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Best Films Of 2011 (Matt’s List)

It was an interesting year for film. Perhaps not as notable or memorable as 2010, but 2011 certainly had its moments and there were many films released that will likely leave their mark on the world of cinema for years, perhaps even decades to come.

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It was an interesting year for film. Perhaps not as notable or memorable as 2010, but 2011 certainly had its moments and there were many films released that will likely leave their mark on the world of cinema for years, perhaps even decades to come.

On the blockbuster side, Harry conjured up his last spell (as well as a ton of money), Pixar finally made a bad movie, Marvel prepared the world for The Avengers, and Michael Bay made up for his past sins with the new Transformers film.

We also learnt a couple important lessons. Despite Knight and Day Tom Cruise has still got it, despite everything the cast of Twilight has still got it (if box office numbers are to be believed), Rango showed us that Pixar may not be the king of animation for much longer, audiences realized that The Wolfpack just isn’t as funny the second time around and Justin Lin showed us that fast cars are still in.

Outside the blockbuster realm, Jennifer Aniston almost appeared nude on film (sorry guys, you’ll have to wait for Wanderlust), Bradley Cooper more than proved himself as a leading man (no, I’m not referring to the crummy Hangover sequel), Duncan Jones showed us that he has something more than beginner’s luck, Zack Snyder made a few new enemies and Adam Sandler is still trying to find his missing funny bone, something Woody Allen has apparently already accomplished this year.

It wasn’t only blockbuster and big studio films that had a chance to shine this year though, some smaller and more independent movies also had their turn to take the spotlight. Dominic Cooper gave us one of the year’s best and most underrated performances, the world was introduced to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s sister (who apparently has more talent than her superstar twins), Ryan Gosling helped introduce America to Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn and apparently, black and white silent films can still entertain and move an audience, who knew?

In terms of performances, for the males it was Michael Fassbender dominating cinemas this year. No one had more of a breakout year than this guy and deservedly so. With exceptional performances in all of his 2011 titles, most notably Shame and X-Men: First Class, Fassbender has staked his claim in Hollywood and likely won’t be going anywhere for a very long time.

For the women, it was Jessica Chastain. Equally as compelling and impressive as Fassbender in her 2011 year, the young actress went from total unknown to being a likely shoe in for either Best Supporting Actress or Best Actress at this year’s Oscars. Notable performances include The Tree Of Life and The Help but like Fassbender, she shined in every role that she took on this year.

In terms of news and what took over headlines, I think it’s safe to say that The Dark Knight Rises earned the most attention from critics, media and bloggers around the world. With new rumors popping up almost everyday and the tiniest piece of news sparking debate and controversy, no film was more talked about or discussed than Nolan’s last outing with the Caped Crusader.

As 2011 comes to a close, it’s time to reflect back on the year in film as I choose my top ten movies of the year. While I wasn’t as impressed by the year’s offerings as I was by what 2010 had for us, there were still a few movies that really grabbed me.

I still don’t think anything on this list comes close to 2010 gems like Inception or The Social Network but moviegoers were still treated to a nice array of blockbusters, indies and everything in between.

Check out my list of 2011’s best films below and let us know what you think in the comments.

10. Contagion (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Admittedly, I didn’t love Contagion. But in all truthfulness, I really couldn’t find another film to fill this last spot. I only really loved 9 movies this year. Me and Contagion have more of a ‘liked a lot’ relationship rather than full on love.

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy Contagion, very much, I just didn’t love it. What did stick out to me though about it and what ultimately earned it my last spot was the effectiveness of it. Steven Soderbergh has made a hard hitting film that really captures what our world would be like if a deadly virus were to spread on a global scale. It’s scary not only because of how Soderbergh has presented it but also because it feels so real and plausible.

Contagion is an enthralling and effective film, one that features a number of great performances and some sharp direction from Steven Soderbergh, all backed by Scott Z. Burns’ intelligent script. And speaking of the script, the unconventional-ness of it is great, no one is safe here, any character can die in Contagion. Soderbergh lends his master filmmaking skills to the script as well, giving the film an astounding fluidity and transparency despite the multiple storylines.

While I didn’t absolutely love it, Contagion is still a chilly and gripping thriller that had me from start to finish. It is composed and edited beautifully and Soderbergh proves that he is a true master behind the camera.

9. The Devil’s Double (dir. Lee Tamahori)

The Devil’s Double is one hell of a good film and most of its greatness can be attributed to the lead performance. Dominic Cooper is extraordinary in the lead role of Uday Hussein/Latif Yahia. He elevates the material onto another level and does a truly remarkable job. It’s a performance that is awe-inspiring and one that is wholly deserving of an Oscar. 

Cooper‘s performance alone is worth the price of admission. The other actors hardly even matter here as they don’t stand a chance when the powerhouse actor is on screen. He’s just so damn good that it’s hard to really care about or pay attention to anyone else. It’s a wildly impressive performance and one that stands out as one of the best that we’ve seen in 2011.

Lee Tamahori, who up to this point hasn’t had anything worthy on his resume, also helps out as he is confident behind the camera. He offers up sleek, dynamic and energetic direction, constantly throwing us lurid scenes of madness and never losing our attention

This is an engrossing and compelling film that will both shock, scare and astound you. It’s an electrifying and captivating gangster film and I’d be remiss if I didn’t include it in this list.

8. Source Code (dir. Duncan Jones)

This is one that you won’t see on many lists. I wasn’t going to put it on my list either but it was really the first great movie I saw in 2011 and upon a recent viewing, it still thoroughly entertained me.

Source Code is a sci-fi thriller with heart and it’s a sci-fi thriller that works as an emotional drama as well. And that’s what really drew me to the film, never did I expect to see such a human element in a sci-fi thriller.

This is a genre that is usually devoid of anything like that and in an age where we’re being slammed with big budget sci-fi thrillers that give us unrelatable stories and scenes ladened with special effects, Source Code stands out even more.

You see, Source Code functions on two levels. Yes, it’s a gripping and suspenseful sci-fi thriller but there’s also another level. Aside from the search for the bomber, there’s something more at play here and it’s equally, if not more compelling than the main storyline. And that’s the emotional/human element that the film has. This is more than just a thriller, and by the end, we’re asked some tough existential questions that will really have you thinking. Source Code has both heart and smarts.

And that is really what makes the film so refreshing, the humanist take that is presented here. It’s that extra layer of depth that really sets this one apart. Most thrillers don’t have this element to them and it’s great to see a thriller that can finally connect emotionally. The best part is, you’re not really expecting it and when it hits, it hits hard.

The fact that Jake Gyllenhaal‘s Colter Steven is also an unreliable narrator makes the film more engaging. We feel just as lost as him since we only know what he knows (and what he knows may not even be 100% accurate). The fact that we only know just as much as him also helps us to identify more with him and feel for his situation. We’re always on the edge of our seat, never knowing when a twist could occur. And trust me, there are quite a few well thought out twists and turns here.

It’s clear that Source Code was made with great skill and craft and Dunacn Jones’ direction shines through in every scene. He keeps the film moving at a feverish pace, never leaving us bored or lost in the scientific mumbo jumbo. Clues are dropped along the way for the more observant of viewers as Jones makes sure that everything is laid out clear and in an uncomplicated manner, making sure no viewer is lost. He has a deft handle on the material and with Source Code, he offers up a brilliantly constructed film.

7. The Tree Of Life (dir. Terrence Malick)

The Tree Of Life is a funny one. For every critic that called it the worst movie of the year, you could find one that called it the best film of the year. I really haven’t seen a film so severely divide critics as The Tree Of Life did. After a few viewings though, I can completely sympathize with both camps.

I do see both points of view, how some can call it the worst and why some call it the best. But, above all else, Terrence Malick‘s The Tree Of Life is a supremely interesting and thought provoking film that is really so different from anything we’ve ever seen. For that reason alone it deserves a place on this list.

Yes, at times it’s a bit too pretentious and self involved and I understand why so many of you hate it but allow me to explain why it’s showing up on this list. To truly appreciate what Malick has done here, you must remind yourself that above all, film is still art and no film proves that more so than The Tree Of Life.

This is a film that is too beautiful to be described in words, a film so utterly mesmerizing, mystifying and awe-inspiring that it should be considered a must see. No other film in 2011 will leave you with more to think and talk about afterwards. Those looking for a more plot driven experience may be unhappy with what’s offered here but for those more open minded moviegoers, there is really something special to be experienced in The Tree Of Life.

The film asks large existential questions, questions that can likely never be answered and questions that not even Malick pretends he has the answers for. But that’s alright. By asking these questions and making us think, Malick has provided one of the most thoughtful and insightful films of the year. His vision is so fierce and visceral that when its coupled with the exquisite imagery, it’s truly hard not to be moved.

With The Tree Of Life, Malick shows us that he’s truly operating on another level. The film is really just a marvel to watch. One shot flows perfectly into another and when pieced together, they paint a beautiful and thought provoking film that is one hell of an experience.

6. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (dir. David Fincher)

If you asked me (or any critic for that matter) back in January what film they predicted would be near the top of their best of 2011 list, most would have said The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Now, the time has come and as far as I can tell, the film really hasn’t appeared on too many lists, not that I’ve seen at least. To be honest, it almost didn’t make my list either. It’s far from perfect and not even close to Fincher’s best, but there is still a lot to like here in this dizzying thriller and I feel that I would be doing it a disservice by not including it.

It would only be fair to start with Rooney Mara. Yes, Rooney Mara is downright amazing. As Lisabeth Salander she completely throws herself into the role. Her potent performance here is just as much a star making turn as Noomi Rapace‘s was in the original film. Mara is raw, compelling and unhinged as the gifted computer hacker.

The silent and stoic Lisabeth says more with her actions than her words and Mara conveys this effectivley, constantly commanding your attention. It’s a severe physical and psychological transformation that Mara goes through and she goes to some very dark places but always handles herself like a gifted actor would. Her chemistry with co-star Daniel Craig is excellent as well but this really isn’t Craig’s show, despite him technically being the main character. This is Mara’s show and she deserves every bit of recognition she receives.

Another thing that deserves praise is Steve Zaillian‘s screenplay, which takes a fairly convoluted story and makes it so easy to follow and understand, moreso than the Swedish version. It’s coherent, sensible and never goes above the audience’s head. For a story about what is essentially two people investigating a 40 year old murder by conducting interviews and looking through records, this is an incredibly intense and suspenseful film that is riveting for the entire runtime, which creeps close to three hours. There is never a moment wasted and the film never slows down.

Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography ensures that the film is beautifully shot, which it is, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are still doing things with film scores that no one else in the industry is doing. Throw in Fincher’s deft touch and his strong sense for dark subject matter and you have a film that excels on almost every technical level.

The director crafts a dark and visceral film that is compulsively watchable, taking the audience to some truly extreme places as Fincher pulls no punches when it comes to the sex or violence in the film, this is a brutally honest and at times harrowing movie that is truly hard hitting. Rather than trying to reinvent or copy the original film, Fincher and his crew stick to the source material but build upon it as the director leaves his own stamp on the story.

Ultimately, The Girl With The Dragon Tatto is very absorbing with a strong central performance. It’s more than just a cash grab for Sony and unlike most remakes, this one actually has a point of existing, in my opinion at least. Fincher has given us another gripping and utterly watchable film that while it may not be his best, is still one of my favorite films of the year.

5. Insidious (dir. James Wan)

Perhaps the best thing I can say abou Insidious is that it is a very unsettling film, it’s both haunting and unnerving and will leave you pinned to your seat for the entire runtime. Atmospherically, it is also tremendously effective as dread hangs in the air throughout the whole film and tension wallows in every scene.

For a horror film to accomplish such a feat in this day and age is something that truly deserves to be applauded. In a genre that is slowly dying, with more and more crummy films being released (and none of them being at all scary or frightening), Insidious is so incredibly refreshing and is a film that I really do appreciate.

Wan’s inspired direction, with the use of clever camera angles and inventive sound effects, make for a truly horrifying and at times harrowing film. The scares here aren’t cheap or tacky, these are legitimate scares. Insidious doesn’t need buckets of blood or inventive gore to make us cover our eyes, the atmosphere crafted here is more than enough to leave viewers spooked. Personally, I rarely, if ever, get scared in films but Insidious had me creeped out on each viewing (I’ve seen it three times now).

This is a film that has overcome all odds. Everything pointed to Insidious being a dud but it turns out to be an absolutely fantastic horror film. Best horror film of the year? Absolutely! Best horror film of the decade? Quite possibly. Even at a PG-13 rating this is a downright bone chilling movie. Throw in a shocking twist ending and you have a true horror film that turns out to be one of my favorite films of the year.

4. Warrior (dir. Gavin O’Connor)

Sometimes genre conventions and cliches are there for a reason, and that’s because they work. Sometimes using familiar outcomes and predictable character progressions can work out well. David O. Russell realized that with The Fighter and Gavin O’Connor has done the same with Warrior. It’s an underdog character drama in the purest sense and you can probably predict the outcome from the trailer, but does that mean it’s not worth watching? The answer is a resounding no.

Yes, everything in Warrior feels familiar but like Russell’s The Fighter, it’s a powerful and moving film with a number of authentic moments that make it worth watching, even though we know how it will all play out. Through compelling moments brought out by fantastic acting, O’Connor keeps us gripped the whole way through.

And then there are the hard hitting fight scenes which are shot, edited and co-ordinated so perfectly that it’s impossible to look away for even a second. I’m not usually a fan of MMA but I literally could not look away here, the fighting in this film is staged brilliantly and is completely captivating.

Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton lead the charge here and the two actors both give a tremendous performance, supported by the equally impressive Nick Nolte. Each character crafted by these three talented individuals is so fully realized and so utterly interesting and emotionally raw that like the fight scenes, you can’t take your eyes off them as they’re immensely watchable.

Sure, Warrior may be predictable and pretty easy to figure out but it’s still one of 2011’s most watchable films and after repeated viewings, has become one of my favorites of the year.

3. Drive (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

Polarizing and mesmerizing are just two words that come to my mind when I think of Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Drive, a different kind of pulpy crime thriller starring Hollywood’s favorite new leading man, Ryan Gosling.

Drive is a beautiful film, both visually captivating and perfectly acted, this is a film that begs to be seen. While I can see the lack of mainstream appeal in the film, if you go in with an open mind, you’ll find something truly enjoyable.

Drive is dark and gritty but below the surface shines something gorgeous. Refn’s confident camerawork and Newton Thomas Sigel’s lush photography exquisitely capture the city of Los Angeles as the 80’s throwback soundtrack captures the mood/atmosphere of the film perfectly.

Visceral yet stylized violence often punctuates the otherwise quiet and placid scenes and each car chase is shot differently but each in a clear and clean manner. Really, the whole film is shot and edited with such percision and grace that you can’t help but to be transfixed as you watch. Each shot has a purpose and not one second of film is wasted.

As The Driver, Gosling is a quiet individual yet when he speaks it’s with power and conviction. He conveys so much through his emotions though that he turns The Driver into an enigmatic and fascinating character that is a ton of fun to watch. A strong cast of supporting actors show up as well to back up Gosling as we watch talented individuals like Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks turn small parts into something truly memorable.

It may be far from conventional, and may turn many people off, but Drive is still one of the year’s best films. It’s smart, sophisticated, unapologetic, sleek and most importantly, cinema in the purest form. Simply put, Drive is a pleasure to watch.

2. The Ides Of March (dir. George Clooney)

I’m a sucker for smart political thrillers, so it’s no surprise that George Clooney‘s The Ides Of March was a winner for me. In fact, this taut, intelligent and exceptionally well acted film was nearly my choice for movie of the year.

It’s nearly flawless and left me especially impressed once the end credits rolled. The Ides Of March is a political thriller done right, engaging and interesting the whole way through. Sharp, Sorkin-esque dialogue rolls off the tongues of esteemed actors like Ryan GoslingPaul GiamattiGeorge Clooney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a thrilling story unfolds, revealing one twist after another.

Photographed by Phedon Papamichael and edited by Stephen Mirrione, the film looks slick and flows perfectly. Backed by Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov’s script, that is well balanced and never in danger of being too preachy, and a powerhouse cast, The Ides Of March has all the makings of a fantastic film, which is why it has earned the number two spot on my list.

1. Moneyball (dir. Bennett Miller)

Who knew a film about statistics and calculating odds would turn out to be one of the year’s most moving and enjoyable movies? Let me get one thing straight before we start, I’m not a baseball fan, hell, I’m hardly a sports fan. But, Bennett Miller‘s Moneyball, a film about putting together a winning major league baseball team based on statistical analysis, was the best film I saw all year.

Moneyball is Brad Pitt at the top of his game. The 48 year old actor has really never been better than he is here, giving us what is truly a crowd pleasing performance. It’s heartfelt and honest, which helps brings a pathos to the character, turning him into someone we can all relate to. The scenes between him and his daughter are especially touching, adding a real human element to the character. And of course, Pitt’s natural charm, carisma and magnetism are all in full force here, constantly driving the film forward with his never ending energy and zest. This is Brad Pitt at his best ladies and gentlemen and he’s a pleasure to watch.

The rest of the cast (Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman) are all equally impressive. Pitt and Hill play off each other marvellously as Hill’s comedic timing works well in his scenes shared with the movie megastar and his Peter Brand creates a great foil for Pitt’s Billy Beane. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who Miller directed to an Oscar in Capote, is great as well, offering up a wonderful performance as the team’s manager, Art Howe.

Christopher Nolan‘s right hand man Wally Pfister handles the cinematography, giving us a beautifully shot film as Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian‘s talky script keeps the dialogue whizzing by at a sharp pace, keeping the baseball jargon to a minimum. The smart, funny and witty writing draws many similarities to The Social Network as well in that while the story is essentially about statistics (the former is essentially about coding a website), Sorkin is able to infuse such emotion and heart into it that it really is a fascinating and at times electrifying watch.

There are some absolutely terrific and memorable scenes in Moneyball and few movie moments in 2011 beat what we get here. In reality, it’s just one exceptionally well done scene after another and I enjoyed absolutely every moment of this film.

Brad Pitt and director Bennett Miller score a homerun with Moneyball, creating an intelligent, entertaining and moving motion picture. At the end of the film you’ll realize that it’s actually not about baseball at all, it’s about standing up for something you believe in and going against the odds, having faith in an idea and takings risks. I don’t know about you but I think that’s something that will resonate with most of us.

Honorable Mentions

For being so damn enjoyable and entertaining: Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, Sucker Punch, Fast Five, In Time, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, The Adventures Of Tintin: Secret Of The Unicorn

For doing something different with the superhero genre and achieving tremendous success because of it: X-Men: First Class

For feeling real and authentic and handling sensitive subject matter respectfully: 50/50, Trust, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Margin Call

For making me laugh out loud (something that not many movies do): Horrible Bosses

For giving us a smart and stylish thriller that stood out from most of the trash released in the genre this year: Limitless, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

For providing a beautiful swan song to one of cinema’s most beloved franchises: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

For showing us that silent/black and white films can still be entertaining and enjoyable in this day and age: The Artist