The Best Films of 2011

Top 10 of the Year

1. The Tree of LifeTerrence Malick
2. The Turin HorseBéla Tarr
3. MelancholiaLars von Trier
4. ShameSteve McQueen
5. We Need to Talk About KevinLynne Ramsay
6. DriveNicolas Winding Refn
7. A SeparationAsghar Farhadi
8. The Deep Blue SeaTerence Davies
9. A Dangerous MethodDavid Cronenberg
10. MargaretKenneth Lonergan

Best Film

The Tree of Life. The best film of the year, the best film of the decade, and the best film of Terrence Malick’s career. It is a deeply personal work for him, lingering in the memories of his childhood growing up in 1950s Texas, though a large portion of its greatness lies in the formal comparison he draws between this and the larger cosmos – its formation, the birth of life, and its eventual end. It is the epitome of Malick’s magic hour photography, montage cutting, pensive voiceovers, and philosophical writing, and the results are jaw-dropping.

The Tree of Life has an easy time taking the #1 spot of the year and decade. This also puts it in very esteemed company among the greatest films of all time.

Most Underrated

Shame. TSPDT’s ranking of #20 for 2011 is far too low for this masterpiece. It is Steve McQueen’s strongest film to date, and carries the best examples of all his recognisable trademarks – the washed-out blue and green colour palette, the gruelling long takes, the formal rigour of his characterisations. All of it comes together here in a brilliant study of a self-loathing sex addict trapped in the same old cycles, weaving pleasure and pain into a single paradox through brilliant displays of editing and a virtuosic performance from Michael Fassbender.

Steve McQueen’s blue and green colour palette suffuses Shame with an air of melancholy oppression, trapping this sex addict in the same guilty cycles.

Most Overrated

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film is currently the #5 film of 2011 on the TSPDT consensus list, and I would drop it about 10 spots or so. His richly spiritual screenplay imbues this film with a sense of mysticism that accompanies a convoy of men on their quest to uncover the location of a dead body buried somewhere in Central Anatolia. In its first half, it deliberately meanders from one site to the next as one of the murder suspects, Kenan, leads the men on a trail of guesses as to where it might be. The painstaking precision of the investigation can be trying, dwelling on details that carry little to no significance, and yet every now and then Ceylan breaks through the monotony of these conversations with a delicate flourish of style and symbolism.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia – a quietly languid meditation on sin, regret, and the passing of one’s transgressions onto the next generation.

Best Directorial Debut

The Cabin in the Woods. Drew Goddard’s only film since this is 2018’s Bad Times at the El Royale which I am still yet to see. While The Cabin in the Woods doesn’t come very close to cracking the year’s top 10, it is still an admirable meta-satire of horror films, pulling back the curtain on familiar genre contrivances and hilariously placing them next to scenes of ordinary office work where they are cooked up. The metaphor of the Ancient Ones who serve as representations of the audience makes for a superbly depressing ending as well.

A smart, subversive horror satire from Drew Goddard in his debut, turning the genre on its head.

Gem to Spotlight

Oslo, August 31st. This is Joachim Trier’s follow-up to 2006’s Reprise, and the second part of his unofficial Oslo trilogy (later capped with The Worst Person in the World). The core conflict here is between choosing the future or choosing oblivion, and the mind of recovering drug addict Anders is the battleground upon which it is fought. The titular date might as well be a deadline for him to find some sort of salvation, or at least direction, though with much of the film being set on August 30th, there are precious few hours left for that miracle to take place. The 8-minute take which ends the film is one of the year’s single best shots, and is utterly heartbreaking to watch.

A devastating 8-minute tracking shot through Anders’ house ends Oslo, August 31st, finally settling on this doorway and inching forward.

Best Male Performances

Michael Fassbender has a great year with one of the decade’s best male performances in Shame, and then on top of that playing Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s historical psychological drama A Dangerous Method. Both are uptight, reserved men battling with their sexual impulses, but it is the character study in Shame where he excels, fluctuating between stiff, reticent mannerisms and hunched-over, bestial deviancy. He is served particularly well by Steve McQueen’s close-ups – even as he climaxes, his face is twisted in a pained grimace, weaving pain and pleasure into the paradox which underlies his agonising sex addiction.

Like many of the roles in The Tree of Life, Brad Pitt’s role as Mr O’Brien is largely silent, but he conveys a severity in his manner which is absolutely integral to the film’s dichotomy of grace and nature. Unlike Tyler Durden or Cliff Booth, this is not a role that relies on Pitt’s effortless charisma, but rather lets him explore his range by forcefully repressing that which comes most naturally to him.

One of the great performances of the decade from Michael Fassbender, constantly in conflict with his own compulsions.

Ryan Gosling is also given a similarly stoic role in Drive, though this in the context of an action film, proving that he can hold a self-assured screen presence with little dialogue. On the opposite end of the spectrum Payman Maadi is put under extreme pressure in A Separation, giving a performance of raw naturalism and complexity as he navigates thorny moral issues.

Finally, it is worth giving a spot to Viggo Mortensen who plays opposite Fassbender in A Dangerous Method as Sigmund Freud, the older and wiser psychologist, as well as Anders Danielsen Lie in Oslo, August 31st. He is a talented actor who always does great work with Joachim Trier, and this is his most melancholy part yet, searching for hope in a future that holds little for him.

Some actors have range, others have screen presence – Gosling has both, but it is the latter he chooses to show off in Drive as the stoic, nameless hero.

Best Female Performances

Kirsten Dunst is at the top here with Tilda Swinton, both playing women in separate films who are suffering under the weight of numb, suffocating depression. Dunst finds a strange calm in the despair of Melancholia, fitting perfectly into Lars von Trier’s nihilistic worldview, while Swinton is an equally perfect vehicle for Lynne Ramsay’s gut-wrenching tragedy and paranoia in We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Meanwhile, Rachel Weisz’ work in The Deep Blue Sea plays out a more classical tragedy than either Dunst or Swinton, pursuing love and only finding disappointment. Asghar Farhadi’s neorealist dramas ask a lot of their actors to play high-intensity situations, but Leila Hatami makes it look effortless in A Separation, fully realising each layer of her character caught up in an awkward situation between a divorce and a lawsuit.

Kirsten Dunst’s most notable performance outside a Sofia Coppola film, and it is with Lars von Trier – you couldn’t pick two more different directors.

Carey Mulligan plays supporting roles in both Shame and Drive, but this is the year that officially marks her big arrival in the world of cinema, and she does brilliant work in both. Jessica Chastain also comes onto the scene in a big way with The Tree of Life playing Mrs O’Brien – the gentle, compassionate “way of grace” to Brad Pitt’s severe “way of nature.”

It is strange seeing Anna Paquin so young in the 2011 film Margaret, but this was shot in 2005 and subsequently delayed for six years. Like her part in The Piano, she is loud, verbal, and at times incredibly frustrating, but the ferocity of performance is undeniable.

Tilda Swinton is guilty, paranoid, and sapped of all strength in We Need To Talk About Kevin, drifting through life as if in a traumatised trance.

Best Cinematography: The Tree of Life

1. The Tree of LifeEmmanuel Lubezki
2. The Turin HorseFred Kelemen
3. ShameSean Bobbitt
4. MelancholiaManuel Alberto Claro
5. DriveNewton Thomas Sigel
6. We Need to Talk About KevinSeamus McGarvey
7. A Dangerous MethodPeter Suschitzky
8. The Deep Blue SeaFlorian Hoffmeister
9. The Skin I Live InJosé Luis Alcaine
Transcendent wonder in Malick’s floating camera and spiritual imagery, often looking to the heavens.

Best Editing: The Tree of Life

1. The Tree of LifeHank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, Mark Yoshikawa
2. We Need to Talk About KevinJoe Bini
3. ShameJoe Walker
4. MelancholiaMolly Malene Stensgaard
5. DriveMatthew Newman
6. Oslo, August 31stOlivier Bugge Coutté
Like most of Malick’s films, The Tree of Life relies on lengthy, impressionistic montages, piecing together spiritual ideas from images of the natural world and the broader cosmos.

Best Screenplay: A Separation

1. A SeparationAsghar Farhadi
2. MelancholiaLars von Trier
3. We Need to Talk About KevinLynne Ramsay, Rory Stewart Kinnear
4. ShameSteve McQueen, Abi Morgan
5. The Tree of LifeTerrence Malick
6. MargaretKenneth Lonergan
7. The Deep Blue SeaTerence Davies
8. A Dangerous MethodChristopher Hampton
Asghar Farhadi throws down one complication after another in A Separation, sorting through the moral mess of a divorce and the resulting drama. It is uncomfortable to watch, but totally engrossing – this is top tier writing.

Best Original Music Score: The Tree of Life

1. The Tree of LifeAlexandre Desplat
2. ShameHarry Escott
3. We Need to Talk About KevinJonny Greenwood
4. DriveCliff Martinez
5. HugoHoward Shore
6. A Dangerous MethodHoward Shore
7. The Turin HorseMihály Vig
Incredibly fine work from Alexandre Desplat in The Tree of Life, playing to his strengths as a composer with lush orchestrations and playful flourishes.

Year Breakdown

When The Tree of Life arrived at Cannes Film Festival in 2011, it was met with applause, boos, and mixed reviews. It then went on to win the Palme d’Or and nab an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (losing to The Artist – clearly the Academy was at loss this year with its usual fare given all the superb arthouse films running around). What became even more evident over the following decade was just how gigantic of a masterpiece this is, elevating Terrence Malick’s career to greater heights and asserting itself in the #1 spot of the decade. Like virtually all of his films, it is supremely beautiful in its use of natural light and gliding camerawork, but the scene of the universe’s creation lands in this spiritual meditation on nature and grace as a monumental formal interlude.

You have to feel a little for Béla Tarr when this is the competition he is up against. The Turin Horse is my #2 film of the year, and #4 of the decade, and this has become a bit of a pattern from him ever since his first masterpiece in 1994 with Sátántangó. That year, he is inched out of the top spot by the decade-defining Pulp Fiction. In 2000, Werckmeister Harmonies runs up against the slightly-better In the Mood for Love, which is also the #1 of its decade. 2011 is also sadly the year Tarr retires, so we may never see him come out with another film, let alone a masterpiece.

Béla Tarr goes out on a high with The Turin Horse – about as bleak as the rest of his films.

Trailing behind The Tree of Life and The Turin Horse in the #3 spot is Melancholia, another film which depicts the end of the world (though Malick’s film only briefly touches on this). Malick’s apocalypse is spiritual and a natural part of life. Tarr’s is bleak, dreary, and oppressive. Lars von Trier’s is one huge metaphor for depression and acceptance. Each of these speak profoundly to the philosophy of their respective filmmakers. To examine this trend a little deeper, The Cabin in the Woods takes this on with comedic sensibilities, while Steven Soderbergh’s thriller Contagion depicts a more immediate, apocalypse-adjacent event. The threat of a global pandemic was never so terrifying as it was until 2020 when this film was suddenly being reappraised for its accuracy and prescience.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is the top earner at the box office, but there is no great crossover between popularity and art this year. The explanation for this is easy – 2011’s best films are by foreign and indie directors, many of them making the best films of their careers including Tarr, Malick, Steve McQueen, Lynne Ramsay, Asghar Farhadi, and Kenneth Lonergan. Among those, it is notable just how many are recluses who you won’t find conducting interviews or asserting much of a media presence.

Finally, although Oscar Isaac doesn’t get a mention among the best male performances of the year, his part as Standard Gabriel in Drive effectively kicks off his meteoric rise as an actor throughout the 2010s, proving his compelling screen presence.

The final Harry Potter movie is the top earner of 2011, bringing an era of young adult fantasy films to a close.

Film Archives

A Dangerous MethodDavid CronenbergHR
A SeparationAsghar FarhadiHR/MS
BernieRichard LinklaterR
ContagionSteven SoderberghR
DriveNicolas Winding RefnMS
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2David YatesR
HugoMartin ScorseseHR
MargaretKenneth LonerganHR
MelancholiaLars von TrierMP
Once Upon a Time in AnatoliaNuri Bilge CeylanR
Oslo, August 31stJoachim TrierHR
ShameSteve McQueenMP
The Adventures of TintinSteven SpielbergR
The ArtistMichel HazanaviciusR
The Cabin in the WoodsDrew GoddardR
The Deep Blue SeaTerence DaviesHR
The MuppetsJames BobinR
The Skin I Live InPedro AlmodóvarHR
The Tree of LifeTerrence MalickMP
The Turin HorseBéla TarrMP
We Need to Talk About KevinLynne RamsayMS
David Cronenberg moves away from body horror entirely in A Dangerous Method, and turns his cold, analytical mind to human psychology instead, examining the friendship and feud between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.

Short Films

JuniorJulia Ducournau
Before winning the Palme d’Or in 2021 for Titane, Julia Ducournau gets her start in body horror with the short film Junior.

2 thoughts on “The Best Films of 2011”

  1. For my money one of the best top 3’s of any year, I’d have all three then in my top 10 of the decade.

    Hope you get to see The Woman in The Fifth sometime, bit different to the two Pawilowski films that follow it in that its more rhythmic than starkly beautiful.

    I’d easily fit Tintin into the best-edited films here, the wonderful scene transitions are a huge strength:


    1. Super strong top 3 for sure. Hard for me to go past 1979’s top 3 of Apocalypse Now, Stalker, and Manhattan, but it’s up there for sure. I would like another watch of Melancholia before shifting up but there’s no doubt the potential is there. Same goes for Tintin – it’s been many years since I’ve watched it so I do think I had forgotten how effective those transitions are.


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