As I look back on the movies I watched 10 years ago, I’m amazed to find out just how many awards contenders fell by the wayside. In 2011, everybody bitched about how the movies up for Oscars sucked, but the problem was everybody was looking at the wrong movies. Here’s my redone list for the best films of 2011. If you want to reference what I thought at the time, click here.
I made this my top choice 10 years ago, and I see absolutely no reason to climb down from that. Not enough people are willing to give comedies consideration as artistic masterpieces, which has always been the case, but I’m willing to die on the hill of Paul Feig’s study of a woman who sorts out her life (kind of) after making a mess of her best friend’s wedding. The film’s commercial success spawned a bunch of other worthy comedies as well, from Booksmart to The Worst Person in the World.
Ryan Gosling has never been cooler than in Nicolas Winding Refn’s examination of manhood and murderous psychopathy being sort of the same thing. Cliff Martinez’ synth score reverberates in my mind a decade later, and there are near-best performances by Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, and Ron Perlman. (Plus Oscar Isaac, before anyone knew who he was.) So many scenes — the convenience-store robbery, the hammering in the strip club, the stomping in the elevator — could have been the highlight of a lesser film.
3. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
The same year that everybody went bonkers over The Tree of Life, this Thai film in the same vein was the better work. While this is neither the first nor last time that Apichatpong Weerasethakul reminisced over the power of memory, it is the only one where he has the pull of the past embodied by a guy wearing a gorilla suit. Influenced by Buddhism and paganism, this treatise on the meaning of human existence is intensely beautiful.
4. Meek’s Cutoff
Kelly Reichardt should have received her due as one of the world’s great filmmakers when First Cow was slated for release, but the pandemic derailed that. She remains sorely underappreciated, and this Western remains her best movie, with a great performance by Michelle Williams. And yes, that’s real-life couple Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan portraying a pioneer couple, with her as the woman who comes apart in a crisis.
I’m kind of puzzled that this romance didn’t become the gay Before Sunrise, because it’s on that level. I am gratified that writer-director Andrew Haigh won acclaim for his subsequent movies like 45 Years and Lean On Pete. I wish he would go back to gay subjects, because he could do those better than a lot of the filmmakers taking those on.
The director of this just became Sir Steve McQueen, and his output has been well worthy of the honor. This study of sex addiction was his second feature, and it delivered on the promise showed in his debut Hunger, with his ability to draw great performances from his actors and his use of cinematic techniques to showcase the oppressive nature of the addiction that Michael Fassbender’s broker suffers from.
7. Young Adult
I didn’t put Jason Reitman’s comedy into my top 10 back in 2011, so here’s my chance to fix that. Charlize Theron makes delusional narcissism into something you can’t take your eyes off as an author of teen books whose writer’s block is cured while she makes a doomed pursuit of her high-school flame. One thing though: What’s this character doing listening to alt-rock like Lemonheads? Wouldn’t she go more for Milli Vanilli and Paula Abdul?
8. A Separation
Asghar Farhadi announced his presence to the world and won Iran’s first-ever Oscar with this movie about a couple going through an acrimonious divorce. Since then, he’s cemented his place as one of the world’s great filmmakers telling stories of people whose good intentions only cause pain.
I said it before, and I’ll say it again: If this had been a Japanese anime film, people would think more highly of it. I’m sticking with Gore Verbinski’s animated Western about a chameleon whose ambitions to be an actor make him into an unlikely hero in a town racked by drought. Daringly strange for a Hollywood movie for kids, this film’s chases and shootouts make its cinematic references go down easy. Give me a mariachi band of owls in sombreros any time.
10. Attack the Block
A pre-Star Wars John Boyega and a pre-Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker star in this science-fiction comedy about London’s Black thugs needing to fend off an alien invasion. This comedy feels ahead of both its time and ours as it tackles the particularly British form of racism by having a Black man hanging from a Union Jack while saving the planet.Writer-director Joe Cornish deserves to be better known on our shores.
Kirsten Dunst gave her greatest ever performance as a woman who is destroying her own life just as a meteor is coming to destroy the Earth, and Lars von Trier tamped down all his more loathsome traits to deliver this brooding and outrageously sexy apocalyptic film that delves deep into depression, a subject about which Von Trier is highly knowledgeable.
12. The Guard
A racist Irish cop teams up with a Black FBI agent to solve a bust a murderous drug trafficking ring, and it’s high comedy thanks to writer-director John Michael McDonagh. The cop turns down a chance to see the agent’s baby pictures: “All babies look alike except the ugly ones, so unless you’re about to show me a picture of a really ugly baby, I’m not interested.” McDonagh’s talent is highly volatile, but when he’s at his best, it’s great.
13. The Trip
This movie has gained in stature in the previous decade because its sequels have formed a trilogy of discussions about two guys whose friendship remains over the years through all the ups and downs of their professional and family lives. Not to mention the panoply of dishes they’ve sampled as these guys have toured fine restaurants in England, Italy, Spain, and Greece.
14. The Skin I Live In
Antonio Banderas and Pedro Almodóvar patched up their decades-long rift by working on this bruising thriller where a cosmetic surgeon gets revenge on his daughter’s rapist by keeping the man prisoner for years and giving him gender-reassignment surgery against his will, turning him into a woman. You can debate the fitness of the punishment, or you can just savor Almodóvar’s skill and viciousness.
15. The Artist
Michel Hazanavicius might just be a skilled imitator rather than a genuine artist, but this black-and-white silent film deserved better than the flak it got after it won the Oscar for Best Picture. Any film this light that can still steer so close to tragedy has done something remarkable.
16. Source Code
An early instance of a movie operating by video game logic, with a protagonist who dies multiple times and keeps getting more chances to fix his mistakes. This Hollywood science-fiction thriller is better thought-out than most others of its kind, and it even achieves a real emotional pull when Jake Gyllenhaal’s hero reaches the end of the game, as it were.
If Ted Lasso has made you want to see more of Juno Temple, this film contains her best big-screen performance as a boarding school queen bee who can’t handle it when a Spanish transfer student turns out to be better than her at everything. Her efforts to re-assert her dominance result in shattering tragedy. Jordan Scott hasn’t directed a feature film since, which is a real shame.
18. Le Havre
Aki Kaurismäki usually makes movies in his native Finland, but he went to France to film this warm and deeply human tale about an African boy who escapes after being trafficked into the country and finds refuge with an older couple. There are plenty of movies about the refugee crisis now, but this deadpan comedy was way ahead of its time, and likely inspired Wes Anderson’s best work in the decade following.
19. The Last Circus
You want a movie about a clown criminal? This Spanish entry makes Joker look like amateur work by featuring two serial killer clowns trying to murder each other and instead killing hundreds of soldiers, cops, politicians, and families with children who get in the way. (The clowns are metaphors for Francisco Franco’s regime and the terrorists who fought it, you see.) Writer-director Álex de la Iglesia and his willingness to push makes all this into vintage black comedy. What a great performance by Carlos Areces as the sad clown, too.
20. Certified Copy
Political pressure made Abbas Kiarostami leave his native Iran, and the result was this intellectually twisty masterwork about a couple who may or may not be married, negotiating their way through the stories they tell themselves and the issue of whether a copy of a great painting can have artistic value like the original. The games the two main characters play are a source of endless fascination.
21. Cold Weather
Alex Katz’ debut is this Portland-set thriller that’s both gripping and light-hearted, and done on a shoestring budget. The guy who assumes the role of detective buys a meerschaum pipe to become more like Sherlock Holmes, and he has to find a key clue in an almanac of baseball statistics. If you like a quirky mystery movie, you should track this down.
22. Higher Ground
Vera Farmiga hasn’t directed another feature since this one. As unwieldy as it occasionally is, it grapples with deep and thorny religious questions in a Christian fundamentalist colony in the southern backwoods, and Farmiga applies a light touch to what could have been a slog. I’d easily take another movie like this rather than see her star in yet another sequel to The Conjuring.
23. Love Crime
This was the last film by director/co-writer Alain Corneau, who died of cancer before its American release. It’s one of those thrillers that the French seem to do so well, with sexual tension percolating between a young executive (Ludivine Sagnier) and her boss (Kristin Scott Thomas) before culminating in the perfect murder. Seeing our killer escape a seemingly airtight trap gives this film its juice.
24. The Double Hour
I’m still not entirely sure what this movie means, but Italian director Giuseppe Capotondi sure draws some alluring surfaces out of this story of a Slovenian hotel maid who starts to see ghosts after witnessing the murder of the man whom she’s dating. Since this, he’s directed one other feature film (The Burnt Orange Heresy), but he has spent much of his time directing TV episodes. I wish he’d do more work for the big screen.
25. The Descendants
Hawaii’s scenery will never be less than breathtaking, but Alexander Payne takes a refreshingly unglamorous look at life on the islands through the eyes of George Clooney’s lawyer with a comatose wife and a messy family life. There’s nothing flashy about this film’s excellence as our unheroic hero achieves a degree of closure and moves on with his life.