The Smurfs: A movie John Seal managed to avoid in 2011

This time last year I was moaning about what an Annus Horribilis it had been at the movies. This December the news is a bit better: whereas in 2010 I had a hard time scraping together a top 10, in 2011 I had a hard time whittling things down to a top 15.

Of course, any ‘best of’ list is subjective, anecdotal, and entirely based on personal opinion and whim. It could be that I missed a ton of great stuff in 2010, or perhaps this year’s sample is badly skewed: I did, after all, manage to avoid Jack and Jill, The Undefeated, The Smurfs, The Three Musketeers 3D, and Human Centipede 2 over the course of the last twelve months.

Or perhaps I totally nailed it, confirming that I am, indeed, the most astute film critic of this or any other age! Alternatively, I could be slipping into early dementia and have lost what few critical faculties I previously possessed. That’s a worrisome thought.

Whatever the case may be, here are the fifteen films I enjoyed most in 2011.

1. City of Life and Death—This powerful war film, set during Japan’s invasion of China during the late 1930s, gets the coveted number 1 spot thanks to its astonishingly realistic action sequences (eat your heart out, Steven Spielberg), skillful storytelling, and superb acting. Oh, and I’m a sucker for black and white cinematography, too.

2. Rubber—The strangest and most surreal film I’ve seen in ages. I’d be surprised if this shows up on too many other top 10 lists — it’s just as likely to get nominated for a Razzie — but I loved it.

3. Carnage—I’ll review this film in the New Year when it opens in Berkeley. At this point I’ll just say it’s a slam-dunk for a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nomination.

4. Dance Town—The most grueling film experience of 2011, though if I’d bothered to see Human Centipede 2 I might think otherwise.

5. Le Havre—If you need your faith in humanity restored, this film will accomplish that task.

6. The Illusionist—Lovely, nostalgic, and beautifully drawn the old-fashioned way, this was by far the best animated feature of the year.

7. Outrage—This aptly titled feature was bloody good fun for fans of the gangster genre and its tongue-biting scene is etched into my memory. If reading that last sentence made you wince you’re advised to give it a wide berth.

8. Scrapper—Not only was Scrapper the year’s top documentary, it also introduced me to Swiss composer Mark Tschanz’s song “The Life”. It rocks, dude, and was a perfect accompaniment for the film’s credit crawl.

9. Moneyball—Here’s a surprise! I didn’t review this major studio release for Berkeleyside because I’m a snob who only reviews art-house flicks.* Moneyball, however, scores thanks to Brad Pitt’s solid performance as A’s GM Billy Beane and because, well, I’m a huge Oakland A’s fan, and, after the last few seasons, I was thirsting for a major league pick-me-up. Hey Giants fans, when was the last time your team won 20 games in a row?

10. Tomboy—In lieu of additional commentary (I did review Tomboy quite recently) I’ll simply direct you to this classic music performance.

11. Rapt—Besides being a terrific thriller, this is also the second film on my list in which someone gets a finger amputated. Why is it always fingers and never toes? Maybe in 2012.

12. Contagion—In which Steven Soderbergh helps explain the epidemiology of a pandemic. Thanks, Steven. I’ll be staying in my sealed plastic bubble until flu season ends in May.

13. Crime After Crime—You’ll want to keep a box of Kleenex handy during this incredibly sad documentary about justice denied.

14. Phil Ochs: There but for Freedom—Phil Ochs had the ability to make folk music palatable for those of us who otherwise can’t stand the stuff. He was also a political radical who would have been a strong ally of the Occupy movement if he were still alive. Come back, Phil!

15. Rise of the Planet of the Apes—Sorry, but I’m a sucker for Planet of the Apes movies. Heck, I even kinda liked Tim Burton’s 2001 remake—and this one is way better than that one.

*This is actually not true. Though I mostly review arthouse flicks, I’m not a snob. In fact, I’m a really a nice guy once you get to know me. Honest…ask my mother.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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John Seal

John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...

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  1. I think that part of the attraction of hyperlocal websites like Berkeleyside is their ability to fill gaps in coverage; they include stories that might otherwise be too “small” to receive attention from the mainstream press. has ample coverage of big budget blockbusters, but where else can I learn about the more obscure films being screened at PFA, the Shattuck, etc.? What is so “Berkeley,” after all, about covering films that are being screened at megaplexes throughout the country? I suppose that these complaints might make more sense to me if I was looking to have Berkeleyside replace my other sources of news, but I read it as one part of my wider news reading.

  2. Exactly. The mainstream media is full of witless promotion of whatever mega-production is being foisted on the public at any given moment. I would hope that Berkeleyside will retain its local perspective by focusing on events particular to the area, or having some connection with it (the Belson films I mentioned were made by an artist who started in Berkeley in the 1940s, for instance). There is plenty to cultivate in our own garden.

  3. I wish berkeleyside would offer film reviews that appealed to more filmgoers.  I have had decades in which I have been an erudite film snob, going to, easily, a dozen or more movies a month, and in those decades I am sure I saw more art house films than Hollywood features.

    Isn’t one of the points of having a film reviewer on berkeleyside to grow a community of readers for your publication? and isn’t another point growing a media resource for the Berkeley community?  There is no local film reviewing that I am aware of that helps me decide which of the relatively few movies I see these days I want to see.  I have low interest in John Seal’s relatively obscure taste. I don’t even read his column anymore. I glanced at today’s column because I hoped his ‘best of year’ list might have one or two familiar notes.

    It’s fun to read a local media source, get some insight into the films showing in berkeley that most folks are actually considering. I would like that.

    Seal’s recommendations just put me off. If anything, I see fewer ‘art house films’ because of his seemingly willful determination to prove how elitely obscure he can be.

    I agree with Berkeley Woman. It would be nice to read a film reviewer who seemed a little more relevant. And isn’t one of the reasons newspapers and media outlets offer film reviews is to build their audience of readers? Seal’s reviews put me off.  I think his volumns appeal to a very small percentage of berkeleyside’s audience. I am surprised the folks behind berkeleyside have hit such an odd note with their film reviewer.

  4. It would be nice to have a movie reviewer who made selections based –at least chiefly– on the mainstream films most of us (who are still discerning film-goers) went to see. Yes, Tomboy was great, that’s why it’s enjoying an extended run, but how many people have even heard of Rubber or Scrapper?