The Spinning Platters Guide to the Best Films of 2011

by Jason LeRoy on December 29, 2011

Welcome to our list of the best films of 2011! I’m Jason LeRoy, the film editor of this fine website, and I’ll be your guide to the most excellent cinema this year had to offer. I have to say, this is a pretty exciting moment for me. While I’ve been writing about film in one form or another since 1995, 2011 is the first year I’ve managed to see just about everything. It is with no small amount of consideration (or afternoons and evenings spent slumped over in theaters around town) that I’ve compiled this list. So look after the jump for my top 10 films of the year, some honorable mentions, and a handful of staff-pick rebuttals for Best Film of 2011. And especially since this year was uncommonly lacking in unifying critical favorites, please leave your own picks in the comments below.

10. Shame

Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan in SHAME

Acclaimed British video artist Steve McQueen brought his impeccably artful instincts to this haunting tale of a yuppie sex addict whose routines are shaken by the arrival of his needy younger sister. The somewhat simplistic script, by McQueen and Abi Morgan, is really just a framework for the film’s exquisite art direction and the fearlessly raw performances of its two stars, Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. Shame has also proven to be a landmark in the decades-old war over the NC-17 rating; rather than being crushed by it, the film’s distributors at Fox Searchlight successfully marketed it as one of the film’s selling points. Bravo.

Read our interview with Shame director Steve McQueen

9. Martha Marcy May Marlene

John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen in MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE

A chilling puzzle box untangling a young woman’s profoundly fractured psyche, MarMarMayMar (what the cool kids call it) heralded the arrival of a promising new voice in writer/director Sean Durkin, and, most surprisingly, a remarkably powerful new actor in Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley. Aided by compelling supporting turns from John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, and Hugh Dancy, Olsen anchors the film with her meticulously realized performance. The year’s finest psychological thriller.

Read our interview with Martha Marcy May Marlene actor Elizabeth Olsen and writer/director Sean Durkin

8. Take Shelter

Michael Shannon in TAKE SHELTER

Michael Shannon gives the finest performance by any male actor this year in writer/director Jeff Nichols’ intense psychodrama about a blue-collar Ohio family man who begins suffering from increasingly disturbing dreams. He gradually becomes convinced that the dreams are prophetic warnings of some looming disaster, and begins working furiously to protect his family while alienating everyone around him – including his wife, played beautifully by 2011 MVP Jessica Chastain (similarly indispensable in The Tree of Life, The Help, and even The Debt). Is Shannon a paranoid schizophrenic or a prophet? The final shot will leave you questioning this for days.

Watch the trailer for Take Shelter

7. The Future

Miranda July and Hamish Linklater in THE FUTURE

After the relatively upbeat Me and You and Everyone We Know, multimedia artist Miranda July stunned audiences by crafting one of the most profoundly sad, rueful contemplations on human relationships and mortality ever committed to film. July’s narrative voice remains as refreshingly distinct and idiosyncratic as ever, and the heartfelt creativity of her script elevates The Future far above the dozens of other films about couples going through tough times and adults still struggling to grow up. She proves definitively that the playful whimsy of her storytelling is just as effective at breaking your heart.

Read our interview with actor/writer/director Miranda July about The Future

6. Drive

Ryan Gosling in DRIVE

One of the most stylishly audacious films of the year, not to mention the film that transformed antihero Ryan Gosling into 2011’s coolest man (although this arguably had less to do with his performance than with his wardrobe, specifically the now-iconic scorpion jacket). Director Nicolas Winding Refn created an unforgettable LA noirscape filled with mechanics, mobsters, and molls, memorably played by the likes of Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, and Christina Hendricks. Whether wooing us with its sexy-synthy soundtrack or shocking us with its unexpectedly horrific violence, Drive was a bad-ass movie-going experience unlike any other this year.

Read our original review of Drive

5. Young Adult

Patrick Wilson and Charlize Theron in YOUNG ADULT

One of the most valuable elements in any film is that of the unexpected. And perhaps no fall film was more unexpected than Young Adult, a pitch-black comedic character study from Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody, who’d previously collaborated on the quirky and optimistic cultural touchstone Juno. Charlize Theron does staggeringly great work as Mavis Gary, the kind of tragically delusional character who truly believes she’s the only one that knows the score. Patton Oswalt is pitch-perfect as the only person who sees her clearly. This is the kind of film that catches you off-guard and tunnels into your subconscious; you will find yourself reflecting back on it long after you think you’ve made up your mind about Mavis.

Read our interviews with director Jason Reitman and actor Patton Oswalt about Young Adult

4. Midnight in Paris

Michael Sheen, Nina Arianda, Rachel McAdams, and Owen Wilson in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS

As we learned in this year’s excellent Woody Allen installment of American Masters, he would be the first to admit that many of his films miss the mark. But on those special occasions when the stars align and a genuinely successful Woody Allen comedy reaches theaters, it is a singularly magical experience. This is one such film, his finest comedy since Mighty Aphrodite. Despite Allen’s famously pessimistic philosophies, he can evoke romantic optimism and reckless abandon like few others. And Midnight in Paris, a timeless time-travel romantic comedy, is among the most enchanting and endearing films he’s ever made.

Read our original review of Midnight in Paris

3. The Tree of Life

Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in THE TREE OF LIFE

The year’s most ambitious and beautiful film, and among its most polarizing, The Tree of Life is in many ways the defining moment in the storied career of its maverick director, Terrence Malick. It was hard enough to write about the first time around, so rather than attempting to write some pithy blurb, I’ll just refer you to that:

Read our original review of The Tree of Life

2. Bridesmaids

Wendi McLendon-Covey, Rose Byrne, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, and Ellie Kemper in BRIDESMAIDS

I have seen Bridesmaids more than any other movie this year, and I still laugh myself sick every time. And God forbid I watch it with someone who hasn’t seen it before,  because I will yell “Wait, watch this part!” repeatedly until I seize up and collapse. This is especially true of the character introduction of Megan (“Yeah, oh shit. Yeah, oh shit!”), the role that made Melissa McCarthy the most exciting and unexpected breakout star of the year, and absolutely 100% deserves to win her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. But beyond the laughs, Bridesmaids is also one of the most emotionally honest portrayals of female friendship ever made; the performances, led by the astonishing Kristen Wiig, constitute the best ensemble cast of the year; and, most significantly, it challenged (and hopefully changed) every last bullshit notion Hollywood had about what a female-driven comedy could be.

Read our original review of Bridesmaids

1. The Descendants

George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, and Amara Miller in THE DESCENDANTS

One of the most curious things about cinema in 2011 is that there hasn’t really been a critical front-runner everyone could get behind. Every film that has emerged as a serious awards contender has its fans and its detractors, and each side is unsurprisingly firm in its opinion. The closest any film has come to bringing everyone together this year was The Artist, the black-and-white silent film that’s been whipping film critics into frenzies of nostalgic ecstasy ever since its debut at Cannes. But unfortunately, I’m the asshole who doesn’t like it. I think it is simply the same old A Star Is Born story we’ve seen countless other times, told with charm and commitment as a B&W silent film. And that’s it! Why is that so amazing to so many? I’ve read the raves, but it’s still lost on me.

Similarly, The Descendants has its fans (it was chosen as the year’s best film by the Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Southeastern Film Critics associations), and its detractors – such as nearly everyone else I seem to speak to about it. Well, not so much “detractors” as just people who didn’t think it was anything great. But to me, it is the year’s best film. I loved every minute of it, drifting out of the theater afterward on a cloud of enchantment. It was the most deeply satisfying movie experience I had this year.

The best films seem to be the ones that tell personal stories with the right combination of emotional realism and narrative grace. And while director Alexander Payne has previously demonstrated his knack for brutally funny satires with Citizen Ruth and Election, this is perhaps his most effortlessly piercing film. George Clooney leads with one of his finest performances, aided by knockout support from Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as his daughters and unexpectedly potent dramatic turns by Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer. Simply put, The Descendants is everything I look for in a movie.

Read our interview with actor Judy Greer about The Descendants

 

15 HONORABLE MENTIONS, in alphabetical order

50/50

Another Earth

Beginners

Contagion

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Hanna

The Help

Higher Ground

Melancholia

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

The Skin I Live In

Super

Tabloid

Win Win

 

STAFF PICKS FOR #1 FILM OF THE YEAR

Jonathan Pirro, Staff Writer:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Rooney Mara in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

It’s difficult to tell a story where the central character is abrasive, introverted, and sometimes violently unsympathetic to those around her, particularly because it makes it even more difficult for the audience to want to root for such an antiheroic role. Rooney Mara, acting as the titular character in David Fincher’s adaptation of Swedish novel The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, pulls it off with absolutely flying colors, displaying both a bitter cold and a gentle warmth that meld together into the complex and intriguing character of Lisbeth Salander. Fincher’s latest work is a rather stunning and unrelenting tale — tackling the huge task of showing the many twists and turns within Stieg Larsson’s best-selling mystery thriller is no easy task, but he has risen marvelously to the challenge. A rather exceptional — and deftly cunning — cast of characters, paired with marvelous cinematography that recalls an age where the act of filming, itself, was part of the artistic presentation, thus unleashes an intense tale of murder, extortion, greed, and the unearthly desires that rest in the hearts of men. If you ever wanted an occasion to cheer on the bad girl as she pulls apart the evils in her world, this is the one to watch.

 

Marie Carney, Senior Editor:

Attack the Block

The cast of ATTACK THE BLOCK

Attack the Block has more components for mass appeal than any other movie released this year.  You have a gang of likeable teenage bad boys, an alien invasion, lots of action, and an abundance of witty pop culture references.  Yet somehow most people didn’t bother to see this movie.  The excuse is the thick South London accents are hard to understand, but really it’s a lack of marketing because of the Hollywood film industry’s fear of something different and original.  I can tell you the gang of teenage boys theater-hopping when I saw it cheered and laughed louder than anyone. So if you haven’t seen Attack the Block, WATCH IT!  It is everything you want and need in a movie:  on the surface it is a funny and different take on the classic alien invasion story, but underneath is a greater commentary on racism, crime, and how easy it is to “go astray” when you grow up poor.  But the best part of this movie is John Boyega as Moses, the leader of the group.  He plays an excellent quiet and strong bad-ass, much more convincingly than Ryan Gosling’s version in Drive.  He shows so much strength and confidence while somehow managing to let you see that little bit of vulnerability bubbling underneath the surface.  It is beautiful and engaging performance and well worth the watch, and even better, you get to watch him kill the shit out of some aliens.

 

Dakin Hardwick, Managing Editor:

Young Adult

Charlize Theron in YOUNG ADULT

Some movies are made to let you escape reality: they take you from your daily lives and allow you some peace for two hours. Then there are the films that feel exactly like they are holding up a mirror to your own life. Young Adult is one of those movies. Charlize Theron’s self destructive woman seems like she has it all together, only to be broken down, damaged, and insecure on the inside. It’s the kind of film where one can instantly relate to the experience, and although it’s hard to feel good about oneself after the film, rarely has film reflected my own personal struggles like this one. It’s a moving, dark, cathartic cinematic experience like no other.

 

Gordon Elgart, Editor in Chief:

Hanna

Saiorse Ronan in HANNA

Hanna is a brightly colored, artfully shot, exciting sounding character piece. It has a lot of the trappings of an action film, but without any of the neatly wrapped up plot lines you’d normally expect to see. There’s multiple questions that are never answered, and if these loose ends bother you, I don’t think you got what the movie is trying to do. It’s a mood piece about a paranoid fish out of water trying to understand a world she’s never seen; it’s not supposed to have easy answers. Director Joe Wright (of Atonement) stages the action sequences marvelously, using long continuous shots in a time when confusing quick cutting has become the norm. Saiorse Ronan’s tightly wound Hanna is the kind of role other teenage actresses could never handle, but she’s brilliant. And the star of the show is the driving Chemical Brothers score, used to perfect effect to make everything seem just a little bit more otherworldly.

 

AND WHAT, YOU MAY ASK, WERE THE WORST FILMS OF 2011?

I’d rather focus on the positive.

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