Sam's Top 10 Movies of 2011
Sam's Top 10 Movies of 2011
Sam Lindauer
2011 was a strange year in film for me. It wasn't a year with instant classics that would shoot into my all-time top ten list, but it was a fairly good year. I think this summer's batch of films was weaker than I would have wanted. Overall, this has been a good year that would have been even better if I had managed to get out to see a number of the good foreign films. Unfortunately I can only rank what I saw so that means there's no "A Separation" or "Certified Copy" or "Margaret", but this will just have to do. Another encouraging sign of the strength of this year's crop was how difficult it was to narrow down the list to just ten films. It was so difficult I tacked on an "honorable mention" section, listing the movies I enjoyed but just barely missed the list.

10. The Descendants

Alexander Payne has made a habit of writing stories that follow a shlubby man's adventure to learn something about himself. With past leading shlubs such as Paul Giamatti (Sideways), Matthew Broderick (Election) and Jack Nicholson (who shlubbed down for About Schmidt"”Nicholson's greatest performance I'd argue) the choice of picking George Clooney to take the role of a scorned, mourning husband and father was a bold one. Payne showed that it doesn't matter how dapper his leading man is, the material is strong and a good enough actor (Clooney ranged from capable to great in this film) can make you forget that even Clooney isn't a dad who is struggling to cope with life. Above all else, The Descendants is about family. It's about being a father and husband but also its about having a family responsibility and living up to an ideal as well as a name. Here, Payne illustrates this with the responsibility to keep a plot of Hawaiian land within the family rather than letting it go to market for condos. Like all of Payne's work, The Descendants is at times funny, heartbreaking and sometimes even both.

9. Project Nim

On its surface, Project Nim is a wacky story about seventies culture mixed with a chimpanzee with the ability to use sign language. Chimps and gorillas that sign has now become a well-known experiment, but Nim was the first to be taught how to sign. But for as wild and fun the experiment with Nim seemed, it revealed a story about ego and jealousy. Nim was the center of arguments and flat out mistreatment that makes his story a kind of tragedy. What was once something of an exploration on language and what makes us human; there was a sinister inhumanity that clouded all the good intentions that came with the training and caretaking of Nim. Director James Marsh (Man on Wire) gathered all of the main players in Nim's training and handling to construct a thoughtful documentary about how an experiment can go so wrong thanks to human nature.

8. The Muppets

This made my list because it made me happy. This is the job of The Muppets and the executed wonderfully. Ever since hearing about Segel's task of writing the newest Muppet movie I had been both thrilled, since I know how absolutely hilarious Segel can be, and nervous since this is such a beloved franchise it would be easy to bungle. The film worked because it was able to hit that nostalgia nerve but always made sure to move on. There's no time to weep for the good ol' days when it's time to put on a show. The film is in the classic, "Let's Put on a Show" musical form and it largely works thanks to Segel, a sugary sweet Amy Adams and original songs from Bret Mackenzie. The Muppets themselves delivered with meta-humor and some inside jokes for the bigger fans in the audience. I just hope that the film did well enough to return the gang to television. Whether the Muppets take off again or not, this was well worth the wait.


Errol Morris is one of my favorite filmmakers, documentary or otherwise. He seems to understand character as well as anyone who works with fiction. His skill is that he can identify a story with compelling characters while being able to draw a fully formed film. Tabloid is no exception to this as the film works on two levels. The crazy story behind Tabloid queen Joyce McKinney is shocking, entertaining and even a little bit funny. But anyone can tell us about the woman who famously locked up a Mormon missionary just to screw his brains out. What Morris does is flesh out this story with wonderful interviews, particularly with McKinney herself. Fast-paced and funny, Tabloid lets the audience in on the fun and intrigue and media madness that surrounded this clearly unstable woman. Something else that I found particularly impressive is that while the film is certainly edited to prove a point about McKinney (ie: This is a strange woman) Morris doesn't judge anyone. He does an excellent job at simply pointing out what is, and who these people are.

6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I had not read the book or seen the Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo before seeing David Fincher's go, but in a way I'm glad. Fincher's eye for dark storytelling was perfectly suited for this modern day murder mystery. Family rivalry, former Nazis, sadistic secrets made the film plenty entertaining on its own, but the impeccable cast paired with Fincher's vision made this film very entertaining. Rooney Mara, like Elizabeth Olsen, has made the case with this film for her becoming a mainstream star. The brutality her character, Lisbeth, has to endure couldn't be easy to pull off. She also had some help from Daniel Craig who showed he doesn't need the last name Bond to be damn entertaining. Granted, I am a real sucker for juicy mysteries and Fincher is able to handle this well. My only quibble with the film is that there was a tacked on ending that felt entirely rushed. It certainly didn't ruin the movie; it just felt a little after-the-fact. I've also heard that this wasn't that different from the Swedish film at all which makes me wonder why the film needed to be remade in the first place. Either way, I think I now better understand the fascination with this series and look forward to any future film adaptations.

5. Young Adults

Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody team up for the first time since Juno. What I really loved about this film was that it felt like a maturation from Cody's previous work (don't get me wrong, I loved Juno). It still had the charm and wit of Juno, just without the honest to blogs and hamburger phones. With this, came a movie that felt honest and heartfelt. Charlize Theron does an excellent job portraying YA fiction writer, Mavis Gray who is unsatisfied with her life and thinks it would be a good idea to try and reconnect with an ex-boyfriend who just announced he had a baby with his wife. Thankfully, another old high school classmate, played with equal parts pain and nerdy wit by Patton Oswalt, points out how insane her plan is. Young Adult paints a great picture of small town life that isn't condescending or overly romanticized. Mavis has become the big city girl and she thinks, whether she's right or wrong I don't know, that she belongs in the small town where life is "simpler". This foggy conflict paired with an Oscar worthy performance from Oswalt (funny how Patton and Albert Brooks are being considered for best supporting noms this year) made Young Adults one of my favorites of the year.

4. Melancholia

Despite all of the non-movie related press that Lars von Trier's newest movie received, I couldn't focus on anything else other than the impending doom of the planet while watching Melancholia. Like Tree of Life, Melancholia was a grand event. Von Trier deserves credit for so spectacularly (I mean that in the truest sense of the word) capturing depression. Sure it's over the top, but he reflects the very shortly wed Justine's (played surprisingly well by Kirsten Dunst) crippling depression in the first act with the end of days in the finale. Also the overture at the beginning of the film is worth the price of admission as it tells the entire story in slow motion, stylized snippets. We feel the dread along with Justine's sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and find a way to accept the end too. Sure it's bleak, but would you expect anything different from this director? It isn't a nasty film (at least compared to his other work from what I've read and heard about) but it does deal with a very real and difficult subject"”the end.

3. The Tree of Life

Terrence Mallick is rightfully the type of director that everyone gets in a tizzy about. The buzz leading up to Tree of Life made it nearly impossible to not have strong feelings about the film in either direction. For me, it was mostly positive, but not completely. So why is it so far up on my list, you ask? The parts that worked (again which was most of the film) worked fantastically well. It is undoubtedly the most beautiful film of the year aesthetically. There wasn't much doubt about that going in. Beyond the film's beauty, what was impressive was how Malick created a real sense of grandeur. This is important with any film looking at the universe. I thought that the movie was about human beings' stance in this impossibly large space. Mallick focused on the beauty and sadness that comes with being a person and puts that against the backdrop of the history of Earth. Malick finds a way to illustrate how beautiful everyday life can be even though, in the grand scheme of things, human existence really doesn't matter to the ever-expanding universe.

2. Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene was the coming out party for a fantastic young actress and a promising new director. Elizabeth Olsen, tasked with carrying a deadly serious film, looks like someone who can be an independent film mainstay for years to come. MMMM follows Martha who has recently escaped a cult lead by the well-read, smooth talking ringleader, Patrick, played by John Hawkes who deserves an Oscar nomination along with Olsen. Durkin skillfully goes back and forth between the present that has Martha staying at her sister's lake house and the past where we learn of the abuse she suffered through and how she came to end up in such a terrible situation. Thrilling and disturbing, MMMM is worth seeing just for Olsen's performance, but the great work of Durkin should not be overlooked either.

1. Drive

Director Nicolas Refn managed to make a film based around pastiche and a pulsating soundtrack absolutely work. With strong performances from Ryan Gosling, Bryan Cranston, Carrey Mulligan, Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks, there was little way this film could go completely wrong. What put it over the edge was Refn's sleek style. Equipped with a pretty basic plot, Drive was less about its simple story and more about mood. Gosling's nameless Driver had very little to say at all since the action (and my god did it have some bone-rattling action) kept me completely transfixed. The Driver proved to be less of a man and more of a force of nature, similar to Anton Chigurh of No Country for Old Men. Quietly unhinged, Gosling was an excellent anchor for the film. Borrowing from 80's flicks, heist films and even a bit of the Western, Drive takes a dash from all over cinema and cooks up something pretty unforgettable.


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