Aaron’s Top 10 Films of 2011

To me, 2011 was a pretty unusual year.  I say that because I found there to be an unusual amount of great films that came out in both the realm of mainstream feature films and the realm of art house and independent features.  This year, like any year, had its share of duds as well, but in looking back at the 120+ films I saw theatrically (yep), I can say that it was a pretty strong percentage of good to great films.  So much so that the following list was practically too much for me to contain to a simple top ten, so I have listed a number of honorable and special mentions and in another upcoming post I will provide a few other odds & ends to wrap up 2011.  Enjoy.

Special Mention - Documentaries:  Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest and Project Nim – Putting documentaries and films together on the same list is quite difficult, so I needed a separate place to mention two great docs.  I am a huge fan of the innovative hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest and the Michael Rapaport-directed documentary that covers the group’s past, present, and possible future was entertaining, insightful, and full of great beats (Review HERE).  Additionally, from the director of one of my favorite documentaries ever, Man on Wire, James Marsh made a new documentary this year that focused on the life of a chimpanzee named Nim.  Nim was the subject of an extended study involving sign language and living with humans, which was followed by a life of turmoil.  Project Nim is a deeply affecting documentary that goes over Nim’s story.  (Review HERE)

Another Special Mention:  BellflowerNot a film that I am in love with, but I really admire it quite a bit and it was one of those that I kept thinking about after having watched it, then watched it again.  Made for $17,000 as a debut film, using a custom built muscle care (equipped with actual flamethrowers), and filmed on custom made cameras, Bellflower is a unique sort of love story with a hipster meets post-apocalyptic atmosphere, which I grew quite fond of. (Review HERE, Interview HERE)

And One Last Special Mention:  Take ShelterI wanted to specifically point this film out as well, because while it did not make my top 10, I do think it contains the two best performances of the year from Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.  This is the story of a man who may or may not be slowly going crazy, due to intense nightmares, and decides to devote a vast amount of time building an expansive tornado shelter under his backyard, to the alarm of his wife and young daughter.  Both lead actors do tremendous work in a film that I would love to see get more acclaim because of it.  (Review HERE)

And now for the top 10…

10.  The MuppetsI am kicking things off with the movie that had me smiling the most this year.  The Muppets gave me all the joy I wanted in a movie that featured these timeless characters.  Complete with wonderful songs, Muppets-style self aware humor, call backs, and tons of cameos, this was one of my most anticipated films of the fall and it completely delivered.  Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller managed to put together a script that lived up to the spirit of the Muppets.  Bringing on the Flight of the Conchord’s Bret McKenzie to collaborate on and write the songs, along with director James Bobin to add his Conchord-style visual sensibility only further helped to capture the fun and witty spirit of the film.  A purely enjoyable film that that brought me lots of happiness.
“Maniacal laugh!” (Review HERE)
9.  Another EarthThe first of the two existential, sci-fi dramas that I will have on this list.  While I thought the premise was interesting enough – what if a duplicate earth suddenly appeared, relatively close, in our universe? – I was really surprised as to how into this film I was.  This surprise was especially due to how the sci-fi nature of the premise is essentially pushed into the background for the majority of the film, as a more low-key drama emerges, based off of a tragedy, and becomes the film’s focus.  Made as a fairly independent feature, only to receive studio backing later on, this feature film from co-writers Mike Cahill (also the director) and Brit Marling (also the star) really got to me with its intriguing ideas and well handled tone.  It was certainly enough to make a lasting impression.
“What would we really like to see if we could stand outside ourselves and look at us?” (Review HERE)
8.  HannaI love talking about Hanna.  It has so many cool aspects to go into.  Saoirse Ronan is kick ass as a young girl, raised to be the perfect assassin, who discovers what the real world is like for the first time.  Eric Bana continues to show how badass he can be in action.  Joe Wright’s direction leads to some well shot sequences, many involving slick action.  The undercurrent of fairy tale-related imagery and characters added a neat thematic element as well.  And the awesome score by The Chemical Brothers made things all the better to enjoy.  Hanna was a cool little sleeper that hit during the early spring and I totally dug it.
“I just missed your heart” (Review HERE)

7.  HugoA film that I grow to love more and more every time I think about it.  Hugo is an affecting adventure/drama of sorts that involves the quest for a young, orphaned boy, who lives in a Paris railway station, to find out the secret behind a broken gift from his father.  In discovering more about this gift, the narrative segues into another fantastic story about the history and inventiveness of early cinema.  Martin Scorsese not only brought a popular children’s novel to life, he also managed to make one of the best directed films of the year, based on the technical accomplishments he achieves in areas like production design and the fact that his film is completely enhanced by his decision to film in 3D (which actually makes sense, when applied to the narrative) and make it the best 3D experience I have had in theaters.  I can’t emphasize enough how this movie should be seen in theaters, in 3D, as Scorsese made a film that literally serves as a tribute to cinema.
“So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn't be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.” (Review HERE)
6.  Martha Marcy May MarleneAlong with Insidious (the best pure horror movie I saw this year), Martha Marcy May Marlene kept me incredibly tense throughout its running time.  It definitely helped that the film was exceedingly well acted, contained a story structure that managed to deliver just enough information through dialogue, and communicated so much more visually and through nuances within the characters and their interactions.  Superb editing is a specific area I hope this movie gets awards recognition for, given the deliberate flow of the film.  This is the darkly intriguing story of a girl who has escaped a cult and attempts to readjust back to normal life with family, crossed with flashbacks to her time in the cult.  It has a moody atmosphere, which perfectly establishes a sense of paranoia to match the viewer with the mind of Elizabeth Olsen’s Martha.  I easily joined the cult of this movie’s fandom.
I know who I am. I am a teacher and a leader; you just never let me be that. (Review HERE)
5.  RangoStill probably the strangest movie on my list.  Rango is just as much a fun adventure movie about talking animals as it is a surreal western about a chameleon going through an identity crisis.  Director Gore Verbiniski and Johnny Depp reteamed (after ‘Pirates’ 1-3) to make this incredibly well-animated film that gave me a lot of sheer joy.  It is easily a film that can be off-putting to many, but I was completely taken by its weird charm.  The fact that a mainstream “kids” film could incorporate elements of westerns, existentialism, a Star Wars-like chase sequence, and a plot incredibly similar to Chinatown is kind of amazing and it left a great impression on me.  I am completely hoping For A Few Rangos More.
Now, we ride!” (Review HERE)

4.  Midnight In ParisI was completely taken by this year’s Woody Allen film.  Not only did he make one of my favorite films of the year, complete with a top-notch cast, wonderful photography, and a creatively fanciful story; Allen managed to make one of my favorite films that he has ever made.  I managed to see this film without knowing what the early twist of the story was (which I alert people of in my review) and was wonderfully surprised with a very arresting story that calls back to past Allen films like The Purple Rose of Cairo.  Headed up by Owen Wilson, the cast is wonderfully well-suited to this film, given the great script that they get to play out and the beautiful setting they get to occupy.  Similar to Martin Scorsese and Hugo, a director more advanced in their age does not mean they have no more ambition.

“What is it with this city? I need to write a letter to the Chamber of Commerce.”  (Review HERE)
3.  MelancholiaThe second existential, sci-fi drama on my list and the one that left me practically floored.  There were two things I was definitely not expecting to have done, film-wise, this year.  One was being caught up on all of the Twilight films, but that is for another discussion.  The other was not only seeing the latest feature from director Lars Von Trier, who always seems to be going for a sucker punch to your emotions, but completely embracing it and being fully taken by what it had to offer.  Melancholia offers a long study concerning the end of times, with a visually stunning opening prologue, a “part one” that deals the emotional drama (and sometimes hilarity) of a wedding, a “part two” that delves into the possibility of a rogue planet colliding with earth, and an ending that had me completely wrapped up in its dark, visual splendor.  And I wasn’t even depressed afterward, as I was too taken in by the beauty of Melancholia.
“Hold my hand.  Close your eyes.”  (Review HERE)
2.  Attack the BlockA lot of people familiar with me may have been able to see this one coming, as I have been talking and posting incessantly about his movie ever since I saw it early in the summer.  Attack the Block is creative genre madness at its finest.  The story of a gang of South London teens taking on an invasion of nasty aliens is met with stylish direction, a clever and constantly humorous script, a sweet score from the electronic group Basement Jaxx, and sufficient thrills based around the fantastic and practical effects work in the design of the aliens.  At a quick-paced 88 minutes, Attack the Block is the movie I have watched the most this year and it continues to deliver each time.  And here’s a little bonus, believe.
“This is too much madness to explain in one text!”  (Review HERE)

1.  Drive - Stylish, smart, and super cool, Drive is my real hero, my real number 1.  I was easily gripped by this film.  This was the incredibly familiar story of a part-time stunt driver/part-time wheelman (Ryan Gosling) taking matters into his own hands, when it came down to protecting a woman (Carey Mulligan), yet director Nicolas Winding Refn completely made it his own.  Certainly not resting on cruise control, Drive is a slick action drama with plenty of appeal.  Gosling’s intensity matched with the surprising intimidation factor of Albert Brooks.  The fantastic soundtrack and score by Cliff Martinez.  The thrilling and crazy-violent nature of some of this film’s key sequences.  The fact that this film has one of the best romantic narratives of the year.  Drive had all of this and kept me extremely satisfied throughout (and enough so to have me see it again the following day as well).  In a year full of great films, Drive managed to stick out to me as the one that deserved my top spot and I will be excited to receive the night-call to watch it again.
“…I don’t carry a gun.  I drive.”  (Review HERE)
And that should do it for the Top 10, there will soon be another post that details the other odds & ends, such as my 11 - 20, movies I would have liked to see, disappointments, and the Top 10 worst films of 2011. Stay tuned.


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