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2011 has been an overly disappointing year for films. Until a few weeks ago, I had all but given up hope on even creating a list of the top ten films of the year, but after a few new releases aroused my interests, I started to become convinced that I could actually manage to put together a fairly solid list for this year. Diving back into previous releases, I did whatever I could to see several movies that came out earlier in the year that I missed for whatever reason. Sadly, living in the Midwest limits my access to certain films, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.
In the end, I feel very confident in my top ten list for 2011. It was a rough, rocky year, but it could have been much much worse, and there is a lot of fun stuff in sight for next year so I’m optimistic we’ll easily bounce back to cinema greatness soon. But let’s look back fondly on 2011. For all its high points, and many many many low points, it was at least fun.
#10. J. Edgar
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Besides the fact that J. Edgar Hoover was a fascinating character, and Leonardo Dicaprio’s portrayal of him here was fantastic, the film overall captures a dynamic recently seen onscreen: a passionate, all-consuming love story that is never realized between Hoover and his long-time friend and colleague Clyde Tolson. It’s genuinely and beautifully heartbreaking.
Directed by Bennett Miller
I spent the whole viewing of Moneyball noticing similarities to last year’s The Social Network. The pacing, tone, characters, and even the score all felt reminiscent of the amazing Facebook drama, and it wasn’t until the end credits that I realized that Aaron Sorkin co-wrote the screenplay here. I’m a huge fan of Sorkin’s work, and usually know when he has a movie coming out, but I think this one being so soon after Social Network let it slip past me. While not as good as Sorkin’s previous work, Moneyball achieves the impossible in that it makes baseball incredibly interesting.
#8. Win Win
Directed by Thomas McCarthy
A rare film indeed. A truly great ensemble comedy. The entire cast here is fantastic. From Paul Giamatti all the way down to the girl who plays his young daughter. Everyone pulls their weight and makes every scene of the film pop off the screen. It’s hilariously funny, but also poignant in its drama and use of profanity. The script and direction perfectly executed.
#7. Griff The Invisible
Directed by Leon Ford
There have been a ton of movies over the past few years about ordinary people who decide to become superheroes. These range from big budget comic book adaptations like Batman Begins and Iron Man to dark comedies like Super and Kick-Ass, but Griff the Invisible does something unique. As a lower-budget, independent film, it’s able to explore this increasingly familiar concept at a more character-driven level. Plus, the clashing between fantasy and reality (while jarring at times) has a lot of really nice payoffs. The performances from both Ryan Kwanten and Maeve Dermody are among the best you’ll see this year. It’s nice to know the idiot brother from True Blood is capable of something like this.
#6. The Guard
Directed by John Michael McDonagh
I’ve been a huge fan of John McDonagh’s brother, Martin, for the past few years. Both as a playwright (The Pillowman) and as a filmmaker (Six Shooter, In Bruges), so I was eager to see what his brother was capable of, and this film did not disappoint. The best thing about this film is Brendan Gleeson’s performance. Gleeson is always great, but this could be the best thing he’s ever done. Don Cheadle’s character puts it best when he says the character is either “really motherf***ing dumb, or really motherf***ing smart.” The audience is left to wonder the same thing throughout, and either way it makes for a great viewing experience.
#5. Fright Night
Directed by Craig Gillespie
I looked forward to the Fright Night remake for a long time. The casting of David Tennant (Doctor Who) as the vampire expert Peter Vincent, and hiring Marti Noxon (co-executive producer, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) to write the screenplay were ingenious moves. I enjoyed the original Fright Night, but it had a lot of problems. The remake is tight, funny, scary, and action-packed, with a climax that isn’t so long I want to bash my head in by the end. Plus, it was a real treat to see a true Joss Whedon vampire on screen in the midst of all the Twilight/True Blood/Vampire Diaries garbage fest.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
I didn’t anticipate liking Drive as much as I did. I thought it would be fun and definitely worth a viewing, but I was completely blown away by the stylized noir. Ryan Gosling’s performance is excellent as the quiet, not-so-bad bad guy. The script is clever and well-written from start to finish, but probably it’s most impressive quality is the way they neatly sidestep the issue of having to write believable, compelling heist scenes; by showing them from the point of view of the getaway driver. Writing heist movies is very difficult (as evidenced by the fact there have only been a handful of good ones ever made) and I’d much rather see no heist scene at all than be forced to sit through a bad one.
#3. The Adventures of Tintin
Directed by Steven Spielberg
The trailer for Tintin promises a film from two of the greatest storytellers of our time. They’re referring to Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (who produced the film), but wash over the fact that they seriously have two of the best storytellers of our time writing the screenplay: Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Sherlock) and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). The film is definitely Spielbergian, with its anti-realistic action sequences, but it’s good fun, and the characters are all great, especially Tintin, who is very much reminiscent of the Doctor or Sherlock Holmes, but with a childlike innocence and thirst for adventure that is refreshing.
#2. The Elephant in the Living Room
Directed by Michael Webber
Possibly the best documentary I’ve ever seen. The film deals with a whole sub-culture of people who keep big, dangerous, exotic pets in their homes; from grizzly bears down to poisonous snakes. The epicenter for this trend is in Dayton, Ohio, where every year dozens of these animals are released into the wild when their owners can’t manage to take care of them anymore, and when that happens one police officer is called out to go catch them and find them a new home. The entire movie is fascinating and intense, while being simultaneously one of the most emotionally charged movies you’re likely to see from 2011.
#1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Directed by David Fincher
David Fincher tops my list two years in a row. I went into The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo more or less ambivalent; feeling like I should see it because it might be a contender for some major awards. I wasn’t counting on exactly how good it is. I feel like some people might be put off by this because of reviews of how disturbing it is, but actually it’s not as bad as some would lead us to believe. Obviously, the rape scene is what has most people on edge, and it is hard to watch, but then seeing Lisbeth’s revenge scene is as fulfilling and exciting for the audience as it is for Lisbeth herself. The great characters coupled with Fincher’s trademark visual directing style make for an all around great film.
Joe Sanders is a playwright and college instructor in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has a Master’s degree in playwriting and a Bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches Thought and Writing.
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