Best of 2011

By the

December 1, 2011


1. Drive

Violent, weird, and at times unexpectedly beautiful—and I’m not just talking about Ryan Gosling. Drive is an independent neo-noir drama set, like all films of the genre, in the gritty underbelly of glamorous Los Angeles. The film’s star power, fueled by Gosling, Christina Hendricks, and Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, does nothing to subtract from the film’s unsettling, art-house mood and style, which is magnified by Cliff Martinez’s chilling soundtrack. Gosling solidifies his talent for multifaceted characters as the film’s little-spoken, strangely loyal, criminal protagonist, and James Bibieri is perfect as a terrifying Albanian gangster. Even better than the sum of its parts, this haunting film is the year’s frontrunner. –Leigh Finnegan

2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

On July 15, the single 12:01 showing at the largest IMAX Theater in New York City was the Comic-Con of Harry Potter diehards. Appropriately themed sing-a-longs hyped up the costumed audience as midnight neared. We were not disappointed. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 was not just the best film in the series, but a proper closing to a lifelong adventure with Harry, Ron and Hermione. We laughed, we cried, we screamed, and deep in our hearts, we knew that despite the billboards proclaiming “It all ends,” Potter-mania will never die. –Iris Kim

3. Bridesmaids

In this girl-powered comedy, SNL’s Kristen Wiig stars as Annie, the maid of honor for her best friend Lillian’s (SNL alum Maya Rudolph) wedding, bringing her A-game awkwardness to the silver screen. The supporting cast of eclectic bridesmaids helps add not only laughs, but also some surprising (and at times uncomfortable) depth to the comedy. Absurdity reigns as Wiig is drugged on a plane, brings food poisoning to a bridal salon, and falls in love with a cop with a questionable accent. Bridesmaids doesn’t hesitate to make the audience wince, pairing raunchy scenes with a cutesy plot line. All of it makes for a fun film to watch. –Abby Sherburne

4. 50/50

When Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt appeared in the 50/50 trailer, it seemed like it could have been Funny People all over again—a cancer patient comedy with Rogen attached.  But a poignant performance by Gordon-Levitt transcends the comedy genre.  With bits of hilarity sprinkled throughout, the film’s real strength lies in the realism of its characters, allowing the movie to hit an emotional nerve unlike that of your standard Notebook tear-jerker.  While putting dick jokes into a tragic story line may seem insensitive, the balance of humor and drama teaches us a good lesson about how some people deal with bad news.  And let’s face it—sometimes it’s healthy to laugh at what makes us cry. –John Sapunor

5. Midnight in Paris

Based on Ernest Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast, Midnight in Paris is sure to please Woody Allen fans and ex-patriot enthusiasts. Written and directed by Allen, the film brings to life the personalities of “the lost generation” for a contemporary audience. Owen Wilson plays a frustrated screenwriter who travels to Paris on the untaxed dollar of his fiancé and Tea Party-sympathizing parents. Unexplained time travel allows him to meet—and drink with—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Picasso, and Dali, among others. The film is a literary inside joke, tempered by Allen’s classic critique of the pseudo-intellectual. Fantastical nostalgia and familiar faces provide audiences just what the trailer promises: “Paris after midnight is magic.” –Vanya Mehta and Audrey Walker

6. Super 8

Despite the trailer’s suggestion that Super 8 would be driven solely by special effects, director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg force the film’s audience to sympathize with their creature, a larger-than-life monster terrorizing small-town U.S.A. Although the subterranean spider-alien monster at times seems all too willing to suspend its rage due to the philosophical prowess of some kids, the teenaged protagonists’ acting is just good enough to accommodate this suspension of reality. The film’s technical merit lets the audience come away with its powerful underlying message: that personal suffering is not always endless. –Daniel Kellner

7. The Muppets

The Muppets is not perfect. It’s a bit too self-conscious, has pacing problems in the first half-hour, and Chris Cooper’s lines are hammy enough to make the audience’s stomachs churn. But it almost doesn’t matter—when nearly half of The Muppets’ college-age audience strolls out singing, it’s hit those magical movie notes that render criticism pointless. Writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller transform their nostalgia into a sublimely entertaining film, and even those who did not grow up with The Muppets will find the crew of tipsy, fuzzy creatures endearing. It has enough witty meta-jokes for the older crowd, with enough unabashedly good-natured fun for the young ‘uns. –Richa Goyal

8. The Help

Director Tate Taylor’s interpretation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling book managed to earn itself a spot as one of the better movies released this year. This tale of an aspiring author daring enough to tell the story of African-American maids in the midst of the civil rights movement in Jackson, Mississippi, may not be an especially memorable film that retains its value after the first viewing, but it certainly satisfies those who are simply looking for a feel-good movie with a redeeming conclusion to brighten up a gloomy day. –Kirill Makarenko

9. Moneyball

In one of the better sports movies of recent years, director Bennett Miller brilliantly adapts Michael Lewis’s best-selling book detailing the revolutionary philosophy of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt). The book’s trademark statistical mumbo-jumbo threatens to alienate all but the most hardcore baseball fans, but humorous and uplifting performances by Pitt and Jonah Hill provide a distinctly human element. Pitt’s portrayal of Beane—a confident and intelligent man still haunted by his past and his shortcomings as a father—has us cheering for the A’s regardless of fan allegiances. –Daniel Kellner

10. Contagion

If you get sick, you will die. That’s the gospel according to Contagion, and it’s delightfully horrific.  A lethal airborne virus that sweeps the planet and kills mercilessly sets the stage for the most realistic disaster movie of the year. Boasting a stellar cast, the film weaves together the poignant stories of those affected by the disease with the efforts of the coolly clinical doctors and researchers trying to cure it. Director Steven Soderbergh creates a thrilling and tense vision of the disintegration of global society—complete with shocking mass graves and lawless mobs. Thankfully, it’s only fiction. For now. –-Claire McDaniel

1. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues

The second album from folk group Fleet Foxes capitalizes on the remarkable instrumental features of the group’s self-titled debut album, while eliminating the a cappella introductions that many critics found unappealing. Helplessness Blues combines elements of melancholy and disarray in the instrumental sections of “The Shrine / An Argument” with more upbeat qualities of tracks such as “Battery Kinzie”—all while maintaining an existential theme in the group’s poetic lyrics. Still, the album’s true appeal lies not in the vocals, but in the growing instrumental virtuosity of Fleet Foxes, a mastery that makes Helplessness Blues a worthwhile investment. — Kirill Makarenko

2. Kanye West & Jay-Z, Watch the Throne
Jay-Z and Kanye West have competed for the number one album in the country for quite a few years now, from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (the Voice’s favorite last year) to American Gangster. So it was no surprise when the duo’s first collaborative album, Watch the Throne, took off and reached number one almost immediately, resting safely in the top 30 in the fifteen weeks since. “Otis” and “Niggas in Paris” steal the spotlight, but the album also boasts a whole bunch of underrated songs, including “Who Gon Stop Me” and “Made in America.” Its rock and orchestral influences help it stand out, but let’s be honest: Watch the Thone is awesome because no one can out-swag Jay and Kanye on the same stage at the same time. — Kevin Joseph

3. Adele, 21
Defying the traditional sophomore slump, British songstress Adele definitely kicked up the soul for her second album, 21. With pounding piano lines and flawless, gut-wrenching vocals, Adele recorded the breakup album of the century, taking the listener through all five stages of grief—and then some. 21 has the lyrical vulnerability to bring audiences to their knees in candid surrender to her musical prowess. Even though the singer belts “we could have had it all” on the album’s hit single “Rolling in the Deep,” with 21, the audience has everything it could ask for. — Keaton Hoffman

4. The Weeknd, House of Balloons

Abel Tesfaye’s debut album as The Weeknd is trendy in all the right ways, taking indie rock samples and stretching them into sparse, trunk-rattling post-Drake R&B ballads about loneliness and alienation in the midst of drugged-out hedonism. House of Balloons succeeds with a brooding, coked-out minimalism that owes just as much to the xx and Burial as it does to The-Dream. It’s often beautiful and unsettling and bumping all at the same time. At its best, it’s heartbreaking: “I left my girl back home / I don’t love her no more / and she’ll never fucking know that.” –– Sean Quigley

5. Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Picking up where For Emma, Forever Ago left off, Bon Iver’s self-titled record reaffirms the cult following that began with the first soulful strummings of “Skinny Love.” While not recorded in a hunting cabin, Bon Iver has the same woodsy ambience and emotional depth that gained Justin Vernon his fame. The evolution of Vernon’s style, however, is evident in the synthesized, dreamy sound that accompanies his folksy guitar. His signature falsetto is a mainstay in songs like “Holocene” and “Michicant,” giving the album a haunting, soul-searching feeling. — Julia Lloyd-George

6. Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto

Coldplay shows no signs of age on their fifth studio album in eleven years, banging out even more of their titanic anthems for the world’s romantics. The British quartet incorporates some new flavors, including electronic influences and a collaboration with Rihanna on “Princess of China,” alongside their uplifting arena-tested melodies. They pull off what many veteran bands struggle to do—produce an album that doesn’t sound like their last one. Mylo Xyloto makes clear, whether the world likes it or not, that Coldplay can still unabashedly aim for grandeur—and achieve it. — Jackson Perry

7. The Decemberists, The King is Dead

The King is Dead is the Decemberists at their brightest, most lively spirits.  The indie folksters have no problem punching out cheerful melodies, but the way The King is Dead alternates between quick-paced tunes and slowed-down ballads keeps listeners on their toes.  While lead singer Colin Meloy churns out sweet vocals, the guitar plucking and soft drums place this band somewhere between Death Cab for Cutie and Fleet Foxes, a compliment in the highest sense.  The results speak for themselves, proving yet again why these Portland natives stand apart from the all-too-homogenous indie folk scene. — John Sapunor

8. The Strokes, Angles

Following a near-eternal recording process with rehabbing guitarists and an uninvited lead singer, The Strokes’s album drop seemed more an eventuality than an event. At least it got the band on the road. Apart from a few—here it comes—sharp tracks, the rest of the album is kind of a downer. Luckily, the band avoids embarrassing itself by trying anything new, and instead rekindles its earlier sound. Listeners might argue that The Strokes’ separate members are greater than the whole, but in the end, Julian Casablancas is still getting more girls than Bradford Cox.

–Nico Dodd

9. Childish Gambino, Camp

Camp, the first full-length release from actor-comedian Donald Glover’s alter-ego Childish Gambino, is a masterful synthesis of self-deprecating lyrics, grandiose backbeats, and dick references. This witty, expertly produced album integrates eclectic pop culture references with Gambino’s observations on race and countless mentions of his affinity for Asian women. Technical ability and clever lyrics make for an enjoyable album, but the true charm of Camp is in Gambino’s vulnerability. In the sweetly sad spoken-word riff that concludes album closer “That Power,” Gambino makes it clear that Camp is anything but his coming-of-age tale. Rather, it is the story of an underdog still fighting his way to the top. — Emily Hessler

10. Tom Waits, Bad as Me
Tom Waits was born with the voice of a 75-year-old two-pack-a-day cigarette smoker.  How do we know?  Because 38 years after his first release, 2011’s Bad as Me features those same roughed-up whiskey vocals that have carried the musician through his career.  His new album ain’t pretty, but the vaudevillian storytelling and messy, theatrical instrumentation is strong as ever.  And while fans have always known that Waits’ leathery voice would age well, the songwriting that carries Bad as Me proves that this musical fixture’s still got more surprises in his bag of tricks. –John Sapunor

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