In Retrospect: The Best Movies of 2011

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From a personal standpoint, 2011 was a pretty satisfying year. I got to reunite with my extended family for the first time in seven years, I landed a wonderful job with amazing co-workers whom I can regard as friends, and I strengthened ties with a fascinating group of people – all who’ve had a strong hand in my growth as a writer as well as an individual. 2011 also marked my second full year as a member of the local critical community – a privilege I’m extremely lucky to have.

While the crop of cinematic offerings in 2011 may not have been as satisfying, I found it to be a fairly agreeable season that was far more interesting than the year that preceded it. There might not have been any ground-breaking big budget studio offerings ala Inception or Avatar but even the year’s worst tentpoles (Green Lantern, Transformers: Dark of the Moon) were a step up from some of the catastrophes of 2010 (The Last Airbender). After all, not every year can be a banner year.

Finally, even if there were very few films that I absolutely loved and only one that I could dub a flat-out masterpiece, there were plenty of movies that I liked a lot. Naturally, most of them don’t make the list but if you’ve read some of my reviews over the year, you know what they are. Without further ado, the following are the films I watched in 2011 that I liked the most:

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Special Citation: Carlos

Before I get on to it, I’d like to take some space to talk about Olivier Assayas’ sprawling five-and-a-half hour epic chronicling the notorious Venezuelan-born terrorist Carlos the Jackal (played by the charismatic Edgar Ramirez). Since the film is a 2010 release, and I only got to watch it in mid-2011, I can’t place it on my best-of list. Regardless, I consider the movie to be among the finest films I’ve had the pleasure of watching over the last five years. In fact, if I had gotten the chance to watch it last December, when it opened in one measly South Florida cinema, I may as well have placed it over The Social Network as the Best Movie of 2010. It’s so good I watched it three-times over a week. Yes, all five-hours of it! Think of it as There Will Be Blood mixed with Munich plus A Prophet with a Tarantino-tinged soundtrack. Anyway, moving on…

Honorable Mentions

These five movies were at some point a part of my top 10 but for some odd reason or another, fell off. I couldn’t stomach relegating them to a simple title placement so here they are:

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50/50

Cancer’s not the first thing that pops into my mind when thinking about subjects ripe for comedy. Yet Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 accomplishes this feat with panache! It’s funny, scratch that, hilarious, warm, mature, informative and most impressive of all, genuine. With a wonderful career-best performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and strong supporting work from Seth Rogan, Anna Kendrick and Bryce Dallas Howard, this inspiring film proved that when the going gets tough, it’s friends and family that matter the most. Review

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The Artist

More than just a black-and-white silent film, Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, the slam-dunk future Oscar Best Picture winner, is a clever, whimsical and lovingly-crafted homage to Hollywood, cinema history and the fragility of stardom. Its critics may brandish it a trifle (and they may have a point) but you’d have to be one miserable SOB to not be swept away by this exceedingly clever and enchanting movie. It may not be my choice for Best Picture of the year but I’d have no qualms if it won. Review

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I Saw the Devil

I Saw the Devil might be one of the most violent films I’ve ever seen but simply brandishing it as the year’s most violent film would doing it a gross disservice. This disturbing thriller from South Korean filmmaker Kim Ji-woon (The Good, the Bad, and the Weird) tells the disturbing tale of a police officer who exacts a brutal, prolonged revenge on a psychotic serial killer who murdered his girlfriend, and their subsequent battle of wits to outdo each other. Both, a gripping revenge film and an examination of how an eye for an eye only leaves the whole world blind, this sledgehammer of a film is not one for the faint of heart.

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The Skin I Live In

Watching Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In was the single-most weirdest movie-going experience I had in 2011. And I mean that in the nicest possible way! Honestly, the less you know about this bizarre yet gorgeous work of art, the better. I can tell you three things however: It stars Antonio Banderas as a brilliant plastic surgeon slash scientist; it’s the most melodramatic Frankenstein movie ever made; and it has the single greatest “Holy Shit!” moment I’ve saw in a movie last year.

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

If there was an award for the unsexiest spy movie of all time, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would win it in a landslide. Yes, it has a host of good-looking British actors in it but this deliberate slow-burning and cerebral Cold War espionage drama about a mole hunt within the highest ranks of British intelligence is about as far from the James Bond movies as Kim Kardashian is from a quantum physics text book. Front-lined by a supremely understated performance from Gary Oldman, one of the best of his career, this nicotine-stained, paranoia-drenched atmospheric film is one of the year’s richest productions. Review

And now, on to the Top 10…

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#10. Rango

I open my top 10 with Gore Verbinski’s Rango, a quirky pastiche of spaghetti westerns, Chinatown, the Old West and even Apocalypse Now. Wait, what? You mean, Rango, that animated movie about the ugly lizard? Yes, that Rango. How can that “cartoon” possibly be better than the five aforementioned movies? It isn’t. In all honesty, my five honorable mentions are all stronger films. But for all their virtues, none of them hold a candle to Rango when it comes down to pure fun. Like The Artist, Hugo and Super 8, Rango is an infinitely richer experience if you’re well versed with movie history – but you don’t have to be a movie buff to appreciate the amount of creativity on display in this energetic, preposterous and vivid film.

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#9. Shame

Steve McQueen’s harrowing drama Shame is not a movie about sex. It’s about a man’s addiction to it. Believe me, there’s a difference. By utilizing numerous long and uninterrupted takes, McQueen and star Michael Fassbender succeed in embedding us into the mindset of Brandon, a 30-something New Yorker whose life is absolutely consumed by his need for raw and emotionless sex. As Brandon’s self-destructive journey down the rabbit hole of depravity and pain exemplifies, so does our desire to see him be put out of his misery.  But if there’s one reason to see this unflinching film, it’s for Fassbender’s emotionally naked performance which cements his status as one of the brightest talents of world cinema. Review

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#8. The Adventures of Tintin

His Oscar-baiting World War 1 epic War Horse may be receiving the lion’s-share of the kudos but it’s his first foray into the motion capture medium, The Adventures of Tintin, that’s Steven Spielberg’s most unabashedly enjoyable film since his one-two punch of Minority Report and Catch Me if You Can. A non-stop thrill ride from start to finish, this gorgeously animated feature, based on Belgian author Herge’s classic comic series, is an invigorating mash of thrilling chases, colorful characters, clever dialogues and swashbuckling adventure that evokes the spirit of Spielberg’s original Indiana Jones trilogy. No better is this better illustrated in the film’s jaw-dropping Morocco chase sequence which might be the most complex action sequence Spielberg has ever pulled off. Review

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#7. Senna

The august career of legendary Formula 1 racing driver Ayrton Senna is chronicled in Asif Kapadia’s mesmerizing documentary Senna. A stirring biopic that also functions as a fist-pumping sports movie, Kapadia’s film is unique among documentaries because its entire running length has been woven from archive footage acquired from television broadcasts, home-videos and behind-the-scenes stock. The lack of talking heads combined with the film’s organic pace and visceral POV racing footage from inside Senna’s car result in Kapadia’s picture feeling more like an action thriller than a documentary. Nevertheless, it’s the best documentary film I watched all year, bar none. Review

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#6. Take Shelter

Michael Shannon has made a career out of playing creeps, oddballs and nut-jobs but the beauty of his multi-layered, tour-de-force work in Jeff Nichols riveting paranoia thriller Take Shelter is that he doesn’t play him as a loony. Instead he allows us, the audience, to come to our own conclusions whether his character, Curtis LaForche, is really losing his mind or not. Working in his favor is Nichol’s commanding direction that constantly tests your faith in Curtis, and Jessica Chastain’s heartbreaking performance as Curtis’ courageous wife. The year’s most overlooked film. Review

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#5. Hugo

Leave it up to Martin Scorsese’s to not only make the year’s most touching family movie but also the most immersive 3D film ever! A captivating ode to French filmmaking pioneer Georges Méliès and a buoyant hymn to film history, preservation and the transporting nature of cinema, Scorsese’s Hugo is a Dickensian fable about loss and redemption as seen through the eyes of an orphan living between the walls of a lavish Parisian train station. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s sweet – it’s a master filmmaker working in a new and exciting medium at the height of his game. Review

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#4. Drive

Drive is proof that even the most rote of genres can be elevated into high art in the hands of a gifted filmmaker. Nicholas Winding Refn’s hypnotic noir thriller about a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver is deeply rooted in genre conventions but this is just a playground for the filmmaker to examine the nature of loneliness and heroism in today’s urban society. Combining the best elements of Michael Mann’s crime thrillers Heat and Collateral, David Cronenberg’s masterpiece A History of Violence, and one eclectic mix of a soundtrack, this movie is the essence of cool! Review

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#3. Moneyball

You could say Bennett Miller’s Moneyball is a movie about baseball. You could even say it’s a movie about the business of baseball. But that’s barely scratching the surface. More than baseball, this magnetically engrossing, fascinating, funny and consistently engaging movie (written by Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian) is about making the best out of an impossible situation when you have the odds stacked against you. It’s about a man who’s been slapped with failure so many times that he might as well be baptized by it. It’s about how he embraces his place in the world and how he stands steadfastly for what he believes in when everyone berates him for it. He’s played by Brad Pitt in the best performance of his illustrated career. There have been countless movies made about baseball but there hasn’t been a baseball movie quite like Moneyball. Review

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#2. The Descendants

Critics of The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s melancholic drama about love, loss and coming to terms with it, brush it off as a quasi-sequel to Terms of Endearment. That’s akin to saying Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a pretentious piece of shit. Whoa! Whoa! Hold on there now cowboy! Okay, what I’m trying to say is that even if both statements are true, they’re extremely broad judgments that only do disservice to the immaculate craft on display in each film. Like Spielberg, Alexander Payne speaks to me on an emotional level more so than any other working filmmaker today. His ability to successfully implant zaniness and mad-cap humor into the most depressing of subjects, as he does in The Descendants, is a testament to his skill as a prodigious filmmaker.  He also tends to bring out the very best in his actors and he does so again here, gifting George Clooney and Shailene Woodley with roles of their careers. Review

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#1. A Separation

The best movie I watched in 2011 was also the last movie I watched in 2011 – the profoundly moving, exquisitely-written and unforgettable Iranian drama “A Separation.” Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, “A Separation” details the tragedy that plagues an upper middle-class family following a legal separation. While Simin (Leila Hatami) wants her family to immigrate to Europe to avoid the harsh society of Iran, her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) prefers the family stay put in order to take care of his Alzheimer’s-stricken father. When Simin leaves the household, Nader is forced to hire a caretaker from a poor background to assist his father. But with the hiring of Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a deeply religious woman whose husband is a manic-depressive with uncontrollable rage issues, begins a complex chain of events that eventually brings forward class conflict, gender prejudices, moral dilemmas, accusations of murder and the loss of innocence. What’s more, the film states volumes about the state of modern Iranian society without explicitly stating it. Simultaneously a tense marital strife drama, a powerful law procedural, and a universally identifiable morality tale, this is a near-perfect film with raw and realistic performances, masterful direction and a Pulitzer-worthy screenplay. A flat-out masterpiece!

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