Best Films Of 2011 (Will’s List)

We reach that all important time again: the compilation of the year’s best films. In all honesty I think this has been a terrific year, which is surprising because in a year in which Hollywood has failed to supply the goods, 2011 has been the year of the independent film. There have only been a handful of great films this year that were big Hollywood productions.

The rest were incredibly poor and the lack of Inception has left a massive hole that has shown that filmmakers really haven’t learnt the Nolan lesson: that it’s okay to make big budget films that don’t patronize audiences with plotless, characterless dirge. I’m looking toward Michael Bay here and Transformers Dark of the Moon, which is far and away the worst Hollywood film of the year, if not the worst overall.

Films like Sucker Punch tried to ride on the coat tails of Nolan but simply fell flat on their face through mind bending misogyny, MTV visuals and being emotionally hollow. Oh and also because it was directed by Zack Snyder. Cars 2 proved that Pixar wasn’t invincible, producing their first bad film and amid them were terrible 3D studio fodder: Green Lantern, The Green Hornet, Conan the Barbarian, The Smurfs, Spy Kids 4, Fright Night and The Three Musketeers, all of them were laughably bad.

Of course in other areas, studios still had some interesting pieces for audiences. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, X-Men: First Class, Sherlock Holmes A Game of Shadows and the very under appreciated Water for Elephants have been some lighthearted relief amongst a shitstorm of terribleness.

Despite all the trash, there have been a lot of very good films. I found it very difficult to leave some titles out of this list but these 5 were in contention for the Top 10: Super 8, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, The Tree of Life, Senna and Moneyball.

Be aware, this list is by no means definitive. Being in the UK, I still have not seen some of the prominent films of awards season. So two important films missing off this list which I think could change it are: The Descendants (I’m a huge Alexander Payne fan and the reviews tell me this could be on the level of Sideways which is a comedy masterpiece) and Shame, which Michael Fassbender has been garnering acclaim for a reportedly raw, brave and awards worthy performance.

But for now here it is, my top 10 films of the 2011.

10. Contagion (dir, Steven Soderbergh)

Steven Soderbergh‘s virus thriller Contagion is by far the most undervalued film of the year. It’s a searingly intelligent and actually quite terrifying film that works on every level and hits all the beats. Assembled by Soderbergh is an awesomely impressive cast. Grounded mainly by Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Ehle and Matt Damon, this wild ensemble of megastars (elsewhere we have Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Bryan Cranston) have turned their characters who feel like genuine human beings. This is an element that many filmmakers tend to forget when making a sci-fi film of this scale and it is this that elevates the film. It becomes scarier and for audience participation it feels like there is a lot at stake.

9. Bridesmaids (dir, Paul Feig)

The year’s best comedy proves that funny women can carry a big comedy hit. Riding on the shoulders of producer Judd Apatow, Kirsten Wiig with co-writer Annie Mumulo and director Paul Feig gave me one of the most enjoyable cinema experiences all year. This is also one of the funniest comedies I’ve seen in a long time.

Comedy is entirely subjective, and what makes me laugh will be greeted with stoney faced silence by another. This is a film that at times has very Knocked Up/Superbad type of comedy, and those are films that I really have an aversion too and don’t find funny. But as with Contagion, Bridesmaids‘ foundations are genuine characters (and genuine is something Apatow occasionally jettisons in favour of the dick joke). Plus, comedy becomes all the more funnier when you are emotionally invested, and I was, hence why I loved it so much.

8. Tyrannosaur (dir, Paddy Considine)

This is a film that has shamefully gone pretty much unnoticed by the critics on American shores, but Paddy Considine‘s British drama, set in my hometown of Leeds, deserves to be battling it out this awards season. Mainly for the film’s perfect performances, the stand out being the heartbreaking Olivia Colman. Known in Britain as a sitcom actress, she is brilliant as the abused housewife, who finds solitude in Peter Mullan‘s ticking time bomb, an aggressive yet sympathetic and lonely alcoholic. It is by no means an easy watch, the film contains a deeply disturbing and very graphic rape scene which, in terms of sexual violence, is about as far as you want anything to go. This is grim but uniquely compelling, a story of society’s outcasts who find happiness within each other.

7. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (dir, David Fincher)

A big budget retooling of Stieg Larsson’s best selling novel is another of the year’s most under appreciated treasures. Superbly directed by David Fincher who has now plied his craft to the status of perfection, the film gives us a more cinematic and tighter version of the story than the Swedish/Danish original. It is also a version that is in many regards far tougher, especially in terms of its sexual violence. However, Daniel Craig effortlessly inhabits the role of journalist Mikael Blomkvist, doing what is essentially a down trodden James Bond. He is a knitted jumper wearing schlub, who is imperfect and ragged around the edges, despite his ‘keen investigative mind’.

And despite a bravura performance from Noomi Rapace in the original series, Rooney Mara‘s interpretation of Lisbeth Salander is just as good and she very much makes the character her own. Her inexperience as an actor doesn’t show at all, despite coping with a cinematic and literary icon weighing heavily on her shoulders, it is an immaculate awards courting performance. The film looks beautiful too with Jeff Cronenweth expertly capturing the cold winter chill of Sweden Most of all, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo combines so many fascinating, miserablist themes: murder, religion, rape and investigation all into a thriller format. The Feel Bad Movie of Christmas indeed.

6. Hugo (dir, Martin Scorsese)

It was inevitable that the film that would end up convincing me wholeheartedly that 3D could work would be Hugo. Martin Scorsese (the world’s greatest filmmaker, no arguments) has produced the first film that handled the extra dimension with meaning. Hugo is essentially Scorsese’s attempt at a family film, but really this is a film about the magic of early cinema.

Central to the film’s mystery is Georges Melies, one of film’s pioneers who even back in the 1920’s had tried his hand at developing 3D film. Plus, a lot of the film is also dedicated to the mechanics of cinema. And this is where Scorsese justifies his stereoscopic vision. Beyond that the film is visually sumptuous, with beautiful sets designed by Dante Ferretti and cinematography by Robert Richardson, this film transported me away for its 2 hour running time and had me completely captivated.

5. The Skin I Live In (dir, Pedro Almodovar)

Pedro Almodovar has always succeeded, and has always been best as an audience divider. He has the ability to really push a viewer’s comfort, showing us these bizarre people with bizarre lives. This is exactly what is so good about The Skin I Live In, a thriller about a plastic surgeon who is enacting revenge of some sort on a young woman who he keeps locked in an upstairs bedroom in his mansion. From there things go bonkers with some plot twists which go way beyond the boundaries of credibility but are always of a piece.

This features superb performances, particularly Antonio Banderas who gives the best performance of his career and deserves a place among Jean Dujardin and George Clooney in the Best Actor race but won’t be. After all, the Academy have already ruled out the film from Best Foreign Language contention. However, this was an exciting change in tack for Almodovar who has returned to the pulpy genre movies that made his name, after making a series of very sincere (but brilliant) melodramas. And we welcome him back with open arms. This was one of the most refreshing and beautifully constructed films of the year.

4. Kill List (dir, Ben Wheatley)

Speaking of pushing a viewer’s comfort brings us rather neatly to Kill List. The sophomore feature from British director Ben Wheatley retains the dark simplicity of his first film, Down Terrace, and applies it sublimely to this hit man thriller/horror. The most extraordinary element of Kill List is the remarkable milieu of brooding tension and unease, the violence is incredibly brutal and disturbing but all the more disturbing is Wheatley’s excellence at making people squirm. Wheatley is clearly looking towards his peers, working in a similar ball park to Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes, to which Kill List owes a massive debt.

The film also neatly manages to change genres without us really knowing it. The 20 minute finale is really something to behold as Wheatley turns the tables on us as things go a bit Wicker Man, but it works beautifully within the realm of the film. While every narrative strand is not clear to begin with or when the film comes to its harrowing climax, the film is littered with clues that on a second viewing I’m sure tie the film together brilliantly. This has not yet reached US shores, but it will do so in February, make sure you catch it.

3. Drive (dir, Nicolas Winding Refn)

This film has already turned up on many critics lists, and deservedly so. Drive is the 1980’s throwback movie that the directors of the 80’s wished they could produce. Based on a novel by James Sallis and brought to us through the brilliant eye of Nicolas Winding Refn, this was just pure movie heaven from start to finish. The film really had everything. Scintillating visuals from Newton Thomas Sigel, a brilliant soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, some perfect techno pop songs that served the perfect backdrop to a simple story of gangsters, vengeance and driving.

2011 in part belonged to Ryan Gosling, who gives his most withdrawn but at times most explosive performance here as the laconic Driver, who echoes Eastwood’s The Man With No Name as the stoic hero of the piece. Excellent support is given by Carey Mulligan as a single mother who the driver seeks to protect from the evils of Albert Brooks (who at the moment is the shoe-in for Best Supporting Actor) whose brooding menace escalates to extreme violence. Drive is pure entertainment but it is the craft and the terrific performances that puts this on a whole other level. Hence Refn’s much deserved triumph in Cannes. Just a pure joy from beginning to end.

2. We Need To Talk About Kevin (dir, Lynne Ramsey)

Narrowly missing out on the number one spot is the film that marks Lynne Ramsey‘s return to the big screen. Lionel Shriver’s impossible-to-adapt novel is transformed into a film of flashbacks that is primarily for the senses. The film tells the story of Eva, a mother who gives birth to Kevin, an awkward but hate filled boy whose behaviour as he grows gets increasingly controlling and evil, leading to an unspeakable act, which has left Eva single and vilified in her hometown. In my opinion too much has been said about where the story goes, Ramsey structures her film so what actually happened in regards to Kevin is a surprise and that’s how it should be.

Tilda Swinton has never been better than here, in a film filled with reprehensible characters, she manages to be the one beacon of sympathy in the film. I predict she will nominated for an Oscar, However, although we see everything through her eyes our opinion behind the motivation of Kevin’s actions, who Eva hates, is left for us to decide. Is it nature or nurture? This is what we are asked to ponder, the filmmakers themselves I don’t believe know the answer and the unbiased tendencies of the film take this to the next level.

1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (dir, Tomas Alfredson)

It is the shameful oversight of awards bodies that has catapulted Tomas Alfredson‘s masterpiece adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to the top of my list. This film has all the ingredients to be a Best Picture winner, superb acting, precise direction, meticulous production design, beautiful cinematography and yet it is being completely ignored. Why? Well, it certainly isn’t feel good. Last year’s British film The King’s Speech got its clutches on the Best Picture trophy because it swelled the heart. This is the British film that crushes the heart with an icy clench.

It is low key and has little to no emotional attachment, it is detached but has a perfect brimming Cold War chill that makes Fincher’s Sweden look like Hawaii. Gary Oldman is terrific as George Smiley, deliberately playing a role that is small, contained and so unlike anything else he has ever done. This has seemingly gone unnoticed by people, also gone unnoticed are the performances by an awesome supporting cast. Benedict Cumberbatch is just excellent, as is Colin Firth, John Hurt in a small role brings extra gravitas to an already weighty film and Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds are all great.

But the film belongs to Alfredson, an amazing talent who proves he is just as deft in the English language as he is with his native Swedish. It is plotted beautifully, despite some critics calling it confusing, a criticism which holds no truck with me and the smoke infused visuals perfectly capture the musk of the 70’s office space. This is a spy mystery that is all about characters rather than action. It is a perfect film, and I can’t wait to see it again.

What do you think of our list? Let us know in the comments.