Alex's Top 15 Films of 2011

2011 was a great year for movies. And also one of the notable ones that I believe The Academy got wrong. Best Picture nominees (in an expanded field) included titles such as The Artist, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Descendants, War Horse, and Hugo. In what I consider such a strong year otherwise, that's a huge miss. Yes, they got a few picks right - and none of those titles are "terrible" - but my goodness could that have gone better. Thankfully, my list is here to provide a definitive ranking of the 2011 crop.

For me, 2011 provided such a good variety of genres and styles; it was an eclectic year (in some senses, not all), with a little bit of everything represented below. Sports? Check. Superheros? Check. Comedy? Check. Action? Check. Horror/Suspense? Check. Independent? Check. Romantic Comedy? Check. Political? Check. [P.S. that exercise came off much better in my head. Reading through all that was pretty tedious. But I'm leaving it.] Anyway, the point is, it's all there. I would almost guarantee that no matter your movie preference, there's something below you can appreciate.

So without (much) further ado, let's get to those picks! I'm excited to share this list, as I think this year will hold up extremely well. Enjoy!

15. Melancholia
This was the only title that had much real debate making this list (the other 14 were sure-bets). But I thought, aesthetically, I saw nothing else like Melancholia in 2011. It was such a beautiful film, even though it was about such dire and depressing circumstances. While I don't think I'm the kind of person who needs happy endings in movies, the slightest glimmer of hope is welcomed every now and then. Just don't expect that here. If you haven't seen this movie yet, I put it on here because I think it will be so unlike anything else that will be on this list; but I also don't think you'll "like" watching it very much. If there was ever an apt title for a movie, this is it. But I do believe this will long standout as one of the stronger art pieces to be released this year.

14. Win Win
I'm a sucker for coming-of-age tales, especially when you center them around sports. The realistic feel to this film, and Paul Giamatti's realism in this role, really worked for me. Often I can watch movies and in moments see the manipulation projected to get us to feel a certain way - sports movies especially can be cheesy when not done right - but the writing here just felt really genuine; I felt like these were real people just doing their best. Even though this story was told in a pretty straightforward way, the writing was really good, the direction worked for this subject, and these actors brought so much life to these roles. I guess what I'm saying is this movie could have been much more bland and cookie-cutter than it was.

13. Super 8
This movie had a couple different things going for me. I do want to preface that while I'm not big on movies about kids, that sentiment applies mostly to kids saving the world (The Hunger Games really annoys me). Yes, there's kind of some "world saving" happening here, but it's mostly confined to their curiosity; they just want to understand it - they're not killing the monster to save the town or anything. Anyway, what I loved was the throwback monster movie vibe this movie depicted. It very much felt like this could have been Spielberg's next hit after E.T. And the fact that this group of kids were filmmakers doing things I wish I could have done when I was a kid - it just made me root for them even more. I love that they had a passion for movies and did whatever it took to film stuff. I like to hope at least one or two of them made it in the film industry years later. This movie is about kids, so you do have to be in an E.T. kind of mood to appreciate it, but if you are, I don't think it will disappoint.

12. Fast Five
They cracked the code. This movie felt like something finally clicked for this franchise, and now I won't be surprised if it goes on for two or three more installments. While a few films in this franchise before were "okay", this took things to a whole new level. The baseline of family underneath the action (and the relationship between Paul Walker and Vin Diesel) has been important to keep this series afloat, but there's also only so much you can do with the dynamic between street racers and cops. Here, taking the series to a heist level, expanding the scope of the film, bringing in other major action stars (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), and ramping up the craziness of the action, really made for the perfect summer action movie. I'm not a huge fan of pure "action movies", but this was the kind of fun I want to have with them. Don't take yourselves too seriously, but also ground some of your characters. It was a great mix, and I hope they keep it up if/when they continue this franchise.

11. Source Code
Source Code was a lot of fun! This movie was just really easy to watch. Fun enough to keep you glued, and smart enough to not lose you in the "science" of it. Perfect blend. Jake Gyllenhaal remains one of my favorite actors, and a person I believe does not get enough credit for his good work. He can really carry a movie, I don't care what genre you're talking. I enjoyed the sci-fi nature of this film, think it was smarter than it needed to be (in a good way), and the ending packed a great punch.

10. The Ides of March
Man, the maneuvering and manipulation behind the scenes in politics. You know it exists, but if some of this is even fractionally accurate, it's a lot bigger than we thought. From there, I'm kind of torn on my reactions to it. On one hand, it feels really disgusting that Americans are manipulated as much as they are by a handful of powerful people; led to believe the things they want us to believe. Even though the movie isn't really about this, it kind of throws the notion of free will out the window - does that even exist? On the other side of things, I actually kind of loved Ryan Gosling's character. He can be pretty ruthless, but he keeps his eye on the target. I actually think I could be pretty good at his job. I'm not sure I'd always sleep well at night doing it, but I think I would be good at understanding how to manipulate people into thinking/feeling how you want. It would be an interesting job, for sure. Overall, it was a pretty tense political thriller, and I enjoyed peaking behind the curtain a bit.

9. Drive
I didn't really care for this movie the first time I saw it. My initial reaction was that it was fine. The soundtrack was cool, and there were a few tense scenes, but mostly it was just kind of there. However, after a few weeks of stewing on it, not only could I not get the soundtrack out of my head, but the vibe of the movie just started growing inside me. Soon, I had to watch it again. And on a second viewing, boy did I love it. I think because I knew what it was and really wanted to just absorb into it, I was able to. Yes there was some action and tension, but a lot of the movie is more subtle than you might expect (and maybe that was my problem early on). But if you give into it, boy this is just a fun one to soak up.

8. Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Sure, let's throw Ryan Gosling on this list three movies in a row. The guy had a year. Drive probably deserves billing over this title, but the comfortable enjoyment I got from this film was just perfect. I love a good romantic comedy, especially if you can intertwine that with a good family dramedy. I've mentioned before how much I enjoy stories about messy families, and everyone just doing their part to make the best of it. It feels like real life; not everything works out perfectly in the end. The different levels of this film were great - I enjoyed all of the separate segments equally - but at the end, but we have that ultimate culmination of all the characters; I didn't see it coming. What's great about this movie is that even with everyone's individual agendas, I still rooted for just about everyone. No one acted in evil ways, everyone was just trying to find their own way. This was good stuff, and super easy to watch.

7. Bridesmaids
I stated in our group post the other day that I believe this comedy will go down with the likes of Anchorman and Wet Hot American Summer as some of the very best comedies of the 2000s. That's a bold reaction, but I'm sticking with it. My goodness were there some legit laugh-out-loud moments in this movie. The dress fitting; the plane ride; the rehearsal/wedding events. They were all gold. And what a cast. I'm glad that such a good movie centers around all female actors - rarely have we seen movies with such funny roles for women. It feels like an important moment to recognize the mostly-female cast that carried one of the best comedies in decades. Melissa McCarthy easily stole the show in this one, but SNL alums Kristin Wiig and Maya Rudolph were more subtlely great, and the surprise turn for me was Rose Byrne. Who knew she could be so funny! And I don't even mean that I didn't think she, as a person, wasn't funny (frankly, I have no idea), but it takes a certain kind of actor to pull off comedy well. Either you have the timing or you don't. She had it, they all had it, and this movie was excellent. 

6. Warrior

5. Contagion

4. Take Shelter

3. X-Men: First Class
Is this my favorite superhero movie of all time?

2. Midnight in Paris
This film worked a few different levels for me - I'd be curious how I would have interpreted it if I'd seen it a few years earlier or a few years later. The film itself is, broadly, is about a writer (Owen Wilson) who, while on vacation in Paris with his wife (Rachel McAdams), happens across a group of people who whisk him into earlier times (yes, time travel). Feeling like he wasn't meant for the era he resides in, as he spends more time in he past he becomes less satisfied with his real life. So we have two angles here. One, I have long felt that I would have enjoyed previous eras more. I'm a nostalgic guy and often think life would have been better in a different time (not that anything is bad now, but I love music of the 60s, love movies of the 70s, love literature and art and society of the 20s, etc.; living in any of those eras would have been amazing). So I get that. However, as I'm starting to age out of some of my more nostalgic tendencies, I also picked up on an undertone of the movie telling us that being nostalgic is silly and a waste of time. Live in the time you have and appreciate what's around you. People today yearn for the 1960s; people in the 60s yearned for the 20s. It's a never-ending loop, and just because things seem idyllic in times past, it's always easy to find dissatisfaction in the era we're stuck with. While I wouldn't turn down the opportunity to visit some previous times, I do also think it's a little sad those who live their lives wishing so badly they lived in another time. Regardless, this was an incredibly entertaining movie that made me wish I could travel in time like this character, but also forcing me to appreciate what I have now. I think any age group can appreciate what this movie has to offer.

1. Moneyball
This title could easily make its way into my Top 10 All-Time someday soon (in fact, I've updated the "Just Missed" titles to reflect such a stature). This had everything I want in a movie, and delivered it in exceptional fashion. First, this is two years in a row that an Aaron Sorkin script has topped my annual list (last year was The Social Network). I loved Sorkin's writing with The West Wing and Sports Night; and am enthusiastically anticipating The Newsroom, his latest drama, on HBO, premiering this summer. I know that some people aren't big fans of Sorkin's, but I love his style. The speed of dialogue, the AMOUNT of dialogue - I can't write competently, but in my mind my style feels very similar to his (or at least he hits all the notes I'd want to hit). The snappy screenplay aside, the baseball mechanics of this movie were great. Following the game closely as I have my entire adult life, I was well aware of Billy Beane's "moneyball" philosophy. In theory, I knew the concepts of it, but this film really illuminated the details. It was so fascinating to me. But for the information to be truly fascinating, I had to find the characters engaging and the storytelling efficient. Both excelled. This film flowed really nicely, peaked at the right times, and that score really impacted the on-the-field action (which, for non-baseball fans, were actually few and far between). It's just a great movie with a high watchability score. An easy choice for my favorite film of the year.

Thanks for checking out this post. Hopefully it provided some insight to the year behind. We'll see how things go as we move forward, but I want to reiterate my introductory statements that I feel 2011 will go down as one of the better years in the last couple of decades. 2010 was a tough act to follow, but this year provided just as much of a punch. Where it lacked in some top-end talent, it made up for in quality volume. Top to bottom, I'd struggle to find a better collection of films than what we have above.