2011 was another good year to be at the movies, and per usual the Fall months were packed with Oscar hopefuls all vying for year-end prizes. There weren’t many “great” or “classic” films maybe but a few, but there was definitely no shortage of choices for compiling my “Best of” list.
Of the 117 films that I reviewed in 2011 (and saw many more), I gave out 12 Five-Star reviews, my highest honor (53 movies, about 45%, earned a Four-Star or better review). 3 of the Five-Star movies were documentaries. Even having seen a number of films, there were some films that I admit to missing completely (I apologize to you, Attack the Block, The Iron Lady, and Alvin & The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked).
Speaking of documentaries, the Detroit Film Critics Society (in which I am a member) instituted a “Best Documentary” category this year, leading me to see my fair share of them. There were some great ones, and many can be found on Netflix or On-Demand. Although many of the documentaries listed may not be well-known or saw widespread theatrical release, they are all worthy of seeking out.
As for the top films of 2011? I went against the critical grain with my disdain for acclaimed movies like Take Shelter and The Tree of Life, both of which I found pretentious and showy. Also left off my list is Drive, a movie that I thought was all style and absolutely no substance, with a crap-tastic ending that instantly changed my on-the-fence attitude towards it (and don’t get me started on Ryan Gosling’s wooden performance). Other talked-about movies like The Descendants and Hugo I found to be good, not great films.
So let’s begin! Click by the film’s title to read my full review of the film, when available:
TOP 10 DOCUMENTARIES OF 2011:
A brutal attack leaves a former alcoholic with severe brain damage and not much to his name. So what does he do? Naturally, he creates a 1/6 scale World War II-era town in his backyard called “Marwencol,” where he creates alter-ego dolls for himself and everybody he knows. Marwencol as a film is bizarre yet fascinating, and paints a portrait of a man so abused by the real world that his pretend world is his only sanctuary.
9. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop – full review
Any fan of Conan O’Brien will love this documentary chronicling his departure from NBC’s The Tonight Show and his subsequent live tour. Not only is the film hilarious, but it serves as an amazing behind-the-scenes peek into his maddening, never-ending whirlwind lifestyle. The title of the film is completely appropriate. Conan is always on, but the brief moments of vulnerability and self-doubt is what makes the film engaging.
8. Project Nim
Set to air on HBO in 2012, Project Nim tells the tale of a chimpanzee taken from his family and raised as a human child in the 1970s. It could be labeled as a very strange form of animal cruelty, but to follow Nim’s journey, his growth and limitations over the years, we see compassion and sadness in a film that is hard not to love.
7. Tabloid – full review
Tabloid definitely wins the “WTF?” award amongst this year’s documentaries. It tells a story involving love, abduction, a Mormon cult, alleged male rape, and dog cloning. True to the film’s name, it doesn’t present us with “news” or facts, but gives us heresay from tabloid journalists and those involved in the real-life story. It’s like watching a train wreck, a fascinatingly weird train wreck.
6. Budrus – full review
The best entries in the Documentary genre often open our eyes to a little known way of life, and puts a spotlight on a portion of humanity that we are not always well-educated on. Budrus does both of these. A small town in Palestine near the Israeli border rebels against the construction of a fence that will destroy their sacred olive trees. But this is not what your mind may be pre-programmed to think: This rebellion is completely non-violent, a community who unites to prove the theory that change is possible and can be done peacefully. It shows there is peace already in the Middle East, if you look for it.
5. Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone – full review
It’s a music documentary that is only as interesting as its subjects…Luckily then, this punk rock-doc is one of the most interesting and unique films of the year. It tells the story of Fishbone, a band that is mentioned as an influence by a large portion of modern-day rockers, yet they never found true commercial mainstream success. That’s probably due to their “completely democratic” approach to music, where there is no “lead,” and the band exists only to foster each of their individual freedoms of creative expression. This doc shows us why they’ve never found mainstream success, but also shows us why they are legendary.
4. Where Soldiers Come From – full review
Where Soldiers Come From focuses our attention not only on the sacrifices made by those in the armed forces, but the sacrifices made by the family and friends of these soldiers as well. It follows a group of Michigan boys who enlist into the armed forces for different reasons, ending up in Afghanistan for over 9 months. Movies like this are important, to understand that with every policy announcement or newsflash on TV, real lives are at stake.
3. Thunder Soul – full review
What starts as a simple story about a inner-city high school band reunion ends up being one of the most poignant documentaries of the year. By their nature, documentaries are real life, and Thunder Soul‘s purpose changes over the course of the film based on some unexpected events that occur in the film. A simple reunion story becomes accelerated when the long-time band leader, “Prof” Johnson, falls ill. The former band members race for the opportunity to not only let Prof know what they’ve learned musically, but to show him how he has impacted all of their lives. The results are riveting.
2. We Were Here
It may be the most important documentary on this list, and it is by far the deepest and most heart-wrenching. It chronicles the arrival and impact of AIDS in San Francisco during the first few years of this unimaginable crisis. We hear first-hand from those that were there during that time, and the losses they’ve endured. The film includes some staggering – and I mean staggering- statistics on AIDS and those that died. We Were Here may be the best educational tool moving forward in teaching future generations about the impact that AIDS had on our society.
Undefeated is about an underdog football team who looks to reverse their fortunes with new head coach Bill Courtney. Their program is underfunded and underprivilege, representing a poverty-stricken community with not much hope. The documentary is not just an underdog sports movie, although it is that too. The true power of Undefeated is watching some of the student athletes find themselves along the way. Kids with no hope and no future are given a taste of success, on and off of the field, and they all react differently to the opportunity. It’s inspirational, exciting, and unexpected. There was not a more engaging documentary in 2011.
TOP 14 FILMS OF 2011 (non-documentary)
Why 14? Why not? As I attempted to compile a Top 15, there was no 15th movie that really jumped out at me to include. So instead of stretching it out, here are the Top 14:
14. The Muppets – full review
It already topped my “Guiltiest Pleasures of 2011” list, but my year-end list would not be complete without it. It was pure joy watching these Muppets re-introduce themselves to the masses, and it was very refreshing to know that they stayed true to their original blend of comedy. They were a welcome break from the sarcasm of modern-day humor, and with the success of the film, I’m just hoping that they ease themselves back into the mainstream, to ensure they stay around permanently this time.
13. Young Adult – full review
Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt give strong performances, but it’s the screenwriter Diablo Cody who should be given props for creating characters that we all know and love, and know and hate. She’s the former prom queen who didn’t get the memo that nobody cares anymore, and he’s the guy who got beat up in high school for being gay, except that he isn’t. From his perspective, this movie is a dream-come-true, the nerd befriending the popular gal. From her perspective, it’s a wake-up call to prom queens everywhere…although they’ll never get the message, we do.
12. The Music Never Stopped – full review
It wasn’t critically acclaimed or commercially successful, but this film stuck with me long after it was over. It’s a melo-dramatic and simple story about a father and son re-connecting after the son’s brain tumor leaves him with short-term memory loss. The father, played by J K Simmons, never connected to his son, but through music, the two begin to form a relationship. You want more than survival for your loved one, you want a return to normalcy. This film captures the essence of a relationship in need of mending.
11. Source Code – full review
It was intelligent and thought-provoking, and down-right exciting from start to finish. It was perhaps the smartest sci-fi film in the past few years. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan star in this time-travel-race-against-the-clock thriller, that could be labeled a cross between Speed and Groundhog Day. Just try to poke holes in the film’s trippy logic.
10. The Beaver – full review
A sad, depressing film starring Hollywood’s Public Enemy #1, the man everbody loves to hate, Mel Gibson. The plot is borderline ridiculous – a man adopts a beaver hand-puppet as his sole means of communicating with his family and co-workers – but somehow in the hands (pun intended) of Gibson and director Jodie Foster, we get one of the most profound movies of 2011. Gibson gives a tremendous performance, one that would have garnered some awards-love back before he was black-listed. It may not be the most conventional portrayal of depression, but it delivers as one of this year’s saddest, most understated, and yet emotionally powerful films.
9. Warrior – full review
Perhaps there is a bit of lag from last year’s The Fighter, but I cannot for the life of me understand why nobody seems to be talking about Warrior this award season. It breathes new life into the Rocky underdog premise, giving us not just one underdog to root for, but two, set in the world of MMA fighting instead of boxing. Nick Nolte gives an award-worthy performance as the two fighters’ troubled father and recovering alcoholic. We are used to cheering for the underdog, but what about when there are two, who both need to win for their own reasons? It ends unpredictably yet perfectly, and it’s the kind of film that I love the more and more I think about it.
8. The Myth of the American Sleepover – full review
It’s a small movie that you’ve probably never heard of, starring a cast of completely unknown newcomers. It’s also one of this year’s best films. Teenage “one-nighter” comedies have been explored to death, and director David Robert Mitchell somehow re-invents the genre. It’s devoid of the John Hughes vibe and instead focuses on the unsure innocence and excitement of youth. Unknown actress Claire Sloma made my “break-through” performance list this year. Myth is important in that it re-packages the teenage coming-of-age drama for a different type of audience…instead of celebrating the carefree craziness of youth and appealing to teenagers, it instead sheds a gentle, compelling light on what it means to grow up.
7. The Ides of March – full review
The best political drama of the year may also require the most attention…The Ides of March is not a movie you would want to watch without fully engaging. The title is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the most famous political back-stab of them all. It is a game of chess, where all the players feel they should be king. Of course, several are pawns in a much larger game. In the end, each character makes a compromise of character that they must live with. Directed by and starring George Clooney, it also features one of the best ensemble casts of the year, with Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman to name just a few.
6. My Afternoons with Margueritte – full review
The only foreign language film to crack my list, this is a film that many won’t see, but they should. Gerard Depardieu is nothing short of brilliant as Germain, a lumbering ogre of a man who’s big heart more than makes up for his simple brain. He meets up each day with an old lady he’s met in the park, Margueritte, counting and naming all of the pigeons that gather in front of their park bench. Margueritte is always clutching on to a good book, and quoting passages from authors totally foreign to Germain. Germain is illiterate, and Margueritte is opening up a new world to him, inspiring him. You can’t help but fall in love with the two central characters. It’s a love story about the love that two friends share, unromantic love. As the movie says, “Not always are love stories just made of love. Sometimes love is not named. But it’s love just the same.” For me, this was the best love story of 2011.
5. Moneyball – full review
Think of the cast and crew of Moneyball as the NY Yankees, an all-star assembly of the best talent money can buy. Brad Pitt is wonderful as Billy Beane, the real life GM of the Oakland Athletics who changed baseball forever. It’s a movie that requires a lot of explanation, after all, how can statistics be made interesting? The answer is in the same way mathmatics were made interesting in movies like A Beautiful Mind, where the interest is generated in the story-telling techniques and the performances. The result is a baseball-lovers dream, a drama that is more about what happens off the field than on. It’s a riveting and inspiring David vs. Goliath story showing that sometimes you need to think outside of the batter’s box in order to play with the big boys.
4. X-Men: First Class – full review
Only people who have never read a comic book discard them as “for children.” Newsflash, comic books are for adults, and shouldn’t be treated like child’s play. That’s why real love must be shown for this X-Men tale, a prequel telling the beginnings of arch-rivals and old friends, Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto). X-Men has always been the most popular of comic books, mainly due to the realistic approach given to the story. But this film was directed masterfully, by director Matthew Vaughn, focusing only on the characters that matter to this film and to the franchise, leaving many of the surrounding mutants on the sidelines. McAvoy and Fassbender capture not only the spirit of their characters, but also that of the actors we have come to love in those roles (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan). It’s the best comic book movie of 2011, and I couldn’t come up with anything bad to say about it.
3. The Help – full review
The Help is helped along in large part by sum of its parts, featuring the best ensemble cast of 2011. Viola Davis gives a powerful performance at the film’s center. The Help is an important film as well as a good one. It is tragic, moving, and inspirational. As a 30-something-er, I knew about civil rights and racism, but never expected that such blatant racism still was accepted and practiced as openly as it is shown here, as recent as the 60s. But this film is far from a history lesson, and more of a story about humanity, friendship, and family. What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger, and for these incredibly strong women, their true-to-life story is an affirmation that strength is color-blind, and that compassion breeds courage.
2. The Artist – full review
I’d imagine that when people hear of The Artist as being a silent, black-and-white film, it probably makes them cringe, thinking that it must be “one of those artsy-fartsy critic movies.” Who would have thought that it would be the exact polar opposite, the most universally crowd-pleasing film of 2011? Yes, critics love it, but so will you. It is a throwback to the Golden Era of Hollywood, about a silent film star transitioning to the “talkies” in the late 1920s. Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo are Oscar shoe-ins and are equally charismatic in the lead roles. The freakin’ dog, Uggie, is so beloved that a movement has begun to get him a special Oscar. Not only is it inventive, nostalgic, funny, and heart-warming, it is an important film that basically oozes a love for the cinema. If you’ve never seen a silent movie, or refuse to, I urge you to try The Artist…it will provide you with a bit of color in your life.
1. 50/50 – full review
I struggled to decide what to name as my #1 movie of the year, but as good as The Artist was, it was not all-encompassing in the way that 50/50 was for me. If I had created a checklist of everything a great movie should have, 50/50 would score 50 out of 50. Laugh-out-loud funny? Check. Deep emotional impact? Check. Memorable characters? Check. 50/50 was more than a great script, it was a great film. The tragedy of a 27 year old getting cancer? Who would have thought that would be the funniest premise of the year. It captures all sides of such a diagnosis, from the numbness one would feel, to the anger and depression. It captures perfectly those around the afflicted person, the friend who encourages using cancer for sympathy, the over-bearing mother, the over-whelmed significant other. In 50/50 we are given the perfect prescription and dosage, mixed with a potency few comedies possess. It is 2011’s best film, full of hope, laughter, and love. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and if you are human, you will leave with a renewed vigor to not sweat the small stuff in life, even when the small stuff is pretty big.
Agree? Disagree? What movies did I leave out that you think should have been included? Comment below, and see you in 2012!