When I look at 2011 I see a year filled with a whole heap of mediocrity and a few minor classics peppered throughout. Really, there’s no shortage of good movies if you’re looking in the right place, but there have not been many (or really any) films that I feel like we’ll really be talking about in ten years as serious contenders for “best of the decade.” Again, there are certainly a few instant classics, but they all require a “small” or “minor” or some other kind of qualifier in front of the “classic” part. While I had no trouble coming up with 20-25 films I’d have been happy to include on this list, the process of sorting it was to continue dragging films away from the top in a cyclical process that left me without a clear number 1 pick. I ultimately went with my guy and I’m happy with that, but let’s just say I’m really looking forward to putting 2011 to rest and moving on to 2012.
My list for 2010.
[Honorable Mentions Below…]
Films I Missed: Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, The Adjustment Bureau, Rango, Limitless, The Lincoln Lawyer, Water For Elephants, Kung Fu Panda 2, Larry Crowne, Red State, Take Shelter, Straw Dogs, Abduction, Margaret, The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence), Margin Call, Martha Marcy May Marlene, In Time, Puss In Boots, The Rum Diary, Anonymous, Tower Heist, J. Edgar, The Descendants, My Week With Marilyn, The Iron Lady, Tyrannosaur
They don’t make perfect little character comedies like this in America much anymore. A thoroughly Gaelic film, it’s driven by the easy, slightly bumbling (occasionally lightly racist) charm of Brendan Gleeson’s Sergeant Gerry Boyle. An amazing and consistently hilarious character, Gerry is more than entertaining enough to carry a movie on his own and yet Don Cheadle is a an exceptional addition to the cast as a CIA agent working with the lazy sergeant. The two bounce off of each other wonderfully in this film that navigates a number of routine comedy set-ups and ends up as something delightfully unique.
Few films this year have made me happier for their entire run time, and it’s a damn shame this didn’t get more attention. This is the kind of quiet, clever comedy full of personality that you can appreciate over and over again for years.
Contributing factors: A sharp little script filled wall-to-wall with great laughs, performed impeccably by great actors.
Performance to savor: This is obviously Brendan Gleeson’s show, but you get a bonus turn from Mark Strong, turning his usual smooth villain role on its ear by shoving the ultra-competent villain into surroundings far beneath him.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “It deserves to sit alongside Shaun of the Dead and In Bruges among your favorite modern, Anglo/Irish comedies.”
Renn on Tree Of Life:
I’m a pretty solid Malick fan, having enjoyed every single one of his films to one degree or another, and Tree of Life is no exception. Ultimately I feel that when you sit to watch the kind of films that Malick makes, you’re making a decision to open up different receptors in your brain and prepare for a different sort of experience than you’re typically used to at the cinema. The bothersome thing is this in many ways renders it very difficult to criticize such an experience, as the difference between a three-hour cut and seven-hour cut, the sequencing of the film, and the subject matter is almost arbitrary. It becomes poetry, and in this way it demands a different dialogue than, say, Captain America, or even another prestige picture like War Horse.
With that in mind I can only say that Tree of Life struck a chord with me, and the poetry of Malick’s images, use of music, and picture editing made me look at life a little different after I saw it. It was not the sort of profound emotional shift that something like The Fountain has elicited from me in the past, or the kind of emotional numbness caused by Melancholia, just a sort of poetic warmth that enveloped me. In another year this might not have been enough without some sort of deeper catharsis or insight alongside it, but we were short on films that actually do something to the viewers, so as it happens I’m happy to include it.
Contributing factors: Emmanuel Lubezki’s triumphant cinematography and the kickin’ tunes of Alexandre Desplat. These are the two components that allow Malick’s roaming, impressionistic filmmaking to form into an emotional sculpture that is actually capable of resonating with a viewer.
Performance to savor: The absolutely wonderful work of Brad Pitt as a distant, sporadically affectionate father boiling with complexity. A performance that rings so painfully true even when viewed through Malick’s distant, childlike lens.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Cinema’s own visual poet laureate tackles the complexity of the universe by way of Dads, death, and dinosaurs.”
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Renn on War Horse:
Once again Spielberg has treated us to a double-feature in one year, in both cases stretching his mainstream legs while finding new ways to excite visually. In the case of War Horse, he’s tackled an exceptionally well suited story that is full of ready-made Spielberg sentiment, but is structured in such a way that it never goes off the deep end and end up wallowing in the treacly bullshit to which the Beard occasionally falls victim. Here we’ve got an exciting opportunity to see a story revolving around a silent protagonist, and one the film thankfully doesn’t choose to over-anthropomorphize. This isn’t a sentient beast, but one that can feel and act and survive and occasionally be a little Christ-like (though he doesn’t top the messianic antics of ole Balthazar the donkey). Joey is an exceptional creature that attracts the exceptional people that litter the film, and by his very horse-nature provides a powerful kinetic energy to the film. Spielberg doesn’t go overboard with sweeping epicry, but there’s definitely plenty of it.
Contributing factors: The continuing excellence of Spielberg’s filmmaking, and a strong supporting cast.
Performance to savor: Certainly the 14 different beasts used to portray the main horse Joey, at various points in his horsey life.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Horseshit? Neigh.”
Renn on 13 Assassins…
Were Takashi Miike not one of the most abundantly productive filmmakers on the planet, 13 Assassins would fee like some kind of career-capping masterpiece, rather than just one of those times when the director’s planets aligned and the result was Samurai greatness. Regardless of the context, 13 Assassins is a masterclass on modern action filmmaking, managing to make a relentless action sequence that runs (or at least feels like) 35+ minutes continuously exciting.
While the reaction to the film this year has been overwhelmingly positive, it still hasn’t attracted as much attention as it deserves. This is ticking-time-bomb filmmaking done right, a slow burn that explodes with more pay-off than even the hungriest genre fan could expect. It also has just enough well-woven subtext to be an intellectually satisfying experience, not to mention the perfect amount of little Miike flourishes.
Contributing factors: The quiet build-up, and the relentless scale of the pay-off.
Performance to savor: Kōji Yakusho as the group’s leader, as well as Yūsuke Iseya as the mysterious, possibly supernatural hunter who joins them.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “You’ll believe 13 dudes can kill, like, 600 goddamn dudes.”
Renn on Young Adult:
This one really surprised me. In a weird way, making this film was a very brave step for everyone involved. Be it Diablo Cody writing a script about a barely-likeable female writer who doesn’t spit rapid-fire dialogue, Jason Rietman moving from his polished, slickly awards-friendly dramas to a grittier, stripped-down character piece, to Charlize Theron taking on a role that was the height of anti-glamor…. kudos to everyone!
A very simple tale peppered with some familiar characters, the film is a simple and straightforward telling of a series of embarrassing events that eventually roll into a final sequence of scenes that twist everything that came before, punctuating the whole affair with a very bizarre and ambiguous finale. It’s certainly not the most thunderously huge movie of the year, but it’s rare a handheld, grungy indie actually turns out this interesting.
Contributing factors: A bravely stripped-down filmmaking approach from Reitman, the increasing complexity of Cody’s character development, and a tragically amusing performance from Theron.
Performance to savor: Patton Oswalt’s right leg.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “From the duo that brought you Juno, comes a drama that’s nothing like Juno.”
Renn on A Dangerous Method:
“Fantastic faces saying amazing things.”
That’s how Cronenberg described what he was working with for this film, and it couldn’t be more true. As the master director has transitioned into a less easily labeled part of his career, here he distills all of his mastery and control of the cinematic form to something concise, precise, and ruthless. Embracing the Victorian era in which the story takes place, Cronenberg restrains his camera and builds this story in the edit, and builds the visual dynamics around the performances themselves. A film about sexual repression and the birth of a new way of thinking about human impulses, the film is remarkably restrained even when depicting its characters indulgences.
Filled wall-to-wall with psychoanalytical shop-talk and centered around a powerfully subtle performance from Michael Fassbender (backed up by an extremely dynamic turn from Keira Knightley, and an ostentatious but fully believable depiction of Freud by Viggo Mortenson), this is a film that demands careful attention. The full depth of this film is one that will certainly unravel across multiple viewings, ensuring it will age like a fine wine.
Contributing factors: The behind-the-camera confidence of Cronenberg supporting the bravery of the performing trio.
Performance to savor: It’s hard not to love Viggo’s cigar-chomping Freud, but this is of course Fassbender’s show and he dutifully proves why he’s the real breakout star of 2011. Cassel is not to be ignored as the uninhibited Otto Gross.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “A spanking good time at the movies!”
•Read my interview with David Cronenberg•
•Watch my Video Quick Review•
Renn on Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part II:
I thoroughly believe that the Harry Potter cinematic saga works as a self-contained, independent whole from the book series, even if it gets off to a dodgy start. While almost none of the eight films are truly satisfying individual experiences, I believe that within itself the film series establishes, maintains, and, with Deathly Hallows, Part II, pays off a delicately built shorthand that few franchises ever manage to build, much less exploit to such a satisfying degree. With that in mind it must be acknowledged that no, in an absolute vacuum Deathly Hallows, Part II is not a perfect film, but in the context of the full series and the cultural event it represents, 7.2 is an exceptional movie and a triumphant success.
What’s great is that even being half a film, it’s stilled filled with more than its fair share of brilliant action filmmaking, touching moments, powerful performances, and iconic sequences. Carving a powerful and unique texture out for itself, the film works as a magic-filled war film unlike anything yet put to screen.
Contributing factors: 10 years and seven previous films done justice by a beautifully rendered siege of Hogwarts.
Performance to savor: Alan Rickman finally gets his due.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Mischief managed.”
•Read my review of the film•
•Watch the CHUD Video discussion•
Renn on Bellflower:
I wasn’t sure exactly what I had seen when Bellflower first played in front of me at SXSW this year, but I knew I had seen something very earnest and very powerful. A careful rewatch later and I’m sure Bellflower is one of the most interesting films of the year, and one of the most promising debuts from an emerging filmmaker. Evan Glodell and company clearly put everything they’ve got into this film, and it’s all a great big metatextual ball of impotent masculinity, male insecurity, DIY badassery, sex, alcohol, and the end of the world.
This is definitely not a film for everyone, and one that’s more likely to infuriate rather than simply wash over an unenthusiastic viewer. If you recognize the Lynchian poetry in the “dudebro” dialogue and wacked out nightmare sequencing of the film though, you’re in for a completely unique ride.
This one demands good sound and a dark room.
Contributing factors: Grungy, swing-shift cinematography, home-built tools of destruction, and of course that fucking car.
Performance to savor: The performances are not the film’s crown jewel, though the rawness of the ensemble actually lends some reality to this hyper-psycho tale.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “If you don’t hate it, you’ll probably love it!”
•Read my review of the film•
•Buy the Blu-Ray/DVD from CHUD•
Renn on Moneyball
It’s rare that such a fractured film that attempts to tell such a big story with so many components manages to remain a character and theme-driven piece, much less a great one. Somehow though, Moneyball does and it does while being a consistently Entertaining (with a decidedly capital E) movie. Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill are an unlikely duo that bear great fruit, while the subject of baseball statistics is morphed into an exciting and dynamic political struggle by some of the best writers in the business.
A bit schizophrenic in its structure, the film actually ends up subverting (or at least abbreviating) the usual sport climax tropes, and does so that it may stay true to the character it’s exploring. It’s a gift for a movie that is so fun to watch to make the right decisions and keep its integrity intact. This is the kind of movie Hollywood needs to make more of.
Contributing factors: Sorkin/Zaillan’s words, Wally Pfister’s pictures, and damn good acting across the board.
Performance to savor: This is Oscar-worthy stuff from Pitt.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “It’s money! It’s a ball!” say the critics from the Outdated Superlatives Quarterly.”
•Watch the CHUD Video discussion•
Renn on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy:
Frankly, there’s just something that speaks to my bones about slightly-stuffy, important-men-talking-about-important-things movies, and when one is crafted by a director as talented as Thomas Alfredson, it’s natural that’d be one of my favorites of the year. An elevation of one of the most popular and quintessential pulp spy novels ever written, the restrained material attracted hands-down the most talent-packed cast of the entire year. Oldman is the quietly beating heart of the film, but there’s no part in this film not filled by someone bringing their best work to the screen.
Beyond the cast there is a sumptuous recreation of 70s London shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema, who somehow makes one of the drabbest cities on the planet during one of the shabbiest modern time periods look exquisite. I still feel the film marginalizes the actual world-scale stakes of the spycraft in favor of honing in on the interpersonal betrayals and ego-bruising that the film is built on, but that’s a choice I’m appreciating more and more. We all know World War III didn’t start up, so there’s much more drama to be mined from an aging cuckold finding his place in a growing world.
That said, were Alfredson able to drive a little deeper and pull out some subtext quite as subtly beautiful as it is in Let The Right One In, this may well have taken the top spot.
Contributing factors: The cast, the meticulous, tonally evocative filmmaking all elevating an otherwise pedestrian spy story.
Performance to savor: I could name you a dozen, and Oldman deserves some serious gold for this one, but come to think of it I don’t think the one lady with significant screentime in this sausage fest has gotten enough credit. Kathy Burke brings a lot of warmth and personality to the film in a very short amount of time.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “The best movie about white people doing important white things of the year!”
•Read our Tag Team review of the film•
•Purchase the novel from CHUD•
Renn on Drive:
It seems Ryan Gosling ended up having the year that Ryan Reynolds seemed destined to have, with Gosling’s prestige pic, romantic comedy, and action movie all managing at least reasonable financial success and definite critical acclaim. Drive is certainly the best of them, and that’s largely due to Gosling’s uniquely magnetic screen presence that director Nicholas Winding Refn deftly exploited to create his action art-house film. An all too rare merging of dynamic and exciting spectacle with uncompromisingly experimental storytelling techniques, Drive is an incomparable cinematic experience. It’s also just plain fucking cool.
It’s a shame more directors don’t realize that by first telling your core genre story well, you’re then free to dive into interesting aesthetics and to make unique, sometimes bizarre choices along the way.
Contributing factors: An absolutely killer opening sequence, Gosling’s toothpick munching, the juxtaposition of beauty and violence.
Performance to savor: Albert Brooks is the unquestioned badass that makes this thing hum, completely owning his first turn as a killer.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Refn holds a bullet made of awesome to your forehead, and Gosling smashes it in with a hammer. Drive is going to be a long-beloved by genre fans.”
•Read our Tag Team review of the film•
•Watch the CHUD Video discussion•
Renn On Attack The Block:
Poor Attack The Block. While the film (or more specifically its failure at the US box office) represents a big reality check for anyone in the online film world that felt there was some degree of taste-making or buzz-building coming from our little industry, it has also become a controversial film among film geeks. But while it’s tumbled through as rough a cycle of hype, backlash, blacklash-backlash, and (always the final component of this sequence) over-emphasized apathy as any geek darling has ever had to endure, the film still remains–pound for pound–the best action movie of the year. If you don’t see the same, then frankly I don’t think you watched it big enough or listened to it loud enough. This thing is a firecracker, dripping with style and built on efficiency.
An old-school Carpenter style treat, Attack the Block certainly presents its fair share of challenges to the less-than-enthusiastic viewer, with the thick accents and sharply immoral protagonists foremost among them. But amidst all that is a heartfelt hero’s journey that carefully weaves a central character arc through a smash-bang adventure that’s not short of teeth. This is a classic, and a reminder that an exuberant camera doesn’t have to result in a shakey, long-lensed mess of hastily edited coverage smeared over a dumb, heartless story. Believe it.
Contributing factors: Joe Cornish’s refreshing filmmaking, brilliantly innovative creatures, and a throwback spirit that doesn’t rely on nostalgia to cover for shitty structure.
Performance to savor: John Boyega makes a great debut, but the biggest props go to the man in the monster-suit, Terry Notary.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Fuck the hyperbole, fuck the backlash. Time will prove this a classic that fits perfectly in a neat little space on the action/creature feature shelf.”
•Read my review of the film•
•Read my interview with Joe Cornish•
Renn on Contagion:
If you’ll indulge me, I think I’ll republish the opening paragraph of my full review for this one, which still accurately sums up my excitement for this movie:
“There’s no word short of “stunning” worth using to describe a film like Contagion. To even start to unravel the complex series of scenes and intricate dance of characters that make up the film is to quickly boggle one’s mind, even though as a linear package it tells a detailed and emotionally satisfying story of a global event of nearly unfathomable proportion. There’s also no phrase short of “gigantic, steel balls” to describe what it must have required to tackle a global pandemic that threatens to wipe out a significant portion of the planet’s human population, and to do so from its beginning to its end, while filling in extensive and realistic detail in between. Finally, there’s no superlative short of “gorgeous” to apply to a story that so delicately delivers a wide range of gratifying emotional payoffs amidst such a gargantuan human cataclysm. Soderbergh has once again engineered an obvious classic that is deceptively rewarding.”
Contributing factors: The effortless transition from top-level to street-level views of the crisis, the ensemble, and the way it caps everything with the tiny, coincidental accident that causes it all.
Performance to savor: I love Laurence Fishburne’s work here, but really you could pick any cast member out and get an amazing collection of acting.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Soderbergh takes blockbuster disaster cinema to a new gesundheit!”
•Read my review of the film•
•Watch the CHUD Video discussion•
Renn on We Need To Talk About Kevin:
This movie is as much a symphony as it is a work of film, the kind of sculptural cinema that fully operates on the level of dream psychology that makes the very form of cinema function. This is not simply a non-linear film randomly cutting back and forth between scenes before and after a key event, instead it is an emotional and psychological journey that spends time carefully crafting and shaping audience empathy with an unhappy woman before systematically revealing the depth and complexity of her relationship with her psychopathic son. It’s a difficult film, and its subtleties can be easily missed without careful attention, but this is absolutely one of the best works of filmic art of the year.
It’s hard to pin down what’s most effective about We Need To Talk About Kevin. I think perhaps it might be the way it captures that quiet, slightly numb feeling that envelopes you following a trauma of some sort. It’s something you can identify with if you’ve ever lost a loved one unexpectedly, lost a home, been in a bad car wreck, endured a particularly bad breakup, or have ever received life-changing news of any kind. It’s that feeling where the situation buzzes in your mind constantly, but your thoughts wander and jerk about in waves, and you progress through an asymptotically diminishing revival of the trauma over and over again for days, weeks, months, years…
If it’s not that, then it is the relationship between Kevin and his mother. At the core, this is an exploration of a true-blue psycopaths childhood, in which he makes his mother the target and turns his textbook manipulation on everyone else. What’s great is watching the the story develop and getting the flashes of anger, discontent, and bitterness from Kevin’s mother- moments that will clearly riddle her with guilt for the rest of her life.
How culpable is this woman for creating a monster?
Contributing factors: The beautifully nightmarish editing, and the spiraling intensity it creates.
Performance to savor: Ezra Miller is great as child who feels no emotions, and has since filled that vacuum with cruelty and manipulation. As you might imagine though, Tilda Swinton is simply remarkable, deserving of any accolade bestowed on her.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Try and endure the uncomfortable horror, while it smiles and keeps jacking off back at you…”
Renn on Warrior:
This is definitely a little bit of a gut choice for number one, but it’s the result of looking back over the year’s releases (none of which exciteme about putting them at number one) and being completely honest about which one I found most affecting in the moment. Frankly, it also comes down to the fact that any “top” list is inherently an act of advocacy as well, and I don’t know that there was a more underloved movie this year.
Aside from containing two great leading performances from Joel Edgerton and the blowing-up Tom Hardy, aside from an excellent supporting turn from Nick Nolte, and aside from containing the most refreshingly entertaining cinematic fisticuffs in years, what Warrior does best is make the fights mean something. Like all boxing films it concerns itself with heaping stakes onto the fights, and investing you in the fighters themselves so that when they start beating or getting beaten, you’re rooting for them in the same way you’d root for a real life athlete in a real life match/game/fight. The difference in Warrior is that it does not simply wind up the characters and conflict and then let it zoom away through the fights like a toy, but it uniquely imbues the fights themselves with emotional arcs and stakes that goes beyond simply character victory. It’s rare you’re invested in both fighters, and it’s rare that emotional catharsis is actually discovered by the very act of fighting and the inherent dynamic it creates between two characters.
This story of two brothers that end up battling each other at the height of the MMA world definitely fits in the classic boxing movie mold, but a few key, subversive choices allow it to break the mold and achieves so much greater payoff from its fights than nearly any other boxing movie. It’s a wonderful film, and one that shoots you with plenty of adrenaline to amp up that emotional payoff, but it earns every bit of it. It’s also one of my favorite kinds of films, which are ones that build up, up, up, up to their climax, and then end the very instant they resolve. Not a frame of my or the film’s time wasted.
It surely won’t work on everyone equally, but if you allow yourself to get wrapped up in Warrior you’re in for the most rewarding movie viewing of the year.
Contributing factors: The dueling protagonists so well built up that you don’t know who you want to win more. An exciting, dynamic, but realistic approach to filming the mixed martial arts fights.
Performance to Savor: Definitely the best use of painfully gruff Nolte in years.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Breaks the mold and ups the stakes from your usual boxing picture, driving to an incomparably exciting, propulsive, and emotional finish.”
And now the HONORABLE MENTIONS in no particular order…
Hugo 3D Tintin The Artist Shame Hanna Super
Also, just to put everything on the table, if Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon were 40 minutes shorter, it would have been number 15 on this list without breaking a sweat.
And a special BONUS final pick!
Renn on Detention
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “The most cutting-edge film of the year. A text messaging, tweeting masterpiece.”