15 Movies You Should’ve Seen in 2011

2011 Header21 560x317There have been grumblings across the interverse and uniweb that 2011 was a crap year for movies. Personally, I couldn’t disagree more. Oh sure, some of the most hyped flicks (I’m looking at you Super 8 and Thor) fell short of the mark, but there were plenty of other memorable titles that hit the bulls-eye. Unfortunately, several of the really good films couldn’t be found at the local multiplex, unless you live in one of them gigundous cities with their fancy new ideas and shiny tall buildings.

I loathe ‘Best Of’ lists for two reasons: 1) they’re troll bait and, 2) completely arbitrary. Most critics/bloggers/cinephiles loved The Tree of Life. I thought it was ambitious chaos (which might have been the point), but far from brilliant.  Meanwhile, Kevin Smith’s Red State was met with a tepid response, but I found it deftly compelling. Point is, people like what they like. Who am I to say which films were the best?

However, I can still offer recommendations. So, here are fifteen flicks you should’ve seen in 2011, but probably didn’t.

15. Terri – Dir. Azazel Jacobs

We've all been privy to high-school-misfit-coming-of-age stories. They either fade into obscurity or resonate. Terri is one of the latter, due in large to a smart script and superb ensemble cast. Jacob Wysocki plays the titular character, an obese teen who wears pajamas every day because they're "comfortable." Rather than inundate us with cliched scenes of bullying, director Azazel Jacobs delves into what makes Terri tick. At heart, he's a sensitive kid who wants what every kid his age wants: to be liked, to have a girlfriend, to find his place.

John C. Reilly shines as an assistant principal who -- using slightly flawed methods -- attempts to steer Terri down a path of normalcy. He doesn't offer any profound advice or preach the gospel of self-righteousness. Instead, he provides the one thing Terri heeds most: a friend. I counted several moments of genuine humor and humanity, which are two things we could all use of bit more of, especially at the movies.

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14. Armadillo – Dir. Januz Metz

There have been some excellent documentaries made about the war in Afghanistan over the last few years -- Restrepo, for one, comes to mind. But none have managed to capture the mental and physical punishment inflicted on those serving on the front lines as potently as Armadillo. Following a group of Danish soldiers, director Janus Metz pulls no punches in detailing their six-month tour at Camp Armadillo in southern Afghanistan.

By combining fictional shooting/editing techniques with frantic, often graphic combat footage, Metz evokes an almost ethereal quality to the harsh landscape. However, the film's core is a stark portrait of a maddening existence where strategically placed IEDs kill and maim, and an unseen enemy lies in wait. It's an unflinching look inside a fractured country few dare set foot in.

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13. Like Crazy – Dir. Drake Doremus

He makes her a chair. Those five words will make sense once you see Like Crazy, an authentic examination of young love, immovable barriers and the fragility of emotions. I usually run for the exits during these kinds of movies, but damn if I wasn't hooked by its charms fifteen minutes in. A British girl falls for an American boy. Then she violates her student visa to be with him. Problems ensue.

As much as I wanted to hate two recent college grads who have zero problem finding gainful employment, I couldn't help but be pulled into their harrowing tale of long-distance romance gone awry. No offense to Anton Yelchin or Jennifer Lawrence, but the movie belongs to Felicity Jones, who does what all great actresses should do: say everything without saying anything. It's the kind of performance Oscar should recognize, but won't. They'd rather reward Meryl Streep for playing dress up... again.

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12. Stake Land – Dir. Jim Mickle

Vampires and zombie apocalypses are all the rage these days, so why not meld the two to create a vampire apocalypse? That's what co-writer/director Jim Mickle did in Stake Land, a low budget action-horror hybrid that pits a small band of survivors against a country overrun by armies of ruthless bloodsuckers. It's one part The Road, two parts 28 Days Later.

There's plenty of carnage and mayhem to satisfy even the most fickle fans of the genre, and considering the monetary constraints, the makeup effects are mighty impressive. I've seen movies with ten-times the budget achieve nowhere near what the producers did here. Cast includes the former Mrs. Maverick, Kelly McGillis, and Halloween franchise scream queen, Danielle Harris.

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11. Cedar Rapids – Dir. Miguel Arteta

In the hands of a lesser director, Cedar Rapids could've been a 90-minute point and laugh at the Midwest joke. Thankfully, it operates on a much more sophisticated level as it explores how the desire to be a somebody in a place filled with nobodies can lead to the unraveling of one's soul. It's also really funny. John C. Reilly, again? Yup.

Ed Helms is naive bumpkin Tim Lippe, a reserved Wisconsin insurance salesman who embarks on a journey of self-discovery to the thriving metropolis of Cedar Rapids, Iowa -- site of the region's biggest and most important insurance convention. While tossing aside his inhibitions, Tim's simple view of the world is inextricably altered by a moral conundrum. Witnessing his innocence erode is kinda sad because it reminds us that even the most bucolic corners of the planet can be corrupted by avarice.

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10. Margin Call – Dir. JC Chandor

I don't know squat about Wall Street's daily machinations. My idea of saving for retirement is sinking a pickle jar filled with loose change into a nearby pond. Therefore, when the financial collapse crippled the American economy a couple of years ago, I failed to connect the dots that traced back to toxic mortgage loans issued by investment firms and banks.

I realize Margin Call is somewhat of an oversimplification of how the crisis spawned, but I found it remarkably educational as a teaching tool and incredibly intriguing as a filmed tragedy. Whether you view the men and women behind the curtain as evil or not, the fact is they are a necessary cog in the wheel of capitalism. An all-world cast features Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore and Zachary Quinto. Irons, in particular, stands out as a cutthroat Svengali.

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9. Attack the Block – Dir. Joe Cornish

Similar to 2010's Monsters, the alien invasion flick that resonated with me the most in 2011 hailed from Britain and wasn't of the high profile variety. Attack the Block works because it scales the action down to one South London working class housing complex, as a gang of teens goes toe-to-toe with invading creatures from outer space.

The action is fast and furious, the dialogue flows smoothly and the bear/gorillaesque aliens are unlike any I've seen on the big screen. The tension builds naturally and the gang's creative methods of disposal -- including fireworks and a samurai sword -- ratchets up the entertainment quotient big time. This was without a doubt the most fun I had at the movies this year.

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8. Senna – Dir. Asif Kapadia

When I was 13 years old I had a toy replica of the #12 1985 black and gold Lotus Formula 1 car. The same car driven by legendary F1 driver Ayrton Senna. I envisioned myself behind the wheel going 200 mph on the streets of Monte Carlo. I loved that damn car and regret that it's gone. Especially considering the way Senna's career would end nine years later.

Using exclusively archival footage and recorded audio interviews, Senna documents the driver's ascension to the rank of World Champion, his bitter personal and professional rivalry with Frenchman Alain Prost, the numerous feuds with Formula 1's governing body, the love he shared with his native Brazil and his tragic death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. You don't have to be a racing fan to get something from this amazing film. You just have to admire greatness. And if anyone defined greatness, it was Ayrton Senna.

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7. X-Men: First Class – Dir. Matt Vaughn

If you endured the horrendous X-Men: The Last Stand and the forgettable X-Men Origins: Wolverine, chances are you might've skipped the latest chapter in the series. I sure wouldn't blame you if you did, but of all the men in tights movies dropped on our laps in 2011, First Class struck me as the most cohesive.

It serves as an origin story for the original uncanny group, focusing primarily on Magneto and Professor X, whose differing opinions on mutants' relationship with humans puts them at loggerheads. Director Matthew Vaughn doesn't beat us over the head with gaudy visual effects, but the ones he does employ complement the structured plot nicely. Movies of this ilk often leave me in sensory overload by the time the end credits roll; this one didn't, which was a welcome change. Hell, I even dug Kevin Bacon as a villain.

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6. Elite Squad 2 – Dir. Jose Padilha

Straight crime dramas are hard to find these days. I'm referring to those that concentrate on layered plots and behind the scenes political maneuvering rather than nonstop explosions and irritating catchphrases. Luckily, Brazil still knows how to craft these kinds of intricate stories without sacrificing the prerequisite violence.

Lt. Colonel Roberto Nascimento trades in his military police special forces uniform for a suit and tie in hopes of eliminating the Rio de Janeiro criminal element from a more influential position inside the Secretariat of Security. He quickly learns the degree of corruption and parties involved goes much deeper than he anticipated. His decision to topple the system from within puts he and his estranged family at risk. Wagner Moura brings boiling intensity to the character of Nascimento, a conflicted man divided by loyalty to government and a duty to uphold justice. Hopefully, Elite Squad 2 will receive the recognition it deserves because it's pretty effing badass.

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5. The Guard – Dir. John Michael McDonagh

Someone asked me the other day, "What was the funniest film you saw this year?" I answered, "The Guard." The expected response was, "Never heard of it." Well, it happens to be Ireland's highest grossing indie flick of all time and for good reason. It turns the tried and true buddy-cop template on its ear by mixing bloody violence, ribald humor and witty dialogue.

Brendan Gleeson plays Gerry Boyle, a blatantly sarcastic Garda (aka cop) who never met an inappropriate comment he didn't like. He makes racist jokes, rejects authority and enjoys the company of prostitutes. He also regularly visits his dying mother, consoles a grieving wife and has balls of steel. Teamed with Don Cheadle's by-the-numbers FBI agent, the duo forge a plan to bring down a vicious drug smuggling operation. I rarely laugh out loud at movies, but I did four or five times while watching The Guard.

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4. I Saw the Devil – Dir. Kim Ji-woon

You know which country has been consistently pumping out excellent movies for over a decade? South Korea. They are especially adept in the crime/thriller department. Oldboy, A Bittersweet Life and Memories of Murder are just three examples I'd stack up against anything made in the West. Add I Saw the Devil to the list.

When a serial killer murders and dismembers the fiancée of a secret service agent, the agent turns rogue to track down the killer and exact his own brand of savage vengeance. This is not a film for the faint of heart. It's brutal to the end -- in the same way Seven was -- and refuses to spare the audience a moment's reprieve. Some will abhor this twisted cat and mouse game, but I found it utterly fascinating. It's not a film I will soon forget. Choi Min-sik of Oldboy fame plays the killer to astonishing perfection.

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3. Win Win – Dir. Tom McCarthy

Let me just say there might not be a better writer/director working in American cinema today than Tom McCarthy. The Station Agent and The Visitor are two of my favorite films of the 2000s. He also co-wrote Up, for which he received an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. His latest, Win Win, is a wonderfully poetic story that eschews melodrama in exchange for laughter and humility.

Paul Giamatti is Mike Flaherty, father of two young daughters, owner of a floundering small town law firm and head coach of a losing high school wrestling team. Enter Kyle Timmons, the runaway grandson of one of Mike's clients. Kyle, as luck would have it, is a star wrestler, so Mike takes him under his wing until the boy's crackhead mom arrives on the scene.

Coming of age, conquering adversity, believing in oneself -- there are plenty of "messages" floating around the plot and they all blend into a satisfying slice of life. I was held hostage by its sincerity. Yes, the actor playing Kyle looks like a young Sean Penn. And yes, Amy Ryan is awesome as the mom. I'd watch Amy Ryan read food labels for 90 minutes and come away happy. That's how much I like Amy Ryan.

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2. Drive – Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

Here's the deal with Drive. It's formulaic, a bit silly and ultimately flawed as a narrative. That being said, it's captivating to look at and listen to, and features a performance from Ryan Gosling I didn't think he was capable of pulling off. Bottom line: I've seen it twice and despite its obvious warts, it punched me in the gut both times and left me wanting more.

Gosling portrays the nameless Driver, a stuntman by day who moonlights as a getaway wheelman for crooks. He's quiet, unassuming, and in his own peculiar way, charming. On the surface anyway. Below the gentle exterior is a seething rage that once awakened transforms him into a terrifying monster that feeds on violence and vengeance.

As with I Saw the Devil, the brutality inflicted is graphic and chilling. A vibrant score and soundtrack complement the stylized visuals to a tee. Winding Refn's decidedly visceral approach to filmmaking is an acquired taste for sure, but there is no doubting he brings originality and flair to everything he does (The Pusher series, Bronson, Valhalla Rising). And to repeat, Gosling is a marvel. The strip club scene alone is enough to warrant a Best Actor nomination.

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1. Take Shelter – Dir. Jeff Nichols

There's a storm coming. At least that's what Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) believes when he starts building an underground bunker in his backyard. Are his vivid nightmares premonitions of an impending doom, or are they symptomatic of a genetic mental illness? This is just one of many mysteries in the intensely eerie Take Shelter.

Dark skies spewing forth thick, brown rain, strange claps of thunder, swarms of black birds. Writer/director Jeff Nichols keeps us guessing throughout as his protagonist slips further into psychosis. A sense of dread is palpable, and not just the one infecting Curtis's mind.

Nichols references the dire U.S. economy via shots of money and warnings of spending beyond one's means. Unemployment, a lack of health insurance and the loss of financial security are threats that loom large. These real-life fears serve as relevant metaphors for the plight millions of Americans are suffering today. In the end, there is no safe place to hide from the forces beyond our control. Be they demons inside our head or ominous clouds gathering in the distance.

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Five more just because.

Melancholia – The end of the world never looked as beautiful or as frightening than through the eyes of Lars von Trier.

Midnight in Paris – Not on par with Woody Allen’s classics, but easily his most complete film in fifteen years. Poignant and well-acted.

Fast Five – The best action scenes in any film this year. Sure, the acting is atrocious, but director Justin Lin injects adrenaline for two-plus hours.

The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 – A fitting conclusion to the boy wizard’s adventures. How about an Oscar nod for Alan Rickman? Snape ruled.

Hesher – I think i saw this in 2010, but can’t remember. Nevertheless, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s tattooed anarchist is bold, brash and bad to the bone.