Short Ends and Leader’s 10 Best Films of 2011

It was the year of good movies. Not many GREAT ones, but a lot of above average offerings worthy of year-end consideration. It happens. Unlike past seasons when awards mark the icing on an already creamed cake, it took to the very end of 2011 to get to the good stuff (again, GOOD…not GREAT…). As a result, making this year’s list became a process of amiable elimination. Any number of titles could be substituted for the ten listed, though it would be hard to find something as special as our chosen number one. Indeed, for as much as we enjoyed David Fincher’s take on the sinister Swedish thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it just couldn’t match the manic menace of the film we found the best. It just couldn’t

Among the other also-rans are such splendid entertainments as JJ Abrams’ Super 8 and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (which he produced and Pixar’s Brad Bird directed – brilliantly, one might add), the superb silent nostalgia of The Artist and the motion capture magic of The Adventures of Tintin. Rise of the Planet of the Apes and X-Men: First Class proved that there was still something vital and viable in the popcorn pic, while Rango and The Rum Diary argued that there’s no such thing as too much Johnny Depp (well – except for the dull fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise). Off the beaten path, Take Shelter showed that a potential apocalypse could be a very personal and probing issue while Trollhunter proved that, when handled with a bit of panache, the found footage film could actually work – as long as you have giant monsters trudging through the backdrop. Heck, even Kevin Smith’s anti-religious diatribe, Red State, won us over with its chutzpah and approach.

Still, they didn’t make the Top Ten, and with good reason. From the last entry here to the first, we focused on films that continue to stay with us, which speak to our inner sense of wonder long after the last frame has come and gone, beginning with one of the best horror films of this or any year:

#10: Insidious (dir. James Wan)

Like Poltergeist given a nice post-millennial update (and a much better production value), the latest film from James Wan and Leigh Whannell – of Saw franchise fame – is a brilliant fright funhouse. It’s a ripping rollercoaster dark ride through a shocking, suspenseful set-up. Employing every terrific trick in the gloomy Gothic “gotcha” handbook, the duo who gave Jigsaw his initial bite deliver a sensational good time, an indirect audience participation project where screams solidify the viewer’s sense of involvement and (in)security. This creepy crowdpleaser was definitely the best thing about Spring 2011 because of the missive discussed before – it promised one thing…and delivered on it flawlessly.

#9: Attack the Block (dir. Joe Cornish)

Attack the Block is a terrifying, terrific experience. The takes the standard scary movie monster on the loose narrative involving a bunch of inventive South London teen hoodlums trying to outsmart some massive furry beasties with glowing green teeth and isolates to a single set of apartments. Then all cosmic Hell breaks loose. Writer/director Joe Cornish drags us directly to the edge of our seats as animalistic aliens lay waste to whatever stands in their way. With only his first feature film, he delivers action that is intense, bloody, and often very, very funny indeed.

#8: War Horse (dir. Steven Speilberg)

War Horse is like a welcoming, warm woolen blanket. It makes no bones about its manipulative intentions and delivers on said designs in ways that will remind you of a dozen different classic Hollywood offerings. Doing his own version of the Tarantino homage stomp, Spielberg out dances the critical darling every step of the way. From the opening moments, when animal mother and sire romp through a verdant countryside greener than any emerald to a horrific moment involving bomb blasts, barbed wire, and a race through the flooded foxholes of France, Spielberg is in pure movie magic form.

#7: The Tree of Life (dir. Terrance Malick)

The Tree of Life clearly leaves some audiences cold. Those expecting spoon fed lessons in love and tolerance, who want their prehistory more along the lines of Jurassic Park, will grow antsy with the symphonic pace and vast production dynamic. Like the light show of 2001 combined with said film’s last act and a vague collection of Ike era nostalgia, this is neither a definitive statement or a purposeful arthouse affront. Instead, Malik appears to be arguing that the appearance of man on Earth marks a miracle of evolutionary design, a concept that in and of itself sets all other facets of the Universe on end.

#6: Drive (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

Like a celestial connection to the direct-to-video titles of the ’80s, Drive is sensational schlock shrouded in the aggressive aura of A-list arrogance. It’s a pantheon to Los Angeles and the genre-defining efforts forged in its many dream factories. It’s deception piled on top of denouement, seriousness given flight with the inclusion of brilliant acting and ample arterial spray. Since director Refn is no stranger to brutality, the gory bits are not all that surprising. What is amazing is how, by carefully controlling all the cinematic elements — performance, plot, pacing, production design — the foreigner redefines the American Crime drama.

#5: We Need to Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsay)

We Need to Talk About Kevin is, perhaps, the most obvious anti-child rant ever realized by a mostly mainstream motion picture. While the symbolism employed by director Lynne Ramsay is a tad too obvious (does everything have to be blood red???) and the storyline a bit too scattered in structure, the overall result is devastating in its declaration. This is a narrative where the evil is obvious. It’s right there in front of us, smack dab in the middle of every scene. The result is a horror that lingers long after the last act has finished frightening us.

#4: I Saw the Devil (dir. Jee-woon Kim)

For a genre that has felt as redundant as imitations of Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, I Saw the Devil is a revelation. It takes the entire police procedural/serial killer prototype into new and quite daring territory. Director Kim Ji-woon uses the standard crime cat and mouse and creates a complicated, compelling look at how two men manipulate and mismanage their unholy animalistic urges. Even better, the movie thwarts every convention we expect from the type. The result runs ramshackle over what Hollywood considers to be ‘horrible’, and makes a strong case for Kim as one of the artform’s true masters.

#3: The Descendants (dir. Alexander Payne)

It’s easy to assume that the success of this film rests solidly on the sound superstar shoulders of its lead. After all, George Clooney has proven to be the perfect combination of post-modern actor and Golden Era leading man. He can enliven even the dullest project (like his own directorial effort from 2011, the mediocre Ides of March). Here, Alexander Payne’s direction and the brilliant work of the supporting cast add more to the overall movie than our main matinee idol. What we wind up with is a startlingly heartfelt exploration of family that never feels strained or manipulative.

#2: Hugo (dir. Martin Scorsese)

Like a labyrinth larded with shards of celluloid sensations past and filtered through the latest in Tinseltown commercial gimmickry, Hugo is an amazing masterwork. It’s a film so full of life and invention that it’s hard to fathom how others in the same business earn equal footing. Scorsese, already established as a living legend, shows the wannabes how it’s done, delivering frames so full of visual and narrative vibrancy that one’s brain can barely handle it. Then, to make matters even more intriguing, the seasoned filmmaker finds a strong bond between his waifish lead and the audiences’ own sense of nostalgia and loss to legitimize the frequent fairytale avenues explored.

#1: The Last Circus (dir. Álex de la Iglesia)

From the divergent personalities – and make-up accenting same – to the surreal set pieces indicative of the horrors under a despotic regime, The Last Circus is simply amazing. It’s the kind of titanic tour de force you don’t see in today’s cookie cutter cinema. It’s all sparkling invention and sinister subtext. It plows through its purpose with juggernaut intensity and never once lets up on either its manner or its message. Indeed, when viewed through the veil of history, we are clearly seeing something akin to Renoir’s Rules of the Game, or perhaps more appropriate, a blackly comic Pasolini’s Salo. While not as sunny as the former or depraved as the latter, de la Iglesia is clearly commenting on the various factions fermenting under Franco’s thumb. The results are never pretty, and never settled. They are, however, a masterpiece.