Grisly’s Top 10 Films of 2011

As you’ve probably noticed, 2011 was a pretty good year for film. While I was one of the few saying the hate for 2010 was a little exaggerated, there is no doubt that this year’s crop of films really delivered.

In total I’ve seen 198 films released in 2011, and another 47 foreign films that made their U.S. debuts this year. While there are certainly some bad ones in the bunch, I gave more than half of the films this year positive scores, and about 30% B-or-higher grades. With the highly competitive nature this year, any film in my 11-20 could make a good case for being in the top 10.

A few films that just missed the list: WEEKEND, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL, THE ARTIST, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, DRIVE, 50/50

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10. WARRIOR, Gavin O’Connor

At times sloppy and manipulative, this sports drama still managed to affect me in ways that no other film could manage. The fighting scenes were extraordinarily crafted and as exciting as any action sequence this year, but the real bread-and-butter is the remarkable cast who deliver the best ensemble performance of the year. Dark, sweet, uplifting and invigorating all at once. More than any other film this year, I’m saddened that it performed so poorly at the box office — though it may feel like a niche film because of the sport it portrays, this is a film anyone can find something in. I have no doubt that if it would have performed better, it would have made many more waves this awards season.

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9. THE INTERRUPTERS, Steve James

Of special interest to Chicago residents, The Interrupters is a devastating (and surprisingly uplifting) look at violence in a big city and how deep the problem runs. A group of former gang members volunteer as “violence interrupters,” with Steve James follows their pasts, personal journeys and daily struggles. James remains incredibly invisible with his camera in the middle of a number tense altercations. The film doesn’t offer any solutions to the wide-scale problems, but shows just how much impact a brave individual can make.

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8. PARIAH, Dee Rees

There might not be another movie this year that has so many varied, genuine emotions — love, hatred, confusion, joy, shame, etc. The story of a seventeen-year-old African American girl as she struggles with coming out to her family. Beautifully and confidently shot, especially from a young first-time filmmaker. What amazes me the most is that the “villains” of the film are much more complexly realized that you would expect or usually see. Even the characters who show the worst traits are given realistic emotions and allowed to be human beings. This typifies the complete realism of this wonderful film.

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7. MELANCHOLIA, Lars von Trier

I’m a fan of Lars von Trier. I realize not everyone is, and most people probably wouldn’t like Melancholia because of his brash filmmaking style. I loved the honest portrayal of mental illness and thought it worked perfectly well with the end-of-the-world backdrop. This film has some of the most striking and beautiful images, even though they showcase doom and death — a difficult stunt to pull off. I also find the film surprisingly funny, and von Trier’s wicked sense of humor tops off what could have been a gloomy, meandering film.

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6. MEEK’S CUTOFF, Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt’s direction in Meek’s Cutoff is pitch-perfect. It is impossible not to notice her choices and not be in complete awe of them. The first time I watched the film I was incredibly surprised how quickly it moved, even when what was happening on screen was so static. The film perfectly puts the audience in the shoes of the settlers walking across the desert, lost and hungry, hoping to come across something, anything. It challenges without being opaque and is beautifully shot, despite its classic 4:3 format (another bold move from this auteur).

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5. ATTACK THE BLOCK, Joe Cornish

It didn’t feel right putting Attack the Block in my genre list, though it would have been both my top comedy and horror film of the year. As good a horror-comedy since Shaun of the Dead, it’s no surprise that the film was produced by Edgar Wright, but new director Joe Cornish feels more than just his disciple. A dazzling mix of laughs, scares and social consciousness — something that usually escapes the genre. The kids who star in the film are acceptably damaged while being incredibly likable. And the monster effects are some of the best I’ve ever seen — it is even a joy to try and figure out how they work.

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4. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, Sean Durkin

A completely surprising, spell-binding film that grabs you from the first frame and doesn’t let go. The story of a girl trying to assimilate back into society after living at a cult commune, the film works subtly, through its editing and performance to feel much more dangerous than anything you see outright. Absolutely the best edited film of the year — it winds back and forth between the past and the present, putting the viewer in the state of mind of the film’s central figure and expertly blurring the line between fantasy and reality. What could be a cold, calculating film absolutely works because Durkin never shows you too much and leaves the final interpretation down to the viewer. I can’t wait to see what director Durking and young star Elizabeth Olsen do next.

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3. 13 ASSASSINS, Takashi Miike

Take the traditional samurai epic and inject it with the crazy style and humore of Takashi Miike and you get 13 Assassins. There is no other way to describe this film than as “balls-to-the-wall,” with the entire second half of the film being one gigantic battle sequence of thirteen versus hundreds. Even though it is mostly action, Miike is still able to give depth and character to his performers, and creates one of the most evil, diabolical, slimy villains of all time. It’s true to its origins and wildly unique.

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2. TAKE SHELTER, Jeff Nichols

Anchored by the best performance of the year (Michael Shannon), Take Shelter is sort of a cousin to both Melancholia and Martha Marcy May Marlene, so its no accident all three films are in my top 10. The film contains some of the most horrifying sequences of the year, but does it in a way that works well beyond the surface. Incredibly sad without ever being sappy. Shannon’s performance of a man who is losing his touch with reality while trying everything in his power to fix himself is brilliant and the film around him works with him to create one of the most emotionally complex films of the year.

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1. INCENDIES, Denis Villeneuve

A Best Foreign Language nominee at last year’s Academy Awards, Incendies stayed with me longer and more than any film this year, and that’s why it’s #1. At its heart it is a mystery following a young man and woman looking for the brother and father they never met, but it is the haunting imagery, strangely quiet performances and gorgeous setpieces that make this film spectacular. The mystery, though, does pay off in devastating ways. From its very first scene, Incendies punches you in the gut and traps you. In all its horror, you can’t look away. The use of Radiohead on the soundtrack is a bold move and doesn’t seem like it should fit with this heavy dramatic film, but it contributes to its power.

And, for fun, my bottom 10:
10. BATTLE: LOS ANGELES
9. I AM NUMBER FOUR
8. SHADOWS & LIES
7. WHAT’S YOUR NUMBER?
6. THE SMURFS
5. THE RITE
4. THE HANGOVER PART II
3. PASSION PLAY
2. SEASON OF THE WITCH
1. COLOMBIANA

tags: 13 assassins, attack the block, incendies, martha marcy may marlene, meek's cutoff, melancholia, pariah, take shelter, the interrupter, warrior

  • Spaceman Spiff

    Have you see The Artist?

  • http://twitter.com/pinkstonaa Aaron Pinkston

    I have — it just missed my list, ranked #13

  • cindy.

    I 100% agree with 8/10. I would possibly change the order slightly, and would trade out Warrior and 13 Assassins for Jane Eyre and The Artist. Great list! Lots of female directors and female stars for a top ten list! 

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