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (Alex Stapleton)
B-movie king Roger Corman may be responsible for helping to launch the careers of countless Hollywood legends - from Martin Scorsese and Jack Nicholson to Jonathan Demme and Ron Howard - but has never really gotten his due until now. This lovingly crafted doc traces Corman’s 50+ year career on the outskirts of the industry with insightful interviews from his many protégés.
17. Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (David Yates)
Despite never having read the books, I’ve enjoyed my annual trips to Hogwarts over the last decade and though I never became a full Potter-phile, something became very clear during the terrific closing chapter of Warner Bros. unshakable franchise: I’m really going to miss these characters.
18. Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo)
A Mexican beauty pageant contestant gets kidnapped by a drug lord and forced to become a runner for his gang. It may sound dire but through Naranjo’s lense, it becomes the framework for a sparse first-person thriller. Shot in incredibly long fluid takes, Naranjo takes potentially bleak subject matter and turns it into invigorating cinema.
19. 50/50 (Jonathan Levine)
A cancer comedy is an extremely risky move so credit director Levine and screenwriter Will Reiser for nailing just the right mix of emotion and laughs with with this inspirational dramedy inspired by Reiser’s own battle with the disease. Features strong turns from an unsung Bryce Dallas Howard and Seth Rogen who shines by bringing his comic persona into a more dramatic film.
20. Super (James Gunn)
My pick for the Most Underrated Film of 2011, Gunn’s superhero satire is funny and weird and surprising in ways that can’t easily be summed up. Alright, fine: it’s like a darker, weirder “Kick-Ass” with Rainn Wilson from “The Office” as a depressive wannabe superhero and Ellen Page as his sexy sidekick.
Notable: Arthur Christmas, Being Elmo: A Puppeteers Journey, Captain America: The First Avenger, Friends With Kids, Horrible Bosses, The Ides Of March, Jane Eyre, Moneyball, Win Win, X-Men: First Class.