Year’s Over: The Best Movies of 2011


To kick off Heave’s end-of-year coverage, our film writers bring you their top ten movies of 2011. We also want to hear from you! After all, what’s a fancy Disqus thread without people telling us what movies we forgot and how dumb we are? Follow us on Twitter at @HEAVEmedia, or find us on the Facebook.

Dominick Mayer

1. Beginners

2011 hasn’t seen a more gently observed or emotionally resonant film than Mike Mills’ partially autobiographical story of a 75-year-old man (Christopher Plummer) who comes out to his son (Ewan McGregor) after his wife of 45 years passes away, leading both men on a journey of self-discovery. Not only is Beginners poignant, beautiful and packing the occasional burst of subtle hilarity, but it manages something so precious few films can: a genuine insight into the human heart, one that is every bit as scattered and brutally honest as it deserves. Beginners is about the very origins of love, of how it takes root and evolves in tiny, yet seismic ways over the course of an entire life, and how there’s truly no such thing as a late start. In a year of cynical cash-ins and onerous treatises on humanity, this is the film we needed so desperately without even realizing it.

2. Drive

If Drive was nothing more than a pure exercise in style, it’d still go down as the year’s best action film just for the fraught tension that Nicholas Winding Refn wrings from every frame. What makes Drive truly special isn’t just the genre-hopping or the trance-inducing, divine soundtrack, but the stunning, understated leading turn by Ryan Gosling at its core. Forced into a fully realized criminal underworld, Gosling’s nameless driver is the soul of what could’ve easily become a coolly detached neo-noir. One sequence early on, in which he carries a small boy sleeping on his shoulder to bed says it all. He’s mortal just like the rest of us, but like a father to a little kid, he’s somehow more than just mortal, both a real human being and a real hero.

3. The Interrupters

With Hoop Dreams, Steve James bought the struggles of Chicago’s South Side into the national consciousness. One can only hope The Interrupters will do it again, this time for the violence which has affected so many lives. When poverty reigns and the city responds mostly with declarations of neighborhoods as “war zones,” CeaseFire is an alternative way to attempt to stop the killing. Made up largely of former gang members and hustlers, CeaseFire takes active reasoning to the streets, stepping into tense situations in an attempt to calm tempers before violence can erupt. James simply follows several of CeaseFire’s “interrupters” for a year, and what ensues is as immediate, stunning and essential a piece of documentary filmmaking as such an embattled area deserves. The Interrupters isn’t just a great movie, it’s an important one.

4. Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids is the funniest movie released in the past 12 months. It’s really not even a contest, and that’s in no small part thanks to Paul Feig, who’s managed to enter into the upper echelon of the Apatow universe while making a film that’s the exact inverse of most of its best works, and not just for gendered reasons. Kristin Wiig delivers a once-in-a-career turn as Annie, at once comically unhinged and totally believable. Much has been made of Melissa McCarthy’s scene thievery, and for good reason, but there’s not a weak comic performance in the film, down to the bit players. (Jon Hamm’s absolute self-flagellation deserves special mention.) More than just a relentless piece of comic filmmaking, though, Bridesmaids is a rarity on par with The 40-Year-Old Virgin in that it’s both fully of its time and, if there’s justice, will be timeless.

5. Hugo

There’s a clever bit of deception going on in Hugo, because kids and parents alike were tricked into theaters with promises of Martin Scorsese making a whimsical family film about a small Dickensian hero living in a train station and solving the mystery of a robot left to him by his late father. What Hugo turns out to be is a love letter to the old cinema, to the absolute mirth of watching a train charge at a screen, or a man hanging precariously from a clock. The mysteries of George Melies’ lost years take on the grandeur of a Spielbergian adventure, all the while capturing the mirth and imagination of the silver screen that have made movies time’s most undying medium.

6. The Future

Possibly the most singularly terrifying film of the year in its own way, The Future makes the most wrenching statement about the intangibles of home and family since My Winnipeg, while throwing in some brutal realities about maturity for good measure. Miranda July’s tale of two not-so-young bohemians and their doomed attempt to disconnect and find themselves before settling down may involve a long conversation with the moon, an interpretive dance inside an outstretched T-shirt and a healthy dose of narration from a wounded cat in an animal shelter, but its true center lies in the devastating final shot, a tableau of the most nightmarish kind of domestic contentment, with two people who’re simultaneously ten feet and worlds away from each other.

7. Myth of the American Sleepover

Like 45365, one of the best movies of last year, Myth of the American Sleepover captures life in the Midwest (this time, suburban Detroit) in tiny, delicate incidents. Here, the central thesis is young love in all its manifestations, from the first stirrings of sexual curiosity to the post-high school feelings of loss. It’s less a narrative feature than a connected series of vignettes, but it beautifully articulates the romance of wandering around looking for love under tungsten lighting that anybody from a certain corner of America will recognize instantly, a place where summer is infinite and the Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979” is the de facto national anthem. Myth isn’t about pivotal events, but the innocuous evenings that we return to in memory years down the line, and that’s quite a thing.

8. Attack The Block

This isn’t one for horror junkies who want their splatter without some social allegory, but Joe Cornish’s deliriously fun creature feature, set in a South London public housing estate, poses the question: What if those slum village kids who just mugged you became the world’s only hope for stopping an intergalactic invasion? There are echoes of Sam Raimi’s early work throughout Attack The Block, from the pitch-black comedy to the judicious bursts of graphic violence, but what really makes Attack pop are the fully natural performances, particularly that of John Boyega as Moses, the too-old-too-soon gang leader who’s forced to face aliens, a local drug dealer and all his own fears over the course of one harrowing evening. There’s an alternate, perfect world in which Attack The Block was one of the runaway blockbusters of the year, but since we’re not in that one, it’ll have to settle for midnight movie immortality.

9. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest

Michael Rapaport’s documentary on seminal hip-hop crew A Tribe Called Quest isn’t just a case study on one of the genre’s most heartbreaking collapses, but a people’s history of one of its finest eras. From the early Zulu Nation/Native Tongues moment to their role in the early-’90s boom as an antithesis to the militance of Public Enemy and N.W.A., the story of ATCQ was one long overdue for a telling this comprehensive. That Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed and Jairobi were so willing to dig into what united and eventually destroyed them is a small miracle, especially given what transpires onscreen (by their Rock The Bells reunion in 2008, they were beating each other up before showtime), but one that should be appreciated, because it helped create one of the best music docs in recent history. Bonus points go to Rapaport for catching a clearly stoned Pharrell Williams choking up when talking about “Lyrics To Go.”

10. Bellflower

Evan Glodell’s debut Bellflower is a sprawling, angry treatise on (literally) wasted youth, broken hearts and one of the closer approximations of a relationship-induced nervous breakdown ever captured on film. It’s also absolutely unforgettable, a twentysomethings-chatting dramedy filtered through Mad Max about two apocalypse-obsessed best friends torn apart and reunited by one’s ill-fated relationship with a femme fatale. The film blends genuine laughs and heart with nightmarish violence and a prevailing sense of male bonding through the embrace of hypermasculine evil that’s impossible to shake.

Honorable Mentions: 50/50, Into the Abyss, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Shame, The Skin I Live In, Super 8, Tabloid, Warrior, Young Adult

Nico Lang

1. The Tree of Life

If not for The Social Network, The Tree of Life wouldn’t have just been my favorite movie of the year; it would have been my favorite of the last four, a film even arguably better than 2007’s There Will Be Blood. In many ways, the film is admittedly kind of a hot mess. Dinosaurs step on other dinosaurs’ heads, Sean Penn looks like Liza Minnelli and Jessica Chastain spends most of the movie whispering Bible verses.

But for me, this was the movie that people kept telling me The Fountain was: a movie that wasn’t just crazy, it was once-in-a-lifetime crazy, the kind of crazy you’ll never forget, the kind of crazy you can’t stop watching. It’s a movie you want to live in, one you won’t stop talking about for months, whether you loved or hated it. I recently told a friend that it was like William Butler Yeats meets Werner Herzog, but really, it’s just a Terrence Malick movie, and certain things come with the territory. On top of just being a fascinating piece of work, one extremely reminiscent of Fitzcarraldo, The Tree of Life is beautiful and affirming, a movie about the power of grace in everyday life. Malick gets the year’s best performance out of Chastain, one that is a lot like the movie surrounding it: bizarre, beautiful and heartbreaking, screensaver images and dinosaurs be damned.

2. Hugo

It was actually very difficult for me to put Hugo in my number two spot – because, in most years, it would have been my favorite movie of the year. (Why couldn’t you have come out in 2008?  There was so much free space on my list that year.) Although it didn’t have quite the same swan-fucking ambition that The Tree of Life had, no movie this year touched me in quite the same way that Hugo did, and I almost screamed at someone recently for not liking it. I think this is Scorsese’s best film in quite a while, as children’s filmmaking seems to have had the same effect on him that it did Wes Anderson. It liberated them from themselves, from becoming too narrowly focused on their own genre proclivities.

Hugo is a love letter to silent cinema and the joy of filmmaking, the movie The Artist should have been. Interestingly, its themes deal with finding your place in the world and how lost we become when we do not realize our destinies. Likewise, this movie shows Scorsese returning to what he does best: making films that both inspire us and challenge what cinema can do. Now, he’s just doing it in three dimensions.

3. The Descendants

Can Alexander Payne make a bad movie? After The Descendants, I don’t know if he has it in him. He’s been making films for going on two decades now, and I’ve loved every single one, even the oft-ignored About Schmidt and Citizen Ruth, a film that singlehandedly proves Laura Dern to be one of the most fearless comediennes of her generation. (Yeah, you read that right.) The Descendants is a lot like Payne’s four previous releases, a film about a relatively wealthy white dude with female troubles. Clooney gives his most soulful and vulnerable performance yet as Matt King, a Hawaii lawyer who finds out his wife was cheating on him after she goes into a coma, and Payne finds a future star in Shailene Woodley, who gives a raw and incredibly sexy performance as his oldest daughter. If it doesn’t quite reach the transcendence of Sideways – the movie is as languid as it’s locale, which makes for very easygoing pacing – the result is more than quaffable, an almost perfect movie about human imperfections.

4. Drive

Although Drive wasn’t my favorite film of the year, it’s the only one I would call perfect, a movie that almost invites driving puns in describing it. I will resist using the terms “joy ride” and “thrill ride,” mostly because it’s actually rather melancholic for an action film. Actually, Drive completely breaks with almost every trend of modern action, which is probably why it was so rebuffed by audiences. Danish director Nicholas Windig Refn’s coming out party is deliberate and meditative, strikingly different than the hyperkinetic Fast Five, but far more exciting and effective. Refn builds his action sequences for entire acts, so when the film’s moments of violence do happen, they are almost vomit-inducingly shocking. (Michael Haneke’s Cache is another great example of this.) On top of being almost painfully unnerving, the pacing allows Refn to paint a truly unique character study of Ryan Gosling’s Driver, who not only has no name but barely speaks. Although many find the obvious Clint Eastwood parallels here, Gosling’s presence and his low-key relationship with the ever-lovely Carey Mulligan reminded me of the best of Steve McQueen – but better.

5. Midnight in Paris

As every critic and their grandma has already told you, Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s best movie in many decades, and you have to go as far back as 1991’s Husbands and Wives to find anything that comes close. Although Woody’s movies have increasingly becoming grim and nihilistic – even the core of the wonderful Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s heart was jaded – this is a true return to form for the Woodman, a movie that finds his filmmaking as joyfully liberated as the early days of Bananas and Sleeper. Midnight in Paris is a movie made for our times, the increasing ennui we feel about the technological present, but even more so, I feel like this movie was made for me, a tiny gift from my favorite filmmaker. It is a movie I will return to and continue to cherish for decades to come.

6. Bridesmaids

My most watched film of the year, by far. I’m not sure how, but I ended up seeing Bridesmaids in the theatres four times and at least another six on video. I would watch it again with you right now. In addition to being endlessly quotable and rewatchable, I really do think that Bridesmaids might be the most important film of the year, a love letter to the female comic that doesn’t just prove that women are as funny as men, Christopher Hitchens: it proves they are funnier. Every single actress in this ensemble shines, especially Rose Byrne, as the grown-up Queen Bitch; Kristen Wiig, as the perpetually single lead; and Melissa McCarthy, who gives the comic performance of the year. If there is any justice in the world, McCarthy won’t just be awarded an Oscar nomination for her work; she’ll become the next John Belushi.

7. Young Adult

I am in awe of Jason Reitman. The man has made just four films, starting with the underrated Thank You For Smoking in 2005, and every single one is either good or great. I think that Young Adult might be his best film yet, even if I don’t quite relate to it in the same way that I do Up in the Air, which holds a spot in one of my Top 5 Most Watched List. His mastery of tone and Diablo Cody’s script shows an incredible improvement over 2007’s Juno, which was clever and sassy but deeply, deeply flawed. Although many felt his use of heavy dark comedy made the film hard to laugh at, I chuckled longer and louder at this than any other non-Bridesmaids movie this year. Charlize Theron helps considerably with this, giving the type of performance that isn’t just scary good; it’s just scary.

8. We Need To Talk About Kevin

Although this has not been released yet in Chicago, it will be soon and I suggest you reserve your tickets in advance. We Need to Talk About Kevin is the most challenging, divisive movie that I saw in 2011, the type of film that it’s difficult to get two people who have even a remotely similar opinion on it. However, I think Kevin is Lynne Ramsay’s masterpiece, a film that features career-best performances from John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller and Tilda Swinton, who should have won her Oscar for this. The film might simply seem like a psychological potboiler, but more than that, it’s about the things we do for love, the sacrifices that motherhood entail. Although many critics have said that it might be the scariest movie about parenthood ever made, I think it is just the most honest.

9. Melancholia

I actually didn’t like Melancholia the first time I saw it, but this is likely due to my lingering hatred of Antichrist, which will ever remain the worst date movie of all time. However, Melancholia, like most of Lars von Trier’s films, is a grower, a film that might irritate and provoke you at the time but lingers well with the mind. Immediately after I had finished watching it the first time, I knew I would have to see it again, and my patience was rewarded. In many ways, Melancholia is Von Trier’s best film, a meditation on the end of the world that’s both heartbreaking and surprisingly moving. The opening shots and Kirsten Dunst’s performance alone merit inclusion on anyone’s best list. Even if you hate Lars von Trier or his films, give this a shot. And then another shot. And then another. You’ll thank me.

10. The Muppets

In purely objective terms, this is not one of the “best” films of the year. It’s narratively a bit of a mess and relies far too much on meta devices to keep the plot moving along, and I imagine Cahiers du Cinema won’t be praising it to the high heavens.  But, luckily, I’m not the friggin’ Library of Congress, and I’m allowed to have my movie candy. Of any movie I saw this year, The Muppets reminded me why I started liking movies as a child. They have the power to instill wonder and awe in you, but also simply to make you smile. I grew up with the Muppets, and I’ve seen all of their films, but I never realized how much I missed them, how oddly vital a part of cinema they are. This movie is about the power of community to help you find yourself, but more than that, it’s a film about the joy of performing and what culture can mean to us. As bringing the Muppets back to the screen was Jason Segel’s passion project, I’m sure he completely agrees with this sentiment. His dedication showed, and I didn’t have a better time at the movies all year.

Chris Osterndorf

1. Drive

No other film challenged and energized me this year like Drive. Director Nicolas Winding Refn takes so many disparate elements that shouldn’t mix well, between the ‘80s vibe, the traditional noir elements, and the unabashed ultra-violence, and thrusts them all together. And despite his reliance on well-established tropes, Drive manages to be, in a word, different. Stylistically, it was mesmerizing, from the first frame to the last. But style is nothing without substance, and luckily for Refn, no one had more substance this year than Ryan Gosling, as a mysterious hero known only as the Driver. This is a masterpiece, an achievement made even greater by the fact that at its heart, Drive is an action film. It just happens to be unlike any action film before it, better than any action film of the moment, and sure to be the gold standard for all action movies for years to come.

2. Midnight in Paris

The reasons I love Woody Allen’s work are far from simple. I love that he balances silly humor with philosophical perspective. I love that his protagonists are at once neurotic and nerdy, but also confident and complicated. And I love that he is not afraid to let the art that has enriched his life influence the art that he himself has put out into the world. It is that last trait in particular, which makes Midnight in Paris such a wonderful movie. This is a return to form for Allen (for real this time), with Owen Wilson “playing Woody” better than anyone has played Woody before. It’s impossible not to look at Allen’s older work and see the same ethos applied to Paris in this film applied to New York City; they are a series of love letters, written to a beautiful and flawed metropolis.

3. Bridesmaids

It’s hard to even know where to start with this film. Director Paul Feig of Freaks and Geeks fame once again achieves the perfect balance of pathos and humor here, and with Judd Apatow and Kristen Wiig on the same team, it’s safe to say that Bridesmaids is probably the most original rom-com in years. In a cinematic landscape populated with women who are sentimental and dyspeptic, Annie is remarkably strong, and so are the rest of the women in this movie for that matter. Melissa McCarthy, in particular, achieves nothing short of a miracle as the simultaneously obnoxious and likable Megan. Make no mistake, Bridesmaids doesn’t just shatter the glass ceiling. It blows it up.

4. The Muppets

Some movies don’t have to be perfect. Some movies just bring such sheer, unadulterated joy, it’s nearly impossible to pick them apart, and analyze them beyond necessity. That was The Muppets in 2011. Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller, Bret McKenzie and James Bobin clearly have such an affinity for the Muppets, it’s nearly impossible not to feel their warmth coming through the screen. Both true to Jim Henson’s character’s original spirit and vibrant and alive enough to attract a whole new generation, this was a movie that just made you feel good when you were watching it. The Muppets is a happy movie, in an un-manipulative, beautifully simplistic way.

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2

It’s always been hard for me to judge the Harry Potter films objectively as a fan of the books. However, it’s become easier over time, with the addition of director David Yates and the continued improvement of the performances from Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson. (Having Alan Rickman deliver a show-stopper at the last hour doesn’t hurt either.) Now, with this final chapter in a genre-defining saga, we all got that we needed, and by we, I mean lovers of the novels and otherwise. Every note in Deathly Hallows Part 2 is pitch perfect. We smiled when we were supposed to, and we cried when we were supposed to. As far as closing acts go, it doesn’t get much better than this.

6. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

Rarely have I ever seen someone portrayed so honestly and objectively as I have in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop. This is a warts-and-all portrait of an American icon. Although largely thought of as “Mr. Nice Guy,” here Conan O’Brien is shown to be like most of the rest of us: insecure, temperamental, and totally human. Although he may have started behind the scenes, as a writer, O’Brien shows a desire bordering on a desperate need to perform, to share his gift with the world. Like many other great movies this year, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop played with people’s perceptions, and made them think about what they thought they knew before. And this, despite how hard it can be, is never a bad thing.

7. Shame

Sex is often erotic and sensual in movies, but rarely is it ugly and unsightly. Shame perfectly encapsulates one of the feelings that so frequently goes along with sex, but is so infrequently shown on celluloid. It delivers of what the title promises, and how. Writer/director Steve McQueen crafts the film with a minimalistic style and gets maximum result; same goes for costars Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender. Fassbender bares himself completely, in every sense here, and though his performance is subtle, it’s unforgettable. Although the sex in Shame is occasionally pleasurable to look at, more often than not it’s downright painful. Like any addiction, the compulsive sex of Shame is something all-consuming and utterly terrifying.

8. Young Adult

Considering the incredibly polarizing dialogue of Juno, it’s a small wonder that Diablo Cody’s second collaboration with Jason Reitman, Young Adult, achieves many of its best moments through stares and silences. Of course, this can’t be done through writing and directing alone. Luckily, Reitman and Cody were able to get two daring and image-altering turns from stars Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt. Theron’s Mavis Gary is a truly American protagonist. Successful in many ways, yet unable to stop clinging to ideas she held in high school, Mavis pours her inability to grow up into young adult (or “y-a”) novels that are just as shallow and immature as she is.

9. The Trip

Perhaps even more difficult than playing with preconceived notions of genre is playing with preconceived notions of personality. In The Trip, the ever-polarizing Michael Winterbottom brilliantly coaxes Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon into playing intensified versions of themselves, and both men do it brilliantly. While Coogan plays the mischievous and discontented artist, and Brydon plays the happy if not underachieving family man, a lot of the most fascinating moments in the film come from watching the two of them try to find pieces of the other in themselves. The Trip plays with our perceptions of ourselves and our perceptions of other people, and how those perceptions can be real and false all at the same time. In the end, none of us want just one thing, and none of us are just one thing.

10. The Artist

Although rooted in a tradition as old as movies itself, The Artist was one of the few films that felt completely new and original this year. Both a commentary on the transition from silent pictures to talkies, and an homage to early cinema itself, this is the kind of film that reminds us why we love movies. In two of the best performances of the year, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo managed to both imitate the stars of silent Hollywood, and create fully realized characters all their own. With The Artist, writer/director Michel Hazanavicius has successfully pulled off the near impossible challenge of making a film that is both entirely referential and completely profound, and he’s done it with flying colors (or lack there of.)

  • Chriso

    Wow, “Bellflower” made the cut. I really have to watch that again.