Top 10 of 2011 (and other good times at the movies)

Here’s my list (early this year!), to add to the collection of other Best Of 2011 lists crowding the internet.

My criteria: The film had to have been released in cinemas in 2011, even if it didn’t open here in Halifax. For example, I did see a number of movies at the Atlantic Film Festival, such as Café de flore, which made my list because it opened elsewhere in Canada. However, other films I really liked, Take This Waltz and Higher Ground, didn’t show in Canadian cinemas outside of festivals in 2011, so they will have to wait.

So, onto the cream of 2011, in descending order.

10. Moneyball
Bennet Miller’s adaptation of the Michael Lewis book had a troubled gestation, from what I understand, but Brad Pitt’s stewardship of this material hit for the cycle, to borrow an obvious baseball metaphor. I felt Aaron Sorkin’s touch all over the script, and I have plenty of time for his work. What I liked most about the movie is—like all great docudrama should—it made interesting what might otherwise be an arcane or difficult subject, in this case the philosophy around fielding a pro baseball team, while still satisfying as a sports movie, where the underdog uses unlikely strategies to triumph over the naysayers. My full review.

9. Take Shelter
Jeff Nichols’ has provided a paranoid thriller for our time, laced with concern over the economy, personal security, medical expenses and environmental horror. The tale of a man who starts to see either signs of a biblical apocalypse or his own crumbling sanity is a masterpiece of sustaining suspense. Big kudos to Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain in the lead roles.
More thoughts on the film.

8. The Descendants
The triumphant return of Alexander Payne, director of Sideways and About Schmidt, in this perfectly observed drama about a family man in Hawaii who discovers, with information from his eldest daughter, that his comatose wife was unfaithful. It’s a catalogue of human emotion, both painfully funny and hilariously sad. My full review.

7. Drive
One of my favourite new directors is Nicolas Winding Refn, though I confess that’s at least partly because the dude is a Dane. His first Hollywood film is an exercise in existential style, channeling the neon-lit 1980s. It’s not an action movie, really, though it does contain some brutal violence. I guess you could call it a crime drama, but it’s more simple than that. It’s a love story, probably first and foremost. My full review.

6. Hanna
An unexpected treat combining two disparate genres, the action movie and the fairy tale adventure. And a third, if you think about it: the coming-of-age story. By crossing the streams, director Joe Wright and his cohorts freshen each of the influences. My full review.

5. The Tree of Life
In some respects, this film deserves its own list. It would be number one on my list of Most Ambitious Films of 2011. I know it features at the top of many others, and I understand why. But it also confounded people, and I get that, too. So I put it midway on my list, acknowledging there was no movie like it this year—Melancholia came closest—and it will be remembered for years to come, no doubt. It’s a beautiful, epic attempt at connecting the biggest themes in life—encapsulated in the simple equation of “graces versus nature”—to the microcosm of a Texas family in the 1950s. I relished the attempt and am glad Terrence Malick made it, though I also agree that there are moments where his reach exceeded his grasp. For more thoughts on the film.

4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
A second adaptation of the John le Carré novel—the first was the much-appreciated BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness. This movie, directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In) is a cinematic puzzle, one that’s nothing but a joy to muddle through. The story involves the search for a Soviet spy in the upper echelons of the British Secret Service, set in the 1960s in the frigid heart of the cold war. All the spies are grey men, emotionally fraught in one way or another, and the filmmakers give you just the barest of clues to piece it all together. This movie made me work, and I loved it for that. Pay close attention to the specs George Smiley (Gary Oldman) wears, the new versus old. It’ll help with the flashback structure.

3. Attack The Block
Every once in awhile there’s a fresh, first-time filmmaker who reinvigorates an old genre. Joe Cornish did it this year with Attack The Block, which places so high on my list just for being so surprising. One bad night a gang of kids in a South London housing project are on the front line of an alien invasion. Not only are these teens, with their nearly indecipherable slang, utterly fresh, the aliens are like none we’ve seen before. JJ Abrams, you and your overrated Super 8 just got schooled.

2. Beginners
I was fortunate enough to see this weeks before it opened and interviewed the director, Mike Mills. Based on his own experience, the movie is about the differences between the choices we get to make in our lives now versus what our parents faced. It’s funny, sad, quirky and occasionally self-conscious, but never less than true and honest. I saw it twice and was moved more during the second viewing than the first, a sure sign of lasting quality. My full review. 

1. Café de flore
Writer-director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de flore made the top just for being so relentlessly original, for making me care so much about the characters, and for keeping me guessing right until the end, as well as provoking discussion after the fact. Two stories are told, one set in the present about a Montreal DJ and his diverging relationships, and one set in 1960s Paris, about a woman struggling to raise her son who has Down’s syndrome. As the stories progress, the viewer gets engaged in both but struggles to understand the connection between them. When the stories link, the revelations come thick and fast. And that final image, are we to believe that history repeats itself through time, even arbitrary violent trauma? I’m still wondering, but can’t wait to watch the movie again to figure it out.

Five runners-up:
Daydream Nation 
The Trip
Margin Call
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Eight excellent documentaries:
Project Nim
Pearl Jam 20
The Swell Season
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff
Bruce Springsteen’s The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town 
Bobby Fischer Against The World

And other, honourable mentions that made my long list, in no particular order: 
Hobo With A Shotgun
Mission: Impossble – Ghost Protocol
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec 
Win Win
The Muppets
Martha Marcy May Marlene
The Adjustment Bureau
Source Code
X-Men: First Class
Midnight in Paris
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Last Night
The Rum Diary
Young Adult
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

And, as always, there are a few 2011 films still to be considered, due to their very late or limited openings, including
We Need To Talk About Kevin
A Dangerous Method

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.