The 40 Best Films of 2011

2011 was a year of good, not necessarily great, films, though the amazing choices by our staff might argue against such a overall cinematic classification.

Film: Attack the Block

Director: Joe Cornish

Cast: Jodie Whittaker, John Boyega, Alex Esmail, Franz Drameh, Leeon Jones, Simon Howard, Luke Treadaway, Jumayn Hunter, Nick Frost


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Display Width: 200Attack the Block

Joe Cornish’s debut film is a fast-paced combination of action and horror that never lets up and never stops being fun. The premise is a simple twist on ‘80s monster movies like Critters and Gremlins where it’s up to kids to save the town from nasty creatures. This time, though, the aliens land near a downtrodden 30-story South London apartment building. And our heroes are a gang of thuggish teens who open the movie by attempting to mug a young woman. It’s a difficult way to start a film, but Cornish pulls off the trick of making us like these kids despite the cold opening. It helps that the alien creatures are vicious and relentless and that the action sequences are expertly staged, full of tension and humor. The thick, difficult to parse South London accents make Attack the Block seem more foreign than most British films, but this is a ride worth taking all the same. Chris Conaton

Film: Project Nim

Director: James Marsh

Cast: Herbert Terrace, Stephanie LaFarge, Jenny Lee, Laura-Ann Petitto, Joyce Butler, Bill Tynan, Renee Falitz, Bob Ingersoll, James Mahoney

Studio: Roadside Attractions and HBO Documentary Films

Year: 2011


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Project Nim

"Wouldn't it be exciting to communicate with a chimp and learn what it was thinking?" The question posed by Professor Herb Terrace of Columbia University is an enduring one. It's echoed in the suggestion (above) made by filmmaker James Marsh, who interviews Terrace in his documentary Project Nim, that you might see signs of "Nim's state of mind" in images. The difference between their approaches indicates their circumstances: the first is born of "scientific research" circa 1973, the other an artist's reflection four decades later. But it also points to a broader cultural shift, a changing sense of responsibility, by humans, for others -- others of various sorts.

Exposing this shift is the broad project of Project Nim. Not unlike Marsh's Man on Wire, the new documentary uses an extraordinary story -- before, Philippe Petit's walk across a cable between the Twin Towers, now, the attempt to teach Nim sign language -- to reveal other stories, about human ambition and failure, insight and arrogance, regret and ignorance. The film works around words in ways that films can, as images alternately support, contradict, and complicate what people say. Even as individuals articulate their desires to care for Nim or convey their relations with him, it also provides images of Nim himself, in still photos, contact sheets, Super-8 footage, and even magazine spreads. These images invite your own efforts to understand, to believe what you see, to translate what you can. They also remind you that your capacity is limited. Cynthia Fuchs

Film: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Director: Werner Herzog

Cast: Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes

Studio: IFC Films


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Cave of Forgotten Dreams

A documentary about the oldest artwork in the world may make the newest film technology viable for independent cinema. Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams brings to life the Paleolithic treasures discovered in 1994 in Chauvet cave in southern France. Sealed off by a rockslide in the distant past, the cave has perfectly preserved a trove of bones, prints, and magnificent renderings of horses, bears, lions, rhinoceroses, and other animals painted and etched into the cave walls more than 30,000 years ago.

You can’t get more intimate than Chauvet cave (named for one of its discoverers, Jean-Marie Chauvet), where precious few visitors are even allowed inside each year, and Herzog had to limit his crew to three, use battery-powered cameras and low-heat lights, and film from a narrow catwalk that snakes through the cave to keep anyone from damaging the floor. The crew could only shoot part of the time with their professional rig; otherwise they had to make do with a smaller camera. Despite and because of such restrictions, Cave ranges widely. Scenes inside the cave that detail artifacts and show scientists at work alternate with footage shot in the surrounding landscape or in laboratories that features interviews with experts who discuss the significance of the finds and give mini-primers on various facets of Paleolithic culture. Michael Curtis Nelson

Film: The Beaver

Director: Jodie Foster

Cast: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, Riley Thomas Stewart, Cherry Jones


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The Beaver

An incredibly depressed father, husband, and businessman finds relief through a talking beaver puppet. This is not the beginning of a joke, though the images of Mel Gibson as Walter Black have spawned multiple humorous memes. It’s the premise of the year’s most surprisingly heartbreaking drama from director Jodie Foster.Thanks to the finest of performances from its cast, The Beaver proves more relatable than many of this year’s more conventional pictures. Even though depression is an incredibly difficult dilemma to film, the brilliantly warped mind of screenwriter Kyle Killen conjured up the perfect means to depict the family’s struggle -- a (possibly) malevolent beaver. It works so well, thanks in no small part to Gibson, you actually forget how odd it is for Walter to bring his beaver into work. And that’s no joke. Ben Travers

Film: The Muppets

Director: James Bobin

Cast: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Peter Linz


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The Muppets

Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller don't deserve all the credit for reviving Jim Henson's felt army. After all, how hard is it to reintroduce and make charming a bunch of characters who have been building goodwill with certain audiences for over 30 years (and whose worst movie, Muppets from Space, isn't all that bad)? Yet Segel and Stoller have done something disarmingly tricky with The Muppets: they've made a movie that respects Kermit, Fozzie, Piggy, and Animal not just as nostalgia objects, but comedians. Minute for minute, joke for joke, The Muppets has the year's best laugh ratio, and both its hilarity and sweetness come through in a group of new songs, from the moving "Pictures in My Head" to the ebullient "Life's a Happy Song". Jesse Hassenger

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