Kevin Ketchum’s Top Ten Films of 2011


As I worked through my list of favorite films of the year, I was surprised at what stood out, and what didn’t. I liked a lot of films this year, and loved quite a few. But when narrowing down what films I considered the ten best of the year, I was taken aback by what didn’t ultimately make the cut.

Certainly, there was a wealth of great documentary filmmaking that I responded to. Werner Herzog came charging out of the gates with a one-two punch of must see films about the human condition, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss. James Marsh’s Project Nim was a heartbreaking story about humanity & compassion, and how they can take a back seat to ambition. None of them made the cut.

Great indie films were in no short supply this year. Both Beginners and The Descendants offered masterful insights into loss, family, and emotional baggage. Midnight in Paris stood out as Woody Allen’s finest film in many years, and 50/50 was a thoroughly human work about a young man facing his own mortality. Both films were hilarious and deeply felt. Martha Marcy May Marlene was an incredibly immersive experience, placing the viewer squarely in the main character’s shoes, forcing us to experience her paranoia firsthand. Yet none of them landed on my list.

You didn’t have to look far to find impressive studio efforts. Both Contagion and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were handsomely made thrillers with master directors at the helm. Captain America: The First Avenger injected a much-needed dose of originality into the comic book genre with its period setting. Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Rise of the Planet of the Apes stood out as thrilling, exciting entries in long-storied franchises, with the former having the second best selection of set-pieces in any action film this year.

I was taken by a number of foreign titles I saw. 13 Assassins was an exciting, epic throwback to the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, as well as being Takashi Miike’ best film to date. The Skin I Live In was a twisted and stomach-churning horror film from Pedro Almodovar, while A Separation was a heart-wrenching look at a marriage in crisis.

Nostalgia took center stage this year in several films. War Horse was a beautiful and moving throwback to the films of John Ford and David Lean, while Hugo gently explored the importance and magic of filmmaking. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 offered the epic and heartfelt conclusion to the iconic series.

But none of these films made my list. Even Moneyball, the closest thing to a #11 for me, didn’t cut it, despite being a dense, rewarding character study from two of the best writers in the industry headlined by a charismatic and authentic turn from one of the finest actors working today. Each of these films had something great to offer, but I simply couldn’t find room for them in my top ten. So without further adieu, let’s find out exactly what did make it into my list.

10.) Rango

There was a lot of talk this year of films that were about movies. Hugo, Super 8, and The Artist all took center stage in this discussion, but the film that stood out as the most creative and unique homage to filmmaking was Gore Verbinski’s Rango. Through John Logan’s sharp-as-a-razor script filled with hilarious run-on sentences and oddball sensibilities, the film is at once a reverential tribute to a genre and a wholly original piece of work.

9.) Rampart

Oren Moverman’s second feature film indicates that he is truly one of the most exciting new filmmakers of his generation. Building from an original screenplay by James Ellroy, with re-writes by Moverman, the film takes the viewer on a journey into the mind of a corrupt LAPD officer, and his descent into hell, with the Rampart corruption scandal as a framework. As Dave Brown, Woody Harrelson gives the finest performance of his career, a clenched yet explosive portrayal that recalls the work of Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver. The film is true achievement on all fronts.

8.) I Saw the Devil

There were several films this year about serial killers, yet only Kim Ji-Woon’s entry in the genre possessed the kind of soul churning quality that hasn’t been seen since David Fincher’s Se7en. Injecting new life into the rote, “hunter becomes the hunted” story, I Saw the Devil is a gorgeously crafted, bleak tale of the hollow sadness of revenge. Masterfully crafted action scenes and non-stop tension accentuate a deeply felt tragedy about a man seeking his own brand of balance as justice.

7.) Take Shelter

Jeff Nicols’ follow-up to his debut feature Shotgun Stories is a powerful piece of metaphorical storytelling headlined by an incredible performance by Michael Shannon. Using provocative imagery of a cataclysmic storm, Nicols weaves a nuanced portrait of mental illness as an allegory for the unease over the economic crisis in America, and the storm that might be yet to come, a storm like no other. The final scene may leave many viewers conflicted with its vague implications, but there is no denying the way the story leaves the viewer shaken to their very core.

6.) Kung Fu Panda 2

Do not adjust your monitors, because I totally went there. Dreamworks Animation’s sequel to 2008’s Kung Fu Panda is everything a sequel should be. Bigger, bolder, richer, and better than the original, while adding its own unique elements that make it stand out and grow as a piece of storytelling. Gorgeous animation and fluid, exciting, fast paced action are icing on the cake of a hilarious and heartfelt story of identity and confronting the past, and I was a pile of weeping mush by the time the credits rolled.

5.) The Adventures of Tintin

Speaking of action, the best action film of the year came from a surprising yet not entirely unexpected place. Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin is a landmark of visual conception, and handily his best film in nearly a decade since Minority Report. From John Williams’ thrilling score to the wonderfully gleeful performances, to Spielberg’s confident and energetic direction, the film is a treasure trove of creativity and a joy from start to finish.

4.) Shame

Steven McQueen is a true artist functioning on a level very few directors ever hope to achieve. His second film, Shame is a testament to that prowess. Beautifully rendered and assuredly directed, the film raises a lot of questions about the nature of damaged people in a culture of excess and non-stop barrage of information, capturing the zeitgeist in ways that no other film this year has done. At the center of this provocative story is Michael Fassbender’s tour-de-force performance that is the finest piece of acting of the year.

3.) Drive

The story of Drive couldn’t be more by the numbers, but director Nicolas Winding Refn injects a massive amount of originality and style into a hard-boiled study of an ultraviolent man. Shot with a reverence for the kind of beauty only Michael Mann has ever captured from Los Angeles, the film is a breath of fresh air, a visionary take on a long-storied genre that is one of the most wholly satisfying viewing experiences in a long time.

2.) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

omas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carre’s espionage classic may be the first film of the year that I might label as timeless. Whereas the Cold War setting may threaten to date the story, it could not be a more timeless work of art from a new directorial force at the top of his game. At once appearing to be an intricate, dense spy thriller, the film slowly reveals itself to be a study of men and how they interact with one another. How do former killers adapt to being shackled behind the prison bars of desk jobs? The film examines this in each of these men, specifically one man, George Smiley, played to precise perfection by Gary Oldman. Recalling the best of Jean Pierre Melville’s films, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a near masterpiece that only becomes more rewarding with further viewings.

1.) The Tree of Life

Indeed, it is Terrence Malick’s fifth feature film that landed squarely at my choice for the best film of the year. Malick has explored themes of spirituality, man’s capacity for violence, the coexistence of man and nature, and the existence or absence of a higher power throughout his career. Here, he seeks to reconcile those themes in his most epic, yet paradoxically most intimate study. An impressionistic portrait of a family in 1950s Texas, the film covers a vast thematic landscape in the form of an epic visual tone poem that is a deeply felt and immensely personal film from arguably the greatest living American filmmaker. A transcendent masterpiece, it is easily my choice for the best film of the year.

Kevin Ketchum

Austin Film Critic. I am a blogger, critic, and writer living in Austin, TX. I first became serious about film after seeing The Lord of the Rings trilogy in its original theatrical run between 2001 and 2003. Since then, film has become my life and there's no better job than writing about what I love.
  • Emil

    Very nice write-up. I can’t comment too much on the selections, seeing as I’ve only seen two of them so far: Rango, which was a very pleasant surprise and a breath of fresh air, and Drive, which was just plain superb. The rest are all on my watch list, though.

    Again, good post. Keep up the fine work!

  • Anonymous

    The ones I’ve seen I totally agree with you (especially Kung Fu Panda 2, which was my favorite film of the summer and probably my pic for best animated film of the year, until I see Tintin), and the ones I haven’t I probably will (Take Shelter will be at the RPL in two week, so I’ll fit it in before the end of the year).

  • Andrew Robinson

    PS. Kung Fu Panda 2 !> Rango… otherwise our arguments can be held off until I see the half of your list that I’ve yet to get to… which might not be for a while if I’m not lucky

  • John

    I thought Rango was mediocre. I don’t know, maybe I missed something. It just came off as really predictable and it didn’t get me laughing. Great list though, I need to see some of these movies.

  • Andrew

    I love that you had the balls to include two/three animated films on your list. I also really enjoyed Take Shelter and Shame (which will likely make my list too), and Rampart took me by complete surprise as very powerful filmmaking all around. 

  • Kevin Ketchum

    Didn’t really see it as that ballsy haha. I don’t understand the bias some people have towards animation. Quality is quality. 

  • Andrew Buckle

    Nice selections. There are a few films on this list I need to see - Rampart, Shame and TTSS, but I love the inclusion of Rango - and though I won’t be including KFP2 and Tintin in my Top 10, I thought they were both fantastic. Take Shelter, Drive and The Tree of Life will appear in mine!

    What did you think of KFP2′s exclusion from the Globes nominees? Travesty.

  • Christopher Misch

    Kung Fu Panda 2 is not being included among those nominated for a Golden Globe, was one of several missteps in my mind announced last week.

  • Anonymous

    Exactly.  For my Best of 2009 list, my #3-6 were all animated films (Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog and Coraline).  If I were to revise it, I’d probably cut Princess and Coraline, but I still thought it was an amazing year for animation.  With my list I always want to include at least one animated film, as well as one documentary, one foreign film and a really good blockbuster, as well as an under the radar “gimme” to round it out so that it’s not the same films you see one every other list.