My Top Ten Movies Of 2011.

Posted: February 28, 2012 in Lists, Movies, Movies (A), Movies (B), Movies (D), Movies (G), Movies (L), Movies (Number Titles), Movies (R), Movies (T), Movies (V)

There’s only one reason to post a list like this one at this preposterously late stage in the game, and that’s in the hopes that you might find something on my list which you haven’t seen yet and might like to be persuaded to try.

It’s never easy to distill an entire year’s worth of movies into a manageable list, but that’s not really the reason why I didn’t file one until now.  The real reason is that there are some significant movies I wasn’t able to see in time, and still haven’t been: most notably 50/50,  The Adventures Of Tintin, J.Edgar, A Separation, Shame, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, War Horse, and We Need To Talk About KevinI see a lot of movies on a yearly basis, but even I can’t get to all of them.

Then there are all the prestigious movies you’ve been hearing plenty about lately, which I frankly am not too interested in going out of my way to see but probably could have done, just to be informed.  These include My Week With Marilyn, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Midnight In Paris, The Iron Lady, and The Help.   No offense intended (well, offense intended in a couple of those cases), but again, there’s only so much time in a life.

Last year I made a top twenty.  This year I decided to restrict myself to just ten.  Another reason for the delay.  A little narrowing was required.  If you want to hear what almost made it, we’ll be here all day.  So let’s not.  When selecting these ten, I gave myself one simple guideline:

Which movies am I most likely to revisit?

That immediately eliminated movies like HugoMission Impossible: Ghost  Protocol, and Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, since a great part of what made those viewing experiences special to me was the way they used the 3-D and/or IMAX formats.

And it made things more honest, especially because I’ve already gone back to more than a few of my ten.  Some internet people strive to impress with their lists, but that’s not my style.  This really is the stuff I like the best, not the stuff I need anyone to think I like the best.

I did notice a trend of note here.  This is by far the most international list I have ever made.  Only four out of ten movies here were made in the U.S. of A., and two of those were made by foreign-born directors.  Does this mean that my personal tastes are getting more global?  Or does it mean that the cinema of my native land has been, generally speaking, somewhat lacking of late?  That part is a question maybe to ponder further.  In the meantime, seriously, I’ve dragged this out more than enough:

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My Top Ten Movies Of 2011.

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#10

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The Tree Of Life (USA)

 

What It’s About:

 

An aging man (Sean Penn) reflects back on his imperfect but happy childhood.Why I Love It:  Speaking strictly in terms of the visual, was there a single more beautiful movie in all of 2011?  Yeah?  Could ya name one?  Possibly Hugo, but that was a city-based kind of beauty.  The Tree Of Life, as is so often the case with Terrence Malick’s movies, finds the beauty in the effortless, the pre-existing, the resolutely natural.  And then there were the people.  As good as Brad Pitt was in Moneyball, he’s that much better in this movie.  I’ve always liked the guy in movies but I’ve never seen this level of sophistication in any of his characters before.  He’s playing a complicated person with a lot of internalized feelings, and he’s playing the whole thing from the perspective of another character.  Playing a much more openly and directly positive character, Jessica Chastain is still equally effective.  The kids in the movie are just as excellent — Malick is so often credited (justly) with his capacity to create indelible images that it’s easy to overlook his tendency to elicit terrific performances from pros and neophytes alike.  The Tree Of Life is a thoughtful movie at a time when the culture at large (and even myself, as evidenced by the fact that I’m only ranking this at #10) are yearning for the easy answers.  It’s a movie that lingers in the mind, and I predict it will gain in esteem as time goes on.  Awards-season conversations fade away quickly, but some movies will travel far beyond.  Trust me:  This is the kind of thing I tend to be most right about.  (It also helps to know that all of Terrence Malick’s films have grown in esteem since their original release dates.)

 

Is It On Netflix Instant?:

No.

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  #9

 

Viva Riva! (Congo)

 

What It’s About:

 

In a community where gasoline is a precious commodity, a devil-may-care rogue thief (Patsha Bey Mukuna) rips off a gas shipment from some very bad men, then runs into trouble when he falls for a local gangster’s girlfriend (Manie Malone.)

 

Why I Love It:

 

Because it’s electric.  Before I get to what makes this film so thrilling on a cultural level, let me start out by promising that it’s a solid crime film no matter what part of the world it’s from.  The plot relies on familiar noir tropes — the femme fatale, the murderous nemesis, the doomed hero — but where the story lacks in originality, the film more than makes up for it in atmosphere and intensity.  This is a low-budget movie shot entirely practically in a real community using primarily local talent, which gives the movie an added urgency and veracity.  This isn’t some Road Warrior future where gangs battle over gasoline — this is really happening in the world right now.  Imagine that; imagine the gasoline we Americans so take for granted being the currency that believably powers criminal enterprise in crowded, poverty-stricken villages.  But there’s also a harsh beauty to this movie.  The nightlife in Kinshasa feels vivid and seeped in detail and danger, and the sexuality in this movie has a fierceness and forthrightness rarely seen in European cinema, let alone puritanical America.  If there were rankings based on 2011’s most assertive (and acrobatic) cunnilingus scenes, this movie would have that position licked.  But it’s not just honest sex that makes this film so intriguing.  Viva Riva! serves as the ignition of a nation’s film industry.  On the DVD, director Djo Tunda Wa Munga talks about how he specifically designed the film’s plot to be familiar and genre-based because there aren’t a whole lot of Congolese films out there, and he wanted this one to be as accessible as possible in order to gather the international appetite for more films from the Congo.  With Viva Riva!, we’re seeing an entire film industry start from the ground up, and that’s an exciting thing to watch.

 

Is It On Netflix Instant?:  Yes!

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#8

 

13 Assassins (Japan)

What It’s About:

 

Thirteen samurai assassins are sent to dispose of an insane dictator.  Here be political subtext.

 

Why I Love It:

 

Takashi Miike is one of Japan’s most prolific and provocative directors.  His movies careen from genre to genre, although he is most notorious for unflinching scenes of horrific scenes of torture and extreme violence that thrill his admirers (including Quentin Tarantino) and disturb the squares (or the reasonable).  I can’t claim to be an authority on Miike, but 13 Assassins is surely one of his most masterful orchestrations.   He’s working on a grand scale here, starting with a story that has some basis in history and was dramatized once before, in 1963.  The first three-fifths or so of 13 Assassins is a run-up to the rest — there are brief and terrible outbursts of cruelty that firmly establish the threat that the maniacal noble presents, and make it clear that he needs to be removed.  (Indeed, as an audience we crave it, this guy’s so awful.)  But these violent scenes barely prepare us from what is to come; the majority of the movie is a relatively subdued chamber drama compared to the absolute carnage of the final act, where the titular baker’s dozen engineer a small village to be one large deathtrap for a retinue of two hundred enemies.  It’s difficult to overstate the literal awesomeness of the final battle, even if I were to go into the gory, inventive details, nor the mastery with which Miike conducts it.  If you are a fan of action cinema you simply must see this movie or your opinion doesn’t count.  Does that sound like a mean thing to say?  It’s because this movie quite unsubtly provides a political philosophy that is very compelling: The enemy forces are commanded by an old ally of the leader of the band of thirteen.  The leader is loath to battle his friend, but the guy is just plain on the wrong side of the argument.  He may be a good man carrying out his sworn duty, but he’s acting on behalf of a power-mad rich-kid who rapes and kills on a whim.  In the end, it’s suggested, mercy can be shown to no enemy, even if decent men may stand on the wrong side.  Here in America, with so many backwards arguments still being raised by the party of the privileged and slowing down civil rights, this philosophy is not without implications.

 

Is It On Netflix Instant?: Yes!

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#7

The Last Circus (Spain)
What It’s About:
In 1970s Spain, two circus clowns (Carlos Areces and Antonio de la Torre) go to war over a beautiful acrobat (Carolina Bang).

Why I Love It:

This movie has a scene where one circus clown hires a less-experienced clown to serve as his subordinate.  A clown job interview.  All I ever ask is that a movie show me something I’ve never seen before.  The Last Circus is an overt political and historical allegory, which will fascinate students of the power struggles in Spain throughout the past century, but for those of us with less sophisticated intellectual appetites, the film thrills on just as many cyllinders.  The central trio of performers are perfect in what must have been emotionally demanding roles:  The excellently-named Carolina Bang, as Natalia, “The Acrobat”, is both a pleasure to look at (something like a blond Katy Perry, only much better) and a genuinely impressive dramatic performer, anchoring the film by making its most human moments believable. Antonio de la Torre is both charismatic and terrifying as Sergio, “The Silly Clown”, a bully and an abuser, while Carlos Areces as Javier, “The Sad Clown”, a dead ringer for the comedian John Hodgman, centers and then upends the film as its protagonist turned villain turned tragic figure, a meek clown whose bullying at the hands of Sergio and rejection at the hands of Natalia ultimately turns him into a raving maniac.  Seriously, you have no idea how crazy this movie gets.  It’s like a Moulin Rouge! of violence; colorful, energetic, operatic, histrionic, beautiful, and horrible.  (If you have to, if it gets you to check this out, compare it to the Crank movies, only better and smarter in every way.)  Really, more than anything, The Last Circus reminds me of the mad opera of comic books.  Which makes sense, as filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia has worked as a comic book artist.  I’m not talking about the morose, costume-averse comic-book movies of the last few years.  I mean the deranged, carnival-sideshow feeling of the craziest comic books, which only really Tim Burton has tapped in his two Batman films (and arguably even Joel Schumacher did in his first Batman film.)  It’s that feeling of having a blast of a time as a viewer even as you’re watching the characters on screen living out their worst moments.  There’s a bizarre vicarious release to be had from witnessing such creative, bombastic madness, and as American comic-book action films have lately gotten more self-serious and eager to please everyone, we’ve moved away from that crazy energy.  It’s a shame, but it makes me ravenous to see whatever de la Iglesia comes up with next.

Is It On Netflix Instant?:  Yes!

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#6

 

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (USA)

 

What It’s About:

 

The life and rise to power of a tyrannical chimpanzee.

 

Why I Love It:

 

Did you read that synopsis?  It’s literally astounding.  No offense, but Twentieth Century Fox, as a studio, is responsible for some of the most ponderous and frankly misguided films of the past decade — there was no reason to expect they’d get this so right.  Honestly, they (by hiring and empowering writers Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and director Rupert Wyatt) got this movie better than right.  I’m a big fan of the original Planet Of The Apes but I wouldn’t have had much interest in seeing it remade (as evidenced by the actual remake from 2001, a great example of what I was referring to earlier as “ponderous and misguided”).  This new movie is so much more interesting than a paint-by-numbers remake or a so-called re-envisioning.  It’s even more interesting than the movie I thought I wanted.  It’s the most realistic version we could ever expect to see of what would happen if a super-smart chimp decided he was mad as hell and didn’t want to take it anymore.  Having recently seen the astonishing, similarly-themed documentary Project Nim, I’m all the more enamored of Rise Of Planet Of The Apes.  It’s true speculative fiction, legitimate science-fiction, and truly affecting.  The humans in the story are by far the less interesting — I have plenty of affection for James Franco and Freida Pinto as performers, but they are strictly supporting characters to Caesar (in a phenomenal, ground-breaking performance by Andy Serkis).  Even John Lithgow plays it muted, no doubt being practiced in playing second fiddle to a man in an ape costume from his experience on Harry & The Hendersons.   Caesar is the star of the show, and one of the best characters of any movie in 2011.  I just can’t get over the fact that this is a huge-budgeted studio film which is essentially a character study of a chimpanzee.  That’s a minor miracle.  I mean, seriously folks: It’s the primate version of Scarface.  What on any planet would I not love about that?

Is It On Netflix Instant?:  No.

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 #5

 

Black Death (Germany/UK)

What It’s About:

A young monk (Eddie Redmayne) is recruited by a monomaniacal knight (Sean Bean) to go find and kill a rumored witch who is said to be able to raise the dead.

Why I Love It:

Because this is a terrific example of a cinematic rope-a-dope — you think it’s going to be one thing, and then it proves to be quite another.  I love it when a movie confounds my expectations that way, and I love it even better when the end result is this satisfying.  Black Death is by far the most underrated and under-seen film to appear in theaters all year.  It’s excellent all around — believable, wonderfully-acted, impeccably production-designed, and terrifically-written.  It does start out to seem like more of an epic and turns out to be far more modest, but I think that even works in its favor — the smaller scale makes it more intense and effective.  I’ve already written plenty about this overlooked gem, and I hope you get a chance to read that here, but even more than that, I’d be glad if you got the chance to please give the movie a look.  It’s worth your time.

Is It On Netflix Instant?:  Yes!

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 #4

Beginners (USA)

What It’s About:

A graphic designer (Ewan McGregor) beginning a new relationship copes with the legacy of his charismatic father (Christopher Plummer), who came out of the closet at the age of 75 before dying of cancer a few years later.

Why I Love It:

I’m attracted to movies (and people) that are honest and genuine.  Too many movies (and people) are either soulless or putting up a front to impress.  Beginners is one from the heart, an evident labor of love by its writer-director Mike Mills and his crew, and just as important, it’s a well-made movie.  The Christopher Plummer performance has gotten the most attention, and rightly, as it’s the engine that drives the movie, but that’s not all Beginners has to offer.  Look, you don’t have to dig too deep on this website to read me praising Christopher Plummer, but let’s not overlook Ewan McGregor’s inward performance as his much-less emotionally demonstrative son, Melanie Laurent as the lively woman who begins to draw him out, Goran Visnic as Plummer’s character’s dense but loving widow, and yes, Cosmo the dog in the best animal performance of the year.  And most of all, let’s not overlook Mike Mills’ storytelling achievement in creating one of the realest, most relatable movies of the past few years, let alone 2011:  I can’t exactly relate to the gay-dad story, but you’d better believe I understand McGregor’s character and his tentative attempts at a relationship with Melanie Laurent’s.  This is real life, this is real love — just a little more entertaining and uplifting.  My full-on piece on Beginners can be read here, but let me put it simply and directly:  You see that tagline on the poster?  “This is what love feels like.”  That’s not an inexact description of what this movie manages to achieve.

Is It On Netflix Instant?:  No.

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#3

 

The Guard (Ireland)

What It’s About:

An American FBI agent (Don Cheadle) teams up with an extremely unconventional local cop (Brendan Gleeson) to catch some drug traffickers who have come to a small Irish town.Why I Love It:  Well, I really love it.  I’ve already rewatched The Guard three times since I first saw it theatricallyin September.  Like Beginners, I knew right away that this movie would make this year-end list.  If nothing else, Brendan Gleeson as Gerry Boyle is the single best fucking character out of any movie in 2011.  Gerry Boyle is profane, funny, iconoclastic, bull-headed, clever, moronic, sly, sarcastic, perverse, horny, devoted, noble, and really fucking profane.  At one point during The Guard, Don Cheadle’s frustrated FBI agent Wendell Everett tells Boyle, who has just frustrated him for the fiftieth time in the first day of them knowing each other, “I can’t tell if you’re really motherfucking dumb, or really motherfucking smart.”  It’s a good question, so on-the-nose it’s repeated later in the movie.  It’s pretty much the central question driving the movie.  It’s a blast to watch Cheadle puzzle it out, and even more fun to watch Gleeson confound everyone he encounters.  We first meet Gerry Boyle as he’s patrolling the comatose Galway countryside, coming across the wreckage of a recently-totalled fast car containing dead club kids who just had their last all-night rager.  Boyle dutifully inspects the bodies, comes up with a tab of ecstasy, and with a shrug, pops the pill into his mouth.  He then moves onto a crime scene to investigate a dead body, this one no accident, which turns out to be the handiwork of a trio of drug traffickers, played by the world-class character actors Liam Cunningham and Mark Strong and the lesser-known but equally memorable David Wilmot.  This trio is an entertaining enough bunch on their own, as is every single supporting character in the movie really (my current favorite being Dominique McElligott as an embattled escort with a sense of humor), but they’re all ultimately playing the straight men to Gleeson’s Gerry Boyle.  I can’t say it the fuck enough:  This is one of the craftiest performances of the year, in the role of the year.  Everything about The Guard is good fun, but if you’re not keeping your eyes on this guy, you’re missing the fecking point, ye idjit.

Is It On Netflix Instant?:  No.

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 #2

Drive (USA)

What It’s About:

A stuntman who works nights as a getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) gets wrapped up in a robbery gone wrong.

Why I Love It:

I hinted around this point in my review, but let me just spell it out:  The main character in this movie prefers not to talk if he can help it.  He’s pretty good at what he does, yet fallible at major make-or-break moments.  He’s got his own sense of style.  He’s loyal to his friends, he’s good with kids, he’s got a soft touch with the ladies — well, some but not all.  He’s cool, but not as cool as he thinks (a toothpick? really?)  In other words:  It’s very possible that it would scare you to know how similar this character is to your humble narrator here.  For better or worse, like no other movie in 2011 I related to Drive from the center of my being.  The great thing about Drive is that you don’t have to be me to relate into this movie.  The movie is built to work that way for anyone.  In fact, I could just be projecting.  It’s a broad-strokes movie, only tangentially willing to delve into character.  The novel by James Sallis has extensive backstories for every character, but the movie only gives you a little.  It instead foregoes story for mood and atmosphere.  Like a song. Just like a song.  And the best pop songs are the universal ones.  If you can get into Drive‘s particular rhythms, it’s impossible not to go with them.  There are people who shit-talked Drive, sure.  They’re the same people who shit-talked The Tree Of Life.  They’re the same people who think The Artist is a realistic candidate for the title of 2011’s Best Picture.  They don’t actually understand art when they’re looking at it.  But while The Tree Of Life is fine art, built for history, Drive is pop art, built for the moment.  You can come back to it, as many times as you like, and for the temporary moment you’re watching it — like the greatest pop art — it can make you feel like the hero of your own movie.  Or, at least it can give you a glimpse into the mind into the kind of guy who does.

Is It On Netflix Instant?:  No.

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 #1

 

Click to read my original review!

 

Attack The Block (UK)

What It’s About:

A swarm of carnivorous aliens land near a tenement building ruled by a gang of juvenile delinquents.

Why I Love It:

Because when I walked out of the theater onto the city streets after the first time I saw Attack The Block, I was on a dizzy movie-high, and I’ve felt almost that good after each successive viewing.  Attack The Block is funny, scary, exciting, smart, and occasionally even touching.  It has its social context if you want to think about that kind of thing (and at some point you should), but first and foremost this movie has come to entertain you, and there was no movie I saw in 2011 that was better suited to that task.  I’ve been pondering myself, and talking over with some savvy friends, why Attack The Block didn’t catch on the way I hoped.  Maybe people like me, who got to see it early and tried to fan the flames of interest, overdid it, and set up expectations no movie could meet.  Maybe it was the British accents.  Maybe you were more amenable if you grew up on hip-hop culture.  Maybe you were more amenable if you had a working knowledge of British hip-hop culture.  Maybe American audiences are too attuned to the over-edited, under-developed style of cruddy American action movies.  Maybe Attack The Block was just too good.  Maybe it’s an instant cult movie, like Carpenter’s The Thing not appreciated in its own time but lying in wait for its eventual audience to find it.  Or maybe it’s the fact that the movie’s heroes are a bunch of black kids and a white woman.  That’s still a hard sell in America.  But there’s that social context I was alluding to before.  That’s no fun.  This movie is fun.  It’s stuffed with jokes and thrills.  For monster freaks like me, it has one of the most ingenious alien designs of any movie I’ve seen in the past decade.  It has a terrific score, energetic performances, an instantaneous movie star in lead actor John Boyega (already cast by Spike Lee in an upcoming project), a smarter script (by director Joe Cornish) than it’s likely to be credited for, a great sense of momentum, and the single best ending of any movie I saw in 2011.  There are plenty of sci-fi movies with hundreds of times more budget, but it doesn’t make them any better.  Attack The Block is a simple, direct, eminently effective entertainment machine.  Did I oversell it?  Probably.  But I just had that great a time.  Attack The Block was 2011’s best party.  Sorry some of you couldn’t make it.

Is It On Netflix Instant?:  No.  But it’s on steady rotation at my place.  Attack The Block Party, anyone?

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Find me on Twitter!: @jonnyabomb

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Comments
  1. Ryan McNeely says:

    Good list, Jon. I’m thrilled to see The Guard in there (it made my number 1: http://wp.me/p1oXb4-2C). The first time I saw it was in a double bill with In Bruges at my local semi-art-house place. I seriously can’t wait to see Viva Riva and Last Circus

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