Without a doubt, 2011 was a year for films that celebrate the transporting wonder of the movies, as well as showcasing the raw power cinema can have and pushing the boundaries of filmmaking to an inspiring new level. Here are what I thought were the 10 best movies of the year, those that did these things better than the rest.
10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
“Tinker Tailor” is no ordinary spy flick. It’s completely devoid of shootouts, explosions and gadgets, yet this search for a KGB mole in the top tier of MI6 still makes for quite an absorbing espionage tale. That’s chiefly due to the electrifying cast of distinguished British actors, led by Gary Oldman in one of his best (and most subtle) performances, alongside Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong. While the story will confuse the hell out of some viewers, it’s a real treat for patient moviegoers because it constantly keeps them on their toes, and rewards those paying close attention. Add to that a slick visual style, low-key tension and pitch-perfect atmosphere and this thinking man’s thriller stands in a class of its own.
9. Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen’s latest effort is so gleefully satisfying that its exhuberant feeling continues to last long after the film ends. Additionally, it provides an especially unique and intellectually stimulating central concept (a brilliant surprise which won’t be spoiled here), a luscious tour of Paris and a resoundingly insightful message about the past. A slew of famous faces, from Adrien Brody to Kathy Bates, populate the supporting roles as amusingly over-the-top characters. In the lead is Owen Wilson, eminently likable as a writer who discovers a different side of Paris nightlife, and watching his courtship of French beauty Marion Cotillard in the city of love is nothing short of wonderful. Feeling cultured and knowledgeable about art and literature after seeing this gem is just a plus.
Sure, “Rango” can be enjoyed by children, but don’t call it a kids movie. It’s too dark for that category, and in reality, it’s a badass tribute to westerns that’s aimed at an older audience, using the animated look less for younger appeal and more to shoot the genre into blazing new territory. “Rango” models after the basic western setup of a drifting gunslinger (voiced by Johnny Depp) coming into a barren town to save the day, but replaces humans for oddball desert creatures and adds plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor, movie references and exciting set pieces. Then it’s rendered as one the most gorgeous animated films to date, combining into a hilarious and surprisingly awesome romp through the western genre cinescope.
7. Super 8
“Super 8” fuses the intense thrills of “Cloverfield” with the childhood adventure, mystery and Spielberg factor of “E.T.” to create the most nostalgic and simultaneously fresh blockbuster of the year. This is the kind of original, creative big budget production Hollywood can rarely produce anymore, and none of those countless sequels or adaptations throughout 2011 could live up to this blast. Indeed, writer/director J.J. Abrams (“Star Trek,” “Lost”) is shaping up to be this generation’s Spielberg, imbuing his work with that genuine spark of enchantment so few directors can achieve. It’s not through the mystifying creature or explosive set piece that Abrams captures this however, but through the group of kids leading this spectacular experience.
“Hugo” is movie magic at its purest. In his first kids film, the legendary Martin Scorsese manages the greatest feat possible in such a work– he makes all viewers, young and old, feel like ecstatic little children while watching it. This story of an orphan (Asa Butterfield) who runs the clocks in a giant Parisian train station is delightful, heartbreaking, inspiring and full of visual splendor, including what’s arguably the best use of 3D yet. Though the plot starts out focused on the boy’s quest to fix a robotic toy his father left him, it evolves into an appreciative meditation on the power of cinema and reaching your dreams, even featuring clips of some wondrous silent movies and a poignant message about film preservation. It’s a beautiful ode to movie lovers everywhere.
A quirky, affecting examination on life, loss and love, “Beginners” is a deeply personal film from writer/director Mike Mills about the relationships that define us. As a CD cover artist (Ewan McGregor) begins dating an eccentric actress (the lovely Mélanie Laurent), he also remembers the final years of his father (an Oscar-worthy Christopher Plummer), who came out of the closet at 75 and began a rejuvenated lifestyle while dying from cancer. Because much of the movie is inspired by Mills’s own experiences, it feels totally real in the whimsical romance and the deep bond between father and son. This enables “Beginners” to strike a chord of emotional human truth that is both charmingly entertaining and gracefully moving, in a way no other 2011 film could balance.
4. Attack the Block
The way “Shaun of the Dead” is both a spoof and awesome tribute to zombie flicks, “Attack the Block” is the same to alien invasion movies. This inspired sci-fi sensation follows a teen gang of South London hoodrats as a swarm of gorilla/wolf-looking aliens pursue them in their giant apartment tower block, and they must fight for survival. It’s a clever, simple premise executed exceptionally well, from the hysterical cast of characters to the intimidating, unusual aliens, not to mention the energizing soundtrack. There’s even some effective social commentary in there, too. “Attack the Block” represents a fully-realized vision, so successfully action-packed, funny, tense and unbelievably imaginative that it exudes utter cool in every scene, making its own rules and never dropping a beat.
Anyone who doesn’t believe in the power of true independent cinema will be convinced by “Bellflower.” First-timer Evan Glodell writes, directs, stars and more in this one-of-a-kind piece of visceral filmmaking, which generates an exponentially stronger viewer response out of its $17,000 budget than most movies can out of millions of dollars. It shows two “Road Warrior”-obsessed best friends who build flamethrowers and apocalypse-ready muscle cars, and how one’s relationship with an unpredictable girl spins all their lives out of control. The film’s first half plays like a quirky, heartfelt rom-com, and in one of the best tonal shifts of recent years, the second half turns into a fever dream of violence, revenge and 20-somethings who’ve lost their way. Glodell’s custom-built camera also creates searing, vivid visuals, adding up to an unforgettable experience that packs a hell of a punch.
2. We Need to Talk About Kevin
There’s no real way to prepare for this film’s undeniable power. Tilda Swinton gives the bravest performance of her career as a mother whose son (a maliciously wicked Ezra Miller) goes on a killing spree at his high school, and she tries to deal with her guilt afterwards while attempting a return to normal life. If that subject matter wasn’t already dark enough to leave a strong impression, the way the movie unfolds deepens its impact. It moves between a post-massacre timeline and different stages of Kevin’s raising, exposing how he’s basically been evil from the beginning. For anyone prepared to take such a heavy journey, director Lynne Ramsay delivers an artistic masterpiece that blends images with sound in incredible ways, and it’s the kind of film that haunts viewers for days, if not weeks.
1. The Tree of Life
No piece of cinema divided audiences in 2011 like Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” Nothing else was as ambitious, either. This seminal work of art tries to encapsulate the experience of life itself, not with a narrative, but by detailing the daily interaction of a suburban Texas family in the ‘50s and the eldest son’s loss of innocence. It also features a number of montages that contain many of the most stunning images ever committed to film, including a near 20 minute sequence of the universe’s creation. These factors make “Tree of Life” a highly abstract work, one that uses cinema less as a storytelling forum and more as a true art form, capable of speaking to viewers on a much deeper level. As such, you don’t simply watch this profound reflection on the wonder of growing up and the beauty of everything around us–you experience it.
See also: The Top 10 Movies of 2010.