The Top 10 Movies Of 2011: Eric's List

By Eric Eisenberg 2011-12-30 15:51:53discussion comments
For Josh's Top 10 list, go here.

For Katey's Top 10 list, go here.

As both a film critic and reporter, I have to sit through a lot of terrible movies. This year I spent hours of my life watching movies like New Year’s Eve, Spy Kids: All The Time in the World, Abduction and Waiting For Forever. But it’s the good movies that make it all worth it, and this year there were some truly brilliant films in release. But among those great titles, what were my favorites? Well…

You’ve seen Katey’s list, you’ve seen Josh’s list, and now it’s my turn to tell you what I think are the ten best movies of the year. You may hate all of my selections, and you may love them, but that’s the beauty of opinion.

#1: Drive
I usually laugh whenever I see quotes from critics saying, “Best movie of the year!” in June. After all, they are assuming that they won’t see another film for six months that will affect them in the same way. With Drive I was happy to put a sock in my own mouth. I had the chance to see the movie over the summer when it played at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and even after the houselights had gone up I was still glued to my seat. The stoic, tough-as-nails performance by Ryan Gosling as the stuntman-turned-getaway driver is stunning and Albert Brooks does the best work of his entire career as terrifying mobster Bernie Rose.

As much as I love the performances, the characters and the story, though, what keeps my brain coming back to the film is its technical brilliance. Director Nicolas Winding Refn has captured Los Angeles like no other director I’ve seen and the movie’s style, complete with neon pink title cards and synth-pop soundtrack, is one of a kind. The cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel, the score by Cliff Martinez, the action, the drama… there’s nothing about Drive that doesn’t work. Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest is nothing short of a masterpiece.

#2: 50/50
Life isn’t black and white. Everything that’s evil has at least the slightest silver lining and all the good in the world is tinted with a little darkness. Once we start crying it doesn’t mean that we can never laugh again, and vice versa. Few movies have captured this element of life quite like the Jonathan Levine-directed 50/50. A phenomenal examination about what happens to people and their relationships when struck with a tragedy, the film isn’t just a drama, but instead a reflection of humanity, balancing out the hard moments of life with comedy and pure sincerity.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who I’ve long admired due to his work in movies like Brick, The Lookout and (500) Days of Summer, is at the best he’s ever been in this film, playing a character who is slowly falling apart, but fighting to keep everything together. But Gordon-Levitt is far from alone, as Seth Rogen, Anjelica Huston, Anna Kendrick and Bryce Dallas Howard make up one of the best supporting casts of the year. Will Reiser’s script, which he based on his own experiences with cancer, is the best original screenplay of the year and one of the most uplifting stories of the year. The film didn’t do well in theaters, but you are doing yourself a disservice if you don’t discover or rediscover this one when its released on home video.

#3: The Descendants
There was a seven year gap between feature films for director Alexander Payne, and it was rough. Few filmmakers are as adept as him when it comes to blending together authentic drama and levity and that voice has been missing for most of the last decade. Needless to say, my anticipation for Payne’s return was off the charts, and I couldn’t have been happier with the outcome.

The movie presents George Clooney with a type of role he’s rarely played before – no longer the alpha male bachelor on the prowl – and the result is the best turn of his career. While there are many times that the Oscar-winning actor’s public persona gets in the way of his performance, Clooney completely envelops himself in the part to the point that you see him only as his character. The setting, the beautiful state of Hawaii, is captured by Payne unlike any movie you’ve seen before, finding reality in the tropical paradise by both filming on the beautiful sandy beaches as well as in the urban industrial areas. Tying it all together is the script by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, which is perfectly paced, both in the sense of story and tone, succeeding in never alienating the audience. It was hard to think that Alexander Payne would ever top his remarkable 2004 film Sideways, but he did with The Desendants.

#4: Shame
When making considerations for my favorite films of the year, one of the most important factors is rewatchability. As an avid DVD and Blu-ray collector, I love seeing a movie for the first time and being moved and then feeling the exact same sensation when I watch it a second time. Every year, however, there is one title that I can never watch again after the first time, but find so impressive that it has to be included. In 2011, that title was Steve McQueen’s Shame.

Quickly establishing himself as one of the best actors in Hollywood, Michael Fassbender’s performance as Brandon Sullivan, a sex addict living a life of solitude and confinement in New York City, is blistering and leaves an impact that you won’t be able to shake for days. While the film is graphic in its depiction of sex (but never to a gratuitous level), what makes Shame hard to watch is its depiction of utter and total loneliness. McQueen accentuates New York City to trap Brandon in a sea of skyscrapers and the effect is mind-blowing. I may never have the nerve to watch the movie again, but it definitely won’t be film that leaves my consciousness any time soon.

#5: The Muppets
If psychiatrists wanted to start saving their patients money on prescriptions for depression medication, all they would need to do is recommend regular screenings of The Muppets. The definition of “feel good movie of the year,” walking out of the movie I had the dumbest, widest grin ever seen on a human. While Kermit and the gang have never disappointed me before, their newest film is a true revelation.

It all starts with the script, and in that department Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller absolutely rocked it. Displaying their love of Jim Henson’s creations right on their sleeve, the movie doesn’t betray the characters in the slightest and dismisses the idea of modernizing them in any way. This makes the movie magical in the sense that parents can watch the film and recognize the Muppets that they grew up with while sharing the experience with their children. The film’s soundtrack, written by Bret McKenzie, is filled to the brim with both classic Muppet tunes as well as original songs that are far too damn catchy for their own good (I still find myself humming “Life’s A Happy Song” on occasion). Expectations for this one were incredibly high and it met every single one.

#6: Moneyball
You don’t have to be a film historian to recognize the long-lasting connection between movies and baseball, but the key to making a great title about America’s pastime is to have it not be about baseball at all. It can be the conduit or storytelling device, but a great drama about baseball is character, not sport. This idea was not lost on director Bennett Miller or screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian when crafting Moneyball and the result was one of the best films of the year.

Featuring a script that is tight as a drum, much like 50/50 and The Descendants, Moneyball is equal parts comedy and equal parts drama, but it’s the way they are so deftly mixed that makes the film so impressive. Brad Pitt is at the top of his game as the constantly-snacking Billy Beane, but the movie’s true revelation is Jonah Hill as Beane’s assistant, Peter Brand. The two have impeccable on-screen chemistry, vital when reading Sorkin dialogue, and the final result has you both hoping for the characters’ success to the end. The Oakland Athletics may not have ended up winning the World Series, but they changed the game forever thanks to Beane’s work. It’s a story definitely worth telling and Miller tells it brilliantly.

#7: Take Shelter
2011 was a pretty rotten year for mainstream horror films. Practically every one was either a bust or, at best, underwhelming, continuing trends of cheap found footage thrills (with movies like Paranormal Activity 3 and Apollo 18) and demonic possessions (titles like The Rite). Indie horror, on the other hand, came out with some true surprises, and the best of the best is Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter.

It’s impossible to start by mentioning anything other than the turn by Michael Shannon, who, as a man haunted by dreams of a coming apocalypse, puts on a terrifying performance. What makes the film work so well is its gradual pacing, which allows the audience to connect with Shannon’s slowly deteriorating mind. While the scares tend to be more psychological than horrific, there were more than a few instances that nearly had me ducking for cover under the theater seat. The CGI is beyond impressive for such a small film, making the aforementioned apocalyptic visions look ultra-realistic and even more frightening. It’s a shame that more critics groups aren’t paying attention to this film, but with any luck the Academy will come through with at least a nomination for Shannon.

#8: The Guard
While I understand that they aren’t the most brilliant pieces of cinema out there, I have pure, unadulterated love for the movies of Shane Black. During the 80s and 90s, nobody did interracial buddy movies quite like him, producing modern classics like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight. For his feature debut, The Guard, director John Michael McDonagh channeled the Shane Black spirit, implemented a little Irish flavor, and ended up creating a fresh, hilarious new comedy.

Much like Black’s films, the movie entirely depends on the performances and chemistry between its two lead actors, and Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle are perfect in that capacity. Also exceptional is Mark Strong, who takes the stereotypical villain role and turns it on its head, playing a drug dealer who’s experiencing an existential crisis and trying to figure out if there’s more to life than what he has been doing. This was one of the greatest years for R-rated comedy in recent memory, but no other candidate in the category released in the last 12 months was better or funnier than The Guard.

#9: Rango
Because it’s an animated film, Rango was largely marketed to children, but I’m actually not sure that was the best idea. It’s not because the movie is filled with graphic content, lewd behavior, bad language, over-the-top violence, or intense sexuality – it has none of those things. It’s that the movie is so incredibly weird that I have to imagine most of it will go right over an adolescent’s head. It also just happens to exist at the proper level of awesome to be considered one of my favorite movies of the year.

Directed by Gore Verbinski, the title is an utterly bizarre mix of the western genre, lizards and Chinatown, and it’s one of the best cinematic rides of the year. Voicing the titular character is Johnny Depp, who sounds like he’s having more fun with the part than he’s had in years. The real feather in the film’s cap, however, is the aesthetic. The first animated feature film from Industrial Light and Magic, Rango is visually stunning and takes computer animation to a whole new level. It’s the greatest achievement in animation we’ve seen in years.

#10: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
I’ve been a fan of Conan O’Brien’s for years. For my money there’s no more constantly funny late night host and he’s proven that year after year, both on NBC and now on TBS. But that’s not why I love Rodman Flender’s documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop. It’s hilarious, don’t get me wrong, but what’s most impressive and fascinating about the film is the way that it delves into the mind of a natural born performer.

Telling the story of O’Brien’s nationwide comedy/musical tour following his departure from NBC, the documentary is an unflinching look at what it’s like for a person to constantly feel “on” and have a never ending desire to entertain. Far from a loveletter – some scenes actually portray the star as kind of a jerk – the movie has no agenda or bias, instead choosing to show what O’Brien is like behind the scenes and when dealing with fans (the transitions in his mood from exhausted reluctance to jovial acceptance when it comes to signing autographs is nothing short of mind-bending). Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is the kind of film I wanted from Judd Apatow’s Funny People: insightful, captivating, and hilarious.


Other great movies that just missed out on the top 10:

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Meek’s Cutoff, Winnie The Pooh, Bridesmaids, Hesher, Attack The Block, and Hugo


For more of our end-of-the-year coverage, visit our Best of 2011 page.
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