11 Great Films From 2011

hipsters-stilyagi.jpg
Rebellious Russian musical HIPSTERS (STILYAGI) courtesy Leisure Time Features

It's a tired meme that Hollywood sucks & the cinemas are filled with nothing but remakes. This may be true in some cities (may the movie gods have mercy upon their souls), but LA is the movie capital of the world! We're lucky to see tons of independent & international productions on our screens, with arrivals every week!

We profile as many as we can in our weekly Film Calendar & Weekend Movie Guides (running every Wednesday & Friday, respectively). We wish we could see & cover them all. Some slip through the cracks, others are too good to talk about only once. In that spirit, here are 11 of our favorite films this year.

The Artist - The Artist is a great film, but it has its flaws. Too often director Michael Hazanivicius relies on tired tropes to tell this story of a washed-up silent film star coming to terms with the arrival of the talkies and the rise of former protégé Peppy Miller. There are bad sight gags, recycled jokes, and so many winking references to older films you could probably hear my eyes roll in the otherwise silent room.

And yet, despite its flaws, The Artist is perhaps the most beautiful and most human film I have seen in a very long time. And it accomplishes this rather bold feat with such an economy and elegance as to make it required watching this year. Sure, it's a silent feature. And yes, its Star Is Born story has been done before. How did it get so good?

First, the acting is impeccable. Protagonist George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) tap-dances with Astaire's poise, pouts like Brando, and falls in love with the grace of his namesake Valentino. Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) breathes fresh air and humor into her role — adding color and light to a sometimes dark script. Second, the direction is top-notch. While Hazanivicius tends toward the formulaic, he does it with such a light touch and innocence; these stories begin to feel new. You can practically feel the emotion between the two actors as they smile and tap their way through each other's lives. No doubt Ludovic Bource's excellent score only heightens that feeling of film drama and romance.

The Artist revels in and reveals the beauty of a medium that has seen its importance fade in recent years. In the midst of so much noisy, mediocre media, movies like these should inspire aspiring directors. Far more than a nostalgic throwback to Hollywood's better days, this is a careful piece of work, a perfect pop song of shadow and light, melody and silence — a reminder that movies can do so much and require so little. If less is more, then The Artist reveals just how far a film can travel. -Jon Peters

Attack The Block - Attack the Block, the directorial debut from television comedian Joe Cornish, could have taken a page from Thackeray and been subtitled A Movie Without a Hero. The protagonists, the people we're supposed to be cheering for, are a bunch of asshole kids the audience meets as they mug nurse Sam on her way home from work. The teenage gang becomes even less likable when they throw away Sam's things as worthless. We follow the gang as their leader Moses decides to investigate a strange object falling from the sky onto a parked car, hoping that there's something of value to steal. They find nothing to steal, but instead find a mysterious creature (a dog? an alien?). After killing it and taking it home as a trophy, we meet other residents of the titular Block, a council estate in London. None are traditionally "good" people — we have drug dealers (one played by Nick Frost of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead), obnoxious drug buyers, and older, even rougher gang members. The teenagers get in over their heads and end up battling larger, more vicious versions of the creature they killed, armed only with kitchen knives, a samurai sword, bicycles, and firecrackers (it's Bonfire Night, after all). A police van is stolen, nurse Sam is coerced into medically helping one of her muggers, cars are crashed, and more & more people are drawn into the battle — all by our theoretical heroes.

So what makes Attack the Block so enjoyable? This isn't Independence Day, with Will Smith as national hero. Nor is it District 9, with a bureaucrat-turned-hunted-fugitive. These are a bunch of kids who think they're tougher than they are and go looking for trouble. But just because they're unlikable doesn't mean they're not realistic or whole characters. It's entirely believable that a bunch of 14- and 15-year-olds in public housing would commit petty crimes & explore unusual events simply because they're bored. And everything that happens after they investigate that first creature flows naturally. The action moves fluidly and there's genuine anxiety over whether these kids will be able to pull themselves out of this mess. The architecture of the Block (filmed at Heygate Estate, a now-demolished "neo-brutalist" block) increases the tension while the shadowy nature of the creatures keeps them from being cheesy.

Plus, the slang. Oh my god, the slang. Do yourself a favor and watch with subtitles on. The slang is truly dazzling. Ed Elizabeth Yerke-Robins

Bridesmaids - With accolades from AFI, nominations from SAG & the Golden Globes and nearly $170 million banked at the box office, Bridesmaids is the biggest name on this list by far. Sometimes the obvious choice is the best one. Advertised as "a female Hangover" (particularly since it opened within weeks of The Hangover Part II), Bridesmaids actually plays out as a standard (albeit very vulgar) romantic comedy. But that's its greatest strength. It brings ladies to the table playing by their own rules — and shows they can still drink anybody under it.

In producer Judd Apatow's world, women often serve cookie-cutter functions rather than exist as individuals — inspiring man-children to become functioning fathers & devirginizing 40-year-olds. Here, they're fully-formed characters, an ensemble of different personalities (the beaming newlywed, the jaded mother, the tough-as-nails "fat friend"), each as lovably immature as the rest of us. Director Paul Feig's background in female-centered shows like Nurse Jackie & Weeds poises him to step back and let the ladies take the lead. But of course, giving the boys all the credit defeats the purpose of empowerment. Bridesmaids co-producers & co-writers Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo (both Groundlings alumni) create a world of imperfection.

In case you missed it, artisanal baker Annie (Wiig) should be in the prime of her life. Instead, her business went bankrupt, her sex partner wants nothing to do with her & she's forced to share a flat with two incestuous Brits lest she move back in with her mother. When her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph, another Groundling) announces her engagement, Annie pulls out all the stops for one last hurrah as maid of honor before she's truly alone. Standing in her way is Lillian's new best friend Helen (Rose Byrne), the well-connected, wealthy woman who's everything Annie isn't. The dynamic, played to perfection, is a fun twist on the classic love triangle of scrappy upstart against rich suitor. Only this time with awkward comedy bouts of up-ending toasts & upset tummies. - Ed Yerke-Robins

The Future - Miranda July continues the quirky in her latest cinematic creation The Future, a dark probe of failure in relationships, aspirations and life.

Sophie and Jason, a seasoned couple, pledge to quit their jobs and the Internet to tackle personal, ambitious projects for one month. The narrative centers on the couple's forthcoming adoption of a stray cat named Paw Paw, who suffers from renal failure and a wounded foot. Prodding the ground with his bandaged left front paw, Paw Paw counts down his rescue to the second. And he talks (voiced by July).

The duo fails in their missions almost immediately, stabbing viewers with that sinking feeling of regret that piggybacks on defeat. Not only does the couple blunder in thirty days of YouTube dance and planting trees in Los Angeles, their relationship deteriorates. Sophie's infidelity is shocking, as is her unexpected dry humping of her new, much older lover's couch. Heart broken, Jason practices his art of stopping time, symbolizing his need for more time to deal, heal and reach the conclusion that the two do not have a future together, even when Sophie remorsefully mopes up the stairs of the apartment they once shared.

And where's Paw Paw in this selfish mess? Euthanized.

The film entertains, depresses and confuses with dance, desire, struggle and collapse, forcing viewers to stop and recall their abandoned pursuits and goals. The film is more so a painful look at the past and present than of the future, and I loved it. - Lauren Lloyd

Hipsters - Most Russian film is as frozen as its tundra. The pioneering work of Sergei Eisenstein is turgid theory in motion. Andrey Tarkovsky's films are methodical meditations on dark times. Even the action-packed Night Watch films juxtapose the tepid truce between good & evil with corrupt bureaucracy. Hipsters flies in the face of this tradition, which may explain why it cleaned house at the Nikas (Russian Oscars) upon its release in the motherland. Equal parts Pleasantville & Hairspray, it's a period musical exploding with energy & sweet satire. It's something very few of its cinematic ancestors aim to be: pure fun.

In the 1950s, an underground influx of jazz records, swingin' social clubs & greaser style literally colors the grey world of government-issued uniformity. In Soviet society, this borders on treason, and roving gangs of loyalist youth rip hipster clothes & slash their locks - light-hearted euphemisms for what their real-world counterparts would have done. For Mels (named for Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin), toeing the party line, whatever it entails, is a way of life until he falls for Polly & her hipster comrades. Mels' physical transformation (& dropping the "Stalin" from his name to go by "Mel" - scandalous!) mirrors his changing beliefs and the evolution of Russian culture on the whole. Even when the movement splinters & the pendulum swings back with a vengeance, Mels maintains a sunny disposition as rebel with a cause.

Hipsters is guilty of white-washing a tyrannical period for artists (to get a sense of how things really were, we recommend the marvelous documentary The Desert of Forbidden Art). It also runs on the long side - the downside of being chock full of performances. But when you're producing the first Russian musical since the 1930s, you can be forgiven for not wanting to stop the boogie-woogie. - Ed Yerke-Robins

Insidious - The biggest non-franchise horror film of the year, Insidious saw a wave of strong festival buzz crest at a polarized fanboy reception. To its detractors, it's a muddled mess, with choice bits from producer Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity films undone by Saw duo Leigh Whannell (writer)'s & James Wan (director)'s weirdness. Be warned: Insidious scares up some awkward tonal shifts. But if you can handle them, you'll find a rich film that goes further than its simple set-up suggests.

For the uninitiated: the Lambert family finds their new house frightening. There's spooky voices & apparitions, but the scariest incident of all occurs when eldest son Dalton (age 10, tops) inexplicably falls into a deep, waking coma. He isn't conscious, but he isn't at risk of any physical injury. Until the spirits step up their game & threaten to tear the entire family apart. Ever seen one of these movies & wondered "why don't they just leave the house?" So did Whannell & Wan, who have the family leave the house (kudos to FX's American Horror Story for a similar plot point). This simple act of logic makes it all the scarier when the haunting continues in the new house. They can neither run nor ride from their spiritual predators. Ever seen a horror film & wondered "how is that one character still a skeptic when something clearly just happened?" So did Whannell & Wan, who have a skeptical husband admit that he doesn't know everything, and take his frightened wife at her word that something's incredibly amiss (only in the movies, right?).

This smart storytelling is wonderfully led by Patrick Wilson & Rose Byrne (her second appearance here — coincidence?). Their strained couple is not only terrified but tired; this simple exhaustion lends credence to the outlandish twists that follow. Without giving too much away, the explanation has "magical realist" qualities. It's completely fantastic, yet its plain presentation (nobody does anything "wrong") lends it a normalcy, as unpleasant as the sun going down, but just as natural. Insidious could happen to almost any family at any time. Just count your blessings it didn't happen to you. - Ed Yerke-Robins

Queen of the Sun: What Are The Bees Telling Us? - The past few years has brought an abundant harvest of foodie films. Emboldened by personalities like Michael Pollan & Jamie Oliver, documentary filmmakers scrutinize every element of food production from planting to plating.

Queen of the Sun isn't the only 2011 release to paint honeybees as an endangered, forgotten link in the food system (the other, Vanishing of the Bees, is a fine doc in its own right), but it hits a sweet spot between education & entertainment. Like many "secular apocalypse" docs, it presents frightening facts about colony collapse disorder and fascinating revelations about its impact on Californian agriculture. It balances this with the cultural connections between man and bee, including the dynamic personalities who worship the "queens of the sun" and work tirelessly to innovate solutions for survival (my favorite is still the French farmer who combs his mustache with his hive). Before viewing, I knew nothing about a honeybee crisis and cared even less. Now I'm a true beeliever (you knew it was coming). - Ed Yerke-Robins

The Skin I Live In - Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has been to some dark places before, but The Skin I Live In is his first out-and-out thriller. Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is equal parts James Bond & Victor Frankenstein: a suave, well-connected, deeply troubled scientist so obsessed with his work that he's held test subject Vera (Elena Anaya) captive in his mansion for years of experimental skin grafts.

Most human experimentation in film focuses purely on changes to the physical body - whether horrifying (Human Centipede) or heroic (Captain America). Anaya's performance masterfully illustrates how individual psyche & history change alongside the body, and how this transformation is even scarier. Without giving too much away, Vera can never go back to who she was. But as she struggles to escape Ledgard's grasp, she regains control over her identity & her future. - Ed Yerke-Robins

Source Code - Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a returning soldier with eight minutes to find a bomb on-board his passenger train. He makes friends and enemies, falls in love and fails spectacularly. The bomb explodes, killing everyone on-board. Except Stevens. The man reawakens amid a giant computer mainframe that sends him back into the "Source Code", a meticulous, interactive simulation of that same train. With that same bomb. For those same eight minutes. With that same explosion. Over and over until he can discover who planted the bomb before they can execute another attack.

Just as the story cuts back and forth between these simulations and the "real world", Source Code shifts between two mysteries. The first is a thrilling puzzle - who DID plant that bomb? The "Source Code" scenario is no mere MacGuffin. The 8-minute device binds us and Stevens; we learn the clues to the bomber and rules of "Source Code" alongside him. The tight run-time (just under 90 minutes, discounting credits) & thrusting narrative keep audience & hero intertwined, as does the minimalism of the computer junction tying Stevens back into reality. Like us, Stevens is in a dark room, enveloped by intensely moving & confusing images. He can choose where to focus his attention, but cannot ever change the course of action. Is it any wonder we share his pain?

That psychic struggle belies Source Code's meatier mystery, made up of a series of existential & ethical quandaries. Who's behind "Source Code"? Why are they so eager to push Stevens past his limits? As the bomb goes off again and again, he becomes more frustrated, frantic & eventually, fractured. How willing a subject is Stevens? Does a soldier's willing enlistment grant the government license to shatter his psyche, even if it's in service of a greater good? It is to Gyllenhaal & director Duncan Jone's great credit that we're left pondering these questions and not "how the hell are they going to stretch this into a TV show?" - Ed Yerke-Robins

Stake Land - While the vampire has been a sensual figure on-screen since Bela Lugosi's Dracula, the blockbuster Twilight franchise finalized the transformation from ancient terror into new romantic. Stake Land brings the bloodsuckers back to beastliness. The plot resembles The Road with vampires, as an unnamed vampire hunter and his teenage apprentice traverse burned-out backwoods of the American South with a vampire-worshipping militia in hot pursuit. The duo drifts through a rotating crew of survivalists en route to "New Eden", but the world's almost completely drained. There are pockets of humanity, moments of hope and even jubilation, but drop your guard (or your gun) for one moment and it will all be ripped away. It's hard to know who you can trust, or who the real monsters are, but know this: Stake Land pulls no punches in shocks, suspense or straight-up brutality. - Ed Yerke-Robins

Troll Hunter - Over a decade ago, The Blair Witch Project popularized the "found footage" genre of horror, wherein a documentary crew encounters a legendary figure that (spoiler alert!) kills them "mid-filming". Troll Hunter, Norway's contribution to the genre, towers over the flood of found footage that appeared in the wake of the witch. Since trolls don't exist on our shores (only on our internet), the Scandinavian mythos brings fresh blood to the genre, chased with a shot of adrenaline.

If your first thought of trolls is colored hair & belly-button jewels, you'll flip for Troll Hunter's world of big furry trolls, really big three-headed trolls & bonafide gigantic trolls! These bloodthirsty beasts feel real, from the great creature design to the creative "science" behind why trolls turn to stone in the sunlight. In anticipation of the WTF factor, Troll Hunter's most powerful weapon is a tongue planted firmly in cheek. Turns out chasing a 200 foot troll is a ton of fun! - Ed Yerke-Robins

What movies did you fall in love with this year? Whether it's Tree of Life or Transformers, we want to hear about it! Happy Moviegoing!