Top 10 Movies of 2011 | Sean Lass

film planet-apesAs far as I am concerned, 2011 has been a pretty great year for films. I saw 84 movies this year, and I liked or loved most of them.


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There were only two I outright hated, Sucker Punch and Your Highness. Hell, they even put out a watchable Fast and Furious movie this year. My short list of films that I considered for this list came to 28, which is a pretty good showing. I eventually gave up trying to rank documentaries along with narrative films. They are a different art form and I never felt right comparing them. Suffice it to say that The Interrupters, Senna, and Life in a Day were three of the best films I saw this year. Obviously, there are plenty of films left to see and, as always, my order of preference could change at any time, but for now, this is the list of my personal favorite films from 2011.

1. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (20th Century Fox, PG-13)

I’m sure I saw better movies this year but I have to go with my heart. The order of the rest of my list could easily change, but this is the one. This is the film that I truly fell in love with this year. I don’t even know where to begin, so I’ll start where everyone else does: with Andy Serkis. The character of Caesar is the most compelling protagonist I’ve seen in any film recently. It is an astounding role and Serkis gives an astounding physical and emotional performance. I’ll be really honest here: I was on the verge of tears for many parts of this film. I bought into it on an emotional level, hook, line, and sinker. And when the movie wasn’t moving me, it was getting my blood pumping by being incredibly kickass. Rupert Wyatt was not a name I knew, but he made my list immediately when I saw how well he handled action scenes and even the quiet moments between the apes, which obviously play out without dialogue. Film is a visual medium and most movies these days forget that. There are many great moments in the film, but there is one in particular that stands tall above the others. I saw the film three times in the theater, and every time we reached this moment, there were audible gasps, followed by a few seconds of deafening silence, in which the audience held their breath, waiting to see what would happen next. It’s the kind of communal experience that only comes from great, mainstream entertainment, and when the big studios get it right, I’m happy to applaud them. I loved many films this year, but they all bow down to Caesar.

2. Drive (FilmDistrict, R)

Everything about Drive, from its bright pink opening credits, to its Tangerine Dream-esque musical score, to Ryan Gosling’s nameless, mysterious hero, to its ³80s Michael Mann-style is trying really hard to be cool. It succeeds. Nicolas Winding Refn has been a director of interest for some time, and this may be his most consistent effort to date. Yes, there is more of that ultra violence I’m so fond of, but the real power of Drive is in the quiet character moments in which Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan just stand in a room and quietly look at each other. It’s like I Saw the Devil and Weekend had a baby, and that baby grew up to be an almost perfect woman who I love.

3. Attack the Block (Screen Gems, R)

The marketing for this film focused strongly on the connection to Edgar Wright who, for the record, is credited as the sixth executive producer. I love Wright’s films but they are very different. They are comedies. The great thing about them is that, beneath the jokes, there are real stories and characters. Attack the Block is about the story and characters, and it also has jokes. I thought I could go the rest of my life without seeing another alien invasion film and this one proved me wrong. In a time when all aliens look like variations on the Cloverfield monster, these aliens feel very fresh. But the real center of the movie is its characters, who are introduced mugging a woman and somehow manage to almost instantly endear themselves to us. With its fun, gritty, sci-fi tone and great techno score, this feels like a classic John Carpenter film, and that places it firmly in my wheelhouse.

4. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Oscilloscope Pictures, R)

I don’t think even a full review could describe the impact this film had on me. Honestly, it’s been almost two months since I saw it at SLIFF, and I’m still struggling with my thoughts on it. As with The Skin I Live In, most people are categorizing this as a thriller, which is fair, but I was really upset by it in ways that movies don’t normally affect me. It helped that I somehow didn’t know what the main event in the story was, despite the fact that the marketing seems hell bent on telling everyone. It is built up to as a reveal; I’ve heard director Lynne Ramsay in interviews say that she meant for it to be a mystery, so I’m glad I was able to stay ignorant. It’s tough to talk about without seeing the film again, which won’t be possible until it opens in St. Louis in February or March. For now, I’ll say that I think it is fantastic on almost every level. It’s a tough film, but one that is well worth enduring.

5. The Skin I Live In (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

The first time I saw this film, I fell madly in love with its structure and the fact that I had no idea where it was going. Some of that magic was lost the second time, but I was still totally engrossed by the sheer craftsmanship of it. I also was more creeped out in the subsequent viewing. People like to play around with genre labels and tend to shy away from calling this a horror film, which it is. However, it is an exceptional horror film, one which I look forward to watching a third time and seeing what new experience it gives me.

6. Rango (Paramount Pictures, PG)

If Quentin Tarantino made an animated family film, it would be Rango. In other words, this is a movie aimed directly at people like me who love movies. It’s been said before and it will be said again: Rango is like Chinatown as interpreted by Sergio Leone. The spaghetti western vibe had me drooling, it was so awesome. Hans Zimmer’s fantastic score, which is like a mix between Raising Arizona and Once Upon a Time in the West, makes the movie feel huge, and the animation is absolutely stunning. It’s also really funny, if that other stuff isn’t enough for you.

7. Weekend (Sundance Selects, NR)

While I love big cinematic movies filled with awesome spectacle and graphic violence, I also love small, independent character dramas in which people sit around and talk. At least, I love them when they are done as well as Weekend. It’s hard to talk about this film without getting into the fact that it focuses on the relationship between two gay men. It’s tough for people to look past that, but ultimately this is not a movie trying to push a liberal agenda down your throat (no pun intended). It is a movie about two people who form a genuine connection, and I could listen to their conversations for hours. I think most people could relate to one or both of these guys if they gave the movie a chance, which I strongly recommend they do.

8. I Saw the Devil (Magnet Releasing, NR)

Kim Ji-woon is my personal favorite Korean director, which puts him high on my list of directors currently working. I don’t think anyone anywhere is as adept at capturing movement on camera. I Saw the Devil is an unbelievably brutal film, and yet every shot is gorgeous. It has some story issues and strains believability, but I am willing to overlook these flaws when a movie has such a strong visceral impact on me. Choi Min-sik, of Oldboy fame, is as menacing a villain as I’ve seen in recent years. He does really terrible things to people, and in return really terrible things happen to him. And I loved every second of it.

9. Take Shelter (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

Not many people saw this film about a father who becomes convinced that a great natural disaster is on the horizon. Michael Shannon is a great actor and this may be the best role I’ve ever seen him in. The atmosphere is electric, and we are right there with the character wondering if he is going crazy or if something terrible really is about to happen. It’s a family drama mixed with a supernatural thriller, and the result is a really wonderful film.

10. The Artist (The Weinstein Company, PG-13)

This movie has and will continue to receive so much praise that I’m sure I’ll be sick of it come Oscar night. I’m glad I can go ahead and put it on my list now, while I still remember how great it was and how good I felt as the credits were rolling. The film is certainly a gimmick, but after the first few minutes, I stopped thinking about the fact that I was watching a black-and-white silent film and just enjoyed it as I would any other new release. Everyone else seems to love it as well, and why wouldn’t they? It’s delightful.

I won’t list all 18 other films I really liked this year, but I wanted to give props to a few honorable mentions. The indie apocalyptic vampire movie Stake Land is absolutely fantastic. It is similar in tone the film version of The Road, and I actually liked it better. Takashi Miike’s samurai epic 13 Assassins has drawn comparisons to the classic films of Akira Kurosawa, and for good reason. Beginners was a great little character piece and beat Tintin and The Artist to the punch with its quirky, intelligent little dog sidekick. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was an absolute delight. If you’d told me when I walked out of the theater that it wouldn’t make my top 10 of the year I would have laughed at you. As a fan of horror films, I really liked Tucker and Dale vs Evil. It’s a one-joke movie, but that joke is pretty good, and the movie’s also surprisingly sweet. And finally, X-Men First Class and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol were two more examples of excellent blockbuster entertainment.

That’s it. That’s a bunch of movies. Again, I think it’s been a fantastic year, and anyone who says otherwise just hasn’t been looking hard enough. If 2012 is anywhere near as strong, then I may be OK with the world ending once it’s over.

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