Looking Back: Jeremy Picks His Own Top 10 Favorite Films of 2011
by Jeremy Kirk
December 29, 2011
Out with the bad. In with the good. But not just the good. No, save the good for the ten most "it was decent, but I'm ready to get out of the theater now" LIST. This is the best. These are the movies that reinvigorate our love of cinema, and the movies that are the reason I love going to the theater in the first place. There were many throughout the year 2011, and it was hard to whittle this list down to the 10 best films, but thankfully my honorable mentions help me get around that issue a little bit. Sadly, there's no Nicolas Cage on this list. It's not looking good for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, either. I swear I'll stop picking on that movie as soon as I see it. But before that comes, take a gander at my top ten movies of 2011. See the list below!
10. Bellflower - The film that nukes your brain and shows you what a nuke to the heart can drive you to. Bellflower hit me hard when I saw it at South by Southwest this year, and the imagery and story writer/director Evan Glodell puts on screen stuck with me for the remainder of the year. It's a gritty film, not one suited for everyone. The idea of two friends preparing for, no hoping for, the end of the world and the love that sets one of them on a course of destruction might not have the mass appeal of a Hollywood romantic comedy. But that's what makes Bellflower the kind of film that should be on a top 10 list. It takes chances. It's ballsy. It doesn't care to be appealing to everyone who might set their eyes on it. Glodell has something to say, a tone and look and feel he wanted to inject into every frame of this film. What he left us with was harsh but powerful, and Bellflower is the apocalyptic mind-meld it promises to be.
9. Kung Fu Panda 2 - Sure, we went from gritty story of destruction and pain to Jack Black. I have no qualms with this. Kung Fu Panda 2 appearing on my end of the year Best Of list was the furthest thing on my mind going in to see it. What I got, though, was a film that was funnier, more moving, and much grander than its predecessor. Needless to say, and you can check the rest of the list to verify this, it was without a doubt the best animated film of 2011, a chop socky adventure of the finest quality with plenty of genuine humor thrown in for good measure. What's more, Gary Oldman voices an albino peacock, and that character is the main villain here. Yes, it's quirky. No, you don't expect that, but that ability to subvert expectations is what makes Kung Fu Panda 2 such an enjoyable time at the movies. Plenty of animated films are filled with quality animation and humor that fires on every cylinder, but it takes the real works of quality to bring out the heart that something like this movie has. One of the most fun experiences at the theater this year, Kung Fu Panda 2 is what happens when great story tellers tell great stories and bring impeccable film making along with them.
8. The Skin I Live In -A horror film in the way it disturbs, makes you think, and builds its atmosphere and tension, The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodovar's latest film is just one of a few films released in 2011 that fell into the genre based on what it has brewing underneath its surface. It's psychological in the way it crafts its characters and puts them in fascinating situations, something Almodovar is a master at, but The Skin I Live In delves much deeper, possibly deeper than the director has ever dared travel before. With spectacular performances form Antonio Banderas - really, when is the guy never en fuego? - and Elena Anaya, this is a film that digs deep into your mind, shows you a twisted story of lost love and destructive obsession, and looks amazing every inch of the way. The Skin I Live In is the kind of film where you aren't quite sure how far the mind behind it is willing to go, and with your eyes locked to the screen, you know you have on choice but to go there with him.
7. Project Nim - The other movie about a highly intelligent chimpanzee this year, Project Nim is a stunning documentary of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It's also paved with the actions of people who don't know what they're doing most of the time. It's documentaries that tell stories such as this, stories that occurred long ago, that make you wonder why it took so long to bring it to the medium. Director James Marsh, whose Man On Wire topped many critics Best Of lists for 2008, brings the story of Nim and the scientists who wish to make him just a little more human to spectacular life. Using archival footage, photographs, and first-hand accounts from just about every player in the story, he crafts Project Nim with a keen eye, never pointing fingers, only displaying the facts for us to sift through and make our own determinations. Project Nim is an incredible story of an experiment gone wrong and the lives that were affected by it, most notably an innocent creature who only ever wished to be as nature intended. It's by far the best documentary of the year, and one of the most powerful true stories seen on film in recent memory.
6. I Saw the Devil - A few movies from South Korea hit this year, which means a few movies from South Korea about horrible, brutal revenge hit. In fact, check out the honorable mentions section below for another fine film that falls into that category. But, for now, we're talking I Saw the Devil, a hard-hitting tale of murder and revenge that dives head-first into the deep end of insanity early on and never lets up for two and a half hours. Told through a beautiful, blood covered lens from director Jee-woon Kim, it's a merciless film that dares you actually feel sympathy for a horrible serial killer. I'm not saying that works 100%. There's a pleasure that comes from watching someone so horrible getting put through a meat grinder - not literally, though that wouldn't have surprised me, either - of pain, anguish, and misery, and that's where I Saw the Devil wins most of its credit. You find yourself on either the side of sympathizing with a killer or reveling in the awful things that happen to him. It's unnerving at its very finest, but it's the epitome of engrossing film making from one of the finest directors working today. I Saw the Devil makes you see the darkness within yourself, and, to the film's credit, that's more uncomfortable than anything the run-of-the-mill horror films can achieve.
5. We Need to Talk About Kevin - Do you want children of your own? Watch We Need to Talk About Kevin, and that might be remedied well before the end credits roll. Another in 2011's line of "it's a horror movie, trust us" films, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a powerful and engaging film about unconditional love for ones child, even when you can't understand the darkness that grows inside them. But rather than have this be an all-out horror film where Kevin, who treats his mother with absolute contempt, is the son of the devil or possessed by some nefarious ghost, writer/director Lynne Ramsay and Lionel Shriver whose original novel is the basis for the film keep the source of Kevin's darkness a mystery. Like Tilda Swinton's character, the bewildered and woeful mother, we're left outside of the understanding for why Kevin does the things he does. At the same time, we understand the mother's love for her child and desire to break through to him in any way she can. Even if you don't have children, you sympathize with this woman, share in her grief as she watches her son go from bad to worse, and ultimately break with her when tragedy strikes. We Need to Talk About Kevin is as unnerving as they get. See a pattern with how I picked these movies? I need more sunlight and happy flowers in my life. Until that day comes, though, I'll continue to find myself engaged by powerful works of art like We Need to Talk About Kevin.
4. Hanna - An early Best Of the Year candidate for me that stuck for the rest of the year, Hanna is an energetic and quirky fairy tale, only instead of giants and witches coming after the child at the heart of this film, they're government assassins and CIA operatives trying to take a little girl out. Even better than all that, though, is this little girl can kick tail with the best of them. Saoirse Ronan gives a stunning performance as Hanna, a girl who has grown up with her father, played by Eric Bana, in the wilderness, trained with him in the ways of combat and survival, and who is about to be unleashed on the powers that wish to see her terminated. Director Joe Wright never lets his camera falter or even slow down for a second, but rather than come off like a Michael Bay work of sporadic pans and cuts, the camera work in Hanna is always on target, always looping around the film's characters and actions that keeps your heart racing throughout. It doesn't hurt that The Chemical Brothers have crafted a thumping but slightly off-kilter score that is just as listenable with or without the film's visuals. Hanna packs an adrenaline-fueled punch from its quiet but aggressive opening all the way to the impact of its final shot.
3. Drive - Hey, girl. You knew Drive was going to make it on this list. It's hitting most of the top 10 lists and for good reason. We knew Nicolas Winding Refn's film about a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver would be a fury of awesome visuals and tightly crafted action. We knew the film would be even better when we found out Ryan Gosling would be playing that stuntman. Even then, we had no idea how weighty and kinetic Drive would actually be. With masterful camera work, an '80s era soundtrack that would have Michael Mann frothing at the mouth, and a menacing but alluring supporting performance from Albert Brooks, Drive is by far the best action movie of 2011. But, unlike what the trailers suggest, it isn't a mile-a-minute series of cheap, action set pieces and nonstop car chases. There's a story that gets in the way of being wall-to-wall action, and that's what makes Drive transcend from being a great action movie. It's a great movie period filled with fully realized characters, a story that turns left when you expect it to turn right, and, yes, a few moments of spectacular action. If nothing else, Drive made every red-blooded human on the planet wish for a varsity jacket with a scorpion embroidered on the back. Just me? No, I strongly doubt it was just me.
2. The Trip -See? This is why The Trip is so high on my list. Just thinking about the movie, just looking at the title puts a smile on my face. I almost disqualified this film, as it's essentially an edited version of a British television series about Steve Coogan, playing a fictionalized version of himself, and Rob Brydon, also playing a fictionalized version of himself, traveling to Great Britain's finest restaurants, getting on each other's nerves, and making us LOL the whole way through. Just the scene where the two joust with impressions of Michael Caine as their respective weapons is one of the highlights of the entire year. But more than being just a fine comedy that never lets up on the laughter, The Trip is a great film about two characters and their places in the world. It's a film about acceptance and the peace of mind that comes from knowing who you are and what your place is. The film is incredibly moving as well as hilarious, but you can also check out the full six episodes of the BBC series. Either way, it's a story that needs to be experienced headlined by two spectacular comedians.
1. Take Shelter - And here we are. The best 2011 had to offer. Like so many films on this list, Take Shelter isn't meant for everyone. It's painful, heart-wrenching, and incredibly engaging. The story of a family man who has visions of the end of the world might have come and went in the hands of a lesser film maker, but Jeff Nichols, who both wrote and directed this film, injects an idea of the horrors that come from that into every scene of Take Shelter. Yes, on the surface, this film is about one man's desire to save his family from a coming storm that devastates the planet, but looking deeper you find that it's really about everyone's worst fears coming to a head all at once. It's about financial fears. It's about the worry of being taken away from your family. It's about the dread that comes when you begin to think you might be losing your mind.
It's all of these fears rolled into a highly engrossing story, shot perfectly, and featuring Michael Shannon in the best performance of his career. You feel for Shannon's character anyway, but the weight of the world that's coming down on this man's shoulders is felt with every line, every look, and every action Shannon gives. Just try not to tear up when he confronts the people of his town who think he's losing his mind. Try not to feel the grip on your heart when this man looks to his daughter who doesn't understand why her father is acting the way he is, and he weeps because of the look of fear in her eyes. Take Shelter is an emotional tornado whose moments resonate, sends shock waves through you that continue to vibrate long after the film ends. The ground is still moving, and the storm hasn't even arrived yet.
Honorable Mentions: 13 Assassins, Attack the Block, The Beaver, Certified Copy, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Moneyball, The Muppets, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Shame, and The Yellow Sea
And there you have it. The absolute best 2011 has to offer. It's indicative of how well this year in movies has been that it was so difficult to get this list down to 10. There was a noticeable pain that came from having to cut some of those movies down to an honorable mentions list, but they are all works of cinema that are absolutely worth your time and effort. Here's hoping 2012 is even half as good as this year in terms of quality film making and engaging storytelling. And who knows? Maybe Nicolas Cage can even make it on this list some day. A man can dream, can't he? Thoughts? What are your favorite films of 2011?