Alex's Top 15 Films of 2011

2011 was a great year for movies. And also notable for the fact that I believe the Academy got some things wrong when handing out hardware. 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. Sure, none of those are "bad" movies, but in a year that had so much greatness to offer, man were those boring selections. 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 with a little bit of everything represented. Sports? Check. Superheros? Check. Comedy? Check. Action? Check. Horror/Suspense? Check. Independent? Check. Romantic Comedy? Check. Political? Check. [Okay, that exercise sounded much better in my head. I thought it would really capture the variety of what the year offered, but now reading it, it's all 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 for which I had much real debate (the other 14 were sure bets). But I thought, aesthetically, I saw nothing else like Melancholia in 2011. It was such a haunting and beautiful film. If you're into film as art, then this is probably a movie for you. But as elegant as it was, it was also quite dire. While I don't need happy endings in movies, the slightest glimmer of hope is welcomed every now and then - that just wasn't the case 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.

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 and these actors brought so much life to the 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 working for me. However, 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 a sort of  "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 did it. They cracked the code. After a few installments that didn't really have much direction, I think this one will end up defining the future of the franchise. They could made 20 more using this template - and I'm on board for all of them. 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. Entertaining enough to keep you interested in the science, yet smart enough to have some fun with the whole exercise. It makes for a 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. This movie has future afternoon watchability written all over it - you'll turn on TNT in a decade, this will be on, and you'll decide to watch it every time.

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. If you're good at something, and people desire your skillset, then you should be able to pursue it - and what people do with it from there is on them. Or maybe that's dead wrong, what do I know. 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 with 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 character study. I've mentioned before how much I enjoy stories about messy families, and everyone just doing their part to make the best of it - this movie was exactly that. 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, with the 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. Rarely do we get to see movies with such funny roles for women; I hope this starts a trend that lets women get more primary comedy roles. It definitely feels like an important benchmark recognizing and praising that a mostly-female cast 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 subtlety great, along with a surprise turn from 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 - 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
This movie was pure sports competition at the highest levels, with the highest stakes - and they also managed to weave in a really well done relationship story between two brothers. The competition aspect of the film centers around MMA fighting - which I typically don't care much for - which I realized watching this can be choreographed, filmed, and edited to manipulate tension much more than traditional sports. I'm not saying I care about MMA fighting, but this movie proved you can get me excited to root for characters pretending to do it. The underlying personal stories between and with the two main characters were well constructed, and really added to the overall tension of the film. At the end of the film, with the big tournament on the line, I can tell you I was genuinely rooting for these guys like I was watching a real sporting event.

5. Contagion
This film was disturbing to watch, but that alone made it effective for what it was trying to accomplish. What we were looking at here was a modern, real-world take on the aftermath of a virus that overwhelmed the world. We've seen entries like Outbreak before, but this was definitely a modernized entry, that felt more realistic than anything I've seen before. People turning on each other over cures, media outlets spreading lies and pandering to people in need - it doesn't show the world in a great light, but you have to think there would be some of that if anything like this ever actually happened.While the horrors of the virus were bleak, what I enjoyed about the movie was that (1) the behind-the-scenes science actually taught me a bit about a pandemic response to something like this - I appreciated seeing how these different organizations would act and respond; (2) the times the world ultimately came together to help - it wasn't always so, but the times when we saw people put aside differences for the good of humanity, those are moments I like to think would happen in real like; and (3) the soundtrack. Boy, what a score. Definitely one of the best of the year - it really moved the film along and kept the tension up. Let's hope nothing like this ever happens, but if it does, at least we have a template of what to avoid!

4. Take Shelter
Let's hear it for two bleak films in a row! This film is more the preamble to the devastation to come - or is it? - but nonetheless, it's not the most vibrant of subjects. In this film, we're introduced to a man - played brilliantly by the always-impressive Michael Shannon - who gets a sign that the world is going to end in a matter of days. It's kind of your typical modern-day prophet story from there: everyone thinks he's crazy and scary, but he's so sure he's right he's willing to risk/lose everything to warn humanity and save his family. The majority of the film covers those relationships leading up to his predicted day of demise, with multiple personal trials and tribulations in between, ending on an ominous shot of a massive storm at sea. Is this just a storm coming in, or was he right? We're left as an audience to wonder, but I choose to think he was right.

3. X-Men: First Class
Is this my favorite superhero movie of all time? I know there will be more to come that will challenge this, but so far, this is the only one I've seen that feels like a "real" movie; one that I will want to watch again in the future. What I enjoyed was that the film had real characters that just happened to have powers. It was an origin story, but almost an origin story to the typical superhero origin story. It was nice to flesh out some actual people, then throw them into the superhero world. The villain, played surprisingly effectively by Kevin Bacon, was great, and I loved that it was real-world stakes; not some made-up super villain against super hero kind of thing. Brilliantly, the film took place in the 1970's, and incorporated the X-Men into disarming both parties during the Cuban Missile Crisis (we're left to think that without their intervention, the world would have devolved into nuclear war. What a great way to ground a superhero movie - incorporate them into the background past real world situations. It was a fun way to handle it, and the more "real" you can make the world these characters live in, the more I can get invested. But the film still had plenty of fun and knew it was a superhero movie. There were a few genuinely amazing scenes, and the cast was excellent. I have to imagine there will be future installments with this cast; I can't wait to see what the next movie holds.

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, 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 actually resides in, he spends more and more time in he past, becoming less and 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 even the short-lived Sports Night; and am enthusiastically anticipating The Newsroom, his latest drama, premiering on HBO next 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.