In 2011 audiences flocked to see Harry Potter graduate with his biggest battle yet in Deathly Hallows 2, while no one could have seen that the celebrity couple in Twilight (#3) would have a breakup that would get a future President riled up, while each actor would go on to play roles in some of the most fascinating and enthralling art-house fare in the years to come. Michael Bay took his Transformers to the Dark Side of the Moon, while Pixar trotted out yet another sequel.
A different automotive franchise rode a different path and is included below, while a great Dane put a Ryan in a jacket and thrilled us with his uncompromising vision. Meanwhile, the master of misery from Denmark brought his own take on the end of the world, leaving audiences unsettled as much as they were enthralled. A gritty and effective South London sci-fi flick saw the emergence of a major talent who would eventually reach for the stars, while Malick dug in with Pitt and provided a dino-sized look a the meaning of existence.
Jeff Nichols’ take on the Book of Job inverted the Judaic take that the Coen Brothers triumphantly presented with 2009’s A Serious Man (I still await my planned double bill), while an underappreciated coming-of-age film by Dee Rees found many fans, and a Persian tragedy told a very different Marriage Story. From closer to home, a tragicomic classic of Quebecois cinema helped teach a generation, while Dowse’s kinetic hockey film picked a tired genre up off the ice.
Finally, an action film out of Indonesia helped change the world of movies, launching from its Midnight Madness debut an entirely new mode of bone-crunching action that would shape action films and even sci-fi blockbusters for years to come. (JG)
Arguably one of the best screenplays of the decade, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is a tale of choices and consequences. The film is not so much about why Simin (Leila Hatami) has filed for separation from her husband Nader (Payman Maadi), as that reasoning is clear. She wants the family to move to another country which will improve life for their daughter, and he feels obligated to stay and look after his father who has Alzheimer’s disease. What makes this film so memorable is the fallout of their decision. As an incident with a maid spirals out of control, Farhadi spins a captivating film where ego, guilt, fear and shame intersect in powerful ways. By the time you reach the end of this Iranian film, one’s views on each character will have changed multiple times. The only thing that remains clear is that the truth is often more complicated than the lies that cover them. (CS)
Attack The Block
It’s all well and good to have the army take on alien invaders, but watching kids from a London town estate defend their home is a truly unique experience. Defending your apartment complex against aliens would be interesting enough, but the heroes of Attack the Block are also tasked with evading a drug dealer who comes off as a more vicious than the aggressive extraterrestrials at times.
Attack the Block works because of its unlikely heroes. The fact that John Boyega’s Moses might have one scene or be a secondary character in a traditional version of this movie, means the story can veer off in new and refreshing ways as Moses and his friends’ lives get a deeper dive. (DG)
In the wake of follow-up films that traffic in the same tropes (to diminishing returns), Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive loses a bit of its luster. Back in 2011, however, the film about a monosyllabic stuntman/getaway driver who takes a shine to an abused woman (Carey Mulligan) played like a fresh take on an old fashioned narrative.
Winding Refn’s film is filled with brutally violent action sequences and features a bevy of character actors, including Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, and even Albert Brooks. It is anchored by Ryan Gosling’s nameless lead character, and for the first time, audiences saw the Canadian actor playing something other than the sidekick or the love interest. Drive allows Gosling to portray a different kind of hero and the result is a performance that delivers equal parts charm, sex appeal, and just the right amount of menace.
Drive feels oddly reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s own spectacularly violent debut in that it displays a cinematic self-reflexivity that both reinforces its own “cool as shit” façade and leans into pastiche. Just like film noirs of the ’40s & ’50s, in Drive the hero is gruff and a man of few words, the women are beautiful and in need of rescue, and the bad guys always get what’s coming to them. At its core, the narrative – and by extension the film – is a romantic idealization of a bygone era. While Winding Refn may never have hit the same highs with his subsequent work, Drive stands the test of time by simply being timeless. (JL)
Remember when the The Fast and the Furious series was about low-level crooks stealing DVD players from transport trucks?
There’s a scene in Fast Five where Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) enters a police station to interrogate a criminal and literally tosses him around like a rag doll. He gorilla-presses the clown over his head and sends him smashing into the ceiling. It’s the moment when The Fast and the Furious franchise evolves from a street racing crime saga into something much more spectacular.
Fast Five features everything you want from an action movie; an all-star cast with great chemistry, a charismatic antagonist, and off-the-charts action sequences. It’s one of those films that glue you to the couch whenever it pops up on TV. There are just too many standout moments to walk away from. Who can forget Dom and Brian’s thrilling foot-chase through the Brazilian favelas, the train robbery, the rocket launcher shootout, the cliff dive, the Rock versus Diesel fistfight, or when the gang rips a vault out from a police station and drags it through the streets? I could go on and on. Fast Five is infinitely rewatchable and thrilling every time. (VS)
In 2011 I called Michael Dowse’s film the “apotheosis of Jewish Wish Fulfillment“, and years on it continues to resonate as deeply as it did at release. Twisting the David-vs-Goliath story on its head, this caustic, charming film, with a pitch perfect script by Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg, manages to skate its way into your heart. It’s a perfect example of a story that is superficially silly but on closer examination deeply profound, punching well above its weight to create a modern classic.
Goon is a romcom with added blood spray and broken teeth, reminding throughout that love, family and friendship can sometimes feel as rough as a bodycheck, that sometimes having a bully on your side is a happy thing, and that even when it’s time to hang up the skates it’s always best to go out with a fight. It’s as deep a rumination about our national identity as any Heritage Minute, speaking to our complex notions of identity, strength an togetherness, with Chilliwack and Rush providing a suitably anthemic soundtrack. (JG)
Following the Cannes premiere of this ode to misery, journalists seemed to be more concerned with director Lars von Trier’s controversial comments at a press conference than the film he was there to premiere. In Melancholia, von Trier utilizes his favourite topic of psychological despair in a grand landscape – and with what is certainly his most mainstream cast. Split into two parts, the film begins with a lavish wedding celebration of Justine (a career-best performance from Kristen Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). The second half of the film takes place weeks later where the film depicts Justine in a crippling depression as her sister (von Trier favourite Charlotte Gainsbourg) tries to calm her, whilst simultaneously preparing her family for the end of the world. The title refers not only to Justine’s crippling disease, but also to the massive planet set to collide with and therefore destroy planet earth. Lars von Trier offers up an unprecedented depiction of depression, placing clinical despair on the same tier as the end of the world. (MH)
The touching story of an Algerian immigrant who steps up in the wake of tragedy is just as profound and perhaps even more relevant now than it was in 2011. Casting Algerian comic Mohammed Fellag as the titular Lazhar is a stroke of genius. A charming man who hides his own deep grief as he attempts to make the world brighter for young students following the suicide of their beloved teacher, Philippe Falardeau’s moving drama never goes in the direction you might expect it to. It’s through Fellag’s restrained performance and that of the young Quebecois students, led by Sophie Nélisse, that Monsieur Lazhar manages to teach rather than preach. It’s an excellent example of the heights Canadian cinema, and in particular Quebecois cinema, have reached in the past decade. (RW)
Dee Rees’ coming-of-age drama Pariah is a moving look at identity and learning to find one’s own voice. Encased in Bradford Young’s colourful and mesmerizing cinematography, Pariah is both poetic and powerful. At its core is Alike (Adepero Oduye), a teen who has yet to come out to her devoutly religious mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) and her police officer father Arthur (Charles Parnell). As Rees follows Alike navigating both homelife and her first real lesbian relationship, the hypocritical judging eye of the community becomes more pronounced. One of the things that really makes the film resonate are the note perfect performances by Oduye and Waynes. Each actress brings out the complex layers of their characters in a palpable and authentic way. Frankly, it is a shame that this film has flown under the radar of many. (CS)
Nothing is quite as frightening as the sight of a tornado cloud. No matter how far we run, a storm cloud will cover the distance, like the wrath of God. Curtis’ (Michael Shannon) nights as of late have been sleepless. Inescapable storms and faceless people linger threateningly in his dreamscape. He awakens, short of breath and covered in sweat. Jeff Nichols captures that anxiety for two hours, watching Curtis trying to keep it all together as he alienates the very family he is desperate to save from a storm only he can see. David Wingo’s score is reminiscent of wind chimes blowing in the breeze, calling to a future storm. The score meshes with the film so effortlessly that the mere hint of it sends shivers down the spine. It should come as no surprise that the stunning conclusion does as well. Perhaps, more importantly, Take Shelter gave Michael Shannon one of his best leading roles and it made viewers take note of Jessica Chastain, who both went on to appear in many more films on best-of-the-decade lists. (CB)
The Raid: Redemption
Sometimes there’s beauty in simplicity.
Gareth Evans’ ultra-violent Indonesian action flick The Raid relies on a plot that sounds lifted from the Double Dragon series: a bad-ass police squad must enter a tenement building run by a local crime lord and fight their way up to the top. Easy peasy lemon squeezy, right? Not so fast. Said building is loaded with vicious thugs armed with machetes, guns, and an apparent death wish.
The Raid put director Gareth Evans and his star, Iko Uwais, on the map. Few films released this decade can match The Raid’s balls-to-the-wall intensity and intricate fight choreography. The action in this flick comes fast and furious, and it’s a thing of beauty. Evans doesn’t resort to the over-edited shaky cam style that many of today’s action movies resort to. In The Raid, combat is a stunning ballet of punches, kicks and head smashes that took months to choreograph. Though I would argue The Raid 2 is the superior technical achievement, Evans’ 2011 film established him as one of the best action movie directors working today. (VS)
The Tree of Life
The period between Terrence Malick’s triumphant return to cinema with 1998’s The Thin Red Line and more recent, less heralded output like Knight of Cups and Song to Song was capped by what is arguably the reclusive filmmaker’s grand opus: 2011’s The Tree of Life.
The film marked a transition of sorts for Malick. Following this film lay a series of movies that play more as grueling-but-gorgeous formal experiments than coherent narratives (a trend only recently broken with 2019’s A Hidden Life). The Tree of Life stood at a crossroads between his early films and the path he’d soon go down, existing as a distillation of the heady themes and deep quandaries that have echoed throughout his work and his most captivating stylistic tendencies. It’s a film that washes over the viewer, one that is almost certain to move you on a very basic human level if you give it your time and attention. Brad Pitt stars as an archetypal father figure, and he’s joined by Jessica Chastain in a star-making turn as a paragon of motherhood, and Sean Penn as their grown-up son. The film is ostensibly about growing up in suburban 1950s Texas and reflecting back on childhood, but as with most of Malick’s movies the story is undergirded by larger thematic elements, touching upon birth, death, life, the universe and everything in it.
The Tree of Life hits the extraordinary heights it does in large part thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki’s intimate and enthralling cinematography, Alexandre Desplat’s ever present score, and Douglas Trumbull’s stunning visual effects sequences. The only question at this point is: Which version should you watch first? Do you choose Malick’s original 2011 theatrical version (which clocked in at 135 minutes), or the alternate version produced for the 2019 Criterion release (a new edit that comes in at a whopping 188 minutes)? Both versions would almost certainly make the cut as major works from this decade. (WP)
We Need To Talk About Kevin
The big question at the center of We Need To Talk About Kevin is the degree of responsibility that Tilda Swinton’s Eva has for the actions of her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), after he commits an act of brutal violence. Is Kevin just a bad seed, or did Eva’s less-than-enthusiastic approach to motherhood create “Kevin.” The film is structured in a way that you could reasonably believe one or the other.
I immediately sided with Eva in the film. She starts out isolated from the people in her neighbourhood and even in flashbacks she feels withdrawn from her family, especially because of the lack of support she receives from her husband. Ultimately, this movie will inspire interesting conversations and will stick with viewers days after watching it. (DG)
Other years on the list
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