There are some years where I see so many great movies I struggle to narrow them down to ten I can put on this list.
2011 was not one of those years. The reason this list is coming much later than normal is that I kept giving myself more time to aggressively seek out more potential candidates. I did finally find enough for a list I could be happy with, but it took a lot more work on my end. It's not that the movies were necessarily bad (though the uninspired cash grab that was Cars 2 ensured that Pixar would be absent from this list for the first time in seven years), most of the ones I saw were just okay. They met my expectations and faded from memory shortly afterward. I'm not sure it's a coincidence that a few of the most acclaimed movies of the year paid tribute to films from early in the medium's history, an era that produced some classics that still feel magical almost a century later. I'm not giving up on the modern era, however, I'm confident this was just an off-year and that the next twelve months will be more promising. But judging from the ten movies here, 2011 definitely wasn't a total loss.
A note about eligibility, since a lot of these movies are a little under the radar. To be considered for this list, a movie had to make its theatrical debut in the USA sometime during 2011 (I don't care if imdb lists it as 2010, sometimes they don't get over here right away). Even if that debut was only a few screenings at film festivals before going to DVD/Blu-Ray, that's enough.
This was a surprise. I tend to find Lars Von Trier's stuff interesting but also pretty obnoxious, but this striking, unique movie was a cut above anything I had seen from him before. Kirsten Dunst plays a new bride who suffers from severe depression and during the reception, alienates all her friends and family except for her conscientious sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Meanwhile, a newly-discovered planet is about to collide with Earth and put an end to life as we know it. The roles of the two sisters become reversed - Dunst's character always felt her world was ending so an actual apocalypse doesn't feel much different. The movie is filled with gorgeous cinematography and ripe for all sorts of interesting interpretations.
The hysteria that plays out following the introduction of a potential pandemic always feels like 10 percent caution, 90 percent fear-mongering. Let's hope it stays that way. Contagion is an uncomfortably convincing simulation of a real outbreak of a lethal virus that brings society to a screeching halt. The story asserts that we are woefully unprepared for this scenario but also expresses confidence that the various agencies involved can ultimately get the situation under control, which is downright daring for an era where confidence in government is in the toilet. Director Steven Soderbergh assembles an ace cast and keeps the film consistently gripping.
8. The Descendants
I have a tendency to nitpick this movie. Does George Clooney have something in his contract that says he has to give smug voice over narration for every movie he's in? It's getting old. However, the overall experience of a movie can override little complaints and that's definitely what happened with The Descendants. It's a captivating drama full of charming details, great acting and pretty Hawaiian locales. George Clooney plays a father who has to prepare his two daughters for the imminent death of their mother, and the resulting tribulations make it clear that major life events are not nearly as tidy and predictable as we want them to be.
I'll watch anything with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Throw in Seth Rogen as the voice of a genial alien (he sounds right at home) and the result is a lot of laughs. Paul is a hilarious joy to watch. The script fleshes out the friendships of the lead characters nicely and the supporting cast is full of surprises. It's got a similar mix of camaraderie, mystery and laughs that I remember fondly from the first Hangover. Let's not talk about the second one.
6. Attack the Block
This deserved a much wider release and I suspect its star will rise as more people discover it over the years. A group of young London thugs have to rediscover their good qualities when their shenanigans unintentionally trigger an alien invasion. These aliens aren't nice like Paul, they are voracious beasts that look amazing thanks to the film's "less is more" approach to visual effects. John Boyega gives an impressive debut performance as Moses, the lead thug who becomes a stoic leader as the situation keeps getting worse.
The "found footage" genre is perilously close to burning out, but this crafty Norwegian film is full of creativity and fun. Three young students find themselves paired with a grizzled government agent who keeps track of Norway's native trolls (actual trolls, not overzealous Ron Paul fans on the internet). The classic mythology about trolls is played amusingly straight - I don't know how any creature can actually smell the blood of a Christian man, but it does make for a lot of good gags. Otto Jespersen gives a great performance as Hans the trollhunter, but the real star is the breathtaking scenery of Norway. This is one to watch in high-definition if you can.
4. The Artist
A wonderful French tribute to the era of silent films that is itself (mostly) a silent film. Those movies paid little attention to genre and The Artist veers into comedy, romance and dark drama. Somehow it all works, thanks to director Michel Hazanavicius's spectacular black and white images and the fantastic lead performance of Jean DuJardin. I would be remiss if I didn't give also give some praise to the amazing antics of Uggie the Dog, who is so charming that there's a serious campaign to get this canine some kind of Special Achievement Oscar. He's that good, and the movie is irresistible.
3. 13 Assassins
Japanese director Takashi Miike is mostly known for his bizarre extreme horror films, but this epic is a different beast altogether. His oddball sensibility meshes with the classic Kurosawa tropes and the result is pretty great. Towards the end of the samurai era, a group of warriors bands together to take revenge for the shocking (and I mean shocking) crimes of the evil Lord Naritsugu. The whole film is very enjoyable, but the magnificent final battle that concludes it puts most Hollywood blockbusters to shame.
Martin Scorsese has saved 3-D. The first few minutes of this gorgeous movie completely blew me away as I watched the legendary director turn this annoying gimmick into art. The sense of space that the effect produces has to be seen to be believed. Of course, that wouldn't be worth a lot if the story weren't so good. What starts as a genial youth-oriented adventure (featuring great work from young performers Asa Butterfield and Chloe "Hit Girl" Moretz) takes a surprising but welcome left turn into a dramatization of cinema's early days. To say any more would ruin some of the surprises, but trust me when I say Scorsese has made an excellent film for kids and an even better one for movie buffs.
1. Paradise Lost: Purgatory
Fantasy has the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Animation has the Toy Story trilogy. Documentaries have Paradise Lost. The original film, released in 1996, depicted the trial and conviction of the West Memphis Three - a trio of teens who were sent to jail (and one to death row) for the shocking murder of three young children. As that first installment so painfully illustrated, the case against the three defendants was based less on their actual connection to the crime and more on their interests - black clothes, metal music and Stephen King books. The film started a grassroots effort that has been going strong for almost 20 years and reached a milestone in 2011 with the release of the three. The second film sought new evidence but ultimately made little progress, but this third movie was a stunning, emotional sequel. It's filled with fascinating twists and turns, such as the unlikely alliance between the three and the father of one of the murdered kids and detailed speculation about a new potential suspect (the filmmakers are very careful to keep it within the realm of speculation). This trilogy of films and their role in inspiring real action is a testament to the power of movies, not to mention proof that sometimes real life is more dramatic and exciting than any work of fiction.
Happy 2012, all.