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The Top Ten Films of 2011

January 16, 2012


Has it really been a year already? Actually, it’s been two years. That’s right, Martin Luther King Day marks the two-year anniversary of Keeping It Reel. It just happened that way. A big thanks to all our contributing reviewers, guests, commenters, and of course – you, dear reader. But the biggest thanks goes out to my wife, who has supported me through it all. And that’s about as clichéd as I’ll get.

Once again, I am honored to be accompanied by Paul Balsom, who keeps me on my toes and can be found shaking his head at some of my 4-star reviews. We are happy to have back with us our friend, film critic Josh Larsen, who continues to support Keeping It Reel. You’d do well to check out his work at LarsenOnFilm and Think Christian, and as a frequent co-host on Filmspotting. You can find links to his reviews and ours, highlighted below.

I saw 112 films that were released in 2011 and I’ve reviewed 84 of them. And there’s still 2011 films I plan on reviewing, but at some point you just have to stop and post the year-end list. In picking my Top Ten, I was somewhat overwhelmed since this has been a very good year at the movies. So, I made the task a little more manageable by coming up with a guideline (a criteria, if you will), which is: the movies couldn’t already have a built-in audience. That meant no sequels, remakes, prequels, comic book movies, and the like.  It also meant that I left out some noteworthy films that are as good as any of these, all honorable mentions. Compiling these ubiquitous and arbitrary lists all depend on my mood at the time. So, here we go – quick or I’ll change my mind….





As calculating and insinuating as a cult leader, which is appropriate considering the movie follows a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) as she tries to readjust to the real world after fleeing an abusive commune. Olsen, in the year’s best female performance, and writer-director Sean Durkin have such command that by the end of the film we’re locked in Martha’s head, which is a paranoid, fearful place to be. (in select theaters, avail. on DVD & Blu-ray on February 21, 2012)


I remembered loving The Muppets when I was younger, but received a strong reminder when I saw this Jason Segel passion project. There was so much in this movie for everyone to enjoy. I don’t know how anyone could see this and not be in love with it. I also loved the way the production of this project got started. If you don’t know about it, read up on Jason Segel’s appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon where he announced The Muppets was in production. (in select theaters) 


It takes quite a feat for a movie revolving around baseball math to win me over, but director Bennet Miller (“Capote”) did just that. With a home run from Brad Pitt, some curveballs from Jonah Hill and solid grounders from Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Moneyball” immediately hooked me with a fine story populated with stubborn people taking chances and dealing with fears of the unknown. That’s a grand slam. (now on DVD & Blu-ray)



Josh – DRIVE

Is this more than director Nicolas Winding Refn showing off? I’m inclined not to care. When you have a filmmaker this assuredly, stylishly in control of his material, it’s hard to resist. Ryan Gosling is lethally entrancing as a Hollywood stunt driver who gets involved with some mob thugs, against his better judgment. Thematically, this may be a less rich exploration of male savagery than Refn’s previous work, but in terms of pure cinema it’s the year’s wildest rush. (in select theaters, avail. on DVD & Blu-ray January 31, 2012) 


When I first saw heard of this film’s existence, I thought it would surely land on my ‘worst films of the year’ list. When I saw the trailer, I was pleasantly surprised but guarded still.  When I finally saw the film itself, I was shocked at how much I really liked it. The movie attempted some ridiculous things, like having apes ride horses to attack humans (and they played it totally straight), and yet somehow I didn’t laugh. This movie earned all the risks it took. (now on DVD & Blu-ray)


Writer/director Mike Mills (“Thumbsucker”) gives us a sweet, funny, and imaginative semi-autobiographical film that turned out to be a truly heartwarming experience for me. A thirtysomething graphic artist (Ewan McGregor), still dealing with the coming-out of his septuagenarian father (a wonderful Christopher Plummer), must come to terms with who he is, as he pursues a relationship with a spontaneous (Melanie Laurent) actress. Creative and wonderfully filmed, with a hopeful yet melancholy tone….and a talking dog to boot! (now on DVD & Blu-ray) 


Andy Serkis as Ceasar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”




As the chimp leader of the ape revolt, Andy Serkis and the visual-effects artists working with him bring motion-capture performance to a new level of legitimacy. In doing so, they elevate a franchise reboot rife with potential silliness into something of King Kong quality. This is doom-laden, affecting and tragic.


This movie lands in my top 10 for being my “surprise” of the year. I love film-going experiences with no hype or anticipation, and yet the movie hits a home run. If you haven’t seen Attack the Block, you must. It’s a great mix of The Goonies and Independence Day, but it is done in a very fresh and modern way. (now on DVD & Blu-ray)


The first genuine surprise of the year for me came in the form of the Alexander Payne-produced, Miguel Artega-directed ”Cedar Rapids”, starring Ed Helms, as Tim Lippe, a by-the-book insurance salesman who’s never left his small Wisconsin town, until he’s sent to Cedar Rapids for the annual insurance convention. Befriended by unexpected peers (among them John C. Reilly and Anne Heche), Lippe is forced to wear big boy pants, while maintaining his endearing integrity. The characterization here is the big surprise. Just when you think they’re going to veer toward silliness (and there is comedy), they turn out to be just like people you know. When it was over, I felt like I was leaving newly-made friends. (now on DVD & Blu-ray)




“Do you want to be loved? Absolutely. Do you deserve to be loved? Absolutely.” The most important words spoken on-screen all year, said to a troubled teen girl in director Steve James’ documentary about an unconventional method of crime intervention in Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods. Heart-breaking, yet hopeful, stuff.

Paul – 50/50

I put this film off for a long time, as the subject matter strikes an unnerving chord for me. I simply labeled it as “homework”. I was not expecting what I actually got in 50/50. It’s a fantastic story about friendship, and a real look at what it’s like to be sick without hope of recovery. Sounds terrible, right? Oddly enough, the film is hilarious, charming, and almost medicinal. Even if you have been touched by cancer or other life-threatening illnesses, I still recommend you watch this movie on DVD (on DVD & Blu-ray January 24, 2012).

David – HUGO

To be honest, hearing that director Martin Scorsese was going 3D was disappointing to me. But I should’ve had more faith in this American icon. Not only did he deliver one of the most immersive and transporting uses of the overused medium, he also gives us an array of characters who seek human connections in a cold and harsh world. Far from a kid-flick, but definitely one that provides a childlike view at the awe and wonder of motion pictures. “Hugo” is an engaging, delightful, and impressive look at how magical and timeless movies can be. (in select theaters) 


Juliette Binoche in “Certified Copy”




Why did I find Certified Copy so impossibly romantic, considering it seems to capture the fading embers of a marriage? There is the visual elegance of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, for one thing, and also the way a luminous Juliette Binoche fights for love to last. She plays a French antiques dealer who meets an English writer (William Shimell) at a book discussion, and as they spend the day together they slowly begin talking as if they’ve been married for 15 years. Have they? The mystery is yet another part of this slippery movie’s romantic allure. (now on DVD & Blu-ray and Netflix Watch Instantly)

Paul – HUGO 

I am an unabashed Scorsese fan, and have been for years. When I heard he was directing Hugo, I thought that the elements and techniques that make Scorsese’s films unique would get neutered and lost in the “child film” genre. The movie really isn’t that at all. It’s more an adult film than anything. We get some amazing “trademarked” Scorsese filmmaking techniques in this film (i.e. the incredibly long take in the very beginning) and his use of 3D is insane. Take a note Hollywood, this is how a 3D film is made.

David – SUPER 8

Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, “Super 8″ is far more than just a knowing nod to those early Amblin films of producer Steven Spielberg, it’s a tender throwback to those Wonder Years of adolescence, on the cusp of innocence lost. Abrams has a gifted group of youngsters to work with that radiate raw purity. The best gift Abrams gives us though is how he takes us back to 1979, that pre-internet time when boys and girls rode around on their bikes and carried flashlights (and fireworks) in their backpacks. Go for the creature, stay for the kids. (now on DVD & Blu-ray)




The year’s most troubling film, both as a narrative of its own – Michael Shannon plays a disturbed young father who believes his visions of extreme weather are signs of a coming apocalypse – and for its macro implications. Take Shelter’s paranoid vibe resonated in a tumultuous year, when floods and tornadoes and hurricanes threatened to make things collapse if the financial markets and global protests didn’t do it first. (in select theaters, avail. on DVD  & Blu-ray on February 14, 2012)


This film is not for the faint of heart, but it is a fantastic film. Filled with gore, yes, but the premise really drew me in. A Korean government agent’s is murdered by a serial killer. The agent sets off to find his wife’s murderer… and he finds the killer within the first 20 minutes of the film! All that is in the trailer, so I’m not spoiling, but what could the filmmaker possibly do with the rest of the films two hours? You’ll have to find out. (now on DVD & Blu-ray and Netflix Watch Instantly)


Seven years was worth the wait for the return of director Alexander Payne. “The Descendants”, which he also co-wrote, is a movie that is a challenge to market (it’s not simply a comedy!) and hard to describe because there’s so much going on here. George Clooney delivers one of the best performances of his career as we watch him navigate through guilt, grief, anger and utter confusion. While the film does have a clever humor about it, what resonates most is the degree of understanding, respect, and appreciation it has for the family unit. Payne deconstructs the family dynamic just as he does the allure of the Hawaiian islands. Despite it’s challenging themes, the film is sweet without being manipulative, allowing the audience to become won over by these characters all on their own. (in select theaters)




What’s this nonsense, The Muppets on a top 10 list? Exactly. Few other artistic endeavors fully understand – and exuberantly capture – the palliative, restorative joy of being silly. Writer-producer-star Jason Segel has given them a loving update that also happens to be the best musical of 2011.


Thought I don’t necessarily want to experience this film for a second time, it’s filled with great performances (breakout debut by Elizabeth Olsen – yes, the sister of the Olsen twins, as well as John Hawkes, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Winter’s Bone last year) and a killer way of non-chronological storytelling that will give you chills by the end. Amazing stuff from first-time writer-director Sean Durkin.


Actor Michael Shannon, with his unsettling and mesmerizing face may pull you into “Take Shelter” like a tractor beam, but writer/director Jeff Nichols is the one who pulls us into this force of psychological suspense. From the sound of wind-rustled trees to the foreboding dark clouds overhead, Nichols creates a troubling atmosphere out of small town mid-Ohio. It can be described as a husband/father who simply wants to protect his supportive wife (Jessica Chastain’s best work, in a year with so many roles) and hearing-impaired daughter from a coming storm. But it’s also about the fear and weight of doing that. Add to that financial woes and the concern of whether or not you’re going insane, while doing your best to be a provider, and you have one gripping pressure cooker. Emotional and engrossing, with one of the best endings of the year, “Take Shelter” will still be in your head, even after the storm has gone.


Michelle Williams in “Meek’s Cutoff”




Kelly Reichardt directs this tale of pioneers lost along the Oregon Trail. A feminist Western, as some have claimed? *Meek’s Cutoff* is even better than that. The view of the world here is a holistic one in that it encompasses this specific time and place as it was experienced by everyone who was there: the men, the women, a mysterious Native American. With Reichardt regular Michelle Williams, excellent as a bonnet unafraid of beards. (now on DVD & Blu-ray and Netflix Watch Instantly)


Like my rabid fandom for Scorsese, I have the same feelings for Woody Allen. This is probably my favorite of Allen’s films! Also, having been an English major, there was so much for me to enjoy and “chew on” throughout this movie. All the acting performances were great, and the story that Allen tells in Midnight in Paris is so much fun. I would recommend this film to anybody. (now on DVD & Blu-ray)

David – SHAME

“Shame” takes a raw and real look at the life of a sex addict. It certainly isn’t a film you enjoy or go in looking for an entertaining time, but what it does provide is a candid look at two damaged siblings played bravely by Michael Fassbender and Carrie Mulligan, both delivering heart-breaking performances.  It’s the second collaboration of director Steve McQueen and Fassbender, once again subjecting us to challenging subject matter, this time focusing on a man incapable of love and intimacy. There have been riveting films on drug and alcohol addiction, but rarely have we seen an exposed (literally) look at the damaging and soul-eating repercussions of sexual obsession and the anguish and torment it brings. There’s nothing sexy or titillating about this unforgettable film. (inselect theaters) 




A mild-mannered insurance salesman’s (Ed Helms) moral compass goes completely, hilariously haywire while he’s at his first business convention. The result is the year’s funniest film and a surprisingly nuanced consideration of the tough choices we make every day (although it should be obvious that skinny-dipping with John C. Reilly in the hotel pool isn’t a good idea).


It was a tough decision between this and my #1 pick. I love this film because there’s so much to discuss and “dive into” after the movie is finished. The apocalyptic imagery in the film really puts you in the seat of the main protagonist as he contemplates his descent into insanity, and you can’t help but wonder if you’re feeling the same way. Like Martha Marcy May Marlene, the final scene is a major gut punch. Basically, you can interpret the film’s meaning one of two ways, and both are meaningful and deep. Great movie.

David – DRIVE

Dark and brutal, this stylishly slick nihilistic noir from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn exudes cool on every level. From the 80s synth-pop score by Cliff Martinez to the sound of skin-tight driving gloves gripping a steering wheel, “Drive” is a detailed film that shifts wildly in tone and is as meticulous as it is messy, getting its hands dirty quite often.  Led by a brooding Ryan Gosling (rocking a white satin jacket in his best performance – out of three – of the year) and supported by a cast that effortlessly maneuvers away from what could have been stereotypical cruise control. People may love or hate “Drive”, but it remains one of the most original and unique cinematic experiences I had in 2011.


Ameena Matthews in “The Interrupters”




It’s not fair to say director Terrence Malick has been dithering up to this point, but to my mind none of his earlier movie poems so eloquently explored the theme he’s obsessed over his entire career: the tragedy of original sin, this time as traced in a 1950s Texas family. In fact, some of those films were pretentious bores. The Tree of Life is the opposite: the art film as true transcendence. (now on DVD & Blu-ray)

Paul – DRIVE 

I knew about 5 minutes into this film, maybe 10 minutes, that this was going to be my favorite of the year. From the Miami Vice-style type font of the credits to the awesome Kravisky song playing over Ryan Gosling driving through a lit-up nighttime Los Angeles, this movie had it all for me personally. The long gazes, the drama, the gore, and the soundtrack really came together to make my dream film. Drive isn’t what you’ve seen in the previews, but if you appreciate films for trying new things and staying away from The Fast & The Furious plot formulas and filmmaking styles, you’ll love this one.


Director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) along with his friend and producer Alex Kotlowitz (who wrote the book There Are No Children Here) takes us on a sprawling, troubling, and unflinching look at three Chicago “Violence Interrupters” who work for an organization called Cease Fire. Their job: to seek out violence in volatile urban areas, and stop it. What attracted me most about this important film is the rich past and present lives of these Interrupters, who have used their past gang life as motivation to make a positive impact in the lives of others. You can have your Ethan Hunts and Captain Americas, but in the hopeless neighborhoods of the real world, these are our heroes – and as humble as they are, they’d never admit it. In a year with many great documentaries, “The Interrupters” is the movie that transcends genres and is required viewing for anyone with a pulse. (in limited theaters, on DVD & Blu-ray on February 14 2012, and local Chicagoans can check out a screening of the film at the Music Box theater on February 19th, with Steve James in attendance for discussion)




So, there ya have it – now what about you?

What do you think were the Best Films of 2011?


7 Comments leave one →
  1. francesca permalink
    January 16, 2012 10:24 am

    I can’t do my 2011 fave’s as I have hardly seen any of them so it will have to be The Films I Must Not Forget To See…and they will definitely be Take Shelter because you guys all raved about it albeit in different positions; Meeks Cutoff because I love me some historical and The Descendants, just for starters. I have seen Apes and Drive; I’m guessing that quite a few of us were shocked at just how much we liked it, I know I was, and yes, Drive was simply brilliant, a triumph of style AND substance.

  2. Sab permalink
    January 16, 2012 10:36 am

    First things first- Congratulations to Keeping it Reel for completing two successful years. Way to go, guys!

    From the movies this year, I have only seen 50/50 and Midnight in Paris so far. Loved them both. Thanks for this list… Can’t wait to catch the rest, especially Hugo, Drive, and The Descendants.

  3. Java permalink
    January 17, 2012 11:41 am

    Thank you for the great reviews! I’m excited to add all of these movies to my “must see” list. I’ve only seen the Muppets.

  4. January 17, 2012 11:46 am

    Ok, see how influential you are, I just watched Meek’s Cutoff, verrry interesting film if a bit coitus interruptus. Holistic is an excellent description Josh.

  5. January 18, 2012 2:52 pm

    Enjoyed the list guys and congratulations on the anniversary!

    Can’t wait to see Take Shelter.

    PBS is going to show The Interrupters on Feb. 14th at 8pm. I’ll be glad to finally get a chance to see it. I was in Chicago when it was showing at the Gene Siskel center, but opted for Take Shelter which I missed anyway due to a scheduling SNAFU. (Saw Happy, Happy.)

    Lump me in with those not crazy about Drive. I felt like this as I did about Refn’s other films: stylistically intriguing, but it left me emotionally cold. I’ll continue to seek out new Refn films, but I expect to have trouble engaging with them.

  6. MATTHEW AYERS permalink
    January 18, 2012 5:04 pm

    I’m sorry. DRIVE was a visually pretty, predictable, selfindulgent piece of crap. Was Ryan Gosling suposed to have Aspergers? Every actor in the film was either phoning it in or desperate to make bad dialogue not sound as bad. The artsy long staring contests were not art they were time fillers for lack of writing. I walked out at the end wishing id walked out sooner. You ever see a movie that you dint like the first time then grew to like it from further viewings? I have. this will not be one of them. I am quite certain many who baught into the visual masturbattion that was this movie will upon further viewings begin to realize just how bad it is. A few good notes. The lighting was moody and interesting the set dressing and prop art were pleasant. The designers deserve some credit. Nice cars.

    • MATTHEW AYERS permalink
      January 18, 2012 5:05 pm

      Sorry. If your first criticism of my opinion is about my typos then please dont bother.

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