Watch: The Ten Best Films Of The Year feature bad seeds, brutal border wars, and battling brothers

For the past few days, I’ve been dropping hints about which films did make it onto my list of the best 20 films of the year by sending out tweets of the titles that didn’t make the list.

Look, this whole thing is absurd anyway, so why not have some fun with it?  Lists aren’t definitive in any way, because they can’t be.  I can’t tell you what movies will mean the most to you in any given year… only which ones meant the most to me.  Lists are really the best way for you to gauge a critic, because it’s the most revealing moment in a year.  This is where every critic lays their tastes bare and says, “This is what ultimately mattered to me about this year.”  This is the moment where people line up to say, “Wow, I’m glad you included that” and “I’m not sure what that is” and “Are you stupid or drunk or both?”

We do the top ten as a video piece now, and Alex Dorn has put together another knockout look back at my ten favorite films of the year.  Remember, I included anything that played any public screening I attended, whether theatrical or at a festival, so some of what I include this year may not hit screens near you until 2012, and some of what you guys saw theatrically this year may have qualified for last year’s list for me.

If you want to see the full list of films i watched this year, you can find it here.  And my runners-up, along with a number of special mentions for performances and scenes and other things I want to mention one last time will be up on Christmas Eve.  That’ll be a more traditional article.  There will be one other video, though, for the Ten Worst Films Of 2011, and I expect that will be just as controversial as the Ten Best.  If some of you didn’t immediately want to argue, then chances are these wouldn’t be films worth mentioning, either positive or negative.  I love anything that causes a passionate reaction in a viewer, even if it’s a passionate rejection of something.  Film that leaves me indifferent is really the biggest waste, so at least you know that if I’m mentioning it again at year’s end, it left some sort of mark.

Movies you won’t find on my lists this year that are worth seeing include “The Adventures Of Tintin,” “Shame,” “Moneyball,” “50/50,” “The Tree Of Life,” “The Artist,” “Midnight In Paris,” “Bridesmaids,” “Project NIM,” “Kill List,” “Beginners,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “War Horse,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “Rango,” “Like Crazy,” and even “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.”  Damn fine films.  You should see all of them.  You should seek out cool smaller films like “American Animal” and “The Arbor” and the flawed but fascinating “The Beaver” and the deranged but delirious “Detention,” or the small but deeply felt “Blackthorn.”  I really liked all of this summer’s Marvel movies, “X-Men: First Class” and “Thor” and “Captain America,” and I had ridiculous fun with “Fast Five” and “Kung-Fu Panda 2,” and I find myself still thinking about “Hanna” and “Headhunters” and “The Guard” and “Higher Ground.”  All of those films made 2011 worthwhile… and not one of them made a list for me.  I really liked “The Interrupters” and “The Kid With The Bike” and “The Lady” and “Paul Williams Still Alive,” and I think something like “Real Steel” or “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” deserves a special mention just for making it through the studio system with some heart and soul intact.

Without further ado, let’s get to it.  You can watch the list above, and if you want to, you can follow along with the list below:


An example of how it is often the way a story is told more than the story itself that knocks us down or lifts us up.  Gavin O’Connor’s film about brothers, both devoted to the brutal art of MMA fighting, may seem like a hundred other sports movies at first glance. At second glance, it hits just as hard and it cuts deep with remarkable performances by Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and the electrifying Nick Nolte has never been better than he is here as a father of two broken boys, unable to even fix himself.


The newest film from acclaimed Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, returning here to his roots by making a movie built around an idea so outrageous you can’t believe it’s never been done before.  A cold disturbing look at gender politics in the guise of one of the kinkiest mad scientist stories ever, the film owes its power to the searing chemistry between Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya.  Almodovar loves to shock, but this one lingers even after the impact wears off.


If not for one other movie this year, this would be getting a special shout-out for best first feature film by a director.  Joe Cornish has been a well-kept secret internationally, known for his comedy work in the UK, and whatever people were expecting from his first film, it probably wasn’t what feels like it was made in 1984 by in-his-prime John Carpenter from a script by Zemeckis and Gale.  Few other movies this year have made me as happy as “Attack The Block,” a monster movie that offers just enough weight and heft to matter.


This small, personal film marks the reunion of director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, whose “Juno” pushed both of them into the spotlight.  They’ve made an angry, sad, battle-damaged movie about Charlize Theron, who is kind of amazing as Mavis Gary, and from the first moment she’s onscreen, she practically glows from all the churning self-loathing that must be bubbling up in her to keeping her running.  Patton Oswalt gives a memorable performance as a guy who went to school with Mavis and who she only remembers because of a savage beating that almost ended his life.  What happens when these two collide during a self-deluded return to her hometown would turn most movie characters into better people through important life lessons.  Thank God Mavis Gary is not most movie characters.


This sleek, slightly woozy little crime film may well be the most compulsively watchable film in my top ten.  Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan generate an insane amount of heat, but what makes it special is the sweetness that somehow underscores this violent ride through a little slice of time in the life of the near-mythic Driver, a 21st Century Man With No Name.  Nicolas Winding Refn has always been a strong stylist and a witty genre deconstructionist, but “Drive” may be the moment he finally added soul to his bag of tricks.  Albert Brooks is a great dead-eyed businessman as well, a man hollowed out by compromise and willing to drag anyone down to keep himself afloat.


No film I saw at this year’s Toronto Film Festival stuck to me with anything like the emotional hold of Sarah Polley’s second film as a writer/director.  Part of that is seeing Michelle Williams, one of the best working actors, without anything to hide behind.  She plays a woman who finds her perfectly-decent marriage challenged by a new guy who charms her in just the right way at just the right time.  It’s a warm, human movie about a painful collision of chemistry, but it’s no wallow.  Williams is incandescent, and Seth Rogen outdoes even his very good work in “50/50” with his performance as the ambushed husband.


You will know the name Evan Glodell.  I have a feeling we’re just seeing him warm up here, but even so, his film “Bellflower” is a major statement.  It’s a micro-budget movie by any rational standard, but when you’re watching it, the hand-burnished look of this story about love, betrayal, and life after the Apocalypse in a sort of hellscape version of hipster Los Angeles is epic.  Glodell wrote, starred, directed, and built flamethrowers and a fire-belching monster car and the cameras he shot with, but what makes it hurt is the work by the exceptional young cast, every one of them a discovery.


Tilda Swinton is exceptional in Lynne Ramsay’s unnerving look at what it feels like to raise a child who you do not feel connected to, a child who scares you, who upsets you, who you simply do not trust.  Ramsay’s movie is not literal… it’s meant to portray an emotional state, the way something felt to someone who lived through it, and Swinton is the key to this film working as well as it does.  Ramsay’s been missing from movies for a while, but this makes a strong case for someone sponsoring her continued and immediate employment.


If the only thing that “Miss Bala” had on its mind was exposing the not-so-secret world of narcotrafficking on the Mexican/American border, it wouldn’t matter to me the way it does.  It’s the amazing fluid way director Gerardo Naranjo drops us into that world as we hitch a ride with Laura Guerrero, a young woman willing to be a beauty pageant contestant if it means she’s got a way out of her life, only to stumble into another way out, one with guns and death and the hypnotic Noe Hernandez as the year’s freakiest bad guy.


The best film Lars Von Trier has made since “Breaking The Waves,” and perhaps the single most intoxicating film event this year.  It’s hard to believe that a film about clinical depression and the end of the world is something that would make me giddy, but it’s true both times I’ve seen the movie.  Kirsten Dunst stars with Charlotte Gainsbourg as sisters, each grappling with sorrow in different ways, the film divided into the most memorable long-form cinematic wedding since “The Deer Hunter” and a swoony countdown to destruction.  Beautiful.  Heartbreaking.  Even hilarious in places.  No film did more to me or for me this year.

On that note, there’s still plenty more wrap-up to come, so we’re not done with 2011 yet.