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The Best Films of 2011 [Pre-Oscar Season]

Written by on August 17, 2011 

Just about every year around this time, many filmgoers complain that it has been disappointing experience at the cinema. Here at The Film Stage we’ve handpicked our select favorites in an attempt to disprove that theory. We count down the best films we’ve seen in the first eight months in order to give you a must-see list before we head into the busy awards season. We also count down a few awards contenders coming in the next few months that we’ve already had a chance to check out. See the list below in alphabetical order (and selection limited to US theatrical releases) and let us know if we missed any of your favorites.

The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi)

Based on a short story by philosopher and sci-fi poet Philip K. Dick (he inspired Blade Runner, Minority Report and Total Recall), writer/director George Nolfi attempts to inject some heart and brains into this popcorn sci-fi blockbuster, and mostly succeeds. It belongs on this list because while most studios and directors are fine with tossing CGI-laden, comic-book-inspired nonsense at us (Thor, Green Lantern), The Adjustment Bureau actually has something to say. Matt Damon is entirely convincing as a ballsy, antsy congressman whose chance meeting with a ballerina (Emily Blunt) leads him down a path which is completely divergent from the one he was “meant” to follow. That’s where The Adjustment Bureau comes in, a horde of suited, partially-omniscient bureaucrats who labor to keep Damon from his lady love at every turn – even if it means stopping time entirely and manipulating reality itself. The movie sometimes stumbles on its own thinking-blockbuster ambitions, but to me, that’s all the more reason to admire it. Led by Mad Men‘s John Slattery, the Bureau is revealed to be not quite as all-knowing as they want you to think they are: is this a sly indictment of the religious right, who have shanghai’d most of the Republican party and are busy erasing the American middle class? Maybe. But Nolfi – one of the writers of Ocean’s Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum – lets the allegory fade into the background and lets the mystery of Damon and Blunt’s star-crossed infatuation take center-stage. There’s real magic there. – Anthony Vieira

Armadillo (Janus Metz Pedersen)

A Danish documentary that follows a group of soldiers on their first deployment to Afghanistan, Armadillo blew me away when it screened at TIFF. This was the War on Terror onscreen like I had never seen it before. From the comfort of the audience, I watched bored soldiers, stationed only 800 meters away from Taliban territory, grow cynical, angry, and distrustful as operations intensified. Later I would see Restrepo, a similar documentary from an American perspective. Armadillo, edited more cohesively and less intrusively, is the better film. Metz and cameraman Lars Skree went into battle themselves to get their footage, some of which generated controversy in Denmark after it was used to accuse soldiers of breaking the rules of engagement. But controversy alone doesn’t earn a film a spot on this list. Armadillo is here because, as a harrowing real-life portrayal of the human consequences of the War on Terror, it is one documentary every politically-conscious citizen should see. – James Battaglia

Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)

It’s rare that a director is honestly able to capture the rebellious spirit of youth that make films like The Goonies forever cherished in our hearts, yet Joe Cornish in his directorial debut is able to successfully merge comedy, horror and sci-fi while maintaining a true sense of camaraderie between his characters. Featuring a cast of fresh faces whose kinetic swagger jumps off the screen with each burst of British slang, Attack the Block represents an homage to the alien invasion formula with a wickedly contemporary twist that breathes real life into a fantasy filled film. The end result is a pastiche of cinematic styles that under the influence of Edgar Wright creates the most enjoyable movie experience of the summer. – Raffi Asdourian

Beginners (Mike Mills)

For someone like me, who typically dislikes romantic comedies, writer-director Mike Mills has accomplished something remarkable; he has created a film so infused with cute, sweet moments, but has grounded them in an interesting, heartbreaking way that makes one appreciate the ability of tenderness to overcome the bitterness of life. One thing I had figured out about this film from the trailer was that Oliver’s father (played by Christopher Plummer), was going to die. Instead of this being a major spoiler, the film states this fact within the first five minutes, and what we then have is the story of Oliver (Ewan McGregor) falling in love with Anna (Melanie Laurent), while grieving over the loss of his father, while also overcoming his fear of relationships brought on by his parents’ loveless 44 year marriage. Revealing the past in flashbacks, both of his parents in his early childhood, as well as the months leasing up to his father’s death, Oliver finds himself at a crossroads of self-realization, trying to make sense of his own life before being able to break free from those things holding him back. Supported by strong performances and playful visual touches, this film is both charming and genuinely touching, making it one of the must-sees of the year. – Kristen Coates

Bellflower (Evan Glodell)

You’re not going to see another film like Bellflower this year, or more than likely, most years. They don’t make movies this sweet and dangerous, funny and deranged, sick and delightful. Glodell, as writer/director/lead actor, crafts a premiere film that runs alternately on optimism and fatalism, featuring a muscle car that is fueled solely by machismo. It’s an original, audacious film whose power alone could overwhelm that could easily get completely out of control if not for the grounded, lived-in performances that anchor the first act. This isn’t a film that everyone will enjoy (what with the copious amounts of extreme violence both physical and psychological that dominate the film’s final act) but it’s one that everyone should respect. See it now for the eventual indie cred when you drop, “yeah, I saw Glodell’s first movie in theaters.” – Michael Anton

Bridesmaids (Paul Feig)

Now that this crass comedy has earned more than $265 million worldwide, it is hard to believe it was ever considered a risk. But many thought that heralded producer Judd Apatow was doomed to fail with an R-rated comedy that lacked an A-listers, and was instead stacked with a cast of lesser-known comediennes. (Didn’t he get the memo that women just aren’t funny?) Of course, now that Bridesmaids has proved Apatow’s most financially successful feature, he can laugh all the way to the bank. Kristen Wiig, who co-wrote the script with Annie Mumolo, stars as a late bloomer who freaks out when her relationship with long-time bestie (Maya Rudolph) is threatened by the latter’s impending nuptials and inherent entrance into maturity. While the flick is packed with blisteringly hilarious performances, Rose Byrne has rightfully drawn notice for her mean comedic turn as Wiig’s rival, but it is the fearless Melissa McCarthy who has proved Bridesmaids breakout star with her pratfalling yet endearing tomboy Megan. With its cheeky blend of humor and heart (not to mention a truly outrageous gross-out comedy sequence), Bridesmaids lives up to Apatow’s past summer efforts, and proved the most popular and praised comedy of the summer of 2011. – Kristy Puchko

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is legendary director Werner Herzog‘s 3D documentary about 30,000 year old cave paintings. The 3D technology is used naturally and not to poke the audience with things, as filmmakers are so fond of doing these days. Here, as the camera pans slowly over the paintings’ flowing contours, you realize what 3D can accomplish. There really is no way to portray the intricacy of these paintings in a flat 2D film. Marveling at the beauty of the images and guided by Herzog’s trademark narration, we’re led to wonder whether humanity’s artistic should may have awakened in this very cave, or one like it, back when Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens shared the Earth. To some this will sound pretentious. Fans of the director’s previous work, especially his excellent Encounters at the End of the World, will see it for what it really is, documentary philosophy. Herzog is a master, and while Cave of Forgotten Dreams isn’t his best work, it’s certainly one of the best movies of this year. – James Battaglia

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)

Iranian auteur filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has never made a feature length dramatic narrative outside of his home country of Iran until recently, when the now 71-year-old filmmaker broke new ground in Tuscany, Italy with Certified Copy. Bearing all the hallmarks of classic Kiarostami from long conversations in cars to direct eye contact with the camera, the film is a tale of romance wrapped in enigma that questions the very nature of art. With subtle and nuanced performances from both lead actors, Juliette Binoche and William Shimell, Certified Copy is a sumptuous cinematic treat that will leave you pondering the mystery of who these characters were to each other while reflecting on the essence of what it means to be in love. – Raffi Asdourian

Circumstance (Maryam Keshavarz)

At once a star-crossed romance and a parable for the revolutionary spirit, this Iranian drama features some of the best cinematography, writing and acting around these days. Punk rock and club music populate the film, adding edge to a common story. The color tone goes from hot to cold from scene to scene, never feeling out of place or abrupt. The plot moves calm and cooly, a deliberatey-paced slow burn that brings all of the issues to the surface deep into the third act without ever patronizing the viewer. It’s a story told a dozen time in a dozen ways, but rarely this good. – Daniel Mecca

I Saw The Devil (Jee-woon Kim)

In his follow-up to the wild western The Good The Bad and the Weird, South Korean director Jee-woon Kim takes the Korean revenge genre to a wonderfully horrific new level with a ghoulish game of cat and mouse. After his fiancée is eviscerated by a grim and merciless killer (Oldboy‘s Min-sik Choi), a trained secret service agent (Byung-hun Lee) goes rogue to extract his own twisted version of vengeance. While horror fans can revel in the inventive, gruesome and deeply haunting scenes of violence, Kim slyly offers a subtle and thought-provoking commentary on onscreen violence by varying the perspective. When grim serial killer inflicts torture on his innocent victims, a deep sense of dread and repulsion pervades theaters. But when the revenge-fueled hero is delivering brutal pain upon this murdering fiend, the feeling of exhilaration and thrill is undeniable. These breakneck changes are as deeply haunting as the film itself, and will leave you to question this dark hero and his murky methods long after the credits have rolled. Still, for all the grit and gore, dynamic performances from Choi and Lee, make I Saw the Devil wicked fun. Undoubtedly, this is the year’s smartest thriller to date. – Kristy Puchko

The Interrupters (Steve James)

The film’s pedigree should already get you in the door. Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams, and Alex Kotlowitz, the author of “There Are No Children Here,” head to Chicago to film a documentary on CeaseFire, the subject of Kotlowitz’s recent New York Times Magazine piece about a group of ex-convicts trying to curb violence in beleaguered Chicago. The film is already garnering press that describes its “importance,” equally a mark of excellence from critics and a death strike for the rest of the film-going culture (“so it’s relentlessly sad, great”). While it does center on death and the cyclical nature of violence, this is really a film about life. The Interrupters is about this group of outstanding individuals, what they’ve lived through, and the lengths to which they are willing to go to prevent others from making the same mistakes. It’s a vibrant film that explores the irresistible force meeting the immovable object and bares witness to all of the humanity therein. Oh, and it’s really important, too. – Michael Anton

Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga)

Fresh off his breakthrough drama Sin Nombre, director Cary Fukunaga was given an opportunity to once again bring Charlotte Brontë‘s Jane Eyre to life. It’s a stunning sight that utilizes his singular aesthetic, the decision to use natural light throughout the production, and cinematographer Adriano Goldman’s angular framing. We’re shown a story of forbidden love through compositions of period dress, gnarled landscapes, and barren trees all in the atmospherically minimalist glow of twilight and the flicker of candles. The central bond forming between Mia Wasikowska‘s Jane and Michael Fassbender‘s Rochester is one separated by secrets hidden deep into the darkness of an old mansion estate, shrouded in mystery by chiaroscuro shadowing and Dario Marianelli’s haunting score. A tonal masterpiece of gorgeous visual impact, it’s easy to forget the compelling tale beneath the artifice. But, in the end, the truth of Jane Eyre rests with the love held dear between these two broken souls. Sometimes love exists in a dark world: its survival becomes that much rarer as a result and its success that much sweeter. – Jared Mobarak

Check out the rest of the list on the next page >>

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