10 Years Later: Revisiting the Best Films of 2011
Editor’s Note: Ten years ago, my friends and I published a list of the best movies of 2011 under our old brand, Sound On Sight. Now that we are in the year 2021, I thought it would be fun to revisit that list. Here’s what we had to say ten years ago…
With more movies in limited and general release than ever before, 2011 was a ridiculously crowded year for both casual and discerning moviegoers alike. One by-product of the glut is a refreshing lack of consensus; so many films have been championed in so many corners – while those same films get trashed in others – that our cultural need to rally behind obvious points of praise and awareness have been gloriously undercut. 2011 was the year to see and love films that spoke to you, and to be prepared to argue the case with fellow cinephiles. In other words, 2011 was the year the gloves came off. To say that none of the 30 films on our staff-voted list is universally beloved is putting it mildly; but then, that’s the nature of polls like these.
Every year we’ve run this poll, there’s been a runaway winner; this year, the top 2 films were tied up until the last ballot; three crossed the hundred-point threshold. Only five films earned the support of over a third of the contributors. That’s the sort of year it was.
Worth noting: Incendies, La Quattro Volte, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives all made it onto our 2010 staff list.
The Best movies of 2011
While Jonathan Levine waits for his Amber Heard-starring feminist slasher All the Boys Love Mandy Lane to finally get a theatrical release, he can take some comfort in the fact that his Joseph Gordon-Levitt / Seth Rogen bromantic dramedy 50/50 was the beneficiary of considerable audience warmth, striking a measured tone between pained pathos and broad, familiar swathes of humor. And without a release fiasco of any kind.
29. Into the Abyss
Werner Herzog’s cinematic universe is so self-contained that it’s a little shocking when his death-row doc Into the Abyss gives so little of its time over to the director’s meandering philosophical musings, preferring instead to let beleaguered voices behind the glass and the victims of violent crime (to whom the film is dedicated) almost the entirety of his camera’s attention. The result is maybe the most emotionally direct film Herzog has ever created.
Both Mike Mills and his wife, Miranda July, released films this year tackling grief and personal growth that happened to feature some variant on talking animals. Of the two, Mills’s Beginners found wider acceptance, thanks in no small part to sterling performances from Christopher Plummer and Ewan MacGregor, and the film’s refreshingly candid take on mortality, the evolution of sexual mores, and the tangled nature of parent-child dynamics. The dog probably didn’t hurt, either.
27. Super 8
Super-producer J.J. Abrams’s third feature as a director was deliberately shrouded in mystery for some time, before ultimately being revealed as a wide-eyed sci-fi/adventure homage to the Spielberg films Abrams grew up with. That sense of awe is appropriately replicated by the film’s young cast of mostly first-timers, whose filmmaking efforts charmingly underscore Abrams’s personal connection to the era and the genre.
One of the most stylistically distinct docs in recent memory, Asif Kapadia’s Senna dispenses with the usual talking-heads approach favoured by so many conventional narrative docs, sticking instead exclusively to archival audio and video in its enthralling encapsulation of the life and career of F1 driver Ayrton Senna. The result is a film that is unusually immersive and emotionally enveloping, even for viewers with no knowledge of the sport.
25. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Some doubted whether or not Tomas Alfredson and screenwriter Peter Straughan would be able to finesse John le Carre’s densely plotted spy tale into the shape of a feature film, especially since it already made for a seven-hour miniseries in 1979. They needn’t have worried; Alfredson carries over the chilly charms of Let the Right One In while Straughan manages to axe just enough material to make the transition work, and Gary Oldman heads up a terrific cast, making the almost-mandatory second viewing to sort out some of the plot specifics a deeply pleasurable experience.
24. Meek’s Cutoff
Kelly Reichardt might be the testiest and brashest of the recently emergent female directors to have made their mark in the arthouse realm. Reteaming with the always-great Michelle Williams, Reichardt goes from no-budget to low-budget in this stark, bare-bones, subtly revisionist Western, which garnered early raves last year but gradually made itself available throughout 2011. Meek’s Cutoff continues Reichardt’s steady, admirable campaign of destabilisation.
23. Kill List
Ben Wheatley’s sophomore feature, following the no-budget black comedy-thriller Down Terrace, was only seen by UK and film-fest audiences, so its appearance here testifies to the idiosyncratic thriller’s support amongst those who have seen it. It gets a stateside release courtesy of IFC in the new year so everyone can catch up to the hubbub, including the film’s already-notorious final reels.
Talk about unlikely success stories. After being passed through multiple directors’ hands, and seeming to be in development hell for ages, Moneyball finally emerged as a sort of adult drama dream come true, with Aaron Sorkin co-writing and Capote‘s Bennett Miller directing a stellar cast. That it managed to wrest drama out of the arcane science of baseball number-crunching is the even bigger surprise, thanks in no small part to the film’s sterling performances from Brad Pitt and, surprisingly, a snark-free Jonah Hill.
Kenneth Longergan’s epic-but-intimate Anna Paquin vehicle finally saw the light of day this past year after a very long stretch in stasis, emerging as one of the most passionately adored of art-house cause celebres when it all but disappeared from the few theatres it screened in within just a few weeks of opening. Thanks to a host of stunning performances (Paquin, Jeannie Berlin, J. Smith-Cameron) and its bracing style and thematic import, Margaret is poised for much wider admiration come to its eventual DVD release.
20. Take Shelter
For their second collaboration, writer-director Jeff Nichols and star Michael Shannon dive into potentially dicey waters, and come out with a genuine breakout. Most movies about mental illness are misbegotten or ill-conceived, but Nichols and Shannon succeed by avoiding trite sentimentality and over-simplification, instead crafting a believably lived-in portrait of a family and a community’s response to intimate tragedy.
Maybe his intimations of retirement are phony, but Steven Soderbergh can’t be faulted for resting on his laurels if he ever had any. Who else would be able to get an ensemble movie with a serious penchant for killing off its A-list cast and studious avoidance of over-the-top genre thrills off the ground? Contagion is closer to an honest-to-goodness research piece than a movie like Outbreak, which turned out to be one of its greatest virtues.
Probably the only consensus comedy of the year, Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids saw mega-producer Judd Apatow making a conscious effort to appeal to women in the wake of his many male-centric hits, and the result combined naked commercial ambitions with satisfyingly raucous, nasty humor. But it’s the performances the really stick out, especially Kristen Wiig’s damaged-but-loveable heroine, Melissa McCarthy’s rampaging sidekick, and Jon Hamm’s wonderfully self-deprecating turn as a complete lech.
17. 13 Assassins
After a few years in relative Western critical wilderness, director Takashi Miike came roaring back with the epic, brutal 13 Assassins, an old-fashioned samurai yarn with a classically composed first 90 minutes and an increasingly insane climax, which for many was the year’s first and last word in action sequences. That’s difficult contention to find fault with.
16. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
The march of “slow cinema” continues; if last year most memorably marked the triumph of Uncle Boonmee at Cannes, 2011’s totem of cinematic patience might well be Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, an exacting but rewarding art-movie take on that most traditional of genes, the murder mystery; only here, it takes some time for the body in question to even shore up.
The Micro-Indie That Could, Bellflower was one of the most fiercely debated movies of the year; part Mad Max, part Blue Valentine. Director-writer-star-editor-engineer Evan Glodell’s movie drew plenty of ire thanks to the film’s relaxed, naturalistic acting style and its rank depiction of a man who grows to despise the woman he fell helplessly in love with, but its roughshod charms helped it to stand out in a year where indies tended to look and feel slicker and less distinct than ever before.
14. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
While the great majority of the year’s blockbusters played it safe, Rupert Wyatt’s unexpectedly bold prequel to the iconoclastic 1970s sci-fi series stood out for its clarity, urgency, and heart. That the last part of that equation was mostly delivered through a performance-captured CGI ape (Andy Serkis, in what might be the first such performance ever to nab an Oscar nod) is only one remarkable feat in a movie that produced a number of the most awe-inspiring moments of any film this year.
13. The Interrupters
Steve James made what might be the most critically acclaimed doc of all time, Hoop Dreams, back in 1994, but he hasn’t reaped the rewards of the genre’s subsequent rise to (relative) prominence. Hopefully, The Interrupters, which is equal parts inner-city portraiture and social advocacy piece, re-cements him as a household name. Both heart-wrenching and surprisingly empowering, James’s look at inner-city violence and conflict resolution is never less than riveting.
12. A Separation
Asghar Farhadi’s critically adored family drama tensely unravels a dense tale of intra-familial conflict, societal forces, and cruel fate, carefully deploying key revelations (both on- and off-screen) for maximum dramatic effect, but never feeling sanctimonious or excessive. The film is further proof of the continued vitality of Iran’s harshly repressed filmmaking culture.
Early looks at Martin Scorsese’s Hugo suggested that maybe he’d finally go the way of so many other directors and cash in on kiddie-friendly material in the name of blank commercial appeal. Instead, Hugo is Scorsese’s best movie in some time, both a dazzling tribute to early cinema and a hopefully appeal for the medium’s future. That the movie manages to act as both a buttress for Scorsese’s film-preservation efforts and a beguiling family film in its own right is no small feat.
Saoirse Ronan cuts through the screen in Joe Wright’s unexpectedly playful thriller, which juxtaposes innocence and brutality at will. Ronan is one of the most charismatic and distinctive young actors around, and watching Hanna define herself in a strange and unfamiliar world while danger lurks not far behind was one of the earliest film pleasures of 2011.
9. We Need to Talk About Kevin
Possibly the most misunderstood movie of the year, Lynne Ramsay’s long-awaited return is a vividly rendered horror film with a keen sense of subjectivity that seemed to go over a few critics’ heads. Tilda Swinton continues a career-long streak of intense, idiosyncratic performances, and Ramsay’s camera lingers on details both over-the-top and seemingly incidental. The result is demented arthouse for manic-depressives.
8. Attack the Block
For those not so keen on JJ Abrams’s nostalgic take on preadolescent adventuring, Attack the Block is a buoyant counterattack; a lean, mean, funny, and surprisingly brutal actioner that balances a keen sense of place (set in the North London equivalent of a housing project) with a genuine feel for universal themes and accessible characters. Genre fans will likely be keeping a close eye on first-time helmer Joe Cornish for some time.
7. The Artist
Michael Hazanavicius shifted his loving, lightly parodic gaze away from the spy spoofs of the Oss 117 series long enough to craft what may end up as the most broadly adored movie of 2011, a love letter to the silent-film era and a showcase for returning collaborator Jean Dujardin, whose charismatic turn as the titular, possibly doomed star has already earned him reams of plaudits.
6. Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen’s umpteenth comedy turned out to be his most warmly received in ages – both critically and commercially. If that means Allen is definitely no longer a New York filmmaker, most didn’t seem to mind, embracing Allen’s new role as a Euro-centric comic chronicler of romantic and existential woe.
5. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Like Winter’s Bone last year, Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene emerged from Sundance early in the year to prove that American indies have more to offer than quirky dramedies and misery porn. Elizabeth Olsen’s fractured title figure is the beating heart of this taut, carefully constructed thriller, whose air of menace and mystery is convincingly ever-present.
Steve McQueen’s sophomore feature has had a tough go of it, gaining plaudits for Michael Fassbender’s incredible central performance, but generally enduring a whole lot of grief for its central concept and approach. For anyone willing to engage with the film on its own terms, though, Shame is one of the most effectively gruelling emotional gauntlets in recent memory, while also calling into question the cavalier way we portray and consume sex in the age of porn.
Danish provocateur Lars von Trier had his, well, von Trier-est year ever in 2011, managing to get himself banned from Cannes while actually presenting one of his tamest films ever. Melancholia manages the neat trick of annihilating the Earth in its opening minutes, then actually turning out to be one of von Trier’s most weirdly optimistic films.
2. The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick’s long-in-the-wings, impressionistic dare of a movie kicks off what appears to be a new and more productive era for the famously reclusive director, who apparently has two more new films more or less in the can. Despite his track record for long breaks, this bit of news isn’t necessarily surprising when you’ve seen The Tree of Life, which feels like the cinematic equivalent of a creative dam bursting, in the best way possible.
If 2011 was a year of divisive movies, none polarized audiences and critics quite like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, a movie so stylistically brazen it both won Refn the Best Director prize at Cannes and inspired at least one lawsuit. A tightly knit patchwork of film and pop-culture touchstones that also happens to fit within Refn’s small oeuvre of idiosyncratic tough-guy flicks, Drive is a movie both of its time and indebted to several others; it might prove to be ahead of the curve, too.
31- The Descendants32- Cave of Forgotten Dreams
33– Miss Bala
34- The Skin I Live In
35- She Monkeys
36- Young Adult
38- The Turin Horse
39- Wuthering Heights
43- A Lonely Place To Die
44- Way Bac45- Rabies
46- I Saw The Devil
47- The Adventures of Tin Tin
50- Mysteries of Lisbon