The 10 Best Goddamn Movies of 2011
Our Annual 10 Best List is typically the hardest list to put together each year, simply because we have a lot of critics at Pajiba; we all have different sensibilities; and we’ve not all seen every movie. In the end, consensus lists tend to trim around the weird, the wacky, and the obscure, and settle for something that aims to please all of our individual tastes as much as it does the collective. (You can see the critics’ individual Top 10s here for a more varied look at 2011 in film, and many of those more obscure picks made it onto our 10 Best Films You Didn’t See list). All the same, 2011’s list is remarkable for the way that so many of us coalesced around so many of the same brilliant movies. It covers the gamut, from sports to animated to fanboy to thriller to indie, from low budget to huge moneymaker, and from ultra violent to ultra funny (and I might note that Rise of the Planet of the Apes just missed the cut at number 11, otherwise we’d also feature blockbuster). What I’m saying is, there’s plenty here for you to all accuse us of being hipsters, populists, pretentious douchebags, fanboys, or dumbasses. Take your pick.
The only unusual thing about the top 10 is that despite 2011 being the year of the superhero, as well as the year of the sequel, nothing in either category reached The 10 Best Goddamn Movies of 2011.
10. Rango — Scrub away all of your doubts about the ability of the omnipresent Johnny Depp (whose cinematic output has been — let’s face it — less than impressive lately) to carry a leading voice role without overpowering an entire film. Dismiss all preconceived notions about director Gore Verbinski’s first stab at an animated picture, for this final product is much smarter than any of that Pirates of the Caribbean garbage. Yet, at the same time, Rango is still as much of a rip-roaring ride as it effortlessly blends genres and their archetypes into an Old West setting. The story by Verbinski and his screenwriter, John Logan (The Aviator), initially covers some familiar ground by exploring the well-treaded “fish out of water” motif, but that’s the limit of any genericism. Here, Depp plays a lizard who dreams big and generally amuses himself by acting within his own plays and pauses only to reflect, “Our story needs an ironic, unexpected event that will propel our hero into conflict.” Well, that unexpected event quickly takes place, but the true irony here is that there’s precious little irony to be found within Rango. — Agent Bedhead
9. The Ides of March — The source material for The Ides of March traces its roots to the 2004 election, but co-writer and director George Clooney has made a movie very much about life in 2011, with the shine off the presidential apple and people on both sides of the aisle wising up to the awful truth of political compromise. It was just a few years ago that he poured his heart into Good Night, and Good Luck, a gorgeous and searing indictment of small-minded politics that felt like a call to something greater in all of us. Yet The Ides of March is a much darker film, a sad and quiet reflection on the cost of doing business in a world guided by men willing to kill each other for the chance to lead whoever’s left. Clooney spoke out in summer 2006 about his hopes that Barack Obama would become president, saying, “If Senator Obama became ‘Presidential Candidate Obama,’ it would be the most electrifying thing to happen to the Democratic Party since [John F.] Kennedy.” Yet the grim realities of the past few years about the nature of the sausage factory have tempered that optimism for some, and Clooney’s film is a reflection of that journey from starry-eyed hope to a steely determination to survive. It’s a story about a politician who sounds blessedly different from everyone else but who turns out to have the same pathetic vices shared by everyone who ever ran for office, and it’s impossible not to feel as if Clooney’s working from a place of personal disappointment as much as (or more than) external analysis. — Daniel Carlson
8. Attack the Block — Attack the Block is a hell of a time, and it wears its genre love shamelessly on its sleeve. It takes a flurry of different inspirations and brands them with its own style, and feels like one of those pictures that was likely a blast to make. It’s simple in many ways, perhaps to a fault — the eventual answer to why the creatures are there is a little trite, and if you pay too much attention to the plot, you may end up rolling your eyes a bit. But it’ll suck you in with its enthusiasm. It revels in the joyously terrifying, and its rampage of a pace doesn’t really give you time to question it too much. Which in this case is just fine, as you’re best served to simply let yourself get lost in the Block. — TK
7. Hanna — Propelled by a score written by the Chemical Brothers, Hanna is a mash-up, so densely packed with literary and filmic allusions that pausing to consider them all is to sink into a subtextual bog and miss the immediate, almost urgent pleasure that’s unfolding on the screen before you. whiz-bang action flick, one that’s pleasantly leavened by a beautiful, painterly sense of composition. For all the kinetic and jagged passages that confine us to the immediate action that’s taking place on screen— fight passages choreographed as lyrically as dance—there are counterpoints. The music will shift from the propulsive trance of the nightclub to the airy, chill of the lounge, and visually, beautiful vistas and the exoticism of the everyday unfold before us like little treasures to be admired before the roller coaster takes off again. — Michael Murray
6. The Tree of Life — It’s not wholly inaccurate to think of filmmaking as existing on a continuum: on one end, a direct, straightforward assemblage of images designed to serve as a simple delivery device for plot; on the other, a purely impressionistic blast of sound and vision that wants nothing more than to convey an emotional state of being. Most movies fall closer to the first terminus, telling linear narratives that, though dressed up with standard visual clues (the use of light and dark to convey emotion, the use of quick cuts to create a sense of energy or excitement, etc.), are still ultimately about watching a protagonist try to achieve a central goal before the end credits. Yet one of the wonderful things about Terrence Malick — and one of the things that makes The Tree of Life such a masterful, glorious film — is his ability to move closer to the middle of that continuum, to exist in the tension between telling a story along A-B-C lines and using the medium of film to create a heightened emotional state as fragile but real as the moment you fall in love, and equally as challenging to unpack or explain. Malick’s latest film is a rapturous one, a work wrought by the hand of a gifted storyteller who knows precisely how to use a confluence of music and motion to communicate whole chunks of story at once; it’s as if Malick feels the film so deep in his bones that his mere belief is enough to transmit it whole into our hearts and minds. He matches elliptical bursts of whispered dialogue with timely cuts and perfect visuals to instantly create and send entire universes out into the night. Malick plants his feet and his flag in the middle of the filmmaking spectrum, owning the land like no other. No one else does what he does; not like this. Yet The Tree of Life isn’t a mere technical achievement: it’s a heartrending, gorgeously realized story of life and death that wrestles with questions of love, justice, and the way our families shape our fate. It’s engaging, challenging, uncompromising; it is unique, and daring, and the reason we go to the movies. — DC
5. Moneyball — Bennett Miller’s Moneyball is unquestionably a great movie. What makes it more remarkable is that not only is it a great movie, but that it’s a great movie despite its being about a subject that few other than hardcore baseball fans and purists care about — or even know about. It’s a remarkable achievement, to take a subject as dense and complicated as Billy Beane’s statistical, small ball approach to baseball (based on Bill James’ theory of sabermetrics) as outlined in Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball, and not only parse it out so that it’s understandable for the average viewer, but that it’s enjoyable for the average viewer. Moneyball is at its heart a baseball movie. In some ways, it feels like one of the grandaddies of baseball movies, a perfect example of why we watch the game and why they play it. It’s a plot- and character-driven piece that examines the fragile psyches of its players and personnel, humanizing them with an honesty that exposes the good and the bad about the sport, its people and its history, traditions and troubles. It’s a slow-burning picture that rarely resorts to cheap, overwrought finales. It’s at times extremely funny, but it always maintains a serious — sometimes desperate — tone, but doesn’t descend into maudlin theatrics. The performances of Pitt, Hill and Hoffman are uniformly excellent, and they, Sorkin’s dialogue and Miller’s keen directing combine to create a powerful, intricately designed film about the world of baseball, and perhaps more importantly, baseball’s place in our world. — TK
4. Bridesmaids — Saturday Night Live’s” Kristen Wiig wrote and stars in Bridesmaids, and she finally delivers a comedy script that doesn’t depict women who don’t belong to exclusively to one of the major female role categories: Crazy bitch, uptight shrew, psycho slut, or overbearing control freak. These women fit all four categories and manage to remain likeable, even lovable, and relative to the way women are primarily portrayed in comedy films, that’s practically three-dimensional. It’s also the movie that’s going to make Kristen Wiig one of the few female break-out film stars of “SNL,” a loopier, raunchier Tina Fey without an agenda (for better or worse). Wiig is not making a female version of a guy’s comedy. She’s just making a comedy that happens to feature predominantly women. She’s playing in the dudes’ sandbox, and with Bridesmaids, Wiig is kicking their asses. Enough good cannot be said about Bridesmaids, not just because it’s one of the first completely successful female ensemble studio comedies, but because it’s one of the few successful studio comedies at all. — DR
3. The Artist — Every year, there seems to be a film that comes along so magical and original, so clever and poignant and fascinating, that you immediately and irrevocably fall passionately in love with it. Until next year. Usually, this is because there haven’t been any particularly decent films out as of yet, or everything else just feels like a shoddy grab for gold in the last vestiges of the cinematic season. Michel Hazanavicius, whose claim to fame appears to be creating the French Austin Powers, seems to have struck lightning with The Artist, an homage to the decline of the silent film era. While it’s not quite the bold experimental film that I’d love to give it credit for, it’s definitely a breath of fresh air. Hazanavicius made an actual silent film, complete with jaunty piano and string score, exaggerated gesture, dialogue cards, and in glorious black and white with two French leads famous mostly for being in his French espionage farces. There’s bound to be folks who want to cast it off as gimmicky, and it definitely suffers from some exceedingly slow pacing at points, but for me, this is the kind of film that reminds you why Turner Classic Movies exists and why those old-timey films they exhibit still have impact. The Artist is the most wonderful and delightful film I’ve seen all year, and my clear favorite. So far. Until next year. — Brian Prisco
2. 50/50 — The worst descriptor one could use for 50/50 is “that cancer comedy,” for no other reason than because it oversimplifies what is a stunningly poignant, moving and occasionally devastating film that deals with one of the most dreadful diseases known to man. Of course, the hook is that 50/50 is also incredibly funny, bordering on hysterically so at times, yet the humor is so wry and bittersweet that it creates an emotionally jarring picture that, even when you’re laughing at loud, always feels like you’re waiting for the next gut punch. And I mean all of that in a very, very good way. 50/50 is a testament to the best kind of filmmaking. It’s a brilliant run through a complex emotional issue that manages to touch upon all of the incumbent feelings of dread, sadness, joy, humor, desperation, and happiness. It’s one of the funniest, most intelligent movies of 2011, and certainly the most affecting. It’s a heartbreaker at times, but it’s also filled with a peculiar sense of winsome joie de vivre that makes it all the more engaging, and made it unquestionably my favorite movie of the year so far.
And seriously, fuck cancer. — TK
1. Drive — When the lights came up at the end of Drive, my hands were still shaking, and the knot in the pit of my stomach had yet to untie itself. I can’t remember — honestly — the last time I was so utterly engaged with a thriller, so wowed by an action film, so seduced by a brand-new universe. Nicolas Refn’s slim, tight, riveting ride is just about perfect, from the glistening world of a broken Los Angeles as seen through Euro-pop lenses to the frenetic, awe-inspiring chase scenes that reinvigorate the genre. What makes the film work is Refn’s confidence in his ability to do more with less. Modern action films so often seem content to do the opposite: They’re titanic, massively constructed objects that achieve so much less with so much more because they trade away story for a series of exhausting sequences designed to force you into feeling a kind of confusion that the filmmakers hope will translate as excitement. You are asked to trick yourself into thinking you had a good time, or at least that you saw something coherent. Yet Refn knows that catharsis only comes after tension, and that true suspense requires devotion and patience. He’s a master at making little moments count for everything, and by dialing the action down to human levels, he makes it that much more amazing. A single slap becomes a shocking act of violence; a gunshot sounds like a cannon blast; a car chase turns the world on its end. Refn knows just how to grab you, and for every one of Drive’s 100 glorious minutes, he doesn’t let go. — DC
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