Brendan Shick | Freelance Film, Broadcast, & Digital Media

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Top 10 Films of 2011

Mar 10 2012 by Brendan Shick Add Your Thoughts

Alright, so usually these posts come out in January, but hear me out here. You saw so many Top 10 posts right after you replaced that desk calendar that you stopped reading them, right?

By contrast, the major awards shows don’t announce their final picks in January (the Academy doesn’t even release the nominees until late January), and those lists usually dig up some hidden jems.

Indeed, a few titles on this list are films that I only saw – and was glad I did – because they picked up some minor nomination in late January. I purposely held this list back to give those films a chance at the list.

Honorable Mentions:

10. Warrior

Warrior (2011)

I knew from the opening shots that I was going to like this film. I can’t really explain why, but turns out, I was right.

This film does have its weaknesses, which is why it only makes the ten spot on my list, but a fabulous performance by Nick Nolte did rightfully garner him a much deserved nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

This film bears a striking similarity to The Fighter (2010), just keep the family drama, but replace boxing with mixed martial arts, and mark up the Supporting Actor nominee as Nick Nolte, instead of Christian Bale. Set the film in Pittsburgh for local flavor (apparently this means adding some mountains, three rivers, and a Norfolk Southern coal train every 10 minutes – come to find out you can fool most the world without giving the characters the right accent) and also note a surprising resemblance to this year’s Real Steel.

That being said, in many ways, I like Warrior and Real Steel substantially more than I liked The Fighter, although Christian Bale did give the better supporting performance (partly because his was a much more substantial part of the story).

—- *POSSIBLE MINOR SPOILERS* —- About halfway through the film, we end up at the climatic tournament scene. This was such an intense and engaging sequence that I didn’t realize I’d essentially been watching a single scene until 45 minutes into the sequence. With about 20 minutes left in the film at that point, it was obvious that the story was going to end there, but I didn’t care. I was that into it despite being in one place for half the film.—- *END SPOILERS* —-

9. Margin Call

Margin Call (2011)

When I saw the Oscar nominees, I might have even exclaimed out loud, “What’s Margin Call?”

As the only original screenplay nominee that didn’t have any other nominations, it intrigued me, partly because I hadn’t even heard of it. Luckily, I made time to see it and was quite impressed.

Being the feature debut for writer/director J.C. Chandor, this was quite an accomplishment. Shot over 17 days in largely one location, Margin Call tells the story of the 2008 financial crisis on Wall Street. Zachary Quinto (Star Trek, “Heroes”) plays the boy genius who discovers something strange in the books. This sets off a chain reaction with well-known consequences.

The beauty of this piece is in its simplicity and gritty realism. The fact that Chandor’s father worked in the financial industry (and claims his son could easily have followed him if it wasn’t for his filmmaking passion) gave the new writer a deep insider knowledge of his subject matter that few, if any, could have rivaled. The Academy-nominated screenplay is brought to life not only by Quinto, but also Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, and other names you probably recognize.

I watched this one night and immediately popped in the audio commentary the next morning. The filmmakers have some great insights to share. Shooting a feature in 17 days on a $3 million dollar budget with this cast meant cutting some major corners financially. The amazing thing is you won’t notice it when watching the film. The filmmakers are quick to share their secrets in the commentary track.

8. The Descendants

The Descendants (2011)

The next pick takes us straight across the country, from Penn Plaza New York, all the way to tropical Hawaii. I went into this film knowing very little plot-wise, but expecting quite a lot given it’s multiple nominations across most of the awards shows and categories.

I respect George Clooney as an actor, but I rarely rave over the films he stars in. They tend to span this strange spectrum between films that are meant to be a joke (Burn After Reading [2008], or any other time the Coen brothers cast him) and films that are trying a little too hard to be artsy (The Ides of March [2011]). I’m not claiming these make bad films or acting performances. I do like them to a certain extent.

The Descendants, however, is a work of art falling right in the middle. The story feels easy to relate to despite being a tale of extreme circumstances that only grow more extreme as the film progresses. Writing and acting are king here, making for some real emotion that forces the viewer to deal with how to react in the same way the script forces the characters to.

George Clooney gives a difficult performance worthy of its Oscar nomination despite the fact that he’s outshined by the younger and largely unknown Shailene Woodley, who, for whatever reason, was not nominated for Best Actress. She has a slightly more difficult role, yet gives a fully believable performance. I’d go so far as to say she deserved to win this year’s Oscar.

7. Rango

Rango (2011)

The only animated film on this year’s list, Rango was possibly the decisive pick for Best Animated Feature before it was even released.

Typically the honor of said award would default to Pixar, but with the usual masters of story opting instead for a sequel to Cars (considered one of their least popular and critically acclaimed releases) it’s not surprising that this would be the year for someone else to step up to the plate.

That someone took the form of VFX giant Industrial Light and Magic, backed by what was essentially the cast and crew of the first 3 films from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean 1-3, The Ring) directs ‘Pirates’ stars Johnny Depp and Bill Nighy in what is essentially an animated retelling of the classic, Academy Award winning screenplay for Chinatown (1974) – set in the modern Las Vegas desert instead of the historic Los Angeles basin.

The plot and characters remain largely the same although the story still feels somewhat unique and original considering that it’s really not. Three things bring this to my top ten list:

  1. Hans Zimmer’s score. Every year for the past decade, he’s put out one of the top 3 film soundtracks. Rango‘s score is different than what you would expect to come from from Zimmer, but certainly still makes the list and is a great part of the film.
  2. Johnny Depp’s performance. As always, he is unrecognizable if you don’t know it’s him (yes, he’s a computer-generated chameleon this time which helps, but you know what I mean…).
  3. Last, but not least, is the visuals. ILM has been dealing with photorealistic CGI and visual effects since they invented the two – long before anyone else thought to make an entirely CG-animated feature (Pixar was an experimental division of ILM at the time – later sold off and acquired by Disney). They were the natural choice to succeed Pixar in the computer animated feature race.

Rango delivered. Despite the ridiculous characters and setting, there were entire scenes where I forgot I was watching an animated film. You could easily call this a huge accomplishment, but then again, ILM has been doing photorealistic animation since the 80s, and people have rarely noticed.

As if the stellar animation quality didn’t bring enough to the visuals, the filmmakers also consulted with live action DP Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men, True Grit). As an 8 time Oscar nominee and the winner of the ASC lifetime achievement award, Deakins brought a cinematographical background to this film that no animator could hope to match on their own.

Animators really need to consult with big name DPs more often as the superb shot choices and use of depth of field in both ILM’s Rango and Pixar’s Wall-E (which was also a collaboration with Deakins) have shown.

6. Drive

Drive (2011)

Two of this year’s critically acclaimed films were set in historic Los Angeles: The Artist and Drive. In one of the strangest twists in film criticism this past year, Drive took home an early Best Director award at France’s Cannes Film Festival, yet was only given a single nomination at the Oscar’s, instead shown the door largely by the (ironically) French-made The Artist.

My love for Drive comes mostly from the first seven minutes of the film. The opening action sequence was one of the most riveting I’ve experienced and the ending of the chase was so clever that you knew you were rooting for the main character all the way, no matter the legality of what he might do next.

In a sort of Up-like complex, Drive never recaptures the magic of its opening sequence later in the story. It’s disappointing only to the extent that the film gives you the best material right off the bat. However, even by just the opening alone, this one stands high in this end-of-year round-up.

5. Super 8

Super 8 (2011)

I already posted my thoughts on Super 8 last summer. Not surprisingly, this film stood the test of the year straight through awards season (at least in my mind), easily remaining on my top ten.

Every year there’s that one film that is released too early. None of the critics dislike it, but they somehow forget about it at the end of the year, despite claims that they won’t during its theatrical run. Last year, it was Shutter Island. This year, it’s Super 8.

You didn’t see this on as many top 10 lists as you should have. That’s not to say that other people’s opinions are invalid; they just have short term memory loss. Few people disliked J.J. Abram’s touching homage to Spielberg’s early work. From the first two shots, we were all intimately connected to the story and to the character more so than at the end of many features.

4. Fright Night

Fright Night (2011)

I almost feel guilty placing this film on this list. From nearly any critical perspective, this film is a complete joke, and it’s a crime to place it at #4 between the likes of great films like Super 8 and A Better Life.

However, Fright Night is not trying to be a great film. It’s merely an attempt to create a cheesy vampire B-movie who’s sole purpose is to make fun of other cheesy vampire B-movies. It succeeds brilliantly. Technically, this film deserves to be on this list by virtue of the fact that it’s the only film listed in this post that I’ve seen three times – twice in theaters, despite the fact that its first run release lasted all of two weeks at my local theater.

This isn’t a so-bad-it’s-good type of film. It’s a film that’s pretending to be bad, but goes about it so cleverly that it becomes truly great in the process. What results is a surprisingly smart and clever approach to comedy, if not downright parody that’s highly successful.

A remake of the 1985 title by the same name, I went into Fright Night knowing absolutely nothing (and apparently having nothing better to do that night?), except that David Tennant was co-starring. Around the opening credits, I realize what I’d stumbled across.

Assuming you don’t ruin it by watching the trailer first, this thriller has some of the best suspense I’ve seen recently. Granted it feels somewhat trivial at the time, being a parody vampire movie and all. Anton Yelchin plays the lead – having previously only seen him as Russian Cadet Chekov (Star Trek [2009]), that performance blew my mind.

3. A Better Life

A Better Life (2011)

In a year where films with technical and creative (cinematography, score, etc.) brilliance and innovation were somewhat lacking, we seem to have had a large number of great acting performances to make up for it.

Demián Bichir’s Academy-nominated leading performance steals the show in this one. Essentially a modern retelling of Bicycle Thieves set in the southwest USA, A Better Life details the struggles of an illegal immigrant migrant worker (Bichir’s character) trying to provide for his naturalized son (José Julián) who has spent his whole life growing up in the southwestern Chicano culture. The story rides on the moving and poignant performance by the former.

This is not to say that other aspects of the story telling have been left to suffer. A Better Life is among my favorite pieces of cinematography from this year. It benefits from some beautiful settings, but even the run down urban environments are magnificently brought to life by the wonderful use of color.

The story itself is incredibly well told, forcing one to deeply care about the characters regardless of their views on the obviously politically charged subject matter. Although not entirely original and entirely predictable (if you know your film history), A Better Life broke new ground and beautifully brought new light to what is still an ugly truth.

2. Real Steel

Real Steel (2011)

When I first heard rumors of a Rock’em Sock’em Robots movie, I wasn’t entertained. When I heard Hugh Jackman was cast, I was skeptical (sometimes this is really good, sometimes not so much – will this be closer to The Fountain or X-Men Origins: Wolverine?). When I saw the trailer, I was impressed – so much so that I knew I would be disappointed after watching the actual film.

Wrong on every count. Real Steel weighs in at my #2 of 2011 – a surprise to even myself.

I finally broke down and saw it after it was nominated for Best Visual Effects at the Oscars – and boy was it deserving. The shadow bots’ movements match those of their human counterparts exactly. I wasn’t aware that the robots were a mix of live action and CGI robots from shot to shot – it all looked equally real.

The story itself was well written, acted and ultimately quite a moving and inspirational father/son story. Ultimately, this special effects and action blockbuster has a real heart that few hardcore dramas even seem to master.

Yet at the same time, the film is masterfully shot, with cinematography that would more typically lend itself to what you would expect from this sort of film – lots of color and extensive amounts of camera movement in keeping with a high budget picture; not the drab, stationary camerawork you’d associate with the indie drama scene.

Mixing these two elements successfully combined the soul of an independent film with the high-end look of a Hollywood blockbuster for a perfect storm. Guess this one turned out to be more like The Fountain after all!

1. Moneyball

Moneyball (2011)

I can’t say enough positive things about Moneyball. It starts with one of the most ambitious (and successful) Aaron Sorkin scripts – and goes from there.

If you thought a film about a bunch of old scouts locked in a room talking about 5-tool players would be boring – then, no, you’re not crazy – you just haven’t experienced Sorkin-dialogue™. The exchanges in this film are simply the best.

Add in a great performance from Brad Pitt (perhaps his best) and Jonah Hill (who knew he did serious roles too?) and you’ve got a pretty strong foundation.

Still not convinced? Well for good measure the audio design in Moneyball is top notch.

Besides being one of my favorite musical scores of the year, the commentary clips (mostly real – taken from archives) played in the background during key moments and montages in the film are spot on – and contribute to taking the film’s messages in the right direction. What a chore finding and assembling those must have been!

The lack of audio in certain sequences also draws the viewer in at all the right moments.

Moneyball (2011)


To be fair to the some odd 8,053 films released last year that I didn’t have time to see, I’ve included a fairly comprehensive list of the notable ones I haven’t seen.

Obviously, there are several included that I don’t expect to be contender, but then again, I wasn’t expecting anything from several of the ten above either.

Notable 2011 Titles Not Yet Screened: 50/50; The Adventures of Tintin; Albert Nobbs; Anonymous; Apollo 18; Bad Teacher; Carnage; Cars 2; Contagion; Crazy, Stupid, Love; Friends with Benefits; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2; Horrible Bosses; Immortals; In Time; J. Edgar; Jack and Jill; Jane Eyre; Kung Fu Panda 2; Paranormal Activity 3; Puss in Boots; The Rum Diary; A Separation; Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; The Smurfs; Source Code; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Tower Heist; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1; Undefeated; W.E.; Water for Elephants; We Bought a Zoo; Zookeeper

Brendan Shick

Brendan Shick is a freelance DP, gaffer, and sports broadcaster serving primarily the Chicago, IL; Pittsburgh, PA; Grand Rapids, MI; and Fort Wayne, IN, regions. You can find out more by following this blog, his recent work on Vimeo, or by connecting with him on Twitter or LinkedIn. Brendan is also an occasional contributor to the Project Updates feed for one of his most recent films, To Turn Back Time.

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