Kinda like my Worst Films of 2011 list, this year’s Top 15 was difficult to construct. I think for the opposite reason, though. Where I didn’t see very many bad/disappointing films, I saw a fucking lot of good ones making 2011 a year where narrowing down the best/my favorites to 15 was exceptionally difficult. I’m sure that in a year or more, I’ll look back on it as one of the shakiest lists I’ve done, one where many of the spots/inclusions would be subject to change if I ever bother to revisit the year.

By the way, read my 2010 list!

I think one of the themes, for me, was gender issues. I think 2011 has been a phenomenal year for films that play with what I somewhat cheekily call “4th Wave Feminism”. Being of a feminist bent but not being a serious student of the movement, I’m not sure if that’s a term I can even use but let me describe it in the context of some of my films so that at least it’s understandable why I think there’s something to it. Mostly I think those films of 2011 which have a “feminist” message or deal with the female experience either implicitly or explicitly do so largely without calling attention to any specific political agenda (there may be one exception). Instead, to whatever extent some of these films are “feminist”, they are feminist in a way that assumes a greater degree of equality between the sexes and our approval of heroines who can be regular women preparing for a wedding, social outcasts trying to carve a place in the world, or despondent mothers caught in a cage of guilt and love. Beyond the sheer content of these films, there is also that a large number of films on my list were written and/or directed by women. I didn’t choose them to reflect this, either, it’s just a happy accident that solidifies the theme for the year!

To me, another serious particle of “4th Wave Feminism” is the inclusion of formerly masculine tropes like superheroes, identifiably “genre” or nerdy tropes and trappings, or narratives about things like revenge or friendship that are normally reserved, in movies, for the menfolk.

That 2011 features a lot of films that are for and about women to whatever extent isn’t to say that it isn’t also a year featuring some incredible work centered on men and the male experience. My pick of the year is very much about a specifically masculine experience but one that does not work in opposition to femininity or in an oppressive way toward things that are not masculine.

Aside from the gender stuff, another operative theme in the movies I picked this year is that these are movies that do the work. That is, they don’t rely on a series of cliches and familiar shit to tell their stories. They actually bother to tell them through ample characterization, sensitivity to and respect for the intelligence of the audience, and precise plotting that moves logically and is structured interestingly.

As always, this is a fairly subjective project. I know I harp a lot about objectivity in criticism but there’s no way to construct a list of your favorite movies of the year without it being highly subjective. For one thing, the list structure itself betrays that as I’m certainly not saying that these movies are rankable in quality as I have them here. A great example is that I think my #2 pick is objectively a better film than my #1 pick, I just like my #1 pick more for a variety of reasons not least of which is that it is the most emotionally affecting (in a very personal way) of any movie I’ve seen this year.

On to the list!

15. Bunraku

My Review

No other 2011 film is as ambitious and stylish as Bunraku. It’s also easily one of the most surprising movies of the year, coming out nowhere and rocking my precious little nerdy world with its overwhelming sense of itself. A movie that could easily have been made by the Wachowskis instead of The Matrix, this is a chop socky flick designed from the ground up for the special kind of mediavore that likes a little bit of everything, and knows a lot about it all. I’ve gotten a few people to watch this but not enough, not enough by far. That said, this is one of the inclusions in this list that may be a bit controversial in the end if only because it’s a flawed movie where the flaws are a consequence of its ambition. Also, it’s not for everybody. Not even a little.

14. Fast Five

My Review

This spot was almost owned by Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol but I have to admit that while that one is a better action movie, Fast Five is a better movie overall. Without any fat or even one false move, Fast Five is the payoff for years of a franchise that was not always good. It has a lot in common with Ghost Protocol actually, so much that maybe it wouldn’t have been a cheat to make this entry on the list a double. I try not to do that these days though and the honest truth is, I like Fast Five just a bit better. From its confident performances from actors who have grown into these characters to its spectacular action, there are plenty of reasons to consider Fast Five one of the best movies of the year.

13. Bridesmaids

My Review

Admittedly, I didn’t put a lot into my review for this movie. Mostly this was because I felt like everything interesting to say about it was already being said (and better than I could put it) elsewhere. It’s the first entry on this list that fits the description I gave in the introduction, though. Bridesmaids is an ensemble comedy of the type that is more often about men. Some have called it the “Women’s Hangover” and this is an interesting label since Bridesmaids is better in every single way than either of those movies not least of which because it’s about something. It’s also on account of Bridesmaids attachment to and inversion of a specific and cliched women’s experience: the wedding of a friend. Beyond its subtext and themes which make it more than just a throwaway summer comedy, Bridesmaids is also the funniest movie of 2011 in spite of itself and this is because the people responsible for it (predominantly women) knew to make sure the comedy wasn’t hanging in a void but systemic of the situations which in turn are systemic of the characters. Part of the appeal of Bridesmaids is that it isn’t just trying to be for women but also for me, for everybody essentially, and it does this naturally without gimmickry, staying true to itself by hinging the experience on the female characters even with the inclusion of a “nice guy” and a “dick”.

12. Rango

My Review

The most meta film of 2011, Rango manages to be a lot of different things and be each of them fully, effectively, and surprisingly. It’s a celebration of Johnny Depp, his career and influences, as well as an existential piece and a rollicking Western all while being an animated film with talking animals. While I did expect great things from Gore Verbinski and Depp, Rango was a surprise for its depth as much as for its scope. While trying to cover a lot of ground, the film also penetrates some rather heavy (for kids and adults too) subject matter about identity. It’s always fun to see philosophy sneaking into a mainstream movie and even better to see a “family film” that really does have something to offer to an adult beyond innuendos (though Rango has those too!).

11. Rise of the Planet of the Apes

My Review

One of the best examples of great big-budget, effects-driven storytelling this year, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a great movie that surprised everyone. More than that, it may be an important cultural touchstone for a debate that is sure to increase in momentum in the near future: do we treat our nearest genetic cousins, animals that are obviously sentient, as persons? Bold in its depiction of oppression of these animals as it really is rather than some special enhanced case to manufacture more justification for the inevitable ape uprising, this movie may subordinate its politics to its characterization of Caesar and the grander story of his ascension but those elements are always there. They are also what stays with you, beyond a fierce desire for this story to continue, after the credits roll. Whether seen as the Hollywood tentpole or the message movie, there’s no doubt that Rise of the Planet of the Apes works. A lot of this is owed to the behind the scenes people, especially director Rupert Wyatt and his writers, but more is owed to Andy Serkis (Caesar) for whom there is no superlative super enough.

10. Super

My Review

Super is a movie that wouldn’t have made this list at all if not for that essential second viewing. It’s still a weird movie that a lot of people would consider more of a fun/interesting diversion than the kind of thing you’d put on a year end “best” list. I obviously disagree. Super is a deeply personal movie that is as much about the search for meaning through self-reliance as it is about vigilantism. More, probably. Frank’s journey as the Crimson Bolt and beyond is about learning how to cope with shit and acts as a metaphor for developing the tools to do so, and all the messes you make and people you (accidentally) get hurt along the way. There’s also that Super‘s highly emotional moments are some of the most raw and pure of any movie this year, upping the profile of Rainn Wilson (on whom they completely rely) forever beyond Dwight Schrute. In fact, between this and Hesher, Rainn Wilson could well be considered to be the breakout actor of 2011.

9. Melancholia

My Review

Melancholia is a difficult and challenging film with dubious “rewards”. Most people aren’t going to finish it and feel uplifted, though some critics have felt that way (I did not). Instead, they’re going to be left with some serious ennui to deal with. This is as it should be because Melancholia is not trying to uplift you but rather force you to face some things you’d probably rather avoid. A beautifully shot and orchestrated film, there is tons to appreciate about it on a purely craft level but it’s really all about the dual performances of Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsborough as well as the deeper intent and discourse of the interplay between theme and narrative going on in the film. Depression is not an easy subject to tackle either for people who know it/suffer from it or people who don’t, who probably have ideas about it and maybe even ignorant responses. More than just giving the people who do live with it a banner narrative, the film also confirms some of the symptoms that lead to the marginalizing and rejecting attitude of the ignorant. Thus, it’s a prickly and difficult film and the rewards are supposed to be dubious and hard to wrest out of it.

8. Sucker Punch

My Review

The most underrated and misunderstood movie of not only 2011 but possibly that I’ve ever encountered, Sucker Punch is demonstrably a work of surpassing genius. Its one flaw, the one that everyone really means when they list its supposed faults, is that its adherence to metaphor and symbolism often renders its messages unclear or leaves them feeling incomplete until further down the line of the narrative. Masquerading as another effects-heavy Hollywood tentpole, Sucker Punch is really an arthouse film where every element is in service not to an explicit story but to an explicit statement about the state of women and their interests in contemporary geek culture. There is literally nothing in the text of the film that justifies the title if you don’t look at what the film itself is trying to do as a whole. It’s a Sucker Punch not only because it is an arthouse film after all (which no one expected) but also because it is a movie about and for young geeky women when it was expected to be about and for young geeky men. Part of being a critic is to champion the works that are unfairly maligned and misunderstood in their time and it’s a role I take gladly when it means serving a work like this one.

7. We Need to Talk About Kevin

My Review

Similar to Melancholia, this is a very challenging film. Forcing us to examine what a sociopath is exactly, as well as the precise nature of guilt of a parent of this type of person, should be something explored more often not just in film and print but in everyday discourse. There are a lot of assumptions out there and We Need to Talk About Kevin challenges many of these while also presenting us with the unique experience of a mother struggling to understand her relationship with the product of her own body. If there is a more uniquely female narrative than that, I don’t know it. Through its disorienting (at first) structure and the bleak honesty of its performances, the film manages to sizzle with tension that is always more felt than experienced directly and you will experience this as a knot in your stomach for most of the running time and probably long after it’s all over. I know I did.

6. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

My Review

This might be the most obvious example of what I think of as incidentally feminist movies in 2011. That’s probably just on account of just how overall transgressive a character the titular girl is. Beyond the text itself, wherein Lisbeth is certainly a worthy feminist (and minority in general) icon/heroine, there’s also that Rooney Mara does the kind of transformative performing here that is often most associated with male actors like Christian Bale or Daniel Day Lewis. If you’re not Meryl Streep, you’re usually transforming your physique as a shot at prestige. This is only Mara’s second major role and it puts her right up there with the big time method actors who gain/lose weight, get tattoos, or whatever in service of their art. That is a great story without even looking at the film, in which Lisbeth is an uncompromising force of nature that responds to persecution, oppression, and marginalization with intelligence, inventiveness, and violence where necessary. She belongs to a proud tradition of heroines that also includes The Bride and Lady Vengeance. The movie itself is a slow-burn thriller that is consistently best in class on all levels.

5. Kung Fu Panda 2

My Review

The first movie I think I knew was going to make my Top 15, Kung Fu Panda 2 is also the film I’ve revisited (I do have a seven year old) the most and does it ever hold up. I think that I was pretty clear about why I love this movie in my review but I think, as surprising as it was the first time, it’s even more surprising that in a year of pretty decent sequels (Ghost Protocol and Fast Five specifically) that surpass their predecessors, Kung Fu Panda 2 remains the best. It isn’t just the best sequel of the year or something, it is one of the best ever. In its economical but nuanced storytelling, it anticipates everything an audience will need to be completely satisfied while also showing everybody else in the biz how this shit is done. If there were more sequels like this one, there wouldn’t be the reputation for them that there is and every now and again it’s nice to be reminded that good sequels didn’t stop with The Empire Strikes Back.

4. Another Earth

My Review

One of the great examples of the small-budget, intimate and philosophical science fiction movie (in a pantheon that includes Moon and Primer for two), Another Earth is also a pitch-perfect meditation on guilt and penance. Britt Marling is something of a wunderkind and while this is not truly her debut (The Sound of My Voice simply wasn’t picked up as quickly, I think) it should make her and Mike Cahill into real names. Marling is the more notable because female writers, especially working in genre films, are so rare at this level. So it’s another clear demonstration of the prevalence of this in 2011 (or maybe that I’m just noticing them more?). I expect great things even after already receiving them, entitled fuck that I am. For now, though, this little movie is simply too penetrating, too finely tuned, and too poetically beautiful to ignore.

3. The Tree of Life

My Review

When I first saw this one, I was unsure about what to make of it. Like a few other movies on this list, it took a second viewing to solidify my feelings. The Tree of Life is, speaking of poetry, a movie you feel as much as watch. It’s a full experience, leveraging its elegiac language with moments that are the epitome of natural beauty. This is done via the powerful visuals, music, and performances… all of which are haunting and empowering and uplifting in their measure. There is also that Terence Malick has made a movie about boyhood, brotherhood, and the loss of innocence that may be unique to young men. I certainly felt a profound connection to the boys in the film and those aspects of its narrative that expressed a sense of what it is to be a man, both in terms of regressive patriarchal behaviors as well as the assumption of responsibility and self-reliance. The Tree of Life has a lot going in spite of how sparse it is in the conventional sense and every moment spent thinking about that, or experiencing it directly in a rewatch, is a moment spent well.

2. Drive

My Review

Drive is the rare movie that doesn’t make a single mistake. It is, technically, perfect. That makes it, to me, the objective best film of 2011 (that I saw anyway). The contributing factors should be plain to anyone whose seen it: the performances, use of music, use of violence, camerawork, and its refusal to hold the audience’s hand by telling them all the little things that it intimates about its characters and their relationships. Less about respecting the audience’s intelligence than about being what it is regardless of them, that arrogance is part of its great charm and appeal.The reason it comes in at #2 is that it simply wasn’t as emotionally powerful as my #1. Granted, it’s not going for that. There’s an emotional distance in Drive that recalls the work of Michael Mann on which it is largely dependent but which is totally necessary to make it the quintessential “cool” movie. Beyond that, it’s also a fiercely romantic film which is something I enjoy quite a bit. It’s actually really hard to talk about why this isn’t #1 so let’s just say it’s seriously a close call.

1. Warrior

My Review

Ah, as if there was ever any doubt since November that this would be my #1. Warrior is the most satisfying movie of 2011, a total home run on almost every level with its only flaw being that it sometimes goes a bit too broad in service of its characters. A fight fairy tale and underdog story of a breed we’ve seen before, Warrior succeeds so fucking well because it gets just about every little thing right in service of the big things. You don’t care if it’s predictable because the movie spends almost no time on trying to fake out the audience, concerning itself instead with expansive characterizations that give everything that transpires a weight and context that is incredibly well utilized to provide the best ending of any film of the year. I’ve seen Warrior three times now and it keeps growing in my estimation. Not unlike The Tree of Life, the film presents concepts of brotherhood and masculinity that are not in direct opposition to femininity but rather self-contained explorations of apolitical phenomena that I think most young men, especially ones with contentious familial relationships with male relatives, will respond to. There’s also something of an underlying thread about how these relationships contribute to the culture of professional fighting from the level of kids’ competitions all the way to $5,000,000,000 grand prix tournaments. Not only does Warrior acquit itself perfectly as a fight movie, it goes some lengths toward establishing a workable understanding of MMA that is devoid of the circus that often surrounds it, or the unlikable people that are its biggest fans. That’s quite an achievement.

Honorable Mentions:

Hesher, Attack the Block, In Time, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol, Contagion, Midnight in Paris, The Ides of March, Hobo With a Shotgun, I Saw the Devil, Stake Land, 50/50, 13 Assassins, The Ledge, The Guard, Ironclad, Moneyball

Wish I’d Seen:

The Conspirator
Win Win
Country Strong
Water for Elephants
The Beaver
Beginners
Larry Crowne
The Whistleblower
One Day
Wrecked
Cedar Rapids
Take Shelter
Margaret
Dirty Girl
The Way
The Skin I Live In
Margin Call
The Rum Diary
Like Crazy
J. Edgar
The Descendants
Hugo
The Artist
A Dangerous Method
Shame
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Carnage
The Artist
Beautiful Boy
No Strings Attached
Restless
My Week with Marilyn
The Iron Lady
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
War Horse
Young Adult