"Ten" Years Later: 2011 Movies
Perhaps the first year in the exercise of retrospectives ten years later where my top movie list is mostly made up of movies viewed for the first time many years later. There are so many movies where I changed my mind and came to love films that I was originally luke warm on and many that I hadn't heard of until recent years. The year of 2011 was a time where nothing was typical, comedies that were better made than all of the prestige dramas in Oscar contention, Scorsese put out a kid-friendly film and Speilberg made an animated film. Thanks to this being such a quirky year in film, it also was a year of incredible depth in quality and enjoyable films. It's always an enjoyable project to look back at the movies from years past for my own batch of Hindsight Awards, waiting out the hype of fresh movies and also finding forgotten movies that were overlooked in their time. I’ve made a list of everything watched from 2011 over on Letterboxd with links to all of their reviews but this list is of the top twenty-five plus a few awards. Here are the actual Academy Award nominees and winners from the 2012 Oscars for reference. Instead of deciding between lead and supporting actors and actresses I have awarded two outstanding actors and two outstanding actresses as well as a best ensemble casting.
1. Midnight in Paris
Despite my reservations about the director, his personal life and I’m not too hot on his older films, this is still one of my all-time favorite movies. With a great mix of magical realism, wish-fulfillment, fine comedy and a beautiful setting, this manages to tick all of the boxes of an enjoyable movie to the point of greatness.
Incredibly touching and hilariously funny, the only film in the credits of writer Will Reiser, he was encouraged to write about his personal experience with cancer by friends Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. A comedic love story that doesn’t shy away from the pain and depression of cancer, this is just one of those movies that stuck with me over the decade as one of my favorites.
3. Young Adult
Best Writing Diablo Cody, Best Actress Charlize Thieron
A bit of a heavy drama of a comedy, the character study Charlize Thieron does is incredible and relatable. Perhaps the best screenwriting from Diablo Cody, over her Oscar winning work on Juno.
4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
This is easily the first high riser on this list, my first viewing of this in the theater was much less favorable. The red herring actors becoming much bigger stars really helped this movie age really well. At release Colin Firth was the biggest name of the suspected moles by a long measure, making it much less of a mystery, however now that Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy are perhaps even bigger than he, the intrigue is bumped up quite a bit.
5. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan
A story that follows the search for a body with a captured murderer leading the police on a wild goose chase, this is beautifully shot, whimsicle and philosophical. This has one of the best shots in a film this decade, where an apple rolls down a hill and into a stream.
Best Cinematography Manuel Alberto Claro, Stunts or Special Effects (tie, special effects), best actress Kirsten Dunst
Lars Von Trier doesn’t disappoint on his reputation for making films with crushing depression. Half or more than half of this movie depicts a wedding that starts with laughing over something going wrong with the bridal limo getting stuck in the mud, and the events only get worse and worse with unstable guests and eventually the bride spiraling out of control. The second part of the film is the depressed aftermath of the divorce set against a planet that’s crashing into Earth, in the most visceral, bone-rattling way a disaster movie has killed everyone.
7. We Need to Talk About Kevin
While the non-chronological nature of the storytelling is confusing at times, the direction is so perfectly unsettling that the feeling stays with you. This is a no-horror absolutely horrific movie basically about a mass shooter (he uses a bow and arrows) and the before and after horror for his mother grappling with whether she could have stopped anything and whether he was this way because of genetics passed from her or because she failed as a mother.
8. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
This just stands out as a food documentary. Perhaps it’s that the food is considered to be the best of the best or that the restaurant is so unassuming that it’s in a Japanese subway station or that the chef is a unique and regimented personality that’s quite different than celebrity chefs. This was one of those movies that I saw when it came out and hungered to rewatch again over the following decade.
9. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
I’m not sure this is necessarily thought of as a signature David Fincher film, but it just might be one of the best that he has made. Capturing the feeling of the book and the previous adaptation to film, but with added energy and just enough smoothness of direction to balance with grittiness of the visuals and brutality of some of the scenes. Great performances and the Led Zeppelin cover in the opening titles is a showstopper.
10. Take Shelter
Best Actor Michael Shannon
I remember first hearing about this when I would watch At The Movies on a weekly basis, at the tail end of the Roger Ebert run, and desperately waiting to hunt down a way to watch this. Ever since I have been lining up for everything Jeff Nichols directs. This is another unconventional
disaster film, even if it seems more to be a mental health drama for most of the film. There just hasn’t been another performance by an actor in the 2010’s that can touch what Michael Shannon does here, let alone in just 2011.
11. The Tree of Life
It took a while in my filmgoing life to figure out that the way to watch Terrence Malick films is to lower your blood pressure and ride the current of his direction rather than expecting traditional storytelling. Ride the river of this story right back to the creation of the universe and dinosaurs walking the Earth because clearly that’s just the natural intermission to the father and son narrative.
While this is a family movie from Martin Scorsese, it still leans heavily on his interests of film history, even if there isn’t any swearing or violence. While it’s a lot of fun, the movie lulls the audience into a biopic of a silent film director.
13. The Adventures of Tintin
Best Animated Film
Somehow this confluence of many many creative minds, written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish and Steven Moffat and directed by Steven Speilburg, managed to make a genuinely fun and action filled adventure.
Best Stunts or Special Effects (tie, stunts), best Actor Brad Pitt
Based on one of the most illuminating books about baseball, this is one of the best dramatic films about the game. Brad Pitt has a great performance as an against the grain General Manager of the A’s, while juggling work and life as a father.
15. The Turin Horse
Bela Tarr’s final film before retiring, this is so slow that the shots last longer than expected for long, slow shots, and it looks amazing. It’s such an odd concept for a film that it’s hard to piece together whether it stems from a small moment of consequence or a big moment signifying the end of something. It’s the story of a horse that is whipped, an experience that resulted in the mental breakdown of Nietzsche so that he spent the remaining years of his life without uttering a word.
16. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Another movie about the mistreatment of animals having catastrophic consequences. This was a movie I had avoided for quite some time because of that theme. I was glad that the story hinges on the relationship of Caesar and James Franco and the beginning of the Planet of the Apes story wasn’t solely a struggle between man and primate. It’s the connection that remains through the three films that sets them apart from just films about conflicting parties.
17. Our Idiot Brother
Paul Rudd isn’t very good at putting the pieces together in ways that are always to his detriment, yet his character is the only one that sees the bigger picture of family and love out of any of them. Funny and sweet, a great cast and some solid laughs.
18. Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles
One of the most unexpected documentaries on an outsider artist and the mystery of who that artist is never really solved. In many cities in the northeast there are these tiles with text stuck into the asphalt of streets, often in crosswalks. The text is a mishmash of fiction and philosophy that is its own set of paranoia. They have their own mythology just from the wide range of where they have been placed, that they have perhaps been left while driving, that the artist might have used radio signals while driving around and that some tiles have even been found in South America. I felt like I was having a celebrity sighting when I saw one in the street in Baltimore.
Streaming Rental (only on Vudu)
19. The Adjustment Bureau
I’m a big fan of the writing of Philip K. Dick and this captures his mixture of sci-fi religion and an everyman caught in the middle of something bigger. This might pull off bringing one of his stories into the present day more seamless than most others. A sci-fi romance where the men in black style characters are ominous but not overly creepy. Nice cinematography gives this a look as though we are seeing a perfect version of the world.
20. The Big Year
Just a wonderful feel good movie with funny men competitively bird watching. Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin play rather down to earth roles finding friendship in their nature-based competition that consumes their personal lives.
While this gets mocked for being a symbol of brooding coolness it is still a mesmerizing thriller. I think this has mostly faded into being remembered more as a meme that pokes fun at the kind of guy that would wear the scorpion jacket, but it really is a very good movie that just happens to have a douchey following. Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s subsequent movies were good, still rather brooding and colorful, but didn’t have nearly the cultural impact of Drive.
22. Meek’s Cutoff
The story of an ill-fated journey on the Oregon Trail, this is one of the most ambitious films by Kelly Reichardt in terms of the scope of the story. Most of the stories she tells are told like mysteries where the audience has little clue of where they are being taken and that ambiguity seems to last through the end of the film.
23. This Is Not a Film
Iranian director Jafar Pahani is an incredibly unique and daring filmmaker. Here, he makes what initially appears to be a documentary about his house arrest and ban from filmmaking in Iran, it is both entertaining and insightful, while revealing more to the state of life in Iran than is explicitly told through dialogue.
An incredibly raunchy and violent hockey comedy. A misfit in real life earns his way onto the ice while fighting in the stands and becomes a poor skating, hockey fighting moron. His idiotic optimism is just what his team needs. A solid sports movie with a heavy dose of dick jokes.
Steven Soderbergh’s pandemic movie with many overlapping character arcs. Impressively, this was made almost ten years before Covid and was one of the most watched and reviewed movies on Letterboxd in 2020, especially in the first few months when the theaters were closed. While this movie is mostly interiors of hospitals, it still manages to have especially good cinematography.
Just like the 2016 list, the worst movie of 2011 was not a competition. Sucker Punch was the one movie of 2011 that very quickly had me looking for the exit in the theater within a a scene or two. I have always been willing to give Zach Snyder a chance with his movies, there are a few that I really love, however, some are complete misfires that annoy me to my bones. The story is fantasies layering on each other within a cliche of an insane asylum filled with abuse and lobotomies. It's a mess of way too much stylization without substance. I rewatched this in the last year and I was not wrong to be disgusted with this swing and a miss of movie in the first place.
It really was a strange year for movies, Crazy Stupid Love seemed to be the last of its kind of RomComs, and even did it really really well, while Bridesmaids ushered in a change for what female led comedies could be, raunchy and well made and for everyone. The Cabin in the Woods was the ultimate subversion of slasher/horror films. Thor, Captain America First Avenger and X-Men First Class kicked off a new era of Marvel Universes, Planet of the Apes came back better than ever and Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol did a bit of a soft relaunch of the Ethan Hunt franchise of spy movies. Scorsese released a George Harrison documentary and Hugo, Soderberg had Contagion and Haywire and Speilberg released The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse. A couple of my favorite unsung films from just outside of the top 25 are Source Code, a universe bending thriller from Duncan Jones, and Kill List, a Ben Wheatley film about a hitman in a dysfunctional marriage with a very unexpected twist. It was a very fine year for movies.