I've been reading a lot of press saying that 2011 was not a very good movie year, complaining about the stream of remakes and sequels as always, and the lack of big hits. While this may be partially true, I still saw a bunch of films in 2011 that I will remember for a long time and thus feel deserves much more attention and praise than they got.
Ok, here goes:
Drive - Anyone who claims there were no big hits in 2011, must've been living under a tinseltown pebble. Drive was a massive film that spawned much discussion, controversy and parodies. The infamous elevator scene is so iconic, it ensures the film will be a hot topic for years to come. I also find it strange that it is rarely mentioned that Drive is virtually a remake of Walter Hill's The Driver. Drive may have been based on a 2005 novel, but that novel was obviously inspired by the 1978 classic film. Just like Tim Burton's Chocolate Factory film was supposedly not a remake of the original 1971 version, but only "based upon the same material", Drive and Driver are obviously related.
Tree of Life - Another big hit that is unmissable if you want to partake in any social event where people will be discussing movies. Just like Drive, it pretty much split audiences' reactions in two, but love it or hate it, you can't deny the film had some pretty dazzling effects. I enjoyed it tremendously as a pure audio-visual roller coaster experience, where the plot came second hand to the pretty pictures and tantalizing sounds.
Immortals - This got a lot of bad publicity and sour reviews from people who complain about the extremely thin plot. I say they all missed the point completely, for two reasons: Firstly, it's a Tarsem Singh film. After the visual explosion that was The Fall, I did not go see his next movie expecting a plot-driven, character piece with snappy dialogue. I expected pretty pictures. And boy did it deliver. Secondly, the film's modest success was partly to blame on marketing that pertains the film to the adventure genre, and a distant cousin to the cartoonish violence in 300, when it's actually an extremely well made splatter film. I found the detailed blood and gore of Immortals so exhilarating, I came out of the cinema feeling like I just had sex with three albino midgets. You know, disturbed but content.
Rango - By far the most mainstream film on this list, I included it for its homage to cinema. The film is one long line of references to classics such as Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Chinatown, Star Wars, The Matrix, Mad Max, Apocalypse Now, Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, Lord of the Rings, Transformers and The Big Lebowski. And those are just off the top of my head. It was definitely full of cliches, but used it to its advantage, resulting in a film that worked as a trivia game for movie lovers.
Shame - A film that was both eagerly awaited and pretty much well received by both audiences and critics alike. The fantastic acting, direction, editing and score, made it a film I am eagerly awaiting to watch again. I also found the subject of sexual addition vs. manly male behavior vastly important and am a bit disappointed that the film didn't spawn more discussion about the matter.
Blue Valentine - I thought this was a 2011 film, but IMDB says it's 2010. Regardless of whenever it came out, the film is a tremendous journey and a rare occasion of a movie catering to single people. In between all the sappy romcom, happily-every-after, cute and safe movie releases that keep getting shoved in your face every time you turn on a tv, Blue Valentine came as a healthy cure for falling in love, and made anyone who has ever argued with a loved one, feel a little bit more normal.
Martha Marcy May Marlene - This was one of those extremely rare cases, when I read the premise of a film that caught my interest and gave me some hope, only to find that the movie delivered and exceeded my expectations. If you haven't heard anything about this one yet, I highly advice you to abstain from reading about it or watching the trailer. This is a film that will hit you harder, the less you know about it. All I will say is that it is slow and intense, with oscar worthy acting and a simple but ingenious idea.
Paradise Lost 3 - THEY'RE FREEEE!!! Even though the film on its own might be little more than a patchjob of the previous two films, with rather limited new material, this third film makes me so happy, I cannot stop smiling whenever I think about it. Sequels aren't always bad.
Red State - Kevin Smith surprised us all when he proved that he can actually make good movies, if only studios gives him some slack. This is another film that you really should know next to nothing about before you see it, so I advice you to not even click the IMDB link I just gave you. Even knowing that Kevin Smith directed it will probably be a bad influence, as Red State is vastly different to everything else he has created. I wouldn't even try to check what genre it's listed as, as it's a great salad bowl of playful ideas. Kevin Smith has said that he'll create one more movie before he quits the industry. While I was very indifferent to this statement before, watching Red State made me change opinion, and now I would be somewhat sad if such a talented guy would never produce another film.
Another Earth - Now here's a beauty. More poetry than film, this strange breed of drama and sci-fi works surprisingly well. While it does contain a couple of stuttering moments that doesn't fly, the overall experience is lucid and wondrous. Maybe it's not quite in the same league as the others mentioned here, but it's still a very good film that's perfect viewing on a lazy day.
Rampart - Woody Harrelson's performance in this film warrants the words "tour de force", and makes me happy that I finally have an excuse to use the expression. While I found mr. Herzog's remake of The Bad Lieutenant quite forgettable much thanks to silly-boy Nicholas Cage's misdirected hyperactivity, Rampart is the worthy successor. The camerawork, direction, editing, plot and machine gun dialogue, all work together perfectly to create a drama that is both gritty and realistic, in a way that is both believable and cinematic.
As I live in Norway, there were also a few more great films whose world premiere was in 2010, but didn't reach Norwegian cinema until 2011, if at all.
I Saw the Devil - This was another film that was the talk of the town and a hammer to the head reminding us that the Koreans are excellent filmmakers. Beautifully shot in crisp, high contrast colors that seems to be somewhat of a trademark for Korea, and a luscious brutality that Hollywood is severely lacking. While I Saw the Devil might not be as mind-blowing as OldBoy, it is still a film you have to see if you want to be one of the cool kids.
Summerland - A fuzzy feelgood film from Iceland about ghosts. Just quirky and rare enough to catch anyone off guard and blow expectations out of of the water. It being the first film from an up-and-coming director, I would really like to encourage everyone to see it, and create buzz around his promising career.
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil - Just when I had grown tired of the old slasher formula, this little gem popped out of nowhere and revitalized the genre. I already posted about it here, and was promptly contacted by officials asking me to remove the link. While I do feel that the makers of such an ingenious film should definitely get paid for their efforts, I also believe that I am actually helping them out, by spreading the word and making more people aware of it, as was always the intention of this site.
Chico & Rita - What colors, what lines, what story and, most of all, what wonderful music! This goes into the line of great alternatives to what Pixar wants animation to be, right up there with Fear(s) of the Dark, The Triplets of Belleville and Waltz with Bashir.
Monsters - Oh, it's not scary, or action filled, or loaded with CGI, but it's not supposed to be. This was a beautiful docudramatic nature flick, whose only flaw was a title suggesting otherwise. So beautifully shot, several scenes had me gawping, the monsters stand second in line to the magic of the surrounding atmosphere.
Agnosia - This one really took me by surprise. The epic scale of the film makes me wonder as to why it was never played in cinemas over here, and not given a proper release either. I wrote more about it here.
Barney's Version - I only heard about this because of its Oscar nomination for best make-up. When I finally got around to seeing it however, I was amazed that it was the only thing it was nominated for. Paul Giamatti delivers what might be his greatest performance to date, with a supporting cast sparkling with talent. But most impressive is the epic script, which journeys though several decades, countries and cultures, yet still remembers to be a character study of sorts. A magnificent film!
With all these great movies coming from Mexican, Spanish, Icelandic, Finnish, Cuban, Korean, Danish, British, Canadian and American filmmakers, I suspect that anyone who claims that 2011 wasn't a particularly good movie year, simply wasn't looking hard enough.