Now that we are already more than a month into 2012 (and more than a month closer to our demise, according to the Mayan calendar), and I've had a little more time to catch-up on a few titles, the wait to put together my list for the best movies of 2011 is over. In comparison to the previous two years where I put together a list such as this, 2011 seems to stand out as year where I was lucky enough to have watched a ton of great films. In fact, there were so many movies I loved that I actually had to do a lot of title shifting and a few marginally tough decisions had to be made And the final result is a massive list of fifteen films that make up my favorite films of 2011, with a ton of honorable mentions, to boot.
As always, my criteria for a movie to fall into a specific year is whether or not I am able to easily access it. If a film has seen a FULL theatrical release, a home video release or is out on VOD in 2011, then it's a 2011 movie to me. If I cannot easily access it by either of those means, then how the hell do I see it?! So stop judging me!
Anyway, it's time to get into this shit, yo, so here we go…
15. Meek's Cutoff
Kelly Reichardt's vastly understated Western sets its focus on a group of settlers trying to make their way from point A to point B. In between, and on the surface, not too much happens, but the undercurrent of fear driven masculinity and white alpha male dominance being squandered by a confidant female character and a man of color delivers a deep and powerful punch. Meek's Cutoff is a film where simplicity is grandiose, and this is further proven by the choice to go with a 4:3 aspect ratio, something that, initially, boggles the Western fan's mind. Even with a 4:3 ratio, there is an incredible amount of depth and scope provided by the impressively vast and gorgeous Christopher Blauvelt cinematography. Meek's Cutoff is certainly a film where snail-paced subtlety is a key component, but Reichardt's slow delivery never feels dull or drawn-out. In fact, the deliberate pace of the film has this tension that, in an odd way, comes from a lack of tension, if that makes sense.
14. The Innkeepers
Initially, Ti West's follow-up to House of the Devil had a secure spot in the honorable mentions section of this list; however, after allowing the film to stew in my system for the last month, the flavor left on my pallet seems to get better and better with each passing day. While I do not look at The Innkeepers as great horror film, I do look at it as a film where I was introduced to two characters, both of whom I sort of fell in love with. With fantastically quirky performances from both Sarah Paxton and Pat Healy, The Innkeepers stay has been strong do to their honest and refreshing character traits, integration in their environment and the relationship they share. Director Ti West constantly plays with genre conventions, and this time around he has creating a haunted house setting where the two main events of the film's climax make you wonder if there are any actual haunting, or is everything just the result of some overworked imaginations.
While being a tad sappy, a bit predictable and a little too convenient, Gavin O'Connor's MMA infused sports film, Warrior, brings to life one of the most intense and emotionally powerful sports stories in recent memory. Warrior is able to take its viewer on a long journey where the destination is already known, but the trip is so well drafted that the arrival brings about a testosterone driven emotion that harkens back to the original Rocky. While O'Conner certainly knows how to pull as hard as he can on ye old heartstrings, Warrior is truly driven by not only an incredible performance by Tom Hardy but equally intense performances by both Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte. In fact, I think it's a shame that neither Edgerton or Hardy('s shoulder muscles) weren't nominated for an Oscar, but I think we all know how credible the Academy is when it comes to Oscar nods and wins.
12. Attack the Block
Even though I wasn't quite as enamored with Joe Cornish's feature film debut, Attack the Block, as everyone else was this year, I still found it to be more than enjoyable enough to have it make my list for favorite films of 2011. While I believe the overall appeal for me with Attack the Block is simply how much fun it is, I really enjoyed seeing a film that actually took a page from the young teen movies of my youth. Of course, many would not believe a movie such as this, with its vulgarity and scenes of violence, is a bit too much for a younger teen audience. However, looking back to the films I grew up with - movies like The Outsiders or Stand by Me, for example - many were filled with these characteristics. Where Attack the Block stands above is the fact that there is a level of independent youth, but more importantly, with that independent youth comes character growth, and the final result is a group of teens who are vastly different people from beginning to end.
It's always refreshing to see a well-respected director such as Joe Wright focus their cinematic brush towards what is, superficially, a genre film. Starring the charmingly ethereal Saoirse Ronan as the titular character, Hanna doesn't brush story and character depth to the side to focus solely on action, and the result is a pseudo-coming of age story that follows one specific character's journey to discover who she is and what she is meant to be. Now, even though Hanna doesn't quite kick the door open with guns-a-blazing as an action film, that's not to say that there aren't some incredible set pieces. In fact, there are a handful of fantastic action sequences on display in this film, all of which are masterfully puppeteered across gorgeous settings thanks to the carefully crafted camera work of Alwin Küchler (specifically the airport sequence!).
10. Dream Home
Pang Ho-Cheung's Dream Home delivered what most Slasher films dare not: a complex character, social commentary and a nonlinear story, and it all just so happens to be drenched in blood-soaked viscera. While some horror fans didn't like this mixture of commentary and over-the-top violence, I found it to be absolutely refreshing for the genre, more specifically, the Slasher genre. What stood out about Dream Home most, outside of the incredible death scenes, was the fact that the nicely integrated flashbacks played with the viewer's emotions. There are moments that made me feel true sympathy for Josie Ho's character, but as soon as I became invested in her character in such a way, the film jolted back to the present and reminded me that this isn't a woman who I should feel any sympathy for.
9. The Loved Ones
Written and directed by Sean Byrne, The Loved Ones is a great example of what can be achieved when a filmmaker has respect for his or her subject matter. This Australian, teen-themed hybrid of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Misery has two incredibly well thought out characters. The film's protagonist, played admirably by Xavier Samuel, is an angst ridden teen - as well as a victim of misguided jealousy - who actually commands sympathy from the viewer. In the same token, the film's antagonist, played with mindboggling brilliance by Robin McLeavy, is a vengeful character who doesn't necessarily fall into the tropes of your standard pathetic high school girl. As a result, this mix of pure terror, torture and Oreo-shit black comedy, combined with the well-written characters, makes this one of the best horror films of the year. The Loved Ones is actually a 2009 film (on IMDB) that still has not seen a release in the States, something that is a complete pile of travesty, if you ask me.
8. Stake Land
After making a nice little splash with his feature film debut, the rock solid micro-budget Mulberry Street, co-writer/director Jim Mickle's vampire opus, Stake Land was most certainly blipping my radar for quite some time. Knowing that the guy who had such an odd but original take on the infection/pseudo-zombie genre was going to tackle vampires was attention drawing for someone who spent their childhood enamored by vampire films and the creatures that polluted them. And while Mickle's take on the vampire genre wasn't all that original, per say, and even if the road film approach wasn't anything I hadn't seen done in other genre films, per say, it was how he combined the two. It was the way he took the subject matter seriously that made Stake Land one of my favorite films of the year. With deep characters and some nicely groomed relationships, Stake Land had a few other big pluses to offer, with one being the awesome Nick Damici (who also served as co-writer on both Stake Land and Mulberry Street), and the other being the vampires who were nothing short of badass.
7. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
I generally am not one who pisses all over remakes; in fact, I almost kind of welcome them. With that said, there is one specific type of remake I do not welcome, and that is the dumbed down for American audiences - who don't go to the movies to read - remakes of foreign films that, more often than not, haven't even been released on home video yet (in the States, that is). It's a whole longwinded rant that I really need not get into as this is certainly not the time for it, but regardless, it's important to note that I dislike this Hollywood practice.
In any event, if you were to ever get me excited for a remake of a film such as the 2009 Swedish adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you go ahead and attach a name like David Fincher to it. A dark, procedurally driven film directed by the guy who helmed not one but two dark, procedurally driven masterpieces with 2007's Zodiac and 1995's Se7en. Sounds like the perfect fit, and as it turns out, it was. While I loved the Niels Arden Oplev helmed Swedish take on this first chapter in the Millennium series, specifically the fantastic performance from Noomi Rapace, it lacked the cinematic touch that a director like Fincher is/was able to bring. Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is visually stunning and refined in a way that doesn't glance away from the more atrocious aspects of the story. To make an already too long story short, I enjoyed this version slightly better than the Swedish film, and I think it shows what can be created when the right, passionate filmmakers are attached to the right projects.
6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
I never would have guessed a Harry Potter film would end up on my best of the year list. Then again, it's not as if I had ever seen any of the films in the same year they were released. My enjoyment of the Potter series was at a low simmer for many years. I enjoyed the first few films in the series, but for some odd reason, this past year, something with this series suddenly cliqued with me, and that simmer went into a full boil. I ended up catching up with both the Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows Part 1, all with the sole propose of seeing the final installment in theaters, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the only Potter film I would see in a theatrical format.
What I was finding with the Harry Potter films is they were beginning to tap into my nostalgic side of thinking, and I began to view the series as it is: a nicely delegated amount of children's fantasy mixed with dark subject matter and imagery. As is the case with the best children's stories, the Potter series grew darker with each passing installment, until the double dose of utter despair found in the combined Deathly Hallows films. It's an incredible thing how this "children's" series just suddenly hit me in such a way, but the feelings I have for the Harry Potter series, story flaws and all, are deeply rooted in my own childhood innocence and love for fantastical horror, and my enjoyment is reflected as such.
5. Fish Tank
Propelled by a refreshingly raw and emotional performance from a young woman who had absolutely no acting experience beforehand, writer/director Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank is one of the purest examples of a coming of age story I have seen in some time. I absolutely adore a good coming of age tale, and Fish Tank's story of a young, rebellious teen living a significantly less than perfect life in the urban streets of London is about as good as it gets.
Rookie actress Katie Jarvis shines brightly playing the infectiously likeable and fascinating Mia, a girl who is looking to find her own purpose in the world. Mia's struggles come from living a difficult life, as she is trying to separate herself from her mother's absolute lack of maternal maturity, but her biggest struggle comes from being such a fiercely independent young woman. Mia is a bit of an immature brat at times, something that comes with her young age, but she is rebellious in a way that shows strength and determination. Mia's decision-making is far from refined, and as a result, she makes many mistakes, but she has no road map to follow, no guidance from those who would normally provide it. Mia is left to learn things for herself, thus giving her the opportunity to learn from her own mistakes on her own terms.
4. 13 Assassins
I, like many who share my specific genre film tastes, am a big fan of Takashi Miike's work. The prolific director has been behind a handful of my favorite genre pictures, but what he did with the Samurai epic, 13 Assassins, is something that defines the director's ability to transition from the Miike of old to the Miike of new. I think it's simply awesome to see a director take everything that defines his work - sadism, fetishism, extreme stylized violence – and integrate those themes in to a classically fashioned Samurai story. It's been quite a while since I have seen the film, so my memory has faded significantly, so I don't have much more to say about the film outside of simply stating that there is a reason 13 Assassins is at number 4 on my list, and in a way, that kind of speaks for itself.
3. Hobo With a Shotgun
Never in a million years did I expect to even remotely enjoy Jason Eisener's Hobo with a Shotgun. From the unpleasant style of the film (based off what I had seen in trailers and images) to the completely overdone grindhouse motif that is rarely ever correctly executed, everything about this film screamed for me to keep far far away. Still, even though I figured I would absolutely hate the movie, I sat down and watched it anyway, and in what may be the biggest cinematic surprises I have experienced in quite some time, I absolutely loved it. First off, while Hobo does take a page or two from the proto-Exploitation handbook, I found that the film has very little in common with many of its brethren.
Unlike most throwback films of late, Hobo with a Shotgun is less a '70s Exploitation film and more a pure '80s sleaze-fest, and despite the fact that the movie is extremely over-the-top, I found many of its outlandish characteristics to feel more organic than most other films. Where Hobo stands out most is the often-applauded performance by Rutger Hauer, however, the gorgeously gaudy neon color pallet that Eisener employs gives the film an incredibly distinct otherworldly feeling. It's both Hauer's performance and the film's garish style that combine with its wonderfully absurd storyline that make this film standout from the pack, and as a result, Hobo with a Shotgun feels less like a throwback and more like its own film.
Over the past few years, director Nicolas Winding Refn has slowly risen towards the top of the food chain as far as being one of my favorite directors goes. With that said, anything the man is attached to certainly piques my interest at a very high level, and none more than Drive. In fact, Drive was easily my most anticipated film of 2011, and thankfully, I was not at all letdown. As per usual, Refn doesn't give audiences what they would typically expect from a genre picture. This is something he has done with most every film he has directed, and this tradition continues with the story of a stunt driver who, essentially, falls for the wrong girl.
Nicolas Winding Refn delivers incredible attention to detail as well as incredible attention to tension, and the lack of over-the-top car chases and false machismo give the film a lot more to stand on than your typical popcorn bullshit. And yet, when the stakes are high and the pace is kicked into next gear, Refn shows just how well he can construct a scene of pure adrenaline, and all without an ounce of it feeling phony or trite. From the cool as ice soundtrack and the noir-ish LA backdrop to the unconventional performance by Ryan Gosling, Drive is a genre picture that is as hip as it gets, but it never feels like it's trying to be too cool for school.
For some reason, I almost find it difficult to properly put into words why I love this film so much. Seeing it only once is certainly not enough to allow me to fully realize all of my thoughts, but I do know this, Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful is one of the most incredibly moving films I have seen since Children of Men. And if you know me well enough, you should know the esteem in which I hold Children of Men. As a piece of cinema, Biutiful is simply brilliant, on every level, but what really makes this film what it is, more than anything, is the emotionally charged performance by Javier Bardem.
After seeing Bardem in 2007's No Country for Old Men, I knew he was a fantastic actor, one who certainly deserved the Oscar win for his maniacal portrayal of Anton Chigurh. However, I had let Bardem slip from my consciences as an actor, almost forgetting how good he was capable of being. Seeing him in Biutiful did more than reaffirm the actor as a performer who could put forth a fantastic performance, it showed me that he is, without a doubt, one of the best actors working today. There is something about Bardem that goes beyond typical acting skills, and that something is easily defined as his overall presence, specifically his face. Javier Bardem might have one of the most expressive and interesting faces the screen has ever been graced with. His eyes alone, filled with an incredibly sympathetic poignancy, tell a million and one stories without the actor having to even bat a lash. And each one of those stories feels as if it's told through his eyes in Biutiful.
Special Honorable Mention
The Ides of March
Unfortunately, I caught the George Clooney directed political thriller, The Ides of March, just after I had started writing this post out, and once I begin to actually type it out, I do not like to make any changes. With that said, had Ides made it into my player beforehand, it very easily would have been in my top ten, possibly taking the number six or seven spot. This is technically an honorable mention, so I don't want to get into it too much; however, The Ides of March is a fantastically written and acted film that goes in directions that I, for once, did not foresee. A wonderful film that every cinema fan should check out.
Not Good Enough to Make a List, but Boy Did I Really Like 'em!
Red Hill * Paranormal Activity 3 * All the Boys Love Mandy Lane * Moneyball * Conan O'Brien Can't Stop * I Saw the Devil * Marwencol * The Silent House * X-Men First Class * The Man From Nowhere * Clash (Bay Rong) * Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale * Black Death * Machete Maidens Unleashed * All God's Creatures * Ip Man 2 * Troll Hunter * Rise of the Planet of the Apes * Skew * Tucker and Dale VS. Evil
Okay, that's it… I really hope you enjoyed my longer than it needed to be list of my favorite films of 2011. I hope you take a moment to share both your thoughts as well as what films you loved from the year that brought us the Forever Lazy.