Steve Ranks 2011 Movies

Here are my rankings of the movies released in 2011. I find myself constantly struggling with two aspects of the movie-viewing experience as I do my rankings. One is how much I enjoyed watching the movie and the other is how impressed I was with the film-making. For a particular movie those two things can lead to very different spots in the ranking, so what you see below is a balancing of those two aspects. It seems that every movie in 2011 was flawed in some way, so my rankings are based on how well the good stuff worked for me versus how distracting the weaker elements were.

The top two movies on my list have one significant thing in common, they both dare to be great. Both Tree of Life and Melancholia remind me of why I love movies. I recently watched Moneyball again. I still enjoyed it, but its flaws were more apparent so I moved it from first place into second, with Tree of Life moving into first. Overall, it is a more consistent film than Tree of Life. Tree of Life has more great moments, but also more significant flaws, most of them related to Malick’s self-indulgence. Then along came Melancholia and Moneyball fell to third.

I also watched Hugo again, at home in glorious 2D, and it jumped up ten spots. This time I was deeply moved by the story. Ironically, I find that 3D distances me from a movie.  Fortunately, I was able to see The Artist before the Oscars. As you are no doubt aware, it won Best Picture. I found it to be quite entertaining, but I didn’t rank it nearly as high as the Academy. The Descendants is the epitome of a 2011 movie, containing both greatness and incredible weakness.

Most of my rankings match either critical or popular consensus, and sometimes even both. The two movies where I seem to stand most alone are The Adjustment Bureau and Hesher. Neither the critics nor the public seemed to like them much. I found The Adjustment Bureau to be delightful and thought-provoking. I guess that’s why we watch movies, because we never know when one will touch us in a special way. On the other end of the spectrum, I rank The Help, Harry Potter, and Bridesmaids lower than most do. All in all, not a great year for movies, but there have been enough unique films to keep things interesting.

Note: it is too much work fitting movies into their slots because all the following pictures need to be shifted accordingly, so I am adding the movies I have seen more recently at the end with an indication of their approximate place in the order.

1. The Tree of Life

Where is God, especially as we face death and grief? How do you deal with a father who is better at establishing the rules than at showing love? How are those two things related? This movie strives to be a masterpiece. It falls a bit short, but deserves the recognition it is receiving none the less. Some find it incredibly boring, but if you love grand movie-making, you simply have to give it a look (or two).

2. Melancholia

I was surprised by how much this movie blew me away. Great writing, directing, acting, cinematography. Maybe it is because of my own experience with depression. Powerful examination of human nature with a sci-fi thriller twist!

3. Moneyball

This movie is a winner! Brad Pitt does nothing flashy as Billy Beane, but delivers a subtle performance that is powerful. Equally great is Jonah Hill. Who knew that he had it in him? As the saying goes, I laughed, I cried. After a long summer of singles that barely made it through the infield, finally a towering home run. This may not make it into the Hall of Fame, but it’s darn good.

4. Midnight in Paris

It has taken 25 years but there is finally another Woody Allen movie that I love. This movie is delightful and quite funny. Owen Wilson is marvelous. It has a great message about living for the joys that today brings.

5. Hugo

After seeing this in 3D, I ranked this quite a bit lower, but I had a feeling that seeing it again in 2D might change my opinion. I was right. At home, in glorious 2D, I fell in love with this movie. I was weeping all over the place, after not shedding a tear seeing it in 3D. A delightful story and a wonderful homage to cinema.

6. A Separation

This Iranian movie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It achieved the highest rating (95) of any 2011 movie on metacritic. Why? Because it is that great. If it’s so great, why isn’t it in my top five at the very least? I found those five to be more purely entertaining, but A Separation belongs right there with them. It does two things that great movies should do: it transports you into another world and it reveals universal truths by carefully examining a particular situation. In this case that other world is modern day Iran. Yes, you’ll have to read subtitles, but don’t let that stop you. By all means, see this truly great movie.

7. The Descendants

Anchored by a splendid performance from George Clooney, this is a fascinating examination of the complexity of life and relationships. It offers the hope that are second chances in life, even after great losses. As true as much of the movie feels, weak writing, especially of minor characters, keeps this from placing higher.


Who am I? What is a hero? A funny, philosophical film that is dazzling to look at (three cheers for 2D!) Makes reference to numerous other movies but manages to maintain its own identity.

9. Attack the Block

I loved this! Along the lines of Shaun of the Dead, but this time aliens rather than zombies. Not as funny, but more fun. Great social commentary, too.

10. The Artist

It certainly is a strange experience watching a silent movie in this day and age, but in this case it is also a delightful experience. It is a charming movie, but the story lacks depth (it is at heart simply a romantic comedy). There are a few truly great scenes. Jean Dujardin won the Best Actor Oscar, but I was not overwhelmed by his performance. I was more impressed by Berenice Bejo, who was nominated, but lost, in the Best Supporting Actress category.

11. The Adjustment Bureau

What does it mean to live our lives according to God’s plan? A theological, thriller, love story! What’s not to like? Plus, Damon is delightful.

12. Take Shelter

An intriguing examination of a man facing mental illness. Or is he really receiving a revelation of “the coming storm”? Michael Shannon gives an Oscar-worthy performance of the man haunted by nightmares and Jessica Chastain adds to her list of great 2011 performances as his wife. Take Shelter is also probably a “better” movie than The Descendants, but in some ways I enjoyed The Descendants more despite its flaws.

13. The Guard

Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle are terrific. They raise what could have been a typical fish out of water, mismatched cops movie to a higher level. Extremely entertaining (if you can understand the Irish accents!).

14. Young Adult

I didn’t expect to like this nearly so much, but this reunion of the writer and director of Juno worked for me. Not as funny as Juno, but a dark look at the power of self-centered sin. Charlize Theron gives a knockout performance as a character who is appalling, yet fascinating. The ending was disappointing in all the right ways.

15. Drive

A strong performance by Ryan Gosling fuels this stylish action/thriller. Way too violent, but it presents the strongest sense of mood, atmosphere and tension of any movie I’ve seen this year.

16. Beginners

Marvelous performances by Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor, and Melanie Laurent. An atypical romantic comedy with real depth of emotion and lots of big questions to ponder.

 17. Meek’s Cutoff

Some love this, others find it to be incredibly boring. I loved it! Beautiful movie making. Slow, lingering camera work. It doesn’t tell a story, it lets you experience a story. Possibly the truest western ever made. “We’re not lost. we’re finding our way.” Would you trust a guide who told you that?

18. Certified Copy

Are you up for a movie in which two characters talk to each other about art and relationships? What if they speak in English, French, and Italian? What if they apparently have just met one another as the movie begins, then they pretend to be married, then they actually seem to be married as the film ends? What if you won’t know for sure what the truth is? It’s a strange movie, but well worth seeing for the fine performances by Juliette Binoche and William Shimell.

19. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

There is no doubt that David Fincher is a great director. This movie looks marvelous. I haven’t seen the Swedish version, so I can’t compare her to Noomi Rapace, but I thought Rooney Mare was terrific. Daniel Craig was good, too. So, why such a low ranking? Something about the movie just didn’t feel right. I wouldn’t want to be known as someone who loved this movie.

20. Crazy, Stupid, Love

A little crazy, a bit stupid. I didn’t quite love it, but I liked it a lot. Enough surprises to set it apart from most rom-coms, also a deeper emotional palate. Strong performances, especially by Ryan Gosling, who should win some kind of prize for his three great performances this year. Is there anything he can’t do?

21. Real Steel

I really can’t believe how much I liked this. A movie about boxing robots? But, of course, that’s not really what it is about. It is about the restoration of a father/son relationship and it throws in an underdog sports motif for good measure. Hardly original stuff, but had me laughing and crying, and maybe even cheering a bit for Atom the robot.

22. Hesher

Rude, crude and socially unacceptable! Do not see this movie if you are easily offended. However, if you’re up to it, you’ll see a remarkable performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Hesher. Is this really the same actor who was in (500) Days of Summer?

23. Warrior

A mixed martial arts movie filled with every sports movie cliché. Remarkably it works, thanks to strong performances from Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, and Oscar-nominated Nick Nolte. The true battles don’t happen in the cage, but on the long road to forgiveness.

24. Win Win

Does doing the right thing make up for doing the wrong thing? An interesting indie drama. Sometimes Paul Giamatti overacts, but I thought his performance was just perfect here. I also enjoyed Alex Shaffer as the young wrestler. Sometimes, though, the script seemed too written.

25. Higher Ground

This is Vera Farmiga’s first film as a director and she also has the lead role. This is a deeply spiritual film about a woman struggling with her faith while being part of an evangelical community.

26. We Bought a Zoo

There is nothing very original or surprising here, but this is an entertaining family film that reminds us that there is hope even as we face grief. Another likable character by Matt Damon and good performances by Scarlett Johansson and the rest of the cast.

27. The King of Curling

I was lucky enough to be in Minneapolis at the right time to see this at a film festival. I laughed harder at this Norwegian comedy than I have in a long time. The story isn’t particularly original, but it is very funny. Warning: there is a lot of sexual humor. I find the Apatow/Rogen kind of sex humor to be disgusting, but I found this to be hilarious. It was also fun being in an audience that was reading subtitles and often laughing before the character even finished speaking the line.

28. 13 Assassins

A classic samurai movie. A classic good versus evil movie. After a violent beginning that establishes the cruelty of an evil lord, the movie settles into a quiet middle section in which the thirteen assassins are assembled for a suicide mission against the lord and his army. The final third of the movie is an epic battle scene. The fighting here is realistic (and bloody) with none of the floating warriors that became all the rage with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This is a movie about honor, tradition, and sacrifice. Unless you speak Japanese, you will need to read subtitles, but it is well worth it!

29. The Muppets

What is better than a reunion with a friend? A reunion with a group of friends! I’ve been humming the Muppet theme for a couple of days now. I actually never was a huge Muppet fan, but I have long enjoyed their unique brand of humor and heart. While this reboot of the Muppet franchise doesn’t bring much of anything new to the table, it is delightful nonetheless. In addition to the theme song, there is a reprise of “The Rainbow Connection” and a batch of new songs. None of the songs are overly memorable, they all work well in the movie. In fact, everything works well. Simply put, see it!

30. The Help

Partly great, partly not. The story deserved a much better movie. Great performances by Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Cicely Tyson.

31. Paul

I was pleasantly surprised by Paul. It’s quite humorous, but it also has heart. It is an effective send up of sci-fi and fan boys. I like the work of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, so I was looking forward to seeing them, but the cast also includes Seth Rogen, so I was worried that the movie might be tainted by his sophomoric brand of so-called humor. Maybe it helped that only his voice was present (as the alien Paul), so I didn’t have to see him! There were some tired Rogenesque sex/drug jokes, but the rest of the humor provided plenty of chuckles and even some laugh out loud moments. Some of the scenes were filmed in and around Las Vegas, NM where my son went to school, which provided the extra enjoyment of spotting familiar places.

32. We Need to Talk About Kevin

Anchored by a strong performance by Tilda Swinton, this is a dark story about the struggles of parenting a difficult child and the grief and anger that follow a horrific deed. The use of flashbacks in the storytelling gives the movie an appropriately edgy feel. With so much of the focus on Swinton’s role as the mother, John C. Reilly isn’t given the opportunity to do much with the character of the father.

33. War Horse

Spielberg has crafted a movie that looks great, but I found the story to be lacking. Too much of the plot was cliched and contrived. The heart of the story is the relationship between Albert, the farmboy, and Joey, the horse, but when Joey is taken off to war the story follows him and becomes episodic and loses its emotional anchor. It is worth seeing, but it is far from a Best Picture nominee in my opinion.

34. A Better Life

Another movie anchored by a strong lead performance. This time it is Demian Bichir as an illegal immigrant father trying to give his son a better life in L.A. Puts a human face on the difficult immigration issue.

35. Senna

A documentary about Formula One racer Ayrton Senna. I had never heard of him before. Now I want to know more. A fascinating story both on and off the track.

36. Alps

I saw this Greek film at the film festival in Minneapolis. It is a dark, existential drama with some wonderfully dark and absurd humor thrown into the mix, along with a bit of sex and violence. It is by the director of Dogtooth. His movies are not for the faint of heart, but they are fascinating in their own strange ways.

37. The Skin I Live In

I think writer/director Pedro Almodovar was shooting for something bigger than he actually achieved. He wanted this to be an existential thriller that forced us to think about who wwe really are in the skin we live in. He certainly got the thriller part right, but I’m not sure the story carried as much weight as he hoped. It is a great looking film, but in the end it is really a modern Frankinstein movie. Antonio Banderas is quite good as the doctor who is working with very mixed motives.

38. Trollhunter

Do you want to have some fun? Watch Trollhunter, a fake documentary from Norway. You’ll have read subtitles, but it is worth it. A college film crew is looking into the mysterious killings of some bears, but instead they find a troll hunter who is secretly working for the government. A little social commentary and lots of fun!

39. Poetry

Are you up for a movie about a women in her sixties suffering from the first stages of Alzheimer’s? What if the movie is in Korean so you have to read subtitles? How about if we throw in a grandson who was part of a group of boys who entrap a classmate in sexual activity that leads the young girl to commit suicide? Not an easy movie, but with a strong lead performance by Jeong-hie Yun, it is worth the effort.

40. Source Code

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. A sci-fi, thriller, love story! What’s not to like? Much more fun than Inception. Just beware that there are plotholes.

41. Hanna

A thriller that plays out like a fairy tale. Stylish direction (sometimes too stylish) from Joe Wright, who also directed Atonement. Fine performances by Saoirse Ronan and Cate Blanchett, but I thought Eric Bana was weak, as was the story.

42. Martha Marcy May Marlene

An interesting look at a young woman’s attempt to regain her life after being in a cult. Worked fairly well as a thriller, but the story could have used a little more depth. Many critics raved about Elizabeth Olson’s performance. I thought it was quite good, but I didn’t think the role had enough breadth to it to call her work truly great.

43. A Dangerous Method

An interesting look at the beginning of psychotherapy. Michael Fassbinder and Viggo Mortensen give solid performances as Jung and Freud. My favorite performance was by Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross, who has an “if it feels good, do it” attitude towards life. Jung tries to get him to see how destructive such an attitude can be, but then ends up in affair himself with Sabina Spielrein. She is played by Keira Knightley in a performance that received mixed reviews. Some love her dramatic portrayal of Spielrein’s struggle with inner demons, others cringe at her jaw-jutting histrionics. I agree with those who feel her performance would have benefited from a more subtle approach.

44. The Ides of March

This political thriller is well-crafted. Of course it is, being directed by George Clooney, with a cast that includes Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Paul Giamatti. The problem is that it is solid but not spectacular. The story is shallow and cynical. The characters are types, not fully fleshed out people. It’s worth seeing, just don’t expect a lot from it. (And in a time when Newt can win a primary, maybe its cynicism is appropriate.)

45. Super 8

A delightful homage to childhood, the 70’s, monster/sci-fi movies, film-making, and, of course, Spielberg. Worth seeing simply for the acting of Elle Fanning. A star in the making!

46. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

What a disappointment. After reading all the rave reviews, I was expecting something special. It wasn’t. Oh no, there’s a mole in the ministry! Who cares. Unless you give me characters that are fully fleshed out and that I can relate to in some way, it doesn’t matter how good the story. In this case, both the characters and the story were flat. Frankly, I was bored. Sure, Gary Oldman did a fine job showing Smiley’s consternation, but there was no range to his character. I did enjoy Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as the operative caught in the middle of things, but that was about it.

47. Cedar Rapids

I liked this more than I thought I would. The trailers made it look like a Judd Apatow kind of movie, long on sex and alcohol/drug jokes, short on much of anything else. The crass jokes are certainly there, but they serve a story that actually has a lot of heart. John C. Reilly is responsible for much of the rude humor, but his character also has a tender side. I’m not a big Ed Helms fan, but he was believable as the small town insurance salesman at his first convention in the big city. Yes, in this case the big city is Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

48. Terri

How does it feel to be a misfit? Fine performances by Jake Wysocki and the always reliable John C. Reilly make this a movie you really should see. A few lines and scenes feel a bit cliched, but when it works, which is often, it is a very touching movie.

49. The Trip

Two British comedians (Steve Coogan and Rob Byrdon) playing versions of themselves travel to restaurants in Northern England, giving them a lot of time to talk. Many critics love this. Lots of folks find it boring and annoying. I nearly turned it off, finding it, well, boring and annoying. I thought I would put it at the bottom of my rankings. For some reason, I stuck with it. It grew on me. When it works, it works well, especially during the final 30 minutes. If those great moments made up more of the film, it would be in my top 20, but the mixed bag that it is drops it quite a ways down.

50. Pearl Jam Twenty

If you like Pearl Jam, you have to see this. If you like music, you should see this. Cameron Crowe gives us a close up look at Pearl Jam’s journey as a band.

51. X-men: First Class

This movie restored my faith in superhero movies. Nicely paced. Good story which works well as a metaphor for how our society treats outsiders. My only suggestion: hold the Bacon.

52. Harry Potter and the Seemingly Never Ending Story: Part 2

This is probably the best of the Potter movies, but from me that is faint praise. I did stay awake all the way through this one, barely.

53. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

A mission worth accepting, but far from exceptional.

54. Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Really, really stupid, but still more fun than a barrel full of monkeys.

55. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Unfortunately Tom Hanks is only in a small portion of the film. He dies on 9/11. Sandra Bullock is alright as the mom. I didn’t like Thomas Horn as their son, Oskar. The character simply wasn’t likable and he had to be because he carries the weight of the movie.

56. Of Gods and Men

Based on a true story about a group of Trappist monks stationed in Algeria who must decide to stay, at the risk of their lives, or leave when confronted with war and fundamentalist terrorists. It is a slow-moving but also deeply moving examination of faith in action.

57. 50/50

Another movie I wanted to love, but instead ended up loathing. This is not my cancer experience. It felt false in too many ways and relied too much on sophomoric humor.

58. Bridesmaids

Also rude and crude. Some folks find this to be hilarious. I didn’t. Most of the characters were just too pathetic to be funny. Kristen Wiig’s acting was mostly quite good, but it had to fight against her writing, which was too often weak. The scenes with Chris O’Dowd as the cop were high points because they gave the movie some much needed heart.

59. Margin Call

Not a great movie, but an interesting look into the mortgage meltdown that played a large role in our current economic troubles. It is frightening to think about how a few greedy, power-hungry individuals are making decisions that affect us all. The story is not particularly strong, but it gets its point across (maybe in too obvious a fashion at times.) Kevin Spacey gives a strong performance, despite not having a lot to work with. Demi Moore (remember her?) is also effective in a limited role, but I thought that Jeremy Irons was about as subtle as Scar in a boardroom.

60. In Time

An interesting premise that results in a fairly entertaining movie. It is a story set in the future when time is literally money. If you run out of time, your life is over. The poor face that threat every day, always living on the edge. Meanwhile, the rich can accumulate enough time to live forever. In this day and age when the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, the story strikes a chord, but the writing could have been a little less obvious. Also, the way in which time was transferred from one person to another was a bit ridiculous. Nevertheless, Justin Timberlake, as a man accused of stealing time, and Cillian Murphy, as the time cop sent to hunt him down, make the movie worth watching.

61. Horrible Bosses

It’s not horrible. There are enough funny moments and a couple of plot twists to make this just good enough to merit watching. It is actually somewhat of a perverse delight watching Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, and Colin Farrell ham it up as the horrible bosses.

62. Carnage

This was a disappointment. I was excited to see Jody Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, and Kate Winslet shine in a movie that focused completely on their four characters, but even great actors need material to work with. The story didn’t go anywhere interesting. The characters became more loathsome as the movie went on. If all of your characters become less likable, then their interaction better become more intriguing at the same time. It didn’t.

63. Submarine

It’s seems like I should have enjoyed this more, but I didn’t. I think it’s because I simply didn’t like the characters, but it could be because I was tired when I watched. I’ll probably give it another shot someday.

64. Captain America

Ebert liked this because it had more story than most superhero movies. Maybe, but I thought it was a hackneyed story, and the color scheme was as dull as the story. About all you can say for it is that it is better than Thor.

65. Bellflower

This is another one many critics love. I didn’t. Sure, it has an interesting look, but the inexperience of first time writer/director Evan Glodell is glaring at times. He also leads a group of young actors who have the skills of young actors. I found the characters to be pathetic. I didn’t want to spend time with them. Their lives revolve around consuming alcohol and having sex, oh, and cheating on friends in order to have sex. No, I’m not forgetting that two of them also spend time building flame-throwers and a flame-spewing monster car. But to what end? Some tout the explosiveness of the ending. I found it to be clichéd.

66. Like Crazy

My son and I disagreed on this one. He liked it, I did not. I have a problem with movies that focus on pathetic characters (see my comments on Bellflower). Give me struggling charcters, imperfect charcters, even evil characters, but please don’t force me to sit through two hours in the company of pathetic characters. If I never have to see Anton Yelchin mope in a movie again, I will be a happy lad. That’s all he seemed to do in this movie and he was the more likeable of the two main characters! Felicity Jones was so self-centered that I kept yelling for Jacob (Yelchin) to wake up and move on. He didn’t. He just moped. They are awful together and even worse when apart, using others for their own satisfaction without bothering to mention that they are in a relationship already. I’ve read that much of the dialogue was ad libbed and many critics rave about how authentic it is. Over and over I found myself guessing lines before they were spoken. It may have been authentic, but it was also unoriginal and trite. A spoiler: they get back together at the end. A prediction: this relation will not last. It is doomed, like this movie.

67. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Why did they make this? Oh, yeah, for the money. Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush seemed bored with their roles and we should feel otherwise? There were a couple of good action scenes, but that’s about it.

68. Puss in Boots

Maybe I’m being too finicky, but I thought this movie was far from being the cat’s meow. There were a few good lines, but also way too many boring action sequences.

69. Cowboys & Aliens

I can understand the negative reviews, but I actually had a lot of fun watching this. I especially enjoyed Daniel Craig. Maybe now I’ll finally get around to watching his Bond movies and his performance here adds to my anticipation for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

70. Super

An intriguing movie, but maybe more disturbing than it had to be. Rainn Wilson was impressive. Ellen Page was delightful, but it was also her character that was deeply disturbing, especially in one scene.

71. The Music Never Stopped

I wanted to love this movie. I didn’t.

72. Thor

The more I think about it, the less there is to think about. Mediocre at best.

73. Gnomeo and Juliet

Chuckle. Yawn. It was fun picking out the various references to Elton’s songs in the soundtrack.

Movies Added After 9/1/13

incendiescontagionanother earthmargarethappythank

30. Incendies

40. Contagion

25. Another Earth

55. Margaret

35. Happythankyoumoreplease

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