The 11 Best Films of 2011

by Alan Rapp on December 30, 2011

in Top Tens & Lists

2011 was a year centered firmly on both endings and beginnings, returns to greatness, nostalgic looks back, and terrifying looks forward. The year gave us stories centered on stars and filmakers of the past, the first silent film of the new millennium, and treatises on life, death, mental illness, and the end of the world.

A few housekeeping notes before we begin. To be eligible for the list the film had to be released in 2011 and the studio had to remove any embargo to allow the film to be reviewed. Often there are films critics see that the general public may wait weeks or months to see, especially during Oscar season. A film may be released in New York or Los Angeles in late November or December but, even in the current Internet age, the studio may choose to not allow critics in other markets to review the film before it makes it to their hometown (which may be weeks, or even months, later).

There were a pair of films which I saw this year that had a definite shot at making the list, including one starring one of my favorite actresses, but as neither is opening wide until early next year. In the case of both films the studios’ embargo is still in place and so they, at least for the purposes of this list, can’t be considered in the class of 2011.

Even with including 11 movies for the list there are still a couple of honorable mentions worth noting. Source Code turned out to be one of the best sci-fi movies of the year, Woody Allen‘s Midnight in Paris may have found the director a new leading man in Owen Wilson, and Moneyball‘s look at the Billy Beane and the Okland A’s turned out to be much more than just another sports movie.

Enough with what didn’t make the list. Here’s what did…

Educational and Entertaining


Both Stephen Speilberg and Martin Scorsese set their sites on adapting works aimed at children and young adults into films this year. However, where Speilberg met with mixed success for both The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, with Hugo Scorsese succeeded in producing a marvelous little film that’s a much an adventure about a young orphan (Asa Butterfield) living in a train station as it is a celebration, and rallying cry for the preservation, of old films (a cause close to the director’s heart).

[Currently in theaters]

For the Lovers, the Dreamers, and Me

The Muppets

I grew up with the Muppets and love them unconditionally. When I heard a new film was in the works from Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller I was cautiously optimistic. What we received was better than any of us could have hoped. One of the best reviewed films of the year, The Muppets put Jim Henson‘s lovable creatures back on the map by exposing Kermit and friends to an entire new generation of fans with style, song, bad jokes and a hellova lot of heart. I’m not ashamed to admit that, more than once, The Muppets brought a tear to my eye.

[Currently in theaters]

The History of the World, Parts I & II

The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick‘s latest is as much a character study of a family in Waco, Texas, in the 1950′s as a metaphor for the beginning and ending of the universe. Yes, it’s slow at times (and personally I would have cut the entire Sean Penn subplot), but, as we’ve come to expect, Malick presents a unique vision that’s gorgeous to behold. It may be pretentious and self-absorbed but Tree of Life succeeds in its attempt to create an emotional and philosophical journey about the nature of life and provides one of the most memorable cinematic experiences of the year.

[Currently available on Blu-ray and DVD]

Never Grow Up

Young Adult

If director Jason Reitman puts out a film you can bet pretty heavily that it will make my end of the year list. Given the concept, and the fact he was re-teaming with writer Diablo Cody (who was responsible for the thoroughly unimpressive Jennifer’s Body), I thought this year might be the excpetion. I shouldn’t have worried. Charlize Theron shines as the self-absorbed young adult author who returns home to steal her high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson) away from his perfectly content life. The dark comedy focused on one trainwreck of a human being doesn’t pull any punches or go for the expected ending. And Patton Oswalt shows us, besides being a very funny man, he’s got some legitimate acting chops as well.

[Currently in theaters]

The Beauty in Silence

The Artist

Not enough people will go see this movie. Some will stay away because it’s in black and white. More will stay away because the moving includes no spoken dialogue (in English or any other real or imagined language). The entire idea behind The Artist, crafting an updated version of A Star Is Born as a silent film, with a score inspired by Vertigo, in the age of CGI, IMAX and 3D, seems more than a little absurd, but it works brilliantly. The care that went into making this film is truly impressive. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius makes all the right choices from casting to art direction to give us a labor of love and one of the best films of the year.

[Currently in theaters]

The End of the World


Love him or hate him, you have to admit Lars von Trier knows how to tell some gut-wrenching emotional stories. His latest, inspired by his own bouts with depression, stars Kirsten Dunst as a young bride with a lifetime supply of baggage and a depression which nearly consumes her while others worry about a planet on a collision course with Earth. Despite its cynical bent, and a collection of characters who are awful to each other in both big and small ways, Melancholia is a beautiful, moving film that you are more likely to appreciate than truly enjoy. It’s not an easy movie to get through, or one that you are likely to go back to anytime soon, but it rewards the patient viewer with far more small intimate moments than you’re ever going to see given screentime in a more mainstream disaster movie.

[Currently in theaters and On Demand]

The Soul Crushing Nature of Politics

The Ides of March

George Clooney directs and co-stars in the bleak look at an idylistic young campaign staffer (Ryan Gosling) who has finally found a candidate he can believe in… until everything starts to fall apart through his own actions. Clooney isn’t interested in glamorizing the events or the harsh realities of politics. The Ides of March takes an honest look at the campaign trail and the level of compromise, lying, deception, and heartbreak inherent in the process. Gosling carries a film filled with great supporting roles (Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman as adversarial campaign managers are perfect casting). It won’t do anything to improve your opinion about politicians, but with Ides of March Clooney reminds us he’s not just a great actor but a terrific filmmaker who won’t shy away from the stories he wants to tell.

[Available on Blu-ray and DVD January 17]

The Assistant Director and the Celebrity

My Week with Marilyn

Marilyn Monroe. Just the name conjures images of the American icon nearly 50 years after her death. My Week with Marilyn, based on Colin Clark’s memoir, recounts the young man’s first experience working on a film as the third assistant director of The Prince and the Showgirl where he met, and (like all men of that time) fell in love with, American sensation Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams, in one of the year’s best performances). Not only a love story to Monroe, My Week with Marilyn is a nostalgic look back at an age of celebrity and filmmaking which produces one of the year’s most enjoyable films. If the story feels a little larger than life, having grown more vibrant in the telling over the years, I’ll cut it a little slack as it contains just the right amount of magic for a film about the movie business.

[Currently in theaters]

In the Beginning


In a story about a man surrounded by death we get a tale about life, love, leading with your heart, and beginnings. Ewan McGregor stars as a man still reeling from the death of his father (Christopher Plummer) who spent the last two years following his mother’s death ignoring the cancer which was eating away at him and coming out of the closet after 44 years of marriage to begin a relationship with a much younger man (Goran Visnjic). Depressed, and more than a little lost, Oliver (McGregor) meets a beautiful actress (Mélanie Laurent) and begins a relationship that will define the rest of his life. Beginners is a film about seizing life’s opportunities when they’re presented, even when you’re least expecting it, whether that’s stumbling across a mute Mélanie Laurent laying on a couch at a random party or embracing a life you’ve kept in the shadows for 70 years.

[Currently available on Blu-ray and DVD]

A Descent into Madness


Take Shelter is a terrific look at a man slowly descending into madness. Michael Shannon stars as a construction worker whose apocalyptic nightmares and hallucinations lead to an obsession to use the family’s limited resources to build a fallout shelter in his backyard. Afraid that he might be losing his mind given his family’s history with mental illness, but unable to admit that his visions aren’t real, Shannon’s character becomes trapped not knowing which way to turn. Without ever giving too much away, writer/director Jeff Nichols offers us a suspenseful character study of a man who fighting to stay connected to reality and his family but whose obsession puts him in danger of losing both.

[Available on Blu-ray and DVD February 14]

The Best Film of 2011


Following his wife’s accident which leaves her in a coma from which she will never awake, real estate lawyer and hands-off parent Matt King (George Clooney, terrific as always) must deal with her living will, the couple’s two children (Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller), a family real estate deal, and the realization that for the months preceding her death Matt’s wife had been cheating on him with a real estate broker (Matthew Lillard). Gathering up his daughters, and his oldest’s fool of a boyfriend (Nick Krause), Matt sets off to tell friends and family of his wife’s imminent death, find a way to break the news to his younger daughter, and search out the man who was sleeping with his wife.

Set against the beautiful backdrop of the Hawaiian islands, writer/director Alexander Payne crafts a complex emotional journey where the feelings and desires of every character are often competing against each other, even as they say their final goodbyes to a member of their family. Payne offers no simple truth, only a journey for a single answer that will bring together a family in its time of grief. Excpetionally well written, directed, and performed, without a doubt The Descendants proves in every frame to be the best film of 2011.

[Currently in theaters]

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