I’ve seen a lot of pretty terrible things this past year both in and outside of theaters. A LOT. In fact, to say that 2011 in general was a pretty lackluster year for cinema wouldn’t be too far from the truth much to the chagrin of my closest cinephile cohorts. Aside from not seeing a good chunk of my top ten in theaters due to their very limited theatrical releases, this unfortunate defining attribute was most likely brought about thanks to a record-breaking number of adaptations, remakes and sequels, almost all of which were either unnecessary or a complete waste of time.
Agree or disagree, you can’t help but wonder just why the lesser-known, infinitely more worthwhile labors of the industry aren’t as appreciated as the next Transformers sequel always is. An oft discussed, moreover redundant topic as of late, however it’s always good to keep stuff like this at the forefront of your mind in an attempt to appreciate what actually deserves appreciation come awards season. It goes without saying that I didn’t quite get the chance to see everything I hoped to see throughout 2011, but the above average efforts I had the pleasure of seeing have rightfully earned their spots on this list for a multitude of reasons, even if I was partially let down by a handful of hopefuls.
Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): 50/50, Bellflower, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hanna, I Saw the Devil, Like Crazy, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Road to Nowhere, Source Code
10. Beginners (dir. Mike Mills)
“Cutesy” as it certainly and very often is, Mike Mills’ Beginners ability to deftly (if very subtly) address the existential crises we can find ourselves grappling with as constantly changing individuals ensure that the film remains touching as can be. While its self-indulgent, almost hip sense of style can prove to be alienating at times, an extraordinarily endearing cast of characters and the overbearing sweetness of it all pair wonderfully with Beginners‘ easily discernible underlying themes, even as some aspects of the narrative feel clumsily implemented or undercooked.
9. The Skin I Live In (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
Pairing Almodóvar’s singularly surrealistic, noirish flair with a wildly imaginative script does wonders for this underseen genre-bending effort. Centering on renowned plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard as his latest, highly secretive experiment at first appears to be fueled by a recent familial tragedy, it’s easy to see just why he’s decided to follow through with the taxing task at hand. As events both past and present begin to unfold, details surface that throw both the characters and especially viewers for a loop, allowing us to be consumed by the innumerable intricacies Almodóvar’s script possesses, even if the disjointed narrative’s presentation can feel a bit clunky here and there. As an involving, startlingly original if outlandish triumph for the auteur however, The Skin I Live In is truly something special. Full review here.
8. We Need to Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsay)
A harrowing, purely visceral genre-bending effort from writer/director Lynne Ramsay, this adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel of the same title is as distressing as it is masterful in its artistic sensibilities. With simply stellar performances across the board, We Need to Talk About Kevin doesn’t once opt for easy answers as it examines the complexities of childhood and a mother’s inevitable feelings of self-loathing and questionable guilt on account of an unspeakable tragedy committed by her only son. Remaining steadfast in its intentions as the film bleakly chugs along to its undeniably gripping latter act, We Need to Talk About Kevin is as hard-hitting as it is a prime example of cinematic excellence.
7. Shame (dir. Steve McQueen)
Artfully constructed without being too heavy-handed in addressing the seriousness behind its central character’s perpetual struggle with sex addiction, Steve McQueen’s sophomore effort isn’t intended for the conservative or squeamish yet it almost perfectly illustrates this individual’s heartbreaking journey to the very bottom of an ocean of anguish. While Fassbender’s Brandon’s sexual escapades may often prove to be gratuitous in nature, the introduction of his sister Sissy, aptly portrayed by Carey Mulligan, insists that the film aims to address how difficult it is for these two severely damaged beings to coexist as much as it intends to hit home as a startlingly authentic, gut-wrenching portrait of a helpless sex addict. Full review here.
6. Moneyball (dir. Bennett Miller)
While on the surface appearing to be nothing more than your run-of-the-mill fact-based sports biopic, Moneyball admirably defies convention by effectively humanizing an otherwise straightforward snoozefest, allowing us to amply sympathize with Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane as his implementation of Sabermetrics into his ailing ball club’s allotted budget reaches far beyond a base level of understanding. Sure, baseball-centric shop talk predictably spews from the characters’ mouths at frequent intervals, yet it’s all presented in a way that can be easily understood and appreciated by fans of the sport and non-fans alike, remaining similar to last year’s The Social Network in its sheer level of engagement. As human emotions reign supreme over its equally more compelling sequences chronicling Beane’s mounting stress both on and off the field, the relationships that exist between central characters feel real, coupling wonderfully with everything else Moneyball has to offer including an absolutely fantastic pair of performances from Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. Full review here.
5. Oslo, August 31st (dir. Joachim Trier)
As a masterful, emotionally authentic and far from overblown character study, Joachim Trier’s latest is agreeably grim but a small triumph nonetheless. Focusing on a recovering drug addict, Anders, as a job interview grants him a brief reprieve from the facility he’s been staying at, the subsequent run-ins with old acquaintances and loved ones cause the troubled man to wallow in an interminable amount of self-loathing and regret. Hitting startlingly close to home at frequent intervals, Anders’ search for purpose after throwing his life in the toilet is equal parts involving and appealingly subdued without slipping into the realm of trite melodrama. Full review here.
4. Young Adult (dir. Jason Reitman)
Shining the spotlight on particularly detestable characters is admittedly a tough sell in Hollywood, which is precisely why using them as a film’s focal point is a lesser explored niche of filmmaking. With Young Adult, Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman unite once again to bring us a scathingly funny yet increasingly dark and morose character study examining the perils of prolonged adolescence. It isn’t necessarily the happiest of affairs, but Cody’s noticeable departure from her quirkier roots and Reitman’s steady hand behind the camera help us sympathize with this infinitely flawed individual despite her inability to simply grow up, making Young Adult a darkly unique affair that’s sure to polarize audiences, yet I found very little to dislike about Mavis and her alcohol-infused debauchery. Full review here.
3. Take Shelter (dir. Jeff Nichols)
Anyone who’s anyone can attest to having a film strike a particular chord with them, if only on an emotional level. It’s something that undeniably affects how you’ll perceive and subsequently laud that film in relation to your potential detractors, however if the entire production is just that good and then some, you have something wholly unique that’s a wonder to behold. Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is one such wonder, priding itself on its deft examination of the detriments of mental illness and the toll it can take not just on you, but your increasingly worrisome family, friends and neighbors as well. Full review here.
2. Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen)
Simultaneously establishing itself as both a love letter for its Parisian setting and a wonderfully insightful, fantastical examination of the human condition, Midnight in Paris is, simply put, pure bliss. While not as thematically dense as Allen’s past ruminations on similar topics, the notoriously neurotic auteur forgoes substance in favor of embracing a more whimsical and artfully constructed mash-up of several different eras of art and literary history. Remaining engaging in several respects as Allen’s trademark wit permeates this near perfect, aesthetically flawless and plain fun examination of what it’s like struggling to find a sense of personal and professional self-worth during a time it begins to matter most. Full review here.
1. Drive (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
As both a self-satisfying passion project for all involved and a prime example of cinematic mastery in a time when we needed it most, Nicolas Winding Refn’s raw, breathtakingly and tastefully stylish Drive sits atop this list for all the right reasons. Standing tall as a captivating, ultraviolent neo-noir, Refn and the gang set out to make a film lover’s film that’s accessible and benefits endlessly from its appealing minimalistic subject matter, stunning locales and wonderfully implemented action sequences, all of which are complimented by a stellar soundtrack and pitch-perfect 80s-infused score from Cliff Martinez. Gosling reigns supreme as the super-imposing Driver, and stellar efforts from the supporting cast further benchmark this welcome rarity in the realm of contemporary cinema. Full review here.