My Top Picks of 2011 - The Best Festival Indies of the Year As 2011 comes to a close, it's time to take stock of the year in cinema and post the requisite "Best of" list. However, this one won't look like any other you may see. And for good reason. Rules, disclaimers, and those good reasons follow for those who are as passionate about the subject as I am.

My world revolves around independent films and festivals so this list includes only indies which I saw at film festivals for the first time in 2011. I specify "first time" because there are several which I saw in 2010 but were still on the festival circuit this year and saw again. Obviously I don't count those even though they may still have been among the best I saw at those particular 2011 festivals.

Next, defining an independent film is something else entirely. I try to avoid including films produced and/or distributed by Hollywood studios or major studio specialty arms like Fox Searchlight, even though I may have seen them at festivals. However, in some cases there are truly independent films which were acquired for distribution just prior to, during, or after the festival in which I saw it. In those cases I simply use my best judgment.
It follows from the above that while many of these films do not yet have distribution (and, perhaps, never will) there are some which have already been released in theaters. So you may see some of these films on other critics' lists. But you'll find that this list can be quite different from others because most critics use date of theatrical distribution as a rule. Therefore, you may see some films being nominated and winning awards now which were actually on my list last year because they weren't released until this year. For example, Submarine is now appearing on many critics' lists and winning a slew of awards. It played dozens of film festivals this year and hit theaters in June. But it was on my list last year because I saw it, and selected it as a Top Pick, after its World Premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. There are even films which are released two years later (Alpha Dog), or three (Fierce People), or even more after they've debuted at festivals which had been on my Top Picks in the years I first saw them. I attended the World Premiere of Cook County at the 2008 SXSW Film Festival (see my review) and it just opened this weekend, over three and a half years later. So my lists are often quite ahead of the curve.

While I do choose a list of Top Picks for each individual festival I attend, taking a list from one and comparing it to another is like apples and oranges. First, the quantity of films at each festival is different. I might see as many as 30 films or more at a particular festival (e.g., 34 this year at Toronto) or only a few (just seven at Tribeca) and then choose up to 10 or more Top Picks per festival depending on how many I saw. Sometimes I don't pick any at all. Second, the quality of the lineup can vary greatly from one festival to another. For example, my #1 Top Pick from one festival might not even make a list of Top 10 Picks from another. So to then compile some sort of grand list becomes quite difficult. At first glance it would seem to make the most sense to slice off the cream of the crop for each festival to come up with an overall list of Top Picks. But, alas, some festivals simply fall short when compared to others. I'll leave it to the reader to do some research and read between the lines.

So those are my criteria. Now my job is to tally up all my 2011 film festival Top Picks and see what stood out. But forcing an artificial limit of 10 films begs the question -- why 10? Looking back, I posted a Top 20 at the end of 2006. In 2007, I attended 11 festivals, saw 200 films, and narrowed that down to 25. In 2008, I attended 10 festivals and saw about 150 films. I did manage to choose 10 but only with great difficulty. (I'm still not sure why I didn't just do what I did the year before -- maybe it was just a bad year overall.) In 2009 I attended nine festivals and saw around 125 films. I thought the smartest thing to do was to go back to my 2008 criteria and simply pick the ones with the biggest "wow" factor, so I chose 16. I did the same last year.

So do I chop them down to 10 as I used to do? Or do I do what I've done in the past two years and just go with my gut? It's a dilemma -- and I'm not alone. Even such esteemed critics as The New York Times' A.O. Scott has not limited his Ten Best list to ten. Several years ago he chose 19 films for the same reason. In a typical year I attend eight to 12 festivals. I'll see an average of 150-200 films in total and select 40-70 movies collectively as Top Picks (about 1/4 to 1/3 of the total). This list comes from that universe of favorites. There's no doubt in my mind that this year's overall crop of films was better than in 2010. But I've managed to narrow down the list to 10 as I did in 2008. I've also selected five films with qualifications. These are titles that came very close to making my list but had to be set aside due to their appeal to a narrower, more specific audience. In addition, because there were so many films "on the bubble," I'll add a list of Honorable Mentions.

Here are my Top Picks of 2011 (countries of origin in parentheses).


Top 10 (in alphabetical order)

Another Earth (USA) -- A triumphant feature debut for multi-hyphenate director Mike Cahill who also serves as co-writer, producer, cinematographer, and editor. The film's premise is simple: What if you came face-to-face with your doppelganger? What would you ask yourself? That basic storyline is fleshed out by a grieving composer (William Mapother) and a college student (Brit Marling) whose lives cross paths after a tragic accident. Their unlikely pairing is set against the backdrop of the discovery of a heretofore-hidden planet behind the sun which appears to mirror Earth. Another Earth is less sci-fi and more a tale of star-crossed lovers faced with a common moral dilemma surrounding guilt and forgiveness. The film works because Cahill sets his sights low, literally -- not on the grand astronomical phenomenon playing out in the skies but on the simple relationship between two lost souls. See my pictures of writer/director Mike Cahill with lead actress/co-writer Brit Marling, star William Mapother, and musicians Fall on Your Sword at the Q&A.

Attack the Block (UK) -- Set in a gritty pocket of a "typical" South London neighborhood, this dark comedic drama features a diverse group of teens out to defend their neighborhood from a mysterious unseen force. In my requisite spoiler-free fashion, I can say little more regarding the plot although one can rest assured that this film is NOT what it appears to be at first glance. Executive producer (and accomplished director in his own right) Edgar Wright and writer/director Joe Cornish have teamed up to bring to the screen (finally) a totally unique take on life in hardscrabble London and the restless bands of kids who roam the streets at night. More than anything, the film establishes a level of authenticity rarely seen in movies that have tackled similar subjects. And it's no wonder why. Director Joe Cornish allowed the kids -- non-professional actors, culled from the neighborhoods in which the story takes place -- to retool the script, writing their own dialogue on the spot ("I wouldn't use words like that, I'd say it this way"). The result is so refreshing and the boys' bonds so dynamic that Attack the Block breaks through as one of the finest films I've seen all year and one of my Top 5 Picks of the 2011 SXSW Film Festival. See my pictures of executive producer Edgar Wright and writer/director Joe Cornish with stars Nick Frost and Luke Treadaway at the Q&A.

Death of a Superhero (Germany/Ireland) -- Director Ian FitzGibbon crafts a poignant story, based on the novel (and scripted) by Anthony McCarten, of a young man caught in a world that has left him far less options than most his age. This dark tale of a boy faced with life-altering decisions far beyond his years features Thomas Brodie-Sangster in a haunting, heartwrenching performance. See my pictures of director Ian FitzGibbon with stars Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Aisling Loftus, producers Astrid Kahmke and Philipp Kreuzer, and cinematographer Tom Fährmann at the Q&A.

Detention (USA) -- This is the second feature from writer/director/producer Joseph Kahn (his previous film was 2004's Torque). He's one of the top music video directors in Hollywood and it's quite evident in this visually dreamy and aurally stunning motion picture. Mindblowing technology that has the potential to solve every teen's dreams falls into the hands of high school brats too wise for their own good. Mayhem ensues. Detention is a relentless double-barrelled assault on the senses which left me shaking my head in wonder. It's John Hughes on acid. Listen to my audio interview with star Josh Hutcherson.

50/50 (USA) -- This Joseph Gordon-Levitt vehicle stems from the fertile mind of writer Will Reiser and wunderkind director Jonathan Levine, who's shown increasingly rewarding levels of cinematic craftiness and judgment from All the Boys Love Mandy Lane to The Wackness and now 50/50. One of the most talented actors of his generation, Gordon-Levitt is a young man at a crossroads after getting some unexpected news. The always-reliable Seth Rogen plays to type as his smarmy best friend with perfect comedic timing. Few actors portray vulnerability and fragile innocence like Anna Kendrick and her sweet performance will break your heart. 50/50 is a dark dramatic comedy that will haunt the viewer long after leaving the theater.

Magic Valley (USA) -- Writer/director Jaffe Zinn has assembled a tight ensemble cast of seasoned veterans for his stunning debut feature, set in a bucolic Ohio farming town at the height of harvest season. Kyle Gallner (star of two of my 2010 Top Picks -- Beautiful Boy and Cherry) is outstanding as a mysterious, shy teen with a shocking secret destined to turn the townsfolk on their heads. Along with standout performances from Matthew Gray Gubler (Dr. Spencer Reid on CBS' Criminal Minds) and the legendary Scott Glenn, Zinn's story takes a patchwork of seemingly random series of events and weaves them into a classic enigmatic small-town nightmare. See my pictures of writer/director Jaffe Zinn with stars Kyle Gallner, Matthew Gray Gubler, and Scott Glenn at the Q&A.

Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding (USA) -- The legendary Jane Fonda and always-mindboggling Catherine Keener dominate the screen in this love story couched in a psychedelically charming tribute to Woodstock, New York and its aging hippie population. Australian Bruce Beresford's moving intergenerational character study of a family in disarray fires on all cylinders. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Elizabeth Olsen, Chace Crawford, and Rosanna Arquette are pitch-perfect in support while 16-year-old newcomer Nat Wolff provides effective comic relief. The broad appeal of Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding makes it the most accessible film I saw at TIFF this year. See my pictures of director Bruce Beresford with stars Kyle MacLachlan, Nat Wolff, and Marissa O'Donnell, along with producer Claude Dal Farra at the Q&A.

Take Shelter (USA) -- In this cerebral and slightly surreal second feature from writer/director Jeff Nichols, mysterious, unseen forces threaten to tear apart a young couple even before their relationship has a chance to blossom. Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain's two-person narrative is emotionally challenging and occasionally baffling in this seemingly odd story about which little can be said without posting spoilers. Despite its multi-layered structure and often unanswered questions, Nichols has created the one film on my list most worthy of the word "important." See my pictures of star Jessica Chastain and producer Tyler Davidson at the Q&A.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (UK) -- Based on Lionel Shriver's best-selling novel, this is the long-awaited triumphant third feature for multi-hyphenate director Lynne Ramsay, who also co-wrote the screenplay and serves as Executive Producer. The film stars Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, and Ursula Parker. Topping my must-see list this year, the movie truly lived up to expectations. It's a tremendously satisfying, albeit stupefying cinematic assault on the senses. Although the film is quite dark and deals with some very difficult subject matter, at its heart We Need to Talk About Kevin is ultimately a powerful mother/son love story that may leave you emotionally drained but truly moved. It's a devastatingly heartwrenching portrayal of a family in crisis. The film features tour de force performances from the legendary Tilda Swinton (with Best Actress Oscar buzz in the air) and 18-year-old Ezra Miller, "it boy" of the indie circuit. See my pictures of director/co-writer Lynne Ramsay with stars Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, and Ursula Parker, along with co-writer Rory Kinnear and editor Joe Bini at the Q&A.

Win Win (USA) -- Directing from his own script, this sweet little American indie is the third feature for Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor). The movie, which can best be described as an intergenerational love story between a coach and his star athlete (Jerry Sandusky notwithstanding), features breathtaking performances from Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, and real-life New Jersey State Champion high school wrestler Alex Shaffer as Kyle. See my pictures of writer/director Tom McCarthy with stars Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, and Alex Shaffer at the Q&A and listen to my audio interview with Tom McCarthy & Alex Shaffer.


I would also like to acknowledge the following films, whose content precludes me from making broad recommendations but which I believe deserve recognition nonetheless.

First, there are two films I want to honor which didn't make the list only because they are, as with all rock docs, recommended more to those familiar with the respective artists and their music. James Moll's Foo Fighters: Back and Forth moved me to the point of tears. Pearl Jam Twenty is documentarian Cameron Crowe's excellent film about the legendary Seattle band. While both movies may have broad appeal, there are certainly those for whom these films would not hold much interest. For fans, though, they are must-sees.

Second, readers of this blog know of my love for genre films. These generally fall under the "horror" umbrella but can include science fiction, fantasy, and a wide range of spooky and creepy movies. Some are more mass appeal than others but many are best appreciated by a particular audience. While many horror fans will enjoy its well-crafted story, Grave Encounters will be best received by fans of popular paranormal television series like Ghost Encounters, Ghost Hunters, and Paranormal State. Cleverly directed by The Vicious Brothers, the references are deliberately sly, just this side of satire. Hailing from The Netherlands, writer/director Dick Maas' Saint (Sint) is a frighteningly perverse twist on the original legend of Sinterklaas (Santa Claus, nee St. Nicholas). This tale owes more to Jeepers Creepers than Miracle on 34th Street. Not for the kiddies.

Finally, I'm not a comedy buff per se. If I'm going to rave about one it had better leave me with tears rolling down my cheeks, and this one certainly did. I continually laughed until I cried during Bridesmaids (which was billed as a "work in progress" when I saw it at SXSW). But I consider it to have been more of a theatrical preview than a festival film, and certainly not an indie by any definition, since it was already scheduled for wide release from Universal Pictures.


Here are a few that were "on the bubble." Keep in mind that just because a film is an Honorable Mention shouldn't take away from the fact that I loved it. Remember, I saw dozens of films which you don't see listed in this article at all, including many that I selected as Top Picks from their respective festivals.


Top 10 Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Amy George (Canada) -- See my pictures of the World Premiere Q&A and review
Angels Crest (Canada)
Five Time Champion (USA)
The Good Son (Finland) -- See my pictures of the World Premiere Q&A and review
Hobo With a Shotgun (Canada) -- See my video of Rutger Hauer & Gregory Smith at the World Premiere Q&A and review
The Music Never Stopped (USA)
Play (Sweden)
Sleepless Night (France)
Snowtown (Australia)
Wetlands (Canada)

And, in the spirit of the holiday season...a few more just for good measure:

Ides of March (USA)
Like Crazy (USA)
Red State (USA) -- See my video of Kevin Smith's "auction" & cast intro
Homework (The Art of Getting By) (USA) -- See my video of the World Premiere Q&A and review


Some of these films have already played theaters and come out on VOD, DVD, or are awaiting home video release, others are playing now or will be soon, and the rest don't yet have distribution in the States or overseas or both. But all are worth your time. Try to see them if you can -- I guarantee you won't be disappointed.



Author

Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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